Posted by Ravager4 (1627 posts) - - Show Bio

Disclaimer: I do not own any DC characters or locations. All rights belong to DC Comics. I do, however, retain the rights to all characters and locations of my own creation, which include: Rebecca Chavez, Holly Sanders, Apathy/Ruby, Sophie, Jeremiah Belmont, Michelle Blanchett, Isaiah Slaton, Michael Kubrick, Zaria (as well as her Celarian race), Shao Shen, Trance, Police Chief Gerald Palmer, Officer Stevens, Officer Harrow, Emilia Marconi, Francis Baldoni, Arnold Pavoni, Senator Thomas Greene, Agent Croft, as well as Silverstone City and all its interior locations of my own creation.

Rating: T+

Note: The eleventh arc in my Ravager series to be remastered into prose format and edited to make it better. A lot fewer pictures in this one, though...

My Fan-Fic Archives: http://www.comicvine.com/myvine/ravager4/ravager4s-fan-fic-archives/87-79374/

---

Chapter #69

Even though it was after hours at the Red Rose Martial Arts Studio, with the last class having gone home nearly an hour ago, the studio was still open. Specifically, two individuals were currently engaged. Holly ran across the mat with skilled focus, leaping through the air and delivering a spinning kick. Of course, it wasn't much of a challenge for Rose to block the attack and push the girl off balance, sending her stumbling backwards.

Holly quickly recovered, though, her feet setting themselves beneath her perfectly. Instantly, she countered with another kick, followed by a hard elbow. Rose blocked them both, but this didn't discourage the girl; in fact, it was the whole point.

“That's good, you're doing great,” Rose said. “Keep it coming.”

Without hesitating, Holly lunged in with a flying knee, and when Rose went to block, she brought both hands down in the form of a double chop aimed at the sides of her opponent's neck. Reaching upward, Rose caught the girl's hands by the wrists, then flipped her over onto her backside. Holly landed with a huff of air on the mat, blinking up in surprise.

“Ow,” she muttered, rubbing her tailbone.

Standing over the girl, Rose brought her hands to her hips for a moment, then finally extended a hand down and smiled. “You're getting a lot better. Keep this up and you'll have your brown belt soon.”

Returning the smile, Holly reached up and took Rose's hand, pulling herself back to her feet. She briefly took in a small breath and then straightened herself, holding her hands to her lower back. “Thanks. I've been practicing a lot.”

“And it shows. I think you almost hit me that time.”

A small grin formed its way onto Holly's face. “Just you wait, one of these days I'll get you.”

“I’ve no doubt,” Rose said, holding a hand to Holly's shoulder.

The pair walked back towards the front of the studio, where Circe sat behind the counter going over the computer records. Behind Circe, her daughter, Lyta, sat on another chair, swinging around casually and casting a few small magic spells between her hands, causing bright sparks to erupt in the form of a miniature fireworks display.

When the two approached, Circe glanced up from the computer and shut off the monitor. “You finished now?”

“Yeah, I'd say that does it for today,” Rose said, with a nod.

“Lyta, dear, grab your coat and let's go,” Circe said, glancing back over her shoulder. “You, too, Holly.”

“Right, just a second,” Holly replied.

As Holly and Lyta retrieved their coats, Rose uttered a long breath and leaned against the counter. “Thanks for taking Holly for the night. I could use some time to myself.”

“It's no trouble, really.” Folding her arms across her chest, Circe gave Rose a curious look. “What do you plan on doing, anyway?”

“I don't know,” she said, shrugging. “I might just stay in and watch a few boring movies.”

“By yourself? Oh dear.”

Rose lifted an eyebrow. “What?”

“Look, Rose... it's been three months now and you've barely set foot outside of your home except to work,” Circe said. “Go out. Do something. Put on that atrocious costume of yours again and patrol the city if you have to, it doesn't matter.”

Sighing, Rose raised a hand to her head and closed her eyes. “I can't. I'm just... I'm not ready. Not yet.”

“You're still grieving, I understand. But at least consider it. I won't pretend to have known Rebecca nearly as well as you did, but even I don't think she would want you to forget how to enjoy life.” Bringing a hand to Rose's shoulder, Circe gave a sympathetic look, eyes softening. “You did tell me that she's the one who taught you how to do that, right?”

“Yeah, well... I don't know. I'll figure something out. Thanks, though.”

“Just looking out for you,” she replied. “Someone once told me, 'that's what friends do'. So I'm being a friend.”

Rose smiled lightly, nodding. “A good one, too. Thanks.”

A few seconds later, both Holly and Lyta ran by, heading for the door.

“Race you to the car!” Lyta exclaimed.

“Hey, no fair!” Holly called, chasing after her. “You got a head start!”

“I suppose that's my cue. I'll see you tomorrow, Rose.” Grabbing her own coat and purse, Circe walked out from behind the counter and make her way towards the door. She stopped briefly, looking back at Rose. “And try to find a way to enjoy yourself. You deserve it.”

---

Running her fingers through her hair, Rose leaned back on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table. The night was young yet, only around eight-thirty or so, which meant that she had plenty of time to just sit back, relax, and watch a couple of terrible movies. In spite of Circe's urgings to go out and try to have fun, she just couldn't bring herself to do so. It was still too soon, in her mind. The memories of Becky were too fresh, the pain of her loss too strong.

As she reached for the remote, a knock on the door suddenly called her from her thoughts. She uttered a low groan, bringing a hand up and rubbing her eyes briefly before rising back to her feet and heading for the door. Whoever this was, she really wasn't in the mood right now. She hadn't ordered any food, she wasn't expecting any visitors, and she really just wanted to be alone.

The knock came again, and this time Rose let out a more audible breath of annoyance. “I'm coming, hold your damn horses!”

When she threw the door open, her eyes glared forward at the man standing there, fully ready to tell off whoever decided to interrupt her time alone. When she realized who it was, however, her annoyance came down a little. “Oh, it's you.”

Standing in her doorway was Gerald Palmer, head of Silverstone's police department. Before the whole VRA incident, the last time she'd spoken to him while in her civilian identity had been when she'd still been on the force, more than six months ago.

After the VRA incident, though, it hadn't exactly taken much for the people she used to work with to figure out that she was Ravager, the former vigilante of Silverstone City, especially considering her case for killing Jeremiah Belmont. Fortunately, the judge saw fit to throw that case out, given the incredibly outrageous circumstances surrounding it.

“Mind if I come in for a minute?” Palmer asked.

“I guess.” Rose shrugged briefly, then stepped aside, waving him in. “Not like I have anything else to do.”

He gave her a brief, calm look, then walked through the doorway into the penthouse, closing the door behind him. “I would have called, but...”

“I would have hung up again. Yeah. So what are you here for anyway? You still trying to 'recruit' me?”

“I wouldn't really call it that,” he said, clearing his throat, “but if you mean I'm here to get you to work with us again, then yes. Silverstone's been in some rough shape these past few months, what with the budget cuts and police layoffs. As much as I hate to admit it, we could really use some help right now. Your kind of help.”

Moving into the kitchen, Rose grabbed a glass and poured herself some water from the sink. She stared at it for a short moment before taking a long gulp. “I don't do that anymore, I already told you.”

“I know, I know.” Palmer sighed, lowering his gaze. “It's the last thing you want to do. After what happened with Rebecca...”

At the mention of Becky's name, Rose's gaze drifted off to the side, a heavy breath emerging from her throat. “I just... I can't do it anymore. Things have changed; I have a daughter to look out for now. I wasn't the only one who lost Becky, we both did. If I go out there again, if I put on that costume and I end up getting myself killed, too... I'm not putting Holly through that.”

Palmer nodded slowly. “I understand. Never hurts to ask, though, right? Anyway, I, uh... I should get going. I got a bunch of reports to fill out, something about a new suspected drug going around getting kids addicted, and one of our undercover guys went missing.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Yeah... see you around, Wilson. And take care of yourself.”

When he finally left the apartment, Rose bowed her head and stared at the kitchen floor. She absently raised a hand, again rubbing her eyes and uttering a deep sigh. Eventually, she walked out of the kitchen and back into the living room, once again dropping herself onto the couch. Reaching for the remote, something caught her vision from the corner of her eye.

Turning her head, she noticed a framed photograph standing on the end table. It was a picture of her and Becky in the Silverstone City Park last September. It wasn't any significant moment, just a random act while they'd been sitting on the park bench. Becky had practically ambushed her with the photo, throwing an arm around her and holding the camera up at them to snap the shot. As a result of being completely unprepared for the picture, Rose's expression was utterly ridiculous, somewhere between surprise and confusion, while Becky grinned mischievously at the camera.

For the longest time, Rose just stared at the photo. She could almost feel Becky staring back... After a while, she reached over to the picture and lifted it up, holding it in front of her to get a better look. Becky really was beautiful, and that smile was the best part about her. It had a way of melting Rose's heart every time she saw it.

“So what do you think I should do, huh?” A moment of silence went by, as she pondered things in her head. Specifically, she thought about exactly how Becky would react if she could see Rose sitting alone on that couch right now. “Don't give me that look. You know I never liked to go out much. I only went out with you because I liked you. And so maybe you did teach me how to have fun... but that doesn't mean I should be doing it now without you.”

Another pause. Rose knew Becky well enough to know how she'd respond to that. Letting out a long sigh, Rose closed her eyes and lowered her head. “I know you still want me to be happy... but it's hard, you know? I miss you a lot.”

Slowly lifting her gaze again, she stared at the picture a moment longer, then finally returned it to its spot on the end table. “Alright, you win; I'll try. No promises, though. Two to one says I'm back here in an hour even more miserable than I started.”

---

The Last Call Bar. It certainly wasn't the place that Rose had intended on ending up when she decided to go out that night. When she had started thinking about it, though, anything else she thought of doing reminded her too much of Becky and she couldn't bring herself to go through with it. Instead, she decided to do something that she and Becky had never done together, which happened to be going to a bar. It had actually been a couple of years since she went to a bar at all. Sitting there now, though, she began to realize just why she hadn't been to one in so long.

“No.”

The man beside her blinked for a moment, staring at her dumbly. He hadn't even said anything yet, but she could tell he was going to. “I was just-”

“I said no.”

“But-”

“Get lost before I break your arm!” she snapped, turning her gaze sharply towards him.

“Alright, geez.” Holding up his hands in mock surrender, the guy turned around and walked back the way he came.

Uttering a long groan, Rose bowed her head and held it in her hands, elbows resting on the bar counter. That had been no less than the seventh guy she had turned away. Who knew she'd be this desirable at the bar scene? Maybe it had something to do with her striking white hair that got people's attention, but either way she wanted nothing to do with them. The only reason she was here to begin with was to try and have a relaxing drink, not endure being repeatedly hit on all night.

F**k, I knew this was a mistake. Never should have gone out.

Bringing her beer up to her lips, she quickly gulped down the remainder of the bottle's contents, then raised a hand to grab the bartender's attention. “I'll take a shot here.”

“What of?” the man asked.

“I don't care, as long as it's hard,” she muttered, waving him off. “Surprise me.”

“Uh, alright, coming right up.”

Breathing outwardly again, Rose tapped her fingers incessantly against the counter while staring at herself in the reflection of a small mirror next to the shelves in front of her.

“I take it you're having a rough night,” a voice said.

Rose's fingers suddenly stop tapping, as she turned her attention to her left. There, she spotted a woman sitting a few stools down from her at the counter. The woman's hair was dark red and cut short, falling just past her ears, and she wore a tight pair of jeans, striped black and white T-shirt, and a blue jacket.

“Uh... something like that,” Rose said, giving the woman a curious look. “Do I know you?”

“Definitely not. I think we'd remember if we knew each other.” She spoke softly, with a noticeable English accent.

“Yeah, right...”

“Name's Ruby,” the woman introduced, holding a hand forward.

Rose stared at Ruby's hand for moment, then reached forward to shake it. “Rose.”

“Huh, that's weird. I had a grandmother named Rose. Ghastly woman.” When Rose didn't say anything, instead just blinking curiously at her, Ruby leaned against the counter and nodded over to a table of guys near the back. “I've seen 'em makin' passes at you all night.”

“Yeah, kind of hard to miss.” A short moment later, Rose's shot arrived. She grabbed the small glass and instantly downed the contents.

“You know,” Ruby said, leaning casually against the counter, “a few of 'em are actually pretty good lookin'. You don't like guys?”

“Er, it's not that I don't like guys. It's just... sometimes they can be so...”

“Intolerable?”

Rose paused a moment, uttering a very slight chuckle. “That sounds about right. Like a bunch of dogs in heat looking for the nearest leg to hump.”

Ruby snorted out a laugh, lips curling into a grin. “Ain't that the truth? That's why I gave 'em up years ago.”

“Smart move,” Rose said. “Lately, I've found that women are a lot easier to get along with.”

“Also true.”

A small sigh escaped Rose's lips, as she rested her arms against the counter. “So what are you doing here, anyway? I mean, if you gave up guys and all... shouldn't you be at a different kind of bar?”

Ruby simply pointed her thumb behind her, where a group of women were in the middle of flirting with a group of guys at a nearby table. “Me friends dragged me out with 'em, said it would be fun. So far, though, I've just been sittin' here and watchin' them have fun.”

“Hmh,” Rose muttered. “Sounds riveting.”

“Oh you don't know the half of it,” she said. “As it stands, I'm about five minutes from leavin'.”

“Funny, so am I.”

Pursing her lips in thought, Ruby tapped her finger against the side of the bar for a moment, then shifted her weight in her seat. “Here's a crazy thought, why don't we leave together?”

“Together?”

“Sure,” she said. “I know this great little coffee shop over on Danelion Avenue that's open late. We could grab a cup, have a chat. Whatever.”

Slowly, Rose's gaze narrowed at the woman. A few quick thoughts began running through her head, not least of which was whether she actually wanted to go out with someone again so soon. The logical part of her brain was of course against it. She barely knew this woman, it had only been three months, and she still had Becky constantly in her head. It just wouldn't be right.

And yet, at the same time, the spontaneous side of her brain saw something in Ruby that she wanted to get to know, something... intriguing.

“You know what, why not?” Rose said, sliding off her seat. “Might be fun.”

Chapter #70

Rose lifted the mug of coffee up to her mouth and took a long sip. The hot liquid put her at much greater ease than the drinks at the bar had. As she set her mug down on the table again, she uttered a long breath and leaned back in her chair. Ruby sat across from her, just staring intently. Noticing this, Rose cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes.

“What, I have something on my face?” she asked.

“Oh, no, course not,” Ruby said. “I'm just readin' you. It's sort of what I do.”

“What you do... like as a job?”

Ruby laughed, grinning slightly. “Ha, goodness no. Can't imagine a way to pay the bills with that, could you? No, it's just a hobby I have.”

Rose raised an eyebrow, arms folding across her chest. “And what exactly are you reading with me?”

“Hmm...” Leaning forward, she squinted her eyes slightly and continued staring, trying to discern whatever she could from Rose's demeanor. “I'm getting... uncertainty. You don't really know if you want to be here.”

“Lucky guess,” Rose muttered, tapping her fingers gently against her arm.

“And you're also sad,” she continued. “Not so much on the outside, but within... yes, there's sorrow. Grief. I can see it in your eyes. You lost someone very important to you, didn't you? Recently, too.”

