“Keep it up!” said the Green Lantern known as John Stewart. He fired off another aerial assault, creating a series of incoming missiles with his power ring. The rockets scattered in a wide burst, covering a rather large spread. Were they to impact the ground, the damage they could cause would be immense to the surrounding training grounds, let alone his opponent.
But they never would impact. One by one they exploded in mid air, green lasers puncturing them in rapid succession. Within seconds, every single missile had detonated prematurely and harmlessly overhead. With a little smirk, Barbara Gordon (the one who had fired each beam from her own power ring) folded her arms and shifted her weight to the side. She then casually blew away a faint wisp from her ring that she had purposefully created for added effect, as if a smoking gun.
“Well, I'd say your accuracy is improving...” John muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. “Want to go again?”
“Do you think I need to?”
“Well, your efficiency is only at ninety eight percent, so there' s still room for improvement.”
Barbara lifted an unamused eyebrow. “And that two percent was back five months ago when I first started.”
“Well, uh... doesn't hurt to be thorough.” John cleared his throat, then brought his hands to his hips and shrugged. “But you're right, that's probably enough for today anyway. I'd say you're plenty up to speed with the other new recruits... a lot more so, actually.”
“It's the photographic memory,” Barbara said, tapping the side of her head. “Helps with a lot of that.” She then paused a moment, as if thinking about something. With a sudden smile, she added, “Oh, we haven't done any close range combat training yet today.”
As soon as it was mentioned, John instinctively shuddered and brought a careful hand up to his jaw. He rubbed. “Yeah, about that... I'd say you're good in that area. Really... really good.”
Barbara tried to stifle back a chuckle, but failed miserably. “Ah, tired of getting your behind handed to you by a girl, is that it? I see how it is.”
She had never met much of John back on earth, even with all her years as part of the super hero community, and even as an acting member of the Justice League as Oracle. Really, all she had known about him was just 'another Green Lantern'. Seeing as how they were mostly off world, it left little room to get to know any of them, and she was pretty sure that she had seen less of John than any of the others.
Now that she had spent five months training with him on Oa, however, she was almost surprised at how normal he was. A little stern and serious a lot of the time, sure, but he had an almost brotherly air about him that Barbara liked a lot. He could even crack a joke or two when he was in the mood, even if they were pretty bad.
“Joke all you want, but I swear I've never fought better up close and personal like that... save maybe a small handful of other Lanterns. Kilowog comes to mind...” John's thoughts drifted away momentarily, until finally he pulled himself back with a sigh. “All I can say is I pray I never meet another eskrima master without my ring to back me up.”
“Heh, yeah a lot of people have trouble against that,” Barbara said. “The thing they don't tell you about it is that 'eskrima' translates roughly to 'beat the crap out of you with sticks'.”
Before John could reply, another voice called out from above. “Hey guys, already started training with out me? That's cool, I needed the extra Z's anyway.”
When Barbara looked up to see the new arrival, she uttered a quiet groan and just as quickly bowed her gaze again. If ever 'self-absorbed' had physical personification, it was Guy Gardner. Though she wouldn't try to argue against him being a skilled Lantern... most of the time, she largely preferred working with John, for obvious reasons.
“And how is my favorite Green Lantern this morning?” Guy said, as he floated down to ground level.
John let out his own audible sigh. “Guy, now's not-”
“For the record, that question wasn't directed at you, buddy,” Guy said, giving the other Lantern an elbow nudge to the ribs. “Was talking to Babs, you understand.”
Barbara frowned. “What have I told you about calling me Babs?”
“If I remember correctly, something about only you friends calling you Babs,” Guy said, holding a contemplative hand to his chin. “And you know what, you're absolutely right. I should have guessed you wanted to be more than friends, I can see it in your eyes. I'm thinking... Barb.”
“Alright, I see how it is,” Guy said, holding his hands up in defeat. “We'll just have to go with 'Hunny'.”
Planting her hands on her hips, Barbara deepened her frown and lifted an unamused eyebrow at him. A second later, a giant hand construct erupted from her ring and situated right in front of Guy in a 'flick' position.
“Oh, man...” Guy said, eyes widening a little. “This is gonna- oof!”
The construct abruptly flicked him through the air, disappearing into the clouds as a tiny green speck. Several seconds later, he came zooming back towards them with a hand held to his head and a dazed look on his faze. “Okay, okay,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Point taken.”
“So anyway... is there some sort of test now, or what?” Barbara said, looking back to John. “Who decides when I'm ready to go back to Earth?”
“No, no test or anything like that,” John said. “Your training is completed as determined by your peers, the ones training you.”
“That means us,” Guy added, pointing both his thumbs at himself. “And you, my gorgeous friend, have passed with flying colors. Or, just one col- 'cuz the green. You know.”
Barbara pursed her lips and took a few steps back, looking up to the sky. “Well, then where's Sinestro? He trained me, too, even if he was a lot more...”
“Brutal?” John suggested.
Guy nodded. “Sadistic?”
“I was going to say strict... but yeah, those work, too.”
“Sinestro's gone back to his home planet, Korugar, for now,” John explained. “He was long overdue for another patrol run, anyway, went to relieve his sector's other Lantern.”
At the mention of that sector's 'other Lantern', Guy gave the man a sidelong look and grinned. “Ah, yeah that's right. Katma.” He chuckled, nudging his elbow into John's ribs. “You dog.”
“Who's Katma?” Barbara asked.
“Katma Tui,” John said, clearing his throat. “She's the second Green Lantern of Sector 1417. We're, uh... sort of engaged.”
Barbara let out a tiny laugh, raising her eyebrows. “Oh! That's great, congratulations. Funny how you never mentioned her in five months.”
John shrugged. “It never really came up. Ceremony is next month, though. Right here on Oa, actually. You're welcome to stick around before heading home.”
Giving a wide smile, she folded her arms across her chest and gave a firm nod. “It'd be an honor.”
As Sinestro came out of faster than light travel and descended into the atmosphere of Korugar, he let out a long sigh and gradually slowed down to a cruising speed. As much as he enjoyed his time on Oa and in deep space, he still had a place for his home world, and there wasn't anything quite like returning to it after a long time away. People often said he was disagreeable, or just naturally cruel. True, he was not the most pleasant person to be around at times, but even he could be docile and at peace on occasion. Coming home to Korugar often did that for him—he had his family to thank for that.
Yet, as he neared Korugar City, something felt wrong. The buildings came into sight normally enough, tall pointed spires rising like daggers into the sky. Their glossy surfaces reflected a powerful glare in his direction, forcing him to shield his eyes as he grew closer. When he drew closer, however, to a point where the glare no longer affected him, he saw nothing, heard nothing. The citizens of Korugar city... they were nowhere to be seen.
This didn't make any sense. The city never slowed down, no matter what time of day. It was the busiest center on the entire planet. How could it be empty? He flew faster now, zipping between the city buildings. That's when he noticed it: a dark black burn mark on the side of the spire next to him. He stopped, turning to inspect it closely. It looked as though some kind of blast had exploded against the siding...
“Great Divines...” he uttered, eyes going wide. He saw more than just the one blast now. There were dozens—no, hundreds—of similar markings all through the city. Not only the burnt markings, but also rent open gaps in walls, exploded portions of streets, and even the central bridge had crumbled. Now that he took a careful view of the entire city, he could see the destruction all around him... but still no people.
Until he looked down, really focusing on the streets. What he had at first passed off as debris now took on completely different shapes. Bodies, thousands of them, littered about the city like rag dolls. They lay twisted, broken, motionless, frozen horror plastered upon their lifeless faces.
All of Korugar City was dead.
In a sudden panic, Sinestro took off like a rocket, flying across the sky towards the western end of the city. Slipping through a narrow gap between two buildings, he took a sharp turn and burst through the open window of his home.
“Arin!” he called. “Soranik!”
He went to call for his family again, but the words caught suddenly in his throat when he noticed the condition of his home—charred, ransacked, portions of the ceiling collapsed, shattered glass. Papers and furniture lay scattered all throughout the house. Even his prized Thorin tusk was in pieces, shattered in the center of the floor. But where was-
Sinestro's voice fell cold and quiet as he saw a pair of legs sticking out from behind the central partition. After standing there a long moment with a blank stare on his face, he marched forward around the partition to discover exactly what he feared. Arin Sur, his wife, lay motionless in the hallway. He dropped to his knees at her side to inspect her; a cauterized hole punctured through the entirety of her chest and out the other side. No blood, no mess... just the ice cold chill of death.
He said nothing, as he leaned forward to hold her, take her in his arms, bowing his forehead against hers. The last time he had ever shed a tear was the day their daughter had been born, and never before that. He found it difficult for even his unpleasant heart to hold it in now.
But he would not get a chance to grieve, as he heard someone enter through the window of the gathering room. Instantly, he went into defensive mode, pressing himself back against the wall, waiting a moment, and then lunging around the corner with his ring at the lead. A giant green, clawed hand lashed out from the ring and grabbed the figure standing in his home. When he realized who it was, however, he dispersed the construct.
“Sinestro...” she uttered, barely holding herself up on two feel. Her uniform was torn, left arm twisted and broken, knees shook, and blood streamed down the side of her face. How she was still standing was anyone's guess.
“Katma!” he called, hurrying to her side. She slumped against him a moment later, losing all strength in her legs. “Katma, what happened here?!”
A bloody cough sprayed out from the Lantern's throat, a pained groan following. “Th- they came... tried to.. to stop them... killed every... everyone.”
“What do you mean everyone?” Sinestro said, eyes flickering with concern. “My daughter... Katma, have you seen Sora?”
“Sh.. she...” Her words faded out, and it took several shaky breaths for Katma Tui to finally speak again. “They... they're coming, Thaal... been... running.. so long... can't...”
“Who's coming?” No answer. Sinestro's heart thumped harder in his chest. “Katma, who are 'they'?!”
The side wall to his home abruptly exploded inward, sending a field of stone shrapnel tearing through the air. A bubble construct instantly formed itself around the two Lanterns, emanating from Sinestro's ring. He strained his eyes against the translucent green barrier to see what had caused the violent display. Against the bright sun behind the figures, he heard them before his vision adjusted.
And then, finally, he was able to see his attackers, as they brought both hands to their power staffs. “No... not possible.”
In unison, their metallic voices echoed between his ears. “No man escapes the Manhunters.”
For the first time in his life, Sinestro found himself stricken with something he had long since overcome, something he had long since removed from his heart. It tore through his body, rooted him to the spot as the automatons moved in on him. He almost didn't even know what it was, until, as his heart seized in his chest, he realized...
Behold, the very first chapter of the very first mini series of DC Mayhem. This is a direct spin off of the brand new Riddle Me This series, starring the Riddler and also featuring the star of this mini, Renee Montoya. Enjoy!
“You can't be serious, Commissioner. This is never going to work!” Renee Montoya stood in front of the commissioner's desk with her palms flat against the top, leaning forward. Under normal circumstances she might have stood back a ways or even sat down in the chair in front of the desk, but her nerves were firing too hard, too fast. It was common knowledge around the station that she had a bit of a temper—had even let it get the best of her on occasion—and it was everything she could do right now to keep from going off completely. “You honestly think the Riddler is going to reform?”
“I can understand your... skepticism,” James Gordon said, folding his hands in front of him. “But I'm willing to give him a chance. Given the state of Gotham right now—the best it's been in years—I've a mind to have a little hope.”
Renee uttered a sharp breath and bowed her head, fingers digging into the wood. She had nothing but the utmost respect for the commissioner—he was the kind of cop that she strove to be every day—but this was a decision that she just could not get behind. Giving Edward Nigma, one of Batman and Gotham's most notorious criminals, a chance to start over (and in their own station, for that matter!) was a level of absurdity she didn't know was possible to reach.
“I just... can't help but think you're making a mistake, sir,” she said, more than a little reluctant to admit it. “I heard you're getting him a license as a private detective. We just giving those out like candy, now?”
“It's probationary, if that makes you feel any better.”
Gordon sighed, slackening his shoulders. “Look, Montoya... I know this seems a little out there, but you know how understaffed we've been lately. The cutbacks, the layoffs... we're hurting for man power here, and he's done this detective thing before. Was damn good at it, too, as I recall.”
“And as I recall, he regressed back into his old ways,” she countered. “Which he's bound to do again.”
“There's a chance of that, yeah,” he admitted. “Which is why I need someone to... keep an eye on him. Make sure he stays straight.”
Renee's left eye twitched instinctively at the statement. She stiffened her posture slightly, breathing in deeply and doing her best not to go into a full on outburst. “You- you want me to babysit him?”
“Not exactly how I'd put it... but in a way, yes.” Gordon cleared his throat, averting his gaze for a brief moment. “For the time being, he's your new assignment.”
“No way,” she said, shaking her head ardently. “No, no, no. I am not going to be catering to that guy's every whim. I already set him up in his apartment—that we're helping pay for, I hear—and did his errands for him because he's too tweaked out from withdrawal to do them himself. I don't want anything else to do with him.”
Gordon paused, gently tapping his fingers against the desk. “He was just... tired. Didn't look like he had a good night's sleep in ages.”
“Tired, right.” Montoya groaned, running her fingers through her hair. She had been around enough drug addicts to recognize the symptoms. You couldn't mistake 'tired' with 'addiction'. “With all due respect, sir, I don't care what you say; I'm not buying his bull for one minute. I don't know what he said to you to... to sway you, or whatever, but he's not fooling me.”
“And that's exactly why I want you on him,” he insisted, straightening himself in his seat. “I need someone I can trust looking after him. If there's anyone he can't BS, it's you. If he's going to win you over, then he really does have to change his ways. I want you to make sure that he does—or otherwise stop him before he regresses, again.”
Renee gave a long, heavy pause. She bowed her head again, pushing herself back a bit but keeping her hands pressed against the desk. As much as she hated this whole situation, as much as she wanted to storm out of that office and slam the door behind her, as much as she was going to regret this... she took in a deep breath and stood straight, looking the commissioner square in the eyes. “Fine... I'll do what I can. But don't expect any miracles.”
A subtle chuckle found its way past Gordon's lips. “Montoya, when you've been doing this job as long as I have, you learn that miracles come in short supply.”
Renee huffed out a frustrated breath as she closed the door to the commissioner's office behind her, and muttered something in Spanish that translated roughly to “heaven help me.” Of all the assignments that she could have been given, babysitting Edward Nigma was the last one she ever would have wanted to take. So of course it would be her primary job for the foreseeable future.
“Story of my life,” she said to herself, as she crossed the main reception floor.
Several of her fellow officers—including Angie Peterson, Jackson Davies, Crispus Allen, and Josephine McDonald—walked back and forth between various desks, searching for lost paperwork or mingling in conversation during the waning hours of their shifts. A phone rang here and there in the background, and she was pretty sure she caught sight of their most recent arrestee being led towards the back in handcuffs. Compared to what she was used to the department looking like, though, things were quiet. Calm. Relaxed. All words she never would have associated with a Gotham City police department, and yet had become the norm over the past several months.
Nearing the front of the reception area, the department secretary suddenly came running over, waving a file in her hand. “Oh, Renee! I got the info on that guy you and Bullock were looking into. Record's mostly clean, but he was picked up for soliciting a prostitute last month.”
Renee turned towards the slender, pink-haired girl and uttered a breath of relief. If there was anyone that she wanted to talk to after her conversation with Gordon, it was Stacy. Not being a cop herself, Stacy had a certain... peppy attitude that was sorely lacking around a police station, and quite frankly Renee found it refreshing.
“Thanks, Stace,” Renee said, with a small sigh. “But go ahead and give the file to Harvey, let him know he'll be on the case himself.”
Stacy blinked in surprise, pulling the folder back. “Wait, what's up? You're not suspended or anything are you? If this is about the guy you punched out in the station last week, I was here, I can vouch that he started it!”
“Ha, no,” Renee said, shaking her head with a smile. “Just been put on a different assignment.”
“Oh,” the girl replied, with a relieved chuckle. “Well, that's... that's okay, then. Um, alright, so I'll go... give this to Officer Bullock.” She gave Renee a smile of her own and shifted her weight. Their eyes... lingered a little longer on each other than they probably should have, and as if both realizing it at the same moment, they tore their gazes away.
“Uh, yeah,” Renee replied, clearing her throat. “You do that. I'm, uh... I'm cutting out early today, so I'll see you tomorrow.”
Stacy nodded slowly, maintaining as professional a demeanor as possible. “Right, you got that... that thing. With your parents, right?”
When Renee bowed her head and uttered a long sigh, Stacy shifted her weight again. This time, though, it was out of concern rather than embarrassment. “You know... you could always just skip.”
“No... I can't. I don't see them enough as it is, I owe it to them. Even if I'd rather crawl into a gutter and drown.”
“Right... well, have fun, anyway.”
Renee nodded, giving a parting wave as she headed for the door. “No promises.”
As much as she didn't like family dinners—if only for how uncomfortable they tended to be for her—one thing Renee could attest to was that her mother's cooking was amazing. She always ate more than she should when they had these dinners, even before dessert arrived. As her mother cleared the dishes off the dining room table, Renee sank back into her seat and uttered a heavy groan, eyes closing slightly.
“<*So, how was it>?” Louisa Montoya asked, giving her daughter a big smile.
(*Translated from Spanish)
“<Amazing, as usual>,” she replied, holding a hand to her stomach. She was already stuffed, yet she knew she'd dig right into the pie when it found itself in front of her.
Hernando Montoya leaned forward his seat and laughed. “<Your mother can still cook, and that's a good thing since that's what I married her for>.”
Louisa gave him a sidelong look and playfully slapped his shoulder on her way by to the kitchen. “<Hush now, Hernando, you know you married me for my charm>.”
“<Maybe, but I certainly stayed for the cooking, at least>.”
Renee glanced back and forth between her parents with a subtle smile. So far, this dinner actually hadn't been that bad. The conversations had been relatively tame, and had steered far clear of what she had been expecting. If she could just get through the next twenty minutes or so...
“<Say, where's Benny>?” Renee asked, as she shifted straighter in her seat. “<Thought he was supposed to be here tonight>.”
“<Ah, your brother is working late>,” Louisa said. She returned to the kitchen a moment later and set a small plate of pumpkin pie in front of her daughter.
“<Yeah, and then he said he was going to see that new girlfriend of his>,” Hernando added. “<What was her name... Rebecca, I think>.”
Louisa nodded. “<Rebecca, that's right>.” Then, she turned to look at Renee.
Before the words even left her mother's mouth, Renee sensed it coming. She stopped her fork halfway through her slice of pie and closed her eyes in preparation, already feeling her heart sink like a stone. So close. She had been so close without it coming up.
“<And what about you, huh>?” Louisa asked. “<Lord knows it's been ages since you had a boyfriend. Not since you were in high school... was it Tommy>?”
“<Yes, mother... it was Tommy>,” she muttered. She stared down at her pie, as if trying to burn a hole through it with her gaze. Tommy, her high school friend who had offered to 'date' her as a cover. It had been a decade since then, the last time her parents had seen her with a 'boyfriend'.
Hernando chuckled again, digging into his own piece of pie. “<Not getting any younger, Renee. Go any longer like this, and you'll never give us any grandchildren>.”
He meant it as a joke, sure. He meant it to be funny. To Renee, however, it just hurt. “<I know, it's just... my job. I'm busy, don't really have any time for dating, or... boys>.”
As her parents continued to go off about her lack of a social life, Renee's cell phone began to vibrate in her pocket. She glanced down a moment, then dug her fingers into her pants and pulled it out. With a couple of quick button presses, she pulled up the text message and felt her heart almost burst with relief. In an instant, she shoved her phone back in her pocket and got up from the table.
“<Sorry, Mom, Pop>,” she said, as she slipped into her coat. “<Something just came up. A, uh... work emergency. I have to take care of this>.”
Though they protested her leaving, there was little they could do to get her to stay. She was a cop, after all. Work emergencies in her case usually meant someone was dead. Within minutes, she slipped away.
A cold mist puffed out past Renee's lips as she walked down the Gotham City sidewalk. Still three weeks until Christmas and already it was hitting temperatures in the low teens. A cold shiver rippled up her spine, causing her to tug her coat tighter around her body. Little good it did, as any residual warmth had long since vanished. From her fingers to her toes, she was dead numb.
It would be worth it, though—even if the walk did take more than a half hour and was in the complete opposite direction as her apartment. Turning the corner down another street, she pulled out her phone again to double check the address. When she was sure that she had it right, she took an additional moment to smile at the message, then finally placed the phone back in her pocket.
Looking straight ahead across the street, she saw the bar: The One True Bean. And waiting right out in front of the window stood a familiar pink haired girl, who was a tad bit more dressed up than her usual T-shirt and jeans. Her pants were dressier and all black, and the blood red shirt that she wore was cut low at the chest (for her, anyway. It was still modest by most standards), and came down just above her belly button. Coupled with her bright pink hair and glasses, she really was an amusing sight. Amusing, but very welcomed.
“Hey!” Stacy called, waving as Renee crossed the street. “Glad you could make it. I was so not looking forward to drinking by myself tonight.”
“Anything to get away that dinner,” she said, with a shake of her head and a chuckle.
Now alone with no one around who knew them, they were free to go beyond the awkward stares that they often gave each other in the police station. Moving in close, Renee wrapped her arms around the younger girl's waist and leaned in. Their lips came together gently, tenderly, and didn't part for a good long while. After the day she'd had, Renee wanted to melt away forever in that embrace.
It was Stacy who finally broke the kiss, pulling away and pushing her glasses up farther on the bridge of her nose. She tried to hide the brimming smile that came to her face, but failed miserably in doing so, instead only enhancing it as a bright blush flushed through her cheeks. “Good to see you, too.”
“Come on,” Renee said, holding her arm around the girl's shoulders. “Let's go get something to drink.”
Stacy first came to the police station as the new receptionist two years ago, fresh out of college. At first, it had just been an internship, meant to garner her a bit of experience in the criminal justice field by being around an active police environment, and doing a little busy work in the process. But she grew to like it there, and the people, and so even when her internship ended, she stayed on as the full time secretary. She didn't just answer the phones anymore, either, but actually assisted the officers around the station on cases, if only with the paperwork and research.
She and Renee had been friends since day one. According to Renee, she had a 'peppy' personality that was welcomed around the normally stiff police department. Stacy, too, had taken an instant liking to the older woman, mostly because Renee was everything that she herself was not. Strong, outgoing, bold, and sexy... It had only been four months ago that the two discovered their similar 'interests', prompting Renee to make the first move in asking her out—with a rather uncharacteristic nervousness about her, too. Since then, they had been going steady as steady could be, even if they had to keep it a secret.
As the two stumbled back out of the bar, slight intoxication hindering optimum functionality, Stacy grinned and interlocked her arm with one of Renee's. “You know, I don't... don't usually drink that much.”
Renee lifted an eyebrow, turning to give the girl an accusatory look. “You only had three beers.”
“As I said,” she replied with a stifled laugh. “I'm kind of a l... a lightweight.”
Walking arm in arm down the sidewalk, the two women remained quiet a few moments longer, simply enjoying one another's company. Eventually, Renee tilted her head against Stacy's shoulder and yawned. “I should probably call a cab to take me back to my apartment.”
“You could... or we could just walk back to mine,” Stacy said, giving the other woman a little nudge with her elbow. “It's only a few blocks.”
A short pause followed, as she considered the suggestion. It really didn't take all that long to come to a decision. “You know, that sounds like a much better idea... you're smart.”
Stacy held down another giggle. Even with just three beers, she was already giddy. “Well, I do have an IQ of one-sixty...”
“So I've been told.” Turning her head farther, Renee pushed their lips back together in another deep kiss. This one was a little sloppier than the first, with their tongues coming together for added intensity. Stacy didn't seem to mind one bit, though, kissing back with equal fervor.
A split second later, however, their moment of passion became a moment of horror.
A bolt of panic shot through her body at the sound of the overly familiar voice. She instantly pulled away from Stacy and turned to look behind her, only to confirm the fear that churned her gut with nausea. Standing behind her was a young man, about Stacy's age and with very similar features to Renee. Holding onto his arm was a young woman, his date.
Renee's throat went numb at first, and for several seconds she couldn't respond. Only after she swallowed a tight knot in her throat could she finally utter the young man's name. “Benny...?”
“So, you heading to the bar later?” Jason asked, as he walked slowly along the office building corridor.
His friend, Earl, walked beside him, hand resting casually on the gun holstered to his belt. “Nah, I gotta get home to the wife, soon as the boss lets us go for the night. She'll kill me if I come in past midnight again. I swear, she'll use any excuse to accuse me of cheating.”
