Disclaimer: I do not own DC. I've got to get my eyes on that Injustice movie and see how they managed with that one. DC's animated movies rarely miss for me, and I love the Injustice games, so I've got some high hopes here.
Chapter 43: Cruel Summer
Max really had no idea how to properly gauge the spectrum that his life could run at any given moment. One day, he could find himself fighting a shadow battle against an A.I. bent on exterminating all metahumans, the next he was walking through his mentor's bar while it was being rebuilt.
Selina had left him messages back when he was far too busy being concerned with Brother Eye picking up on his trail. When he was able, he messaged her back and agreed to see her at her nearest convenience. Inconveniently for him, it was very soon after.
The moment Selina caught sight of him, she turned her attention away from the contractors working to get the Tin Roof Club back into form and marched right over to Max. The boy rolled his eyes, knowing what was coming as Selina grabbed his chin and began looking him over for any signs of injury.
"Got my ribs bruised by Superman," Max revealed before Selina could prod his torso next, "Other than that, I'm good."
Selina gave him a stern look but nodded. Gone off the grid for three days, she expected him to be in worse condition. A few bumps and bruises were the least of her concerns however, "Superman?"
Null looked around and gestured with his head, prompting Selina to follow him outside to her car. It was noisy enough inside to where they probably could have gotten away with conversing in the open, but assumptions were a poor way of going about one's business.
Only when both had taken their seats in the driver and passenger's seats did Selina continue their talk, "What did you do where Superman had to smack you one?"
Max breathed a laugh through his nose, "I don't know why I'm even bothering you with this."
The question was mostly rhetorical, as Max knew the answer. It was because Selina was on the short list of people who would actually care if he wound up getting himself killed or permanently maimed. If he was doing something dangerous and/or foolish, he preferred being told, even if he already knew it to begin with.
"It would take way longer to tell you everything else I need to," Max said, trying to weasel his way out of saying more.
Selina shrugged and started the car, "I have nowhere I need to be."
"You're not going to like some of it," Max replied. He could think of one aspect in particular, but figured it there was no hiding the fact that he'd killed a guy. It would probably be better coming from him than being blindsided by it after the fact.
Selina put the car into drive and pulled off. If he was in a moving car, Max was less likely to clam up, seeing as how he couldn't simply leave, "I'm sure I'm not going to like most of it. What else is new?"
With that, he told her. Everything that he felt was worth letting her know about, he clued her in on. After a while, it started to get amusing when he got to parts in the story that he knew would affect her. Would she let it show on her face, or would she just grip the steering wheel hard enough to break it?
To his amazement, she let him finish his story. The further he got into it, the more she wanted to hear, thus she allowed him to keep talking, right up until the very end.
"-One of the Green Lanterns dropped me at Wayne Tower, then I went home to sleep for like 30 hours, and now I'm here," Max said with an air of finality.
Selina found herself at a loss for words for some time. She eventually latched onto the first thing she could think to ask, "Which Green Lantern was it?"
Max gave her a strange look, "I don't fucking know. Aren't there like six from this planet?" A smile slowly started to pull at his lips, "Is that really even a question you care about?"
Exasperated, Selena shook her head and ran a hand through her hair, "I mean… Jesus, Maxie, I don't even know what questions to ask here."
"That's fair," Max admitted. Even if she did know, he doubted he had the capability to answer anything beyond a retelling of the events he'd already gone over in detail, "Just figured I'd tell you, seeing as how you're the closest thing I've got to a guardian," He said, turning away so she couldn't see the embarrassment on his face.
Selina smiled at the sentiment behind Max's words appreciated not having to wring the information out of him, "So, how are you going to tell Supergirl?"
Max crossed his arms and scoffed, "I dunno. The same way I just told you?"
"Including the part where you killed a man?"
Yes, that part would likely be... tricky. He had spoken to her briefly since returning to Gotham City, but had been too tired to give her a rundown of where he'd been at the time. Procrastination had been a close friend in that regard since then.
When the time came, Max figured his best bet would be to simply come out with it, "If Supes didn't tell her himself by now, I'll do it myself. Maybe she'll get the idea when I say I'm not superhero material," He doubted she knew, because he hadn't heard about it yet. He would tell her what he did and the circumstances behind it. If that wasn't good enough to get them past it, well, they'd had their fun, "...Think she'll be pissed?"
"You would know better than I would, Maxie," Selina said, in what Max felt was a very unhelpful manner.
"As someone who let Batman hit it, I was hoping you'd have better advice for romantic relationships with capes," Max snarked.
Selina gave Max the best deadpan gaze she could from her peripheral vision, "The best advice I could have given you was 'don't', but I didn't think I had to state the obvious. Either way, we're well past that point by now," At that, she paused, Max's admission of her importance to him still fresh in her mind, "...I've been worrying about you."
Max's eyes cut in Selina's direction, expecting her to follow with some kind of joke or sarcastic remark, but he saw nothing but earnest concern on her face. It tugged at something inside of him, right in his gut, and he couldn't tell if he liked it or not.