At this statement, Rose furrowed her brow and stiffened in her seat. Her gaze moved downward, looking into her coffee mug. “You... how did you...?”

“Like I said, it's what I do.” Ruby leaned closer across the table, staring into Rose's eyes. “No matter how much one tries to hide their emotions, the eyes never lie.”

Rose breathed out a long sigh, continuing to stare into her coffee mug. She said nothing, instead contemplating deeply.

After a long pause, Ruby rested her chin in her hand, and gave an empathetic look. “Who was she?”

Slowly, Rose glanced back up. “You're so sure it's a she?”

“Call it a lucky guess.”

Another small pause, as Rose held her head in her hand and sighed again. “She was... one of the best things to ever happen to me.”

“Ah,” Ruby breathed, eyes softening. “You loved her.”

Rose nodded. “Yeah.”

“I know what that's like... been there, meself.”

“You mean...?”

Ruby nodded, then sank back into her seat and lifted her own cup to her lips, taking a long sip of coffee. “Her name was Jeannette. Great girl; funny, smart, caring, everythin' you could want in someone. We'd been together for a long time, had even been talkin' about marriage. You know, all the happy stuff. But then...” Ruby's eyes shifted downward, shoulders slackening, as if remembering some painful memory. “It was cancer. Doctors caught it too late, and... well, there wasn't a lot they could do.”

“Oh...” Rose uttered, tightening her fingers around her coffee mug. “I'm sorry.”

“Ah, it's alright,” Ruby said, shrugging softly. “Was a long time ago. I've... moved on. Though, I sense you haven't, yet.”

Rose sighed, nodding softly. “Yeah, well, it's still too soon for me. To move on, I mean. I... I still remember her so well, you know? The memories... they're so vivid.”

“It's just a natural part of the grievin' process. Cherish them while you can, because eventually those memories will start to fade, as sad as it is.”

Taking in a deep breath, Rose sipped at her coffee a bit more until finally finishing the drink. Then, she set the empty mug down and let out a small, almost amused chuckle. “You know, I don't even know why I'm talking to you about any of this. I mean, I barely know you, and yet there's something about you. Something... I don't know, comfortable.”

“Ha, yes, I tend to have that effect on people,” she said, giving a subtle smile.

“Thanks, though. For talking, for listening... and the coffee was good, too.” Rose paused briefly, scratching an itch on her arm. “But, I mean I don't know what you were expecting from this. If you were trying to pick me up or something, I'm not really ready to...”

A small laugh found its way out of Ruby's throat. “Please, I'm not as heartless as I look. I wasn't expectin' anythin' out of this except for a nice chat and some good coffee.”

Rose smiled very slightly in response. “Thank you.”

“However, I am going to give you me number.” Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen, then scribbled out her number on it. Tearing off the paper, she passed it over to Rose. “If you ever feel up to it, give me a call. I'd like to see you again sometime.”

Rose tentatively took the number, giving it a long look. Eventually, she folded the paper and stuffed it into her pants pocket. “Sure, I'll keep that in mind.”

“In that case, I take me leave.” Standing up from her seat, Ruby gave an over exaggerated bow, then extended her hand. “T'was a pleasure to meet you, Rose. I hope things get better for you.”

Sucking in a deep breath, Rose slowly lifted her hand to shake Ruby's, in turn giving a slight smile. “Was nice to meet you, too. I'll give you a call sometime, maybe when I'm feeling a bit better.”

“May your heart mend itself well.” Flashing her own, almost childish smile, Ruby this time gave an over exaggerated curtsy, whirled her arm in a parting wave, and then spun around to head towards the exit.

Rose leaned forward, holding her chin up in one hand while watching the Ruby leave. What an odd woman...

And yet as odd as she was, for some reason Rose found herself wanting to know more about this Ruby, wanted to see her again. For some reason, she was suddenly in an astoundingly better mood.

---

Rose stuffed her hands into her pockets, as she made her way down the sidewalk. There was a bit more of a bounce in her step than when she had originally gone out that night, when she'd been dragging her feet beneath her and in no mood to actually be out. She didn't know why, exactly, yet it felt like an air of happiness – no, not happiness. More like contentment – had taken hold of her.

Am I smiling? I am smiling. Why am I smiling? But she didn't actually care why she was smiling. She was, and that was good enough for her.

Stopping at a crosswalk, she waited for the signal to change so she could cross the street. As she did this, however, she noticed a couple of young kids grouped together near the alleyway across from her. She narrowed her eyes at them for a moment, watching as they looked around nervously and then ducked into the shadows. She might have written it off as just a bunch of kids about to do something mischievous, if not for the fact that it was nearly ten o'clock on a school night. Something about that seemed a little off.

As soon as the signal changed, Rose hurried across the street and made her way into the same alley that the kids had disappeared into. She stepped past a small pile of trash bags, moved through a broken gap in a chain link fence, and then paused at a bend in the path, hearing voices ahead of her.

“Hey, we got you the money,” one of the kids said. “Let us back in!”

“Yeah, come on!” another pleaded. “Please? I... I can't go without it. Life sucks out here... let us back in.”

“In there, I'm somebody,” a third kid said. “Out here I'm just a nerd with broken glasses.”

A new voice followed, this one deeper... and impossibly creepy. “Yes, yes of course. You've made the payment, so you get the treatment. Just relax and I'll bring you back again. Relax... open your eyes and watch the lights.”

A short moment later, bright flashes of light began to flicker out from around the corner. Instantly, Rose hurried forward to get a better look at what was going on, and hopefully stop whatever the creepy dude was about to do with those kids. Unfortunately, the second she came into view, the lights blinded her. She squinted her eyes shut and stumbled against the wall of the building next to her, trying to gain her bearings. By the time she regained her sight and her senses, the alley was empty.

Well sh*t. Taking a quick look around to make sure she wasn't missing anything, Rose uttered a small sigh and stuffed her hands back in her pockets. So much for that. Wait a minute, Rose, why do you even care? You don't do that anymore, remember? Just let the cops handle it.

A small frown suddenly formed on her face, as she walked back out of the alley. For some reason, she didn't feel nearly as well as she had a few minutes ago. Whatever contentment she had gained after her talk with Ruby, it was gone now. The only thing left was that familiar sense of grief and misery. If anything, she actually felt worse now, and she had no idea what had caused it. Hanging her head, she turned the corner of another sidewalk and started back towards home. Maybe getting a good night's sleep would help.

However, she didn't make it very far before she realized that she was being watched. As subtle as her stalker was trying to be, it was actually fairly obvious. A couple years ago, she might not have picked up on it, but right now, she was well aware of the fact that someone was following her.

Stopping suddenly, she turned to look behind her. As expected, a shadowed figure moved quickly behind another group of people, hiding from view. I am really not in the mood for this...

If this mystery stalker was so intent on following her, then fine. She'd lead whoever it is where she wanted to take them. Turning another corner, she darted down an alley, then swung her way up onto a fire escape and began climbing towards the roof of the building. In all likelihood, she'd lose the person on the way up to the building anyway.

However, looking back down, she noticed that the figure was still close behind, not bothering to be very subtle anymore. Narrowing her eyes, Rose continued up onto the roof. She hurried a few steps ahead, then turned around and waited. The stalker appeared a few moments later, emerging onto the roof and jumping up to her feet.

“Wait... you?” Rose furrowed her brow, tilting her head slightly. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I did say I would return for you in one year, didn't I?” Lady Shiva said, arms folding across her chest. “Well, it's been a year.”

“Technically, it's been a year and three months,” Rose said. “Did they not teach you how to keep track of time where you come from?”

Lady Shiva shook her head. “On the contrary, I was here three months ago, on time. However, when I found out about your... loss, I waited. I allowed you time to grieve, since you would not have been able to fight at the best of your ability then. Now, however, I would expect you to be ready.”

Narrowing her eyes, Rose breathed outwardly and turned around, walking away to the other side of the roof. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not in the mood. I'm not Ravager anymore. I'm not the person you're looking to fight.”

“Do not walk away from me, Rose Wilson. Our rematch is already long overdo.”

“You say that like I should care,” she remarked, glancing over her shoulder.

“Yes, you should.”

Rose turned away again. “Well I don't.”

Suddenly, a flicker of precog surged through Rose's head. She reacted instantly, ducking away and rolling to the side. During that period, there were at least a dozen different ways she could have countered, but she never made the attempt, instead taking a few simple steps backward. She didn't react to the next attack nearly as fast as she should have, receiving a hard kick to the face that sent her tumbling to the ground.

“Don't think that just because you won't give an effort that I will walk away,” Shiva stated, maintaining a firm fighting stance. “I've waited long enough; it was up to you to prepare yourself in time. I understand that you lost someone close to you, but if you don't get over it in the next few moments, then you will die.”

Holding a hand to her bleeding nose, Rose glared up at the woman and then slowly returned to her feet. “Well, aren't you just a walking bundle of sympathy?”

“Sarcasm won't save you, either.”

Lady Shiva lunged in again, this time with a hard palm strike aimed at her face. Rose leaned to the side to dodge it, then threw a punch of her own. However, her fist missed by a lot, while she took a kick to the chest, dropping her to her knees.

“Your body is here,” Shiva stated, kicking Rose to her backside, “but your mind is elsewhere.”

“I think... we established that already,” Rose muttered, sitting upright.

“You aren't making this worth my time.” Lady Shiva readied herself again, arms at the ready. “I was hoping that you would have improved in the past year. Instead, it's like fighting a child.”

Groaning out a small, pained breath, Rose stood up again. “Oh, well, forgive me for disappointing you. What was I thinking?”

“You weren't. That's the problem.”

This time, when Lady Shiva ran in, she aimed at a specific spot on Rose's throat, a very special pressure point that, if hit hard enough, would induce death instantaneously. Before her fingers reached their target, however, she was stopped by the sudden appearance of... someone. Quite literally, a third person materialized out of thin air directly in front of her, leading with a flying missile kick that drove into her gut.

Uttering a grunt of surprise, Lady Shiva slid backwards and quickly recovered her balance. “Who are you supposed to be?”

Rose blinked a few times at the new arrival, trying to discern just who the person was supposed to be. The rather form fitting, armored catsuit, colored black, did little to hide the fact that said person was female, especially considering some very noticeable features of her figure. To go along with the catsuit, however, was a long hooded cloak, blood red in color. The hood of the cloak also included a dark covering over the face, completely obscuring her identity.

“Just a concerned citizen, is all,” the costumed woman said. “I suggest you take your leave now, or I might have to force you.”

“This does not concern you,” Lady Shiva stated. “Stand aside.”

“Sorry, I don't really think that I will. You see, I don't tolerate people like you. Either you get out of my city, or I throw you out.”

Standing straighter, Lady Shiva slowly walked towards the woman. Coming to within a few paces of her, she suddenly threw a lightning quick jab, meant to take the woman out in a single blow. However, the hooded woman again vanished into thin air, leaving behind a stray wisp of smoke in her wake. A second later, she reappeared behind Shiva, leading with another kick.

Lady Shiva stumbled forward as the blow caromed off the back of her head. Holding a hand to the point of impact, she turned again, glaring. “You're really starting to-”

“What? Get you riled up? Frustrate you?” the woman said. “No, I don't think so. You see, you're actually starting to feel really, really calm. I'd even say indifferent. You don't feel like fighting anymore. All you want to do is leave.”

Rose lifted an eyebrow in confusion, as she watched the scene. Was this mystery woman trying to pull some kind of Jedi mind trick or something? Much to her surprise, however, the strange commands actually worked. Lady Shiva abruptly dropped her guard and stood straight, expression becoming calm.

“You are right... I have more important things to do. Thank you, but I must be going now.” And with that, Lady Shiva turned around, walked back over to the fire escape, and then vanished.

Blinking in utter confusion, Rose looked over at the woman. “What the hell was that?”

“Oh that?” The costumed woman chuckled, flippantly waving her hand. “Nothing really, just made her feel what I wanted her to feel. It's sort of what I do.”

“I see... and the teleportation bit?”

“Just part of the package,” she affirmed. “Are you alright, by the way?”

“I'm fine,” Rose muttered, straightening herself. “Though, I could have handled myself, thanks.”

“Yes... you were on the verge of a miraculous comeback victory, I could feel it.”

Gradually, Rose's eyes narrowed. “Was that supposed to be a joke?”

“Depends,” the woman replied, “did it feel like a joke?”

“I... what? Never mind.” Rose briefly wiped a trickle of blood from her lips, trying not to appear too curious. “So who the hell are you, anyway?”

“You can call me Apathy,” she said.

Rose lifted an eyebrow, carefully examining the woman. “And what are you doing? Dressed like that, I mean. Last I checked, you weren't the designated cape in Silverstone.”

Apathy shrugged. “Last I checked, no one was. At least not anymore.”

“So what, you decided to take over?” Rose asked. “I mean, since that Ravager person stopped showing up.”

“Something like that,” she said. “I just started recently, but wow is there a lot to clean up around this city.”

“Tell me about it...”

Apathy tilted her head to the side slightly, while folding her arms across her chest. “Oh?”

“Uh, I mean... like what?” Rose said.

“Oh, you name it, this place is infected with it.” Apathy casually walked towards the edge of the roof and leaned forward against the parapet, gazing out at the city. “But if I'm being specific, right now I'm trying to figure out what's up with some of the kids in this area. They've been acting... strange. Rumor says it's a new drug going around, but I'm certain that it's something more.”

“Of course it's something more. It's always something more.” Rose paused a moment, then quickly added, “At least... that's what I hear.”

“Of course, because everyone hears that.” When Rose didn't say anything, Apathy looked away again. “It's a shame, though. Since I am so new at this and all, it might be good if I had some help. But alas, I'm all on my own in this.”

Rose sighed, rolling her eyes slightly. “Right, real shame. Go to the cops if you want help.”

Apathy snorted out a laugh. “Please, I don't do cops. Besides, they can only help so much. They can't really do the kind of dirty work that we can.”

“And who's we, exactly?”

“You know, superheroes.”

Furrowing her brow, Rose brought her hands to her hips. “You think you're a superhero?”

“Well, let's see-” Apathy raised her hands, casually counting off her list of reasons on her fingers. “-I have superpowers, I fight crime, I beat up bad guys on a regular basis, and I have an amazing costume. I think that about covers it, right?”

“Well, you did say you were new at it, right?” Rose wasted no time in trying to disprove the woman. “That means you're a rookie.”

A small, amused laugh escaped Apathy's throat. “Don't let that fool you, kid, I know how to handle myself.”

“Uh huh, I'm sure. Why don't you go and-” She paused mid-sentence, a puzzling though suddenly coming to her. “Wait... did you just call me 'kid'? How old are you, exactly?”

“Thirty.”

Rose's mouth hung open slightly, as she tilted her head in confusion. “You're joking, right? You act like you're about fifteen.”

“Still a kid at heart,” she assured. “Now, if you're just going to keep standing there and asking me stupid questions, then I think it's time I got going. I have a city to clean up.”

“Hey, wait a-” In an instant, however, Apathy disappeared into thin air, leaving behind only a few small wisps of smoke in her place. “-minute. What the hell is with her?”

She stood there a few moments longer, then shook her head and returned the fire escape. So, now not only did she have to watch her back for Lady Shiva on a daily basis, but apparently there was a new cape in town looking to take her place as Silverstone's protector.

