Title: Past Lives
Fandom: Birds of Prey
Ratings: PG15 (to be safe – some violence, some bad language… not much sex…)
Disclaimers: I don’t own Birds of Prey or any character created by WB used in this story. I’m making no profit on this and wouldn’t want to – as it’s ‘borrowed gods’. This is pure fun – and an entertaining way of passing the time when one is bored out of ones mind.
More disclaimers: I don’t own the Angel-verse or any character created by Joss Whedon and Company. I’m making no profit on this…
Author's Notes: English is still not my first language, so despite ‘beta-ing’ please excuse any strange grammar or wordings…
Second Author’s Notes: I had some requests for a sequel to Alternate Lives. At first I was against the idea – I don’t like sequels. I’m a sucker for happy endings and in sequels the happiness is bound to be messed with… Although, when watching The Mummy, on a gray winter’s day here in the cold north, I suddenly had a story coming to me in a flash. It demanded to be written, so I had to give it my attention. I do hope you enjoy it :)
Special Thanks: Thanks to my beta-reader Erin, for putting down time and effort into this story. Thank you! :)
Summary: The story is a direct sequel to Alternate Lives.
I will never know the touch of a lover, nor the kiss of a man. I will never know the loving embrace of one I love, or the tender caress of his hands. I will not know love the way it is made between woman and man. Why not? Because I belong to another – I belong to something higher than both woman and man. I belong to the Goddess – I am hers with my body and soul, and no other will ever have the right to lay claim to me… Nor would I have the right or the wish to follow them if they asked. Once I didn’t care. Once I never looked at another and knew in my heart the right path for me to follow was one of servitude. I looked at those men wooing me and wanted them not – my heart was set on another path. I became a priestess.
Today… Woe is me, woe is me – I have fallen. Because I look not at a man, but at a woman – and my body burns for her. My skin tingles when she is near, my heart lurches in its cage and my knees grow so week as if I was filled with the power of the Goddess – although I am not, but only with desire for another woman. I close my eyes and there she is – wild and beautiful and daring. And her eyes burn and her lips… Those lips. I cannot sleep, I cannot think, I cannot even pray – for my heart is full of longing and she is all I want.
Thus have I fallen and so is my life shattered… I see only death ahead of us.
“I have dreams”, I had told her. “Mostly with you in them…”
It was true. I did dream and it was Helena I longed for in those dreams – it was her body I caressed and kissed and wanted so much nothing else in the entire world mattered. And so – therefore – it was my fault after all… It was my fault that that world burned, in the end.
But I also remembered... That morning, right before the phone call woke me up to the realities of this world, I heard that voice again. In my dream I was kneeling in front of the altar with the great bat, praying for my soul and the souls of those who were in my care, and I heard the voice. It was a woman’s voice this time, but I knew it to be the same. It said: “I give you one night…” That had been all, but it had brought me peace.
“So, this is what we know when it comes to Moonkiller”, I said and looked around at the people before me. Kate looked focused, Helena smiled at me, Dick nodded and Dinah tried hard not to look worried. I felt for her, but I also knew that I couldn’t leave her out of what was coming. She needed to be a part of it, to grow. She needed to know I trusted her.
Alfred just passed by with a tray, cleaning up the desserts. He was worried too, but as usual he didn’t show it or let it affect his duties. Seeing him I was reminded that I needed to phone Wade to thank him for the flowers.
“There are no leads whatsoever. One of Kate’s contacts has said that it’s as if the girls hanged themselves upside down and slit their own throats, if it had been physically possible. Although, it was suspected that the murders were performed as some kind of satanic ritual. We don’t know. I myself tend to believe that if it were satanic the perpetrator would leave some symbols behind. Anything. And if so there would be some kind of trace.” I shook my head and began to pace about the room. “We have absolutely no leads and yet we believe the killer will come for Dinah. Why? We don’t know. If we trusted common sense alone we wouldn’t have this discussion, but I think I speak for us all when I say – it is time we trust our guts. And my gut tells me we are on the right track. Any objections?”
I looked at them, but their faces were grim. Only Dinah looked around with an uncertain expression. Her police escort waited outside the house: four cops circling the building with intercoms and guns. They wanted to place one with us inside too, but I had objected to that. It was difficult, having police surveillance and hiding ones secret identity at the same time. The press had chased me the whole day too, trying to get my comments on the Joker’s escape. I had answered some questions, but they weren’t satisfied. I knew I would have to hold a press conference one of these days, but right at that moment it wasn’t my priority.
“Good.” I resumed my pacing. “Maybe tonight’s session with the psychic Huntress found us will prove to be worth something. We’ll wait and see after tonight.”
I glanced at Helena and she nodded slowly with a confident look. For someone who had never considered the spirit world before she sure trusted Nan Rover. The Native American must have made an impression.
Helena had never gone back to the warehouse by the river. After the news about where Cam Anderson’s body had been found we both knew it wouldn’t do any good. The Joker wasn’t there and neither would Reeves be. Shadow had only dropped the body off when Helena noticed him earlier. I knew she had blamed herself for not checking out the site but it wouldn’t have made a difference. She would only have found a dead body, nothing more. And if Shadow had spied her he would have wondered what she was doing in the middle of nowhere. He might even have managed to find Nan Rover and that would have been disastrous.
We needed the psychic, I was sure of it. There was no one else that could tell us about what was happening to us. Possession or no possession.
“Now, in regards to the Joker…” Just thinking about him made me angry. Not the white-hot rage of the past when Mike died, but a cold, freezing anger – slowly spreading, like a glacier sure of its victory over the conquered land. My worry had subsided and was replaced by righteous fury. You are not taking those I love! I thought, almost vehemently. I felt like a lioness fighting for her cubs – and I knew I had the love, the strength and the support of a real lioness behind me; Helena wouldn’t let me go through this on my own. “He killed a virtually unknown man to leave a message for us. Could anyone tell me why?” I knew, of course. I had suspected it when I got the phone call from Arkam’s warden and I had known for sure not many hours later.
“But he is not unknown, right?” Kate said, leaning slightly forward in the couch. I had come to recognize the focused expression on her face. She was quite clever, but there were some things she didn’t know and therefore couldn’t possibly understand. “Helena knew him.”
“He was never a friend”, Helena objected. “He didn’t seem to have many friends, everyone always picked on him because he was so clumsy. Not that it matters now, I guess. I mean, I hadn’t seen him since high school. There was a reunion a couple of months ago, but I didn’t go. I didn’t feel very sociable at the time”, she added, grumbling. Kate glanced at her and I could read the blond woman’s face quite clearly: she plainly wondered if Helena ever felt sociable. The sight, and the thought of Helena’s grumpiness, made me relax a little.
“Except, he did ask you for protection”, Kate persisted. “That must mean something.”
“Only if it was Helena he wanted to see”, Dick calmly explained. “But he asked for Huntress and there’s nothing that points to him knowing her real identity.”
“She doesn’t wear a mask”, Kate pointed out. “How hard is it to know her real identity?”
“Wait a minute…!” Helena straightened and glared at Kate.
“Excuse me”, Kate said, gesturing with one hand. She didn’t sound apologetic at all. “But… Anyone catching a glimpse of you would recognize you.”
Helena stared at the blond woman.
“Kate has a point, Helena”, Dick said. “In regards to the mask”, he added.
I noticed Dinah looking at him, hiding a grin, and wondered if the girl had come to the same conclusion about him and Kate as I had. Helena on the other hand… she was clueless, as usual. I found it rather sweet.
“Well, tell that to Reese”, Helena growled, quite annoyed, and I had to hide a smile.
“Reese? What’s he got to do with it?” Kate looked confused.
“He saw her in a fight once”, Dinah said with a smile. “He still hasn’t recognized her. It’s difficult for Helena to comprehend, as she believes herself to be – as you so nicely put it – unforgettable.”
“Sparrow”, Helena growled, glaring at Dinah, but the quiet gleam in her eyes took the edge of her dangerous expression and Dinah grinned at her.
“I see”, Kate said with a smile she didn’t bother to hide. “Still”, she went on in a more serious manner. “Cam Anderson asked for Helena’s… Sorry” – she caught Helena’s expression and threw up her arms in an apology – “Huntress’s, protection even before the Joker escaped.”
“True, but that doesn’t mean anything, either”, Dinah said. “The bounty-hunters could have been contacted from inside Arkam. The Joker could have planned Cam’s death even before he escaped.”
“Which again leads us to why”, Kate said with a frown.
“We know why”, Dick said and looked at me. I nodded, barely noticeably, and he went on: “We never found the converter.”
“Oh!” Dinah said and I saw Helena blink for a second; she hadn’t considered it. Now she glanced at me, but I nodded at Dick’s words.
“No, we didn’t”, I said. I looked at Kate and explained. “After Patch Parker’s death the police found a lot of advanced technologies stored at his headquarter. They didn’t know what to do with it, so they let my company have it – for research. It’s not usual procedure, but I have contacts.”
“Of course”, Kate said softly.
“I went through all the equipment myself, but the one device I was most interested in was missing. We haven’t found it. It’s the meta-human converter…”
“The one that made the Joker’s son a meta-human?” Kate breathed deeply. “I understand. You think he used it on this… on Cam?”
“I’m sure of it. We know Cam was a meta-human – there are no other reasons for the Joker to hunt him down and to kill him.”
“But we don’t know what Cam’s meta-human abilities were”, Dinah said with a frown. “The Joker could have become… anything.”
“Ah, but you see – that’s the thing. He has told us what he has become. Remember? The message he left…”
“’Can you see… me?’” Helena quoted. “You think he is invisible?” She frowned.
“The thought has crossed my mind”, I said, “but wouldn’t he have phrased the last sentence differently in that case?”
“’Concealed in plain sight…’” Dick mumbled. “It sounds invisible to me.”
“No.” I wasn’t sure. “No…”
“He probably would word it differently”, Helena mused. “Like… invisibility is not really there, is it? It’s not even concealed, it’s just…” She shrugged. “I don’t know what I mean…”
“To be concealed in plain sight is something in front of you that you don’t see… If you don’t see it, it’s invisible.” Dick frowned.
“Or camouflaged”, Kate said slowly. “It happened to me once. I was chasing this demon and it hid in front of a wall – I didn’t see it, because it took the shape and color of the wall. It melted in with the surroundings almost perfectly… What?” she added when she noticed all of us staring at her.
“Whoa! Back up, rewind…” Helena almost rose from the chair. “Did you just say demon?”
“I think I did. Do you have a problem with that?” Kate arched an eyebrow at Huntress, who blinked and fell back in the chair.
“No problem.” Helena shook her head. “Uh um. No, no – no problem at all.”
“Good”, Kate said with a finality that closed the subject.
“I’d go with the camouflage thing”, Dinah said. “See? Cam – camouflage. It’s too neat not to mean something.”
“You can’t be serious?” Helena said. “You can’t base a meta-human ability on a name.”
“Why not?” Dinah objected. “Happens all the time. Helena – Huntress. Batgirl – Barbara…”
“Dinah – Sparrow”, Helena said and the teenager made a face at her. “On the other hand…” Helena turned her attention to Dick. “Maybe it was supposed to be Darkwing. Ever considered a change of name?”
“I already had one”, Dick mumbled and I must fake a cough to hide my laugh. Kate looked curiously at me.
“What?” Helena said inquisitively. “I haven’t heard about this. What did you used to be called?”
Dick clenched his jaws.
“Tell me. You know Dinah will, any way”, Helena teased and Dick gave in with a sigh. He mumbled something inaudible. Or, at least inaudible for most of us – Helena burst into laughter.
“What?” Kate asked. “What did he say?”
“Oh, no! You’ve got to be kidding me!” Helena almost fell off the chair, laughing. Her laughter infected Dinah, who started to giggle at Dick’s mortified expression.
“He’s not”, I said. “He changed his name after he graduated from law school.” I looked at Kate with a smile. “He used to be called Robin. Batman and Robin…”
“Enough!” Dick pleaded and I noticed his ears were red – he always blushed to the tip of his ears. “Right, I was young, ok?” He glared at Helena, who tried to calm down.
“Huh”, she said and nodded. “Ok, huh…” Then she had another fit of laughter and Dick threw out his arms.
“I give up”, he sighed.
Kate shook her head in amusement, then caught my look. “A chameleon, then?” she said and brought us back to business. I nodded.
“It could be either… Or a transparent one, maybe.”
“No, Gibson says there’s already a transparent meta… Some place in Agra, or somewhere?” Dinah frowned.
“Agra is in India”, I said flatly.
“Oh. Well, it could have been Akron, too.”
“Right”, I said. “In any case I’m going to construct some devices that will neutralize the meta-human ability – either it’s a metabolism that makes the Joker invisible or camouflaged. You said Cam was clumsy?” I asked Helena and she nodded. “It probably had something to do with his ability. The constant change could have affected his neurology. I imagine his cerebellum could have suffered some damages and that would bring about an impaired motor control…”
“Please, Barbara”, Dinah said.
“He’d be clumsy, as a side effect to his meta-human abilities”, I explained. “Also”, I went on, thinking out loud. “The camouflage would probably not be completely invisible… No, it would create a… Yes, as he moved about in front of dead objects, flat objects would take on a three-dimensional effect. It would create a flicker, a shimmer in the air when he moves… If that’s so, it would make it a little easier for us.”
“If this Cam was clumsy and the Joker now has his abilities, wouldn’t that make him a klutz too?” Kate asked, but I shook my head.
“I doubt it. The guy Patchy stole his abilities from suffered major migraine attacks every so often, but Patchy managed to work around that. Whatever side effects the original meta has, I believe the ‘fakers’ have erased.”
“So, you’ll work on your… devices. But in the meantime the Joker could turn up… anywhere.”
“I’m afraid so”, I said. “But… We need to keep in mind that although he somehow managed to hire the bounty hunters, he only escaped jail today. He will need time to organize himself.”
“It would help if we knew what he was going to do”, Kate said with a frown. “Criminals always have a motive.
“True”, Dick said. “Knowing the Joker, there will be death and more death.”
“He will have two priorities”, I said. “The first is to hurt the people I love and to kill me. The second is either to destroy Gotham and New Gotham, or to take control of the city. If it’s the first he will only need Shadow to do his bidding, if it’s the second he’ll need an army. We will plan for both eventualities.”
There was so much more we needed to discuss, so much more they needed to know, but as I glanced at my wristwatch I noticed it was time for us to leave. Nan Rover was expecting us.
“I wish there was more to actually do”, Helena complained in my intercom on our way to the swamps. She drove her bike with Dinah on the back. I drove alone on my bike, while Dick and Kate went in his car. We traveled to Nan Rover’s place as ourselves – not as our alter egos. It would have been too difficult to explain why Batgirl and company needed spiritual advice. Although – considering the work we did around the city, maybe it wasn’t so weird after all.
We had managed to sneak away from a few clingy reporters and I had left word to Reese to command the cops guarding the house to stay at the house until we returned. He wasn’t happy about it, especially since I refused to tell him where we were going, but he had known not to challenge my wish.
“I know it’s a lot of talk, but it’s important talk. The general best prepared is the one who will win the war. Any victory lies in the details and I need to know I’ve covered the smallest ones.”
I heard Helena sigh and knew she felt frustrated. She was used to action, not to sit around and do nothing. I just needed to get her to see that what we did wasn’t nothing. Kate understood; she had been a cop. Research was important – going over and over the same information again and again, to find the one, missing clue that would solve it all. My father had done it lots of times.
“I just feel… incompetent. I hate that feeling.”
“You are not incompetent”, I objected softly. “I need you by my side. The thought of you is what keeps me going. If I didn’t have you…” I didn’t finish the sentence.
“You would have coped”, I heard Helena say in a low voice. “That’s what you do.”
Maybe, but I would be less humane, I thought to myself, knowing that if Helena hadn’t been there I would have closed myself to anyone trying to reach me and dealt only with how to defeat the Joker. As it was… She made me relax; she even managed to make me laugh. It meant more to me than she would probably ever know.
When we reached Nan Rover’s cottage the young woman waited for us in the door. She greeted us with a smile, but didn’t touch us, before she let us in to her home.
The inside was surprisingly comfortable, considering the way the cottage looked from the outside. Nan Rover moved about with startling ease; either she knew perfectly well were everything was, or Helena had been right about the fact that she actually did see in some way, although she was quite disturbingly blind.
“Please, sit down in a circle on the pillows”, the woman said and gestured towards the large pillows in different colors on the floor in the main room. There were two doors leading from the room – both were closed.
Burning candles lit up the entire room and there was a vague scent of incense. It made me remember my dream again.