Him disappearing for days to weeks at a time left Selina feeling uneasy. Him mixing it up with all of the dangerous people he had been engaging with lately scared her. She wouldn't say it, but she didn't have to. It was easy to read between the lines. It was in her body language. It was in her persistence in meeting with him when they could, checking in with him firsthand so she could confirm for herself that he was alright. It was why she had tried to drag him with her, away from Gotham City for the summer, to keep him out of trouble as best as she could, if only for a little while. The more he looked into it, the more obvious it was.
It felt good knowing that someone cared about him to such a degree, but it also left him feeling guilty.
"I wish I could tell you not to, but I don't think I'm that good at reassuring people," Max said, "I wish I could tell you that I know what I'm doing, but I know I'm not that good at lying."
"I don't want to tell you what to do," Selina replied, "God knows there's some things you're better off not hearing from me about."
"I still want your advice!" Max blurted out, "I still want to talk to you about stuff. I still want to ask you things. I still want you around. I'll always want you around..." He tried not to wince at how needy that probably made him sound.
To her credit, despite her intrigue, Selina didn't allow the interest in whatever Max was getting at to show on her face, "Oh really?"
It was at this point that Max made a decision. He could keep posturing for the sake of macho teen bravado, or he could be truthful with himself and one of the few people on the planet he had come to care for and trust completely.
Given the scope of things he had been dealing with lately, it was an easy choice to make.
"Selina, If you never listened to me before, you'd better listen to me now and remember this, because I'm only going to say it once," Max prefaced, "These words will never come out of my mouth again, because I will never give you this much leverage to pick on me if I can ever help it."
At that, Selina took a moment to pull the car over onto the side of the road. Midday traffic passed them by, "I'm listening," Her face was the picture of seriousness. Not a word would go unheard or disregarded.
Max took a short breath and, figuring that trying to think things out would jumble his message, let his words go without hesitation, "I love you."
Selina's mouth fell open with surprise. They had played around with the sentiment in the past, joking about it while needling the other. Never before had either of them actually meant it.
From Max's end, the words continued to come. He didn't even have to think about them as they spilled forth, "I love you like you're family. When we met, you could have ignored me. You could have just let me go on my way and never gave me a second thought. But you didn't. You made me your apprentice, and after everything that's happened, here we are."
She let him be a part of her life, beyond just giving him some tips on how to be more than a two-bit thief. When he had been all alone, she had made herself a part of his life. She was an adviser; a friend. A real friend. She had invested in him, not monetarily, but emotionally.
Max continued, not able to stop until he'd gotten everything out, "You pissed me off a lot at the start, but you looked out for me too. You gave me more than I could have asked for. You still do. You might not be blood, but you might as well be. You're like my big sister or my pain-in-the-ass older cousin."
"-Thank you for not saying mother or aunt," Selina said with a smile, somehow found an opening to interject. She could feel her eyes growing hot.
Max licked his lips and shook his head, "I want to tell you that I'll be okay, but I don't know. And knowing that you're worried makes me feel like crap," Large eyes, almost pleading, looked up at Selina's, "You're, like, the only person that's ever worried about me before."
Unable to take it any longer, Selina reached across the space between them and pulled Max into a tight hug, "I love you too, you brat," She muttered against the top of the boy's head, "Fuck. I should have gone with my first idea back then and just made you my Robin for realsies instead of turning you loose, huh?" There was no way she would have let him get into a fraction of the things he'd found himself in if she'd kept him closer to her side in his early days.
Max could hear and feel Selina trying and failing to keep from crying into his scalp, "Nah. Black cats are bad luck and so am I. Between the two of us, if we did more stuff together, we probably would be dead by this point," He joked, trying to get her to dry her tears.
"Just... be careful. And if you need me..." Selina trailed off, knowing that no matter what, Max was better equipped to deal with danger now than she was. If something could pose a threat to him, it was beyond her capabilities to protect him. It had been that way since at least their time in Italy. Even so, she couldn't help herself, "...If you ever think you need me, call me."
Max nodded silently against Selina's chest. Feeling that they had lingered in that position for far too long, Max was the first to break contact, reluctant though he had been to do so. It had been a long time since he'd had a hug like that. Not since before his parents had died.
"Sorry," Max apologized self-consciously as he properly sat back in his seat, "I didn't mean to make things all emotional," He wasn't used to being touchy-feely.
Selina was quick to stop him from retreating into a macho shell. It was far too late for that. The genie was out of the bottle that they legitimately treasured each other, "Don't be. I think that talk was long overdue. You're a good kid, Maxie."
"No, I'm not," Max scoffed, "We aren't 'good' people. Doesn't mean we can't care about each other though."
And he did care about her, very much. She cared about him too, as much as she had previously tried to let it go unsaid, she had been doting on him more and more for quite some time. It was nice. And yet, there remained doubt in the back of his mind about how sincere it really was. Max didn't doubt that Selina meant what she said and felt, but how much of it was of her own doing?