So what? You don't care, remember? Let her take your place. She can clean up the city, and you can feel less guilty for giving it up. Unless she gets herself killed...

Releasing a long sigh, Rose made her way back down the fire escape and into the alley. She was about ready to get some sleep.

Meanwhile, up above on another rooftop, Apathy leaned over the parapet and gazed downward, watching Rose walk down the sidewalk. After several moments, she finally straightened herself and folded her arms over her chest.

“See you around, Ravager.”

Chapter #71

Rose sat in the chair outside the dressing rooms, waiting patiently with her arms folded. A very soft, quiet music played in the background over the store's speaker system. She guessed it was supposed to be soothing, but all it really did was make her want to tear the PA system out of the walls. The quicker they could be done with this trip to the mall, the better. Or at least move to a different store that didn't play painfully annoying music.

A short while later, the dressing room door, revealing Holly dressed in an outfit consisting of capris and a tank-top with an abstract design on the front. “How's this look? I think it's okay.”

“Come here, let me see.” Rose waited for Holly to come closer, then carefully inspected the outfit. “Seems alright to me. Everything fit okay?”

“Well, the pants are a little loose,” Holly said, tugging gently at one of the pant legs, “but I think I'll grow into them.”

“You don't think the shirt is a little big, too?”

“Maybe, but-”

“You'll grow into it, right,” Rose said, smiling lightly. “Well, if you're sure you like it, then it's all yours.”

A broad grin formed its way across the girl's young face. “Thanks, Rose! Er, Mom. Er... I still don't know what I should call you.”

A small chuckle found its way to Rose's lips “It's alright. Call me whatever you want.”

A short while later, the two found themselves at the mall's food court, sitting at table and eating a couple sandwiches. Neither of them said anything right now, simply enjoying the meal. Rose lifted her bottle of water to her lips, taking a long gulp and then leaning back in her chair. It had been a relatively dull day, but she didn't mind it too much. Just spending it with Holly was enough to keep herself entertained.

“Hey, Ro- uh, Mom?” Holly said.

“Yeah?”

The girl shifted awkwardly in her seat, bringing her hands into her lap and lowering her gaze. “I, uh... I've been meaning to ask you something...”

Straightening herself in her seat, Rose folded her hands together on the table, giving Holly a careful look. “What is it?”

“Well, um... how come you don't go out at night anymore?” she asked, glancing upward. “You know... to stop the bad guys and stuff?”

“Holly...” Rose exhaled a long breath, holding a hand to her head. “I just want to spend more time with you. And I wouldn't be a very responsible mother if I went out every night getting shot at, now would I?”

“Well, yeah, I mean I guess that makes sense, but...” Holly paused a moment, averting her eyes again and scratching the side of her head. “I don't know, I guess I liked it when you helped people. Like how you helped me.”

Rose softened her eyes, shifting slightly in her seat. “I like helping people, too, but sometimes things change. If something happened to me... I just don't want to put you through that. Not again.”

At this comment, Holly widened her lips into a broad smile. “But nothing could happen to you. You're the best.”

Rose chuckled slightly, returning the smile. There were just so many reasons to love this girl. “I wish that were true, Holly.”

The girl shrugged her shoulders, then took another bite of her sandwich. “I guess I just wouldn't mind if you still wanted to, because helping people is important. Someday, I want to be able to help people, too.”

“Yeah, and hopefully as a doctor or something,” she said, quickly.

“Maybe...” Holly muttered, pursing her lips.

Just as long as you don't end up like me, kid...

As they finished up their lunch, an excited voice suddenly called out, interrupting them. “Hey there!”

With that familiar English accent to it, Rose knew exactly who the voice belonged to. Turning her head, she saw Ruby heading towards them from across the food court.

“Well, fancy meetin' you here,” Ruby said, giving them both a big smile. “Me goodness, what a small world.”

“Yeah, fancy that,” Rose said, lifting a curious eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know, just shoppin' around. That is generally what one does at a mall, isn't it?”

Rose breathed out a subtle laugh. “So it is.”

“And who's this lovely young girl?” Ruby asked, turning her attention to Holly.

“Oh, Ruby, Holly,” Rose introduced. “Holly, Ruby.”

Holly eagerly extended her hand forward, giving the woman a firm handshake. “Nice to meet you.”

“And you, as well, Holly,” she replied. “Are you Rose's sister?”

Rose casually cleared her throat. “Daughter, actually.”

Ruby balked slightly, shifting her gaze quickly back and forth between the two. “Oh, um... well.”

“What kind of response is that?” Rose questioned, lifting her eyebrow again.

“Oh, no... it's nothin', I mean...” Ruby cleared her own throat, shifting her weight slightly. “She's just... well, she looks... awfully old to be your daughter.”

“That's 'cuz she adopted me,” Holly explained, calmly sucking down the last bit of her soda from her cup's straw.

“Oh!” Ruby declared, understanding suddenly coming to her. She chuckled, smacking a palm against her forehead. “I see, well that's wonderful.”

Rose smirked slightly, folding her arms and leaning back in her seat. “Why, what did you think?”

“Huh?” Ruby paused a moment, laughing nervously under her breath. “I didn't- No, nothin', uh... nothin' at all.”

“Nice recovery,” Rose said, smirking wider.

Fortunately for the flustered woman, Holly decided to abruptly change the subject. “So how do you know Rose?”

“Ah, you see, we met last night, didn't we?” Ruby said, quickly. “Had a cup of coffee, talked a little bit. She's a real interestin' woman, your mum.”

Looking back up to Rose, Holly smiled a little. “You didn't tell me you went out last night. Did you have fun?”

“I... well, yes, actually,” she replied. “I did.”

Holly's smile widened. “That's good. You deserve to have fun.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“Anyway, what are you two up to?” Ruby asked.

“Shopping, same as you,” Rose said. “Mostly for summer wear. Holly's outgrown a lot of her old clothes; she practically needs a new wardrobe.”

Holly sat up straighter, maintaining her wide smile. “We're going to try on swimsuits next! I totally want a bikini this year.”

Rose glanced back at her with a firm gaze. “No, not until you're older.”

“Older?” The young girl let out a frustrated groan, sinking back in her seat. “Come on, I'm already eleven and a half!”

“And very mature for your age,” Ruby added. “I can tell.”

“See? Ruby thinks I'm mature.”

Clearing her throat, Rose gave the woman a sidelong glance, then looked back to Holly again. “In the sense that you're a very smart girl, not in the sense that a bikini would be appropriate for you.”

“But Rose-”

“No buts.”

Pouting a little, Holly held her arms over her chest and breathed out a sigh of defeat. “Fine.”

“Say, do you mind if I tag along with you girls?” Ruby said. “I still have a bit of shoppin' left to do meself, and I find it's always more entertainin' with other people than alone.”

And there it was again, as sudden as a kick to the gut: that overwhelming feeling of calm and contentment, the same that Rose had felt the night before, after meeting Ruby. She still didn't know what was causing it, but she suddenly found herself in a much better mood now.

What the hell is it about this woman? she wondered. She's so... enjoyable. Why is she so enjoyable?

“Yeah, sure,” Rose affirmed. “That would be great actually. We could use the company, right?”

Holly nodded eagerly. “Right!”

---

“I'll see you girls around,” Ruby called, heading across the parking lot with a friendly wave. “Thanks for the company!”

Rose and Holly returned their own waves as the woman disappeared into the rows of cars, then made their way towards their own vehicle. Rose, of course, carried most of the shopping bags, considering she had the strength to handle them all. Holly, meanwhile, managed with just two bags, one in either hand.

“She's really nice,” Holly said. “I like her.”

“Yeah...” Pausing a moment, Rose glanced back over her shoulders, as if hoping to catch another glimpse of Ruby. She saw only a wall of cars. “I do, too.”

---

As Rose guided her car down the off ramp of the Silverstone overpass, she spotted a commotion ahead of her. A collection of cop cars sat along the side of the street, along with an ambulance. The medical team worked to lift a gurney up into the back of the ambulance, a gurney on which a young boy lied unconscious with an oxygen mask over his face. He couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen years old.

While Rose at first considered continuing past the scene, something about the situation felt off to her. This couldn't just be an ordinary accident. If that were the case, then the ambulance would be enough. Maybe one cop car. But six? And why on earth was the chief himself there, too? Right at the front of the line of squad cars, Gerald Palmer spoke with a distraught looking woman outside the building. Curiously, Rose began to slow down, eventually parking on the side of the street behind the cop cars.

“What are we stopping for?” Holly asked, looking out the window.

“I just need to talk to someone real quick,” she said. “Wait here.”

“Well can you at least leave the keys so I can listen to the radio?”

Rose opened her door, leaving the car keys behind as she stepped out. “Sure thing, I'll be back in a second.”

Rose made her way down the sidewalk, heading towards Palmer. The police chief had just finished talking with the tearful woman. “Hey, Chief.”

Blinking in surprise, Palmer glanced over at her and let out a small breath. “Oh, Wilson. What are you doing here?”

“Was just passing by,” she said, slipping her hands into her pockets. “Thought I'd stop and see what's going on. What happened?”

“Damn tragedy is what happened.” Palmer rubbed his eyes briefly, sighing deeply. “Kid collapsed while getting lunch with his mother. Paramedics called it a brain aneurism. He's still alive right now, but it doesn't look good.”

Narrowing her eyes slightly, Rose looked around at the scene, watching the multiple officers in the area. “But you obviously think there's something else behind it. Otherwise, you wouldn't have a whole team investigating things.”

“I might,” he said, “but you know I can't discuss an ongoing case with a civilian.”

“And you know I'm not an ordinary civilian.”

Palmer shook his head. “Maybe before, but you gave that up, remember? Not that I can blame you. Plenty of weird sh*t going on around here lately.”

Rose sighed, glancing back over her shoulder. Visible through the car window, Holly sang along with a song on the radio, swaying back and forth. “I told you why I can't.”

“And I get that. You got a kid, you want to be there for her. I wasn't judging you, Wilson. I'm just saying I can't give case details to you.”

“Well maybe I have information that could be related to your case,” she countered.

“And you won't tell me unless I tell you?” Palmer folded his arms across his chest, gaze hardening. “How about I get you on obstruction of justice? Or better yet, impeding a police investigation.”

“You could,” Rose said, shifting her stance. “Problem is, I don't know if my information is related to your case or not. I'd need the details to be sure.”

Palmer merely glared at her, expression unwavering.

“Come on, it's me.” She took a step closer, looking him squarely in the eyes. “You know I just want to help.”

Eventually, a tired sigh escaped the chief's lips. “Alright, fine. Truth is, this isn't the first incident of a young kid collapsing with an aneurism. There's actually been five similar cases within the past week, all in the same general area.”

Rose paused a moment, thinking carefully. “The same kids you think are addicted to some new street drug?”

“That's our best guess,” he said, nodding. “We've been getting a lot of reports of children appearing dazed in school, tired, erratic, twitchy, paranoid, you name it. I even heard that they've been stealing from their parents for extra cash. It fits, but no tests run on any of the kids have yielded any known results. As far as we can tell, whatever is happening to them, it's something new.”

Holding a hand to her chin, Rose let out a deep, contemplative breath. “Huh... that's interesting.”

“What?”

“Last night I saw a few kids running off into an alley,” she said. “It looked pretty suspicious, so I followed them, eavesdropped. They were talking to some guy, paying him for something... said they wanted to 'go back in'.”

“Hmm... could be related.” Palmer brought a hand to his chin, nodding slowly. “Did you get a good look at the guy?”

She shook her head. “No. When I went to get a closer look, a bunch of bright lights started flashing; couldn't see a damn thing. Once the lights disappeared, the kids were gone.”

“Weird...”

“Tell me about it.”

“Actually sounds like something that would have been right up your alley,” Palmer remarked. “I mean, back when you had an alley.”

A long pause passed between the two. Rose narrowed her eyes slightly, then moved her gaze back once again at her car. This time, Holly saw her and gave a wave. Smiling, Rose returned the wave, then exhaled a heavy breath.

“Look, if I get a chance...” she started, rubbing the back of her neck, “...I'll look into it, alright? But no promises.”

“You do what you need to,” Palmer said, giving a firm nod. “But you know I won't refuse the help if you can give it. I don't need to remind you how shorthanded we are right now.”

“Like I said, no promises. But I do have your number in case I need it. Anyway, I should get going. I'll let you get back to work.” Giving a small wave, Rose turned and headed back to her car. Sliding in behind the steering wheel, she took in a deep breath, then leaned back against the seat.

“Are you alright?” Holly asked, tilting her head curiously.

“Yeah, I'm fine, hun.”

“Then... what are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

Holly furrowed her brow, then briefly scratched the side of her head. “About what?”

“Just... what I talked about with the officer,” she explained. “Some kids that might need help.”

Sitting up straighter in her seat, Holly lifted her eyebrows. “Are you gonna help them?”

“I... want to,” Rose said, bowing her head. “But I can't.”

“Why not?”

“I already told you why, remember?”

Frowning slightly, Holly crossed her arms over her chest. “But you can help them. And if you can help someone, you should. You told me that once.”

“Holly-”

“I was a kid that needed help, too!” Holly countered. “If you hadn't been there, where would I be now?”

“This is a little different...” Rose said, giving the girl a calm look. “If anything, their parents should be the ones helping them, not me.”

“But maybe their parents can't help them. Maybe only you can.”

Rose held a hand to her head, groaning under her breath. “Okay, don't go turning this into a cliché fantasy plot where I'm the only one who can save everybody. It's more complicated than that.”

Frowning, Holly turned her gaze out the window and sank back in her seat. “Fine, let's just go.”

Rose gave the girl a long look, unsure of what else to say. She hadn't been expecting to have an argument like this with her. After all, the whole reason she stopped being Ravager was specifically for Holly. Shaking her head, she put the key into the ignition and drove back down the street.

---

It was getting late now, almost ten o'clock. Holly had been in bed for a while, and since that time Rose had been sitting on the edge of her bed, just staring at the wall in front of her. To be more precise, it was the wall full of her gear. Swords, gadgets, spare costumes, everything. It seemed like forever ago that she last saw any of this stuff. The only reason sh was even looking at it now was because of what Holly had said to her: if you can help someone, you should.

I did tell her that...and now she thinks I'm being a hypocrite, even when I'm doing it because of her, because I have to be there for her. I'm supposed to be responsible.

And yet, at the same time, she knew she could still help people. At least, she certainly had the ability to. She always had. And she did like helping people, fighting for those who couldn't fight for themselves. She was good at it... The only real question that remained was, did she have the motivation left to do it? Was it worth continuing to put herself at risk, to put Holly at risk? Was it worth any of that?

Finally rising up from the edge of her bed, she walked over to the wall of equipment. Slowly, she reached forward and took hold of her costume. “I guess we'll find out.”

Chapter #72

Police Chief Gerald Palmer sank into the seat behind his desk, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Almost eleven o'clock and he still had a stack of paperwork to take care of. At this rate, he might get home sometime tomorrow morning. As he went to turn on his computer, however, a sudden presence near the window startled him.

“Chief, we need to talk,” Ravager said.

Practically jumping out of his seat, Palmer whirled around, his hand already halfway to his gun. When he realized who it was, though, he slowly relaxed. Breathing out a sigh of relief, he instead held his hand up to his chest and dropped back into his chair. “Wilson... I really hate it when you do that.”

