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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.



Years ago, Manhunter had answered the call of a legend, a ghost, the kind of person everyone has heard of but no one has ever met. A figment of someone's imagination.

Oracle had sent her a box of flowers, along with a communication device and an invitation to join her band of sisters. The Birds of Prey were like Oracle herself, often mentioned but never seen. It was being asked to join a club more elite than even the JLA.

Kate knows she wasn't by any means the only one to receive one of Oracle's floral invitations. But she knows damn well that she was one of the few who answered the call. She knows she was asked more because of her legal acumen than her fighting skills, but she still felt like a freshman invited to the senior prom with the star quarterback.

Kate'd gone a little rogue after her first outing with the Birds, so it hadn't been until she'd reappeared stateside and met up with Helena that she learned about the chips.

"Standard procedure," Helena had said, though Kate had wondered if it had something to do with her disappearance. "So Oracle can find you if you're in mortal peril." Helena actually managed to pull off the phrase 'in mortal peril' with a straight face.

It was quiet locator chip, dormant until activated. Kate wouldn't be found until she asked to be, and that seemed reasonable enough. "Open up," Helena had commanded. "And lift your tongue."

Kate leaned forward awkwardly in the chair Helena had pressed her into, mouth open and tongue raised. Helena bit her lip in concentration, manipulating a very scary looking instrument in Kate's mouth.

"This'll hurt," Helena said, meeting Kate's eyes sympathetically, and then she pressed the trigger.

And oh boy, it had hurt. The chip was implanted in the floor of Kate's mouth, in the flesh below her jawbone, aligned with Kate's bottom left canine.

"Ow!" Kate had said, holding her chin in her palm once Helena pulled the torture device from her mouth. "That hurt!"

Helena had rolled her eyes. "I did warn you. Also, you spend your nights beating up bad guys. If you stick with the Birds, with Oracle, you're going to find yourself in situations a lot more painful than that." She smiled with half her mouth. "And this might just save your life."

And now, years later, through a haze of pain and relief, Kate realizes that, yeah, it might just save her life. She presses her tongue to the chip the way Helena had explained to her, tapping out the rough rhythm that would activate the chip. That is, if it even still worked.

After a moment, Kate feels a zap, like touching her tongue to a battery, and a bright buzzing in her jawbone, like pressing an electric toothbrush to her face. It dulls almost immediately, probably as the chip finishes whatever startup sequence it had gone through.

It's all Kate can do. It's the only ace up her sleeve. She hasn't talked to Oracle in six months, but her life depends on the fact that Oracle's still monitoring the frequencies on which the chip broadcasts.

If Oracle's really gone, then Kate's dead. Kate has spent the last six months being royally, incredibly, bone-crushingly angry at Oracle for disappearing, but now she thinks of how she, Kate, disappeared a few times, too. And all Oracle expected was that, if she was about to die, she'd activate the chip and let her compatriots, her comrades, her friends, come and help her.

I'm sorry, Barbara, Kate thinks. Come through for me this time, and I'll never doubt you again.

Behind her, the door begins to squeak open. Kate closes her eyes. I answered your call, Oracle. Now it's time to answer mine.

+

Kate comes to slowly. It seems like every time she wakes up, it takes a little longer and leaves her head a little fuzzier. This time, at least, she wakes up fully aware of where she is and who's there with her. Wolff is actually humming over something at the workbench that has the scarily familiar whine of a knife sharpener.

Kate's heart sinks. Someone should be here by now. Just before she'd fallen unconscious the last time from a well-placed blow to the base of her skull she'd clutched close to her heart the soothing thought of Oracle and Helena, coming to save her. As Kate's vision had darkened, Helena's face had been there, smiling.

Apparently, Kate had either overestimated Oracle's speed or Oracle's loyalty. She catches the glint of a blade as Wolff reorganizes his instruments. Some noise must escape her, because Wolff turns, eyes dark under the twinkle of the Christmas lights.