“Heh, and that's why I'm not married,” he replied. “Women, they're too high maintenance. As far as I'm concerned, they're good for one thing and one thing only, and I get plenty of that without a committed relationship.”
“Oh sure, that's nice and all, but you got no companionship,” Earl said. They turned the corner of hallway, continuing their rounds. “Sure, Denise can be a real paranoid bitch sometimes, but she's good to me.”
Jason just shook his head. “Whatever you say, man.”
As they moved down the corridor, watchful eyes followed their movements from above, through the slits in the air duct. Ravager had crawled her entire way through the ducts on this floor, after scaling the interior of the elevator shaft, and as enhanced as her natural abilities were, even she wasn't immune to annoyance and over exertion, not to mention the subtle creeping effects of claustrophobia. She took deep breaths, though, to calm her nerves, waiting patiently for the security guards to disappear around another corner. Finally, she eased open the cover of the vent and dropped down below to the floor. Standing straight, she took in a deep breath of fresh air and then looked around. Dark, quiet... pretty much to be expected at this time of night. As far as she knew, though, her target was still here, and so she pressed onward down the hall.
She had been all over the country this past year, chasing lead after lead that might bring her to her father, the man she desired revenge against. It had been slow going, though. Not only were her investigations cumbersome and annoying, but she had Cassandra to look out for, as well. Between teaching that girl how to read, write, and speak (a process that had made painfully little progress thus far), interrogating Slade's former clients, and traveling from city to city, there had been little downtime in her life recently. She knew she needed a break, but she wouldn't allow herself to take one. If she waited too long, the trail might go cold, and if the trail went cold there was no guarantee that she would be able to pick it up again.
Of course, with as many places as she had been during the past year, it seemed almost... insultingly ironic that she now found herself back in Gotham, the city where she had started. She felt like she was going in circles at this point, and she didn't like that much at all. Still, she knew she'd break open her investigation eventually... it was all just a matter of time. And patience. It was that constant thought that allowed her to keep her poise as she marched towards the thirtieth floor corporate office of Daggett Industries. Roland Daggett, another one of her father's former clients, had used Deathstroke's services on numerous occasions. With any luck, he would know where he was now.
When Rose kicked in the door to the office, the man sitting behind the desk at the end of the room bolted upright immediately, staring frozen at the girl marching across his floor. A white haired girl with a mask, armor, and two swords on her back was no doubt one of the last things he would have ever imagined barging into his office that night.
“What is this?” he asked, taking cautious step backwards. “Who the hell are you?”
“That's not important,” she said, moving straight up to the desk. She drew one of her swords in the process, flipping it around in her hand. “But I know who you are, Roland Daggett. I also know that you've hired the mercenary known as Deathstroke in the past, on three separate occasions to guard various illegal imports across seas.”
“You don't know what the hell you're talking about,” he muttered, reaching his hand towards the intercom on the corner of his desk.
Ravager brought the edge of her blade down with lightning quickness between his hand and the intercom, preventing him from reaching it. “I wouldn't do that if I were you. And don't play stupid, I have written records of your contracts with Deathstroke.”
Slowly pulling his hand back, Daggett frowned. “So what do you care, anyway? That was more than fifteen years ago.”
“I'm looking for him,” Ravager said, narrowing her eyes. “My search brought me to you... I figure he might have contacted you again to let you know his services were on the market again.”
“Are you out of your mind? I haven't heard anything about that man since the last time I hired him.” Daggett took a small step back, his hand slowly moving down to his side and behind his back. “As far as I know, he's retired. Or dead.”
Ravager shook her head. “Not according to some other sources. He's been working again, though I don't know for what... If he's back in the business, someone has to know where to find him.”
“Well, I'm not that person, sorry. Now, if you'll kindly leave me to my business, I have a lot paperwork...” His fingers suddenly gripped the handle of his pistol stuffed in the back of his pants. He pulled it free and swung it around in front to shoot at the intruder, but before he ever got that chance Ravager caught his wrist, twisted the gun out of his hand, then snapped his elbow in the opposite direction it was meant to go in. Daggett toppled against his desk a moment later screaming, his crippled arm flopping uselessly at his side. “F**k! My arm! You broke my goddamn arm!”
“You're the one who tried to shoot me,” Ravager said, with a small roll of her eyes. “Idiot.” She then moved around the side of the desk and brought her blade near his throat. “If you don't know anything about Deathstroke, I'm willing to bet you know someone who does. You're well acquainted with the other dirty scum in the city, am I right? All you cockroaches tend to crawl around together, from my experience...”
“I swear... I swear I don't know anything, you crazy b*tch.”
Ravager shook her head, gently tsk tsking at him. The edge of her sword moved a bit closer, just drawing a trickle of blood from his throat. “Wrong answer.”
As the blade pushed even closer, Daggett closed his eyes and threw up his one good arm in protest. “Alright, alright! Thorne... Rupert Thorne, try him. He heads one of the local mob families here in Gotham, I know he's in the business of hiring guys like Deathstroke on occasion. He might have what you're looking for.”
“That's a little better...” Ravager muttered, pulling her blade back a little. She only did so momentarily, however, as she reached to grab her other sword. Pulling it free, she then brought them both around his neck in a scissor-like pattern. “Now I can get rid of you without feeling too bad.”
“Wait, what? No!” Daggett cried, backing up as far as he could against the desk. “I told you what you wanted to know!”
“You say that like it makes a difference,” she said, without the slightest shift of tone in her cold voice. “You're still a lying, cheating, murderous piece of scum. I've found that the world is better off without people like you.”
“No! Please! I'll- I'll do anyth- is it money? I'll give you money! Whatever you want!”
She simply shook her head. “Sorry, don't need money. Now, just suck it up and take it like a man. At least try to go out with some dignity.”
As she went to make the killing motion, however, a tiny blur ran across the room and grabbed at her wrists. The tugging did very little to actually move her swords away, but the realization of who it was made her hesitate. Standing there, desperately trying to yank Ravager's hands backwards, was Cassandra Cain.
“Cass, what the hell are you doing here?!” she exclaimed, pulling away slightly. “What have I told you about following me at night? You're supposed to be at the hotel!”
The girl said nothing (well, because she couldn't say anything), and instead pushed herself between Ravager and Daggett, arms held out wide at her sides. Then, she firmly shook her head.
“Cass, get out of the way,” Ravager said, trying to move past the girl. “I have a job to do here.”
But Cassandra didn't listen. She brought her hands forward, planting her palms firmly against Ravager's chest and shoving.
“What the hell, Cass? Let me by!”
Again, the girl shook her head.
“Cass, get out of the way!”
Ravager paused, dumbfounded. She had to take a moment to make sure she had heard correctly, blinking back at the girl in shock .”You... spoke.”
“No... kill,” Cassandra said, shaking her head again. “No kill.”
“You don't get it, I have to do this,” Ravager said, giving the girl a hard stare. “You don't know what kind of man this is. He's no different than people like my dad... or your dad.”
But Cassandra held strong. “No.”
A long moment of silence passed between them. Ravager stared into Cassandra's eyes for the longest time, those steely, adamant eyes. Yet, as fierce as they were, there was also a hint of desperation in them... as though she were pleading for Ravager not to go through with it. With each passing second, Ravager felt the knot in her stomach grow just a little tighter, until finally she forced herself to look away and step backwards, sheathing her swords.
“Fine,” she muttered. “Have it your way.” As she walked back around the side of the desk, she turned to give Daggett one more look. “But you stick around, I'm sure the cops will love some of the dirt I have on you. Take care, now.”
About an hour later, Rose lay back against the lone bed in the hotel room, just staring at the ceiling. It seemed pointless getting a room with two beds, when Cassandra had taken up the habit of sleeping with her. (No, not that way, get your mind out of the gutter). Ever since their first night together, the only way Cassandra could get through the night without any nightmares was with Rose sleeping beside her. Perhaps she just felt safer that way, more relaxed. Whatever the reason, she very seldom slept alone now.
Across the room, Cassandra sat in the chair near the table, staring at the carpet and swinging her legs gently back and forth. She knew that Rose was upset with her, but it wasn't her fault, really. She hadn't meant to make her angry. She hadn't meant to follow her that night. She just... didn't like it when Rose went out and left her alone in the room. Not that she couldn't handle being alone for a few hours, that wasn't it. It was when Rose came back, how distant she was, how... sad she looked, or frustrated. Cassandra suspected that Rose's nightly escapades had begun to take their toll, and if she didn't step in to help her, then... well, what kind of friend would she be?
“Sorry for yelling,” Rose said, still staring at the ceiling.
Cassandra looked up slowly, bringing her legs to a stop.
“I just... I wasn't expecting you to be there,” she continued. “You weren't supposed to be there...” Breathing out a heavy sigh, she brought a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “You don't like it when I kill someone, I get it. But you have to understand that sometimes... it just has to be done.”
“No.” Cassandra was on her feet now. She made her way over to the bed and lay down next to Rose, staring at her with knowing eyes. “No... kill. Ever. No... rree... reaaz...rayzin.”
“Reason,” Rose corrected, glancing down at the girl. “You mean 'no reason'. And that's a nice enough sentiment, but things just don't work that way. Not when you're me, not when you're dealing with my father.”
Cassandra was quiet for a moment. She looked away, gaze drifting idly up to the ceiling. Then, she rolled over slightly and wrapped her arms around Rose, nuzzling close as she often did before sleep. “No kill... please?”
“You really have something against it, don't you?” Rose asked, giving the girl a hard look. When Cassandra failed to meet her gaze, she exhaled and looked away. Eventually, she returned the embrace and wrapped her own arms around Cassandra. “Fine... I'll try, alright? But one of these days, when you're able... you're going to tell me what happened to you, okay?”
The only response she received was a tiny squeeze around her midsection. She took that to mean a yes.
(That's it for now. Look for Rose and Cassandra to return in the upcoming chapters of DC Mayhem: Secret Six!)
Barbara Gordon had been through a lot in her life. She had faced down armed thugs, gone against some of Gotham's most sinister criminals, stopped foreign despots from starting World War III, discovered a cure for the Anti-Life Equation, and so much more, yet never before had she felt so bone numbingly nervous as she was now, standing in front of this group of little blue people.
Okay, so 'little blue people' might be a bit of an understatement. These were the Guardians of the Universe, and they had an incredible knack for looking down their noses in the most condescending way imaginable, as she was beginning to understand. Still, she didn't let her nerves show. She stood there on the circular floor in the central meeting hall, staring up at them calmly as they talked among themselves.
“This is unacceptable,” one of them spoke, shaking his head. “That ring wasn't meant for a being of sector two-eight-one-four. It should have gone to someone from sector one-three-two-one.”
“But the ring in question was in sector two-eight-one-four upon its Green Lantern's demise, ” another said. “It followed protocol and chose the nearest worthy replacement.”
“It doesn't matter, Ganthet. There are far too many Lanterns from that sector as it is. It doesn't need another one.”
The Guardian called Ganthet folded his arms, eyes closing momentarily. “But as our own laws dictate, we do not interfere with the selection process or its results. We cannot strip a Lantern of her ring unless given due cause, and this is not due cause. Unless you're suggesting we should ignore the laws we put into place?”
“That's not what I-”
“Then you agree that she is to keep the ring?”
The Guardian huffed out a small breath, glaring back at him. “Yes... however, I do not think that the sector needs another full time Lantern on patrol.”
Another Guardian spoke up this time, one with a long scar cutting across the side of her face. “I must agree with Ranakar on that. Sector two-eight-one-four is already muddled with an abundance of Green Lanterns, and adding another to the full time roster would only further bog it down.”
“Then what do you propose, Scar?” Ganthet asked.
“I am undecided. We all agree that she is to keep the ring, and yet also that she should not be put on patrol. I don't know what we should do with her, but we must decide.”
“I have a suggestion,” another of the Guardians said.
Sayd held her hands together, floating forward a little and focusing her eyes on Barbara below. “Why don't we ask our newest Lantern what she wants?”
Barbara blinked a couple times, looking back and forth between the Guardians. They were all staring at her now. “Oh, uh, yeah, okay.”
“Your name is Barbara Gordon, correct?” Sayd asked.
“And you have accepted your role as a Green Lantern?”
That is good,” the Guardian replied, with a small nod. “Tell us, do you have any ideas of your own to help solve this... dilemma that we find ourselves with?”
Barbara paused a moment, bringing a hand to her chin and thinking carefully. She couldn't claim to understand alien politics or Green Lantern protocols, at least not yet, but she did have an idea or two that she had come up with while listening to them bicker. “Well, I might have one. You don't think that my sector needs anymore Green Lanterns on patrol, right?”
“That is quite right,” Ranakar said, with a hard glare. “There are already no less than four Green Lanterns in you sector, while most other sectors have only two. You would make five.”
“Okay, but you can't take my ring from me,” Barbara said, repeating the other part of their problem. “So, if you can't take my ring, and you don't want me on patrol, then why not just leave me to my home planet?”
“Your planet?” Ranakar furrowed his brow, glancing quickly at his fellow Guardians. “Absurd. The Green Lantern Corps. is an interstellar police force. No one Lantern should be confined to a single planet.”
Ganthet brought a hand to his chin, staring back at him. “And yet you stand so adamantly against allowing her on patrol like other Lanterns.”
“I think it could work,” Scar said. “She could act as her planet's guardian, instead of the galaxy's. As sector two-eight-one-four already has several other Lanterns to cover the entire sector, allowing her to remain on Earth should not be an issue.”
Sayd nodded. “Perhaps we could turn this into a trial for future expansion of the Corps.? Should this venture prove successful, then we may consider allowing a Green Lantern for all planets with sentient life.”
Ranakar went quite, arms folding and head bowing. He held his eyes shut for a long time, contemplating deeply on the matter, until finally he exhaled a sigh and nodded. “Very well, I will agree, but with conditions. She must undergo the same training as all other Green Lantern recruits, and she must remain on call for events requiring a full Corps. response. Whether remaining on her planet or not, I will not have her coddled or thinking she can slack off.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Ganthet said, looking back down at Barbara. “In that case, it is decided. Welcome to the Green Lantern Corps., Barbara Gordon of Earth.”
When Barbara exited the Guardians' building, another Green Lantern floated over to her. She recognized him as the one who had met her upon her arrival, Sinestro. He moved in front of her, lowering down on his feet and standing there with his arms folded, just staring at her.
“Um... do I have something on my face?” she asked.
“No” was the simple response.
“Then can I help you with something?” When she received no response, she narrowed her eyes and said, “What are you doing?”
“Studying you. Trying to figure out just what it is about you Earthlings...”
Barbara lifted an eyebrow. “What do you mean, about us?”
“All rings that select a candidate from your sector end up on Earth,” he explained. “There are other sentient races on numerous planets throughout that sector, and yet you Earthlings seem to have something special about you... what that is, I can't fathom. Humans are a feeble race.”
“Excuse me?” Barbara moved forward, coming close to Sinestro and staring him straight in the eyes. “Who are you calling feeble?”
“You,” he said, floating up into the air again. He pushed past her, bumping purposefully into her shoulder on his way by as he flew higher. “Now come with me, you are to begin your training.”
A very distinct frown formed its way across her face, as she turned to watch the Lantern distance himself in the sky. Eventually, she huffed out a heavy breath and concentrated, causing herself to float upward. A little more concentration, and she took off like a rocket, chasing after him. He led her far from the main facilities of Oa to an open expanse of barren land, nothing more than a field of towering rocks that shined like marble.
“Your ring harnesses the emotional spectrum of will,” Sinestro said. He clasped his hands behind his back and began walking away a few steps, until finally turning around to face her, some twenty paces away. “The constructs it creates are as strong as your own willpower, and limited in concept only by your own imagination. If you can think it, you can create it. You must merely concentrate, and...”
Suddenly, a bright green orb shot from Sinestro's ring and zipped through the air like a missile, heading straight towards Barbara. Out of pure instinct, she recoiled sharply and held her own ring up, causing a curved tube to form in front of the ball. The sphere sailed straight into one end of the tube, traveled around the curve, and then shot out the other end. Within a split second from the time it had left Sinestro's ring, it was heading straight back at him. The more experienced Green Lantern merely stepped to the side, watching as the orb flew by.
“Hmm, not bad...” he muttered, folding his arms back across his chest.
“Yeah, well maybe you warn me next time you fire a cannon at me?” she said.
“Your enemies won't be warning you when they attack,” Sinestro said. “Besides, I needed to test your ability to think and react quickly. You passed, for now.”
Frowning slightly, Barbara took in a slow breath. “Glad to have impressed...”
“Now, I'll be testing your general fighting ability. Choose any weapon, and I'll match it.”
The choice was simple for Barbara. There was only one weapon that she was most familiar with above all others, one she had mastered during her time in the wheelchair. She couldn't wait to see what she could do with it now that she could move around. Taking in a deep breath, she held her fists up and concentrated, forming two bright green eskrima sticks in her hands.
“Sticks?” Sinestro said, looking genuinely baffled. “You'd have us fight with sticks?”
“What's the matter, don't know how to handle one?”
The alien frowned momentarily, then turned his body to the side and created a pair of eskrima sticks of his own. “And I thought Jordan's sword was primitive.”
“You just gonna stand there like a girl, or are you going to attack?”
Wasting no more time, Sinestro propelled himself into range, leaping high and dropping down towards her with unflinching ferocity. It had been so long since Barbara had been in a real fight like this, with every single piece of her ability at her disposal, but it came back to her so quickly, like a dream almost. All it took was a small step backwards, a slight adjustment of her stance, and suddenly her body flowed expertly, countering the incoming strikes with ease. Sinestro might have been the far more experienced Lantern, but eskrima was hers.
Barbara's attacks moved like lightning, whipping the sticks with a force she had never known before. Bound to a wheelchair for six years, she had worked her upper body strength into something of almost freakish proportions. Now aided not only by the added force of her lower body but also the force of her will, she delivered blows with a power that she had only ever seen from a distance, the likes of the heavy hitters on the Justice League.
Still, Sinestro was no slouch himself. Though his form was by no means expert, he was fast. That combined with his natural experience in combat and heightened instincts allowed him to keep up with her onslaught for the most part, but soon Barbara started pushing him back. She mixed up her patterns, striking high and low at the same time and never letting up. His blocks became slower, clunkier, until finally he missed one, as the stick battered into his jaw and whipped his head sharply to the side. The blow only barely pushed him off balance, though. He quickly steadied himself, then ducked below the next strike and thrust his fist forward.
A winding rope of light whirled around Barbara's backside, coming up to clamp around her neck. It tugged tightly, then yanked her backwards head over heels and flipped her violently to the ground. She lost concentration instantly, feeling her constructed eskrima sticks vanish from her grasp, and before knew it she was lying on her back staring up at the sky, with Sinestro standing over her.
“I thought we were fighting with my weapon of choice,” she said.
“Never make presumptions,” he said, holding the tip of his eskrima stick to her throat. “They'll get you killed.” After a brief moment, he pulled the stick away and then offered his hand. “Still, I can see you've had prior training. That's more than I would have expected, and much better than most new recruits.”
Barbara gave his hand a long glare, but then eventually took hold and pulled herself upward. “Yeah, well I'm not exactly new to this.”
“Maybe.” A sudden blast of green light burst from Sinestro's ring, exploding into Barbara's midsection and sending her flying. “But you still have a lot to learn.”
Pointing his ring forward, Sinestro shot out another rope-like construct, grabbing hold of her legs before she got too far out of range, and then swinging her down with thunderous force. Barbara hit the ground hard, cratering it upon impact and feeling the wind rush from her lungs. She lay there motionlessly for several moments, until the chain around her ankle swung her upwards again. A second bolt of light struck her chest, sending her careening backwards only to smash into a newly created brick wall, which Sinestro promptly pulled down atop her.
“For instance-” he said, flying over to her. He watched as she slowly dug her way out of the brick pile, a dull groan of pain escaping her throat, and then pointed his ring at her again. “-never let you guard down.”
“Sinestro!” a voice called out, drawing the alien's attention. “That's quite enough. We'll take it from here.”
Breathing outwardly in annoyance, Sinestro lowered his ring and floated higher. “By all means.” He then quickly disappeared, flying off in a matter of seconds as a bright green streak across the sky.
“Ungh...” Barbara muttered, pushing herself to one knee as the brick constructs around her vanished. “What the hell happened?”
“Sinestro just got a little carried away, is all,” a voice said. It was deep, and resonating, carrying with it stern authority.
“Yeah, don't pay attention to that old spoil-sport,” another said. “Dude's a total square, I'm telling you.”
Finally, Barbara looked upwards to see the two Green Lanterns floating above her–two Green Lanterns that she immediately recognized. “Oh! You... you're-”
“John Stewart,” he said, coming to ground level and holding his hand out for her to shake. “And this is-”
“Guy Gardener,” the other said. He flew forward past John, cutting the man off to get in the first handshake. “Pleasure's all mine.”
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.
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...
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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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...”
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.”
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?”
“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.”
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.”
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?”
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.
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?”
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.
“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?”
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.”
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...
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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-”
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.
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.”
(note that these events take place in 2011, one year before current events in the timeline, such as in Secret Six)
The screaming wasn't something that Rose had been prepared for. She never thought that someone who couldn't speak a word could exclaim such pure terror so loudly, but Cassandra proved her wrong on their very first night together away from the fortress. Then again, perhaps she shouldn't have been surprised. From what Lady Shiva had told her, Cassandra's vocal cords functioned perfectly... she had just never been allowed to learn how to communicate through speech, rendering her essentially mute except in certain circumstances.
Like right now, with the screaming.
“Cass?” Rose uttered, lurching straight upright in bed.
She looked around the dark inn room, enhanced eyes quickly adjusting to the lack of light. A panic began to surge through her, as the girl's screams grew louder, more frantic – had the guards from the fortress found them somehow? Were they here now?
Scrambling out of bed, Rose tripped her way across the room to find the light switch, flicking it on. When the ceiling light illuminated the room, her vision found Cassandra thrashing around the other small bed, fingers tightly gripping the sheets and eyes squinted shut. The poor girl's lips parted wide, inhuman screeches of terror erupting from her throat.
“Cassandra!” she called, arriving at the girl's side and gently taking hold of her shoulders. “Cassandra, wake up!”
Suddenly, the screaming stopped. Cassandra's eyes flew open and she bolted upright, chest heaving. For a brief moment, everything was calm, but soon she broke down into tears, slouching forward and whimpering.
“Hey, hey,” Rose said, pulling the girl closely into her arms. Cassandra hugged back tightly, her grip like iron. “Shhh, shhh... it's okay. It was just a nightmare.”
Just a nightmare? she thought. No, whatever that was... it was much worse.
It took twenty minutes before Cassandra finally settled down and stopped crying. As the sobbing gradually softened, Rose absently took to brushing her hands through the girl's hair, trying desperately to comfort her. She wasn't really qualified for this, looking after someone like Cassandra... They were only a year apart, and yet Cassandra was like a child in many ways.
Whereas Rose had seen so much in her short fourteen years of life, matured well beyond what someone her age should have, Cassandra had been... sheltered, taught only how to fight and how to kill. Cassandra really didn't know anything about the world, and now it was Rose's duty to introduce her to it, to help her grow and to protect her. All they had was each other now, each the other's only friend. She'd be damned if she was going to fail at that.
“You okay?” Rose asked, giving the girl a concerned look.
Cassandra looked back up at her, eyes carefully studying Rose's expression, posture, tone, everything. She couldn't actually understand most of the words, but she understood the body language, and thus the message. Slowly, she nodded.
Rose paused a moment, still holding her arms tightly around her friend. “Do you... have nightmares a lot?”
“I see...” she said, shifting her gaze to the side. What the hell had Cain done to this girl? “I'm... I'm sorry, Cass. I wish I knew how to help you.”
Then, Cassandra gently tugged on Rose's arm and pointed back at the bed.
Rose furrowed her brow a moment, trying to understand what the girl was telling her. “You want... to...?”
Again, Cassandra tugged her arm and pointed down at the bed. This time, however, she pressed her palms together and tilted her head to the side, bringing her hands up against her chin.
“...to stay with you?” Rose glanced back at the bed and nodded slowly. “Right, you want me to sleep with you. Is that it? Here?”
She pointed at the mattress and gave the girl a questioning look. Cassandra quickly nodded.
