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Title: even a fist was once an open palm and fingers
Author: ellenm. aka quasiradiant
Fandom: dcu. specially birds of prey, but drawing heavily from manhunter and huntress: year one.
Pairings: kate spencer (manhunter) / helena bertinelli (huntress)

see part 1 for extended headers.



Kate later learns that the correct term is "friction ridge," but the fact that the print pops in AFIS is all Kate cares about.

She and Helena are both a little disappointed when it comes up as a woman, but Valdes says, "Remember, it could be a witness," and offers to let them come along to question her. Not exactly standard procedure, to be sure, but Kate and Valdes seem to have forged some kind of understanding.

Kate wonders if he's willing to go outside the book because he doesn't expect the case to come before a judge. She considers this carefully. That would mean that Valdes expected the problem to be dealt with. . . extra-judicially. The lawyerly part of Kate's brain finds this pretty unkosher, but the vigilante part thinks it sounds excellent.

If anybody deserves a slow, painful death, she reasons, it's the guy who left Christine Metetakee legless and eyeless, the way Kate had seen her through the viewing window at the coroner's office.

The fingerprint belongs to one Elena Lopez, a pretty, long-haired Cuban waitress, judging by the picture in her police record (the only black mark on it: a single arrest, never prosecuted, for solicitation). A knock at the door of her small but neat house in Hialeah is answered by one of Elena's attractive young sons, who calls her from another room. While they wait for Elena to appear, the boy looks up at Valdes with big, dark eyes and then smiles, revealing perfect dimples.

Kate feels a sudden pang of longing for Ramsey. She'd called Peter in a rush from the airport, explained to him why she couldn't take Ramsey this weekend. He'd just sighed a this-is-so-like-you sigh and told her it was fine.

Looking at Elena Lopez's little boy, now, though, Kate knows that it isn't fine. She vows to figure out some way to make it up to Ramsey, but the list of things she has to make up for grows longer by the minute.

When Elena comes to the door, she's brushing flour off her hands. When she sees Valdes, she narrows her eyes. Valdes really does have 'cop' written all over him, and Kate doesn't have any idea what kind of relations Cuban cops and Cuban civilians have in Miami. Elena's hard look and short, "Morning, officer," suggest that those relations aren't very warm.

They all stand in the small front yard, which is dominated by a pair of long, fringe-leafed palm trees. Helena is wearing a pale green tanktop, and has, Kate notices enviously, a respectable tan. Helena leans back against the trunk of one of the palms, a gesture so casual Elena shoots her a sharp look through long, dark lashes.

Helena pretends not to notice. It's how Helena does plainclothes investigation, Kate's learned. Helena is the picture of boredom, as if this whole interview is the most mundane thing she's ever been asked to take part in, while she's secretly cataloguing every word, every gesture, every detail.

Kate can hear the sound of children playing inside. A couple boys, maybe a girl, she can't be sure. It's a nice sound, warm and loving. Kate is suddenly, but only momentarily, insanely jealous.

"This should only take a minute," Kate says, but Elena doesn't relax at all.

Valdes asks her if she was near the alley the day before. His blazer is pulled forward to hide his gun and taser, but Kate thinks that's more to keep the little boys from swarming to get a good look than anything else.

"Of course I was," Elena says with a look like eating a particularly sour lemon. Her lips are small and pursed. "I work there."

Valdes nods. He knows that, of course, but at least Elena hasn't started off lying. Kate wonders if she expects Elena to lie because Elena lives in a neighborhood that's more reminiscent of Cuba than of middle America. But no, she decides, she thinks Elena's going to lie because Elena's a human being, and that's what people do ninety percent of the time. Cynical, aren't we?

"We found your handprint near a crime scene," Valdes says after a long pause. He watches her intently. Kate notices Helena watching Elena's children as they crowd at the front window.

Elena's eyes go just a smidgen out of focus. Perhaps what convinces Kate most that she had nothing to do with the murders is that Elena's mind clearly skips over that implication. The first thing Elena says isn't, "I didn't do anything!" or "I'm innocent" or anything like that, but rather, "If you told me the kind of crime, it might be easier for me to figure out what you're talking about."

Helena actually laughs. Valdes shoots her a warning look, but she just shrugs. "Hey, it's not my fault she's right!" She sobers quickly, though, because Valdes is right about the fact that this is serious business.

Valdes looks at Elena for a moment as if deciding something. Then he says, "There was a murder. We found a woman's body"he pauses for the right word, but can't seem to find one"in the alley used to access the back of River Park Hotel. It was very brutal, Ms. Lopez."

She air seems to go out of Elena Lopez. She crumples like a soda can. Kate almost can't look at her, because it's so awful to watch something hit a person like this. "Dio mio," Elena breathes. "I remember nothing," she says to Valdes. Her voice is more heavily accented than just a moment ago, as if the pain she's feeling has stripped away all her careful cultivations.

Valdes touches Elena's arm gently, reassuringly. There's the squawk of an angry seagull and Kate can hear the sound of children's voices. It's not right, that those things could exist in the same world as Elena's face, the way it looks right now. "It's okay," he says to Elena. "Anything you can think of would be really helpful."

Elena shakes her head. "It's. . ." Her voice trails away. She looks down at the grass, then looks up again. "I want to help. But I don't remember anything. As if the whole night had been removed from my memory." She says it like she doesn't like the taste of the words in her mouth. "I, I left work. And then I was here, and my boys were asleep. That's all."

