Author's Note: I do not own any of these characters. Batwoman and all associated characters are property of DC Comics.
For fourteen nights, the Bat signal shined high above Gotham.
For fourteen nights, it went unanswered.
So James Gordon, Gotham City police commissioner, stopped turning the thing on. It amounted to little more than false hope at this point, a painful reminder that no one in Gotham was immune to the dark. Those who weren't transformed by it lost themselves – often permanently. The Batman had succumbed to the darkness weeks ago, in front of a grainy camera for the entire city to see.
At first, Gordon had kept the light on as a beacon of hope, perhaps even a deterrent for any criminals hardened by the fact that the Dark Knight was no longer patrolling the rooftops. But after two weeks of complete silence, the signal was more a mockery than anything. A broken promise to a failed city.
So for ten more nights, the sky was dark. No Bat signal, no stars. Even the moon hid behind the clouds every night, Gotham's streets assaulted in nightly deluges. If there was no Bat, there was no hope, and it was as if the skies were in mourning as well.
But tonight, twenty-four nights after the world watched the Batman draw his last breath, the signal was on again. Seemingly brighter than ever before, shining off the wall of clouds pouring rain onto the city. What was once the city's way of asking its protector for help was now… what, exactly?
A rallying cry? A sign of respect? A grasp for hope?
One last plea for help?
For much of the night, Gordon didn't want to believe what he was seeing. It was a figment of his overworked and unrested imagination. Being police commissioner for a major metropolitan city was a hassle on its own, but in Gotham it was a unique kind of hell. And considering the city was without its costumed avenger now…
It was also quite possible Gordon was drunk. Not that he'd been a heavy drinker for much of his life, but recent weeks had him opening the cabinet behind his desk at the precinct to see just what his predecessor meant by "the good stuff." Though Gordon would never drink the amber liquid because it tasted good, he wasn't (too) ashamed to admit he's gone through almost the entire bottle.
But with his head already buzzing with alcohol, Gordon pushed himself out of his creaky office chair, threw on that dingy overcoat, and stormed the five flights of stairs leading from his floor to the roof. Whoever had turned that blasted light on tonight… it almost didn't matter what their reason was, Gordon was in no mood to see that light.
He already relived that terrible night every time he closed his eyes. Probably would until he was finally, mercifully taken from this planet. He saw things that night he would never speak of again, not even to the GCPD-mandated therapist. The last thing he needed was the brightest reminder shining high above for the rest of Gotham to see.
Gordon adjusted his black-rimmed glasses and scratched at the stubble on his chin. He hadn't shaved in over a week, and what dotted his cheeks was far grayer than his mustache, much grayer than he cared to admit. His knees protested with almost every step, and were his pension not in such sad shape, Gordon would be on the verge of retirement.
But little Jimmy's school fees wouldn't pay themselves, so here he was, barging onto the roof of his own office building, trying to figure out who turned on Gotham's largest flashlight.
"Whoever you are, come out with your hands up!" he hollered, shaky right hand resting on the butt of his service piece. He hadn't used it in months, and if he never had to so much as draw it again, that would be just fine with him.
His order was met with silence.
"Come out with your hands up!" Gordon tried again, though he knew whoever it was wouldn't listen. In his experience, those who didn't comply the first time never did.
Gordon approached the ledge, taking a moment to look out over the city he once was grateful to give his life for. But Gotham was an ungrateful beast, and the older Gordon got, the more he thought this town could go bleep itself. Between half his force on the take and Arkham resembling a house of horrors more than a mental hospital, he'd lost his love for this town long ago.
An imperfection in the stone caught Gordon's eye. He bent down to study it, lifting his glasses to get a better look. Whatever made the mark was sharp, but the object sticking out of the rooftop next to the mark was what made Gordon's heart skip a beat. He reached out at the rustic metal, his mouth agape as his fingers traced from one pointed end, around the curve, to the next.
It was a Batarang.
"What in the…?"
Gordon frowned. The voice was purposefully deep, but also… female. He turned around as quickly as he could, between his balky hip and the weight of his coat, drawing his weapon and cradling it in both hands.
