Quintessence

Chapter 5

Hudson was getting on Louis' last nerve, and she knew it. When he said he had a meeting to go to that afternoon, she said she had one as well, and maybe they should share a cab. He insisted that they were likely going in opposite directions, but she followed him all of the way down to the lobby and out of the building anyway. She tried to grab the same cab he was, but he tricked her in the last second; he'd looked over her shoulder and said "Hey there, Luthor." She'd spun around and he'd dove into the back of the cab. Of course, she knew what he was doing, and she had her own places to be anyway, but Hudson took a certain pride in annoying Louis the way that she did.

Of course, he kind of deserved it after the ribbing he'd given her that morning over Bruce Wayne.

After the cab disappeared into traffic, Hudson promptly sped back to her apartment, changed into her uniform and sped back out, flying over the city only seconds after leaving the sidewalk in front of the Daily Planet. She listened to the sounds below her where everything seemed, for the moment, to be quiet. There were two cops arguing with a jaywalker over on 7th avenue, and a man on Broadway was attempting to get out of a speeding ticket. Hudson liked it when it was quiet. She didn't enjoy intimidating people into obeying laws or being forced into displaying her abilities for all to see. Certainly it was often necessary to save lives, and she was more than happy to keep people safe but that didn't mean she enjoyed the constant reminder of how truly different she was.

Dismissing the sounds around her, Hudson reached out, down the highway, past fields and fields of cattle and corn, until she could hear the faint voices of her parents. They were sitting in the kitchen from the sounds of it, possibly having just finished lunch.

"… Just have the back 20 to finish, then the plowing will be done."

"The Almanac claims the crops should be good this year."

"Would be a nice change of pace…"

Hudson never listened in for very long, always afraid she might hear something she didn't want to, but she did like to make certain everything was fine back at the farm.

Nearing the Bank of Metropolis, Hudson swooped down to the roof and perched on the ledge, peering over into traffic to wait for Louis' cab. When it finally arrived and he stepped out onto the sidewalk, she sped down to him, snatching him into her arms and then back up to the roof. She held him for a moment as he tried to steady himself on his feet, his face slightly pale.

"Christ," he muttered, swaying slightly as he attempted to focus his gaze on her. "That was… " Whatever he was going to say descended into a garbled grunt.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "It takes a little getting used to."

"Yeah." He waved a hand toward the ground. "Mind if I, uh, sit down… before I fall down…"

Hudson held his hand as Louis slid to the roof. She waited quietly as his stomach seemed to finally settle and he looked up at her.

"So I've been looking into that information you left for me this morning… not much yet, I'm afraid. As usual, if Luthor is involved in something seedy, his tracks are well covered."

He reached into his jacket and pulled out a slip of paper, unfolding it. "That grocer is funded by some not-for-profit small farmer's fund. Problem is all of the donations are anonymous. And if that isn't enough to raise your suspicions, then how about the fact that there is absolutely no record of any farm in the state of Kansas, small or otherwise, shipping their food through this Farmer's Market Grocer. Although, and here's the kicker," he squinted as Hudson shifted slightly and the sun caught his eyes, "There are records of various small markets in Gotham receiving shipments. Like this one: Crates of bananas – quantity 50. What kind of small market orders 50 crates of bananas, I ask you?"

"Perhaps one that is located next to Gotham's zoo?" Hudson returned, gazing out across the city. "And the answer to the riddle is none. Bananas don't grow in Kansas."

Since she'd worked with Louis throughout the morning, she already knew the information. But she was still trying to piece it all together. She certainly wouldn't be able to catch Lex in one of his grand schemes without first having all the facts. Too often, the inability to pin anything on Lex usually came down to not having every i dotted and t crossed.

"For future reference," Louis was saying as he gingerly climbed back to his feet. "That was a really bad joke."