Kate frowns. There are two possibilities, one frustrating and one terrifying. The first is that Elena did see Metetakee's body being dumped, managed to get away without being spotted, and has, not surprisingly, wiped the whole thing away in a burst of self-preserving amnesia. A pretty classic response to trauma. It would be annoying, to say the least, but Kate could hardly blame her. Kate has some things in her past she wishes she could just forget.

The second possibility shoots a rush of adrenaline through Kate's body, blood hot and metallic in her mouth. It could be a meta. Visionary had stolen two weeks of Kate's life, and it was only with Zatanna's help that she'd been able to retrieve those memories, awful as they were. Could someone with Visionary's sick talent be here, mixed up in these murders or committing them himself?

Pressure blossoms painfully behind Kate's eyes. No, no, no. That's not how this is supposed to be. She'd ruled the metas out, had done her research and crossed them all off the list. . . hadn't she?

Fear is followed swiftly by anger. Goddamn Oracle, Kate thinks. Oracle could've figured something like this out in three minutes, blindfolded! This is what she's good at, the skill she's been practicing with the zeal of a convert since she lost her legs. Kate knows that. Everybody who's met Barbara knows that.

But now, when she's needed the most, Oracle's nowhere to be found. Kate feels a raw, cold pain push through her chest, like a steel lance through the heart. How could you, Barbara? How could you leave me?

Kate bites her lip and tries not to advertise to the whole neighborhood that she's having a bit of a meltdown. She knows Helena noticed, because Helena's turned those crazily blue eyes on her, staring at her, pupils tight with concentration. Kate shrugs, but Helena doesn't look away.

"It's okay, Ms. Lopez," Valdes is saying. Kate struggles out of the morass of her own thoughts back to the interview. It doesn't look like she missed much, and for that, she's grateful. Elena looks like her legs might go out from under her at any moment. Kate doesn't have to imagine how scary it is to lose a chunk of time like that, and it's even scarier when you find out something horrible happened that you can't remember.

Valdes hands her a business card, and she takes it with a trembling hand. "If anything comes to you, anything at all, you give me a call, okay? Day or night. I don't sleep."

Kate nods. "He doesn't sleep. Kind of creepy," she says, and Elena gives a watery smile.

"I'm sorry I can't help you," Elena says. Her voice is sad and tired. From the house, a child cries out, "Mom!"

Elena says, "I should go," and turns back towards the house. When the door closes behind her, Kate releases a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"Well, shit," Kate says. "Just about the last thing I wanted to hear."

Valdes rubs his forefinger against his thumb as he thinks. "You think she's telling the truth? May somebody told her not to remember."

Kate shakes her head. A coolish sea breeze rustles the palm's leaves, bringing with it the smell of salt and something sweet and musty, like rancid coconut oil. "I don't think so. She seemed genuine to me."

"And you?" Valdes asks, without looking over his shoulder at Helena. She's looking up into the trees, but Kate couldn't say what she might be thinking. She looks beautiful there, like that, in the bright morning sun, tall and lean.

"I'm with Kate," she finally says. She shakes her head, like something's bothering her. Kate wonders if they're thinking the same thing, about a meta. The fact that it doesn't spring immediately to Valdes' mind confirms in Kate's that this is a town where the metas are quiet as church mice, except for the random low-grade felony. In a place like Gotham, metas would probably occur to the cops before normal people even entered their minds.

Valdes breathes out slowly. Kate can see a bead of sweat forming on his upper lip. The temperature is skyrocketing faster than Kate knew it could.

"Something's not right," Valdes says, almost to himself. He smiles, but it's just a quirk of the corner of his mouth. "Aside from the obvious." He lowers his voice and turns to Kate, eyebrows drawn in. "It sounds like she might have stood just a couple of feet away from him. She saw or felt something uncomfortable enough that she put her hand against wet paint, stumbled, caught herself. But doesn't remember any of it."

He shakes his head. "So the question is"

"Why didn't we find Elena Lopez's body cut up into little pieces and tossed into some fucking garbage can?" Helena's voice is cool and dark like the inside of a tight cavern. Her eyes are narrow and chilling. Kate can't look at her like this, when whatever primal thing inside Helena starts uncoiling.

"Not exactly how I was going to put it," Valdes says. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his face. He looks up towards the sky. The sun is a huge, hot thing already, just past 11. "But okay. Yeah."

Kate doesn't want to say, "Oh, maybe one of us is doing it." Mostly because that us doesn't actually include either Helena or Valdes, unless he's keeping a pretty big secret from, well, everybody. It feels strange, Kate thinks, to be so close to people and yet have this thing that makes her so different.

But there it is. Random, like the trick of her birth. Random, like the steel in Ramsey's bones. Random, like Cameron's uncontrollable power jolt thing, or Misfit's teleportation. For good or for bad, it's just a trick of the stars and Kate tries to shove her discomfort away because Helena will notice and Kate definitely doesn't want to have that conversation.

The most important thing, Kate believes, is that you remember it's us-versus-them, and that all "us" has to mean is "the good guys."

Kate puts a hand on her hip and wishes desperately for a cigarette. Valdes says, "I don't even know where to begin. This guy, he could be anybody. We're nowhere." Not "I'm nowhere," but "we." After their early morning tete-a-tete, it's clear that this new truce is more than just a cessation of shouting, but maybe something like a partnership.

