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Chasing Fog

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Chasing Fog
By Pink Rabbit Productions

@PinkRabbitPro
PinkRabbitPro.tumblr.com

Chapter Text

 

Prologue

 

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

– Carl Sandburg

 

Alfred Pennyworth had never been prone to panic.

But as he pulled up to a warehouse in the poorest section of Gotham, he felt his heart slam into overdrive and his palms start to sweat. Dim reflections of fire could be seen flickering through the high windows of the long abandoned building in front of him. It wasn’t much, obviously still small and controllable, but if the flames grew and got out of control...

A shudder slid through him and he let his gaze swing right then left. Ramshackle warehouses full of old wood and chest high weeds bounded on one side, while abandoned tenements housed equally abandoned souls on the other. Transients in needs of a temporary cover and the truly poverty stricken—singles and families alike—had taken up illegal residence to carve out slightly safer, more stable lives than they might face elsewhere.

If the fires spread, it would be a conflagration with a high human cost.

He glanced down at the phone in hand with its cryptic text giving this address. It expressly told him not to enter, but it didn’t tell him not to call for help.

He dialed 911, then had to fight with the dispatcher who insisted he was out in the county and it wasn’t the city’s problem. More like the city would just as soon be rid of the eyesore, and if a few people died, well, they were mostly poor and criminals anyway.

It took the threat that Bruce Wayne wasn’t likely to be happy with the scandal that would occur and might well take all his lovely money and leave town to light a fire under them.

So to say.

That done, he stumbled from the Lexus, staring with great trepidation, well aware there was nothing more he could do. He was still standing there when a late model sedan pulled up, and a striking blonde shot out.

“Bruce!” she called out and would have run toward the fire if he hadn’t intercepted her.

“It’s too dangerous,” he warned her as he caught her shoulders and held her back.

“I saw what happened on the news...Dick...Jim...he’ll be—”

“Eliza, you can’t go in there,” Alfred insisted. “He’s got Joker cornered.”

“Oh god...Bruce...he’ll kill him.”

“I believe that’s his plan,” Alfred admitted.

“He won’t survive that...”

* * * * * *

Fists pounded, bashing into flesh and bone until everything was broken and bloody. Even when he knew he should stop, that he’d won and it was over, he hit again and again. It wasn’t until his own body was failing that he realized that enough time had passed that it should have all ended in conflagration. He dropped the body, barely aware of the wet thud it made as it hit.

He looked up, his thought processes reduced to the feral by agony, alcohol, and exhaustion until he was barely even human.

Breathing hard, he staggered to his feet, everything else feet forgotten as his eyes fell on the slender figure on the opposite end of the room. She was focused on pulling apart the explosives he’d set. She yanked the last timer free of a brick of plastique and was about to crush it when he let out a low, inhuman growl.

“Catwoman.”

Tension rippled through Cat Kyle’s slender frame and she looked up. “Batman.” She ducked her head in acknowledgment and tossed the brick of plastic explosive one direction, the primer and timing module the other. Without the primer, the explosives would only smolder if the fire flickering around the edges of the room reached them. Full lips curled into a disgusted snarl as she glared. “If you want to commit suicide, at least have the decency to take giggles there—” she nodded to indicate the Joker’s prone figure “—and go jump off a bridge instead of taking a quarter of the city with you.”

Another enraged growl escaped his lips, but he ignored her comment to demand, “Were you working for him?” It almost made sense. She’d be the perfect one to play nice, then deliver the enemy’s head on a plate. And god knew she’d played nice and the enemy had gotten plenty of heads...Jim, Barbara....Dick...had been served up like...

He couldn’t finish the thought as images of blood and gore flashed in his head.

She flinched as though struck and shook her head. “No—”

“So how did you find us here then?” he demanded, not believing her, not when she was what she was. She was a liar from the start, and if she’d been working for Joker, it made everything make sense and absolved him of so many sins. That she sounded so appalled at the idea was just one more acting job. Not even a very good one in his opinion.

“Dr. Harleen Quinzel...Harley Quinn...my shrink tried to kill me earlier tonight. She thought I was working for you.” She tracked him carefully, pivoting as he circled her, his body language that of a predator on the hunt.

“And I think you’re working for him,” he accused, putting extra emphasis on the last word.

She backed up a step, stomach knotting with fear at the deadly serious note in his voice. “No.”

He laughed, a dark and bitter sound. “Lying bitch.” What business did she have being alive when other, better people were food for worms? No more time for words.

He leapt.

Even with some idea that he wasn’t stable, she didn’t expect the sudden attack and barely dodged his swinging fists. She darted sideways and felt the breeze as he hurtled past her, but he reversed and spun back around, quickly lashing out again.

Even beat to hell and pure human, he was a better fighter than she was.

This time a glancing blow caught her cheek and whipped her head around hard enough she nearly went down. A boot to the ribs sent her flying and she used her momentum to roll to her feet, then kicked off again to bound high into the rafters.

He roared in fury, but couldn’t easily follow, buying her a moment or two to catch her breath and try to plan.

She’d smelled the alcohol on his breath and seen the madness in his eyes. She wasn’t his enemy, but that didn’t matter now. Nightwing and Jim Gordon dead, Batgirl maybe dying, he’d lost too much, too quickly. He was a badly wounded animal and the whole world was his enemy.

She’d been there and knew too well how insane a body could get.

Her gaze swung to touch on the Joker where he lay unmoving and bloody, probably dead. Batman had clearly taken some revenge, but it wasn’t enough to salve the pain. No quarter would be given to anyone he perceived as on the other side.

She thought about running. It was her nature. She was thief, not a hero. But if she ran and he put the explosives back together to finish destroying Joker’s lair...

No, she couldn’t live with that.

Then he grabbed something from his belt and hurled it her way.

Knowing his bag of tricks, she leapt away. The flashbang went off behind her, but it knocked her forward, left her ears ringing and forced her off the high ground.

Just like he wanted.

Cat hit the floor and stumbled. She recovered quickly, but not before he caught up with her and slammed a fist into her body. Half blind and deaf, she reacted on instinct, spinning back to deliver a solid fist to the face. She followed with a right cross that drove him to his knees, buying her time to dart away. Unfortunately, he was back up faster than she’d hoped and hurtling after her, wild rage in his eyes.

She mostly dodged the next pass, but he tore her goggles free, ripped her hood and left deep scratches at her temple that streamed blood. She bounded away again and on landing, pivoted back to face a man who looked more like a creature out of a nightmare than a cloaked protector of the city. “You’re better than this,” she panted her voice rougher than she wanted it to be as she tried to reach him. “Hell, I’m better than this.”

He snorted, lips twisted into an angry mockery of a smile and he spat a single word. “Whore.”

A flinch shook her and green eyes reflected hurt before the emotion was hidden behind high emotional walls. “Okay then,” she exhaled, her tone flattening out as she fought not to lose her own temper. That was the last thing they needed. “We’re gonna go for the bloodletting option.”

“It’s always been a bloodletting in this city—”

“No.” One hand held out in a calming motion, she carefully backed away. “It doesn’t have to be.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the tenement where people sat unsuspecting. “There are people in those buildings...families—”

“Did even one of them try to help Dick when he was bleeding out?” He saw no reason to hide names now.

“If those bombs go off, they’ll burn,” she reminded him desperately.

His chin dropped and his eyes slid closed.

For just a moment, she thought she’d finally gotten through to him.

Then he whispered, “We’re all going to burn anyway.”

His voice was so soft it took her an extra moment to parse the words and by the time she did, it was almost too late. He’d leapt and was nearly on her. Inhumanly fast reflexes almost saved her. She kicked off, bounding high, but he expected the maneuver this time and a hand shot out. He grabbed her ankle and yanked.

Cat hit the floor hard. Teeth gritted, she rolled to a crouch, intending to leap again.

A solid right connected with her jaw before she had a chance, rocking her head to one side. She was still trying to regain her balance when another meaty fist slammed into her temple. This time she flew, hit hard and lay unmoving.

He staggered forward, cape and cowl torn, gauntlets shredded, knuckles broken and bleeding. As he stood over her, she rolled onto her back and stared up, not as bloody as he was, but bloody enough. With a pained groan, she stared up at him. “So I have to die too?” she croaked.

Lips curled into a snarl, he dropped to one knee and grabbed the front of her costume. He cocked his fist back. She was just like the rest of the scum of the earth, maybe worse given how cheaply she’d sold herself, and for that, she needed to pay.

“You’re supposed to be a hero,” she whispered, her breathing wet and strained, tears in her eyes. “Batman, the caped crusader, defender of the night.”

He glanced back at the body a short distance away, white face and green hair lost in a wave of crimson blood. “I’m just one more killer now.”

The sadness in her eyes only deepened in intensity. “I’d hoped...” she began and shook her head.

“Thieves don’t get to hope,” he snarled and swung with all his strength.

This time she didn’t just dodge, she fought back. Her hand snapped up and she caught his fist in an inhumanly strong grip. For a brief moment they were almost nose to nose, then she squeezed and the sound of bone cracking echoed. In the next instant, she pushed upright and slammed her free hand into his sternum to send him flying. He’d made the mistake of forgetting that while she wasn’t Superman, she wasn’t exactly the girl next door either. Moving slower than normal, but moving, she pushed to her feet. “I didn’t want this...” she exhaled as she settled herself.

Focused on the fight ahead, she never noticed the small figure that slipped in through the loading doors, or the flames reflected in wide eyes.

* * * * * *

“God, Alfred, we have to do something,” Eliza Danvers insisted, trembling a little harder with every sound that echoed from the warehouse. “It sounds like—”

“I know,” he admitted. “But Master Bruce would never forgive me if I allowed you to come to harm. You and Alex mean—”

“Alex!” Eliza suddenly exploded into motion, rushing back to the car as she remembered her daughter sleeping in the back.

The driver’s side rear door was open and the back seat was empty.

“Oh God, how could I—”

“No,” Alfred insisted as he caught her by the arms, though for the first time there was doubt in his eyes. “You can’t help her by rushing in and getting hurt.”

“You think I give a damn when my daughter could be in danger?” She looked back toward the warehouse where the flames were licking ever higher and raw sounds of combat could be heard. And with Alex’s fascination with Batman and combat...

Eliza shuddered in raw horror. “She’ll go after him...” she whispered.

For the first time in a very long time, Alfred panicked.

* * * * * *

Catwoman dodged another swing, darting sideways in an effort to get around Batman’s broad frame.

He sidestepped, easily blocking her.

Green eyes flashing, she leapt sideways to avoid his swing, and kicked off the nearest wall, then ping ponged between walls, gaining momentum until she was in position to come back around and slam into his upper back.

He grunted a furious curse and stumbled.

She struck again as he started to fall, then swept his feet out from under him, deliberately toppling the big man. He went down hard, but got a foot up to slam a boot into her thigh hard enough to leave a waffle pattern pressed into her flesh.

She staggered backward, arms pinwheeling to regain her balance, giving him enough time to regain his feet. With the fire getting worse and her own body on the verge of failing, she couldn’t do this much longer. She had to end it quickly. No more trying to reach him.

Fists up, he staggered forward.

She attacked in a brutal flurry of punches and kicks that knocked him back, then took him down.

She fell back a step, hoping to see some measure of sanity in his eyes. As his chin tipped up and he glared, she didn’t. Catwoman braced herself. This was going to get ugly. She was about to unleash every bit of hell she could summon when a scream cut through the night.

“NO!!” A slight figure ran from the shadows.

It was so sudden, Cat froze, but Batman reacted on pure instinct. He rolled to a crouch and his fist cocked back, too far gone to see past the instinct to strike out at anything that moved.

And Cat moved, grabbing the girl and spinning to shield her even as she heard the child scream.

“I WON’T LET YOU HURT HIM!”

Then teeth dug into her forearm, probably hard enough to draw blood and tennis shoe clad feet began hammering into her instep. Someone had taught her a trick or two because that move was straight out of a dozen self defense guides.

Cat barely felt it. She was too busy bracing against the expected impact of his fists crashing into her body.

When several beats passed and it didn’t happen, she risked a look over her shoulder.

Batman was standing no more than a foot or two away, his hands dangling at his sides, staring at the girl pummeling Cat in an effort to get free.

“Alex?” he asked uncertainly.

For the first time since arriving she saw a man in his eyes instead of a rabid animal. The girl in her arms bit down harder and started hammering at any body parts she could reach, but Cat couldn’t take her eyes away from Batman, hopeful, but nowhere near ready to trust.

His hand rose and he would have reached out to the girl, but Cat snarled a soft warning sound, unable to forget what he’d been only moments before.

“I won’t...” he whispered and trailed off as he did a slow pivot, looking around himself with an expression of horror. He staggered and looked like a man still caught between a nightmare and waking, as though he wasn’t quite sure what was real and what wasn’t. “I-I—”

“ALEX!” A woman’s yell interrupted anything else he might have said.

Batman’s head snapped up and his stance shifted, no longer predatory, nor confused, but taking on the broad, protective stance that was his norm. “Eliza, stay back!” he called back. “She’s safe!”

Really?” a high pitched drawl cut through the air.

Hero and thief both spun toward the sound.

Joker.

Still alive if only just barely. So bloody that green hair and white skin were hardly visible for all the crimson, he wavered on his feet as he proudly held up the reassembled explosive he had put together from what Cat had tossed aside.

They’d made the mistake of presuming he was dead and losing track of him in the excitement.

Never a wise move.

He peered at Batman and giggled. “Had a bad day, have you?” Another giggle. “I told you you were just one bad day away from being me.”

The caped crusader glanced over at Catwoman. “Get her out of here,” he ordered with a sharp head jerk.

She didn’t argue, just grabbed the kid, teeth and all, and ran.

Something small and vaguely toylike appeared on her planned exit route. Experience told her it was trouble. She leapt high, caught a rafter one handed, and swung up, bounded off another rafter and ran along a ledge. The girl’s squirming threatened to throw her balance, but she muscled on and dove through an open window frame, grateful the glass was long gone. She hit the slanted roof on the outside and skidded several yards before she hit enough of a ledge to get stopped.

Somewhere nearby she heard a man’s voice, “Eliza, please. We don’t know—”

“I heard him, Alfred. He said Alex is safe.”

“Here,” Catwoman called down as she ran along a ledge, then bounded to the ground near the pair. She yanked her bloodied forearm free and shoved the girl at the woman who grabbed hold with desperate strength. “Your problem now,” she growled. “Get back from here...bomb inside,” she added between hard pants. She spun back, intending to return for the fight or whatever it might be.

“Wait,” the elderly man said sharply enough that she spun back. “What about Batman?”

“He’s alive, but so’s Joker. And Joker has a bomb.” She straightened and made a shooing gesture. “Now get back.”

Sirens could be heard in the distance.

“Guide the firetrucks in...it’s easy to get lost around here.” She pointed at the tenements. “And warn the people in those buildings...if that warehouse goes up...” She shook her head and a hard shudder slid through her, then she was leaping high, almost flying as she returned to the fray through the windows she’d used to escape.

“Alfred?” Eliza spun toward Bruce’s butler, her tone asking a dozen questions at once.

“For the moment, we do as she said,” he decided out loud after no more than a moment’s thought. Whatever side the thief was playing for, the warehouse was burning and the tenements were firetraps full of people. She wasn’t wrong about that, so it had to take precedence.

“No,” Alex broke in. “She attacked Bruce. She was trying to kill him,” the girl insisted. “I saw.” She tried to pull away, but her mother held on tight. “We have to go after her and help him.”

Despite the temptation to do exactly that, Eliza shook her head. Bruce knew what he was doing and there were too many innocent lives on the line—not the least of them her daughter’s. “No,” she said turning back toward the sound of sirens, and tracking the lights in the distance. Well aware of Alex’s headstrong tendency to ignore orders, she kept a firm grip on her as she made a decision. “We need to make sure people are safe.” She shoved Alex into her car, keeping a firm hand clamped on her arm. “I’ll make sure the rescue vehicles get here,” she said as she climbed in. “You start warning people.”

Alfred nodded, grateful she’d opted to move herself and her daughter away from the possible disaster, though he flinched as he heard Alex insist, “But, Mom, he’s too old to...” He was rather relieved when the rest of whatever the girl said faded into engine sounds and the night.

He paused for a moment to consider the best way to get things moving, then finally leaned into the Lexus, armed the alarm, locked up and used a rock to smash the driver’s side window.

God bless Master Bruce and his tendency to tinker because the resulting alarm was deafening. It was only moments before he saw signs of movement in the nearest of the condemned buildings and heard angry shouts.

Now he just had to explain the situation without being beaten senseless.

* * * * * *

Slipping back into the warehouse on silent feet, Cat stuck to the shadows as she stared down at the scene below.

Batman stood braced, but visibly wavered on his feet. If he had to move fast, she seriously doubted he could. Joker, meanwhile, was even worse off. Barely standing, unable to hold the explosives up, he’d let them drop low in front of his as he toyed with the primer. Really, the only thing that was the same was the mad, taunting smile and the crazed giggle. God, she hated gigglers.

She wondered if she just waited long enough if they might both just fall over unconscious...or dead. At that precise moment, she was fairly okay with either option. Villains and heroes were too damn much alike for her comfort. Still, with her luck, they’d manage to set things off on the way down.

She shifted enough to get a look at the timer. Five seconds. Not much time. She could probably leap down, and get the primer free before Joker could do anything, but if she bet wrong...

Her hand just barely brushed her abdomen and she found herself unusually indecisive, even afraid. She was still debating when the car alarm went off outside, the din enough to make her want to cover extra sensitive ears.

Down below, Joker looked up and grinned. “Oooh, that symphony calls for a percussion section.” He held up the explosive as he thumbed the button pm the timer. “Boom,” he said happily.

No more time to debate.

She leapt.

She heard the Joker’s appalled complaint as he saw her. “No fair!”

She’d barely landed when she grabbed Batman’s arm, hauled him across her shoulders and leapt again.

It would have to be heroic enough.

She hit a rafter, bounded again, adrenaline adding to her strength and speed as she carried the nearly unconscious hero along for the ride. She reached the window and risked a quick glance back. She saw Joker scream as the explosion began.

She had the impression he simply evaporated in the millisecond before she leapt again.

She hit corrugated steel and bounded high and far, hit cracked and weedy cement and ran. Then finally, no longer feeling heat on her back, she spun back. Burning debris started falling on all sides—bits of the roof, and by the look of it maybe bits of Joker too.

She lowered her human burden to the cement, her own body suddenly trembling violently as the adrenaline rush began to fade, leaving her jittery and weak.

The elderly man from before rushed up. He was talking, but her hearing was blown from being so close to the explosion, leaving everything sounding like she was listening to the adults from a Peanuts cartoon while under water. He dropped down next to Batman, visibly worrying over the hero, who seemed to be at least mildly responsive.

Then a car pulled up and the pretty blonde tumbled out, her eyes scared. She was talking too, but Cat couldn’t hear her any better than she could anything else. She knew the deafness was probably just a brief effect from the blast, that it would probably fade with time, but it was disconcerting all the same.

Then the girl, older than Cat had initially realized, climbed out. She didn’t say a word, just glared. Cat barely resisted the urge to offer a wicked grin just to tweak the little brat. Most people said thank you to someone who’d saved their life. Not this one.

She smirked, then winced as the movement pulled painfully at bruised and split flesh.

The man and woman were pulling at Batman’s limp frame, clearly trying to get him up and into the back seat of the car ahead of the fire engines headed their way, but the big man was much too heavy for the two and too far gone to offer any help.

Cat couldn’t have said why, but she stepped over, and wordlessly hauled him up and all but tossed him in across the back seat. When she turned back, it was to find them all staring at her like some kind of freak.

Well, of course they were. She was a freak, she reminded herself. She had no place in their world, not anymore. She started to run, but the man caught her arm and pulled her back around. His mouth was moving, but with her hearing gone, she had no idea what he was saying.

He nodded to indicate the incoming caravan of vehicles.

Led by several police cars.

Cat yanked her arm back and shook her head, startled by the feeling of betrayal. Even now they wanted to lock her up?

He tried to grab her arm again and this time she sprang backwards, landing a good ten feet away.

He held up his hands and was shaking his head and saying something, but she had no idea what. Shaking her head, she spun and fled, bounding away into the night, every bit as skittish as her namesake.

* * * * * *

“Why did she run?” Eliza Danvers questioned Alfred as she stared after the shadowy thief.

He shook his head, genuinely nonplussed. “I don’t know. I was trying to get her to wait so a paramedic could take a look, but...” He shrugged, then turned back toward the car. “Master Bruce?”

“The worst damage is his hands — they’re in bad shape—but otherwise, I think it’s mostly superficial.” She watched rescue vehicles pull up, and men and women pile out to focus on the fire and any injuries. “We need to get him out of here...before someone sees that costume.”

Alfred nodded. “Get in with him. I’ll drive.”

Eliza nodded, then glanced over in time to see Alex start to climb out of the passenger’s seat. “In...now...seatbelt,” she ordered sharply.

For once the girl simply did as told.

Eliza hurried to squeeze into the minimal space alongside the man in the back.

He blinked and stared at her as though he was afraid he’d lost his mind. “You’re here,” he exhaled. “How?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “I’m not leaving again.” She felt the sedan rumble to life.

He shuddered, turned his face into her body and wept.

* * * * * *

Cat watched the fire crews from a safe distance, a tenement rooftop close enough that she could see, but far enough that she could run if something went wrong. They were managing to slow the conflagration, but there would be no stopping it. Too much fuel, too much heat, and too little water pressure meant it would all burn. The only question was the human loss.

She was relieved to see people flooding out of the building and moving away. Public services might not be much help, but the forgotten poor were aiding each other, sometimes even carrying their fellows as they fled the advancing fire.

Crouched there, alone and utterly forgotten, she watched the flames advance. They would move until they hit the big freeway, she realized. That would be the firebreak that would keep it from the nice parts of town. She looked back at the fire crews, noting their plan and realizing they were already counting on it going that way.

Soon she would have no choice but to flee or burn. Her hand just barely brushed her still flat stomach and she tipped her gaze skyward just as a long streak of fire blazed across the sky, seeming to burn longer than a normal falling star.

She took it as a sign. “I wish I may, I wish I might,” Cat exhaled, settling her hand more firmly against her abdomen, her decision made. This baby was magic from here forward. It would be hers alone with a wish on a falling star for a father. “Keep us both safe tonight.”

And she flitted away into the night...

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter One


Fourteen Years Later

Kara Wayne loved this.

Smiling happily, she stood quietly at the windows that overlooked the front gate of Glenn Faeles, the private academy where she’d taught math and science for just over three years. Down below, kids were flowing toward the front doors, running, trudging sleepily, cliquing together, joking around and catching up on the summer’s adventures, flirting, fleeing from cars in hopes of not being glimpsed near parents and generally being kids. In short, it was a pretty typical first day of a new school year.

With all the crazy her family got up to the sight reminded her their costumed adventures weren’t reality. Kids being kids, that was the real world.

She tipped her head back, feeling sunlight on her face. That was real too.

A quick glance up at the clock confirmed that it was almost time for the bell. Only about fifteen minutes until showtime. She straightened her shoulders in preparation for the snarky comments, crushes, and assorted traumas that came with teaching kids just entering their teen years. Intending to head back to her classroom, she flashed a last look at the incoming students.

And froze. Finally, she tipped her head to one side and stared.

The incoming rush of students had come to a halt and parted somewhat, opening up a sort of corridor through the bodies. Wandering down the middle of the newly cleared space were a woman and boy. Mother and son, Kara assumed.

New student, she decided, as much due to the reaction of the crowd as anything else. Glenn Faeles was an old school and most of the kids were second generation or even third. Newcomers stood out.

Meanwhile, unlike most boys just entering their teens, the boy was walking beside the woman, his arm looped around her waist, while her arm was draped across his shoulders, neither of them clinging, but comfortably close. Kara could only hope it didn’t completely destroy the kid’s reputation for all time to come. Adolescents could be cruel in her experience.

He was probably safe though, she decided as she used her super-vision to get a better look. The kid was teenage rangy, but his dark brown curls, and delicate, almost pretty features were the sort that appealed to the girls his age. Not too surprising, if the blonde at his side was his mother. Like the boy, she was reed slender, and while Kara couldn’t get a good look at her face through the pale gold hair that fell across her brow, what she could see was fine-boned with a sharply cut jaw, full lips, and elegantly arched throat. Unlike the boy, who was a bit gawky, she was all loose limbed grace with a stripper walk that was enough to catch the attention of even the surrounding junior high boys who normally wrote off any woman over twenty as too ancient for notice.

As Kara watched, the pair came to a halt at the foot of the stairs that led up to the front doors. Turning to face each other, they shared a hard hug, then separated.

Even knowing she shouldn’t, Kara couldn’t resist the urge to listen in.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” the woman asked, sounding not so much worried as a little hopeful.

“I’ll be fine, Mom.”

So the blonde was his mother. Kara couldn’t have said why, but she found herself smiling at that news.

“The office has my schedule and they promised they’d have someone show me around and introduce me to the teachers.”

The woman straightened her shoulders and nodded, reaching out to smooth a few stray curls off her son’s forehead. “Right,” she exhaled. “And you are all grown up and ready to take on a new school on your own.” She sounded both proud and a little sad at the prospect.

He shrugged. “Not all grown up, but I need to do this.” He grabbed her in another hug and Kara was touched by the way they clung for a moment. “You’ll be okay?” he asked when they finally parted.

She offered a watery smile. “May I remind you who’s the adult here and who’s the child?”

His head tipped to one side and Kara could almost feel his doubtful look.

The woman rolled her eyes. “I’ll be fine,” she assured him with a look of mock annoyance. She nodded to indicate the doors behind him. “I have a meeting of my own to get to, so off you go.”

“Good luck,” he said, his tone soothing. “You can do this.”

“Of course I can,” the mother said firmly, though Kara thought she heard some insecurity hidden in her tone.

After a quick goodbye, he hurried off, backpack bouncing on his shoulder.

The woman stayed where she was, staring after him, then finally moved away, only to pause at the edge of the parking area and turn back, staring at the school with a tired, melancholy expression before she finally turned and hurried away.

“He’ll be okay,” Kara silently promised as she stared after the retreating woman.

When he showed up in her last period of the day, shy and cheerful and curious about everything, it felt something like fate as they shared a grin and she instinctively sensed a kindred soul.

He was, she realized, one of the special ones.

It would take a couple of months before she began to suspect just how special.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Carter Kyle glanced nervously at his phone, hoping for a message from his mom.

Nothing.

She’d explained she might be a bit late, he reminded himself. She had a meeting before the Glenn Faeles annual Fall Party, when the school stayed open late and parents and families were invited to the school to see some of the projects from the first half of fall semester, meet with teachers in a more relaxed circumstance than most parent/teacher conferences, and enjoy punch and cookies (or buy something a bit more edible from the Cooking Club’s bake sale).

She was trying, he knew: trying to fit in, be a normal parent and even sort of hold down a real job, though he wasn’t silly enough to think that writing a style column for the local paper, even in Gotham City, was enough to pay for their lifestyle.

He didn’t ask though. Sometimes it was easier that way.

Carter had long known his mother was a thief, though they never precisely discussed it. For most of his life, they’d wandered the world, living day to day, sometimes living well, sometimes lean. At the same time, pretty objects came, were enjoyed for a bit, then went again. And when things got too tight, she would disappear in the dead of night, the black cat costume she kept hidden in the back of her closet fitting her body like a glove.

Afterward, the news would nearly always be full of dramatic stories of wildly grandiose thefts and his mom would read them aloud at the breakfast table and they would discuss them like they did the rest of the news.

She never admitted anything, in fact was quite firm that stealing was generally wrong, but there would often be muttered asides and wry comments. “Wasn’t even worth half that,” or, “Please, insurance fraud much? You never even owned that.” Then there were the times her lips would curve into a feline grin and she’d wink at him, then make some joke like, “That must have been  tricky. A thief would almost have to fly like Superman to pull that off.”

Then they’d share a secret smile and move on to another topic. Carter was always expected to have a thought out opinion and she treated anything he had to say with quiet respect, correcting him sometimes, other times offering counter arguments, but never treating him like he didn’t know anything because he was a kid.

Her stealing had never really mattered to Carter. He knew it was wrong, but Cat Kyle wasn't like other adults. She was fun and carefree and endlessly curious, and if her morality wasn’t precisely typical, she definitely had her rules and stuck to them religiously.

What mattered to the boy was how endlessly gentle she was with him and that she was nearly always there and smiling and offering words of support and guidance. She played like a child and never lost her temper with him over the sorts of things he knew made other parents go ballistic. She laughed at money stolen from her wallet and the one time he’d shoplifted from a local grocer, she’d only chastised him for getting caught. But she’d made a point of paying the man back, then sat Carter down and explained that small grocers like that barely made a profit and even tiny thefts could mean less food on their table. She’d looked at him very seriously and asked if he really wanted to be the kind of person who would have someone go hungry because he wanted some silly toy?

In that moment, she taught him that thieves needed to be careful in more ways than one and he never did that again. More important, she taught him there were kinds of people he wanted to be, and kinds of people he didn’t want to be.

Only one thing he’d done had ever truly raised her ire. One year they’d stayed in one place long enough for him to enroll in a local school and he’d found himself bullied. Not wanting to draw attention, he’d tried to just ignore it until things turned physical one day after school and he finally lost his temper. He’d been on the verge of beating Billy McConnell to a pulp when his mom appeared. She'd waded through the mob of children screaming encouragement and hauled Carter back before he could land a single blow.

That Billy McConnell was a much-hated bully had been no defense as his mother dragged him home and made him swear he'd never hit another child. Unless he was truly scared of getting hurt, he was to take a blow before throwing one. Carter had yelled, screaming that it wasn't fair, and accusing his mother of caring more for Billy than for him, but Cat had been firm. Finally, looking at her crying son, she'd pulled him into her arms, rocking him gently. "You don't understand, honey," she'd whispered at last. "I'm not protecting them. I'm protecting you." She'd kissed his temple. "Kids like Billy, they're just kids. Bratty and obnoxious, but kids. Most of them will outgrow being jackasses ... and you could hurt them...badly. I don't want you to have to live with that. You'll understand some day."

Carter had been nine that day, and at thirteen, he already kind of understood. He was stronger than other kids, faster and couldn’t be hurt nearly as easily. As big a jerk as Billy McConnell had been, even he hadn’t deserved what Carter could have done to him.

Well, not much anyway, he thought with a smirk.

Mostly though, he understood. There were rules to the games his mother played or at least to the way she played them. Sometimes when he read the papers, and saw the things others did, he shuddered in fear that maybe she was a darker figure than she seemed. It soothed some of his fears that she’d seemed as bothered by the dark stories as he was. She wasn’t like that, even if there were other people who were.

But he still had his fears and the knowledge of those other people always left him a little scared of who she might have to deal with in her line of work.

So when his mom ran late to the party, he could feel the tension building at the back of his neck. People came and went, kids showing off for parents who appeared duly impressed.

He hated things like this, feeling alone, and a little lost. He wanted her there. She always knew when he was getting overwhelmed. She’d slide an arm across his shoulders and soothe away that instinctive nervousness.

He checked his phone again.

“Hey, Carter.”

His chin snapped up, his smile automatic as he saw who stood there and felt her light touch on his upper arm. “Miss Wayne,” he said, relaxing a bit. His teacher was kinda like his mom. She made him feel calmer and knew how to ease some of the stress that came with dealing with too many people.

She grinned, her hand migrating to his shoulder. “Is your mom here tonight?” she asked, looking around curiously. Kara had been hoping to meet the woman for awhile now. They had a parent/teacher meeting scheduled, but it wasn’t for a couple of weeks yet.

“Not yet,” he said, a small frown creasing his brow. “She had some kind of meeting today and she warned me she might be a little late.”

She squeezed his shoulder lightly, the gentle touch comforting, Without commenting, she guided him to a couple of seats out of the main pathway. He’d been her student long enough for her to realize he did better if things were a little quieter. “I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” she assured him. “She’s the new style columnist at the Gotham Observer, right?”

He nodded, but didn’t add anything.

Kara didn’t press. She’d heard the rumors that suggested his mother had been some rich man’s mistress before coming to Gotham and the last thing she wanted was to embarrass the kid. “Well, I’m sure she’s good at her job then.” She grinned. “They only hire the best.” Her dad owned the paper even if he didn’t have anything to do with the daily running of the place, but Barbara Gordon, the editor in chief was really good.

He nodded a little uncertainly. “She’s trying really hard,” he mumbled, head momentarily down.

Kara thought back to the glimpse she’d had of the other woman, a tiny thrill tightening in the pit of her stomach. Which was possibly somewhat inappropriate, but there was something about the glimpse she’d had of her and the way Carter talked about his mom that left her fascinated, even if it felt slightly silly. She didn’t know the woman, still hadn’t so much as spoken to her on the phone. Maybe it was the relationship she’d glimpsed between mother and son that day coupled with what she’d seen of Carter. He clearly struggled with some things, but he was a great kid, smart and funny and interested in everything. Kara was very curious about the woman who’d raised him. “I know you guys traveled a lot before you moved here...” she murmured. He’d talked enough for her to figure that out.

He looked a little uncomfortable as he nodded. “Yeah, she really wants us to settle down though.” He looked up at Kara with wide, blue eyes. “She’s trying really hard to...y’know...make things more stable.” He looked back down at his phone. “I think she feels bad sometimes because we moved around so much...like she damaged me somehow.” He shrugged and shook his head to indicate he didn’t feel that way about it.

“I’m sure she’s just trying to give you the best life she can.”

“I know.” He sighed softly. “I just worry about her sometimes.”

Kara nodded, understanding all too well. “I worry about my family all the time,” she confided. At his curious look, she explained, “They have some kinda dangerous hobbies.” She rolled her eyes. “And my real parents...my birth parents,” she specified. “They died when I was about your age, so it’s really scary sometimes that my adopted family aren’t always careful. I get scared I’ll be alone again.” She wasn’t quite sure where the confession came from, only that the words felt somehow right and from the way Carter was watching her, they’d touched him.

“My mom’s the only family I have,” he said in a very small voice.

Kara rubbed his upper back lightly even as she felt her heart break the tiniest bit. The poor kid. She knew what it felt like to be afraid of being alone. “I’m sure your mom is really aware of that and really careful,” she soothed. She paused a moment, considering the boy, then added, “But if you ever need help, ever need someone on your side, you can call me.” She slipped her card from a coat pocket and took a moment to add her private number to the school number and official email address. It was totally against the rules, but she liked the kid and she hated the thought of him being all alone if something happened. “That’s my cell. If you need help, you can call me.”

He peered at it for a moment, then up at her.

“It’s okay, you can trust me,” she assured him.

He nodded after a long, thoughtful moment and tucked the card into his cell case. He was just drawing a breath to say something when his phone meowed at him. “Mom,” he said instantly as he thumbed it on.

A little uneasy,  Kara subtly tucked her hair behind her ear to eavesdrop more easily. Not that she was worried exactly, but a little edgy. It was just that there was so much craziness going on in the city. A woman alone at night could get in trouble too easily, and clearly, the kid needed his mom.

“I’m so sorry I’m running late, kiddo, but I should be there in about ten minutes.”

“Everything’s okay though?”

Absolutely fine,” she assured him. “I got caught in a little bit of a bind and lost track of time for a few minutes.

“Things have only barely started,” he assured her, then flashed a smile at his teacher. “And Miss Wayne is here—”

Ah, the wondrous science teacher...

Kara smiled ever so slightly and felt her cheeks heat at the admiration she heard in the other woman’s voice.

Well, I’m very much looking forward to meeting her...and seeing all the displays and thoroughly embarrassing you by demanding to know if she realizes how brilliant you are—

“Mo-om,” Carter complained, but it was easy to see how pleased he was by her comment.

Hanging up now so I don’t wrap myself around a telephone pole. See you in a few minutes.

Carter hung up and beamed at Kara. “She’ll be here soon.”

“See, everything’s okay.”

He nodded and slipped his phone into a pocket. “Yeah,” he exhaled, relieved to have heard from her. “She—”

Kara’s phone let out a string of high-pitched chirps and she held up a hand—amplified bat calls. It was her own, private joke. Her dad’s ringtone was similar, if differently pitched so she could tell them apart. “My turn for the phone thing,” she grumbled and flicked it on. “Hey, Alex, what can I do for you?”

I kinda need a lift,” Kara’s adopted sister cut straight to the chase, sounding thoroughly pissed.

Kara looked around herself. “I’m at a school thing right now. Can it wait?”

Not really, no,” Alex bit out.

Carter ducked his head, not really trying to listen, but very aware of the conversation going on next to him. Extra sensitive hearing was one of the reasons he wasn’t that crazy about crowds and made it nearly impossible not to listen in on private conversations.

Kara glanced at the boy sitting next to her, noting his hunched body language. She really wanted to stay and keep him company at least until his mom got there. “Not even a few—”

No!” Alex snapped, then let out a low growl. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a bitch, but I’m kinda in a bind here...and I really need a lift.

“But—”

My car’s dead and this isn’t the nicest neighborhood,” Alex added sharply.

Kara’s shoulders sagged as she recognized the signal for trouble. Not an emergency—that was a different phrase—but bad enough, Besides, she reminded herself, Alex wouldn’t be calling her if it wasn't real. Her sister was more typically too independent by half. “Okay, let me just get outa here and I’ll be on my way.” She dropped the phone to her side without breaking the connection. “I’m so sorry, Carter, but I’ve gotta go.” She shrugged, feeling bad about leaving him alone when she knew these things were hard for him. “My sister’s car died in a bad part of town and I need to pick her up.”

He nodded. “Drive carefully.”

“I will. You have a good night.” Kara wasn’t quite sure what drove her, but she reached out to gently smooth a few curls off his forehead. “And tell your mom I’m so sorry I missed her. Hopefully we’ll cross paths soon.”

“Hopefully,” he agreed with a smile that seemed a bit sad to her. “Bye.”

She said a few more quick goodbyes on her way out, and lifted the phone back to her ear as she stepped into the chilly night air. “Sorry,” she said a little breathlessly.

No problem,” Alex muttered. “Not like I’m in a hurry or anything. Make sure you say goodbye to every teacher and kid in the school.

“I’m sorry,” Kara repeated her apology as she climbed into her car. “But I do have responsibilities here.” She pulled out, then had to pause while an expensive sports car pulled into her recently vacated spot in front of her.

Yeah, right,” Alex snarked. “Nothing like one of those school party emergencies.”

Kara took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose before asking coolly, “Let me know where you are and I’ll come get you.”

Now that’s the funny part...” Alex began...

* * * * * *

“Hey, kiddo,” Cat Kyle said, smiling easily as she found her son in a quiet area off to one side of the main hallway.

Returning her smile, he bounded to his feet and hurried over. He didn’t rush into her arms like he might once have done, but there was a solid hug and he continued to lean against her side when the hug broke. She hooked an arm across his shoulders, well aware that he would be feeling slightly overwhelmed with the crowd milling on all sides.

“Did your meeting go well?” he asked.

“I achieved the desired outcome.” She shrugged. “Though some of the negotiations were a bit tricky.” At his pointed look, she shook her head. “It’s all dull adult stuff. Nothing for you to worry about.” She ruffled his hair. “So how about we do something much more interesting...namely take a look around...meet people...network. I heard a rumor your favorite teacher’s here.”

Carter made a small face. “She just left.”

Cat peered down at her son, taking in his obvious disappointment. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said without a trace of sarcasm and tugged him a little more firmly against her side. “I was looking forward to meeting the woman who could make you love school.”

“That’s an ugly accusation, Mom. I don’t love school. I like science class.” He turned a serious look her way. “Lots of opportunities to blow stuff up in science class,” he added perfectly deadpan.

She frowned uncertainly until his serious expression broke into a grin. “Brat,” she growled. “Well, then at least show me the damage,” she said with a dramatic flair and a tiny wink. She straightened her shoulders, and peered out into the busy hallway with a serious air befitting a quest to the deepest, darkest heart of somewhere. “Lead on, MacDuff.”

He side-eyed her, but grinned. “The cafeteria’s this way,” he said, pulling her along. “They have punch and cookies...and a bake sale.”

“Is that a hint?”

“I am a growing boy,” he pointed out helpfully.

She laughed softly. “All right. I could probably spring for a few cookies. Maybe even a couple of cupcakes,” she agreed cheerfully. “But in trade, you have to show me actual classrooms...and,” she added pointedly, “introduce me to actual teachers who are here tonight...any missing favorites notwithstanding...and discuss the content of actual classes. Deal?”

“Deal,” he agreed and didn’t even bother to complain when she ruffled his hair like he was still ten or something.

 

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Three

Wearing her regular clothes—thank goodness she’d gone with subdued colors for the fall meet and greet—and a scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face, Kara scanned the Gotham U. campus with sharp eyes, Alex’s voice strong in her ear.

“It’s one of those safety cages...y’know, the kind that wrap around a ladder, so you can’t fall off.” She huffed a curse, then added, “I think I’m on the south side of the building.”

Floating well above the campus, Kara did a slow turn, hunting for something that might fit Alex’s description. “Can you see anything distinctive that I might be able to spot?”

“Nothing,” Alex muttered. “It’s a really dark part of campus.”

And with most everyone gone home for the holidays, the place was quiet. Kara snarled a curse. “Do you know where you first ran into her? Maybe I can backtrack—”

It was in the museum quarter, I think...near the Natural History Museum maybe.

Kara let out a frustrated grumble. “This would be a lot easier if you had some vague idea where you are...or where you started...or something,” she complained.

“Sorry for not taking GPS readings,” Alex snarked right back at her, “but I was busy getting my ass kicked by Catwoman at the time.

Normally close, there had been growing friction between the sisters since crime had been ramping up around the city, with Alex becoming ever more short tempered with the load it put on her shoulders and Kara feeling like her sister was angry that she wasn’t a part of the family business, even if her mom and dad had both discouraged it.

Kara’s powers were too distinctive, too similar to Superman’s, and even after nearly ten years on earth, her control could be iffy. Despite her abilities, Bruce had been quite clear that he considered it too big a risk and Eliza had been even more against the idea.

Which was fine by Kara. Alex seemed to enjoy the rough and tumble fights with the scum of the earth, but they held no appeal for her. She liked living her life in the sun, not in batcaves and back alleys.

She did another pivot, hunting for anything out of the ordinary, then moved toward museum row, hoping there might be some trailing signs of combat to give her a direction to head.

“I’m sorry if I’m being a bitch,” Alex sighed after a long moment. “This is just really embarrassing...” She made a growling sound, that ended in a tight hiss, followed by a soft cry.

“Alex?” Kara yelped, suddenly scared. “What’s happening? Are you okay?”

I just moved, tried to get a little more comfortable.” She paused for a second and Kara could hear her drag in a breath. “Didn’t want to mention it, but I think my arm’s broken.”

Kara hissed a curse and pivoted again, but still didn’t spot anything. “Alex,” she said at last. “I want you to mute your phone, so you don’t break the connection, but I can’t hear you, then call my name.”

But—

“Just do it.” Since nothing else was working maybe Kryptonian hearing could do the trick. Kara did another slow pivot, listening closely, and then she heard it.

Dammit, Kara.

“Keep calling,” she instructed as she flew, listening her sister’s voice. Finally, she spotted a hint of it, echoing between buildings. From there, it was easy, though she veered off in the wrong direction a time or two. Finally, she found Alex. Like she said, she was trapped in a safety cage that surrounded a ladder. The ladder ran up the side of the campus theater while the cage started about ten feet above the ground and ran all the way to the top. It was barred and padlocked on the bottom.

Alex was standing on the lowest rung of the ladder in the cage in her full Batgirl glory, one ankle cuffed to the bars by a bat shaped cuff, apparently too restricted by the narrow confines to do anything to free herself.

Kara peered at the arrangement and had to admit, Catwoman had managed quite a trick. Alex was perfectly safe and someone would have seen her when groundspeople showed up in the morning, but without help, she was well and truly trapped.

“Not one word,” Alex warned grimly.  

Kara shook her head. She wasn’t that stupid. Making sure Alex was standing on a rung and not the bottom bars, she tore the cuff free then snapped the padlock. After that she carefully helped her sister down, any temptation to snark killed by Alex’s obvious pain as she carefully coddled her right forearm, using her cape as an impromptu sling.

Within twenty minutes, they were home and Eliza was x-raying Alex’s arm.

“Definitely broken,” their mother said as she eyed the image on a computer screen. She pointed at a pair of jagged lines visible on bone. “Compound fracture.” She looked over at Alex. “It really should be set by a doctor.” They had some of the best medical equipment available, but that was no substitute for a good orthopedist.

Alex argued, which was par for the course, then argued again when she was over-ridden that she would be ready to go back on patrol again in twenty-four hours. At which point, more than one voice pointed out that, no, she really wouldn’t. Bones didn’t heal that fast and she’d be an idiot to go out in that shape.

Kara may have been the one to use the word, “Idiot.”

“But with the current crime wave and now Catwoman, someone needs to—”

“I’ll do it,” Bruce broke in. “After all, I patrolled for years—”

“With your leg—” Alex shot back.

“I’ll go,” Kara interrupted. She rolled her eyes impatiently when her sister and adopted father both talked over her as they began arguing, first with her, then with each other over which one was more likely to get killed if they were foolish enough to go out in their respective conditions.

“I’m. Going,” Kara snapped in her best teacher voice—the one that made the kids shut up and sit down for real.

It froze them both in place.

“You two idiots are staying home,” she added, letting her irritation with their stupidity show. “Alex, she could have killed you...and that was without a broken arm and Dad...your knee still gives out randomly.” She shook her head. “She needs to be stopped...and I’ve got the best shot of doing that without getting hurt. Meanwhile, you guys need to get Alex to a hospital.” She didn’t allow them time to argue, just turned on her heel and strode out.

It was the best way of dealing with adolescents, no matter what their age.

It was Alfred who found her some time later in the equipment room, standing amid the glass cases with their costumed mannequins. “Your mother and father have taken Alex to see a doctor...a friend of your father’s who can set the arm in his office. No hospital records that way.” The fewer records the better was always the family motto.

Kara nodded without looking over.

He noted the way she stood, leaned back against a low counter, arms loosely folded across her chest and what she was looking at and nodded. “May I assume that’s what you’re thinking of wearing while patrolling?” he asked.

“If I’m going to do this for real, I can’t go on wearing street clothes and scarves,” she sighed. “And I refuse to wear a damn cape or cowl.” She hated how restrictive they were.

“I think your father will approve,” Alfred said without acknowledging her defensive tone. “And I think...” He stopped himself and fell silent for a long moment before finally adding, “I think it would make an excellent choice.”

She nodded.

Alfred again fell silent, contemplating things for a long moment. “If I might offer an opinion?” he said at last.

She glanced over with a raised eyebrow, uncertain why he was being so formal when he’d never withheld an opinion before.

“She is not a villain,” he said very softly.

Kara’s brows shot up. “Catwoman?” she questioned with a doubtful look. “She’s a thief. Not to mention she broke Alex’s arm and locked her in a cage.”

“Then escaped,” Alfred pointed out. “When she could have killed her.”

“Yeah...but—”

“And once upon a time...before you joined the family...when your father thought he’d lost everything, she kept him from doing something that...” He didn’t finish, just stared off into the distance for nearly a minute before continuing, “I do not believe he could have come back the way he has had she not intervened.”

Kara peered at the older man for a long moment, her gaze assessing. “Joker?” she asked at last.

Alfred nodded.

Blue eyes slid closed for a long moment as she considered that news.

“I also do not believe she would survive prison,” he added.

“So I’m supposed to just ignore her crimes and overlook that she hurt Alex?”

He shrugged. “One thing I have learned from your father is that the law and justice are not necessarily the same thing...” He waited a moment and added, “And from your sister I’ve learned that she invariably gives as good as she gets.”

“You’re saying she deserved it?” she demanded, offended by the notion.

“Of course not,” he dismissed. He paused for a moment as he debated how best to continue. “But you know as well as I do that Alex...” Another pause for another mental debate.

“She likes a fight,” Kara filled in when he didn’t immediately continue. “And she seems to have issues with Catwoman,” she added, remembering some of the sarcastic comments she’d been making since they’d first glimpsed the thief on a security video.

“Indeed. I fear she pushed for a physical confrontation when less aggressive means might have worked better.” He stepped forward, peering closely at the costume hidden behind glass. “Catwoman could always fight...quite impressively when necessary, but her first impulse was usually to get away.” He pivoted, brows drawn into a frown, mouth downturned. “Faced with someone in a bat costume, I believe she would have run if she could have.”

“Maybe,” Kara allowed through a flinch. “But Alex still got hurt...and still got left tied up in a way that left her vulnerable. Catwoman might not have gone after her while she was in that cage, but if someone else had found her like that...”

Alfred was wise enough to know when to back off. The sisters were incredibly close and pushing Kara too hard was just as likely to turn her the other direction. “I only ask you to consider that no one has been hurt so far,” he said carefully. “And also to consider that there are debts owed,” he added without specifying a past that was none of his business or hers, but which still affected them all.

Kara nodded to acknowledge that she’d keep what he’d told her in mind.  “Does dad know you’re telling me this?”

Alfred shook his head. “Your parents were involved with seeing to Alex’s injuries...” He paused for a long moment. “And I saw no reason to open old wounds,” he admitted.

A soft sigh escaped Kara’s lips. She nodded to indicate the costumed mannequin. “If I do use that one, will it be too painful for him?”

Alfred took the time to give the question the consideration it deserved. “I don’t believe so,” he said at last. “Which is not to say it won’t hurt...but I believe he’ll understand and support your decision.” He thought about it for another long moment before finally adding, “And I believe Master Dick would have thoroughly approved.” He smiled ever so slightly, though the expression had a tinge of sadness to it. “He would have adored you.” Despite all the tragedy in his life, Dick Grayson had never lost himself in that painful past. Like Kara, he’d found too much joy in life to waste it by brooding.

God, he missed that boy.

They were both silent for a long time, then finally Kara quietly asked, “If I don't arrest her, how do I make her stop?”

“You’re clever,” Alfred answered with more confidence than Kara felt. “You’ll think of something.”

Kara was tempted to point out that his answer was no help whatsoever, but she held her tongue and simply said, “I’m going to fly a circuit patrol of the city, then pick up my car on the way in. I left it near the school.”

Alfred nodded, and wished her luck before he watched her go, his worries reflected in his eyes. It wasn’t that he didn’t think the girl had the makings of a hero, but he was terrified she didn’t have the makings of the kind of hero Bruce and Alex would want her to be. Much as she loved and respected both of them, she simply didn’t see the world the same way. He could only hope she was strong enough to stand up to the pressure and find her own way.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Four

It only took Kara a few minutes to change into the Nightwing costume. Dick hadn’t been a large man, and the neoprene was designed to be tight and have a lot of stretch, so it fit reasonably well. The fact that it was a backup that had never been worn probably helped too. It hadn’t been stretched out at all. She removed the bulletproof plating in the chest and back to make it easier to move and made a few more adjustments. Finally, she slipped the mask on. It would do, she decided as she peered at her image in the mirror. Anyone used to quiet, mousy Kara Wayne, with her glasses, dowdy clothes, and pinned back hair would never make the connection to the sleekly clad superhero with the wild, blonde mane looking back at her. 

She took a deep breath and let it out on a five count. "You can do this," she told herself firmly.

Finally, she stepped out onto the roof and took to the sky. She started grinning almost immediately. Sometimes she forgot how fun it was to fly. It stressed her family so much with their worries about discovery, that she almost never allowed herself the pleasure, but the whoosh of the air around her offered a rush of much-needed freedom. 

Moving in fast, sweeping turns, She swept by downtown, but it was quiet, same for the university. A quick stop by the spot where Alex had been trapped yielded no new information. She made a few more flybys of some of the rougher neighborhoods only to find nothing much moving, then finally turned toward the school.

Kara was surprised to find there were still a few cars in the parking lot and lights on in the building at the school. Probably some of the teachers had stayed behind to clean up. Not wanting to risk being seen, she floated a little higher, checking to see if there was anyone in the overflow lot where she’d left her car. She was still searching the area when she heard a familiar voice.

“Mo-om.” Carter Kyle was laughing and sounded vaguely appalled at the same time.

Kara spotted them easily, standing at the top of the front stairs. They were side by side, both leaning against the metal handrail. Carter had a sizeable pink box in his hands–-bake sale goodies—while his mom was eating.

His mom. Kara finally managed her first look at the woman she’d found herself increasingly curious about.

It wasn’t a great look, not from that angle, and not with the woman wolfing what looked like an oversize cupcake, but it was enough to be sure that she had her son’s delicate bone structure, a straight, narrow nose, and wide, heavily lashed eyes. Kara had to work to resist the urge to drop down and get a better look as muscles clenched low in her belly, but each excuse for being there she thought of was less believable than the last.

“What? I like cupcakes,” the woman joked, her voice muffled by a large bite of food.

“You’re worse than I am,” Carter insisted. “And I’m a teenage boy.”

His mom laughed and took another bite as she nodded skyward. “Pick out a constellation while I finish.”

He snorted, but played along. “Orion.”

That earned an annoyed chuff. “Really?” she drawled, then shook her head. “Too easy...and same goes for Ursa major and minor...”

He thought for a moment, then grinned. “Lynx.”

She huffed so softly Kara could barely hear the sound even with superhearing.

“You said the others were too easy,” he said innocently.

“I suspect there’s some hoped-for petard hoisting going on, but we’ll try,” the woman said after a beat.

Kara was fascinated as she leaned down close to her son and pointed toward the sky.

“Okay, look north. We’re still pretty close to the city, so most of it’s too faint to be visible, but you can see the brightest star...Alpha Lyncis...it’s an orange giant, so you might see a tiny bit of color.”

Kara followed along with the description as she continued to point. Slender fingers trailed along, outlining the shapes as she described what to look for, and Kara found herself listening nearly as rapt as Carter was.

“There’s a trail of stars...but it’s really faint from here...there between Gemini and Ursa Major...with Cancer bounding there...” She pointed to a new position. “If you concentrate, you can follow a zig zag of stars...”

He squinted, staring into the sky. “I think I see it.” His hand rose and he pointed along the same arc she’d described, pausing here and there to say, “There’s a star...the brightest? And there’s one.” He drew a zig zag line in the sky, his voice becoming more excited with each discovery. “There...there...”

“You’ve got it,” his mom assured him.

Kara could hear the pride in her voice and was reminded of her Aunt Astra when she’d solved some problem as a child. It warmed some nearly forgotten part of her soul in a way nothing had in a long time, drawing her in and making her feel like she was a part of something even though she was floating far overhead and they had no idea she was there.

He pointed at a few more stars, though Kara doubted he could really see them. Even to her, they were little more than smudges on a dark sky.

“Good job,” his mother praised. “My dad always said that  if you know the stars, you can always find your way home.”

Kara blinked away a few small tears. If only it were true.

“I wish I’d met him.”

“Me too,” she sighed, still staring skyward.

“One more?”

“I...” The woman came to a sudden verbal halt and dropped her chin, rubbing her eyes fiercely.

“Mom?”

“I thought I saw...” She continued rubbing her eyes and shook her head with a wince.

“What?”

Kara suddenly realized she’d floated that direction, but she should have been too high and much too dark a figure to be seen against a moonless sky. Still, she changed position, using her superspeed to whoosh off to the side just in case.

“I could have sworn I saw...” She shook her head. “That’s not...”

“What?” Carter looked doubtful, then tipped his head back, peering skyward. “I don’t see anything.”

“Must have been a night bird or maybe a bat,” she said, though there was the slightest tremor in her voice. She shoved the last bite of her cupcake down and dusted her hands off. “I’m done now, so what say we head home, kiddo,” she suggested and Kara noted she kept glancing skyward and kept a protective arm across his shoulders.

“You and your rules,” he chuckled.

“Hey, I don’t drink and drive and I don’t eat while driving,” she said, keeping her tone artificially light, as though she was struggling to keep any tension out of her voice. “Safety first, mind on the road, hands on the wheel and—”

“Are you gonna be like this until I’m old enough to get my driver’s license?” he asked through a laugh.

“And for at least ten years after,” she confirmed.

Kara had the sense she was calming after the brief scare.

“Sheez, Mom, I promise, I’ll be careful...when I can actually learn to drive...which is, like, three years from now—”

“Really? I was thinking more like five—”

“Mo-om.”

She snickered at his faux outrage.

Floating high above the pair, Kara smiled, envying their easy rapport. Much as she loved her adopted family, sometimes she wished things were a bit more relaxed, a bit more normal. She would have given anything for some of the easygoing interaction going on below. She was so tired of feeling like everything was a life and death issue.

She floated a little closer as the blonde changed topics.

“So, are we still on for the zoo and Gotham Park this weekend?”

“I don’t know if I wanna go to the zoo with you,” Carter complained, though laughter threatened to sneak through.

“Aw, c’mon,” she wheedled. “I have it on the best authority that the new sloth exhibit will be open and all...slothy.” She slowed her voice to ridiculous proportions on the last word.

Carter giggled in spite of himself. “Really?” he asked, clearly tempted.

“Also...baby lemur...it just started going on exhibit for a few hours a day.”

“Lemur...baby?” Carter exhaled, then giggled again. “Okay, yes, I’ll go, but only because of the sloths and the lemurs.”

Still joking back and forth, they climbed into a sleek sportscar and pulled out of the nearly empty parking lot.

Without planning to, Kara skimmed along above the car, easily following its path. It wasn’t stalking, or anything like that, she told herself. A woman and child alone were vulnerable—she’d heard all of her dad’s and Alex’s stories of the horrors they’d seen patrolling Gotham’s streets, and things were even crazier than normal now—and she suddenly needed to make certain these two people were okay .

She tracked them to an expensive, high rise apartment building, but couldn’t follow into the underground parking basement. Instead, she floated just outside—after all parking buildings were prime spots for all sorts of violent crimes. Listening to voices and elevator sounds all over the building, she somehow found Carter’s higher pitched excitement and his mother’s lower, drawling commentary amid the other sounds, tracking them until she spotted lights coming on in a top floor apartment along the east side. She could see enough through one of the windows to confirm it was them, safe and sound.

She knew she should go.

But something held her back.

She floated up to the roof.

* * * * * * *

After an evening of showing off for Cat and his teachers, Carter took his evening shower, then more or less passed out the moment he fell into bed. Glancing in on him, she smiled ever so slightly. Apparently even his near limitless energy had a few boundaries.

Suddenly aware of the ache of bruises and overstressed muscles, she poured herself a drink and stepped onto the small balcony attached to the livingroom. A chill breeze fluttered around her and helped clear her head.

She was okay. She’d finished the latest column on time, gotten the job done and, made it to Carter’s school thing only a little late. She could do this normal thing.

Meanwhile, the rather unimpressive green stone she’d stolen from the geology museum was safely tucked in the small gym bag she’d brought in from the car. She had enough time before the drop was due that the aches and pains of running into Batgirl would be fully healed, which was a relief. She didn’t trust her client even a little. The notion of handling even a dead drop while at less than optimum held no appeal.

Just a few more jobs, she reminded herself. A few more jobs and she’d have enough money to stay on the right side of the law and keep Carter safe and supported as long as she needed to.

She checked the sky between sips of bourbon, not precisely afraid, but uneasy, even if she knew she couldn’t have seen anything at the school. Or at least she couldn’t have seen what she thought she had. Curvaceous  flying shadows weren’t a thing even in the day and age of superheroes. Or at least she didn’t think they were.

Or maybe she was down to hoping they weren’t. After all, Batgirl had done the whole, merge from the shadows, try and kick your ass thing and it had nearly worked. If Cat hadn’t been better at ducking and dodging than the Batman knockoff was at hitting, things could have gone the other way.

Then again, maybe not. Anyone who could be trapped that easily wasn’t likely to be flying anytime soon, she decided with a smirk. No more imagining things and letting her fears get the best of her. She was just uneasy, maybe even a bit paranoid, due to being back in this town with it old traumas and long dead ghosts.

She heard a soft rattle overhead and jumped, dropping back under the roofline, tense, fists up, ready to defend herself and her home if any flying rodents were out to cause trouble, no matter how curvaceous they might be.

A pigeon suddenly flapped by leaving her feeling a bit ridiculous. Then again, given her career path, a bit of caution could only be wise. The baby bat had damn near taken chunks out of her.

She tipped her head back on her shoulders, peering skyward. It looked just like it should, the constellations in their proper order, no strange shadows to make her jump.

The familiarity was comforting, reminding her of long lost nights lying in the grass, listening to her father’s running lectures while he fiddled with his telescope and she stared at the tiny points of light in the sky. “Oh, Dad, I miss you,” she whispered as she mentally traced the various constellations he’d so carefully taught her, seeing them with a clarity now that even the telescope hadn't offered when she was a child. “You’d know what to do...how to give him the stability he needs.” She glanced back at Carter’s bedroom door. “Sometimes I’m so scared I’m letting him down,” she admitted. She closed her eyes and imagined her father’s kind eyes and his gentle voice encouraging her. He’d tell her she could do it, remind her of her strength, then order her never to let the enemy see her fear. She took a deep breath and blew it out, then straightened her shoulders. “No more whining,” she told herself. “You can do this. You have to.” She tossed back the last of the bourbon and headed for bed.

She needed her beauty sleep after all.

* * * * * *

Crouched on the ledge above the balcony, Kara had a thoughtful expression on her face. Even knowing she shouldn’t have eavesdropped, she couldn’t regret it. She’d recognized so many emotions in the woman’s softly spoken words and it was oddly soothing. With all the craziness, there was something comforting about remembering that everyone got uncertain and scared.

“You’ll be okay,” she whispered, knowingly echoing her promise that first day she’d glimpsed the two, but this time she added the additional promise she’d wanted to make the first time. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Then she flew.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Five

“You’re what?” Alex said with the kind of confusion most people would have expressed had Erwin Schrödinger himself shown up and started explaining quantum mechanics. In German.

“Going to the zoo,” Kara repeated patiently. Well, more patiently than Alex’s goggle eyed disbelief deserved anyway.

Alex blinked, thought about it a moment, then asked, “Why?” She traded confused looks with Bruce where he stood off to one side working on a piece of gear. They both shrugged.

Ah, another day in the Batcave. “To see the animals,” Kara responded with the obvious explanation.

Alex looked blank. “But...why?” she asked. Okay, so she wasn’t entirely serious, but serious enough to set Kara’s teeth on edge.

“To get out, get some sun, take a walk in a pretty place, see some cute animals and some interesting exhibits...quite a few of which the Wayne Foundation paid for by the way, and it seems like someone from the actual Wayne family ought to take a look.” Kara’s gaze swung back and forth between her sister and her adopted father. They were still looking at her with the same blank look. “You two may thrive spending your daylight hours a few hundred feet underground in a Batcave, and spending your nights chasing rapists and muggers and a woman who’s way too vested in pretending she’s a housepet, but some of us like to get out, feel the sun on our faces, and smell the fresh flowers.”

They were staring at her like she’d lost her mind.

And who knew, maybe she had. She’d been doing the Nightwing thing for less than a week and it already felt like she’d spent far too much time doing nothing but teach, grade papers, and fly around all night looking for criminal activity. It was the weekend. She needed to get out and not just to ‘patrol’.

Her father and sister both stared blankly at her.

“And also, I’m Kryptonian,” Kara pointed out as she tried an explanation they might grasp. “I literally need sunlight if you want me to fight Catwoman.” She turned a sharp look Alex’s way when she didn’t respond. “Remember her?” she prompted.

“Ooo, good point,” Alex said and twitched as though she’d gone to sleep for a moment. She grinned with manic good cheer. Since breaking her arm, she’d been vacillating between bitch mode, stoner-like confusion, and hippie-dippy, love everybody happiness with amazing unpredictability, though the frequency of it did seem to be related to how recently she’d had a pain pill. Apparently she had a fairly low tolerance for such things. She made a small shooing motion with her good hand. “Well, off you go. You need that sunlight to beat the Catskank after all.” She smiled broadly.

Kara glanced over at Bruce who was visibly fighting not to break out in peals of laughter.