I sat down on the floor between Helena and Dinah. Kate sat on Helena’s other side and Dick on Dinah’s other side. Nan Rover sat down opposite me, between Kate and Dick. It left a small space in the middle, were a white candle was burning.
“Everything has been prepared”, Nan Rover said, making fluttering gestures with her hands above the candle. “No need to procrastinate. Please, take each others hands…”
We did as she told us; I felt Helena gently squeeze my hand.
“Close your eyes and breathe deeply for a few moments. Just to relax.”
I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. On either side I heard Dinah and Helena do the same. I felt a sudden warmth from Dinah’s hand.
“Relax”, Nan Rover said in a low voice. “Relax…Forget your worries and let go of your mind.”
Easy for her to say, I thought. What worries would she carry on her shoulders?
Then, in a sudden flash, I heard that voice again.
“Did you not choose your own burdens?” it asked me and I felt a flush of shame, not because the voice rebuked me, but because there was such gentle understanding and compassion in it. “Did you not choose to carry the staff into this life? And who are you to assume the weight of another’s burden?”
“Relax”, Nan Rover said again and I was abruptly brought back to my own reality.
I opened my eyes.
“Good”, the young woman said. “Now, keep holding hands if you want to – otherwise let go, and open your eyes.”
Both Helena and Dinah held on to my hands and I didn’t let go of them.
“You have come to find serious answers. I will not lecture you… I will tell you what you need to know, who and what I speak to matters not at this time. Listen only. If you question what I have to say you should not have come. Ask what you must to find those answers relevant to your quest, but nothing else will I answer. If you want a crash-course in clairvoyance, seek another seer.” Nan Rover briefly closed her eyes. “I have meditated on this matter since I met the cat this afternoon”, she said and then looked straight at me. “I have found many things. You are all in grave danger.”
“We think we know that”, I said. “We have come to find answers…”
The woman nodded. “I have what you seek. Follow me – close your eyes and I will show you.”
As soon as I closed my eyes again my head started spinning – it felt as if I was moving at incredible speed through a dark, winding tunnel. The effect soon died away and I found myself looking at black and white movie sequences.
There was Helena as a child of ten, twelve: dressed in rags and on bare feet she made her way to the entrance of a large temple, which seemed eastern – like temples in China or Thailand. It was obvious she didn’t belong there. She sneaked around, but was discovered by… me. I was young, no older than sixteen, but I knew as soon as I saw myself, that I was feared. I brought the child with me and left her in the care of a woman warrior – Kate.
Then the pictures swirled and turned… Years apparently went by. A child was born, a girl – I held her in my arms and baptized her, in fire. It left a scar on her cheek, in the shape of a crescent. She would fear me through life, for the tests I had to put her through. She was the youngest princess, the seventh girl – it had some significance I as Barbara Gordon couldn’t comprehend.
We lived in a peaceful place, a vast empire ruled by the imperial family – but dark clouds took shape on the horizon, danger lurked in the shadows. I was a priestess with great power; I commanded fire and air. Dick, as a priest, commanded water, but also air – just like me. There was a third priest – I suddenly knew this without having to see him; he served a different god, not the goddess Dick and I had sworn allegiance to. He commanded earth… and he served the snake god.
Then, in a flash, I as the priestess met the now older Helena – a beautiful warrior, sworn to protect the princess.
I gasped and pulled away my hands from Helena and Dinah as I rushed to my feet, eyes wide opened. I remember!
I remembered everything – or, almost everything.
Nan Rover looked up at me with her disconcertingly white eyes. “Look – you only see your part of the picture, you do not have the full view. Fear not.”
I swallowed and nodded, but remained standing. I looked down at the others: Helena was crying silently, Dinah’s face was pale; Dick’s mouth was open in a wordless scream and Kate looked as if she was fighting the battle of her life – knowing what I now knew, I knew she probably was.
It had been a peaceful life, until the snake god wanted more power. His priest caused earthquakes, saying the gods were unhappy with the people. Dick and I caught him in the act and he was disrobed as a priest – shunned and cast out from the empire. Dick and I would rather have killed him, knowing he would cause trouble in the future, but the Emperor – my god, it’s Bruce! – was a fair man and did not believe in death-penalties. Some years later, when the youngest princess – that would be Dinah – was in her teens, the priest returned. On one night – the one night my goddess had allowed me to spend with my secret love – he killed all the imperial family except Dinah. I had been so consumed with my desire for the warrior, I never noticed the signs calling for my attention. Dick blamed me for it afterwards, calling me a whore and other filthy names. He had been scared and I hadn’t rebuked him.
There was a great fight. Kate died saving Dinah’s life. Helena… Helena lost track of her mission because of her love for me. My goddess fought with the snake god and died… I died with her in fire. Dick… I didn’t know what happened to the priest. I didn’t know what happened to Helena or Dinah, either. I was gone by then.
“Oh, fuck!” Helena whispered and opened her eyes. She caught me looking at her and suddenly seemed conscious of the tears on her cheeks. She averted her face and dried her cheeks.
“Uh huh”, Dinah seconded.
Kate took a deep breath and opened her eyes. She looked directly at me, but her eyes were still unfocused. When they cleared she turned her attention to Dinah.
“You died, saving me…” Dinah said and reached across the open space and the candle to touch Kate. Kate too reached for her and squeezed her hand with a soft smile.
“I believe it was worth it”, she said. “Although, I wonder what happened next. It feels as if…” She frowned. “It feels as if I have always wondered what happened next.”
“The Snake god died with his priest in fire”, Dick said slowly, with a slight frown on his face. He didn’t look at any of us, but gazed almost lost into the flames of the candle in front of us. “Barbara… died too, with the goddess. Also in fire. I believe it was her fire.”
“My fire?” I didn’t remember that part. All I remembered was that I failed. I failed to save my goddess and I failed to save Dinah.
“My mother”, Dinah said slowly, almost stunned. “It was my mother in this life. Isn’t that funny? And my father… It was Bruce.” She looked almost expectantly at me. “Did you see it, too?”
I nodded with a tight feeling in my throat.
“He took her away”, Helena said, sounding hurt. “I searched all the earth for her and didn’t find her until… I was dying.”
Dinah turned to her. “You did find me”, she said softly.
Helena nodded. “I failed you and everything I believed in and I spent the rest of my life finding you.”
“Dick took me away”, Dinah explained. “The empire crumbled and was lost in war, in fire and blood. Dick brought me across the world, where I grew up as a farmer’s daughter.” She smiled happily. “That was Wade Brixton.”
I shook my head in wonder.
“When I was a woman, with children of my own – this old warrior woman came my way. She had been in a fight and was bleeding badly. She was dying and she looked awful, but I did recognize her…”
It was strange, I reflected, how Dinah suddenly seemed older, more mature as she was speaking – as if the life she remembered clung to her and changed her mannerism.
“I had been searching so long for you”, Helena said, sounding as weary as she probably had been in that moment of death, but also with a tinge of contentment.
“And you found me”, Dinah said fondly. “It meant a great deal to me.”
“To me too”, Helena said gruffly.
I sat down, pondering what we knew.
“It still beats me why that snake god wanted the princess in the first place”, Kate said. “Apparently he is still hunting her, but to what purpose? And…” She caught herself and glanced at Nan Rover, apparently suddenly remembering that we weren’t alone.
“He wanted power. More power”, Dick said darkly.
“He was a fucking god!” Helena exclaimed. “How much more power did he want?”
“He wasn’t a full god”, I mused. “What are gods, exactly?”
They looked at me and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Nan Rover smiling.
“What are gods?” Dinah asked, grimacing. “Rulers of the world.”
“Why did the snake god need his priest to clear the way for him?” Kate asked, confused.
“Exactly”, I said.
“Because… there were other gods, preventing him from ruling as a dictator”, Helena said, somewhat hesitantly. “Gods were never my area of expertise”, she added gloomily. “Fuck”, she added as the realization hit her. I had wondered when it would. “Gods! What on earth are we discussing? For all we know what just happened to us could be… could be – mass hypnotism! Yeah! That’s it.” She glowered at the Native American.
“I still have a serial killer on my tail”, Dinah said dryly. “I’ll believe anything that prevents him from killing me.”
“I’ll buy that”, Kate said calmly. “The snake lead – it’s actually consistent with a lead connected to Moonkiller.”
We all looked questioningly at her.
“But you said…?” Dick said.
Kate nodded. “I’ll tell you about it later. It was thought to be a mess-up; it was disregarded as evidence or deemed not valid for the case. I had forgotten about it.” She looked at me. “The Spaniards were seen as gods to the Mayans.”
I nodded. I remembered the face of my goddess – I woman with dark, gleaming eyes. “There has been different gods throughout the ages”, I said. “Some gods had their own gods. Usually they are named gods simply because they have powers ordinary people lack.”
“Metas”, Dick whispered. “My god, could it be that simple?”
“’There is nothing new under the sun…’” Kate quoted. “The Bible”, she added as Helena looked at her.
“Maybe the meta-gene has been around since then, but lain dormant…”
“Remember”, Nan Rover suddenly said, in a calm, even voice. “What you experienced was not necessarily part of this world. Worlds… there are different worlds and different times, co-existing with our own.”
Kate nodded. “I’ve heard about a world with no shrimps”, she said.
“That’d be heaven”, Dinah said.
“Sure”, Helena said sarcastically. “That’d be as stupid as a world with only shrimps.”
Nan Rover smiled. “Maybe, but facts remain… I’ve seen what you have seen. I do know about metas and I’m not blind to this world, although many believe I am.” She looked around at us. “There is danger ahead. It is connected to this particular past life and I do believe the reason why you failed was that you did not trust each other. You were divided. Instead of letting love grow between you all, you let envy, self-blame and fear block you. Love is the only way. Without it, nothing can meld together.”
I nodded, recognizing her words as true.
“But we were not metas”, Dick said, indicating the two of us. “We were humans, but we had power…”
“Ah, good priest – do not underestimate the power of humans. Power… comes in many different forms. True power lies in the will. Doesn’t your good Book state that if you have the faith of a mustard-seed, you can move mountains? Faith is will – it’s wanting and passion and desire for things dreamed of, for things envisioned on the screen of our minds eye. Believe it, envision it – and it shall be yours. True gods know no limitations – they believe in their right to be one with the Universe and they exercise that right…”
“And the prize for misusing that right is our karma”, I said slowly, sensing something falling into place within me.
Nan Rover nodded. “Free will, it will always have consequences.”
“So”, Kate said. “We have an über meta-human on our tail.” She frowned. “And what of the priest? Is he reincarnated like we are, and does he have powers? Maybe we are dealing with both of them…”
“More fucking questions”, Helena growled. “Will it never end?”
The pattern is the key, I thought, remembering what the voice had told me.
“There were killings back then too”, Dick suddenly said. He looked at me. “Remember? The six sisters…”
I gasped. “Of course! That’s it! He is re-enacting the Ma’ahel!”
“The what?” Dinah frowned. “Please, Barbara, sometimes I just don’t get you at all. What’s that – gibberish?”
“It’s Sumerian – it means ‘to rise’ or ‘ascend’”, I said distractedly and turned my attention back to Dick. “The ritual of Ma’ahel – sacrifice the seven virgins and rise as a god.”
“But he already was a god!” Helena objected for the second time. I turned excitedly towards her.
“No – no, that’s just it. He wasn’t. He had certain powers, but they were limited. The young princess was a meta-human. I was her teacher – I trained her to become a goddess. That’s why he wanted her blood. He wanted her powers – they would ensure he had more power then the other gods, than the other metas…” I nodded. “That’s it”, I mumbled and almost snapped my fingers. My mind spun and I could see everything so clearly. All the pieces fell into place. “Yeah, that’s it”, I mused silently. I knew what we had to do. I looked up at Nan Rover. “Thank you, for everything. I hope we haven’t brought danger to you?”
The young woman shook her head. “We all have our ways and our role in the great pattern. Remember, people we know come again and again into our lives. We live – and we die. Only the great Universe knows our fates. We are all destined to become gods, in the end.”
I rose. My head was spinning. I almost, almost could catch the pattern of which she was speaking. I could almost see what mankind was destined to become, but I knew it was not for a mere mortal like me to hold such powerful secrets. I had been the trainer of gods once – it would have to suffice.
“Thank you”, I repeated. “Maybe we will see you again.”
Nan Rover smiled. “I am sure we will.”
“I’m still confused”, Helena said as we left Nan Rovers cottage. She swung a leg across her motorbike and put the helmet on her head. “Is it the Snake priest, or the Snake god that’s Moonkiller? And… were they really metas?”
“Not metas as we know it”, I said, contemplating my plan as I fastened my helmet beneath my chin. “They were more powerful than any living meta today. Remember – they were considered gods, even amongst a people whose priests and priestess could command the elements. Something must have set them apart.”
“Their ability to shape-change, I believe”, Dick said thoughtfully. “We may have commanded the elements around us, but the gods and goddesses could change themselves. Like Shadow, and Slick.” He looked at Kate. “The water-guy”, he added, explaining.
“But they are not gods – they’re just… creeps”, Helena objected indignantly.
“Yeah, but in those days – or in that world, they had even more power. It’s different. It was different”, Dick mumbled.
“Right – and in this life… If the Snake god feeds on Dinah’s blood he will get her powers. Perverting powers like telepathy would mean he could control people’s minds and also, since Dinah is able to sense other people’s feelings, he would be able to make people feel what he wants them to feel.”
“The ultimate god-power”, Dick mumbled.
“Right.” This time I did snap my fingers. “Now – the difficult part will be to prevent them from killing Dinah and stealing her meta-human abilities.”
“Yes, please”, Dinah said, slightly pale. She sat behind Helena with the helmet in her hands.
“You know”, Helena drawled. “He could just ask the Joker for that converter-thing.”
We all looked at her for a moment.
“He will not”, Dick suddenly said in a strange voice. “They are from different worlds and different times. Water and oil doesn’t mesh, neither does pagan religion and computers. The Snake is of a different breed – he won’t need technology. In his world he was revered as a god, he will not be satisfied with anything less here. He will take this world and plunge it into darkness. He will destroy it and let fire fall from the sky, then he will take control of the people and let them serve him for an eternity… Unless he is stopped.”
Kate blinked, probably sensing something was off with Dick. Helena only stared at him.
“Yeah. Right”, she said and kicked her bike, starting it. She pulled down the visor on her helmet. “I’ve had enough of small talk. I’ll take Dinah to the Clock Tower, then I’ll go on patrol.”
And she drove off without another word. The last I saw of them in the dark was Dinah putting on her helmet.
“I fear she will run from her responsibility again”, Dick said, seeing them disappear amongst the shadows.
“Don’t”, I said. “Nan Rover was right – we need to stand united. This time we’ll need to be a team. Otherwise…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Otherwise we’ll end up dead – or worse, slaves to a crawling creature”, Kate said. She patted Dick on his shoulder. “I’ll drive”, she said and took the keys from his hand, before she walked off in the direction of where they’d parked the car. He followed her with his eyes and she glanced back, winking at him.
“You and I”, I said, looking at Dick. “We have a lot of work to do.”
He frowned, looking back at me. “What do you mean?”
“We have to reawaken our own powers. If the Snake god is back, that means our goddess is too. It means – that we must learn how to control the elements again.”
Power, I thought as I worked out that morning, was a strange thing. It could mean so much, in so many different ways – and it still came down to… plain control. If you had control – then you had power. And I felt out of control. I felt powerless.
It had been five days since we visited Nan Rover. I had hardly seen Barbara since then. I had been hiding – she had been working.
Wade Brixton had come by; he had made a house call the morning after our visit to Nan Rover. She had stepped out on the front to talk to him and I had felt queasy during the whole twenty minutes she was gone, not sure why – I knew she didn’t regret leaving him for me, but… Insecurity in love can be a pain – I wasn’t really used to it, but Barbara meant so much to me and sometimes being with her, when she had other things on her mind, I wasn’t sure I meant as much to her as she did to me. Her mind could just drift off to some unknown place I couldn’t follow and ever so often I would remember Dinah’s remark, before there ever was anything between Barbara and me. She had been talking about Wade: “He’s quite smart, but nowhere near her IQ.”
If Dinah thought Wade Brixton was dumb, what would Barbara think of me? Maybe she was physically attracted to me, but what did I have to offer? Besides, I had failed Dinah in a past life – Barbara was bound to think something bad about that.
I didn’t turn to look at private investigator Kate Lockley as I pulled at the heavy weights. Or heavy for anyone but me – I didn’t even know what I was doing in there, except blowing off some steam. Hardly seeing Barbara included not having sex with her and I missed her touch, her kisses, just to be able to hold her close.