Kate considers the palm's ragged bark for a long moment before she says, "I think I know where we should start."

+

They're back to the list of metas Kate had printed off the week before. This time, she has a clean copy, devoid of the frantic scribbles she had jammed into every mircron of the margins.

The conference room that Valdes corrals for them isn't quite as nice as the ones on TV but not quite as bad as similar rooms in L.A. The linoleum on the floor looks newish, the only real mark a scratch where the opening door scrapes across it. The table looks new, too, nice clean formica spreading six feet from one end to the other.

The walls, though, give away the room's probable age. The paint is chipping, bit by bit, off the walls, sapped of sticking power by the humidity that creeps in despite the far away metallic chug of the air conditioner's fans. File cabinets in the room's far corner show signs of wear, dented from too many years of being backed into and kicked at, Kate would guess.

It's an okay room for what's really a pretty shitty task.

Dylan's there on speaker phone, but Kate's beginning to think that was a really bad idea. Dylan's thoughts flow out of him like a madman's filthy diatribe, like he can't help himself.

"For God's sake," Helena says at one point, clearly exasperated. Her eyebrows are pinched up towards the center of her forehead, and there's a ribbon of tension flowing up her jaw. "Haven't you ever heard of the fucking mute button?"

Dylan laughs, the prick. "Hey baby," he says, and if he tried to baby Helena to her face, he'd suddenly find himself sans testicles, so it's a damn good thing he's on the other side of the country. Kate kind of needs him for this, even if he is a major pain in her ass. "It's all part of the process."

"When I get back to California, I'll be sure to process your goddamn mouth shut," Helena says, and Kate can almost hear Dylan's worried gulp through the phone line.

He gets back to business, which Kate is glad for. Valdes keeps looking at her like she lives in some kind of alternate universe, which, she supposes, is true enough. He knows about the cape now, knows about Helena, too. Knows that she's got a asshole of a "consultant" back in L.A. who despite his poor attitude has access to law enforcement databases Valdes didn't even know existed. She'd even hinted about her own metahuman abilities, just to warn him why this might strike a little too close to home.

And from the way he smirked when he saw Kate's knuckles graze over the back of Helena's hand, it's clear he's got some idea about that, too. Kept a secret identity for two damn years, but you can't keep the fact that you banged your best friend quiet for twelve hours?

The problem is, the thing with Helena is a little distracting. Kate wouldn't have become a star prosecutor (the L.A. Times' description, for the record, not Kate's) if she couldn't mentally multitask. So she can use most of her brain to focus on the list of names in front of her, considering powers and criminal records and cross-referencing in the information Dylan's feeding them through the phone.

But there's a part of her mind that refuses to commit to the task. Kate knows exactly how important it is. She remembers the ADA's ravaged body, her milky eyes staring up into nothing. She knows that this is the most important thing she could be doing.

But then there's the image, not superimposed but simply existing in her mind simultaneously, of Helena, spread out dark and pliant across the too-white hotel sheets. Of Helena's hand clutching at Kate's wrist, pulling her in harder and deeper. Of Helena's face when she came, eyes and mouth open like she was hearing the voice of God.

And then, the image of Helena just waking, eyelids heavy and muscles soft and her back a slender expanse of muscle and bone and her legs twisted in the sheets and her hair a black mess on the pillow.

She had tried catching Helena's eye earlier, to shoot her some kind of meaningful I'm-still-thinking-about-you look, or maybe one that said something like you-may-not-believe-this-but-I'm-totally-not-freaking-out! But Helena's carefully avoiding her glance. The only time she looks up from her papers is to consider the white board of information behind Valdes's head or to shoot daggers at the speakerphone.

It's damn frustrating. It's not that Kate wants to run off to the little girl's room and have a quickie, it's that she wants Helena to see that they're okay. She knows Helena pretty well, and she knows that the woman's self-doubt has probably skyrocketed to previously unknown heights.

Kate shakes her head. If Helena won't even look at her, chances are it's going to take something a little more serious than a glance to assure her that things are okay. Kate has the sudden thought of all those potential boyfriends that Helena never called back, or that never called her. Helena's a master at keeping people at arm's length, and Kate wonders if Helena will try to do it with her.

Leaving it for some time when they aren't digging through the jackets of the least appealing metas in Florida, Kate turns back to the pile of folders in front of her and sighs. It's gonna be a long day.

+

By the end of the day, they've whittled the list down. Deeper digging has revealed that Kate's initial assessment of some of the metas was off. A couple have gotten out of prison, one's come back from Kansas, two do not actually appear to be as dead as they had seemed at first glance.

The new list has six potential suspects. The first two on the list are the same two Kate had fingered back in L.A., Harden Rhodes and Steven Wolff. Or, as Helena still insists on calling them, Kind-of-Translucent-Guy and Confusion Man. Seems unlikely that it's either of them, considering what Elena Lopez had told them about her memory loss, but there's always a chance that she's suffering from run of the mill PTSD.

Valdes raises one eyebrow. "You think that the crime was committed by a meta and that she's got trauma-induced amnesia, which occurs in, what, one of every hundred cases? What're the odds of that?"

Kate shrugs. Sure it's improbable, but everything in Kate's life is improbable and the probabilities involved here are no moreso.

He shakes his head. "It doesn't seem right. Maybe we're barking up the wrong tree, with the meta thing." His voice is tired.

