While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die. – Leonardo da Vinci
Richard Dragon found that his students always come back even when this one comes because of another. Question did not make a habit of bringing someone in need to his doorstep, but then as much he could expect irregular visits from the Zen investigator, he did not expect her being with him this time. Question seems to gravitate to women with troubling pasts. However this one is the first he could say that his former student actually feels intensely about this one. At the same time, there is something distinctly familiar about her, but then you don't forget someone like Helena Bertinelli ever.
Richard doesn't watch the news, read the papers, or even listen to the radio. He instead learns all he needs to learn by watching people of all ages, walks of life, and from that among other things does he discern who he is up against. He remembers meeting her in passing years before and all he could sense from her then was so much anger. Anger for the murder of her parents, anger at being unable to save them, anger towards their killer, but she is different now. A different kind of anger stalks her yet she looks to be drawing hope from her partner, from Question.
Many want to arrest or kill her. It is only Question that's looking to her salvation whether he knows it or not. The many already made their judgment yet Question believes Huntress is innocent. Evidence relies upon all things past in her case or by circumstances that make her look like a murderess. The whole situation is making everyone against her look paranoid and troubling Question that he might be the only sane one on the case. As for her, for Helena, she is desperate to end this nightmare that is all too real for her.
She still sleeps fitfully despite all the blankets and covers. Her wet costume rests atop a stand leaving the moisture to drip and fizzle near the fireplace. When not watching over her, Vic would be outside keeping watch and chopping wood for logs. Helena rarely made any stirs since her arrival. It is a minor thing that Question got her out of the river quickly, but then he when driven can do things that surprise even him. All this goes without asking or saying aloud.
Her face bears the marks of her scuffle with Nightwing and his handiwork is evident from her still healing lower lip, the black mark around her swollen eye, and other signs of what happen almost a week ago. It doesn't take much to realize she hit bottom in more ways than one after falling into Gotham's East River. The Huntress now faces enemies from all sides or at least that's what her recent actions imply to Richard Dragon yet she couldn't ask for a better ally than the Question because the man is loyal to a fault. Besides if his former student is in love with the Huntress, with Helena Bertinelli, than he would never allow her to face this danger alone despite the Sicilian philosophy known as omerta.
Why else would she have told him to search where they both thought there would be nothing to find?
He might not say it, but Question didn't like being right. He likely had seen that her going to the reporter's apartment would put her in many cross-hairs. He could have been too late to pull her from the river, but Question's sense of timing is often enviable. Just because something can happen, doesn't mean that it will yet that won't keep someone like Question from thinking about worst case scenarios.
Richard is busy brewing tea when Helena finally does more than twist and turn under the covers. The swelling around her left eye is coming down, which is to say a minor physical improvement to her condition. He pours her some tea into a mug and hands it to her once she slides up into a sitting position on the mattress. She is expectedly cautious about the liquid in the mug.
"Richard Dragon. Canada. The butterfly brought you."
She slowly sips the tea while realizing immediately who he means by butterfly.
"That should answer some of your questions."
Question went and drove them as far away from Gotham City as they could get on a full tank of gas.
"It is green tea, with some apple blossom and honey. Good for you - it'll clear your head. Has lots of antioxidants."
Richard is threading a needle and using it to sew up her costume.
"Got the blood stains out of this the best I could."
He realizes she is within inches of him holding the mug lower to her waistline. His threading is constant even with her slamming the mug against the wooden table. Concentration is essential to any task involving one's hands and necessary to focus one's mind via attention to detail. She in a single motion goes from gripping the mug handle to pulling on his shirt collar.
"Too much honey?" asks Richard.
"Listen Richard… my tolerance for games right now is nil. So you tell me what's going on… or so help me I'll sew your face shut!" fumes Helena.
She doesn't really intend to follow up her bluff. She is going on instinct yet given what's gone in the past week Helena is loathe to trust herself or her decisions. None as of late have done her much good.
"Saving your bacon," dryly remarks Vic.
Helena turns in surprise to see Vic in the doorway with a pile of chopped logs in his arms. Still surprises as of late have not been welcoming ones for her yet this is one she could weakly smile at because it is him.