Breathing out a small sigh, Rose shrugged and started to move off the bed. “Alright, I guess, if that's-”
As she went to get up, Cassandra's hand suddenly flew forward and grabbed onto Rose's wrist with a surprisingly powerful grip. The look on her face was one of absolute terror.
“Oh, hey, no, I'm not leaving,” Rose replied, holding up a hand to reassure the girl. “I'm just getting the light, alright? I'm coming right back.”
When Rose pointed across the room at the light switch, Cassandra visibly relaxed and loosened her grip. When the light finally flicked off, Rose returned to the bed and curled beneath the covers. Almost instantly, Cassandra reached out to hug her, pulling herself close and not letting go. Within a short few minutes, she was asleep again.
Rose sighed lightly, holding her own arm around Cassandra and shutting her eyes. “Night, Cass.”
The next several days were... taxing, to say the least. Rose would have been perfectly at home fighting her way through murderous goons trying to kill her, but spending endless hours sitting around the U.S. Consulate in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, awaiting them to sort out a way to send her and Cass back to the States without passports... it was, quite possibly, the most boring and mind numbing thing she'd ever been through.
At the very least, the consulate appeared to believe Rose's story that she and Cassandra were sisters visiting Tibet with their parents, when their parents were suddenly killed and they kidnapped. Through sheer luck, they were able to escape and find their way back here. The next several days had been spent arranging their flight home to stay with other relatives, while opening an investigation to search for the missing dead parents who didn't even exist. Of course, by the time the consulate discovered that the story was a fake, Rose and Cassandra would hopefully be long gone.
Now, the two sat front row on a large jumbo jet getting ready to take off down the runway. The engines rumbled as the plane picked up speed, and poor Cassandra held onto the arm rests with a death grip, pushing herself back against her seat with wide eyes.
“There's nothing to worry about,” Rose assured, leaning close to her. “I've been on a plane dozens of times before. They're perfectly safe.”
Cassandra slowly turned, eying Rose's relaxed body language. Several moments later, she, too, began to relax somewhat, although her fingers never left the arm rest. Once the jet lifted up off the runway into the air, however, Cassandra squinted her eyes shut, face contorting with fright. This lasted for roughly ten minutes, until finally the plane reached its cruising altitude and leveled out. Finally, she opened her eyes again and breathed out a heavy sigh.
“See?” Rose said, holding a hand to the girl's shoulder. “Nothing to worry about.”
Cassandra glanced back at her momentarily, then quickly turned her attention to the window. Almost instantly, she brought her face close and gazed outside with her eyes and mouth wide, just watching the almost surreal world of clouds in the sky below them.
“Yeah, I remember my first time flying,” Rose said. “I was pretty amazed, too. I won't say I was afraid, because I totally wasn't... but it was definitely strange.”
Several minutes later, Cassandra leaned back in her seat and sat up straight, hands on her legs. She gently swung her feet below her, breathing outwardly.
“So... bored already?” Rose leaned forward, pulling out her small carry on bag from below the seat and rummaging through it. “I figured you'd need something to do for the next twelve hours, so... damn it, where are they? Oh, here we go.”
A second later, she sat straight up and placed a stack of index cards on the foldout tray in front of her. Cassandra idly tilted her head to the side, staring with subtle intrigue.
“I just figured since, you know, your dad never taught you how to talk – or read and write – I might, you know... teach you,” Rose said, writing down the letters of the alphabet with a pen, one per card. “These are called flashcards. They... well, they're a pretty simple way to help learn stuff. In this case, the alphabet. We'll start with this.”
Rose lifted the the first card, with a large letter 'A' written on it, and placed it down on Cassandra's tray table. Then, she placed a blank card next to it, along with the pen. Cassandra stared at it a while, then tentatively took the pen into her hand.
“This is the letter A,” Rose explained. “It makes the sound – here, hold the pen like this – it makes the sound aaaah, or ay, or ahhhh. Go on, give a try.”
Cassandra blinked a couple times in confusion, staring down at the letter. Eventually, she forced out a quiet “aahhhh”, uttering the sound a few times.
“That's good,” Rose said, curling her lips into a slight smile. “Now try writing it.” She briefly lifted her hand, pretending to hold a pen and writing across the air.
Scratching her head briefly, Cassandra brought the pen down to the paper and squiggled a very shaky, wavy letter 'A'. Actually, it barely looked like the letter 'A' at all, but hey, it was better than nothing.
Rose held a hand to her chin, watching the girl work. “Not bad, not bad... give it a few more tries and we'll move on to B.”
“Aaah,” Cassandra said, scratching out a few more letters on the card. “Ahhhh.”
Suddenly, Rose noticed something out of the corner of her eye. Turning towards the aisle, she noticed a couple people staring at them with odd expressions, as if somehow annoyed by Cassandra's lessons.
“Problem?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at them. When their stares only grew more bewildered, Rose turned fully towards them, rising out of her seat slightly. “I said, you got a problem? No? Then mind your own damn business!”
Though the people across the aisle finally looked away, her outburst drew the attention of almost the entire other plane. She paused briefly, glaring around at everyone. “Nothing to see here... assholes.” Finally, she sat back down and folded her arms, ignoring the stares.
Throughout all of this, Cassandra retained her attention on the index cards in front of her, scribbling away. “Ahhhh. Aaahhhh. Aayyy.”
Breathing out a heavy sigh, Rose lifted a hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “This is going to be a long flight...”
Sixteen hours and two layovers later, the duo arrived on the streets of quite possibly the most infamous city known to man: Gotham. It certainly wouldn't have been Rose's first place to go when returning to the States, but there were a few specific reasons why she'd settled on it. One, they needed a place to live for the time being, a safe place to call home. Gotham contained one of the many safehouses that her father had set up during his time as Deathstroke. It contained food, clothes, money, weapons, jus about anything they could want right now. While they couldn't actually stay there, they'd need the supplies.
Secondly, her father had done a lot of business for people in Gotham. From the stories had had told her, he took jobs from clients all over the world, yet astoundingly a large majority of them happened to be based in this city, go figure. Rose had only two goals right now. One was to look after and protect Cassandra, but the other... the other was to find Slade, her father. He was the reason that her mother had been killed, the reason why her life fell apart, and not to mention the reason she'd been captured and imprisoned for two years in a foreign country by the Syndicate. She was going to make him pay for that, but she'd have to track him down first. His most frequent clients would be a good place to start in gathering information on where to find him.
“Tttuh,” Cassandra muttered, as they walked down the street. “Tteee. Tttuttuh.” She held the index card with the letter 'T' close to her face, staring at it intently.
“This way,” Rose said, gently tugging the girl's hand. “The safehouse is right around this corner.”
The safehouse was nothing more than an old, fortified apartment in an abandoned building. According to Slade, he'd renovated it and made certain arrangements with some powerful people to make sure no one ever went near it. She just hoped that it was still...
“There,” she uttered, breathing out a relieved sigh as the building came into view.
She led Cassandra through the entrance and up the darkened, musty stairwell. Abandoned was right... it looked like no one had lived here in near a decade. When they reached the top floor, Rose had to stop for a moment to remember exactly which of the old apartments had the safehouse built into it. Was it 3B? 3D? No...
“Three E,” she muttered, heading towards the end of the hall. When she opened the door, she was greeted by a second, this one thick and metallic, with a built in security panel. “Well... should have known that would be too easy. Hold on a second, Cass, gotta think on this for a bit.”
Cassandra barely paid any attention, instead continuing her flashcard study. “Aarrrr... rrrrr... rrruh.” Evidently, she was on 'R'.
“Adeline?” Rose muttered, punching in the letters. The panel blinked back a bright red 'denied' in response. “What about... Grant?” Denied. “Joseph?” Denied. “Lillian?” Denied. “Deathstroke... Terminator... Slade... Rose...” Denied, denied, denied, denied. Then, suddenly, something clicked in her head. “Wait a minute, the hell am I doing? Cass, step back a second.”
Looking up from her flashcards, Cassandra took a step back and watched as Rose squared herself up in front of the metal security door. Breathing in deeply, Rose raised her leg and then exhaled sharply at the same time she thrust her boot forward, smashing it firmly against armored surface. Had she been a normal fourteen year old girl, she likely would have simply bounced off, but given her enhanced attributes, her foot instead dented the face of the door and tore it straight off the wall. With a loud, metallic thud, the door crashed against the floor, allowing them entry inside.
“See? Who the hell needs a password?” Rose said, walking inside. Cassandra quickly followed.
The apartment within more or less resembled a large panic room, with secured, armored walls, floor, and ceiling. The space was meticulously clean for a place that hadn't been used in years, and the furnishings simple and scarce. Moving through the safehouse, she did manage to find exactly what she'd come here for, though: money, clothes, and weapons. Mostly weapons. Grenades, swords, guns, ammunition, you name it, Deathstroke had it. She'd be sure to put all of that to good use in the coming months.
“Here, help me pack,” Rose said, pulling out a few large, heavy duty military style duffel bags. She began filling one of them with stacks of cash and boxes of ammo.
Cassandra looked up from her flashcards, moving closer to the storage container. When she saw the guns inside, however, her eyes instantly went wide. Screaming loudly, she ran towards the corner of the room and curled up into a ball, hands held around her head as if to protect herself.
“Huh?” Rose said, looking over at the terrified girl. She briefly brought her gaze back to the box full of guns, and then again towards Cassandra. “You... don't like guns.” She said it more to herself than to Cass, and suddenly felt a sinking feeling bubble into her gut. “Well, shit.”
Quickly, Rose packed away everything she needed into the duffel bags and hoisted them around her shoulders. Then, she walked over to Cassandra, who now sat up against the wall with her flashcards in her lap, staring at them.
“Ppuuh,” she muttered, rocking back at forth slightly. “Puuh ppuh pppuh.”
“Hey...” Rose said, softening her eyes. “You ready to go?”
Cassandra stopped rocking, slowly looking back up at her. After staring for several long moments, she picked up her flashcards and stood up, taking Rose's hand.
Rose sighed, bowing her head slightly and leading the girl out into the hallway. “Alright, come on... let's find a real place to stay.”
She hates guns... why does she hate guns? Rose wondered. It's almost like she was afraid of them... like she had some kind of bad experiences with them... Goddamn it, what did her father do to her?
The individual known simply as Mockingbird sat quietly in the sitting room of his home, a fire flickering in the fireplace. He took small sips from his wineglass, as he gazed into the flames, thoughts lost on in the past. Failures, so many of them. The team, his Secret Six... they had proven utterly useless. They had bickered, fought, and torn each other to pieces long before any of their missions had a chance to get off the ground. Perhaps he had put far too much faith in such volatile individuals. He should have known better than to think they could work together.
Still, all was not lost. He could always try putting together a new team, a new Secret Six. He'd just have to be... much more considerate in the team members he selected. Yes, that was it. He merely had to learn from his mistakes. He would improve and come back even better next time. But no right now, no. He'd need time to think on it, to plan... if he was going to try it again, he was going to do it right this time.
A crash of broken glass suddenly pulled his attention away from the fire. He showed no surprise or panic, however, when he turned to look at the shattered window across the room, or the shadowed figure now standing there. Instead, he merely set his wineglass on the end table next to him and uttered a sigh.
“Let me guess... you're here to kill me,” he muttered.
“I'm here for information,” the reply came.
Lifting an eyebrow, Mockingbird sat up straight in his seat. “Information, is that right? And who's asking?”
After a brief hesitation, the figure moved forward into the firelight, revealing an armored costume and two toned mask. “Call me Deathstroke.”
“Deathstroke, you say... yes, I've heard of you,” Mockingbird stated. “Not in a while, mind you, but you were quite well known over a decade ago, weren't you?”
Deathstroke said nothing, merely folding his arms across his chest.
“Not a big talker, I see.” Mockingbird brought a hand to his chin, thinking carefully. “And what exactly do you want to know?”
“The Syndicate,” Deathstroke said. “I've spent the last two years digging up what I can on them, but I still don't have enough to go on. They're bigger than I could have imagined... and I need to know exactly how big.”
Mockingbird scoffed, sinking back in his armchair. “What makes you think I know about the Syndicate?”
“Don't bullshit me. I know all about your Secret Six. You've crossed paths with the Syndicate before.”
“The Secret Six,” Mockingbird said, standing up from his seat, “were a failure.”
Deathstroke narrowed his eye. “Not completely. They got you information about The Syndicate's inner workings, their higher ups, their confidants... I want everything you got on them.”
“What for?” Mockingbird grabbed the fire poker, absently stoking the flames. “You trying to bring them down? That's a losing battle, you know, fighting them off all by yourself. I don't care how good you think you are.”
“What I do is none of your business,” Deathstroke retorted, taking a step forward.
Mockingbird paused a long time, until finally he replaced the fire poker next to the fire and brought his hands behind his back. “Deathstroke the Terminator, trying to bring down the largest criminal organization on the planet all by himself. Hmph. Deathstroke the Fool.”
Reaching back behind his shoulder, Deathstroke grabbed the hilt of his sword, drawing it partway out of its scabbard. “Keep in mind, I don't need you, just the information.”
“Oh, I'm well aware of that,” Mockingbird said, slowly turning towards the mercenary. “But perhaps... we can come to an agreement, hmm?”
“<This way!>*” one of the guards shouted. He raced around the corner of the fortress corridor, leading his team along with him. Along the way, they passed the bodies of other fallen guards, lying motionless in pools of blood on the cold, stone floor. “<She was heading towards the East wall!>”
(*Translated from Standard Tibetan)
The guards, consisting mostly of Tibetan natives dressed in old fashioned armor and carrying spears, burst through the doorway leading into the stronghold's eastern wing. There, they ran by several more bloodied bodies, most of which were either dead or about to be.
“<Where could she be going?>” a guard asked, trying not to look at the fallen men surrounding them. “<She can't be escaping this way, it only leads farther into the mountains.>”
“<I don't know,>” another answered, pushing through a second set of doors. “<Maybe she's- hhrrck!>”
The man's words suddenly ceased, as a blade whipped out from the dark shadows, slicing through his neck. A second later, a figure burst from her hiding place and ran through the men, ducking and weaving around their pathetic attempts to subdue her. Sidestepping, she thrust one of her blades, piercing through the chest of one man while spinning her second weapon around behind her and cleaving another's head from his shoulders. Within moments, all six men lay dead at her feet.
“I'm not trying to escape, idiots,” Rose muttered, slipping back into the shadows. A moment later, she took off in a dead sprint. “Not yet.”
Leaping through one of the open, stone cut windows nearby, she landed softly outside atop the fortress' eastern wall. A swirl of cold air and snow hit her like a blade, piercing through the fibers of her armor, but she ignored it, pressing on. A little chill wasn't going to stop her, no this time. No, this time she'd have her revenge.
Blinking a few whipping snowflakes out of her eyes, Rose quickened her pace as another group of guards approached from the opposite direction. Lifting one of her swords, she threw the blade with inhuman precision, driving it home through the gut of the nearest man. When she finally reached the opposition, she slid low beneath a spear strike and cut upwards with her second blade, slicing cleanly through another guard's armor. On her way by, she ripped the thrown sword out of the man's body and spun wildly, both blades held close until the last moment, when she cut wide with them. The four men that had been converging on her from all sides went down instantly, bright crimson spraying from their wounds.
Rose wasted no time, immediately continuing along the top of the wall. She could already see her destination in the distance: a separate temple tower rising high above her on a mountain peak. He thought he was safe up there? Oh no... he wasn't safe. Not in the least. She was coming for him, and she would gut him like the pig he was.
She reached the end of the wall, coming face to face with a sheer cliff side in front of her. Sheathing her blades, Rose leaped upward, grabbing tightly to a handhold and climbing. She stumbled momentarily before driving her foot into another hold and pushing up. Within minutes, she made it a hundred feet up the cliff face, never slowing, never slipping. Her instincts and physical prowess compelled her along the right path, never missing a handhold.
Fifteen minutes after she began her climb, her hand latched onto the ledge above her. She pulled herself up slightly until her eyes peered over the snowy precipice, carefully scanning the area. Almost instantly, a spear point lowered itself in front of her gaze. Glaring coldly, she slowly looked up to see several guards already waiting for her.
“<Surrender immediately!>” one of them commanded. “<Or we will throw you from the ledge!>”
In retrospect, the stairs might have been the better route to take...
Snaking a knowing smirk across her face, Rose lashed her hand forward and gripped the spear shaft. With a firm tug, she yanked the man off balance, causing him to stumble forward and teeter there on the edge for a brief moment. The two other men moved quickly to catch him, but by that time Rose launched herself up and over. She landed nimbly on her feet, immediately sweeping her leg to the side, catching the three guard's in the ankles. With horrified screams, they plummeted over the cliff side and disappeared into the swirling snow beyond.
Straightening herself back to her feet, Rose took in a deep breath and pressed forward, already drawing her swords once again. It felt astoundingly good to have three feet of sharpened steel in either hand again. She hadn't realized how much she missed it until just now.
“Now then...” she muttered, racing towards the steps of the temple tower. “Where was I?”
“What the hell is going on?!” Jackal shouted, racing through the corridor. He struggled to pull on his armored suit and mask as he turned the corner, having only awoken a few minutes ago. It was the middle of the night, after all.
Several guards ran by him, one of them looking back. “<The prisoner has escaped!>”
“What?” Jackal muttered, eyes narrowing. “Speak English, you idiot! I don't speak native!”
“Prisoner escape!” the man replied, his English broken.
Jackal grumbled, smacking his forehead. “Oh you gotta be kidding me. How the hell did that happen?”
But he didn't receive an answer. Instead, the guards ran on ahead, bursting through the exit of the temple, into the swirling blizzard beyond. The doors closed behind them, and by the time Jackal approached, he heard cries of pain and horror. His hand paused momentarily, as he reached for the handle in front of him. Bringing his other arm behind him, he drew his sword and then finally pulled the doors open.
“Son of a b*tch,” he said, squinting his eyes.
The snow was really starting to come down now, bringing with it a near white out. Clicking a button on the side of his helmet, he switched the eye lenses over to thermal and scanned the area. The still warm bodies of the guards lay nearby, motionless in the snow, but no sign of their attacker... not yet.
“Jackal!” a voice screamed over the howling wind.
The man spun around suddenly, eyes going wide as he leaped backwards to defend two sweeping sword strikes. Though he blocked one of the blades, the second cut cleanly through his armor and spilled warm blood down his arm. Before he could make a counter attack, a boot planted itself against his chest and pushed hard, sending him stumbling backwards.
“Murderer!” Rose cried, lunging at him again. She attacked with a ferocity that she had very rarely ever shown, practically lost in bloodlust. “Rapist!”
Jackal turned his body in desperation, spinning out of the way of a sword thrust. He managed only to move directly into the path of the second blade, cold steel ripping through the meat of his thigh. “Gaaah! Fuuu-!”
His words cut off when the hilt of Rose's blade battered against the faceplate of his mask. He staggered momentarily, trying to maintain his balance. That proved impossible when Rose followed up with a spinning roundhouse kick to the back of the head that dropped him face first into the snow.
“You took everything from me,” Rose stated, pure ire fueling her voice. “My mother... my innocence... my whole life.”
“Wait a minute now,” Jackal uttered, pushing himself up to his hands and knees. “Let's talk about th-”
Rose silenced him with a stomp between the shoulder blades, forcing him back to the ground. “Don't you dare get up!”
“Nngh...” he said, barely holding himself up on his elbows now. He wore rather durable armor, and yet he still felt this girl's blows, as though he were fighting naked. She hit like a freaking truck.
“I want to know why,” Rose said, swallowing a numb lump knotted in her throat. If the cold air hadn't frozen her tears before they could fall down her cheeks, she'd be wiping her face dry right now, too. “Why did you do it? Why did you ruin my life?!”
Finally, Jackal made it back to his knees, kneeling upright. Rose seemed to allow it for now, eye narrowing as the man looked up at her. “Was... just business. Honest. I... I got the order. They sent me to... to do it.”
“They?” Rose questioned. “You mean the Syndicate?”
The man slowly nodded, remaining quiet.
“WHY?!” she screamed. “What the hell did I do to deserve it?! What did I do?!”
Jackal shook his head. “No... not you. Him.”
Rose's eye gradually widened in understanding. “Slade. My... father. He...”
“That's right,” Jackal said, chuckling softly under his breath. “It was all to get to him. You were just... the means to the end.”
Her jaw clenched tightly, as she imbibed the information. As if her father selling her out as a prisoner here for the past two years hadn't been bad enough... the entire reason that she had been tormented, that her mother was dead, her entire life ruined... it was all because Deathstroke was her father. Suddenly, a surging anger, an anger she hadn't felt in a long time, burned through her body. Over the past couple of years, the hatred she'd built up for her father had gradually diminished. Now, however... now, that hatred was back tenfold.
“B**tard...” she uttered, taking a step backwards and lowering her swords. Her attention seemingly wandered, lost in thought.
Jackal hesitated momentarily, gaze shifting to his left, where his sword lay just a foot away. He looked back briefly to the distracted Rose, hand twitching slightly, and then made his move. Grabbing his sword tightly around the handle, he lunged up from his spot on the ground and thrust it at the girl's chest. His attack, however, struck only air as Rose spun out of the way.
“Wha-” he started, eyes going wide.
In one fluid motion, Rose whirled around the man's backside and cut her swords across her body like scissors. The sharpened edges cleaved through Jackal's neck, dislodging his head from his shoulders and spraying out a fountain of crimson from the remaining stump.
Slowly lowering her bloodied blades, Rose watched the headless body teeter there for a split second before crumpling to the snow. “That was for my mother, you son of a b*tch.”
Sheathing her blades, Rose turned and began a dead sprint through the blizzard. With that bit of business taken care of, she had a fortress to escape from. The only question was, how? She didn't know much of the stronghold's layout, or the surrounding area. She'd be liable to get lost in the mountains and freeze to death before she made it to civilization. And that wasn't even the biggest question on her mind.
Who let me out of my room? Who gave me the armor, the swords... who's on my side here?
Rose returned inside the main part of the fortress, relieved to be out of the cold for the moment. She had to come up with a plan, some way to get out of here without getting herself killed in the frozen wilderness. It didn't matter who tried to stop her, she'd already proven she could cut her way through anyone who got in her way.
As she ran through the long, empty corridor, however, ice crystals abruptly coated the walls and the floor. At first, it looked like a simple, light frost, but within moments it was snowing. Inside. That could mean only one thing...
“Killer Frost,” she muttered, glaring at the woman at the end of the hall.
The icy blue woman grinned widely, holding a single hand forward. “Well, well, if it isn't my little plaything. Out for a midnight stroll, are we?”
“Out of my way, Frost. I'm not f**king around right now.”
“Oh I know,” she said. A swirl of cold and ice erupted from her palm, shooting forward in a wide, sweeping wave. “That's what makes it so fun!”
Rose acted quickly, leaping to the side and planting her feet against the wall next to her. Pushing off, she catapulted herself over the icy wave, landing nimbly on the other side and taking off in a sprint at the woman.
“You think you can torture me for two years and get off Scott-free?” Rose asked, sliding beneath another blast of ice. She popped back to her feet and leaped through the air, drawing her blades. “Think again!"
Killer Frost slid backwards on a path of ice, evading the attack and grinning. “Now this is what I've missed... go on, give me everything you got. I love it when you fight back.”
The remaining heat in the surrounding corridor suddenly disappeared at a rapid rate, temperature dropping like a rock. Rose shivered, body beginning to shudder as ice crystals formed over her armor. Her hair froze, lips chapped and split, and fingers became so numb that she could barely keep hold of her swords.
“Aww, what's the matter?” Killer Frost asked, strolling forward with a finger raised. “A little chilly?"
When another frozen wave burst from the woman's hand, Rose forced her body to move, jumping to the side and tumbling through a side door into the room beyond. The warmth within soothed her near frozen body somewhat, returning a little feeling to her extremities. Wasting no time, she kicked the door closed behind her and kept moving.
“Oh Roooosey,” Killer Frost called, pushing the door open and glancing around carefully.
It was dark in here, the only light coming from a couple torches along the far wall. The room itself was nothing more than a small dining room that the guards used for dinner. No windows, no other exits, a few pillars rising up near the center, and large tapestries hanging from the high ceiling.
The woman grinned, moving forward slowly across the floor. As she went, she began siphoning the heat in the room, frosting over every surface in the place. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
“Come on, you're not seriously going to hide from like this, are you?” she asked, pouting with mock disappointment. “I was so looking forward to playing with you again.”
Killer Frost moved towards the far wall, idly glancing at a tapestry to her left. “Don't be a poor-”
“Hey Frost-” Rose said, her voice abrupty splitting the air.