Kate looks over at the whiteboard. Six names. She thinks of Visionary and of the meta-blood coursing through her own veins. "Look, I'd rather be pissing on the tree than barking up it, too, but I just," she pauses. "I have a feeling."

"Women's intuition?" Valdes says, sliver of a smile curving his mouth.

"Sure, that. Or a few years of kicking these bastards' asses. But we'll go with women's intuition." Kate crosses her legs sternly, folding her arms across her chest. She knows Valdes is joking, but 'women's intuition' is somehow not a joke that gets funnier with time.

He doesn't say anything, so she shifts her glance back to the board. Aside from Rhodes and Wolff, the list has two women and two other men. The women would seem unlikely if they weren't meta, but metahuman women are known for being a little unstable. And by "a little unstable," people really mean, "bat shit crazy."

Geena Torres seems most likely based on power alone, considering that wiping memories is her specialty. The problem keeping Helena from driving over and beating the ever-loving crap out of Geena Torres is the fact that the woman is nearing eighty and has Alzheimer's that appears to be wreaking some karmic retribution on her, stealing her own memories one year at a time.

Leslie Cooper's not too old to be killing people, and her arrest record suggests she might be violent, but her power doesn't match up very well. Sure, she can insert memories of things that didn't really happen, but there's no mention of using those memories to replace the real ones.

Danny and Donny MacAllister round out the list, a pair of brothers with bad attitudes and the ability to communicate telepathically with one another. The power wouldn't explain much about these murders, but the MacAllister brothers' records are so long and storied, Kate wouldn't put it past them.

It's a terrifyingly unsatisfying list. Kate can feel the clock ticking for whatever woman is going to come next. Either they find him, or somebody else ends up dead. A pain is growing behind Kate's eye, and she thinks that this would be a really bad time for an aneurysm so she tries to shake it away.

"We're going to have to split up," she finally says. She doesn't like the sound of it or the feel of it in her mouth, but she knows that it's true. "There's no way to cover enough ground in the time we have, unless we split up."

Helena shifts in her chair, clearly uncomfortable, but it's Valdes who says, "I don't like it."

"Well, I'm not exactly jumping for joy," Kate says, frowning. "I don't even have a carry concealed permit in Florida."

Valdes, unexpectedly, barks a laugh that makes Kate startle in her seat. "Yeah," he says. "That's our biggest problem."

Kate shrugs. The door to the hallway is shut, and the room is growing warmer. Kate can feel a single bead of sweat working its way down her spine. She presses her back against the chair to relieve the itch.

And she really would feel better with her .32 Smith & Wesson in her purse.

Finally, Valdes sighs and pushes himself up, leaning heavily on the table. It occurs to Kate that they haven't had anything to eat all day, but this doesn't seem like the moment to ask if he has any takeout menus. It's human needs like hunger that make being a regular, non-super-powered cape nearly impossible. You're always having to stop to eat, to pee, to chase down a bottle of Dasani.

She resigns herself to s growling stomach and waits for Valdes to confirm what they already know. He finally says, "All right. Kate, you take Miss Florida there." He points to Leslie Cooper's blonde, smiling visage taped up on the edge of the white board. "Helena, you check out the old lady. And I'll find the MacAllister brothers." Nobody argues with him. It's doubtful the MacAllisters would listen to two words that came out of a woman's mouth unless they constituted a sexual proposition.

"Call me if you find anything useful," he says, but it doesn't sound like he expects them to come up with anything of value. Still, they have to go. And there's always the chance that one of them will get lucky.

Helena stands and confers quietly with Valdes for a moment before heading out the door. Kate looks to Valdes, and he shrugs. "Go on. Don't forget to call."

Kate jumps up and pushes open the door, hoping to find Helena waiting. Helena's not there. Kate walks double-time down the hall to the elevators, thinking that maybe Helena's still waiting for the asthmatic elevator to show up.

But when Kate turns the corner, the elevator doors are sliding shut with a ding and even though she says, "Helena!" the doors don't slide open again.

The hall is empty except for a cop she recognizes from the night before, Ritter. She nods at him in greeting, but he just looks blankly at her. She'd seen him from the darkness, and he obviously doesn't recognize her. She just shrugs as he turns around the corner. Keep it together, Kate. No reason to make anybody suspicious, or her secret might get out farther than just Valdes.

She presses the down button and sighs. Helena will come around, she knows, and Ritter will forget about the weird woman in the hallway. It's just a matter of time, and Kate unlike the killer's next victim certainly has plenty of that.

+

Kate's not sure how Helena's going to get to the nursing home where Geena Torres lives, because Kate's got the rental car's keys in her pocket. But when she gets to the street, Helena's gone, and Kate wonders if Helena's requisitioned an unmarked police car or if she's maybe just planning on stealing some random motorcycle on her way.

Kate tries not to think about Helena as she gets in her car and sets the GPS. Helena's a big girl and until she decides that she doesn't need to act like a child, she'll be perfectly safe checking out a nursing home and a woman who barely remembers her own name.

She tries not to think about Helena all the way to the building where Leslie Cooper works as a receptionist for an advertising agency. Kate doesn't know how Leslie got a job like that after her potential employers saw her background check, but then again, when you're able to insert memories in people's heads, maybe it's not that hard to get around little things like rap sheets and jail time.