"I'll make supper."
Richard moves towards the stove to attend to an array of pans and pots. Helena shuffles away towards a window. Vic takes the logs to the fireplace as the flames have been dying down all day and it is getting dark so getting the flames going again is preferable even in the Canadian Wilderness. Richard says he's got rice cooking, which is something Vic naturally declines. Still whatever is cooking should be filling for anyone who is hungry enough.
"I miss much?"
"She's still groggy…"
"And pissed off."
Helena sinks her bruised face into her hands. She starts to see where Vic must have been learning his people reading skills among other things from by listening to them banter about her of all people.
"So how long have you two been together?"
"Nearly three years now."
Both notice Helena is still holding her face in her hands and not touching the plate of food in front of her at the table.
"You really ought to eat something," suggests Richard gently.
"What am I doing here?" sniffs Helena quietly.
"Sensei, why don't you leave us alone for a few?"
"I'll be outside."
Richard is soon out of their sight yet words do not flow easily between them.
"We have known violence and rage… alone and together."
Vic usually is being atypically forward and it is off putting change-up for both of them.
"We wear masks to hide from others… and more so ourselves."
He pours himself a cup of tea and refills her mug.
"Why did you call him sensei and why did he call you butterfly?"
"It is Zen philosophy. Years ago I lost a fight to Lady Shiva and she beat me almost to death. She left me in this very cabin. Sensei means teacher and I was his student. You can either learn or leave him."
"What exactly does he teach?"
"How to live."
"I already know how to do that."
"No. You know how to keep from dying."
He sips the tea and looks straight at her.
"That's basic to everyone."
It is not easy to look at her like this, but then he could only imagine how she much felt looking at him after taking his mask off in the Watchtower-II Infirmary. He recalls reminding her of a past comment about his looks and she in turn said not in my eyes. She loves him. He loves her. It should be enough, but there are always things we all must do alone. They both had thought so more than once that they must go it alone yet both recall what follows such thinking.
"You are isolating yourself and driving away all those who could help you."
It is no longer only her body that aches or her face that hurts, but so to does her heart sink hearing him say these words as if now after these years is he passing judgment on her. She thought him so different from all men, but it would seem even he could no longer hold his tongue. He didn't judging her by her perceived mistakes yet someone had to do it in a way other than forcing her to give up her ability to decide her own path rather than force her to play by rules that people rarely follow well.
"Your injuries will heal. Your costume is fixable. You can leave here and reach Gotham in three days."
She could sense a prediction at the end of this line.
"Do that, you'll be dead inside of six."
He could be wrong. He's been wrong before.
"I know. Like I said, I know you."
He refills his tea mug again.
"You'll get back and start busting heads, trying to find a lead who is framing you…"
She could tell he always did his homework. She thought she had left her old ways behind her yet she feels out of time for proving her innocence, which means not leaving her salvation in the hands of others. All the same, he really does know her instincts.
"Sooner or later – probably sooner – the GCPD or Batman or both will corner you. In that moment, you'll have a decision… fight or flight."
He replenishes her mug. She knows him too. He says what he believes will unfold if she goes solo on this, which is something he doesn't support, but he won't stop her from doing what she feels is right. Batman and the others would insist she stay out of the way until it is over. The problem is she doesn't do waiting.
"One way or another, you'll ultimately lose."
It is hard to retain an objective tone with her when talking odds… talking about her odds.
"Trust me I know the trajectory on this."
He looks downward with a firm hold on his mug. It doesn't take much for either to recall how their partnership had become relationship while he was seeking Cadmus or what that pursuit almost did to him. They made it through all that, but it could just as easily gone the other way. If it had, they wouldn't be having this conversation for starters and as for the rest they don't want to think about it, let alone talk about it.
"I didn't actually… I died."
He couldn't find the words to describe what the torture did to him emotionally and psychologically. He did not have to with her for she could see it in his eyes and she too found her fears made all too real by Scarecrow. They didn't always need words to say what needs saying. Their free hands overlap on the wooden table beneath the steamy mugs on its surface.
"I was lucky... because of you."