"Hello again," Wolff says. "How're you feeling?"

Kate looks up at him, cocking her head to the side but saying nothing. He smiles at her, obviously aware of how much her head must hurt from that last blow.

"I must say, I'm almost surprised you're still here. I'd thought. . ." He shrugs, and the corner of his smile quirks upward. "Well, I'd thought you might figure some way to get out of this. You're so good at getting your clients out of sticky situations."

Kate considers him. He's wearing a clean blue teeshirt and it looks like his hair is wet, probably from the shower he'd had to take to rid himself of the blood. The hand she'd bitten is wrapped in white gauze and medical tape. The gash deserved stitches, but Kate's pretty sure he couldn't come up with a story that would get anybody at a hospital to treat such an obviously human bite without asking very uncomfortable questions.

She smiles her most professional smile at him. The muscles in her face are tired from gritting her teeth for so long. Her feet hurt, but it's the ghost pain of extremities so long asleep that they might as well have been cut off.

"I'd like to know," she says, "what makes you think that all of my clients are guilty? Isn't it possible that at least a few of them, like you, were innocent?"

He just laughs, a bone-chilling laugh that almost upsets Kate's smile, and that's really not an answer at all. But he seems to think that her question is ludicrous, that no lawyer would actively represent any client who wasn't guilty.

"What gives you and only you the right to a good lawyer? What makes you better than anybody else?"

Wolff just ignores her. Smiling, he picks up a roll of silver duct tape. He pulls off a long strip with a sticky zzzzp and rips it off with his teeth.

"Why me?" she asks suddenly. She doesn't know, except that she's a lawyer. Does he know about Manhunter? He hasn't said anything, but he's also a lunatic, so she doesn't exactly trust him. She wonders suddenly what people in L.A. will think when Manhunter disappears.

This time he answers. "You're famous. On television, in the newspaper. Maybe when you're dead, somebody will finally pay attention."

Fantastic. "You're going to kill me because somebody at the Miami Herald needed something to fill a couple of inches below the line?"

Kate hears what she thinks might be a noise, coming from somewhere that's not this room. Then again, with the number of blows to the head she's had in the past couple of days, it's a wonder that she's not hearing entire fucking imaginary symphonies.

And right now, she has bigger things to think about, like Wolff walking towards her with the strip of duct tape. If he gags her, she's lost her only two remaining weapons: her voice and her teeth. She's determined to at least make it difficult on him.

"Aren't you worried that people will think less of you because you chose to kill someone just because they were convenient? Doesn't exactly make you sound like a true believer." Kate knows that making the crazy killer mad isn't usually the right course of action, but if she did hear something, then she's going to need to stall for just a couple more minutes.

And a moment of hesitation does flicker across Wolff's face.

"And when was the last time killing someone got good press for the killer's beliefs, even if he was right?" Kate is reminded of the chilly reception the Birds found in Platinum Flats. They weren't killing anybody, but they were maybe knocking a few people around, and yet, somehow, people hadn't been delighted at their arrival. "A lot of people just won't get it."

"I think people are pretty smart," Wolff says, though he apparently excludes lawyers from the group he considers 'people.' "And if what I've done helps save one person from turning out like me, it was worth it."

Wolff takes another step towards her. "What about my son?" Kate says, voice rising in fear. "You think he'll turn out just fine when he finds out his mother was murdered? Don't you think that might lead him down a pretty dark path?"

Wolff scoffs. He probably thinks that bringing up her son is stupidly manipulative, and it probably is. But Kate's gotta go all in if she wants to give Helena a chance to find her.

"Why would your son turn out any worse than any of the other people out there who grow up without a mommy? I didn't have a mother," he says, seeming to prove that being mother-less doesn't give a kid the best prospects, "but that wasn't what landed me in jail."

He advances on her, and she leans back into her chair as far as she can, trying to maintain some distance from him. "He's a meta!" Kate says, voice high and loud. If there's somebody out there, maybe a shout will help lead them to her. "Like you!"