She gets a visitor's badge at the building's front desk, then slips into an elevator, richly appointed with plush carpet and smudgeless mirrors. She gets off on eight. The Miami office of Crispin Porter + Bogusky takes up almost the entire floor, but there's something that looks like a satellite office of the ninth floor's Morgan Lewis, an international firm that even West-Coaster Kate has heard of.

The anteroom of Crispin Porter + Bogusky is spare and clean, all brushed steel and pale blues. Behind her desk, Leslie Cooper's hair picks up the grey of the steel, washing it out, but her eyes pick up the blue, brightening. She becomes wraithlike, eyes huge and forehead wide. She smiles to show perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. Kate wonders if Leslie's used her power to "convince" a few salons, orthodontists, and so on that she's already paid the kind of bills she'd never be able to afford on a receptionist's salary.

"May I help you?" Leslie asks. Her voice is lower than Kate expected, unaccented and rich. Kate wishes she'd been able to do this wearing her costume, because at least then she'd have psi-shields. She has no idea how Leslie's power works, but Kate guesses it's something to do with her perfect, almost otherworldly voice.

"Leslie Cooper?" Kate asks. It's taken her so long to reply that Leslie's smile has faltered just a little, the strain in the expression becoming clearer. For just a moment, Kate sees something sad behind Leslie's eyes.

"That's me," Leslie says. She laces her fingers on the smooth glass of her desktop. "What can I do for you?"

Kate's not completely sure what to say. In the car, she spent too much time not thinking about Helena and not enough actually thinking about questioning Leslie. Can she just come out and ask if Leslie's a maniacal serial killer? Since no reasonable human being, serial killer or not, would answer yes to that question, it probably wouldn't be useful.

She settles on, "How do you like Miami? You've only lived here a few months, right?"

Leslie doesn't ask how Kate knows that. Leslie's obviously used to being questioned. "It's great. The people here are wonderful and I'm getting to practice my Spanish." She tilts her head a fraction of an inch. "How about you? You've only been here a few days, right?"

It's clear she knows who Kate is, despite the fact that Kate never introduced herself. It's a little creepy, but Kate has been in the papers, and it doesn't look like Leslie has a huge amount of work to do all day.

Kate just smiles, wide enough that the sharp points of her canines show. A sign of aggression, and Leslie seems to falter a little, shoulders falling just a smidgen.

Kate knows how to use her face better than any of the thousands of would-be actresses that traipse into L.A. every year. It's part of what made her such a good prosecutor, her ability to turn her face to the jury and manipulate them with just her expression. "The quirk of an eyebrow," she'd say in the lectures she gave to avoid having to attend CLEs, "can change the outcome of a case."

"So tell me, Leslie," Kate says. She rocks back on her heels and doesn't move to take a seat. Leslie doesn't stand, and Kate continues to look down at her, sitting behind her expanse of glass and steel. "Do you know a woman named Jacklynn Decker?"

"I've heard of her," Leslie shrugs. "She was all over the news. Everybody's heard of" Leslie's gaze snaps up and the muscles around her eyes tense. "You think, you think I know something about that and didn't tell the police?" When Kate doesn't say anything, Leslie barks out a panicked laugh. "You think I had something to do with killing that girl?"

Kate just shrugs, utilizing the power of silence to encourage the girl to say something stupid.

Leslie waits for almost a full minute before she says anything. She narrows her heavily shadowed eyes and squares her shoulders, a strange movement if she's preparing some kind of damning confession. Not that Kate's expecting one. All she needs is a hint, a suggestion. She's seen hundreds of suspected criminals. She's interviewed the guilty ones and the innocent ones, and she prides herself on being able to tell the difference, even if in her life as a lawyer she'd prosecute the innocent ones or defend the guilty ones, if that's what she was supposed to do.

"Look," Leslie says, defiant. "I was born this way, okay? I didn't ask to be able to do these things. When I was three, I could convince my mother that I ate my vegetables when they sat there untouched on my plate. In elementary school, I could make my teacher believe I'd been in school all day, when really I'd spent all morning laying under a palm tree, imagining what it would be like to live somewhere where my mom's latest boyfriend didn't leer at me like I was fresh meat, where she didn't end up with bruises big as grapefruits on her face every other week."

She swallows hard but doesn't break her eye contact with Kate. Kate wants to stop her but can't find her voice. She wonders if this is her punishment for some sin she didn't realize she was committing.

Leslie takes a long breath. "In high school, I made the honor roll without going to a single class. I conned a Harvard recruiter into a full scholarship, got a part in a movie being filmed down the street from my apartment, dated the richest man in Miami." Her smile gives Kate the impression of a fleshless grinning skull. "I stole things. Hurt people. Got away with it. And then one day, I thought, Leslie, what the fuck are you doing? That's not life, you know? That's just fucked up. I was lying to everyone. I couldn't have a conversation with someone, couldn't have a relationship with someone, without intentionally or accidentally convincing them I was an astronaut, a supermodel, someone really special. Except all I was was a con artist."

Leslie finally stands up. Kate is frozen to the floor where she stands, mouth half open. Leslie says, "You don't grow up imagining you're going to be a con artist. So I worked at it. Got control of my, my ability. Got this job without conning anybody. So no, Ms. Spencer. I didn't kill those girls. I'm not lying to you. I'm not convincing you that you've already ruled me out as a suspect, that you've already discovered I was in Dallas or France or on the fucking moon when those girls were killed."