There was no letting slip from his mind what he'd found on the file he'd taken from The Society – the mind wipes and manipulation. As gross as it was to think about, what were the chances she'd have given him a second glance had it not happened? And that in of itself wasn't fair.
Even if it wound up going badly for him, even if it stunted his relationship with her, he had to tell her the truth. Caring for someone else was a choice, and he had to make sure Selena had hers.
"Selina," Max prompted once their moment had properly passed, "Do you remember ever doing anything big enough to piss off the Justice League?"
Selina found it an odd question to ask, but felt it related enough to Max's own existence that she didn't have a problem with it, "I... don't think so. Why?"
For a moment, Max lamented that he was about to turn what had been a nice moment into something that much worse.
Other than one serious attempt at trying to take out Red Hood by a 'trying-to-take-the-initiative' Grant, the Wilson siblings had more or less been using their time in Gotham City as a vacation. Deathstroke was always working, which meant that they had always been working. Very rarely did they get any semblance of downtime.
Under the guise of 'recovery time', Grant had been working out and taking in the night life, goofing off in clubs around the city and getting laid. Such things couldn't last forever, however.
Grant walked into the main room of the hideout, and immediately Rose could tell that something was off. Normally, her older half-brother came off as an arrogant jock with the same touch of psychosis that seemed to be a Wilson Family trait. He seemed more subdued as he approached, and she immediately called him on it.
"What's the problem?" Rose asked as Grant took an idle swing at the reinforced heavy bag they used to help exercise, "You look like the principal just called the house."
Grant breathed a laugh out of his nose at the mental image before explaining, "So... dad's business partner is pissed. He just called to bitch at us directly, instead of getting the old man to bitch at us instead."
"Why?" Rose wondered, "What does it fucking matter to him how long it takes us to do the job?"
She figured they had been dispatched separate from Deathstroke because Luthor wanted them separated. Their father was extremely important in Society business, but them? Not so much. It suited them just fine though. They didn't care about whatever machinations the Secret Society of Supervillans had, so long as it kept their family with work.
While being dictated to by Lex Luthor was annoying, if Deathstroke didn't come down on him first, it was what it was.
"I dunno what his issue is," Grant commiserated with his sister, "I told him we were focusing in on Red Hood first, 'cuz that's who Black Mask was more pissed at, but he told me to focus on the other mark instead."
At that, Rose perked up, knowing full well that they had been dispatched to Gotham City to deal with two people in particular, "He wants us to do Null first? Why? What did he do to piss Luthor off?"
"Other than the Secret Six stuff?"
"-Other than the Secret Six stuff."
"Beats me," Grant said, "But we can't spend time goofing off on this one. So, come out with it. Tell me what I need to know."
Rose reacted cagily to being grilled on her ex's potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities, "Such as?"
Grant rolled his eyes and gave his younger sister a poke in the side of the head to tease her, "You know full well you're not gonna be the one to stick him," He said, "You had your chance at the House of Secrets and you didn't. And don't feed me that line of b.s. you gave dad. You're lucky he was bleeding out when you gave him that weak shit, otherwise it never would have flown."
Rose knew that, known that her father's dire state after the final battle against the Secret Six was the only thing that kept him from questioning her further on what had happened. She knew that Grant had not and would not have bought it for a second.
Rose pursed her lips before speaking again, "...First of all, don't bring anything metal or he'll make you wear it. He's going try to run away before he ever fights, but if you corner him he'll come out swinging."
"Sounds fun," Grant remarked, cockiness bleeding into his tone. Rose was quick to shut that down.
"Don't screw around with him, Grant. He's way stronger than he used to be," Rose said, shaking her head, "I don't know if it's something he grew into, or if he was always just strong as fuck and didn't realize it until now."
Both prospects were scary to think about in their own ways. Either Null had raised his competency and power limits to the point where he could garner the attention of a man like Lex Luthor in just over a year after his debut, or he had always had that kind of ability in him and was just now tapping into it.
Grant was as hot-blooded and arrogant as they came, but he had seen what had happened when the brunt of The Society had descended upon the Secret Six. There had been no shortage of brutality that night, and Null was in the thick of it just like all the rest. If Grant didn't have to directly tangle with a maturing metahuman growing in confidence and competency, he would avoid it.
"Where do I find him?" Grant asked. Rose responded with silence at first, causing him to press her further, "You ran with him for months before you came back to dad. You know. Where do I find him?"
"He doesn't live in the same place," Rose argued, still hiding pertinent details, "He left the apartment we stayed at while we were together."
Grant, to his credit, didn't flinch upon being reminded that his little sister had spent a considerable amount of time shacking up with a teenage boy, "What school does he go to?"
"School's still out in Gotham City for two more weeks, dingus," Rose pointed out.
"Shit," Grant cursed, smashing his fist against the nearby heavy bag. The bag swung in the air as Grant paced in front of it, "Little bastard operates all over the city too. Picking up some kind of trail and pinning him down in one place at one time ain't gonna be realistic."
After debating with herself for the entire conversation, Rose found herself drifting more toward the idea of helping, "I can get him out in the open. I can call him, ask him to meet up-."