Ravager paused a moment, breathing outwardly. “I get that you know my identity now, but please, it's still 'Ravager' when I'm in costume.”

“Right, of course. Ravager.” Palmer cleared his throat, sitting straighter. “So, I see you changed your mind.”

“I... had some help,” she said. “I'm still on edge about it, though. We'll see how things go.”

“Well, either way, glad to have your help.”

Ravager quickly slipped fully through the window, walking up to the desk. “First thing's first. I'm gonna need to know everything you know about this case. It doesn't matter how minor.”

“Alright, give me a few minutes,” he said. “I'll have the case files copied for you.”

About ten minutes later, Ravager leaned over the chief's desk, going over a bunch of papers in a folder. “So, you had another incident just a few hours ago?”

Palmer sighed, nodding slowly. “Unfortunately, yes. That makes the seventh child aneurism in the last week.”

“What do they have in common?”

“Far as we can tell, they're all in the same general age group. High school kids, fifteen to seventeen. And if you look at this map-” Reaching into a drawer, Palmer pulled out a rolled up map and opened it across his desk. It was a map of Silverstone, with seven red dots across one side of it. “-they all lived in the same neighborhood, within ten blocks of each other.”

“The dots almost make a circle...” Ravager muttered. “I'll start searching in the center, work my way out. Hopefully, I'll find a lead. Can you tell me anything else?”

“Other than what's in that folder, nothing directly.” He paused a moment, bringing hand to his chin and thinking. “However, I will say that there's also been a series of unusual thefts in the past few weeks.

Ravager brought a hand to her chin, glancing back at Palmer. “Unusual, how?”

“Well, the security alarms trigger, so the cops show up,” he explained. “Only problem, the person or persons on duty at the place in question insist that there's nothing wrong. Next day, we get a call saying that some equipment's been stolen. This has happened four times now, from different establishments. All heavy duty technology development companies, though, S.T.A.R. Labs included.”

“You're right, that is unusual,” she replied. “You think it's related to what's going on with these kids?”

Palmer shrugged. “Hell if I know, but it's just as strange. I reckon it's possible, so it might be worth looking into if you don't find anything else.”

“Give me a list of the places hit and all the information you've gathered from the reports,” Ravager said. “What was stolen, when it was stolen, all that. I'll look into it if I can't find any other leads.”

“No problem.” As Palmer move back towards the door, he stopped suddenly, looking back at her over his shoulder. “Oh, and Ravager? It's good to have you back.”

---

Ravager slowed down her bike to a careful stop in a back alley. Glancing down at the GPS monitor on the dash, she double checked to make sure that she was in the right location. Yup, definitely the center of those red dots. All that was left to do now was patrol the area and keep an eye out for anything suspicious. It might be easier if she knew what she was looking for, but unfortunately she had no such knowledge. She'd just have to follow whatever lead she could find, no matter how small.

After killing the engine, Ravager hopped off her ride and climbed the fire escape of the building next to her, making her way up onto the roof. Once up there, she gradually worked her way around the ledge, gazing over the parapet and closely scanning the surrounding area. She saw a lot of empty streets and alleyways, but nothing out of the ordinary. A few people went about their business, walking along the sidewalks. A homeless man slept beneath the shelter of a few cardboard boxes, an empty bottle of alcohol next to him. A stray cat mewled loudly somewhere in the distance.

Good old Silverstone...

Breaking into a partial run, she leaped over the edge of the roof and onto the next one. Continuing her jog, she jumped from building to building, stopping every few rooftops to again scan the neighborhood. After several minutes of this, her gaze fell on a basketball court behind a collection of buildings, a high chain fence closing it off from the small side street next to it. Standing next to this basketball court was an unidentifiable man dressed in a hoodie sweatshirt, hood up. He looked around, shifting his weight nervously, as if waiting for someone.

Patiently, Ravager watched. Within several moments, another man in a hoodie showed up, walking out from behind one of the buildings. The two greeted each other with a stylized hand shake, then started talking in low voices to each other. Curiously, Ravager moved farther along the rooftops to get a closer look. There was definitely an exchange being made. They thought they were smooth, but she easily spotted the money changing hands, along with a small plastic bag full of an unknown substance. She waited just a few seconds longer until the two parted ways, and then made her move.

Leaping down from the rooftop, she landed silently on the balls of her feet, in a crouch. As the dealer walked past her hidden location in the shadows, she ran out, lunged at the man, and knocked him to the ground. The man uttered a surprised, frightened yell, landing hard on his front and trying to crawl away

Rolling him over, Ravager firmly pinned him against the ground and clamped a hand over his mouth. “You yell for help, and I break your fingers, got it?”

Frantically, he uttered a muffled response and nodded his head furiously. After a moment's hesitation, she removed her hand from his mouth. “J-jesus. You're the- the-”

“I know who I am,” she muttered, glaring at him. “What did you sell that guy?”

“Wha- just some coke, man, honest.”

Ravager lifted an eyebrow. “Just some... uck.”

As if that was much better compared to the mystery drug she was looking for. Quickly going through the guy's pockets, she pulled out several plastic bags with small quantities of white powder. She stared at the substance for a moment, then opened the bag and planted one of her fingers into the powder, a very small amount sticking to her glove.

“Hey, that costs money!” the dealer yelled, frantically.

Ignoring him, she touched the substance to her tongue briefly. Frowning, she stared back at him, unamused. Just coke. “Do yourself a favor and find a day job.”

On that note, she started to open all the plastic bags, dumping out the contents on the ground.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing?!” the dealer cried. “That's a waste!”

He made a desperate grab for one of the bags, but Ravager silenced him with a punch to the nose. Instantly recoiling, the dealer held his hands up to his face, groaning in pain.

Once all of the drugs were disposed of, she turned back to him, gripped the collar of his shirt, and lifted him closer to her. “There's been rumors of a new drug going around, affecting young kids. Know anything about it?”

“Wha? Sh*t, no, I don't know anything like that. I ain't seen anything new or nothing.”

Well, he isn't going to be much help. Finally release the guy, Ravager stood up and placed her hands on her hips, looking around the area.

Still on the ground, the dealer rolled over, clutching his broken nose and uttering a small whimper of pain. “Man, f**k you. No good dirty c-”

Without even looking at him, she cut his words off with a sharp kick to the stomach. He immediately curled up, holding his arms around his gut and groaning. Then, Ravager walked away away from the scene to look elsewhere. A half hour later, Ravager came to rest against the parapet of another rooftop, near the outer ring her search area. So far, no good. Chances were, she missed something somewhere, or just wasn't in the right place at the right time, but she couldn't help it. She was only one person, after all.

Taking in a deep breath, she slowly pushed herself up straighter and headed to the opposite end of the roof. There was still plenty of night left, so she could double back and patrol over the area a couple more times, just in case there was still something out there she hadn't seen yet.

As she planted her foot at the edge of the roof in order to jump to the next one, however, a sudden voice very close to her (in fact, right next to her), called out. “Well, look who it is! The one and only Ravager!”

Letting out a startled cry, Ravager stumbled forward, just barely catching herself before falling off the ledge into the alley below. Immediately turning to her left, guard raised, she prepared to defend herself in case of attack. When she saw who it was, though, she simply glared from behind her mask. “What, are you stalking me now?”

“Stalking you?” The hooded 'superhero' known as Apathy paused a moment, lifting a finger to her chin. “But we've never met. Or have we?”

Ravager flinched slightly. Right, when they'd met before she hadn't been in costume... “Uh, never mind. Who are you?”

“Oh, just a friend, doing the same as you,” the woman said. “Name's Apathy.”

“And let me guess, you're some newbie who thinks she's hot stuff, right?”

“Possibly,” Apathy replied, with a small shrug. “Though, for the more experienced vigilante, you're really going about your investigation in a highly inefficient manner.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Ravager narrowed her gaze. “Is that right? And what would you know about it?”

“Well, I know that you'll never find what you're looking for the way you're looking for it.”

“And you know what I'm looking for?”

Apathy nodded affirmatively. “The problems with the local kids, right? Me, too. Been on the case now for days, but it's been tough. Not a lot of leads.”

“I'm willing to bet I have more leads than you,” Ravager muttered.

Tilting her head to the side, Apathy gave a hard glare, not that Ravager could see the glare from behind the woman's dark, tinted facial covering. In fact, neither woman can see the other's face. “You mean the places of residence of those kids who suffered from brain aneurisms, right? And you do have the list of strange robberies lately, I would assume? Have you cross referenced the locations of those robberies yet with those places of residence and mapped out the most probable radius to find the source of the problem?”

For a long moment, Ravager just stared back at her, eyes narrowing. “That's assuming the source is even in the middle of it all. It could be coincidental. For all we know, whatever's causing it could be on the other side of the city.

“Possible, but unlikely.” Apathy shook her head, wagging a finger mockingly. “You didn't really do a lot of research into this before you decided to jump out here and look around, did you?”

Ravager didn't answer, allowing for an awkward pause to pass between them.

Hands coming to her hips, Apathy tilted her head again, bemused. “Do you even know what was stolen from those companies?”

“Some sort of advanced tech, right? I haven't looked into it, yet. I don't know what that would have to do with drugs, though.”

A disappointed sigh found its way to Apathy's lips. “We're not looking for drugs. At least... I don't think.”

Ravager lifted a confused eyebrow. “And why do you think that?”

“Because of the tech that was stolen,” the woman explained. “Not a lot on on their own, but when you put them together you come up with something... interesting.”

“Define 'interesting'.”

Moving forward, Apathy reached down to the belt of her armored catsuit and pulled out a small electronic device. Holding it up, she clicked a button and caused a rather detailed hologram to project from the lens on top, showing the different stolen components. “Well, it's just a theory, actually, created by formerly renowned hypnologist, Dr. Preston Atkinson – he was fired recently. Anyway, he hypothesized that, with the right neurological stimulation, a person could be subconsciously driven into a sort of... alternate reality existing in their own minds. Sort of like a dream, only much more than a dream.”

“Okay...” Ravager paused a moment, scratching the side of her head. She wasn't quite sure she understood that, but for now she'd go with it. “And what does any of that have to do with the dying kids?

“Well, the finished product would be unstable,” Apathy explained. “It's highly likely that it causes brain damage in some of the subjects, possibly even inflicting, you guessed it, brain aneurisms. So, if someone is using this technology to addict children to their own privatized virtual reality, they end up with complications after using it for too long.”

Lifting a hand to her face, Ravager let out a long sigh and shook her head. “Okay, none of that makes any sense. First of all, why would somebody be doing this in the first place? What's to gain, except for some small time cash from a bunch of kids stealing from their parents? And second, if it were true, how in the hell would you know all of it already?”

“Because-” Holding a finger up, she pointed it playfully at Ravager. “-I actually did my homework. You know, used the big thing in my head; a brain, I think it's called. Not bad for a 'newbie', huh?”

“Okay... and exactly what do you propose we do about it?” Ravager asked.

Apathy sighed again, shaking her head. “We go stop the guy behind it, duh. You really are two steps behind in the whole thinking thing, aren't you?”

“And don't tell me, you just happen to know where this is all going down, right?”

“Well... I have theories,” she muttered. “But yes, I can say it's a distinct possibility. Care to join me?”

The woman reached a hand out, waiting for Ravager to take it. After staring at the woman's hand for what felt like an eternity, Ravager finally extended her own and and took hold. In an instant, they popped out of existence.

When they reappeared, Ravager staggered forward, holding a hand to her stomach and doubling over. “Oh god... I will never get used to teleporting.”

“Should I grab you a barf bag?”

Ravager slowly turned her head, glaring. “I'll be fine.” Fighting back the bubbling nausea in her gut, she sucked in a deep breath of air and straightened herself, finally looking around. It looked like one of the many back alleys in Silverstone, rather hard to discern from the other twenty she'd already covered tonight. “Where are we?”

“The most probably location, as determined by yours truly, for whoever is behind the problem to be located,” Apathy said. “Well, this and the surrounding few blocks.”

“And we're still in the East District?”

“Yup.”

“Then I've already searched this area,” Ravager insisted. “There's nothing here.”

“Please, I saw you 'search'. A couple once overs hardly qualifies. I'm totally certain you didn't overlook anything at all.”

Ravager folded her arms, gaze narrowing. “So you are stalking me.”

“I prefer to call it 'intensive observation',” Apathy said.”

Throwing her hands up, Ravager let out a sigh of disgust. “You know what... I don't even care. Let's just get looking.”

“I suggest we split up to cover more ground.”

“Wow, an actual good idea,” Ravager said, rolling her eyes. “I'm shocked.”

“And I'm unamused at your poor attempts of sarcasm,” Apathy retorted.

Giving the woman another glare, Ravager slowly turned away and began marching off in the opposite direction. “Let me know if you find anything.”

This time around, Ravager took a much closer look at the surrounding neighborhood, sticking to the more deserted areas and back alleyways, as usual. Unfortunately, she didn't spot any sort of suspicious activity. Sure, whoever was behind this whole thing could be located in any one of these buildings, but she couldn't just go breaking into every single one to search, especially when she didn't even know who or what she was looking for. There wasn't enough time in the night.

Holding her hands to her hips, Ravager let out an annoyed breath and doubled back down the series of alleys she came through. Her eyes were drawn to a few chained and padlocked doors along the sides of some buildings, but they were meaningless to her right now. At least, she thought they were, at first. But then she noticed one of the doors, the handle wrapped up in chains just like all the others. The only difference was, the chain was cut. She narrowed her eyes, coming forward to inspect it.

Hmm... no guarantee it has anything to do with what I'm after, but it couldn't hurt to check out.

As she reached forward to open the door, however, her attention was quickly drawn away when she caught sight of a shadowed figure watching her from further down the alley. Turning towards the obstructed individual, she squinted her eyes at him, trying to get a better look. The figure paused a moment, standing straighter, then suddenly sprinted in the opposite direction.

“Yeah, that's not suspicious at all,” she muttered, taking off in a run. “Hey!”

The moment she rounded the bend, a rapidly flickering series of lights suddenly assaulted her vision. She squinted fiercely, trying to get a fix on whatever was happening. Her precog didn't warn her of any imminent danger, so she wasn't being attacked. But then what in the hell was all this?

“Would you... cut that... out?” she uttered, stumbling slightly on her feet.

Her words suddenly began to slow down and slur, everything going blurry. She blinked a couple of times and shook her head, trying to snap herself out of whatever daze she was sinking into. Within seconds, though, she realized that it was useless. Something happened in her brain... almost like it just decided to just shut off. The next thing she knew, everything went dark.

---

Slowly opening her eyes, Rose let out a long moan of discomfort. The headache pounding between her eyes was simply astounding, as if someone was playing the drums with her brain. She sat up in bed, holding a hand to her head and squinting her eyes shut for several moments, trying to force the pain away. Slowly but surely, the headache subsided. When it was finally bearable, she opened her eyes again and took a look around the bedroom.

I'm back home? But how did I...?

The last thing she remembered was collapsing in an alleyway at the hands of strange flashing lights. But that didn't make any sense. How could blinking lights cause her to fall unconscious? No, didn't make any sense at all.

Ugh, maybe it was just some kind of sick dream.

The sound of a toilet flushing caught her ears. She slowly glanced over to the closed door of the bathroom next to the bed. Leaning back on her hands, she let out a small yawn.