She takes Kate's arm. Not hard, but forceful anyway. "So you better move on to your next suspect, because you're wasting time here with me." Kate finds herself outside the office's door, looking back at Leslie.

"And besides," Leslie says, "if I'd wanted to kill somebody and get away with it? You wouldn't even have thought to show up here."

Leslie shuts the door and leaves Kate alone with the words echoing in her head.

+

The wait for the elevator seems to last forever, probably because Kate's paranoid that Leslie's going to reappear. Kate's not sure she could hear any more of Leslie's monologue without having a full-blown meltdown.

Kate thinks of herself as meta-lite, her genes having bestowed upon her nothing more than a little extra speed and a little extra strength. She wasn't made much different than anybody else, and she was nearly an adult before she realized she had any kind of power at all.

But what if she'd realized earlier? Maybe she could've gotten a college scholarship playing soccer or running the hundred meter dash. Maybe she could've gotten a reputation for being someone who stood up for the little guy in a fight, instead of being someone who just chose not to notice the kids getting the crap beaten out of them on the walk home from school. Maybe she wouldn't have waited until her thirties to don a costume and kick some bad guy ass.

But is that really what she would have done?

She presses the Down button again, impatiently. Maybe if she can just get out of this building, she won't have to think about it.

Won't have to think about the alternative, that she wouldn't ever have become a bad-guy-ass-kicker but, just maybe, would've become a bad guy herself. A little extra speed and strength might be the difference between success and failure when it came to robbing banks or stealing rare jewels or running drugs. Kate's never had any desire that she can remember to actually do any of those things, but if she had known she was special during her formative years? Would her life plans have looked a little different?

Kate honestly doesn't know the answer. She thinks of the things she never would have had in her life: the law, Ramsey, Helena. It's a bleak and terrible alternate reality and she really doesn't want to think about it.

Mercifully, the elevator doors open and she's spared the rest of her depressing reverie. She presses the button for the lobby and watches the display above the doors tick the floors as the elevator drops.

In the lobby, she makes a sharp left and heads toward the entrance to the parking garage. She passes through the glass doors into the garage where the light is much dimmer. She feels her facial muscles relax from their light-induced squint.

She starts off towards her car, and has passed three SUVs before she stops. "Huh," she says out loud. She suddenly can't quite remember where she parked her car. Had she walked up this ramp, or had she had to go down a flight of stairs to get to the lobby entrance? She turns in a slow circle, trying to get her bearings. Thought I was too young for gingko biloba.

She sees the shadow of a figure splash across the far wall and it doesn't seem right, for someone to come up behind her in a dark parking garage without announcing themselves. Kate says, "Hey!" but he's reached her before she can think of how else to react.

She hears his laugh and sees the reflection of his face in the wide window of the Mercedes SUV in front of her. She gasps, and the noise echoes against the concrete.

The reflection raises his arm. We had it all wrong, she thinks hazily, just before the metal pipe clangs against the back of her head and the world goes dark.

+

Her mouth is hangover-dry. Which is strange, as she can't actually recall drinking anything since getting to. . .

Miami.

It comes back to her in a rush. Jacklynn Decker, the murders, Valdes, Helena, Leslie Cooper. She feels lightheaded and all the memories surging back into her make her think she might throw up.

She tries to lean forward, to get more oxygen, but discovers that her arms are bound behind her, secured the chair she's sitting in. From the bite she gets when she tries to pull her hands free, she'd guess she was being held by a solid pair of handcuffs. An experimental movement of her feet suggests that her ankles, too, are cuffed to the chair. When she tries to scoot the chair forward, it stays firmly in place, which makes her think it's bolted to the floor

And, holy crap does her head hurt. She's gone ten rounds with a number of very, very bad guys back in California, but she's never been left feeling quite so shitty as she does right now.

Maybe that's because those times you were wearing your costume, and this time, you were wearing a Donna Karan sweater? She hazards a look down at the sweater and is disgusted to find some kind of stain all over it. Two hundred bucks, down the drain. Some kind of red stain, which looks a little like blood.

"Hm," she says, the noise grinding through her dry throat. She's putting the pieces back together, and she'd bet good money that the blood on her sweater is from the same place on her head that currently feels like an acetylene torch is being applied to it.

So it probably hadn't been a single blow with the pipe, even though the first one had effectively brought her down. She wonders if she screamed, or if she just laid there like a rag doll, absorbing the blows and waiting to die. She honestly can't remember, and she can only be so disturbed by that, or she's going to start panicking. And panicking is definitely not what this situation calls for.

She slowly lifts her head and tries to look around without increasing the searing pain in her head. The chair she's in is at the center of a fairly small, cement-block enclosed room. The only light comes from a bare bulb burning in an old, shade-less lamp on a workbench of some kind and from a string of white Christmas lights strung diagonally across the ceiling. There are no windows, and Kate has no idea if it's day or night.

The room is eerily quiet. The bulb is making a soft buzzing noise, but aside from that, Kate can't hear anything but the sound of her own breath rasping through the blood congealed in her nose. She assumes she must have gone down forwards, breaking or at least banging her nose hard enough to make it bleed. She experimentally scrunches her face, and the pain that shoots up through her nasal bones and into her brain is like having a red hot poker jammed up her nose. Broken nose, check.