The icy woman looked up sharply, just in time to catch sight of Rose letting go of the tapestry next to her and lunging down through the air. She attempted to bring her hands up in time to freeze the girl in mid jump, but she never got the chance. Rose led her attack with one of her swords pointed forward like a spear, piercing through Killer Frost's chest cleanly up to the hilt.
Killer Frost gurgled slightly as blood built up in her throat. When the blade withdrew from her chest, she collapsed to the floor, twitching slightly in desperation.
“Later, b*tch,” Rose said, giving the woman a mocking salute before sprinting from the room.
“N... no...” Frost uttered, feeling the life slipping from her body. Weakly, she pressed her palm to the gaping wound in her chest and let out a subzero blast of air, instantly freezing the injury shut. “Not... over... Rosey.”
Rose sheathed her sword, now only walking through the fortress corridors. Her body still didn't want to move correctly, not yet having recovered from Killer Frost's work. At least now she had an opportunity to think, to plan how she was going to escape. Now she could-
“AAAHHHH!” she shrieked, agony exploding through her skull. She instantly dropped to the floor, clutching her head and whimpering with excoriating pain.
“Now, now,” a sickeningly mocking voice chided. “What do you think you're doing, hmm?”
Barely able to open her eye, she glanced upward, just managing to take notice of the man standing in front of her, a man with an oversized, transparent head. If she wasn't in so much freaking pain, she'd probably be a little creeped out by that. She made a desperate attempt to get up and attack, but agony in her skull only burst to new extremes, eliciting another inhuman screech from her throat.
“You've made quite a mess of things,” Psimon stated, shaking his head. “But I'm afraid that ends now. Back to your room, now.”
Rose abruptly lurched back to her feet, as if gripped by some kind of invisible force. She winced, her eye only half open as she began to float through the air towards him. “Wh... who are... you?”
“Who am I?” Psimon chuckled, smiling. “Why, I'm- nnff.”
As Psimon crumbled to the ground unconscious, the psychic hold on Rose's body suddenly disappeared. The pain in her skull, too, vanished completely, allowing relief to flood her body. She took several moments to kneel there and recover, breathing in deeply, until finally looking up to see who had saved her.
“Shiva?” she uttered, blinking several times. Standing before her was Lady Shiva, flanked by a pair of men dressed in full tactical commando gear and armed with assault rifles.
“So, little dove,” the assassin stated, eyes narrowing, “you've finally attempted to escape.”
“I...” Rose paused a moment, returning to her feet. “Why are you standing in my way? You're the one who was preparing me for this, training me, making me stronger.”
Lady Shiva breathed calmly. “While that is true, I never said I wouldn't attempt to stop you when the time came.”
“Then why attack brain dude over there?” Rose glanced down at the unconscious Psimon. “Why not let him take me?”
“Because if you are going to be stopped,” she explained, “it will be in a fair fight.”
Rose glared, lifting her hands into a fighting position. “Three on one, seems like a fair fight to me.”
Shiva glanced back and forth between the commandos next to her. “Yes, well... you're armed. I am not.”
“I don't want to fight you, Shiva.” Rose shifted her stance slightly, inching forward. The commandos raised their weapons in response, pointing the guns at her chest.
Lady Shiva turned her own body, now in a prepared fighting stance. “Then be like a bird, little dove.”
Another team of commandos moved through a corridor, rifles at the ready. They stayed in formation, never letting their guard down no matter how quiet it got. With how the prisoner had already torn through the stronghold, there was no telling what could happen.
“Where is she now?” one of them asked. “Do we have a position?”
“Last I heard, Lady Shiva took a team to take her down,” another answered.
The man uttered a cool breath, as they pushed through a set of doors. “Oh, well then nothing to worry about. Right?” His question was met with silence. “Guys?”
Turning his head, he looked forward, where the others were staring. Their target stood there, holding a bloodied and beaten Lady Shiva by the shirt collar. The pair of commandos that had been accompanying her lay dead nearby, each with a sword jutting through his chest. Rose looked up quickly at their arrival, dropping Shiva to the ground and ripping the blades from the men's bodies.
“Oh sh*t!” one of the commandos shouted, taking aim. “Open fire!”
By the time the air lit up with hot lead, Rose had already made it to one of the stone cut windows along the wall. She leaped through the open space, plummeting twenty feet down the wall into a snowbank below.
“Double back to the east steps!” a commando shouted, leading the team back down the corridor. “Don't let her get away!”
“Where is it, where is it?” Rose muttered, rounding the corner of the courtyard wall. She counted off the passageways along the west wall as she went. “One... two... three... there!”
Sprinting through the fourth passage, she clambered down a winding set of steps, through a long hallway at the bottom, and finally into a large garage, equipped with mechanical equipment and a small fleet of vehicles that looked like snowmobiles, but were much larger, with built in storage containers in the rear. At the far end of the garage was open space, leading out onto a snowy mountain trail beyond.
“One... two... three,” she said quietly, selecting the third one from the left, in the front row. The keys were already in the ignition. “Alright, time to get the hell out of-”
Bullets fired, ricocheting sharply off the various transport vehicles. Rose ducked low as she hopped onto the back of her snowmobile, revving the engine and gunning the machine forward. Just as she made it through the open exit, however, racing into the blizzard beyond, a pair of bullets ripped through her armor, piercing the back of her left shoulder.
“Son of a mother-!” she shrieked, as her left arm suddenly went half dead.
She could barely grip the handlebars now, which made controlling the beast of a vehicle incredibly difficult while trying to navigate through the dark in the middle of a snowstorm. The headlights did very little to clear the way for her, but as long as she kept to the trail, she should be okay. In theory. Then, she heard the bullets again, felt a third dig into the meat of her ass.
“Are you f**cking serious?!” she cried to herself, lurching forward on her seat. Glancing back over her shoulder, she spotted the lights of several other snowmobiles in hot pursuit. “Come on, come on!”
Fortunately, the pursuit didn't last very long. Within moments, the men chasing her veered off the path, lost in the snowstorm and more than likely crashing off a cliff or something. Whatever, as long as they didn't catch her. It was time she got the hell out of here.
Roughly an hour later, Rose slowed the snowmobile. By now, the snowstorm had subsided, with only a few light flurries still falling. In the distance, she could make out a few bright lights coming from the windows of small wooden homes.
“Well... there's the town,” she muttered, easing the vehicle along.
When she finally reached the edge of the small collection of buildings, she hopped off the seat and stumbled, barely maintaining her balance. Her left arm didn't want to move right now, and every step she took sent a sharp pain shooting through her right ass cheek. First chance she got, she was going to have to get those bullets removed. Doing it herself would be... interesting. Maybe with a mirror and some tweezers. Maybe...
For now, though, she had something else to take care of. Moving around to the rear of the snowmobile, she unlatched the lid on the large storage compartment and flipped it open.
“How you doing back there?” she asked, gazing inside.
Almost instantly, a small figure leaped out of the compartment and pulled Rose into a tight hug.
“Nggaah,” Rose uttered, as a sharp pain flared through her shoulder. “Good to see you, too, Cassandra. Now come on, let's find the inn.”
About an hour ago...
“Then be like a bird, little dove.”
Rose's eye went wide at the statement. Be like a bird... it was a very simple, even nonsensical statement, at least to anyone else. But Shiva had mentioned it before, several times, in fact. She had never told Rose what the phrase meant, only to remember it, and that its importance would reveal itself when the time was right.
“Be like a bird...” she repeated, quietly. “...and fly free.”
In a lightning quick motion, Rose drew both her swords and whipped them through the air. Before the commandos had a chance to react, they went down in a heap, each with a blade sticking through their chests.
Once both men lay on the floor dead, Shiva relaxed, breathing outwardly and lowering her guard. “Very good, little dove.”
“It was you, wasn't it?” Rose asked. “You let me out of the room. You left the armor, the swords... you wanted me to escape.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“But why now?”
“Because I finally believe you are ready.”
Rose narrowed her gaze, confused. “Ready for what?”
Stepping forward, Lady Shiva placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. “Would you like to know the reason I decided to train you?”
“I saw something in you,” the woman explained. “Something great, something... unexplainable. I knew you could be the one.”
“The one to what?”
“To protect my daughter,” she replied.
Rose lifted an eyebrow. “To... what now?”
“Cassandra has no future here.” Bowing her head, Lady Shiva uttered a deep sigh and shook her head. “These people will use her as a weapon, and that's all she'll ever be. I cannot flee with her or they will hunt me down and they will kill us both. So, I want you to take her. I want you to flee from here, I want you to never let her out of your care, and I want you to keep her safe. For her sake, not just mine.”
“But... but what makes you think I can do that?” Rose asked, expression softening. “You said yourself, if you left The Syndicate, they'd hunt you down and kill you. And I'm... well, not you.”
Lady Shiva smiled slightly. “You might as well be, and you will only get stronger. But more than that, by staging your escape and allowing them to believe you kidnapped Cassandra, they will put me in charge of finding you.”
Rose raised her eyebrows in understanding. “And you'll intentionally mislead the search.”
“But how do I get out of here?” she asked. “How do I find Cassandra, how do I-”
“It's all taken care of,” Shiva explained. “Go to the main courtyard and take the fourth passage along the west wall. At the end of the corridor beyond, you'll find a garage with several snow transport vehicles. Cassandra is already hidden within the storage compartment of the third one in the front row, along with blankets, some money, and a first aid kit if you need it. Follow the trail beyond to the bottom of the mountain and continue straight west until you make it to a small town. Rest at the inn for the night, and in the morning find a way to the nearest major city. I don't care where you go from there, just please... protect my daughter.”
Rose went quiet a moment, making sure she had the information correct. Then, she nodded and turned to leave. “I promise you, I won't let anything happen to her.”
“Before you leave,” Shiva said, stepping forward. “There is something we must do. You must beat me.”
“Uh... excuse me?”
“To make it believable, it must look as though you defeated me and got away.”
Bowing her head slightly, Rose uttered a cool breath. “Right...”
Lady Shiva smile, dropping to one knee and lifting her chin forward. “Make it look real.”
A short few minutes later, the doors at the end of the corridor burst open. Rose turned her gaze to see another team of commandos entering, caught in apparent shock. Dropping the bloodied Shiva to the ground, she ran forward to grab her blades and then lunged out the nearby window as bullets filled the air.
When the commandos doubled back through the hallway, Lady Shiva slowly pushed herself back to her hands and knees. Wiping a line of blood from her mouth, she looked up to the window that Rose had jumped out of and smiled a very small smile. “Fly free, little dove.”
Cassandra furrowed her brow, leaning over the checker board and carefully examining the piece that Rose had just jumped into her back row. She frowned slightly, leaning back again and finally placing a second checker on top of the piece. Then, she grabbed one of her own few remaining pieces and moved it forward.
“Hey, don't feel too bad,” Rose said, moving her new king piece back a space. “You're getting really good.”
Scratching her head briefly, the young mute girl moved another piece.
“Actually, I think we can try chess soon.” Rose slid another checker forward, holding her finger on it for a lingering moment before letting go. “It's a lot more interesting than checkers, and really helps you think strategically. I used to play it a lot with my... dad.” She went quiet a moment, breathing outwardly.
Looking up at her, Cassandra softened her eyes and tilted her head to the side. She wanted to ask a question... but had no way of expressing what that question was.
Rose knew what the question was regardless, able to sense it from the girl's sympathetic gaze. “My dad, yeah... he's a bad man. I always thought he loved me, but... well, I guess I was wrong.” She leaned forward against the table between them, watching as Cassandra moved another piece. “Your dad's pretty bad, too, huh?”
The girl suddenly froze, body going rigid and gaze becoming blank. Eventually, she bowed her head and slowly nodded.
“Yeah...” Rose uttered, pushing another checker forward. “I know the feeling.”
Cassandra looked at the checker board a long time, eyes shifting back and forth. Finally, she picked up one of her pieces and jumped it over three consecutive checkers of the opposite color.
“What the-” Rose said, sitting up straighter. She blinked curiously, staring at the board and wondering how the hell she had missed that. “Huh... nice move.”
Folding her hands in front of her, Cassandra gave a triumphant smile, legs swinging below her in her seat.
Rose took in a deep breath of cold mountain air, as she arrived in the snowy courtyard of the ancient Tibetan fortress. Despite the cold, the weather was actually pretty nice. Clear skies, bright sun... at least she wouldn't be training in the middle of a blizzard like last week. That had quite possibly been one of the worst training experiences in her life.
“You're early,” a voice stated.
Turning around, Rose noticed Lady Shiva approaching from across the courtyard. “Well, I think by now I've learned not to be late.”
The assassin smiled slightly. “Yes... after two years, I would hope so.”
“Seven hundred and forty-three days, to be exact,” she said.
“Yes... seven hundred and forty-three.” Lady Shiva shifted her stance, bringing her arms into a fighting position. “That's seven hundred and forty-three days of improvement.”
Taking in another deep breath, Rose shifted herself into a similar stance. “That's right. Care to see just how much?”
“As always.” And with those words, Lady Shiva lunged in with a quickness she very rarely showcased in a fight. This was different, though. This time, she wasn't holding back.
Rose watched carefully, waiting for the woman to come within striking distance. As the first strike whipped inward, time seemingly slowed down in her mind. Raising her arm, she blocked the blow and twisted her body to the side, countering with a palm thrust. Lady Shiva ducked, evading the attack and then driving her fingers into the girl's side.
With a subtle groan, Rose stepped back, catching her balance and fighting through the sudden explosion of pain in her ribs. Another attack lashed towards her, but she dodged, spinning around with lightning quickness. In less than a second, she found herself behind Shiva, using the opportunity to kick the back of the woman's knee. When Lady Shiva stumbled forward off balance, Rose followed up with a vicious kick to the back of her head. Shiva fell briefly before recovering and whirling back around to face her opponent.
“Very good,” the assassin stated, showing no visible sign of pain. “Now, again.”
They continued like this for the next seven hours, breaking only once for lunch. By the time they finished for the day, neither could stand straight. Rose walked with a limp and could barely move her left arm, while Lady Shiva bled from a cut lip and couldn't properly bend her knee. When the sun finally set behind the mountain peaks, they collapsed into the snow, remaining there for several moments to catch their breath.
“You have come a long way, little dove,” Lady Shiva said, wiping a line of crimson from her chin. “I am proud.”
“Yeah, well... being trained by the world's greatest assassin certainly helps,” she replied, with a long breath. “Though I still don't know why you're training me.”
“The time is not yet right... but perhaps soon.” Slowly climbing back to her feet, Shiva waved for her pupil to follow her. “Come with me, little dove. I have something to show you.”
Rose lifted a curious eyebrow, then quickly hobbled up to her feet. “Uh, sure thing, coming.”
Lady Shiva led her through the mountain fortress, deep into its lower levels. In the two years that Rose had been here, she had never gone anywhere other than the courtyard, her bedchambers, and the corridors in between. These subbasements, lit only by a series of blazing torches along the wall, were entirely new to her.
“In here,” Shiva said, opening a thick wooden door.
Rose followed the woman inside, closing the door behind her. When she turned her attention to what the room contained, her single eye went wide. “Whoa...”
The large, round chamber within was lit with the same kinds of torches as the previous corridors. The floor was not man-made, but rather a natural formation of the mountain on which the fortress had been built, and at the center of the floor sat a deep pool of bubbling water.
“What is this?” she asked, taking a curious step forward.
“A natural hot spring,” Lady Shiva explained. “But not a normal one. It is... special.”
Rose knelt down next to the spring, running her hand through the hot water. “Special how?”
“It possesses healing properties.” Turning around, Shiva began disrobing, stripping off her silk gi. “Soaking within its waters will revitalize our bodies, and mend our injuries.”
“...seriously?” Rose glanced up at the woman, crossing her eyebrows. “And you waited over two years to show this to me because...?”
“Because you hadn't earned it,” she replied, kneeling down and folding her clothes into a neat pile. “But now... well, this is a special occasion.”
Rose blinked, briefly shaking her head. “If you say so.”
Lowering her nude form into the water, Lady Shiva gestured for her pupil to join her. “Come, soak in the spring.”
“Uh...” she uttered, pausing briefly as she stood up straight. “I don't think that's a good idea.”
“And why not?”
Rose fidgeted slightly, glancing over at Shiva's clothes, then down at herself. “Well, it's just... I mean... I have scars. A lot of scars.”
Lifting an eyebrow, Shiva waded across the spring towards her. “You are... ashamed of your scars? Self conscious, perhaps?”
“I don't know... I mean, I guess,” she said, with a shrug.
A brief pause passed between the two, as Lady Shiva hoisted herself up onto the edge of the spring. Calmly, she scooted herself over into direct torchlight, highlighting her own body with a bright orange glow that revealed numerous markings all across her body, some small and thin, others larger and bumpy. “You are not the only one with scars, little dove.”
Rose widened her eye, as she lowered herself to examine Lady Shiva's body. She very tentatively held out a hand, running her fingers along the woman's shoulder, feeling the scars. “I... I didn't know.”
“Scars are nothing to be ashamed of,” Shiva explained. “They are merely another part of us, no different from our hair, or the color of our eyes, and each one tells a story about who we are.”
“I... never really considered that,” she muttered. “I always hated my scars, because they... they remind me of some things in my life I'd rather forget. Bad things.”
Turning slightly, Lady Shiva gently brushed a hand against the girl's cheek. “No matter how bad, you should never forget the things in your life that have made you who you are. Don't let your scars remind you of the bad things in your life, but rather how to move past them, how to become stronger.”
Lowering her gaze, Rose exhaled a long breath. “I... guess that makes sense.”
“Now, come join me,” Shiva said, slipping back into the spring. “You'll be glad you did.”
After a brief moment's hesitation, Rose stood straight again and slowly disrobed, shivering slightly at the cold air against her naked flesh. Looking down at herself, she closely studied her scars, faint white markings that marred a fair portion of her body. Lifting a hand, she also briefly traced a finger over the scar that slashed across where her left eye used to be. Finally tearing her gaze away, she lowered herself into the bubbling water of the spring.
“Oh, wow,” she uttered, eye instantly going wide. The moment she submerged herself into the hot water, the muscles in her body fully relaxed, any and all pain vanishing completely. Leaning against the edge of the spring, she tilted her head back and groaned out a satisfied breath, eye closing. “Just... wow.”
“It is a wonderful feeling, isn't it?” Shiva said, closing her own eyes as she relaxed in the healing waters.
“I'll say...” Breathing in deeply again, a wide smile curled across her face. “Wish you'd told me about this place before. I'd have worked twice as hard to earn a dip sooner.”
“Worry not about missed opportunities in the past,” Shiva stated, “and instead enjoy the now.”
The two remained quiet for a long while after, taking comfort in both the silence and the restorative properties of the spring. Tight muscles loosened, bleeding cuts closed up, sore joints relaxed, and peace found their stressed minds.
Eventually, Lady Shiva opened her eyes again, glancing at her student and breaking the silence. “You and my daughter have grown quite close, I've noticed.”
Rose opened her own eye, giving the woman a small shrug. “She's a good kid.”
“She likes you,” Shiva said. “While with her father, Cassandra did... interact with other children, but not how you'd think. Those other children were also assassins-in-training. They were only permitted to fight with Cassandra, to attack her. Cain wouldn't let them speak so much as a single word to her.”
“She... wow,” Rose muttered, lowering gaze to the water. “And I thought I had it rough.”
“That's why I'm glad she has you now.” Lady Shiva closed her eyes again, holding her arms around herself. “I rescued her from that life, and I am her mother... but what she really needed was a friend.”
Breathing outwardly, Rose folded her arms across her chest and bowed her head. “But even with a friend... The Syndicate still plans on using her as a weapon, don't they?”
“Yes,” she replied, nodding slowly. If ever Lady Shiva had shown an expression of true pain, it was now. “Yes they do...”
Rose sat cross-legged on the floor of her bedchamber, breathing in deeply and slowly, eye closed. She ignored the frost particles sticking to her body, and the shiver running through her spine. Though anyone else would be curled up into a ball right now, desperate for heat, she remained calm, breath steady.
Killer Frost stood over her, frowning. The icy blue woman paced around the girl momentarily, hands balled into fists and eyebrows cross. “You really... really like to spite me, don't you?”
Rose made no response, maintaining the meditative state that currently regulated her internal body temperature. It had taken her a year and a half to learn it, but now Killer Frost could no longer cause her pain, could no longer torture her like before. Now, she was the one in control.
“Scream, damn it!” she exclaimed. “Or... or whimper. Or cry. Or something. At least attack me!”
Killer Frost groaned loudly, bringing a hand to her forehead. “Come on... just a little smack?” She brought her face close, pushing her chin out. “Just like you used to... you know you want to.”
“Damn it!” Finally out of patience, Killer Frost wound up her arm and clubbed Rose across the face, forcing the girl to the floor. “If you just want to get it over with, then fine. But you take all the fun out of this, I hope you know.”
Rose slowly sat up, rubbing her cheek. “What's the matter, Frost? Lost your cool?”
The woman's eye twitched slightly at the comment. With a vicious kick, she buried her heel into Rose's chest, pinning her against the floor. “I'll make you scream, do you hear me?”
“Go ahead, give it your best shot,” she replied, grinning. “If you think you're woman enough.”
Rose uttered a small groan, as she blinked her eye open. She saw nothing, only the blackness of night. With a small yawn, she sat up in bed and squinted into the shadows, waiting for her sight to adjust. Something had awoken her, some kind of sound... but what? When at last she could make out shapes in the darkness, she focused her sight on a small bundle in the middle of the normally empty floor.
“The hell?” she uttered, climbing out of bed. She briefly rubbed her tired eye, then fumbled around the table for a match and a candle.
When the candle finally lit, burning away the inky darkness around her, she turned once again to the center of the room, gaze focusing on the bundle one the floor. At first, she thought she was hallucinating, or that maybe she were in the middle of some kind of dream. To be sure, she knelt down and carefully examined the items on the floor. No, she wasn't hallucinating. Then, she pinched her arm. Nope... not a dream.
Placing the candle on the ground, she reached for one of the two swords, hand grasping firmly around the handle. “Hel-lo,” she said, drawing the blade out of its scabbard. A wide smile formed across her face, as she inspected the sharpened edge. “Come to mama.”
Sheathing the sword, Rose then picked up the black and silver outfit. No, not just an outfit... armor, and it looked to be exactly her size. “What on earth...?” And then, she lifted her gaze. What she saw next charged her body with adrenaline.
The door to her bedchamber, the door normally locked from the outside... was wide open.
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.
Note: The tenth arc in my Ravager series to be remastered into prose format and edited to make it better.
Becky took in a sharp breath, as Rose pressed a warm, damp cloth against the cut on her head. It wasn't too deep, but the bleeding did need to be stopped. Fortunately, her injuries weren't any worse than that, especially considering she'd been shoved by someone with high levels of super strength. Even after crashing through a table, the cut and a sore knee were the worst of it.
Leaning back slightly on the bed, Becky released a heavy breath, closing her eyes. “So, that was Wonder Girl, huh?”
Rose nodded. “Unfortunately.”
“Well, she's certainly... aggressive.”
“I prefer the term 'b*tchy', but maybe that's just me.”
A small smirk snaked its way across Becky's face. “That actually does sound better. You two don't really get along, though, do you?”
“Never have, even before I got Kid Flash killed,” Rose said, tilting her gaze downward. “I mean, she'd always been pretty cold towards me, and I was always looking for a reason to make her mad. So yeah, that was a match made in hell right from the start.”
Chuckling slightly, Becky gave her girlfriend another smile, then reached up and pushed the wet cloth away. “Hey, enough with tending to me. What about you? She clocked your jaw pretty good.”
“I wouldn't worry about it, I'm used to taking hits like that.” Rose paused a moment, pressing the cloth back to Becky's cut. “Besides, she held back. If she hadn't, I wouldn't have a jaw left. I guess even as much as she hates me, she doesn't actually want to kill me.”
“Well, I still say you should get looked at,” she insisted.
Rose lifted an eyebrow. “Is that right?”
“Come on, lie down.”
Putting up no real resistance, Rose moved forward to the bed and obeyed, pulling off her shirt and pants, then lying down on the mattress, front side down. She uttered a cool breath, eyes closing slightly as Becky got into position atop her, hands coming down to begin massaging her shoulders.
“See, doesn't that feel better?” Becky asked.
“Mmm... maybe,” she responded, with a subtle, satisfied groan.