Hudson frowned. "So these grocery trucks drive out to… oh, some pre-ordained pickup spot outside the city. A warehouse, perhaps. They load up the crates, cleverly – or not so cleverly, depending on how you look at it – disguised as various fruits and vegetables, and drive them in to Gotham. They stop at fake storefronts that appear to be markets, drop of the guns, receive invoices claiming they just delivered produce, and then they're on their merry way."

"Wait. Did you say guns? What would Luthor be doing shipping guns into Gotham?"

"That's the bonus question," Hudson said, glancing over her shoulder at Louis. "Any ideas?"

Louis reached up to push his fedora back off his head, scratching at his scalp a moment. "I… hell, when it comes to Luthor, I haven't the slightest. How'd you discover this anyway? Were you out buying some lettuce or something, and ended up with a .45, instead?"

"I had a brief run-in with Batman last night."

Louis stared at her in obvious disbelief. "The Batman? Really? Wow… So, is he really half-man, half-bat?"

"Louis… "

He shrugged. "Thought I'd ask. These days, I never know what to expect. It's not like I'd really be shocked if you told me he was. I mean, seriously? A man in a giant bat suit actually sounds a little weirder in my opinion."

Hudson smiled.

"So I take it he was here looking into Lex's operation?"

"Unfortunately. And I'd rather not have him skulking about Metropolis. That's why I asked him to give me some time to take care of this instead."

Louis nodded in agreement. "You trust him?"

It was a double-edged question. The Batman really had not yet given her reason not to trust him, but there was something about a man who felt it necessary to hide behind a mask that set her on edge. Too, she did not agree with his methods. Most of the criminals of Gotham who ran into Batman ended up in the hospital before incarceration. She could not understand the need for such violence. Certainly there were better methods available to him.

"Do I trust his intentions? Yes. Do I trust him here in Metropolis? No." She turned to Louis, adding honestly, "I've finally won the confidence of this city's citizens. I'm not going to jeopardize that with the Batman running around beating them to a pulp."

"That's why the citizens trust you, Superwoman. You keep us safe."

Louis gazed at her for a long enough moment that Hudson grew uncomfortable and looked away.

"Superwoman," Louis began, and by the change in his tone, she knew they were no longer discussing Batman. "You know I admire you. I… Look, I'm nothing special. Not like you or anything. I mean, I consider myself better-than-average in looks, and I'm pretty damn charming, if I do say so myself…"

Hudson smiled.

"See, way I figure it, we have a lot more in common than one would think on first glance – "

"Louis…"

"You want to expose Luthor and all of his illegal deeds; I want to do the same. You believe in truth, justice and the American way; so do I. You're certainly better-than-average in looks; and so am I. You – "

"Louis. Stop. Please." She softened her expression as best she could but he still sighed, as if steeling himself for what he knew was coming. "Trust me when I say that any woman would be lucky to end up with a guy like you. But I just can't commit to anything like that right now. I'm still trying to find my place in this world, let alone someone's life."

She could see the disappointment in his gaze but he quickly masked it behind a smile as he reached out for her hand. "Your place is here. In Metropolis."

"Thank you, Louis."

Louis nodded, a spark of hope flickering in his eyes that Hudson would not allow herself to extinguish. He squeezed her fingers lightly before letting go and shoving his hands into his pockets. Rocking back on his heels a moment, he squinted, brow furrowing. It was not the first time that Hudson found herself thinking he was really cute.

Her cousin, Chloe, was probably laughing at her right at that very moment.

"Weird, isn't it? How inexplicably entangled Metropolis and Gotham are becoming? I mean, we both have our own superheroes. Bruce Wayne is doing business in Metropolis. Lex is apparently running guns into Gotham. Batman is suddenly appearing here. You think any other cities are going to start getting in on the action?"