Wolff hesitates, only a foot from Kate. "What's his ability?"

"I, I don't exactly know," Kate says, and Wolff reaches for her. "It just started!" She twists her face away from his hand. "He got hit by a truck, but the truck was dented and he was fine. I don't know. He's different. He needs me," she sobs. She hadn't even realized she was crying. She misses Ramsey so much it feels like her heart is being ripped out of her chest.

Wolff's voice is quiet. "It's very unusual for someone to be born a meta, unless one of their parents was, too. My mother," he says in explanation. "And your son? It's his father?"

Kate shakes her head. The crying has filled her probably-broken nose with mucus and she's finding it hard to breathe. "It's me," she whispers. "It's me."

Wolff stops and considers her for a long minute while she gasps through her own teary mess. There's nothing left in her, no energy and no emotion and no strength.

"It's not true," he finally says. "There's no way. You couldn't, you couldn't be a meta and do what youyou couldn't." He shakes his head and suddenly there's a knife in his hand and before Kate can even draw a breath, he drives it into her shoulder.

The pain is a handful of white-hot embers ground into her raw muscle. Sparks float up through her vision and she hears a noise and this time, it's the sound of her own scream. He's left the knife buried just below her right collarbone, and the handle sticking out is black like a kitchen knife's.

"It's not true," he says, but she can barely hear it above her own wailing. Son of a bitch son of a bitch son of a bitch.

And then Kate hears it, the most beautiful sound she's heard in her entire life.

Helena's voice.

"Guess again, jackass," Helena says from somewhere behind Kate's head. She lets an arrow fly from her crossbow, and it strikes Wolff's knee. He goes down screaming as his kneecap shatters. "You captured your own little Supergirl here, and you didn't even know it."

Helena passes Kate without sparing her a glance. She's dressed as Huntress, and the edge of her cape grazes against Kate's face. Kate wonders if Helena thinks she's dead, but Kate realizes she's still crying, and Helena must be confident enough that Kate's all right to deal with Wolff first.

Helena pushes him onto his back with her foot. She presses the toe of her boot into his chest and he groans. The arrow extends grotesquely from Wolff's leg.

Helena bends over the man, pressing the tip of the next cocked arrow to his throat. "You hurt my friend," she says. "That was extremely stupid." Her voice is murderously dark, slick and hot as arterial blood. "Because now I'm going to have to kill you."

"Youyou can't," Wolff whimpers. "You can't."

Helena cocks her head. "Because I'm dressed like a hero? As you know, looks can be deceiving, Ritter, or whatever your name is."

"No," he says, horror in his voice. "Because, because you're like me." He doesn't even try to move away from Helena and her crossbow. He seems shocked to the floor.

"Wrong again," Helena says. Though her hair hides her face from Kate, Kate can hear that Helena's smiling. She's happy she can't see it. She doesn't want to remember Helena that way. "The only powers I've got are a really expensive gym membership and very, very good aim."

Wolff starts screaming then, in earnest. Something about his encounter with Kate and Helena has shaken something very dear to him. Kate knows he would have killed her, but she still can't look at the broken man without feeling some kind of pity.

Maybe that's how I know I'm still alive.

"Helena, don't," Kate says. It really hurts to talk.

Helena looks up at her. Her eyes are so dark they're black and her cheeks are flushed with exertion. She doesn't say anything, but Kate sees her swallow hard. If Helena kills him, Kate will never be able to look at her the same way again.

"Please, Helena. Call Valdes," she croaks. Her throat is dry and her shoulder is bleeding and she doesn't know how much longer she's going to maintain consciousness. "And an ambulance?"

Helena seems to wake up from her own murderous rage. Her eyes widen and fade to a paler brown. The color rushes from her cheeks as her gaze flicks from Kate's face to the sizable knife protruding from her chest.

"I knew you'd come," Kate says. Behind her, Valdes' voice travels through the door. Kate's vision tunnels and just before she passes out, she whispers, "Thanks, Oracle."