A figure emerged from behind the Bat signal, and this time, Gordon really was convinced he was seeing things. A woman stood before him, maybe an inch or two taller, wearing a Batsuit. Not the Batsuit, but a damn impressive facsimile. The armor was true, if not a bit shiny; it had that just-spray painted look to it.
What really stood out was the bat insignia painted onto her chest. A bright, angry red… and there were paint lines along the bottom, like the stencil had been taken away before the paint could dry and some of it ran. Her gloves and boots matched the symbol, as did the flowing locks of red spilling out of her cowl.
No way that hair was real. Either that or one hell of a dye job.
What little of the woman's skin Gordon could see was ghost white, almost gray. Her lips were the same color as her hair.
With a frustrated sigh, Gordon holstered his gun. "Get outta here," he ordered. "Last thing this town needs is a damn copycat."
"There's a new player in town," the woman said. "Thought you should know."
"Uh-huh." Gordon fought as hard as he could to keep from rolling his eyes, so instead, he readjusted his glasses. They didn't sit quite right on his nose anymore, not since the incident his a car door three years ago. "And who do you think you are?"
"Maybe I don't need a friend."
The woman turned her head to stare out into the night. Gotham's skyline was picturesque, in its own warped way, and it was prettier to those who didn't know what this town really was. "Gotham does."
Lurking in the shadows, speaking in vagaries… if Gordon didn't know any better, he would swear this woman was the Batman's sister. It was almost eerie how familiar this scene was, even if he had no idea who was under the cowl. Not that he needed to know, he supposed; Gordon had gone years without knowing who the Batman really was, and it wasn't until…
He found out the Batman's true identity when everyone else did. And it still sat heavy in his gut.
"Alright, I'll humor you," he muttered, running his hand over his stubble. "Who's out there?"
"I don't have much," the woman admitted, approaching Gordon. The way the spotlight shined against her, she looked even more ghost-like than before.
Gordon had to admit, the effect was pretty solid. The Ghost of the Bat had a certain ring to it, and if the criminal underbelly of the city was so busy looking over its shoulder for a hero who was supposed to be dead… well, that wasn't nothing.
"They're called The Religion of Crime," she added.
Gordon quirked a brow. Zealots. Lovely. "They."
"Twelve covens operating throughout Gotham," she explained. "The coven in Burnside has been particularly active lately. Overall activity has increased in the last three weeks. Ever since…"
Gordon nodded once. "Ever since."
The pair stood in silence, and Gordon watched her cape flap in the breeze. It wasn't as long as the Batman's cape, barely going past her knees. The outside was black as night, but the inside was the same angry red as other parts of the suit. Gordon had often wondered how the Batman hadn't tripped over his own cape; whoever this woman was, she had apparently accounted for that.
She carried herself much differently, too. Not that the Batman hadn't been the poster child of professionalism and mystery, but this woman… she constantly stood at attention. Every move she made was with purpose. Nothing she did was with wasted effort. Had she worn that suit long? Had she been around all this time and Gordon never noticed?
He wracked his brain thinking of all the other costumed heroes the Batman had recruited over the years. But no matter how much he played it over in his mind, the red and black mystery woman never popped up. There had been another woman to patrol the streets of Gotham with a bat on her chest – a true redhead, but he hadn't seen her in months.
Was this the same woman? Was this a replacement?
"Aren't there usually thirteen covens?" he asked instead.
The ghost of a smile tugged on her impossibly red lips. "Didn't think you a fan of the occult, Commissioner."
"In this town? Call it an occupational hazard."
The smile, such that it was, disappeared. "Nothing yet on the thirteenth. But there are rumblings a new leader's in play."
Gordon pursed his lips, turning his back on the woman to look out over the city. The very city he had given decades of his life to, and for what? Late nights on rooftops talking to masked vigilantes? A newly-formed drinking habit and a regret over having not taken up smoking over the years?
No wonder his doctor hated him.
"The Joker in on this?" he asked.
"Intel suggests he's back in Arkham. For whatever that's worth."
"Any idea what their endgame is?"
"I told you, I don't have much." Was there a touch of annoyance in her voice? If there was, she shook it off almost instantly. "They think Gotham's ripe for the taking now. We have to show them how wrong they are."