A calm, gentle silence descended over the couple for a few moments, as Becky's hands slowly worked their way downward. It was a silence that they both enjoyed, taking peace in each other's company. In the time that they had been involved with each other, they had grown a close bond, a bond that often times, like now, needed no words. Of course, the silence could last only so long.
“This may not be the best time to discuss it, but... our next mission is the big one, right?” Becky questioned, working her hands along Rose's lower back. “We'll be trying to bring down the VRA at the source.”
Breathing in deeply, Rose opened her eyes and stared forward. “Yeah. We'll hit them hard, and we'll find Slade. We'll beat him, we'll capture him, and we will find out everything he knows, one way or another. Whatever he's planning, whoever is giving him orders, it all has to end.”
“Si... and even though he's your dad, you'll be able to...”
“To what? Fight him? Hurt him?” Rose glanced back over her shoulder slightly. “I told you everything about him, Beck, you know what kind of man he is. I disowned him a long time ago. When I face him, he's not my father; he's just another killer.”
Becky's hands stopped, a small sigh exiting her lips. Moving off her girlfriend, she lied down next to Rose and held an arm around her shoulders, head resting on the pillow. “I'm sorry for what he did to you, Rose. You deserve so much better than what he put you through.”
Rose smiled. You're sweet, you know that?”
“Well, I do try.”
Lifting up a hand, Rose took hold of Becky's, interlocking their fingers. “You're forgetting, though. I already do have better. I have you.”
Becky grinned widely. “Now who's being sweet, ah?”
“That's not all I can be, you know.”
“Hmm, is that so?”
Growing a smirk across her face, Rose leaned forward and gave Becky a deep kiss, while rolling on top of her in the process. “How about I show you?”
With the addition of the Teen Titans, their numbers had doubled, meaning that they were essentially twice as effective and twice as dangerous as before. Unfortunately, the VRA still had them all vastly outnumbered with the amount of heroes under control of neural stems. They weren't just going to need a lot of determination and power to succeed this time around, but a lot of luck, too.
“So, we all know the main purpose of this assault,” Power Girl said, as the team gathered in the main lounge the next morning. “To break into VRA headquarters, shut the place down, and capture Slade Wilson for interrogation. In order put an end to this, we have to figure out who he's working for.”
“I'd suggest breaking into two separate teams, in the event that we run into heavy resistance,” Red Robin stated. “We'll need a distraction team to draw a majority of the fire, and an infiltration team to get inside and go after Slade.”
Power Girl nodded. “Good idea. In that case, the distraction team will consist of myself, Wonder Girl, Superboy, Flash, Bombshell, and Static.”
Leaning forward on the couch, Bombshell gave a small grin. “And the objective for that team is to cause as much mayhem as possible, right? Now that I can do.”
“Which leaves Red Robin, Red Arrow, Ravager, Beast Boy, Raven and Rebecca for the infiltration team,” Power Girl continued.
Beast Boy glanced over at Cyborg. “What about Vic?”
“I'll be back here, working on a way to remotely shut down those stems,” he explained.
Superboy folded his arms, bringing a hand to his chin. “But you already managed to disable ours, didn't you?”
“When I could get up close and had time to interact with them directly, sure,” Cyborg said. “But that isn't going to be much help against someone attacking you. If I can figure out a way to disable them from a distance, though, then we'd have a distinct advantage against the VRA controlled heroes.”
At this information, Red Arrow frowned and shifted his weight slightly. “I guess I'll be the one to ask it: why aren't we waiting until you do figure that out to attack? Seems like it would make things a whole lot easier.”
“Because, there's no guarantee I'll be able to, at least not in the near future. The longer we sit around waiting for me to come up with a solution, the worse things get out there, and the more time the VRA will have to prepare for us.”
“I have to agree on that one...” Ravager muttered. “Giving Slade a significant amount of time to prepare against anything is not a good idea.”
“Right, we want to hit them while they're still vulnerable,” Power Girl said.
Static bowed his head slightly, breathing out a long sigh. “I just hope this works and we get the information we're looking for, because we are attacking a government building. In the middle of D.C. If this goes south, it's not going to end well for us.”
Power Girl's eyes narrowed. “If we fail, I doubt it will end well for anyone.”
A dead silence descended upon the group. They gave each other careful glances, nerves beginning to run high. No matter what happened, they couldn't fail.
Becky then stood up from her seat, planting one end of her staff firmly against the ground and giving Power Girl an affirmative nod. “Let's do this.”
Out in front of the VRA Headquarters building, a large garrison had been set up to protect against any incoming attacks. Most of the men were directly employed by the VRA itself, but it also included a collection of local police, as well as military troops. They were taking no chances. The only problem with this, of course, was the cost to not just gather them, but also keep them all stationed there, waiting for a threat they weren't sure was coming.
But Slade was sure. He was always sure. As he stood there behind a wall of large army jeeps, hands clasped behind his back, he carefully observed the setup. These men likely wouldn't be able to hold the line very long against the kind of power on its way, but they didn't really need to, either. They were simply present in order to slow the threat down, not take it out. He had other individuals more capable of that standing by for when they were needed.
“Are you sure they're coming?” Agent Croft asked, stepping beside him. “We have no intel to indicate an imminent attack.”
Slade casually glanced at the man, his stolid expression unchanging. “I suppose the previous attacks on our other facilities have escaped your memory?”
“They'll be here, and soon,” Slade assured. “To be honest, I'm surprised they haven't arrived already; perhaps even superheroes need a breather. The point is to be prepared, so when they get here, we can put them down.”
Agent Croft uttered a cool breath, turning his gaze back towards the garrison in front of them. Most of the men were just sitting around eating lunch, or reading a paper. They certainly don't look like a very prepared bunch. “Somehow, they're not inspiring me with a lot of confidence.”
“Just have a little faith. Pawns go first for a reason. Now, stay here and coordinate the defense. I'll be in my office.”
Once Slade disappeared back inside the building, Croft mumbled out a curse under his breath and folded his arms. “Stay here and coordinate... right. We'll be out here for hours before-”
“There they are!” one of the guards shouted.
Suddenly, the whole mass of troops began scrambling into defensive formations, taking position and readying themselves against the incoming superbeings. Power Girl was the first to arrive, swooping in and crashing down in front of the main line. Wonder Girl and Superboy flew down next to her, followed by Static and Bombshell. The Flash appeared a second later, running up behind the group and standing with his arms crossed over his chest.
Immediately, Croft ran forward with a bullhorn in hand. “Attention, superheroes! Surrender at once, or we will open fire. In light of your recent crimes against the VRA and the government as a whole, lethal force has been authorized! This is the only warning you get!”
Eyes narrowing, Power Girl took a few steps forward. The men at the front of the line instantly tensed up, raising their weapons at her. “And here's my counter. You stand aside and let us by peacefully, and none of you need to get hurt. This is your only warning.”
“Not going to happen, Power Girl,” Croft said, shaking his head. “You're not heroes anymore, you're the country's most wanted criminals. You don't stand down, and we will take you out!”
“You're welcome to try.” Not hesitating another moment, Power Girl's eyes suddenly glowed bright red, followed by a thick wave of heat vision that sliced forward across the ground in front of them. A tall cloud of dust and debris kicked up into the air, blocking the heroes from sight.
The front line open fired, some with standard assault rifles, others with the VRA's more sophisticated energy weapons that shot out powerful orbs of electricity. Of course, none of them even came close to hitting their mark before Power Girl's team was on them, bursting through the dust cloud and throwing themselves straight into the enemy force. Several men ran in a panic, while others still attempted to subdue their targets. It was rather futile, though, as their weapons had very little effect against the largely invulnerable heroes.
While the more destructive members of the team went around simply destroying vehicles and causing as much chaos as possible, Flash and Static worked on disarming everyone they could. Floating up high into the air on his levitating trashcan lid, Static sent out a field of electricity to magnetize and pull away their weapons. Flash, on the other hand, simply ran at super speeds in between all of them and physically pulled their weapons out of their hands. Within a minute, more than two thirds of the entire garrison was unarmed and helpless.
With an angry shout, Bombshell flew forward towards the back of the enemy troops and ripped straight through a military jeep, splitting it in half and causing it to explode in a rather impressive fireball. Fortunately, the surrounding men had ample time to get out of the way of any airborne metal pieces.
Turning around, she gave them a cross glare, as bullets bounced off her Dilustel skin. “Come on! That the best you got? You're all pathetic!”
Charging up her fist with quantum energy, she punched the ground squarely in front of her, causing a violent eruption of earth, stone, and concrete. This time, however, the flying debris exploded in a much wider radius, threatening to crush some of the nearby guards. Fortunately, a red and yellow blur zipped around and pulled everyone out of the way.
“Calm down, Bombshell!” Flash said. “We're not trying to hurt anyone!”
“If they didn't want to get hurt, they should have just surrendered!” she countered. As she went to direct her attacks elsewhere, however, a sonic blast exploded across her backside, launching her forward and straight through another jeep.
Flying into view, Blue Beetle raised his arm cannon for a follow up attack. “Could say the same to you, hermana!”
And suddenly an entire enemy team of supers arrived, including Black Canary, Stargirl, Argent, Hawkman, Jay Garrick, Terra, and Cyclone. For a brief moment, both teams of heroes just stood still, staring each other down. The other troops, meanwhile, took this opportunity to get the hell out of there, desperately retreating from the inevitable destruction about to take place.
“One last chance to surrender before we take you out,” Blue Beetle said, raising his sonic cannon again.
Before anyone could answer, however, the fallen Bombshell rocketed up from the ground and crashed into Blue Beetle midair, unleashing a power explosion of energy that sent him hurtling into one of the windows of the building behind him. A moment later, he flew back outside, relatively unharmed.
“I'll take that as a no,” he said. “Attack!”
Bombshell narrowed her gaze, flying in like a rocket once again. “You wanna go, blue boy? Let's go!”
And then the two sides clashed. As Bombshell and Blue Beetle went at it in the air, Jay Garrick, the original Flash, raced across the ground straight at the current Flash and lunged at him in a supersonic tackle. The two smashed into another building across the street, partially caving in one of the walls.
After sliding a ways across the ground, The Flash sprang back up to his feet and began racing back at the older man. “Don't make me do this, Jay!”
“You brought it on yourself, kid! You're a criminal now!”
Back in front of the VRA building, Stargirl flew in with her cosmic staff at the ready, heading straight at Wonder Girl. While forming a defensive force field around herself, she held the staff forward and fired off a sparkling and powerful cosmic blast. Wonder Girl stood her ground, holding her arms up in front of herself and taking the hit. She managed to endure for several moments, before the blast finally sent her airborne.
“Don't think that just because you wear that W on your chest, I'm a pushover!” Stargirl declared.
After stabilizing herself in the air, Wonder Girl jetted forward at Stargirl. When the next blast of energy came in, she dodged out of the way and moved in quick, delivering a thunderous punch that smashed against the force field and launched Stargirl into a jeep down below. Unfortunately, the force field held strong, negating any damage the attack might have caused.
As Hawkman lunged in with a vicious swing from his mace, Static ducked out of the way, floating backwards and firing an electrical blast. Hawkman simply held the mace forward, drawing in the entirety of the blast into it like a lightning rod and dispersing it.
Eyes going wide, Static floated higher, trying to keep his distance. “Okay, that shouldn't happen.”
“You've never seen Nth metal before have you?” Hawkman asked.
“Doesn't sound familiar, no.”
Flying after the young hero, Hawkman quickened his pace and took another swing. “Then have a closer look!”
Superboy jumped backwards, narrowly avoiding a giant silver plasma construct in the shape of a wrecking ball. However, the construct suddenly changed shape, shifting into dozens of long, flexible tendrils that lashed out and chased after him. While he managed to evade them for a while, they continued splitting into more and more, until eventually a number of them wrapped around his legs and swung him through the air, crashing into the side of the building.
“Not so super now, are you?” Argent said, grinning.
Her comment was answered by a very angry Superboy flying out from the rubble and blitzing straight at her. Eyes going wide, she formed a silver construct in front of her in the shape of a shield, taking the brunt of the resulting impact. The force of the blow still sent her plummeting back to the ground, though, leaving her in a daze.
As Superboy moved in to put her down for good, a loud, shrill scream of incredible power ripped through the air and hit him full force, throwing him backwards and forcing him to cover his ears.
“Sorry, Superboy, but she isn't the only one you have to deal with!” Black Canary exclaimed.
The team's final member, Power Girl, weaved her way in between several massive chunks of earth, as she headed towards Terra. This girl might have been her best friend, but she couldn't let that throw her off. Terra was controlled just like all the others, who could and would kill the uncontrolled heroes if given the opportunity. She needed to end this battle quickly, or at least drag it out long enough for the infiltration team to get to Slade.
“I'm sorry I have to do this again, Atlee!” Power Girl took to the air, eyes glowing red. “I don't have a choice!”
Atlee raised a fist, causing a massive chunk of earth to rip out from beneath the street. “There's always a choice, Peej! You just made the wrong one!”
As Power Girl closed the distance, a massive wind gust suddenly rippled through the air. At first, it was just a mild breeze, in comparison to her resilience, but soon picked up into near hurricane force, sending her spinning violently back through the air.
“You didn't forget about me, did you, Kara?” Cyclone asked, floating through the air. Another one of Power Girl's friends from the JSA, Maxine Hunkel, possessed complete control over air currents, and even sound waves, as of recently. That combination could be trouble.
By the time Power Girl managed to stabilize herself again in the air, a pair of enormous boulders came in from both sides and squashed her between them. Letting out a frustrated grunt, she pushed them back apart with minimal effort, only to take another flying boulder to the face, one that sent her crashing into a nearby building.
“You should have just surrendered, Kara!” Atlee declared. “Now we have to hurt you!”
Across the street from the battle, poised on a rooftop, the infiltration team watched carefully as their friends fought desperately against the VRA controlled heroes. While the distraction team did seem to be holding their own for now, they were still outnumbered, and their opponents weren't exactly pushovers to begin with.
Becky leaned forward over the parapet, her gaze unable to break away from the scene. “Dios, they're in trouble... you think they can hold out?”
“They're gonna have to,” Ravager said. “That's their job. Our job, on the other hand, is to take advantage of this. We need to get in there and find Slade.”
“Well, I'm ready you guys are,” Red Arrow replied. “I'd say those guys are plenty distracted now.”
Red Robin nodded. “I agree. Now's the time to go.”
Looking to Raven, Beast Boy gave her a nod. “Take us away.”
“Yes... let us go.” Raising her arms, Raven projected her soul-self once again, engulfing them all.
Raven took them to the second floor lobby of the VRA building. As they materialized out of her dark soul-self, the receptionist behind the counter uttered a terrified shriek, and instantly ducked down below her desk out of the way. Slowly, the woman peered up over the top to see what was going on.
“Alright, we're in,” Red Robin stated, looking around. “Question now is, where's Slade?”
“Well, there can't be that many places for him to hide,” Beast Boy said. “There's only five floors.”
Looking to her left, Ravager spotted the receptionist and walked over to her. “Hey, you. What floor is Slade on?”
The frightened woman let out a small yelp, tumbling back behind her chair and springing up to her feet. “P-please, don't hurt me!”
“Lady, we're not gonna hurt you,” Ravager said, with a small sigh. “Just tell us where Slade is.”
“S-slade? Oh, you mean Director Wilson, r-right. He's on the fifth floor in his office.”
Red Arrow blinked, scratching the back of his head. “Huh, never thought just asking would have worked.”
“Well you heard her, fifth floor.” Ravager turned to the others, hands coming to her hips. “Let's get moving.”
Staring in surprise, the receptionist gave the group careful glances, as she moved back to her desk. “You're... really not going to hurt me?”
Ravager folded her arms. “You don't plan on attacking us, do you?”
“W-what? No! Of course not!”
“Then yeah, you're safe. Now come on, we're wasting time.”
“I will have us there... shortly,” Raven said, once again extending her soul-self outward.
Before she could complete the task, however, a painful eruption of electricity exploded across her backside. Her eyes went wide, mouth gaping open and a horrific scream emerging from her throat. She fell forward, collapsing to the floor and twitching in pain, her entire body numb. Jutting into her back, right between her shoulder blades, was a small bat-shaped shuriken, with a blinking blue light on it.
“Raven!” Beast Boy called, rushing to the fallen empath's side.
A second electrically charged batarang came slicing through the air towards him, but Becky intercepted it, swatting it out of the air with her staff. A second later, a dark figure swooped in from around one of the lobby pillars, landing a kick on Becky's face and sending her reeling backwards. The figure landed nimbly, throwing another couple of batarangs, but Red Robin promptly knocked them both out of the air with two of his own razor discs.
“Cassandra?” Red Robin uttered, eyebrows lifting.
The attacker was Cassandra Cain, otherwise known as Black Bat, completely under the VRA's control. “First.. you fight me.”
Pushing past the others, Ravager came forward and cracked her knuckles. “You're kidding, right? You're a bit outnumbered, Bat B*tch, but hey, I won't complain. Gives us a chance to finally settle things.”
“She didn't come alone!” Suddenly, the werewolf Michael Kubrick bolted through the lobby, lips curled back and fangs bared. He made a wild lunge at the person closest to him: Red Robin.
With a deft maneuver, Red Robin rolled out of the way, while brandishing his extendable bo staff and moving into a defensive position. Then, the rest of the enemy team showed up, including a few familiar faces. The shark-alien woman Zaria, already transformed in all her monstrous glory, dove in from the ceiling, making a swipe at Red Arrow, who narrowly managed to dive out of the way.
When Beast Boy transformed into a tiger to help, the potted plants around them in the lobby suddenly sprang to life, rapidly growing and extending outward to take hold of him in the grasp of thick vines. The green skinned Poison Ivy slowly strutted around the side of one of the pillars, the vines lifting herself upwards into the air as well.
“Don't struggle too much,” Poison Ivy stated, a pleased smirk on her face. “My babies are still growing.”
Becky, meanwhile, held a hand to her head and shook off the last blow, while looking around at the melee. Before long, a new enemy appeared to attack, a blonde haired woman in a black and purple batsuit, carrying a bo staff similar to Red Robin's.
“Looks like you're all mine!” Batgirl announced, lunging forward.
Leaping out of the way of a vicious swing, Becky spun her own staff around and hit her opponent's weapon away, then thrust the end forward. But Batgirl was quick, leaning to the side to avoid the strike and then countering with a palm thrust that caught Becky square in the jaw. While recoiling from the blow, Becky felt another hit carom off her stomach, and then a third drill into the side of her knee. Fortunately, her armored bodysuit dispersed most of the force, resulting in very little actual damage.
After taking a second to briefly shake away the partial daze she was in, Becky swiftly dodged two more attacks, then ducked low and countered with an upwards swing from her staff. The end drilled Batgirl across the bottom of the jaw and literally lifted her up several feet into the air, the resulting shock wave knocking the woman out cold instantly.
Blinking a few times in surprise, Becky glanced down at the staff and smiled a little. “I really do love this thing.”
Before she had an opportunity to revel in her victory much longer, however, an incoming bolt zipped through the air and pierced her left shoulder.
“Hijo de puta!” she exclaimed, ripping the bolt from her shoulder. She quickly turned around to see another costumed woman standing there, wielding two small hand crossbows.
“I'm sorry, did that hurt?” Huntress asked, taking aim again. “Here, have another.”
Ravager took a small step to the side, watching as Black Bat carefully examined every motion she made. That was how Cassandra gained such an edge in hand to hand, reading her opponent's movements to such a degree that she could determine exactly how and where a person would attack. Likewise, Ravager possessed her precog, enabling her to see attacks before they happened. Both women had highly effective methods of defending themselves in hand to hand combat, and both were highly trained and experienced.
It made them a perfect match for each other.
“You said once... you wanted to smack me around,” Black Bat stated, shifting into a fighting stance. “Now... you have the chance. If you can.”
“I wouldn't waste my time if I didn't know I could,” she responded.
Black Bat's eyes narrowed. “The last time we fought... I slit your throat.”
“This isn't like when when we fought before.” Ravager held her hands up at the ready, turning her body to the side. “I'm not some rookie looking for daddy's approval anymore.”
Ravager lunged in for an attack. She was faster than when they last fought, she was stronger than when they last fought, and she was a hell of a lot more skilled, too. But Cassandra still predicted the location of each punch, deflecting them to the side. Black Bat's countering backhand struck only air, however, as Ravager ducked out way.
After a brief hesitation, both combatants staring each other down, they charged forward again. No more testing, no more messing around. For the most part, they both had an extreme difficulty hitting the other, with most attacks either being blocked, deflected, or outright avoided. But some attacks did land, and for a short moment they exchanged several blows in rapid succession, though nothing of particular significance. A split lip here, a jab to the ribs there; the damage was marginal.
“So you are... better,” Black Bat said, wiping blood from her mouth.
“So are you.” Ravager paused a moment, holding a hand to her bruised jaw. “But not as much.”
Ravager straightened herself slightly, lowering her hand. “Of course I am. You used to be leagues ahead of me, even with my abilities. But look at us now, almost even. That tells me you've either been slacking off, or somewhere along the way you just reached a point where you couldn’t improve anymore.”
“My peak,” she sated.
“Yeah, your peak. And guess what? I think my peak is higher.”
Cassandra went quiet, gaze narrowing as she brought her fists back up. “Let's find out.”
They rushed each other again, this time determined to find out who was the better. While Ravager had her swords and Black Bat had her gadgets, neither set of equipment came into play. This fight was personal to the both of them, even if Cassandra was being controlled by one of the neural stems. They went hand to hand, and only hand to hand. This wasn't just about winning, this was about pride.
As they reached each other, Ravager poised herself and waited for an attack. When the punch came, she turned herself to the side and wrapped her own arms around Black Bat's, then worked herself into a position to grab hold of the woman's midsection and under her armpit.
“Don't bother struggling,” she said.
Her grip came down like a vice, unyielding no matter how hard Cassandra tried to break free. Their skill might have been on par with each other, but there were some things that Ravager had to her advantage. Enhanced speed and strength, for example, the latter of which was the deciding factor here. Pushing forward, she forced Black Bat face first into the pillar in front of them, then pulled back and swung her to the floor. Throughout the entire assault, she never once loosened her grip.
“A little advice-” Kneeling atop Cassandra now, Ravager pinned both of the woman's arms in an awkward position behind her back, then slammed her face hard against the tile floor. “-when you're fighting someone who can see your attacks before you make them-”
Black Bat fought back, twisting her body to the side and using her legs push off from the ground and attempt to break free. But Ravager didn't let her go, instead twisting one of her arms even harder, and then lunging her knee forward straight into her jaw. “-you have to take that ability out of the equation. If there's nowhere for you to go-”
With another desperate lurch Black Bat started to wriggle free, sliding out from beneath Ravager and nearly getting away. But Ravager was quick to grab hold again, still not letting go, in spite of a hard palm thrust that whipped her head backwards.
Instead, she pulled Black Bat up and lurched her head forward, viciously headbutting the woman square in the face. “-then you can't get away.”
One final elbow strike to the back of the skull put Cassandra down for good.
“It doesn't matter what you transform into!” Poison Ivy exclaimed. “My lovelies will rip you apart!”
Currently in the form of a hummingbird, Beast Boy zipped around wildly, darting out of the way of monstrous, man eating plants. Fortunately, his speed and unpredictability in this form kept him alive for the moment. He would just transform into something much larger, but if he got too big, he might end up crashing straight through the floor, which likely wasn't reinforced enough to hold something like a mammoth or a T-Rex.
Instead, he darted out of the way of a few more lunging plant mouths and then quickly morphed into a gorilla, getting close enough to make a leaping dive at Poison Ivy. However, a massive plant stem suddenly shot up through the floor straight in front of him, causing him to very nearly run straight into it. Fortunately, he managed to change directions to avoid collision at the last moment.
However, it also left him vulnerable to the man eating plants, all of which began to converge on him at once. Going on the defensive again, he transformed back into a hummingbird, ready to keep dodging. But the need never arose, as suddenly a large ball of flame erupted at the base of one of the plants.
Instantly, Poison Ivy let out a horrified shriek of agony, eyes going wide and arms reaching out to the burning plant. “No! What have you done?! They're in pain! They're dying!”
A brief second later, Red Robin appeared behind her and delivered a hard strike with his staff to the base of her skull, knocking her out cold.
Morphing back into human form, Beast Boy glanced back at the cause of the fire. “Thanks.”
“Fire arrow,” Red Arrow said, giving a smirk. “Primitive, but effective.”
“Not really primitive when you're using kerosene as a base,” Red Robin remarked.