“Holly, that you?” she asked.

Don't tell me the toilet down the hall is clogged again.

And then, the door opened. It took her brain a few moments to register exactly what she was seeing, throat going numb and heart jumping into her throat. At first, she thought she was just hallucinating, maybe the side effect of whatever killer headache she had. But the more she stared, the more she realized that the woman standing in front of her, dressed in nothing but a loose fitting T-shirt and a pair of underwear, was not a hallucination. It couldn't be.

“Becky...?” she uttered, throat dry and numb.

“Morning there, sleepy head,” Becky said, giving a big grin as she made her way across the room. “Last night must have really tired you out, ah?”

Chapter #73

It took several moments before Rose's legs were able to move, caught in frozen shock. When she finally managed to throw herself out of the bed, almost tripping over her own two feet on the way, she ran over to Becky and lunged forward, embracing her in warm, yet almost desperate hug, arms coming around tightly.

“It... it was a dream,” Rose uttered, shaking her head frantically. “It was all a dream. Everything was...”

Blinking in confusion, Becky slowly wrapped her arms around Rose in return, giving a curious look. “Rose... are you alright?”

“Yeah, I... I'm fine now,” she said, swallowing back a lump in her throat. “I'm great.”

“You're crying.”

Sniffling slightly, Rose lifted a hand to wipe the tears away and uttered a small chuckle. “I'm just... I'm so happy to see you. God, I missed you so much.”

“Now I'm confused,” Becky said, lifting an eyebrow. “Did I go somewhere?”

“Did you-? No, nowhere at all... you've been here the whole time, haven't you?”

“Dios mio, girl, that must have been some dream.”

Smiling, Rose pulled back slightly and planted her lips firmly against Becky's, her arms coming up to curl around the woman's shoulders.

Breathing outwardly in pleasant surprise, Becky pressed herself into the kiss, her own hands coming down around Rose's waist. “Oy, someone wants an early encore from last night.”

“Let's do something today,” Rose said quickly.

“What do you mean?” Becky tilted her head slightly, eyes shifting with confusion. “What do you want to do?”

“Anything, it doesn't matter,” she replied. “We can go out. Shopping, bowling, a walk in the park, I don't care. I just want to spend some time with you right now.”

“But you have your classes to teach, don't you?”

Rose shook her head. “I'm canceling classes today.”

“Well I have work, too, you know,” Becky added.

“So call in sick,” she said, with a simple shrug. “I just... please, I want to spend the whole day with you.”

Furrowing her brow in curiosity, Becky pursed her lips and gave a slow nod. “Alright, alright. I'll call in sick.”

“Okay, good. That's... good.” Rose breathed in deeply through her nose, trying to remain as calm as she could. She paused a moment, looking down at her arm and giving it a firm pinch. She definitely felt it. With a huge smile, she turned her attention back to Becky. “Okay, so I'll go drive Holly to school, and then I'll come back and we can do something.”

“And I'll be waiting.” Becky returned the smile, then glanced down at herself and teasingly tugged at the strap of her underwear. “Maybe I'll be wearing a little less, too, ah?”

Rose didn't think that her grin could grow any wider, but just then it doubled. “Have I told you how much I love you?”

“Mmm, not since last night,” Becky said, with a small nod. “Though, I think there may have been a few 'oh gods' mixed in there somewhere.”

Leaning back in, Rose gave her girlfriend another deep kiss. “I'll be right back.”

---

Rose and Becky walked down the stone pathway of Silverstone Park hand in hand, fingers tightly interlocked. It was a beautiful day, sunny and not a cloud in the sky. Warm, but not too hot. With the spring season, the trees were lush and full, birds hopping around the branches and singing to greet the day. A pair of squirrels chased each other along the path, then suddenly darted off towards a bush, disappearing within. A family of ducks swam lazily through the waters of the the large pond. Nearby, an elderly couple sat on one of the many park benches, throwing bread crumbs in front of them and watching the birds fly down to have a taste. The day was, quite simply, perfect.

“I can't remember the last time I actually came here,” Rose mused, breathing in deeply through her nose. “It's so... relaxing.”

“Ha, girl, we were here just last week, remember?” Becky said.

“Oh, uh... right.” Rose cleared her throat, shifting her weight slightly. “I meant it just seems like so long, I guess. We should come here more often.”

“Well I certainly wouldn't complain.”

“So, tell me about you,” she insisted. “I mean, how are things going? With your family, with work, with life. Anything.”

Again, Becky's expression twisted into one of slight confusion and curiosity. Of course, this lasted only briefly, as she soon smiled and took a firmer grip of Rose's hand. “Well, my family is doing good. Mom and Dad just got back from a cruise to the Bahamas, said they really loved it. You should see the pictures; my parents can be so ridiculous sometimes. Oh, and my sister just got engaged a few days ago. I haven't met the guy yet, but she says he's great.”

Rose gave a smile of her own, leaning closer against Becky as they continued down the pathway.

“Work's been okay, about the same as you can expect,” Becky continued. “But ugh, you would not believe some of the things we have to put up with on the job. Well, maybe you do since you were a cop once, but it's just been weird lately. Naked homeless guys, wild parties, reports of cannibalism...” A small shudder ran up her spine at the thought.

“But as for my life, well...” Turning her head, Becky's smile grew softer. They stopped walking for a moment, as she leaned forward to give Rose a light kiss. “I'm currently involved with the most wonderful woman I could ever ask for, who I love very much, and I couldn't be happier with. So I'd say my life is going perfectly.”

Rose returned a kiss of her own, this one deeper and longer lasting than the first. When she finally pulled back, a small breathless gasp escaped her throat. “Funny... you just described my life, too.”

The two continued down the path again, now taking a turn onto the bridge that overlooked the pond. Taking a moment to pause, Rose and Becky leaned against the railing and gazed down into the water, still holding hands.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” Rose said, glancing calmly at her girlfriend.

“Shoot.”

“Do you... I mean, could you see yourself spending the rest of your life with me?”

Lifting an eyebrow, Becky turned to her and took in a short breath. “Do you really need to ask that question?”

Rose slowly averted her eyes, looking off to the side. “Well, I just... I was wondering, is all.”

“Dios, girl.” Reaching forward, Becky turned Rose's head to face her, giving a loving smile. “Of course I can see myself spending the rest of my life with you. I wouldn't still be with you if I didn't.”

Rose smiled in return, swallowing back a nervous lump in her throat. “Then let's get married.”

Becky's eyes widened. “Wha- for real?”

“Yeah. It doesn't have to be right now, but I want to marry you. More than anything.”

“You don't think it's a little soon?” Becky asked. “I mean, we haven't even been together a year, yet.”

Rose shrugged. “So what? Time is relative, anyway. I know that I love you, I know that you love me, and I know that I want to be with you forever. I don't ever want to lose you.”

After a brief pause, Becky's lips curled into a delighted smile. “And you never will.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Si,” Becky said, giving Rose a light kiss. “It's a yes.”

---

Later that night, Rose, Becky, and Holly all sat around a table at one of the local Italian restaurants, staring at the menus. While Rose and Becky remained entirely focused on said menus, acting as though nothing was out of the ordinary, Holly every so often glanced up over hers and looked at either woman curiously. She may have been only eleven and a half, but she wasn't stupid. She knew when something was up.

Eventually, Holly closed her menu and planted it down flat on the table in front of her. “Okay, what's going on?”

“No idea what you're talking about,” Rose said, calmly.

A small smirk found its way to Becky's lips, but she didn't look up from her menu.

“But we never go out for dinner on a school night,” Holly insisted. “You always make me do my homework, and then we train, then you cook dinner at home, and then I go to bed.”

“Oh, well I just thought we'd mix things up a little bit tonight,” Rose said, with a simple shrug. She still hadn't looked away from her menu.

“But I haven't even done my homework, yet!” Holly gave her mother a hard stare, hands pressed firmly against the table. “You didn't even ask what I had for homework. You always ask what I have for homework.”

Finally, Becky lifted her gaze from the menu, flashing an amused smile at Rose. “Can't get anything by her, ah?”

Holly's eyebrows lifted. “So there is something going on!”

“Well, maybe.” When Holly merely continued to stare, arms folding across her chest, Rose glanced up from her menu and finally let out a defeated sigh. “Alright, alright. We're here because we're celebrating.”

“What are we celebrating?”

“Marriage.”

Holly furrowed her eyebrows, head tilting in confusion. “Marriage? Who's getting married?”

At that question, Rose reached across the table, taking Becky's hand with her own and firmly interlocking their fingers. “We are.”

Eyes going wide, Holly shot up straight in her seat. “What? For real?”

“Si, it's true,” Becky replied.

A big grin spread its way across the girl's face. “That is so awesome! Oh my god, is there going to be a big wedding? Do I get to wear one of those awesome dresses? Oh! Can I bring the rings down the aisle?”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down, girl.,” Becky said, with a small chuckle. “We haven't even discussed when the wedding will be, yet.”

“It's more of a promise,” Rose explained. Moving her gaze towards Becky, she flashed a warm, loving smile. “We don't know when it will happen yet, but some time, eventually, we will get married.”

“Oh, well that's cool, too.” Holly paused a moment, fidgeting in her seat. Finally, she added, “But when you have the wedding, can I bring the rings down the aisle? Pleeease?

Rose chuckled, slowly nodding. “Alright, you can bring the rings down the aisle.”

“Yes! Awesome!”

Rose held a large smile across her face, slowly glancing around the table. Becky, the love of her life, and Holly, the wonderful girl that brought out the mother in her. She couldn't ask for anything more out of life. The more she looked at them, however, the more they began to fade. In fact, everything was starting to fade: the restaurant, the people, her entire world, as though a dark curtain was being lowered in front of her eyes.

In a near panic, she lunged up from her seat and looked around wildly. “No! What's going on? Bring it back! Bring it back!

But things just continued to get darker, until finally she herself disappeared along with everything around her.

---

“No, no no no no... NO!” Rose shouted. “I want to go back! Let me go back!”

Her eyes suddenly flew open, a large, heavy breath escaping her lips. Things were blurry at first, but slowly came into focus. She was in a small, square room with a very dim florescent light flickering weakly above her. When she tried to move, she realized that she was strapped into some kind of machine, with a weird, helmet-like device wrapped around her head. Clenching her fists, she struggled to break free.

“Please... please, I want to go back...” she uttered, voice weak and barely audible.

Tears streaked down her cheeks now, tears that she didn't even know she was producing until the water in her eyes began to blur her vision. Blinking them away, she shook her head and sucked in another deep gulp of air. Her heart felt like was beating a thousand times a minute. She tried to lift her head, but found that it, too, was strapped firmly against the odd machine she was in, some sort of strange pod with a glass covering above her.

A short moment later, the glass cover lifted open with a small hiss of air, then slid off the pod. The restraints holding her down suddenly released, and the helmet over her head raised up, allowing her to lurch upright with a gaping breath and climb out of the pod. Her legs collapsed like jelly, causing her to fall to the cold, hard floor. She still had her costume on, she realized, but her real helmet and faceplate were gone, as were her swords and belt.

“How was it?” a calm voice asked.

Flinching at the sound of the voice, Rose rolled over and pushed herself up against the wall. A short distance away, she saw a man standing there, a man dressed in a very odd costume. It was almost completely black, except for a series of round lights attached to it at various intervals along his body, as well as one larger light at the center of his chest. He wore a full mask covering his entire head, as well, with a black and white spiral design on the front.

“How was... what?” she uttered, chest heaving in exhaustion. “What are- who are you?”

“You may call me Trance, my dear,” he replied. “Now tell me, how was it? Did you see everything you wanted to see? Did your deepest desires come to life?”

Swallowing a hard lump in her throat, Rose glanced back at the pod machine, now noticing several more of the same machines lined along the dim, dirty room. The other machines were all occupied, mostly by kids, all with the same weird helmets over their heads. They looked peaceful, as though sleeping.

My god... Apathy was right.

“It... wasn't real,” she groaned, bowing her head. “None of it was real.”

“And what makes something real?” Trance asked. “If you're referring to things that we can see, that we can touch, taste, hear, smell, then those are merely electrical impulses interpreted by our brains. If our brain tells us that something is there, if we can touch it, taste it, smell it, see it... is it not real?”

Rose squinted her eyes shut, pressing her palms to her face. “But it wasn't really there. Becky wasn't... she isn't alive.”

“Maybe not in the material world, but in your mind-” The man slowly leaned forward, bringing a finger up to press lightly against her forehead. “-there are no limits. What you want to exist does exist, and my machine offers you a gateway into that subconscious world, where you control your life, you control what you want to happen. It may be a different world entirely, it may be all in your head, but that doesn't make it any less 'real'.”

Gripping the sides of her head, Rose curled up slightly, bringing her knees to her chest. “But your machines, they're hurting people. The kids... it's killing them. Seven are dead already.”

“Yes, that is... unfortunate,” he muttered. “And part of the reason why my theory was rejected by my peers, why they refused me funding, why they decided to let me go.... Fools, all of them. I can help people. These kids... they come abusive homes, or they get bullied in school, or they just want something more. Well, I can give them more; I can give them whatever they want.”

“You're giving them brain aneurisms!” Rose snapped.

Trance merely shrugged. “So there are some kinks that still need to be worked out. It doesn't affect everyone, though. Most of the people who use my machines do not suffer any lethal side effects. These things take time. Trial, error... I'll fix it eventually.”

“No... no you won't... I have to... have to stop you.” She tried stand up, but stumbled almost immediately and fell to her knees. She couldn't stand right now; she could barely think straight.

“But if you stop me, my dear, then you'll never never get a chance to go back in.” Trance took a knee, coming level with her. “And you do want to go back in, don't you?”

She did. Deep down, she knew it. More than anything, she wanted to go back into that pod, close her eyes, and wake up in Becky's arms again. It had felt real... so very real. Becky had been alive again, even if only in her mind.

But she didn't say anything. She couldn't just admit to this whack-job that she wanted back into his machine. She was supposed to be the hero here.

“I can see you're exhausted,” Trance said, straightening himself. “Another side effect of the machine. Tell you what, go home, take some time to think on it, and then come back to me. If you really still want to stop me, we'll deal with it then.”

Turning around, he began making his way back to the other machines, monitoring their status. But, if you want to slip back into that world deep in your mind... well, bring payment. Only the first jump is on the house.”

---

Rose stumbled out of the door and into the alleyway, a hand held to her head. Her legs were still recovering, shaking and quivering as she walked. Several times, she tripped and fell down to her knees, only to quickly push herself back to her feet. A small groan escaped her lips, as she held herself up against the side of a building and took in deep breaths.

Okay... okay, where's my ride? I need a nap.

When she finally figured out exactly where she was, she shambled her way back towards where she had left her bike. A very strong grip of guilt and uncertainty began to build its way into her chest. She had put on this costume tonight in order to help those kids in there, to stop Trance from using his machines to slowly kill them. Yet, here she was, not stopping him, but walking away and actually considering going back to dive back into one of those pods again. To see Becky again. What did that make her?

An idiot, that's what it makes you. And a hypocrite.

But she didn't care what it made her. All she cared about was that, for at least a brief time, she had been able to see Becky again. She'd been able to hear Becky again, hold her again, feel her again...

And nothing will keep me from that.