Gordon turned to regard the woman again… only to find himself alone on the rooftop. The Bat signal was still on, and his face was bathed in the light. But the woman was gone, having disappeared without a word or a sound. Part of Gordon wondered if he had imagined the whole thing, but… no, that wasn't right. He'd been around long enough to know better.
He chuckled in spite of himself. "Bruce would've liked you."
Not Quite Three Weeks Ago…
Kate Kane hadn't set foot in Gotham in almost two years. Like a lot of wealthy people her age, Kate had been traveling the world, hopping from country to country. But while others were doing it for the experience, the food, and the drinks (if not the 'Gram), her voyage had been of a different sort. Even now, comfortably on American soil, Kate ached in parts of her body she didn't even know she had.
West Point had nothing on the training she had endured these past two years. For everything the United States Army had thrown her way before unceremoniously kicking her to the curb, none of it had anything on sword fighting on top of a frozen lake or trying to locate her enemy in a sea of ninja warriors seconds after she had inhaled a potent hallucinogenic.
But even that paled in comparison to the phone call that had led to Kate returning to Gotham. Too many times in her young life, she had visited this cemetery. Memorizing the names on tombstones surrounding her loved ones. In a way, she knew her family's neighbors as well as anyone, even though she had never met them in life.
This time, the death came from her mother's side of the family, where the Kanes and the Waynes merged. Truth was, it had been years since Kate had seen her cousin, Gotham billionaire boy wonder Bruce Wayne. They weren't the closest of cousins, but that had simply been a matter of circumstance; more often than not, their paths only crossed at funerals. Between his business and her aborted military career, their lives took them in completely different directions.
But Kate and Bruce had gotten along, and the thought of Gotham's golden child having been cut down the way he was – even now, days later, the thought of it turned Kate's stomach.
The service had ended almost half an hour ago, but Kate had stuck around to pay her respects in her own way… which meant sitting cross-legged in front of her cousin's tombstone, a bottle of something dark and expensive in her hand. She knew she shouldn't drink so much, but it was one of the most foolproof ways to numb the pain, which cut deeper than she had anticipated.
Truth was, Kate hadn't felt comfortable among the other mourners. She didn't know most of them, and outside of Bruce's butler, Alfred Pennyworth, there were no other members of the Wayne family she had wanted to see.
Well, that wasn't quite true; she had selfishly hoped Julia Pennyworth would be there as well. Alas, she was off… somewhere doing… something.
Alfred couldn't say.
Kate was so used to this particular drink that she didn't even hiss when she took a sizeable gulp. Besides, she'd had a drink several months back in Thailand that was so potent, she could've sworn she felt the chest hairs growing in as the drink went down. Or maybe that had just been her drunken imagination, given all she'd already had to drink that day.
Kate heard the footsteps on the grass behind her as she took another swig. "Permission to speak freely, Colonel?"
Kate's father, Jacob Kane, stood at attention. "Granted."
"Death sucks." Kate got back to her feet and turned to face her father. Jacob's red hair was cut almost as close to his scalp as Kate's was to hers, and he wore the same olive t-shirt and camo pants he always wore when he wasn't in uniform. He was underdressed for the funeral, so it was a good thing he hadn't arrived until after.
"That it does, Katie," Jacob said, embracing his daughter. It was a hug borne not just from grief, but a sense of shared experience and the fact that they hadn't seen each other in almost two years. Not that Kate and Jacob had always seen eye-to-eye, but he respected her – even the day she told him why she got kicked out of West Point.
No matter what happened between them, Kate always had that.
"At ease, soldier," Jacob whispered before pulling out of the embrace. Instead, he cupped his daughter's face in both hands. It was as soft a gesture as he was likely to give, particularly outside like this, but given the circumstances, Kate wouldn't give him too hard a time about it. For now.
"Is it true?" she asked.
"Afraid so, kiddo." Jacob's expression hardened, the three lines on his forehead as familiar now as it was when he used to scowl at Kate and her twin sister when they would misbehave as children.
"So now what?"
Jacob's hands fell from his daughter's face. "What do you mean?"
"Batman is dead," Kate said through gritted teeth, and she couldn't help but think of how odd it was to think of her cousin in that way. All that time, she had been related to the Caped Crusader and was never the wiser. That was probably the idea, but in a lot of ways, the fact that Bruce Wayne was Batman was as hard to grasp as him being dead.