Ravager stumbled into view a moment later, moving around the withering and dying plant life. A short distance away, Kubrick, Zaria, Batgirl, and Huntress lay unconscious on the floor.
Holding a hand to the back of her head, she glanced around at the others for a moment, confused. “Where's Becky?”
“Uh, not sure exactly.” Red Arrow paused a moment, glancing back over his shoulder. “She helped us take down ugly and uglier over there, then I think she ran off.”
A sudden sinking feeling dropped into her gut. “Oh, Becky no... tell me you didn't go after him by yourself.” Instantly, she took off and running, sprinting towards the stairs.
“Damn it!” Red Robin declared, chasing after her. “Roy, B.B., take care of Raven! I'm going after them!”
The door to Slade's office burst inwards, tearing straight off its hinges with splinters and shards of glass spraying in all directions. Holding her staff at the ready, Becky stepped inside and took a defensive stance, staring at the man in front of her.
Slade stood there, fully dressed in his armored costume, except for the mask. A broadsword adorned his back, while multiple guns hung off his waist and legs. “About time, I was starting to get bored.”
“Slade! You're coming with us!”
Not answering right away, he pulled on his mask finally and straightened it, the Deathstroke persona taking over now. “Rebecca, isn't it? Shame... I was hoping for Rose.”
“Well you got me!” she countered. “And the others are on their way soon, so do the smart thing and come quietly.”
Deathstroke paused a moment, tilting his head and giving the woman a long look. “You're my daughter's... lover, correct?”
“Girlfriend,” Becky said, eyes narrowing. “Get it right.”
“Of course... and she's happy with you, isn't she?”
“The hell do you care?” she asked. “As far as I'm concerned, that's none of your business!”
“I'm her father,” Deathstroke said. “Her happiness is most certainly my business.”
Becky scoffed, lips curling into a frown. “Right, and that's why you drugged her, manipulated her, and made her kill for you? You're a regular father of the year.”
“Don't presume you know anything about it,” he said. “Even she doesn't know the whole story, not really.”
“Well, I'm sure we'd all love to hear it.” Becky finally lifted her staff, ready to attack. “You can tell it to us from behind bars.”
Taking a couple steps forward, Deathstroke clasped his hands behind his back. “Don't be stupid, girl. You're in over your head.”
“We'll see about that, won't we? For everything you've done with the VRA, everything you've done to hurt these people, and everything you've ever done to Rose, I'm taking you down.”
Deathstroke paused momentarily, reaching back behind himself and drawing his sword. Then, he took a small step forward and lifted the blade above his head, waiting. “I'll tell you right now, I don't want to fight you, Rebecca. But if you make the first move, do not expect me to hold back.”
Becky's gaze went narrow again, hands gripping her staff with both hands. As determined and eager as she was to make the first move, a part of her felt the pangs of hesitation. Something about this man was frightening.
Quickly, though, she fought those feelings away, instead running across the office at him. “Let's go!”
Deathstroke stumbled backwards, catching his balance against the desk and then pushing himself forward. When he and Becky engaged again, the exchange was brief but telling. When the butt of the staff jutted against his ribs, he felt a thunderous force erupt, a small shock wave ripping into his armor and knocking him airborne. He did, however, manage to flip himself around in midair and land back on his feet, though he staggered momentarily.
“Not bad,” he said, eye narrowing from behind his mask. “I might even go so far as to say pretty good. That suit is impressive.”
Swallowing, Becky took in a deep breath and staggered, dropping to one knee and wincing.
“The staff, too,” Deathstroke continued. “A fine piece of weaponry. But it doesn't matter how strong or fast you are, I still got you.”
A small grunt emerged from Becky's lips, as she glanced down to see a clean cut through her power suit, slicing along her ribs. “Rose told me you were dangerous... guess she was right.”
“Do the smart thing and stand down, Rebecca.” Deathstroke lowered his sword, taking a small step forward. “I don't want to hurt you again.”
“Sorry, but we have a job to do,” Becky said, clicking a switch on the center of her staff. A low pitched humming noise filled the room, as the weapon powered up to maximum capacity. “No more messing around!”
Deathstroke lifted an eyebrow in curiosity, preparing himself against the charging woman. As the staff swung in, he went to deflect the blow with his sword, but the massive shock wave that erupted sent the blade spinning through the air and knocked him off balance, hands shaking and numb.
When the staff hit his gut this time, he almost mistook the impact for a speeding train. Instantly, he lifted into the air and flew backwards towards the window behind him. Not only did he go through the window, but he also took half the wall with him, plummeting through the air from five stories up.
Realizing exactly what she had done, Becky's eyes went wide. She quickly ran over to the hole in the wall, terrified that she had actually killed the man. “Oh mierda!”
The roof of an attaching section of the building broke Deathstroke's fall before he could plummet the entire distance, crashing against the hard surface about twenty feet down. He lied there for several moments, groaning quietly to himself, then sat up and shook off the daze.
“Okay, a very fine piece of weaponry,” he muttered.
A short moment later, another figure landed on the roof in front of him, cracking the flat surface upon impact. Becky's suit absorbed the shock of the fall, allowing her to instantly recover and prepare herself for another attack. Rising back to his feet, Deathstroke held a hand to his chest briefly, then took a fighting stance.
“I'd stay down, if I were you,” Becky said.
“Girl, you really don't know what you're up against, do you?”
“I know I just knocked you out a window. Want to make it off a roof, too?”
A small sigh brushed past Deathstroke's lips. “I didn't want to have to do this...”
He suddenly sprinted forward, the fall apparently having very little effect on his ability to continue fighting. Becky readied herself, spinning her staff and delivering a vicious swing at his legs. But she struck only air, as Deathstroke leaped over the attack and delivered and explosive elbow that caught the side of her head. She staggered slightly, trying to recover quickly from the blow... but then the follow up strikes came.
Becky barely even knew where the attacks were coming from, they were hitting her so fast. And they hurt, too. A lot. Even with the armor that her suit provided, she felt the thunderous impact. By the time the onslaught finished, her entire body throbbed, almost numb.
Am I on my back? I am... what the hell happened?
Everything appeared to be spinning as she looked up at the sky, and for a brief moment she felt nauseous. Eventually, Deathstroke appeared above in her vision, standing over her. She tried to get back up to keep fighting, but her insides suddenly twisted, causing her to roll over and vomit, coughing and sputtering.
“I told you,” Deathstroke said, gaze narrowing, “you're in over your head.”
“I'm not... done yet...” she uttered.
He merely raised a fist, ready to put her down for good. “Yes, you are.”
Before he could deliver the blow, however, another voice interrupted him. “SLADE!”
Deathstroke glanced up just in time to see a figure dive bombing him from up above like a missile, feet first. Boots squarely striking him in the chest, he tumbled head over heels backward until popping back up to his feet and hunching over slightly.
“Rose...” he said, narrowing his gaze at his daughter. “Good of you to join us.”
“Your fight is with me, Dad!” She spat that last word with pure, ire-filled venom. “Leave her out of it!”
“It's her own fault. I did warn her about getting involved.”
Becky groaned slightly, sitting up very slowly and pressing a hand to her forehead. “Oy, I had him...”
Ravager's gaze snapped back to her girlfriend. She came close, kneeling down and pressing her hands to Rebecca's shoulders. “Becky, what the hell were you thinking? You shouldn't have gone after him alone!”
“I just... wanted to do something good for you,” she replied, looking into her girlfriend's eyes. She averted her gaze a moment later, glancing away with a sigh.
“Well, you’ve done enough for now,” Ravager said, leaning forward to give Becky a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Take a breather, I'll handle him.”
A moment later, another figure swung down into view. Red Robin landed nimbly on the rooftop, then retracted his grapple line and tucked it away. “You don't have to handle him alone.”
“I don't need your help, Tim,” Ravager stated. “Or want it. This one's personal.”
“You know I'm not just gonna stand here and watch you fight him alone,” he replied.
“Yeah, what he said.” Becky groaned quietly, pushing herself back to her feet. “Think I'm starting to feel a bit better here.”
And just like that, Deathstroke faced a three on one disadvantage. He could take any one of them just fine on their own, he knew that. But all three? That could pose a problem. “Well... isn't this interesting?”
Drawing her swords, Ravager led the charge, sprinting straight at her father. “Take him down!”
Deep within a dark bunker somewhere, location unspecified, a man sat at a large computer console, more like a small command center than anything else. This equipment far surpassed the stuff he'd been using in the past, and with it he could do just about anything imaginable with a computer. Right now, his 'eye in the sky' paid careful attention to everything going on in Washington D.C., specifically the attack on the VRA headquarters. Even more specifically, he was watching an aerial view of the rooftop on which Deathstroke fought against three opponents. The man seemed to be putting up a decent enough fight, but he was still outmatched.
“Well, it seems you've bitten off a little more than you can chew, Slade,” Calculator muttered, leaning forward in his seat. “Can't say I'm surprised.”
As he continued watching, the phone next to his station rang. It rang three times, then stopped. After a long pause, it started ringing again. It was at this point he reached over to grab it, knowing exactly who it was.
“I was wondering when you were going to call,” he said, sinking back into his chair.
“Are you watching?” the voice asked.
“Live satellite feed is crystal clear. I can see it all.”
“And how does it look?”
Calculator paused a moment, clicking a button on the keyboard and pulling up another screen. “Not good for the VRA.”
The screen now showed a view of the front of the VRA building. Most of the combatants were down and out at the moment, but Power Girl, Superboy, and Static were still in the game, fighting against Terra, Stargirl, and Argent. Pressing a second button, he zoomed in just in time to see Static deliver a particularly devastating blast to Terra, who went down in a smoking heap.
“The main defense squad is almost out,” Calculator informed. “I give them five more minutes, tops.”
“I see... “ The voice paused, breathing outwardly. “Unfortunate. You know what to do in that case.”
Calculator smirked. “Of course.”
“Slade may have failed, but as long as they don't get any information out of him, then the game continues.”
“Trust me,” Calculator said, “when I'm done here, there won't be anything left of him to get information from.”
“Good. Once you've done that, I'll take care of the rest.”
The phone clicked off a second later. Calmly hanging it up, Calculator pulled himself closer to the keyboard and cracked his knuckles. With a few short button presses, he pulled up the VRA building's security systems, particularly the little fail safe he had installed for an event like this. Glancing back up at the screen, he watched as Deathstroke continued to fight the other three. Knowing the locations of each charge, Calculator waited...
“Just a little closer, Slade. You're almost on it.”
“Rose, look out!” Becky exclaimed.
Lunging forward, Becky pushed the downed Ravager out of the way of Deathstroke's attack. Instead, the kick caromed off Becky's arm. With a hard glare, she grabbed onto the man's shin and yanked him forward, throwing herself at him. The two went down hard, rolling several times before coming to a stop.
Deathstroke flipped himself up on top of her, delivering a couple of hard strikes to face and midsection, but suddenly the claw of Red Robin's grapnel gun clamped around his left wrist and pulled his arm back, throwing him off balance. Then, Ravager was on him, leaping onto his back and wrapping her arm around his neck, choking and restraining him.
“It's over, Slade!” she shouted, squeezing her arm tighter around his throat. “You're coming with-”
Destruction and chaos abruptly engulfed their entire world, as the rooftop around them exploded, several various detonations going off and causing showers of debris to rocket into the air. In particular, one of the charges detonated right beneath where Becky, Deathstroke, and Ravager were positioned. Within moments, they were falling through empty space, as the roof collapsed around them. The entire building went with them.
Ravager landed with a thud, the back of her head smacking against a thick chunk of concrete. A dark rain of dust, rubble, and broken furniture crashed down over her a second later, everything going black. For the longest time, she couldn't even figure out which ways was up and which was down. A heavy pain ripped across her left arm, too, probably broken. It took every ounce of effort she had in order to move beneath the chunks of ruined building, but eventually she managed to dig her way out, even with only a single good arm.
Tearing the cracked helmet and dented faceplate off her head, she threw it to the ground and tumbled down a pile of rubble, grunting in pain when she landed on her bad arm. A brief, hacking cough grated her throat, as she expelled the concrete dust from her lungs. For good measure, she spit several times on the ground next to her, just to get the taste out.
What... the hell... just happened?
Gritting her teeth, she sat upright and looked around, seeing nothing but piles of debris around her. “Rebecca? Tim? Are you there?”
No answer. Wincing slightly, she forced her way up to her feet and staggered momentarily. When she finally stabilized herself, she sucked in a deep breath and began walking, a very noticeable limp in her stride.
A brief moment later, a weak, pained voice spoke out to her. “Rose...”
Rose's heart skipped a beat, gaze snapping in the direction of Becky's voice. Suddenly, all the pain, all the exhaustion was gone, as she rushed over to the woman's side. Through all of the rubble pinning her to the ground, Becky was barely even noticeable, only her head and one arm poking through the piles of concrete, steel, and brick. Half in panic, Rose threw herself at the debris pile, digging furiously with her one good arm.
“I can't... feel anything,” Becky uttered, her voice coming out in a hoarse whisper.
“Just hold on, I'm getting you out,” Rose said, tearing away a large chunk of steel. “You'll be fine.”
She'll be fine, she repeated in her thoughts. She has to be fine!
When she finally managed to loosen things enough, Rose took hold of Becky and pulled the woman free. Even free, though, Becky continued lying there, motionless. Not a single muscle moved for the longest time, until finally a few of her fingers absently twitched.
“I think... I think I was right on top of it,” she wheezed.
And so she was. One of explosive charges had gone off right beneath the spot where Becky had been lying on the roof. Most of her current condition was a result of that, with the tons of debris merely adding insult to injury.
“It's alright, you're okay,” Rose said, sucking in a deep breath. She swallowed a nervous lump in her throat, holding a hand to Becky's cheek. “Just keep looking at me, Beck. Stay with me.”
Becky's eyes weakly flickered upward, her breath stuttering and followed by a hacking cough that sprayed out a thick mist of blood. “How... how bad is it?”
Hesitating slightly, Rose reached down and removed the front plate of Becky's shredded suit, revealing massive bruising beneath. Internal bleeding, broken ribs, probably a collapsed lung somewhere in there. She knew what it meant... God help her, she knew what it meant.
“It... it's not that bad. Really,” she insisted. “We'll just... we'll get you to a doctor and you'll be fine. You'll be... you'll be fine.”
Becky breathed in deeply, only to abruptly enter another fit of coughing a second later. This time, not just a spray of blood came out, but a thick glob that dribbled down her lips. Rose clenched her jaw tightly, then tenderly wiped the crimson from Becky's mouth.
“Hey...” Becky said, eyes flickering slightly as she looked up into Rose's eyes. “I... I did good, ah?”
It took everything Rose had to keep from breaking down into a helpless pile of tears right there, hearing the weakness in Becky's voice. Her lips quivered, as she gazed down into Becky eyes... her fading eyes. She wanted to scream, wanted to cry, wanted to curse... Instead, she forced herself to smile, though the wetness brimming in her own eyes quickly betrayed any sense of confidence she had attempted to instill.
“Yeah... yeah you did good,” Rose said, sniffling slightly. She closed her eyes briefly, lifting a hand to rub them dry. “You did great.”
“Hey... don't be sad,” Becky said, curling her lips into the faintest of smiles. “I don't... I don't like it when you're sad.”
“But what am I... what am I supposed to do?” Rose tightened her jaw, squinting her eyes a few moments longer. Finally, she swallowed back a numb lump and opened her eyes again, staring down at the unmoving Becky in her arms. “I can't... I don't know what to do.”
Becky's arm suddenly began to move, though very slowly and very weakly. It took several moments, but finally her hand pressed gently against Rose's cheek. “Just... be happy. Okay? For me...” Her smile grew a little larger, as her eyelids lowered. “Dios... you really are beautiful.”
And then her, arm went limp, dropping into Rose's lap.
“Becky?” Rose uttered, gently shaking the woman. Her heart flew into a panic, eyes going wide. “Becky?!”
But there was no answer. Becky's breathing had ceased, her body motionless. For a few moments, Rose just sat there, staring in disbelief. A part of her brain didn't want to believe it, didn't want to acknowledge what just happened.
“No... no no no no no no no...” she said, stomach churning with desperation.
As she continued staring, however, it eventually clicked in her head. A short moment later, her heart exploded, a sudden wave of hysteria and sorrow flooding through her. Dropping her forehead down to Becky's, she closed her eyes and tried to hold the tears back, but it was useless; they streamed down her face in rivers, dripping off her chin onto Becky's cold, ashen face.
The cry that erupted from her throat barely sounded human, a sickening combination of sorrow, shock, horror, and pure, heartbreaking agony. “NOOOOO!!!”
In those fleeting, anguished moments, Rose's entire world had been ripped away.
Slade heard it before he saw it: the sound of his daughter's distraught voice screeching through the air, an unbearable shriek of pain and sorrow. At first, he wondered what could have caused her to scream like that, but as he tumbled down over a pile of rubble, he witnessed the sight. Rose knelt next to the limp, motionless body of Rebecca Chavez, her girlfriend, her love. Slade couldn't remember a time when his daughter ever looked so utterly broken, even after as much as he had put her through.
And it sickened him.
It sickened him to know that he had a part in causing this. Things were never supposed to have gone this far. Rose was never supposed to have been hurt, not like this. His legs buckled as he walked towards the scene, body weakened from the explosion, armor and mask shredded. He tried to look at his daughter, couldn't bring himself to, gaze instead shifting away in shame.
Had he really gone and destroyed her life all over again? The only reason he had become involved in all of this was to do something good for Rose for once; she might not have seen it at first, but when the dust settled she would have. Instead, he had accomplished the complete opposite.
“Rose...” He paused, unsure of what to say. All he could do was bow his head and continue looking away.
In response, Rose's head slowly lifted away from her dead girlfriend's, all that grief and sorrow suddenly shifting into pure, unbridled rage. “You...”
Suddenly, she was on him. Before he even noticed her rise from the ground, she sprang up and lunged forward with a brutal punch. Her knuckles caromed strongly off his jaw, whipping his head to the side and pushing him back a step. He could taste blood in his mouth, felt a tooth loose.
“She's dead because you!” Rose shrieked.
A hard knee to the chest now. Slade staggered, holding a hand to the point of impact and grunting. Rose wasn't holding back, putting everything she had into her attacks. He didn't know whether his body was just too sore to react in time, or if he mentally wouldn't allow himself to defend against her. Either way, she got in free shots.
“All you do is take!” Rose screamed, vision blurred with tears. “That's all you've ever done!”
A kick to the head and Slade fell back to one knee. He wasn't there for very long, as a backhand sent him to the ground. Then, she was on top of him, taking repeated swings with her one good arm and clubbing him across the face.
“First it was my mother!” Rose's knuckles crashed against Slade's jaw, splitting open flesh and spilling blood. “Then my life! Then my sanity! And now Becky!”
Slade squinted his eyes, a steady flow of crimson draining from an open gash on his forehead. Another explosion of pain and colors erupted in his vision, as his daughter's fist battered his face yet again.
“For once since you came into my life, I had something good! But you had to destroy it! Why?! Why do you always do this to me?!”
By the time Rose's fist stopped, Slade's arms had gone limp, the world spinning around him in a daze. It took a long moment before things finally started to focus again, and that was when he saw his daughter sitting over him with one of the guns from his holsters pointed straight at his face.
“Rose...” he uttered, coughing out a pained breath.
“Don't you dare say anything!” she riposted. “I don't want to hear anymore of your delusional excuses! You're a b**stard, do you hear me?! That's all you'll ever be!”
Her thumb reached up and pulled the hammer back on the revolver. Cocked and fully loaded, the only thing standing between Slade and a swift death now was Rose's trigger finger.
“Now you pay for everything you've ever done! To me, to others, everyone!” A second went by, then another. Rose's hand began to tremble, her finger quivering against the trigger. She glared down at her father with an odd mixture of hate and grief, sticky remnants of tears streaked down her cheeks. “I'm going to kill you! I have to kill you! That's the only way... the only way you'll stop... stop hurting people...”
Slade could only stare up at his daughter, a look of complete and utter shame in his eye. Breathing outwardly, he closed that eye, head bowing and hope diminishing. If this was how it was to end for him, then he was ready.
“I'm going to do it!” Rose insisted again, hand shaking harder. She swallowed back a numb lump in her throat and blinked away the renewed tears in her eyes. “I'm going to... I have to...”
Finally, Rose lowered the gun and dropped it off to the side. Bowing her head, she squinted her eyes shut and held her hands tightly to her head, doing her best to stifle back her sobs; she failed miserably.
“Why... why can't I do it?” she questioned, shaking her head in disbelief.
As her sobs grow heavier, Slade forced himself to sit up, fighting the pounding headache and pain wracking his body. For a brief moment, he just stared at his daughter, then gently reached forward and pulled her into a comforting embrace.
“I'm... so sorry, Rose,” he said, softly. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”
Ten minutes ago...
Power Girl delivered a thunderous punch to the last remaining VRA controlled hero, Argent. The silver skinned woman flew backwards violently, crashing to the ground and bouncing up into a nearby jeep. She went motionless a moment later, consciousness leaving her. For a brief moment, everything was quiet. No more fighting, no more explosions, no more destruction. The battle was over... for now.
“That was... annoying,” Superboy muttered, taking a look around. Only he and Power Girl were left standing.
Uttering a long, exhausted breath, Power Girl dropped down to sit against an upturned piece of pavement. “You're telling me... I just hope that was a big enough distraction.”
“I hope so, too,” came the voice of Red Arrow, from behind.
Turning around, Power Girl noticed both Red Arrow and Beast Boy, in the form of an elephant, standing there. With them were the unconscious bodies of Black Bat, Batgirl, Huntress, Poison Ivy, Kubrick, and Zaria, all draped across Beast Boy's massive backside.
“What are you two doing here?” she asked. “Where are the others?”
“Did you catch Slade?” Superboy added.
“Not exactly...” Red Arrow replied, as he pulled the unconscious bodies off of the big green elephant.
Beast Boy quickly morphed back into human form. “We sort of... ran into some complications.”
“They took down Raven first,” Red Arrow explained. “She's fine, though; teleported back to base to recover, after getting us out of the building. But the others ran on ahead without us.”
“Then we need to get over there and back them up,” Power Girl said, turning back towards the VRA building. “They might need our-”
The entirety of the VRA building suddenly went up in flames, as the steel structure blew apart. Windows burst outward and walls crumbled, as the VRA headquarters collapsed into nothing but a massive pile of rubble, which very likely contained the rest of their teammates.
“NO!” Power Girl exclaimed, flying forward in a hurry. The others followed close behind her. “Guys, everyone get in there! Find the others!”
Before she reached the destruction, however, a sudden blue and red blur flew in from out of nowhere, smashing straight into her and driving her through a nearby jeep, causing it to erupt in a hot fireball.
“Uh... what was that?” Beast Boy said, turning his gaze in confusion.
A second later, Power Girl reappeared, this time sent flying back the way she came and crashing into a telephone pole, completely taking it out. Staggering back up to her feet, she held a hand to her head and looked up just in time to see the blur racing back at her again. This time, though, she was ready, greeting it with a vicious punch that launched the figure backwards into the wall of a nearby building.
“I so do not need this right now!” Power Girl said, fixing the cape of her costume. A short moment later, the attacker calmly walked back out of the hole in the building, brushing off her own costume and staring at Power Girl.
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you attacked the VRA,” Supergirl stated, eyes narrowing. “Now I have to take you down.”
“You're like the third person to say that to me today,” Power Girl said, breathing out an annoyed sigh. “And everyone else who did is unconscious!”
Supergirl glared harder, flying up into the air. “Sorry, Kara, but you won't have the same luck here. It's about time I show you what you really are... a cheap imitation of me!”
The two Kryptonians collided again, throwing a double punch that connected at the same time, either woman battering their knuckles against the other's jaw. The resulting shock wave shattered the glass of every building and every car in a five block radius, as both Power Girl and Supergirl rocketed backwards away from each other and crashed violently through several consecutive buildings each. Even the other heroes had been blown to the ground as a result of the sheer concussive blast.
“Whoa...” Beast Boy muttered, slowly returning to his feet.
“I'm gonna take a wild guess and say they're not holding back,” Red Arrow said, rubbing a hand along the back of his neck.”
Superboy stood up straight, glancing back towards the destroyed VRA building. “I'd say you're right. But I'm not worried about that very much.”
“Uh, why?” Beast Boy asked.
“Because, I'm more worried about them.”