She's considering escape. She's seen the bodies of the other women, and she knows that it didn't end well for them. She has no intention of being carved up in some nondescript basement and has no desire for parts of her body to end up in the corner trash can, from which a rich and stomach-turning odor of decay is emanating.

She doesn't have a plan for this. Doesn't have any lockpicks stuck under her tongue or hidden in secret flaps of skin or anything. Anything that might have actually been useful is in her purse, and God only knows where that might have ended up.

And she doesn't have any backup on the way. She'd planned on calling Valdes and Helena about her strikeout with Leslie Cooper as soon as she got to the car, but obviously that hadn't worked out as planned. She certainly hadn't had a chance to let anybody know who'd grabbed her, even though she'd known him as soon as she saw the reflection of his face in the car window.

She hears footsteps and tries to keep still. She hopes he'll think she's still knocked out, but he's been practicing this, and Kate's sure that the speed of her breath must give her away. "Ms. Spencer! I'm so glad you finally woke up. I didn't hit you that hard." He makes his way around her chair, indicating that the door out of this pit is somewhere behind her.

"Officer Ritter," Kate says, teeth clenched. Talking hurts her throat and her head, but she's pretty sure that talking is the only way she's going to stall him long enough to keep herself alive until reinforcements arrive. "Or should I call you Steven?"

Steven Wolff looks at her through bright, clear blue eyes, unblinking. Finally, he laughs. "I just knew you'd figure it out. You're smarter than all the rest of them."

Kate tries to rest back into the chair, an attempt to give an air of relaxation. She may seem less interesting to him if she's calm about the whole situation. Or he may just kill her faster. The problem, Kate thinks, with serial killers is that they're fucking crazy and therefore utterly unpredictable.

"You gave yourself away in the garage," Kate says. She keeps her voice light. She's studying his face, trying to gain any information about him that might prove useful. She knows woefully little about him, and that puts her in a terrible and very dangerous position.

"What do you mean?" he asks, voice eager, as if he's genuinely interested in improving his technique.

"I never forget where I park." It sounds like a joke, but it's not. Kate seriously never forgets where she parks. It's her secret power.

He bursts into laughter again, laughing until there are tears in his eyes and his cheeks are red. "Never forget where you park," he says through giggles. "That's good. I like that. You're funny."

"I've heard its one of my best features," Kate says. Some part of her hears this conversation as if from afar, and that part of her is agape: you're seriously making jokes when this guy is planning on torturing you, ripping you limb from limb, and then dumping your body in some random trashcan? Seriously?

But it seems to be working. At least, she's not dead yet, and the only pain she's in is from the wound on her head and from the lack of circulation in her legs. She's not sure how long she's been cuffed to this chair, but she hopes it hasn't been too long. She'd like to regain the use of her feet at some point in the nearish future. Like, preferably soon enough to keep those feet attached to her body.

He sobers suddenly, and the change is heart-stopping. The muscles in his face tighten and his lips narrow. He looks not just angry, but enraged. The changes in his face and eyes make him look like a completely different person, and it doesn't appear to be the kind of person Kate's going to share a laugh with.

She goes very still, as if she's being tracked by a T-rex. She knows it won't help, but she hopes that by drawing as little attention to herself as possible, he won't think to direct his rage at her.

It doesn't work. He advances on her more quickly than Kate's pain-blurred vision can follow. His fingers are suddenly around her throat, closing off her windpipe, and Kate has the sudden thought that she's going to die like this, staring into a madman's face,

She struggles against her restraints, but even her meta power isn't enough to break the steel rings around her wrists and ankles. His grip tightens as she pulls, and she can feel the blood dripping down into her hands from her wrists just as black spots start to form at the edge of her vision.

Oh, hell no. She jerks her head down hard, hard enough she feels a cracking pain in her chin. He loosens his grip and she tilts her head, opening her mouth and biting down hard on the meaty part of his palm.

He howls when her teeth break the skin. She tastes his blood in her mouth but she doesn't let go until he's pulling back and away, out of the close circle of her personal space. He holds his hand to his chest, trying to staunch the flow of blood, muttering a curse under his breath.

Kate says, "Why am I here?" Her voice is calm and sure and low. She almost doesn't recognize it as her own.

The rage slips from him as easily as it came. He's standing there, teeshirt wrapped around his bleeding hand, and he looks suddenly pensive. There's something almost professorial about him as he considers her question, and it's so weird, Kate's mind is having trouble reconciling it with the man who nearly choked her unconscious thirty seconds before.

"Why? Hm," he says. He's putting pressure on his wound with his other hand, and it gives the impression that his hands are folded in prayer. "The others didn't ask."

Kate feels bile rise in her throat. The others, as if they weren't women with families and careers and friends and lovers and cats. As if they weren't human. The others.

Kate thinks that if Wolff leaves her alone for long enough, she might be able to break her hands to slide them through the cuffs. She isn't sure what she'd do about the cuffs around her ankles.

"I was fifteen the first time I saw the inside of a courtroom," Wolff finally says. Kate's eyes widen. He has the look of the bad guy in a movie, about to reveal his deviously simple plan, depending on the death of his captive to keep the plan hush-hush. Kate feels a chill that goes straight to the pit of her stomach, like being stabbed with an icicle. She really is going to die here. He's so sure of that that he's not even worried about spilling his secrets.

She tries not to let it show on her face, and if it does, well, he doesn't seem to notice anyway. He's deep in thought, leaning back against the workbench, ankles crossed. Utterly relaxed and thoughtful. It's really fucking creepy.