The lucky element deals with her coming after him. If she had gone alone that night, she could have died, but she had Superman for backup. If she died that night because she went after him, then he would be dead on the inside. Her coming into his life brought to him a way to be human again. Her frustration lessens from his fingers against hers. She couldn't stay annoyed at him.
"You don't have much luck left."
He won't get in her way and she can't leave him out.
She eats a light meal before turning in for the night and he stays in bed with her that night despite how cramped it is for two to sleep on a cabin cot. He feels as if he finally got through to her and as for her despite her inclinations she would remain with Richard until she is ready to leave this place. He falls asleep watching her sleep more peacefully then she had in days.
Vic finds Richard outside the cabin the following morning.
"She'll give you a chance."
"Think she'll give me as much grief as you did?"
He places his fedora back on his head and starts the long walk back to 'civilization'.
"Where are you headed, Butterfly?"
"Gotham... I've got some questions. Take care of her, Richard."
Richard already knows what they are to each other and only when Vic is practically out of hearing range does the Sensei express what she is to him.
"Of course Vic… she's your other half."
Their lessons begin not long after Vic is far from them. One finds Richard and Helena are barefoot in the grass. He begins with all too familiar movements to her mind. At first they move in sync.
"I already know Tai Chi, Richard."
She replicates his stances with ease. They continue for hours and soon she grows restless. Before long she expresses her discontent yet not even her words can interrupt his posture. All the same he is keenly aware of her desire to speed things up. This would make things more challenging just to get her to realize the way she operates is not the only way.
"How many times are we going to do this?"
"Does it matter?"
Outwardly she seems faster than him yet inwardly he finds balance in near stillness. Before long she falls flat on her hips while watching him shift around with more balance than she had seen in anyone.
"Remember to breathe… it's the simple essence of life."
It almost made her cry even as a butterfly lands on the flat side of one of his hands. He said little for the rest of the session and left her on the spot. She knows the way back to the cabin and seems to be in need of solitude if only for awhile. Helena agreed to stay yet she did not know what she was getting into by revisiting someone like Richard Dragon for she had seen once before years ago except she was still learning from whoever would teach her different ways to defend or fight.
She realizes that living means more than surviving and loving is more than feeling for another. As the realization settles into her, the butterfly lands on her hand and ever so slowly stills in place. Helena could consider this happenstance a step to living and as the sun starts to set the butterfly flaps away from her. It is time to back to the cabin and hope that Batman didn't think to look this far north for her. All the same, he probably is being kept busy either by the Arkhamites or by the League anything to keep him out of her for awhile longer would be enough for her.
The last time he went this far with a bulletin board is when he was investigating Cadmus. This time the photos all over it are of various crime family personalities going back decades. He is familiar enough with those who run the shows and behind the scenes now, but this new problem is starting to look like a very old one, almost as old as him. There is almost no one still alive left to interrogate or shadow from those years yet he found Cadmus without almost anything to go on either.
He sought out Cadmus because his sense of duty and loyalty runs deeper than he knows yet with Cadmus watching the League that meant they could pose a threat to costumes (and metahumans) worldwide. Now with many hunting the Huntress, his compulsion is different, personal, and so he begins to wonder if this is how she felt when she went into Cadmus after him. He believes it to be probable that she felt this way for she put her own safety aside just to get him back so he could do no less with her life in definite danger from seen and unseen enemies watching for her reappearance.
The current Godfather – Pasquale Galante, Junior – owes his ascension to the death of the previous one at the hands of Mandragora, which left Helena an orphan. He seems to stand to gain the most by having the police instead lean harder on vigilantes because until Claudius there was never a costume killing mobsters, at least not officially. The Phantasm is the exception, but most who know about that are dead, deranged, or silent. Phantasm's connections to her victims is her father was their financial adviser/investor except he had been skimming them for years so that he could afford a better lifestyle for her. In the end, a hit man comes for him and she is left to find his body as she passes the hit man on the street, which is what made her run the rest of the way 'home'. She was too late, but they would pay in her mind yet her pursuit vengeance brought her full circle back to Gotham City.