“Right,” Kara exhaled. She glanced back and forth between her sister and dad. “You two have a good day,” she muttered at last. Best to flee while she could. Bouncy, happy Alex was borderline creepy, like seeing the Tazmanian Devil handing out flowers at the airport. It just didn’t compute.

Alex’s cheerful cry, “All hail solar powered feline ass kickings,” followed her all the way down the hall. She was still waiting for the elevator when her mom stepped out of a nearby room.

“I hear you’re going to the zoo,” Eliza began.

“Oh, please, not you too,” Kara exhaled as she braced for another round of disapproval of some variety.

“Um...Alfred mentioned your plans,” Eliza exhaled uncertainly, then glanced down the hall where Alex’s muffled giggles could be heard along with occasional bits of commentary.

“The zoo,” Alex proclaimed in the distance. “Instead of running search algorithms...nuts, right?”

There was a brief pause that was filled by Bruce’s low, rumble, thankfully, too soft to be understood.

“Well, at least she’ll get some sun and maybe manage to hit the Catskank a little harder next time.” She chortled at that.

“Ah,” Eliza exhaled, suddenly understanding. Alex’s current mood shifts weren’t helping the situation any.

Thankfully, the elevator arrived at that moment.

Grateful for an escape route, she urged Kara inside before hitting the button for the ground floor. “Actually,” she began, carefully ignoring her older daughter’s laughter as it echoed down the hall, “I think it’s great you’re getting out of the house.” Kara had an apartment of her own, but between work and patrols, she’d barely been there in days. Eliza wasn’t sure whether it was dealing with humans or her family in particular, but even at the best of times, she needed time on her own.

The elevator door finally slid closed, cutting off Alex’s giggles. Kara heaved a sigh of relief

“In fact, I think your dad and sister would do well to do the same,” Eliza muttered. “I’m just not silly enough to suggest it, particularly not right now with Alex so...mercurial.”

“That’s one word for it,” Kara grumbled resentfully. It was like everything she said was suddenly cause for either a snitty comment or some kind of mocking joke, until she kinda wanted to slug her big sister. Alex hadn’t been this difficult to deal with since Kara had first arrived on Earth and then she’d had the advantage of not grasping the subtleties of English and thus not really understanding the meaner sentiments most of the time.

“I know,” Eliza sympathized and offered her younger daughter a quick, one-armed hug. “She’s having a hard time and the mood swings aren’t helping any.”

“She’s having a hard time?” Kara repeated. “I’m the one who’s given up huge chunks of her life and has virtually no time for herself. I’m the one who...” she cut herself off. “Never mind,” she muttered and waved it off.

Eliza winced, but tamped down any defensiveness. “I know this is hard for you,” she sighed. “But having you step in and replace her has been really hard for Alex.”

Kara looked up, frowning in confusion. “I’m not—”

“Yes, you are,” Eliza corrected, then added, “Even if it’s only temporary, you are...and you can do things she will never be able to do. That’s hard for her to accept, particularly since all she’s ever wanted is to be like your dad.”

She is!” Kara exploded. “Just. Like. Him. They’re both down there...in a cave...at no risk of seeing sunlight for weeks if they want. They’re designing Batgear, running DNA tests and search paradigms—”

“Algorithms,” Eliza corrected before she could think better of it.

“Whatever!” Kara snapped. “The point is, they’re happy as two peas in a pod detecting together and I—”

“And you can fly and Catwoman is never going to break your arm,” Eliza interrupted, putting the issue as bluntly as possible. “In fact, quite the reverse. Should need arise, chances are, you can take her down with one punch.”

Kara pulled up short as though she’d been hit. “I don’t want to,” she hissed and slapped a hand over the stop button, bringing the elevator to an abrupt halt.

And there was the crux of the matter. Eliza waited. Like Bruce, and Alex too, if she was honest, Kara didn’t discuss deep emotion easily, though she covered the walls she kept in place with bright smiles instead of glowering silence.

“I fly overhead and I just keep praying for things to be quiet,” Kara confessed. “So far, I’ve managed to make noise or contact the police if it looked like something was going on, but at some point...” She didn’t finish.

“At some point you may not have those choices,” Eliza acknowledged.

“On Krypton, the notion of physically harming someone over possession of a thing...even something valuable...it’s just not...” She shook her head, the mere concept making her stomach roll. “We don’t...don’t do that.”

Culture clash at its finest, Eliza thought as she saw her daughter’s genuine distress. She was more inclined to take Kara’s view in this, but the situation wasn't necessarily that simple. “Consider though,” she said carefully, “that in this case, it may not be about the items being stolen...but rather what they can do or what they mean...or something we don’t know yet. And that may well be worth hitting someone. We don’t know yet.”

Kara nodded. “I know, but it’s hard sometimes when Alex keeps making jokes about my breaking Catwoman’s arm or her jaw or whatever...and I really don't think I could do that."

“Oh, Kara,” Eliza whispered sadly. “She’s just stressed because she got embarrassed by Catwoman. You can’t take what she says seriously.”

“But she—”

“She’s mad and the mood swings from the painkillers aren’t helping any. But you know your sister. She has a temper, but she’s not vicious...even if she sounds like it sometimes. I have no doubt that no matter what she says, she wouldn’t hurt anyone she didn’t have to. And she doesn’t really want you too either. That’s not who she is.”

Kara’s shoulders lost a little of their stressed tension. Her mom had a point.

“Alfred said Catwoman's not a villain, that there are debts owed,” Kara mumbled, uncertain whether or not to say anything.

Eliza was silent for a moment. “There are,” she admitted without explaining. “But you may have to balance that against keeping people safe.” She peered into wide blue eyes that seemed painfully young to her. “There aren't any easy answers. You’re just going to have to feel your way, and do what you think is best.”

Kara heaved a sigh. She’d known going in she wouldn’t get any easy answers. Her family didn’t do easy.

“All that said,” Eliza started fresh after a long moment of silence hung between them. She deliberately made her voice lighter, though no less firm. “For the moment, you need to let it go and get out of this house.” She moved her hands to solid shoulders. “Go home, get a shower and some clean clothes, eat junk food, go to the zoo, the park, whatever...and take a night off—”

“But—”

“There's nothing you can do about any of it today and you need a break. I’ll speak to Frick and Frack in the basement, and remind them some people need lives even if they don’t. Meanwhile, we have plenty of methods to monitor the city remotely for one night. If there’s a problem, we can let you know, but I’m guessing the world will survive one night without a member of this family ‘patrolling’.”

“Really?” Kara exhaled, feeling like the weight of the world was being lifted off her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Eliza said firmly. She hit the button to restart the elevator. “You get out of here. We’ll be okay.” After that, she walked her daughter to the door and waved her on her way.

She was still standing on the front porch when a comforting presence drew close from behind.

“None of this is easy for her,” Alfred observed.

“Not for any of us,” Eliza exhaled without looking back at him.

He settled a hand on her shoulder, the gesture intended to be soothing. “She has the heart of a hero.”

She peered over her shoulder at him. “I know,” she admitted. “That’s what scares me.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Alfred admitted.

“She’s not like them, Alfred. She can’t take it lightly, can’t hurt someone without paying a price.”

“Eliza?” the butler said very softly, a note of dread threaded through his voice.

“I’m terrified we’re going to destroy her...and I don’t even know what to do to avoid it.”

For once, Alfred had no wisdom to offer.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Six

The sun on her face, the last scoop of a triple decker ice cream cone in hand—mint chocolate chip, always save the best for last—and a smile on her face, Kara ambled along one of the quieter paths at the Gotham City Zoo, enjoying the flower gardens that bordered the path on all sides, grateful they were still bright and colorful with their last blooms before winter. The fall air was crisp, but not yet cold, perfect for humans and animals alike.

Really, she should have done this sooner and having seen it, she fully intended to make it a regular event. She remembered Eliza and Bruce bringing her here early on to try and help her learn about her new world, but it had been too overwhelming and she hadn’t really understood that all the scary creatures with claws and fangs weren’t out in the world. Kryptonians had kept specially bred pets, but very few wild animals still survived and zoos simply didn’t exist.

Later, after she’d learned not to be afraid of the animals, she’d been too busy just trying to figure out how to fit in on this new world to worry about things like zoos.

And even if Alex might have argued that she didn’t have time now, she needed things like this, needed to be outside in bright sun surrounded by life. If she was going to be their hero, she needed ways to balance out the darkness they thrived on, but which left feeling raw and damaged.

She was still musing on how much better she felt for a few hours away from family pressures when a cheerful giggle caught her attention.

“C’mon, Mom, you know I’m right.”

“Mmm, do I?”

“You do.” The confirmation came almost instantly.

Leaning around a nearby rose bush, Kara spotted them easily enough a short distance down another path and headed her way. Carter Kyle and his mom. He was walking along the brick wall around one of the raised flower beds, his arms outstretched for balance, his feet placed toe to heel like a tightrope walker.

Kara hadn’t come here with any thought of seeing them, even though she’d gotten the idea from their overheard conversation, but she’d have been lying if she denied feeling a tiny leap of excitement.

Carter’s mother was walking next to the flower bed, her head turned toward her son, clearly tracking him. She was holding an ice cream cone in one hand and taking occasional licks, while her other hand hung in the air near Carter, clearly ready to steady or catch him if need be. It was so automatically done that Kara was sure she’d walked a lot of miles in that pose.

“If Iron Man was real,” Carter insisted, “he woulda totally kicked Batman’s ass when he was still around.”

“You’re sure?” the blonde asked.

“Yeah, Iron Man’s got the armor, and the repulsors. Batman had what? A fancy boomerang? Armor and repulsors totally beat that.”

“True, but I think in the real world, Iron Man would have some pretty serious battery issues. Can you imagine what a drain repulsors would be?”

“Mom,” Carter said, sounding annoyed with her practicality.

“What? It just seems like it would be a problem given that I can’t run my laptop for much more than an hour if I use the speakers, and let’s face facts, repulsors take way more juice than my speakers.”

“I dunno,” Carter said thoughtfully, still focused on keeping his feet on the narrow bricks a couple of feet above the path. “You listen to music pretty loud sometimes.”

Kara chuckled softly and leaned a little further forward in search of a better look.

“Miss Wayne?” Carter was looking up, his eyes wide.

Spotted unexpectedly, Kara jerked back a half step, nearly tripped over another rose bush. She caught herself before stumbling too badly, then smiled to cover her sudden embarrassment. She raised her hand in a tiny wave. “Carter...hi,” she said, sounding hopelessly dorky even to her own ears.  “And you must be his mom,” she added, addressing the woman.

“It’s Miss Wayne,” Carter told his mom quickly. “The teacher I’ve told you about.”

The blonde’s chin swung her direction and Kara finally got her first good look at the woman about whom she’d become so curious. She wasn’t some drop dead gorgeous model type. She was far too real for that, though no less striking. She was barely wearing makeup and her features were more gamine than classic, with high rounded cheekbones, lips that were almost too full and intelligent green eyes that grabbed a person and demanded they pay attention. She smiled and her eyes met Kara’s, revealing a few delicate crinkles at the corners. Kara felt her heart give a solid thud in her chest and she was left with the sense that this woman smiled far more than she frowned.

“Miss Wayne,” the blonde drawled as that assessing gaze ran over Kara. “Fancy meeting you here.” Her smile widened. “Finally, a chance to meet the woman who’s made my son love school—”

“I told you, Mom, I don’t love school,” Carter corrected as he caught her hand and hopped down. He looked at his mother with the air of someone well used to this argument. “I like science class.”

“Mm, so you say.” Transferring her ice cream cone to her left hand, she held her right out to Kara. “In any event, it’s my pleasure to meet you... Cat Kyle,” she introduced herself, and included a tiny lilt at the end, a subtle request for more than just Kara’s last name.

“Kara Wayne,” Kara said, stepping forward, her entire attention focused on the blonde. Their hands met and she was struck by the warmth and strength of the hand that shook hers.

“I’ve heard great things about your class,” Cat said smoothly. “I was sorry to miss you the other night.” She glanced down at her son. “Carter said your sister had car trouble and needed a bit of rescuing. I hope everything turned out all right.”

Again, there was a gentle questioning note and Kara found it warmed some part of her, leaving the sense this woman actually cared. Most people either seemed not to notice her or bowed and scraped before the Wayne name without noticing anything about her. “It did,” she said quickly and waved it off. “Alex...my sister...she’s fine.”

“Good to hear,” Cat said watching Kara in way the younger woman found both exhilarating and just a bit intimidating.

“Hey,” Carter broke in as an idea occurred. “We’re on our way to see the rainforest exhibit, Miss Wayne. Come with us.”

Kara froze for the briefest moment as she felt a leap of excitement at the prospect, but simultaneously uncertain it was a good idea. Before she could think of a response, Cat cleared her throat.

“Carter.” She tapped her son lightly on the shoulder. “It’s traditional to ask for someone’s company, not demand it.”

“Oh.” He flinched and his cheeks colored. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Kara insisted, not wanting the kid to become afraid of approaching her.

“No, it’s really not,” Cat said firmly, though there was a gentleness there that softened the chiding. “Carter has better manners than that.” She ruffled his hair affectionately as she reminded him, “Your teacher might well be meeting someone or have better things to do. You shouldn’t put people on the spot like that.”

“It’s okay, really,” Kara said quickly and shrugged a little self consciously. “I’m definitely not meeting anyone.” She couldn’t decide if she’d imagined the speculative look Cat threw her way before she focused on her son again. “Not really anyone in my life to meet,” she confessed without planning to.”

Blonde brows rose at that, but Cat didn’t otherwise respond.

“No, Mom’s right, Miss Wayne.” Carter said, unaware of any of the back and forth. He looked up at Kara and straightened his shoulders, his tone formal as he said,  “We’re on our way to see the rainforest exhibit. Would you care to join us?” He looked up at his mother, who nodded approvingly, then back at Kara.

Kara really wanted to say yes, but at the same time, didn’t want to intrude if they were just being polite.

“We really would love to have you,” Cat assured her as if sensing her insecurity. “After all, I need to quiz you about how this one’s doing in school,” she added as she tugged lightly on a lock of Carter’s hair.

Peering at the other woman, Kara found herself caught by the too intelligent gaze as Cat offered a small smile. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt your time together,” she admitted in spite of herself.

“You aren’t,” Cat assured her. “I never offer to do anything I don’t want to.”

“But you didn’t invite me, Carter did,” Kara reminded her.

“Fair point.” Cat grinned. “I guess I need to invite you as well.” Smiling, she ducked her head and bent over, hands flaring out to the side in a graceful arch as she did a truncated version of a courtier’s bow, the effect only slightly dented by the ice cream cone melting in one hand. “Please, would you join us, Miss Kara Wayne, for a visit to the rainforests of Africa and South America, to see sloths and lemurs and possibly a jaguar or two?” She thought about it moment. “I think they have capybara too.”

Carter giggled, then giggled again as his mom flashed a tiny wink his way.

“I...”

Cat tipped her chin up, peering into blue eyes with a look that dared her to say yes.

Kara froze, any thoughts of refusal fading quickly. “How can I turn down such a gracious invitation?” she asked when she finally found breath to speak again.

“That’s more like it,” Cat said and straightened. Her lips curled into a satisfied smile as she winked at her son, who was watching them, his head tipped to one side, a hint of a curious frown creasing his brow. “Rainforest ho,” she prompted him with a nod to indicate a sign pointing toward the rainforest. “Chop, chop.”

He blinked once, then his expression brightened into a wide smile as he realized his mom really had talked Kara into going with them. Grinning, he bounded off in the right direction with a cheerful, “I’ll take point.”

“Stay in sight,” Cat called after him. “And no running over other zoo patrons.”

“Is it okay if I let him call me Kara since we’re not at school?” Kara asked. If was honest, she would have let her kids do so at school, but it was the rare policy the administration was firm about.

“It’s your name,” Cat responded with a shrug as though she wasn’t quite sure why Kara was asking her.

“Hey, Carter,” Kara called after the boy. “Since we’re out of school, how about you call me Kara today.”

He spun back, grinned and gave thumbs up to the idea. “Sure, Kara.” Then he was rushing off again, ping-ponging from point to point and reading every plaque and sign in sight.

“It’s just that some parents prefer to keep it more formal,” Kara explained to Cat as she stared after the boy a bit bemusedly. He was usually so quiet in class. “He’s very high energy today.”

“He gets quiet in crowds,” Cat explained as she began ambling after her son at a more sedate pace and idly working on her ice cream cone. “Leaves him with a lot of energy burn off on the weekends to make up for it.”

Easily keeping pace and lapping at her own cone, Kara glanced over and noted the other woman’s thoughtful look. “He’s mentioned being home schooled before. Is this his first time in a regular school?” she asked. Carter seemed like a safe topic and probably what his mom had in mind in inviting her. After all, that had been the point of the party she’d had to duck out on, she reminded herself.

Cat shook her head. “Second...but the first time it didn’t work out well. He was being bullied and couldn’t...” She hesitated for a moment. “He couldn’t fight back,” she said after a beat, her voice rough for a second. “I finally had to pull him out.”

“I’m sorry,” Kara said, heart aching in sympathy. She remembered her early days trying to fit in at school. “I’ve been there. It’s awful.” Shy, her English technically perfect, but missing all the slang children use, she’d been bullied more than once. It had been hard, particularly since she couldn’t fight back for fear of hurting someone. Without Alex, she didn’t know what she would have done. Even still resentful of the newcomer, her sister had stepped in when she realized it was a problem. It had been their first real moment of bonding and feeling like family.

“He’s not having any trouble like that at Glenn Faeles, is he?”

“None that I’ve seen,” Kara assured her. “And I keep pretty close track of my kids...particularly any newbies.” Superhearing made it so much easier to cut certain problems off at the pass.

Worry creased dark blonde brows. “So he’s fitting in okay?” Cat asked.

“He’s getting there,” Kara murmured, then seeing the frown deepen, tried to explain. “Glenn Faeles is an old school. Most of the kids have known each other all their lives. It can take time to break in, but he’s doing okay. He’s got a couple of kids he hangs out with at lunch pretty regularly, and there’s a girl in my class that he usually partners with for labs.” She rolled her eyes and grinned. “They giggle happily in the back. Bit of a mutual crush, I think.”

“Good,” Cat sighed. “I admit, I’ve worried. He tells me everything’s fine, but he’s not always good to share if there’s a problem.” She took the last bite of her ice cream and tossed the paper sleeve and a bit of soggy cone into a nearby garbage can.

Kara did likewise, then started to lick her fingers where they were still sticky until a tissue appeared in her line of view. “Ah...thanks,” she said, a blush suffusing her cheeks. “I usually—” she started to lie, but Cat waved it off.

“I’m a mom. It’s SOP.”

“I usually have them when I’m teaching,” Kara felt the need to point out. She started to say more only to note the way Cat was watching Carter where he stood, a little further down the path.

She was frowning ever so slightly, and there were shadows in her eyes as she kept an eye on her son. He was studying one of the small signs in front of a rather odd looking plant, doubtless the name and a bit of scholarly information.

“The thing about Carter,” Kara said carefully as she looked back and forth between mother and son, sensing stresses she didn’t wholly understand and could only guess at, “is I think he feels very protective of you...and doesn’t want to worry you.”

Cat winced and gnawed on her lower lip. “I’m the parent. I’m supposed to be the one to worry,” she said softly when she finally spoke. “He shouldn’t have to—”

“Hey, no,” Kara broke in and settled a soothing hand on Cat’s shoulder. “I’m not saying you’re doing anything wrong. He’s a great kid...smart, funny, kind, and even though he’s a bit shy, I don’t think it’s a lack of confidence so much as he needs to know the lay of the land to feel comfortable.”

“But...” Cat prompted when Kara didn’t immediately continue. Her eyes reflected a dozen kinds of worry.

“Yeah, he worries about you,” Kara acknowledged. “But that’s really normal at that age — particularly with children of single parents. They’re just figuring out mortality, that parents aren’t perfect and don’t live forever...and it often scares them.”

“Really? Because lately it seems like...” Cat trailed off and didn’t finish, leaving the sense she didn’t quite know how to word what she wanted to say.

“Yeah, really,” Kara assured her. She’d seen and read enough to be confident his responses were all in the normal range for kids his age. “Honestly, he’s doing great...and I really think any worries he’s having are very normal.”

“Right,” Cat exhaled after a long beat. “Normal.”

For a brief moment, Kara almost thought the other woman was going to say something more, but finally she nodded.

“You’re right. It’s doubtless all very normal,” Cat sighed, then looked up, her gaze sharpening as she called out. “I said, stay in sight.”

Carter pulled up short of the bend in the trail he was just about to go around. He looked back, his mouth pursed in annoyance.

“I think we’d better move along. That’s his not-waiting-around-for-any-slow-adults face.” Her mouth quirked into a wry smile. “We’re coming,” she called to her son and broke into a trot. She flashed a grin over her shoulder. “Chop chop. Carter Kyle waits for no one.”

Kara flashed a grin of her own as she took up the rear, but a tiny coil of tension remained in the pit of her stomach along with the sudden sense that there was more going on here.

Then Carter laughed and pointed just around the bend in the trail. “See, capybara.”

“Indeed,” Cat confirmed as she caught up with her son and slid a hand across his shoulders. She looked back at Kara and grinned. “Giant guinea pigs dead ahead.”

Kara couldn’t help it. Their good cheer was infectious. She grinned back, and any suspicions were quickly forgotten as she found herself enjoying the sights and sounds of sloths and lemurs and assorted other creatures along with Cat’s dry humor and Carter’s eager excitement.

At some point, they exhausted wonders of the rainforest, though Carter was still going strong, so they ambled on, visiting the wilds of the African veldt, then the frozen north before pausing by lions and tigers, then a pair of rather lazy sun bears.

“Oh my,” Cat drawled and winked at Kara who found herself grinning in response to the sly joke.

Carter raced ahead again, but was mindful of staying in sight as he rushed up to watch a pair of otters at play.

“So Carter and I have plans for a picnic lunch in the park,” Cat commented idly as she made a point of checking her watch.

Kara suddenly realized that at least three hours had gone by and the time had passed so fast she’d barely felt it.

“He tends to crash and burn if he doesn’t eat for too long,” Cat explained.

Kara felt her heart sink. Time for the fun to end. Still, it was the best time she’d had in ages and she felt a thousand times better for the break from other things.  “Oh, well, I hope you have a—”

“I was wondering if you’d like to join us,” Cat interrupted before she could get any further.

“I wouldn’t want to intrude,” Kara stammered uncertainly.

Cat slanted a look her way and shook her head. “You wouldn’t,” she assured Kara. “Carter adores you and I find you very enjoyable company.” She paused for a beat, then added, “Say yes.”

“I eat a lot. I wouldn’t want to—”

“Please, I live with teenage boy.  Hannibal’s troops could cross the Alps on what I packed for lunch.” Her lips twisted into a wicked little grin. “Next protest?”

“I...” Kara trailed to a halt, though about it a moment, then finally admitted, “...don’t really have one...though I suspect I should,” she admitted before she could think better of it.

That admission earned a pleased smile, then Cat touched her forearm lightly as she pulled to a halt, her expression serious. “Unless this is a problem," she exhaled as a thought struck her. "Could you get in any trouble...at work, I mean...for spending off hours with a student’s family?” There was a note of worry in her voice and a look in her eyes that Kara hadn’t seen in a long time. Cat clearly didn’t understand who Kara was, or at least who she was related to. “I couldn’t let you risk your job.”

Kara shook her head. “That’s not...no,” she said quickly. Even if she wasn’t Bruce Wayne’s daughter it wouldn’t have been a problem. Unlike public schools, there really weren’t any rules regarding fraternization at Glenn Faeles. She knew of one teacher who’d gone to Ireland with a family, another was investing in a startup headed by a student’s father, and at least one teacher was having wild affairs with three different parents—two of whom happened to be married to each other. The added fact that her dad owned the school didn’t exactly hurt either. “It’s not a problem.” Though she couldn’t adequately express how much the other woman’s caring touched her.

“I just wanted to make sure,” Cat admitted. Her expression turned thoughtful. “Sometimes I’m not very good at minding rules...and I wouldn’t want to get you in any trouble.”

Kara considered explaining who her family was only to resist the impulse. People changed when money became part of the equation, particularly if the money involved went into the billions. "It's not something the school cares about."

“But you’ll tell me if I overstep?” Cat checked.

A small smile curving her lips upward, Kara nodded. “You have my word.” She carefully ignored the tiny shiver of excitement that slid down her spine at the notion of this woman overstepping with her. Probably not a place she should let her mind go, she mentally chastised herself.

“Then we’re on for lunch.” Cat grinned, then called out, “Hey, Carter, she said yes.”

Which clued Kara in that they’d discussed the idea before any invitations were issued. It warmed her a little more because it meant they both wanted her there.

“Cool,” he said as he looked up, then he pointed down at the otter enclosure, his tone questioning. “Mom, are they...”

The adults caught up with the boy and Kara peered down into the cage. She felt a blush heat her cheeks. “Well, they’re very...affectionate.”

Cat glanced at the pair and her mouth dropped open for a tiny beat. “Probably a good time for lunch,” she decided out loud.  

“Bu-ut...” Carter began.

Cat tapped his shoulder and pointed toward the exit. “Yes, Carter, they like each other,” she answered diplomatically, then added, “Lunch time. Let’s move out, kiddo.” She glanced back down. “They look like they could use the privacy anyway,” she told Kara sotto voce, her mouth tipped into a mildly embarrassed grin.

Kara glanced down again, brows rising. “Definitely.”


* * * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Seven

Cat hadn’t lied about the food, Kara mused as she hefted an oversize backpack out of the other woman’s car trunk. It was insulated and padded and clearly meant to be used as a cooler, possibly for a small army—or maybe a large one, she decided as she hooked a strap over one shoulder. Straightening, she adjusted the weight and looked around, wondering what direction they might be headed.

The zoo sat dead center of the Gotham City Park, four square miles in the middle of the city with hiking trails, picnic areas, a bandshell, a baseball stadium and assorted municipal services. Thick trees bounded the parking lot on three sides and she could see a artificial lake and stream as well as a fancy children’s play area off in the distance.

“I can get that,” Cat said and would have reached for it, but Kara waved her off.

“You’re feeding me. The least I can do is play pack mule.” Especially since it was so easy for her. She couldn’t imagine the same being true for the somewhat delicately built woman next to her. Not that Cat Kyle lacked curves. She had them. Quite lovely ones and arranged in a way Kara very much appreciated, though she wasn’t certain how appropriate any appreciation might be.

As if sensing that thought, Cat ran her eyes over Kara assessingly, then her mouth tipped into a tiny smile that made Kara’s heart skip a couple of beats. “Best looking pack mule I’ve seen in ages,” she teased and Kara could have sworn there was a bit of extra sway to her hips as she stepped around to make sure her car was locked up.

Uncertain how to respond, Kara froze. She was saved by Carter as he bounced over, reached into the trunk and retrieved a dayglo orange frisbee.

“Mom?” he said brightly and held it up so she could see. “Can I?”

She turned and one eyebrow arched neatly as she saw what he had. “You’ll have to ask Kara,” Cat responded, then flashed a wry smile Kara’s way. “Carter is a frisbee addict who will rook you into playing if humanly possible.”

“C’mon.” The boy was all but bouncing on his feet. “It’ll be fun.”

Kara knew what the toy was, had seen guys playing with them on the quad during college, but had never actually touched one. “I...um...don’t really know how,” she admitted.

“I’ll teach you everything you need to know,” Carter insisted, sounding even more excited if such a thing was possible.

He looked so happy at the prospect Kara couldn’t possibly refuse. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

“Oh, you poor fool,” she heard Cat sigh, the quiet comment punctuated by a soft laugh. Still chuckling, she peered at Kara. “So, since you’re a local, is there anyplace in the park you’d prefer?”

Kara froze. “I...uh...don’t really know the park very well. I’ve been to a few concerts at the bandshell, but that’s about it,” she had to admit.

“The Nook?” Carter asked hopefully.

Cat subtly flinched, and peered at Kara with her load of food. “It’s quite a hike, Carter. I’m not sure—”

“It’ll be fine,” Kara assured her and readjusted the pack fractionally as she tried to look like it was easy, but not too easy.

“It must be at least a half mile, most of it uphill.” Cat frowned worriedly. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” She looked at Carter meaningfully. “Particularly since he’ll put you through your paces when we get there.”

“But it’s the best place in the park,” Carter insisted.

“Trust me. It’ll be fine,” Kara added, curious about whatever spot Carter obviously loved so much. “I’ve carried a lot heavier, and I jog regularly.”

“Please, Mom.”

Green eyes flicked back and forth between two pleading faces. “All right,” Cat finally agreed, then speared Kara with a sharp look. “But we’ll trade the pack back and forth.”

“Really,” Kara started to argue, “It’s not—”

“Not up for discussion,” Cat clipped with an air of command.

Kara started to draw a breath, but Carter spoke first.

“Don’t bother,” he advised with the wisdom borne of long experience. “When she uses that voice, you’re not gonna win.”

“So young, yet so wise,” Cat praised with a wide grin as she slid an arm across her son’s shoulders and gave him a fast hug.

Kara thought about it, noted the determined look in green eyes and threw up her hands in total surrender.  “You’re in charge.”

“Good to see you know it.” A satisfied smile curved full lips, then Cat pointed toward a thick copse of trees a short distance away. “The trail starts just over there.” She looked back, again giving Kara that same sharp, sees-all-knows-all look. “You’ll tell me the moment it gets too heavy?”

The comment was phrased as a question, but Kara was smart enough to understand it was a command. She nodded. “I promise. You are completely in charge.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Something gleamed in green eyes and Kara found herself swallowing hard. Anything she might have said just sorta evaporated unspoken. She was still standing there, staring when Carter’s voice broke through the haze.

“I think that’s everything. Let’s go.” He had his frisbee and had grabbed a folded blanket as well.

Cat slammed the trunk and gestured toward the trail. “You heard him,” she commented with a tiny nod in the right direction, as though she wasn’t entirely confident Kara would figure it out without help.

It was a fair assessment, Kara thought as she tried to shake off the momentary loss of motor control. Another hard swallow made her throat bob, but she finally nodded and turned to follow after the boy.

“Lead on, MacDuff,” Cat called out to her son as she caught up with Kara, easily matching her longer paces. “He knows the way.”

“I gather.” Kara slanted a quick look the other woman’s way in an effort to assess what was going on.

Cat glanced over the same moment, her look inscrutable, then turned face front again and hurried to catch up with her son.

Staring after the woman, Kara shook her head a little dazedly. Just about the time she thought maybe she was figuring something out, instinct told her it had just gotten more complicated. Again.

Moments later, she followed them out of the modern parking lot and onto a dirt trail that led into an ever thickening forest.

They hadn’t been hiking long before Kara tipped her head back, staring up at the canopy of old growth trees that branched out overhead.  She had no idea of names, but they grew thick and close enough that the sun quickly faded along with the city sounds, leaving them in a cool, shadowy world utterly removed from the city only a few minutes away. Had she seen some giant forest creature watching from the shadows, it wouldn’t have surprised her in the least.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Cat whispered as she dropped back to walk next to Kara. “Nature takes back her own when she can.” She looked around. “Seems like this is the whole world.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kara exhaled, utterly in awe. “I never...knew...” She shook her head. “How could I not know this was here?” she whispered, faintly appalled at her own ignorance. All she’d ever heard from her family about the park were complaints about how it was a magnet for trouble, particularly after dark, that the multitude of hidden places and nature walks were ripe for hot and cold running muggings, murders, and rapes.

No one had told her it could be peaceful or calming or so damned beautiful.

Cat shrugged, and she kept her voice low, as though anything else would be intruding too much. “I don’t think most people do. Carter and I found it when we first arrived and he needed someplace to run.” She paused looking around herself. “We spent days exploring and wandering the trails just to keep busy. Hardly ever saw anyone once we got away from the crowded spaces like the zoo.” She slanted a quick look Kara’s way. “He’s got a few places he really likes, but this is his favorite. He’s never wanted to share it with anyone before.”

Warmed by that admission, Kara found herself smiling in a way she hadn’t lately, wide and unselfconscious about her happiness.

“You should smile like that more often,” Cat said as though she knew it had been awhile.

Uncertain what to say, Kara just nodded and looked over at the other woman. “So why’s it his favorite place?”

She got an enigmatic look in return, then Cat drew in a deep breath. “Smell that fresh air.”

“Not gonna answer then?”

Cat shrugged. “That would be telling,” she teased.

“Well, thank you for inviting me. I never would have found it on my own.” Never would have even looked if she was honest. Kara peered around them, taking in the wild surroundings. She drew in a deep breath. Joking or not, Cat was right about the fresh air. “I’m just sorry I went this long without seeing this.” She was silent a moment. “I’ve never been anywhere like this before.” Krypton hadn’t really had natural spaces anymore and her family on earth wasn’t much for such things.

“Surely you’ve been camping...hiking...something like that?” Cat questioned, any humor draining out of her voice.

Totally absorbed in watching a squirrel that suddenly peeped out from behind a tree to watch them, Kara’s answer was a distant, “Not really, no.” Focused on the animal, she missed Cat’s slight frown, but a light pat on her arm brought her head up and around.

“Carter and I could probably help you with that,” Cat offered, her tone oddly gentle and just a little hesitant.

Kara drew a breath only to have her ability to speak momentarily fail her. She abruptly realized they’d both come to a stop in the middle of the trail and turned to face one another. “I...uh...I’d really like that,” she stammered.

“That’s good,” Cat said quickly, then added, “I...I think Carter would too.”

As if on cue, Carter piped up. “God, you guys are slow,” he complained from a ways up the trail.

It broke whatever spell seemed to have settled over them.

Cat shook herself and straightened. “Give us a break, kiddo,” she called back to her son. “I’m old and decrepit...takes me awhile to hobble after you.”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s deliberately slowing you down and making sure you don’t push yourself too hard,” Carter informed Kara. “She does it with me sometimes,” he added in a voice that expressed his disgust with the notion.

“So sue me. I’m occasionally parental,” Cat joked. “I’ve also been known to send him to bed early, and insist he eat some modicum of vegetables.”

“She’s evil,” Carter told Kara, though he couldn’t quite keep a straight face this time. “Keeps me locked up with nothing to eat but broccoli until my homework’s done.”

“The horror,” Kara chuckled, though it took effort to summon even that response since it still felt like there wasn’t quite enough oxygen available. It didn’t help that the hand on her upper arm rubbed lightly, then tightened in a gentle squeeze before breaking away.

“We should probably catch up before he decides to go off on walkabout,” Cat murmured.

Kara glanced over and couldn’t help but notice that her cheeks seemed a bit pink. “Yeah.”

They caught up with Carter in a few strides, one walking on either side.

Happy for the company, he slung the blanket over his shoulder and held up his frisbee so Kara could see. “You said you’ve never played with one?” he double-checked.

“Not even once,” Kara admitted.

He rolled the disk over his knuckles, twirled it on a finger, then made a small motion to bounce it into the air and caught it again. “The first thing you need to know is about your grip. There a lot of different ways of holding it and different finger positions...”

After that, they hiked along at a comfortable pace while Carter chatted happily, explaining to Kara some of the games that were played as well as different ways of holding and throwing the frisbee. As he talked, he often demonstrated what he meant with quick, agile hands.

If she was honest, it was far more than Kara had ever wanted to know about hurling a plastic disc, but it made Carter so damn happy to be the expert and teach her something that she didn’t mind, particularly when Cat looked over at both of them with a look of such pride that it made her heart melt just a little.

Meanwhile, she to admit, Cat had a point when it came to the hiking trail. It was steeper than she expected and while it was  no problem for her, most humans would have been hard pressed to carry the pack and make good time on the trail. She glanced over at Cat and smiled to indicate she was fine.

Cat just arched eyebrow and shook her head, making it clear who was in charge.

Even though carrying the pack was almost too easy for her, it felt so damn good having someone worry about her that when Cat said, “Time to trade pack mule duty,” she barely tried to argue that she wasn’t breathing hard or sweating.

Instead, she came to a halt and slipped it off, per Cat’s instructions, then helped the other woman heft it onto her own shoulders. “You sure you’re okay with that?” Kara asked. “The trail’s pretty steep.”

Cat shrugged. “I usually do this a couple of times a week.”

“Yeah, mom may be old, but she’s in great shape,” Carter added helpfully, the twinkle in his eyes making it obvious he was deliberately mimicking his mother’s earlier joke.

“Brat,” Cat complained under her breath, though there was no anger in her tone.

Standing behind the other woman while she adjusted the pack, Kara was inclined to agree about Cat’s shape if not her age. Both looked good to her. She tipped her head down enough to take another considering look. Definitely very good. “I...uh...I’m sure she is...in great shape, I mean,” she stammered when it occurred to her the comment could be misread.

As if sensing the perusal, Cat looked back over her shoulder. A smirk twisted full lips, and a blonde brow climbed toward her hairline. “Comment?” she inquired almost too politely.

Kara didn’t know what devil had taken over, but she found herself grinning back. “Just thinking about something someone said recently...something about good looking pack mules.”

“Brat,” Cat repeated, but she smiled happily, a blush suffusing her cheeks as she started off.

Carter looked at Kara with a questioning look that left her uncertain how to respond, then finally shrugged and hurried after his mom.

After that, they hiked along, talking a bit—Carter had researched the native trees in the park, and enjoyed pointing them out to Kara—but also just enjoying the day and the company.

“So are we almost...” Kara trailed off, letting the question fade away as they rounded a bend and stepped past a sharp granite promontory.

The trail ahead widened quickly, then faded into thick grass while the trees quickly thinned and finally disappeared, leaving a flat open field perhaps half a football field in size with trees bounding on all sides. To the north, a small hill rose another thirty or forty feet with a small rock cliff right at the top.

Even without any special vision, Kara could see there was running water. The rocks glistened and there was a small stream that wound down to disappear in the trees. Tucked in the shadows along the edge of the space, there were a few simple cement picnic tables and other amenities. Birds could be heard calling and rustling in the trees from all directions, and a few took flight as the intruders stepped into their space.

They were at a high enough elevation that, while high rises could be seen in the distance, they were above anything close, giving the space a sense of being higher than it really was.

“Cool, huh?” Carter said happily as he pulled abreast of her.

Kara nodded, and took a moment to just absorb what she was seeing. Finally, she glanced back at Cat. “Thanks for not telling me.” She shared an awed smile with the other woman, then looked back over the open field. “I’m glad I didn’t have any expectations.”

Cat stepped up on Kara’s other side. “Some things need to be experienced,” she said by way of explanation.

“Well, thank you,” Kara exhaled happily. “Both of you,” she said pointedly as she gave Carter a quick hug and grateful smile.

He beamed back. “I knew you’d like it.”

“Table next to the stream?” Cat asked and Carter quickly nodded.

“Always.”

Cat plucked the blanket off Carter’s shoulder, and nodded. “I’ll go set things up. You two have fun with the frisbee.” She turned a serious look her son’s way. “Carter, no stunts,” she said, her tone as firm as Kara had ever heard it. “I mean it. Breaking your neck in front of company would be very bad form, as I suspect Kara would find it very stressful.”

His chin drooped with disappointment, but he nodded. “I’ll be good,” he promised.

“Remember, I’ll be watching,” Cat warned him.

He rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue.

That done, Cat patted his shoulder. “Okay, you two, lunch in a bit...I’m off.” she pivoted and headed toward the tables at a good clip.

“I’ll be with you in just a sec,” Kara promised Carter, and hurried after Cat. “Is there anything I should know?” she asked as she caught up with the other woman, a bit jolted by the sharp warning to the boy. She wanted to know if there was anything she should be keeping an eye on. “I mean, any risks for him?” she asked carefully.

“No,” Cat assured her. “He just forgets himself sometimes...and can get a bit wild. The last thing any of us today is to have a problem.”

It was a fair point. Still, Kara felt the need to check. “So it’s all okay?” She glanced over her shoulder at the boy who was flipping and playing with the disc on his own.

“He’s fine.” Cat soothed as she turned to face Kara. “Just a kid who sometimes likes to show off a bit too much and occasionally needs to be reminded to be careful...like when a teacher he worships is paying attention to him.” She turned to look at Carter who was visibly chomping at the bit to get playing. “Go...before he implodes.” She waved her hand to send Kara along.

The sudden rush of fear eased, Kara nodded. “I just, y’know, wanted to make sure.” He was her student and she felt responsible, but also it was more than that too. This kid was special.

“It’s okay,” Cat assured her, then shooed her gently. “Go,” she repeated, though her lips were turned up in a pleased smile and something soft shone in her eyes.

Kara nodded and trotted backwards several steps, then finally spun and hurried to where Carter was impatiently waiting.

“Sooo,” Kara exhaled as she saw the determined look in the boy’s eyes. “Frisbee?”

“It’s a lot more complicated than it looks, ‘y’know?” he said, his gaze sharp, his tone that of an instructor who would tolerate no nonsense.

“I probably should have warned you,” Cat called to Kara, a bit of laughter in her voice, “he can be a harsh task master.”

“Ignore her,” Carter instructed. “She’s been whiny ever since she couldn’t master an elevator pass.”

“Could too...if some people weren’t so picky about thumb positions,” Cat called back from the table where she’d settled and was going through the pack.

Carter shook his head. “Honestly, thumb position is everything,” he said seriously.

Kara was starting to sweat when she finally noticed how his eyes were twinkling and she realized it was some kind of long-running joke between the two of them. “Very funny.” She looked over her shoulder, easily meeting Cat’s gaze across the distance.

The older woman was smiling, obviously in on the joke. “Brat,” Kara mouthed deliberately, her smile widening when she saw the other woman laugh and give a thumbs up.

“It’s actually pretty easy,” Carter said to soothe any ruffled feathers. “There are all sorts of fancy grips and ways of throwing, but you should be pretty safe if you stick with the basics.” He showed her a simple grip and standard backhand throwing position.

“All right,” Kara said cheerfully as he passed her the disc and she mimicked his hand positions. She shared a grin with the kid.  “Let’s give this a try.”

* * * * * *

Cat knew she was using prepping their lunch as an excuse to grab a break from what felt like an ever increasing urge to flirt with Carter’s young teacher, Kara, a tiny voice in her head whispered in a painfully sultry tone.  “Right,” she muttered to herself. “Kara...as if I’m likely to forget her name.” She sighed, quickly removing various containers and sorting things out while trying valiantly not to stare.

Except Kara was so very stare-at-able, and no, she didn’t care that it wasn’t really a word.

Sighing softly, she paused, and yes, she stared, but not in some cheesy, entirely prurient way that suggested an obsession with the way Kara’s jeans fit or the view revealed by the open button at the top of her sweater, even though both of those things were very pleasant.

No, she stared because the girl was so goddamned good with Carter that it nearly took Cat to her knees. She froze as they paused their game for Carter to explain something and correct Kara’s throwing stance. He was careful and precise and she was utterly patient, paying close attention and following along, cheerfully letting him take the lead and teach her.

Very few people could or would do that, and Carter was clearly thriving on the attention.

Cat, meanwhile, felt like she could relax for a few minutes and let him off the leash a little. Kara helped keep him calm, but Cat also found herself utterly certain the girl would never do anything to hurt him.

As that thought occurred, it felt like a giant fist wrapped around her heart and squeezed until she could barely breathe.

“What the hell am I doing?” Cat whispered. She had enough complications in her life. The last thing she needed was to add one more by chasing after Carter’s teacher like the proverbial cat in heat.

Then Kara ruffled Carter’s hair, hooked her hands under his arms and swung him around while he giggled like a maniac.

And Cat Kyle, Catwoman, infamous international cat burglar felt herself tear up. Scrubbing away the moisture, she watched as they went back to throwing the frisbee back and forth until finally, she shook her head and started forward at a fast trot.

What the hell was she doing? A wry smile twisted her lips as she surrendered to temptation. Joining the game of course.

Grinning, she signaled Carter from behind Kara.

* * * * * *

Bouncing on the balls of her feet in preparation, Kara watched Carter spin to gain momentum, then fling the frisbee. The kid wasn’t precisely graceful, but he definitely knew what he was doing. The disc flew higher than she expected, then suddenly dropped so low it seemed to hover no more than a foot off the grass.

It skimmed right under her hand as she reached for it, and while she could have used superspeed to catch it anyway, she was well aware of appearing to be no more than a fairly athletic human. She let it go.

Damn.

“Ahem.”

Startled by the soft sound, Kara spun to find Cat standing a few feet behind her. The frisbee was neatly balanced and spinning on the tip of her index finger. She grinned, her eyes glittering with an unspoken challenge.

Kara didn’t know what this game was, but she definitely couldn’t resist the urge to play. She darted forward to grab for the toy, but Cat was faster. She flicked her wrist, moving so fast Kara almost couldn’t track her, and the disc bounced up just as Kara’s hand flew past. The disc dropped again and Cat caught it this time, and flicked it amazingly quickly. Suddenly it rose almost straight up.

“Yeah!” Carter whooped. “Perfect elevator pass!”  

Kara spun in time to see the frisbee fly overhead, then drop neatly into Carter’s hands. “How did you...” She trailed off.

“I might be almost as bad as Carter about the damn thing,” Cat confessed.

“Of course you are,” Kara exhaled. She saw Carter signal with one hand even as he rolled his other hand back in a smooth forehand throw. It sailed forward, but arced around her just out of reach when she dove for it. She heard Cat laugh behind her and in an instant she knew what the game was.

Keepaway.

“Cheaters,” Kara complained through a laugh. “Ganging up on the newbie.”

“Aw, c’mon, you’re young and strong,” Cat teased. “Surely, you can outrun us.”

Not without a substantial assist from her powers, Kara realized after a few more throws. She wasn’t breathing hard, but without flying, superspeed, or a substantial degree of trickery, they were too good for her.

And since powers were out, it looked like guile was the order of the day. She advanced on Cat, forcing her more toward the tree line for a couple of throws, but still didn’t get close to stealing the disc. Then, on the fourth throw she didn’t even try for the frisbee, and instead dove toward Cat.

Her attention on the disc as it swung wide, the blonde didn’t recognize the strategy until Kara hooked an arm around her waist and hauled her close as she reached past Cat to pluck the disc out of the air.

“Cheater,” Cat yelped as she was momentarily yanked her off her feet and tugged against Kara’s side.

Kara just laughed. “Hey, Carter,” she called, holding up the frisbee with her free hand. “Wanna new teammate?”

He laughed and nodded.

“Traitor!” Cat shouted and tried to wriggle free, but Kara had a solid grip, even if her left handed throw wasn’t great.

“Cheater,” Cat accused again, though she was laughing so hard she almost couldn’t breathe. She would have fallen when Kara let go had the girl not kept a hand under her elbow until she was stable.

"Don't think that means I'll take it easy on you," Kara teased, then bounded back, holding the frisbee above Cat's head as she tossed it Carter's way.

He gave a happy whoop as he caught it, then signaled to Kara to go left. She caught his wink and went right instead, fooling Cat for an extra beat so she could get to the toy first.

"That won't work a second time," the blonde warned her as she realized her mistake.

"We'll see," Kara riposted as she made another neat throw over Cat's head, though the smaller woman nearly got it.

Kara and Carter weren’t as good a team, but they managed several passes, only losing control of the disc when Kara tried a fancy, low angle throw. Laughing, Cat dove for it, locking a hand on the plastic before she skidded with her momentum and ended up on her knees in the thick grass.  “Hey, Kara,” she called out as she scrambled to her feet. “You’ll do better if keep it high.” And she tossed the frisbee right over Carter’s head.

“Mo-om.”

“Live by the treasonous frisbee throw, die by the treasonous frisbee throw,” Cat responded, laughing at his outrage.

“She has a point,” Kara agreed and made a toss well over the boy’s head.

Two more passes flew by just out of his reach, and he was fine, but Cat saw his jaw lock with determination as Kara pulled back for another. No time to call a halt to the game. She saw him start to jump for it and she leapt, grabbing him from behind and swinging him around as she growled, “Oh, no you don’t.” Keeping it a part of the game, she mimed biting his neck as she spun him around a couple more times. “Traitors don’t get frisbees.”

He laughed and squirmed hard enough they toppled to the grass together.

“No tickling,” Carter shrieked when his mom’s fingers skimmed his sides.

“No tickling,” Cat assured him, her voice soft enough to be for his ears only. “Take it easy,” she soothed, wrapping her arms loosely around him, not restraining so much as just holding him. The last thing he needed was another adrenaline rush.  She’d barely caught that leap in time.

He was still laughing, but he managed a mumbled, “Sorry.”

“S’okay.” She felt him heave a deep sigh and knew he was back under control.

Kara joined them a moment later. She was carrying the disc, and her expression left Cat with the distinct impression she’d deliberately given them a moment as though she’d sensed something was up even if she had no way of knowing what. “Am I the only one who could use some lunch after all this activity?” she asked diplomatically.

Still breathing hard, Carter twisted to ask his mom, “Lunch time?”

“I’d say so,” Cat confirmed, relieved to feel her son’s heartrate and rapid breathing settling down.  “So up you go.” Bracing her hands on his sides she lifted while Kara caught his hand and hauled him to his feet.

Once he was settled, the girl ruffled his hair, the gesture affectionate, and Cat was relieved to see him offer a relaxed smile. “Need help?” she offered and reached out to Cat who still lay sprawled in the grass.

Cat reached back, a tiny shiver of awareness sliding over her skin as her hand met Kara’s and she became aware of how soft and perfectly smooth the younger woman’s palm was. “Thanks,” she murmured, letting Kara pull her to her feet. Focused on blue eyes, she didn’t notice a small divot in the grass, and overbalanced as she stepped forward. It wasn’t a dramatic fall, just a momentary stumble, but Kara’s hands came up almost instantly and Cat found herself enfolded in a gentle hold as she was caught and steadied. Her hands landed on Kara’s chest and she felt the heat of Kara’s palms on her upper back and the full length of her body along her torso.

“You okay?” Kara asked, sounding more breathless than she had all day..

Stomach muscles clenching painfully, Cat nodded. “I...uh...fine. Just stumbled a little,” she mumbled, her cheeks suddenly hot. “Thanks...uh...for the save.”

“Anytime,” Kara exhaled.

Neither of them moved.

“Yo, food,” Carter reminded them.

It broke the spell.

“I think we need to feed the beast,” Cat joked and stepped back, though she was intensely aware of the way Kara’s hands lingered for an extra beat.

Cat didn’t mind at all.

“Did you twist your ankle or something?” Carter asked his mother, his tone somewhere between worried and annoyed.

“Nope,” she assured him as she shook off the momentary daze. “Just bumbled a bit.” She settled a hand on his upper back as she hurried him along, but she culdn’t resist the urge to glance back.

Kara was following close behind, a tiny, twist of a smile on her lips.

Cat had no doubts it was a smile that could break hearts. The funny thing was she was rapidly starting to believe maybe it could remake them as well.


* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eight

 

Full of two huge sandwiches, close to half a large bag of chips, a giant dill pickle, and god only knew how many grape tomatoes, Kara stretched her legs out in front of her and heaved a pleased sigh.

Carter, who’d come close to keeping up with her for the first half hour before falling behind on chips and the second half of his second sandwich, yawned sleepily and stretched out on their blanket where it lay in deep grass.

Leaned back comfortably on her hands, Cat wore a satisfied smile as she tipped her head back and enjoyed the sun on her face. She hadn’t even tried to keep up with the other two when it came to putting away lunch or she’d have been next to Carter, snoozing peacefully, but she was pleasantly full and even more pleasantly relaxed.

She’d been lounging like that for several minutes when she became aware of movement and opened her eyes a bit sleepily.

Kara was on her feet, but crouched down, carefully gathering up the detritus of their feast. Sitting upright, Cat started to reach for her discarded plate, but Kara waved her off and whispered, “Stay comfortable. I’ll get it.” She nodded to indicate Carter. “It’ll give him more room,” she mouthed.

Leaning back again, Cat silently watched the younger woman as she finished collecting things then, moving on perfectly silent feet, crossed to the picnic table and began trying to put the pack back together without much success. A tiny grin curving her lips, Cat watched the effort for a long moment, then pushed to her feet and ambled over.

“You didn’t need to—” Kara started to insist, her voice soft so as not to wake Carter, but so frustrated, it was almost comical.

“Trust me, I did,” Cat disagreed and gently shooed Kara aside, then started packing things, her hands moving quickly and automatically. “We’ve always picnicked...so this thing has gotten a bit customized over the years.” She quickly stacked the now empty, multi-colored plastic containers that apparently only went together in a certain order. "It really only goes together one way,” she explained as she dropped the containers into the pack, then slid the thermos in next to them. Dirty silverware went into plastic cups, which dropped into a ziplock and in on top of the containers. Clean silverware slid into a side pocket. Garbage went into another ziplock and got tucked in on top. Then she clicked a few straps on the outside of the pack and suddenly it was not only closed, but about half the size it had been. She grinned at Kara and did a little flourish with one hand. “Voila.”

“You’re right,” Kara admitted. “You did need to.”

Cat shrugged, then suddenly arched her brows and reached for a side pocket. “You interested in dessert?”

“Always,” Kara said through a grin.

A moment of fumbling with a zipper and suddenly Cat lobbed an apple Kara’s way. A second later, she plucked out an old fashioned pocket knife and lobbed that Kara’s way as well.

Kara, who’d been considering taking a large bite caught it, but looked questioning.

“I get a bite or two,” Cat joked.

Carter mumbled a sleepy, “Shhh,” and flipped a hand as though waving off an insect before settling in more deeply.

Fighting the urge to giggle, Cat waved toward the nearby hill with its protruding rock face and trickling falls. It was far enough away they weren’t likely to bother the boy.

Which is how they wound up sitting on a pair of large boulders that sat next to the small stream, shoes and socks tossed to one side, toes dipped in ice cold water, talking quietly.

Kara sliced a chunk of apple off and handed it to Cat speared on the tip of the small knife. She nodded to indicate the peacefully sleeping boy. “Does he always sack out like that?” she asked, keeping her voice low, but feeling free to let it float above a whisper.

Happily munching on her apple slice, Cat flashed a quick look at her son, her expression soft. “Given an active day, a heavy meal, and a nice patch of sun to laze in...absolutely.” She laughed softly. “I’m the same,” she admitted. “If I’d eaten like you two...” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “I’d be right next to him, laid out and showing my belly like a happy cat in the sun.”

Swallowing hard, Kara resisted several responses that sounded far too suggestive, even in her head and gnawed on a large chunk of apple to buy time. “Will we have to help him down?” she asked at last.

Cat laughed softly. “Nah.” She glanced back again. “He’ll be up and running in an hour or so.” A sudden thought occurred. “But if you need to leave before that—”

“I’m good,” Kara quickly assured her. “Actually,” she added after a beat, “this is the best day I’ve had since...” she paused and thought about it for a moment before finally settling on, “honestly, I don’t even know when.”

Cat’s brows drew into a frown while her mouth twisted into a wry smile. Sensing Kara’s stress levels, she sat uncertain for a moment. “Should I ask?” she finally said tentatively.

“God no,” Kara groaned. “Really, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” She shook her head disgustedly, unable to imagine how she even could explain her family and their tendency to hang out in bat costumes in the dead of night to a woman who spent her weekends taking her son to the zoo and picnicking. She tried to picture Cat Kyle’s likely reaction and kept coming up with a fixed stare of total incomprehension. “It’s kind of surreal really.”

“Sympathies,” Cat offered. “I’ve had my fair share of that sort of thing.”

Resisting any urge to express her doubts, Kara waved it off. “It’s my family,” she said by way of explanation. “They’re insane.” She lopped off another chunk of apple and munched. “This is much more enjoyable than worrying about their weirdness,” she decided out loud.

“Well, Carter and I are an entertaining pair.”

“You are,” Kara agreed and offered a high wattage smile to confirm the sentiment.

Cat did a fast check-in glance at Carter who was still fast asleep.

Kara followed the line of her gaze, and was struck by how different the kid was out of school. The boy she knew in class was smart, but quiet, his humor sly, his footsteps a bit hesitant, and he was always careful, always assessing, as though walking on a tightrope he didn’t quite trust. He would never have sacked out on a lawn where others might see, whereas the kid she’d seen today was a giggler with a puckish wit and a startling level of self confidence. She wasn’t quite sure how to resolve the two. “So can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask.” Cat accepted another apple slice. “I make no promises to answer,” she added and flashed a quick grin.

“The frisbee thing,” Kara said. “How...why?”

Cat laughed and shook her head. “Carter wasn’t quite three...most energetic toddler ever,” she began. “I had this tiny little apartment, so I’d take him to a nearby park when he was bouncing off the walls like a human gas molecule. The problem was he’d see something and bolt and I was terrified he was going to get hurt before I could catch him.” She flicked another glance her son’s way. “I had to do something, but I wasn’t going to put my son in one of those kiddie leashes.” She shuddered, shook her head and muttered something under her breath before continuing. “So I needed something that would hold his attention.” She shrugged. “He loved anything colorful...which the frisbees were and he’d chase them as long as I’d throw.” Another shrug. “They were also cheap and easy to pack, which was important in those days.”

“I bet he was adorable.”

“I might be biased,” Cat admitted, “but I swear, he was the cutest kid ever.”

That drew a soft chuckle. “Might be biased, huh?”

Cat held up her hand, thumb and forefinger almost touching. “A tiny chance, minuscule really.” She looked over at her son again, gaze distant. “Anyway, he’d run till he just about dropped, then when he was five or six, he started throwing it back...then along about eight or ten, he discovered Ultimate Frisbee—yes, it’s a real sport—and started trying to learn all the tricks and fancy throws. The rest is history.” She turned on a high wattage smile of her own.

Kara felt her heart give an extra solid thump in her chest. “Soon to be recorded for posterity, I’m sure,” she joked, though the words sounded a little breathless to her ears.

“Of course.”

“I—” A series of muffled high pitched clicks interrupted. Dammit. Her phone. The amplified bat calls meant it was Alex. Despite the fierce temptation to just ignore it, she knew her sister. Alex would just keep calling.

“Ahm, is your phone chirping at you?” Cat inquired politely, though she sounded a little perplexed.

Kara heaved a sigh. “Yes, and if I don’t answer it—” she slipped her phone out of her back pocket and glared at it “—let’s just say it will never stop.” Alex was tenaciouis, no two ways about it.

Cat gestured toward her son and started to get up. “I’ll go check on Carter.”

“No,” Kara insisted and held up a hand to keep the other woman from rising. “You stay comfortable. I’ll just go over there.” She gestured loosely toward the trees. And take my beating like a good girl, she added mentally.

Suddenly the phone stopped ringing and for the briefest moment Kara had a bit of hope that Alex would take a hint and leave it at that. A beat and and another and then...

It started again. To Kara’s ears it sounded like there was an extra urgency to the latest rings. She made a face. “I’ll just go get this,” she sighed.

“Sorry,” Cat offered with a sympathetic smile.

“Thanks.” Kara flashed a wan look and hurried away as she toggled her phone on. “Yes?”

“Thought you’d never answer,” Alex complained.

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting any calls,” Kara apologized automatically even as she flinched over doing so.

Alex cut straight to the chase. “I know Mom said to leave you alone today, but this is important.

Kara could hear the sounds of chewing in the background and made a face. Since breaking her arm, her sister had taken to barely leaving her computer, even eating there, her obsession with her nemesis hitting worrisome levels. “Okay,” she sighed. “What’s up?”

I think I’ve figured it out,” Alex said instantly. “I think she’s after this stone, the Eye of Ra. It’s an antique Egyptian carving...was found in some Pharoah’s tomb. It was supposed to have magical powers. There was even some kind of cult that worshiped it in the eighteen-hundreds.

No need to ask who she was. “O-kay,” Kara exhaled uncertainly.

I think all those other gems and stones that have been stolen, they were just distractions...to hide the theft of the Eye of Ra—”

Kara frowned. “But that’s not one of—”

No, it’s what she’s going to steal tonight,” Alex interrupted. “The museum's closed tomorrow and the building will be empty starting at midnight tonight. It's the old history museum, so it barely even has any security. It's the perfect time to take the thing. And I’m sure that's what she's after. I’ve run all the simulations, done the research...

Barely listening, Kara let her brain float for a moment as she noted that this was the fourth time since she’d started playing Nightwing that Alex had claimed she was absolutely certain she knew when and where Catwoman was going to strike and each time Kara had been stuck, bored and tired, waiting for something that never happened.

Which left her trying to decide if she had it in her to stand up to her big sister when she got like this.

“...so you stake out the museum, and when she hits, bang, we’ve got her—

Kara glanced over at the woman sitting near the stream, then past her to the boy sound asleep in the grass. She’d enjoyed the best day she’d had in ages, and she just couldn’t go back to haunting the night like some ghost. At least not yet. “No.” Her voice sounded a little shaky to her own ears as she refused before she really even had a chance to think about it.

What?” Alex didn’t even sound angry, just shocked and maybe a little confused.

“I’m busy tonight.”

Kara, we’ve got a chance to get her. What could be more important than that?

* * * * * *

Trying not to be obvious, Cat brushed a few strands of hair back, then tipped her ear slightly, angling the outer shell to scoop up more sound waves the same way her namesake would. Her hearing was far better than average, but at that distance, with Kara trying to be quiet, she needed all the help she could get and there was no way Kara could see such a small movement at that distance.

Not that she was interested in snooping precisely, but she liked Kara, and something about the way she’d flinched as she went off to answer the phone tugged at the protective side of her that was normally reserved only for Carter. The girl had been good to her son, not just by being a good teacher in a favorite subject, but by looking after him and giving him some faith he could be a part of the normal world. If someone was hurting her...

Well, Cat wouldn’t consider that acceptable.

“Alex...”

A boyfriend with a mean streak? Cat wondered. Kara sounded stressed, maybe even a little frightened. She tightened her jaw muscles, not liking this at all.

“...I know this is important to you, but I’m allowed to have a life too.”

“Damn straight,” Cat muttered under her breath.

“No,” Kara said more firmly. “I’ve done what you said every night this week, and I need some time to myself.” She glanced Cat’s way.

Caught looking, Cat offered what she hoped was a subtly encouraging smile, since she could hardly shout out, ‘Dump the bastard,’ then leaned back again in an effort to appear casual.

“You’ve said that almost every night this week, and it hasn’t exactly gone well,” Kara said, sounding defensive. “Actually I have plans tonight.”

Cat wondered at the tiny surge of disappointment that left her chest feeling slightly hollow as she wondered what plans the other woman might have, or perhaps, more to the point, who she had plans with. “Which is really none of your business,” she reminded herself. Then Kara turned away and wandered into the trees so Cat couldn’t pick up more than a mumbled word or two no matter how she tucked her hair out of the way or angled her ears.

Which was just as well, she reminded herself. After all, the young woman was Carter’s teacher, and while she might feel protective of someone who’d been so good to her son, Kara probably wouldn’t appreciate having a near stranger butt into her personal life, particularly since it sounded like she already got more input than she wanted on that front.

And really, she was in no position to do anything for her anyway.

She just needed to keep telling herself that. A pleasant day spent in each other’s company did not make her responsible for the girl.

The soft snap of a twig a couple of minutes later brought her head up and around. Blonde brows drew into a frown as her gaze swung over to touch on the woman who emerged from the trees. In an instant, sharp eyes picked out a dozen details that made Cat tense and feel protective all over again. Kara was visibly upset, every emotion there for anyone to see to such an extent Cat found herself wondering if Kara Wayne had ever kept anything hidden in her life. “Hey,” she said as the girl drew near. “You okay?”

Kara offered a wan smile in return. “It’s...” she didn’t finish, just shook her head and took a seat on the other boulder.

She was silent for long enough that Cat was wondering if she should say something, ask for an explanation, or offer some comfort. She wasn't very experienced at this sort of thing, at least not anymore.

Finally, Kara straightened her shoulders and peered over at Cat. “There’s this thing tonight and I...I wondering if I could take you and Carter. I think you’d both enjoy it,” she said a little hesitantly, without touching on whatever had upset her.