Chapter #74

Rose lied back on the couch in her living room, her head resting in Becky's lap. She held a magazine up in front of her face, flipping casually through its pages. It was a bridal magazine, to be more precise. Wedding gowns, planning ideas, locations, decorations, and a whole lot more to help make the perfect event.

Stopping on a page with images of different dresses, Rose exhaled a long, relaxed breath. “What do you think of these?”

While gently running her hands through Rose's hair, Becky looked down at the page, taking a few moments to examine the gowns. “Not bad, but I liked the one on page seven more. You know, the one with the ruffles along the side?”

“I don't know, I'm not sure about that one,” Rose muttered. “I don't think it would look that good on me.”

“Who's talking about you, ah? I meant for me.”

Flashing a small grin, Rose glanced up at her bride-to-be and lowered the magazine. “Please, you'll look good in anything.”

“Well, that is true,” she replied. “But that doesn't mean we can't find something good for you.”

“I don't know, I've never really looked great in dresses. I doubt a wedding gown will be much different.”

“Hey-” Lifting Rose upwards slightly, Becky leaned forward and gave a deep, loving kiss. When she finally pulled away, she smiled, caressing Rose's cheek gently with her fingers. “-you'll look beautiful. But you're not going to find the right gown in a magazine, so put that down and we'll go out. There's a bridal shop just four blocks from here; we'll head down there and we can find the perfect one.”

Rose paused a moment, carefully considering the suggestion. “Hmm... that does sound like a good time...”

“Of course it does,” Becky said, with a smirk. “I suggested it. Now come on, go find your shoes and let's go.”

Rose smiled. “Well, if you insi- NO!

It was happening again. The world around her, darkening, fading away into nothingness. Rose tried to keep it alive, tried to hold on, but it was pointless. No matter how hard she concentrated, Becky's loving smile quickly disappeared along with everything else around her, until all that was left was a cold, numbing void.

---

“NO!”

Rose's eyes snapped open, followed by an exasperated breath rushing from her lungs. She tried to struggle out of her restraints, but even if the bindings were weak enough to be broken by her regular strength levels, she barely had a fraction of that right now with the quick onset of exhaustion. Several moments went by, vision slowly focusing on the glass covering above her, which began to slide open. Shortly afterward, the restraints automatically released, along with the helmet lifting off her head.

Immediately, Rose pulled her way out of the pod. “Put me back in! I should still have more time!”

Nearby, Trance gave her a long look, slowly walking over and clasping his arms behind his back. “I'm afraid that's all the time that your payment covered.”

When Rose's feet hit the floor, her legs instantly collapsed. She crumpled into a weak, nearly helpless heap, a tired grunt bursting from her lips. “What are you talking about? I gave you the two hundred!”

“Yes, you did,” Trance replied. “The first three times. But after that you only had fifty left over, remember? This is your fourth trip into the pod tonight.”

It slowly came back, the memories of her time in between each mental jump. He was right; Rose did spend all her money already. She came in with six hundred and fifty dollars, most of the cash that she could scrounge around. The night before, she had burned through a thousand dollars, and the night before that, two thousand. She didn't have a whole lot left.

“Just... please put me back in?” she begged. “Just a little while longer. I'll get you the money, you know I have it. Please let me see her again.”

“I'm sorry, but rules are rules. You want in, you pay up.”

Swallowing back a hard lump in her throat, Rose slowly began pushing her way back up to her feet. She staggered there for a moment, legs feeling like jelly, but eventually she managed to stumble her way towards the door.

“Fine... fine, I'll be back,” she said. “I'll get the money and I'll be back.”

---

Rose stared at the ATM screen in disbelief. She blinked a few times, then reached up to rub her eyes, as though somehow she was just seeing things. But she wasn't seeing things. The screen didn't lie, showing her current balance as: $6.37.

“This isn't right... this can't be right.” Feeling her heart rate beginning to increase, she gave the machine a hard kick. “This is wrong!”

The people walking by took a moment to give her odd looks, curious at her outburst. When she noticed this, she glared to them, eyebrows crossing angrily. “What are you looking at?!”

The passersby quickened their pace, hurrying away from the scene before the strange woman took out her frustrations on something other than an ATM. Taking in a deep breath, Rose turned back at the screen again, her anger beginning to boil. Uttering one more furious breath, she stormed away from the machine and stuffed her hands in her pockets.

Okay... okay, this isn't the end of the world. Just think. My students' next payments come in at the end of the week. I'll have plenty more to afford the pod a few more times this month.

But that wasn't good enough. It couldn't be good enough! What was she supposed to do, blow all her cash just to see Becky maybe ten times a month? No, she needed more than that. Somehow, she needed more...

As her thoughts began to descend further into depression, a cheery voice suddenly called out to her. “Hey, there! Rose!”

Glancing up from the sidewalk, she noticed a familiar woman running towards her, arm waving and a smile on her face.

“Oh, what a surprise,” Ruby stated, giving Rose a brief, friendly hug. “I wasn't expectin' to see you tonight.”

“Right... what a surprise,” she muttered.

“Haven't heard from you in a few days,” Ruby stated, hands coming to her hips. “Didn't know if- goodness, are you alright?”

Narrowing her eyes, Rose gave the woman an odd look. “Of course I'm alright. Why wouldn't I be alright?”

“Well, I mean, I don't- you're just so pale. And your eyes, they're bloodshot somethin' awful.”

Suddenly turning her head away, Rose squinted her eyes shut for a few moments and breathed in deeply. “Don't worry about it, I'm fine. Just a little tired, is all.”

“Oh, well sorry to hear that.” Ruby paused a moment, folding her arms across her chest and shifting her weight. “But hey, listen, what are you doin' right now? Do you want to grab a bite or somethin'? I mean, if you're not too tired.”

“I... I don't have any cash on me,” she muttered, glancing away shamefully.

A smile curled its way onto Ruby's face. “Then I'll just have to pay for the both of us, now won't I? Although, that might qualify it as a date.”

Furrowing her brow slightly, Rose turned back to look at the woman again. “A date?”

“Oh, uh... right, sorry,” Ruby said, chuckling nervously. “Bad joke.”

“No, actually... yeah, why not?” Rose straightened herself, letting out a deep breath. “A date might be good. I need to take my mind of some things.”

“Oh, well then, excellent. Let's go, I know this great little Italian place.”

---

Rose looked around, her eyes moving sharply across the restaurant. She took note of the people, the atmosphere, the background music, everything. That fact that she had been to this same exact restaurant not too long ago with Becky in her dream world was bad enough, but everything was so... loud. And distracting. Though, maybe it was just her... nobody else seemed to mind. So then why couldn't she concentrate?

“Rose? Hello, Earth to Rose.”

“Huh?” Snapping out of her daze, she turned towards Ruby, only then noticing the waiter standing next to the table, waiting.

“What are you havin' to drink?” Ruby asked.

“Just, uh, water for now,” she said, clearing her throat.

When the waiter left the table, Ruby looked closely at Rose and narrowed her eyes with concern. “Are you sure you're alright?”

“Yeah, fine, totally.”

“You can take a rain check if you like,” Ruby stated. “I won't raise a fuss.”

“Don't worry, really, I'm okay,” she said. “It's just this restaurant...”

Ruby lifted an eyebrow, leaning forward against the table. “What about it?”

“I... it's nothing.”

“Come on now, you can't bring it up and then expect to brush it under the rug. Go on, tell me.”

Rose bowed her head, breathing out a deep sigh. “I just used to come here a lot, with...”

Though she doesn't finish her sentence, Ruby figured it out fairly quickly. The tone in Rose's voice was enough of a giveaway. “Oh- oh goodness. I'm so sorry, I didn't know. We can go someplace else, if you like.”

“No, we're already here,” Rose said, shaking her head. “I'll be fine.”

Ruby smiled. “Yes... yes, you will, won't you?”

And then it happened again, a sudden onset of warmth, happiness, and joy. It came from nowhere and for no reason, but in an instant Rose was in a better mood. Her posture straightened, she lifted her head, she was able to concentrate, and she completely forgot why she'd been in such a terrible mood before.

“So, tell me about her,” Ruby said.

Rose lifted an eyebrow. “About... you mean Rebecca?”

“Ah, so that was her name?” Ruby smiled, sitting straighter in her seat. “See, I'm learnin' more already.”

“I don't understand why you'd want to sit there and listen to me talk about her, though,” she said.

“I find that one of the best remedies for a broken heart is to talk it out,” Ruby stated. “In this case, sharing the memories of Rebecca that made her special, the qualities about her that you loved, may do you some good. And besides, I'm curious.”

She knew she shouldn't. It was still a touchy subject, after all, losing Rebecca. And yet, for some reason, Rose felt very open right now. So, she delivered a small smile, nodded, and went on to tell this woman all about Becky, all the things that made her wonderful. Funny moments, happy moments, touching moments, embarrassing moments; she covered them all. This went on throughout their entire meal, all the way into dessert and beyond.

Ruby listened in quiet interest, sipping her drink and leaning forward closely on the table. Not once did she interrupt, allowing Rose's recollections to flow freely. By the end of it, Rose was laughing, smiling widely, and wiping away warm tears from her eyes.

“And then the time the curling iron got caught in her hair, oh you should have seen her,” Rose said, laughing madly. “Swearing up and down the apartment – in Spanish, mind you, so I couldn't understand half of what she was saying – while the smell of burnt hair started to fill the place. We finally managed to get it out, and what does she do? Kicks it across the room with bare feet! Bruised her toe real good, let me tell you.”

“Ooh, painful,” Ruby said, with a soft chuckle.

“Oh yeah, she had to take a week off work because she could barely walk.”

Still smiling, Ruby lifted her glass of wine to take another sip. “She sounds like a wonderful person. I would have very much liked to meet her.”

“Yeah... she would have liked you.” Rose smiled absently, glancing down into her own wine glass. “Hell, she liked most people. That's just the kind of person she was.”

“Take it from one who knows, Rose. Don't lament that fact that she's gone, but rather celebrate that she lived.”

Rose slowly nodded, though her eyes grew ever more distant. “If only it were that easy.”

“Losing someone you love never is.”

After a moment's pause, Rose lifted her gaze slightly, leaning forward against the table. “I... I want to thank you. For listening. For this date. It's... been really great.”

Ruby nodded, smiling warmly.”It was me pleasure. Now, shall we get going? I'll walk you home.”

---

Rose stopped with Ruby outside the door to her penthouse. For a moment, she didn't say anything, just shifting her weight slightly and folding her arms across her chest, smiling. It was amazing how good she felt right now, how content and at peace. Not two hours ago, she had been stumbling around the floor of Trance's workshop, begging to go back into one of his pods, but now such a thought couldn't be further from her mind.

“I still can't believe you live here,” Ruby said. “I mean, this is the most expensive place to live in the city, isn't it?”

“Yeah, well, I have some help affording it,” Rose replied, with a small shrug. “It's nice, though, for sure.”

“No kidding.”

Rose reached for the door handle briefly, then paused, thinking. “You don't, uh... I mean, do you want to come in?”

“Depends,” she said, lifting an eyebrow, “are you offerin'?”

The corner of Rose's lips curled into a slight smirk. “Yeah, I am.”

“Well, in that case...” Suddenly moving forward, Ruby took hold of Rose's shoulders and brought their lips together.

Eyes going wide, Rose took a sharp step back. “Wait, I didn't mean-”

And then their lips were together again. This time, she didn't step back. Instead of surprise, she felt an abrupt warmth spreading through her, entire body tingling wildly. She didn't know what it was, but it refused to let her pull away, and instead she reciprocated, arms coming up and wrapping around Ruby's body. Somewhere during this, she managed to open the door and lead them both into the apartment. By the time they made it past the kitchen, they were practically attacking each other, lips kissing along flesh, hands tearing off clothing. Like two animals in heat, they went at it.

What the hell is going on? she wondered. I shouldn't be doing this... I shouldn't be... why am I doing this?

Those fleeting thoughts vanished in an instant, as the two pushed into the bedroom. They didn't make it all the way to the bed, though, instead falling to the floor in a tangle of naked flesh and pleasured gasps.

---

Ruby took in deep, steady breaths, just staring up at the ceiling. Rose lied calmly next to her in bed (they did eventually make it to the bed), eyes closed and fast asleep. Holding a hand to her head, Ruby uttered a frustrated groan.

Okay, so perhaps I got a little carried away there.

But so what if she did? So what if this complicated things? She had enjoyed it, and so had Rose. That much was clear. With everything going on right now, they both deserved something good for a change. At this thought, however, her heart sank.

No, no I can't go through with this.

Rolling out of bed, Ruby briefly rummaged around her belongings until she found her phone. Flipping it open, she hit the first number on speed dial and held it up to her ear, while walking out into the living room. The line rang several times with no answer.

Finally, on the fifth ring, a voice answered her on the other end. “Ruby. It's rather late, don't you think?”

She ignored the obviously rhetorical question and got straight to the point. “I don't want to do this anymore.”

A small pause followed. When the voice spoke up again, it retained its eery calm. “I must say, that is disappointing to hear. Might I ask why?”

“You told me when we started this that she was some awful person who deserved every bit of misery she got,” Ruby said.

“Of course, and I stand by that statement.”

“But she's not!” Ruby sighed, lowering her gaze and pressing a palm to her forehead. She's a lovely girl, and I can't understand why you'd want to break her down like this.”

Another pause, before the voice finally spoke again. “You slept with her, didn't you?”

“That's none of your business!” she snapped. “Nor is it the point I'm trying to make!”

“Calm yourself, Ruby,” the voice replied. “I can assure you that she did something very unforgivable to me, some time ago. Something that cannot go unpunished.”

Ruby shook her head, breathing out another sigh. “I can't imagine what someone like her could have done to deserve the way you're toyin' with her emotions. The way you're makin' me toy with her emotions.”

“Have you forgotten our arrangement, Ruby? You do your job, as I tell you, and I bring back your dear Jeanette.”

A frustrated scoff left her throat, as she leaned forward against the couch and stared out the large window in front of her. “And I'm honestly supposed to continue believin' that? You have done nothin' to show me you're capable of such a thing.”

“You already know what I can do, don't fool yourself,” the voice said. “Besides, with your ability, you can tell I'm not lying. Can't you?”

Ruby didn't answer, instead bowing her head shamefully, eyes closed.

“If you continue to do as you're told, you will see Jeanette again,” the voice continued. “If you don't, then our deal is void. Take it or leave it.”

The line clicked dead, as the man on the other line hang up. For a long moment, Ruby just stood there, holding her phone up in the air with her fingers clutched tightly around it. Even with her eyes closed, she couldn't stop the tears from leaking out.

Goddamn it... What the hell am I doin'?

Chapter #75

The glass covering of the pod let out a hiss of air as it opened. When the restraints released, Rose's hands flew up to grip the sides and pull herself back out. It felt even worse this time, coming out of her mental world. Not only were the side effects starting to get worse, but the life she'd built herself with Becky in that pod was better than ever. They lived in a beach house down in Miami now, it was wonderful. But that made it harder and harder on her emotional spectrum every time she was torn away from it again.

Like now, for instance.

“I- I have more,” Rose uttered, toppling to the floor. She couldn't even feel her legs right now. “Money, I- I can get it. My payments come in next week, I- if you'll just let me have a little more time, I'll pay you later. I promise, I swear, please.”