And, she had asked me to keep doing what I was doing: “Dick and I need to practice – you just keep doing what you always do; look sexy, catch the bad guys and weight-lift.”
I had never bothered to tell her I only weight-lifted to keep her company.
“Hi”, I said almost curtly. Kate didn’t seem to mind; she was probably used to it since our first encounter. Come to think of it – we had never been properly introduced.
“Haven’t seen you around in awhile.”
I only mumbled something inaudible.
“Barbara said you have your own apartment.”
So, they had been discussing me, had they? I pulled harder at the weights.
“I asked her where you were”, Kate said, as if she had been reading my mind; she was almost as good as Barbara at reading people. “I think she misses you”, Kate added.
“Oh, yeah?” I said bitingly, feeling a scorching pain in my chest. “So, where is she now, then?”
“She and Dick are creating a thunderstorm in the arena.”
“They’re arguing?” I let go of the handles and turned to the blond woman.
“Oh, no. I mean, they are literally creating a thunderstorm in the arena.” Kate smiled wryly. “It’s gonna be hell on the decor.”
I frowned. “I don’t get it.”
Kate eyed me closely. “Do you have any idea at all what Barbara and Dick has been doing these days?”
“Of course”, I said affronted. “They’ve been practicing. Meditating and… stuff.”
“Sure.” Kate shook her head. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to show more interest in her…”
I flinched, but then was instantly filled with a cold rage. “Fuck you! Who are you to talk to me like that?” I pointed at her, leaning close to her and feeling my eyes change. “You don’t know a shit!”
“I do believe you are scared”, she said calmly. “And there’s no need to yell at me – I hear you perfectly well, thank you.” Then she sighed and shook her head. “I’m not one to give advice in romantic matters, but I do know that relationships in general tend to mess up if communication fails.”
I drew back. I knew she was right; Dinah had told me the same thing. It was ironic, that a teenager would be smarter than me. “I’ve been working late”, I said. “My apartment is right above my work-place, it’s easier for me to stay there. Besides, Barbara needs to think. She thinks better when I’m not around.”
“Is that what you believe?” Kate said softly. Again she shook her head. “It’s not my call”, she added. “Anyway”, she went on. “Barbara and Dick have made progress in their priestly businesses. I was watching them from the stairs in the arena today when it suddenly started raining… inside. I think that was Dick’s doing. Then Barbara made lightning. It was all very spectacular.”
I stared at her. “You are joking, right? I mean… you can’t be so damn cool about it if it was true.”
Kate looked at me and held my gaze. “How many times must I tell you I have seen stranger things?”
I opened my mouth, but closed it again when I didn’t know what to say. “Fine. So they are making storms?” How the hell did that happen?
“I think it’s the memories affecting them. They…” Kate paused. “If I understand it right they draw knowledge about these things from that previous lifetime. Wesley could explain it better…”
“Wesley?” I asked.
“Oh, just some guy – a real bookie, but he is handy to have around when things are unexplained even for those who are used to the unexplained…”
I suddenly wondered what her story was. I was used to people like Shadow and Mr. Waterpool. Slick… But that was different; it had a completely natural explanation – about genetics and evolution and everything… Still, I was freaked by this whole thing. If she didn’t think psychics, past lives and people making thunderstorms indoors was strange… What the hell would spook her?
On the other hand, she might be quite nuts.
“Barbara thinks they only have these… powers now because the goddess from our past life has awakened, or is awakening. That’s why we are remembering things.”
I nodded. I had figured that all on my own. “And the goddess is here because somehow the Snake god has returned… or reappeared – or only appeared…” I scowled. “Would it be ‘returned’ if it never had been in this world before? Still, it has returned to hunt us…”
Kate nodded. “That’s why I figured maybe you would like to help me work-out.”
I blinked. “Work-out?”
“Fight”, she said with a simple gesture.
“Oh.” I paused. “You want to fight me?”
She nodded and I smiled slowly. Oh, yeah…
“The arena is taken”, Kate went on; at the same time she turned around and glanced at the ring farther off in the room. “But you have that boxing ring…”
“It’ll do fine”, I assured and immediately started walking towards it. I glanced back at her. “You dressed for it?”
She looked down at her jeans and t-shirt with a shrug. “Will have to do.”
“Perfect – come on then.”
I hadn’t seen Kate fight. She looked agile and muscular, and she was a former cop – I imagined she kept herself in shape, but she was an ordinary human after all. She wouldn’t stand a chance against me and in that moment it pleased me immensely. For some reason I had this strange and almost reckless need to beat her in a fight. We entered the ring and stood facing each other.
“You know martial arts?” I asked.
“I had some karate-classes once, will it do?”
I sniffed. “Karate is outdated.”
“Show me, then”, she said with a simple gesture.
I grinned. “My pleasure.”
I made a quick move to grab her and to throw her over my shoulder, but in one, fluid motion she stepped aside and almost managed to knock me over by elbowing me in my side.
Fuck! I almost swore, but again didn’t want to give her the pleasure of seeing that she had surprised me. Instead I rolled over on the floor and kicked at her. She jumped, dived to one side and rolled over too.
We came to our feet at the same time and without another word we were at each other’s throats. I completely forgot she was on the same side as me and went at her with all my force; with all my meta-human speed and strength. It startled me to no end that she blocked my every attack and even managed to strike back at me. Few people, even metas, were able to hold their own when facing me in a fight. I couldn’t believe that this ordinary – quite beautiful and pretty smart, but no meta – woman gave me such a hard time.
I moved faster, was more alert, more agile and stronger than anytime before, but I still couldn’t beat a fucking human. At least – which was a small comfort at the time – she couldn’t beat me either. She tried, but I wouldn’t give her a chance to pin me down.
Around and around the ring we went; throwing each other, kicking, punching and even wrestling at one time, but neither of us managed to get a decent advantage. Neither of us gave in.
In the end I found myself sweating and almost panting in one corner of the ring, glaring at the blond woman. Fuck! No one had ever giving me a tough time like that. What the hell is going on? “What the fuck are you?” I snarled at her.
She breathed as heavily as me and her t-shirt was plastered to her upper body; she stood leaning slightly forward, with her hands on her thighs. She shook her head. “I’m human. I just…” She straightened her back and took a deep breath. “I’ve felt these changes within me the past few days. I needed to… find out what they were about. It must be the Black Panther-thing. You know, from our past life…”
“Hell…” I mumbled. “Everyone is changing but me.”
Kate shook her head. “Not Dinah either, even though she was dreaming. There’s no need for you to change, you’re already…” She gestured at me, apparently for lack of words. “You’re already a panther.”
I frowned. “Did you have a sudden urge to… swing a sword?” I asked and she blinked. In the next moment she laughed out loud.
“I did”, she said, still smiling. “You too? You think we are as good as Xena with a sword in our hands?”
I felt a slow grin spread across my face. “We don’t really have any swords here, but I know a way we can find out if we are as good. Same time tomorrow and I’ll have the swords for us?”
She pushed some blond curls from her eyes and dried the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Agreed. I will wipe the floor with you, you wait and see.”
Kate smiled and it was my turn to laugh aloud. My laughter died as I turned my head and became aware of Barbara across the room. She stood by the door and looked at us with an inscrutable expression.
When she noticed me looking she moved across the room, making her way through the exercise equipment.
“Hi, Barbara”, Kate said and stepped out of the ring. “I trust the weather is back to normal in the arena?”
“Oh, yeah”, Barbara said with an amused smile. “Alfred’s gonna have a fit – it will cost a fortune to redo the walls and the floors.”
Kate laughed. “At least it keeps him busy, arranging for it.” She glanced back at me. “Thanks for the exercise, Helena. I’ll see you later, right now I’m going for a much needed shower.”
Both Barbara and I watched Kate leave in mutual silence; we didn’t look at each other.
“Are you free today, Huntress?” Barbara finally asked; her face impassive, her voice even. I felt a tight cramp clutching at my chest.
I nodded, not sure of what to say or do. I felt it as if I were falling into a black pit of darkness. Just looking at her made me want her, need her… But she seemed so aloof; I didn’t know what to do. So I did what I always had done when I was uncertain of something: I pretended I didn’t care.
“You wanted something?” I asked and stepped out of the ring. She had stopped a few feet away and didn’t come closer. She eyed me almost cautiously.
“I thought maybe we could talk…”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “Need a shower first, though. Fine with you?” I arched an eyebrow at her and she nodded.
“Of course. I don’t allege to hold any claim over you.”
It was plainly said, without either accusation or hurt. I remember her being that way in the beginning, but her words made me flinch.
“Fine, then”, I said gruffly and passed her at a safe distance. Fuck, fuck, fuck! Why don’t I just tell her what I… what I want? What the hell is wrong with me? God – I miss her!
“I’ll wait for you in my room… here at the Clock Tower”, she called after me. I raised an arm and waved at her without looking back at her.
I had a shower, but I couldn’t stop wondering what Barbara wanted to talk to me about. Even if I wanted to see her as quickly as possible I didn’t want to seem too eager either, so I deliberately prolonged the shower and the choosing of clothes – even if there wasn’t much to choose from. I settled on the blue and red t-shirt I had been given on my first stay at the Clock Tower – it had a rose on it – and a pair of dark trousers.
Here we go, I thought when I was finally done. How did that saying go again? To grab the bull by the horns…? Or was it its balls?
Barbara waited for me, sitting in the armchair in her front room – the lounge, as I called it. It was there we had shared our first kiss – or second, technically speaking, but I really didn’t count the first as a proper kiss. I had come back to the Clock Tower late one night… She had been waiting for me by the windows then, with her back towards the door, and later there had been this vulnerable expression in her eyes I still hadn’t forgotten.
She had told me she loved me.
“Helena…” There was a catch in her voice that didn’t show on her face, or in her eyes. She silenced and I waited in the doorway. “Won’t you – won’t you come in?” she finally asked and gestured towards the sofa beside her.
I closed the door behind me, remembering that first time we kissed. I doubted we would end up making love this time, but my whole being hoped for it and I wasn’t going to interrupt anything that might happen to get up to close a fucking door.
She rose from the armchair as I moved forward. As she did so I stopped in the middle of the room.
“You wanted to talk to me?” I could hear my own voice; it was sharp and indifferent at the same time.
Barbara nodded. “I did. I haven’t… I haven’t seen you for a few days.”
“I’ve been busy. Working, patrolling…”
“Patrolling, yes.” She nodded and seemed slightly distracted, or maybe it was thoughtful.
I had been patrolling, but I had done so on my own terms – without Dinah and without Oracle’s voice in my ear. I had also gone back to patrolling the shadier streets of Old Gotham.
I had cut myself off from the Clock Tower and the friends I had found there. From the love I had found there. Why? I couldn’t answer that. I wasn’t a particularly self-analytical person – I went where my emotions took me and most of the time… Most of the time, I had to agree, they led me completely astray. Rage, hurt, pain – it amounted to the same thing: I ended up alone and brooding and with a desperate urge to bash someone’s head in.
Then Barbara looked straight at me with her green, intense eyes and said: “I have the feeling you’ve been avoiding me. Could you please tell me if it’s so, or if I only imagine it?”
As if Barbara Gordon would ever imagine something. If she saw something then that was the way it was – not like me, who feared illusions and fed them with my fear until they were more real than reality itself.
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at her and she took a step towards me with something pleadingly in her eyes that I didn’t recognize.
“Helena, please… If you want out, just say so. But maybe, maybe you could just stay until we’ve dealt with Snake and the Joker. I... I need you to take care of Dinah…”
I kept on staring at her, while the sense of falling into an abyss became even stronger – it felt as if the abyss was closing in on me, burying me in its mass. I couldn’t speak.
“I don’t… want to lose you, but I don’t want to tie you down either. If you’ve tired of me, please just… let me know. Please, tell it to my face. Don’t shut me out like this…”
I gasped, shaking my head. “No, no, no…” I said incoherently. She frowned and this time I noticed that her eyes were moist. She was on the verge of tears and I was just… You are a fucking ass, Helena Kyle! You can’t judge a person for shit!
“I love you”, I hurriedly said, before everything went wrong. I had seen enough of damn romantic movies were relationships got messed up because people didn’t tell each other they loved each other. Fuck – and what have I been doing these past few days? “I love you and please let me finish…” I knew she would, I just didn’t know what I was going to say. So I silenced and stared at her again.
“Are you… still jealous about Dick?” she asked hesitantly. “You seemed to be fine with him after my visit to the hospital. You were fine until we went to Nan Rover…”
“You changed”, I said before I had time to catch myself. “You changed…” I repeated and I realized that was when the problem started.
She frowned, apparently not seeing my point. “I…”
“You changed!” I wanted to dig at her as I had with Kate, but caught myself. “You became all…” – I waved my hand, not finding the words to describe what I had been experiencing – “strange and distant. It was as if I didn’t mean anything to you anymore… And”, I went on, warming to the subject now. “I’m not even sure I do. I mean, sometimes I’m the world to you – or so you say… And in the next moment you talk about some technical gadget I don’t get the first thing about. Why do you even do that? You know I’m not as smart as you, you know I don’t have a degree in… whatever – anything! You know I’m just… Fuck!” I lost the words, but Barbara was still looking at me, listening.
“I didn’t know this was such a big problem for you”, she said after awhile, when I remained silent.
“Well, no – me neither”, I said grumpily, almost not audible.
There was a slight frown on Barbara’s face when she said: “Helena, your gift is your meta-human abilities – mine… is my mind. It’s all I’ve got. Don’t you think I sometimes believe you would be happier with someone that could give you a real challenge and maybe once in awhile kick your ass? Don’t you think I… sometimes fear you would leave me because I won’t be what you need, or want in regards to speed and physical strength?”
Again I was at loss for words. Again I only stared at her. “Really?” I finally managed to ask; it was more of a whisper.
“Yeah, really”, she said, nodding.
“How…? How do you… deal with it?”
She smiled then and my heart lurched wildly behind my ribs. “I trust you mean it when you say you love me… And I trust what I see in your eyes when you watch me, thinking that I don’t notice.”
I blushed at that and I noticed the compassion and the love in her eyes when she observed it.
“I trust the way you touch me when we make love, and the way you kiss me. When I have doubts I look at you and in your eyes I see all I need to know. In time, if…” She hesitated, with a brief, vulnerable glance at me. “In time, if we stay together, I know this trust will grow and I won’t doubt your love for me. I will know, even if you are not there to look at me and to smile at me, that you love me.”
I swallowed, moved by her words. No one had ever spoken to me like that.
“Helena, this is still so new to us… For both of us. Neither of us trusts easily and neither of us… believes we are entitled to be happy. In some ways we are still strangers to each other, it will take time to get to know each other completely and to function as a couple. As we did the other night.” She looked at me. “You know, when we only talked.”
I nodded. I had felt it too. It had been one of our best nights, even though we didn’t actually do anything.
“And our lives are not the most suitable for a steady relationship…”
“Lousy work hours, getting your brain bashed and getting no credit for it…” I mumbled wryly.
“Things like that, yeah”, she said with an easy smile. “But we need to talk. Or to at least let each other know how we feel. We will probably argue, seeing how pigheaded you are…”
“Hey!” I objected, and catching the amused expression in her eyes I made a face at her. “I know someone at least as pigheaded.”
“Well, of course – Dinah has picked up on some of your lesser qualities”, Barbara countered effortlessly. “I’m working on ridding her of them.”
“Damn”, I said softly, more to myself than to her. I remembered Dick’s words to me one of the first times we met. “Don’t challenge her – you won’t win!” But I loved a challenge. At that moment, though, I let her have it.
“But seriously”, she went on, catching my eyes. “If there’s something you are upset with, you should just let me know.”
“I… It’s just that – sometimes I don’t know there is a problem. I didn’t know it upset me that you sometimes just… drift off someplace, when you are working. It’s difficult for me, because…” I blushed. “I want to be the centre of your attention.”
She smiled at that. “You are the centre of my attention – just not all the time. I have…” She frowned.
“Duties, responsibilities – I know.” I gestured, annoyed at myself. “I know that, I just don’t understand how you do it. Your mind works at so many different levels at the same time – it’s difficult for mere mortals to keep up. I believe I feel inferior to you...”
“The way I feel inferior to you when I struggle to lift not even the heaviest weight and you pretend you have to struggle to lift the heaviest one?” Barbara asked ironically with an arched eyebrow. I blushed again.
“Shit”, I mumbled. “Couldn’t you just… pretend you didn’t know that?”
She looked at me and her smiled died out. “There is more to it, isn’t it?”
I nodded. There was something else that had been gnawing at me. “We are so secret all the time. Secret missions, secret identities…”
“Secret loves…?” she asked softly.