Cat did such a sudden doubletake it would have been comical under different circumstances. It was literally the last thing she expected. “I...” She snapped her mouth shut as she remembered her plans.

Kara obviously saw the refusal coming because her expression fell. “I’m sorry,” she exhaled. “I shouldn’t have asked. I just thought it would be fun,” she muttered and looked away.

“It’s just that I’ve got this commitment,” Cat fumbled to explain. “It’s not a date or anything...more like work...but... it’s...it’s complicated,” she babbled in a way that wasn’t at all like her, the words coming in barely coherent, stop-start bursts. Communication, she was discovering was harder when it didn’t involve lies, or easily worn masks of threat or seduction.

“Don’t apologize,” Kara said quickly. “I just thought it might be—” Her head was down and there was something a little heartbreaking about her body language, like a kicked puppy. “Dumb idea. I just...um...never mind.”

“I think dinner would be very nice,” Cat said carefully. She deliberately brightened. “And I’m sure Carter would love it. So...maybe another night?”

Kara’s mouth tipped up in a weak smile, but her head stayed down, and her posture remained slumped. She shook her head. “I probably won’t have time and it’s just on tonight and just...forget it.” She leaned forward, elbows braced on her knees. “I shouldn’t have asked anyway.” She heaved sigh and peered at her cell. “Not like I-" She cut that thought off right there, and muttered, "I should probably just call back and tell Alex I'll—”

“Y’know...” Cat couldn’t stand the idea of this lovely, kind, young woman feeling forced into something she obviously didn't want to do--particularly by the mysterious Alex. She shook her head. “I can do tonight’s errand any time.”

Kara didn’t look up, just shook her head. “You don’t have to—”

Cat even startled herself by reaching out to settle her hand over Kara’s. “No, but I’d like to.” She glanced over at Carter, still sleeping peacefully. “You seem like someone who needs a friend right now.” She didn’t mention what she’d overheard, not only because she shouldn’t have been able to hear, but also if the girl had a possessive, asshole boyfriend, she probably didn’t want it known. If there was one thing Cat understood, it was the need for privacy. Kara drew a breath and Cat held up a hand, silencing her before she could get a word out. “I don’t do anything I don’t want to.” Reaching out, she guided Kara’s chin up until their eyes met. “Don’t believe me? Just ask Carter. He’ll confirm it.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Kara whispered raggedly.

Cat looked over at Carter again. “Not sure I agree with that,” she said softly, then swung her gaze back to Kara. “But even if it’s true, I don’t have to owe someone to care about them.” Not that she’d been very good about caring about anyone other than Carter in a very long time, but she thought she could remember the basics.

Kara’s gaze dropped for a long moment before she looked up again, her tone uncertain. “You really want to?” she asked.

Cat laughed softly, the sound low and a bit bitter. “Believe me, I’d rather spend the evening with you than anything else I had planned.”

“But if you were supposed to—”

Cat snorted softly. “Honestly, it’s nothing I can’t do another night...and nothing very important anyway.” It wasn’t like the Eye was carefully guarded. Yeah, it might be a bit easier tonight, but she could bob and weave and avoid the elderly staff anytime she needed. Especially when, for the first time in a very long time something other than Carter felt more important than a contract. “And I think we could both use a night off.”

Kara finally looked up of her own accord, a tentative smile on her lips, a haze of sadness in her eyes. “You have no idea,” she whispered very softly.

Cat drew in a breath and let it out slowly, recognizing too much in the girl’s eyes. She didn’t know what had put that sadness and uncertainty there, but she understood it too well. “If you ever want to talk, I’ll listen, but I won’t ask.” Sometimes it was kinder to leave people their secrets, though if there was some asshole boyfriend, Cat wasn’t averse to beating him to a pulp if given an opportunity.

“I...thank you.” Kara got a wide smile as a reward.

Cat waited for a moment, then leaned back comfortably. She glanced at Kara, noting her nervousness. The girl looked like she could use some space, so she opted to change topics. “So tell me, what’s on the docket tonight?”

Kara sneaked a quick look and a tiny grin made its way across her lips. She thought about it a moment then shook her head. “That would be telling,” she teased.

Cat’s brows shot up, her head tipping to one side as she acknowledged the comment. “Well, you’re going to have to tell me something or it’s going to make showing up very difficult.”

“I’ll drive,” Kara said decisively, then paused as a thought occurred to her. “I suppose I should have asked first, but does Carter like pizza...well, and you too.”

Cat laughed. “Provided there’s pepperoni and no vegetables he would regard as freaky, he’s all in...and I like wider array of toppings, but pepperoni’s good.” She thought about it for a moment. “We will need a little time though. I’ve to get a shower...and a hint as to what to wear.”

“Give me your address, and I’ll pick you up about seven. As for what to wear, dress casual is fine. That sound good?”

Cat nodded. “Indeed it does.”

They shared a grin, both relaxed and happy and ready for a new adventure.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Nine

Pulling into the parking lot of Cat Kyle’s apartment, Kara slipped into a guest parking slot and killed the engine. She was right on schedule, which was actually ten minutes early. She hated being late for anything, but also she wanted an extra moment to get herself settled.

Feeling the rapid race of her heartbeat, she knew she was going to need it. Whatever was happening, it was a little like flying for the first time. She didn’t know what she was doing or how it was going to come out. She just knew she couldn’t imagine doing anything else because the afternoon had been too perfect. While Carter slept, she and Cat had sat and talked about a little bit of everything, all of it light, much of it funny or simply interesting. Cat seemed to find nearly everything fascinating and had at least a working understanding of a list of subjects to rival Kara’s own.

The only thing she didn’t seem to much care about was crime rates and justice. And that was fine by Kara. She got more than enough of that at home.

It had all stayed light and impersonal...

Until Cat asked the one question no one ever asked Kara, “So when did you know you were going to be a teacher?” Not ‘Why teaching?’ with a disbelieving note as though she was throwing away her life, nor, ‘Teaching seems like an odd choice all things considered,’ namely your father’s rich and your mother’s a famous scientist and shouldn’t you be doing something a bit more impressive, but simply “when”. She’d hemmed and hawed, and thought of home, her real one, Krypton, where teaching was one of the most respected life choices a person could make. “All my life,” she’d finally whispered, her throat a little tight as she felt more connected to her home and childhood and all the things her original family had considered important than she had in ages.

And Cat had smiled, not chided or condescended. She’d smiled and even looked impressed. “I envy you,” she’d sighed. “I’ve never really had a clear path in my head...always just floated...wandered...mostly from bad decision to bad decision.” She’d peered at her sleeping son, a kind of longing in her expression that still made Kara’s chest feel tight. “Until Carter. He saved me.” She’d blinked and shaken her head as if throwing off old memories and gone back to the original topic. “As a parent, sometimes you get to see that light in their eyes when they learn something totally new or figure out something that’s buffaloed them. It’s amazing.” Then she’d peered at Kara again. “I’d think a career that includes those moments would be pretty incredible.”

Even hours later, Kara felt her breath catch at the memory. “It is,” she’d whispered. “I mean, it doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does...it’s very special.”

Kara’s heart did a little flip in her chest as she remembered Cat’s answering smile. Then Carter had woken up and stumbled over to lean sleepily against his mom while the conversation moved on to his classes and different teachers at the school.

After that, the kid had caught a second wind when he heard there were surprise plans for the evening. He’d spent the rest of the time trying to pry, trick, and tease it out of Kara until she couldn’t stop laughing at the how far he was willing to go to. Finally, they’d headed out early enough to amble back to their vehicles at a relaxed pace, parting with a solid plan to meet up in the lobby of Cat’s apartment.

And now, here she was. About to go inside and so nervous her chest hurt. “Okay,” Kara told herself. “You can do this.” She checked her makeup in the rear view mirror one more time, then climbed out of her car, a Wayne Motor Car electric—all white with a blue racing stripe. A small four door, it had all the safety features, was green, but still looked reasonably sporty without being ostentatious. It was probably stupid to worry about it, she realized, but she wanted to make the right impression.

* * * * * *

Cat glanced at her watch, then peered over the edge of the balcony, checking the car that had pulled into guest parking a few minutes before. Instinct told her it was Kara, but no one had moved. Finally, a sleek figure slid out and headed toward the front door of the apartment building, her stride long and fast. Kara. No doubt in her mind. Even from that distance, she recognized her body language. “Looks like our pumpkin is here, Prince Charming,” she called to Carter who had actually dressed up a bit in dark slacks, grey loafers and a button down shirt, though it was topped with his favorite hoodie.

He smiled as he saw her. “You look nice, Mom.”

She was wearing a burgundy blouse and a flowing skirt that picked up matching reds amid the scattering of gold and blue shot through the pattern. Medium heeled boots added a bit of height and length to her legs. It was flattering to her figure without being too overt. She'd agonized over the decision and debated three other outfits, at least one of them bordering on dowdy before deciding to just relax and enjoy herself. Grabbing the lightweight, black silk jacket slung over the back of a chair, she shrugged into it, then found her keys and wallet, tucking them into pockets in order to forgo a purse for the night. Her phone dinged and she retrieved it, thumbing it on. A text popped up and she powered the phone down almost instantly.

“Mom?” Carter questioned.

“It’s nothing...just work: a reminder about...a column.” Cat waved the implied question off and offered a bright smile. “Let’s go kiddo.”

He looked a little uncomfortable, but didn’t argue.

They reached the front door just as the intercomm bell rang.

Hi...uh...it’s Kara,” Kara said, her voice a little crackly over the cheap speaker.

“We’re on our way down,” Cat assured her as she thumbed the mic to answer.

It only took a minute or two before the elevator landed on the ground floor and the door slid open.

In that moment, Cat had to fight not to stand there like an idiot as her eyes fell on the woman waiting for them.

Kara was wearing black pants, the cut flattering her height and figure, while a simple blue silk blouse reflected the shimmering blue of her eyes and showed a pleasant vee of flesh over her breastbone. Over the top, a dark suede jacket settled on her shoulders like a second skin. Her hair was gathered to the nape of her neck, then hung loose in untamed curls, while her makeup brought out her eyes and the full curve of her lips.

It seemed to Cat that the girl directed a smile her way that was enough to make the angels weep with jealousy.

Mo-om,” Carter spoke up, the faintly whiny tone reminding her it was probably a good idea to breathe.

“You look...” gorgeous, the word echoed in Cat’s head, but she went with, “...lovely.” She smiled a little nervously as her heart did a rumba beat she didn’t think it even knew anymore.

Ka-ra,” Carter repeated his faintly whiny reminder, this time for his teacher, who stood, utterly transfixed.

Kara swallowed hard and nodded. “Thank you,” she said, nearly stumbling over the words. “You...uh...you look wonderful.” And Cat did. She was sleek and stunning, and Kara could barely breathe. Shaking off the urge to just stand and stare stupidly, she turned her gaze to Carter, her smile softening and changing character as she added, “Both of you do.”

He grinned. “Mom said dress casual meant ‘nice, but comfortable.’” He preened a bit and spun. “Soo...nice but comfortable.”

Sharing a fond look with Cat, Kara nodded. “Perfect...except one thing...” She reached out and ruffled his already messy curls. “Now it’s perfect...a bit rakish and dangerous looking, instead of so staid and reserved.” she teased.

“Hey,” he grumbled. “I had it just right.”

Cat tipped her head to one side. “You can tell the difference?” she asked doubtfully.

The other two just looked at her like a clueless adult.

“It’s a teenager thing,” Carter insisted, while Kara nodded.

“Trust me,” she added. “It’s a totally different look.” She hooked an arm around his shoulders, tugging him along as she started toward her car. “I’m just over in guest parking,” she told Cat with a glance over her shoulder.

The blonde was still staring at Carter with a frown. “His hair is exactly the same,” she said, sounding genuinely mystified. “Curls that do whatever they want...Just like they have since he was five years old.”

Kara chuckled softly. “Trust me, I’ve been teaching long enough to tell the difference between cool and dorkazoid. It’s now cool.” She looked down at Carter. “Trust me,” she repeated.

He frowned ever so slightly. “You sure?”

She nodded.

Carter glanced over his shoulder. “She knows about this stuff, Mom.”

“If you say so,” Cat sighed, comfortably certain any arguments would fall on deaf ears. She trotted a few steps to catch up. Taking a position on her son’s other side, she rested a hand on his shoulder, very aware of the warmth and softness she encountered as her hand brushed Kara’s, though she made a point of not appearing to notice. She peered at her son for a moment, then looked up and met Kara’s gaze over the top of his head. “There is no difference,” she mouthed.

Kara shrugged, her eyes twinkling. “I know.

Brat,” Cat said pointedly, her mouth movements overemphasized to create the equivalent of joking outrage in their strange, silent conversation.

Kara just grinned, then she pointed at her car. “Here we go.” It beeped and the headlights blinked in welcome.

Once they were all in and belted, Carter tried again to wheedle it out of Kara where they were headed, but she just offered an enigmatic smile, pulled out and headed west.

It was nice. They chatted and Carter told several very bad jokes until Kara pulled up to a three story building along the wharf.

“Here we go,” the blonde said as she slid out and waved to the kid at the valet parking desk.

“Um, Kara,” Cat exhaled as she stared at the restaurant. She slid out and addressed Kara over the roof. “We...uh...that’s...” Very, very expensive. Not the sort of thing teachers could afford, no matter how pricey the private education was.

Kara grinned and winked at Carter as he piled out. “Not where we’re headed,” she told them and laughed.

“Are you sure?” Cat demanded. “Because I’m a style columnist. I know what this place costs.” Namely way out of her weekly budget for what she could review on behalf of the paper.

“True,” Kara confirmed, then pointed toward a narrow side door with a sign that read, ‘Employee Entrance.’ “But we’re headed over there.”

“We’re washing dishes in advance of racking up a huge debt by ordering water?”

“Um, Ma’am,” the valet interrupted. “Are you leaving the car, or not?”

Kara handed him the keys and took the card he handed her, then waved Cat and Carter toward the employee entrance with a breezy, “Trust me.”

Mother and son shared an uncertain look, but dutifully followed.

At the door in question, Kara did a shave-and-a-haircut knock, grinning as the door opened a narrow crack.

“Yeah?”

“We’re here for Ready Player One,” Kara told him.

Cat and Carter shared another doubtful look, but didn’t argue, particularly since the man at the door looked to be at least six foot six and built like a body builder.

Thankfully, it turned out he had a beautiful smile as he swung the door wide and stepped out of the way. “Elevator’s through there. Key’s in the panel. Top floor.”

“I’m not sure my son is ready for speakeasies that require passwords,” Cat murmured as she followed Kara into a rough looking freight elevator along with her very wide-eyed son.

Kara couldn’t contain a laugh. “It’s a pop up restaurant a couple of friends run a couple of times a month. Gourmet pizza...and yes, they have the very best pepperoni,” she told Carter who gave a thumbs up, “and also...well...you’ll see.”

“Trendy,” Cat commented. Pop up restaurants were the newest way for young chefs to try and make a name for themselves. Using found spaces or short term rentals, they’d open a restaurant for a night or two in different locations around town, usually with some sort of gourmet specialty or gimmick.

Kara grinned. “I have my moments.”

A moment later the elevator bumped to a halt and they stepped out.

And Cat and Carter both froze, staring in wide eyed wonder.

Kara couldn’t contain a small, triumphant laugh.

They were on the roof and it was decorated with a few bright colored Christmas lights and multi-colored streamers, but the primary illumination came from the arcade games scattered all over the place, some of them classic games from Cat’s youth, others the most modern units, some not even officially available to the public yet. There were tables too, mostly along the low wall that edged the roof so that they were looking out across the water or the pier.

“Whoa,” Carter exhaled.

Kara leaned down. “And it all comes with unlimited tokens.”

Carter whooped with pure joy.

Next to her son, Cat giggled at his expression, while Kara waved to a dark haired young man dressed in overstated cubicle style geekware, complete with pocket protector and band-aid on the nose piece of his oversized glasses. Cat was pretty sure it was just a costume. At least she hoped it was.

“Winn,” Kara called as she settled a hand on Carter’s shoulder. “Set my man here up with the ultimate package.”

“All right!” Winn said happily and grabbed a small canvas ammo bag full of tokens and came running their way. “Just see me anytime you need more,” he told Carter, who looked to his mom.

Cat nodded and offered an approving smile. “Go. Play. But don’t even think of stepping in that elevator.”

“I won’t,” Carter assured, then bounded off.

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on him too,” Winn assured her. “And I’ll call down and let the door guard know to send him back up if he sneaks down.” He pointed toward a far table. “I set you up in the overlook table,” he told Kara. “It’s the best view in the place when they drop the boats...which...” He glanced at his watch. “The first round should start in the next couple of minutes.” He handed Kara a small sack of tokens. “In case you want to play.” He eyed Cat, then swung his gaze back to Kara. “Though I’m guessing probably...y’know...the boats might be better.”

Kara’s cheeks turned pink and she nodded with a mumbled, “Thanks.”

“The boats are really gorgeous,” Winn looked at Cat who was watching the interplay with a raised brow and a hint of a smile. “Everybody says so.” He pointed again to the solitary table that overlooked the ocean from the darkest area of the roof, though a small glass candle holder flickered gently to mark it. “Very romantic.”

“Thank you,” Cat murmured, her smile broadening when he fled. “He’s...um...interesting.”

Kara seriously debated dying of embarrassment only to decide she had too much to live for when a fine-boned hand crept into hers.

“Soo,” Cat exhaled, holding onto Kara’s palm with a light grip. “Boats?”

“Boats,” Kara repeated as she forced herself to breathe. “This way.” Circling around the edge of the various arcade game consoles arranged around the roof, she led Cat over to their table. It was a couple of steps down from the main part of the roof and well away from the rest of the tables. She smiled as she noted the reserved card waiting for them with her name. Clearly Winn and James had ideas. She didn’t mind at all.

The table sat right at the rail and Kara stepped right up to it, pointing out to see at the small rubber raft with an outboard motor. She could see the craft with ease, though she knew it probably wasn’t more than a dim outline for Cat. “See the little raft out there?” she said, pointing to give Cat a clue.

“Uh-huh.” Cat followed the line of Kara’s arm, easily spotting the small rubber raft. A pilot and a second person were fiddling with something.

“They have a bunch of paper boats, lanterns really, with tiny candles in them. They put them out a couple of times a night.”

As if Kara had given a cue, the first candle flared to life, flickering red and gold inside a small folded paper boat that glowed a bright shade of yellow. Settled on the water, it floated away from the raft as another candle was lit and lowered to float on the gentle waves.

The boats were made from brightly colored wax paper in at least a dozen shades, so as the candles were lit the water turned into a flickering rainbow of reflected light.

A few people noticed, but the small crowd was apparently there for the games, so Cat and Kara were mostly left alone as candle after candle was lit and floated.

Cat leaned forward, hands braced on the railing, a hint of a smile on her lips, a fresh sea breeze toying with her hair and teasing her nostrils. She twitched an ear, picked up a happy whoop from Carter and relaxed again. It was so second nature to check on him she didn’t even think about it.

Kara, meanwhile, flicked a quick glance over her shoulder, using her x-ray vision to find Carter where he was lost in some kind of game that let him fly a space fighter, complete with shaking and rolling in combat. Assured he was safe and sound, she turned back to the ocean view, smiling as more floating candles were added. They rolled gently with the tide, but it wasn’t coming yet, so they bobbed along, floating in and out again with the motion of the waves.

“It’s beautiful,” Cat murmured when the raft finally motored away, leaving the lanterns to roll along on their own, their lights glittering on the water like a slow moving field of stars. “Thank you.”

Kara nodded. “You shared something special with me today and I wanted to...” She paused and thought about it, changing what she’d been about to say. “I was going to say, return the favor, but that’s not it. I wanted to share this with someone I thought would actually appreciate it...” Her mouth twisted into a sad smile. The teachers at the school would be working to impress the boss’ daughter, Alex and Bruce would be trying to figure out who the perverts in the crowd were and her mother would be lecturing them on how to behave like normal people in spite of not actually being normal people.

None of them would just be watching the lanterns or quietly enjoying themselves. She was startled when a warm hand landed on hers.

“Well, anytime you need someone to share something beautiful with, Carter and I are available.” She glanced over her shoulder, easily spotting the boy. “If I know him, he’ll be along in a bit. He loves stuff like this, but...well...he is a teenage boy and...unlimited video games...” She shrugged.

“The siren song of teenage boys,” Kara agreed, a soft laugh on her lips, though she was oddly grateful he was off on his own for a bit, leaving them if not precisely alone, then with a bit of privacy.

The breeze kicked up a bit, the temperature noticeably dropping and Cat shivered.

“I should have warned you to wear something warmer,” Kara fretted and shrugged out of her jacket to settle it on shoulders that were slim to the point of delicacy.

“I’m fine,” Cat insisted as she turned to face the other woman. “The silk’s not heavy, but it’s warm, and I don’t want you cold either.” She started to slip the jacket off to return it, but Kara settled her hands on her shoulders, keeping it there.

“I never feel the cold,” Kara explained, then added, “And you’re shivering.” She tugged lightly on the buttery soft suede, shifting it more firmly into place.

Feeling her pulse rush, Cat worried her lower lip between her teeth, intensely aware of the weight of Kara’s hands and the lingering heat of her body that warmed soft leather. “I—”

“Whoa.” Carter suddenly appeared, pointing out at the boats. “That’s so cool.”

Kara lurched back a step, while Cat stared at her son in surprise. “Carter,” she exhaled, then moved over to make room at the railing. She settled a hand on his shoulder to draw him forward. “It’s part of why Kara brought us here tonight...to see this.”

He flashed a quick smile over his shoulder. “Thanks. It’s really pretty,” he said, then turned back to watch the floating paper lanterns.

Kara’s gaze met Cat’s as she answered. “Well, I’m really glad you’re both here to share it with me.”

They were all silent for a long moment, simply taking in the sight.

“You should come sailing with us tomorrow,” the boy announced abruptly.

Kara felt a flush slide over her skin. “You should probably talk to your mom about something like that before asking,” she said carefully. She desperately wanted to spend more time with the woman, but equally desperately never wanted her to feel like she had no choice.

“Mom?” Carter said, sounding confused.

Cat offered him a gentle smile. “I think Kara’s afraid I’ll feel pushed into inviting her.”

He looked more confused and shook his head. “You?” he asked doubtfully.

Chuckling softly, she ruffled his hair and nodded to where Winn was handing out tokens and taking orders. “Why don’t you go let Kara’s friend know they can start our pizza...extra cheese and pepperoni,” she suggested with a smile.

He looked back and forth between the two women, his expression thoughtful.

“Go on,” Cat said firmly and nodded again.

He thought about it a moment, then hurried on his way.

“I’m sorry,” Kara apologized the moment the boy was out of hearing range.

Blonde brows shot to Cat’s hairline. “Why are you apologizing because my son sometimes lacks the social graces?” she asked curiously.

“I just don’t want you to feel like you have to...” Kara trailed off and fell silent.

“If we’re going to keep doing this, you need to have faith that I can’t be pressured into much of anything.” Cat smiled. “Carter knows,” she pointed out. “That’s why he was a bit of a clueless twerp...clearly he and I need to have a serious discussion about manners.” She reached out and tucked a finger under Kara’s chin, guiding her head up. “But I’d love it if you’d come with us tomorrow,” she whispered. “And just so you know, I sent Carter away so that you wouldn’t feel pressured.” She tipped her head to one side. “I think you’re more susceptible to that than I am.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Kara admitted hesitantly.

“I know.” Cat drew in a deep breath and blew it out before starting again. “I’d love to have you join us. I think Carter would have a blast and I truly enjoy your company, but I’m sure you have friends, family, your own list of commitments, and I don’t want you to feel pushed into anything, particularly because of my son.” From what she’d overheard, the girl had more than enough pressure on her. She didn’t want to add more.

“I don’t,” Kara said without pausing to think about it. “Actually, I feel less pressured with you two than anyone else right now.” She didn’t add the word that occurred in that moment—safe. She felt safer with this woman than she had with anyone in a long time.

“I’m glad,” Cat said gently, ignoring her own rush of emotions as she smiled. “I’ve felt pushed before. It’s not something I want to do to anyone else.”

“Thank you,” Kara exhaled, then offered a tentative smile of her own. “So...sailing?”

“We’d love to have you...unless you get seasick easily,” she added on an uncertain note, already considering how she might change plans if need be.

“No. Motion sickness has never been a problem,” Kara said with a quick headshake. “But I’ve never been sailing in my life, so if you’re expecting me to help...” Her headshake was even firmer this time.

Cat shook her head. “Carter and I know what we’re doing. The boat’s just a rental, but we’ve done this for years.”

“Really?”

“Yep.” She eyed Kara for a moment. “It’s the freest you can get without wings.” She slipped an arm through Kara’s, her eyes sparkling as she accepted they were doing this. “I think you’re going to love it.”

“So does this mean Kara’s coming tomorrow?” Carter asked a little hesitantly, his voice coming from nearby shadows.

Kara glanced over and spotted the lights reflected off his pupils in flickers of silver and gold.

“It does,” his mother confirmed as she pivoted and leaned against the railing to peer at her son. Obviously, he’d been listening.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked a second later.

“You are,” she confirmed again, though her tone was surprisingly gentle.

“He didn’t—” Kara started to defend the boy, but Cat held up a hand, silencing her.

“But only a tiny bit of trouble,” Cat assured Carter and waved him forward. “D’you know what you did?” she asked.

He shrugged a little uncertainly. “I should have talked to you before I asked Kara to come with us?”

“That too,” Cat allowed with a wry smile. She leaned down to put herself on her son’s level. “But also, you should have actually asked. You didn’t, you just told her she should come.”

He looked startled, but didn’t argue. “Oh.”

“You need to remember to invite people, not simply tell them what to do. Words like please and phrases like, ‘Would you care to join me?’ are traditional. That way they know you’d enjoy their company, but also that you respect them and it’s their choice.”

He took a moment to think about it. “It’s the same mistake I made before...at the zoo?” he muttered.

Cat nodded.

Carter took in a deep breath and nodded thoughtfully before turning to direct a serious look at Kara. “I’m sorry for being rude,” he said softly, and she was struck by how genuinely regretful he sounded. “I didn’t mean to be, but I didn’t think. Mom’s right, I should have been more considerate of your feelings”

Kara started to assure him it was nothing, but a serious look and faint head shake from Cat made her pause. “Thank you,” she said after a short beat. “I appreciate your apology.”

He nodded and offered a hesitant smile, then looked away, staring out at the boats with an intense look.

To Kara, he seemed a little lost and too uncertain for her comfort. “Hey, Carter,” she said gently.

He looked up, a bit of trepidation reflected in his gaze.

“Everybody makes mistakes. It’s okay. Just try to do better next time,” she assured him. Though she was a little worried Cat might be annoyed, it felt too important to her not to let him know everything was okay between them.

His shoulders sagged and his expression relaxed into one of relief.

“Any chance I can get a hug?” Kara asked, well aware she was asking the mother as much as the son.

Cat nodded her approval while Carter grinned and a moment later Kara found herself wrapped up in a tight hold. When he let go he turned toward his mom, who reached out and pulled him into a hard hug of her own. “I’m so proud of you,” she whispered near his ear, her voice so soft anyone with lesser hearing than Kara probably wouldn’t have caught it.

After that, Carter moved back to the rail, quietly watching the lanterns bobbing on the waves, while Cat wrapped her arms around him from behind, and rested her chin on his shoulder.

From experience, Kara knew that most of her students would have been bristling at that kind of parental contact, especially after a chiding, but she had the sense he needed the tactile reassurance as he leaned into his mom, almost snuggling into her body.

The pizza arrived only a few minutes later, huge, thick and so deeply layered in pepperoni that it was hard to tell there was anything else to it until Carter dug in and moaned with joy. Kara followed a moment later, and even Cat sounded a bit orgasmic as she took a bite.

Like a wildebeest set on by a pride of lions, the pizza never had a chance.

Digging in, they teased and joked, and when the raft returned with more paper boats and candles, turned their chairs around to watch the show until finally the rest of the customers had gone and Winn and his partner started breaking things down.

“Can I play a few more games before we go?” Carter asked hopefully.

“Go on,” Cat said with a wave and a smile. She was pleasantly buzzed from the glass of wine she’d had after dinner. “But no whining if they shut anything down on you.”

He headed off with a nod.

Below them, most of the candles had gone out, but a few still flickered and bobbed in the waves.

Kara leaned back in her chair. “This has been...wonderful,” she sighed happily.

“You do know how to show a girl a good time,” Cat drawled and flicked an ear to track Carter by sound. It was easy enough to do since he was only one left playing and he’d chosen a fairly noisy game.

“I try.”

“Thank you, by the way, for supporting me earlier with Carter.”

“He’s a good kid,” Kara murmured. “But I get that sometimes he needs a little guidance.”

Cat nodded. “That’s a good word for it,” she mused. “Guidance. He’s so used to just me...and we have our own shorthand, but he needs to understand he can’t deal with others the way he does me, so like I said, thank you.” She watched a single boat as it swept in toward shore, then caught a wave and washed out again. “I know part of you wanted to just blow it off and say it was nothing.”

Kara shrugged and didn’t argue. It was true, but she also understood it would have been the wrong approach. She glanced over at Cat, smiling as she took in her profile, neatly silhouetted by a last string of twinkle lights. It wasn’t that she was the most beautiful woman Kara had ever seen. Her bone structure was a bit quirky, her expressions far too mobile for the standards generally held up as some kind of feminine ideal, but the look in her eyes was so damn intelligent, and it was so easy to see that she was always thinking, always curious, always looking for something new to learn, until Kara thought she could spend a lifetime doing nothing but watching this woman’s ever-shifting expressions.

Feeling the gaze studying her so intently, Cat looked over at Kara. “What?” she asked.

“Just enjoying the view,” Kara admitted. The wine didn’t do anything for her, but she thought maybe she was a bit high on sheer happiness.

Cat felt her cheeks heat. “Are you always such a flirt after one glass of wine?” she joked before she could think better of it.

“No,” Kara admitted. “Only after what might be the best day of my life.” Yeah, she was definitely a little high to make a statement like that. Her normal mode was generally more extreme virgin that teasing flirt. She thought maybe she should do some research on Kryptonian endorphins, or whatever it was her body did when caught in a state of utter joy. It had been so long since she’d felt this way, she didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Cat’s breath caught. She wanted to ask what they were doing, but every answer she could imagine was too damn terrifying to contemplate, so she just muttered a slightly stiff, “Best day, huh?”

Kara peered at her. “Yeah,” she exhaled and leaned closer, reaching out to brush a fingertip along the line of the other woman’s knuckles. “I hope it’s been good for you too.”

“It has.” Cat stared at the hand hovering above her own. “It’s the first time in a long time that anyone other than Carter...” She trailed off and fell silent, uncertain exactly what she wanted to say. Finally, she looked up again. “My son is everything to me, and he will always come first.”

“Of course,” Kara agreed, then waited, giving Cat time to work things out in her head.

Finally Cat’s eyes tipped up to meet Kara’s gaze, her pupils reflecting the surrounding lights in a faint silver-green haze. “It’s the best day I’ve had in a very long time.”

Kara couldn’t have held back a smile if her life depended on it. “Okay then.” She felt her heart start to beat again. “I guess that just leaves one question.”

Cat’s brows drew into an uneasy frown.

“What time do I need to be at the docks tomorrow?”

Cat visibly relaxed, her smile reappearing. “Eight AM, slip nineteen.”

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

“You can just drop us at the lobby entrance,” Cat told Kara as she pulled up to her apartment building.

“No,” Kara disagreed. “I’ll make sure you get home safe...and that means all the way to your front door.”

“But then you’re stuck coming down and walking back to your car alone,” Cat argued.

Carter leaned forward between the seats, head swivelling like a viewer at a tennis match as they argued back and forth until they finally negotiated a compromise.

Kara parked in the loading zone, and walked her guests up, making sure Carter got in safe and sound and that the building was quiet, then Cat walked her back down, and kept an eye out from the lobby as Kara returned to her car.

Even though there was nothing the average mugger could to do give her so much as a hangnail, it felt nice to look back and see Cat watching from the lobby, her eyes intense, body language alert, leaving Kara with the unfamiliar sense of having someone ready to protect her if there was trouble. After climbing in and pointedly locking the car doors, she looked at the other woman and mouthed, “Good night.”

Call me when you get home,” Cat mouthed back and mimed holding a phone to her ear.

Go,” Kara responded and pointed toward the elevator. She started the engine but stayed where she was until Cat was aboard the elevator, and the doors closed in her wake. That done, she pulled forward a bit and listened to the elevator as it ascended and creaked to a halt, then picked out the sound of Carter’s voice as he welcomed his mom back inside and closed and locked the door in her wake. Satisfied the other woman was safe, she pulled out and headed home.

* * * * * *

“Did Kara get back to her car okay?” Carter asked once his mom was in and their apartment was locked up again..

“She did,” Cat assured him.

“So you stayed and made sure?”

“I did...and I made her promise to call when she gets home.”

His shoulders relaxed. “It’s just that I’ve seen the stuff in the papers...how the crime rate’s spiked lately and people have been carjacked and mugged and stuff...and...” He trailed off uncertainly. Crime had never really been something he’d thought about or feared. His mother after all, was far more dangerous than any thug out there and she’d always made certain he was well protected. “Kara,” he said very softly at last, “she’s just human.” Which meant she was vulnerable in a way he’d never had to worry about before. “There’s plenty of guys out there who would think she was an easy mark.”

“I know,” Cat murmured, understanding too well. She’d watched every dark corner and been ready to rush to the rescue as she watched the younger woman return to her car. Moving fast, she crossed the livingroom and stepped onto the balcony, easily spotting the white roof of Kara’s car where it was waiting to pull out into traffic.

Her ears twitched, swivelling ever so slightly to scoop up more sound as she tracked the ugly din rampant through the city—sirens, shouts, insults, creaks and crashes the meaning of which she could only guess at. There were a thousand different things that suddenly felt grim and threatening for the young woman alone in the vehicle far below.

The need to protect the girl was in her head, but unspoken until Carter suddenly said, “Go. Make sure she’s okay.”

She didn’t pause for a mental debate—it would be too late if she paused to consider what she was doing—so she just ordered, “Lock up after me.” She tossed her wallet onto the shelf just inside the sliding glass door onto the balcony, she never carried ID when she used the high route, but kept her phone. It wouldn’t do to have Kara call to check in and not be able to answer. The skirt combo wasn’t ideal, but she’d moved high and fast in worse.

“Mom!” Carter called, bringing her back around as she stepped onto the balcony. He tossed her his navy blue hoodie with the instruction, “Keep the hood up to hide your hair.”

She slung it on as she moved. She was still taller than Carter, but he was already broad enough in the chest and shoulders that with the slight stretch of the fabric, it was an easy fit and left her plenty of room to move. As she stepped to the edge of the balcony, she spotted Kara’s car headed south and leapt.

Cat already knew all the security camera positions on her building and the neighboring ones, so she bounded high, picking a route that would avoid being spotted but keep the white sedan in sight.

When Kara pulled to a stop at a red light, Cat landed on an overlooking rooftop to hunt the surrounding sidewalks for warning signs of someone who might try to draw too close in hopes of staging a carjacking.

Nothing.

At the next stop, she growled softly when she saw a biker–big and mean looking–pull up on the driver’s side to make a few lewd suggestions, but Kara ignored him and he didn’t do any more than mouth off a bit.

Lucky for him since Cat entertained a rather pleasant fantasy of putting his face through the window to teach him the value of good manners. Then Kara was moving again, and so was her silent protector, tracking her and bounding from rooftop to rooftop.

The strange dance took about twenty minutes, and ended in an older part of town that had been a main street shopping district and expensive apartments in the twenties and thirties. The narrow streets wended between elderly brick buildings that had mostly been converted to apartments and condos, though some still had ground floor store fronts. Off the main street, apartment buildings from the same era had been gentrified and remodeled and signs of life could be seen on every floor.

At street level, branches from old growth trees overhung the streets, giving Cat some much needed cover since there were very few buildings much over four stories. She smiled ever so slightly as Kara parked on the street. The neighborhood somehow fit the younger woman with its mix of antique buildings, modern amenities, and art deco trim.

Cat landed on the roof of one of the taller buildings across the street. It gave her a good view without putting her at much risk of being spotted, particularly once she hunkered down to become a smaller figure.

As Kara moved to climb out of her car, Cat scanned the surrounding shadows, hunting for anything that didn’t belong.

She spotted a man, tall, broad at the shoulders and moving toward Kara.

She tensed, fingers clawing into brick as she readied herself to leap. If he was out to hurt the girl, she’d rather explain and apologize than call for an ambulance.

“Hey, Jack,” Kara called out before Cat could move, her tone friendly and relaxed. “What’s up?”

“Miss Wayne,” he said as he stepped forward, holding up a kitchen sized garbage bag. “Heard you parking while I was getting my garbage out.” He looked around himself, watching the shadows much the same way Cat did, like someone who’d seen trouble in his past.

Cat froze, sharp ears swivelling toward the deep voice as she hunkered back down. Bright eyes curious, she watched the scene below.

Turning toward the man who edged out of the shadows, Kara offered a smile. “You okay?” she asked, sounding a little worried.

He shrugged. “Yeah, you know me. I do all right.” He looked around before focusing on her again. “But you shouldn’t be out here at night, especially not alone.”

“Why not?”

Again, he looked uneasy. “Some bad folks out these days. I’ve read the papers and seen ‘em moving around and a girl like you? Easy target.”

Which was why Cat was there, though she wasn’t confident of the man’s discernment. He seemed a bit jumpy and scattered, though it was nice to see he cared.

“Ah,” Kara said softly. “I’ll be careful,” she assured him and patted his arm to as she stepped forward. “You too, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said softly and moved along, his posture straight despite the slight shuffle of his footsteps.
As Cat watched, Kara remained on the front step, watching until the old man had dropped off his garbage and headed in with her. Cat almost left, but temptation held her in place for several minutes until the lights in a corner apartment finally came on. Her gaze sharpened as she caught a glimpse of a moving shadow that was all curves and grace. Kara. The silhouetted figure stretched and visibly peeled her jacket off. Even though there was nothing really to be seen, it felt too invasive and Cat leapt, almost flying. It had taken her twenty minutes to get there by following traffic, but getting home meant using the high road. Hopefully, she could beat any phone calls.

* * * * * *

Normally, Kara had to concentrate to fly, but as she stepped inside her apartment, a broad smile curving her lips, the evening still on her mind, it took real effort to keep her feet planted solidly on the ground. Even then she felt more than a little floaty.

The day had been wonderful, the evening even better.

And she still had sailing in the morning to look forward to.

Her smile widened a notch at the thought of an entire day like today, except out on the ocean where her cell phone couldn’t get a signal. It sounded like a little slice of heaven.

Barely resisting the urge to just drift along, Kara peeled off her coat and tossed it over a chair, then kicked off her shoes, relieved to be rid of them. Her feet didn’t precisely hurt, but even she started feeling a certain level of discomfort if she wore heels too long. She had no idea how human women did it.

Shaking her head, Kara stripped the rest of her clothes off and yanked on long t-shirt, then headed back into the kitchen where she grabbed a handful of pretzels before retrieving her phone from her discarded jacket. Another pocket yielded Cat’s business card, though she’d already committed the number to memory.

After peering at the two for a long moment, she drew in a quick breath and blew it out hard, mentally imagining all of her stress blowing out with it.

Yeah, right.

She tried again, felt like something was buzzing in her brain and accepted the excitement wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Then she noticed she was again floating and made herself land. Really, it was embarrassing. She hadn’t made that sort of mistake in years.

Finally, concluding she was as calm as she was going to get, she keyed in Cat’s number and waited. It took enough rings that she was starting to get worried when Cat picked up sounding a little breathless as though she’d had to run for it.

Hi. Kara?

“Yeah, it’s me. Just calling to let you know I’m in safe and sound.” Phone held firm against her ear, Kara flopped down on her bed.

Any trouble?

“Nah,” Kara dismissed, though it warmed something deep inside her to have someone worry about her. “Some weird biker dude tried to pick me up at a stoplight,” she admitted. “He seemed to think You need to be my bitch, bitch was a tempting offer.” She giggled softly.

* * * * * *

“So no temptation to run off and be his old lady?” Cat asked as she fought to keep from audibly gasping into the phone. She’d made it back in record time, managing a balcony landing just before her phone would have gone to voice mail, but she’d pushed herself to the limit to do it. Still struggling to catch her breath, she looked up and smiled as she saw a pajama-clad Carter unlock the balcony doors, his expression questioning. “She’s fine,” she mouthed and made an okay sign with her free hand. “Now off to bed,” she added and made a shooing motion.

He rolled his eyes, but was a little stumbly as he turned back toward his bedroom.

None at all,” Kara said firmly.

A dozen teasing, slightly dangerous feeling responses danced on the tip of Cat’s tongue, but she managed to hold them all back in favor of a relatively demure, “Good to hear. I never have understood the grand appeal of dangerous sorts for some women.” Not entirely true, but part of a past she’d just as soon forget, and not something she’d wish on someone as decent as the younger woman.

Not a problem I’ve ever had,” Kara said agreeably. “I like nice people...good times. So tired of the badass types. They’re too crazy.”

Surprised by the confession, Cat frowned. Being tired of something suggested exposure, but the crazy badass type didn’t seem like Kara at all. Then again, there was the mysterious and controlling Alex, she reminded herself, lip curling into a silent snarl. “That sounds like the voice of experience.” She stared out at the city as if that might answer the question even as her free hand fisted at her side.

Not my own,” Kara admitted. “My big sister, Alex.” She snorted softly. “She’s a mess, not that it stops her from telling me what to do all the time.

So that was the mystery caller. Cat found herself rather pleased and she grinned happily. “Sympathies. No siblings, but I’ve dealt with a few controlling types in my life. It can be hard.”

Kara was silent for a long moment, then finally she sighed, “She means well and mostly she’s actually pretty great. She’s just having a hard time right now, which makes her even pushier and more determined to run my life.

Cat was relieved to hear a note of genuine affection in Kara’s voice. Having a lousy family wasn’t a fate she’d wish on the younger woman. “Hopefully you’ll work it out.”

We will,” Kara assured her, then added, “We always do.

Cat did a slow stretch. As tempting as it was to keep talking, the day was catching up with her and she had an early morning ahead. She barely smothered a yawn, then drew a breath to beg off.

I should probably let you go to bed, huh?” Kara said as if she’d heard the yawn.

“And head there yourself,” Cat pointed out. “Tomorrow starts early.”

Is there anything I should bring?” Kara asked.

“Some rubber soled shoes and your own sweet self,” Cat assured her. “I’ve already got lunch ready and I carry a good, waterproof sunblock. It’s too cold to swim, so you don’t need a bathing suit...” Which was too bad, Cat mused, a delicate shiver sliding down her spine at the thought of Kara in a bikini. “You might want to bring a light jacket. Sometimes it can get cold out on the water.”

So just rubber soled shoes and a jacket?” Kara asked too sweetly. “I wouldn’t think you’d want that around Carter.

It took Cat an extra moment to get the joke. “Some loose, lightweight clothes would probably also be a good plan. Something you don't mind getting wet,” she muttered, though she didn’t entirely mind the image that popped into her head.

Kara giggled right on cue. “Okay, see you tomorrow.”

“Brat,” Cat shot back.

Kara giggled even harder. “‘Night.

“G’night.” Cat clicked off her phone. She stared at it for a long moment before finally slipping it into a pocket and heading inside.

* * * * * *

Flopped out on her bed, Kara lay staring at the ceiling, mouth curved into a drowsy smile, Cat’s gentle teasing replaying in her ear. She was still debating what time to set her alarm clock for when her phone chirped at her. “Hi, Alex. What do you need?” she asked as she keyed it on, her tone sharper than intended. She took a deep breath and mentally braced herself for the expected demands that she go out patrolling complete with guilt trip if she didn’t immediately just leap into the air in full Nightwing glory.

There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line, then Alex spoke a little hesitantly. “I was just calling to see how you’re doing...y’know, how your day went.” She paused for a moment, then added, “And possibly also sort of apologize for being kind of a jackass earlier.”

“Really?” Kara asked doubtfully. Apologies weren’t generally Alex’s strong suit.

Yeah,” Alex sighed. “I know I was kind of a jerk,” she confessed. “You have a right to your own life...and I haven’t been very nice about that lately.”

“Thank you,” Kara whispered.

It would’ve been a waste of time if Nightwing had gone out anyway. I used one of the quad copters to monitor outside the museum and hacked their security camera inside. Catwoman never showed and the Eye of Ra is sitting safe and sound in its display case.” She sounded disappointed.

Kara rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked seriously. “Maybe she’s given up.”

I doubt it,” Alex hissed, the undercurrent of rage in her voice leaving Kara faintly mystified. “I just screwed up something up in my research...made a bad prediction.” She was silent for a long moment. Only Alex could make silence seem so aggressive. “I’ll figure it out though.”

Kara brow creased with a worried frown. She really was overdoing it. “Y’know, Alex, I’m gonna take tomorrow off and—”

So we lose another day?” her sister snapped.

“Yeah,” Kara shot back. “And you might lose tomorrow night too.” If Cat asked, she was pretty sure she’d go, whatever it was, and Alex’s obsession with Catwoman wasn’t likely to stop her.

Do you care at all about what we’re doing?” Alex demanded after a moment of outraged silence.

“That’s not fair.” Kara fought a rush of resentment and consciously relaxed her hand before she broke her phone. “I’ve done everything you wanted for the last week...and chances are I’ll do everything you want next week, but I just...I need some time away...with normal people...and y’know maybe you should do the same thing. When was the last time you left the house and saw a movie or something.”

Why would I want to go to some idiot movie? Real life, a little more important, doncha think?

“Yeah, I do,” Kara agreed, her temper rising as she felt her mellow mood slip away. “Which is why I need to have one, but it’s not like that matters to you...because...Catwoman,” she accused her sister. “God forbid anything else happen in anyone's life. I mean, I met someone today and I...” She shook her sharply, almost but not quite ready to simply hang up on Alex. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand.” Or care, was the clear subtext

The dead silence that followed felt a hell of a lot like confirmation.

“I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if I’m available,” Kara grumbled after a long moment.

Kara, wait,” Alex finally spoke up, a touch of panic in her voice. “Don’t...don’t hang up.”

Kara froze, expression set as she waited.

I care, I do,” Alex said very softly, her voice thicker than normal. “And I’m sorry if I...I’m sorry,” she said again and paused to drag in an audible breath. “You met someone?” she asked and for the first time in awhile, sounded like she was actually listening.

“Yeah,” Kara exhaled, but didn’t continue. As much as she loved Alex and wanted to trust her, it didn’t feel safe. Lately the only thing her sister seemed to care about was catching the thief and Kara wasn’t ready to have her emotions turned into a part of that quest.

“I...who...what...” Alex bumbled for a moment. “Is it anyone the family knows?”

“No,” Kara said without elaborating.

Another long moment of uncomfortable silence followed until Alex made another attempt to break the ice. “Well, just be careful,” she advised.

“Of what?”

Bruce is a billionaire,” Alex reminded her. “You're his adopted daughter. People will try to use you—”

The words felt like actual blows aimed at Kara’s insecurities. “Right, because who’d want to spend time with the mousy schoolteacher if there wasn’t a payoff in it?” she nearly shouted.

I didn’t mean—”

“Just for the record,” Kara continued without losing a beat, her voice still loud enough to let her talk over her sister, “she doesn’t know who I am, and was actually worried I could get fired or couldn’t afford to take her out on my salary.”

Are you sure bec—”

“Yes, Alex, I’m sure. Not everyone is a criminal. Sheez, what are you gonna do next, accuse her of being Catwoman?” Kara snorted disgustedly. “Have you completely lost your mind and forgotten there are actual nice people in the world? People who do things like spend a Saturday at the zoo and picnicking with their kid...and who are kind enough to invite someone along just to be nice...because they look like they could use some company...” Her emotional energy spent, Kara trailed to a halt, closer to tears than she had been in ages. She shook her head and blinked to clear her vision. “And honestly, I needed that...so much...and she was so kind...”

I-I get that,” Alex stammered after a beat. She drew in a shaky breath. “Obviously, I’ve screwed up...really badly.” The nervous admission was punctuated by a tiny, bitter laugh. She audibly dragged in another rough breath. “And I am so sorry if I’ve said anything to make you feel like I think someone would only want to be with you for the money, because that is so far from the truth I can’t even... I just worry. You see the best in people and I never want anyone to take advantage of that.” She was silent for another long moment. “But maybe you’re right...maybe I lose track of the fact there are good people, get too suspicious...of everyone,” she confessed. “And I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you because of that.”

“It’s just that lately, it’s like you’ve been wallowing in the ugliest part of everything, and I can’t...I can’t be like that. It’ll destroy me.”

I’m sorry,” Alex apologized again, then was silent for a long moment before adding, “I know I’ve been a little difficult since this whole Catwoman thing came up...

“Why?” Kara whispered, her temper back under control enough to let her hear the pain in her sister’s voice. “I’ve seen you wound up when you were hunting someone before, but never like this. It’s like you’re out for blood—”

I am,” Alex hissed with such venom that Kara was taken aback.

“W-why?” she repeated.

Alex was dead silent for a long moment. Kara couldn’t even hear her breathing.

She tried to kill Bruce,” Alex said at last, her voice utterly devoid of emotion as though the only way she could get the words out was by completely locking down any feelings. “The night you landed. The night Joker blew himself up.”

Kara flinched. So much change in that one night. For all of them. “I don’t understand.” She’d never heard anything like that. Alfred had been very pointed, if not precisely clear and detailed, that there were debts owed, and while Eliza hadn’t been as positive, she hadn’t shown any anger either. “That’s not—”

Don’t,” Alex snarled, followed by a slightly calmer plea. “Just don’t.

“Okay.” Kara just waited. It was the best way to deal with Alex when she got like this.

They don’t believe me,” Alex said at last, her tone so tight Kara could almost hear the creak of muscles that were undoubtedly rigid with tension. “Mom and Alfred, they think I imagined it, but I was the only one of us who was in there...actually in the warehouse. I’m the only one who saw everything...”

Kara didn’t even consider arguing, just exhaled, “All right,” her tone as neutral as she knew how to make it.

You don’t believe me either.” Bitter barely began to describe Alex’s tone.

“I don’t know that I believe anything in particular,” Kara admitted. “I wasn’t there and nobody’s ever really told me what happened. I know there was a fire and people died, that Catwoman was involved, but when Clark brought me to live with you Bruce was just out of the hospital after what Joker did and—” And nobody had wanted to talk about what had put him there.

No!” Alex snapped, then added more calmly, “It was her. I saw them fighting. She was trying to kill him...and when she realized I was there, she grabbed me, and used me as a shield so she could escape.

“But they said she rescued you, then pulled him out of the fire—”

After she’d beaten him half to death. Probably thought he wouldn’t survive,” Alex argued. “She must have figured it would buy her freedom...and it did. They let her get away when the cops came.

“Why bother?” Kara whispered in confusion. “There’s no way Alfred or Eliza could have stopped her.”

Yeah, but they didn’t send anyone after her.”

“She was still a wanted criminal,” Kara said softly. “It’s not like she was pardoned.”

Look, I don’t know her motives. I just know what happened...and I know she tried to kill Bruce. I know,” Alex repeated with added emphasis. “I saw it.”

“Did you ever ask Bruce about it?” Kara asked after some thought.

Alex was silent for a long moment. “No,” she growled at last. “He never talks about that night. I don’t know if he even remembers it...and I’m not asking.” The subtext that she wouldn’t risk hurting him like that was clear.

“Okay.” Not knowing what else to say, Kara fell silent.

She’s dangerous,” Alex said when the quiet extended too long. “To this family and everyone and everything we care about. I know what it’s like to have a family member taken away from you. When my dad was murdered, we lost everything. I won’t let that happen again.”

“I know.” Kara blinked away a few more tears. Sometimes she forgot some of the things Alex had seen in her life. “And that’s awful...but Alex, you can’t let it make you crazy.”

Would it feel so crazy if it was the woman you met today who was threatened?” Alex shot back. “Or maybe her kid...because that’s what she did to Bruce that night, threatened me...maybe even mom and Alfred. Maybe that’s why she dragged me out to them, so he’d know he couldn’t get to us in time...that she could do any damn thing she wanted.

A chill slid down Kara’s spine and she sat bolt upright. Even knowing Alex was being paranoid, her breath caught and a hard shudder shook her. Eyes tightly shut, she whispered, “We’ll protect them, Alex. If anyone comes after our family...friends...anyone, we’ll find a way to keep them safe. That’s what we do.”

Right,” Alex whispered. She paused for a long moment. “We’ll protect them from her.

“We will.”

Both sisters went silent, some unspoken agreement brokered in the spaces between their words.

Finally Alex cleared her throat. “Sooo...met someone, huh?” She managed a light teasing note though it was obvious it took effort.

Kara accepted the olive branch. “Yeah. Her son’s one of my students.” Alex’s gentled tone left her feeling comfortable enough to say more than she had before.

Serious?

“Not right now,” Kara admitted, though a part of her desperately wanted to say yes. “But it feels like it could be.”

Well, just so you know, I’m still your big sister, so that means if she breaks your heart I have the responsibility to punch her in the face...or at least be really rude.”

Kara giggled and even if it wasn’t the joyful sound she sometimes made, it was a lot more relaxed. “She’s raising a teenager right now, so...”

In which case that won't scare her.” Alex snorted. She didn’t say anything else for a long moment, then finally she whispered, “Are we okay?

“Of course,” Kara assured her. “You’re my sister. I love you no matter what...even if you need a kick in the ass sometimes.”

Alex released a nearly inaudible chuckle. “I love you too.”

After that there were a few more carefully light comments, then they said their good nights, and both hung up. Things weren’t perfect, but they were better.

Clicking off her phone, Kara flopped back on her mattress to stare at the ceiling. Despite coming to a measure of peace with Alex, her sister’s paranoia had left her caught in her own fear of loss and trauma. She wanted to call Cat and check on her, but that would be silly. “They’re fine,” she muttered in the darkness and tried to calm herself and go to sleep.

Forty-five minutes later, she gave up, yanked on the Nightwing costume and flew.

* * * * * *

Kara checked on Cat and Carter first. Floating above their building and using her x-ray vision to spot them both, deep asleep in identical positions, tightly curled on the middle of their beds. There was no one else moving anywhere near their apartment, barely anyone awake in the entire complex.

She flew on, making a swift pass over downtown, then the university and several of the more problematic neighborhoods.

Things were surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night. Oh, there were partiers out, but other than a few drunken arguments and some mildly loutish behavior, the crowds seemed to be pretty cheerful everywhere she went.

Which was all good as far as Kara was concerned. Unlike Alex, who always seemed both disappointed and suspicious if things were “too quiet”, she was always thrilled when she didn’t find any trouble worth worrying about.
Gotham was peaceful, at least for the night. Her tensions eased, she flew a different route back to Cat’s place, wanting to check on things one last time before she headed home. Things along that path were just as uneventful as they had been elsewhere.

Finally, she hovered above Cat’s building, senses alert as she spotted a figure crouched on the balcony.

Just Cat she quickly realized, and felt her heartrate normalize again.

She was tucked into a niche on one end of the overhang where a privacy wall extended several feet from the divider that separated Cat’s balcony from the next one over. It made for a small platform where a person could sit and look out over the city but be safe from any risk of falling. She was sitting in the narrow space, one arm resting on her folded knees, the other holding up her cell phone.

Kara didn’t mean to, but she read the text onscreen before she could stop herself.

Don’t forget, you have a job to finish.

Apparently Barbara Gordon, Cat’s boss at the paper, was even more brusque by text than she was in person.

Cat clicked the phone off and dropped it into a pocket as she turned to stare out at the city.

She looked tired and depressed to Kara’s eyes, and she found herself wanting to fly down and ask why, especially since she’d seemed so relaxed and happy earlier.

Which was a crazy impulse at best given she was flying and wearing a superhero costume. The poor woman would probably start by screaming, then move to running inside, locking the door and calling 911, though fainting was also a possibility she supposed. Then again, Cat didn't really seem like a fainter.

Still, it wouldn’t be fun either way.

Heaving a soft sigh, she turned to fly away only to freeze as she heard the sound of a sliding glass door followed by Carter’s voice, low and a little muzzy with sleep.

“Nightmares?” he asked.

Kara turned back.

“It’s nothing.”

“But—”

“Carter, I’m fine.” Cat leaned her cheek on her folded knees as she peered at her son.

Brows drawn into a worried frown, Kara floated closer, though she was careful to stay well above them and keep the dark sky behind her.

“You sure?” the boy asked.

“Yep.”

Carter was silent for a long moment. Finally he stepped closer to his mother and reached out to brush a hand down her arm. “Isn’t that Kara’s jacket?”

“Mmhm,” Cat mumbled. “I forgot to return it when she dropped us off,” she whispered and to Kara’s eyes seemed to almost snuggle into the soft leather as she pulled it more tightly around herself.

“It smells like her,” Carter pointed out, head tipping to one side as he studied his mother.

Cat shrugged and rubbed the collar between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s warm.”

Kara remembered Cat’s comments that she and Carter had their own shorthand, and she had a sense she was hearing a version of it as she listened to their conversation.

Carter stepped forward, hands braced on the balcony railing as he stared out at the city. “It’s quieter tonight.”

“Mhm.”

“Mom?”

“Hm?”

“Do you like Miss Wayne...Kara?” Carter asked.

“I do,” Cat said, sounding a bit quizzical. “That’s why I invited her to come with us tomorrow.”

“No, I mean...” Carter trailed off and turned toward her, his brow drawing into a frown. “I mean...like like her.”

As someone who dealt with teens on a daily basis, Kara understood his question immediately. Cat’s body language, on the other hand, suggested she was very confused.

“I...”

Carter stared at his mother, head tipped to one side. He must have made some kind of face because Cat suddenly perked up and mimicked his head-tipped pose.

“Oh,” she exhaled sharply. Apparently she’d figured it out. “I...” She heaved a sigh. “That’s not really something you should worry about.” A hint of a breeze blew through and she flipped up the collar on the borrowed jacket, rubbing her cheek against the buttery soft suede as she snuggled in deeper.

“But Kara doesn’t seem like she’d care about anything but how she felt about someone...and I saw how she was with you.”

“Carter, we’ve only known each other a day,” Cat reminded him, her tone gentle.

“I know,” he sighed. “I just thought maybe...” He shrugged. “She’s smart and she likes you...and then you wouldn’t so...so alone.”

Suddenly Kara thought she understood a little better. He wasn’t just trying to set his mom up with someone he liked, but maybe making sure she understood he was okay with her wanting to be with a woman.

“I’m not alone, kiddo. I have you.”

“No, I mean...”

The boy didn’t finish, but Kara knew Cat understood what he was trying to say by the way she stiffened, her shoulders suddenly rigid with tension.

“That’s not something you need to worry about,” she said crisply.

“I know,” he admitted, chin dropping to his chest. “I just thought it would help.”

Cat sighed, shoulders sagging. “It’s nowhere near that simple.”

He tried to hide a yawn, but couldn’t smother it in time.

“And with that you need to head back to bed,” Cat said firmly.

“But—”

“Bed,” Cat ordered. “Tomorrow will be a long day.” She reached out, pulling him into a firm hug when he stepped close. “It’ll be all right,” she promised, her voice little more than a whisper, so soft Kara just barely heard it even with super hearing. “Now off to bed with you,” she said as he stepped back.

“You should get some sleep too,” he reminded her.

“Soon.”

He stumbled back inside and she watched until his bedroom door clicked shut, then settled her cheek back on her knees, this time aimed so she was staring out at the city.

Floating above her, Kara was again painfully tempted to fly down and try and talk, and again her fears held her back. Cat and Carter were so real, she couldn’t imagine how they’d deal with a superhero alien who could fly. She wasn’t even sure how she could ever ask the question.

That thought on her mind, she stayed there for several minutes, almost standing guard as she listened to Cat’s breathing slow and relax.

Finally, she shook off her fears. She’d already stayed far longer than she should have, she mentally chastised herself. She’d overstepped in eavesdropping on a private discussion that was none of her business even if she had been the topic of it. A regretful sigh on her lips, she turned toward home. “You’ll be okay,” she promised the woman dozing on the balcony below, her voice little more than a husky whisper.

Then with no more than a thought, she soared away.

* * * * * *

Cat snapped her head up, ears perking, suddenly alert as she peered around herself, brows drawing into a frown. She could have sworn she’d heard...

No, not possible. She shook off the thought and snuggled deeper into Kara’s jacket, the soft scent of the younger woman swirling around her, the odor a spicy undercurrent hidden beneath the faint clinging tang of a floral perfume. She rubbed her cheek against the velvety surface of the suede collar as she slowly settled in again. In minutes, she relaxed, a soft rumble bubbling up from low in a her throat in a steady rhythm that matched her slow breathing.

* * * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Eleven

Smiling brightly and energized by the morning sun, Kara stepped onto the expansive private boat dock where was due, peered around and found herself at a complete loss as to where to go. “Excuse me,” she spoke to a passing fisherman, judging by the gear he was carrying, “can you tell me where slip nineteen is?”

He grunted something incomprehensible, just barely nodded and rolled his shoulder off to the left and continued on his way without slowing down.

“Thanks,” Kara called to his back.

If he responded, it was with no more than another grunt.

“For being absolutely no help whatsoever,” she added under her breath and turned to study her surroundings. The walkways to the boat slips seemed to stretch out in all directions as they wended through a virtual forest of tall masts that gave zero clues as to identities. If there were any signs giving directions or slip numbers, she didn’t see them. She was still musing on the problem when she heard a happy shout.

“Kara!”

She spun to her right, grinning as she saw Carter trotting toward her in white painter’s pants, a dayglo yellow windbreaker and flip flops. He waved his arm in a wide welcome.

“Oh, thank god,” she said with a relieved smile.

He nodded. “Mom said you’d probably have a hard time finding the boat.”

“And the one person I saw to ask wasn’t much help.”

Carter peered after the fisherman. “Him?”

Kara nodded.

“That’s Charlie... Well, that’s what we call him, dunno his name, and he’s not big on conversation.” The boy shrugged, then grabbed her hand, dragging her along at a fast walk as he gave her a running monologue on how to find things on the dock, where the amenities were, and which people to avoid as he wended this way and that along the criss cross of floating walkways.

As confusing as it was, Carter seemed to know exactly where he was headed , so Kara just followed along until finally they pulled up to the last slip in a long row where a sailboat was tied up and bobbing gently. Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty feet long, it was mostly white with blue trim on the deck and a blue stripe just above the water line. There was a small cabin and at the rear, a deep depression with seats on both sides and a large outboard motor.

“She’s called Wind Dancer,” Carter informed her. “We’ve taken her out before. She’s pretty slick.”

Cat poked her head out of the cabin. “Oh, good, Carter found you.” Smiling, she stepped up into the seating area.

Kara wasn’t sure she could have looked away if her life depended on it.

The blonde was wearing faded jeans that clung to every curve, and showed tantalizing bits of flesh where they’d worn through at the knee. Her feet were bare, the design on her t-shirt nearly nonexistent, and the ball cap she wore snowy white. As she stepped into the sun she grabbed the sunglasses hooked at the collar of her shirt and slipped them on.

“Thanks for sending him,” Kara finally managed to stammer. “I was so lost I was starting to have nightmares of the Donner party happening at sea...or rather...at dock,” she added with a wry smile.

“Nah, you’d have found the snack bar eventually.” Cat stepped onto the nearest of the benches that sat along hull, putting her only a foot or so below Kara. “Toss your bag over.” She gestured to the small duffle slung over Kara’s shoulder.

“It’s not heavy, I can—”

“Toss,” Cat instructed in what Kara recognized as her in-charge voice.

Kara tossed. It was light. Nothing but her wallet and phone, a few spare clothes and some of Alfred’s chocolate chip cookies.

Cat caught it easily and set it aside. “Carter, steady Kara from the dock,” she instructed her son.