+

Kate's consciousness comes back a drop at a time, like water dripping from a leaky faucet. Her head refills slowly, and for a while, all she can think is, I must be alive because being dead couldn't hurt this much.

Then she thinks that being dead would also be much quieter. And would involve far less beeping.

She doesn't open her eyes. Only half-conscious, she's content to waft in the aliveness of the moment, the very not-deadness of it. It feels a little like floating on her back in a wave pool, gentle and peaceful and secure. Frankly, she'd be happy to remain this way forever.

And maybe she would, if the beeping weren't getting louder and the water weren't getting harder beneath her back and there wasn't something sharp digging its way into her leg. This, Kate thinks, is a very crappy wave pool.

She slowly cracks her eyes, and, blessedly, the only light in the room is a hazy green glow. No Christmas lights, and that's how she knows for certain Wolff isn't playing some kind of trick on her. Well, at least she's pretty certain. It's so hard to follow her own thoughts. Her mind won't behave, won't keep things in order, won't--

Her head is spinning, and one thought curls in on another. She flashes between now and yesterday and years before. The beeping is the blood in her ears, the beeping is the fetal monitor as she struggled to push Ramsey into the world, the beeping is the little ping! of Oracle coming onto the comm.

And is this thing beneath her back her childhood bed? The table to which Visionary had strapped her in order to torture her? Is it the mat at her favorite yoga studio?

And that pinching in her leg, is that old dulled pain or new pain just blossoming? Is it Peter, hogging her side of the bed? Is it Helena

"Helena?" Kate says experimentally. She remembers Helena. Remembers Helena's eyes just before. . .

She opens her eyes again, more sure this time. She remembers Helena, and that's enough for right now. There's a noise, and Kate slowly looks down towards the foot of the bed.

She finds a good explanation for the pinching. Helena's sitting in an ugly chair near Kate's hip, and she's fallen asleep, flopped forward over Kate's leg. The edge of her glasses, the one's she only ever wears under great duress, is digging into Kate's thigh. It looks like Helena had just, well, collapsed forward and Kate hopes she's just asleep.

Kate jiggles her leg and discovers that it doesn't hurt too badly. Helena stirs a little, so Kate does it again. She watches her leg move under the white sheet, feeling very removed from herself. But at least it wakes Helena up.

"Kate," Helena says, her eyes suddenly wide open. She sits up too quickly, and Kate can see the little wobble of her head on her neck as the blood rushes out and down her neck. "Oh, God. Kate. You're awake."

"If you say so," Kate says. Her voice is foreign, scraped and torn, worse than it ever was after years of a pack-a-day habit. She blinks. "Um, Hel? You look like crap."

Helena smiles, the most shockingly beautiful smile Kate has ever seen in her life. Her hair falls tousled around her cheeks and shoulders and her wire glasses frames are askew on her nose. Her eyes are red, maybe from crying, and the circles under her eyes suggest that Helena hasn't slept in days.

Still, she's so beautiful, Kate would cry, if she had the strength. All she manages is a tiny sliver of smile and a slow, painful breath.

"The hospital?" Kate asks.

Helena nods. She scoots her chair closer to the head of the bed. "Jackson Memorial," she says. "In Miami. You remember?"

Kate closes her eyes for a second, and then says, "Unfortunately. Wolff?"

"Local jail. Gotham PD sent a complementary psi-dampener, so the Wolff's been neutered." Helena smoothes the sheet along Kate's stomach and legs, obviously happy for the excuse to touch Kate.

"How long," Kate says, rolling her eyes, "to think that up?" The pain in her head and throat limits her to strings of only three or four words at a time.

"They gave you so much morphine you've been out for forty-eight hours." Helena looks away, the tone of her voice giving away the fact that she hadn't been sure Kate would wake up at all.