Hudson blinked. She stared at Louis as her mind attempted to process what he had just said. Bruce Wayne… Batman…

No way. She refused to believe it. Sure, she led double lives as Hudson Kent and Superwoman, and frankly if she were to point out to Louis at that very moment that she was actually Hudson in disguise, he would probably laugh his ass off. She was good, but not that good. There was no possible way that the man she knew as Bruce Wayne, the spoilt, charming and well-dressed billionaire could be the vigilante known as Batman. Their voices were not even the same! Besides which, she was still quite certain Batman had to be affected by the meteors because there was no possible way a human could perform the feats he did or survive some of the stunts he was rumored to pull.

No. Her imagination was simply getting the best of her.

******

Hudson glanced through the mail as she pushed the door to her apartment open later that evening. There was the usual collection of junk mail – catalogs for clothing she couldn't afford, and knick-knacks she wouldn't want to. There was a postcard from Lana and Pete who were currently sightseeing through Europe together; it was of Big Ben and said simply 'Wish you were here! Haha! Hope things are well. Love, Lana and Pete', a couple of bills and address labels from the local pet shelter asking for a donation. She gave to them frequently, but it was done anonymously, and Superwoman always dropped by to help out on Adoption Day. Tossing the mail onto the desk beside the door, she kicked off her shoes, slid her purse onto the coat rack and switched on the light.

Hudson wasn't typically the type to be easily startled, but she hadn't been focused on her surroundings, so when she found Batman standing in the middle of the front room, she screeched. She reached out for one of her old rodeo trophies that lined the desk beside her, and held it up in what she hoped to be a threatening manner.

"What are you doing here? What do you want with me?"

He didn't move but his gaze did flicker over the 'weapon' she held in what appeared to be amusement. "You can drop the act," his raspy voice rang out through the apartment, leaving her slack-jawed and stunned as he continued, "Superwoman. You don't need a trophy to protect yourself."

It was on the tip of her tongue to deny it; to continue to deny it until the cows came home, as her dad would say. But there was something in his voice, his stance that told her he was absolutely certain. That he had proof; had it all figured out. To deny it now would only make her look foolish and desperate. She took a deep breath, slowly lowering her arm to set the trophy back in its rightful place. Her heart was beating erratically; it had been years since someone had last learned the truth about her.

And that someone had been Lex.

"What do you want?"

"To warn you. I have sources that tell me Luthor is planning something. He claims to have some substance in his possession that is capable of stopping you."

Hudson frowned at his words. Kryptonite? But why would Lex threaten her with something like that when she already knew he had it in his possession? In fact, she couldn't even attempt to interview him because he always wore that damn ring. Luckily, Louis had yet to seem overly curious as to why she grew so clumsy and nauseous whenever they drew too close to Lex. The whole situation reminded her too much of those early years in Smallville, when Lana insisted on wearing that infernal Kryptonite necklace of hers.

"Do you know what he's talking about?" Batman asked as her silence continued.

Well, she certainly was not about to tell a grown man in a giant bat suit about her weakness.

"No," she denied, crossing her arms over her chest. "And even if I did, why would I tell you?"

"I can get the information from Luthor."

"And that is precisely why I don't trust you."

Batman seemed amused. "I didn't say I'd invite him to tea."

He stepped toward her, and it took every ounce of willpower Hudson had not to step back. She had to constantly remind herself he couldn't overpower her. But he stopped at her desk, gaze drifting over the clutter as he reached out and picked up the trophy she'd brandished earlier.

"How did you find out?" she asked. "About me, that is."

Batman flashed his eyes in her direction. "It's not exactly the cleverest of disguises."

She didn't believe that excuse for a moment. "Maybe not on paper, no. But it works." She pulled off her glasses and tossed them amid the papers on the desk. "You'd be surprised how people tend to ignore the average person on the street. Even the smartest people tend to ignore what's right in front of them until they're flashed with a bright red cape."

"So you mask your identity in primary colors."

"Something like that." Hudson shrugged as she leaned one shoulder against the wall beside her. "So, are you going to tell me who's hiding under that mask?"

"Who says I'm wearing a mask?" His eyes met hers as he asked the question, nothing revealed within their depths to give his identity away.