“Really, I’m—”

“The dock’s floating, the boat’s floating, negotiating between the two can be a little disorienting the first time you do it,” Cat said and held out her hand. “I followed orders last night. Now it’s your turn.”

Kara glanced back at Carter who nodded and held onto her hand. “She’s right. It can get a little squirrelly if you aren’t used to it.”

“If you say so.” Kara held up her free hand in surrender, then reached across to catch the hand Cat held out. As she wrapped her fingers around the smaller woman’s palm, she was struck by how warm and soft her skin was. Then, with Cat’s guidance and Carter steadying her from behind, she stepped across the space onto the boat, and even though she could fly, and wasn’t going to fall, she suddenly appreciated their point. There was a moment when she had a foot on each surface that was very weird. The boat and the dock were bouncing on the same waves, but not quite in sync and she had to depress the urge to float a little to deal with the incongruity. Instead, she leaned more heavily on the hand wrapped around her own and found herself oddly grateful for the other woman’s strength and steadiness as she stepped across the open space.

Cat apparently saw her reaction because she grinned. “Toldya.”

Her equilibrium still a little off, Kara nodded and hopped down. She found herself rather glad Cat didn’t immediately let go, and not just because she liked the feel of the other woman’s hand wrapped around her own.

Laughing softly, Carter bounded across to land on the deck, then kicked off his flip flops and tossed them inside the cabin.

“Why don’t you go grab the life vests,” Cat told Carter as she stepped down into the well between the benches. She kept her hand on Kara’s, steadying her as she did likewise. “So do you know anything about sailing?”

“Not a thing. If that’s—”

“Not a problem. We’ll teach you what you need to know,” Cat assured her.

Letting go of Kara’s hand, she stepped forward and reached up to rest her hand on a horizontal pole that was attached to the mast on one end and lashed to the rear of the boat on the other. Some kind of stiff fabric that Kara assumed was a sail was folded and tied down all along the length of it.

“This, however, is important,” Cat said seriously. “This is the boom, and that end is free floating when we’re sailing.” She pointed toward where it was tied at the rear of the boat. Then mimed a pivoting motion with her forearm. “If I call, ‘Coming about,’ it’s going to swing and swing hard, and you’re tall enough that it’ll crack your skull, so—”

“Get my head down?” Kara asked, though she was more worried about the questions that would be asked when the boom broke instead of her.

“Precisely.” Cat smiled. “Past that, stay close to Carter or I and do what we tell you.” She patted Kara’s shoulder, worried she might be a bit nervous. “We’ll keep you safe,” she promised.

Kara’s mouth turned up in a wide smile. She had total faith. “I know.”

Then Carter returned wearing a harness that looked like slightly bulkier than normal backpack straps and belted at the waist. He handed a couple of similar harnesses to his mother.

Cat slung one over her shoulder and guided Kara into the other. The backpack like straps were actually a single piece that went up her chest, around behind her neck then back down again. They attached to the belt in front, while a vee of nylon straps tied the neck portion to the belt in back.

“This is a Mae West style life vest,” Cat explained as she helped settle the harness and buckle Kara in. “If you fall in,” she patted the chest straps lightly, “this is an air bladder that will autoinflate and keep you floating. Shout and I will get to you.” She patted Kara’s upper chest lightly. “You’ll be okay.”

“I trust you,” Kara assured her. She glanced back, quickly spotting Carter where he sat nearby and added. “Both of you.”

He grinned.

“Well, we’ll do our best.” Feeling her cheeks heat, Cat kept her gaze focused on what she was doing as she guided Kara to turn around so she could adjust the straps in the back. “Any questions?” she asked when she finally stepped back.

Kara shrugged. “Can’t think of any,” she admitted, "though it's possible I don’t know enough to know what to ask, so I’m completely in your hands.”

Cat opened her to mouth to respond, thought better of it and shook her head, a teasing smile playing about her lips. “Then I think we’re ready to get under way.” She threw a mock salute at Carter. “Cast off, first mate,” she ordered, her tone making it clear it was a running joke between them.

A few minutes later, they were moving out past the breakwater, driven by the outboard motor under Cat’s control. Carter, meanwhile, was hurrying this way and that, clearly seeing to assorted preparations with the confidence of someone familiar with his job.

Which left Kara free to watch and learn. Sitting next to Cat, a smile on her face, she listened to the older woman explain terms and concepts. She learned, for instance, that the area where they were seated was called the cockpit, and the cloth attached to the boom was the mainsail, while another sail would be raised forward of that called the jib. Starboard and port meant right and left, but only in relation to the stern, aka the rear of the boat.

Tacking, or coming about was...well...that one was a bit confusing, but she got that it was a way of keeping the boat moving in roughly the right direction by zig-zagging back and forth.

Finally Cat stood and looked around them with a bright, excited expression. “You ready to fly?” she asked when she looked back to Kara.

“Sounds wonderful.”

Then Cat and Carter were both moving, adjusting ropes, which they called ‘sheets’ and preparing to raise the sails.

“This is the tiller,” Cat explained to Kara as she rocked a vertical bar at the stern down into a horizontal position. “It’s attached to the rudder.” She reached back and rocked another section down into the water. “And it’s how you steer the boat.”

Panic glittered in Kara’s eyes for a moment as Cat guided her hand down to settle it on the wooden bar. “I-I don’t—”

“Just hold it steady,” Cat instructed with a reassuring smile. She looked up, checking the windsock on the top of the mast. “That’s it,” she said as she adjusted the position a bit. “Right there. I could do it, but this will make things go faster.”

“Okay.” Kara swallowed hard, careful to keep things exactly the way Cat told her to.

“You’ll feel a bit of pull as the sail goes up. Just hold it steady.” She grinned and called out, “Hoisting the mainsail.” Then she started pulling on the line, hand over hand, the muscles in her back and shoulders working smoothly as she ran the sail up the mast.

Kara didn’t mind the sight at all—Cat was delicately boned, but with definite curves and runs of muscle. As she watched, the sight was distracting enough that she was rather proud that she remembered her task.

Then the sail was up and Kara felt a slight pull under her hand. The sail still hung loose, so it wasn’t much, but enough to give her a sense of cause and effect.

Cat adjusted several ropes, her hands quick and efficient, then pivoted and called to Carter, “Hoist the jib.”

The boy quickly loosened a rope and immediately began hauling the smaller foresail up with the same rapid burst, hand over hand motion his mother had used.

As she watched, it struck Kara that for his age, he possessed an impressively wiry muscularity.

While the boy tied off the line, Cat made a few adjustments, then rejoined Kara, who was relieved to surrender the helm.

“Tied off,” Carter called, then scrambled down into the cockpit. “Kara,” he called out. “Brace yourself. We may start heeling.”

She blinked in confusion.

“We might tilt a little as the sails fill,” the boy explained.

“He’s right.” Cat brushed a hand down Kara’s back to get her attention. “Brace your feet the way I have,” she instructed.

The response wasn’t instant, but Kara felt the boat turn a bit and heard the pitch of the wind shift, then the sails seemed to almost rattle and groan as they caught more wind and billowed out under the growing pressure. Then they started to angle over and the rush of water along the hull gained in intensity and volume. As the boat began to tilt, Kara was grateful they were on the high side even though the change in angle was only a few degrees.

And suddenly, before she quite knew what was happening, they were flying.

Tipping her head back, Kara felt salt spray on her face and the wind in her hair and she laughed for the pure joy of life.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Cat said.

Held in thrall, Kara could only nod.

Leaning back, her hand firm on the tiller, Cat gave her time while Kara just looked this way and that, getting a feel for their speed and pitch, and carefully studying how the ropes and sails worked. It had all seemed like the makings of a magic trick when they were motoring out of the marina, but suddenly it all made sense. She could see the way it all tied together. Like flying for the first time, it just took time to process it all and get a feel for the experience.

But it was utterly wonderful.

“You probably think I’m an idiot,” she admitted when she finally spoke. She flashed a quick glance over her shoulder at Cat.

“Not a bit,” the other woman assured her, her body language relaxed, almost languid as though she understood the need to step back and assess unfamiliar surroundings.

“Nope,” Carter agreed, then asked his mom, “Can I go up to the pulpit?”

She nodded, but added, “Be careful.”

He rolled his eyes, but grinned as he hopped up onto the deck and scampered forward to the V-shaped metal railing at the bow of the boat. Once there, he plopped down, legs dangling over side, his arms looped over the railing.

As she turned to peer at Cat again, Kara found herself fascinated. There was something almost otherworldly about the look in green eyes, until she could almost have believed she was no more a denizen of this world than Kara herself. Humans, in her experience, simply were not so relaxed and comfortable in their own skin. Or maybe that was just her family, she mused.

“He loves that spot.” Cat said, wearing an idle sort of smile, clearly relaxed and comfortable and happy enough for Kara to be likewise. “Rides up there by the hour sometimes, head in the clouds the whole time.”

Remembering her own childhood travels with her father as he’d made diplomatic visits across their galaxy, Kara grinned. She’d loved those moments, watching the stars whip by. It had given her a chance to see the universe from an all new vantage point and imagine a thousand different adventures. She suspected it wasn’t so different for boy even if it was more earthbound. “I envy him,” she admitted, her voice so soft she wasn’t sure Cat could have heard her. “I wish I could be that young again,” she sighed.

“Don’t we all.” Cat was silent for a beat, then she leaned forward and tapped Kara’s shoulder lightly, bringing her head around until their eyes met. “But here’s the thing, sometimes if you just let go and see the world through his eyes, you are that young.” She shrugged and leaned back. “At least it works for me.” Her gaze swung back to touch on her son, Kara momentarily forgotten. “I was barely human before I had him,” she exhaled, her voice so soft Kara read her lips as much as heard the words.

Feeling like she was intruding somehow, Kara turn back toward the boy. Closing her eyes, she envisioned his excitement, letting herself feel the movement of the boat, hear the wind and water, smell the salt in the air, consciously imagining all the things he was seeing and experiencing. When she opened her eyes again, she realized so much of what she’d felt was newer for her than it was for him, and she laughed softly, letting herself enjoy the irony and feeling closer to the child she’d been than she had in ages. “I’d forgotten...what it’s like...” she whispered without trying to explain the wealth of meaning behind the statement.

Cat gave her plenty of time to think about that thought, but finally, she leaned closer, her chin nearly touching Kara’s shoulder. “I thought we’d follow along the coast for a bit—” she shared her plans for the day, her tone deliberately light, sensing Kara’s need to be pulled back from an emotional edge “—make sure you’re still enjoying yourself and not having any...issues. Sea sickness can take a little while to set in sometimes. Then, if all’s well, turn out to sea. There’s a place called Carter’s Island about fifteen miles out that certain people have been wanting to see.” She deliberately raised her voice above the sounds of the ocean so her son could hear the last part.

Carter twisted enough to grin back at them and wave. “It’s got a sea cave on the lee side,” he called to Kara, his voice rife with excitement. “And a cove where we can anchor, and pirates supposedly buried treasure there.”

“It’s also a nationally protected bird sanctuary,” Cat drawled near Kara’s ear. “I don’t think he’s as excited by that as he is by the pirates.”

Relaxed and feeling light again, Kara giggled.

“I strongly suspect you aren’t either,” Cat teased. “In fact I’m guessing you’re thrilled by thoughts of sea caves and buried treasure...and fantasizing about waving your sword and swinging off to the rescue.”

“Maybe,” Kara admitted with an embarrassed laugh, then shook her head. “But maybe not.” She shrugged. “I like birds.” They hadn’t existed on Krypton, and had fascinated from the first moment she saw them on Earth. Cat peered at her curiously, smiling when Kara shrugged again and offered a wide grin. “I just think anything that can fly is really neat.”

“Fair point,” Cat chuckled, then added. “Birds are good.”

As if on cue, Carter suddenly shouted, “Look! Gulls!” He pointed toward an incoming flock of six large, white seagulls flying toward them from the rear.

They were flying high enough to be well above the mast and as they drew closer, they started talking to each other, their calls echoing off the water.

“They’ll probably follow us for awhile,” Cat told Kara. “Sometimes they’ll even land on deck and check things out. Mostly hoping for food, I think.” She cast a gaze over the water. “Sometimes small threshers will follow for the same reason.”

“Threshers?”

“Sharks.” Cat noted the way Kara’s eyebrows shot toward her hairline. “Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive,” she explained quickly, worried she’d screwed up. People tended to get unreasonable when it came to sharks and she had a sudden mental image of Kara demanding to return to land.

Kara thought about it a moment, then grinned. “That would be so cool.”

That smile somehow made Cat’s chest feel both tight and lighter than air, which was in no way ready to analyze too closely, but which felt better than it had any business doing. She grinned back. “We’ll keep an eye out then.”

After that, Kara got a lesson in sailing as Cat demonstrated the basics of what to expect once they were out to sea. The first time Cat called, “Coming about!” everything went fine and Kara ducked the swinging boom and scrambled to the port side without a problem.

Then a few minutes later, Cat warned her she was going to be tacking again, but when the time came Kara was momentarily distracted by the gulls sweeping back and forth overhead.

Cat’s sudden, “Coming about,” brought Kara’s head up just as the boom was swinging straight toward her. She would have had some serious explanations to offer if Cat hadn’t more or less tackled her. They hit the deck in a tangle, Cat on top, her arms braced on either side of Kara.

“Remember to duck,” the blonde panted near Kara’s ear as she struggled to get her breathing back under control. Kara had seemed up with the plan, and Cat had lost sight of her only to look up as the boom started to swung straight toward her head. In an instant, she’d foregone all subtlety and just leapt to get to her before the boom.

Carter giggled in the background and she glared, shaking her head in silent reminder that such things weren’t minor risks for most people.

He tensed and nodded as he remembered Kara wasn’t like them. “Sorry,” he mumbled sincerely.

Kara nodded, her concentration threatening to be elsewhere as she felt every curve pressed against the length of her back. Closing her eyes, she momentarily let herself mentally imprint the feel of smooth muscle, small firm breasts, nicely curved thighs and surprisingly strong arms molded close and wrapped around her. “I heard your warning, but I got distracted,” she admitted.

The boat meanwhile meandered a bit without a hand on the tiller, and the sails started luffing, hanging loose and waffling gently in the breeze.

The boat was safe enough, so Cat ignored it to concentrate on Kara. “Just be more careful, and NEVER ignore the captain,” she lectured and pushed to a crouch. “We don’t want you getting hurt...particularly since, if you get whacked, and I try to help you at the wrong time I could lose control of the boat. This time it wasn’t dangerous, but if we were at full sail, we could go over, and capsizing when we’re out to sea...that’s very bad.”

“Very bad,” Carter confirmed in the background.

“Stay put for a moment,” Cat instructed and pushed to her feet. She made some quick adjustments to the sails and straightened the tiller, then reached down to offer Kara a hand. “Now let’s try this again.”

After that, they practiced tacking several more times. With Cat and Carter both guiding Kara, she was soon handling the maneuver like a pro.

“Think you’re ready to head for deeper water?” Cat finally asked.

Kara nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Then let’s go.”

There was, Kara decided a few minutes later, something utterly magnificent about turning out to sea and seeing no signs of land ahead. It was beautiful and awesome and just a little terrifying. She glanced back, reassured by the confidence in green eyes.

Three of the gulls were still pacing them, though they were quieter now, as though they too were aware of the gravity of the moment.

“A little scared?” Cat asked.

Kara shrugged, startled by her response. After all, she had the least to fear of all of them, but even she felt the sense of letting civilization go and taking off into the wilds. It was a little intimidating. “Silly, huh?” she murmured in a tacit admission.

Cat shrugged. “Not really, no. Out here you’re on your own...even just a few miles out. The ocean’s big, coast guard’s slow, margin of error sometimes very slim.” She shrugged again and was quiet until her mouth tipped into a slow smile, and her expression gradually brightened. “But the payoff...the payoff can be amazing.” She put extra emphasis on the last word and deliberately drew it out.

“Do I have your word on that?” Kara asked, a bit of trepidation in her gaze.

Cat’s head tipped back as she let out a sharp bark of laughter. “Oh, Kara, I suspect you can have my word on anything you like.”

Kara’s heart nearly tripped over itself and for a moment it was like someone sucked all the oxygen out of the air. Payoff? She was pretty sure hearing that laugh was more than enough.

Then Cat laughed again, the sound full throated and full of enough pleasure to send ripples of awareness down Kara’s spine. “And on that note, you know what you should do?”

“Hm?” Kara asked, the soft questioning sound all she could manage.

Cat nodded toward the bow of the boat. “You should see it from the pulpit.” She looked at Kara and smiled. “It really is the best view.”

Kara froze, wanting see, wanting to stay, uncertain how to respond.

Understanding glittered in green eyes. “Go. You’ll love it,” Cat ordered, then whistled sharply to get Carter’s attention, and waved when he looked back. “Wanna help Kara to the bow so she can get a look?” she called.

Happy to help, he hopped to his feet and was already headed their way when Kara said, “Really, I don’t need—”

One eyebrow arched high as Cat peered at Kara. “How cute,” she drawled. “You think this is a discussion.”

“I just think I’m capable of crossing that distance without help,” she argued.

Carter snickered softly. “You’re wasting your ti-ime,” he sing-songed to Kara. “She’s the captain,” he added, his tone practical. “Technically speaking, she can have you keelhauled—”

“True,” Cat confirmed with a wide grin. “However, in this instance, I just want to make sure you don’t fall. We’ll save the keelhauling for later.” Green eyes sparkled in a way that almost made keelhauling sound appealing, though Kara wasn’t entirely certain what it was.

Head tipped to one side, Kara peered at Cat. “You like being in charge,” she accused with a smile.

It was Cat’s turn to snicker. “What gave me a away?”

“The power mad chuckle?”

Reaching down, Carter caught Kara’s hand and tugged lightly. “She can be a control freak,” he confirmed. “But she’s also right.”

“That’s my boy,” Cat said, sounding utterly satisfied.

Carter stuck out his tongue, but he was patient as he explained, “Walking on deck can be a little tricky until you get used to it, and you don’t wanna fall out here.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Kara noted the way Cat’s lips were twitching as she fought not to laugh. Finally she threw up her hands in surrender. Not that there’d ever been any real doubt. “Okay, Carter, teach me what I need to know.”

Cat grinned and did a preening little shoulder shimmy as she mouthed, “Good girl.”

Kara rolled her eyes, but she was smiling as she did it.

After that, Carter showed her the best handholds and what obstacles to avoid, plus the surest methods for maintaining her balance on a shifting surface. He was careful and precise and kept a hand either wrapped around one of hers or near her arm the whole time. They were almost to the pulpit when one foot slipped ever so slightly. Carter instantly caught her upper arm, steadying her, but she glanced back and felt her chest clench with unfamiliar emotion.

Cat was half standing, her gaze intent, body taut as though ready to move. She had a hand on the tiller, but there was also a line wrapped loosely around the wood and cleated off on both ends, making an impromptu sort of autopilot. She had prepared to move fast if she needed to. Instinct said it wasn’t Carter she feared might misstep.

Their gazes locked and held.

“Thank you,” Kara just barely mouthed, the gesture so small she didn’t expect a response.

Cat nodded ever so slightly and sank back down, though Kara could see the tension that remained in her arms and shoulders.

Then Carter tugged her down beside him, and she found herself grinning broadly at the view. It really was amazing. He laughed as he dangled his bare feet over the side. “Water’s cold, but it feels good.”

Grinning, Kara stripped off her shoes and did likewise, giggling softly as the spray splashed her toes. “Okay, so you and your mom were right...about the view...and that I needed help.” Which felt like a very odd confession to make given she could fly, but she had slipped and even if falling wouldn’t have hurt anything but her dignity, she was just as glad to avoid it. “So thank you.”

His chest puffed up a little and he fairly glowed with pride. “You’ll do better next time.”

After that, they sat and enjoyed the view and the salt spray. Carter talked about learning to sail as he took a long hank of rope out of one pocket and started showing Kara different sailing knots with quick, efficient hands. It was obvious he’d practiced a lot, and he explained each knot, carefully, showing her how to tie it as he explained its uses.

Comfortable and mellow, Kara leaned back on her elbows and nodded in all the right places, though she was comfortably certain she wouldn’t remember a word of it. Whenever she glanced back, Cat’s gaze met hers, and they both smiled. The other woman looked comfortable, her pose almost languid as she guided the boat along, angling in and out of the best winds.

Kara didn’t know much about sailing, but she’d flown enough to know how unpredictable wind could be. It gusted and abruptly died, ran in long streams that suddenly shifted and whirled, and was totally unreliable. She was strong enough to ignore it when she flew, but she was experienced enough to recognize how smoothly Cat kept the boat on pace and headed the right direction, dancing in and out of the best winds with an almost preternatural timing. “She’s really good, isn’t she?”

He glanced back, watching idly as they came about and caught a fresh breeze, the sweep of the boat as it turned remarkably graceful for a maneuver that could be clunky and slow in lesser hands. “Yeah,” he confirmed. “She’s keeping us steady, but mellow and slow today.”

Kara noted the speed of the water going by. “This is slow?”

“Oh yeah, she could go a lot faster if she wanted. When we left Italy—” Carter snapped his mouth shut as he realized what he’d said.

“Carter?” Kara said softly when he didn’t continue. She reached out and tapped his arm lightly.

He blinked, throwing off the sudden paralysis with a sharp shake. “We sailed from Livorno to Monaco once,” he explained, sticking with his mom’s rule about always keeping as close to the truth as possible. “Just for fun.” Technically speaking, that was even true. She’d never explained why they’d stolen a boat and fled in the dead of night. Trying not to scare him, he supposed. Instead, she’d turned it into an adventure, and he still thought of it that way, even if he realized now that there’d been fear in her eyes and the lights he’d seen in the distance had belonged to someone hunting them. “The winds were really great though, and she pushed our speed the whole way.” He looked around them. “But the boat was at a steep heel and wild. Do that now and we couldn’t just sit up here and chill and moving around on deck would be a lot harder.” He shrugged. “This is good for a newbie.”

A ghost of a frown touched Kara’s expression, something about the boy’s explanation not quite ringing true, though she couldn’t have said why. She already knew they’d spent a fair amount of time all over the world and clearly Cat was comfortable sailing.

Seeing Kara’s unease, Carter offered a small smile. Even if she looked a little too curious, she was still leaning back comfortably in total contrast to how she’d been when they’d first seen her at the zoo, all tense and uptight and looking like she might jump out of her own skin at any moment. “We’re good for you,” he said out loud, hoping for a distraction and clinging to his mom’s rules about sticking with the truth where possible.

Startled, Kara peered up at him, a quizzical look on her face.

“You’re relaxed today,” he observed. “When we met at the zoo, you weren’t. I think we helped.”

“You did,” she agreed with a soft laugh, pleased by how observant he was.

“My mom’s more relaxed too.” Carter risked a quick glance toward the stern. His mom was looking up, checking the windsock on the mast and adjusting the tiller and the sheets—the lines that controlled the sails—accordingly. Her ears were flat against her the sides of her head. No one else could have told the difference—or would have even looked for it—but he knew when she was listening in. She wasn’t. “I think it’s because of you.”

“I’m sure it’s because she got to spend the day with you,” Kara said automatically.

He shook his head. “She spends days with me all the time, and it helps, but this is different.” He couldn’t stop thinking of his mom tucked into her perch on the balcony that morning, still wrapped in Kara’s jacket, her nose tucked into the collar, the tiniest rumble buried in her breathing signaling she was asleep and content. It was the most relaxed he’d seen her in ages, maybe since coming to Gotham City.

She needed more time like that.

He glanced at Kara again as he caught a whiff of her scent on the breeze. It was warm and spicy and made him feel safe somehow. He thought maybe it was the same for his mom. Maybe that was why she kept doing something she almost never did and inviting an outsider in. Not that he minded. He liked Kara and his mom needed someone.

Head tipped to one side, Kara peered at the boy, giving him time to work things out. It wasn’t that he was a slow thinker, but in her experience, he sometimes struggled with translating his thoughts from his brain to his mouth.

“I think it’s good for her to have an adult friend,” he said at last. “Somebody she doesn’t have to take care of...who might help her if she needed it.”

“I would, you know,” Kara said instantly. She laid a hand on his shoulder. “If either of you ever have a problem, you only have to call and I’ll do anything I can for you...and Carter, I can probably help in a lot more ways than you realize,” she added, uncertain how much to say, but wanting him to know she could do more than the average schoolteacher. This kid had gotten under her skin almost from the moment he walked into her classroom, and now his mother had followed suit, and some part of her was driven to make sure he understood she was in their corner.

He looked down, watching his own hands as he tied and retied a series of knots, the rhythmic motion helping soothe his anxieties and make it easier to think. When he finally looked up, his gaze was clear and curious. “You like her, don’t you?”

Feeling a flush slide over her skin, Kara nodded. “Of course I do. Your mom’s great.”

He slanted a slight frown at her as though he was tempted to say more, then looked back down at his hands. “She likes you too,” he said firmly, his concentration seemingly fully on what he was doing. “A lot.”

Kara froze, a part of her wanting to hear more and another part terrified of upsetting what felt like a rather tenuous balance. It felt safer to just float along and see what happened.

Carter, meanwhile, apparently deemed that enough of a confession for the moment because he looked up and began explaining, “Carter’s Island—that’s where we’re headed—was named for Phineas Carter. He was a whaler before the revolutionary war, but when the colonies declared their independence, he first became a pirate attacking only English ships, then later, signed a letter of marque with the continental government to become a privateer...”

Smiling, Kara relaxed, leaning back as he got into his tale. Apparently, Phineas had led an adventurous life and Carter had done a lot of research. The stories were full of swash and buckle and perfect for a thirteen year-old boy. Kara, however, was mildly grateful a bit later when a sharp whistle interrupted the latest tale of derring do.

Carter twisted as Cat called out, “Hey, Carter, wanna take the helm? I wouldn’t mind a bit of a break.”

He jackknifed up and nodded eagerly. “Sure.” He flashed an apologetic smile Kara’s way. “Sorry to interrupt the stories, but she’s only been letting me take the tiller on my own for a few months,” he explained.

“Go on,” she urged with a smile.

He grinned and bounced back to the stern.

Kara listened in as Cat sat him down and explained a few things and reminded him to keep his mind on the task at hand. They talked a bit more and Kara was impressed by how seriously Carter seemed to take his task. Finally, Cat saluted, made a joke about handing over the wheel and headed forward. A moment later, she sank down behind Kara, arms wrapped around her upthrust knees, face turned upward toward the sun.

She looked so happy and peaceful that Kara could only stare. Finally, she cleared her throat. “Is he...uh...ready to handle things alone?”

Cat smiled and glanced back. “He’s good,” she assured Kara. “And I can track things well enough from up here.” She looked down again, and grinned at Kara. “Also I figured you needed rescuing from the tales of Phineas.”

“There do seem to be quite a few of them.” Kara leaned her head back, staring at the clouds in the sky far overhead. “And while they’re interesting...”

“Yeah,” Cat said knowingly when Kara didn’t continue. They shared a look of understanding, silently communicating that, as much as Carter endlessly enjoyed the tales of his namesake, they both had a limit.

Then they both leaned back and enjoyed the sun for a bit.

“So what’s your verdict on sailing?” Cat asked after several minutes of companionable silence.

Kara wiggled her dangling toes in the spray and let out a satisfied sigh. “Love it.”

More time passed with both of them just relaxing in the sun and enjoying the experience. Cat checked on Carter occasionally and tracked their position, but the boy had things well under control, so there was no need for her to do anything but remain comfortable.

Finally, Cat cleared her throat, the sound drawing Kara’s attention to her.

“So Carter and I...” Cat began a little hesitantly. It was tricky without Carter there to blurt out an invitation, leaving her with the simpler job of smoothing the way. While her civilized side craved more human interaction—particularly with Kara—the feral wanted to edge closer, even sniff and paw while simultaneously wanting to disappear into the darkest reaches of the cabin to hide and think. Sometimes all the conflicting impulses left her a little frozen, particularly now that she was trying so hard not to simply give way to the most impulsive of them.

Then Kara pushed up on her elbow, and the savory-sweet scent of her caught on the wind. It swirled around Cat, drawing her to lean closer and tipping the balance in favor of more interaction. “W-we were thinking of doing an overnight.” Cat nodded in the direction they were headed. “If the cove has good harborage, we thought we’d sail out, anchor a night or two, take time to explore the island a bit, and sail home.”

Kara’s head tipped to one side and she peered more closely at Cat . “Okay,” she said carefully, eager to hear more, but not wanting to push.

Cat glanced back at Carter who was watching them closely, the shells of his ears ever so slightly expanded and tipped their direction. Her gaze narrowed and she gave a small headshake.

He instantly looked up at the sails, then past the bow to the water ahead. Trying to appear innocent and knowing he was caught, he flattened his ears against the side of his head and dropped his chin a bit. No more eavesdropping.

Cat swung her head back around to meet Kara’s uncertain look. She gnawed on her lower lip for a moment, then confessed, “This is easier when Carter does the asking. I’m a little out of practice when it comes to the socializing.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out sharply. “But if you can arrange it, we’d love it if you’d join us. I’d love it,” she added the last with extra emphasis.

“Really?”

Cat bit back on an rush of sarcasm. She’d never been good with impatience and the one thing she occasionally found annoying about Kara was the lack of confidence she was wanted. As if Cat would waste her time if she wasn’t. “Really,” she said firmly. “I’m not in the habit of inviting people whose company I don’t desire,” she added and if her voice was just a bit crisp, her gaze was soft as it touched on Kara. Without planning to she reached out, fingers curling into her palm as she brushed her knuckles along the silky fall of hair that fell across Kara’s brow. “The date’s still up in the air, but please say you’ll come.”

Her heart throbbing in her chest, Kara nodded. She doubt she could have refused the other woman anything in that moment. “Just tell me when.”

“We’ll work that out.” Cat straightened her fingers, then folded them into her palm again as she repeated the caressing stroke along dark blonde hair, enjoying the pure, tactile pleasure of it.

The last remaining gull flying escort squawked noisily.

Cat’s chin snapped up, gaze sliding past Kara’s shoulder. She grinned. “Land ho,” she murmured in a voice meant for Kara alone, her tone carrying a thousand kinds of promise as she nodded to indicate the cliffs just barely visible on the horizon. She rose smoothly to her feet and reached back down to tug Kara up next to her. For a long moment, the two stood simply staring at the distant island.

“We’re still about three miles out,” Cat explained.

Kara just stared, a little slack jawed, more than a little awed. “How do you know that?”

“Curvature of the earth. That’s how far you can see out here.”

“Ah.” Kara thought for a moment. “Does it always feel like you’re the first person to ever see this view?” she asked after a beat.

“I always do.” Cat patted Kara’s arm lightly, the gesture small but companionable. She waited a moment while Kara continued to just stare, then caught her hand and tugged very lightly. “However, I really need to retake command...unless running aground is on your list of things to do today.”

Kara blinked in surprise and turned a questioning look Cat’s way.

“Carter’s not very good at controlling his speed yet,” Cat explained. “Plus we’ll need to drop sail at some point.” She pivoted toward the rear and waved. “Land ho!” she called out to her son, then added a proud, “Well done, first mate.”

The boy grinned and let out a lofty cheer.

“That’s m’boy,” Cat drawled, then called out loud enough for Carter to hear, “Best first mate on the seven seas.” She gestured Kara ahead of her. “Shall we?” As they moved toward the rear, she kept a hand up and ready to steady the other woman.

Kara climbed down into the cockpit and pivoted back, eyes tipping up to take in the slender figure poised above her. Cat was holding onto one of the stays—high tension wires that stabilized the mast—and smiling down at her, her hair flying in the wind, eyes shining brightly. In that moment, Kara could almost imagine her as the captain of a brigantine at full sail, swashbuckling her way across the high seas with enough glory to make poor old Phineas hide away in embarrassment.

“What?” Cat asked, suddenly self conscious.

Kara grinned. “Just thinking Carter’s hero has nothing on his mom.”

Cat rolled her eyes, but accepted Kara’s hand as she hopped down.

“Hey, Mom,” Carter said, still sounding excited. “I did pretty good, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did,” Cat agreed. “And you did very well too,” she gently corrected.

He shrugged, the light correction nowhere near enough to even slightly dim his pride.

After that, Cat took command again, and Kara found herself admiring the way she had Carter sit next to her and even had him keep a hand on the tiller as she explained what she was doing to alter their speed by readjusting the trim on the sails. As they drew closer to the island, she angled the boat into a slow turn, running parallel to a series of rocky cliffs that clawed up out of the ocean on the port side. Scattered all over the rocks, large white birds could be seen sunning themselves and coming and going from niches in the cliff face.

“I looked at the maps, and I think your sea caves must be somewhere in this area,” Cat told Carter and nodded to indicate the looming cliffs.

As they drew closer, large sheers of rock swam into view, jutting up out of the surf, their shadows imposing enough that Cat opted to drop sails and continue under motor power to be certain of avoiding the danger they posed.

Realizing the other woman needed to concentrate as she felt the waves trying to wash them sideways toward the rocks, Kara slid an arm across Carter’s shoulders and tugged him closer to her. Teasing the boy, she deliberately made a game of hunting for signs of the rumored sea caves even as she tracked their position, ready to act if she had any reason to fear they were in trouble. They laughed and giggled, trading clues until every shadow in the rocks became a long hidden entry to caves full of wonder and hidden pirate treasure.

At some point, Kara met Cat’s gaze over the top of Carter’s head and felt her heart warm when Cat offered a quick smile and a mouthed, “Thank you.” Then Cat’s focus returned to the task at hand as she kept them safely away from the rocks while Kara kept Carter entertained.

Finally, Cat cleared her voice. “Look,” she told the giggling pair as she nodded toward a large, lighted buoy that floated in a considerably slower stretch of surf . As they drew closer, the gentle clang of a bell rang in time with the rolling waves. “Looks like the entrance to our cove.”

“Cool.” Carter was up and staring in a beat, his eyes gleaming, everything else forgotten in the excitement of the moment.

“Stay in the cockpit until I say otherwise,” Cat clipped when she saw Carter brace to hop up on deck.

He grumbled, but sank back down on his heels.

Kara saw Cat lean so she could see around her and quickly moved to get out of the way as they motored between a pair of small buoys, then into a narrow passage, past high cliffs on one side and a low hilltop on the other. Finally, the inlet opened into a small, horseshoe shaped cove. A sharply cut cliff of black rock and streaming waterfalls rose above them on the port side, while a stretch of white beach curved around them before fading into the rising hillside.

It was like something out of a scenic designer’s imagination.

Several mooring buoys were permanently spaced around the cove and Cat killed the motor, floating gently toward one as she hurried forward and tied up to it.

“This is sooo cool,” the boy proclaimed to his mother, who nodded to indicate it was okay as she headed back his way. He hopped up onto the main deck so he could see better.

“Very,” Cat agreed as she joined him. She did a slow pivot, her smile widening with every additional sight. It suddenly struck her that something was missing and she did a sharp turn, eyes going to Kara where she stood in rear of the cockpit, clearly trying to stay out of the way. Her head was down, arms folded across her chest. Cat flinched, startled by an instant rush of sympathy as she recognized the expression and body language all too well: longstanding hurts and utter lack of confidence in ever belonging. She could even smell the faint bitter tinge of it in the air.

Crouching down, Cat peered at the younger woman. She was disappointed when the girl didn’t look up. “Kara,” she said just a little sharply, her tone enough to draw Kara’s gaze to her. She peeled her sunglasses off to meet sad blue  eyes. In that moment she felt the feral flicker deep inside along with the insidious desire to coil around the girl and make it all better. “Get up here,” she ordered, the look in her eyes one of pure command, but of a sweet and gentle kind she’d forgotten she could even summon when Carter wasn’t involved.

Given that these people had been nothing but welcoming, Kara couldn’t have said exactly what suddenly left her feeling scared and on the outside looking in, but as green eyes studied her, she felt exposed and a little afraid even though she was drawn closer. She stepped forward, but made no move to climb up, just shrugged, hunching her shoulders as if she could somehow to hide inside her own skin.

“Kara,” Cat said again, her voice softer this time. One hand braced on the edge of the deck, she reached down with the other to curve her fingers under Kara’s chin. Her touch gentle, Cat guided Kara’s head up until the girl had no choice but to look at her. “You’re one of us today.” She drew her hand back, but not before brushing a finger along the curve of the girl’s jaw. “And that means you need to get your ass up here,” she added, her voice sliding from serious to teasing.

Right on cue, Carter piped up. “Hey, Kara, why are you still down there?” Peering down over his mother’s shoulder, her turned a quizzical look on his teacher. “The view’s a lot better than up here.”

A beat and then Kara smiled, some of the tension in her shoulders relaxing in response to his innocently asked question. “Just moving a little slow.”

“This is no time for that,” he chastised, oblivious to any tension. “Come on.”

Kara’s gaze swung to touch on Cat, who shrugged. “You have your marching orders.”

She did indeed. Kara grabbed for a handhold and hopped onto a bench, then accepted the hand up Cat offered. A moment later she was standing on deck and Carter wrapped her up in a hard hug.

“Great, huh?” he said as he pulled back, his eyes bright with excitement.

“Yeah,” Kara agreed, her uncertainty chased away by his eagerness and the satisfied look in the green eyes watching them.

After that they enjoyed the sights visible from the deck and kept tugging at each other’s sleeves and pointing. Carter immediately set to planning the promised overnight trip. He was well into the process when they finally broke for lunch.

Kara helped Cat haul out a rolling cooler filled to the brim, then nearly let out one of Carter’s whooping cheers as she opened it up to find enough fried chicken for a small army, plus assorted salads, homemade lemonade and hard boiled eggs. A backpack yielded plates and utensils, but also some kind of crusty herb bread and a large bag of potato chips. There were even nut brownies and Kara’s cookies for desert.

For someone who ran on her stomach and often found there wasn’t enough food or had to gohungry to appear normal, it meant more than she could express. There was more than they’d had on the picnic and Cat had clearly thought ahead. She looked up to find the other woman watching her with a hint of a frown.

“No one goes hungry on my watch,” Cat said simply, then nodded toward the cabin. “There’s a rucksack with extra snacks inside. Feel free to grab at will.”

They ate on deck with Carter alternating between gnawing his way through every available drumstick, scarfing down potato chips by the handful, and providing a floor show as he entertained the women with the stories of Phineas Carter, often by acting out the key parts.

Looser and more comfortable than Kara had ever seen him at school, he was smart and surprisingly funny with a knack for silly faces and voices that he used to emphasize the punchlines.

Cat, meanwhile, sat next to Kara, occasionally bumping her hip or shoulder for attention as she inserted her own wry, often snarky commentary, much of which skimmed right over Carter’s head. It was funny and bawdy and occasionally utterly filthy without so much as a single profanity.

It was also the funniest thing Kara had heard in ages and left her laughing so  hard she could barely breathe. When coupled with the occasional quick pressure of Cat’s arm or hip against her own, she felt more included and reassured than she thought possible.

The additional fact that, since Carter liked drumsticks and wings—basically anything he could grip in one hand—and Cat preferred thighs, Kara got all the breasts for herself was the frosting on top of the cake. No fighting with Alex or Bruce for once. She doubted things were any better in heaven.

As the meal wound down and the conversation turned more contemplative, Carter’s eyelids got heavy. “How long?” he asked his mom.

Cat shrugged. “You have an hour or so.”

Nodding, he hopped down into the cockpit to stretch out on one of the benches.

Nap time, Kara realized as she remembered how he’d done the same thing the day before. “He never does that at school,” she observed.

“No time, plus he’s a kid, doesn’t want to be different.” Cat looked back toward the boy. “Actually, I’m kind of surprised how willing he’s been to let you see.” Her gaze swung back to Kara. “He trusts you.”

“I’m glad.” Kara threw her own glance toward the boy, a soft smile curving her lips as she noted the way he wiggled a bit, closed his eyes and appeared to doze almost instantly. “He’s a good kid.”

“He is...and he doesn’t give his trust lightly.” Still gnawing idly on a cookie, Cat stretched out and leaned on an elbow, her entire focus on Kara.

Cat seemed to feel no pressure to offer further commentary, but the intensity of her gaze was enough to leave Kara hyper aware of being studied. She had to fight a blush and the urge to babble. She could definitely be a babbler when stressed.

“What about you?” Kara finally asked, proud that she managed to ask the simplest version of the question in her head and include none of the running internal dialogue that sounded entirely too insecure even to her.

Cat pushed to a sitting position, leaning forward with her elbows braced on her crossed legs, expression hidden by the fall of her hair. “Normally, I’d say I don’t trust at all...”

Sensing the potential behind that statement, Kara waited.

“That first day of school,” Cat finally began, “Carter was trying so hard to be brave, but his knees were shaking so badly he almost couldn’t get out of my car...” She was silent for a long moment, then finally she continued, “But when I picked him up that afternoon, he was excited about your class and he thought maybe...just maybe he could make it.” Finally, she looked over at Kara, her expression deadly serious. “If I trust anyone in this world, it’s the person who could do that for my son.”

Speaking of shaky knees. Kara’s were suddenly trembling so hard it was a good thing she wasn’t standing. “I’d do anything I could to help him,” she whispered after a long moment. There were so many things she didn’t quite understand in all this, but she knew that much along with one other thing. She looked down for a moment, consciously settling her nerves and silencing her inner dork before looking up again. “You too.”

Cat looked away for a moment, and nodded, simply accepting the quiet declaration. When she finally looked back up, there was an odd kind of determination in her eyes. “Trust goes both ways.”

Kara flinched ever so slightly. “Earlier,” she whispered, her voice rising ever so slightly in question.

Cat nodded and there was the faintest narrowing of her eyes that suggested irritation. “I can be short tempered, unpredictable, and impatient—” she admitted.

Another hard flinched rattled the younger woman and her eyes showed her distress at the harsh words Cat used to refer to herself. She wanted to argue because she’d seen none of that, only an impossibly kind woman who made her feel more included than anyone had in a long time, maybe since she’d lost her home.

Cat never slowed down. “—but I’m not in the habit of seeking the company of people I don’t want around.” She was silent for a beat, then she spoke again, her voice softer and a little ragged as though the words were a struggle. “If I’ve said or done anything to make you think you’re not welcome—”

“No!” Kara insisted, her voice rising most of an octave.

“—or if I’ve said anything offensive... I know my sense of humor can be a little off color—”

“No,” Kara repeated, her voice pitched normally again, and not so loud, but firmer and slower for emphasis. “No.” Cat finally fell silent, but Kara recognized the insecurity in her body language, the way she angled her upper body back and hunched her shoulders as though bracing against a blow. “It’s nothing you did,” she assured the other woman. “You’ve been wonderful and any off color commentary was funny as...heck.”

The non-curse word drew arched brows and a wry smile. “Heck?” Cat repeated, her head tipping to one side, expression creasing into a puzzled frown.

“I can’t use any rough language in front of the kids, and it’s easier to just not use it at all than try and use it here and not there and...” Kara rolled her eyes and flushed with remembered embarrassment. “Trust me, it’s better than slipping and cursing in front of a room full of thirteen year-olds.”

“Never let you forget, huh?” Cat teased, her shoulders visibly relaxing, some of the tension broken by the humor of the moment.

“They’re absolute little monsters about it.”

Kara’s obvious frustration earned a soft chuckle. “They’re thirteen,” Cat deadpanned. “I think being little monsters is part of the job description.”

Kara nodded toward Carter. “He’s not like that.” Which was true. She’d never seen a trace of the oblivious cruelty adolescents could descend to from the boy.

Cat glanced over. “He’s special.” She paused a beat, then added, “Also, you’ve never seen him with low blood sugar. He has his moments.”

“Turns into a real boy, huh?” Kara wisecracked. She was caught by surprise when something flashed in green eyes that looked suspiciously like hurt, then Cat blinked and it was gone.

“Yeah, just takes the latest video game release running late,” Cat said quickly, but her eyes were slightly blank and there was something too controlled about her expression as though she was hiding her real response.

Which didn’t feel at all right, leaving Kara with the sense she’d said the wrong thing, but utterly uncertain what. “Cat?” she whispered, her voice thick with worry.

“Could you pass me another cookie?” Cat asked and waved a hand at the ziplock near Kara’s hip. “Those things are amazing.” Always stick as close to the truth as possible. “Any chance I could get the recipe?”

“It’s kind of a family secret...and I don’t actually know it.” Kara shrugged, accepting the subject change despite her curiosity. “It’s a long story.”

Whatever had upset Cat apparently been pushed aside as quickly as it had appeared because her mouth twisted into a wry smile. Or maybe she’d just imagined it, Kara decided.

“They didn’t tell you?” Cat asked doubtfully.

“Not so much that as I didn’t retain the knowledge,” Kara admitted with a fair measure of embarrassment. “I’m better at eating than cooking.”

Cat chuckled and the last of the darkness faded from her smile. “Maybe I can give you a basic lesson or two sometime. I’m actually pretty good these days.”

“Only if you promise not to hold it against me when I still suck.”

The wry comment earned a soft laugh. “All right,” Cat agreed. She paused, took a deep breath and let it out to settle herself. “But I’d like a promise from you in return.”

“Okay,” Kara said a little hesitantly.

“Don’t worry,” Cat soothed. “It’s nothing horrible. I’d just like you to promise me that you’ll believe we want you with us...believe I want you here,” she added the last part in a much softer tone, her voice barely audible. “Can you do that?”

“I think so.”

“Good, because if you don’t, I’ll kick your ass,” Cat grumbled, though her eyes were dancing. She wasn’t one to hold onto upsets for long, and Kara hadn’t meant anything by her comment.

Kara couldn’t help it, she laughed at the mere idea, though she felt her cheeks heat at the thought of the physical contact required if Cat tried. “I’ve got four inches on you, and I wrangle teenagers for a living.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Don’t be so sure of that.” Cat smirked, wondering what the younger woman would think if she had any idea what she’d actually be up against. “You see, I’m willing to use every profanity in my considerable knowledge base to embarrass you into submission.” There was always more than one way to win.

“You fight dirty.”

“Yeah, kinda my thing.”

Comfortable again, they laughed and shared stories until Carter woke and stumbled forward to loop an arm around his mother’s shoulders as he stole another cookie.

Not too much later, it was time to head home. Feeling a degree of sadness, Kara stood with Carter at the bow, one hand on the forward stay, the other on Carter’s shoulder as they motored out of the cove and back toward the open sea.

After that, things settled in as Cat and Carter both hurried to their respective tasks. When they got the sails up, the winds proved a little gusty, but good, with long tracks of easy sailing that kept them moving at a good clip.

Cat looked at Carter and offered a wicked smile. "You wanna go really fast?"

He whooped and Kara nodded eagerly.

Kara’s heart pounded in her chest as Cat grinned a wild grin.

“You have to do exactly what I tell you at all times.”

“So this is just a plot so you can be in complete control?” Kara jokingly asked.

“Always.” Cat winked. “But trust me, it’ll be worth it.”

And it was.

Kara felt and heard the acceleration as Cat began making small adjustments in their angle to the wind and the trim on the sails, then suddenly the boat angled over and seemed to lift up until the high side was several feet above the waterline.

“Ride with it!” Carter shouted as he grabbed her hand and showed her how to brace herself.

If Kara had thought the trip out was like flying, the trip back simply was flying.

“Told you it was wild!” Carter shouted above the wind and the surf, then tipped his head back and howled with sheer joy.

Kara grinned, then joined him as she threw her head back let go with a primal sound she didn’t know she had in her, losing herself the thrill of just being alive in this place and time.

A shiver slid through her a moment later, the thrill intensifying when she heard Cat’s voice join theirs in rising to the heavens.

* * * * * *

It was nearly dark by the time they arrived back at the dock, battened the boat and loaded any personal gear into their cars.

“Any chance I could treat you two to dinner?” Kara asked as she finished packing the cooler in Cat’s trunk.

“I’m afraid I have to say no this time,” Cat sighed regretfully. “I really do need to get some writing done. I have the first draft of a column due tomorrow, and I really can’t afford to screw up.” Once upon a time she wouldn’t have even thought about it. She would have run off and had fun. Time to be a responsible adult. “And Carter still has homework,” she reminded her son, who grumbled, but didn’t argue, just lunged into a hard hug with Kara, who hugged him back and ruffled his messy curls affectionately.

“You did really great,” he assured her, then added, “You’ve gotta come for the overnight.” He flashed his most big-eyed, adorable, pleading kitten look.

“I’ll my best,” she promised the boy, then patted his shoulder and watched as he broke free and climbed in on the passenger’s side.

Semi-alone, she and Cat stared at one another as though neither one was quite sure what to do next.

“Thanks again for a fantastic day,” Kara said sincerely.

Cat nodded. “It was a pleasure having you...truly.”

“I had a wonderful time...and I’m so grateful you invited me.” Kara saw Cat’s hand rise a bit, then retreat, and remembered her glimpse of the other woman’s insecurity. She might project utter confidence that bordered on arrogance at times, but she had her own list of issues. Trusting or being close to anyone other than her son was one of them. “I...” Kara trailed off, uncertain what to say and instead started to reach out, her movements slow enough to give Cat plenty of time to back away.

She didn’t, though the muscles just beneath the surface of her skin seemed to jump and twitch, and something wild glittered in her eyes like an animal sitting at the edge of the fire, wanting to come in and enjoy the warmth, but held back by fear.

Then Kara settled her hand on a slender shoulder and tugged very gently. There was the tiniest moment of stiffness, then Cat flowed forward. The arms that grabbed for Kara were surprisingly strong, the body that molded close, warm and firm.

“Thank you,” Kara whispered near Cat’s ear, instinct telling her this wasn’t easy for this woman.

Cat burrowed in, burying her face in the curve of Kara’s neck and spreading her hands on her back as she clung with unexpected strength.

“We’ll see each other soon.” Kara cupped the back of Cat’s head, holding the smaller woman close and ruffling her hair tenderly.

“I know,” Cat mumbled, startled by the intensity of emotion she didn’t even begin to understand. Life had taught her that most relationships were ephemeral, typically gone almost as quickly as they’d appeared, and she didn’t want that end for this.

“Call me when you get in,” Kara reminded Cat, not wanting to let go.

“I will,” Cat promised. A shiver slid down her spine as Kara’s hands rubbed up and down her arms lightly. “I should go.”

She didn’t move, just held on more tightly.

The drive home could wait a few more minutes.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Twelve


“Kara?” Cat said as she heard the phone connect. “It’s Cat.” Phone tight against her ear, she paced through her apartment, automatically checking that everything was where it should be. It was an old habit that had saved her more than once.

Cat? Thank god,” Kara came back almost instantly. “Everything okay?” She sounded scared and like she was breathing a little harder than normal

It was oddly pleasant to realize that someone had been worried. “Everything’s fine," Cat assured the younger woman. "Sorry we ran late, but there was some kind of accident on the Gordon Parkway...had traffic down to one lane and moving at a crawl. I tried to call and warn you we were going to run late, but couldn’t get a signal. Sorry if you were worried.”

“So long as you’re both okay.” Kara paused for a beat. “That’s all I care about.”

“We’re fine, I promise. His highness is off to finish his homework, and I’m about to start on mine.”

Column due?

“Yeah, the weekly Style Watch. I’ve got a piece on a local jeweler to finish, plus I’m putting together a proposal to start covering pop up restaurants. They’re trendy and it might bring in some business.”

Winn’ll be thrilled if you can make it happen.” Kara laughed softly.

“He’s created a great experience. He should have people begging to get in. Maybe this will help.” As they talked, Cat concluded all was clear and grabbed her laptop bag. She stepped onto the balcony where a small table and a couple of chairs sat. “But to do that, I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight, which is why I should probably keep this short.”

I understand,” Kara murmured.

“I’d rather talk to you,” Cat admitted, though there was hesitance in her voice. Setting up the laptop, she flipped it on.

Sure about that?” Kara teased. “Because you sound a little uncertain there.

“No...I just...” Cat paused for a long moment as it occurred to her that, while she wanted to talk to Kara, the writing had an appeal of its own. “I like putting the column together, but it’s mostly pretty silly stuff. Style, not the deepest topic around. But my proposal...if they accept? It would take some work, but it could actually help some local businesses. I like that.” It felt strange to admit the appeal of doing good. She’d spent most of her life seeing only to her needs and later Carter’s. Past that, she’d been firm about not caring what the rest of the world did. The one time she’d broken that pattern, she’d nearly gotten herself killed, and if she’d died, Carter would have died with her. She'd spent a lot of years being careful not to repeat that mistake.

But this was a new place, she reminded herself, and if she wanted a new life for them, that meant becoming invested rather than just floating through the world on their own.

That’s really great,” Kara said. “I’ve read your columns. You’re a good writer, but...yeah, I can see why you’d want something a little more meaningful.

“You think I’m a good writer?” Cat whispered, a pleased smile playing about her lips while a blush suffused her cheeks. She liked the notion of Kara enjoying what she’d created.

Yeah,” Kara assured her. “Style’s not my favorite topic, I’m sure that shocks you, but you’ve got a way of drawing the reader in and making them care, even about topics they wouldn’t normally.

“My editor has seemed happy so far,” Cat said a little hesitantly, the notion of such a normal measure of success feeling very alien.

Well, Barbara Gordon is really good, so—”

“Barbara Gordon?” Cat repeated. “The managing editor?” She laughed softly. “I doubt she knows I exist. No, my boss is way down the totem pole from her...and I’m probably the part of the pole that’s actually buried in the ground.”

There was a pause. “Sorry, I...uh...saw the name on the masthead, and just assumed...”

“Understandable, but there are a lot of layers between here and there.” Layers and layers and more layers still. Cat shook her head, exhausted just contemplating how unimportant she was.

I’m sure you’ll be climbing up the ranks and taking over soon.

Cat snorted. Yeah, right. She knew it was a minor miracle she’d gotten the job at all given that her entire portfolio of work consisted of a few travel articles written for small adventure magazines. “Need to keep the job first,” she mumbled.

I’m sure you’re doing great,” Kara said very softly.

She sounded so certain that Cat considered melting into an adoring puddle, which was so not like her. A delicate shiver slid over her skin as she admitted, “I’m trying.” It felt dangerously good to hear someone other than Carter sound so confident in her. “But it’s nice to hear someone say it.”

Anytime you need to hear how fantastic you are, you can call me.”

Cat dashed away an unexpected tear. “Thank you.” The laptop finished booting up. “You’re pretty special yourself, but I...uh....” She paused, knowing it was time to go, but not wanting to.

I should probably let you get to work now.” Kara was silent for a brief moment. “Anyway, thanks for inviting me today. I had a great time. I’m glad you’re in safe. Say good night to the kid for me.

“I will...” Cat was silent for a moment. “We both had a great time today,” she whispered. “I’ll...uh...let you now about the overnight as soon as possible. We were thinking maybe next weekend, if possible...need to get it in before the weather turns too cold.”

I’ve got some things coming up, but I’m free the next couple of weekends.

“We’ll keep that in mind in planning.” Cat drew in a deep breath and let it out to ease some tension. “Good night.”

Night.

Despite the temptation to find an excuse to keep talking, Cat hung up and stared down at her computer screen. “Work,” she reminded herself.

* * * * * *

Kara clicked off her phone and tucked it back into a small compartment on her belt. Floating well above Cat’s apartment building, she heaved a sigh of relief as she saw the woman settle in and begin working. It warmed her to see that Cat was wearing her jacket, and somehow eased some of the stark terror that had been growing in the pit of her belly since the expected phone call hadn’t come.

Cat had been at least twenty minutes late and Kara was climbing the walls and ready to just fly and start hunting when Alex called. Her tone ragged and upset, she’d explained that most of the day had been quiet, but starting around three in the afternoon, there had been three violent attacks using stolen automobiles as weapons. Cars had been rammed and people assaulted, five badly enough to be hospitalized, three in critical condition.

According to Alex, the first two attacks had come in very expensive old neighborhoods just outside the city, while the third had come at an onramp of the James Gordon Parkway.

The realization that it had happened along the mostly likely route for Cat to take home had left Kara in a panic as she imagined Cat and Carter the victims or caught in some kind of crossfire. She couldn't lose them, not when she'd just found them.

Kara didn't pause. She flew there immediately and begun searching all along the route even as Alex kept updating her through the comm.

When Alex passed along the news that the parkway victims were an older married couple it came as a perverse relief, though Kara was very aware that the suspects were still on the loose and a woman and child could make tempting targets.

Terrified, she’d flown overhead, desperately wishing she’d followed her first impulse and followed them from the beginning. Unfortunately, spotting Cat’s car from the air had proven impossible until the third time she flew over the other woman’s apartment. She’d watched the vehicle drive in and damn near started crying. It had taken everything she had to sound no more than a little worried rather than out and out panicked when Cat’s call came in a few minutes later.

“They’re okay,” she reminded herself. She peered down at Cat again. She was busy typing, brow furrowed in concentration, fingers moving rapidly over the keyboard. As Kara watched, she ducked her head and rubbed her cheek against the collar of the borrowed jacket as though it was a comfort.

It felt a little silly, but she liked the idea of something of hers wrapped around the other woman, keeping her warm. A shiver slid down Kara’s spine at the notion of a bit of her perfume clinging to the leather, maybe a bit of it finding its way to Cat’s skin.

The thought of losing that potential for something made her quake with fear.

“It’s all right, they’re all right...she’s all right...” she breathed the last phrase several times like it was her new personal mantra as she struggled to chase away the clinging terror.

She’d lost so much in her life. She wouldn’t lose them too. Needing to do something to burn off leftover stress, she did a fast check of the immediate property, looking for anything that seemed dangerous, intent on leaving no threats on their home ground.

All quiet. She was almost disappointed. For the first time she understood how Alex could find some relief in beating the tar out of someone.

Alex’s comm vibrated, reminding her that she’d all but hung up on her sister when her phone rang. “I’m here,” she said as she reconnected.

Your friends okay?” Alex asked, her tone clipped. Kara knew her well enough to realize she was probably a little annoyed with the hangup, but mostly splitting her attention, undoubtedly monitoring something on the computer–maybe several somethings. Alex was a hell of a multitasker on her worst day.

“Yeah, but they came in past the attack on the parkway.”

They see anything?” Kara heard her sister’s attention shift fully to her. Alex was listening now, probably already hunting to see if there were any clues in what she said that might help in tracking down her prey.

“No, but she did say that traffic was single lane and slowed to a crawl.”

That makes sense. From what I can glean on the police scanner, it was a hell of a mess: both cars crumpled, several highway dividers smashed, one victim beat to hell, one trapped in a vehicle leaking gas and panicked while the bastards that did it just ran.” She growled, a low, angry sound. “Your friend was lucky.”

Kara swallowed hard as she fought the grip of terror that reminder brought up. “I know,” she hissed, her voice tight and rough. Following Cat’s likely route toward the coast just to have something to do, she watched the ground below for any suspicious signs.  “What if the attackers stopped somebody else? With traffic so slow it would be easy.”

Yeah, either drag the occupants out or just force your way in and have wheels and hostages,” Alex mused out loud. “Cops are searching, but no roadblocks and there’s a lot of cover in that area. They could hide until they got an opportunity...”

“Yeah,” Kara agreed and angled that direction and poured on the speed, searching the ground all along the way for anything unusual. “Do you think the same guys staged all of the attacks?”

We don’t have any good descriptions,” Alex explained, using the crisp, businesslike tone she often did when in investigative mode. “But the MO was the same. I don’t see any way it’s a coincidence, but they’d have had to cover a hell of a lot of ground between attacks for it to be the same guys. Too much for them to be on foot.” There was a brief pause. “Maybe they stole the cars on the way—we don’t know where they got those yet.” She grumbled something, a curse word most likely, under breath. “I just don’t know,” she added after a moment.

Alex hated not knowing.

Kara was floating over the parkway by then, searching what would be impenetrable shadows to a human. The traffic was still single file and moving slowly through a confusing maze of flares and traffic cones, but it wasn’t bumper to bumper anymore. A carjacking was entirely possible so she was careful. The first suspicious sight or sound and she’d be on it.

She pulled up short, hovering as she found the crash site. She’d seen it before, but only in passing. The victims had already gone to the hospital and both cars were so crumpled she’d had no way to be sure neither of them was Cats.

Both vehicles were still there, surrounded now by yellow crime-scene tape as well as detectives and crime scene investigators. The front end of one—a late model sedan—was crumpled, the hood accordioned, the front axel either bent or broken, the wheels twisted sideways. The skidmarks showed it had come from a frontage road and hit a car waiting near the top of the onramp. High impact speed given the damage. The driver must have dropped it into low at some point because it just kept pushing forward until it was finally stopped by a long line of cement barricades.  The other car, smaller and in even worse condition, had been hit from the side, bounced and spun, then hit again and shoved into and then dragged along the barricades until the attacking vehicle finally gave out.

Disturbed earth and dark spatter that looked eerily like rust colored paint marked what was doubtless the sight of the beating.

“Kara?” Alex asked, breaking in on her thoughts.

“Not seeing anything suspicious happening right now.” Kara zeroed her gaze in on the accident site, studying both vehicles as well as she could from well above them. “No question the assailants were trying to do as much damage as possible. There are several impact points on the victim's car, and they were crushed against and dragged along the barricades. Both doors are off, but it ooks like the driver’s side got pulled by rescuers. The passenger’s side though...that looks it just fell off from the damage.”

That makes sense. From what I’m hearing only one person was assaulted. The other’s injuries were consistent with a bad car accident.”

“If there’s anyone hiding here, I’m not seeing them,” Kara growled unhappily. “I should check the other locations.”

Alex gave her directions to the nearest attack site. She found the vehicles had both been towed, but she could see the skid marks and blood spatter within the crime scene tape. Lights had been set up and police were still working.

“Looks like the victim’s car was on the main road,” Kara told Alex as she traced the route from above. “Then the attacking car came in from a side road. No skidmarks. Looks like it was a perpendicular side impact, moving fast. The victim’s vehicle was struck and spun, then struck again, driven nearly a hundred feet into a field. It didn’t stop until it hit a stand of trees. There’s a lot of damage, trees uprooted, grass shredded. Both cars came to a halt when they slammed into an old growth tree. It’s about half uprooted. Judging by the way the dirt’s torn up, I’d say both victims got dragged out this time.”

That fits.

“Police are still working, so I can’t get samples or decent pictures.”

Which means you’ve done what you can there for the moment,” Alex sighed. “I’ll get the police reports when they’re available.

The third site yielded much the same story. Fast moving vehicle, perpendicular side impact and continuing attack after impact, then a beating when the vehicle couldn’t bully forward any further.

Kara again found police still on site, so couldn’t get a good look. She reported what she could see, then flew high to tell Alex, “I’ll circle the city...just scan and listen...try and hunt for anything unusual.” She didn’t know what else to do. It was a little demoralizing to have so much power and no way to help.

This isn’t your fault, Kara,” Alex said softly, her tone gentling from its brisk professionalism.

“But if I’d—”

The first attack was reported as an accident and the second wasn’t reported at all until after the third had already happened.” Alex paused for a brief second. “The only way you could have changed anything is if you’d been right overhead...which requires pure luck.” She paused a moment. “One of the things you have to accept in this is most of the time you’re playing catchup...just trying to make sure the bad guys can’t do it again.

“Thank you,” Kara exhaled as she pushed down some of the guilt and circled around, skimming above another expensive, semi-rural area.

Alex was silent for a bit, the only sound, the soft rasp of her breathing. “Did you have a good time today?

Startled by the unexpected personal question, Kara blurted, “I...yeah...it was...it was just sailing with a student and his mom.” She skimmed high above another quiet neighborhood. “Nothing too exciting,” she babbled. “We went out to Carter’s Island, had lunch, sailed back. I’d never been to the island before. It’s pretty cool. Did you know it’s a protected bird sanctuary?”

More silence, then Alex finally said, “You have it bad.”

“No,” Kara yelped. “She’s just a friend...like I said, her son’s one of my students...and the sailing, the sailing was really great. And did I mention Carter’s Island is a bird sanctuary? It’s just about fifteen miles offshore. I never flew out there...which is a shame because it’s really gorgeous. Oh, and the sailing, it was just amazing. You should try it sometime.” Kara finally ran out of air, not to mention subject matter, or at least subject matter she thought might distract Alex.