"You here," Kate says, then swallows hard. Helena notices and helps Kate with the straw and the little Styrofoam cup full of extremely, wonderfully, blessedly wet water. "You here the whole time?" Kate asks after a long drink

Helena meets Kate's eyes. Helena's eyes are shining with unshed tears and there's a little tremor in her hand as it touches Kate's hair. "I left to pee," she finally says.

Kate struggles to swallow down the happy tears that, in her current condition, will probably drown her. "Saved my life," she finally manages.

Helena smiles. "Not the first time," she says. "But in the future, I'll try not to cut it so close, even if it does make the whole thing more dramatic."

Kate looks up at the speckled ceiling. The low beep of the heart monitor is not nearly as annoying now that she knows what it is, now that she knows it's happily chirping away the fact that she's not dead. She looks back down when she sees a movement at the door.

Kate's eyes drift closed. She's so tired and Helena's so close and she's safe and pumped full of delicious painkilling drugs. "And Oracle?" she murmurs as she begins to drift off.

"She called me with your location. She told me you activated your chip. She was really worried about you. I'm hoping she'll call back, so I can tell her you're okay."

Kate opens her eyes a sliver, catches a brief flash of red hair and what may be a wheelchair at the open door to the hallway.

She closes her eyes again and smiles. "Think she already knows," Kate says, and then she's asleep.

+

Kate's never been so happy for first class. The flight to LAX isn't that long, but it's long enough that Kate doesn't know what she'd do if she couldn't stretch out her bandaged legs.

In fact, the whole return trip has been much nicer than the trip from LAX to Miami. Turns out, the TSA agents at security are much more forgiving of strange objects in your luggage when you arrive at their station with half a battalion's worth of Miami PD officers. And flight attendants are much nicer when you're black and blue and your arm's in a sling.

And best of all, the woman who'd been assigned to the seat next to Kate had been more than willing to trade seat assignments with Helena. Which was good, because Kate pretty much collapsed onto Helena's shoulder the minute she sat down. The Percocet is definitely nice, but it leaves Kate feeling a little loopy and seriously exhausted.

She wakes up somewhere over Texas, according to the display on the seatback in front of her. Her forehead is pressed against the window, and all she can see are the milky white peaks of clouds beneath the plane, like flying over a freshly beaten meringue.

She blinks sleep out of her eyes and licks her dry lips before turning to look at Helena. Helena looks like she's been awake the entire time, and the fact that she's very intently reading the in-flight magazine tells Kate that until three seconds before Kate looked over, Helena was probably just staring at her. Even after a week, Helena seems unwilling to believe that Kate's actually alive and okay.

Her staring would seem a lot weirder if it didn't make Kate feel so safe. And Helena's attempts to make it look like she's not following Kate's every move are actually kind of cute.

"Thinking of getting a dog?" Kate asks, stretching her legs out in front of her and trying to roll her shoulders a little without wincing.

"Huh?" Helena asks, looking up from the magazine in her lap. Her hair is pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, and Kate thinks it makes her even prettier than usual, drawing Kate's eyes to her high cheekbones and long neck.

"I just assumed, seeing how intently you were considering that" Kate leans to look closer over Helena's shoulder"heated dog bed?" Who thinks of ordering a heated dog bed from the in-flight magazine?

Helena's caught. She flushes and snaps the catalog closed. "I was just looking."

"Mhmm." Kate drags the sound out, resting her throat lightly on Helena's shoulder, letting the vibration travel through them. She shifts her head a little to direct her breath across Helena's neck, and when she breathes in, she can smell Helena's skin and lilac-scented hotel conditioner.

"You were watching me again," Kate says, low and dark.

Helena tenses, but Kate can't be sure whether it's from the touch or the words. "I was just" Helena starts, but Kate cuts her off.

"I'm just kidding, Helena." She leans back into her seat, snuggling into the warm leather. "It's pretty cute, you acting like my body guard." Kate looks at Helena with a raised eyebrow. "Or my mom."

Helena just hmpfs and puts the catalog back into the seat pocket in front of her.

