That said, back to our regularly-scheduled programming!
Jason and Cassie were lying on the roof at her mom’s house, watching a meteor shower and more or less oblivious to everything else in the world. It was easy to feel like everything was a few thousand miles away, when it was—they were in Gateway City north of Santa Maria, and real life was very much on the East Coast. Helena Sandsmark had gone out for the evening just after they’d all had dinner together, with only a half-teasing, “Don’t wreck the house, kids,” in the way of admonishment. Considering that they hadn’t spoken for several days, and hadn’t really seen each other in a couple weeks, it wouldn’t have been surprising if they’d ended up in Cassie’s bed. But they were out here, under the open sky, Cassie curled up to his side and both of them staring at the stars instead of each other.
It was good to have her company again. Jason hadn’t realized it until Kala pointed it out the other day, but he’d been kind of stuck in a rut. Navel-gazing, focusing only on what was wrong, barely giving enough of his attention to school to keep from getting behind. Heck, he hadn’t even stared up at the night sky in so long, he’d almost forgotten about the meteor shower. Cassie had to remind him—Jason, the cosmology nerd, forgetting something as obvious as this.
“You ever wish on a meteor?” Jason asked quietly.
“When I was a kid,” Cassie replied in the same hushed voice. “I wished I could meet my dad. Of course then he turns out to be a Greek god, and kind of a jerk, too. What about you?”
A little laugh hitched in his chest. “Same thing. I made up all these stories … he was a fireman who died saving a bunch of kids, and Mom couldn’t bear to tell us. Or he was a secret agent who couldn’t have a family because it would blow his cover. Kid stuff. Funny, I never did get around to superhero. Kala figured that out before I did.”
Jason felt more than heard Cassie chuckle in response. “Well, you did say she tells people she’s the smart one.”
He made a scoffing noise at that. “Yeah, right. She’s a sister, and a little sister. They’re put on this Earth to be annoying little brats.”
Cassie elbowed him, lightly. “The genius brother said, to the little-sister-by-adoption of both Wonder Woman and Troia. Smooth move, Jase.”
“That doesn’t count. Same reason Kristin is cool. You only gain aggravation-related superpowers if you’re born a younger sibling.” As easily as he replied, Jason had felt her take care in elbowing him just then, and it made him stifle a sigh. Not that long ago he and Cassie could happily rough-house, but now she had to be careful. He was just another fragile human, now.
It wasn’t that it bothered him that his girlfriend was stronger than he was; Jason wasn’t that shallow. He certainly wasn’t ashamed that someone was stronger than him, especially not that a girl was. After all, he knew perfectly well that the strongest person in his immediate family was Mom, all five-foot-five of her, with only sarcasm and stubbornness for superpowers. Heck, even when he’d had his powers, Cassie could still trounce him about half the time when they sparred.
It was just that she had to be careful, now, where once they had they been each other’s refuge from a world that could be too breakable.
“Hey. Tall, dark, and nerdy.” Cassie reached over and tapped his nose. “Looks like a lot of deep thoughts going through that head of yours.”
“Not really. That’s just how I look,” Jason replied, and kissed her hair.
His father could’ve told him that the worst thing anyone could do in a relationship was to stop talking about the things that bothered you.
Alarms shrilled all around him. The man called Metallo snarled under his breath. This was taking way too damned long! He threw a furious punch at the door of the bank vault, and finally felt it give.
He needed capital, that was the problem. Cash. Not knowing who he was made things like applying for credit cards pretty damned impossible. And taking a job was completely out, even if he’d wanted to wait and save and slog through to his end goal. He had a big green fucking glowing rock in his chest, like anybody could miss that.
So, bank robbery. No big deal, the banks robbed people all the time. Forty dollar fee on a check that bounced by ten cents, and if you didn’t pay it back in a week they hit you with another fee. Lying, thieving bastards, they could stand to lose it, and he could put it to better use than they could.
But luck wasn’t with him, and the bank he picked had alarms all over the place, and he knew the cops were coming. This was supposed to be quick, sneak up in the middle of the night, use the strength in his cursed metal arm to get through any lock he couldn’t pick, grab the cash and bolt. Smash and grab, yeah, but he didn’t want anything more complicated than that. No tellers, no hostages, no witnesses, no drama.
Now he had drama. Lots of it. Sirens in the distance. Another furious blow to the vault door, and it bent in a big crease. That let him grab an edge and haul it back enough to squeeze through. Stacks of cash just waiting for him, and he scraped them into the bag he’d brought. Rushing now, sirens outside getting closer, and it was a damn good thing that whatever they’d done to him made him stronger and faster overall, because he was gonna need it.