I nodded. “I… I know what your life is like – always in the spotlight for one or another charity event or business convention, but…”
“Will you marry me?”
I blinked. “What…?” My voice was hardly audible and I was looking for clues in her face to find out if she was pulling my leg, but her expression was more sincere than I had ever seen it and her eyes… They seemed to burn holes in me.
“Will you marry me, Helena Kyle?”
I swallowed and suddenly felt eerily light headed.
“I will give you the grandest wedding ever seen – with the highest officials from around the world as guests, with the most expensive designers and interior-decorators and wedding planers. I will tell the world and show the world who has won my heart.”
“Would you…? Would you do that for me?” I whispered.
“I’d do anything for you”, she said, as sincerely as before – but then her more humorous side surfaced for a moment and she made a face. “Unless it involves dancing naked at New Gotham City Square or having a threesome”, she added wryly.
“Helena… I don’t like keeping our relationship a secret anymore than you do. I just thought… I thought it would be better for you to begin with. You’re not used to the hysterical attention one can get from the media.”
“I’ve had a taste of it, living with you lately”, I said.
“I did kiss you at the hospital”, she said and I blushed again, remembering that kiss.
“Uh hum”, I said, tight mouthed.
“And I told Wade…”
I blinked, surprised. “You did?”
“Yes, I did. He took it surprisingly well, considering. I think he felt better about it, actually, than he would have had I been seeing a man.” She frowned. “He did say it explained a lot of things and I’m still not sure if I ought to take that as an insult or as a compliment.”
The latter, I thought, but didn’t say anything. Instead I looked at her and said: “I would accept your offer, but I don’t believe there are legal same-sex marriages.”
“Who cares?” Barbara waved her hand with an air of confidence. “We make our own ceremony and invite family and friends and everyone who wants to come. And the press – they will need to know. They can spread the news.” She smiled fondly at me. “Will you?”
Again I felt a heavy pressure on my chest, but this time I was fighting tears of happiness. “I think I finally will need to get myself a mask, then.”
It made her laugh and I just melted, hearing that laughter.
“Oh, Helena – you don’t know how much I’ve missed you these past days”, she said and moved towards me.
“I have an inkling”, I mumbled as I reached for her. She had time to touch my face with her fingers before I pulled her close to me and kissed her.
“I have a plan”, Barbara said after our lovemaking. I rested my head on her naked chest and could hear the steady, rhythmical beatings of her heart. I closed my eyes and sighed happily.
“Of course I do.”
Her tone of voice made me chuckle.
“But Helena, I need you to…”
“Take care of Dinah”, I said seriously. “I know.”
“That too.” Barbara hesitated. “I need you to trust me, I need you to know that… Even though my mind is someplace else it doesn’t mean I love you less.”
I swallowed and nodded.
“It’s like… When you fight, you need to concentrate on the fight – there’s no way you could consider me at the same moment when you are fighting for your life. Or, if you do, it could distract you enough to get you killed…”
Tell me about it, I thought. It had happened a few times in the beginning – when Batgirl and I fought together I would suddenly be distracted by the way she moved, her voice, even the fucking way her hair moved behind her. It had earned me a couple of nicks.
“It doesn’t mean you forget me. My mind works that same way too – when I ponder a question I do kind of block everything that’s not related to the matter from my mind. And emotions are too distracting so I block them too. The point is… Since I fell in love with you my mind is even sharper than before and only the knowledge that you are around, wherever you are at the moment my mind is working, makes me concentrate even better and come to more accurate conclusions. You… make me a better thinker.”
“And you make me a better fighter”, I said – which was true, despite the first week’s… misfortunes.
“Before you I was too serious – but you make me relax, you question me and you make me laugh at myself and at the seriousness of the subjects. I’ve come to realize I need that. And”, Barbara added sharply, looking down at me, “if I ever hear you call yourself dumb again I’m personally gonna lobotomize you and then we can talk about dumbness. I need you and I love you just the way you are.”
“I get that now, thank you”, I said and spun around to look at her. She was so beautiful. I grinned at her. “Do I get a wedding ring?”
* * *
Later in the evening, following Helena’s and my making up and lovemaking, we were all gathered at the headquarters in the Clock Tower. We had pulled up some chairs and sat assembled in a semi-circle in front of Delphi.
“Helena says you have a plan”, Kate said.
I nodded. I had thought it over; I wasn’t sure it would work, but it was worth a try. “We need a battle-field”, I said. “It’s always an advantage if you can make your own choice in that regard.”
“You’ve found a place?” Huntress asked, looking intently at me and I nodded.
“I have.” I held her gaze a moment longer than necessary, contemplating how only a few hours ago she had moaned beneath me and made me feel like a true woman again. I had missed her desperately those past five days and the thought of her leaving me had left me with a cold dread. She had started acting strangely since she returned to my house that morning after the visit to Nan Rover: oddly aloof and indifferent. Maybe in her eyes I had been acting strange too – or so she had said. And instead of talking to each other about it we had just… alienated each other.
I knew I wasn’t an easy person to live with – I’d had enough men like Wade telling me that – and I guessed I had to be aware of my flaws to prevent something like that happening again. Although, it did take two to tango and we would have to work on our relationship together. I reckoned that was part of the challenge and the adventure of being in a relationship. And if you wanted it badly enough – you would live the vision, not only dream about it.
Before coming to the meeting I had made a special order with one of the finest jewellers in the country. Two wedding-rings in white gold. Helena didn’t know about it, it was going to be a surprise. I hoped she would like them: I had given a description of what I wanted to the jeweller and he had promised to send me a picture of a prototype in the morning by e-mail. I realized I was looking forward to seeing it. The cat and the bat…
The idea of marriage had been playing in my mind for a while now, although Helena and I had just begun dating. Maybe it was crazy, getting married to someone you hardly knew – even if “married” probably wasn’t the proper word for what we were going to do, although it would mean the same. But Helena… I had known the first time we made love that Helena/Huntress was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I had known true love once and I had despaired of ever finding it again. I knew what was real and what wasn’t – and I would give up anything within reason to keep what was real for the rest of my life.
I turned to Delphi and pushed some buttons to find the right screen. “This”, I said, showing them the abandoned steel-factory protruding like an enormous fortress on a small island right outside Gotham’s coast. There was a bridge leading straight to it, but it had been closed off since the factory shut down. “This factory shut down only two months ago”, I said. “There was trouble with the owner and the workers went on strike. The union was involved, but it ended when the owner turned out to be a gambler and was exposed as being bankrupt. The factory had to be closed, no one offered to buy it and the workers had to go.”
“That sucks”, Kate said.
“Oh, don’t worry”, Dick said, smiling at me. He had removed his bandage – the “duct tape”, as he put it – and looked considerably better without it, despite the fact that he still wore a substantial bruise right between his eyes; it was a wonder Helena hadn’t crushed his nose. “Barbara got them settled”, he told Kate. “Some had to move to other parts of the country, but they didn’t seem to mind. They were just happy they had a job.”
Kate looked at me. “You really do have contacts, don’t you?”
I simply shrugged. “What’s the use of having money and fame if you can’t use it for the greater good?”
“Wish everyone was as considerate”, Kate mumbled.
“Any way – I’ve been scouting” – I noticed Helena’s sudden look at me, but tried to ignore it; she had been patrolling somewhere and cut off her intercom, so I had had no way of contacting her that night – “and this place is ideal for us. We can fight and we can hide in there. I’ve printed the drawings showing both the interior and the exterior – I want you all to study those and memorize them as best you can: stairs, corridors, boiler-room, basement, roof… Everything. We’ll go there soon, to match the prints with reality. Any questions?”
“You want us to face Moonkiller there?” Kate asked.
“Yes. You have told us Moonkiller… or Snake, as I would like to rename him, abducts his victims on the first day of the full moon. He will find Dinah. At the factory Dick and I will join powers and… hopefully kill that ancient god, who apparently refuses to stay dead.”
“You are using Dinah as bait”, Kate said, looking at the girl.
“There’s no other way”, Dick said seriously. “If there was…” He silenced and looked at me.
“He will come for her and there is no other force in this world that can stop him, but Dick and I”, I said. “Therefore…”
“I need to be where you are”, Dinah said and nodded. “I get it. Don’t worry.” She made a face. “I’ll show that snake what a hawk does to crawling beasts.”
“Way to go, sparrow”, Huntress said with a grin.
“I’m soon putting on my mask”, Dinah said, faking a sulking attitude. “I can’t stand hearing you calling me that again…”
“What about the Joker?” Kate turned to me.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking”, I said. “At first I was pissed at the lousy timing that he escaped right now, with Snake and all, but then it hit me – the timing couldn’t be more perfect.” I looked at Dick.
“Your powers”, Huntress said and nodded. “I see.”
“Dick and I, and even Kate, have powers now that the Joker won’t expect. But, and here’s the rub – I believe these powers to be only temporary. We only have them right now to defeat Snake.”
“You mean Kate will lose her powers again?” Helena looked at Kate. “What a bummer.”
Kate smiled softly. “I won’t care as long as I survive.”
“Yeah, I imagine that goes for all of us”, I agreed. “Now – today I will send an invitation to the Joker. I will ask him to meet us at the steel-factory on the same night as we’re expecting Snake.”
“Is that wise?” Dick wondered. “Fighting on two fronts?”
“I know, but if try to fight the Joker earlier… We could fail and one of us could be dead. Who will then stop Snake?” I turned to Kate, Helena and Dinah one at a time. “You three – it will be your mission to stop the Joker. And Kate and Huntress – I charge you two to keep Dinah alive.”
The two women – one blond and one dark – nodded.
“Now – we need to go through everything we know about Snake and the Joker. We begin with the Joker. Kate?” I looked at the private investigator.
“Right.” She straightened in her chair and pulled out a notepad. “I’ve spoken to Reese. He’s been keeping me informed about the case” – she glanced at me – “apparently on Commissioner Drakes command.”
“I was engaged to his brother – he does whatever I ask him to”, I said. Kate knew parts of my past, but she didn’t know any details about Mike’s death. She knew almost everything about Patch Parker, but not that I killed his mother in cold blood. I suddenly wondered what she would think of that.
Kate nodded. “There have been a few break-ins that could be attributed to the Joker. The latest in a chemical lab. In neither case has there been any trace of the Joker, but always the calling card: the Joker. In one case there was a surveillance camera, but all the recording showed was a blurred motion in front of the screen before the camera was smashed. Technicians blame it on technical disturbances, caused by some technical gadget I wouldn’t be able to name…”
“Welcome to the club”, Huntress mumbled, then grinned at me. I returned the smile.
“So, you were probably right about the camouflage”, Dick said. “Cam was a Chameleon, not invisible.”
“Perhaps”, I said.
“That’s all the police got. There are no traces of him.” Kate flipped over her notepad and put it back in the breast-pocket of her denim-shirt.
“There’s some talk in Old Gotham, though”, Helena said. “He has recruited some idiots to work for him. No metas, though – except for Shadow, as far as we know.”
“Good. Thanks, Huntress”, I said with a grateful smile. Then I added: “There are still some questions in regards to the Joker.”
“Why didn’t Patch rescue him from prison?” Dick asked.
“And how about his insanity?” Helena said, gesturing seemingly upset. “When did he become sane? Well, if he ever could be called that…”
“The warden of Arkam Asylum has on my request faxed me copies of the Visitor’s book at the prison and also some other information. Through this I now know two things: who visited the Joker and who his cellmate was.”
“Tell us”, Dick said.
“Patch, right?” Kate said almost immediately. “His son visited him?”
I nodded. “He did. Patch visited Arkam twice. The first time was the day before the riot at Arkam Asylum.”
Dick whistled. “But why didn’t he rescue him?”
“I don’t think that was his intention. The warden told me that his source had informed him that when Patch left Arkam the first time he didn’t look happy and the Joker had been making fun of him. The guards remembered Patch because of his eyes…”
“His eyes?” Kate asked.
“They were mismatched”, Dinah explained.
“Patchy was…” I paused. I could still remember his words and the look in his eyes... I hadn’t talked to anyone about what went on between Patchy and me on that roof, that night when he died. “I only wanted someone to love me…” I would always carry that with me, the knowledge that some bad guys could have been different had they had a different life. Just like Helena or I could have become… killers. Life wasn’t black and white and sometimes it was hard making out the true colors. “I think Patch went to see his father to tell him about his achievements and his plans. I think the Joker, either because of his insanity or because he is what he is, laughed him down. At the time of the riot at Arkam we didn’t know the connection between Patch and the Joker. There was no reason for us to ask why the Joker wasn’t rescued. I have considered the event and I believe Patch caused a riot only to show his father he was serious and that he was someone to be counted on. Maybe the plan to rescue Clayface was born at that first meeting with the Joker – a secondary effect, if you will, of his plan to kill me. Patch wanted to show the Joker he could obliterate both Selena Kyle’s daughter and me – he wanted Clayface to do it, to close the circle. Clayface had failed once; he would get a second chance.”
“Closure”, Helena mumbled and I glanced at her with a slight nod.
“So the riot at Arkam was nothing more than a…” Kate searched for words. “What? A childish attempt to win his fathers approval?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
That was the sad thing about Patchy – he had had his own secret identity, so secret it had been mostly hidden even from himself: a part of him wanted to be a good man. A part of him wanted to be a hero. Be it to his father, or to the world. But that wish was so deeply buried within him, beneath the debris of hate and rage he had collected since his mother was killed, that it didn’t get a chance to show its true face.
“The second visit came the day before he killed himself. We can only imagine what went on between them then. Had the Joker realized his son was someone to be proud of and to count on getting him out of jail? Did Patch plan a second escape to free the Joker? We don’t know. We busted his headquarter and Patch killed himself. But…” I silenced.
“Patch told the Joker about the converter”, Dick said. He had risen from his chair while I was talking and was pacing in front of us. “He told him where he had hid it, in case something happened to him.”
“When Shadow escaped he simply took the Joker with him. He had served his son, he could serve the father”, Helena said. “And they say there is ‘no loyalty amongst thieves’. Huh!”
“Unless the escape was the Joker’s plan”, Kate mused. “The riot at Arkam and his son’s death must have affected him in some ways. Perhaps he finally snapped out of the insanity.”
“What about his cellmate?” Dinah asked, looking at me. “You said something…?”
“His cellmate for two months… is a former psychologist and hypnotist, by the name of…”
“Oh, my…!” Dinah gasped. “Really? Larry Ketterly?”
“Imagine my surprise”, I said dryly. “The warden told me they thought the Joker and the Shrink, as they call him, would be a perfect match.”
“Who is this… Shrink?” Kate wondered.
“Yeah”, Helena said, looking questioningly at Dinah and me. “You mentioned him a few days ago, didn’t you?”
“He was a serial killer we faced a few years back”, I explained. “Not a very pleasant type. He had Nightwing trying to kill Batman…”
Dick shuddered. “I remember the feeling. It felt much like the same as what happened to me the other day, which caused this…” He touched his forehead. “Like someone else was in my mind.”
“In a way someone was”, I said. “Dr. Ketterly was a psychologist experimenting with hypnotisms and neurology. To begin with he had an idealistic vision to help people with his uncanny ability to enter other people’s minds that he developed, but a talent like that… It twisted him. In the end he crossed the line and began killing his own patients.”
“They keep him on medication that neutralizes his abilities”, Dick added. “To keep him from harming others.”
“Ketterly was placed with the Joker for a reason”, I said. “The warden told me one of the guards had found it funny – like a match made in heaven. It had been done over the heads, or under the noses in this case, of the ordinary decision makers. The warden didn’t know anything about it until a few weeks later – at the time the Joker had seemed to improve so they let the Shrink stay with him.”
“Great!” Helena threw out her arms. “They cured the worst super villain of them all.”
“Well, yeah – but that’s not the whole point. You see, that guard that placed them together. It turned out he was bribed to do so… By a young guy with mismatched eyes.”
“Oh, god”, Dick sighed and hid his face in his hands. I could only nod. Patch had done his homework. I could only grieve for the loss of such brilliance in the world; he would have done wonders if he had been one of the good guys.
“Imagine this”, I said. “Dr. Ketterly somehow manages to cure the Joker… either with his abilities or just by his vast knowledge of… Well, of insane people. What happens then?”
“The Joker kills him”, Kate said slowly. “There was a mention of a dead convict on the news, connected to the Jokers escape. Reese mentioned it too, but not even he knew who it was.”
“I asked them to keep it quiet”, I said. “The Joker likes to get credit for what he has done – I wasn’t giving him that one. Some people would see him as a savior for killing the Shrink and he is anything but.”
“Agreed”, Dick said with a chill in his voice.