Kate looks out the window so she doesn't have to look at Helena when she asks, "So, when are you going back to Platinum Flats?"

Helena doesn't answer for a long time. Kate watches the plane's wing slice through an especially high cloud, sending the moisture into little swirling eddies.

Finally, Helena says, "I was thinking of staying in L.A." She says it like it's a question, as if she's asking for permission.

Kate looks over at her, trying to be casual about it even as her heart leaps into her throat. "Yeah?"

Helena shrugs carefully. "There are lots of teaching jobs in L.A. Pay's better," she says, even though Kate'd bet quite a bit of her own pay that Helena's never checked the L.A. Unified School System's pay scale. "And, I, you know, miss having friends around."

"Helena," Kate starts, but Helena cuts her off, the pitch of her voice rising.

"I mean, it's fine if you don't want me to! I could just stay in Platinum Flats. I have a job there and everything," Helena babbles. Helena twists her hands in her lap, not looking up at Kate's face, apparently sure that whatever Kate was going to say was a rejection.

Kate crosses her good arm across her body, forcing her to twist sideways in her seat, so she can put her hand on Helena's knee. Helena looks at Kate's hand for a long moment, like she's trying to divine the meaning of Kate's touch. Then, at long last, she looks up.

"I really want you to move to L.A.," Kate says. It's the first time in a really long time that she's actually told someone what she, Kate, really wants, not what she thinks she's supposed to want, or what a better woman or mother or lawyer would want.

Kate squeezes Helena's thigh. Twisted like she is, it's easy for Kate to lean in close to Helena, so she doesn't have to raise her voice above a low murmur. This isn't a joke to share with the whole cabin. This is just for them. "And not just because it'd be good for Misfit, or because Ramsey loves you, or because I think L.A. could use a few more capes, or any of the other very good reasons there are for you to move south."

Helena seems to be holding her breath. Kate doesn't entirely understand why Helena seems so afraid of being rejected. Maybe it's because now Kate's has the power to break Helena's heart.

Kate doesn't have any intention of breaking anybody's heart, and especially not Helena's. Kate looked right into Wolff's eyes, right over the precipice of her own death. All the stupid what ifs and buts seem far away and useless now.

"I want you to come to L.A. so you're never more than a phone call away from me. So I can see you, and have dinner with you, and cry on your shoulder. And I need you. You promised to teach me Krav Maga, and Manhunter's jujitsu is getting pretty rusty. I've still got a lot to learn from you."

Life really can end in a single ridiculous, unexpected, awful moment. And there aren't any do-overs.

Kate grins. "And I can think of a few other things we could learn more about together." She lets her hand slide just the smallest fraction of an inch up Helena's leg to make her meaning clear, and Helena smiles as her cheeks go red.

For a long time, they just sit there, staring sappily into each other's eyes. It's the kind of thing Kate would usually find uncomfortable, but sitting there with Helena, feeling the thrum of the engines and hearing the tinkle of glasses in the galley, it feels good.

Kate feels the world open up as wide as it looks through an airplane window. She'd thought her world was shrinking, but now she knows she was wrong. It's growing every day.



Helena tries but can't stifle a yawn. Kate says, "You should get some sleep, Hel."

Helena nods sleepily. "What about you?" she asks.

Kate smiles, and she can't predict the future, but that's finally okay.

"I'll be right here with you," Kate says. "And we'll figure it out from there, okay?"

Helena's eyes drift closed. Kate lifts her hand and brushes a few strands of hair from Helena's face.

Helena murmurs, "I'm glad you didn't die."

Kate closes her eyes and then opens them.

"So am I, Helena." She turns to look out the window. The clouds have broken, and down below, there's the whole world, stretching out like an upturned palm. "So am I."

+

end.

Comments

swatkat24
Jan. 2nd, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)
I really love this. Manhunter/Huntress is a great pairing, and I love that you took the time to flesh them out, make it really work. The cameos by Damon and Misfit (and Oracle, in her absent presence) were wonderful. <3