"He is," Jacob agreed.
"And…?" Kate pulled back from her father, shaking her head. "Colonel, you saw who did it. He made sure you saw him do it. How has this entire city not taken up pitchforks and torches and run him out of town yet?"
"It's not that simple, Katie –"
"Like hell it's not, sir!" Kate's hands balled into fists, and she stood her ground when Jacob's eyes narrowed. He wouldn't raise his voice at her, not in the middle of the cemetery, and she shouldn't have, either.
But without even seeing the video in question, knowing what she knew about Bruce's death filled Kate with a rage she hadn't felt in a long time. It frightened her, far more than she cared to admit, mostly because she no longer had an outlet for it. In her military days, Kate would blow off steam against the punching bag, or in the ring, if someone was willing.
Now? Other than the half-empty bottle in the grass, what was there?
She hung her head and stared at her feet, hands still curled into fists. "Sorry. Sir."
"No, kiddo." Jacob grabbed his daughter by the shoulders. "I get what you're sayin'. And I don't disagree. But the one guy in this town who could deal with that freak is gone."
"Dr. Crane, I don't see why you called me here," Gotham City homicide detective Renee Montoya said while a crime scene tech took photographs of the cell behind her. The flashbulbs were annoying, even if she could only catch them out the corner of her eye. "Arkham's not even in GCPD jurisdiction, let alone my precinct."
"I understand that, Detective," Jonathan Crane conceded with a bob of his head, adjusting the thin-rim glasses on his nose. "But the instructions were quite clear in this instance: in case of emergency, call Commissioner Gordon. If the commissioner's unavailable, Detective Montoya is next on the list."
Renee pursed her lips. It seemed a conversation with her boss was in order. She stuffed her hands in her pockets, ignoring the heft of the badge on her hip. The longer she stayed on the force, the heavier that hunk of brass became. She was one of the few who knew Commissioner Gordon personally, and she made the even more exclusive list of being one of the cops he actually trusted.
That had its benefits, but it also led to situations like this. A homicide within the walls of Arkham Asylum was one thing. The fact that no one would tell her who the victim was or anything until she walked into the cell herself had her stomach doing backflips.
Or maybe that was her lunchtime burrito. Her ex was right: her diet was crap.
Reaching up to undo and redo her ponytail, as much a calming technique as anything else, Renee sucked in as deep a breath as she could and rolled her eyes. Her heart rate was far too high for her liking, and her fingers were trembling. Why, she didn't know; this was far from her first homicide.
It had to be this place. Arkham gave everyone the jitters.
"Let's get this over with," she muttered as she turned to walk into the cell in question. She came to a dead halt before she even crossed the threshold, blinking once, twice, three times to make sure she was actually seeing the scene in front of her.
Suddenly, calling Commissioner Gordon directly made sense. Renee was about to do that very thing herself, because this was completely over her pay grade.
"What…?" Renee shook her head and glanced over her shoulder at Dr. Crane. He stared at the wooden clipboard in his grasp, and he seemed… almost bored? "How?"
The Joker hung from the ceiling, bed sheets tied together around his white neck and also tied to the light fixture above. His jaundiced eyes were bulging open, the permanent smile frozen onto his crusty, cracking face.
Red lipstick smeared not just over his lips, but all the way down to his jawline. His tongue had flopped out of his mouth. Dried blood was caked into both wrists, and there were twin puddles of it on the floor.
There was a message written on the far wall of the cell, undoubtedly with some of the Joker's blood. Crime scene techs would test it, of course, but Renee already knew it was his blood. The message was simultaneously simple and confounding, just three words smeared haphazardly and streaming down the wall:
Curiouser and curiouser
Renee turned to regard the crime scene tech crouched by the Joker's hanging body. Because of the face mask and the latex gloves, she couldn't tell who the tech was, but what they had in their hands was of far more importance. Even if she didn't know yet what anything meant.
"Found this by his feet."
Renee crouched next to the tech to get a better look. It was an old, worn-down copy of the classic book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
She stared at the message on the wall again.
"Great," she muttered. "Another freak show."