“You must be new in town,” a jovial voice said from outside the vault, and his heart sank. Busted.
But then he turned around, and saw the caped silhouette, and remembered for the hundredth time that he didn’t have a heart anymore. He bared his teeth in a feral grin. “I didn’t come here to fight with you. Just making a quick withdrawal here, no concern of yours. The bank has more than they need.”
“Unfortunately, it is my concern,” the hero answered. “It’s not the bank that will suffer, it’s the people whose money that was. Put down the bag and come out here.”
“Better come in and get me,” Metallo growled. He shifted the cash bag to his left hand, and flexed his right. For the first time that alien limb felt smooth, powerful, wonderful. The Man of Steel seemed awfully eager to add himself to the list of Metallo’s enemies, so fine, let him do it. Let him have a taste of this radiation, this kryptonite. “Come right on in and get me, Supes. If you can.”
Trying to intervene in a riot hadn’t been one of Steph’s best ideas. She knew that much even though her head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton wool. Damp, gross, mildewed cotton wool, at that. She blinked—or tried to. Despite the protection of her Spoiler cowl, her right eye was swollen shut. Damn, she thought, and tried to sit up.
A hand on her shoulder stopped her, and Steph exploded into action. She’d been taught too well by crime-fighters and life itself not to let anyone hold her down. Unfortunately, when she tried to grab the other person’s wrist and yank them across her body in a joint lock, all the muscles she was trying to use basically phoned in sick for work. All she managed was a spastic twitch.
“Shh, you’re okay,” a woman’s voice murmured. Low and soothing, but Steph didn’t necessarily trust that. She tried to blink her good eye clear and look up, seeing a dark shape with pointed ears.
“Batgirl?” she managed to whisper. Cass tended to show up just in time to save Steph’s bacon, but last she heard the other girl was out of the country. And on whispering the name, she discovered that her throat was raw, a result of shouting at bystanders to get the hell out of the way—and at bad guys to back the hell off unless they wanted a face full of boot.
The laugh in reply was throaty and full of amusement. “No, I’m no bat. Now sit up slowly so your head won’t spin … there, that’s it. How do you feel, kitten?”
Steph’s eye finally focused after she rubbed it, and she realized the costume the woman wore definitely wasn’t Bat-material. In fact, it was decidedly slinky, and around her waist was coiled a tail—no, a whip. That, and the purring tone, and the nickname, all clued Steph in at last. (Hey, she never claimed to be the best detective on the block; that was Robin’s job.) “You’re that … you’re Catwoman,” she blurted, almost saying cat burglar but quickly deciding it would’ve been impolite. Instead she went with the moniker the media had applied to the master thief who’d been plaguing the Gotham jewel district.
“That’s me,” the other woman purred, a glint of green eyes behind the mask. “And you’re Spoiler, in case you were wondering.”
“Yeah, thanks, I remember who I am,” Steph said, managing a rusty chuckle. She pressed one hand to her forehead and winced, immediately regretting it. “Where are we?”
“One of my safehouses,” Catwoman replied. A tabby cat had jumped into her lap, seemingly out of nowhere. A white one was sniffing interestedly at Steph’s boots. “It’s just a minor concussion, you should be fine. The rest are just bruises and scrapes. I got you away before they could start kicking. What were you doing, trying to break up a riot all by yourself?”
There was absolutely no reason why Steph should trust this woman. She was a thief, she’d driven her claws straight through Batman’s gauntlet when he tried to capture her, she lived on the wrong side of the law. But she was being nice, she’d rescued Steph, and she sounded genuinely concerned, not scolding. So somehow it came tumbling out without a second thought.
“Because I started it, that riot was my fault,” Steph said, and her voice broke a little. Her shoulders shook and she tried to hold it back.
Catwoman cocked her head, mouth turned down in confusion. “You started it?”
“Not on purpose. I was trying … trying to prove something to Batman … I set up one of his plans and it was all going perfect … but then the one guy I needed most didn’t show up and they all turned on each other….” Putting her hands to her face, Steph squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to sob and failing. “It all went to hell and people died and I’m the one to blame. I screwed up so, so bad … you shoulda just left me there.” Perpetual screw-up, I’ll never be good enough for anybody—well, nobody worth it, I was good enough for a sleaze like Dean but look where that got me. Never gonna be a hero, not even a damn sidekick, just the stupid girl tagging along after them all.