“Eventually it will leak out, but until then he will rage for not been given the credit he deserves.”
We lapsed into a thoughtful silence as we considered what had been discussed. Then Dinah turned her head towards Kate and brought us back to the present and the next issue on our agenda.
“About… Snake. You said the other day that you had some evidence consistent with… whatever we went through in a past life.”
It surprised me slightly how naturally Dinah took the past lives-business. Perhaps it was the dreams she’d had.
Kate had already told me about the evidence, but I listened as she informed the others.
“On the last girl there were found traces of a previously unknown specie of snake. It had also human-DNA in it, but it was considered worthless as so much was messed up with the snake-DNA. It was found mixed with the girl’s own blood, taken from her chin, right above the cut. The girl was examined, but there was no other trace of snake on her or in the surroundings – except on the tree she was hanging from, right where the rope tied her to the branch and this was also mixed with her blood. It was speculated that a snake had passed by and continued on its way.”
“And no one thought it could somehow be connected to the killer?” Helena asked.
“At first, yes. But there hadn’t been any traces on the other girls. It’s possible that it just hadn’t been discovered because it hadn’t been looked for. It was proposed that we dig up the other girls to check for it. We thought maybe the killer dealt with foreign snakes in some ways.”
“But it hasn’t been done?” Dick asked.
“No, not that it would do much good right now. Right?” Kate looked at Dick and us and I shook my head. “You mentioned some ritual?” she added.
“The ‘uprising’, yeah. The ritual varies, depending on your ultimate victim. In this case she is young, blond and a virgin…”
Dinah blushed. I hope, I thought distractedly when I noticed Helena’s grin.
“The ritual, which is a remnant from the past life we were living and doesn’t exist in this world, states that the kill needs to be copied six times, to let the final kill be the seventh. Seven was a holy number for our gods…”
“I remember”, Kate nodded. “The princess was the seventh daughter.”
“They were all killed by the full moon”, Helena said, looking pale for the first time. Perhaps she too blamed herself for that night.
“Why not kill everybody at once over one full moon?” Dinah asked, also slightly pale. “Wouldn’t that have saved him time?”
“Perhaps it must be done this way in this world, in this time…” I shrugged. “I really don’t know. I do know he will come for you the next time.” Or it has something to do with the pattern, I suddenly thought as I remembered my reaction when Kate first came to see me in my office. Maybe he didn’t know what he was looking for, or who he was looking for, until the pattern had been set… I wondered what that meant.
There was a moment’s silence.
“So, Snake is really a meta-human – with powers like a demon?” Kate finally said.
“We don’t know what powers demons have”, Helena said and her attempt at sounding even when she looked at Kate made me smile.
“Yes, probably”, I said. “Snake needed to bathe in the blood of six victims before Dinah. When he has bathed in hers he will not only win her powers, but also increase his own powers. I remember him bringing darkness the last time we faced him. He clouded the skies…”
“I remember him as a gigantic snake”, Dick said with a nod.
“Me too”, Kate said with a shudder.
“He had his own army”, Dinah said. “They had a… cobra on their chests. They brought war upon the land afterwards.”
“Ah – Boyd”, I said. “Imagine that.” I remembered the face of the business man who had tried to kill me a few months before. I also remembered the face of a special force’s guard within the empire. The eyes were the same, even if the faces were different. Different times, a different world, two different men with the same soul.
“Everything is connected, isn’t it?” Dinah said, sounding stunned.
I nodded. We carry our consequences with us through our lives, be they good or bad. “Dinah – the force field?”
Dinah nodded and rose. “I’ve been practicing”, she said and closed her eyes in concentration. After a few seconds she gasped softly as a bluish, vibrating force field materialized around her and completely surrounded her. She opened her eyes and looked at us. I could see her lips move as she said something, but couldn’t hear her voice.
“Wow, Dinah – that’s amazing!” Dick said, wide-eyed.
Dinah grimaced, again mouthing something at us that we didn’t hear.
“What does it do?” Helena asked and stepped closer. She reached for the force field.
“No!” Dinah’s scream suddenly echoed in the room as the force field dissolved just as Helena’s hand went through it. Helena was left with a hand in the air and Dinah was scowling hard at her. “Madness, Huntress! Have you never heard – curiosity killed the cat?”
“Um, must have missed that”, Helena said sheepishly. “What does it do?” she added.
“It protects me, from everything. Anything that touches it just goes… sizzling. Poof!” Dinah gestured with her hands.
“Really?” Helena said amazed.
“Really”, Dinah said sternly, looking at her. “Wanna test it?”
“Um, no – I trust you, sparrow.” Helena grinned.
“Fine! That’s it!” I’m putting on my mask!”
As Dinah fumbled with her mask, tied to her belt, I watched the others.
“The Joker is bound to have some insurance when he comes to meet us – something nasty like a nuclear bomb or poison for the city’s water reserves. Anything. We won’t know what it is and he won’t tell us until it is too late for us to do anything about it.”
“We need Dinah to get close to him”, Helena said. “Maybe she can tell.”
“Right. And when we know we phone Reese. As Batgirl I will inform him and Commissioner Drake to keep all resources at hand that night. We will probably need it to save the city.” I took a deep breath. “How does that sound as a battle plan?”
“I will be sure to let you know once we have survived”, Dick said wryly.
“If we survive”, Helena said looking at me. Then she grinned. “If we don’t… I’ll kick your butt in our next life.”
That was it. That was our plan. Get the enemies together and kick their asses. I liked that – it would save me from dying of boredom. Talking just wasn’t my thing.
Over the following days we practiced, studied, planned and practiced some more. I had a natural skill with weapons, but my main advantage was my genetically enhanced speed and strength and my martial arts skills. Or it had been, until I found myself with a sword in my hand.
Kate’s hunch had been right: we were both extremely professional in swordplay, although she had never used one before and I had only used one a couple of times when training with my mother. Kate and I swung the swords like two experienced warriors – just like Xena – and the ringing of steel became as normal a sound in the Clock Tower as lightning and winds with the strength of hurricanes.
Barbara and I made a point of touching base with each other every day, so we wouldn’t end up hurting again. We talked and shared plans and ideas with each other, but it wasn’t until the night before the showdown I finally realized something. It was a frightening thought and that was probably why it hadn’t occurred to me before: it scared me shitless.
“Barbara”, I said as we were preparing to go to bed.
“Uhum?” she said, brushing her teeth in the bathroom. She looked at me in the mirror with an arched eyebrow.
God – how can I love someone so much? I thought and forgot what I was about for a moment. Then, because the realization was connected with my love for her, I instantly remembered. I let her finish brushing her teeth and we returned to her bedroom – our bedroom – at the Clock Tower.
“You wanted to talk about something?”
I did. I didn’t know how to bring it up, so I went straight ahead – as always. “You don’t expect to survive, do you?” I said in a strained voice.
She gasped softly and reached for me, instantly seeing and wanting to soothe my pain. “Helena…”
“I suddenly realized…” I said, again fighting to find the right words. “I suddenly remembered when you were so afraid, that day…” That day only two weeks ago – although it felt like a lifetime – when she fell down in the arena and I carried her to her bedroom. There had been real fear in her eyes then, real fear for me to soothe. But I had been scared too and she had needed to care for me. I had not seen that fear since. I knew it wasn’t because she hid it from me, but because she had come to terms with what she thought would be her fate. “Your talk about marriage and…”
“No”, she said immediately, sternly, and put a finger to my lips. Her eyes didn’t let go of mine. “No, don’t think that. I plan for the future because I’m going to do everything I can to survive. Everything – do you hear me?”
I nodded. It wasn’t wise to challenge her when she talked like that.
“Yes, I believe there is a possibility that I will die. I don’t rule that out. There is always a possibility that I will die, doing what we are doing – but this time is different. This time I don’t know what we are facing and the only thing we do know is that I died the last time we faced it. I wasn’t strong enough to defeat him then and I don’t know if I am now. But…” She caressed my cheek. “I am resolved to survive. I am resolved to marry you. Remember what Nan Rover said? She said we should envision our dreams and they would come true. Well, that’s what I’m doing – I’m envisioning.”
I took a deep breath. “But, Barbara…”
“I feel helpless”, I said. “I wish there was something I could do, but there isn’t… This is for you and Dick alone and I…” I almost sobbed. “I can’t stand losing you again.”
“Hush, kitten”, she said softly and kissed me. When she pulled back she dried the tears off my cheeks. “The more my powers grow the more I remember that life, so long ago and far away. It was my decision to invite you to my bed that night. All the blame was mine; none of it fell on you. Not the death of the Emperor’s family, or mine. I invited you – I let you come to me…”
“But if I had resisted… If I had been strong and…” I swallowed. Could I have denied her? Would I ever be able to deny her, in any lifetime? “I couldn’t save you from the fire and then I lost Dinah. Dick took her away from me, because… because I wasn’t worthy anymore.”
“He did what he thought was right”, Barbara said. “We all do, one way or another. In this life you are a hero. In this life you are worthy. And you will remain worthy. I trust you fully.”
“I failed…” I whispered.
“We all did”, she said. “I failed the most. I failed you… I never let you know until the very end that I loved you.”
“I remember”, I said, still whispering. Flames licking the interior of the temple, burning, burning… Barbara, the priestess, turning from the flames towards me. “I love you…” Her last words as she stepped into the flames.
“I think that’s why it is so important to me now that I’m allowed to show you my love. Helena…” Barbara smiled softly at me.
“Let go of the past. All of it. We are here and now. And we will prevail.” She kissed me and leaned forward, whispering in my ear. “And if we die I will find you again. I will always find you.”
Then she kissed me again and I forgot everything else, but her hands and lips and oh, so lovely, naked skin…
We crossed the bridge to the island just before twilight: Kate and Nightwing rode on his bike; Batgirl rode her own and Ladyhawk rode with me. We had been nervous the whole day that Snake would turn up and snatch Dinah from the Clock Tower, but nothing had happened. Kate had said the other girls had last been seen at twilight, so Snake was bound to turn up soon. And the Joker probably already waited for us at the closed down factory.
When we arrived at the grey area and parked our bikes by the fence surrounding the massive steel building there was a low, humming noise from inside.
“He has started up the machines”, Barbara said.
“The Joker?” Kate asked, walking towards her. They stood together and watched the dark building looming straight before us while Dick and I kept an eye on Dinah. Both Kate and I carried long swords at our sides.
I made a face. “It will be hell on my sensitive ears”, I said. Batgirl turned around and grinned at me.
“It makes you a better fighter when you are in pain, kitten.”
“Shall we?” Nightwing went forward with Ladyhawk at his side.
Batgirl nodded with a grim face. “Lets”, she said frostily.
We entered the factory through a small steel backdoor; it closed behind us with a thundering sound and we stopped to look around, crouching in the shadows.
We had visited the factory before, just as Barbara had planned, and I remembered the dark and the damp smell, but at that moment it also smelt of heated metal, of tar and oil and burning flames. The noise was already deafening even though we hadn’t entered the main working area yet.
“Why did he do this?” Ladyhawk asked; it was hardly audible over the din.
“To distract us”, Kate answered. The sword hung at her side, but she held a gun in her hands. She looked like a real cop – except for the sword.
“To amuse himself”, Nightwing added.
“Come on”, Batgirl said and waved at us. We followed her, hiding in the shadows. We knew where we were heading: to one of the main halls, where a large area of the floor would be cleared and it would be difficult for Snake to hide if he wanted Dinah. The downside was that the Joker or his men could more easily take a shot at us.
“I feel their presence”, Ladyhawk said. “I think they know we’re here.”
Batgirl only nodded.
Dinah had wanted to use her rollerblades that night, but both Barbara and I had objected. We knew she was a professional roller, who could do more tricks than the best of them – flipping in the air, running up and down stairs as if on flat ground – but the factory wasn’t a place for rollerblades and one mistake could cost her her life.
Ordinarily we would have split up, but with Snake on his way we needed to stick together to protect Ladyhawk. I knew she hated being the cause of all this mess, but she handled herself well. Again I was amazed at her composure. I hadn’t had half her maturity at her age, only concerning myself with boys and clothes.
Suddenly a gunshot echoed and we took cover. The bullet hit the floor a few feet ahead of Batgirl. It had hardly hit the floor before one of her batarangs left her hand, then another. The black stars swirled in the air with a speed impossible to follow. I couldn’t see what Batgirl was aiming at, as there was a tower of steel-barrels in my way, but I imagined one of the batarangs hit its target as we heard a low scream of pain and then the sound of ringing metal. The shooter must have dropped his gun and it must have fallen down some stairs, because the ringing went on for a while. Batgirl threw another batarang, catching one of the others as it came back down to her.
“He’s out”, she whispered, waving us forward. “Huntress – his gun…”
“Here, use these…” Kate handed me a couple of hand-cuffs and I nodded. I moved quickly and silently towards the stairs behind the steel-barrels where a slender built man was laying head down, with his arms spread. I emptied his gun and threw away the magazine, before I cuffed the unconscious man to a steel-pipe at the foot of the stairs. Judging by the bump on the side of his forehead he’d be out for a while.
As I straightened another man came running at me from the stairs. He seemed to come out of nowhere from the shadows and he aimed a high kick at me. I moved aside and felt his foot graze my shoulder, before I smashed him in the face. He fell hard on his back on the stairs and remained motionless.
“Alright, Huntress?” Batgirl asked in the intercom.
“Idiot man, did he really think that would work? Why didn’t he just aim at me?”
I heard Batgirl chuckle in my ear. “Men”, she said pointedly.
“I heard that!” Nightwing interrupted. “Don’t judge us all by one idiot…”
“Would a dozen do?” Kate asked with a soft laugh; she had borrowed spare intercom jewellery from Barbara.
Nightwing sighed exaggeratedly as we moved on.
We slipped ahead in the dark for at least five more minutes without anything happening. The noise and the smell from the machines was all around us; thumping engines, blazing fires, the grinding of metal against metal… And the shadows, the steel of the interior and the concrete floor.
Then suddenly, to our surprise, we found a dead guy on the floor. He was lying on his back beneath a ledge several feet up, leading to an open vault. There were no stairs nearby.
“He’s all… blue”, Ladyhawk remarked, noting the guys face. “What do you think happened? Did he fall down?” She looked up at the ledge. A gun was lying discarded a few inches away from her feet.
“He’s dead…” Kate said. She had knelt and taken the pulse.
“I could have told you that”, I said dryly. If the guy’s blue face hadn’t told me, the fact that his neck was broken would have.
Kate shook her head. “Look at these marks…” She lifted his arms and showed us dark, twisting bruises. “It’s like something crushed him to death.”
“Crushed?” Ladyhawk said. “You mean, like an elephant stepping on him?”
I looked at her. “Where do you get it all from?” I asked, genuinely amazed. “How would they get an Elephant in here?”
“It was just a metaphor”, Ladyhawk said, shrugging.
Kate made a face. “No, more like a snake hugging him to death, crushing each bone in his body.”
“He’s here.” Batgirl looked around with a cautious glance. “And he doesn’t like to share his prey…”
Good for us, bad for the Joker, I thought as we moved on, with even more caution this time. Best if he wasn’t here at all…
A few minutes later we became witnesses to what had killed the guy beneath the ledge. I had seen a few strange things since I was introduced to the meta-community, but this was by far the most disgusting. On the other hand – I had never really liked snakes.
Two of the Jokers men had been guarding a smaller hall with only one machine. There were two doors: the one we had entered and the one we needed to pass to get to our destination. The machine was a large, bulky thing with a mouth and pointy looking teeth of steel, but it was turned off. On the machine one of the guys was lying with open mouth and dim eyes staring into the beyond. The other guy was at that moment being crushed to death by a human snake.
The meta-human, Snake, was winded precisely like a boa constrictor around the Joker’s lackey, slowly crushing each bone in his body. The man was immobile, staring ahead with glazed eyes as the human snake wound itself another time around his body – this time around the face. A few moments later the man’s body relaxed, went limp and sagged in the embrace of its enemy.
“Elastic guy”, Ladyhawk mumbled. “Like Mr. Fantastic…”
There was nothing fantastic about this creature – it was only immensely gross – as it let go of the dead body and pulled together its own lengthened body. It grew limbs; arms and legs and feet as we watched in stunned silence, until a perfect human stood between us and the door we needed to exit.
The man smiled at us – a smirk, making his eyes glisten. He had yellow, staring eyes - the pupil a black slit, not much different from my own eyes. But there was maliciousness in his expression I had never experienced before; it went straight to my bone and chilled me.
“You have come”, he said in a low, hoarse voice, whispering. An extremely long tongue slid out between his teeth and went back in again. He only looked at Dinah, who stood between Kate and I.