Really bad,” Alex added through a soft chuckle.

“I...” Kara tried to deny the charge, but couldn’t. A long moment passed while she couldn’t speak past the tightness in her throat. “Yeah,” she finally sighed. “I think I do.”

Do you know if she feels the same?

“I don’t know,” Kara admitted. “Maybe.” She paused as she considered the long looks and gentle teasing. “I kinda think so, but honestly, Alex, we only just met yesterday...and it’s...all...it’s a little overwhelming.”

Just be careful,” Alex sighed.

Kara drew a sharp breath, prepared to go to the mat to defend Cat, but Alex spoke before she could unleash her response to the idea that Cat was out to rip her off.

I’m not talking about the money or who Bruce is,” Alex said quickly, her tone almost apologetic. “I shouldn’t have said that before...but I am talking about your heart, Kara. Be careful with it. I know you. You trust and hope so easily and that makes you vulnerable. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“She wouldn’t hurt me,” Kara said with a confidence that caught her by surprise.

Maybe not intentionally, but if she doesn’t return your feelings...

“It’s too early to say either way,” Kara sighed. “I just know this feels right...like fate...I know you don’t understand, but it feels like Rao smiled on me today...on us.” She passed by another quiet neighborhood. Nothing moving on a Sunday night. “It’s the first time I’ve felt like that on this world, maybe in my life.”

Oh, Kara,” Alex sighed, sounding simultaneously afraid, proud, and just a little envious. “I hope...” She trailed of into silence and Kara heard her take a deep breath before she finally said, “I hope everything works out the way you want...whatever that is.” She paused again, then added, her voice lighter, “But remember, I’m your big sister. If she hurts you, it’s my job to kick her ass.

Kara snorted. “She’s raising a teenager, Alex. I think she could probably take you.”

Seriously, Kara, I get she’s all MILFy goodness and carbonating your hormones, but please, I’m the total badass who once won a sparring match with Wonder Woman.

“Teen...ager,” Kara said pointedly, politely ignoring the fact that Diana hadn’t been entirely sober that night and had been eyeing Alex with more interest than anything on the dessert cart. She still didn’t know, or given how frosty Bruce had been to his old friend for awhile, want to know what had happened between those two. “Trust me, I teach them. Wonder Woman’s a cupcake next to your average teen in full pout mode.”

Okay,  I’ll grant you that, but still...

* * * * * *

Ensconced in the dark bubble of the command center in the batcave, Alex was able to track dozens of different information sources at the same time: internet, radio, police scanners, 911 calls, press updates, security cameras, and anything else Bruce had been able to tap into over the years to monitor his city. For anyone unused to the flood of information, it could be hopelessly overwhelming, but she was well trained to zero in on the data streams most likely to tell her what she needed to know, though she wasn’t as good at it that night as most. She’d been cutting back on the pain meds—too many side effects—but there were still enough in her system that it took effort and she knew her mood was a bit off. So far no giggle fits at least, though she didn’t entirely trust herself not to blurt out something hopelessly off color and make Kara blush for days.

Still, she had a responsibility to the city, and it wasn’t one she took lightly, not after all she’d given up to take it for her own.

As she worked, eyes darting from readout to readout, ears attuned to listen for certain codes on the emergency bands, she was very aware that information handling was really the lesser of the two jobs she had that night.

Kara was new at this, and despite her powers—or maybe because of them—she was scared and feeling very alone. Add in a serious threat to the city, a possible new relationship and all the attendant worries, plus a very real scare for the safety of people she cared for and she was shaky at best and in no way ready for the responsibility she’d been handed. Yes, she needed someone to keep her updated on what was going on, but what she really needed was reassurance enough to keep her stable and thinking. Unlike Alex, who generally preferred silence when not being updated, she also needed a friendly voice that could keep her  calm enough to do her job without interfering with her ability to  use the amazing toolset simply being Kryptonian granted her.

It wasn’t the most natural job for Alex, but she was trying. They weren’t as close as she would have liked, but they were family and she understood that Kara’s needs were different from her own. Most people assumed they were similar. They’d both seen tragedy young. Kara had lost a world, but somehow she'd remained positive about life in a way Alex didn’t understand. Maybe it was just Kara’s nature, or maybe it was because the loss of Krypton had been an overwhelming disaster, but a completely impersonal one. She had no one to blame, no need to punish someone, and no way to protect other possible victims.

She had no choice but to move forward.

Alex, on the other hand, had seen her father’s murder and her mother’s beating, her only reason for survival coming in the form of a man in black who’d appeared out of the night and taken their attackers apart, then wrapped his arms protectively around her and assured her she was going to be all right. Enveloped in the safe confines of his arms, his cape falling around them both until it felt like angel’s wings blocking out the dangers of the world, she’d felt truly safe for the first time in ages.

Even years later, she remembered that moment with acute clarity. His voice had been deep and rough, like gravel given life, and just loud enough to mostly overcome the sounds of ongoing tragedy, but his hold had been achingly gentle as though he’d been terrified of breaking her.

She knew now that he’d understood her plight too well, but at the time he’d seemed otherworldly, a guardian sent from heaven just for her. She’d clung desperately, focusing on his voice to block the shouts of panicked paramedics that overlayed the wet tortured sound of her father’s dying gasps and her mother’s pained cries.

In that moment, she’d known who she wanted to be and what she wanted to do with her life, though it would take some time before she knew who she needed to make pay.

So now it was her task to help train Kara just like Bruce had trained her. And while it wasn’t a calling for Kara like it was for her, her younger sister had a good heart and a strong sense of justice.

The invulnerable, super strong thing didn't hurt either.

Meanwhile, keep her from panicking.

“See anything?” she asked.

There’s almost no traffic on the outskirts except for the Bowery redevelopment. The library and the student digs have some activity, but the apartments are quiet.”

Alex flinched, remembering the fires and Bruce’s battered frame the last time she'd been in the area. On his release from Arkham Hospital, he’d bought the burned out remains of the tenements and warehouses and was slowly but surely turning the area into a growing neighborhood of high quality, low income housing with a community college already open and a full university on the planning blocks. The university was to be named for her father.

All of which was great, but she still remembered the price paid. She'd never been back to the area.

“So your new lady love...” Alex blurted, needing a distraction from old ghosts. She let the drugs erase some of her usual reserve—or at least she could blame them if need be. “She cute?”

She’s not my lady love,” Kara grumbled, sounding annoyed. “She’s...” She didn’t finish, just let the sentence trail away.

“Let me guess, she’s got a great ass,” Alex teased to keep them both from getting too bound up in serious issues. Not the time. She could almost hear Kara’s blush as she sucked in an audible breath.

Alex...” Kara chided.

“C’mon, be honest. Not that you don’t like breasts, but I know you, you’re all about the rear view.”

Alex,” Kara repeated, a pleading note in her voice.

“Kara,” Alex said mock sternly. “I’m bored and trapped staring at monitors. At least give me something to giggle about with my little sister.”

A moment’s silence and then Kara couldn’t hold back. “She’s...she’s beautiful, Alex...” she gushed. “...smart and funny and I feel safe with her...like there’s nothing I could tell her that would drive her away...”

Hands suddenly fisting above her keyboard, Alex swallowed hard as she fought a rush of terror that always came with the notion of too much honesty and trust. She knew from experience how quickly it could all go sideways. It was a lesson that Kara, always so open and trusting, had never had to learn and sometimes Alex lived in horror of her naivety. “Yeah, well, let’s save any confessions for another time,” she ground out, her voice rough and gravelly.

Alex,” Kara exhaled, her voice small and scared sounding. “I-I wouldn’t...tell...about—”

“So you never did answer the question,” Alex interrupted, needing to stay on the simpler topic. “Her ass?”

Kara was silent for a long moment. “...is...is aesthetically pleasing,” she finally admitted.

Something about the wording was so very carefully Kara that Alex felt her mood lighten and a genuine laugh escape. “Told you I know you,” she teased.

God, Alex...she was in tight jeans and an old t-shirt and when she started pulling up the mainsale...I just...” Kara groaned softly.

“Good for you. You could use a little lust in your life.”

It’s not like that,” Kara denied almost instantly, sounding a little offended at the prospect.

“Of course it is,” Alex shot back, rolling her eyes at Kara’s denial. “I heard that groan.” From what she knew of Kryptonian culture, the girl’s prudery was no surprise, but rather sad, really. “It’s no sin to be romantically attracted to someone...and lust after them.”

Diana had taught her that much, along with a few other lessons that would probably make Kara blush all the way to her roots. As relationships went, it hadn't made for a lasting romance, but Diana had taught her a lot. She’d walked away knowing herself a lot better and with a certain pragmatism when it came to sex and romance thanks to her exposure to Themysciran philosophy. And, hell, if nothing else, losing your virginity to Wonder Woman was a confidence booster when it came to mating and dating.

Kara was silent again, long enough this time that Alex wondered if she’d gone a bit too far with her teasing. Finally Kara cleared her throat. “I know that,” she said, her tone defensive. “But for some of us, the lust comes out of the emotion, not the other way around.”

Alex rolled her eyes so hard it was a wonder they didn’t tumble out. “You keep telling yourself that the next time you can’t take your eyes off her ass,” she snorted.

Kara waited a beat. “So, how about them Rogues?” she said abruptly, her tone so cheerful it was obviously deliberate.

“Really, you’re gonna try and use football as a distraction?” Alex was addicted to the Gotham Rogues and cheered them on with the same vigor she showed when beating up muggers. Kara generally had zero use for anything sports related.

Baseball season’s over,” Kara answered, her tone practical. “And I know you lost fifty bucks to Winn after the last game.

“Which encompasses your entire knowledge base of both games.”

Then teach me,” Kara sighed. “You know you’ve been wanting a captive audience for a sports lecture. You finally have it.

“Well, it has the advantage that it probably won’t distract you much.” Alex grumbled.

And it won’t get your slugged the next time I’m home.

Alex flinched. Okay, so maybe she had gone a bit too far. “Okay, the field is one hundred yards long and each team consists of a defensive and an offensive squad of eleven players each...”

* * * * * *

Since the column was already half finished and well planned out, Cat finished up the writing in record time, did a careful read through, then emailed it in to her editor. It was good, she thought, just the right bit of emotion, but also a practical note and some enticement to drive customers to an older business that could use the money. Okay, so it probably wasn’t quite what her editor had in mind when he’d assigned it, but she saw no reason to keep it as bland as he’d probably planned on just because it was for the un-bylined Style Watch column.

And if she’d called it wrong, well, hopefully they wouldn’t fire her.

Pushing off the fear of failure, she started putting together her notes for her proposal on pop up restaurants.

That too went quickly, the slowest part coming from her efforts to confirm that there really wasn’t any clearance site for upcoming events while simultaneously hunting for some names of chefs and restaurants that could be included in a regular listing. It wasn’t as simple, nor as filled out as she would have liked, but she finished up an acceptable draft around midnight and sent it along.

She could do this, she could be a responsible, working adult.

She was just about to shut down and head for bed when her computer screen suddenly went black.

“Oh, hell no,” she muttered, cursing under her breath as it flashed green, then black then green again. The last thing she needed was to have her computer blow. Between the replacement cost and the time to get it up and running the way she needed it would be a mess. she felt a lump of dread lodge in the pit of her stomach.

Wasn’t trying to lead an honest, virtuous life supposed to work in your favor?

She leapt backwards a second later, nearly overturning herself when it flashed black again, leaving behind the words: Have U changed UR mind abt our deal? in a large green font. The text disappeared in a flash that left behind a new message. Type to answer.

Looking nervously around to see if she could spot someone watching.

Nothing.

Finally, she reached out a tentative hand. No. Her answer pulsed for a moment, then disappeared in a blink and was replaced.

Then Y no progress this wk?

She thought for a moment, then finally typed, Work. Research. Current target not simple.

Also she’d been lying low after her encounter with Batrgirl, but she was in no hurry to mention that. Her employer had been very firm about the need to stay under the radar. Her answer blinked for a long moment, then finally disappeared and the screen remained black for several seconds before finally a new message appeared: Keep UR end of bargain, & I’ll keep mine. Need those samples.

I will, she typed, shoulders sagging with what felt suspiciously like defeat as she was reminded that virtue always came with a price.

Half the list due by drop date.

I’ll deliver. I always do, Cat promised.

Good.

With that last word, the black faded from her computer screen, leaving it looking just like it should. Tipping her head forward, she pinched the bridge of her nose as she accepted that the  past would always come back to haunt her.

It didn’t have to be that way for Carter though. If this worked, she could make sure he lived the life he deserved.

“Just a little longer,” she reminded herself, then shut down the laptop and hurried inside. Despite any exhaustion, she dressed quickly, the costume a familiar old friend even if it was one whose company she was trying to escape.

On the way out, she paused to turn the small cat figurine on Carter’s night stand toward the wall. He knew the signal.

On the balcony, she locked up, then hid the key.

That done, she leapt high, moving so fast she almost flew.

* * * * *

It was well past two a.m. when Alex finally decided to call it a night.

Kara heaved a relieved sigh as she shut down her comm link and made a rolling turn toward home. Thank Rao, no more football talk. After hours of listening to Alex’s meticulous explanations of horribly detailed rules to cover everything—her mother had run Krypton’s justice system in a more lax fashion, and her mother had been anything but lax—she was ready for escape, though how much of her exhaustion came from the sports discussion and how much came from hours of flying in darkness with neither food nor sunlight to keep her powers up, she had no way of knowing. Either way, she was ready for a break and Alex seemed to understand that.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Alex mumbled through a yawn. “You did really well tonight,” she offered in praise.

“Thanks.” She’d reported a handful of campus drug dealers and stopped a break in. Not exactly a battle with Darkseid, but a few lives improved, and she hadn’t thrown a punch. She could live with it. “Sleep well.”

You too.”

Kara slipped the ear piece and throat mic off, confident she’d feel the comm vibrate if Alex needed her and eager for some freedom after hours of feeling like a dog on a leash. Tired as she was, her turn was wider than it would have been if she headed straight home. It took her toward midtown, where it was already automatic to swing past Cat’s place. With all the insanity, she needed the reassurance everything was okay there.

Hovering above their building, she did a fast search, quickly confirming Carter was sound asleep in his bed, but Cat wasn't on the balcony or in her bedroom either.

Then she spotted her. Her worry eased even as a few other emotions ratcheted up. She was in the shower.

Kara'sHer x-ray vision wasn’t like looking in through a window. She couldn’t see the texture of soft skin or make out any expression, but she could see the sinuous grace as Cat arched her back and massaged her scalp—working in shampoo or conditioner to judge by the pattern and timing of her movements. Cat rolled her shoulders under the spray and Kara’s heart thudded as she watched the slow stroke of her hands as she doubtless spread soap, then rinsed it away again.

Knowing she had no business watching, she made herself look away and instead search the parking lot for any possible threats. This wasn’t about cheap thrills, she reminded herself. It was about making sure two people she cared about were safe in a world that could be very dangerous.

Nothing moving. All clear.

She was still hovering when a soft sound alerted her to the balcony below as Cat stepped out.

She wore a blue silk robe that clung to soft curves and was long enough to brush the floor while her wet hair hung in loosely fingercombed curls. She was carrying a tumbler containing something amber and she took a sip as she moved to stare out at the city.

She looked tired and almost...mournful.

Sensing an upset she didn’t understand, Kara wished she could just land and wrap her in a gentle hold and assure her everything would be okay. Unfortunately, it simply wasn't an option.

As she watched, Cat retrieved her phone from the pocket of her robe and peered at it. Kryptonian vision let her see Cat’s thumb where it hovered over a name on a very short contact list.

It was her own.

Suddenly Cat shook her head and shoved it back in her pocket, apparently pushing the impulse off.

Even knowing she shouldn’t, Kara retrieved her own phone from her belt, floating higher as she dialed.

It connected almost instantly.

Hello?” Cat sounded startled and maybe a little confused.

“Cat? It’s Kara.” She didn’t quite know what to say or how to explain calling so late, but found herself babbling out, “I know it’s late, but—”

I’m glad you called,” Cat inserted before she could get any farther. “Believe it or not I was just thinking about calling you, but assumed you were sane enough to be asleep.

“No such luck,” Kara sighed. “I couldn’t sleep and turned on the news and just needed...”     She didn’t finish.

To hear a human voice?” Cat whispered when Kara didn’t continue.

“Yeah,” Kara sighed. “You saw? The accident, I mean.”

I saw the reports when I got in,” Cat said, her voice low and bitter. “That was no accident.

“It was the scene you and Carter drove by.”

* * * * * *

“I know.” Cat swallowed hard and pushed down any temptation to panic at the thought. She thought of the driver with a shudder of horror. According to the press reports, she’d been pinned in the car, unable to help while her husband was pulled out and beaten. That was Cat’s nightmare, to be trapped and helpless with Carter in trouble. She pivoted sharply, the city suddenly seeming overwhelmingly large, the lights stretching away too far. Leaning against the balcony railing, she took a swallow of her scotch.  

So how’d the writing go?” Kara asked after a long moment of mutual silence, something about her tone leaving Cat with the sense she wasn’t the only one who needed  to change the subject from the dark events of the night.

It was a change she was more than happy to go along with. “I got everything finished. The proposal wasn’t as complete as I would have liked, but maybe they’ll appreciate the fact I’m willing to put in the extra effort.” She shrugged, the likelihood of that happening suddenly seeming hopelessly unrealistic. She was the newest employee after all, assigned to the least important jobs on the least important section of the paper.

I’m sure they will,” Kara assured her, her voice warm and caring.

Closing her eyes, Cat let the awareness of the other woman wash over her, startled by how soothing it felt just to hear her voice. “Maybe,” she sighed, feeling the weight of a hundred bad decisions dragging at her. “I don't know. Maybe I'm crazy thinking I can do this."

After all, for all of her efforts to go straight, she was doing it on the back of an agreement to do what she did best.

Steal.

And even if the one tonight wasn’t worth much and might never even be noticed, she’d broken into a man’s home, rifled his dead wife’s things, and stolen from him.

The antique bracelet, pretty enough but copper and some green stone she didn’t recognize, might not be worth as much as a three course dinner at a good restaurant, but it had been his. Now it resided with the other pieces in the secret compartment of her gym bag with everything else she’d taken.

The knowledge didn’t leave her liking herself much.

Hey-hey,” Kara’s voice, worried sounding and impossibly tender broke in on the mental self flagellation. “What’s this about?

Cat shook her head, unable to explain and unable to repeat the lies to this woman, no matter how practiced they might be. “It's complicated." She shook her head, imagining the horror the truth would engender. "But I’ve done things...things I’m not proud of.” It was as close to the truth as she could allow herself to come.

Kara was silent long enough that Cat was ready to accept she’d just lost the closest thing she’d found to a friend since before Carter was born. God knew, she’d had bigger hurts in her life, but not in a long time. 

Wanna talk about it?” the younger woman finally asked.

Caught by surprise by the gentle question, Cat blinked at tears as she felt a rush of relief. When the hell had she gotten so damned emotional? “No,” she husked, terrified that if she started talking, she'd never stop and she'd be alone again. Much as Kara undoubtedly believed she would stay, Cat knew human nature well enough to understand how unlikely that was to be true.

Okay,” Kara exhaled. “I’m not going to push. Just know that I’m here and not going anywhere,” she finally promised.

“You don’t know what—”

I’ve heard the rumors, Cat,” Kara broke in.

A ripple of tension slid through Cat—a brief bit of panic as she wondered if she’d somehow slipped up, then she almost let out a giddy laugh as she realized what Kara was doubtless talking about. The usual garbage about sex work or being a kept woman that always appeared as if by magic the moment she turned down some man who thought he had rights or refused to kowtow to women convinced she was husband hunting.

She'd encountered enough of both types in Gotham to be sure somebody’s tongue had been wagging at the school. She didn't know whether to be relieved or furious.

I don’t care,” Kara continued.

“I’m not a whore, Kara,” Cat snapped bitterly.

Kara never flinched. “I believe you, but it's none of my business either way,” she said in that same, soft voice that Cat might have found irritating if she didn't need the kindness it promised so desperately. “But something has you upset and I’m just telling you, whatever it is, it’s your secret to keep...or not...but it’s not going to chase me away.

“How can you be so sure?”

Kara was silent for another long moment, then finally cleared her throat. “When I was about Carter’s age—” she began, her voice ragged and halting enough to leave Cat thinking this took everything she had “—my family died...in a fire—”

Shame washed over Cat. She’d been lost in her own problems when this woman who’d been so kind was hurting.  “Oh god, Kara, I’m—”

No,” Kara said just firmly enough to pull Cat to a halt. “I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad. It was awful, but I’m lucky. I have an adopted family, and they love me...and I’m okay.

“All right,” Cat said uncertainly when Kara didn’t immediately continue.

My mother and my aunt were twins,” Kara said at last. “Most of my life we were all so close...but before the...the fire...something happened...and instead of being family, they were at each other’s throats. They weren't even speaking when they died. They wasted time over stupid things instead of using it to love each other.” She drew in a ragged breath. “I don’t ever want to be like that.” Another moment of silence went by. “I don’t care what you did,” she repeated.

“Kara, you don’t know—”

Did you kill somebody?” Kara asked sharply.

“No,” Cat said quickly, not liking the suggestion. Despite everything, there had always been lines she wouldn’t cross.

Hurt someone like that poor man out on the parkway?

“God, no,” Cat hissed, the mere idea leaving her sick. She turned back around, leaning out over the balcony railing. She watched as a tear fell away from her cheek and disappeared into the darkness. She braced herself for the expected avalanche of harsh words.

Then whatever it is, I don’t care,” Kara said firmly.

Clinging desperately to the phone with one hand and the railing with the other, Cat was bent nearly double by the emotions twisting in her belly. She blinked desperately in a bid to clear her suddenly watery vision, sending a few more silver tears tumbling away. She couldn’t have spoken if her life depended on it.

Whatever’s in your past," Kara continued, sounding determined, but also oh-so kind, "the woman I know is this amazing person who reached out to someone who desperately needed it...who’s been nothing but kind, and shared these incredible experiences...and who has raised the most amazing kid.” She paused for another beat before continuing. "Do I believe that person could make mistakes? Yeah. We all do. But do something that would horrify me? No. I don't think you have it in you."

“How can you be so sure?”

We may have only just met, but I know you...and you know me,” Kara murmured, her voice gentle enough to make Cat ache as it wrapped around her like a protective pair of arms. “And now—” she continued, her voice low and inviting, but with an added wry twist, “—I’m going to tell you all about my first student teaching experience. You’re probably going to laugh,” she deadpanned. “And honestly, it’s pretty funny, so I’m not gonna hold it against you.”
    
“Really?” Cat just barely managed to get the single word past the tightness in her throat.

Really,” Kara confirmed and launched into a sweetly funny story that she’d clearly told on herself plenty of times before. Her timing on the jokes was too perfect for it to be a first run.

By the time she hit the final punchline, Cat was laughing, not uproariously—it wasn’t that kind of humor—but sincerely. “Thank you,” she whispered when Kara finished.

Any time.

Cat was silent a long moment. “What did I do to deserve you?” she asked at last, genuinely mystified. There was nothing in her life that should merit so much kindness.

You took me sailing.”

It was a struggle to understand the simple statement. Cat wasn't used to kindness without ulterior motives. “You showed me candles floating on the surf,” she countered in a struggle to understand what it all meant.

"So we both shared something beautiful," Kara said, sounding pleased with Cat's response. "And we're both better for it." A beat and then she added, "I'm better for knowing you."

Despite the temptation to grab onto those words and hang on like they were a life preserver in high seas, Cat was terrified to read too much into them. This girl could break her, she realized in an instant.

"My family had a motto," Kara whispered into the silence. "Stronger together."

Cat scrubbed at her cheeks as she realized she was crying again. Not knowing how to respond, she didn't say a thing.

"Would you like me to come over?" Kara asked quietly.

"No," Cat said instantly, her tone firm. "Not with those maniacs out there. I couldn't live with myself if anything..." She didn't finish, but the meaning was obvious. "No," she repeated firmly after a beat. It was a risk she wouldn't bear.

"It wouldn't be a problem." Kara's voice, low and warm, seemed to work its way inside Cat, wrapping itself around her heart like it had found a new home. She was so achingly young and confident that Cat wanted to grab her and wrap her in cotton and warn her the world wasn't a safe place.

"Really, no." Cat wouldn't allow any defiance on this. "It's not safe. Besides I've got an early day tomorrow, and you do too," she reminded Kara. "Classes don't exactly start at noon, y'know." She tried to inject some humor in her voice.

She suspected she didn't do a very good job of it from the way Kara simply murmured, "Uh-huh."

 “I’d like to call you tomorrow...if that’s okay,” Kara said when she finally spoke again.

A part of Cat was screaming at her to walk this back, get away, go hide, think about it, anything, but what she actually did. “You're always welcome," she assured the girl. She didn't pretend to understand what was happening, but she was comfortably certain she could never reject this woman.

Careful,” Kara warned her. “Start saying things like that and you’ll have me underfoot all the time.

“I can think of worse things,” Cat said before she could think better of it. She blinked sleepily, so tired inside and out that she hurt. “But I really do need to head for bed.”

Go,” Kara ordered. “I’ll call you.”Her tone made the words a solemn vow.

"I...thank you," Cat whispered.

It's gonna be okay.”

Can’t eyes slid closed and she almost couldn’t speak for a moment. “Don't ever change,” she begged.

“Good night.”

* * * * * *

Good night,” Cat's voice echoed in the brief moment before the phone clicked off.

Kara floated, silently watching the woman on the balcony below stagger back inside. In that moment, a hundred emotions, some familiar, some all new, all of them fiercely protective, stirred in her breast. “You’ll be okay,” she promised, something very old in her words. “Both of you.”

Her Aunt Astra had once tried to explain that there were promises that were utterly sacred, not because of the actual words or the decorum surrounding their pronouncement, but because of the emotion and belief that underlaid them.

For the first time she thought maybe she understood what Astra had been trying to tell her as she whispered,  “I swear...”


* * * * * * *

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

Cat didn’t like waiting, not even a little bit. It left her feeling twitchy, like her skin was itching just beneath the surface and someone was waiting to pounce.

Which, given where she was sitting, maybe someone was.

Welcome to the top floor of the Clocktower, aka the Gotham Observer’s office building, where, if the gossip was to be believed, nobody got invited and possibly nobody got out alive. It was next door to the press offices where Cat worked and across town from the actual printing facilities.

The art deco era tower was a study in intimidation with its tall spires, heavy lines, and looming gargoyles on every corner. Inside, it was even darker and more forbidding, the ceilings low, the lighting dim, the trim mahogany. It created an unfriendly feel from the deathly silent hallways to the hatchet faced, elderly secretary glaring at her from behind her desk. Even the note demanding her presence for a meeting had been brusquely worded to the point of rudeness.

So much for any notion that showing a bit of initiative had been a good plan. She’d joked to Kara that the managing editor couldn’t possibly know her name. Apparently she was wrong because that had definitely been her name written on the email that popped up the moment she checked her computer, as well as the note a runner hand delivered and finally her immediate superior’s lips as he stepped one foot out of his office, bellowed her name, then ordered her to report to the “Boss”. He’d been smirking as he did it.

Damn. That couldn’t be good.

She felt her heart squeeze in her chest. She needed this job, not just for the paycheck, but because her deal with her benefactor was very straight forward on the job front. She had to stay gainfully employed. She needed the cover of at least appearing to be able to pay her bills and if she lost this her chances of finding something else were almost nil. She was barely qualified to wait tables, and journalist wasn’t exactly a profession with an expanding job market. She’d been lucky as hell to get this. With a resume so thin it barely qualified as tissue paper, she had no chance of repeating the miracle.

Meanwhile, the secretary was still glaring. Fun times.

Clamping down on any urge to bounce in her seat, Cat glared back. If she was going to go down, might as well make sure she was fighting all the way.

The secretary’s mouth twisted, her nose creasing into one giant, disapproving wrinkle in the middle of her face. “You can go in now,” she growled without breaking eye contact.

Eyebrows bouncing toward her hairline, mouth twisted into a smirk that was all sultry confidence, Cat pushed to her feet and sauntered toward the office door. Her poise was all bullshit and bad attitude, but she’d gotten through more than one miserable event on adrenaline and pissiness. She could do it again.

The secretary did something and the door popped open with a soft click.

Throwing a wink and a saucy smile over her shoulder, Cat stepped inside. The door snapped shut in her wake with enough force to make her jump and spin toward the sound before she could stop herself. Muscles quivering, she fought a shivery desire to run and hide, the sense of being trapped clawing up her spine.

Well, that was about as subtle as a bear trap, but she could deal, she reminded herself as she took a careful step back. Taking a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and smoothed her dress down her hips. She could do this.

Finally, she pivoted, cursing mentally as she was faced with a very dark room. She blinked rapidly to bring a barely lit world into focus. If she’d thought the halls and waiting rooms were dark, they didn’t hold a candle to Barbara Gordon’s office. Dim lights set in deeply recessed wall units threw a thin layer of light onto the ceiling. Other than that the only illumination bled around the sides of a computer monitor on the other side of the room. She heard clicking keys, but the monitor was large enough that she couldn’t see whoever sat on the other side of it.

The low light shifted her vision, narrowing the visible spectrum until the room appeared to be cast in shades of blue and grey, but granting enough acuity that could make out the bookcases lining almost every wall and shelves stacked high with technical manuals, notebooks, and printouts. A huge, dark wood desk dominated the center of the room, while a couple of uncomfortable looking chairs sat in front of it and a large couch sat along one wall below several layers of hanging shelves.

Clearly, Barbara Gordon liked her books.

As she stared, a pale hand appeared around the edge of the monitor and gestured to the chairs with a sharply worded, “Sit.”

Teeth grinding with irritation, Cat nonetheless moved to the chair in question, every step consciously sinuous and graceful. Once there, she sat, delicately crossed her legs and waited, firmly ignoring the urge to fidget or worse, start flinging insults.

She really didn’t like waiting.

“Sorry for the wait,” a woman finally spoke up as the monitor was pushed out of the way on a swing arm.

It pivoted into a new position with the screen partially aimed Cat’s direction, revealing nothing but a simple screen saver, but forcing her eyes to adjust to the brighter light. She blinked, as the surrounding world faded into the shadows.

“Barbara Gordon.”

“Cat Kyle,” Cat said simply, squinting in an effort to bring the other woman into focus. There was still enough light from the monitor to slightly illuminate her face on Cat’s right, throwing the other half into deep shadow and revealing pale, but strong features; high cheekbones, a sharply cut jaw, straight narrow nose, and wide eyes behind tinted glasses. She leaned forward a bit and wavy, red hair caught the light at her shoulder for a second. She looked directly at Cat, leaving her with the sense of being in a predator’s sights. Maybe it was the reporter thing. That look probably got a lot of secrets out of people.

A hint of a frown creased Cat's brow as a sense of familiarity tweaked her memory. She knew that face, had seen it before.

Before Cat had a chance to muse on it, Barbara straightened her shoulders. “I’m sorry it’s so dim in here, but my eyes were injured some years ago. Anything brighter is problematic.”

“I’m sorry,” Cat exhaled. She shifted, still trying to get a better look, but Barbara reached out and slid the monitor over a little farther, throwing herself into deeper shadow, and putting the monitor more in Cat’s line of vision. The move left Cat facing the brightest light in the room. She wasn’t blind, but she couldn’t see much.

Barbara shrugged. “I survived.” She sighed, sounding tired, then continued before Cat had a chance to respond. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I wanted to see you.”

To say the least. “A little.”

“Your proposal to cover pop up restaurants was routed to me as well as the senior editor in your division, Hamilton Tyler. I think it’s a good idea...Ham doesn’t,” she laid out in blunt terms, her tone serious enough to suggest that Tyler disliked more than just the idea.

Cat froze, uncertain whether to expect good news or bad. “Okay,” she exhaled cautiously.

Barbara leaned back in her chair, merging so completely with the shadows that Cat tracked her more by the creaking leather of her chair than any visual cues. A slender hand swept forward, briefly catching the light as she tapped the screen and one of Cat's old articles came up. “I was just rereading the pieces you submitted when you applied for the job.”

Unable to get a read on the situation, Cat remained silent and simply nodded.

“You’re a good writer,” Barbara said after a beat. “A little rough around the edges, but too good for Tyler's version of a style section...though I’ll give you credit for making it feel relevant.” She reached out and tapped the monitor again to pull up another article. “I particularly like the piece you did about encountering gorillas in Nigeria...you put the reader there, made them feel what you felt, made them feel what the gorilla felt when she was as fascinated by your child as you were by hers.” She was silent a moment. “I’m curious why you traveled so much,” she said, her voice rising faintly at the end in a tacit request for more information.

No avoiding the question this time. Always stick as closely to the truth as possible. “I was in antiques acquisition...nothing big, just small dealers and private clients.” That was one way of putting it. She saw a flicker of shadowy movement on the other side of the desk and heard another soft creak of leather shifting. “It required a lot of travel, but gave me more time with my son.” And it wasn’t like she’d had any other skills. Lacking a history and a name, not even a high school diploma under her belt, she’d had very few choices and nothing but Selina's old contact list, at least at first.

“Any plans on going back to it?”

Stealing? “No,” she said, then realized she’d been almost aggressive about the rejection and tried to soften the statement or at least explain. “I-my son, he’s at an age where he needs stability, a chance for a more formal education to get a grounding for college.” She wouldn’t see Carter in her position with no choices. She forced herself to stay calm and not bolt in the face of the intense attention she could feel directed her way. “He’s smart,” she added, well aware she was breaking her own rules about never saying more than necessary or answering questions she hadn’t been asked. “He deserves every chance to be someone...and that won’t happen with some hand to mouth existence on the road.”

“That’s great about your son, but what about you? That must have been an exciting lifestyle. Is it something you want to go back to when he’s older?”

“No,” she exhaled. In the early days when she’d been all barely contained rage and righteous fury with nothing to lose, it had been easy, even fun to tease and taunt and live off the efforts of the very people who’d both created and nearly destroyed her. Then later, when Carter was young and she needed the money, the decision had been more pragmatic. It was an easy way to make good money, have time with a very special needs child, and keep moving when staying in one place felt much too dangerous. Now she felt increasingly ashamed, like maybe she was just a monster who should be caged. For the first time, she was terrified of being caught every damn time she put on the costume. “I don’t want to go back to that life,” she finally said very softly.

Barbara didn’t say anything for a long moment, just sat silently watching Cat. “All right then,” she said at last. “I have an opportunity, if you’re interested...”

* * * * * *

“...then she told me the Observer’s social media presence is abysmal, and she wants to start over...spin off a new division with new people,” Cat explained, sounding more excited with every word. “She even has plans for a new app that will let users have a social media presence like Facebook and Twitter, but also curate their own news interests...essentially create their own newspaper for their followers...with bonuses for writers who get more reposts.” She was talking fast, happy, scared, and overwhelmed all at the same time. “She doesn’t want it to be just a local resource. She wants to take it national...and if it that happens, the sky’s the limit. I don’t understand all the ins and out of the business end, but everyone who gets in on the ground floor will be vested...”

“That’s fantastic!” Kara said happily, so thrilled for the other woman she barely knew how to contain it, and happy too to hear that Barbara was starting something new. Maybe she could finally heal. “I told you you’d be taking over soon.” She laughed softly.

God, I was sure I was going to be fired when she said Tyler didn’t like my proposal,” Cat gasped. “I thought that after everything I’ve...” She fell silent for a brief moment before whispering, “I though it was all down the tubes.”

“But it’s not,” Kara reminded her. “In fact, it sounds like an amazing opportunity.”

It is,” Cat confirmed.

“How does it feel?”

Cat was silent for a long moment. “The truth?” she asked at last.

“Yeah.” Kara smiled ever so slightly.

Kinda terrifying,” Cat admitted. “But also really wonderful.

Flying high above a dark, country road in search of anything that might help track down what the Gotham Chronicle had dubbed ‘The Highway Hitmen’, Kara took more than a little comfort from the joy in Cat’s voice. In that instant, it struck her how much she needed these moments to do this job. Alex might need dead silence so she could focus on seeing all the evils in the darkness. Kara needed to remember there was still light out there, still good things and happy people to go back to when she was done hunting evil.

Cat’s voice on the phone reminded her why she was doing this---what she was protecting---and helped chase away the terror that she'd fail and arrive too late and find only victims.

“You’re going to be brilliant,” Kara assured her.

I’d settle for competent.”

“No settling,” Kara chastised gently. “You’re too good for that.” She circled around, checking another dark road, both relieved and disappointed to find it empty. Fear wasn’t running rampant in the city, at least not yet, but the roads on the outskirts of town were definitely quieter than usual.“You can do this.”

Thank you,” Cat said, her voice soft and younger sounding than usual to Kara’s ears. “No one’s ever...” she trailed off.

Kara desperately wanted to know more, but instinct told her it wasn’t the time to ask. They both needed this conversation to be an upbeat one and Cat’s tone suggested going any further down that road would be anything but. “Anytime,” she whispered. Thinking they both needed a subject change, she shifted gears. “Y’know I’d love to read your old articles.”

Really?” Cat asked, sounding surprised, like she couldn’t imagine anyone caring.

Kara was getting a better sense of this woman's deeply buried insecurities. “Really,” Kara assured her. She did a slow turn, angling above another country road, relieved to find it was also empty of traffic. It looked like nobody wanted to be on the smaller, country roads, though midtown had looked more or less normal when she overflew the area.

I’ll see if I can find them again.” Cat sounded very uncertain about the idea.

“I’d like that,” Kara said seriously.

They’re really not anything special. Just anything I could sell when Carter was little. Short articles for small travel magazines mostly.”

“I’d still really like to read them.” Increasingly, Kara found she wanted to know everything about this woman. The things she’d already read had given her a bit of insight and she was hungry for more.

If you really—”

“I do.”

I’ll see what I can dig up.” Kara heard Cat draw in a breath and could almost imagine her fidgeting nervously. “And on that note, I should probably head for bed...”

“Same here,” Kara sighed. Much as she was enjoying herself, she knew Alex would be chomping at the bit. She just barely tolerated Kara's need for what regarded as teenage gossip sessions. Push it too long and Kara was comfortably certain she could expect her sister to start buzzing for attention and getting grumpier with every passing minute.

And a grumpy Alex did nothing to help the situation.

But before I do," Cat continued, "I wanted to ask if I could take you out to dinner tomorrow night? While the programmers are building the software, Barbara wants me to start stockpiling articles on local businesses. Thought maybe I could start with this little place Carter and I found...serves the most amazing Thai food. It’s near the river walk on Cobblepot Avenue. We’d love to have you join us. My treat...or rather, my new expense account's treat.” She paused for a tiny beat. "I have permission, by the way, to take Carter and a guest."

“Sounds like fun.”

They hashed out a plan for Kara to show up at Cat’s, then ride together to dinner, said their goodbyes and hung up.

After she broke the connection, Kara peered at her phone for a long moment, a glazed look in her eyes, mouth curved into a happy smile. Finally, she tucked it back in its compartment on her belt. She was just reaching for the control to the comm signal when the device buzzed for her attention. She flipped it on.

Okay, Princess Charming,” Alex began unceremoniously, “time to send Cinderella home and worry about keeping the kingdom running smoothly.

“I already hung up.”

Okay, then unless you plan to just float there all night, time to get back to work.”

“I thought I'd check out Bristol Estates.”

Actually, I want you to head toward Arkham Road. I’m seeing some odd traffic patterns out there.

Kara felt her pulse accelerate. “Arkham Asylum?” she whispered. The mental facility was well out of town and housed the most psychotic and violent of criminals. There had been no breakouts since Wayne Corp bought the place and instituted modern standards of both care and security, but they’d been common in the years before and there were still attempts now and then.

I wouldn’t bet against it,” Alex admitted.

Kara turned north and accelerated.

* * * * * *

Sitting under an animated neon sign from the fifties featuring a woman showing off a diamond ring, Cat peered at her phone screen for several extra seconds after breaking the connection. Finally, she tucked it away on her belt and looked up, tracking the pulsing of the neon for a brief second. Despite being brightly lit, she wasn’t worried about being seen where she crouched on the roof of King Street Vintage Jewelers. Tucked under the sign's supports, she was confident that anyone looking her direction would only see flashing neon.

“Back to work,” she reminded herself, but didn’t rise.

Once upon a time she would have been proud of herself for casing a target under the guise of writing an article about her victim-to-be. Once upon a time she wouldn’t have noticed the victim-to-be was trying to hold onto something his parents and grandparents before that had built by the sweat of their brow. She wouldn’t have been nauseous with guilt or shaking in the knees.

Then again, once upon a time her victims weren’t aging, slightly frail men who lived above inherited jewelry shops that had been built in the thirties, popular in the sixties and hadn’t been truly profitable since the eighties. Now it looked as worn as the rest of the neighborhood and the stock inside consisted mostly of antique and vintage items valuable more for being unique or interesting than for any gems or metals used in their crafting.

The owner, one Jacob Schreier, lived in a small apartment above the shop with his newly legally wed husband and a completely inadequate security system that relied primarily on good wifi and a lack of much worth stealing.

Sadly, Jacob’s wifi was awful and he had something she needed. He also hadn’t invested in any monitors for the third floor attic windows. No one had broken in that way in the store’s lifetime, so he’d thought it a waste of money. She shook her head almost sadly. Not the first time that sort of logic had made her job easy, but it was the first time she'd felt so awful about it.

Cat pulled the hood on her costume up, carefully settling the ears. They spread the mesh away from the sides of her head, giving her the freedom to monitor the sounds on all sides. That done, she slipped her goggles into place and dropped off the roof to a narrow ledge. She popped the vintage window lock and was inside in under a minute.

She moved quickly through the attic, pausing above the bedroom and crouching down, listening carefully at the vent. Silent. Even the TV was off now.

Good. With luck, she’d be into the jeweler’s safe—a hopelessly out of date model she was confident she could open in minutes—and out just as quickly, and this night could be over.

She moved fast, feet light on the stairs, seeing easily in the darkness. The access panel she needed was in the hallway, and in moments she was in a dusty, narrow crawlspace, allowing her to deal with the security system by avoiding it. There was a camera in the shop, but if she timed it right, she could avoid being seen if she was careful to time her drop right as it swept back and forth. Once she landed behind the counter, she could stay low and still unlock the safe, grab what she needed and go back out the way she came in.

At least, that was the plan.

She was in the crawlspace above the ground floor, balanced neatly on the pipes above the suspended ceiling when she heard the sound of shattering glass.

Oh hell.

Rough voices followed along with the thud of heavy boots and the bark of ugly laughter.

That wasn’t good. Easing an acoustic tile aside, she peered down through the crack.

Three men, all big, all wearing what looked like motorcycle leathers. Every instinct told her they were there to rob the place, and they weren’t wearing masks because they had no intention of letting anyone they met live.

She glanced at the ceiling, willing the pair sleeping above to remain sleeping, or if not, to simply lock up and dial 911.

Then she heard a much softer pad of feet above her, then on the stairs.

Don’t,” Cat hissed as if she could stop what she felt happening through sheer force of will, but the softer steps drew closer.

And the stomping boots turned.

They’d heard him.

Run.” He wouldn’t, of course. He’d stand there, like people always did, shock and denial keeping him in place until it was too late.

She could undoubtedly pound the invaders to a pulp, but she was supposed to stay out of any conflicts and not be seen by civilians. She'd been warned it was dealbreaker. Raise a hand and it was all over. Hell, she hadn’t even admitted to the dustup with Batgirl for fear of being hung out to dry. She needed this chance, needed the promised future, the fresh start.

Needed to be able to build a life for Carter.

Meanwhile, Jacob was a good man, kinder than most from what she’d seen, but he wasn’t a big man, and he was soft.

He wouldn’t take being hit well.

She flinched, her whole body rattling when she heard the first slapping thud and his low, panicked cry.

“You just open the safe,” the voice was deep and thick with threat. “And we let you go.”

He was lying. Jacob was dead the moment they had what they wanted and it would be a miracle if his husband—probably still sound asleep in bed—wasn’t as well.

Cat caught a glimpse as the thieves dragged their prisoner toward the safe and muscles rippled up and down her arms. She ducked her head, teeth gritted with fury. Don’t do it, she reminded herself. Don’t lose everything for a man you don’t know or have any reason to give a damn about.

* * * * * *

As he stumbled along, pushed and prodded, ugly taunts thrown at him, Jacob never stopped thinking. They kept promising to let him live if he just did as told, but he wasn’t a foolish man. He knew he wasn’t likely to survive the night, and giving these men what they wanted wouldn’t change that, in fact, might just accelerate it. He’d seen their faces, recognized one as a local bully boy who liked to hang out in the bar on the corner. He wouldn't want a witness, and even if he didn't care, he and his buddies weren’t the kind who let people live, particularly when they didn’t get what they wanted, and he didn’t have the kind of gems they were already laughing about living high on. He hadn’t had a diamond bigger than a quarter carat in stock in years.

Which left him playing for time, trying to get to the silent alarm switch behind the counters. The police weren’t great to respond, but it was his best hope.

He figured that unless the cops got there, he had a few minutes to live at best.

But goddammit, he wanted every one of those minutes, and more importantly, he wanted to make sure these men didn’t find Brian sleeping upstairs, which they were sure to do if they killed him. They'd toss the place looking of value then.

He stumbled as they shoved him behind the counter and went down hard, the air knocked from his lungs, his knees agony where they hit the tile floor. Even so, as he fell, he stretched his arm in hopes of hitting the alarm switch.

He was still inches short.

A boot slammed into his thigh hard enough that he couldn’t think for a moment, certainly couldn’t move even with a snarled order ringing in his ears.

“Get up, you stupid bastard...unlock the safe and we’re outa here.”

“...trying...” Jacob grunted as he got his hands under him to push up to his knees.

A hard kick to the ribs slammed him sideways into the cabinet and he tumbled back to the floor, landing on his back, the thug’s laughter echoing around him. They were all looming over him, the one smirking, while the other two looked annoyed.

One arm braced across his bruised ribs, Jacob scooted back a little, eyes going wide as a bit of movement behind his assailants drew his gaze. He blinked and whatever he’d seen faded into the shadows or maybe just been imagined. He really didn't know.

“Quit screwin’ around,” one of the thieves, a giant of a man with dirty blond hair and a slash of a mouth permanently twisted into a sneer, ordered and slammed a hand into his attacker’s shoulder.

“Fuck you! You ain’t my boss,” his attacker shot back and hurled another kick.

Jacob couldn’t quite contain a scream as a boot slammed into his ribs, but he somehow used the momentum to scramble closer to the silent alarm switch.

“Dammit, Lenny, stop that. You’re gonna kill him too soon.”

Even knowing he shouldn’t look back, Jacob twisted to stare at them.

“Shit, you’re such an asshole, Lou. Now he knows.”

Jacob barely heard them, his full attention on the figure that emerged from the shadows overhead. Long, sleek and lean, it flowed downward behind his assailants and dropped to the floor without making so much as a whisper of sound.

It reminded him of one of the alien movies when the creature slid out behind its victim, barely visible and eerily graceful.

And as he saw her head tip to one side like a cat he’d had once who was the terror of the neighborhood birds, he knew that he might not survive, but they wouldn’t either. In that moment, he threw himself away from his attackers, reached for the switch, then pulled himself into a tight fetal curl in hopes of surviving the boots he fully expected to start hammering his ribs.

* * * * * *

Cat straightened from a crouch, a low growl bubbling up from her throat as one of the men stepped toward Jacob. They hadn’t noticed her yet, but that was about to change.

She leapt, body rolling the moment she was airborne. In full flight, she smashed a fist down into the nearest one’s head as she flew by, then raked another’s shoulder with steel tipped claws, using him as the pivot point to roll on over.

She dropped to a half crouch, landing light as a feather between Jacob and his attackers.

“What...”

“The...”

“Fuck!” the three exhaled in order.

Apparently it required all three of them to make one complete brain, Cat decided. She wondered if they’d all hurt at the same time. She swung, raking Jacob’s lead assailant with steel tipped claws, then punched with her other hand as pain bent him double. He staggered, but didn't go all the way down.

The other three were still standing tall, or at least in the same slouched positions, so apparently they didn’t share a central nervous system. Pity.

Then she jumped, using the nearest one’s back as a springboard to gain momentum to dive over the middle one, taking aim on the man in the rear. She tackled him, tumbling him away from the others, then rolling free and using momentum to regain her feet when she’d knocked him several yards back.

Groaning and in a daze, he started to push upright with one hand and reached for the gun in his waistband with the other. Before he could get any farther, she delivered a sweeping roundhouse kick that crashed into his temple and slammed him into a nearby wall hard enough to leave a dent.

He toppled to the floor and didn’t move.

“Gonna die bitch,” the uninjured one in the middle growled, while his buddy spun, expression twisted with agony, forearm braced across his bleeding midsection.

He nodded, and tried unsuccessfully to straighten.

“Doubtful,” Cat drawled, her voice low and sultry. No killing, she reminded herself. Hopefully sticking to that rule would earn her some forgiveness for breaking the one about not being seen. She allowed herself the luxury of a tiny, mocking laugh, feeling confident and righteous about the costume for the first time in ages.

The remaining thieves shared a look, silently brokering some kind of agreement. To their credit, they clearly understood the need to attack as a united front. They just weren’t very good at it.

They rushed forward together and Cat ducked a wild swing, then sidestepped and slapped her first would-attacker on the ass, sending him sprawling. The other one tried to use that momentary distraction against her, but she dodged his swing then hit back with a flurry of slaps and rabbit punches that did little damage, but knocked him back several steps.

Growling in fury, he cocked his fist back and slung a punch, clearly throwing all of his strength into the blow.

Cat caught his fist in one hand, grinning as he realized she’d stopped his hardest blow without a flinch. He was still staring in shock when she twisted sharply to a satisfying accompaniment of snapping bone and a human scream. His knees buckled and she punched on a downward arc, slamming her fist into his temple to finish the job.

He collapsed and she slung him away with enough force to send him skidding across the floor until he ran into his unconscious heap of his friend.

Cat pivoted, eyes going to the third one.

He was back on his feet, but visibly staggering. “What the fuck are you?” he gasped as he stumbled backward, his eyes wide and scared.

It was the wrong thing to say. Three long strides and she was on him, one hand thrust forward. She straight-armed him into the nearest wall, a savage grin curving full lips as he hit with a solid thud.

He was still conscious when she grabbed his collar to keep him upright and leaned close.

“What I am,” she snarled just loudly enough to make herself heard, “is human.”

His eyes went wide and she smiled as she smelled the fear on him. Then she pulled him back and slammed him into the wall again.

This time he went limp. Good plan.

She tossed him over with his friends, careless of how much damage his landing might inflict.

In all, no more than a few seconds had passed.

She turned toward the jewelry counters, empty for the night. She didn’t see Jacob, but she could hear him moving, and smell his terror. “I won’t hurt you,” she called, careful to keep the words pitched low and as different from her natural voice as possible. She strode forward, stepping behind the counter on light feet. “But I need something from your safe.” She spotted him where he was cowering in the shadow of a cupboard, trying desperately not to be seen.

She knew the feeling.

He was shaking so badly she doubted he could unlock the safe at that point.

Once upon a time she would have terrorized the poor bastard to keep him silent. One more thing she couldn't do anymore. “It’s one item, a stone called the Icelandic Sea. It's not worth much, and once I have it, I’ll go and I will never come back...and I promise I won’t hurt you or anyone else in your home...ever.”

He blinked, staring at her in disbelief. “Catwoman,” he said very softly, then swallowed hard like he’d just announced his own doom.

Her head canted to one side, she frowned. She didn’t think she’d ever stolen from this place...maybe Selena?

“Every gem dealer and jeweler in this city knows you,” he explained in the face of her confusion. “They won’t be happy to hear you’re back.”

She shrugged and crouched down, putting herself on his level. “Did they hurt you?” she asked, ignoring his statement.

He shrugged. “Maybe cracked a rib.” Gritting his teeth, he tried to push to his feet, but cried out and slid back to the floor.

“Stay down,” she told him, then glanced at the safe. “I can probably get into that thing as fast as you can.” She peered over her shoulder, checking on his attackers. One of them stirred ever so slightly and let out a low moan. “You have anything I can tie them with?”

It was his turn to look confused.

“So they can’t hurt you when I leave,” she clarified. When he still didn’t answer, she looked around for something with an electrical cord she could swipe.

“Top shelf in the cabinet on the right,” he suddenly said. “Zip ties.”

“That’ll do.” She found them quickly and grabbed a handful. A couple of minutes effort and the three thugs were nicely tied up despite any efforts made to resist as they regained consciousness.

“Bitch,” one of them grumbled dazedly.

She patted his cheek and offered a wry smile. “Right back at you.” Her smile took on a hungry, wolfish quality. “And if you say another word, I’m going to hurt you. Nod if you understand.”

He nodded.

“And if you ever hurt this man, or anyone he cares for, I will kill you.” She flashed a toothy smile, then instructed, “Nod again.”

Another nod.

“Good boy.” She delivered another pat to his cheek, hard enough this time to knock his head painfully to one side. She'd changed, but maybe not that much. Then Cat was moving, bounding across the room and vaulting the counter. She landed in front of the safe, making barely a sound as her feet hit the floor. A quick glance confirmed that Jacob was still where she’d left him.

Good. She had no intention of hurting him or even frightening him any more than necessary, but that would be easier if he stayed put.

Focusing on the safe again, she leaned closer and spun the dial, listening to the soft rumble and click of the tumblers and getting a feel for the action with sensitive fingers. It took her three tries, but finally she heard and felt the last pin drop into place. A quick twist of the lever and it swung open. She pulled the top tray out, searching quickly before pushing it back with a soft, frustrated curse.

“Fifth tray down...rear left side,” Jacob spoke up suddenly. He sounded in paid, but not so scared. “Then you need to go.”

She glanced over, head tipped to one side, lips pursed into a frown.

He looked almost ashamed. “I hit the silent alarm while you were fighting.”

As if to punctuate the admission, she heard a police siren somewhere in the distance, then another coming in from another angle.

Spinning back to the safe, she quickly found what she wanted and shoved it in a pouch on her belt, then hurried back to Jacob. She saw him flinch, ready to panic. She crouched well back, one hand up in a calming gesture. “I told you,” she repeated, still using that same, soft, low pitched tone, “I won’t hurt you...but I’m asking you not to tell them what I’m taking.” She was under no illusions that asking him to keep his mouth shut about her was going to happen. “I promise, I won’t come back, I won’t hurt you, no matter what you do, so this isn’t a threat...just a request.”

He just stared, afraid and hurting and confused by how she was acting.

Meanwhile, the sirens were getting closer, and she thought maybe she heard a helicopter as well. “I have to go now.”

He stared up at her. “Why?” he whispered as she stepped away.

She knew he was asking a deeper question by his tone. She pivoted back, mouth momentarily working silently before she finally whispered, “I had to change.” Then she broke. Finally giving way to instinct, she fled, hitting the stairs at a dead run and hitting the first landing in a single leap. She rounded the corner and hit the second in another jump. Two leaps down the hallway and she hung a right into the bedroom where she took long enough to shake the sleeping man’s shoulder with a barked order, “Your husband needs you downstairs!” before taking a bounding leap at the narrow window that overlooked the alley in the back.

Old and brittle, the glass gave way easily, barely even slowing her down as she grabbed the windowframe and twisted around, kicking off on the sill at the same time she clawed her way upward.

She hit the roof and bounced, leaping high and not coming down again until she hit the next building over. She heard the sound of sirens bearing down and saw red and blue lights reflected on every surface, but none of it could touch her and she never slowed down.

Whatever happened now, she knew she’d done the right thing, and if there was hell to pay, at least she could live with herself.

For the first time in a long time, she was just a little freer than she had been before.

* * * * * *

 

Chapter Text

-

Chapter Fourteen





Shaky and sweating inside her costume, her breath coming in ragged gasps, Cat landed on her balcony and rushed inside as quickly as she could, the sense of being pursued still enough to make her heart race even without the physical exertion of running around the city via the rooftops. Logically, she knew she was clear. She’d used her most circuitous route, doubled back twice, and checked and double checked behind her, but the paranoia would take time to let go.

She’d been through it before and knew it was a panic response and not at all rational, just a genetic trick, but it was still hard to overcome the drive to go to ground and hide as far from her home territory as possible. Jittery and still running on adrenaline, she peeled off the goggles and hood as she made a fast check of the apartment before moving toward Carter’s room.

Sound asleep. She heaved a sigh as taut muscles relaxed fractionally. At least that was the way it should be. Pulling off a glove, she petted dark silky curls very gently and stood watching him the way she had when he was still a baby and she’d spent too many nights terrified something would happen and he wouldn’t wake.

Instead he’d survived and thrived and whatever problems they might face, he was worth every bit of sweat and blood she’d shed.

Motherhood had not come easily, but she’d loved him fiercely from the first moment she wrapped her arms around his tiny, squalling body and every moment thereafter. She stroked his hair again, reminding herself that she needed to remember he was the most important thing. “I can do this,” she whispered very softly. “I have to.” She stayed where she was for a little longer, just stroking his hair in a slow rhythm. Finally, she straightened her shoulders and slipped out.

Involved in her own thoughts she didn’t see his eyes snap open or the way he stared after her, worry reflected in green eyes that were a mirror of her own.

His head full of thoughts and fears, it was a long time before Carter slept again.

* * * * * * *

Nights, both good and bad, eventually give way to morning and Kara was a morning person, her body literally energized by the sun’s rays where they fell across her bed. The eastern exposure wasn’t the best thing about her apartment, but it was close. She did a slow, lazy stretch, blinking sleepily, her body still pleasantly relaxed.

Which of course is when the call came in.

Rolling her head back, she managed another languid stretch on the way to grabbing her phone where it sat on her night stand. A quick glance at the screen confirmed her expectation. “Good morning, Alex.”

“Yeah, morning,” Alex clipped before cutting straight to the chase. “Have you turned on the news yet?”

“Nope. Busy doing this thing called sleeping. You should try it sometime.” She wondered if Alex had even taken a nap in the last several days. She had her hyped-and-running-on-coffee voice on and had for ages.

“Mm, no time. Turn on the TV...channel four.”

Kara fumbled with the pile of things on her night stand without coming up with a remote, and finally gave up in favor of buzzing to flipp the TV on by hand. The screen showed a wide angle shot outside some old storefronts. A pretty redhead was speaking directly to the camera as Kara turned up the sound.

“...is currently being examined by doctors and expected to make a full recovery. Meanwhile, the police are asking people to call if they know anything about the mysterious vigilante in black who saved him. We can only be grateful someone was there to help Jacob Schrier and hope this riddle is solved soon. This is Summer Gleeson reporting. Back to you Becky.”

Oh hell, someone in black playing vigilante. Alex couldn’t be that stupid, not with her still in a cast. Could she? “Alex, please tell me you didn’t do this, because you’re still supposed to be—”

“It wasn’t me,” Alex broke in quickly.

“Well, it wasn’t me.” Kara turned the sound down since the article appeared to be over, but left the TV on in case more appeared.

“Damn,” Alex muttered under her breath, making it clear that had been the explanation she was hoping for. “I hoped you got involved on the way home and just didn’t let me know.”

“Nope.” Kara channel surfed, looking to see if there was anything on the other channels. Either the story had already gone by or they didn’t have it yet. “So what happened?”

“Attempted robbery of a jewelry store on the east side. The owner walked in on the thieves who were pretty brutal about trying to get him to open the safe. He probably would’ve ended up dead, but the beatdown was interrupted by a good samaritan in black who proceeded to kick the thieves’ asses, then take off.”

Remembering how quickly her adopted father had offered to patrol in Alex’s place, Kara had to ask. “Is there any chance it was Bruce?”

A moment of silence, then Alex sighed heavily. “Alfred doesn’t think so. As far as he knew Bruce was with mom most of the night, but he got up early and went downstairs...” Which meant the Batcave. “...and was there for several hours.”

“He has a dozen ways out of that place,” Kara pointed out, worried her adopted father was doing something horribly stupid.  He was a smart man, brilliant even, but sometimes thick as a brick and twice as dense.

“I know,” Alex agreed tersely, her tone tight in a way that suggested she was ready to turn defensive. She never handled it well when he was anything less than perfect.

Kara heaved a sigh, well aware that Alex would defend her stepdad to the ends of the earth. “Eliza will kill him if he went out, particularly without telling anyone.”

“I know,” Alex repeated, then added in a defensive tone, “Which is why I don’t think it was him. He knows how Mom feels about it.” Her voice dropped even lower. “He wouldn’t take the risk.”

Because not taking risks was so very Bruce-like, Kara mused and rolled her eyes, though she held her tongue. Making Alex defensive would only create more problems, especially when they were already dealing with some friction in their relationship. “So is there any news on who it might be?” she asked, deliberately changing the topic.

“None that I can tell,” Alex said, the easy topic change suggesting she was no more eager to discuss some things than Kara was. “The would-be thieves insist they’re innocent...claim they were attacked by the store owner. Which is bullshit. No statement from the store owner yet, but the chatter on the police band suggests they don’t know a damn thing.” She was silent for a moment, then added, “There was also a security camera mentioned, but the video’s not on the police server...at least not yet.”

“Do they usually put those online?”

“Sometimes. Depends...” She snorted a curse under her breath.

“What’s really going on here?” Kara asked when Alex still hadn’t spoken after a long moment.

She heard Alex take a deep breath. “From what I can tell it looks like these guys weren’t trying to hide their identities. Everybody in the neighborhood knew the victim, Jacob Schrier, lived above the shop and it didn’t have anything of any real value anyway.” She let out soft, angry snort.

“Okay. Sounds like he was a soft target and everybody knew it. They probably figured he’d be too scared to ID them.” Kara didn’t understand what her sister was hinting at.

“Maybe.” Alex didn’t argue, but her tone expressed her doubt. “But what if this is somehow related to the Highway Hitmen? What if both attacks aren’t about getting something, but just about just about sowing fear?”

Kara thought about it. “But why?” she asked at last. “Who gains by doing that?” Yeah, there was some weird stuff going on, but it seemed more likely for a jewelry store robbery to be a one-off property crime that had turned violent, rather that some kind of plan.

“I don’t know,” Alex admitted, then growled another frustrated curse. She never had dealt well with uncertainty. “In any event, I thought you should be aware...”

Kara wondered if it was more about Alex needing to not be alone during a time when she was worried and couldn’t just go out and beat something up the way she normally would. “I’ll be careful...look for any signs of anything weird.”

“I’m not paranoid, Kara,” Alex ground out, somehow sounding pissed, resentful, hurt, and just a little scared all at once.

“I never said otherwise,” Kara shot back. “But I’m not sure what you think is going on...or what I can do about it.”

A long moment of uncomfortable silence followed before Alex finally spoke. “I feel like I should be out there...that maybe I could see something.”

“Something I’ve missed,” Kara filled in what Alex hadn’t said,  feeling completely inadequate. “I’m doing the best I can,” she whispered through the painful tightness in her throat.

“I know that,” Alex assured her. “And honestly, I feel bad you’re stuck with a job I know you hate...but I’m not talking about that.” She was silent for a moment. “I feel like there’s a pattern here, and I’m missing it.” Another moment of silence followed. “And staring at computer monitors isn’t helping.”

“Tell me what you want me to do.”

“I wish I knew,” Alex admitted. “I’ll call you if anything changes.”

“I—” Kara started to say something, but Alex hung up before she could really speak. She peered at the phone for a moment before tossing it aside and going in search of a bite of breakfast. Long experience had taught her it wasn’t personal and just getting on with life was the easiest way of dealing with Alex’s more abrupt moments. It still hurt, though she was lucky enough that using food as an emotional crutch wasn’t quite the problem it was for others. She patted her stomach. Flat and muscled as ever. Given how hard she had to work just to get enough calories, she didn’t think overeating was even possible.