Grant interrupted her before she could finish, "The whole point of me being the one to pop him is to keep you from getting involved. It kind of defeats the purpose if I have you serve him up for me on a silver platter."
"Yeah, well, you're my brother! He's just some fucking boy!" Rose finally snapped, breaking off the edge of the table when she smashed her hand down, "I already chose you guys!" She shouted, a wild look in her eye as she slowly calmed down, "...I-I already chose you..." She muttered, slowly standing up.
Grant watched her closely and made his way over to her, grasping her shoulders in his hands, "Baby Rav, you okay?"
Rose's head lolled around lifelessly until her entire body stiffened in Grant's grasp, "I know exactly where to find him," She said, staring into Grant's eyes with her sole piercing blue one.
For a moment, the older mercenary found himself taken aback from what he saw, "Alright then. I'll-," He stopped when Rose reached up and placed an iron grip over his hands.
"No," Rose said resolutely, "We're doing this together. We'll work it from different angles to cover our bases."
Family came first. Loyalty was everything, because they were all the other had. She had already lost one brother before she'd ever met him, and only had one father. A family was what she'd wanted most, and she wasn't about to choose anyone over them now that she had hers. There was always a chance to find another... whatever Null was to her.
She worked to convince herself that he wasn't that important.
(That Night – Gotham City – Gotham Harbor)
Red Hood wasn't the type to have allies. He was in the most crime-infested city in the United States, surrounded by criminals and at odds with the only stable of heroes intent on fighting the good fight once the sun went down and the crooks started creeping out of the shadows. When he made his return to Gotham City, he had expected to go it alone, and did for the most part, with one distinct exception.
Somehow, someway, he'd wound up working constantly with Null. It was nothing official. They weren't a team or a group. Red Hood would make a request and set a payment. Null would fulfill the request, and his actions would provide intelligence from the inside and soften up potential targets for Red Hood to move in and mop up criminals in the aftermath.
Red Hood didn't think he'd ever like a thief. Then again, he himself had started as a petty thief before Batman got him off of the streets.
He supposed, in a way, that meant that Null understood. Much like Red Hood, Null had lived in Gotham City his entire life. He knew what the city was about, and before he'd dipped into the superhero/supervillain underworld he'd gotten a taste of how cruel the city could be. That was why while he didn't completely agree with Red Hood's violent way of going about things, he understood. Every hero or criminal had a choice to delve into that world. Whatever came their way after they did so was what they had signed up for.
Speaking of the devil, Red Hood noticed his approach, acknowledging him when he arrived at the waterfront, "Null," He said in greeting, "Haven't heard much about you skulking around recently."
"'I've been active," Null said, deciding to keep the events as vague as possible, "I was hired to do a job out of town. Saved Blue Beetle... killed a spymaster... killed a satellite. Long story."
He'd been having a bad day ever since his talk with Selina. She hadn't said or done anything negative to him, but he knew he'd left her in a different state than he'd found her in once he'd told her everything and showed her the evidence.
He had needed a distraction. Something to throw himself into that could occupy his mind while Selina sorted hers out. He hadn't wanted to call Kara to use her in that way, so he'd decided to hit the streets in-costume and get some work done. It was fortunate that Red Hood had been available. He didn't mind using him as a means to an end to kill time and be productive.
"You're hanging out with Blue Beetle now?" Red Hood asked, "Aww, someone's getting popular."
"You're hilarious, Hood," Null sarcastically replied, obviously not finding him entertaining.
Red Hood continued sinking his teeth into his own joke, "Pretty soon, you're gonna be too cool to hang out with your old buddy Jason. Just gonna leave me sitting all lonely at our old lunch table by myself."
"Eh, you'll find something to do," Null said, deciding to get in a dig of his own, "Heard you set a whole Chinatown block on fire while I was gone."
Red Hood frowned at the reminder of his most recent brush with death, "It was one building, and it only caught on fire because the guy I set on fire took off running when I did it," He then remembered why he'd been trying to get in touch with Null, "You ran with one of the Ravagers not too long ago, didn't you?"
Null felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, "Did you set chick Ravager on fire?" He'd had to fight the instinctual urge to call her 'his' Ravager.
"No, her brother," Red Hood said, "But that answers my question."
"And?" Null tried and failed to sound nonchalant, "What, do you want me to try and get her to stop?" He never had that kind of influence over her even when they lived together.
The gun-toting vigilante kept things cordial, "Just letting you know. If they gun for me again, whichever one it is, I'm taking them out," He said matter-of-factly. He could feel the tension from the younger man, but soldiered on, "This is a professional courtesy, because I like you."
Null couldn't begrudge him that. If someone tried to kill him, he had every right to respond with the appropriate force to neutralize the threat. After a moment of internal deliberation, Null spoke again, "Who hired them?"
"Black Mask," Red Hood informed him.
Null nodded, taking in the information, "Do you think if you took him out, they'd fuck off?"
Red Hood looked over to Null in shock before a wide grin slowly spread across his face, "I think that's the ballsiest thing I've ever heard you suggest."