She chewed on her lower lip for a moment, wondering if she should just come out and ask 'Are you Bruce Wayne??' She doubted, though, such a direct question would achieve much. "Is there supposed to be some hidden philosophical meaning behind that? Besides, I could just look, you know. "

"You could," he agreed, and then waited.

But she wouldn't. It would not only be an abuse of her powers but would do little to earn his trust. What frustrated her most of all was that they were forced to conceal their identities at all. Couldn't people just do good deeds and stop crime and not get punished for it? Hudson realized it was a naïve way of thinking but when two people who obviously both wished to do the right thing couldn't even trust one another, then what hope was there for anyone else?

As if satisfied with her choice, Batman turned away from her, cape billowing slightly as he made his way toward the balcony doors.

Hudson wasn't about to let him get away that easily. She sped in front of him, blocking his escape. "You know, the whole dark and brooding bit has been done to death. Are you really fighting injustice? Or just trying to gather your own group of rabid teenage fangirls?"

His lips twisted into what could have been a slight smile. "Maybe I just don't look good in red."

This time, she smiled. "I don't like being put at a disadvantage, Batman. You know my identity, which puts my family and friends at risk. I'm being forced into trusting you… while you obviously refuse to trust me in return."

He watched her for a long moment without saying a word, staring down at her through the small holes in his mask until she found herself shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She tried not to look away. Fear was the last thing she was going to give him, even if his outfit did leave her unsettled. Considering she knew so little about him, it was entirely possible Batman was yet another person who'd been affected by Kryptonite and was therefore incredibly strong or had some other super skill she didn't know about.

"When you earn my trust," he began finally. "Then I'll give it to you."

Hudson shook her head, pursing her lips as she glared up at him. "That's completely unfair. You sure as hell haven't earned my trust–but I have to give it to you anyway. Is this because I'm– " She'd always had trouble with the word 'alien'. "From another planet?"

"Partially. I won't deny it. You're invincibility, your powers–combined they make you a very dangerous individual. Not that I don't believe you truly wish to do good, but the very fact of what you are can cause some individuals to go to extremes when it comes to stopping you. And that puts everyone at risk."

"Oh? You've decided this in all your infinite wisdom?"

"Let's just say I have the benefit of experience."

She expelled a soft breath, anger dissipating as she nodded in response. "The stuff that happened last year with that Joker character."

Batman didn't respond.

"Look, I'm sorry that things are so… difficult for you in Gotham," Hudson said. "But did you ever think that might have to do with your methods? Your appearance? You're not exactly out there making friends."

"Would you suggest I rescue a kitten or two?"

Now he was making fun of her.

"Hey, even animals need rescuing, especially when they can't look out for themselves," she told him. "Louis once said to me it's all about the PR, and I hate to say it but he's a little bit right. The people of Metropolis love Superwoman. They wave when I fly overhead. They feel safer because I'm here. Just because you screwed up by putting fear in the hearts of the citizens of Gotham instead of respect doesn't mean you have to pin your failings on to me."

Batman's breathing subtly changed but all he did was ask, "Are you finished?"

Apparently she was, for the moment. Hudson stepped to the side, allowing Batman to move past her, opening the doors and stepping outside onto the tiny balcony. She frowned as she followed him out into the night where he leapt onto the railing.

"Just tell me one thing."

He paused, crouched there as he glanced back at her.

"Did you really place a bomb on some unsuspecting Metropolis citizen?"

"What do you think?"

Her frown deepened. "It was a test, wasn't it?"

When Batman didn't respond, her indignation grew. "You lied. That isn't exactly an auspicious beginning to earning my trust."

"No one said I cared about earning your trust. Especially when your naivety isn't exactly an auspicious indication of your view of the world around you."

Without another word, Batman turned and dove off the building. Hudson peered over the balcony, watching as his 'wings' unfurled around him, and he disappeared into the darkness once more.