A gentle hand on her hair, then the couch she’d been lying on moved as Catwoman sat down beside her. Without a word, she tugged Steph over so her head was resting on the woman’s shoulder. “Listen, kitten, there’s only three things I’m completely sure about in this life. One, nobody’s perfect, and anyone who says they are is hiding some serious issues from everybody including themselves. Two, you gotta look out for yourself, because no one else will. And three, you can’t prove anything to Batman that he doesn’t want to see.”
That advice, and the complete lack of judgment that came with it, made Steph break down completely. She wept for the people who’d gotten hurt today, the ones who’d died, even the bad guys. And for herself, for the bald fact that no, she never would be good enough for Batman. Maybe not even for Red Robin.
Eventually her sobs died down to sniffles, and Steph rubbed at her face. She was all gross from crying, but Catwoman didn’t seem to care. “Let it go,” she said softly.
There was a cat in Steph’s lap now, kneading her armored thigh and purring. Actually, a couple of them were purring, a rumble of comfort just within the range of Steph’s hearing. It would be nice to be like them, concerned only with the needs and delights of the moment, unabashedly selfish and unashamedly sensual creatures. No concept of justice, no need for acceptance, perfect little self-sufficient predators just charming enough that people would take care of their every need and leave them more time for sleeping in the sun.
“I can’t let it go,” Steph whispered, scrubbing the tears from her eyes. Self-pity wasn’t a particularly strong part of her character, and unlike the average cat, she had a strong sense of justice. “It’s my mistake. I have to do what I can to fix it.”
Catwoman arched a brow at her, the gesture clear despite her cowl. “Says who?”
Steph could only blink. “Huh?”
“Who says you have to fix it? If everyone had to fix their own mistakes, politicians wouldn’t have time to do much else. No one’s going to make you go back there, not when you almost got killed. No one would expect you to.” Something in those green eyes said Selina was testing her, just a little, more curious about what she’d said than espousing a personal philosophy.
“I say, and that’s all that matters,” Steph replied. “No one has to make me do it. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I just slunk off and let Batman handle it for me.” With that she picked up the cat in her lap and set it gently on the table, standing up. The cat, of course, strolled indolently away as if it had just been about to get up anyway. Turning to her host, Steph smiled. “Thanks for taking care of me.”
Catwoman looked up at her and shook her head. “It figures.”
“What does?” Steph asked, curiosity infecting her, too.
The woman’s grin was decidedly catlike in its amusement. “You feel like you have to be responsible and make it right, no matter what. Figures the first interesting person in this town besides the Bat himself turns out to be a dog person.”
Superman sighed. There were parts of his job that he loved. Saving lives was the brightest, shortly followed by seeing the wonder in someone’s gaze when he swooped down and made things right. There were other parts of it that he liked a lot. Who wouldn’t enjoy standing still with his arms crossed and making quippy one-liners at bad guys whose bullets just ricocheted harmlessly off?
However, very few things in life were purely fun, and even superhero had its downsides as an occupation. While failing to break a huge story on the front page of the Daily Planet was a disappointment, failing to rescue someone in time was orders of magnitude worse. The toll of people almost saved, disasters almost averted, haunted Kal-El like nothing else. Only Lois’ dogged faith in him kept him sane over the years—that, and the way the twins looked up to him.
Somewhere in the middle were the tedious tasks, like this. A bank robber, none too skilled or professional, holed up in the vault and daring him to come in. This one didn’t seem to have any sense of the trouble he was in, and he hadn’t even responded to the gentle humor which could once in a while defuse a standoff. Superman sighed and moved closer. “Let’s not make this any more unpleasant than it has to be, all right?”
A nasty chuckle came from within the vault, and he hesitated. For the first time in a long time, Kal-El felt … worried. Something about that laugh, as if the robber knew something he didn’t. He focused his x-ray vision through the wall, wanting a closer look at the man.
The metal arm got his attention, fast. Some kind of cyborg? Such enhancements tended to give great strength, along with a variety of other powers depending on how they’d been built. Kal-El hadn’t heard of a cyborg on the East Coast in a while, though. That meant this guy really was new in town, new to the overall capes-and-villains game. Maybe he just didn’t know that his strength was nothing against the man he faced, maybe he wasn’t aware that he was dealing with a Kryptonian.
But he’d called Kal-El ‘Supes’, so he knew who he was up against. Superman’s powers were extremely well-known. Schoolchildren all over the country claimed they wanted to be him when they grew up, so they could fly and catch falling planes and be invincible. So why was this one laughing under his breath in not-quite-sane glee at the prospect of facing a founding member of the Justice League of America, someone who had once lifted an island into orbit?
Kal-El had just enough time to remember what that island had been made of before the robber got tired of waiting and rushed him.