“Sorry, my dear,” Trance said, slowly approaching her. “I don't accept credit.”

Uttering a frustrated groan, Rose slowly clawed her way back up to her feet, using the edges of the pod to assist her. When she wobbled back to a standing position, her hands came up to press firmly against her eyes. God, they felt like they were on fire.

“But I don't have anymore money right now!” she shouted. “I can't wait that long!”

“I'm sure you'll find a way to cope,” he said, with a simple shrug.

Expression suddenly growing cross, Rose found a burst of strength and lunged forward, taking hold of the man's throat with both hands. “You have to let me back in! I need it!”

A second later, everything went dizzy, like the feeling you get when you stand up too fast. Her grip loosened instantly from the man's neck and she collapsed back to the floor.

“No money, no jump,” Trance stated, wagging his finger at her. “Plain and simple. Now, get yourself off my floor.”

---

Rose stared desperately at her phone, as the number rang through without anyone picking up. Again. For the tenth time. The name on the screen read: Ruby. Desperately, she hit the call button again and waited. Again, she got no response.

“Come on, pick up!” she screamed. “Pick up!”

She tried again. Still nothing.

“Damn it!”

Finally giving up, she stuffed the phone back into her pocket and sank against the wall of her penthouse She couldn't even make it all the way down the hallway to get to the couch in the living room. Her legs had given out long before she ever got there, and she hadn't been able to stand up again since.

I don't get it, I don't understand. I thought we had something, I thought we... why isn't she picking up? Why hasn't she called me in three days? Why do I only feel happy in the real world when I'm with her?

Closing her eyes again, she brought her hands up to either side of her head. A sharp pounding pain surged between her eyes, like someone taking a pair of drills and driving them up against her temples. It hurt... it really hurt.

She didn't have time to wallow, though, as a knock suddenly sounded on the door. Slowly glaring up at it, she uttered a long breath. Maybe if she waited, he'd just go away. When a second knock came, she snapped her head back in frustration, unintentionally smacking it against the wall.

“It's open,” she muttered.

The door opened a moment later, revealing Palmer. He paused a moment, staring around the interior of the apartment until his eyes finally found Rose sitting there on the floor in the hallway. Curiously, he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Wilson, are you... alright?”

“Why wouldn't I be?”

“Well, it's just... I haven't heard from you in days,” he said. “I know you like to work on your own schedule, but I figured you would have checked back in by now, let me know if you've found anything about-”

“I haven't. I've looked plenty, but I haven't found sh*t, okay?”

Eyes narrowing, Palmer took another few steps forward, arms folding across his chest. “You don't need to snap.”

“I'm sorry, I'm just... tired.” Bowing her head, she uttered a heavy sigh. “So what have you found?”

“Same as you, complete jack,” he explained. “I've had any spare officers I could find investigating, searching for clues, but no luck yet. In the meantime, three more kids have been found dead. Same deal; all aneurisms.”

Turning her head away, Rose shrugged. “Sorry to hear that.”

“I was really hoping you might have come across something we missed,” Palmer said, bringing his hands to his hips. “With as poorly as this case has been going...”

“Yeah, well, news flash: I'm not perfect!” she exclaimed, bowing her head. “Just because I put on a costume at night and have a few enhanced abilities, it doesn't mean I can do everything right!”

Again, Palmer's eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you're okay?”

“I said I was, didn't I?”

“Then what are you doing on the floor?”

“Nothing, I just-” She paused a moment, trying to think of an excuse. “-I had a few too many. Can't keep my balance.”

“Funny,” he muttered, “you're speaking rather eloquently for someone who's 'had a few too many'.”

Saying nothing, Rose turned her head farther away from him.

Tilting his gaze slightly, Palmer squinted his eyes at her. “Look at me.” When she didn't, he raised his voice. “Damn it, Wilson, look at me.”

Finally, she turned her face towards him completely. At the sight, the chief's eyes went wide. Her eyes were bright red and bloodshot with dark rings below them, and her skin was chalky white, almost ghostly.

“Good god, Wilson, what happened to you?” he questioned. “I haven't seen anyone looking this bad since the schizo we picked up last month so high on LSD he was flying kites. What the hell have you been doing?”

“I told you,” she stated firmly, “I'm fine.”

“Like hell you are!” Palmer came closer, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “Have you seen yourself lately?”

“What does it matter?! I'm nobody to you! Just another damn cape you can use to get your work done for you!”

Palmer went quiet a moment, posture drooping. When he did finally speak, however, his tone remained stern. “Believe it or not, it does matter to me. You're not 'just another damn cape', Wilson. You're a person, and a damn good one at that. I've seen the good you can do; I've seen the kind of person you are. I know losing Rebecca messed you up something bad, but you can't throw your life away because of it.”

“And what do you know about it, huh?” Rose hugged her legs up to her chest, glaring at him. “How could you know how I feel?”

The question was met with stone cold silence. Palmer's eyes locked onto hers, hard and unwavering. After a long, uncomfortable pause, he just shook his head. “I know a lot more than you think; like I know that you need to shape up, for instance. You have a girl to look after for Christ's sake. If not for yourself, then get straight for her. There's nothing more important than that.”

Rose bowed her head, not saying anything. She just wanted him to leave already.

Palmer turned towards the door, hesitating briefly when he opened it and looking back over his shoulder. “Get some help, Wilson.”

Once he was finally gone, Rose slowly pushed herself upwards, using the wall for support. Her legs still felt like jello, but at least she had recovered enough to stand upright. She still needed to hold the wall as she walked, though, making her way into the kitchen. Grabbing a glass from the cabinet, she filled it with water from the tap, then gulped it down. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn't notice Holly enter until the girl started talking.

“Mom? Is... everything okay?” Holly asked. “I heard shouting... you woke me up.”

Rose didn't answer, not at first. She swallowed back a hard lump in her throat, staring into the sink.

Holly moved closer, reaching out to gently touch her arm. “Rose?”

“I'm fine!” Her shout was one of abrupt anger, and in the process she lashed her arm out. She didn't register it at first, but after a moment she realized that she had struck flesh. Blinking her way out of her blind stupor, she turned with a start to see Holly sitting on the floor, holding a hand to her cheek and staring up at Rose with wide eyes. “Holly... I- I'm sorry, I didn't mean-”

But before she could spit out the words, Holly sprang back to her feet and ran down the hall. The door to her room slammed shut a moment later. For the longest time, Rose just stood there, staring in utter disbelief.

I... I struck her. How... how could I...? I would never do that to her.

And yet she had.

Finding new strength in her legs, Rose hurried down the hall, still having to push against the wall every once in a while to remain on her feet. She stopped outside Holly's bedroom, pausing. What was she supposed to say? How could she even begin to explain what just happened? Let alone to Holly, but to herself?

As she paused there, she heard something coming from the other side of the door, a sound she immediately recognized.

It was Holly crying.

A small piece of Rose's heart shattered at that revelation. Holding a hand over her mouth, she collapsed to her knees and bowed her head in shame, struggling to hold back the tears.

My god... what is wrong with me?

---

Rose tried to concentrate, as she pulled up outside the school that afternoon. She was still trying to figure out a way to talk to Holly after what had happened. The ride there that morning had been bad enough; Holly hadn't even looked at her. Never before had she ever experienced such a long, awkward silence in all her life. She had wanted to die right there, to curl up into a little ball and disappear forever.

It's okay... it was just an accident... I didn't mean to. Everything will be fine. I just... need to talk to her.

But as Rose waited there for Holly to come out of the school, a growing pit of worry began to form in her stomach. The crowds of children slowly dispersed, some taking buses and others getting into cars with their parents, but there was no sign of Holly. Starting to grow concerned, she got out of the car and looked around. By now, the school grounds were near empty, except for a few teachers. Starting to panic, she ran up to the first person she saw; conveniently enough, it happened to be Holly's homeroom teacher, Mrs. Hayes.

“Mrs. Hayes!” she called.

The woman turned around suddenly, as Rose approached. For a brief moment, she flinched, taking note of Rose's utterly drained and ill appearance. Finally, though, she did manage to respond. “Oh, Miss Wilson... are you alright?”

“I'm just- have you seen Holly?” she asked. “She's never been late to get picked up before and I was- I know I dropped her off this morning.”

“Holly?” Mrs. Hayes paused a moment, thinking. “Why, yes, she left a little while ago with that friend of hers, Lyta.”

“You mean she... she went home with Lyta's mother?”

Mrs. Hayes nodded slowly. “Yes, I believe so... is there a problem? Miss Wilson?”

Rose ignored the woman, turning around and running back to her car.

---

Rose pounded the door to Circe's apartment wildly. She wasn't being patient right now, already screaming out in the hallway. “Open the damn door, Circe! I know you're in there!”

When no answer came immediately, she drove her fist harder against the wood, starting to put cracks in it. She really didn't want to have to break down this door, but she would if she had to. After a short few moments that to her felt like an eternity, the door finally opened. It didn't stay open for long, though, as Circe slipped out into the hallway and closed it behind her.

“You do know how to cause a racket, don't you?” Circe said.

“Cut the sarcasm,” Rose replied, eyes glaring. “Where's Holly?”

“Inside, playing with Lyta.”

“Why did you take her?”

At this question, Circe narrowed her gaze, hotly. “I didn't take her; she wanted to come with us. Practically begged to.”

Blinking her eyes a few times, Rose shook her head. “No, why would she-”

“She told me what happened, Rose.” Circe's arms folded firmly across her chest, as she took a step closer. “You hit her.”

“It was accident!” she declared. “I didn't... I didn't mean to.”

Circe's gaze took on a hard, venomous tone. She may have been a mere mortal and a bit more pleasant nowadays, but she still knew how to turn on her old, cold self. At the same time, though, she took on this demeanor for entirely different purposes. She had changed these past months, mere shades of the evil sorceress she used to be.

“I don't care if it was an 'accident',” Circe said. “It never should have happened. That's not all she told me, you know. You haven't been yourself lately. You're on a downward spiral, and you're sinking fast.”

Rose raised a hand, pushing Circe back a step. “You don't know what you're talking about. Get out of the way, and give me my daughter!”

“You're not getting anywhere near her, not like this.” Circe moved back in front of Rose, blocking her path to the door. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? I've seen lost souls in Tartarus that looked better!”

“I'm fine!” Releasing a frustrated groan, Rose took a step back, hands coming to her head. “God, why do people keep thinking something's wrong with me?!”

“Because you're destroying yourself! And you're hurting everyone around you!”

“Keep talking and you'll be next!”

Smack!

Circe's palm cracked across Rose's face like a whip, slapping her with enough force to make her stumble backwards and very nearly fall from her tired legs. For a moment, Rose just stood there with her hand pressed against her bright red cheek, utterly stunned.

“Wake up, Rose!” Circe said. “You're falling, and you're not letting anyone catch you! Whatever you're going through, let me- let us help you get past it. Let us help you get better. You owe that much to Holly.”

“I...” Bowing her head, Rose's eyes squinted shut. She held her hands back to her head and clenched her jaw tightly, fighting back the growing numb sensation rising in her throat. “I'm sorry... I'm so s- my god, I'm awful... what have I done?

Taking a few, careful steps forward, Circe lifted a hand to Rose's shoulder. “It's alright, Rose, we'll help you get through this.”

“I- I- hrrrnnggggh.”

Suddenly lurching backwards, Rose toppled to floor with both hands clawing at her skull. The pain was... unbelievable. She didn't realize it at first, but she was screaming. Granted, she couldn't actually hear her own voice over the loud ringing in her ears, but she could feel her mouth open wide, feel the sound rising from her throat. When she blinked upwards, everything went blurry and started spinning. The pain rapidly began to spread from the back of her head down into her neck, and then up between her eyes. After everything she had ever been through in her life, she had never felt anything physically more painful than this.

“Rose!” Circe called, kneeling at her friend's side. “Rose!” Of course, she didn't get a very promising response, just more pained screaming. Instantly, she lifted Rose into her arms and started dragging her back into the apartment. “Lyta! Call an ambulance, now!”

---

The hospital room was quiet, save for the methodical beeping of a heart monitor. Rose lied unconscious in the bed, all sorts of tubes and wires hooked up to her. With the amount of meds the doctors had pumped her with, she wouldn't be waking up for a while, which was probably for the best. She could use a nice, long rest.

Visiting hours were long over, but that didn't stop the current guest from slipping in unnoticed. It was easy enough for someone who can simply appear where she wanted to appear. Coming up next to the bed, the woman hung her head and breathed out a long, shameful sigh.

“This... this all me fault.” The only response that Ruby received was more beeping from the monitor. “I thought I could do this. I thought I could...” Holding up a gloved hand to her face, she closed her eyes and shook her head. “I can't... it isn't worth this.”

Finally, she sucked in a deep breath and lifted her gaze, walking away from the bed. Her hands, meanwhile, reached back over her shoulders. “I'm sorry, Rose. For everythin'.” With that, she pulled up the hood over her head and slipped the dark mask over her face. “Time to clean up me mess.”

A second later, she disappeared in a small cloud of smoke.

Chapter #76

The man calling himself Trance walked from pod to pod, inspecting the vitals of each person within. Nothing too serious, not yet. Give them enough time, though, and eventually another one would end up dead. But at least the percentage was going down, with the adjustments he'd been making. Just a little bit more and he'd have all the kinks worked out. Maybe. Either way, he'd continue making a fortune off this operation, and all while helping people be exactly what they wanted to be.

A sudden presence in the room, however, caused him to stiffen slightly. He straightened himself, turning around and glaring from behind his mask. “Ah, Apathy. Ruby. How good of you to show up. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Drop the facade, Atkinson,” she said. “I'm not here for pleasantries.”

“Of course you're not. Finally decided to give my machines a test run yourself?” Looking back to his machines, he gestured towards an empty one. “I guarantee that you'll enjoy them. Just think; your deepest desires all coming to life. Imagine how great that would feel.”

“I'd sooner make out with a cactus than get in one of those deathtraps,” Apathy retorted.

Trance chuckled, moving back towards the other pods. “Ah, ever the jokester. But there's no need to fret; in a few more weeks these machines will be completely safe, once I figure out how to fix their little problem.”

“I don't want to hear anymore of your deranged theories about how you're helpin' the innocent 'be all that they can be',” she said, arms folding. “You're killin' 'em, end of story.”

Tilting his head to the side, Trance raised a hand to his chin and stared at her. “Funny, you didn't seem to mind before now. After all, what's a few dead kids when it brings in the prize we're really after? Who, I might remind you, is exactly where we want her: addicted to my pods and unable to shake free.”

“She's in the damn hospital with an aneurism, you moron. We weren't supposed to kill her!”

“Ah, is that all you're worried about?” Trance waved the comment off, shaking his head. “Please, an aneurism won't kill her, not with her accelerated healing. Our boss assured me of it.”

Apathy took a quick step forward, curling one hand into a fist. “But you're still destroyin' her!”

“And that was the whole plan, wasn't it? We follow the orders, we pick her apart piece by piece until there's just a shell left, and then we back off for phase two.”

“No,” she stated, shaking her head. “No, it ain't right. We shouldn't be doin' this, I don't care what we get in return.”

“Hmm, I thought you were doing this for that love of yours,” he muttered, bringing a hand to his chin. “Janet, I think her name was?”

“It's Jeanette, you cretin.”