"You really should have been around earlier this week then," Null muttered under his breath. Indeed, it had been a rough summer, "Yes or no. Do you think it would work?"
Instead of making another joke to bother Null, Red Hood took the question seriously, because they were now discussing serious business. Black Mask was the epicenter of organized crime in Gotham City at the moment, "If I take out the person paying them, I can't imagine they'd have a reason to hang around. Are you saying you're up for this?"
"Up for what?" Null said, "Pointing you in the direction to do the thing you were going to do anyway?"
"Touche," Red Hood said, "Just so we're clear, when I get to him, I'm putting Black Mask in the ground. No exile. No jail. Dirt nap."
At that, Null let out an overdramatic gasp before his body language showed complete disinterest, " ...Anyway, let's make this plan."
(Gotham City – Wayne Manor)
Catwoman felt a wave of nostalgia wash over her as she rappelled down the side of Wayne Manor. It had been quite a while since she'd last broken into that home. She hadn't had a need to in a very long time; years in fact. But tonight, it just felt appropriate. And it was like riding a bike as far as she was concerned.
The mansion had 248 windows, with the alarm system connected to every single one of them. It wasn't a matter of finding a weak spot in the security, it was just a matter of disabling the security in one place. Wayne Manor had much weaker security than the Batcave that it hid underneath its property.
With the practiced ease that came with her experience, Catwoman disabled the alarm for her window of choice, picked the lock, and slipped inside.
She had hardly taken her first few creeping steps in the dark when a flashlight flicked on and illuminated her.
"Just answer one question," The master of the home requested, "Why didn't you use the front door?"
Catwoman squinted past the light shining in her face and could make out the robed man and the copious bandages that covered different areas of his body, "You look like shit, Bruce," She observed.
Bruce Wayne lowered the flashlight, a stern look visible in the low light of the upstairs parlor, "Why are you sneaking through my house?"
"Because I'm a villain, Bruce," Catwoman said, a sardonic expression on her face, "Breaking into rich people's homes is the sort of thing we do."
Something was wrong. It was obvious. Bruce hadn't seen Selina in a few days, and her demeanor was night and day compared to the last time their paths had crossed, "Selina, what's the matter? What are you talking about?"
"Heh," Selina let out a humorless chuckle, "I... I had quite the talk with Maxie today. He told me what they did to me... and when he did, it was like pulling at a thread on a bad sweater. It all started coming apart."
It had been as though learning the truth had broken the levee holding all of the real memories back behind the wall of magic that had caused her change. Once Max had said enough to trigger her, it all came rushing out, and the more time that passed since their talk, the more it felt that way.
Selina shook her head, getting all of the thoughts swimming around her brain straightened out, "I can see it in my head now, what they did, how they did it. Your little friend in the top hat, Zatanna. She was the star of the show," She frowned and turned away, holding herself, "Bruce, why didn't you tell me?"
Bruce seemed shocked, "Selina, I had no idea. What exactly happened?"
He wasn't the type to lie. At least, he wasn't very good at it. As Selina searched his face, she could find no hint of deceit. Or maybe she just didn't want to. Either way, she accepted it, "It's a little unclear. All I know is I was up there, on the old satellite, and they did something inside my head. The JLA did," She told him, "They changed things. They made me become a different person. A better person."
Somewhere along the line, her crimes stopped being indiscriminate. She chose to steal from bad or morally questionable marks, instead of just anyone who had anything of value worth taking. She didn't just wallow in opulence with the money she earned, she used it to improve things in her neighborhood where she could. She donated to charities, she funded public projects. She even directly fought crime there, making it safer for the general population.
Selina looked down at the claws at the tips of her fingers and clenched her hands into fists, "All the good I've done, all the things I've accomplished in the East End. All the things I did for-," She had been about to mention Max, but paused. She still wasn't ready to go there yet, "...None of it was me. Not really. It was them," Her eyes snapped up to Bruce's, "They were inside me, Bruce. Inside my mind. can you imagine what that's like?"
Bruce met her gaze with his own, but it faltered for just an instant, "You'd be surprised," He said, somewhat ashamedly.
The small physical tell spoke volumes, "I sure would," Selina quietly said, surprised. She wanted to reach out and place a hand on his chest, but couldn't bring herself to. Not now. She hadn't come looking for comfort, "...Bruce, I came here for a reason, and it wasn't to test the security system of stately Wayne Manor. You probably know me better than anyone, so tell me, who am I?"
The question was so vulnerable and candid, Bruce found himself momentarily taken aback, "Who...?" He repeated under his breath before speaking up, "You're Selina Kyle. You're Catwoman. You're the person who faked death, who risked death, to save the East End and make it a better place."
"No. That's not me," Selina disagreed, "That person is some sort of Robin Hood created by your Justice League comrades. Rob from the rich, give to the poor," She shook her head, "She's a remix. A revision. She's not real."
The more she considered the concept, the less realistic it seemed. She'd become a thief to better her own lot in life. She had been selfish in her aims.