"I hadn't even done anything wrong. I couldn't control my," he pauses, searching for the word. "My ability then. I'd sent some cop into a stupor when he asked me about something I hadn't even done. It was a reflex then, you know? A survival mechanism."

I'm going to die, but not until I play shrink to a nutjob. Fantastic.

He shrugs. "Nobody knew what I'd done, not really. But they sent me to juvie for assaulting a police officer." He smiles sadly. Some part of Kate feels for him, even though she doesn't want to. It's hard to be a meta in a society that doesn't want to acknowledge your existence.

Kate thinks longingly of Misfit. Her own little meta, parentless and alone. Kate doesn't know what Misfit will do if Kate dies. Kate doesn't know if Helena will be able to raise a meta teenager by herself, especially one who'll probably only become more unstable as one more person in her life is lost.

"So I went up for two years. Since then, I've been on the inside longer than I've been out." He begins unrolling the fabric from around his hand. The bleeding has slowed to a trickling ooze. He keeps the hand carefully close to his body, but he brings the other hand up to chew on his thumbnail. A bad habit, Kate thinks, but she's not here to judge.

"So now I'm a criminal. Big, bad ex-con. Can't get a job, can't get an apartment. So I get two choices: starve to death on the street or I can keep doing what I learned to do so well from my cellmates." He shakes his head sadly. It's a speech Kate's heard before. She was a prosecutor, for god's sake. It was her job to put kids like him away and at least it got the really bad ones off the street.

"And whose fault is it? It's not mine. I was just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, it's not my fault. It's yours. You and everybody like you. Fucking lawyers, with your sad, stupid eyes, looking at the little kid and saying, 'Oh, I'm sorry, there's really nothing I can do.' It's all bullshit."

If he's waiting for her to apologize, he's going to wait a long time. Even though he's right, in a crazy sort of way. Kate feels the finality of her death descend upon her. Killed for doing the best she could, Kate thinks. She'll hardly be the first.

So she shrugs and stops fighting. She sighs out, "You're right." She's tired and she thinks that maybe this'll get him to leave her alone. She has no idea what she'll do when she's alone, but at least it'd be quieter and she wouldn't have to spend the afternoon -- night? morning? -- listening to a litany of the ways in which her chosen profession sucks.

"Damn straight I'mExcuse me?" He blinks. He looks at her as if seeing her for the first time. "I'm right?"

Kate sighs. "Of course you are. We failed you. We fail people like you every day. We don't want to. We don't wake up every morning planning on it. We don't take pleasure in it. But this is the system we've got, and it fails a hell of a lot of people."

He just stands there staring, blood drying on his shirt. He uncrosses his ankles and takes a step towards her. She ducks her head, fearful of a blow, and is embarrassed by the movement the next moment. If she's going to die here, she might as well take it with her head up.

"I'm sorry you had a crappy lawyer," Kate says after a long silence. And she is. She's not sorry she's a lawyer, not sorry that there are lawyers. She's sorry that there are bad lawyers, that the system only works 95% of the time, and that's in a good week. She's sorry that humanity failed Steven Wolff.

"You're sorry?" he looks at her, and then he lunges. He's got a hand around her neck again, but he's smarter this time. A thin rope she hadn't even seen him grab becomes a garrote as she moves behind her. "You're sorry, you fucking cunt?" He laughs a menacing laugh. "No, you're not sorry yet. Think you can lull me into some kind of bond? I'm not a fucking idiot."

He leans down until his mouth is just behind her ear. "I see right through you, Kate Spencer. Spend half your life sending innocent people to jail. Now you think you're gonna spend the other half keeping the guilty people out?" He clucks his tongue. "Tsk, tsk, Kate. For shame."

She can feel the rope cutting into her skin. Her head is jerked back, and she's stuck staring up at the rough concrete ceiling, as if she's trapped in some kind of nuclear bunker. She can't breathe, can't move. She's going to die.

She thinks of Helena. She imagines Helena's face when she finds out what happened. Kate's heart breaks at the thought, but there's nothing she can do. She's trapped and broken and bleeding and about to die. She thinks of Ramsey, growing up without a mother. I'm sorry, kiddo. I really screwed this one up. I love you.

And then she thinks of Misfit, again. Helena will deal with this. Ramsey will, too, one day. Cameron and Dylan and Damon will all be fine.

But not Misfit. This will kill her, maybe literally. She'll either die or turn into another Steven Wolff, in and out of prison, growing angrier by the minute, learning to use her skills to do bad instead of to do good.

Then I'll live for Misfit. It's a sudden thought. She's listening to Wolff, who's whispering in her ear all kinds of terrible things he plans on doing to her when she's unconscious, when she's dead, but she isn't listening at all.

She's thinking of Misfit. Of Ramsey, who really does need his mother. Of Helena, who needswell, who needs something, something Kate is determined to become. Something hardens in Kate's chest, burning and bright. So she'll live. It's easier than dying, anyway.

She goes slack as if unconscious. He seems to buy it, and she's close enough to passing out that it isn't too hard to fake. He laughs again, "Stupid bitch."

And then he leaves. She has no idea where he's going or how long he'll be gone. But she knows she's been given some kind of reprieve. When the door behind her shuts, she jerks her head up and starts looking for some way out of this.

Then I'll live, she thinks.

And that's when she remembers the chip.