In the next moment the snake man was hurled across the room where he hit the farthest wall.
“Run!” Batgirl shouted.
I wanted to turn around and fight the man Ladyhawk had thrown into the wall, but Batgirl grabbed me and pushed me ahead of her – after Dinah.
“Ba…!” I caught myself – I had almost shouted her name.
“I’m coming!” she assured me. “Go!”
Kate went first. She quickly checked the outer hall and waved at us to follow. Batgirl followed behind, closing the door right in front of Snake.
With his powers I expected him to blast open the steel door to come after us, but at first nothing happened as we cautiously moved along the hall, keeping an eye out for the Joker.
“Look!” Ladyhawk whispered and pointed.
I turned to look and noticed something moving beneath the door, at the two inches wide opening between the door and the floor. It was Snake; like his namesake he had flattened himself to the floor and was sliding through. I grimaced. I didn’t know why this meta-human disgusted me so – it probably had something to do with the bizarreness of it: at the same time it was a slithering beast it kept its human face intact. It made it all so… macabre.
“Come on”, I said, gently pushing Dinah forward.
The hall was large, with several entrances on the ground floor. It was empty except for high piles of large paper boxes in every corner; double piles reaching almost to the ledge running along two walls above us. The ledge was on the short wall behind us and on the longer wall to the left of us. The ledge was protected by a steel railing and had two entrances, one on each wall. A steel stairway was leading up to it right behind Batgirl, who moved ahead of us.
The staircase made me remember that song… Stairway to heaven. I wondered if that was where we were heading…
“Back to the wall”, Batgirl ordered; Ladyhawk, Kate and I followed her advice. Above us I heard someone on the ledge and in the next moment I saw three thugs with machine guns moving on the ledge on the wall to the left. Above us I heard cackling laughter, which I remembered from a visit to Arkam Asylum. The Joker had arrived.
“Welcome – to the arena of Death”, the Joker said in a distinguished voice; the pitch was slightly off. Only Batgirl could see him, as she was the only one standing far enough out on the floor. Nightwing kept an eye on Snake, who was slithering his way out beneath the door.
“I thought I’d be the one welcoming you, since I invited you here”, Batgirl said mockingly.
“Batgirl…” Nightwing said lowly. She didn’t turn her head to take her eyes off the Joker, but she knew what Nightwing indicated: Snake was out of the room. I saw him crack his neck to get it into place and then he looked at us and grinned.
“Cover us!” Batgirl called out to the rest of us and Ladyhawk, Kate and I ran up the stairs. On the ledge on the other wall the three thugs aimed at us all.
“No!” The Joker called. “Not yet!”
What happened to Snake I couldn’t tell. Ladyhawk shot her blue energy-spheres at the three thugs on the other ledge as we rushed up the stairs. Two of them ducked to safety behind the doorframe, as the third toppled screaming over the ledge.
When we reached the ledge the Joker was gone. Four thugs with guns greeted us. I whirled about and knocked the gun out of the nearest guy’s hands.
“There’s ten, including Shadow” I heard Batgirl say.
“I need to get to the Joker!” Ladyhawk called as she kicked the gun out of another thug’s hands. At her side Kate shot one in the arm and then in the leg, to prevent him from running off.
The fourth aimed and took a shot at Ladyhawk, but in an instant the bluish force field was around her and the bullet melted away. I took care not to touch the force field – it would be ironic if that killed me.
The force field went down almost instantly again and the gun was pulled from the thug’s hands by an invisible force.
“You’ve seen something?” I asked and threw one of our opponents over the railing. Another one followed quickly – courtesy of Kate, who’d seemed to remember she didn’t need a gun in a close up fight.
“Maybe, but it was too flashy – I couldn’t get hold of it… Bottles and a ticking watch…”
Hell, a bomb!
“Right”, I said determined. “Let’s get these out of the way…”
At the same moment a loud bang was heard – a thundering almost splitting my skull – followed by sudden lightning out of nowhere. Fucking hell! I thought and watched as Batgirl and Nightwing stood hand in hand facing Snake. The man was spitting at them, but was still smirking.
“Come on!” Kate said sternly. “They’ll handle this.”
I hesitated, held back by fear of losing Barbara, but then gave in. In one, fluid motion I turned around and rushed out the door, closely followed by Ladyhawk and Kate.
“Left”, Ladyhawk said immediately. We had reached another ledge, steel enforced and suspended in the air by thick wires fastened in the dark ceiling high above us. It split in three sections: straight ahead, to the right and to the left. We turned left, chasing the three thugs we could see. The Joker was nowhere to be seen.
Below us there was another hall – filled with working machines: one of them was a massive oven with flames licking the air. Someone pointed a machinegun at us from the floor, but Ladyhawk threw an energy ball at him, knocking him unconscious. The three guys ahead of us disappeared through a door.
“I go first”, I said when we reached it, kicking the door open. It swung back and revealed a man with a machine gun pointing straight at me.
I would have been dead if it hadn’t been for Dinah and her sudden ability to create protecting force fields; the bullets disappeared into it with a sizzling sound. And then Kate was there and forcefully kicked the guys ass. He fell over – unconscious – and Dinah let go of the force field around me.
We stood in a short corridor, with stairs running up and down beside us.
“Thanks for clearing the way, Huntress”, Ladyhawk said with a grin.
“Damn”, I said softly. “Thanks…”
“You’re welcome. Come on – I think he’s close…”
I only noticed the slight blur out of the corner of my eye. At first I wondered if I had damaged my eye, before the realization hit me with full force.
“Down!” I screamed and threw myself at Ladyhawk. In the next moment I was hit full force in my face by an invisible fist. This must be my karma for hitting Dick… I later remembered thinking.
“The neutralizer!” Kate called as my back hit the wall beside the door.
“Got it!” Ladyhawk called back. “Where is he?”
“Can’t see what’s there – hiding, hiding…” The Joker’s voice was close to me. Again I noticed the blur and this time I had time to duck.
“Look out!” Ladyhawk directed the small, crystalline device Oracle had constructed at the blur in front of us. A thin ray, like a laser, shot through the air. “Shit – missed him…”
“Bye, bye! Bye and gone…”
Ladyhawk was punched in the chest by the blur and stumbled backwards. As she reached out to steady herself the neutralizer was knocked from her hand.
“Force field!” I yelled, but it was already up. In the next moment the Joker was visible, standing outside the force field with a gun in his hand. His face was powdered white and his mouth was extremely large and red.
“Shiny things”, he said, eying the force field. I wished he would reach out to touch it, but he didn’t. “Shiny little things…” He looked at the neutralizer in his hand, smiled and threw it on the floor, where he stepped hard on it. It smashed to pieces.
“Huntress, I’ve seen the bomb”, Ladyhawk said with urgency. “It’s here – on the roof! And I don’t think there’s much time.”
The Joker looked up and pointed the gun at us, but he didn’t shoot.
“He can’t hear us, right?” I asked, remembering when Dinah had first demonstrated her ability for us.
Ladyhawk shook her head. “No.”
The Joker went on babbling about what he was going to do to us, how he had a surprise for us and Barbara Gordon. I only listened with half an ear to his manic babbling.
“Will the force field move with us if we move?” I asked.
“I think so…”
“Let’s move, then!”
As one we moved towards the Joker, and when the force field forced him backwards up the stairs he cut his babbling and looked affronted at us.
“Run!” Kate called and we ran after him. He slipped and fell on the stairs, but scrambled to his feet – swearing and threatening us, before he turned around and fled up the remains of the stairs.
“Let him run!” I called as the Joker disappeared behind a door to the right. “We need to get to the roof…”
“I think I know where we are”, Kate said, looking about her; there was a red sign by the door letting us know which staircase and which floor we were on.
“Me too”, Ladyhawk said. “If we turn left, down the stairs on the other corridor and through the room with the concrete blender there’s a door that will take us to a ladder…”
“Let’s move”, I said again.
Ladyhawk dropped the force field and we moved in the direction she had indicated, which was opposite to the way the Joker had escaped.
We reached a room of medium size, equipped with a fire extinguisher, some iron stakes, shovels and a large drum, rolling about it’s own axis, filled with concrete. Behind the concrete blender the concrete floor had been damaged. There had been a large, gaping whole the last time we visited the place – but now it was filled with wet concrete.
“The door!” Ladyhawk pointed towards the exit behind the wet floor. “We can’t reach it!”
“It will dry up”, I said, realizing two things. One: that the slightest delay could be fatal if we didn’t reach the bomb on time – and two: that the wet concrete had very recently been applied to the floor; whoever had done it couldn’t be far off.
Then Ladyhawk spun around. “Look out!” she called. “We’re not alone…”
In the next moment the shadows on the walls disengaged, moved away from the wall and took the shape of a man. The man held a knife in his hand and he thrust it against Kate.
Kate skipped aside, but the man quickly held out a leg and she stumbled across it – almost falling down into the wet concrete. She caught herself at the last minute, grabbing hold of Shadow – our latest assailant. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had been with the Joker in the staircase, lurking about in the shadows and waiting to prevent us from reaching the bomb.
Reeves – the name I had learnt from Barbara was Shadow’s real name – smirked at Kate and thrust the knife towards her a second time. This time she wasn’t able to avoid it as cleanly as before. I saw the stern resolution in her face when she steeled herself to meet the shining blade.
In the next moment there was a sudden movement: the whole building shook in a thunderous explosion, as if caught in an earthquake. Shadow lost his balance and missed Kate by an inch, while she almost toppled on to him.
“What the fuck…?” Barbara…! I thought as I struggled to stay on my feet. By my side Ladyhawk grabbed hold of one of the iron stakes to lean on it.
The building steadied itself and everything went calm. Kate and Shadow moved at the same time; Kate to kick the knife out of his hand and Shadow to take the time to disappear.
“Scum!” Kate called out as she missed him by the fraction of a heartbeat.
We all looked about the room while the concrete blender continued to roll around, creating an annoyingly loud noise.
Ladyhawk had armed herself with the iron-rod and intensely looked about for any signs of moving shadows. Kate had loosened the small flashlight from her belt that Oracle had provided us with to fight Shadow.
Before I knew it Shadow was suddenly by my side, this time coming for me with the knife. I twisted away just at the right time and threw a punch at him, but he was gone before I had a chance to reach him.
“Lights!” Ladyhawk called and pulled out her own flashlight. She and Kate shone at me and the light was so bright almost all shadows faded to the background, disappearing. There were a few sharp shadows left and they all led to the still wet concrete floor.
“Hold!” I lifted a hand. “Kate – wait!” I looked about me; there were no shadows close to me and none close to Ladyhawk. “Now!” I called and lit my own bright-light device and directed it toward Kate. “Don’t move!” I demanded and we waited. A few silent heartbeats went by and we stood immobile. Then suddenly there was a movement beneath the wet concrete, like when a shark swims close to the surface without showing itself.
“Light the floor!” I commanded and we turned our flashlights towards the wet concrete; it kept on moving, twisting – like some kind of insect beneath someone’s skin. When the movement broke through the surface a loud, angry growl could be heard. The concrete moved and slithered and finally took the shape of a man.
“Hold the lights”, I said. “Hold him…”
It took another few minutes of keeping the flashlights directed at the floor, and at the moving statue rising from it, before the concrete stiffened. Shadow was now trapped in concrete – a statue with an ugly face, with a mouth opened to a silent, everlasting scream. He was completely covered in dried concrete – a grotesque statue, with arms raised in either anger or in a plea towards the ceiling. Towards the gods.
Shadow – Reeves – would never walk among the living again; he had suffocated to death. A horrible end, even for him.
“Come on!” Ladyhawk urged and put away her flash light. She moved toward the entrance and pulled the door open. Kate and I followed.
The door revealed a steel ledge on the outside of the massive building – and a steel ladder. Ladyhawk didn’t hesitate; she swung her leg around the ladder and began ascending. I followed her and then Kate followed me.
“Barbara?” I softly called through the intercom, but there was no answer. I refused to let that scare me, she and Dick were probably just too busy facing Snake to answer. Fuck! Don’t die on me, don’t die…
When we reached the roof we were greeted by an unpleasant surprise.
“Fuck”, I whispered as I stood in front of the massive explosives rigged on the rooftop. The whole area in front of us held explosives connected to each other by thin wires, but also to shining bottles containing a yellowish liquid.
“The bomb setting the whole thing off should be near a fan – one of those large drums…” Ladyhawk said and scanned the area. “I saw it when the Joker hit me in the chest.”
“There”, Kate said and pointed to the right of us, by the edge of the roof not far off.
“What are those bottles?” Ladyhawk asked as we warily hurried towards the drum.
“Probably something poisonous”, Kate explained. “Barbara told me that the chemicals stolen at that lab last week, when mixed together would produce a highly corrosive toxin. When the explosives goes off…”
“And with the wind…” I said, feeling the brisk breeze from the sea. It blew in across the island and moved towards the city of Gotham. “It would spread with the wind across the city…”
“We must stop it from happening. Should we phone Reese?” Kate said and picked up her cell phone.
“No time”, Ladyhawk said in a voice that chilled me. I turned to Dinah and followed her gaze: she had found the bomb.
“Oh, my…” Kate said.
“Fucking hell”, I said and stared at the red, shining numbers on the display attached to the bomb. It had less than two minutes left.
“What should we do? One wrong move trying to disarm the thing and the whole building could explode…”
“Anyone who have some hidden knowledge about disarming bombs from a previous life?” I asked with an arched eyebrow, although I felt a slow dread creeping up on me.
“Oracle always guides Nightwing and me through things like this”, Ladyhawk said, looking down at the bomb. “But I guess…”
“Guys – we need to do something”, Kate said. “Think!”
“Easy for you to say!” I snapped.
“Stop it”, Ladyhawk said and raised her arms above her head. “I need to concentrate.” And she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. In only a few seconds a bluish shimmer began to gleam around our feet. The shimmer grew until it reached our knees, our thighs, our waist… The force field didn’t contain us this time, but instead it enveloped the entire roof. We stood on the edge of it, looking at the energy spreading out like a huge, shining blanket. The energy rose until it contained the roof in a shining, half bubble.
“Dinah”, I whispered as I noticed the perspiration on her face.
“I… must do… it”, the girl whispered with pale lips. “The city…”
I reached for her and tried to lend her some of my strength by touching her; Kate did the same, putting a hand on her shoulder. In the next moment the whole roof exploded.
The explosion shook the whole building, just like the previous earthquake. Kate and I supported Ladyhawk so she wouldn’t fall.
The force field held; within it an explosion of fire and smoke rose, tainting the clearness of the blue energy.
“By all the gods”, I whispered, seeing Dinah holding back such an amount of destruction. She went down on one knee, still with Kate and I by her side. The smoke and the fire raged within the force field, but now on a smaller scale.
“I… I have it now”, Ladyhawk said with difficulty. “I… have it under… control…”
“You are doing fine”, I said and squeezed her shoulder.
It took another moment, but then the fires died down and the smoke gave way to a brownish cloud. Ladyhawk struggled to her feat.
“I… must…” she said and raised her arms without explanation of what she needed to do. Soon we found out ourselves as the force field began shrinking: the bluish light and the brownish smoke within it were drawn together, tighter and tighter. In the end – after how long neither of us could say afterwards – the force field was small enough to contain a three year old child. It was almost black now, with toxic content.
“What on earth shall we do with it?” Kate whispered. “We can’t let it go – it would spread and still be toxic.
“The sea – we could dump it in the sea”, I suggested.
“That would be illegal dumping of toxic waste”, Ladyhawk said, sounding strained. I didn’t know if she meant it as a joke or not.
“I know. The oven – it’s running, thanks to the Joker”, Kate said. “Remember? We passed it on our way before. It’s huge and would probably burn away everything.”
“Probably? What if it doesn’t? What if it makes it worse? Or even explodes again?”
“I’ll contain it”, Ladyhawk said.
“Are you sure? It could be…” I silenced as Dinah’s eyes gave me a pointed look. “Oh, yeah – right. What you just did was… Um.” I paused. “Let’s go, then. Let’s get rid of this and find the Joker. Then we need to check up on…” I didn’t say it and I didn’t need to. Kate and Ladyhawk looked as worried as I felt. Don’t die, I thought. Please, Barbara – don’t leave me.
* * *
One look at Snake and I forgot everything else around me. The man’s smirking made me want to smash his face with my bare fist, which surprised me: I wasn’t usually so vengeful – it was generally Huntress who couldn’t hold her temper. Something about Snake must have ticked me off and I knew it wasn’t his crimes – it was something about the way he held himself and something in that smug smile that was plastered on his face. It made me sick.