Selina peeled off her hood and goggles, revealing her face, "I wish she were real. I like her. I admire her. I had fun pretending to be her. But I'm not her," She said, "This isn't some debate over philosophy or semantics, Bruce. I really want to know who I am. You've known me for a long time. As a friend, as an enemy, and as a lover, so please tell me... who was I before your buddies got to me?"
Bruce closed the distance between them and reached out for her, putting his hands on her shoulders, "You were the same woman you are now. The same woman you've always been. I don't care what kind of powers they have. They can't change who you are. They can't. You control your mind, Selina. You control your life."
There was a moment between the two of them, but just as quickly as it occurred, it passed.
"Yes, I do," Selina agreed, though the meaning in her acceptance of Bruce's declaration was cryptic, "…I should be going," She said as she pulled her hood back over her head and lowered her goggles.
"Stay, Selina," Bruce requested, "Frankly, you don't look so good."
"Pot, meet kettle," Selina remarked as she began climbing out of the window she had originally infiltrated through, "In the mask or not, you always did know how to charm a lady. I just need some rest. It's been a long day."
In the end, Bruce knew there was nothing he could do to convince her to stay if she really didn't want to, "If you say so. Good night."
"Don't forget to lock up," Selina teased in parting, "You never know who's lurking out there in the dark," With that, she dropped from the window sill and headed off into the night. Bruce watched her until she was out of sight.
He had tried. Selina knew he had done his best to connect with her problem, but there was no way he could have. Even if the Justice League had messed with his mind as well, what could they really have done to him?
He was Batman. He was the physical manifestation of self-determination, of making one's own fate. He was the kind of person who when he saw a problem did his best to find a way to beat it into submission. The problem was, that wasn't what Selina needed.
Max had told her himself, given her the chance to do things her own way. He had told her that even if it changed everything between them, she deserved to know, because he'd meant what he said to her, that he loved her - even if Selina knowing the truth meant she wouldn't love him. From spending as much time around him as she did, it was clear he also believed in making his own decisions to shape his own fate.
A part of her found some momentary humor in thinking about Max knowing that he shared anything in common with Batman at all. He would likely pitch a fit if she made the comparison aloud to him. The small laugh it gave her was a bit of comfort in a time of internal turmoil.
(With Null – Gotham City – Gotham Harbor)
Null gazed down at an address on Google Maps, detailing a luxury apartment complex in Gotham. Red Hood huddled over his shoulder as the two worked on detailing a plan to approach and deal with one of the most dangerous individuals in the city.
Null spoke up, reviewing what they had managed to work out so far, "Black Mask changes safehouses every week, and the rotation is random, so if we don't get him by Friday, we'll have to figure out which one he's in all over again," Such a task could take days in of itself, "We don't have a lot of time to get the building's specs, so we're just gonna have to note some key points and wing the rest of it."
"When we start, we won't have the time to ease our way through anyway," Red Hood said, "That cockroach will find another fridge to run and hide under the moment we shine some light on him."
The building they were looking at was definitely Black Mask's. It had been one of the many properties Null had cased for Red Hood before his most recent attempt to take the man out. His name wasn't on the lease, just like it wasn't on any arrest warrants, but it was his all the same.
"You can go in as loud as you want to. It shouldn't matter for what I have to do," Null said. The louder the better, actually. The more attention Red Hood could garner, the less Null would attract, "When someone like you starts popping off, most crime lords lock themselves down wherever they are."
"-But not Black Mask," Red Hood finished for him.
Null nodded, "That guy will send every gun he's got to deal with the threat, and whether it gets handled while he's still there or not, he'll slip out the back," Not a bad way to handle things, really. A cautious approach. If the threat was dealt with, he would get the report regardless from the safety of his new safehouse.
Running away as a first response to danger. Null could respect that. Of course, being the kind of person who would run away from a fight first, it meant that Null knew exactly how people like that operated. He would have to get eyes on Black Mask before he knew anything was wrong.
"While I'm playing with the rabble, you find him and stick to him like glue," Red Hood directed.
That didn't sound like much of a problem to Null. It wasn't hard to identify which floor belonged to the bad guys in buildings like this. The penthouse would have been his first guess, "What if you need help though?"
"Oh, please," Red Hood almost looked insulted, "You could probably stop him yourself if you have him in your sights, but I wouldn't put it past him to have a surprise or two up his sleeve for anyone who gets closer than they should."
Whatever. If Red Hood figured he'd live through the storm of bullets that would be coming his way, who was Null to question him? The guy had been trained by Batman, after all.
"When it's time, don't kick things off until I'm in position," Null said, "But once I hear the first gunshot, I'm moving in. In a perfect world, I catch him with his pants down running out into a hallway, tag him, bag him, and hand him over to you."
"-Where I will publicly execute him and leave his body hanging in the open like medieval times,"Red Hood added unnecessarily.
Null winced at the visual, because he could see Red Hood doing it to prove several points, "I mean... I know it couldn't happen to a nicer guy, but could you not sound so giddy about it?"
