She watched from a building across the street, chill from the limestone cornice she was leaning against seeping through her costume and burning cold against her breast.
They swept in on their separate lines, going through separate windows with a unified and muffled crash of glass. Batman and Robin, descending from on high like a pair of avenging angels.
(Nobody ever taught her how to go through a window cleanly and not get cut up by glass. Not part of the skill set she learned either in Gotham or in Sicily. Instead, she watched and learned and realized that just because Nightwing goes through like a diver into a pool doesn't mean she should too because he doesn't have to worry about shards getting tangled in his hair.)
An angry din erupted from within: sharp cries, theatrical grunts, the sounds of breakage echoing off the otherwise quiet buildings, a single gunshot before someone remembered that it was a meth lab and incendiary devices of any kind were not a good idea in proximity to all the chemicals.
She had known that the lab was there for a month. Finding it had been a bitch. The kids selling outside her school were experienced, disappearing between double-parked cars and yellow buses when the school safety officers came around, melting into the background filth just enough that Miss Bertinelli couldn't give chase without revealing something of the Huntress about her.
She'd come back after dark, of course, but there was no point in setting up shop when there are no customers and the dealers were gone. A week of looking around, knocking a few heads together, learning what truths could be revealed at the business end of a crossbow bolt. Find the dealers. Find the distributor. Find the lab. A better part of three weeks before she made the final leap from Damon Bradshaw's apartment just north of Grant Park to here, a quiet two-story building in a small industrial park on the north bank of the Finger.
Oracle would have it all done in a night, if that long. Even with a single tip from Oracle, she would have it done in half the time. But getting help from the all-seeing, all-knowing Oracle came with a price that she was not willing to pay. Not yet. (And certainly not when she's fairly sure that Barbara Gordon knows that Nightwing was her lover first.)
As it stands, she's going to have to confront the Bat about this. Because he had to have known that she was staking the place out. He probably knew that she was standing here now, watching him and Robin exit out a side window, shoot their grapple hooks at the warehouse rooftop across the alleyway, climb to its roof, then disappear off the other side and to whatever Bat-vehicle they had come riding in on. He knew that he was waltzing in on her scene, knew that she'd have no grounds for calling him on it -- what, precisely, was she doing about it?
The bastard wasn't smug, which perhaps made it worse. He was just efficient and if she wasn't up to the task, he was going to re-assign it. She had all of the responsibilities of a subordinate and none of the benefits; she'd be punished for her failures and there was no kind word for her success, no reward or acknowledgement that she was part of the solution and not another problem. Nightwing and Robin and the Batgirl seemed to be able to function within this system, but they had the answer key, the translation wheel, the whatever-it-was that converted glares into conversations and turned silences meaningful.
They had the Batman's respect.
Helena didn't. Never had. The few times he'd relied on her, there had been no other choice. During the hell on earth that had been No Man's Land, Nightwing and Robin had been sent away -- she had learned that much before her ignoble dismissal from the JLA -- and there had been no Batgirl. She'd been a savage associate in a savage time, set up to fail time and again lest she suffer delusions of acceptance. She knew who the new Batgirl was, knew that Batman had turned to a dangerous, silent stranger over her -- the demon he didn't know over the demon he did.
Batman and Robin were long gone; in the distance she heard sirens. Best to get a move on before they got too close. Holstering the crossbow, she crossed the roof to the fire escape.
By the time the NML ban was lifted, she'd figured out her place in the new Gotham: the black sheep. It was that or continue to be the crash-test dummy for the Batclan and, frankly, Helena wasn't sure she believed in the Batman enough to be willing to sacrifice her life for his vision. She's already sacrificed much of her pride, not to mention a foot of intestines and the ability to eat chicken vindaloo without regretting it afterward. That was enough when the only return was something between tolerance and distrust.
The sirens were louder; they must be coming over the bridge from City Hall. She scuttled down the fire escape and then around the corner to the broken wall belonging to what used to be a jar factory back before she'd been born. Her motorcycle lay under a tarp carefully ameliorated with papers and rags to blend in among trash.
There was an honor in being the black sheep, however; a pride of place in being the exception, the one nail that sticks up and can't be hammered down. It was an important role, a crucial part to play in this city: someone had to bear witness to Batman's betrayal of Gotham.
It was beyond her ken, beyond her comprehension to see him sit on his dark throne uncontested after he had abandoned Gotham to devour itself after the quake. You never abandoned your family, not if you were mother, son, soldier, capo, or don. And Batman was the don of Gotham, make no mistake. You didn't forget your kin, your responsibilities, your oaths made in blood and carried in the bone. Whatever promise Batman had made to Gotham once upon a time, he had broken it. And it wasn't up to Nightwing or Robin, his protected lieutenants, to forgive him nor should he forgive himself.
But he had. He had returned after months away, after Gotham had tortured itself into a writhing, wretched place that not even Dante could have imagined, and he had pretended nothing had changed when nothing had changed when he was the only thing that remained unchanged. He had come back, not realizing that he was no longer the scariest of all that lurked in the darkness. He had sacrificed innocent lives to learn this lesson and then blamed it on her. She had neither forgiven nor forgotten.
She had paid the price for both his folly and her own. Those would be the last bullets she'd take for the Batman, literally or figuratively. There had been months of rehab and recovery, an angry existence that slowly, inexorably progressed from painful to uncomfortable, and she had been left alone with only her thoughts. It had made her bitter and it had made her determined. She wouldn't let him win, she wouldn't let him drive her out of Gotham the way he had drummed her out of the JLA. She still had what to give this city, she still understood parts of it better than the Batman ever could. Because parts of Gotham still lived by a code of honor he did not recognize and couldn't credit. Ignoring it wouldn't make it go away. It wouldn't work on her, either.
Cape stowed, hair pulled back in a tail, mask off and helmet on, Helena turned the ignition. The Honda purred to life beneath her and she pulled out slowly, not wanting to intercept the approaching squadcars. The Batclan had immunity with the GCPD, but her right of way was questioned often as not; best not to chance it.
The next morning, with a sanguinity only to be found in the Gotham dailies, the papers reported that a $50 million-per-year illegal drug lab had been found and destroyed, its personnel apprehended by police acting on an anonymous tip.