* * * * * *

Cat was lost in deep, but restless sleep when the growl of her phone pulled her back to full wakefulness. Movements clumsier than normal, she grabbed for it, her heart already racing.

Too early for any normal calls. Was it some fresh hell come for her?

The ringtone was attached to her benefactor, and she experienced a lurch of fear as she remembered the night’s events and the rules broken. She couldn’t help but wonder if she was about to be cut loose. She pushed to a sitting position as she toggled her phone on. “Kyle, here.”

The voice, cold, mechanical, and without inflection came on immediately, the point blunt. “The jewelry shop owner. Was it you who saved him?”

Cat wanted to lie, or maybe just run and hide, but she knew that was only more likely to bring the hammer down. “I was already in when they entered. When Jacob came in they were going to kill him.” She kept her tone as flat as she could make it, which wasn’t very flat at all given she was scared to death. “Should I have just stood aside and allowed that?” She supposed to be on a path of redemption. How could she do that and allow an innocent man to be murdered? The two were incompatible. She wanted a life, but not at that price. Even at her worst, she’d proven she wasn’t...that.

The dead silence lasted  until she could feel her heart sink.

Finally, a single word answer came back. “No.”

Cat felt a little of the terror let go. “I may not have been a good person before,” she whispered after another long beat of the uncomfortable silence, “but I wasn’t a monster. Letting that man die so I could...” Her voice choked off and she couldn’t finish. Finally, she just muttered, “That would have been monstrous.”

“What about the fresh start for you...and your son?” Despite the lack of inflection, there was something suggestive and a little threatening about the question.

Cat was silent for a long moment, torn over how to respond and scared of what might happen if she was honest, but also scared of what she could become if she wasn’t. Just because a deal looked good, didn’t mean it was. “If the price of that is standing by while someone’s beaten to death,” she finally whispered, so scared her heart was doing its best impression of hummingbird wings in her chest, “I can’t do it.” She shook her head, rejecting the idea. “I’ve done some shitty things in my life, but I won’t wash my slate clean with someone else’s blood.” She was silent a moment, nearly broken and bleeding as she faced the fact she might lose everything and have to run again, but she couldn’t deny the truth any longer. “I can’t.”

Dead silence.

She’d gone too far, Cat realized in a rush of sick horror, to someone who seemed to know everything about her and could probably destroy her with no more than a single phone call. And yet she couldn’t have done anything else. Selina had taught her how to be human again, reminded her there needed to be rules. She’d spent every day since trying to find a way to walk the tightrope of being a thief and a human being while teaching Carter how to be more than she was.

She wasn’t sure how to do that anymore.

It felt like everything was coming apart.

“Three days,” the mechanical voice pronounced after a long moment.

“What?” Cat exhaled sharply, her voice thick with confusion.

“I’ll have your documents ready in three days.”

Cat’s jaw dropped and she almost couldn’t breathe.

“You’ll need to turn over every forged document you have...passports, credit cards, driver’s licences...all of it...for both of you.”

Which was a terrifying prospect at best. Hiding had long been one of the keys to staying safe, but Cat nodded even though she knew the gesture couldn’t be seen. At least she didn’t think it could given how many times she’d checked the apartment for bugs and hidden cameras.

“You’ll also need to turn over any stones you’ve gathered to date...and you will be expected to complete the list before the final payments are deposited in your account.”

Tension coiled Cat’s stomach into a tight knot. “I’ll do that,” she whispered. “But the documents, they’ll be real? I need to know because Carter, he doesn’t even have a real birth certificate.”

“Our deal included complete identities for you and the boy. What I’m building will stand up to the deepest background check. You will be Catherine Jane Kyle and Carter Lee Kyle...and no one will be able to prove otherwise.”

“But—”

“It will stand up. Trust me.”

Hard to do when you’re talking about an emotionless, ice-cold, mechanical voice on the phone, but her unknown benefactor hadn’t lied yet and her life was as close to normal as it had been since long before Carter’s birth. “I do.”

The answer came back almost instantly. “No, you don’t, but that’s to be expected.”

The flat statement knocked the air out of Cat’s lungs. “No,” she quickly denied, afraid it was a prelude to being cut loose. “I’m just afraid it won’t work.”

Another long pause followed. “It will, provided you continue to do as instructed...but understand, once this is over, there’s no going back, nNo putting on that costume because you need the money...or the excitement. It burns and you lead an honest life. Catwoman effectively dies.”

Startled by the sense of loss engendered by that thought, Cat was momentarily silent as she contemplated a life without the costume in her closet.

Her delay in responding did not sit well with the voice on the phone. The tone was as flat as ever, but somehow there was an added urgency to the response. “If you can’t do this—”

“I can,” Cat said instantly. “I can,” she repeated with forced calm. “I will. I have to.”

More frightening silence followed, but finally the mechanical voice returned. “Three days,” it reiterated. “You’ll be texted the information you need.”

Cat was just drawing a breath to respond when the connection was severed.  She peered at the phone for a long moment as she struggled to process it all. Trust, the voice had said.

She wondered if whoever was on the other end of those calls had any idea what they were asking of her.

No, of course not. How could they when she didn’t. Trust wasn’t her strong suit after all, but she was trying.

Cat glanced at the clock on her bedside table. Still a couple of hours before she was due anywhere and she was too wired to go back to sleep. Digging out her laptop, she started researching story ideas, particularly anything involving Bowery revival project. Remembering what had been there before the fires—decayed warehouses and condemned tenements—it was strange to see pictures of a growing community, housing, schools, the plans for a university. She touched the screen, outlining the grounds of the proposed school with the tip of her finger, then clicked on a link that took her to a profile of a student at the junior college. He’d been a toddler the night of the fire and like all of the survivors, Bruce Wayne had guaranteed him a college education and a home for life. He looked strong and healthy, like the quintessential happy college kid.

Amazing to think that could come from that night and the people she remembered staggering away from the trashed tenements.

Moving on, she noted the dates for a proposed groundbreaking ceremony for the university. Just a couple of weeks away. It gave her an idea and she jotted a few notes and was about to start typing them up when her phone rang. She picked up a little nervously when she saw there was no number listed.

“Cat?” Barbara Gordon’s voice came on instantly.

“Yeah. What’s up?”

“Hope I didn’t wake you, but something’s come up and we’re up against a deadline. I need you on it.”

“Me?” Cat said doubtfully. Yeah, she was moving over to the new division, but Barbara had been quite clear that, while she had promise, she was still in need of training. “What?”

“The jewelry store owner you interviewed was robbed last night...or rather, he was almost robbed...” Barbara paused for a brief second and Cat heard the rustle of papers. “He was saved by some idiot do gooder who, once he was safe, flitted away into the night.” She snorted what sounded suspiciously like a muffled curse. “In any event, it’s a good story. I’ve got Peter doing an interview, but I want you to punch up that article you wrote...double the length, at least. We’ll run the two together—news and public interest—and you’ll get a byline.”

Cat’s breath caught. It might be soft news, but it was news and a step up from the featherweight columns, mostly without her name, that she’d been tasked with so far. “How’s Jacob...the store owner?” she whispered as she remembered how beat up he’d been.

“Two cracked ribs, minor concussion, and a few cuts and bruises—”

“But he’s going to be okay?”

Barbara was silent long enough that Cat started getting antsy, but finally the other woman responded. “Yes. I spoke to his husband, said he’s pretty shaken and banged up. The hospital’s keeping him overnight to monitor the concussion, but he’s going to be fine.”

Cat exhaled as relief washed over her. “I’m glad,” she whispered. “He’s a good man.”

Barbara didn’t respond directly, simply said, “I need a rewrite on your article by noon, eleven would be better, ten damn near perfect.”

“I can get it done,” Cat stated with more confidence than she felt.

“Don’t come in. Just stay home and email it to me when it’s done. I’ll get any edits back to you asap.”

“Thank you,” Cat found herself whispering as Barbara came to a halt.

“For what?” Her employer sounded genuinely confused.

“The chance.” Cat knew she should shut up, but she didn’t quite know how. “I know my resume’s tissue thin.”

Barbara didn’t respond for a moment, but finally she muttered, “Resumes aren’t everything. Do your job and it’ll get thicker.” Then she added a crisp, “Now move it. You have work to do.”

Cat had just barely hung up when she remembered. “Carter.”

* * * * * *

Kara was enjoying one of her favorite very sweet cups of peppermint tea—Alex called them liquid candy canes—when her phone played a few bars of Stray Cat Strut. Grinning, she grabbed for it. “Hey, Cat.”

“Oh, thank god, you’re up.” Cat sounded frazzled and rushed.

“Yeah,” Kara said brightly. “Always been a morning person.”

“Well, that makes one of us,” Cat grumbled, then her voice faded for a moment as she called, “It’s in the fridge.”

Kara grinned as she heard a vaguely Carterish sounding grumble in the background. “So, what’s up?”

“Sorry,” Cat said quickly before a torrent of words came in a rush. “Anyway, is there any chance I could talk you into picking Carter up and taking him to school with you? Barbara called and I have an article to rewrite. It could mean a byline and when she asked, I didn’t even think, but I need to get this done by ten, eleven at the latest and if I take the time to get Carter to the bus—”

“I’m happy to pick him up,” Kara broke in on the unending sentence, eager to put the other woman out of her misery.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Cat exhaled gratefully. “She said yes,” she called to Carter, who grumbled something incoherent in the background. Clearly not a morning person. “What time will you be by?”

They worked out times quickly and Cat thanked her again.

“Really, it’s no problem,” Kara insisted. “You know I like Carter and it’s easy enough to swing by your place on my way in.”

“Well, I appreciate this.”

“I can make sure he gets home too, if you like,” Kara offered.

“Can I call you and let you know?”

“Sure thing. Whatever you need, just tell me. In fact, if you want I can take him to the park or the zoo if you need quiet time to work.”

Cat gasped softly. “Nobody’s ever...” she choked to a halt, then simply whispered, “Thank you.” She was silent another beat, then finally said, “And now I really—”

“Need to go,” Kara sing-songed.

“Yeah,” Cat sighed apologetically. “I...”

“I’ll look after him. You just worry about yourself today.”

“Thank you,” Cat whispered, then with a quick goodbye, she was gone.

* * * * * *

Kara smiled as she watched Carter scramble into her passenger seat. Stumbly, awkward, and anything but the energetic boy she was used to, he grumbled a vague greeting and plopped into the front seat, his eyes more closed than open. After taking a moment to latch his seatbelt, he leaned back and folded his forearm over his face.

“Not really a morning person, huh?” she sympathized. While she mostly liked mornings, she’d murdered enough alarm clocks to feel for him.

“No,” he grunted, the single word merging into a wide yawn. “Sorry,” he mumbled when he could speak again. “Didn’t mean to be rude.”

She glanced over, her smile gentle. “It’s okay. Mornings can be a challenge for all of us sometimes.” She turned her attention back to the road.

“I guess,” he mumbled. “For me it’s more like all the time...” He trailed off and shrugged, then shook his head. “It’s just a pain.”

She nodded and flashed another quick look his way. “Did you know that studies show that teens actually need more sleep than the rest of us?”

He looked startled. “Really?”

“Yeah,” she assured him. “So the sleepiness...it’s normal.”

His shoulders sagged and he sank a little deeper into his seat. “I don’t know...” He sighed heavily. “Always seems like I’m the only one.”

She laughed softly, then quickly explained when she felt him tense. “That’s because you’re not paying attention to anyone else. You should see my first period class. It’s like a gathering of coma patients.” She glanced over in time to catch his doubtful look.  “Really. Everybody’s just about passed out, and second period’s not much better,” she added seriously. “I keep tellling the admins we should start an hour later, but...” She shrugged. “They have this whole, ‘Early to bed, early to rise,’ mentality despite the fact we have electric lights these days.” Another shrug. “Now why don’t you lean back and relax. I’ll let you know when we get there.” She expected him to try and grab some sleep, but quickly realized he was sitting straighter and watching out the windows, particularly as they got on the expressway where there was a noticeable police presence, both at any onramps and moving with traffic. There had been no more attacks, but the police were being cautious.

As Carter watched, she heard him mutter under his breath, “That’s awful.”

She glanced over in time to see a splash of graffiti dedicated to the ‘Highway Hitmen’ and praising their ‘work’ painted across a cement siderail. “Yeah, it is,” she agreed.

“Why would somebody do stuff like that?” he asked, his voice small and raspy. “Hurt people, I mean.”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Stealing, I can understand, whether it’s because of need or just greed, but hurting people... Or worse, enjoying it...” She noted more of the disturbing graffiti and shook her head. She didn’t understand anyone who’d glorify that garbage either.

“The only time I really got in trouble, this bully made me so mad I wanted to hurt him.” Carter slowed and took in a deep breath.

Sensing he needed to talk about it, Kara waited, most of her concentration on her driving, but enough on him to track the conversation.

“Mom dragged out and told me I coulda hurt him...really hurt him...and she asked me if that’s the kind of person I wanted to be...and I...” He fell silent and hunched his shoulders.

“At that moment, maybe it sounded kinda good?” Kara asked and several seconds passed and he still hadn’t spoken.

He nodded.

They hit a slow patch of traffic, giving her time to truly look over at him. He was hunched in his seat, looking worried, maybe even a little scared. “Do you want to hurt him now?” she asked quietly, relieved when he instantly shook his head. “Was it just about making him stop, or did the idea of hurting him make you happy.”

His expression creased into a frown as he considered the question. “Just wanted him to stop.” He paused and thought about it another moment. “Mostly,” he added in a very small voice.

Turning her full attention back to the road, Kara had to fight a soft laugh as the road split and traffic thinned, letting her surge forward. “I think you’re okay,” she assured him. “If someone’s hurt or frightened you, it’s pretty normal to take a certain amount of pleasure in returning the favor. The important thing is you don’t follow through if you don’t have to.”

“I don’t wanna be someone like that,” he growled. “My mom—” His teeth snapped shut as he cut himself off abruptly.

Hearing his tone, Kara’s stomach knotted and it was suddenly hard to breathe. “Carter?” It took everything she had to keep driving and not to crush the steering wheel.

“I shouldn’t’ve said anything,” he muttered in a rush.

Kara’s mind went a dozen different very bad places. “Carter, this is important, are you and your mom safe?”

He was silent long enough that Kara was about to pull over and start grilling the kid when he finally spoke up.

“Yeah...it’s not...she’d never let anybody hurt me...but—” he stammered haltingly.

“Carter, is she safe?” Kara demanded.

“Yeah,” Carter said quickly, though he knew he didn’t sound as certain as he meant to. And the truth was he didn’t feel as certain as he wanted to. Yeah, things were mostly simpler, and she had a real job and was trying so hard to make things normal, but he knew something was going on too. He was scared for her because he knew she was still wearing the costume and going out at night sometimes, but there was no way in hell he could tell Miss Wayne about any of that. She was so nice and normal she’d probably totally panic, or worse, maybe think they were freaks. Sometimes he though she’d get it, and understand and other... Well, she was a normal human after all. He couldn’t take the risk, especially since he thought his mom cared for her and maybe they were building toward something. He’d seen the looks traded back and forth and heard the tender note in his mom’s voice whenever they spoke. “It’s just sometimes she can’t sleep, and I know she’s really scared of failing at the new job.” Which was totally true, even if it didn’t have anything to do with the late night jaunts. At least he didn’t think it did. He looked at Kara again, seeing the way some of the tension eased. Always stick as close to the truth as possible. “And I don’t know how to help her,” he admitted, his voice little more than a whisper.

“Oh, Carter,” Kara exhaled. She wasn’t sure it was the only issue, but it was definitely an issue. She reached across the space between them to pat his shoulder. She was silent for a moment, focused on her driving as she took an offramp that would lead to the small private road to the academy. “Your Mom’s got a lot on her shoulders,” she finally admitted, hoping that it would open up a dialogue, but soothe some of his worries “But from what I’ve seen, she’s a woman who can do anything she puts her mind to.”

“She always has,” Carter said so softly Kara almost missed it.

“And I’m guessing she will again.” She glanced over again, taking in his worried look. “But in the meantime, I think the best thing you can do is make sure she knows you believe in her.” She smiled encouragingly at him. “Think you can do that?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“And, Carter,” she added after a beat, “I want you to memorize that phone number I gave you, and I’m going to give you another. If you ever need me and can’t get me, you’ll reach someone who will help.” She heard him draw a sharp breath. “It’s not that I think you’ll need it, but with crazy people running around, I want you have ways of getting help.” They reached the school and she pulled into her regular parking spot. She turned to face him, finally able get more than a glance. He looked tired and stressed. “Carter, I want you to know that all you ever have to do is call...and I’ll get to you and I will find a way to help.” She smiled tenderly. “I’m pretty good at helping.”

He nodded and offered a small, shy smile.

* * * * * *

Well aware she was breaking established protocols about never going out without informing someone, Alex strapped a second brace around her broken forearm, adding a thick layer of padding and more stability even though she was hoping she wouldn’t need it. The problem was she knew perfectly well that her family would never agree to her plan to go out into the field alone. She couldn’t even have argued with them in any logical fashion. Kara was patrolling regularly and getting better at it. With her abilities she could handle most problems at least as well as Alex.

But Kara didn’t have the experience or the contacts. She didn’t know who to talk to or how to. Hell, even Bruce didn’t know the ins and outs anymore.

Which left it to Alex, or rather, Batgirl. And Batgirl couldn’t go in with backup, at least not while maintaining any street cred with the people she needed to deal with.

So she pulled on tight neoprene compression wear that would help blunt bruising, then sectional dragonskin  plating to stop bullets while still allowing maximum mobility, then finally the costume that hid her identity and added another layer of bruise and stab protection, with added hinge points that supported her knees and elbows and limited the stresses on her shoulders.

Through it all, her forearm continued to twinge and ache and she knew her mobility would be limited at best. Hopefully it wouldn’t matter. With luck, she could just take a look around, find out what her snitches were saying, and maybe talk to a few people who played on the edges of polite society. Nothing too dangerous, but the sort of thing that might give her some clues that would let her make sense of things. No looking for any fights, she reminded herself. Just talk to a few people, and get eyeballs on the ground.

And while she was at it, maybe chat with one or two people who might know something about whoever was playing hero and make sure it wasn’t anything ongoing because, yeah, they’d done good this time, but that kind of thing could go sideways all too easily. She understood the irony of that thought, she really did, but with everything going on, the vigilantism couldn’t be allowed. It would just get people killed.

As Alex left the mansion on a custom cycle that could easily outrun anything on the road. Her cape furled under a bulky motorcycle jacket, cowl hidden inside a helmet designed for the purpose, she knew perfectly well her entire family would be furious at her for taking the risk if they knew, but she felt better than she had since getting hurt.

This was who she was and what she was born for.

And nothing, not Bruce, Kara, her mother, or Catwoman herself, could change that. She accelerated as she hit a narrow, nearly overgrown access road, then poured it on as she reached the main road.

Despite the ache in her arm, she felt freer than she had in ages.

* * * * * *

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen




Nothing.

Alex was ready to kill someone just to let off steam and her arm was aching so badly thought she might just throw up while the grit and stink of the day left her feeling grimy to the core.

All for nothing.

Visiting various sites of known attacks and suspicious activity had yielded no new evidence. As far as she could tell the victims and targets were as randomly chosen as her computer studies had suggested.

Meanwhile, even the most dialed in of her snitches had looked at her like she’d lost it when she asked if Catwoman was putting together a gang. They’d had a variety of responses, from not knowing who the thief was to assuming she was dead. None of them had heard anything about her in Gotham, though one thought she’d been active in Europe during the last decade. None of it made sense. Alex knew what she’d seen, and what the MO on several minor burglaries suggested. Catwoman was in town. For no one to have heard from her didn’t make sense, leaving Alex to doubt her sanity just a little.

She tightened her hand into a fist, the runners of pain that chased up and down her arm oddly comforting. No dead fantasy figure had broken her arm or trapped her in a cage. No, that was a real woman, one Alex had no doubt was out there waiting to strike.

Straightening her shoulders, she took off with long strides, the nightvision on her motorcycle helmet    revealing the darkened corners in the abandoned building where she found herself. This was old Eastsiders’ turf, but by the looks of the place, nobody  had been back in at least a year. A head-up display reflected a steady stream of numbers and data on the upper left corner of her visor, giving her a sense of her environment beyond the grit and stink that clung to every surface.

She was deep in when the numbers warned her she wasn’t alone. One figure coming in from her rear left, moving slowly, but directly. EMF monitors showed no electronic frequencies. No nightvision.

Bad move.

The head-up registered the moment he started to accelerate. She pivoted and stepped back, sinking into what, for him, were undoubtedly deep shadows. She saw him clearly as he stepped forward, albeit in shades of nightvision grey; not as tall as she was and gawky thin, with narrow shoulders and a bit of stringy muscle. Blind, he lunged where he probably thought she still stood only to stumble awkwardly when he didn’t meet the expected resistance. Off balance, but still on his feet, short, but well kept dreads swinging with his movement. They’d make a decent handhold if she needed it, but for the moment, she kept her distance, flicking out a baton to slap it across his back and send him sprawling.

He was no experienced criminal. Startled, he scrambled as he hit the floor, trying to pop back to his feet, but only slipping in the deep dust so that he wound up on his ass. Another quick slap with the baton drew a yelp of pain and made him sit hard. “Stay down,” she growled, her voice a threatening rasp.

He froze, giving her a good enough look to confirm he was just a kid, fifteen or sixteen at the most.

But a kid with a baseball bat, she realized as she made out the familiar silhouette clutched in his right hand. She kicked it away and heard it rattle across the cement. “Don’t even think about it,” she ground out when he tensed and seemed ready to jump after his weapon. Beating up kids wasn’t her style, but he was big enough to be dangerous and she wasn’t going to let him get his hands on a weapon. “What the hell do you think you’re doing IN here?”

He crab scuttled backwards on his elbows, his eyes wide and scared, though he tried for a pugnacious chin thrust and a glare. He failed miserably. “Protecting my neighborhood from people like you,” he shot back.

Alex cocked her head to one side. “Protecting it?” she demanded, her voice thick with doubt, then added, “Explain.”

“I don’t tell Eastsider slimeballs shit,” he snarled.

Alex sighed very softly as she reminded herself he wasn’t seeing Batgirl, just an outsider in motorcycle gear, so the distrust was logical. Still, being in a place like this and attacking strangers, he wasn’t selling Girl Scout cookies. “Let me guess,” she growled impatiently, “Easties are scum, but Southies are heroes of the poor and downtrod—”

“Banger scum,” the boy snapped and scrambled back another foot or two. “So whichever you are, take your fuckin’ chems and shove ‘em. You got no biz here!”

That pulled Alex up short. “Explain,” she repeated. Neighborhood and gang politics meant the kids usually proclaimed their affiliations proudly. For him not to do so was unusual, just like the accusation about drugs—chems—another thing they usually claimed proudly. She’d dealt with plenty of them over the last few years, and they often bragged about their ‘business’ and how many kilos they dealt per year with as much pride as any Fortune 500 CEO bragging about their stock profile.

“Go to hell.”

She sighed again, just barely resisting the urge to lose her temper. She’d already had a shitty day and he wasn’t helping any. “Kid, I’m no banger, I’m a cape,” she said, using the common street slang for superheroes. Her tone was intended to make it a threat if he was gang affiliated and a promise of hope if he was just a civvie.

Instead of any expected response, he snorted disdainfully. “Which makes you worse,” he sneered. “At least most bangers don’t know any better.” He flashed another quick look at his bat.

“Don’t even think it,” Alex growled in her most threatening voice. “Look, kid, I just want to know if you’ve seen anything unusual lately.”  This was the kind of neighborhood where poverty and desperation would make it all too easy for a thief like Catwoman to recruit an army if she wanted.

He snorted again. “Typical cape.” The boy scuttled back a few more inches, his eyes reflecting a level of loathing that caught Alex by surprise. “Come down here giving orders and threatening the people trying to make this place better, but when we need you, you’re nowhere to be seen.”

“Kid, I’m trying to protect the people. In case you haven’t noticed, there are some guys running around hurting them. The Highway Hitmen?”

“Right,” he scoffed. “Only it’s been going on for years and we didn’t see you. You only care now that it’s rich people in  Lexuses getting hurt. When it‘s just street rats, you don’t give a crap.”

Alex made a soft, frustrated sound, offended at the accusation, but also feeling defensive. She hadn’t spent as much time in places like this as she probably should have, but she’d been learning and Bruce had steered her away from areas he deemed too dangerous on her own.  “What are you talking about?” she demanded, still using that low, threatening growl.

“This ain’t nothin’ new.” He ran his gaze up and down over her, expression twisted into a look of disdain. “You’re batcrap, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?” Surprise knocked Alex back a half step and stole the air from her lungs. She’d never heard her family referred to so disrespectfully.

“Yeah,” he jeered. “All in black, tough tone, intimidation tactics, never talk to anybody like they might just be a real human being...that’s pure batcrapper.” He thrust his chin forward. “You gonna burn us down next?”

Behind the mask, Alex’s lips pulled back from clenched teeth in a soft snarl. “Batman never did that.”

“Yeah, right.” The kid shook his head. “The news may’ve covered it up, but everybody saw, and his buddy, Bruce Wayne, payin’ people off don’t change that.”

Alex’s hand tightened into a fist. “Nobody got paid off—”

“What do you call all those freebies Wayne handed to the people his Batcrap buddy burned outa their homes?” He snickered. “Rich dudes like that don’t just give money away to be nice. There’s always something in it for them.” Another snorting laugh escaped his lips. “Besides, he probably gets twice his investment back on the down low—”

“No.” Alex surged forward a half step. Bruce had been genuinely trying to right a wrong even if he’d been as much the victim as those burned out of their homes. “He’s trying to rebuild the city—”

“Yeah, sure, the part the BatCrap burned down...which Wayne picked up for a song.

The muscles in her jaw cramping with clenched fury, Alex heard her soft growl, “That was Joker—”

“Yeah, it’s always somebody else’s fault with you capes.” He jerked his chin toward her. “I mean, here you are, you could be doing something to help stop Easties from moving back in and using this place as a drop for their mules, but all you’re doing is hassling me and worrying about some geezer with a good insurance plan and a few bruises. You don’t give a shit about the kids who’ll be overdosing on bad chems.”

Alex froze, not liking his version of truth at all. “Then tell me,” she hissed. “I can’t help if if I don’t know what’s going on.”

He let out a sharp, bitter laugh.

“I mean it,” Alex said firmly. “You think I run around like this for my health?”

“Nah, I think you do it cos you’re mental, just like the rest of ‘em,” he shot back instantly.

Barely resisting the urge to throw out a few insults of her own, Alex straightened her shoulders. “You want help or you just wanna whine?” she demanded. “Because if it’s help, you need to tell me what’s going on.”

He peered at her for a long moment until finally he shrugged, silently accepting the gauntlet she’d thrown down. “All right.” His expression was still angry and bitter, making his answer feel more like he was issuing a challenge of his rather than asking for help. “Easties stashed their chems here for years. Cops and capes both knew and didn’t do shit. Hell, the Batcrap left ‘em alone in trade for info on Cobblepot’s boys... so we finally drove ‘em out on our own. Burned their shit, beat their delivery boys, and busted up their cars when they came down here until they backed off. Only thing capes or cops did was bust our asses for it. See, you punks don’t like it so much when regular folks actually take of themselves. So we had a few years of peace, but now Easties are moving back and they’re taking kids, probably using ‘em as runners or mules or whatever...and cops and capes still ain’t doing shit.”

Alex wanted to accuse him of lying, but every instinct said he was telling the truth as he knew it. “Batman wouldn’t—”

“There’s a reason we call him Batcrap down here,” the kid sneered before Alex could finish. “Though maybe you think we should be grateful at least he didn’t try to burn us out like he did the Bowery Brats—”

“I told you—”

And I told you,” he shot back, his voice every bit as hard as hers.

Impasse.

He was just a scared kid, Alex reminded herself, whose entire knowledge base was probably based on street gossip and Batman had taken on plenty of bangers who probably gloried in dirtying his name. “Look, kid,” she said after taking a moment to get her temper back under control. “You’re right that we don’t do enough. Cops and people like me do our best, but places like this, they don’t get the help they ought to.”

“If this is your best, it sucks,” he accused. “You should probably go into some other line of work.”

Alex landed on her temper with both feet and ground out, “But you’re completely wrong if you think we don’t try. Batman did everything he could for neighborhoods like this.”

The kid snorted, a mocking look on his face as he asked, “He raise you on Kool-Aid, cos you sure as hell been drinking it.”

“Cute.” The kid was trying to piss her off. Probably thought it would make her screw up, but it only made her more determined to watch him like a hawk. She drew in a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She doubted he knew much, but maybe she could figure out some ways to help with the local problems and change a few minds.“Look, kid, I’m trying to...” She caught a tiny flick of movement out of the corner of one eye and started to check the head-up when he suddenly exploded into motion.

The kid was fast, and she reacted on instinct, lunging forward.

It was a mistake.

Because a bright red target burst onto the head-up, coming in fast from behind. Before she could do more than register the movement, something slammed into her ankles and swept her feet out from under her.

Alex went down hard, not injured—the suit’s armor protected her from any major damage—but she was definitely hurting. Also seriously pissed. Ignoring the pain in her arm, she started to push up on her hands, but her attacker stepped across her from behind and rammed a hard hand into the space between her shoulderblades with a hissed command. “Stay down.” A woman’s voice, low and determined.

Growling a curse, Alex tried for a grab over her shoulder, but her attacker was already moving past her, her voice louder this time as she snapped at the kid.

“MOVE!”

“Goddammit.” Alex pushed to her knees in time to see a black clad, shapely ass from behind as the newcomer hauled the kid to his feet and shoved him ahead of her.

He spun as he moved, fist pumping the air triumphantly as he laughed at her. “Don’t need you, Batcrapper! We got La Gata!”

The Cat? “GET BACK HERE!” Alex roared, scrambling desperately for her feet. The newcomer glanced back, giving Alex a brief glimpse of a black hood and goggles. “Bitch,” she hissed as one foot skidded in the thick dust to send her knee crashing into the floor.

“Dammit, move,” her attacker hissed, shoving the exultant teen toward the exit, but he darted sideways, too gleeful at his rescue to think clearly.

“Get outa our home, Batcrapper!” He retrieved his bat just as Alex hit her feet and grabbed a for a small flash bang tucked inside her jacket. It was a tiny charge, but it would incapacitate anyone within several feet for long enough to get cuffs on.

Oh, she was gonna enjoy this. Alex triggered and lobbed the device in one easy move, her voice contained by the helmet as she called out, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” Easy peasy.

Until the bitch reached out and slapped it back at her like a champion handballer. Shit! The gear would mostly protect her, but even then, she was likely to end up seeing stars. She lunged backward, everything made worse when the kid flung the bat with a twist of his wrist that sent it spinning to tangle her feet and send her stumbling.

“MOVE!” La Gata grabbed the kid and shoved hard enough that he would have gone down if not for her grip on his shirt.

Alex’s last glimpse was the two of them crashing through the rotted remains of a door before she fell into a curl, chin tucked against her chest, arms over the helmet when the flash bang went off.

Even through the protective gear she felt the concussion and saw a flash of light through her closed eyelids. In the aftermath, a slight stink of smoke reached her nose. Less than a minute passed before it was safe to lift her head. Breathing hard she took in the dusty, empty confines of the drop house. Her targets were gone. No surprise there.

Cursing under her breath, Alex staggered to her feet, the sound of bitter laughter and the crack of the flash bang still ringing in her ears. No use going after them. They’d be long gone and she was in no shape. It took everything she had just to remain standing.

Not a day for the record books, at least not the kind you want to be in.

Meanwhile, her arm throbbed like a sonofabitch, she was drowning in sweat inside all the layers of braces, ironskin, and leather, and she swore if she caught up with the little bastard again, she’d kick his ass six ways to Sunday. Oh yeah, and apparently Catwoman had gotten the best of her.

Again.

At the same time, as she calmed and got herself back under control, she experienced an unexpected sense of vindication. She’d been starting to doubt herself. No more. She hadn’t gotten a good look, but all black, goggles, crooked plans and sneaking around and fucking with the good guys, yeah, that was the feline bitch in a nutshell.

“La Gata, huh?” she growled.  “I knew you were out there.” She peered around the place, but didn’t see anything that offered any obvious clues. Still, a tight smile curved her lips, her intention to see the thief locked up redoubled. “And the cat came back for the very last time...” she sang softly as she headed back toward her cycle.


* * * * * *

 
It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that Cat wound up calling Kara during a lunch break, and asked her if she meant it when she offered to bring Carter home and look after him. She’d finished her article early, but then Barbara had asked her to help with some piece of research for the companion piece, then wanted a short blurb for the social media, then a longer blurb, then other writers working on stories called to ask for some of her research, then to see if she had time to help with theirs. She kept thinking she was done, then something new happened and more work kept coming in.

So she dug in, fielding calls and doing what was asked as quickly as possible.

She helped every way she knew how.

And it felt good.

It was a first for her, feeling like a part of a group and she was startled to realize she liked it. There was an all new sense of achievement and of being relied on, even trusted. There were even a few friendly moments and wry jokes with other writers who’d previously ignored her existence.   From what she could tell as the day wore on, there were now at least four articles being written, as well as some kind of video tie-in on the history of the neighborhood where the jewelry store was located.

It occurred to her that she should have been scared, that investigating the robbery meant closing in on her actions as Catwoman, but the usual terror of discovery never set in. She’d done nothing to arouse the fury of the police or crowds and she didn’t think Jacob would claim otherwise. Maybe he wouldn’t even tell the police who’d saved him. She’d heard nothing to suggest anyone knew she was involved.

Maybe she’d dodged the proverbial bullet.

She heard soft laughter from the family room. Carter, a little giggly and happy, then Kara, almost as happy and sounding not much older. A hint of a smile touched her mouth as she felt an unfamiliar lack of worry with having her son out of her immediate presence. He was safe. Kara would make sure of it.

They were okay and somehow it was going to work out.

She was still musing on that thought when her phone rang. “Kyle here,” she answered instantly.

“Cat, it’s Barbara.” The editor sounded a little tired, but her tone was softer than it had been earlier when her clipped explanations and demands had come fast and sharp.

“Did you need something else?”

“No, actually, I was calling to let you know you can take off for the night.”

“Oh,” Cat exhaled, surprised to feel almost disappointed the work was over. “So everything’s finished then?” Barbara was silent for a long moment and Cat desperately wanted to ask more questions, but instinct held her back.

“There’s some video still being edited,” Barbara exhaled at last, “and some timing issues being hashed out, but I think everything else is in place.” Her editor waited another moment, then she cleared her throat. “Plus Andi’s finishing up her article. She wanted me to thank you for all your help. She made a point about how much more complete it is because of your work.”

“I’m glad I could help.” Cat glanced at the article still up on her laptop. “She’s an amazing writer, made me really feel what that place, that neighborhood must have been like in their heyday.”

Another moment of silence followed before Barbara spoke, the words halting as though she wasn’t quite comfortable with what she was saying. “She is,” she agreed. “But she can be weak on the research end, so thank you for helping her get it right...and thank you for just digging in and doing whatever needed doing today. That’s the kind of attitude I want for the new company. Instead of carefully guarded fiefdoms, I want a team where everybody helps, and knows they can get help if they need it.”

“I like that philosophy.” Cat was surprised to realize she was being honest, not just saying what she thought the other woman wanted to hear.

“Well, you keep doing what you’re doing.”

Cat could hear papers rattle in the background and Barbara was silent for another beat.

“Now go get some dinner, look after your son, do whatever you need. The next few days may be a little long.”

Another beat passed while Cat wondered if she should go ahead and just hang up. Barbara could be surprisingly relaxed when it was about work, but at other times, she seemed stiff and socially awkward as if she wasn’t quite sure how to deal with people when a news story wasn’t involved. Cat was just about to click off when the other woman finally spoke.

“And, Cat...” She was quiet for a beat until finally, “You did really well today. Thank you.”

Cat froze, startled to feel a rush of emotion that left her throat tight and threatened to bring tears to her eyes. “I’m glad,” she heard herself respond, her voice sounding a little ragged inside her head. “That means a lot to me. I really want to get this right.”

“You have so far. Just keep it up.”

They hung up a moment later, and Cat shut her computer down, then slipped into the livingroom without making a sound. Carter was sitting crossed on the floor, an open textbook on his lap, while Kara sat in a similar pose on the couch above him, neck craned so she could peer over his shoulder at what he was doing.

“So it’s really that easy?” Carter was asking, his tone perplexed sounding the way it got when he was genuinely confused by something.

“Yep,” Kara confirmed with a wry smile.

He shook his head. “Why do they make it so hard if it’s that simple?”

“Don’t ask me,” Kara sighed, head canting to one side as she peered at his book. “Sometimes I think textbook writers secretly hate children.”

Carter’s brows drew into a frown as he considered that response. “That actually makes sense,” he decided out loud.

Cat couldn’t help it, she giggled, the sound alerting the other two to her presence.

“Mom!” Carter sounded so happy to see her she couldn’t hold back a wide smile. “Kara was just showing me an easier way of doing quadratic equations. It’s like they actually make sense now.”

“Impressive.”

Kara shrugged, but her eyes were sparkling as she took in Cat, her clothes loose and slouchy, her feet stuffed in brightly colored, fuzzy socks. She looked almost as young as her son. “I just showed him a few tricks.”

“Well, if you can make him love math like he loves science—”

“Like, not love,” Carter corrected.

“Yeah, yeah,” Cat snarked, well aware that his grin said otherwise. Or maybe it was just the attention and praise he loved, or maybe just Kara. In any case, it seemed to be nothing but good for him. “Either way, I think you should thank Kara for helping out today.”

“No thanks needed,” Kara quickly demurred. “It’s been fun.” The last thing she wanted either of them to think was that it was a chore for her. She’d had fun with Carter and their small apartment felt homey and welcoming.

“No, Mom’s right.” Carter twisted to peer up at her. “You were great today and I really appreciate it.” He glanced back at Cat who smiled approvingly. “Thank you so much.” He peered at Kara again, his gaze direct, his smile infectious.

Feeling an unexpected swell of emotion that made it hard to speak for a moment, Kara nodded. Reaching out, she smoothed unruly hair off his forehead. “Well, I was glad to do it, and anytime you need a ride, or anything else, just call.” She looked up at Cat, her expression serious. “I mean it,” she added. “Anytime.” It felt good to be needed for who she was, not her powers, felt good too, to be around people who played and laughed and enjoyed the sunlight. Even Carter’s worries that morning seemed normal by comparison with too many things in her own life.

Cat drew in a sharp breath and nodded, her response little more than a mouthed, “Thank you.” Needing a break from the intensity of the moment, she looked past them toward the sliding glass doors that opened onto the balcony. It was dusk out and would be dark soon. “I know we talked about hitting a restaurant tonight for me to review,” she looked back to Kara. “But honestly, I’m burned out—”

“Oh,” Kara exhaled as she felt an embarrassed flush heat her cheeks. She’d overstayed her welcome. “Right, I should probably get out of your hair.” She all but jacknifed to her feet only to come up short as Cat held out a hand in front of her chest before she could flee.

“Actually, I was going to invite you to dinner,” Cat said, the faintest chiding note in her voice.

“Oh.”

“Nothing fancy,” Cat continued, still holding Kara’s gaze with her own. “I was thinking spaghetti and a salad.”  She shrugged. “Or we could order pizza or Chinese,” she added. “But we’d definitely like you to stay.” She just assumed Carter agreed and his firm nod in the background confirmed his assent. She tipped her head to one side, her expression just short of disapproval. “Assuming, of course, you can remember that little promise you made to me on the boat.”

“I’m—” Kara saw Cat’s eyes flash and froze.

“Don’t apologize,” Cat said, her voice not so crisp this time, though it retained the note of command. Her expression softened. “You apologize too much,” she said gently.

Forgotten for the moment, Carter swung his head back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match.

“I...” Kara began only to skid to a halt as Cat’s brows arched sharply. She took a deep breath, then started over. “I’d love to stay for dinner.”

Cat beamed. Right answer. She looked at Carter and nodded toward the kitchen. “There’s sauce in the freezer if you want to handle the rest,” she offered.

Grinning, he bounded to his feet, clearly excited by the prospect. “Mom makes a great Bolognese sauce,” he explained to Kara. “It’s like, half Italian sausage. She makes it ahead so it’s always ready.” His gaze swung back to his mother. “Antipasto?”

She nodded. “I think there’s still a half a french loaf for garlic bread if you’d like.”

“Cool.” He glanced back and forth between the two women, ending with a serious look at his mother. It was easy enough to read her mood in her body language. She was tense and on edge and annoyed with Kara’s lack of confidence. She could get too sharp when she was like that. “Be nice,” he ordered, his tone surprisingly firm.

“I’m nice,” Cat insisted, though her mouth pursed into a thin line.

Carter raised an eyebrow and glanced at Kara, then back to his mother. He tipped his head to one side and there was a moment of silent communication between mother and son that left Kara out of the loop. Finally, he nodded. “I’ll get things started.” He hurried off toward the kitchen.

Kara thought about it for a moment, several questions dancing on the tip of her tongue before she simply asked, “He cooks?”

Still staring after Carter with a thoughtful expression, Cat nodded. “Simple things. He’s getting better though.” She shrugged, sticking to the safe topic for a moment. “Wants to learn how to make my stroganoff recipe.” She drew in a deep breath, then ran a hand through her hair and turned back toward Kara. “I’m sorry if I was too sharp.” Her boy was growing up and he’d made his point well enough to make her wince at her own behavior.

Kara shook her head. “You don’t owe me—”

“Actually, I do,” Cat disagreed. “If you apologize too much, I apologize too little.” She help up a hand when Kara seemed ready to argue. “You’re a guest in my home, one who did me a hell of a favor today, and I just acted like a brat.”

Kara looked uncomfortable, but was smart enough to realize the other woman needed to get this off her chest.

“I wouldn’t let Carter behave like that.” Cat flashed a quick look the direction her son had disappeared, a wry smile twisting her lips. It might be a little embarrassing to be called on the carpet by her child, but at the same time, she was damned proud of him. “Apparently he’s now grown up enough to return the favor.” When she returned her attention to Kara, her expression was contrite. “I’m sorry. We all have our weak points, and the last thing I want to do is poke one of yours.” Reaching out, she straightened Kara’s collar, her touch fleeting. “But I want you to understand that I see this amazing young woman and I’m not always as patient as I should be when you don’t seem to appreciate that.”

“You’ve been great,” Kara disagreed. She gnawed on her lower lip, embarrassed by her insecurities. “Sometimes I just can’t understand why.” She held a hand when Cat drew a breath to respond. “It’s nothing you’ve done,” Kara assured her. “It’s me.”

Cat’s hand floated up from Kara’s collar, brushed her cheek, cupped her chin, stroked along her jawline, every small bit of contact part of a tactile need to reassure them both. “You are very welcome here...anytime. If you ever doubt that, consider that I trusted you with my son today, and I don’t do that lightly.” She tucked a finger under Kara’s chin, bringing her head up when she would have looked away. “I also consider you a friend, and I don’t even remember the last time I said that to anyone.”

Kara swallowed hard and nodded. “Thank you.” She caught Cat’s and ran her thumb along the rise of her knuckles, holding her gaze as they shared a long look. “It’s mutual.”

Pots and pans clattered noisily in the kitchen.

Cat’s chin snapped toward the sound as she was reminded of her son’s activities. “I should probably go supervise,” she exhaled, sounding a little disappointed at the prospect. “He still gets a little ham handed sometimes.”

Nodding, Kara released her loose hold on Cat’s hand to wave her toward the kitchen.“He can be kinda impatient on lab days.” She offered a teasing smile. “Though no major explosions.”

Another clatter that bordered on a crash echoed from the other room.

Kara winced. "Yet."

Cat’s ears twitched nervously in spite of her usual control and she bounced on her toes. “I think maybe we should hurry.”

Kara nodded and followed her to the kitchen. Cat quickly got things back under control, and had Carter put away several pots wholly inappropriate for what he needed. After that, she  she allowed him to handle the cooking with a few reminders to take things more slowly and be careful. When he stuck his head outside, and pronounced it not too cold to eat on the balcony, both adults followed his lead.

“I have a pretty good Chianti on hand if you’d like wine,” Cat told Kara as she pulled a bottle out of the fridge and peered at the label. “But only if you’re willing to stay here at least an hour after your last drink.”

Carter nodded. “Mom’s really strict about drinking and driving,” he confirmed.

Kara had relaxed enough to grin by then. “I’d love to stay at least an hour after dinner,” she admitted. She wasn’t really much of a drinker—she preferred sodas for the most part and alcohol had no effect on her under normal circumstances—but the idea of having to stay longer appealed.

Cat flashed another of the beaming smiles, this time without even a trace of the earlier sharpness. “Wine it is then.”

So a half hour later, they ate at the small table on the balcony, a flickering votive candle the only illumination other than the reflected lights from the city below. There wasn’t much room, so elbows and knees bumped occasionally and they had to serve themselves inside then carry the plates out. The smell was heavenly though and Kara found herself once again with people who actually had enough food on hand to fill her and showed no sign of noticing just how much that was. Meanwhile,  Cat served the wine, though she had to set the bottle on the floor off to the side to have space for it.

Kara tasted it and smiled wryly. It wasn’t something Alfred would have allowed anywhere near Bruce’s wine cellar, but it was a bit sweet and pleasantly sharp. Besides, as the meal wore on, it left Cat just a bit buzzed. Oh, not drunk by any means, but a little giggly, and either a bit less coordinated or maybe just less careful and less reserved. Her knee grazed Kara’s as she told a risque joke that went over Carter’s head. Then a few minutes later, her hand brushed Kara’s upper arm in a fleeting caress and their shoulders bumped several times, the grazing touches long enough to leave Kara very aware of Cat’s body heat.  Quick glances and shared smiles followed and twice Cat’s hand landed briefly on Kara’s thigh.

It was teasing and fun and just the tiniest bit dangerous. Or perhaps, given the thoughts Kara was starting to havem and the smiles that kept trading back and forth with Cat, maybe a lot dangerous, for a very pleasant definition of danger.

Kara loved it. She wasn’t sure what they were doing, or maybe she was and just wasn’t ready to look too closely at what she was feeling. Either way, she didn’t want it to end anytime soon.

She was enjoying herself far too much.

So Kara dug into the food, drank the wine and if her shoulder and knee bumped Cat’s more often than was remotely necessary, she couldn’t feel bad about it because Cat seemed to enjoy it as much as she did. Later, when Carter began telling bad knock-knock jokes, she responded with her own–she’d learned a few things as a teacher. It wasn’t long before they were all laughing uncontrollably at the sheer badness of it all. Finally, with dinner done, their efforts to one-up each other resulted in Kara hitting a punchline that knocked Carter silent. He just stared for a moment, then looked at his mother, who giggled softly. He groaned and rolled his eyes. “You’re more juvenile than I am.” He sniffed disapprovingly at his mother. “Both of you.”

Which made both women laugh even harder.         

“And on that note,” he grumbled, “I still have homework to finish.”

“You need any more help?” Kara asked through continuing giggles.

He thought about it a moment and shook his head. “Nah, I’m good.” He looked at the adults again and shook his head. “Besides, you two are way too into that joke.” He looked at his mom in a silent request for permission and she nodded.

“Go on.” She smiled and waved him on. “And thank you for dinner. It was excellent.”

“Ditto,” Kara agreed. “Seriously, dinner was wonderful and I had a great time today. You’re welcome to catch a ride with me anytime.” She couldn’t have held back a smile if her life depended on it.

He grinned happily, then started stacking the dishes to take them away.

Kara straightened and would have helped, but Carter waved her off.

“A good host takes care of that,” he told her and flashed a quick look at his mother, who nodded. “It’s a way of showing someone how much you appreciate their company,” he added seriously.

It went against her basic need to be helpful, but Kara understood she needed to let him have this. Nodding, she let him take her plate, though she held back her glass. “Well, thank you, Carter.” She glanced at Cat and saw the gratitude in her tiny nod. “You’ve been a wonderful host tonight.”

His chest puffed out with pride and it struck Kara as she peered into his wide open gaze that Cat was careful about teaching him things like this, manners, but also being kind and making people feel appreciated. She’d speak up sometimes and remind him, but he was good on his own about it too. She’d seen it in how he treated the teachers and his fellow students at school.

Finally, with everything neatly stacked, he said his goodbyes and hurried off.

Cat watched him go with a satisfied smile. She was so damn proud of that boy it made her wonder how she could have produced something so utterly perfect.

“He’s a great kid,” Kara murmured as if she’d read Cat’s mind.

“Sometimes it feels like he’s the one thing in my life I got right,” she sighed, thinking of all the choices she’d made to create a better future for him. “I’d do anything for him.”

Kara nodded, drawn to the warmth on display even if it sometimes felt more alien than she was. Her own family on Krypton had loved her, even been willing to die for her, but she’d never had any great sense that they really saw her. She was the future of Krypton, not an individual. Meanwhile,  her human family also loved her, but their priorities felt so different that neither she nor they quite knew what to say or do. This family, on the other hand, felt like something she’d long wanted, but hadn’t quite known existed.

Cat met her gaze with a soft smile before taking a moment to top off her wine. That done, she rose and stepped over to the balcony railing. “It’s warmer than I expected tonight,” she sighed, needing some distance to have any hope of clearing her head. All the flirtation and brief touches had left her jittery and spun up. Probably not her best choice, but she hadn’t seemed able to back away.

Kara followed suit and joined her, leaning against the railing to stare out at the city.

Cat stared. When it came to head clearing the sight of Kara like that didn’t help. Her gaze drifted over smooth curves. No, that didn’t help at all. She took a long drink from her glass. Probably also less than helpful. Then a soft scent teased her nostrils, something newly familiar to her. Tangy and a little sweet like some heretofore unknown citrus, it was wholly Kara’s own. It clung to her skin even sharper and more tantalizing than where it remained on the borrowed jacket Cat now burrowed into at night.

Kara tipped her gaze skyward and sniffed at the air. “Warmer, yeah,” she agreed, assessing the weather with the experience of someone who’d spent years in Gotham. “We sometimes get these temperate pauses this time of year,” she mused between idle sips of wine. “But they never last long and usually when they break, it means bitter cold heralded by the kind of storm that shuts the city down.” Her gaze swung to the west where she could easily make out the work lights of the Bowery Project as crews tried to finish several tasks ahead of the winter weather. She swung her gaze east, noting it was much darker and knew that if she sharpened her vision enough, she would see too much crime amid dirty streets where city services virtually didn’t reach. If winter came in hard, they would be the ones to suffer.

Peering up at Kara, Cat enjoyed the clean lines of her profile even as she noted the melancholy in her eyes. It wasn’t the night for it, she decided and reached out.

Kara was startled out of her grim thoughts by the soft tink of a fingernail tapping her wine glass. Cat was smiling up at her and she felt the encroaching darkness retreat a bit.

Cat rapped the glass again. “You know this means you have to stay at least an hour after you finish,” she pointed out.

Kara nodded, the weight on her shoulders fading as she stared down into warm, green eyes. She couldn’t hold back a smile. Somehow Cat just did that for her with little more than a look. “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

Good girl, the thought went through Cat’s head . “Not at all.” She let out a satisfied sigh and bumped Kara’s shoulder with her own before leaning forward to stare out at the world. “I love this view.” The temperature was dropping, and she pulled her sweater more firmly around herself to ward off the growing chill.

“It’s beautiful,” Kara agreed. “I’ve always loved looking out at city lights.” Even as a child on Krypton, she’d loved to look down on the city and watch the lights and patterns of movement. Few things relaxed her as much or left her feeling so thoroughly a part of this world even when floating above it.

They stayed there in companionable silence, simply watching the city for several minutes until Cat cleared her throat.

Kara heard the other woman’s heartrate pick up. Nervous, but not terrified.

“Carter really likes you, you know,” Cat began.

Kara was glad to hear it.

“I do too,” Cat added, her voice soft and thoughtful, her gaze still on the city past her balcony, instinct telling her Kara needed a bit of space. She needed to make some things clear though.  “If you ever want to talk about why you think we wouldn’t you around—why you think I wouldn’t want you—I’ll listen.” She was silent for a beat, considering her words carefully in an effort to give Kara a chance to speak if she wanted, but also determined not to pressure her. “But if you don’t want to, that’s okay too.” It needed to be Kara’s choice. She thought back to her younger days, to a hand held out and unexpected faith that she could still be human if she wanted. It would never have worked if Selina had tried to use force. Lesson learned. She needed to control her own impatient, pushy side. She tipped her head back, seeing the familiar bright stars. “Do you know anything about the stars?”

Kara almost laughed, but realized she’d have to explain too many things. “A little,” she admitted.

Cat read that knowing, wry tone and looked over, her expression almost disappointed. She’d forgotten what Kara did for a living. Hell, the girl probably knew more than she did. “Right, science teacher.”

That too, Kara thought, and nodded.

“Probably not much I can tell you that you don’t already know,” Cat sighed. This time it was definitely disappointment.

“You could tell me why you love them.” When no answer was quickly forthcoming, Kara was left with the sense it was a difficult debate.

Cat was silent for a long moment. The problem of how much to say wasn’t a simple one. “My father,” she finally answered, keeping it simple. “When I was little, we’d sit outside and he’d aim his telescope on the different stars and teach me about them. Later, when I had Carter, we could go up on a rooftop and stargaze for free.” Free had been important in those days, as had being outside in places where they weren’t likely to be noticed.

A soft smile touched Kara’s lips. “My aunt taught me the stars.” Her lessons had involved different constellations, but it was the only time anyone paid more than passing attention to her. Rao, how she missed those times, because Bruce? Much as he loved the night, noting the stars would have required looking up from the crime soaked streets he was obsessed with. She doubted he even knew the stars existed. “God, I miss those times.”

It felt like the most natural thing in the world when Cat reached out to settled her hand over Kara’s. “Yeah,” she exhaled.

She didn’t have to say anymore than that for Kara to know. She recognized the hurt. “How old were you?”

They both understood what she was asking.

“Twelve.” Normally, it wasn’t a question Cat would have answered, but holding the truth back from this woman felt impossible. “Car accident.” That had been the official finding anyway.

“Thirteen,” Kara whispered her voice echoing with old pain.

Cat remembered she’d mentioned it on the boat. “You said there was a fire?” she said by way of question.

“Yeah...a really bad one.” This was the closest Kara had come to telling anyone the truth outside of her adoptive family. “My whole family...everything I knew.” She was surprised by the strength of the hand clinging to hers.

“I can’t imagine,” Cat whispered. “When I lost Dad, I still had my mother.” She was silent a long moment, bitter memories stealing her voice until she muttered under her breath, “Losing everything would have been better.” Even now, the depth of that betrayal was like salt ground into a fresh wound.

Speaking of being sorry, Kara thought. There was a wealth of hurt in that simple statement, though it was obvious Cat hadn’t meant it to be heard. She wanted to ask, but instinct told her it wasn’t the time. After a moment, she slipped her hand free and pointed skyward. Maybe a bit of distraction. “My favorite constellation here is Draco,” she deliberately changed topics as she sketched her finger along the trail of stars. She leaned close, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Did you know it includes a nebula?”

Cat shook her head.

Kara flashed a tiny, triumphant grin, though she suspected Cat might be fudging the truth  to have something else to talk about. “You can’t see it with the naked eye.” Well, she could, but a human couldn’t. “But even binoculars are enough to see a bit of a smudge. With better telescopes, it’s just gorgeous, vivid color and a distinct shape.” She leaned close enough to whisper near Cat’s ear. “It’s named the Cat’s Eye nebula.” She heard Cat’s pulse accelerate and the hitch in her breathing. Distraction indeed. “Which right now just makes me like Draco more.”

Cat blinked, unable to take her eyes off the tiny splash of color in the sky. She’d seen it before, of course, first through her father’s telescope and later, after everything changed, with the naked eye, but she’d never really thought about it. Suddenly the normally unimpressive smear of green with its flick of red seemed particularly vivid, beautiful even. All because Kara liked it. Which possibly was the most terrifying thought she’d had in years because she honestly had no idea what to do with the fact that this thing—whatever it was—was moving past a parent-teacher friendship or any lighthearted flirtation.

Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear or feel Kara move until a hand landed lightly on her shoulder. The twitchy jump happened, muscles flexing and quivering wildly before she could stop the response. She heard Kara’s instant gasp and felt her go utterly still, barely even breathing.

Kara froze the moment she registered the other woman’s skittish flinch and couldn’t help but remember her worries when speaking with Carter that morning. That, coupled with Cat’s muttered comment about her mother didn’t paint a pretty picture. She carefully drew her hand back, moving slowly and deliberately so as not to startle her again. “I’m sorry if I overstepped.”

Green eyes slid closed in response to the softly spoken apology. “You didn’t,” Cat assured her. She glanced back and flashed a soothing smile even as her shoulders shifted in an embarrassed shrug. “Overly sensitive startle reflex.”

Kara settled her hand back on the balcony railing. “I hope you know I would never hurt you,” she promised.

“I know that,” Cat snapped, her voice more brittle than she intended. She had it in her to wonder if that was the wisest answer. They were pulling closer than she’d planned–or rather, not planned–and she couldn’t help but wonder how stupid she was for not stopping it. She might be trying to change, but her life was still a chaotic mess at best, while Kara was sweet  and so innocent that Cat couldn’t help but think she should send her packing because Cat was none of those things.

Which did nothing to ease the thickening temptation, perhaps even made it worse. That utter lack of suspicion was a candle flame to her moth’s wings, offering warmth and light and threatening possible immolation.

Kara took the silence for trust issues and spoke up, her breathing fast and nervous. “I mean it, Cat.” She paused to grab a breath. “Never,” she repeated intensely. “And if you need any kind of help—”

“I don’t,” Cat lied sharply. This time, the meanness of her own tone struck her as she heard Kara’s sharp exhalation as though she’d been struck. Awash in a sudden wave of emotion, she shook her head and took a moment to gather herself. Guilt was something she hadn’t allowed herself in years and it was hard not to bolt in a panic. Finally, she deliberately softened her voice.“I’m sorry, Kara,” she whispered intensely, unable to push the other woman away even if it might be wiser. “ I didn’t mean to snap and I’m not afraid of you.” She dismissed the ludicrous idea with a disapproving sniff. If anyone should be afraid, it was this beautiful, kind-hearted, woman who was sweet and naive enough to actually trust her. That choice had emptied the pockets and diminished the hope of more than one person.

She would not let it happen again, not to Kara.

Kara let out a sharp breath of relief even if she wasn’t certain she completely believed the denial. “I hope not,” she insisted as she peered at Cat, taking in her stressed body language and bowed head. That wasn’t an example of confidence on any world. “Because I would never want that.”

“I know.” Cat swallowed hard and blew out a hard breath before she turned enough to meet Kara’s worried gaze. “I really do trust you,” she assured the younger woman. “I just...” She stumbled to a halt as she considered how much to explain. “There are some bad things in my past,” she admitted at last.

Kara nodded. She’d guessed as much. “Is there anything now?” she asked, needing to know Cat and Carter were okay because if they weren’t, she’d bring the full might of Bruce’s empire and her own abilities to bear to protect them. They were already that important to her. “Are you and Carter safe?”

Catching Kara’s hand in her own. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Cat acknowledged and looked away for a moment. It felt so strange to have someone care that she didn’t quite know how to respond. “But we’re good here.” She looked back to Kara, and squeezed her hand firmly. “We’re safe,” she assured her. “It’s a new chance, for Carter and I both.”

“You’ll tell me if you need help?” Kara whispered.

Cat froze. It was a promise she couldn’t make, not when it might put Kara in danger and Cat’s problems weren't likely a kind the girl could help with. “I promise I’ll tell you if there’s anything you can do.” It was the best she could do.

Kara frowned, correctly reading the conditional nature of the answer. Part of her wanted to tell Cat just how powerful her family was, not to mention how powerful she was. One word and nothing could ever hurt her again. Another part was terrified the other woman would run for cover. Cat didn’t strike her as the type to be drawn to wealth and power, and the scope of it could be overwhelming even for those used to it. In the end, she remained silent.

“There is one thing you could do,” Cat said after a long moment. “The school wanted an emergency contact in case they couldn’t reach me, and I wondered if you’d—”

“I’d be happy to,” Kara said before she could get any further.

“You’re sure?”

“Absolutely.” Kara paused for a moment, then finally risked asking an obvious question. “Do you have any other family?”

“No.” Cat was silent for a moment before sighing heavily. “No one who matters anyway. My mother may be alive, but she’s long out of my life, and Carter’s father was never in it. He didn’t want either of us.”

Kara hurt for anyone so alone in the world. “I’m more than happy to be an emergency contact, or anything else I can do. That's why I gave him my cell number.”

“That’s plenty,” Cat assured her. For Carter to have someone else meant everything to her.

“It’s nothing.” She’d do the same for any of her kids.

“Never dealt with a projectile vomiting kid then?” Cat joked in an effort to lighten the mood. They both needed a break from what felt overwhelmingly sad.

“Actually, I have. Every teacher does sooner or later.” Kara pivoted and leaned back against the railing and took another sip of wine. “And if it was Carter, I’m not saying I’d be happy, but I’d look after him. You too.”

Cat’s breath hitched as she found herself caught by the expression in remarkably clear blue eyes. “So if I’m ever projectile vomiting, it’s okay to call?” she asked after a beat.

A soft laugh and Kara’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’ll kick your ass if you don’t.” It was a joke, but serious too. Reaching out, she cupped her palm along the curve of Cat’s cheek. Struck by the velvety softness of her skin, she stroked lightly with her thumb.

Unable to resist, Cat turned her cheek into the caress, a nearly soundless purr vibrating at the base of her throat. Swallowing hard, she peered up at the younger woman. It was tempting to pretend nothing was happening, that they were just two adults who enjoyed each other’s company, but simple friendship didn’t make her insides quiver or set her pulse running. Kara was becoming too important to risk so much. She couldn’t afford an emotional tailspin and Carter couldn’t afford to lose the one adult other than her that he’d ever bonded to. “What are we doing?” she asked at last, her voice soft and scared.

Kara’s voice caught in her throat as green eyes found hers. “I...” She trailed off, afraid to give the first answer that came to her, certain Cat was on the verge of bolting. “Something,” she said after a long beat.

“So I’m not imagining it?” Cat whispered uncertainly. It had been so long since she’d allowed herself anything emotional that she really wasn’t sure.

Between her origins, her family, and everything else, it would be simpler for Kara to say she was. Bruce and Alex would probably urge to do so. They had before because, god forbid, she trust anyone. Hell, Alex would probably start suggesting Cat was Catwoman again.

But Kara couldn’t do it. “You aren’t imagining anything.”

“I’ve never brought people home in front of Carter.” Given the people in her circle, it wasn’t a risk she’d ever been willing to take, particularly for some brief fling. She glanced away for a moment, then added, “Our life was already so unstable. I couldn’t do that to him.”

Kara fidgeted. She hadn’t planned on this conversation, hadn’t even let herself fantasize it might happen, so she was flying blind. “I’m not looking for a one-night stand.” Not that she wasn’t attracted. She was. Cat settled a hand on her chest, the light contact enough to make her pulse accelerated more than flying around the world twice would have. Yeah, a one night stand had its appeal, but even as that thought occurred, she knew she wanted so much more.  

I wasn’t offering,” Cat said crisply, one eyebrow arching high, her manner cooling several degrees. The comment stung even if Kara hadn’t meant it to. She’d had too many people assume too many things for it not to.

“I know.” Kara barely paused as she realized what Cat thought and tried to turn expectations around. “I just wanted it understood you have to appreciate me for my mind as well as my body.” The line was delivered perfectly straight faced.

Cat blinked, momentarily left mute by the effort it took to parse Kara’s response. “I...” She trailed off, then got the joke and chuckled softly, any tension broken. “Point taken.” She eyed the younger woman from head to toe, a frisson if something wicked and taunting shivering up her spine, the wild thing in her demanding to teach the little girl a lesson. “But you should know I think you have a really...hot...mind,” she drawled, drawing each successive word out a little more.