Looking to where Superboy pointed, both Beast Boy's and Red Arrow's eyes went wide, jaws suddenly dropping opening. Standing in front of them were the other members of the Justice League: Donna Troy, Batman, Jesse Quick, Green Arrow, and Jade.
“Oh come on!” Beast Boy groaned. “How is this fair?”
Quickly drawing a his bow, Red Arrow took aim. Just as fast, Green Arrow did the same. “It's not meant to be...”
Though Rose wanted nothing more than to pull away and smash her father across the face again, something prevented her from doing so. Maybe it was the grief restraining her actions, or maybe she just needed the comfort, the feel of caring arms wrapped around her, a voice telling her everything would be alright. Or, perhaps, it was because that for the first time, Slade was actually acting like the father he always should have been, but never was.
She hated that. She absolutely hated it. In spite of everything he had done to her, every despicable way he had acted, he actually cared. He actually loved her, in his own twisted, delusional way. That was why she couldn't pull the trigger... and that was why she allowed him to comfort her, why she didn't break his arm and smash his face in.
That was why she didn't kill him.
“I still hate you,” she uttered, resting her chin gently against his shoulder. She sniffled back a few tears, wet eyes squinting shut tightly. “I always will.”
“I know...” Slade replied, tightening his arms around her shoulders. “As well you should.”
“Why... why did you do it?”
Slade paused a moment, breathing in deeply before responding. “I didn't. I never wanted to actually hurt her. To hurt you. Whoever set those charges... it wasn't me.”
“No, I know that.” Swallowing a hard knot, she leaned back, meeting her gaze with his. “I mean, why did you do all of this? The VRA, controlling heroes, kidnapping, falsely imprisoning people, killing... everything.”
“I can't tell you. I'm sorry, I wish I could. Maybe in the future... but not right now. Just know that I never meant for things to go this far. I never meant...” His gaze slowly turned to the fallen Becky, her body lying limply against the hard ground. “...for any of this.”
A long silence passed between them. Rose lowered her head, tearful eyes closing again. She wanted to be angry again, wanted to kick, wanted to scream... but the grief wouldn't go away. “I loved her, you know? I... I really loved her.”
“I know,” he said, holding a tender hand to the side of her face. “And that's why I'm going to help you.”
“What are you talking about?” Rose asked, narrowing her eyes. “How can you possibly help me after everything you've done?”
“Because I know who's behind all of this, who put this entire plan into motion.”
Rose was quiet a moment, eyes widening. “Who's behind it... you mean the person who started the VRA. The person who...” She glanced briefly over at Becky, heart seizing with agony. When she could bear to look no more, she turned away again, throat going numb and eyes cross. “The person responsible for Becky's death. The person I'm going to kill.”
“I can take you to him,” Slade said.
“You'll do more than that.” Rose lifted her gaze, jaw clenching. “You'll help me take his goddamn head.”
Standing up to his feet, Slade reached down, offering a hand for his daughter to take. “I'd like nothing more.”
She stared at his hand momentarily, as if pondering whether or not she should actually take it. Eventually, though, she grabbed hold and pulled herself back up to her feet as well. “What's his name?”
Slade hesitated briefly, taking in a deep breath. “His name...”
“I'd stop struggling, if I were you,” Jade said. “Even if you break free, we're only going to beat you again.”
Battered and bloodied, Superboy lied limply in the green construct wrapping around him. Normally, he could break out no problem, but after taking a serious beating at the hands of Donna, Jesse, and Jade herself, he didn't have a whole lot left in the tank. Red Arrow and Beast Boy were already down, sprawled out on the ground nearby and unconscious.
Suddenly, an incoming white and red figure crashed into the ground nearby. When the dust cleared, Power Girl slowly staggered back to her feet, leaving Supergirl behind in the small crater created upon impact. Her body was battered and bruised, costume shredded. A short moment later, Supergirl also returned to her feet, in a very similar condition. She stood still for a second before falling against a newspaper dispenser next to her, grabbing onto it tightly to keep from hitting the ground again.
“A cheap... imitation, huh?” Power Girl said, leaning against a nearby jeep.
“You're just... lucky,” Supergirl replied, grip slipping from the newspaper box. She fell to one knee, breathing deeply.
Unfortunately for Power Girl, as evenly matched as she was with Supergirl, the rest of the Justice League already began to make a move to take her down. All she could do now was fall down to the ground and utter a desperate breath. “Well... we tried.”
As the League began to make their attack, however, a high pitched sonic frequency split the air. Though only beings with super hearing, like Power Girl, could actually detect it, that didn't stop it from affecting the neural stems lodged into the brains of the Justice League members. Instantly, they dropped to their knees in pain, screaming and grabbing their skulls. Within a short few seconds, though, the pain disappeared completely, as did any hold the stems had over them.
Power blinked, eyebrows lifting in confusion. “What the...?”
“You look like you could use a hand.”
Turning her head, Power Girl noticed Cyborg standing nearby, holding up a sound emitter attached to one of his mechanical arms. Standing next to him was Raven.
“Cutting that a little close, don't you think?” she asked.
“Hey, I just finished this thing literally thirty seconds ago,” he said. “I wasn't even sure it was going to work.”
“You weren't sure if... ugh.” Falling back against the ground, Power Girl uttered a long breath and just stared up at the sky. She could really use a nap right now.
The Justice League, meanwhile, was finally starting to come around, as they staggered back up to their feet.
“What... what happened?” Batman muttered, holding a hand to his forehead.
“I disabled the devices controlling you, that's what happened,” Cyborg explained.
“Vic?” Donna squinted her eyes shut a moment, trying to fight through an astoundingly painful headache. “You...you fixed us.”
“Oh god, it's still in there.” Reaching up behind her left ear, Jesse Quick tentatively fingered the round end of the stem sticking out of her flesh. “I can feel it in my brain... oh I'm gonna puke.”
“Everyone regroup,” Cyborg said. “We still have a job to do. We still need to find Slade.”
When the group of heroes finally arrived at the rear of the destroyed building, Rose and Slade were both long gone. Red Robin was there, however, sitting weakly against a large pile of crumbled bricks. When they saw what he was looking at, though, shock and panic set in.
“Oh my god... Rebecca,” Batman uttered, rushing over to the body. He knelt down and removed his gloves so he could check for a pulse.
Seeing this, Red Robin let out a sigh and bowed his head. “Don't bother... I already checked. She's gone.”
Clenching his jaw, Batman lowered his gaze and shut his eyes tightly. “Damn it.”
A heavy silence descended upon the group. Though not everyone knew who this woman was that died, it was enough that she had been fighting for a good cause, fighting on their side. They felt the loss, as though she'd been a comrade that they'd known forever. For the ones who did know her, however, the scene held a bit more impact.
Power Girl slowly came forward, fighting through the limp in her stride. “I... I gave her the suit. I'm the one that pushed her to go with us...”
The silence lingered a while longer, until Batman finally returned to his feet, taking in a deep breath as he stared down at the motionless Rebecca. “Come on, we... we need to find Slade. And Rose. They can't have made it very far.”
The level of security at the White House was, as expected, pretty heavy, with swarms of Secret Service Agents doing everything they could to protect the President from attack. Unfortunately, they hadn't exactly been trained to deal with something like this. Currently, the front lawn was littered with fallen bodies of fallen agents, unmoving and unconscious.
The two attackers moved through their ranks like demons, never standing in the same place for more than a second, it seemed. The Secret Service, in turn, could not get a clean shot on them, and even though both of the assailants looked to be in pretty dire condition – the woman even with one arm hanging dead at her side – there was no stopping them.
The remaining squad pulled back inside the White House, trying to bar the doors. It was futile. The larger man barreled into the entrance, almost ripping the doors off the hinges.
“Please, at least try not to kill them!” Rose said, running through the entrance after her father. “They're not the ones we're after!”
“Not quite my style-” Leaping forward into the entrance hall, Slade ducked below an incoming shot and kicked out the legs of the nearest agent, then finished the man off with a punch to the side of the head. As another couple agents attempted to subdue him, Slade spun out of the way, lunged forward, and took them both out with hard, crippling shots. “-but even I can make an effort.”
Rose joined the fray now, easily evading any shots fired her way and ripping through the lines of Secret Service with her blade. Even with only one good arm and a single sword, she found no challenge in taking down these goons. They might be bleeding and they might not be walking or using their hands again for a while, but they would live.
Right now, she was saving all her rage for the mastermind behind all these events, the man who nearly crippled the superhero community, and the man who caused Rebecca's death. When they found him, then she could start the killing.
“The West Wing,” Slade said, driving an elbow into a nearby agent's face. “That's where he'll be.”
After pummeling another nearby Secret Service Agent, Slade sprinted down the West Wing of the White House, with Rose in hot pursuit. Several more teams of the Secret Service met them along the way, but they fell just as quickly as the others. No one was going to stop them. With an angry shout, Rose ran at the door to the Oval Office and kicked it inward, ripping it straight off its hinges.
“Show yourself!” she exclaimed, hurrying inside with her blade at the ready.
The leather chair behind the Resolute Desk was facing away from them, blocking from view the man sitting in it. A short moment later, however, the chair began to turn, until it finally revealed the person they were after.
“Rose, it's been a while,” the President stated, hands folded calmly in front of him. “And Slade... how very disappointing to see you here.”
“Cut the bullsh*t facade!” Rose said, pointing her sword at him. “You're not the president!”
“Oh, aren't I?” When Rose didn't back down, a vicious sneer snaked its way across his face. “Very well, if this form doesn't suit you...”
And then, his face began to quiver. The skin on his body morphed, rippling as though made of a thick liquid, and reshaped itself into its true appearance, a much more familiar sight to Rose. Grip tightening around the handle of her sword, she narrowed her eyes coldly, the fury within her body igniting to new levels. She almost hadn't believed it when her father told her, but now that she saw him with her own eyes... there was no mistaking that face.
It belonged to Jeremiah Belmont.
“There, is that better?” Jerry asked.
“You were dead...” Rose muttered. “They found your body.
“No, they found a body,” he corrected. “It just happened to look like me.”
“And it was you... everything. It was all you.”
Jerry's knowing smirk grew larger, eyes glinting behind his glasses. “Yes... so it was. Sorry to hear about Rebecca, by the way. She wasn't the intended target, you know. Very unfortunate.”
Body quivering with rage, Rose took a step forward, eyes burning a hole straight through the man's face. “Don't you ever say her name!”
“Hmm, have I hit a sore spot?”
“What the hell were you trying to accomplish with all of this?” Rose took another step forward, fingers white knuckled around her sword handle. “What the f**k was the purpose?!”
Still smirking, Jerry slowly walked out from behind the desk, hands clasped behind his back. “If you must ask the question, then you aren't as smart as I presumed. Why else would a government want complete control over its nation's superheroes? Certainly not for safety or public interest.”
Slade figured it out first. “You wanted an army. An entire country of supers under your control.”
“Correct.” Jerry paced slowly in front of the desk, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose with a single finger. “You see, metahuman warfare is the next stage in the evolution of war. What's the purpose of having things like nuclear weapons when there exist multiple individuals who can swat them away like flies? When it comes to a country's military power, I think you'll agree that you superheroes make for a far more efficient defense.”
“What, and you just took it upon yourself to turn us all into your private soldiers, huh?” Rose questioned.
“But of course. You don't think it would have happened any other way, do you? There are certain... civil liberties and freedoms that get in the way.”
“So you went and got yourself some of those stems, took the president's place, and decided to take over.” Rose shook her head, eyes narrowing coldly. “Sounds to me like you just wanted power, no better than any other two-bit villain out there.”
Jerry breathed out an amused sigh. “Think what you will, Rose, but in the end I brought the superhero community to its knees. I gained control.”
“Well congratu-f*cking-lations,” she chided. “Just one problem: you failed. You got that? It's over.”
Breathing in deeply, Jerry brought his hands around the front of himself, holding his palms together and raising his fingers up to his chin. “Not yet, Rose. How many others did you two tell about me before you came charging in here to take me down yourselves? I'm guessing no one, isn't that right? Yes... you ran off to take my head as soon as your precious Rebecca died, didn't you?”
That was the last straw in Rose's unstable mind. Letting out a rabid shout of fury, she raised her blade and charged him. “I told you to never say her name!”
Jerry merely watched her as she ran in, making no sudden or desperate moves. Instead, a fraction of a second before she cut him clean in half, he stepped casually to the side, evading the strike. Rose blinked in confusion, taking a step back before Jerry's fist, which had abruptly grown to massive proportions, clubbed her across the chest. With a surprised groan, she flew back through the air and crashed against the wall.
“You see, all I have to do is kill the two of you,” Jerry explained, “and then all the proof leading back to me disappears.”
“What... the hell?” Rose uttered, stumbling clumsily back to her feet.
“Oh, this?” Taking a few steps forward, both his arms suddenly morphed into the shape of two long, razor sharp blades. “The result of that little crime spree I put you on last year. It's amazing what the combination of a little mutated clay and nano-technology can accomplish.”
Slade drew one of his automatic pistols and stepped between his daughter and Jerry. Without hesitating, he open fired, pumping out an entire clip. The bullets didn't even faze the man. He simply stood there and took the shots, his flesh rippling like putty with each impact. A short moment later, his body pushed the bullets back out, and with a rapid series of metallic clinking they clattered to the floor. To finish the sequence, the bullet holes left behind in Jerry's body closed back up again, perfectly healed.
Narrowing his eye slightly, Slade took a step backward. “So bullets aren't going to work.”
“I'm willing to bet taking his head off will shut him up!” Steadying herself on her feet, Rose grabbed her blade again and held it at the ready. “Take my other sword; I only have one arm right now.”
Slade complied, moving back and drawing Rose's second blade from the scabbard strapped to her backside. “Ready when you are.”
Of course, Rose had been ready since she kicked the door down. She needed no invitation to begin her charge again, this time fully prepared for whatever Jerry could dish out. “Take him down!”
The three combatants engaged in a swift series of blows. As enhanced as Rose and her father were, Jerry managed to keep up with every attack they threw at him, using his elongated arm-blades to deflect and parry, as well as counter with precise strikes of his own. Rose's reflexes and precognition were really put to the test, especially given how badly beat up she already was. Even Slade, not nearly at one hundred percent, pushed himself to his limits.
Jerry exploited these facts to his advantage, constantly keeping the two on the defensive. Though they had begun as the attackers, now they were the ones being assaulted. After deflecting a particularly brutal blow, Rose stumbled off balance only to be suddenly grabbed by Jerry's extending arm, which wrapped around her neck and waist like some kind of demonic tendril. While simultaneously combating Slade with his other arm, he swung her violently through the air and smashed her through the Resolute Desk, breaking it to pieces.
“Rose!” Slade exclaimed.
Ducking beneath another attack, Slade threw himself forward and flipped over to the other side of his opponent. With a single motion, he cleaved the man's arm off, causing the whip-like limb to lose its grip on Rose and release her.
“Are you alright?” Slade asked, hurrying to his daughter's side.
Meanwhile, Jerry casually walked over to his severed limb, now having reverted back to its normal shape and size, and reached down to pick it up. It took only a brief moment for him to reattach it to his shoulder, flesh rippling like liquid yet again before healing.
“You're picking now to get sentimental?” Rose said. She pushed Slade away and scrambled back to her feet. “Just take his damn head off!”
Sprinting at their enemy once again, she made several vicious slashes, all aimed for Jerry's throat. He easily deflected the attacks away, however, then morphed one of his arms into a large spiked mace, one that hit with the force of a speeding truck. Even though Rose managed to put her sword up in front of the incoming attack, the impact shattered the blade into multiple pieces, then sent her shooting through the air yet again. She landed with a thud against one of the walls and made no immediate move to get back up.
“You don't understand, Rose,” Jerry said, walking calmly forward. “I can become anything I want. I am a weapon. This isn't like the last time we met. This time, you can't beat me.”
“But I can,” Slade retorted, lunging at the man.
This time, Slade's attacks were much more ferocious and purposeful. He fought through his pain and injuries, pushing his body beyond its limits and forcing Jerry on a heavy defensive. Although Jerry had acquired impressive meta powers, his lack of fighting experience soon made itself apparent. Slade gained an edge, seized the advantage, and never let up.
Jerry made a desperate counter move, expelling several razor sharp spikes from his body in attempts to impale Slade when he got too close. But Slade, too, was fast, twisting his body and weaving between the spikes as he drove his blade forward with lethal accuracy. The point skewered through the center of Jerry's chest, driving straight out the other side.
A triumphant grin spread its way across Slade's face. “Got you.”
For a brief moment, Jerry's eyes went wide, as if in pain and surprise. However, his expression soon relaxed again, returning to an eery calm. “You should have listened to your daughter, Slade.”
Suddenly, Slade's own eyes flew open wide, a hot pain flaring through his stomach. Slowly, he glanced downward to see another spike extending from Jerry's body. This one, he did not avoid, as it instead pierced straight through his armor and his body, spilling out warm, sticky streams of crimson.
“You should have taken my head.” Jerry abruptly withdrew the spike, causing Slade to crumple to the floor.
“DAD!” Rose shrieked.
She found it strange that she would react this way to the sight of her father being so viciously impaled, seemingly on the edge of death. As much she hated him, as much as she always wished he would die... he was still her father, and seeing him lying motionless on the floor in a growing pool of blood sent her heart into a panic. Struggling through her pain, she staggered back to her feet and swallowed a hard lump in her throat.
This isn't happening... this whole day isn't... it can't be real. It can't be.
But it was real, she knew it is. This wasn't a dream that she would suddenly wake up from, and there was more riding on her success here than just her own life.
“A pity... I had such high hopes for him.” Jerry held his hands behind his back, staring down at the fallen Slade. “In the end, he proves to be just another disappointment.”
“That's it...” Curling her hand into a tight fist, Rose slowly lifted her gaze, hard eyes glaring with focused anger. “You've screwed with my life for the last time.”
She began her march towards him, not running or hurrying in any way, simply walking purposefully in his direction. Jerry smirked, morphing his arms into multi-bladed monstrosities. Gradually, Rose picked up her pace, his poorly concealed attempts at compensating not deterring her in the slightest.
“Because of you, I lost the the most important person in my life. Now, you pay for it.” She was sprinting now, coming straight at him. He took a wild swing with both his arms, but she ducked beneath them, sliding across the floor. She grabbed Slade's fallen sword on the way by and went straight between Jerry's legs behind him. “I told you before that you weren't worth killing. Well, guess what?!”
As she sprang back to her feet, a precognitive flash ripped through her head. She spun quickly in response, evading the incoming spike that shot out towards her. In the same motion, she whirled her arm around, whipping the blade with lethal precision. The razor edge cleaved cleanly through Jerry's neck, dislodging his head from his shoulders and sending it bouncing across the floor.
The headless body stood there for a moment, unmoving. Before long, however, it crumpled into a motionless heap. Moving her gaze, she caught sight of Jerry's severed head propped against the wall, lifeless eyes staring wide and unblinking.
“That was for Becky, you miserable son of a b*tch.”
Taking in a deep breath, she threw her sword away and then collapsed to the floor, sitting with arms resting against her raised knees. Bowing her head, she squinted her eyes shut and finally let everything out. First, she let loose an incoherent scream that echoed loudly inside the oval room, pouring all her anger, grief, and distress into it. Once her voice cut out, the tears followed. Rose had never been one to cry very often, hardly ever in fact, but there was no stopping it right now. She had been hurt far too deep this time.
A hand on her shoulder called her away from her sorrow. Blinking a couple of times, she turned her head and looked up to see Slade standing there, pressing his other hand against the hole in his gut.
“You did good, Rose,” he said.
“You... you're not dead.”
“I've always healed fast, same as you. I'll be fine.”
Eyes shifting away, she bowed her head again and stared at the ground. “Figures you'd be the one to survive.”
Slade pulled his hand back, a heavy sigh emerging from his throat. “I am sorry, Rose... you may not believe me, but I do want to see you happy. Rebecca never should have died.”
“No, she shouldn't have. But there's nothing I can do about it now, is there?”
A long pause descended over them. Slade just stood there, staring at his heartbroken daughter. There was that feeling again, the sickening sensation deep in his stomach. Why was he so terrible when it came to family?
“Just... go,” she said, looking away. “I know you don't want to stick around when the cops show up.”
“You're right... I should go,” he stated, moving past her. “I still have work to do, anyway.”
As he headed for the exit, Rose stopped him momentarily, looking to him. “And Dad... this time, stay out of my life for good. Every time you come back into it, you break something. I'm just... I'm tired of being broken.”
His gaze lowered, while the shame simmering in his gut grew to new levels. For a long moment, he just stood there, motionless. It wasn't until he heard the faintest sounds of approaching sirens that he finally tore himself away and kept going. “Goodbye, Rose.”
The team of D.C. police officers hurried into the main entrance of the White House. For a brief moment, they stopped to look around at the bodies of the Secret Service strewn about, some bleeding and others not moving at all.
The officer in charge, Officer Harrow, moved forward with his mouth slightly agape. “What the- damn it, don't just stand around people, check on them!”
Immediately, the other officers approached the fallen agents and inspected them, looking for signs of life. As badly as the Secret Service had been beaten, none of them were dead. Sure, some were unconscious or had their ligaments severed, but there were no fatal injuries.
“Looks like they're all still alive, sir,” one of the other officers said. “Nothing too bad, either.”
“Well what the hell happened in here?” Harrow wondered, holding a hand to his head.
A small cough answered his question. Turning to his left he noticed a still conscious Secret Service Agent slumped against the wall and bleeding from the wrists.
“It was the VRA Director, Slade Wilson,” the agent explained. “He and some b*tch stormed the place. We tried to hold them off, but they got through. They went after the President... Oval Office.”
“Sh*t, everyone move!” Harrow declared, running down the hall. “I want men in that office five minutes ago!”
The swarm of police officers continued towards the West Wing, guns already drawn and at the ready. Harrow was the first to snake his way around the corner of the open doorway, pointing his weapon forward and preparing for anything. The first thing he saw was the Resolute Desk in pieces, broken apart by some phenomenal force. His gaze next found the headless body of the President lying in the middle of the floor. A sickening knot twisted its way into his stomach at the side.
“My god...” he uttered, swallowing back a numb lump.
His thoughts were interrupted when another one of the officers moved into the office, gun pointed forward. “Hands on your head, now!”
Harrow shifted his gaze, now seeing the white haired woman sitting against a wall, one of her arms hanging limply at the side, outfit torn up, and body scuffed and bleeding. She stared directly back at them, her expression unchanging from a distant, almost forlorn look of calm. Slowly, she moved one of her hands up and placed it on the back of her head.
“I'd raise the other one, too, but... yeah. It's not doing so well,” she stated.
Walking cautiously across the floor, Harrow held an arm in front of the other advancing officer. “Careful with her, keep your distance for now. We don't know what she can do.”
“Oh, would you relax?” Rose rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I'm too exhausted to fight back. If you're going to arrest me, just do it already.”
It was at that moment that another officer inspecting the severed head on the other side of the room furrowed his brow in confusion, then looked back at Harrow. “Uh, sir? This isn't the President.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Of course it's the-” His voice cut out suddenly, as his eyes fell on the head leaning up against the far wall. That face was... not the President at all. It was someone else he didn't recognize. “What in the name of...?”
“His name was Jeremiah Belmont, in case you're wondering,” Rose explained. “A sort of... shape shifter, I guess. As far as I know, he took the place of the real President ages ago, then started to control congress and other forms of the government.”
“Then the real President...”
Rose shrugged. “Probably been dead a while. Jerry here was the one behind the creation of EPRA law and the VRA. Every superhero that went to register was implanted with a neural device that gave him complete control over their actions.”
Harrow held a hand to his head again, eyes unblinking. “This is insane.”
“Yeah, welcome to my world.”
Releasing a small breath, Harrow tore his gaze away from the severed head and looked back at Rose. “And you just killed him?”
“I let him live once before,” Rose said, coldly. “Then all of this happened. Wasn't making the same mistake twice.”
Harrow stared at her a moment longer, then slowly returned his gaze to the severed head. “Jesus...”
Rose grunted in slight discomfort, as Harrow forced her limp arm behind her back to be cuffed with her other arm. Several bones were broken and crushed, she knew, along with some torn or sprained tendons. She probably wouldn't be moving it again for a while.
As Officer Harrow led her towards the nearest squad car, one hand on her shoulder, the other on the back of her head, she lifted an eyebrow and gave the vehicle a long look. “You know, it's been a while since I've been in one of these. I almost miss it.”