"I don't sound 'giddy', Null," Red Hood said pointedly, "Whew. This is gonna leave a body count. You sure you're good with that?"
Null shrugged his shoulders, "I mean, I wouldn't say I'm good with it, but you're gonna do something like this anyway, so I might as well make sure-," He was interrupted by his personal phone going off, "Hold on one sec. Hello?"
Null straightened up at the sound of Kara's voice, "Kara. What's up?"
She sounded... troubled was the word he could best use, "I... need to talk to you. It's important. It's about something Kal-El told me."
And there it was.
Null closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. He figured he would only have so long to tell her himself. It was on him for taking too long to bring it up, "I think I know what it is. I was gonna wait until you had some downtime again to tell you myself, so if you're saying you have the time now, sure."
Null let out a laugh to try and make things seem less tense than they likely would be once they spoke, "Seems like the easiest place to meet up, if that works for you. I'll finish up what I'm doing and I'll be right there. Let yourself in if you beat me there."
"Y-Yeah," Kara said, trying to sound more chipper to match his intended energy, "I'll see you soon."
As Null ended the call, Red Hood started humming the Funeral March, only stopping when Null glared at him, "Hey, you knew this was coming."
"Yes, thank you, captain obvious," Null said running a hand through his hair under his cowl, "Not like I can run from it though. And I should know. I'm an expert at running away from things."
"Supergirl knew what you were about when she decided to get with you."
"I think she wants to change me."
Red Hood pulled a distasteful face, "I'm far from an expert on romance, but getting into a relationship with someone in the hopes that you can change them sounds like a shitty idea."
Null grunted in return, "Hm."
"Well, not my business anyway," Red Hood said dismissively as he placed his red motorcycle helmet atop his head, "You go handle that. I'll keep working on the plan. I do like your idea on how to approach from your end. That's good. No matter what, we're incorporating that somehow," He said as he climbed onto his motorcycle and started it up, "Let's get this done."
While Red Hood's thoughts were on the mission to come, Null's were elsewhere entirely, "Right..." He said absentmindedly.
And here he had sought Red Hood out for a distraction. A whole lot of good that did him in the end.
Fine. No need to keep her waiting any longer. It was best to go ahead and pull that particular band-aid off, come what may.
(Meanwhile - Gotham City - Tricomber Island)
It wasn't a long flight for Kara to reach Gotham City. Almost on autopilot, she navigated her way to Max's townhouse
Max wasn't home yet, but it hadn't been the first time she'd been there. He'd instructed her to let herself in. For a moment, it made her heart swell that he trusted her enough to allow her in his house without him, then she remembered that he kept nothing of value in his place. It was odd. He seemed to trust her, but only so much. Kara wouldn't say that he kept her at arm's length, but there was some obstacle between the two of them.
It was because he didn't trust her. He couldn't. How could he? Even if they cared about each other, and she knew he cared about her, what did it matter when she was more or less obligated to toss him behind bars the moment he did something wrong? At times, with the way her hero friends regarded their relationship, it seemed like she was more Max's probation officer than his girlfriend. And it didn't just stop at friends.
Kal-El. He had told her that Null had killed a man.
When he told her, it hadn't come as that much of a surprise. Even though Null had never brought it up with her, she had figured that his time with the Secret Six had resulted in him ending a few lives. But there had been plausible deniability there. She didn't know for certain because he had never mentioned it. This though? It was different.
She had to talk to him. It didn't matter if she had to wait around all night. She'd been spending so much of her time darting all over trying to help put out fires wherever they popped up, the world could spare her the time to get her personal affairs in order.
Max had given her a key to his home, which after landing in the back alley out of sight she used to enter through the back door at the kitchen. It was dark all through the house, not that such a thing bothered her. It was dead quiet, but with her hearing, she could hear stirring upstairs. It wasn't Max though.
"Hey," Kara called out, "I know someone's here. Come out."
It took a moment, but footsteps moved from upstairs down to the living room, along with a sound of something sharp dragging along the wood floor. Kara waited as Rose Wilson emerged, holding one of her swords in her hand, allowing the tip to trail behind her.
The two young women stared at each other, Kara questioning Rose's presence while Rose sized Kara up. Both were surprised to see the other, though they tried to keep from showing it through their expressions. It couldn't last for long, however.
Kara clenched her fists at her side, body tense at the sight of the teenage mercenary, "What are you doing here?"
"Working," Rose said, her long white hair hanging over her face, "...A little far out of your neck of the woods, aren't you? Metropolis is that-a-way," She finished, pointing in the appropriate direction with her free hand.
"I'm right where I'm supposed to be," Kara replied, "I don't think I can say the same about you."
They fell into a tense silence for some time before something clicked inside of Rose's head.
"I don't believe it," Rose said, "You? Sparks is fucking you?" She asked with an incredulous laugh.
Kara couldn't help feeling offended at the vulgar remark, "Excuse me? Who?"
"Sparks. Null. Max. Whatever you call him," Rose continued, finding humor in her new theory, "I knew he was smashing one of you goody-two-shoes, but you? How lonely are you to let someone like him hit it?"