“Are you with me?” I asked Nightwing and moved a step forward. Behind me I heard Huntress and the rest climb the stairs. “There’re only ten, including Shadow”, I told Huntress on the intercom, before I pushed her from my conscience; if she said something I didn’t hear it.
“I’m here”, Nightwing said.
Snake had been moving towards us, slowly at first, but now he attacked in a rush: he bared his teeth at us and pulled his arms close to his side.
“Now!” I called and raised my arms. At my side Nightwing did the same and we called upon the elements as we had done so long ago – in a different world, in a different time.
When we first begun practicing it had been dreadful; neither Dick nor I had been able to consciously draw forth the power we knew we had within us. In the end we had to begin to provoke each other to get angry enough to channel the power we’d had in our past lives as priestess and priest. When we had done that a few times it finally had been easier and when I faced Snake I hardly had to think about what I was doing: I cleared my mind and pictured myself as the priestess I had been, standing in front of an altar in a deep temple and calling upon the essence of fire and air. I only had to be that priestess in my mind to get the elements to obey me.
To create fire and lightning out of the smallest particles was a… thrill. To call forth and have fire flame all around you, to direct lightning and command the winds – it was power… It filled me with a sense of power I had never felt before, and it was exhilarating.
I called upon that power and let lightning flash forth, at the same time Dick created a thunderous noise and both of us directed strong winds against Snake. He withstood the winds, but tumbled and fell several feet backwards as the thunder echoed around us and the lightning struck him in the chest.
Snake lay motionless for a few moments on the concrete floor and Nightwing and I exchanged a silent glance. Then the man moved, picked himself up, shook himself and dusted himself off before he again turned to look at us with a grin.
“Is that the best you can do?” he asked disdainfully.
“Again!” Nightwing called and we raised our arms. Lightning and thunder and heavy winds were thrown at Snake, but this time he evaded our attacks.
“Is that the best you can do?” he laughed at us with a hissing, frightful laughter. “Is that your best? I will show you what to fear!”
Snake raised his arms into the air, summoning whatever powers were his in an unknown language.
“Barbara – can you hear me?” Dick asked in my head – he didn’t use his intercom, I could hear him directly in my head, through some sort of telepathy.
“Loud and clear!” I send back at him.
“Now, when he’s busy!”
Snake looked at us with a strange, yellowish stare and smiled. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he had the time I invoked a lightning bolt that went straight from my hands and struck him in his chest. Snake was thrown across the room and hit the wall beside the door he had crawled under before. Unfortunately he didn’t loose consciousness this time.
“You shouldn’t have done that”, he said as he rose and cracked his neck from side to side. “You pissed me off royally this time…”
At least I had wiped that smug smirk off his face.
“Now – tremble before me!”
In the next instant, before Dick or I had time to react, the earth moved under our feet. The whole building shook and trembled and I was thrown to the floor. Nightwing managed to stay on his feet and as the disruption continued he and Snake rushed against each other.
“Dick!” I called inwardly, the second before the two men clashed together.
Nightwing ducked beneath Snake’s fists and managed to land a blow that threw the other man to the floor. The shaking subsided and I rushed to my feet.
“Dick – together! Now!” I reached for Nightwing and he took my hands. Snake rolled around on the floor, spitting at us.
“Now!” Dick called within me.
Dick and I joined powers as we had practiced; I felt his presence within me – strong and powerful. I opened myself to him and his powers flowed into me – just like mine did into him. Together we created an electric charge that shimmered in the room – a sphere of energies consuming everything standing in its way: it was a raging fire, of ice and white energy.
“Take this – you son of a bitch!” Nightwing called as we let loose our powers and directed it at Snake.
Snake threw back his head – laughing. “You are children! Babies – you won’t stop me. I have my Master behind me.” He raised his arms against the ceiling, calling: “Master, Master – come now to me!”
In the next instant the fire we had directed at him hit him with full force and he screamed. The bluish flames licked his skin and set his dark hair on fire. His scream was a shriek of pain and rage. We heard him call for his Master with the last of his breath, before there was nothing but a pile of bones and ashes left of him.
I let go of Dick’s hand and lowered my other hand. “Is he gone? That was easy…” I said, a little stunned.
“A little too easy”, Nightwing said.
We looked around us, waiting for Snake to suddenly come back to life – as if in a bad B-horror movie.
“What, or who, do you reckon is his Master…?” Nightwing asked cautiously. Then he silenced, as his eyes fell on what I was watching.
By the door leading to the room where Snake had left a couple of the Joker’s guys crushed to death there stood an older woman. She was a little hunched back, with grey tresses in her mass of black, unruly hair. It was too far to estimate the color of her eyes, but she stared at Nightwing and me across the floor. She didn’t say anything – she just stood there, unmoving.
My first thought was: What the hell is a nice old lady doing here? But then, as she watched us, I suddenly remembered something.
“Oh, dear…” I whispered.
“Old lady”, Nightwing said, moving slightly forward. “You shouldn’t be here…”
“Dick”, I said softly and he turned to look at me with silent surprise in his eyes. “We forgot about the priest…” I said. At first he looked confused, but then he remembered and I noticed confusion turn to realization in his look.
“Oh, shit!” he said softly.
At the same moment darkness was upon us. Not a darkness caused by the turning off of lamps and lights in a room, but darkness void of spiritual light, of humanity; of joy, laughter and love. It filled the entire hall – a swirling vortex of dark energy claiming every, tiny aspect of light in the room and we stood in it: in this sinister, deadly, shining darkness.
At the centre of the dark there was a flickering light: a sickening green color growing in size and shape. It seemed to be a portal – swirling like the darkness around us. And in this portal, out from the hellish, green light, came a man. He moved like a shadow against the surrounding darkness – against the green light – and as he stepped forward Nightwing and I stepped back.
I felt a fear I had never experienced before – it chilled my heart, my bone and my very soul. I knew I was going to die as I watched the shadow of a man move towards us. I had died once before, facing this darkness. Beside me I knew Dick, too, trembled with fear.
Rising behind the man, a phantom-image against the green light and the darkness, was the shape of a large snake: a cobra the size of an ancient dinosaur. It wasn’t a solid image – darkness and smoke and fire held it together. And it wasn’t a living snake, but it was the very essence of the man moving before us. That image was the true image of the shadow moving in the dark.
“I have come!” His voice hissed around us – filled us and made our bodies tremble with the sheer power of it. “I have come – and there is no goddess to save you now!”
If indeed ancient gods had walked the earth, this entity had been one of them. There was no questioning it. We are all going to die, I thought – not in fear, but with cold realization of the reality of our situation. Then I thought: Goddess…? And in a flash I understood what we must do. I turned to Dick.
“Dick? You know what we must do…”
He looked at me and then nodded slowly. “Yes.”
That was all, but he held out his hands in front of him and I put the palm of my hands against his. We needed to hurry – and we needed to do it right the first time. As before we opened up to each other and let our powers fill us, flow back and forth between us. But this time, instead of directing it towards something, we let it build, and build within us. We began to glow; there was a shimmer about us – blue flames bursting out all around us, from our feet and rising higher and higher around and between us. We broke the contact with each other and stepped back a few steps. Our light cut through the darkness of the god that had come to conquer this world, but it wouldn’t stop him. There was only one thing that would have the power to stop him.
Only gods could defeat other gods.
As the power between Dick and I grew stronger and brighter the hall in which we stood began trembling, it shook and shivered like a sinking old ship. We opened ourselves completely to each other and to our pasts and I felt Dick change – something within him seemed to grow; he expanded and become more than what he was. I felt the same happening to myself; I felt larger, as if I could contain the whole universe. The power between us swelled and burned – it would consume everything dead and decayed and it had been created for one purpose only.
“No!” The Cobra god called in pure rage, but it was too late. The old woman by the door had been overlooked and now she stepped into the flames – the consuming, transmuting fire of eternal life. Her head was thrown back and her arms flew out at her sides as she screamed. The blue flames completely embraced her – and it was all over in a second.
An old woman had stepped into the flames, but it was a goddess that was reborn in them.
“It’s only by dying we can be born to eternal life”, I heard a voice I remembered inside me.
And out from the flames stepped a younger woman, with dark skin and hair as black as ravens wings. Her eyes gleamed, black as a night strewn with sparkling stars. Behind her the flames died out as she lifted herself from the ground – straight up in the air. Around her, behind her, within her was the shape of her true form: the bat. It flapped its wings in eager anticipation of a fight. It was huge and black and around it stood a different kind of darkness: a darkness that was gentle as a summer night, beautiful as a night with glistening snow beneath the full moon.
“Thank you, my priestess, for bringing me back to life. Thank you, my priest”, I heard within me. When I looked at Dick I noticed tears on his cheeks. He had taken off his mask and held it in his hands. I took off my mask and watched in silence as the two deities from an ancient time, from another world and another life, faced each other. The giant snake and the giant bat.
There had been a battle once. I remembered it well now. Some of us had died.
The walls in the hall shook as the two giant phantom images collided. The dark-skinned woman was still suspended in thin air – unmovable she stared at the dark shadow of the man standing in the centre of the hall. Neither of them moved, or even blinked, as the almost translucent shapes of the giant bat and the giant cobra crashed into each other. The cobra raised its head to strike at the bat, but the bat dived under its coils and aimed for its neck with its teeth. The cobra hissed and slithered away in another direction – the darkness followed them as they moved about the room.
I instinctively knew that if any one else entered the room the only thing they would see would be a man and a woman standing staring at each other – they wouldn’t see what Dick and I saw: the battle between souls. The battle between what once had been – and maybe still was – a god and a goddess.
I couldn’t say how long the fight went on. Dick and I were consumed by the battle and we stood by our goddess, strengthening her with our powers – sending them to her in shimmering waves of bluish flames. The Cobra god had been strengthened before by the murders his priest – Snake – had committed for his benefit. Our goddess was strong, but without our support she would have been defeated.
The phantom bat and the cobra fought on – the world trembled and darkness threatened to overwhelm us, but for Dick and I nothing outside that circle existed: only that man and that woman facing each other.
“I will prevail!”
The shadowy man’s voice suddenly was heard like a loud thunder clap and the cobra raised its head to his voice.
“Your time has come, traitor!” the woman answered.
In the next moment both of them raised their arms into the air. A loud humming, or chanting, was heard.
“Brace yourselves, children…” I heard within me and in the next moment the world exploded in blinding light and sparkling, dark stars.
It was the last thing I remembered before drifting off and losing consciousness.
I didn’t know how long I had been unconscious when I felt a soft lightness touching my cheek.
I knew that voice and opened my eyes. The darkness was gone and the hall was again filled with light from the naked lamps in the ceiling.
“My goddess”, I mumbled weakly and struggled to sit up.
“You did well, my child”, the woman before me said. Dick was lying beside me, still unconscious.
“He’s… he’s – gone?” My voice was hoarse.
“Yes – this time I defeated him. Thanks to you and my priest…” She glanced at Dick. “He will be fine”, she added.
I rubbed my forehead. I felt different, more like my old self again. The power within me had subsided. It was still there, but not as strong anymore.
“You will soon forget the art of conjuring fire and commanding the winds.” The woman – she seemed to be my own age, but I knew she was so much older – smiled softly at me. “Everything will be back to normal. Or, almost everything… I’ll leave you a gift.” She smiled again and I noticed a teasing sparkle in her gleaming eyes.
“What… happened, really?” I looked around, still struggling with the aftermath of the last collision between the bat and the cobra.
The woman – a goddess – nodded slowly. “I will tell you.”
And she did. She filled in the blanks Dick and I had missed and I listened carefully; I would have to inform the others later. When she was finished I nodded thoughtfully.
“It was such a long time ago”, I said, sadly.
“It was such a tragedy”, she said and looked at me. “I gave you that night, you know. You mustn’t blame yourself for that.”
I gasped softly, staring at her.
“There was a prophesy. I never told you. It said: ‘when the cat lies with the bat – the empire will fall’. I knew what had to come and I knew you could not have done anything to stop it. Loving the warrior that night saved your life – and hers. And thus… it saved mine.”
“Yours?” I whispered.
“Yes.” She smiled compassionately. “You died to preserve my life, just as Cobra’s priest died to preserve his. Both of you sacrificed your blood and your lives according to an ancient ritual, which would ensure that neither my enemy nor I would die completely. We were left bound between worlds, until the time was right for us to finish our ancient battle. Thus we could return to this world, in this day and this age…”
I turned to where the bones and ashes that was all that was left of Snake still lay. “And his priest died before him this time – he won’t be brought back again.”
“No – he is truly gone, now. And if the Universe is merciful, he will never be reincarnated with so much power again, until he has learned humbleness and how to love anew.”
I shook my head. “So much – so much we don’t know and wouldn’t understand about the ways of… the divine.”
“We are all divine, in one way or another. That is all we need to remember, to return home.” The goddess smiled softly and touched my cheek. “You gave your life for me – I will give you a gift.”
And then, without warning, she leaned in to kiss me. It was no chaste kiss on the cheek, but she kissed me thoroughly – like only one other woman had kissed me before. Still, there was nothing sexual or remotely erotic about it – it just… was. It meant nothing, and it meant all – because she was a goddess.
When she pulled away from me I took a deep breath and looked at her. She smiled mildly, but also teasingly. I remembered her being that way, when I served her so many, many ages ago.
“I will leave you now…”
“Where…?” I had to clear my throat. “Where will you go?”
“I will live, and love, and die… as all humans do – and even some of us who are considered to be divine.”
She nodded and turned away. The great bat suddenly loomed around her again – an invisible companion to anyone who wasn’t a true seer. I knew that in a couple of days I wouldn’t be able to see that bat anymore, if I was to meet the woman on the streets.
Then she was gone – and the bat with her.
I stared out into empty space for a few moments, contemplating the things she had said, what had happened and the kiss we had shared. I wondered if life would ever be the same again.
“Oh, Dick…” I said and turned towards him. “Are you alright?”
He rubbed the small of his neck. “Better than when Helena knocked me out.” He looked up and around. “Are we dead and this is the version of hell where we are forced to live out our entire life dying again and again and again…?”
“Have some faith, will you”, I said, grinning at him. He looked at me with wide eyes.
“We won?” He laughed. “Oh, God – let us never, ever have to go through that again”, he said in earnest.
I shook my head. “I doubt we will.”
“Although, I like my new powers…” He grinned at me and I had to laugh. I didn’t want to disappoint him by reminding him that we would lose our powers again in a few days. We lived only one life at a time – we were not priest and priestess in this life and so those powers didn’t belong to us. They weren’t part of who we were in our present life.
“Marvellous”, I said, faking Alfred’s British accent.
“Although…” Dick’s face grew serious and he paled as his gaze went to something on the ledge above us. “We are not quite done yet…”
I turned to look at what had caught his attention and felt my heart grow cold. My God! Oh, no – Wade!
The Joker stood at the ledge above us right beside the stairs, leaning on the railing. One hand held Wade around the neck, the other pointed a gun at Wade’s temple. Wade stood unmoving with wide, frightened eyes. He was tied with his hands at his back and was gagged with duct tape across his mouth.
“I thought it best to have an extra insurance… Two are better than one”, the Joker said, laughing. “Don’t you think?” He cocked his head to one side and despite the ridiculous make-up I could see some similarities between him and his son. Again I was struck with sadness as I recalled the tragic events that had created a criminal like Patchy. He had only wanted to be loved…
But the Joker could never have loved his son. I had told Kate that I had caused the death of the two people the Joker loved in his life. I didn’t believe it to be quite true that he had loved his son, although he and his lover Harley Quinn certainly would have created havoc around Gotham City if the two of them had been let lose together. No, the Joker loved the idea of loving something. He loved to pretend he was as normal as the next door neighbour and his family – living up to the traditional ideal of society: dog, car, house and loving his children. At the same time he would cause mayhem all around him – caring nothing for none of the above.
Patchy had been different. He still had something of his humanity intact. He was a lost soul, looking for approval and love. The Joker had left his soul behind a long time ago.
“Let him go, please”, I said as I moved a step forward. I knew there was nothing I could say to the Joker to let go of Wade, but I wasn’t going to provoke him.
“Love him, don’t you?” The Joker laughed.
“I care for him, yes”, I said.
“I’ve heard differently, since coming out from behind the bars… Wedding bells have been ringing…”
“Not anymore”, I said and shook my head. “Let him go – it’s me you want.”
Wade made some inaudible noise and shook his head. I wasn’t sure he had noticed Dick or my outfit yet. I fleetingly considered if he wondered what we were doing there, in the middle of nowhere.