Kara swallowed hard. “I...” She was so out of her depth, though it was tempting to dive deep and swim for it anyway.

Cat shook her head and spread her palm where it rested over Kara’s sternum. Her eyes gleamed and her lips twitched. Hunting instincts engaged. She peered into blue eyes and saw the hunger there. It would be so easy.

Which was the problem. Easy was only easy until it wasn’t. She’d stolen plenty of things. Kara shouldn’t be one of them.

Her hand firm on Kara’s chest, Cat stepped back a pace and took a deep, calming breath.

“Cat?” Kara sounded almost scared.

“We take this slowly...one step at a time,” she said firmly, consciously pushing the hunter back into its cage.

“So you’re...interested?” Kara asked haltingly.

Her smile tender, Cat shook her head. Maybe she should, but she couldn’t. “Very,” she confessed. Besides, with care, perhaps she could do this right. “I just need to do this right, be careful.” She blew out a sharp breath and flicked a glance toward the livingroom. “And take things very slowly.”

Kara followed the line of her gaze, and paused to think about it for a moment before adding. “And if it goes no farther than the friendship we have, that’s okay too.” She reached up to settle her hand over Cat’s where it rested on her chest. “Whatever happens, we stay friends.”

Cat nodded, grateful for the younger woman’s innate understanding. “Friends,” she repeated with a firm nod.

“And if more happens, that’s okay too,” Kara added, sensing Cat’s insecurities.

Green eyes glittered with raw appreciation. “More than okay,” Cat drawled, the feline in her needing to preen in response to the look in Kara’s eyes.

Kara’s mouth ran dry as Cat turned on a taunting grin and did a little hip and shoulder wiggle that shouldn’t have been that appealing in a woman wearing pilled sweats, a stretched out cardigan, and fuzzy socks. “I’m glad,” she gasped.

“Good,” Cat drawled, a tiny shiver making its way down her spine. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this enticing sense of safety mixed with wicked levels of want.  Maybe never. She tipped her head back to peer at the sky, calming herself with its grandeur. “But maybe it’s time to go back to talking about the stars.” At least if they were going to go slow.

“Right,” Kara panted dazedly. “Stars.”

Both needing a break from the charged conversation, they quieted, occasionally pointing at this or that, but mostly enjoying the night and the company.

Finally, Kara cleared her throat and asked, “Speaking of stars, did you know there’s a planetarium at the university?”

Cat looked over and shook her head. “No.”

“They took the old observatory on campus, made it the centerpoint of a new building with a planetarium and a children’s museum. It’s supposed to have some pretty cool stuff.” It should. Bruce had donated enough money for it, not that any of them had ever been there. “It’s on the edge of campus, not far from the riverwalk. I’ve been meaning to go. I thought maybe the three of us?” She paused for a brief moment. “I get that you two are a package deal,” she clarified. If things were going to move forward, it needed to happen in a way that included Carter.

Cat’s mouth turned up in a small, grateful smile. “I know.” None of this conversation would be taking place if she wasn’t confident that Kara understood her priorities. “I think the planetarium sounds wonderful.”

“I figured Carter would enjoy it.”

“He will,” Cat agreed. “But honestly, I love that kind of thing too.” A happy grin curved her lips, making her seem little older than her son. She and Carter had long been museum hounds. They were generally cheap, and once he’d been able to handle being in public, something that always kept that eager brain engaged. “One of the greatest things about having a child is you can go all those kid’s places where they let you play with the exhibits without being embarrassed.”

“It’s a great part of being a teacher too.” Kara giggled. “In fact, it means you have to play with them to demonstrate them to your students.”

“I knew there was a reason I like you.”

Kara all but glowed. “Hopefully, I can give you a few more,” she flirted, or at least she hoped she was flirting. She wasn’t exactly an expert.

A blonde brow climbed high on Cat’s brow as she turned an assessing look Kara’s way. “I can think of one or two things already.”

Kara coughed and took a moment to catch her breath before taking a sip from her wineglass. “I...uh...you...” she croaked.

Cat let out a soft, triumphant laugh.

“You’re evil,” Kara accused when she finally caught her breath. She sounded thrilled by the prospect.

It occurred to Cat that it was possibly the first time someone uttered had those words about her where they weren’t even slightly true. “Mm.” She took a sip from her glass and turned toward Kara, taking in bright eyes and pleasing curves. “Very,” she confirmed, pleased by the prospect of getting to know them better. Leaning against the railing, she trailed her gaze all the way down, then up again to peer into Kara’s eyes. An approving smile teased her lips. “I’ve been known to steal candy from babies,” she drawled, putting a  suggestive spin on the words that somehow cast Kara as the baby and the candy.

Kara coughed again and found herself wondering who’d robbed the air of all the oxygen.

“Okay, so it was Carter’s Halloween candy,” Cat admitted, taking pity on Kara as her sex kitten act broke into a snicker. “But that boy never eats the Snickers anyways. He prefers Three Musketeers. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if he’s really mine.”

“Hey, it’s chocolate. Never diss chocolate in any form.”

Cat sniffed disapprovingly. “A thin shell over—” her lip curled disdainfully “—whipped nougat.” She shook her head and stuck out her tongue in a universal ‘ick’ gesture. “Boring.” She dragged out the single word in a musical trill.

“But chocolate.”

“Fine. You and Carter can have them. I’ll take everything else.”

“Oh no, I’m an equal opportunity devourer of chocolate.” Kara laughed and leaned in close enough to note the tiny gold flecks in the green of Cat’s eyes. “Among other things,” she murmured, her voice dropping low and taking on a suggestive note.

Cat felt her pulse pick up in response to the challenge in blue eyes. “Oh, Kara,” she exhaled and rested a hand on the girl’s chest, caught somewhere between holding her off and pulling her closer. Hunting instinct re-engaged. “You don’t want to try and one-up me.” She took a step closer. “You’ll lose.”

Cat wasn’t the only one who liked a challenge. “Which could be fun in its own right.” Kara took a half step forward until they were almost touching.

Going slow was proving to be more of a challenge than either of them expected.

Blood quickening in her veins, Cat leaned in just a little, then caught herself as she heard a bit of sound and was reminded of Carter just inside and down the hall, with sharp, little ears that could prick to the tiniest sound. The hand on Kara’s chest tensed and the undecided push-pull became firm pressure. “Carter,” she whispered in reminder.

Kara pulled back fractionally and her brows drew into a frown. “Right.” She looked up, x-ray vision revealing he was still in the livingroom, sitting cross-legged on the couch, his math book on his lap.

“I’ll need to talk to him,” Cat said by way of explanation.

Kara nodded her understanding. “If it’s a comfort, while we were driving back, he asked if I like you—” she put extra emphasis on the word like “—and kept grinning at me.”

Cat laughed and rolled her eyes.  “The question, ‘Do you like-like her?’ might have been heard around here after we got back from sailing.” She shrugged. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem, but I want him to understand and not be surprised.”

“So he knows that you...” Kara didn’t finish, uncertain what to say or how to phrase it.

Cat took pity on her. “Prefer the company of women?” She nodded. “It’s not something I’ve ever hidden.”

“That’s good...I mean, that you were honest with him. I see so many kids whose parents lie and hide things and it never comes out well.”

“For good or ill, Carter knows me,” Cat sighed.

“It’s good,” Kara said confidently and laid a hand over Cat’s, the warmth of her skin sending a small shiver of awareness through both of them. “So...uh...we have a busy week at school, and I’m guessing you will too,” she said to distract herself from a sudden flood of sensations. When Barbara pursued a story, it was always with total commitment. “Maybe we could do the planetarium Friday. We have a half day, so I could just bring Carter home and go from there.” She paused a beat. “Then maybe hit the restaurant you were talking about reviewing for dinner.” Another beat. “Or is that too far off?”

“Actually Barbara warned us that the next few days would probably be busy and not to plan anything we couldn’t reschedule, so Friday’s perfect.” She eyed the girl for a moment. “But are you sure you don’t want a break between school and going out?”

She got a quick headshake. “Nah, I’ll bring spare clothes. It’ll be fine.” Not sweating under normal circumstances could be an advantage some days.

“Well, if you change your mind and want a shower, you’re welcome to grab one here,” Cat offered automatically, only to have it occur to her a tiny beat later what that would mean. Strange to have something so simple send a ripple of awareness through her hard enough to make her breath catch.

Their gazes met and some blushing followed, but Kara opted to ignore the opening and simply offer, “If you want, I can take him in that morning too.”

Cat nodded, grateful to have something else to think about. “Let me talk to him. See what he thinks.” Like her, Carter needed control over his life, particularly at sensitive times. The plan for the planetarium and ride home would almost certainly go over well, but an unusual plan for the morning when he was already likely to struggle might be too much. He’d just barely dealt with it that morning because it was an emergency.

Kara nodded, accepting the answer. “He needs that, doesn’t he?” she asked thoughtfully. “To have some input with what’s happening?”

Impressed by Kara’s observation, Cat nodded. “He’s like me,” she admitted. “Doesn’t always handle life well if it feels too out of control.”

Kara could see it. He was a good kid and Cat had taught him manners, but he could get prickly with other students when it came to his things or his personal space. “So was baby Carter a demanding little monster?”

Old ghosts floated, not quite hidden, in Cat’s eyes and she waved a hand near her temple as if brushing off a particularly aggressive insect.

“Cat?”

“No,” she said very softly. “He was...” She trailed off, haunted by the memory of Carter in her arms, so tiny and grey as he struggled just to lift his head, the genetic sins done to her visited on him with even more cruelty. “He was the sweetest...child...but he was...ill," she stammered with effort. "Most of the first year. I didn’t know if he’d survive.”

Kara’s stomach did a flip and sank. “Is he okay now?” Even she heard the fear echoing in her own voice.

“He’s...” Strong and fierce and every bit as agile as she was as opposed to those early months when he’d been too small and weak, barely even able to nurse, so different from a normal child that she’d had to avoid the doctors very early. She wouldn’t see her son turned into a test subject when there was nothing the doctors could do anyway. So she’d hidden away, holding him by the hour, crooning softly, both of them stressed and rumbly, half expecting each breath to be his last—

“Cat?” Kara repeated, sounding almost panicked.

Cat blinked, yanked out of the past by the other woman’s terror. She caught her hand in a firm grasp. “He’s okay,” she quickly assured her. “Failure to thrive they called it...which was really code for, ‘We don’t know what’s wrong.’” She shrugged. “Then one day he started getting stronger.” Another shrug. “I may have spoiled him a little after that...or a lot.” She let out a grim chuckle. Carter had been a bit of a terror once he started growing and healing, sometimes utterly somnolent, others, so high energy he’d literally bounced off the walls like a human gas molecule. She’d had to restrict him in so many ways that she’d indulged every whim she could, too grateful to see him alive and getting stronger to institute much discipline.

“I get it.” Kara thought about it and things clicked in her head. “That’s why the reminders about manners.”

“He was a bit feral there for a while.” Literally. Cat smothered an embarrassed laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, he was never mean. He could just be a little thoughtless and wild.” Both dangerous traits for them. Drawing the wrong kind of attention could be disastrous.

Understanding much more than she had before, Kara nodded. “He’s a great kid.” She straightened her shoulders, her expression turning serious as she saw a good opening to say something else that felt very important to her.  “And just so you know, my relationship with him is separate from anything between you and me. He’s my student and I always fight for them, no matter what.” On Krypton teaching had been viewed more as a sacred calling than simply a job. That ethic remained deeply ingrained. “There is literally nothing you could do to change that.” She allowed herself the smallest hint of a smile as Cat heaved a sigh of relief.

“Good.” Cat’s tone was firm. “If there’s ever a choice to be made, you choose him.”

That determination to put the boy first only made her more appealing, Kara thought. She took a small step closer. Reaching out, every movement slow enough to give Cat plenty of time to see her coming. She brushed pale gold hair back from the other woman’s brow, relieved to see no sign of rejection in green eyes. “I’d very much like to kiss you,” she admitted, suddenly breathless. Her voice was soft and formal, dealing with Cat the way she would have on Krypton rather than here, the more reserved mores of her old world feeling more apropos.

Cat paused, a hard swallow making her throat bob. She shouldn’t. She should wait, at least speak to Carter before it went any farther, be responsible for once.

But the tenderly spoken request and reassuring look in blue eyes touched a long forgotten part of her soul and she couldn’t refuse. She caught Kara’s hands with her own to tug her into the small protected niche that abutted the neighboring balcony. Shielded from the sliding glass door, it wasn’t visible from anyplace in the apartment, giving them a guaranteed bit of privacy.

Following willingly, Kara exhaled a relieved sigh. Her hands found light purchase on Cat’s hips as they were released. She was ready to pull away in an instant, but Cat actually leaned into her.

So much for good intentions.

They both fell silent and tiny hitches of breath could be heard. A shiver worked its way down Cat’s spine as Kara’s thumbs circled lightly at her hip. Green eyes met blue and their gazes held.

“I’d still like to kiss you,” Kara exhaled in a tacit request for permission.

Smoothing her palms up Kara’s chest, Cat took pleasure in the warmth and strength she found, then she looked up into blue eyes and saw another kind of strength and melted. No one had ever treated her so gently or made her feel so safe. She nodded.

Neither woman moved for a long moment, then Kara ducked her head. The first brush of their lips was brief, tentative even, but tender and warm. The second was more confident, but just as careful while the third was firmer, but still gallant and gentle, an invitation. not a demand.

Her breathing heavy, hands trembling, Cat curled her fingers into Kara’s sweater as she fought the urge to work her fingers against firm muscle in happy abandon. It went on, back and forth as they learned one another and found a rhythm that worked. Small forays ebbed and flowed as they traded soft kisses, exploring slowly.

Finally, Kara pulled her head back just enough to break the kiss.

“You know how to do this,” Cat whispered.

“Not so’s anyone’s ever noticed before.” Kara leaned in to lightly bump Cat’s forehead with her own. “Maybe it’s the company,” she teased as she lifted a hand to brush ruffled hair off Cat’s cheek.

“Speaking of not so’s you’d notice,” Cat drawled. Ducking her head, she leaned against Kara, breathing in the scent and heat of her. It took effort to contain a delicate, satisfied purr.

They stood quietly, leaning against one another, close and touching, but no more than that..

“I’d like to hold you.” Kara wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around the smaller woman and cling, but she needed to be sure it would be okay.

Cat tipped her head back, peering up at the younger woman. “I won’t break.” She was no weak, mewling kitten and she wouldn’t be treated like one.

“I know,” Kara assured her. “But I don’t ever want you to be afraid of me.”

Cat drew in a slow breath, her expression solemn. “I’m not, but I don’t want you to be afraid of me either.”

“I’m not—” Kara began, but Cat’s fingers landed on her lips, silencing the denial.

“Yes, you are. Not that I’m going to hurt you, but that I’ll panic.” Her eyebrows climbed toward her forehead. “You needn’t be. I jump sometimes, but I’m no delicate flower.” She dropped her hands back to Kara’s chest to curl her fingers into her thick cardigan. “Far from it.” A firm tug brought Kara back to her when she would have pulled away. There was no more aggression this time than the first, but it was securely under Cat’s control. Staring into blue eyes, she gave Kara time and watched for any sign of rejection as she slowly pushed up on her toes, then her mouth found Kara’s and she drank in the young teacher’s low groan. Cat took time to explore,  learning the shape and texture, discovering the way she moved when she shifted her lips to accommodate Cat’s, leaning in when she wanted more.

So much more.

They were both breathing raggedly by the time she broke the kiss. “Okay, that was...special,” Cat gasped as she drew back just enough to peer up at Kara.

Kara offered a dazed nod. There she was, an alien who could fly around the world in the time it took most people to cross a room and it took everything she had just to stay on her feet. “That was...wow.”

Cat laughed softly and stole another quick kiss. Reaching down, she caught Kara’s hands where they’d settled at her hips and tugged them around her waist, then snuggled into the taller woman.

“So you’re good with the holding thing then?” Kara murmured near her ear.

“Mmm.” Words harder with her hormones buzzing pleasantly and an unfamiliar sense of total safety, Cat cuddled into Kara’s warmth. Enjoying the way the taller woman’s body blocked out the chilly night air and the gentle fingers that rose to toy with her hair, a soundless, contented vibration settled into the base of her throat.

Feeling cool silk curls slip over and through her fingers, Kara let herself enjoy the pure tactile pleasure of new shapes and textures pressed close. She’d never really understood the way some people talked about these things, like they were the whole universe. For the first time, she got it. She could have written sonnets dedicated to how much she wanted this. It was possibly the single best moment she’d had on this world since her arrival. “I think I could spend a lifetime like this,” she sighed happily.

“Mhm,” Cat mumbled, nosing deeper into the curve of her neck.

Smiling, Kara settled her cheek against blonde hair while she continued toying with the golden strands. Even knowing they should probably back off and turn the conversation back to something less incendiary, she couldn’t seem to let go. Instead, she nuzzled Cat’s ear only to stop as she felt a distinct twitch and Cat waved hand with a muttered grumble.

“Tickles,” she complained.

Kara leaned back enough to peer at the other woman as she trailed her thumb along the outer curve of Cat’s ear. The twitch was tiny, but distinct. “Your ear moved,” she said, fascinated

Tipping her chin up, Cat blinked a bit owlishly and was about to explain when Kara spoke.

“You have vestigial motor control of your ears.” She grinned. “Only, like, five percent of people can do that.”

Cat’s brows shot up, then she remembered. Right. Science teacher. “Yeah, Carter too.” It was a good thing to acknowledge, she told herself. If Kara glimpsed anything, she’d just assume it was normal. “When I was a kid, I’d practice, trying to get better at it.” She saw Kara lean to one side, trying to get a better look. “They’re really sensitive though,” she said, glowering just a bit at Kara’s raised hand.

Kara dropped her hand to her side. “Sorry if I...I shouldn’t have...”

Way to ruin a mood. Cat almost growled at her own lack of social skills. “No, it’s okay,” she said quickly, then her shoulders shifted in a small shrug. “I got teased when I was young.” As lies went, it was small and untraceable. “Like I said, it fascinated me and I'd practice, try to get better at controlling them.” True enough. Unfortunately.

“Well, I think it’s really cool,” Kara said softly, her tone meant to reassure. “Wish I could do it.”  She’d never even heard of such a thing until landing on earth and while she’d read about it in a biology book, she’d never actually seen it in person. As far as she knew, Kryptonians hadn’t been capable of it.

Cat tipped her head to one side, peering at Kara with a slight frown. “It’s really not a big deal.” Or it wouldn’t have been if it was just the tiny movement possible by a normal human.

Kara shrugged. “I can’t do it.” She craned her neck, still trying to get a look.

Cat had never seen anyone so fascinated by the concept, not even a toddler who’d caught sight of her once when she was tracking Carter by sound. The little girl had stared in awe and wanted to know why her mommy couldn’t do that. “It’s very small...just a little bit.”

“It’s unique,” Kara argued.

Cat surprised herself by reaching out and catching Kara’s hand. Her touch light, she guided the taller woman’s hand up to her ear, shivering as her fingertips just barely made contact.

“You don’t have to,” Kara croaked, her mouth suddenly dry. It was such a small thing, just the woman’s ear, by Rao, but her heart was hammering in her chest.

“It’s okay.” Cat couldn’t believe she was doing this, revealing something so intimate, even if it was in such a small way. She was careful, barely flexing the muscles. “They’re ticklish though.”

Kara nodded, outlining the shell of Cat’s ear with a single fingertip, just barely making contact as she felt the tiny movement. She swung her gaze back to meet the green eyes watching carefully, checking to make sure it was okay.

Barely even breathing, Cat saw the question in Kara’s eyes and nodded even as a tiny shiver of awareness slid down her spine. She hadn’t been lying about the sensitivity. What she hadn’t considered, hadn’t even been aware of, was how pleasurable the trailing exploration could be. Without planning, she turned her head toward the light caresses, silently encouraging Kara as she carefully outlined the complex swirls and fondled the ridges between her thumb and forefinger.

Kara felt another tiny twitch and saw green eyes slip closed. Trailing her fingers on, she half scratched, half rubbed the soft skin just behind Cat’s ear, smiling as she felt the flex and pull of delicate muscles.

Her breathing ragged, Cat leaned into the caress.

It was such a small thing, it shouldn’t have been erotic.

Somehow it was.

Then Cat’s hand landed on Kara’s chest, fingers flexing slowly as she tipped her head up, her eyes glazed. “Kara,” she whispered, “I—”

Mom!” Carter shouted, sounding panicked.

Kara had never seen anyone change gears so fast. Cat blinked, the relaxed haze disappearing in an instant. Not even a heart later, she spun and was moving while Kara was still registering the boy’s cry. What Kara lacked in response time, she made up for with raw speed, catching up to Cat just as she reached the small livingroom. Remembering herself, Kara hit the brakes, slowing to normal speed as she saw Cat drop to one knee in front of the boy where he sat on the couch, her hands patting him down as she searched for any damage.

No intruders, no blood, but his eyes were wide, his pulse and breathing fast.

“Carter, what?” Cat sounded ready to panic.

He was pointing at the TV. “Isn’t that y—” He verbally stumbled and blinked as he saw Kara. Another blink and he swallowed hard before he continued “—your story? The story you were working on, I mean,” he amended.

Cat twisted, gaze following the line of his arm until she spotted the image on the TV. There was Jacob, looking worn, his arm in a sling, face showing visible bruises. A logo in the corner proclaimed the video ‘Courtesy of the Gotham Observer.’

Inset behind him was a pixilated, black and white security video showing a woman, shapely and all in black sliding sinuously into view from above. As she dropped down, sharply pointed ears were momentarily silhouetted and unmistakable.

Cat froze, unable to do anything but stare as she watched that version of herself decimate three men. Even deeply shadowed and poor quality, there were glimpses of her manic smile visible. Her hand dropped to Carter’s knee, partly to comfort him, partly for her own sake. He knew what she did. While she’d never flaunted it, hiding it had never really been an option either, but she’d never wanted him to see this side of her.

Never really wanted to see it herself either.

Then she was forced out of her daze as she heard an off camera reporter ask, “So why is this so important to you?”

Her stomach rolled, sick with what he’d doubtless say—what Carter would hear—how important it was to expose her, a monster stalking the night, and as she waited to hear the expected answer, it wasn’t even one she could argue with. She’d done plenty of awful things and even that night, she’d been no saint. She’d been there to steal and she’d beaten those men. Even if they were criminals, there was something horrifying about the joy she’d found in taking them down.

“Because this story is going to come out.” Jacob leaned forward, staring into the camera intensely. “That video’s too cool to stay hidden, so I wanted to make sure to get the truth out before someone else controls the message.”

Cat braced herself, firming her grip on Carter as she waited for the damning words.

“Catwoman saved my life,” Jacob declared.

Cat blinked in confusion, uncertain she’d heard right and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did, just not the way she expected.

“Those men didn’t try to hide their faces,” Jacob continued. “Hurting me was fun for them, but they weren’t trying to intimidate me into silence. They weren’t going to let me go.” He paused long enough to grab a breath. “I was dead if she hadn’t stepped in.”

“Are you certain?” the reporter asked, sounding more curious than skeptical.

“Absolutely. Look, I’m a jeweler’s son and grandson. I’ve heard all the stories about her, but I also grew up in that neighborhood. I know men like that. If she hadn’t helped me, they’d have killed me.”

“According to the police, the men who attacked you say she blackmailed them into it.”

“They’re lying.” There was no doubt in his voice. “They had no idea she was there and thought she’d go down easy at first. Thank god they were wrong.” He straightened, wincing as though the movement hurt. “And I’ll tell you something else, people talk a lot about superheroes in this town. Wonder Woman shows up to escort some ambassador, Superman does his little flybys and whatever cape is wearing the bat-label this week shows up just in time to save some politician or stop some high profile art theft, but they don’t come into my part of town any more than the cops do.”

“You sound bitter.”

“I am. And before you ask, she didn’t steal from me when she got into the safe. I gave her the combination and told her to take that piece. I do a little silver smithing, and it was the only thanks I could give her. It wasn’t worth more than a hundred bucks.”    

“Have you been threatened or paid off in any way to say what you have?”  The question was sharply asked enough to make it clear the reporter wouldn’t accept a non answer.

Jacob shook his head and his response carried a fine edge of sarcasm. “I wish. I could use the money, but no, she didn’t pay me or threaten me.” He dismissed the very idea. “I’ll tell you—the cops, anybody who’ll listen—she saved my life. Whatever she did in the past, Catwoman was a goddamned hero, and she gets my thanks, and if she ever needs anything, she only has to ask and I’ll do anything I can to help her.”

As Kara heard the firmly spoken promise all she could think about was how Alex was going to blow a gasket. She actually listened for the howl of rage. Nothing. Maybe she’d taken a pain pill and gone to bed early. Hopefully. Maybe they could give her another one before giving her the news that someone had called her mortal enemy a hero.

Then Cat moved, awkwardly rising to her feet as she gestured to the TV. “Yeah, that’s the story,” she answered Carter’s question. “But I...I-I didn’t know about this. About Catwoman,” she specified. “I interviewed Jacob last week...about his store...his work.”

“Mom?” Carter sounded worried and Kara could see he was ready to hop to his feet by the way his shoulders tensed and his hands braced on the couch.

“I just...I didn’t know they had this footage,” Cat mumbled weakly and gestured at the TV as they reran the security video full screen with Jacob narrating events. “Barbara never mentioned—” she shook her head dazedly “—Catwoman.”

Kara frowned, then realized it had to be rattling to have worked so hard and been left out of the  biggest part of the story. Given her insecurities, that one had to hurt. “Hey, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional,” she soothed and stepped forward. She thought about rubbing Cat’s back only to hold back. It wasn’t the time to risk startling her again. “Everybody probably just got so busy and involved with getting their own work done that they didn’t think to let you know.”

Cat stared for a moment, her brows drawing into a deep frown before she finally nodded. “You’re probably right,”

“I’m sure of it,” Kara stated confidently. She didn’t know Barbara Gordon well, but she’d seen enough to know she didn’t give even the mildest praise lightly. Maybe she’d been different before, but now she was intense and demanding on her most relaxed day. Reaching out, she moved slowly enough for Cat to pull away if she wanted, and settled her hand on a narrow shoulder. Full lips turned up in a proud smile. “And now you’re a part of what will probably be the biggest story to play out in this town for the next year or two.” Gotham wasn’t exactly a boring town, but Catwoman on prowl and playing the hero? Yeah, that was likely to get a lot of play. And that video, that was a viral meme looking to happen.

“Right,” Cat exhaled and seemed to waver on her feet. Her hand floated up near her temple, momentarily shading her eyes. “Biggest story of the year...”

Kara was startled when Cat suddenly reached back and flowed into her arms, wrapping her up in a hard hug. “This is great,” Kara soothed. “Your editor learned she can rely on you and this story will be big. It’ll help put the new business on the map and that can only be good for the people who get in on the ground floor—including you.” Feeling the way Cat’s heart was fluttering too fast to count the beats, Kara ruffled her hair and pressed a kiss to her temple. “Trust me.” She was startled by the strength in the arms wrapped around her torso.

“I want to,” Cat mumbled into the curve of Kara’s shoulder.

Feeling Cat tremble, Kara petted her hair and held her gently even as she resolved to give Barbara holy hell if there was any other explanation. The redhead wasn’t close to Bruce anymore. Dick’s death and her own injuries had left that relationship too damaged for even a pretense of friendship, but they were still family of a sort, and Bruce was still an investor in the paper. Kara was more than willing to use those connections or anything else necessary if it meant protecting the woman in her arms. Hell, she was tempted to do so just because of the way she’d been disregarded and upset.

Still holding Cat and gently ruffling her hair, Kara looked over at Carter. He was still on the couch, his eyes wide, his posture tense. To Kara’s eyes, he looked scared, which made sense. From what Kara had seen, Cat’s usual mien was all calm and confidence. It was probably jarring as hell to see his mom so rattled. “It’s okay,” she mouthed. “She’s just exhausted and stressed, and it’s all caught up with her.” She tried to make her expression as reassuring as possible. “She’ll be okay.”

He nodded, the movement a little jerky, then looked at his mother again before his gaze swung back up to meet Kara’s. “Promise?” he whispered.

I promise. I’ll look after her.” She kept her voice nearly inaudible and nodded toward the short hallway that led to the bedrooms, comfortably certain Cat wouldn’t want him to see her like this for any longer than necessary.

He thought about it for a moment, then clicked off the TV and gathered up his books.

Cat lifted her head from Kara’s shoulder and met his gaze. “It’ll be okay,” she promised.

He glanced back and forth between the two women. “I know.” That said, he turned a pleading look Kara’s way, then looked back to his mother. “You can trust Kara.” His voice was so soft it was nearly inaudible. Then he slipped out without giving her time to reply.

“Damnit,” Cat growled and stepped out of Kara’s arms to stare after her son. “I scared him.” She muttered a curse under her breath and looked up at Kara. “You too.” Her tone was bitter. “Probably want to run screaming now.”

“Absolutely not.” Her touch gentle, Kara rubbed Cat upper back and shoulder, though she was ready to let go at the slightest resistance. “Running is the last thought on my mind.” She thought about it a moment. “And it seems a little early for any screaming.” The bold flirtation was tacky and deliberately overdone, but it did what it was meant to, distracting Cat enough to earn a watery smile.

“I’m sorry for falling apart on you,” Cat sighed. She rolled her eyes. “Maybe you should run.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Kara said grimly, her expression serious in the face of the startled look Cat cast her way. “I mean it. You got onto me for letting my insecurities rule me. Consider this returning the favor.” She brushed pale gold hair back from Cat’s brow. “You’re amazing, but you’re also exhausted and have had a couple of pretty intense days. Add in our conversation, which I think we can both agree was a little emotional, and some surprising news? Falling apart is perfectly normal.”

“If you want out... if you’ve changed your mind—”

“I haven’t.”

Cat looked up at that, her panic breaking slightly as she stared up at Kara. “Why not?”

It took Kara a beat to decide she was absolutely serious. “Did you not hear me call you amazing?” She framed Cat’s face in her hands to stare into her eyes with solemn intensity. “I haven’t changed my mind about anything.”

“You have to make me a promise.”

“All right.”

“I mean it. I’ve been trapped, Kara. I don’t ever want to do that to someone else. You have to promise me you’ll be honest if you want to walk away—”

“I’m not going to—” Kara tried to wave the entire idea off, but Cat wouldn’t let her.

Promise.”

“All right.” Kara didn’t understand the desperation, or maybe she wasn’t ready to. “I promise, but I want a promise in return.”

There was a flicker of fear in Cat’s eyes, but she nodded.

“I want you to promise you’ll be honest if you want to stay.”

It took Cat a beat to process the request, then she nodded, mouth turning up into a small smile as the irony struck her. She closed her eyes against the caring directed her way, shaking ever so slightly under a wash of emotion. Her hand found the upper plain of Kara’s chest, palm settling, fingers spreading as she absorbed the gentle thud of her heartbeat.

“Cat,” Kara prompted after a moment.

I want to stay.” Cat felt the burn of tears threatening. “So much.”

Kara exhaled a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “Then we’re okay.” Reaching out, she tugged Cat back into her arms and tucked her cheek against pale silk. “Because there’s no place else I want to be.”

* * * * *


Carter heard them talking softly, heard his mom’s voice slowly relax and turn soft, then a few low notes of laughter along with Kara’s light sing-song tones. His mom had been so alone all of his life that seeing her happy with someone was strange and a tiny bit of jealousy pulled at him, but mostly he was grateful.

He could see how she felt about Kara, the way she couldn’t look away, the shy little smiles and the giggles that were nothing like her. And Kara was no better. She’d stare sometimes, hem and haw others, then babble a bit nonsensically.

They were both worse than he was when he got a crush.

But that was okay because he’d seen how kind and caring Kara was and his mom needed that so much. The two of them had always been a team, but he was getting old enough to realize he could only do so much, and she had so much on her. Kara could help her with those burdens in a way he couldn’t.

He wanted that for her, someone who would protect her and keep her as safe as she’d always kept him. Kara could do that.

But with the Catwoman thing, he had to wonder if that future was possible. The whole city would be after her now and in the past, that had always meant running. He listened to their voices as they grew gentler and more openly affectionate and teasing. He didn’t think it was an act, but when his mom was desperate, sometimes it could be hard to tell.

He didn’t know what to do except hope for the best and wait to see what happened next

So he finished his homework, then read until it was time to turn out the lights. Later, he was drowsily aware of voices in the hall and the front door opening and closing again. Sleepy, but curious, he dozed for a bit, finally staggering out of bed when he heard him mom land on the balcony.

She’d shadowed Kara home again. That was the moment he was sure that whatever else was going on, she hadn’t been playing Kara.

He heard the TV moments later. They were still replaying the footage of Catwoman. It ran for several minutes—he could hear the man his mom had interviewed describing the attack—then snapped off and he heard the sliding glass door.

Needing to know what was happening, Carter slid out of bed.

He found her out on the balcony, sitting on the floor with her back against the railing, folded arms resting on her upthrust knees. She was wearing Kara’s jacket, the collar turned up so it was warm against her cheeks, and he could hear a soft rumble, the rhythm fast enough to indicate stress. She looked up as he stepped out and he could see from the faint glaze in her eyes and the way her head moved as she tracked him, that language would be hard. She could get that way when the feral ran wild, instinct telling her to go to ground. Moving slowly, he sat down next to her, mimicking her pose. They stayed like that for a long time before he finally spoke, trepidation in his voice. “Are we going to run?” He hoped the answer was no. He liked it here. For the first time, the idea of leaving seemed less like a new adventure and more like a loss.

She stared at him for a long moment, her eyes swirling with doubts and fears, but also love and longing. Finally, she shook her head. “No running this time.” The words came slow, but were clearly spoken. She slid an arm across his shoulders and tugged him firmly against her side. “This time, we stay...”



* * * * * *

Chapter Text

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

The hardest task Kara faced when she arrived at her apartment was keeping her feet solidly on the ground, only for once it had nothing to do with being born on Krypton. If she was as human as can be, she still would have been on the verge of floating on air.

Soft words and softer kisses had assured her of that.

It was overwhelming and wonderful and so damned amazing she barely knew what to think. Never having been overly prone to the sort of hormone driven antics her peers in school had gotten into, she’d long since concluded Kryptonians just weren’t wired like humans. It had even made sense. After all, she came from a world where marriage and procreation were largely controlled by a computer bank that took family ties and genetics into account far more than emotion.

How wrong she was.

Wrapped up in Cat’s arms, the taste of her on her lips, the feel, smell, and warmth filling her senses, she’d experienced all those things she’d read about in books, the heat, the want, the flutter of her heart, not to mention parts further south.

“By Rao, you’ve got it bad,” she sighed and shook her head, shivering gently as she remembered the moment later on when Cat had turned to her for comfort, sinking into her arms and holding on tight, clearly terrified about what it meant that she’d been left out of a key part of the story. That this strange, oddly shy, yet bravely forward woman trusted her at a time when she needed someone had made her feel like a hero in a way neoprene costumes and patrolling never had. The exultation that came with that was amazing.

She was still giddy when she called Cat to let her know she was in safe and was surprised to find her a little breathless. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just a minor disaster in the...uh...the kitchen,” Cat explained between pants. “I had to run for the phone.”

Kara tensed worry in her eyes. “You’re okay though?” she whispered, ready to fly.

“I’m fine,” Cat quickly assured her. “Mixing’s bowl’s not so great thought.”

Kara relaxed. “I’ve taken out a few of those,” she admitted with a chuckle. Superpowers could be hard on household items. “I get a little fumble fingered sometimes...particularly in the kitchen. Told you, when it comes to cooking, I’m not so great.” She sighed, smiling as she heard Cat laugh softly.

“The offer for lessons still stands,” Cat teased.

“Careful,” Kara warned. “I might just take you up on that. Your kitchen might not survive.”

“I don’t make offers I don’t mean.”

Given how much Kara hated cooking, an offer of cooking lessons shouldn’t have set her pulse running like that. She swallowed hard.

“Did that sound as cheesy as I’m afraid it did?” Cat muttered before Kara recovered her voice.

“It didn’t sound cheesy at all,” Kara gasped. She ran a hand through her hair. “But I...uh...” she didn’t finish.

“You have papers to grade,” Cat reminded her, her tone rising in lilting question at the end.

She did, but she could do that in five minutes in the morning if need be. A part of her wanted to rush back to Cat’s place.

“And I should probably get to bed,” Cat sighed.

To Kara’s ears she sounded a little melancholy about the idea. “Right,” she heaved her own sigh, a little disappointed. She would have talked all night if she could have. She was just drawing breath to speak when Cat cleared her throat.

“But Kara,” she said very softly.

“Yeah?”

“I had a wonderful time tonight, and I want to thank you for being so wonderful and supportive...and I...I...just so you know, sending you home tonight wasn’t an easy thing. I was so tempted to just...”

“Yeah, I know,” Kara sighed when Cat’s voice faded into silence. “But it was...”

It was Cat’s turn to finish. “Too soon,” she whispered.

“Yeah.” Kara paused momentarily. “This is too important,” she said at last, “I know we need to be careful, make sure we’re ready and Carter’s okay with it...but just so you know, I didn’t want to let go.” She heard a tiny whimper over the phone.

“I’m going to go now,” Cat croaked when she finally found her voice again. “Because if I don’t, I’m going to invite you back here and yeah...not time yet, plus I don’t want you out on the roads alone at night, especially not right now.”

Kara smiled, barely resisting the urge to explain it really wasn’t a problem. She could be there in seconds.

Speaking of things they weren’t ready for yet.

The fact that Cat was feeling the same rich mix of emotion and temptation felt good though. “You’re right, it’s too soon, but thanks for telling me, and for not wanting me on the roads.” It actually felt really nice having someone worry about her for a change.

“I want you safe,” Cat said firmly.

The softly spoken words made Kara tremble and warmed a space in her heart. “Okay, so we both need to hang up,” she whispered. “Because I’m tempted to just hop in my car and come over—”

“Don’t,” Cat snapped, then softened her tone. “I couldn’t bear if you got hurt.”

It took another fifteen minutes before they managed break the connection and when they finally did, Kara was grinning happily, her feet literally floating a bit above the floor. Still caught in her blissed out haze, she checked her mail and messages. Nothing interesting and no word from Alex. She was almost worried and was distracted enough that the paper grading took almost a half an hour.

All she could think about was Cat, but she was smart enough to know they’d done the right thing, even if her imagination was running a little haywire. Things had already moved so quickly and neither of them was ready to take it to that level yet. This wasn’t about a one night stand. It was so much more and that meant they had to take the time to do it right.

Finished with the grading, she stepped over to a window and peered out at the dark city. She needed to do something and she really should run a patrol. Besides, she could drop by the house and check on Alex, not to mention fly over Cat’s place.

A quick change into the Nightwing costume and she was flying.

The city was quiet, though she managed to a stop to a couple of things before anything serious happened. Merely scaring muggers and would-be home invaders was probably cheating by the family’s stanards, but if a dented brick wall and a sprained wrist for some idiot would avoid throwing punches and put him back on the right track, she was willing. Though as she flew away, she had to question her own actions, but it wasn’t like she could have them arrested. She couldn’t exactly testify in court, after all.

Which led to the rather depressing thought that, so far, Catwoman might have actually done a better job of getting criminals off the street than she had.

Turning she did a flyby of Cat’s place. She was surprised to spot her on the balcony staring out at the city. She’d have predicted she would be asleep in bed. Then again, maybe Kara wasn’t the only one with energy to spare. A soft smile touched her lips as she recognized her jacket wrapped around the other woman. There was something pleasantly intimate about the idea. She stayed long enough to assess that all was clear and safe before she pivoted toward the mansion and flew on.

* * * * * *

A shiver slid down Cat’s spine and her ears pricked to an unidentified sound. Suddenly alert, she snapped her chin up to peer skyward.

Nothing but the night sky. Everything was exactly as it should be, and she was getting paranoid. Then again, paranoia was probably the only reason she and Carter were still free, she reminded herself. Besides, it was probably just left over skittishness from her earlier panic, she reminded herself, consciously slowing her breathing as she felt the prickle of muscles twitching just beneath the skin. She caught a whiff of Kara’s scent on a breeze and turned her cheek into the collar of her borrowed jacket, feeling her stress levels drop in response to the tangy-sweet smell.

The other woman soothed her in a way she’d never experienced before. It felt nice, safe, like home.

Which was terrifying in a way, but for the first time in her life, also wonderful. No, correction. Kara was wonderful. She was kind, honest and open. When they were together, she made Cat feel like a different person, someone who could build an honest life, have a home, credit cards that weren’t stolen, and all the stresses that came with getting a son ready for college, and none of the ones that came with trying to figure out how to get him a legal identity to let him attend high school without being afraid of getting caught.

Kara made her feel like a real person instead of a faded photograph or someone else’s nightmare.

But there was still her benefactor to deal with and a list of items to steal.

She fisted her hands at her sides as her stomach rolled and she had to remind herself it was the only way. Newly discovered conscience aside, she didn’t dare slack off now, not when real identities and a normal life were almost in their grasp.

She’d checked on Carter and he was sleeping comfortably, his breathing slow and even. He’d be out until his alarm clock went off in the morning. The apartment was locked up tight, the building secure, the neighborhood quiet. She’d never liked doing this, but she had no other choice.

Taking a deep breath, she’d peeled off the borrowed jacket and carefully folded it and tucked it away in a protected space, then pulled her hood and goggles into place.

And leapt into the night.

* * * * * *

Kara slipped into the batcave through a small, hidden port that slipped open when she entered a passcode in Kryptonese. Moments later she strode into her adopted parents’ kitchen still in costume in search of something to eat. She didn’t even think about going down to Alex’s lab. She needed sustenance before she could possibly consider bearding the lion that was her sister on a tear over her nemesis. Besides, when it came to comfort food, nothing beat Alfred’s prime rib sliced thin and piled high on thick slices of fresh Italian bread, with Swiss cheese, lots of lettuce and mayo and a bag of chips to top it off.

Maybe then she’d be ready to face Alex.

She was still plowing through the impromptu meal when she heard the soft creak of leather shoes and looked up just as Alfred entered. He raised an eyebrow, then reached into the fridge and grabbed her a soda to replace the one that was down to the dregs.

“You’re here late,” he commented and took a seat across from her at the kitchen table. He popped the top on the soda and slid it over to her.

Mouth still full, Kara shrugged, grateful for the extra time before she needed to answer. “I was out until a little while ago. Thought I ought to check the city and drop by here.” Their eyes met and by tacit agreement, they left the topic of Alex and Catwoman until later.

“Out?” Alfred asked, brows drawing into a curious frown. “You’re not usually one for late nights.”

“I-I do my fair share,” Kara insisted entirely unbelievably.

Alfred’s brows drew together and his mouth twisted into a doubtful half smile. Kara was many things, party animal was not one of them. Noting the way she fidgeted, he consciously gentled his voice and his look. She needed careful handling sometimes, especially in this family where some things could get a bit rough and tumble given Alex and Bruce’s tendencies. “So what were you up to?”

She shook her head and waved the a hand as she stammered, “I was having dinner...with a friend...nothing interesting.”

Alfred’s frown deepened and his curiosity got the better of him. Kara wasn’t usually so cagey. Quite the opposite. “Anyone I know?”

She shook her head much too quickly. “Just a parent...a parent of a student, I mean. New student at the school. One of my students. Good kid. I have him for sixth period physical sciences.”

She was blushing.

Alfred tipped his head to one side as he peered at the girl. “Rather more than that perhaps?” he suggested as she stumbled to a halt.

Kara looked down, studying her food with unusual intensity. She should have known Alfred would pick up on something, not that she’d been very subtle with the babblefest and all. “She’s...” She pulled to a verbal halt for a moment. “She’s special, Alfred.” She looked up then, a shimmer to her eyes. “She’s not like anyone I’ve ever met and I...” She shook her head and looked away. “I think...” she trailed off, uncertain what to say and afraid of putting things into words.

“It’s serious?” he said very gently when she didn’t finish.

She nodded slowly. “We’re still figuring it out,” she admitted in a rush.

“But you’re both...” he trailed off, uncertain how to ask. Kara could be so emotionally open for someone with so many secrets that he worried about her getting in too deep and not realizing the other person wasn’t as vested.

“Interested?” she whispered, then nodded before he had a chance to respond. She thought about the hours spent together, the small touches that had set them both shivering and the effort it took to go no farther. “We talked about it, agreed to be careful, go slow.” She took a long drink, her mouth suddenly painfully dry. “She’s got a lot on her plate right now, but we both want this.” Cat had been very clear about that, and the oh-so-soft and oh-so-tempting kiss as she left had been even clearer.

“Does she know about...” he drew in a breath as he hunted for a tactful way of phrasing a whole host of issues.

“None of it,” Kara sighed and flinched. “Not even that my adopted father is a bazillionaire.” For the first time, terror really hit. She had so many secrets, and even the least of them could be overwhelming. Some people would be thrilled at the prospect of dating a Wayne, she didn’t think Cat was one of them.

He looked doubtful. Given that it was common knowledge at the school, it seemed unlikely.

“They’ve only been in town since the start of the school year...and Carter’s still figuring out the social scene at Glenne Faeles,” Kara said a bit defensively.

He didn’t argue even if he had doubts. “You know you’re going to have to tell her,” he warned.

“I know, but not yet.” Kara shrugged. “This is so sudden—just a few days, really—and it’s nice just being normal for once.”

He considered reminding her that secrets seldom stayed hidden for long, but she’d earned a bit of normalcy in her life. “So tell me about her,” he shifted topics. “How did you meet? What is it about her?”

Kara’s blush returned, staining her cheeks a rosy shade. “Well, like I said, her son’s one of my students. I ran into them at the zoo the other day and they invited me to join them there, then on a picnic.” She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “So I took them to one of Winn and James’ popups as a thank you and that led to sailing Sunday. Then today, Cat called me. She needed some help and afterward, we had dinner on the balcony, and just talked...” She shrugged and looked away, the rising color in her cheeks enough to suggest talking wasn’t all they’d done.

But that wasn’t a question Alfred had any business asking, nor wanted answered.

“You’ve been busy.” He approved. Kara was a tender soul and too many times she’d been shunted aside in favor of some family challenge or disaster. He often thought that Kal El had sent the girl their way rather than taking her himself with some thought that having to focus on a damaged child would pull Bruce out of the dark place he went after Dick’s death. Instead, she’d been left far too alone on this world, her very sweetness meaning she was often forgotten in favor of some disaster of Bruce’s or Alex’s. If she’d found someone who would put her first, he could only be happy for her. Unfortunately, he feared he might be the only one, particularly right now. “So tell me more.”

She looked up, almost glowing at the happy note in his voice, especially after Alex’s less than positive attitude toward the idea. “She’s smart—we talk about everything—and funny. She has this twisted, sly, but dorky sense of humor.”

He could tell how excited she was by the way her breath caught.

“And she worries about me, Alfred, walks me out to my car and makes me call when I get in...”

Alfred flinched, the longing in her voice enough to rattle even him. He doubted anyone in the family had ever done that, all of them too confident, sometimes even a little envious of her invulnerability, and too vested in Bruce and Alex’s activities to see she had needs as well. The realization left him feeling old, foolish, and slightly blind.

“I mean, I know she doesn’t realize I can’t be hurt,” Kara’s tone shifted, like she feared she was in the wrong somehow. “But it’s nice...y’know...knowing she cares,” she added, the words coming more slowly and just a little plaintively.

Shaking off a wave of guilt, Alfred summoned a smile. “I think that’s wonderful,” he assured her. She smiled, but it was a little shaky and much as he wanted to say more, everything he could think of seemed likely to make matters worse.

Relief flared in her eyes. “And in case you’re worried, she works for Barbara at the paper—columnist—local interest and things like that. Barbara trusts her enough that she’s even pulling her into some new online thing she’s putting together.”

That actually was good to hear. Despite any tensions between Barbara and the family, he knew she’d warn them of any problems, and her vetting process made Wayne Industries’ version look like a cakewalk.

Kara fell silent for a moment, looking down at the table as though she wasn’t quite sure what to say next.

“Kara?” he prompted after a long moment.

She look up, eyes rimmed in silver tears that she quickly blinked away. “She’s been hurt. She’s said as much and I can see it in her eyes sometimes, but she never goes dark places, and she’s raising this bright, funny kid who loves zoos and museums and playing Frisbee in the park...”

He wondered if she had any idea what a condemnation those simple words were.

“I just want to protect her and make sure no one hurts either of them ever again.”

He was startled by way her voice hardened through the proclamation. When he really looked at her, he noted the tears were gone, replaced by something steely that he took for a warning of sorts, though he wasn’t sure she was conscious of it. “If she treats you well, she’ll have my absolute loyalty,” he pledged, his voice low and serious.

“Alex was talking about doing a background check, even half accused her of being Catwoman.” She snorted softly, the sound somewhere between anger and frustration.

Alfred massaged his temple as he felt a headache start to rise. “She won’t. I’ll see to it.”

“I don’t think even she believes it, but was in paranoia mode and she got in my face at the thought I might tell Cat the truth,” Kara explained. “I didn’t threaten, and I didn’t mean immediately, but if this goes forward...”

She trailed off, but Alfred understood the problem. “Being a part of this family isn’t simple, and you’ll need to consider things carefully, but if this relationship becomes as serious as I think you’re hoping for, you’ll need to explain things to her. She’ll have a right to know, particularly since she has a child.”

Kara flinched and ducked her head, suddenly uncertain. “Am I doing the right thing?” she whispered, her voice turning rough. “What if she got hurt because of—”

“Kara,” he over-rode her with a firm tone and laid his hand over hers. “One thing I’ve learned in life is there are no guarantees, and it’s the people we love and who love us that make it worthwhile.” He raised an eyebrow and peered at her seriously. “I also believe that anyone you love would be better off with you than without you.”

Kara thought about that a moment and couldn’t restrain a small, proud smile as she remembered the way Cat had snuggled into her arms when she was hurting. It hadn’t been the grand drama of superheroes and villains, but it had been real and warm and left her feeling like she belonged somewhere.

“That’s an expression with a history to it,” Alfred observed.

“She was upset earlier...and I...I held her and just...” She trailed off, gnawing thoughtfully on her lower lip. “I think I helped. She calmed down and relaxed...and pretty soon we were laughing.” She looked up again, a soft smile curving her lips. “It felt good, taking care of her like that.”

“Anything you want to talk about?”

She shrugged. “I think she was just too tired. She’d been working on the Catwoman story, only she didn’t know that until she saw it on TV. She just knew there’d been an attempted burglary and a good samaritan.”

“That must have been a surprise.”

Kara nodded. “Yeah, it rattled her. I think she was afraid it meant Barbara didn’t trust her...or worse.”

“Your thought?”

“She called Cat to tell her how well she did, so no, I don’t think there was a problem. I think Barbara got on the hottest story of the year and didn’t think much past that.”

“Can’t really blame her for that,” Alfred sighed, his mouth twisting into a wry smile. “Video with Catwoman playing the hero is---”

A sharp shriek cut him off. “What?!”

Kara’s chin snapped up and her mouth dropped open just as Alex exploded through the swinging kitchen door. She was wearing a ratty blue robe that she’d owned since Kara could remember and she looked like hell, her complexion grey, dark circles under eyes that were wild with emotion

“What the hell did you just say?” she demanded.

“Alex—” Kara began, her tone placating.

Alex was having none of it. “What. Did. You. Say?”

Kara’s throat bobbed with her hard swallow and she shared a worried look with Alfred. “There was a news piece—security video from a local jeweler,” she said at last. “A couple of guys broke in, roughed him up. A few minutes in, Catwoman shows up, beats the hell out of them, ties them up, gets something out of the safe and leaves.”

Alex rocked on her heels as though struck, her breathing suddenly ragged. “You said hero,” she accused.

“That’s what the jeweler called her, says the burglars meant to kill him and she saved his life. Also says he gave her whatever she got from the safe—”

“He’s lying,” Alex bit out before Kara could say any more.

“Alex—”

“She’s no goddamned hero,” Alex snarled, waving her arm toward the city. “Hell, she was out there today, recruiting Southie kids, convincing them we don’t care about them—”

“What are you talking about?” Kara demanded, while Alfred frowned, not liking this development at all.

Wound up in her emotions and the pain of the day, not to mention the pills to relieve it, Alex was past thinking clearly. “She’s taking over an old drug house. She’s got the local kids working for her, probably planning something—”

“Wait, what? How do you know that?” Kara demanded. She’d spent days scouring the city under Alex’s tutelage and hadn’t seen a hint of the thief. “We never found anything like that.”

“I saw it!”

Kara’s frown deepened with her growing confusion. “On a remote cam?” she asked. They had them all over the city, but it seemed like every time they tried to put them in gang territory, they were either stolen or destroyed within hours until they’d finally given up on the idea. “Did one come back online...because that could be hacked or old footage—”

“I was there!”

Kara reared back as if struck.

“She was in Southie territory,” Alex roared ahead without slowing down. “I was questioning some kid who knew the score, and she hits me from behind and gets him outa there before he can say a word.” She let out a bitter laugh. “She even batted my flashbang back like she was playing handball.” She shook her head. “No fun, let me tell you.”

Kara realized she was sitting there, randomly nodding her head, her hands fisted tightly where they rested on the table. She was vaguely aware of Alfred looking on, his expression unreadable. “So you went out today?”

Alex slowed a bit, but was too vested in her anger to pull back. “I needed to get boots on the ground, talk to people, see things—”

“I thought I...” Kara trailed off, consciously stopping herself for a moment before continuing. “You went out...alone...with your arm still healing—”

“I braced it. I needed to get a look at the city—”

“Alone,” Kara repeated. “...in a drug house?” Her voice rose at the end, and if Alex had been listening, she would have heard the anger building.

“Look, that’s not important. What’s important is she’s down there, talking to the street rats, telling them we don’t care about them, that we’re the villains—”

“Instead of just idiots?” Kara snapped.

Alex pulled up short, her tone offended. “Kara—”

“Why didn’t you get me to look, or at least let me go with you?”

Alex waved the question off. “I needed to talk to my sources, my way—”

“And you couldn’t do that with me along?”

“I needed them to know I meant business, not think I was there to kiss their booboos.”

“Right,” Kara exhaled as she pulled up short, suddenly so angry she could barely speak.

“I know you mean well,” Alex continued, finally sensing all wasn’t well, but too vested in her point of view to back off and slow down. She did note Kara’s increasing pallor and tried to explain, “But you don’t know what to look for or who to talk to...or even how to talk to them. You want to play nice, be kind. That doesn’t work with these scumbags—”

“Then let me solve the problem.” Kara pressed her palms flat on the table and pushed to her feet.

“Kara, don’t.” Alfred tried, he really did. “She’s not rational right now—”

“The hell I’m not,” Alex shot back. “That bitch has to be stopped and it seems like I’m the only who cares that she’s probably trying to take over the city.”

“This is pointless.” Kara didn’t yell. The words were more of a defeated sigh. She’d tried to do the right thing, but if this wasn’t failure, she didn’t know what was. Alex clearly considered her so inept that risking her own life was a better option than working with her. “I’ll run a patrol on the way home, but after tonight...” She shook her head and took a step back. She just saw no reason for it all.

“Kara, don’t make any decisions or say anything you can’t take back,” Alfred warned.

She dragged a hand through her hair, scraping it back from her face as she struggled to get her temper back under control. “I won’t,” she promised and turned a tired look his way.

“I’m not the villain here,” Alex broke in. “I’m trying to protect the city.” She threw a resentful look Kara’s way. “You’re the one wimping out.”

Kara drew a breath to respond, but caught herself before she could utter her first instinctive response. She turned her toward Alfred, some of the tension in her shoulders easing as she saw his sympathetic look. “I’m out,” she told him.

He nodded his understanding. “Be careful.”

“She’s goddamned invulnerable, Alfred,” Alex reminded him, her tone an effort at making it a joke, though her expression turned it bitter.

At the same time, Kara threw a look Alex’s way and shook her head. “I’m not the one who needs reminders to be careful.”

“Of course you do,” Alfred disagreed, his tone mild. Raising an eyebrow, he turned a disapproving look Alex’s way. “You’re just not the only one.”

“Look, I’m fine,” Alex broke in. “I didn’t do any damage, the cycle’s back in the garage and—”

“You took a batcycle?” Kara exploded before she could stop herself, then answered her own question before Alex had a chance to speak. “Of course you did. If you’re going to get yourself killed, why do half measures?” She looked over at Alfred who nodded toward the kitchen door.

“Go on. I’ll see to her.”

“I don’t need handling like some damn three year-old.”

Actually, it seemed she did, but that was a subject for another time. Alfred waved Kara on with a muttered, “Go.”

A quick nod, then Kara flew, leaving Alfred to deal with her sister.

“This isn’t my fault,” Alex insisted when they were alone as it finally sunk in that she’d screwed up. Royally.

He held up a hand in a plea for silence. “Just sit. Quietly,” he grumbled, “while I consider what to tell your parents about this colossal bit of stupidity.”

Alex drew a breath to argue only snap her mouth shut when Alfred threw a glare her way. “I was protecting the city,” she muttered under her breath.

“Bruce taught you better than this,” he sighed tiredly and shook his head, letting her see both the anger and disgust with her foolhardiness. “You could have been killed.”

Alex flinched at that. “I knew what I was doing,” she insisted, though she wasn’t as strident this time.

He glared. “Alone, injured, in a drug house.” He shook his head. “No, you didn’t know at all.” He slapped a hand flat on the table hard enough to make her jump. “And that behavior is going to stop now.” He drew in a sharp breath. “You can be as obsessed as you like with Catwoman, but you will not go out alone and the emotional beating on your sister stops. Now.”

Alex finally wilted.

“And you will not run a background check on the woman she’s seeing. If she wants to, I’ll help her, but you will stay the hell out of it.” It was a testament to how angry he was that he used even a mild profanity.

Alex swallowed hard, muscles flexing along the line of her jaw. She hadn’t been called on the carpet like this since she was still a teenager and a part of her wanted to defy the orders.

“Am I understood?” Alfred demanded, his voice every bit the RAF officer he’d been in his youth.

“Yes, sir.” It was really the only answer possible to that tone.

“Good.” He sharpened his gaze though he softened his tone. “I mean it, Alex,” he said more gently. “She needs this.”

She looked up then, genuine worry in her eyes. “So we just let her blunder into something when we could make sure she knows the score?”

“No, we trust her, and hold off unless and until she asks for our help.”

“And if she gets hurt?”

“We get her through it.”

“And what if it destroys the rest of us?”

“We deal. It’s what do best.”

* * * * * * *

Cat’s job for the night was simple, a nice, mid sized home in a nice neighborhood, good locks, no alarms, two kids, parents still married. According to the report she’d gotten from her benefactor, the item was located in a curio cabinet in the livingroom.

The house was quiet when she arrived. A quick peek in through various windows confirmed four people, sound asleep in their beds. Hopefully, they’d stay that way and she’d be done in minutes. She popped the lock on rear door that opened onto a small but nicely lid out kitchen. From there, she quickly found the livingroom and the cabinet in question. It was an antique in rich, fine grained oak with curved glass, three glass shelves, and a key in a lock meant more to keep the door closed than anyone out.

The shelves were crowded enough that it took some effort to search through things. Clearly the cabinet had been organized once. Items in the back, like china plates and a silver tea set still were, but the front layer was cluttered with small things, odd pieces of jewelry and personal items like an antique cigarette case and a pair of pocket knives that had seen better days.

Cat frowned ever so slightly as she stared at the objects. They were mostly valueless, but clearly treasured.

Hunting through the shelves, she quickly found the piece she needed. On the second shelf, right in front. A bit of space had even been cleared around it as though someone wanted to make sure it was visible amid the jumble.

It surprised her to feel a rush of pained tightness in her chest as she studied the antique bracelet—a delicate piece with an old fashioned clasp and chain and an inset oval of green stone. As she removed it, she peered at the piece for a moment. It was silver. Probably not worth much, but the work was surprisingly delicate and detailed. Whoever’s wrist it had once fit had been slender, almost child sized, and the design was meant to nestle the stone into the hollow next to the bone.

She opened a pouch on her belt and was about to tuck it away when a small sound caught her attention.

She looked up just as a tiny voice whispered, “Catwoman?”

Oh hell.

A slow pivot and she spotted a tiny figure in the archway to the livingroom. She was wearing dark pajama bottoms and a blue t-shirt with the word, ‘Super Girl’ inscribed across the front, while dark hair fell to her shoulders in a sleep-mussed tangle. Wide, brown eyes stared up at Cat in awe. She didn’t look to be more than six. “You’re Catwoman,” she exhaled.

“Umm,” Cat exhaled uncertainly.

“I’m Louisa. I saw you on TV last night. You’re a hero,” the child said confidently and started to turn away. “Mom ‘n’ Dad’ll wanna meet you.”

Cat looked past Louisa to the hallway that led to the livingroom. It was dark and silent. No sign of anyone else, and the nearest bedroom door was still closed. The girl was alone. “No, sweetie,” she blurted, and rushed forward to settle her hand down on a small shoulder. Despite her panic, she was gentle and the little girl spun to peer up at her with a questioning look but no fear.

“Why not?”

“I...” Cat froze, her panic ratcheting up until thought and language were a challenge. Shaking her head, she struggled to throw off the feral as she crouched down to put them more on level. “It’s a secret,” she explained.

Louisa’s brows drew into a frown and she looked down, spotting the object in Cat’s hand with a confused look. “Why do you have Great Aunt Sadie’s bracelet?”

“It’s...uh...also a secret.” Even Cat winced at the sheer awfulness of her lie as she shoved the bracelet into a pouch on her belt. Hadn’t she been good at this once upon a time? This crisis of conscience was robbing her of even the mildest confidence in how to deal with these things.

The little girl, however, seemed captivated. “Are you gonna use it to help beat some evil super villain?”

“Something like that,” she mumbled. Seeing the way the girl’s face fell, she reached out and smoothed dark hair back from her face. “I mean, I need it, but it’s hard to explain why.” She was strangely honest as she added, “but it’ll help save someone’s life.”

“Ooohhhh.”

“But like I said, it’s a secret, which is why you need to go back to bed and forget you saw me.”

Louisa’s small face pursed into a look of worry. “But Mom, she really loves that bracelet. She’d be really sad if it was gone.”

Cat offered a small, reassuring smile. “I’ll return it when I’m done, no worse for the wear. In fact there’s a broken chain on the clasp, and I’ll get it repaired.” She was going to hell. No two ways about it. Then she cupped the girl’s cheek in her palm and committed possibly the biggest sin of her life. “I promise.”

She got a relieved smile in return. “That’s okay then.”

“So why don’t you head back to bed.”

The girl turned away and started back toward the kitchen. “Thirsty,” she told Cat without slowing. “That’s why I got up.”

With a glance toward the bedrooms to confirm no one was moving, Cat hurried after her.

Which is how she wound up helping the child get a cold drink, then a snack, though she did talk her into some carrots instead of a cookie, a fresh toothbrushing because good dental care was important for heroes and finally she escorted her back to her bedroom. She slipped out the window, and made sure the girl locked it in her wake, but not before lecturing her, “If you find someone in the house that you don’t know again, even if they’re a hero, I want you to promise me you’ll get your parents.” She ruffled silky hair gently. “Sometimes people look like heroes, but they aren’t really. Can you promise me you’ll do that?”

She got a serious nod in confirmation.

After that, she slipped away into the night, the pouch on her belt weighing only a few ounces more, yet feeling immeasurably heavier.

It only took a slight diversion to take her back past King Street Jewelers. The street was dark, but there was a dim light on in the apartment and she could see at least one camera truck as well as a few people milling on the street below. Seeing people there, she almost kept going only to change her mind at the last moment when she saw a shadow moving through an upstairs window. She didn’t have to get very close to be certain it was Jacob, working in some kind of upstairs workshop.

She stayed high, well out of the sight of anyone on the ground and was more careful on entering this time. The camera were easily bypassed for her purposes.