"There's nothing wrong with him!" Kara snapped back, her face turning red, "And, not that it's any of your business, but we haven't gone that far yet."
All semblances of amusement vanished from Rose's face, "You haven't even-?" She said under her breath incredulously, shaking her head in disbelief, "What is he getting out of messing around with you then?"
"Again, why would you care?" Kara asked.
Rose lifted her sword, pointing the tip at Kara, "Because he was mine first, bitch!"
Kara found herself taken aback, "He never told me that..." She hadn't even known that Max had ever been in a relationship, let alone one with Rose Wilson.
It was Rose's turn to find herself stunned. But she quickly turned that feeling into one of resentment. It had been that easy to replace her, that he could just swoop Supergirl off of her feet and move forward.
"Oh, so I wasn't even important enough for him to tell you about me, was I?" Rose seethed, "Well, let me get you caught up. Before you batted your eyelashes at him, I was with him. I lived with him. He warmed my fucking bed. And then, I ditched him. So, you know what that makes you? His rebound."
It was petty and vicious to say such things, but that was what Rose was, petty and vicious. Max had pissed her off the other night. He had turned down her advances for his idyllic little teenage romance with little miss perfect alien? Well, they could both suffer for it. Rose had come equipped to fight Null, not Supergirl, but she could plant a time bomb of a seed in her head.
"That's right, sweetheart," Rose continued, "You're his second choice."
She had expected to see hurt and conflict on Kara's face, not the beatific smile that formed in response, "Good."
"W-What?" Rose responded. She had expected some kind of caped superiority complex to kick in at her needling.
"Good," Kara repeated, "I'm glad. If he chose to try with me instead of pining over you, that means at least he's trying to be better, whether he knows it or not; whether he admits it or not."
Rose couldn't believe what she was hearing. Max? Trying to be better? They couldn't have been talking about the same person, "You think he's better than that? He's not."
Max was a thief. Max was safe. He wasn't ambitious. He only got involved in things when he couldn't avoid them. He didn't seek out trouble to deal with the way that heroes did. That was how Rose saw him. But then, he had helped her when she had needed it, hadn't he? All without asking anything in return. He'd fought alongside the Secret Six instead of turning traitor like Cheshire. She had no idea what else he had been up to since she'd left him behind.
Could Supergirl have been right? Was there actually something better in him that she just didn't see? Or had she seen it all along, and that had been why she'd been so comfortable alongside him?
As she pondered this to herself, Supergirl fired back with a dagger, "He turned you down, didn't he?" She asked knowingly.
Rose was jolted from her reverie, "What the hell are you talking about?"
Supergirl remained confident in her assumption, based off of what she'd observed thus far, "It's just, you sound bitter. But you left him, so... back to my original question, why would you care? Did you come here to try to get him to sleep with you?"
"I came here to kill him!" Rose shouted as a challenge, "Yeah! I came here to lop his fucking head off and present it to Black Mask on a silver platter!"
Right as she finished her angered threat, she found Supergirl's fist buried in her stomach, her other hand cradling her back to keep her from flying through Max's townhouse and ruining his things. Doubled over and gasping for breath from the punch, Rose gripped Kara's arm tightly and tried to force the offending appendage away. Matching might with a Kryptonian, especially with one's own strength drained, was a losing proposition, however.
"Thanks for verifying that. Much appreciated," Kara said, allowing Rose to drop to the floor, "Seriously, Max. Her? Didn't think you were the type to think with your you-know-what."
As Rose laid on the floor, the front door to the townhouse opened. Max walked in to find his girlfriend standing over his ex, the latter laid out in his living room.
"Jeez," Max said, looking at the situation he had just walked into, "So... we still having that talk?"
Kara placed a hand on her hip, raising an eyebrow at the thief, "Oh yeah. Definitely," If anything, they had more to talk about than ever.
"Right," Max sighed, "I'm gonna order a pizza and find some duct tape."
And that's the chapter. A little shorter than normal, but we're rolling with it.
Alright, Max. Your ex, who is contracted to kill you, met your current, who may be concerned with your recent questionable activities. No way any of that could end badly on the homefront. And Rose's brother Grant is still floating around out there, for some reason with new orders from above to focus on Null. Hopefully, he can deal with whatever is coming, and/or help Red Hood take out Black Mask to get rid of the contract.
Selina's having an existential crisis over the Justice League mindwipes, and we're just gearing up for the next big clusterf$%$. It's all just a matter of determining just where it will come from.
It's been a while since I've gotten a chance to sit down and work on just about anything. I work 40+ hours a week, and I've been getting a lot more bookings to wrestle on the weekends, so I'm seriously strapped for free time. Still, I'm plugging away on these stories when the mood takes me, because this is still one of the ways I unwind.
So, no. I'm not dead, despite the world's best efforts. I'm unkillable, children. You should know this by now. When the world ends in nuclear war, the only things left will be cockroaches and Kenchi618... to which some of you will ask, "What's the difference?"
Ha-ha... anyway, that's all. I hope you enjoyed. Until the next time.