Harrow paused a moment, lifting a confused eyebrow at her. “I'm honestly not sure how to take that comment.”
“Take it whatever way you like.”
Before he could push her into the vehicle, though, a surprising sight pulled their attention away. Coming through the front gates of the White House grounds, some flying and others walking, was just about every hero that had been involved in the D.C. battle against the VRA, all of them freed from control by Cyborg's specially modified sonic device.
Batman was the first of the heroes to approach the pair. “Officer, what's going on here?”
Clearing his throat, Harrow fought through the initial shock of seeing so many superheroes gathered right in front of him and answered, “Clean up, that's what's going on. Your friend here made a mess of things inside.”
Eyes slowly narrowing, Batman's gaze came to rest on Rose. “What did you do?”
“Saved everyone's asses,” she said, staring straight back at him.
“She stopped the guy behind this whole VRA sh*tstorm, from what I understand,” Harrow explained. “Some kind of... shape shifting guy or something posing as the President. I don't know, I'm not used to dealing with this stuff.”
This information caused Batman to pause, arms folding across his chest. “How did you know who it was?”
“I didn't,” Rose said. “But Slade did. We took him down together.”
“And where is Slade now?”
“Hell if I know. Gone, and good riddance.”
Batman's arms lowered again, his expression suddenly growing cross. “You let him go? After everything he's done?”
“I wasn't exactly in a position to stop him, in case you haven't noticed,” she retorted.
As Batman went to make a counter point, Officer Harrow interrupted. “It's alright, Batman. We got the real culprit, that's good enough for now.”
“Hold on, if you're defending her, then why are you arresting her?” Batman asked.
“Because she still killed the guy,” he replied, with a small shrug. “Like it or not, murder is a crime no matter who commits it for no matter what reason. If a jury decides to find her not guilty, then so be it, but I still have to take her in.”
Another long pause passed between them. Batman uttered a heavy breath, bringing a hand up to rub his eyes tiredly. “Alright... understood.”
“Don't worry, really,” Rose said, quietly. “I could use the isolation... it'll give me time to think.”
Eyes softening, Batman raised a hand and placed it on her shoulder. “I... we found Becky. I'm so sorry, Rose.”
“If it's all the same to you, Dick, I'd rather not talk about it right now,” she muttered, looking away.
“Right... of course. I'll see you later.”
On that note, Harrow gently led Rose into the back of the squad car, then closed the door and headed around to the driver's side. A short moment later, he drove off towards the local station, leaving the other police officers behind to help clean up the mess and secure the area.
Once Rose was gone, Power Girl walked up next to Batman and held her arms around herself. “Do you think she'll be okay?”
“I really can't say,” he replied. “She's always been strong before, but this... I'm afraid it might be one heartbreak too many.”
Nearby, Red Arrow let out a tired, pained breath, while holding a hand to the back of his head. “So, I guess this whole VRA thing is finished, then, huh?”
“Looks like it, soon as Raven helps identify which members of congress and the like are still under stem control,” Cyborg replied. “Then I can help return them to normal.”
“That's good, I suppose. Doesn't help the fact that the government still has a list of all our identities now, though.”
At this comment, a small smile formed across Cyborg's face. “Oh, I wouldn't worry much about that. I already nabbed the hard copies back at the VRA building. As for the digital copies... well, I have a couple friends working on it right now.”
Holding a hand to his chin, Calculator stared back at the screen of his computer console, which showed a progress bar of the data he was downloading. Currently, the bar read sixty-seven percent. While throwing all his chips in with that Jeremiah guy seemed to have been a bad investment, he wasn't out of ideas yet. Even with the VRA sunk, he still had access to all their data, which would soon be copied to his hard drive. After that, he could sell the identities of any superhero he wanted to the highest bidders.
“Come on... just a little bit more,” he said.
The progress bar hit ninety percent, then ninety-five, and then... it froze. Narrowing his eyes, he leaned forward and glared at the screen. When still nothing happened, his fingers flew over the keyboard.
“What the hell is- why isn't it responding? What's going on?!”
And then, the screen shut off, becoming completely dark. A second later, it flickered back on, this time showing a glowing green face on it, an overly familiar avatar belonging to the last person he wanted to see right now.
“Hey there, Calculator. Remember us?” asked the synthesized voice of Oracle.
A second avatar appeared on the screen, this one red: Proxy. “You didn't think you were getting away this time, did you?”
“NO!” Slamming his fists down on the table, Calculator stared madly at the two faces in front of him. “You can't be here!”
“And yet we are,” Proxy said.
“We were busy wiping the VRA's database, when lo and behold we detected an outgoing signal transferring the data,” Oracle explained. “Imagine our surprise when it led right back to you.”
“But that's not all we found.” A certain delight found its way to Proxy's tone. “We also traced the signal used to set off the explosives back at the VRA building, the explosives that killed one Rebecca Chavez.”
“The police should be there right about...”
The door behind Calculator suddenly crashed inward. Spinning around, he came face to face with a team of no less than five police officers, all pointing guns at him. For a moment, he blinked stupidly at them, until finally he raised his hands.
“-now,” Oracle said. “Hope you enjoy your ten to twenty.”
Back at the wreckage of the VRA building, only two people remained behind. Wonder Girl sat on a large chunk of concrete, leaning forward with her arms resting on her knees and gaze locked on the body of Rebecca Chavez just three feet in front of her. The sight knotted up her stomach, and yet she could not look away.
Leaning on his bo staff for support nearby, Red Robin slowly glanced at her. “You've been staring at her for ten minutes now.”
“I... can't help it,” she replied. “She shouldn't have died.”
“Probably not. But she did.”
“Were she and Rose just... I mean, did they...” Wonder Girl paused a moment, trying to force out her words through a sad lump in her throat. “Did Rose really love her?”
“As far as I know,” Red Robin said. “Everything I heard was secondhand from Dick, but... yeah, it was serious.”
Releasing a tired sigh, Wonder Girl brought her head down into her hands. “You know, I honestly thought I'd be happy if Rose ever had to feel this kind of pain... now I realize it just makes me sick. No one should have to lose the one they love... not even her.”
Red Robin said nothing, instead turning his gaze back to Becky,. He could hear the ambulances approaching now.
“She actually seemed excited to meet us, you know?” Wonder Girl said, swallowing. “Hell, she even knew who I was. And what did I do? Punched her girlfriend and shoved her through a table.”
“There's nothing you can do about it now,” he replied, with a small shrug.
Wonder Girl's eye slowly closed, trying to hold back the growing wetness of tears. “If you see Rose again... tell her I'm sorry, alright? For everything.”
Slowly, Red Robin turned to look at her again. “That's something you should do yourself.”
“Right, because that would go over well,,” she said, scoffing out an amused laugh. Almost instantly, however, she resumed her sorrowful expression “I'm the last person she wants to see right now.”
“Can you really blame her?”
“Yeah, well... whatever. I need to... I need to think, clear my head. I'll see you later.” With that, she flew up into the air and disappeared.
Rose lay on the bench quietly, head resting against her arm. Iron bars stood tall in front of her, plain stone walls on her other sides. It had been about six hours now since they took down the VRA. Six hours since she killed Jeremiah Belmont. Six hours since...
“Becky...” Forcing her eyes shut, Rose lifted her hand to her face and pressed her fingers to them. She sucked in a deep breath, slowly letting it out and trying to remain calm.
It was hard, of course. Becky was the only person she had ever loved that way, the only person she'd ever opened up to completely. And it hadn't just been a crazy fling, or anything like that. It had been love, she knew it deep in her heart. She could have seen herself spending the rest of her life with Becky, and nothing would have made her happier. But now...
The sound of the door at the end of the hallway opening caused Rose to raise her head and open her eyes again. She blinked a couple of times curiously, then sat up on the bench as an officer approached the door to the cell. The cop already had his keys at the ready, slipping one of them into the lock and then sliding the door open.
“Alright, let's go,” the officer said.
Rose narrowed her eyes. “What's going on?”
“Someone posted your bail.”
“Who-” That's when she noticed the other man walking into view next to the officer. He gave her a small wave, smiling slightly. “Well, that was thoughtful.”
“Couldn’t just leave you in here,” Dick said, shrugging slightly.
“You should have,” she muttered. “I honestly don't think I would have minded that much.”
Giving her a sympathetic look, Dick walked forward and handed her a folder with several papers inside it. “Here.”
Confused, she took the folder from him and started flipping through them. “What's this?”
“Your court dates.”
“Don't worry about it too much,” he said. “Considering the situation, the judge might just throw out the case altogether. I've seen stranger things happen.”
“Yeah, whatever. Let's just go. I should probably get this arm looked at.”
Dick nodded, motioning for her to follow him down the hall. “Before we do, though, I brought someone with me to see you.”
“Who?” she asked, giving him a narrow glance. “Because right now, there aren't a whole lot of people I'd want to see.”
“Trust me, this is one of the exceptions.”
When they make it through the doorway leading into the main part of the station, a small blonde girl suddenly ran towards her. “Rose!”
Eyes going wide in surprise, Rose knelt down to give the girl a warm, one-armed hug, holding on tightly. In seconds, they were both forcing back tears. “Holly... oh I missed you.”
Sniffling, the girl held her arms tighter around Rose. She could barely get through her words, stumbling through sobs. “I'm... I'm sorry about... about Becky...”
Taking in a deep breath through her nose, Rose brought her chin forward and rested it on Holly's shoulder, eyes closing and heavy heart sinking a little further in her chest. “I know, Holly... I know.”
Michael Kubrick rubbed the back of his head tenderly, as he pushed through the entrance of the city morgue. Zaria was with him, both having managed to escape the scene at the VRA building before the cops showed up. After things went south, it only made sense to get the hell out of there as soon as possible. But while they should be five hundred miles from here by now, instead they had been contacted. By who... well, they didn't know.
The call had been from an unknown number, claiming that they still had work to do. He didn't want to trust it, of course, but Zaria insisted that if this was supposed to be some kind of set up, they could always just eat whoever the guy was. That idea actually intrigued him enough to go along with this stupid meeting.
When they entered the cold chamber, a bald man in a white lab coat and glasses was already waiting for them. For a brief moment, he simply stared at them, until waving for them to come in.
“So who the hell are you, huh?” Kubrick asked.
“The name is Professor Hugo Strange,” the man explained. “I don't believe we've met, have we?”
“No, we haven't.” Kubrick narrowed his eyes, already losing his patience. “So why the hell did you call us?”
“Yes... and how did you get our number for that matter?” Zaria added.
“Oh, I'm not the one who called you, no. I was merely sent ahead to greet you both.”
Kubrick sighed, rubbing his fingers against his eyes. “Uh huh... so then where is the guy who called us?”
“He'll be here shortly,” Strange replied. “In the meantime, we're to make preparations.”
Squinting her eyes at him, Zaria cocked her head to the side slightly, then brushed back her hair. “Preparations for what?”
Moving away from them, Strange made his way over to the wall of storage drawers. He counted them off, then stopped in front of a specific one and pulled the chilled compartment open, revealing a naked, bruised corpse within.
Recognizing who it was, Kubrick crossed his arms and let out a scoff. “Hmph, Chavez. She always was biting off more than she could chew.”
“Explain to me why exactly we're in a morgue looking at a dead body,” Zaria said. “I still haven't quite grasped the purpose.”
Without answering her question, Strange looked over to Kubrick and motioned for him to assist. “Help me move her to one of the tables.”
“There had better be a good reason for this...” Kubrick muttered.
Walking forward, Kubrick aided Strange in lifting the corpse off the sliding drawer and then carried her over to one of the flat metal tables nearby, setting her down. Then, Strange headed over to a locker on the other side of the room and opened it, causing another limp, ghostly body to crumple out to the floor. This one belonged to the mortician on duty, a young blonde woman.
“Now, help me get her on the other table.”
Narrowing his eyes slightly, Kubrick walked over to offer his assistance again. “Looks like she died pretty recently.”
“Well, I would imagine so,” Strange replied. “I injected her with a lethal dose of sodium penathol a mere hour ago.”
After dropping the dead mortician on the second table, Kubrick walked back to Zaria's side and folded his arms. “Now, are you going to explain what we're doing? Who called us here?”
“I did.” Turning suddenly, they noticed a man standing in the doorway, a man dressed in a dark suit, long coat, fedora hat, and black rimmed glasses. Walking forward, he flipped his hat off and rested it on the table next to Rebecca's corpse. “I have to admit, I'm surprised you two actually showed up. But I'm glad you did.”
“Who the hell are you?” Kubrick asked.
“I'm who you've been working for this entire time,” the man explained. “What's the problem? Don't recognize your boss?”
“Hun, I've never seen you before in my life,” Zaria said, shaking her head slowly.
“Ah, of course, you don't know me in this form. Where are my manners?” In an instant, his face reformed itself, morphing into a spitting image of the President of the United States. Both Zaria and Kubrick's eyes began to widen in surprise and confusion, as the man's face then returned to normal. “Is that better?”
Kubrick paused a moment, taking a careful step forward. “Who the hell are you?”
“The name is Jeremiah Belmont. And my friends... we have work to do.”
It was raining. Of course it was raining, why not? It was the only thing that could have made this day more miserable, after all, so might as well throw it in. Rose stood amongst the others gathered next to the grave, her left arm in a sling and eyes locked on the casket in front of her. The church service had been hard enough to get through, but now the committal... it felt like someone was reaching into her chest and unceremoniously crushing her heart.
The grip on her hand suddenly tightened. Looking down, she saw Holly standing there with red, puffy eyes. No tears, though; she'd long since run out of them, now only dry, sticky remains left behind on her cheeks. Taking in another breath, Rose lifted her gaze back to the casket, as it began to lower into the grave.
The priest raised his hands and lifted his head, speaking to all those gathered. “And so, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life. May Rebecca Anne Chavez forever rest in peace.”
As the officiants began to fill the grave, the mourners slowly took their leave, one by one. Rose, however, lingered for a while, watching the process. With each shovelful of dirt that fell into the grave, Becky's passing felt just a little more final, and Rose's heart a little heavier. Holly stayed, too, leaning close and holding an arm around her.
Something out of the corner of her eye pulled Rose's attention, however. When she saw who stood there, a sick knot tightened in her gut. Rebecca's parents, Jorge and Emma Chavez, walked by, shooting a hateful glare in her direction. She said nothing, instead averting her eyes and staring at the ground, even as they spoke.
“Stay away from our family from now on, do you hear me?” Jorge said, holding his arms tenderly around his wife.
“If she hadn't met you... our baby would still be alive,” Emma insisted, wiping tears from her eyes.
Two quick statements that cut like daggers. When they finally left, Rose sucked in a deep breath and looked up at the sky, rainwater stinging her eyes.
“They really don't like you, do they?” a calm voice asked.
Rose turned her head briefly to see Circe walking up beside her, holding an umbrella above them. “Not that surprising, is it? I'm the one who told them their daughter was dead, I'm the one that put her in that position... that and they didn't know about Becky's lifestyle before.”
“Until you spoke at the service.”
“She always did say her parents would never approve.” Rose breathed out a sigh, bowing her head. “It's no wonder they hate me... too many reasons.”
A quiet pause descended over them. By now, the grave had been fully filled, the funeral over. Abruptly, the complete finality of it all began to sink it.
Sniffling a little, Holly looked up at Rose with empty eyes. “Can I... go wait in the car?”
Nodding, Rose gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Yeah, of course.”
“You can go to my car, if you like,” Circe said. “Lyta's there.”
“Alright...” Breathing out a heavy sigh, the young girl marched away from the grave to the line of cars nearby.
Another pause went by, before Circe finally broke the silence again, lifting her umbrella higher. “You know, I... haven't really ever been the sentimental type.”
Rose lifted an eyebrow, slowly glancing at her. “You don't say.”
“And I know I've been a bit rough around the edges since we met, and I never really gave you or Rebecca the thanks you deserved,” she continued. “Just the lingering mentality of being an all powerful sorceress, I suppose.”
Snorting out a small scoff, Rose blinked down at the grave again and stuffed her hand in her pocket. “Yeah, I guess that could have something to do with it.”
“As I've spent time you, though, as a mortal and as a mother caring for her daughter... I'm starting to see the world in a different light. It's... hard to describe, really, but...” Gently, Circe raised a hand, resting it comfortingly against Rose's shoulder. “I want to thank you for it.”
Rose shrugged. “That's what friends do.”
“I realize that now. You have been a friend to me, a good friend, and I wish to offer my condolences to you. Rebecca, too, was a good friend.”
“A great friend.”
“Yes,” Circe said, smiling ever so slightly. “A great one.”
The two remained standing there a few moments longer, until Circe finally took her leave. Rose remained, though, still unable to pull herself away. For several minutes longer, she stood in silence, just watching, waiting. Half of her hoped that maybe she would suddenly wake from this nightmare, that she'd open her eyes, roll over in bed, and have Becky there to tell her it was all just a bad dream. The other half told her that it was wishful thinking. This was reality, and she had to accept it.
Another voice called out to her, this one belonging to a familiar man. “Rose.”
Lifting her gaze, she turned around suddenly to see not only Dick Grayson standing there, but also Tim Drake, Roy Harper, Karen Starr, Cassandra Cain, Wally West, and Cyborg.
“What... what are you all doing here?” she asked, face twisting with confusion.
“Just wanted to offer our support,” Tim said.
Wally nodded. “Yeah, you helped us all in a big way, you know. Heck, you helped save my family. The least we can do is express our sympathies.”
Moving forward, Roy held a hand to her shoulder and gave a strong nod. “She seemed like a wonderful person.”
Rose swallowed back a knot in her throat, nodding slowly. “She was.” Her gaze then moved to Cassandra, giving the woman a slightly bemused look. “Even you showed up?”
“We are... rivals, yes? But I don't hate you,” Cassandra replied, extending her hand. “You are... a friend.”
For a brief moment, Rose just stared at her, until finally grabbing hold and shaking hands. “Friends, then.”
“But sometime... rematch.”
A very small smile began to form on Rose's face. “Any time you want.”
A quieter voice drew her attention this time. Karen approached, rubbing one of her arms nervously and bowing her head. “Rose, I... I'm sorry. For giving Becky that suit, for sending her out with us, I... it's my fault.”
“Maybe... but blaming you won't bring her back,” Rose said, sighing quietly. “I know what you meant by it, and I know you weren't trying to get her hurt.”
“Still... I am sorry,” Karen said. “I didn't know her for very long, but I could tell what a great person she was, and how much you cared for each other.”
Exhaling, Rose nodded absently. “Yeah, I know.”
A short pause passed, until Cyborg took a couple steps forward and folded his arms. “You're not alone in this, you know.”
“He's right,” Dick stated. “You still have friends, friends who care about you. If you ever need anything, if you ever want to talk, we're here.”
“Thank you... all of you. I, uh... I just need to get going now, I...” Sucking in a large breath, she lifted a hand to her eyes and quickly wiped them dry. Swallowing, she gave an affirmative nod and then moved past them. “I have to get Holly home, and... need to reopen my studio... I'll see you all later. Thank you.”
She didn't look back as she left, instead keeping her head pointed forward and gaze lowered to the wet ground. She didn't even so much as try to move around the puddles, walking straight through them on the way back to the car. Before she got there, however, one more voice reached her ears, this one not nearly as welcomed as the others.
Freezing in place, she slowly turned her head to see Cassandra Sandsmark standing there behind a tree and holding an umbrella.
Moving from the tree, Cassie hurried towards her. “I... I'm glad I caught you, I didn't know if-”
“What the hell are you doing here?” Rose snapped.
Hesitating briefly, Cassie stiffened, blinking absently. The amount of burning ire pouring out of Rose was enough to put even Wonder Girl on edge. “I was just... I wanted to pay my respects.”
“What on earth for?”
“Because... because I'm sorry about Rebecca. I... know you really loved her.”
Rose's gaze grew cross, jaw clenching. “What the hell do you care? You didn't even know her. All you did was put her through a damn table!”
“No, don't you dare apologize to me!” Rose exclaimed. “After everything you've said to me, after every horrible interaction we've ever had, and how you left things between us last time, don't you even think about suddenly 'seeing the light' and trying to make up for it.”
“I'm not finished yet. You want to know something? It's a damn shame you didn't know Becky, because she was a great person. She was kind, and funny, and caring, and always willing to put others ahead of herself. She wasn't selfish, she wasn't cruel, and she never held a grudge. She even gave her life for something she believed in, fighting for you and everyone else. She's a better person than you will ever be. You want to apologize to someone? Apologize to her. Now do me a favor and stay the hell away from me.”
And with that, Rose turned and stormed off, not giving so much as a quick glance back. Cassie stood there for the longest time, lowering her umbrella and blinking in stunned silence as the rain began to soak her.
Rose leaned against the counter with her good arm, staring at the microwave as the timer ticked down. She was in a sort of surreal daze at the moment, vision going blurry while she waited. It wasn't until the microwave beeped that she finally came to her senses and reached forward to open it. If she had been thinking straight, she probably would have realized not to grab the open end of the popcorn bag, instantly scalding her palm on the hot air seeping out.
She made no move to go run her hand under cold water, though, simply squeezing it into a fist for several moments and trying to push the pain away. Eventually, she reached for the bag again, and this time pulled it out more carefully. After opening it with her hand and teeth, she dumped the contents out into a bowl, then lightly salted the kernels. When she was done, she carried the bowl into the living room, where Holly sat quietly on the couch, waiting.
“Here, I, uh... I made some popcorn for the movie,” she said. “I know you don't like it buttered so I just... added some salt. Want some?”
An answer didn't come at first, as Rose moved around the couch and sat next to the girl. Eventually, though, Holly leaned to the side and rested her head against Rose's shoulder. “I'm not really hungry...”
Breathing outwardly, Rose's expression sank slightly in sad understanding. Placing the bowl of popcorn in front of her on the coffee table, she then held her arm around Holly and rubbed the girl's shoulder. “Yeah... me neither.”
“I'm really gonna miss her.”
“So am I, Holly... so am I.”
Swallowing back a lump in her throat, Rose shut her eyes and took in another deep breath. The movie that they had been planning to watch suddenly disappeared from their thoughts, and instead the two remained like that, comforting each other over the loss of Rebecca. Through all of this, at least Rose could be happy knowing that Holly was safe.
That's right... I still have Holly, and she needs me to be strong... we need each other more than ever now.
Blinking back a few tears, the girl raised her gaze and sniffled. “Yeah?”
“I, uh... I was thinking about something,” Rose said, shifting her gaze slightly. “I mean... I don't know if you'd even want to, but... I mean, when you were taken away, I... well, I don't want that to happen again. I... I don't want to lose you, too. So, I thought that maybe I could get some, uh... some adoption forms, and fill those out. You know... I mean, if you wanted.”
Holly sat upright with wide eyes, blinking several times. “You mean, you... you want to adopt me?'
“Well... yeah. I mean, sure I'm your legal guardian, and sure I look after you, but... I want to make it official.”
Sniffling again, Holly forced a smile to show through her grief, then lunged forward and threw her arms around Rose in a warm hug. “That would be... great. Really great. I... thank you, Rose. Thank you.”
Pressing her head gently against Holly's, Rose's arm wrapped around the girl's shoulder. “You're welcome, Holly. I love you, girl... always will.”
“I love you, too, Rose. Er... wait, does this mean I should call you mom?”
And for the first time in a long time, Rose uttered a small laugh. Leaning back a bit, she gently kissed the girl's forehead and smiled. “Only if you want to. Now come on... let's get you to bed.”
Once Holly was in bed, Rose returned to the kitchen. She stared at the bowl of popcorn for a minute, then dumped it in the trash. A moment later, she reached up to the top shelves and pulled out the alcohol. She didn't have to be up in the morning for anything, so she might as well drown herself in a drunken stupor before crashing in bed.
And yet, as she poured a shot, she abruptly lost the will to drink it. She took a long look at the glass, then dumped its contents into the sink, and when that was done she moved on to the entire bottle, pouring it all down the drain. Releasing a long sigh, she leaned forward against the counter and held her head in her hand. Eventually, she returned to the living room and collapsed on the couch, staring up at the ceiling.
“Becky... if you're watching, I just... I love you. I'll always love you, no matter where you are.” Lowering her gaze again, she stared off aimlessly in front of her, eyes drooping in sorrow. “And... and I'm sorry. We were supposed to watch each other's backs and I let you down. I should have seen it coming...”
She swallowed now, a hard knot twisting its way into her throat. Holding a hand up to the side of her head, she closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. “I'm gonna miss you, Beck... I'm really gonna miss you.”