* * * * * *

Jacob Schreier hurt, the battering his body had taken worse now than it had been earlier when they were poking at him in the hospital. He supposed he could have cadged another day or two on that lovely morphine drip, but his insurance was such that he knew he’d wind up with plenty of charges if he did. So he chugged Advil and accepted sleep wasn’t going to happen.

Bryan had offered to keep him company, but he was in no mood for it. It was easier to just concentrate past the pain by losing himself in a pendant design he’d had in his head for ages.

At least that had been the plan.

Only when he sat at the table in his shop, silversmithing tools laid out exactly the way he liked, the sketch he’d done pinned up where he could see it easily, nothing happened.

He sat dead still, staring toward, but not really seeing the sketch. He was still sitting and staring at nothing like that when it suddenly struck him that his hands were shaking. He tightened them into fists and tried to make it go away, but the palsied trembling continued.

“It takes awhile, but eventually that’ll stop.”

Jacob spun, eyes going wide as he saw the slender figure hiding in the shadows on the opposite side of the room. The shaking only increased as he found himself wondering if she was there to finish him off. “I—”

“I’m not here to hurt you,” she said softly, sounding as tired and achy as he felt.

He swallowed hard and waited, grateful for her help, but also very aware of what she was. It was like making friends with a tiger, exciting and amazing, but not without risk.

“I should thank you for what you said,” she added, then snorted softly. “No one’s ever called me a hero before. Not sure there’s any truth to it, but still...”

“You didn’t have to help.” He stared down at his hands, fisting them in a continuing effort to chase off the trembling. “That’s all a hero is sometimes...the person who takes a risk to help when they don’t have to.”

They both fell into an uncomfortable silence until Cat cleared her throat and began to explain.

“You said you’d do me a favor if you could,” she said, careful to keep her voice as nonthreatening as possible.

“Yeah,” he confirmed cautiously. “But I can’t imagine—”

She slipped the bracelet from the pouch on her belt and held it up.

“I don’t fence stolen goods.” Jacob felt a rush of panic as he found himself wondering if it had been some kind of setup. Was he about to be dragged into some criminal gang?

“I’m not asking you to.” She tossed him the bracelet. “But I’m hoping you can replace the stone and fix the locking chain.” She was silent a moment. “I need the stone, but I promised someone I’d bring the bracelet back.”

He frowned at her in an effort to divine her intentions and was surprised to see nothing dark or threatening in her gaze, only sad and maybe a little ashamed. Finally, he looked down at the bracelet before reaching out to aim a worklight at the piece The silver work was nice, with a sectional band and a sizable cabochon—shaped, polished precious stone—setting. The stone was a dark, somewhat dull shade of green with veining in a lighter colored matrix. “Nice piece, early 1900s, I’d say, no hallmark or maker’s mark.” He scraped his thumbnail lightly against the stone. “Any idea what the cabochon is?”

She shook her head. “No. Do you know?”

He grabbed a lighted jeweler’s loupe–a specialized magnifier–off his desk to study it more closely, frowning as he made out more details. “Not sure. It almost looks like green jasper, but...” he rubbed his thumbnail more firmly, turning the bracelet this way and that. “It’s harder and there’s a chip along one edge...it’s sharp...almost like flaked obsidium.” He brought it closer. “And there’s interior pitting...almost like meteorites where they’ve burned off gasses in the rock.” He flashed a look her way, then pivoted toward his work table where he flipped on an ultraviolet light. The stone fluoresced ever so slightly, giving it a dim, green glow. He grabbed something else and waved a wand over it.

Cat heard a soft, slow click and backed up a panicked step. “Isn’t that a—”

“Geiger counter? Yeah.” He glanced back, noting her obvious fear. “Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous.”

The soft, slow clicking sound continued and Cat backed up another step.

He smirked. “So the big bad super villain is afraid of a little radiation?”

“The last time I checked, it kills indiscriminately.”

He snorted. “Only in old rubber monster movies. This level won’t kill at all,” he assured her. “It’s a little hotter than background radiation—what we encounter every day of our lives—but not enough to be dangerous. Your yearly dental X-rays are a bigger dose.” He turned back around. “Still, it’s unusual...looks like the radiation level is probably intrinsic rather than through exposure.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Uranium, for instance, is hot. It always registers radiation because that’s part of its nature. On the other hand, expose a tomato to a nuclear explosion and you might be able to make it safe just by washing it with clean water.” He shrugged. “As old as this is, unless the exposure was recent...”

“Unlikely. It’s been in somebody’s livingroom since their great aunt Sadie passed.”

“That suggests this little devil’s had plenty of time to cool down and it hasn’t...”

“Meaning?”

He glanced back, noting she was as far back as she could get without leaving the room. It made her more human somehow, not to mention less threatening. “Don’t know and I don’t own the equipment to test it properly.”

“Is it dangerous?” Cat thought of her own personal Cindy Lou Who. If the kid-not to mention her whole family-had been exposed to something dangerous, she'd have to find a way to warn them.

“Shouldn’t be.” He raised an eyebrow. “But I have an old lead lined film bag that should block anything. You’re welcome to it.”

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“I assume you want me to pull the original and come up with a duplicate?”

“If you can.”

“It won't be perfect, but I can come close.” He hoped he was making the right call. “I’ll need pictures,” he said and pulled a camera from a drawer to begin taking reference shots. When he finished, her carefully removed the stone, then tucked it into the film bag he found in drawer and handed the package to her. “Tell me you’re not going to use this to hurt someone,” he pleaded, questioning his sanity.

“I’m not.” She nodded toward the bracelet on his workbench. “I’m trying to make things right.” She paused for a moment. “There’s a ring too...same problem,” she added, thinking of the elderly man whose dead wife’s ring sat in her gym bag.

“Drop it by with pictures on a thumb drive...and the addresses. I’ll see this stuff gets home.”

She tucked the stone back into the pouch on her waist. “Thank you.” She turned away, moving on silent feet.

“Be careful,” he warned, feeling an unexpected kinship with this strange woman. Maybe it was because he’d spent most of his life on the fringes of acceptable society and he suspected she had as well.

“Too late,” she sighed, moving fast as she opened the door and slipped out.

Jacob followed more slowly and by the time he peered into the hallway out side his workroom, it was empty.

* * * * *

A half hour later, her body worn but fresh out of the shower, Cat slid into bed and lay staring at the ceiling. She was just slipping off to sleep when her cell jangled where it sat on the nightstand next to the bed. She didn’t debate, just grabbed for it. “Yes?”

“Cat, it’s Kara...”

Cat jackknifed into a sitting position, the younger woman’s tearful tone instantly putting her on alert. “What’s wrong?”

“I-I’m downstairs, I—”

“I’ll be right down...”

* * * * * * *

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Seventeen


Last on Chasing Fog

A half hour later, her body worn but fresh out of the shower, Cat slid into bed and lay staring at the ceiling. She was just slipping off to sleep when her cell jangled where it sat on the nightstand next to the bed. She didn’t debate, just grabbed for it. “Yes?”

“Cat, it’s Kara...”

Cat jackknifed into a sitting position, the younger woman’s tearful tone instantly putting her on alert. “What’s wrong?”

“I-I’m downstairs, I—”

“I’ll be right down...”

* * * * * *

Chapter Seventeen


Kara almost bolted, but Cat’s voice remained in her ear, firm and unbending.

“I’ll be right there. Do not move.” She could hear the way the other woman was breathing, fast and shallow and background sounds of doors and locks.

“I’m sorry,” Kara croaked as it struck her how her impulse had doubtless inconvenienced the other woman. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Whatever it is, you did the right thing coming to me.”

Kara could hear doors, then the rush of what had to be the elevator over the phone.

“It’ll be okay,” Cat assured her.

“I’m sorry. I just...it’s stupid,” Kara stammered, feeling foolish. Nothing really had happened. She hadn’t even exactly fought with Alex, but she’d been flying when she realized she was crying and she wasn’t even sure why. Alone, no voice nagging in her ear, the city seemingly quiet, she should have been feeling better, but she wasn’t. All she could think was that she wasn’t good enough to do the one thing her family cared about. Even with super powers and the desire to help, she wasn’t enough.

She was never enough. Not enough to raise her cousin, not enough to fight crime with her new family, not enough to find Catwoman. Just not enough.

After that, the tears had set off a chain reaction of emotions until she couldn’t stomach the aloneness of it all. Superspeed got her home and into fresh clothes in seconds. A few more seconds got her to Cat’s front step and dialing before she could think better of it.

Now she’d had time for that thought and it occurred to her that she’d probably terrified the other woman for no real reason and she was probably screwing up everything. Again.

“Whatever’s happened, it’s not stupid,” Cat broke in on her thoughts.

“You don’t even know what it is,” Kara argued as she pivoted to stare out at the city at night as though it might offer some answers. Unfortunately, it just reminded her of her own ineptitude because she saw people living mostly good lives where Alex would see all the crime and grit in need of action. Alex would know what to do where Kara didn’t.

“I know it’s got you upset,” Cat interrupted her grim thoughts, “and I know you well enough to know that means it’s not stupid.”

Wrapping one arm tightly around her midsection, Kara pinned the phone against her ear with her other hand. “What if you’re wrong about me?” she whispered uncertainly, Alex’s dismissive words still ringing in her ears.

“I’m not,” Cat said firmly, her tone utterly confident.

“I had a fight with my sister. Is that stupid enough?” Kara muttered.

“It’s the people we love who have the power to hurt us.”

Cat sounded distracted, the saying a bit of a cliche, like she wasn’t really listening, just placating, which hurt somehow, even though Kara felt silly for it. She was dragging the woman out of bed in the middle of the night, but it felt like she was the only one who understood, and now maybe she was already driving her away and before she could stop herself, she whispered, “She all but called me an inept fool, made it very clear she doesn’t trust me to get a job done.” Peeling her glasses off, she scrubbed at a fresh wash of tears as the urge to flee resurged so hard she was one step from running.

Pivoting, she searched the lobby, willing Cat to be there. Only it was empty and she couldn’t—

“Gotcha,” Cat hissed as she grabbed hold of Kara’s blouse from behind, fingers curling into the light knit where it settled over her center back. Her grip firm, she reached past the other woman with her other hand, fingers flying over the keypad to release the electric door lock as she ordered, “Inside.”

Kara found herself shoved into the lobby before she quite knew what happened. Twisting, she peered over her shoulder. “Wha’?”

“I went out the back and came around,” Cat explained and pushed Kara deeper into the building. “I could hear it in your voice—you were about to run,”  she whispered and spun Kara to face her, hands moving, gently checking for injuries the same way she had with Carter after he screamed. As she did, she was careful to watch for any sign of physical fear and relieved to see nothing. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. I just... I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry, I’ll—”

“You’ll stay right here...with me,” Cat ordered, her tone absolute, though gentle. She glanced out at the parking lot and didn’t see Kara’s car. “How did you get here?”

Kara couldn’t exactly tell the truth.  “I-I walked,” she mumbled, aware enough to see the way Cat’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “My sister doesn’t live very far from here." Which was sort of true. Alex kept an apartment in the city even if she was never there and it was somewhere on this end of town.

Cat looked out at the dark street again, all color fading from her face. “Idiot,” she exhaled, hands shaking as it hit her how badly Kara could have been hurt. She got a fresh grip, this time Kara’s arm rather than just her blouse. “You’re safe now,” she said, though it was hard to tell whether she was reassuring Kara or herself.  She wanted to take more time to check on her condition, but she also wanted her away from any easy exits. She pulled her toward the elevator, her voice taking on a commanding note. “Come with me.”

Kara drew in a sharp breath to argue, terrified she’d screwed up and desperate to flee. “I’m bothering you. I should go and—”

“Kara,” Cat said sharply and spun toward her, reaching up to cup her free hand along her cheek. “I want you here and I also don’t think you should be alone, so if you try and leave, I’m going to throw you over my shoulder and carry you.”

Kara blinked in shock.

Except the look in Cat’s eyes suggested she fully intended to follow through if need be.

A blonde brow twitched upward and Kara couldn’t hold back a tiny snicker.  Cat was slightly built and didn’t look like she could pick up a particularly large child, much less a fully grown adult. Meanwhile, even without the Kryptonian factor, she had a good four inches and Rao only knew how many pounds on her. “Really?” she asked doubtfully.

Cat saw the break, the tiny moment when the tension let go enough for Kara to see a way through. “My back might not appreciate the effort,” she lied. She could have made it more of a joke, but in that moment, she thought maybe this woman needed something else a whole lot more. She stepped forward, deliberately putting herself in Kara’s space, though she was ready to back off if she saw a hint of unease. Nothing. “But I’ll do whatever I need to if it will keep you safe,” she promised quietly.

Kara swallowed hard and was still staring when the elevator arrived. She allowed it when Cat pushed her aboard. No more than a couple of minutes later, Cat was guiding her onto her livingroom couch.

Kara sank onto the cushions, watching with wide eyes as Cat crouched down in front of her, every movement slow and well telegraphed. She felt the soothing brush of gentle hands as they again touched here, smoothed there. “I’m not hurt,” she repeated as she watched the careful cataloguing of her limbs.

Cat looked up, making full eye contact, something profoundly sad reflected in her gaze. She settled her hands on Kara’s knees.  “You may not be wounded, but you’re hurt.” She offered a tender smile. “And you shouldn’t be.”

“I don’t think she meant it,” Kara felt the need to defend her sister, or maybe reassure herself. “She’s got her own issues right now, but it just...it was too much,” she admitted in a small voice. “Made me doubt...myself...everything...”

Cat peered at her for a long moment as she debated the best answer. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Kara shook her head. Even though a part of her wanted to dump it all, it was hardly a story she could honestly tell.

“Okay,” Cat sighed. “I’ll listen if you ever change your mind.”

Kara managed a small nod, but her eyes remained down.

Reaching out, Cat tucked a finger under Kara’s chin, bringing her head up until their eyes met. “Kara, you’re always welcome in my home, and I would much rather you call me than be alone. Please believe that if nothing else.”

“Really?” Kara whispered uncertainly.

Really,” Cat confirmed. She patted Kara’s knee gently. “I’ve been alone, scared, and hurting and I would never want that for you.”

Seeing an echo of those old hurts in Cat’s eyes, Kara felt her chest clench. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, wishing she could have been there for the other woman. “You shouldn’t have been alone.”

Cat swallowed hard and pushed off the threat of tears along with any impulse to suggest she’d probably deserved everything she got. Kara didn’t need to hear her self pity or self loathing, particularly not right now. She managed the gentlest smile she could summon. “Thank you.” She peered up at the girl, taking in her upset, but also the way her shoulders slumped and the way she blinked too much and seemed unfocused. Time for practical concerns. “You must be exhausted.”

Kara shook her head, even though she was actually getting tired. The  nightly patrols had been taking a lot out of her and the blowup with Alex had left her worn in a way that went beyond the physical. “I’m okay,” she mumbled, then frowned as it occurred to her that Cat had survived a day every bit as long and emotionally trying and she didn’t have the advantage of being super powered. “But I’m keeping you up.”

Cat shrugged. After the adrenaline rush she might not sleep anytime soon or she might suddenly collapse. It could go either way. “Right now, you’re more important.” She patted Kara’s knee lightly, then dropped her hands to slip off her shoes. “So relax. You can’t go back out there. It’s not safe and you...you need to be safe.” As she spoke, she straightened and caught Kara’s hands in her own, her grip firm even if her voice was suddenly shaky.

Feeling the tight grip on her hands, Kara peered closely at Cat. “So I’m spending the night?” she half stated, half asked, uncertain what was going on.

Intensely aware of the emotion directed her way, Cat froze. It had been so long since she’d allowed herself to feel for anyone other than her son that it was all terrifying and she wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Every instinct wanted to take control of the situation and all but lock Kara in, but several less than pleasant memories flashed in her head. Being hemmed in could be horrible, even when it was supposedly for one’s own good. “I hope you’re spending the night,” she whispered when she finally spoke. “But it’s your choice. If you don’t want to, I’ll make sure you get anywhere you want to go...safely.” Some of the pressure in her chest eased. “Whatever you want,” she added, even though the mere idea of Kara going out into the night on her own had her shaking. “Just, please, don’t just walk out. Take a taxi—I’ll pay if you don’t have a wallet—or get picked up by a friend, but no running off without a plan.” She knew too well how much evil there was out there just waiting.

Jarred out of her own issues by Cat’s reaction, Kara wanted to ask, but it wasn’t the time. “I promise, whatever happens, I’ll let you know and I won’t run,” she assured the other woman and squeezed the hands clinging to hers.

“Thank you,” Cat whispered, her shoulders visibly slumping.

Kara’s frown deepened as she noted the other woman’s pallor and the way her voice shook. Seeing how genuinely distressed she was brought out her protective streak. “Are you okay?” she asked worriedly.

Cat ducked her head, tucking her chin tightly against her chest. “I...yes,” she whispered, her voice ragged. She was still clinging tightly to Kara’s hands. “I-I can be territorial when I'm scared,” she confessed. “And I realized I was doing that...taking over...not letting you choose,” she stammered, the words coming in broken syllables with odd pauses between. “That’s not right,” she reminded herself more than Kara.

“You’re shaking,” Kara exhaled.

Cat nodded. The adrenaline rush that had taken her down the side of the building one handed was fading, leaving trembly weakness in its wake. “I-I just want you safe,” she repeated as she struggled to think clearly. “But I’m not sure what to do and I don’t want to frighten you. I...I would never...” She didn’t even know how to word what she was saying, but she wanted Kara to understand she would never force her to do anything. She jumped ever so slightly when gentle fingers tucked under her chin to draw her head up until she encountered worried blue eyes watching her carefully. “I would never want you to feel...trapped...by anything I did,” she managed to get out before she fell silent again.

“You didn’t.” Kara smoothed her fingers along Cat’s cheek and offered a tender smile.

“I saw you look at me oddly and I...I was afraid I’d...” Cat didn’t finish, but it was obvious what she was thinking.

“No,” Kara assured her. “No. I just realized I’d woken you up, and you had to be exhausted and I felt bad.” She offered a tiny, wry grin. “Though when you threatened to pick me up and carry me it was kind of funny...”

The hidden feral part of Cat wanted to prove how easily she could do it and knock the smug grin off the younger woman’s face, then show a few other things she could do. The civilized part refused to go down that road and even had the sense to feel a bit of shame. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I just—”

“I get it,” Kara interrupted. “I wasn’t rational and you needed to break through.” She carefully smoothed pale hair off Cat’s forehead. “And it worked. It’s okay.”

Cat drew in a sharp breath and heaved a hard sigh. “No, you weren’t rational,” she rasped, shaking her head. “But I’m not sure I was either.” Kara’s panicked call had triggered so many things that could be hard for her to master completely. And there was no real way to explain any of it without causing the other woman to think she was batshit crazy.

“Not surprising,” Kara sighed. “Late night calls always scare the hell out of me.”

“Wasn’t just that,” Cat mumbled, but didn’t continue, her throat too tight and her thoughts too jumbled let her express what was going on in her head.

“Cat?” Kara whispered when several seconds passed and Cat still hadn’t spoken. She saw a hard shudder rattle through the woman crouched in front of her. “Talk to me,” she pleaded

Cat shook a little harder and didn’t speak for a long moment. Her head still down, she cleared her throat. “Walking alone...in this city...when you were already upset and not paying attention...” She shook her head as if to throw off a sudden wave of terror as she imagined a dozen horrifying scenarios. “You could have been...” Again she sputtered to a halt, unable to give voice to the nightmare playing in her head. “I just...I... God, Kara, how could you take that risk?” she whispered at last. “Don’t you get that there are people who care about you?”

Kara froze, utterly still, no idea what to say. The idea of someone being undone by concern for her almost too alien to comprehend. She was invincible. But Cat didn’t know that and she was shaking with terror. “I...I’m sorry,” she whispered after a long moment as she tried to imagine what it would feel like to trade places. The mental image or Cat or Carter out in the streets alone at night nearly took her to her knees.

Her stomach knotted as she realized that’s what she’d put Cat through.

“I-I didn’t think...” she whispered, genuine remorse in her eyes.  She didn’t pause to consider her next action, just reached out. Cat was delicately built, but pleasantly solid as Kara scooped her up. Cat turned into her body, scrambling up to burrow in her arms and hold on with almost frantic strength. She mumbled something, but Kara couldn’t quite understand her. “I’m here,” Kara soothed. “We’re okay.” The couch was a deep one and while it was tight, there was space enough as she eased down, stretching out, Cat still held firmly in her arms. “I won’t do it again.”

“Don’t let go,” Cat pleaded.

“I won’t,” Kara promised, rubbing Cat’s back gently as she snuggled her close.  Reaching up, she flipped off the light. There was a folded afghan tossed across the back of the couch and she tugged it down over both of them. “It’s okay,” she whispered over and over, intensely aware of Cat’s hands where they were spread against her back, alternately clinging and massaging. At some point, she peeled off her glasses and tossed them onto an end table along with her phone.

“Probably think I’m nuts now,” Cat mumbled at some point.

“No,” Kara assured her. “You’re right, what I did was stupid.” Maybe not the being out alone at night, but not considering how it would look to a normal person. “I just didn’t think.” It occurred to her that she didn’t really know what things the average person would take into consideration. She’d been near-royalty on Krypton, and wealthy beyond imagination on earth, while most of her students were from upper middle class to filthy rich families. Even without powers, she had little sense of the sort of concerns that had likely dominated Cat's adult life.

“You were emotional.” Cat settled against Kara, cheek pillowed on her shoulder as she curled more tightly against the length of her body. “That can make it hard to think clearly.”

“I know,” Kara sighed. She fell silent for a moment, then added. “But I thought about how I’d feel if it were you or Carter out there.” She felt her pulse pick up at the mere idea and she found herself rubbing Cat’s back in slow circles.“Scared out the hell out of me,” she confessed. “I didn’t mean to do that to you.”

Cat felt a swirl of guilt, given she would have given no more thought to going out than Kara did. Of course, she would have been far safer moving amid the rooftops and there wasn’t much out there that threatened her even on the ground.  “I’m just glad you came here.”

“Me too,” Kara admitted. “Feels nice having someone worry about me.” She didn’t say, ‘for once,’ but it was there between the words. Without thinking, she slid her fingers higher to massage the back of Cat’s neck then gently rub the sensitive spot she'd discovered behind her ear. “Feels nice having someplace I know I’m welcome.”

“You can always come to me, Kara,” Cat promised. “Always.”

Kara relaxed deeper into the cushions, clinging to the woman in her arms, though she was careful about her strength. “I know,” she breathed.

“Do you think you can sleep?”

Kara buried her nose in flaxen silk. Cat smelled good, like vanilla and almonds and wild honey. “Maybe I can now.”  

“You won’t leave?”

“Not without speaking to you,” Kara promised.

They both fell silent, bodies relaxing as they settled deeper into the cushions and each other.  Kara was more asleep than awake when she mumbled a soft, “Thank you for being here...”

“Always,” the sleepy reply came back slowly and so softly spoken it was nearly inaudible, but it came back.

After that, they both drifted the last little distance into sleep.


* * * * *


Cat was dreaming pleasant dreams, wrapped up warm and safe, the smell of trees and wild things in the air.

Her eyes narrowed and her ears twitched, something ancient and primal calling to the feral part of her, drawing it out as she flowed along, staring out through thick shadows at a girl with sky eyes and sunshine hair.

“You can come out now,” a voice that was all sweetness and innocence called to her, but she retreated into deeper shadows, afraid to reveal herself. “It’s safe.” the summer-girl promised.

But Cat didn’t move, just stared.
 
“I know you’re scared. I’m scared too.”

Cat chuffed softly, scoffing at the notion she feared anything. She was all power and grace and if she didn’t come out, it was because she didn’t care to, thank you very much, even if the girl carried a pocketful of summer breezes and was the prettiest thing Cat had ever seen.

“If you won’t come out...”

Then the summer girl was there in the darkness with her, all warm and sweet smelling and radiating something bright and good that cut through the shadows until there were flickers of light scattered through the darkness. Cat would have run, but surprisingly strong hands found her, not restraining, but tempting, gently petting and stroking until an unfamiliar lassitude slid through her.

“We’re stronger together,” the girl promised,  scratching her behind the ears until she was purring and circling and begging for more. “That’s right.” Gentle hands skimmed over Cat’s neck and shoulders, slowly massaging sleek runs of muscle. “You know me. You’ve always known me, and you know you’re safe with me.”

Then she slipped away to reappear in a sunlight and shadow dappled meadow, seeming to glow as though the sun came from her. She waved to Cat. “Come on,” she called. “You’ll love it out here.”

Shaking her head, Cat paced, still lurking in the shadows, tempted but so afraid she could barely breathe. She was a wild thing, but one who knew about betrayal and cages. As much as she wanted the summer girl, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d been tempted into a trap.

“You can trust me,” her sunlight girl promised.

She wanted it to be true, but even if it was, Cat was a creature of shadows and shadows didn’t survive sunlight. A low growl on her lips, she turned away, padding deeper into the darkness. She had no place in that well lit world.

Then the girl whimpered, her voice suddenly edged in pain and fear.

Cat spun and leapt in one smooth move. Snarling wildly, she spotted the shadow creature menacing her love. It had multiple heads and claws and obsidian teeth that splintered the sun into knifelike shards. Suddenly golden light sliced through the clearing, revealing a hundred other demons waiting to take the world. Growling in warning, she landed in a crouch, putting her own body between the girl and the things that would consume her.

“Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” the beast taunted through a mad giggle.

Pushing the girl back, Cat braced herself and snarled as she recognized the slashing blade of a face, and sneering grin. She was a thing born of shadows, but this creature was utter, soulless blackness, literally molded from rage and madness.

It would destroy everything it touched, including the summer girl.

She shook her head. She would not allow that.

“Yes,” it hissed. “Fight.” Another giggle shattered the glade. “Show me what you can do,” it exhaled on a chill breath that ghosted and threatened to turn the world to ice.
“Pet.”

Cat shook her head and leapt. “Neverrr,” she growled, her voice raw and guttural, but still human.

She hit a body made of glass and sharp edges, with claws that slashed and teeth that tore. The first attack lashed her chest and shoulders, leaving gaping wounds that dripped tainted blood. Another tore at her back, then her arms, then lashed her belly until she screamed.

And for every slash, she hit back, drawing blood of her own even as hands grabbed at her from every angle and a hundred heads taunted and laughed at her efforts. “Won’t lettt you havvvve herrrr,” Cat growled desperately even as she fought the increasing restraint.

Then black turned to white and shadow to burning light, tattered rags to pristine labcoats, glass teeth to scalpels and needles.

“Oh, Kitty, what are we to do with you?” the slashing face demanded in a disappointed tone.

She shook her head wildly. “Won’t let you corrupttt herrr—” she snarled desperately as she was dragged back and lashed to a gurney. “No!”

“Cat.”

Cat twisted toward the voice, sharp teeth snapping at her attacker, but impossibly strong hands held her back.

“CAT!”

She writhed desperately, trying to get a hand free, ready to tear at anyone who would imprison her.

“CAT!”

Suddenly the too bright world faded into her shadowed livingroom. Breathing hard, her heart racing, Cat froze.

“Cat,” Kara repeated, her voice softening. “You’re safe,” she whispered. “It’s okay.”

Still a little lost in the dream world, Cat blinked, struggling to differentiate between reality and her own nightmares. “Kara?” she exhaled after a beat.

“It was just a nightmare,” Kara assured her, releasing her wrists to smooth pale bangs back from her forehead."You're in your apartment, everything's okay." She paused to let the words sink in. "You're safe."

Cat swallowed hard. "Safe," she exhaled, even that word a little hard to form.

Kara rubbed her upper arms gently. "Safe," she reiterated. “You want to talk about it?” she asked after a long moment.

Cat shook her head and pushed into a sitting position. Despite the chill in the air, her skin prickled with sweat and she was shaking. She hadn’t dreamed about the lab in ages, and this version had included an all new iteration. Instead of Carter being threatened, it had been Kara.

Kara reached out, but Cat twitched her shoulder away the moment she made contact. She pulled her hand back, a hundred questions implicit in her silence.

Lost in her own thoughts, Cat never noticed the aborted contact, but she had enough self defense mechanisms to know Kara would be curious about the panic. “Just old tapes playing,” she tried to wave it away. “Stupid, really.”

“We all have our demons,” Kara whispered, afraid to push for more. Rao knew she’d had enough nightmares about Krypton over the years to understand how the brain could summon old hurts. Again, she sought to touch Cat’s shoulder only to be rebuffed.

Aware this time, and not entirely trusting herself, Cat shook her head, the motion small but emphatic.

“Okay,” Kara exhaled as she pulled her hand back, though there was an echo of hurt in her voice.

Cat heard it and flinched. “I just need a moment,” she whispered, the words ragged and halting.

It was Kara’s turn to flinch. “Hey, it’s okay,” she quickly assured the other woman. “I just want to help.”

“I know,” Cat sighed and leaned forward, elbows on her knees, face in her hands. She felt stiff and awkward and she couldn’t explain how Kara’s very kindness was part of the problem. The other woman was bringing up so many old emotions, reminding her more and more what it was like to be human. “And you have in so many ways.” She ran her hair back with one hand and drew in a deep breath to slowly let it out. A quick look around the room confirmed that everything was where it should be. “It just takes a little while,” she whispered.

“Whatever you need,” Kara assured her.

If only Cat knew what that was.

“You were fighting someone,” Kara whispered very softly, as if she almost hoped Cat wouldn’t hear.

Cat shivered. “Old demons.” She could feel Kara’s desire to fix things like a physical presence in the room, but was grateful the younger woman made no effort to touch this time. Like any wild thing, she did better when it was her choice. “They were threatening you,” she finally admitted. She heard a soft gasp and felt Kara tense.

“I’m okay,” she assured Cat.

“I know,” Cat admitted and scrubbed away a few fresh tears. “But nightmares are rarely logical.”

Kara drew in a breath then paused as if she wasn’t sure what to say. “Is it because of what I did?” she asked, her voice thick with dread. “The way I scared you, I mean.”

Possibly, though probably not in the way Kara thought. “They come for the people I care about.” And her response to Kara’s idiocy made it plain how much she cared. Which was terrifying given she wasn’t confident she even knew how to care for anyone but her son anymore. She fell silent for a long moment. “Just Carter in the past,” she finally admitted, wondering if Kara would understand the significance of what she was saying.

Kara’s very small, “Oh,” suggested maybe she did.

“Since before he was born,” Cat felt the need to fill the uncomfortable silence, though she knew it was a tacit admission of so many things. She dropped a hand to her abdomen as she remembered the awful dreams she’d had all through the pregnancy. She’d barely slept the whole time, hiding away as much as possible, moving constantly, stealing to survive, and terrified of being spotted. The notion of trusting anyone enough to form relationships had been unthinkable. Sometimes it was still hard to imagine.

Kara flinched, remembering another time and shattered emotions. “After my family died,” she said after a long moment, “and they put me with my new family, I didn’t want to love them. It felt too dangerous.” Humans were so fragile, and her human family members were already so very broken, with such dangerous hobbies.

Cat twisted, staring at her. “Emotional demands can be too much sometimes,” she said very softly.

Kara nodded, understanding the message. As tempting as it was to make a pitch for a relationship, it would also be unfair. If Cat wasn’t ready, she had to accept it. “If you need to step back, it’s okay.” She paused, mentally pushing off any threat of tears. “I’ll still be there for Carter, and I’ll still be your friend.” Her heart gave a lurch when she saw relief in green eyes, but Cat surprised her by shaking her head a moment later.

“I’m so tired of being alone,” she confessed. For years it had been a relief to care about nothing but herself and Carter. For the first time in a long time, it felt like an unending emotional desert. “But maybe you want to—” she started to give Kara an option of walking away, but Kara shook her head sharply.

“No.” Kara studied her seriously. “Nothing’s changed for me. What I want is you, but only if it’s what you want.”

Cat gnawed on her lower lip, mind racing. “I do,” she finally whispered, but her eyes showed fear. “But I won’t lie, I’m not quite sure what I...I...can...” She didn’t finish, her voice fading as she struggled to put uncertain thoughts into words. “I don’t even know how to...” Be human, if she was honest, which she wasn’t ready for, not even with this amazing, special young woman.

“That’s okay,” Kara assured her. She tipped her head back, rolling her eyes skyward as she stared through the ceiling, and the roof above it, at the night sky. “I feel lost all the time, like I don’t really belong here...or anywhere.” She looked down at Cat as a thought struck her in clearer terms than it had before. “I don’t feel that way with you.” She checked the desire to reach out and touch. “I don’t believe in love at first sight, but from the first...” She paused remembering her profound curiosity even that first day. “Everything just feels right with you.”

Cat’s eyes slid closed, the softly spoken words touching her more than anything had in a long time. Every movement cautious, she eased back, every sense on alert, the feral ready to bolt. She wanted to trust so much, but the nightmare had set her on edge. Were it anyone but Kara, she didn’t think she couldn’t have done it, but the other woman seemed to understand and froze, leaving her in control. Her shoulder, her side and back, her hip all made contact, touching lightly, then with more pressure as she settled into the other woman, trust building over the seconds. Finally, Cat wiggled gently, cuddling into Kara, intensely aware of the length of her stretched along her back. Reaching back, she tangled their fingers together, then carefully tugged Kara’s arm around her.

Careful to let Cat lead, Kara kept her touch light, settling her cheek against silky hair, her chin on a slim shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered after they’d lain like that for several minutes. “For trusting me.”

Tipping her head back, Cat wiggled a bit, pressing more firmly into Kara. “I do,” she whispered and stilled, barely even breathing. “I’m falling for you,” she whispered what felt like hours later, when they were both lying there, breathing slow and soft, bodies relaxed.

Kara let out a soft, shuddery breath as her heart skipped at least four beats. “It’s mutual,” she sighed.

More silence and then Cat whispered into the darkness. “I have...” she paused, hunting for the right term and settling on, “...issues.”

Her tone was wry enough that Kara didn't hold back a tiny, snorted laugh. “You aren’t alone, and I’m okay with that.” She nosed deeper into Cat’s hair, the scents of vanilla and almond teasing her senses. “No pressure. We can take as long as we want, muddle through and figure things out together.”

“Together,” Cat agreed.

A few minutes later, they were both asleep again.

* * * * * *


Again, the nightmares came for Cat. Again, threatening everything she loved.

But this time she was ready, already pacing protectively around the girl, still wild, but some part of her wanting to be tamed, to have hearth and home instead of peering in windows at others enjoying their lives.

She wanted her own life.

So when the thing surged from the darkness, she met its attack with teeth and claws, and when the light burst on her, she didn’t falter or panic, just kept fighting, striking and tearing at the hands that grabbed for her.

She refused to fade away just because a light shined her way.

Instead, she flowed through any bit of shadow, all animal grace as she slashed and tore at anything that tried to contain until her attackers faded into the background, fleeing before her ferocity, leaving nothing but warm arms to hold her. “Mine,” she growled as her mouth and hands laid claim to the girl. “All mine.” The feral was on her and she would not be denied.

The cry of fear was of her this time, but it didn’t slow her down as she took what was hers and—

Cat sat up, the movement sinuous and predatory, fully awake in an instant, pupils blown, breathing fast, pulse racing. She registered Kara sound asleep against the back of the couch, slender and sweet smelling.

And so very vulnerable.

A soft growl slipped from her lips, the sound low and possessive.

No.

A soft buzz jerked her out of the momentary daze. It took her a beat to find the source, a phone vibrating on the end table. Without thinking, she grabbed it and ran.

She couldn’t risk Kara waking, not when...

She was in kitchen and thumbing the phone on before it occurred to her that it wasn’t her phone she’d grabbed. It was still safe on the nightstand in her bedroom.

She glanced at the screen. Alex.

Then the sharp, angry words came. “Damnit, Kara, you can quit pouting now and—”

Cat growled low in her throat, not liking the tone. “She’s not pouting,” she hissed. “She’s getting some much-needed sleep...after walking around this city alone...at three o’clock in the morning...before showing up at my place sobbing because she doesn’t think her sister gives a damn about her, which I’m starting to think is probably true.” She heard a sharp intake of air, as though someone got struck in the gut, but she was past caring. She needed a safe way to blow off a little steam. Alex would do. “Which is a goddamned shame, because she is quite literally the nicest, most decent human being I’ve ever met, and she shouldn’t be treated like she’s nothing.”

“I—”

“I don’t know what your issues are, and frankly, I don’t really give a damn.” It felt good to just let go and excoriate this Alex, the uncaring bitch of a sister. She needed it. “She deserves better. She deserves to feel loved and cherished and appreciated, not like she’s alone, and not like her own sister doesn’t care if wanders these streets at night. It’s a wonder she didn’t get...” She couldn’t finish. The mere contemplation of what could have happened hurt too much. “So whatever your problem is, grow the fuck up and get over it. She needs you.” She didn’t wait for a reply, just clicked the phone off, then stood there, breathing hard and braced as if for battle.

“Mom?” Carter, sounding very unsure, spoke very softly.

Cat pivoted to find her son standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his eyes wide. He was wearing pajama bottoms and a faded blue t-shirt, his hair still tousled from sleep. “I...” she stumbled to a verbal halt. “This is...” She peered at the phone, then back at her son, uncertain how to explain.

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Does it have anything to do with the fact Kara’s asleep on the couch?”

Cat flinched. “I...sort of. It’s complicated.”

He nodded and peered at her hand. “Isn’t that Kara’s phone?”

“Also complicated,” Cat sighed as it swept over her what she’d done.

“So the person you were just yelling at?”

Speaking of flinches. “Her sister, I think.” Not having given the woman much chance to speak, it was more of a logical assumption than actual knowledge

His brows shot up. “I’m not sure you should’ve done that, Mom.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Cat grumbled, then nodded toward the kitchen table. “Get some breakfast and get dressed.”

“But—”

“You still have school today,” Cat clipped impatiently.

Well used to his mother’s moods, Carter raised an eyebrow and shook his head.

“And try and be quiet.” Ignoring his arch look, she waved toward the livingroom. “Kara needs the sleep.”

Carter’s brows drew into a frown, the look in his eyes questioning and a little worried.

“No,” Cat hissed in the face of that look. “She had a fight with her sister, walked out and ended up here at three o’clock in the morning.”

“She walked?” Carter questioned. “On the ground?” He glanced over his shoulder toward the livingroom. “In this town?”

Cat smirked. “It’s how most people typically do it.”

“Not at night,” Carter argued. “You don’t even do that.” He shook his head. “She could’ve been killed.” He sounded appalled.

“Which is why I brought her in when she called,” Cat explained. “I just wanted to get her safe.”

Carter nodded. “That’s good.” He thought about it a moment. “Kara, Miss Wayne, she’s not like us. She wouldn’t know how to-to fight...if someone—”

“She’s safe now,” Cat reminded him and ruffled his hair gently in an effort to forestall his panic before it got started. “And we’ll make sure she stays that way.”

He nodded, something fierce and protective in his eyes.  “We have to,” he agreed. “She’s kind...good. We can’t let anyone destroy that.”

“We won’t.” Cat tugged him into a hard hug, resting her cheek against his hair as she held him tightly. It helped soothe his fears. “We’ll make sure she’s okay.”

He nosed into her shoulder, holding on a little desperately, his unnaturally fast breathing not enough to cover the rapid, rhythmic rumble in his chest. He hadn’t stress purred in ages. She ruffled his hair again, then leaned back and guided his chin up.

“I can protect her, Carter, and I promise you, I will.” Her smile was all love and pride. “But that’s not your responsibility—”

“But—”

“You need to be her student and her friend, but leave the rest to me.” She knew him. He could be dangerously impulsive. “Understood?”

He nodded, glimpsing something he’d never seen in her eyes before. “Are you in love with her?” he asked after a moment.

Cat froze. Trust Carter to cut straight to the heart of the matter. “I...it’s too soon to...” She trailed off, remembering quiet words spoken when they were both half asleep.  They hadn’t been professions of love, but they’d been something more than simple lust or friendship.

“Mom?” Carter murmured after a long moment of uncomfortable silence.

Shaking off the daze, Cat refocused on her son. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I do know she’s special...and we need to take care of her.” She ran messy curls back from his brow. “And I know you need to get ready for school.” She nodded toward the hallway. “So move out.”

He made a face but hurried off and she listened for the tiny telltale sounds he made while getting ready for school—little more than an occasional creak of a drawer or sound of water running. He returned a few minutes later and threw together a quick sandwich. “I can get more at the snackbar before class,” he explained when she cast a disapproving look his way, and downed it in a few quick bites.

They slipped out on silent feet a few minutes later.

They hadn’t been gone long when the soft rattle triggered by a vibrating phone—replaced exactly where it had been left the night before—brought Kara up out of a sound sleep. Blinking muzzily, she pushed upright and grabbed for the phone, though she was awake enough to note Alex had been calling for the last ten minutes.

Still annoyed with her sister, she almost shut it off and rolled over to go back to sleep.

Alex had made her opinion very clear.

Why answer in order to listen to more digs at how useless she was?

Then she remembered where she was. Cat’s place, on the couch.

Swinging her legs over the side of the couch, she sat up and stared at the screen as the phone fell silent again.

Six calls from Alex. The first two only a few minutes apart, then nothing for nearly an hour, then four in a row. Her sister was getting pissed at being ignored.

Fine. Kara could live with that. Besides, it wasn’t like Alex needed her for anything. Why the hell was she even bothering? That thought was still trapped in her brain when it started ringing again.

Only this time it was Alfred. Panic swept through Kara as it occurred to her that maybe something was wrong. She thumbed the phone on without thinking, her voice a panicked rasp. “Hello?”


* * * * * *


Carter dropped safely at the bus stop, Cat unlocked her front door and slipped inside on silent feet.

“Hey there,” Kara said softly as she stepped past the archway into the livingroom.

Cat froze, heart suddenly slamming in her chest. The other woman was sitting up, elbows braced on her knees, phone in her left hand. “You’re awake,” she exhaled through a nervous flinch. She nodded toward the front door. “I was just taking Carter to the bus stop.” She’d left a note to that effect, but it seemed wisest to reiterate the point.

“My cell woke me,” Kara sighed and waved the phone.

Cat swallowed hard. “I should probably explain something...”

Kara held up her other hand for silence. “It was my sister, Alex—”

Cat swallowed hard. “I should definitely explain—”

“She said you bawled her out,” Kara continued. “Actually, she said you tore her a new one...and she didn’t use the word, ‘one’.” She peered down at the phone with a soft snort.

“I’m sorry, but in my defense, I thought it was my phone I was answering, and then she said some things and I just lost my temper and—”

“And then she apologized.”

Cat came to an abrupt halt. “She...did?”

Kara nodded. “Said she never meant to make me feel like she didn’t care.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out. “She admitted it was her, not me. She kinda screwed something up recently, and she’s had all these issues and she took it out on me...and...” Kara trailed to a halt, a soft smile on her lips. Finally, she added, “She said she was proud to be my big sister.”

Cat was silent for a long moment. “I’m so glad,” she said at last, drawing close as Kara beckoned her over.

Reaching up, Kara caught Cat’s hand and tugged firmly, pulling her down onto her lap to slip her hands around her waist, though she was ready to back off at the slightest resistance. There wasn’t any. “She also told me that I should be good to you or you’ll kick my ass.” That and how she couldn’t possibly be Catwoman since Cat had been writing all day when Alex was out and encountered the thief. It had seemed to ease Alex’s mind and Kara was eager to take anything she could get.

Cat blinked in confusion, still struggling to parse the meaning. “She doesn’t hate me?” she asked uncertainly. That had her biggest fear because she knew the hold family could have, even if they weren’t good for someone.

Kara shook her head. “No. Actually, I think she was pretty impressed. Alex can be a real steamroller. People don’t stand up to her very often.”

“Standing up to others has rarely been a problem for me,” Cat whispered. Quite the reverse.

“She wanted me to thank you for knocking some sense into her,” Kara said, then arched up and tasted soft lips. “That’s from me though,” she murmured when the kiss broke.  She rubbed her thumb against the curve of Cat’s hip in slow circles. More soft, slow kisses followed before they parted and leaned their foreheads together.

“That was nice,” Cat drawled, relieved to feel nothing raw or feral, just the very human desire to cuddle closer and explore more.

“Mmm.” Then Kara tensed as she remembered the time. “But I really need to get to school to—”

Cat was back to flinching. “Actually, you don’t.”

Kara froze, peering at her with a confused look.

“I kind of called the front office and told them you were sick.”

Kara frowned. “But I’m never sick.”

“That’s what the secretary said, then she said it was about it time and promised she’d handle it.” Cat shrugged. “I’m sorry if I overstepped, but you were sound asleep, and after everything last night, I figured you needed it.” Also she hadn’t been quite ready to face Kara over the little scene with Alex. “And I’m really not usually so high handed.

Kara grinned. “You can be a little bossy,” she teased, then leaned in close to snatch another quick kiss. “It’s kinda hot,” she added before Cat had a chance to get self conscious.

“Really?” Cat said doubtfully.

“Oh yeah.”

More kisses followed, all soft and sweet and traded back and forth until they were both breathing hard.

“Kara,” Cat whispered  as she slipped her fingers through thick, honey blonde hair, using the light hold to tug her head back.

“I know,” Kara exhaled raggedly. She slipped a hand under loose blonde curls to cup the back of Cat’s neck. “We need to stop,” she groaned even as their lips met again.

“We do.” Cat curled her fingers into Kara’s shirtfront and pulled her back into a hungry mating of mouths that only broke apart when they both needed air. “Definitely should stop.” She moaned low in her throat, clinging tightly when Kara abruptly twisted, toppling her into the couch cushions. The move momentarily broke their bodies apart and Cat quickly hauled Kara back down onto her.

More kisses followed, along with more heavy breathing as healthy bodies began to writhe and roll into each other.

Somewhere in all of it Cat felt something hard and uncomfortably square edged pushing into her hip. Her mouth still bonded to Kara’s, she arched up on one hand, and reached for it with the other, intent on increasing the comfort factor, not to mention the physical contact. She just wanted it somewhere other than underneath her, but distracted and fumble fingered, things didn’t go as planned.

The TV popped on, the volume up, the channel still on a twenty-four hour news source that focused heavily on the city.

“...where last night, residents of the cannery district insist Catwoman rescued a family of five from a gang attack, then burned a huge shipment of illegal drugs, tied up several local drug dealers and dropped them off at a police station.

Cat sat bolt upright, staring at the TV with wide eyes and a confused frown. That all sounded much more exciting than stealing Great Aunt Sadie’s antique bracelet from a nuclear family in suburbia.

And she hadn’t done a bit of it.

Meanwhile, a man making some sort of hand signals that reminded her vaguely of something she’d seen at some sporting event leaned into a camera and excitedly explained, “I’m telling you it was La Gata. She’s the only one strong enough to take on the gangs. Only one who gives a shit too.”

“But what about Batgirl? Isn’t she supposed to protect the poor and downtrodden?”

“She don’t come around here.” He snorted. “She protects the rich assholes on the other side of town. Don’t give a shit about us. The only one we can trust is La Gata.

“That’s your story, isn’t it?” Kara murmured.

Cat tensed, then realized Kara meant the newspaper story and relaxed. “I guess.” She blinked  and threw off the momentary panic. “Related anyway,” she exhaled, then looked over, startled to see that Kara looked a little pale. “Though I don’t recall any mention of drug gangs or Spanish nicknames.”

Kara nodded and heaved a sigh. Alex would hit the ceiling. Again. Hero Catwoman was not good for her mood. All the more reason to have a bit of fun while she had a chance. She’d probably end up on patrol all night. “Do you have to go into work today?”

Cat shrugged. “I don’t know. All of my assignments are done, but—” she gestured to the TV “—with this, who knows.”

“So what say, I take you to a really cool museum?” She bumped Cat’s forehead lightly with her own. “Not that I wouldn’t enjoy continuing the...ah...”

“Yeah,” Cat sighed and stole a quick kiss. “But we agreed to take this slow.”

“And that was not slow.”

Cat snickered. “So a museum?” she drawled to distract herself from the desire to steal a few more kisses.

“Mmhm. A very cool museum with sharks and penguins and a beach and a swamp—but it’s not a zoo. I think you’ll love it. And it’s something you can leave anytime you need.”

Kara was grinning proudly, her eyes glinting with excitement.

Cat couldn’t resist. “But I’m paying for lunch.”

Kara laughed softly. “You’re gonna love the café.”


* * * * * *

The Gotham Academy of the Sciences had everything Kara promised and more. The huge complex had three buildings covering physics, natural sciences, geology, plus a tide pool, wave machine, a swamp with alligators lightning bugs and an overlook café.

The food was expensive and mediocre, but the ambiance made up for it.

“This is amazing,” Cat murmured as she watched a lightning bug alight on the edge of her wine glass.

“Not exactly your typical date,” Kara murmured as it occurred to her that it wasn’t the sort of things her peers bragged about.

“No, I’m actually enjoying it,” Cat snarked. Reaching out, she caught Kara’s hand in her own. “Not that I dated much lately,” she muttered under her breath, then shook herself. “Anyway, this has been wonderful...and exactly the kind of thing I enjoy, so thank you.”

Kara grinned, proud of herself. “I’m glad. I wanted something different for our first date.”

Giddy, Cat couldn’t hold back a smile. “You definitely managed that. It’s all been...amazing...the museum and the company.” She glanced at her watch. “But...”

“Carter, school, yeah,” Kara exhaled.

They’d been lucky. Cat had called into the paper and her editor had assured her that she had people covering the story, so they’d had hours to wander at their leisure, but it was getting close to time to pick him up and Cat hadn’t made any arrangements.

“About that,” Kara continued a little hesitantly. “I was thinking maybe I could drive us over to pick him up and sign the emergency care paperwork while we’re there.” It had worried her since finding out Carter had no one but Cat. “If you still want me to, I mean.”

A ripple of awareness slid through Cat and a wry smile curved her lips. “I absolutely do.” It was the first time in Carter’s life there was anyone but her. The fact that Kara was so ready to take on the responsibility touched a side of her she’d thought long dead.  “Thank you.” Then a thought occurred. “But will it be a problem that I called you in sick?”

Shaking her head, Kara laughed softly. “It’s literally my first sick day. I doubt they’ll complain.” She plucked a card with dessert menu from the center of the table and raised an eyebrow. “If we’re driving together, we have time for dessert.” She waved the card temptingly.

“I wouldn’t mind something sweet,” Cat teased, barely even looking at the card. “Not to mention dessert.”

Kara swallowed hard, grinned, and doubled her order. “The second one is for Carter,” she explained when Cat raised an eyebrow. “I figured it might be a little hard for him...y’know, the two of us going while he’s in school today.” She shrugged, gaze sliding away from Cat’s. “I don’t want him to feel left out, especially since we haven’t had a chance to tell him anything yet.”

Cat melted, mouth twisting into a wry smile. “He knows,” she said softly, shrugging as she added, “Not any details, but...” Another shrug.

Kara’s face fell. “You told him.”

“He told me,” Cat corrected. “Well, asked. This morning. After her saw you on the couch.” She took a sip of her wine, buying herself a moment to think, not to mention enjoying a bit of liquid courage. “He asked me if I’m in love with you,” she confessed.

Kara emitted a tiny, “eep,” and froze for a long moment. “I...what did you...say?” she finally asked.

Cat looked down, took another sip, then grabbed a deep breath. “I said I don’t know yet, that it’s too soon, and that we’re figuring it out.”

“And?” Kara asked with some trepidation.

“He ran to get dressed for school.” Cat shrugged. “Carter sometimes needs time to process new things.” She looked at Kara, seeing her nervousness, and offered a wry smile. “He wasn’t negative. Just a little unsure, I think.” She noted their dessert arriving, three plates worth. “I suspect the sugar will help.”

“I just don’t want him to hate me.” Kara cast a worried look Cat’s way.

“Thankfully, he doesn’t have it in him.” She eyed the extra slice of chocolate cake. “Plus, he’s very bribable.”

“So good plan on the bribery?” Kara questioned.

“Very good plan.”

* * * * * *

Carter was rummaging through his locker, pulling out various textbooks and shoving them in his backpack when he picked his mom’s voice out of the sounds of teenagers milling around him and twitched his ears to listen in better. She was in the front office, just across the hall.

“Are you sure it’s not possible, Ms. Pitts, is it?” She was in full charm mode. He could tell by the ultra sweet tone, which was so not his mom’s normal M.O. “ After all, you wouldn’t want any child to be less than completely protected and planned for.”

He frowned. Mrs. Pitts? Really, mom was trying to charm her? Even he knew ‘The Prune’ hated everybody. Even Miss Wayne. And everybody loved Kara.

“Maybe if you come back tomorrow,” The Prune offered. Which was more than she was rumored to normally even consider. From what he’d heard, a week was the usual timetable for getting anything done and a month wasn’t unheard of.

“Of course. So kind of you to put in the effort to find the form needed. It’s obvious you care so much about the job and the children.”

Smirking, he hurried toward the office. His mom was really laying it on thick.

“Well, I...” The Prune sounded like she didn’t quite know what to say. Hefty thanks for doing the very least possible were not the usual response and everybody knew she hated kids even more than she hated adults.

Which was a lot.

He stepped into the office just as his mom began the latest round of compliments, her tone effusive.

“I’m just grateful someone so kind and helpful is in your position. You wouldn’t believe some of the people I’ve dealt with at other schools. Just horrible.” That wasn’t even charm. It was just full on lying, since he’d barely been in any other schools.

The Prune frowned uncertainly and her eyes narrowed as if she was trying to decide if she was being mocked.

“They weren’t nearly as sharp and organized as you clearly are.”

Carter’s gaze swung to touch on a pile of papers on The Prune’s desk, some rumored to date back to well before his birth, Suddenly he spotted Kara where she stood off to one side, watching the whole thing in open mouthed awe.

“I...” The Prune paused, thought about it a moment, then grumbled a testy, “I might be able to find the right form in the back, if you wanna wait.”

“Really?” His mom sounded thrilled. “That would be wonderful, but I can’t ask you to—”

“I’ll go get it,” the secretary growled and made her way toward a back room. As she passed by Kara, she cast a suspicious look her way. “You and your whole family could learn some manners from that one, Wayne.” She glanced back at Cat. “Your sister especially.” She punched a finger Cat’s way. “You ever meet the sister?” she demanded.

“Only spoke to her on the phone,” Cat said quickly. "She...uh-"

“She’s a heathen,” The Prune declared and cast a stink-eye Kara’s way, expressing quite clearly she had the same opinion of Kara. Then she hurried off, which for The Prune meant moving at a rate slightly slower than an exhausted tortoise.

Carter drew close. “Mom?”  He eyed the secretary where she was still moving slowly, but determinedly away. “What are you doing here.” He’d gotten a text that she’d meet him out front instead of at the bus stop, but he wasn’t expecting this.

“Paperwork,” she answered, watching The Prune’s slow progress with a careful eye. It wouldn’t do to say the wrong thing and destroy her victory. “Miss Wayne—” keeping it more formal in deference to being at school, she nodded to indicate Kara who offered a weak smile and a tiny wave “—has kindly agreed to be your emergency contact.”

He paled. He’d never had anything like that before and he wasn’t sure he liked the idea, especially since his mom had been going out lately, but not coming back with the usual cash. He wasn’t sure what that meant.

As if sensing his worries, she settled a hand on his shoulder. “It’s just a precaution. In case I’m sick or something. Remember when we both had that godawful flu at the same time. I couldn’t have safely driven to pick you up at school.” She nodded to indicate Kara. “It’s just a backup.” She cupped her palm along his cheek as she met his gaze with a reassuring look. “I promise, that’s all it is,” she said very softly, her voice only for him. He looked over at Kara, Miss Wayne, and she just shrugged.

“I’m just here for the show,” she drawled, nodding toward the door through which The Prune finally disappeared. “Because this has been a thing of beauty.” Her brows climbed toward her hairline. “Your mom has successfully talked The—Miss Pitts—into being helpful—”

“Hush,” Cat shushed. “She’ll hear and we’ll be back to square one.”

“I could enter the info into the computer in two minutes if I had access,” Kara groused.

“But you don’t have access,” Cat pointed out.

“Because somebody changed the password.”

“The Prune?” Carter asked, then flinched at the glare his mother threw his way.

“We don’t use mean nicknames in this family,” she reminded him sharply.

He glanced at Kara, his expression questioning as he mouthed, “The Prune?”

She nodded nervously. The Prune scared her and had since she’d been a student at Glenne Faeles. Which she realized was stupid given that she could kill the women with her pinkie and not crack a sweat, but she wouldn’t, of course, and The Prune was just flat out mean.

Kara wasn’t good with mean people.

It took another forty-five minutes, but finally, they left, Kara’s name newly added to Carter’s contact information in the computer, a scan of Cat’s signature on file on a permission slip, plus Kara’s full contact data and The Prune looking quite satisfied at the way Kara winced under her sharp gaze.

As they climbed into Kara’s car, the two women made eye contact, then Cat turned her son’s way. “Kara says there’s a park near here.” She held up the foam container of cake. “Kara got you a treat where we had lunch. You wanna stop and grab a snack?”

He was ever so slightly suspicious, but he could smell chocolate and butter cream. He knew a bribe when he smelled one. “Is it about this morning?” Thankfully, his mom didn’t try to play any games. She nodded.

“Sort of,” she admitted. “And a few other things too.”

“I’m okay with it,” he assured her. “Whatever it is.”

“So you don’t want the chocolate cake?” Cat teased. “Because I could—”

“Gimme.” He thrust a hand forward from the back seat.

Cat grinned. “There’s my boy.”

So they drove to the park and sat on the top of a picnic table, Carter in the middle, enjoying his treat, while his mother explained a simplified version of what had happened, how much she enjoyed Kara’s company, how much fun they’d had, and how it was the first time in a long time since she’d felt this way about anyone.

Knowing it would come better from Cat, Kara nodded and offered a bit of verbal support, but let Cat take the lead.

He listened, his expression thoughtful, but didn’t ask any questions until after Cat trailed to a halt and sat waiting. He saw the nervousness in her expression. She was scared. “I’m okay with it,” he quickly assured her. “I just want you to be happy.”

She couldn’t contain the urge to give his hair an affectionate ruffle.

He pushed into the caress, then turned a serious gaze Kara’s way. “But I’d like to talk to Kara for a few minutes...alone,” he requested politely.

Cat paused and shared a look with Kara, who nodded. “It’s okay,” Kara assured her. She had a feeling she knew what he wanted to say, but in any event, he deserved to be heard.

“And no listening in,” Carter told his mother seriously.

She pushed to her feet, gaze flicking back and forth between Kara and her son. It took trust, something she wasn’t overly imbued with, but as she peered into Carter’s eyes, she saw how serious he was.

“It’s okay,” Kara mouthed when their eyes met.

Finally, Cat nodded. She gestured toward the small lake with a few wild ducks floating on the surface a short distance away. “I’ll go for a walk. Wave when I can come back.”

Carter carefully set aside the foam contained the cake had come in, the small plastic fork tucked neatly inside.

Kara waited, giving him plenty of time.

“I really am okay with it,” he said at last and cast a look her way, his eyes wide and luminous.

“Okay.”

“And I really appreciate the cake.” A small smile snuck through.

“I didn’t want you to feel left out.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I figured you guys would do stuff together.” His mouth twisted, his expression turning mock mournful. “I just thought it would be stupid adult stuff, like dancing or seeing foreign films, not something cool, but...” He shrugged. “The cake was really good.”

“We’ll take you sometime soon,” she assured him. “This was just something fun when we both needed it.”

“I get it,” he assured her, then peered down at his hands and fell silent.

Again, Kara gave him time.

“I just want Mom to be happy,” he said very softly when he finally spoke. “She’d probably say she doesn’t deserve it, but she does,” he continued, his tone intense. “No matter what she thinks, she’s a good person, and there were good reasons for anything she did.”

“Okay.” Kara had no doubt Cat was a good person. She’d seen too much to think otherwise. But she clearly had issues that haunted her.

“My dad was a real asshole,” Carter declared, uttering what was possibly the first curse word Kara had heard come out of his mouth. “He ditched her, left her to deal with...everything...alone.”

Kara drew a breath to offer some reassurance, but he held up a hand, so she held back.

“She could’ve blamed me, but she never did. She’s always been the best parent anyone could ask for. I always knew I was safe and loved and I know she went hungry sometimes, but I never did.” He paused and had to swallow hard. “Never,” he finally added with extra emphasis.

Taking that for a sign he was finished, Kara swallowed hard, not letting her think about anything past his needs. “Your mom adores you,” she said firmly, wanting to take away the hurt in his eyes. “And she is so proud of you. I have no doubt you’re the main reason she’s survived whatever happened.”

“I know,” he said, his voice a little shaky. He looked up again, his eyes wide and worried. “But everything’s changing. She needs more than me now. She needs someone who’ll support her...take care of her.” He shook his head, his tone mournful as he said, “She’s never had that.”

Kara blinked against the threat of tears, the notion of whatever had hurt the woman a literal pain in her chest.

"There's stuff you need to know," he whispered. "She's been hurt. Her stepfather was...” he trailed off as if trying to decide how much to say. “He was a monster,” he finally spat.

“Carter,” Kara said sharply even as her stomach clenched and rolled and her hands fisted tightly. He cast a scared look her way, his fear forcing her to calm down. She dragged in a deep breath, imagining the rage flowing out of her along with the air as she exhaled again. “Your Mom has a right to choose who knows the details of her life,” she said carefully, not wanting him to feel bad, but needing to stop him before he went any farther. “I care for her and I will do everything my power to support both of you, If you need to talk to someone, I know a really good counselor, but my knowing about certain things in her life has to be her choice.”

“I...” He wanted to argue, but he knew she was right. There were secrets he had no right to talk about even if they affected him. He nodded. “Yeah.” He paused for a moment. “But Kara, if Mom ever tells you her story, you need to believe her, even if it sounds kinda crazy.” His expression was pleading. “Her mom didn’t and it nearly destroyed her. She needs someone on her side for once.”

Kara curved her palm along his cheek. “I promise you, I’ll be on her side. Yours too.” Her mouth curved up in a reassuring smile. “But Carter, I need a promise from you too.”

He frowned uncertainly, but finally nodded. “Okay.”

“I need you to promise you’ll trust your mom and I to take care of things.” She settled a hand on his shoulder. “I know it’s really important to her that you get a chance to just be a kid.”

“But—”

“It’ll be okay,” she assured him. “I’ll make sure of it.” She was surprised when he turned to her and pushed into an unplanned hug.

“She deserves to be happy,” he whispered, his voice muffled against her shoulder.

“Then we’ll work together and make it happen,” Kara assured him. They stayed like that long enough that he relaxed against her. Finally, she leaned back and cupped his chin in her palm “Time to let her know she can come back?” Cat would be stressing.

He nodded and Kara waved to Cat where she was still walking along the edge of the lake, then tugged on the dark curls that fell across his forehead. “There’s a frisbee in my trunk if you’d like to play a bit.”

He managed a watery grin and she handed him her keys and sent him off to retrieve it.

Kara turned back around in time to meet Cat’s gaze as she returned. “He just needed some reassurance that I care about you.”

Cat nodded, glancing past Kara at her son where he was digging around in the trunk. “That sounds like Carter.” He always wanted to protect her.

“I just tried to let him know I want to do my best by both of you, and it’s time for him to relax and be a kid.”

“Thank you.”

Kara shrugged.

Any further conversation ended in a whoop of joy as Carter found what he was looking for.

“This is newest Ultra Star.” He grinned happily and started flipping and spinning it. “These things are like the most precisely weighted, best balanced disks out there.”

Cat’s left eyebrow twitched toward her hairline. “You’re in for it now,” she teased.

“Hey, Carter,” Kara called out. “This way.” She glanced Cat’s way. “You have anywhere to be?”

“I have all the time in the world.” Cat’s smile was as lighthearted as it had ever been. “Hey, Carter,” she called out. “Why don’t you show Kara your best Airbrush,” she suggested, naming of his more impressive tricks.”
 
It was time to play.

* * * * *