Trance breathed outwardly, shrugging. “Right, Jeanette. Terribly sorry. Either way, she's the reason you signed up for this when we came to you. I thought you wanted to see her again?”

“I did... I do.” Sighing heavily, Apathy bowed her head, bringing her hands up to her mask-covered face. “More than anythin'. But not like this, not if it means ruinin' a good person in the process. Not if it means killin' innocent children. I... she wouldn't want me to do that. I know she wouldn't.”

Shaking his head, Trance turned back to his machines, making notes on a clipboard. “Touching, really, but it's a little late. Phase two will begin soon. Our jobs are almost done.”

“No... it's not too late, not to fix me mistakes.”

“What are you-”

Before he had a chance to finish his sentence, Apathy's teleporting fist smashed against his jaw. He went down hard, crashing against one of the pods and rolling to the floor. For a moment, he just lied there groaning, until finally pushing his way back up to his feet with a hand clutched to the side of his face.

“Now that was a mistake,” Trance muttered, straightening himself.

“I'm shuttin' you down, Atkinson.” Apathy took another step forward, throwing her cloak back and holding her fists at the ready. “Then I'm I'm goin' to fix what we've done to Rose. She doesn't deserve any of this.”

“You really are a-”

Again, he didn't get a chance to finish his sentence, as knuckles caromed off his face, knocking him back against one of the machines again. He didn't fall this time, though, managing to hold himself up and then reach down to his belt to click a button. Instantly, the lights on his suit began to flash rapidly in a very distinct pattern. Apathy held an arm up, trying to shield her eyes from the intense blinking.

“You think this getup is just a fashion statement, you ungrateful little b*tch?” he asked. “These lights assault your neural stimuli. That funny feeling in the back of your head right now? I can make it to what I want now. Like paralysis, for example.”

Apathy froze, seemingly unable to move her body.

“Or I could switch to nausea and having you puking blood in a matter of seconds,” he continued, walking towards her. “Or maybe I give you a blackout and stuff you in one of my pods permanently, hmm? Or I could control you, use you as a puppet. What do you think?”

“I think...” Apathy said, eyes narrowing behind her dark facial covering, “...you're one of the dumbest smart people I've ever met.”

“That's cute, really. But you're in no position to-”

Crack!

Apathy's knuckles hit him so hard this time that he literally flew off his feet, plummeting to the floor and landing flat on his back, air rushing from his lungs.

“Uunngghh....” he uttered, unable to speak coherent words.

“Me mask ain't just a fashion statement either, you worm,” she said. “It diffuses intense lights. Nice try, but you picked the wrong person to try your hypno-pocus crap against.”

Groaning, Trance dropped his head back against the floor, not even attempting to get back up.

“Now,” Apathy continued, grabbing the man by the shoulder, “let's you and I take a trip.”

---

Breathing in deeply, Police Chief Gerald Palmer pushed the door to his office open and closed it behind him, then flicked on the lights. It had been a long day, and he really needed to finish up the last of his paperwork so he can go home and-

“What the hell?!” Grabbing the gun from his belt, he took quick aim at the figure standing behind his desk. But the figure vanished in a sudden cloud of smoke, only to reappear next to him and snatch the gun away.

“Shh, relax,” Apathy said. “I'm on your side here.”

“Who the hell are you?” Palmer asked, taking a step backwards. He then turned his attention towards his desk, where an unconscious man in a very strange costume sat in his chair. “And who's that?”

“You don't need to know my name,” she said. “Just that I'm currently a fill-in for Ravager, since she's...”

“Not in a good place right now, I know.”

Apathy nodded. “Yeah, that. As for this goon, his name is Dr. Atkinson. He's the one you're looking for, the one who's been responsible for those dead kids you've been investigating.”

Palmer's eyebrows lifted, as he took another look at the costumed man. “Wait, you're serious?

“Quite,” she replied. “I can give you the address where he's been operating from, as well as detailed notes on exactly what he's been doing. He also committed those strange robberies you've been looking into.”

“But how did you commit those robberies without being noticed?”

“The short version? Hypnosis. Don't ask me to explain, because we'd be here all night and I'm afraid I don't have the time.”

Rubbing his eyes tiredly, Palmer exhaled a long breath. “Alright, then explain exactly how you know what we've been investigating in the first place.”

“Don't worry about that,” Apathy said. “I have my ways. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have places I need to be. All the information you need is on a note I left in Atkinson's front pocket. Take care, Chief.”

When the woman vanished again into thin air, a small wisp of smoke slowly dissipating in her wake, Palmer held a hand to his forehead and uttered a soft groan. “I'm getting way too old for this shit.”

---

Rose sat upright in her hospital bed, staring down at the blanket covering her and contemplating what a stupid, illogical b*tch she had been these past couple of weeks. She could still hear Circe's words in her head, and they hurt. Not just because the words were biting and aggressive, but because they were true. Rose had been destroying herself, and inadvertently hurting everyone close to her. Now, she hated herself for it.

A knock on the partially open hospital room door drew her attention. When she looked up, her attitude suddenly shifted into a mixture of relief and joy. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Ruby said, standing there awkwardly in the doorway. “Can I come in?”

Rose smiled. “You know you can.”

Moving forward, Ruby came to the edge of the bed and sat down in a chair. A long sigh left her throat, while her gaze dropped towards the floor.

“Are you alright?” Rose asked. “I... I haven't heard from you in a few days. I thought-”

“I know, and I'm sorry.,” she said quickly. “I'm... so sorry. For everythin' I've done.”

Furrowing her brow slightly, Rose sat up a little straighter. “What do you mean? You've been nothing but good to me. Every time I'm with you, I feel... I feel amazing. “

“Of course you have,” Ruby muttered. “I made you feel that way.”

“Well yeah, you're a great person, I know. You're-”

“That's not what I meant, Rose. I... I have some things I need to explain.”

Five minutes later...

For a long moment, Rose sat there in silence, trying to absorb the information that Ruby had just told her. It was, quite frankly, a lot to take in. Folding her arms across her chest, she lowered her eyes towards the bedsheets again, sucking in a deep breath and slowly letting it out.

“So let me get this straight,” she muttered. “You're an empath, and this whole time you've been interacting with me, you've been manipulating my emotions. Happy when I'm with you, depressed when you leave me.”

Ruby turned her head away shamefully, eyes partially closing. “Yes.”

And you led me to that Trance psycho so he could stuff me in his pods and addict me to my own little fantasy world to further deteriorate my emotional stability.”

Swallowing a numb lump in her throat, Ruby slowly nodded “...yes.”

“All as part of a plan to break me down into an emotionless shell...” Rose finished, absently rubbing her forehead.

Ruby's eyes were soaked with tears now. She lifted a hand to wipe them dry, shaking her head and sniffling. “I'm... I'm so sorry, Rose. The man who came to me, he said... he said you deserved it. He said you were a terrible person, and that if I helped him he'd bring Jeanette back to me. And I believed him...”

Rose looked away this time, shame and guilt bubbling hotly in the pit of her stomach. “I am a terrible person... manipulated by you or not, I fell into this hole and I hurt the only people who care about me. That's on me, no matter how it happened.”

“What are you talkin' about?” Ruby asked, expression shifting into genuine bewilderment. “I'm the one who did this to you. I'm the one who... who toyed with you.”

“Yeah, well, you only did it because you wanted the person you loved back in your arms again.” Sighing deeply, Rose ran her fingers through her hair, eyes closing. “I get how that is, and I can't say I wouldn't have done the same in your position. There is one thing I don't understand, though. Well... two things, actually.”

Wiping her eyes briefly, Ruby narrowed her gaze. “What's that?”

“Well, first,” Rose said, lifting an eyebrow at the woman, “if you're Apathy... then what happened to you accent?”

Ruby blinked a couple of times, as if not believing the question, or rather the nature of it, given the current mood. “Uh, well I... I mean I can fake an American accent the same as you Americans can fake an English one. It's just... you know, to help with the whole secret identity thing.”

Rose paused a moment, pursing her lips slightly. “Huh... guess that makes sense.” She thought about it for only a brief moment longer, then gave a more serious look. “Alright, then, just one more thing... why didn't you go through with it? Why did you give up that chance to be with Jeanette again?”

At this question, Ruby bowed her head again, expression softening and hands coming together in her lap. “Because I had no guarantee that this mystery man could do what he claimed, or that he would even if he could. But more than that... I realized that bringin' one good life back isn't worth destroyin' another.”

A long moment of silence passed between the two. Rose continued staring down at the bed, wringing her hands together and thinking deeply about the situation. Eventually, looked up and breathed in deeply, smiling slightly. “Thank you.”

“Wha- thank you? For what?”

“You've made me realize something of my own just now,” Rose said, slowly sliding her way out of bed. “Are any of those pods still around?”

“Wait, Rose, I don't think-”

“Relax, it's not what you think,” she assured. “There's just... one thing left I have to do.”

---

When Rose opened her eyes, she was standing in her apartment again, just as she wanted. Taking in a deep, nervous breath, she walked forward towards the living room. Becky was waiting there for her, of course, sitting casually on the couch and reading a magazine. A small smile found its way to Rose's lips, as she moved closer to the couch. Just seeing Becky again like this... it was f**king beautiful.

But it won't last. It can't last.

When Becky noticed Rose approaching, she looked up and grinned widely, then rose to her feet and gave a warm, tender hug. “Ah, there you are. Was wondering where you ran off to.”

“Yeah, I was just... clearing my head,” Rose said, shifting awkwardly to the side. “Hey, Beck?”

Pulling back a little, Becky raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”

“You know I love you, right? I always will.”

“Well of course I know that,” Becky said, smiling as she leaned close to give Rose a kiss on the forehead. “I'll always love you, too.”

Another smile crossed Rose's face, but it a different sort of smile... a sad smile. “I... I can't keep doing this, you know. I have to go, for good.”

Becky furrowed her brow curiously. “What are you talking about?”

“I can't stay here with you. It's not... it's not right.” Rose sighed deeply, lowering her gaze to the floor. “As real as this feels, it's not.”

Blinking in confusion, Becky lifted Rose's chin and looked straight into her eyes. “Rose... what are you saying?”

“I'm saying that I have to stop living in the past. I love you, Becky, more than anything, and I will never forget you.” Leaning forward, Rose planted her lips firmly against Becky's, holding the kiss for a long moment before finally pulling back. “But I have to let you go...”

And then, the world began to fade again. Darkness set it, washing away everything around her in inky blackness. The last thing she saw was Becky's tearful, confused face. Within seconds, that, too, vanished.

“Goodbye.”

---

When Rose opened her eyes this time, she felt different than before, than the other times she had come out the pod. She felt... distant, sad, yet also somehow at peace. Uttering a deep breath, she sat up once the restraints released and the glass covering slid open. She didn't feel quite as weak this time around, either, able to slide out of the machine and hold herself up on her feet. For a long moment, she just stood there, taking in deep breaths.

“Are you alright?” Ruby asked, moving close and holding a comforting hand to her shoulder.

“Yeah, I'll be... I'll be fine,” she said. “I just need some time.”

“You want me to take you home? The police will be back here soon to start dismantlin' these things.”

Rose nodded, swallowing back a lump in her throat. “Please.”

Reaching out, Ruby gently took Rose's hand, and in an instant they disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

---

Rose paced nervously around her apartment, heart fluttering and throat numb. She didn't know how she was going to get through this, but she had to. She owed too much, and this wasn't something she could avoid. The front door opened a moment later. Circe stood there at the front, with the two girls behind her. Lyta held her mother's hand, peering cautiously inside, while Holly waited off to the side, looking away.

Swallowing back a hard knot, Rose gently lowered herself down to one knee. “Holly...”

It took several moments, but the girl finally did glance over. Shifting her weight slightly, Holly paused and then looked up to Circe, unsure of what to do.

“It's alright,” Circe assured. “We're right here.”

Finally, Holly moved forward into the penthouse, walking up in front of Rose and giving her a long look. “Are you... are you still mad?”

“No, sweetie,” Rose said, shaking her head quickly. “I'm not mad... not anymore.”

“You really scared me. You... you hit me.” Holly lowered her gaze, shrinking back a bit as she leaned back on her heels. “Did I do something wrong?”

Bringing a hand up to her face, Rose briefly wiped away the shameful tears brimming in her eyes, and then once again shook her head. “No... god, no. You didn't do anything wrong. I did... and I can't even begin to express how sorry I am. The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you. But I did.”

Holly paused a moment, then slowly looked back up at her mother. “You weren't really yourself, were you?”

“That's putting it lightly,” Rose muttered, uttering a small sigh.

“Were you sick or something?”

“I... in a way, I guess.” Rose dropped her head for a moment, taking in a deep breath and squinting her eyes shut. Finally, she looked up again, staring firmly into Holly's eyes, “But that's not an excuse for what I did. I never should have hurt you like that. Ever.”

Shifting her weight again, Holly briefly paused before coming forward and wrapping her arms around Rose in a comforting hug. “It's okay, I forgive you. I still love you.”

Squinting her eyes shut tightly, Rose returned the hug, holding the girl tight. “I love you, too, Holly. I always will.”

---

Tapping her fingers gently against the parapet, Apathy gazed down at the streets below. It was late, and not too many people were out and about. Not to mention, crime had been pretty slow tonight. The only thing she'd stopped so far was an attempted mugging, and that had been hours ago.

Letting out a long, bored sigh, she moved away from the edge and started walking back across the roof. “Well, guess it's time to switch areas... I wonder how the slums are doing this time of night.”

“Probably the same as always,” a voice replied.

Uttering a startled gasp, Apathy whirled around to see someone standing there at the corner of the roof, bathed in dark shadows. She squinted a little, then soon realized who it is. “Oh, it's just you... what are you doin' here?”

“Checking up on you,” the man said. “Heard you had a little disagreement with Dr. Atkinson.”

Apathy folded her arms firmly across her chest, narrowing her eyes. “You heard right.”

“Thought so.” The man breathed out a small breath, shaking his head. “You know that means your deal with the boss is null, right?”

“I don't care.” she said. “I'm done workin' with you nut-jobs. What you're tryin' to do to that girl... I won't be a part of it. In fact, if you go near her again, I'll stop you meself.”

“Well, your determination is admirable. And of course, if you're protecting her now, then by all means we'll back off.”

“Your sarcasm is not endearing,” Apathy muttered.

The man shrugged. “Wasn't meant to be.”

Holding a hand to her head, Apathy shook her head tiredly. “Then why the hell do you even bother to keep talkin'?”

“Because it's my job,” he said.

“Uh... huh. Your job is to bore me to death?”

“No. My job is to distract you.”

Apathy furrowed her brow. “Distrac- ngh!”

Her words abruptly cut off at the feel of hot pain ripping through her body. Looking down slowly, she saw several long, razor sharp spikes jutting completely through her body. Three by her stomach, two at her chest, another through her shoulder. A second later, the spikes retracted, causing her body to crumple to the roof. She lied there motionless, just staring up at the sky as her blood began to pool around her.

From behind her, another figure walked forward, hands in his pockets. He stood over her for a moment, shaking his head. “Such a disappointment.”

The other man, too, walked forward now. “What do you want to do with her?”

The new arrival held a hand to his head, thinking a moment. “Have you eaten yet?”

A grin spread its way across the man's face. Slowly, he stepped from out the shadows, his eyes already shifting into something more feral. “No, no I haven't.”