“Yes…” The Joker grinned and leaned slightly forward over the railing, dragging Wade with him. “But I don’t want to kill you – yet. You do know you have to suffer first.”
“Well, kill him then and have it over with”, Dick said angrily. The Joker turned his face towards him with an offended grimace.
“You I will deal with later, lawyer scum”, he said disdainfully.
When the Joker’s attention was engaged elsewhere I moved abruptly and embraced the power that was still active within me. I didn’t dare direct such a powerful blast as I had against Snake earlier for fear of killing the Joker – who was only human, after all; and I had killed enough – but I focused the lightning at him nonetheless. It took him in the arm and threw him backwards with full force. He dropped the gun, which fell over the railing and down at the floor in front of Dick, but he pulled Wade with him in his fall. Wade hit the back of his head on the doorframe and collapsed, as the Joker struggled to remain on his feet.
In the next moment a much longed-for figure rushed out the door beside Wade.
“Huntress – the Joker!” I called. “Ladyhawk – you there? Protect Wade!”
Helena didn’t hesitate for one second – she was out the door and aimed directly at the Joker. Kate followed closely and as the two of them dived for the villain Dinah enclosed Wade in a force-field.
In the next moment, just before Helena and Kate reached the Joker he disappeared in a blur.
“Damn!” I heard Helena’s beloved voice call out.
“Look out!” Kate pointed at something further down the stairs, but I couldn’t see anything.
“There!” Dick said and rushed forward; in the next instant he fell backwards as if hit by an invisible force. I noticed a quick blur, a soft shimmer in the air right before me, but before I had time to reach for it, it was gone again.
Dick rushed to my side and we looked around, back to back, for any sign of the Joker.
“Look out!” Ladyhawk pointed in front of us and in the next instant the gun the Joker had dropped floated in thin air, right before the Joker became visible again. He aimed and shot at us.
“No!” I heard Helena scream before Dinah’s force-field suddenly was in place.
God, I thought. Will I ever stop almost dying today?
This time it was Dinah’s upset voice I heard. The Joker didn’t stop. He rushed towards Dick and I, wildly shooting. If he didn’t slow down he would collide with us and that would be the end of him. If Dinah didn’t let down the force-field that would make a killer out of her, however unwillingly.
I knew she would never risk letting down the force-field – any of the Joker’s bullets could hit us. I also knew she couldn’t hear us from within the force-field, so there was no use calling out to her.
“I’m here.” He moved quickly to take my hand.
I wasn’t about to let Dinah be responsible for someone’s death like that. It was one thing to cause someone’s death in self-defense, another to kill someone when you didn’t mean to.
Dick and I joined powers one more time. The strength of our combined forces cut through Dinah’s force-field and we hurled ourselves at the Joker at the same time. One of his bullets grazed my shoulder, but not enough to slow me down. It was only a scratch.
The bullet would have taken me in the head if I hadn’t dodged it and it was only later I would remember the odd sense of déjà vu that had come over me as he pointed that gun at me, as if someplace deep within me – in a forgotten dream – I had experienced that scene before and felt the impact of a bullet hitting me.
“Down!” Dick yelled and crashed into the Joker at the same time as I kicked the gun from the Joker’s hand. The Joker twisted himself free from Dick and then was gone again, disappeared in a blurry motion.
I quickly bent to pick up the gun. I emptied the magazine, but held on to the gun.
“Where the fuck is he?” Helena called from the ledge. She stood in front of Wade; the force-field was gone, but Wade still lay unconscious on the floor.
Kate swore as something hit her in the chest and she fell backwards at the top of the stairs.
“There!” she called and pointed at something blurry moving away from her, in the direction of the other door.
“Go!” I ordered and picked up my mask. Dick did the same and we put them on to conceal our faces. “Ladyhawk – stay here and guard Wade!”
I climbed the stairs followed by Nightwing and gestured towards the younger girl; Huntress and Kate were already in pursuit of the Joker.
“Protect the innocent”, I said. Ladyhawk nodded and I followed Nightwing through the other door.
We reached an open ledge, high above a hall with working machines below us. The ledge split in three directions: left, right and straight forward. Huntress was on her way to the other side, using wires and thick chains holding up the air borne ledge to cross the area. There were other air borne ledges parallel to the one in front of us, all connected with wires and cables.
“He’s on the middle ledge”, Helena said in the intercom. And then I noticed it; the shimmering blur moving across the bridge, trying to reach the door on the other side.
The Joker’s escape was cut short when Huntress reached the other side of the ledge and blocked the door.
The blur disappeared, but reappeared in a shimmer transforming the Joker back to a man. He looked around, grinned and then climbed the railing.
“Don’t be a fool!” I called out to him.
“We will meet again, darling Ms Gordon”, he called to me, grinning with his large, red mouth. He turned his attention to a cable hanging loosely in front of him and took the leap.
“No!” I called, because he couldn’t see it from where he was standing – the view was hidden behind another steel construction: the cable he was aiming for wasn’t fastened.
As the Joker caught the cable to swing himself from one air borne bridge to a ledge on his right the cable slid over the wire where it had been resting and fell with the Joker to the floor far below. The cable and the Joker hit the floor. The man lay motionless, with his neck at an awkward angle.
“Oh, God!” Kate whispered.
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. Deep within me I knew it was over. Finally.
“We killed the Joker”, Nightwing said, sounding a bit stunned.
I must let Bruce know, I thought. Then I raised my head and found myself looking across the bridge at Helena. She was looking right back at me.
“Is it over now, Barbara?” I heard her ask in my ear. I nodded.
“It is over”, I said, to no one in particular.
* * *
I couldn’t tell how relieved I was when I heard Barbara’s word declaring the night’s adventures over. Whatever had happened between her, Dick and Snake had ended with his death and our survival. Barbara wouldn’t die this time. She would live and could continue to love me. That was all that mattered.
It wasn’t until a couple of hours later I would get to hear the full story of what had happened that night, but before that we had some matters to deal with. Purely routine, but still…
After the bomb, and after the toxic waste had been disposed of in the large furnace – Dinah had successfully managed to enclose the chemical substance and the flames until the smoke was clear again and the poison disposed of – we had phoned Reese to let him know the Joker was at the island.
The police showed up shortly after the Joker’s death, having thousands of questions which we couldn’t answer truthfully without making them believe we were nuts – those were Dinah’s words. Clever as always Batgirl already had thought of some plausible explanations about a gang-related showdown between criminals of Gotham. “With the Joker on the loose the old criminals were bound to feel threatened”, she had told Reese. “They challenged him and this is the end result.”
She didn’t give any details about anything, but left it to them to draw their own conclusions. And Wade… Well, his memory was quite fussy when he woke up. All he could remember was that a short, ugly man had held a gun to his head and kidnapped him. The rest was a blur. He did have some vague memories of Barbara, but he figured that he had been dreaming – a left over from the drug-induced sleep they had forced upon him at the abduction. No one was going to dispute that.
We pretty much left the clean-up to the police. There wasn’t really anything anyone of us could do, so we left rather quickly after the police’s arrival.
After the return to the Clock Tower and our usual gathering in the kitchen around the table and the food Alfred had prepared for us – as always when we’d had a showdown with Gotham’s criminals – Batgirl removed her mask and said in her Oracle voice: “Bummer – I know it’s over, but I’m still concerned about the converter Patchy left for his father. We still don’t know where it is. Batgirl let Reese know to look for a technical machine that could cause trouble for Gotham City, but it could be anywhere. My guess, though, is that he hid it in that building where Huntress and I confronted the robots a few months ago.”
“Where you were held captive?” Dick said. “But that building was empty when the police arrived?”
“They didn’t check it thoroughly – I bet there is a hidden room beneath the floor…”
I knew Oracle’s bets always won out, so I wouldn’t dispute her. Dick nodded too.
“Um, I don’t think we have to worry about it”, Dinah suddenly said, swallowing down her sandwich. “When I was close to the Joker I saw him in a vision smashing a complex machine to pieces. Could that be it?”
Kate frowned. “Why would he destroy something like that?”
“To prevent other criminals from using it”, Barbara said and finally sat down to eat. She nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, that would probably be it. The Joker wouldn’t risk someone getting stronger than him by stealing it from him. He was more paranoid in that regard than his son. Thanks, Dinah”, she added with a smile to the girl. “You’ve done wonders tonight.”
“Really”, Kate agreed, looking at the girl who blushed at the compliments.
“Yeah”, I agreed and Dinah looked at me.
“Does that mean you won’t call me Sparrow anymore?” she asked hopefully. I grinned at her.
“Time will tell, princess. Time will tell”, I said.
At that both Dinah and Kate turned to Barbara and Dick, reminded of the showdown with Snake. I glanced at Barbara.
“What did actually happen tonight?” Kate asked after a moment.
Dick and Oracle exchanged a look and finally Barbara nodded. She looked at us and took a deep breath before she told us about Snake and Cobra and the goddess.
“Wow”, Dinah said, astonished, when Barbara was done. “She was a goddess?” She grinned. “I met a goddess?”
“An über meta”, I pointed out, feeling a bit jealous for some reason. “Not really a goddess…”
“But she was powerful”, Dick said, pouring some tea. “They both were”, he added thoughtfully.
“So – Snake was the priest and it was he who killed the girls in L.A.?” Kate asked. “He was Moonkiller?”
Barbara – or Oracle, more like it – nodded. “His skin was poisonous. The poison would paralyze his victims, so they couldn’t resist. In that way he could hang up the girls and cut their throat. The poison would stay in the body for two or three days, lasting until the girls were drained of blood. The poison would also prevent the blood from coagulating. It had the same effect as that of leeches, making the blood flow freely. There would be no trace of it afterwards. Cobra – the higher meta-human, or the god – showered in the blood as it flowed from the girls. Because of his abilities he wouldn’t leave a trace.”
“And all this was in preparation for killing Dinah?” Kate said. Oracle nodded.
“Once the ritual of Ma’ahel had begun he wouldn’t be able to interrupt it. And once the sixth girl had been killed the seventh must be his final victim: Dinah, in this case. The thing was, he didn’t know who or were Dinah was…”
“But he knew you”, Dick said, gesturing towards Kate.
“Me?” Kate said, looking shocked for the first time that I could remember.
“Snake was an ordinary meta-human to begin with, with no memories of his past life as a priest”, Dick explained. “Then not quite a year ago he came across a man called Michael Boyd, here in Gotham, and all his memories from the previous reincarnation were restored. Boyd was obviously involved with us in that past life, one way or another, but he didn’t remember it. Whatever past he and Snake shared, from the time they met all Snake could think about was how he would awaken his long sleeping Master again – the Cobra god. He went to L.A. to find a way to reawaken his Master, maybe through the help of some demons. I believe that’s the reason he went to L.A.” Dick shrugged. “What happened we don’t know. The point is – he managed to reawaken Cobra.”
“And in L.A. he found you”, Barbara added, looking at Kate. “Neither Cobra nor Snake knew were to find Dinah, but…”
“Remembering me they thought I would lead them to her”, Kate whispered with pale cheeks. “Oh, my god! That’s just what I did!”
“Shit”, I mumbled softly under my breath. “That’s why they murdered one girl a month, to give Kate time to find Dinah, or lead them on the way.”
“Well, yeah – and here we are”, Barbara said, gesturing with both her hands.
“Well, I don’t know about you”, Dinah said and leaned back in her chair with a relieved look on her face. “But I’m sure glad I’m rid of those cops. Finally I can have a social life again!”
Two weeks after the showdown with the Joker and Cobra things were pretty much back to normal. Dinah had lost her ability to create force-fields – it had apparently been some kind of memory and talent from her past life. Dick and Barbara couldn’t create thunder and lightning anymore and Kate was back to being an ordinary human without super-powers born of her memories as a warrior in a past life.
And I was pretty much as I had always been: an overgrown cat, according to Dinah. A lioness, according to my lover.
Barbara had given me an engagement ring – a simple band in white gold, with inscriptions on the outside, intertwined with an intricate pattern and tiny, tiny specks of blue stones, saying: Beyond the ends of time, my love. I loved it. I would have loved whatever she had given me, but I loved it because she had put in words what she felt for me – for everyone to see.
And on the inside of the ring – where no one would see it – there were the most exquisite carvings of a bat and a cat.
That day, two weeks after the Joker’s death, I found Barbara practicing in the arena. In the replaced arena: the padding on the floor and on the walls had been replaced after the indoor rain Barbara and Dick had managed to create. She was practicing with her staff – doing only slow movements, as in a yoga or tai’chi style.
I stopped at the railing and looked down at her, loving the sight of her and knowing – finally knowing full heartedly – that I belonged to her and she to me. I could see her smile and knew she knew I was there.
“I know you’re there”, she said and it was my turn to smile. I swung my legs over the ledge and smoothly fell down to the floor below.
“Do you know when Kate will return to L.A.?” I asked as I moved forward. Barbara straightened her back and stretched a bit.
“I don’t reckon she will”, she said. “I think, the better question would be what alias to pick for her. We need a name – and you and Dinah seem so good at making up names.” She grinned at me.
“I don’t get it”, I said with a frown. “Is she staying?”
“Oh, dear”, Barbara said with a sigh and put away her staff. “You’re cute, but sometimes you’re really naïve.” She slid her arms around my neck and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. “Mmm, that’s nice…”
We kissed for awhile and I forgot everything about Kate, but when Barbara let me go she resumed, as if we hadn’t been interrupted: “I believe Kate and Dick has taken a fancy to each other.”
“Huh? Oh! Oh, no – you don’t mean…? Wow!” I shook my head. “No, I completely missed that.”
“I figured”, Barbara said dryly. Then she smiled sweetly at me, still with her arms around my neck. “I love you”, she said simply and I blushed. She sometimes had this way about her – sweet and innocent like a young girl and when she looked at me that way I felt young and completely lost in her presence.
“Um, me too”, I mumbled and she laughed at me.
“I have a surprise”, she said and stepped back.
“If I had been a man I would have asked if you were pregnant”, I said wryly; she almost glowed when I was looking at her.
“She left me a gift”, she said. “I guess she didn’t think it would fit a bat to be earth-bound.”
I frowned. “Who? What do you mean?”
“The goddess – or whatever she was. Look.”
Barbara spread her arms and closed her eyes. At first nothing happened, but then I suddenly became aware she was moving. Or not moving, exactly – she was hovering… She was hovering in the air!
“Oh, my… goddess”, I whispered and almost sat down on the floor. Barbara opened her eyes and grinned at me.
“What do you think? Handy, don’t you agree? I have been practicing a little, but it’s quite difficult.”
Barbara kept on rising into the air; she hung with her feet even with my waist.
“Fuck – I’m jealous”, I said, a simple statement.
Barbara lowered herself and moved towards me with a soft smile.
“What about Dick?” I asked.
“I do think she left a gift for him too, but I don’t know if it’s the same.” Barbara sat down and then lay herself flat on her back; I looked down at her. “Come”, she said, smiling. “I can’t carry you like Superman does with Louis – you would be dragged behind me, I suspect. But…” Her smile widened. “I can do this. Lie on top of me.”
I hesitated, but then curiously did as she asked me.
“Feel…” she whispered and after a moment I felt it. We both lifted into the air.
“Oh, it’s amazing”, I grinned.
She laughed and her eyes sparkled in such a way that I just had to kiss her. As I did we fell back on the floor with a thud.
“Ups, sorry…” I said sheepishly.
“Some more practice is required”, she said. “Oh, my back…”
I rolled off her in the same moment that Dinah entered the door by the ledge. She looked down at us.
“At it again, are you?” she said, faking sarcasm.
“Hey, sparrow”, I said grinning, to hide the fact that she was making me blush with what she hinted at.
For a moment I thought the girl was going to put out her tongue at me, but she only sniffed and turned her attention to Barbara.
“I only came to tell you I’ll be late tonight. I have a date.” Dinah grinned and winked at us. “See ya!”
“What? Did she just say a date? Oh, God!”
Before I knew what was happening Barbara was up from the floor, running towards the stairs. What the fuck…? Someone’s not ready to let her child grow up… I thought amusedly.
“Someone’s not using her brains”, I added loudly as an afterthought, calling after Barbara; laughing. “Fly, why don’t you – batie?”
She stopped to look at me, then grinned and suddenly she was high in the air, aiming for the ledge and the door.
“Oh, shit…” I ducked my head as Barbara almost hit hers in the doorpost. Then I lost sight of her, but a second later I heard Dinah in the corridor above me.
“Barbara? Oh, my God – look out!”
Dinah’s warning was followed by a loud crash and I hid my face in my hands, laughing so hard I could hardly stand on my legs.
All was well in the Clock Tower. Everything was back to normal.
As normal could be, when living a life like ours.