Her intentions put Batman in the crossfire because Reeves and Bullock assume the worst yet it is only Commissioner Gordon who remains Batman's advocate. The only others who know he has nothing to do with the murders is Phantasm herself and Joker because he uses her victim's corpse as bait. The clown assumes like some that Batman is finally a killer. A camera left with the corpse reveals the real killer yet Joker still tries to blow her up. It fails so he goes bigger by rigging the rundown Gotham City Expo to explode after both she and Batman are on the scene.
Joker due to his past life is already her fourth target despite him having killed her third target and using his corpse as bait. She claims she did all this for what she lost since fleeing the country with her father years earlier yet Batman counters by questioning her pursuit of vengeance. Her response likely left him at a loss for words. She let Joker go and Batman never saw her again or at least that's what Question could gather from what he found about Bruce's relationship with Phantasm's alter-ego Andrea Beaumont.
The vacuum left by the deaths of Charles 'Chuckie' Sol, Buzz Bronski, and Salvatore 'Sal' Valestra doesn't last long as others would move in on their operations regardless of the scope or size of them. The takeovers were quick and quiet. Batman likely did not mind the ease by which the mafia underworld took to dealing with the loss of three past their times mobsters. One's man loss is another man's gain makes it sound simplistic, it really isn't. Likewise the Five Families, at least the older members would not have a non-Five mess ruin the peace between them.
Many thought Sol for his laundering and racketeering would either cease with an accident or a sentence. He got both when he drove his car head on towards Phantasm only for the vehicle to dive out of the multi-level parking garage and into a nearby building. Lastly Bronski found out he digs his own grave while paying respects to the late Chuckie Sol. He falls into an open grave and likely in horror watches an angelic statue fall towards in the darkness of the grave. Valestra's last mistake is going to Joker for help, but Valestra isn't alone in this mistake for Councilman Reeves shares it because he is the only other one left besides Sal and Andrea to know the whole story.
His connections to the dead mobsters come out later, which costs him his council seat yet by then he is no longer mentally fit to stand trial for his crimes. Whatever Joker did to him was irreversible despite whatever the doctors sought to do for him. Recent history aside, the mafia underworld is adaptable, but even they cannot tolerate persistent disruptions regardless of its origins. This is why they hunt the Huntress and her other pursuers share similar motivations. However there is still someone or something that stays hidden while making others run her down so that in the end she would presumably turn to the very source of what frames her for her crimes.
It took more digging than he had done in more than a year in order to track down something even he didn't know about when his initial attraction and fascination towards the Huntress took hold during his search for Cadmus and that organization's agenda. His investigation into the Five Families and more specifically Maria Bertinelli only manages to show a link between her a GCPD detective who was acting an informant for the FBI back in the day. This detective name was Jim Corrigan yet nobody quite knows what happen to him other than the fact that he was presumably murdered the same year that Helena's parents were slain by Steven Mandragora.
Multiple dead ends for potential suspects are starting to grate Question yet he couldn't give up hope. Of all the links to Helena's parents only Pasquale and Santo are the only individuals still alive from those days as the rest are either too young or not alive at that time. Still a further blank remains because of Jim Corrigan, aside from him being an investigator. Something about the frequency of Corrigan's notes, at least the ones he found so far indicate that Corrigan's fate is tied to the Bertinellis in a way that few ever though possible, but then for now that is a leap.
Corrigan likewise is not a squeaky clean investigator yet he did his duty to his end. There is no way to exactly know what happen to him since his records and journal halt abruptly the same week that Mandragora made his move against the Bertinellis. It could connect, but like his fate, still a mystery. Further he digs the more Question finds perplexing because for once he thinks the past holds sway of many including the woman he is in love with who feels that more than just her past is shadowing her now.
Question similarly suspects that someone other than him, Batman, the GCPD, and the mafia is looking for Huntress, for Helena, because someone outside the costumes knows that Helena is the Huntress.
Some weeks later, Helena finds her costume, her mask, and her tools on her bed.
"Why is this here?"
"I have done what I can, but your time is here over. The next step is out that door."
As she is putting on travel clothes, Vic walks in with two ready travel bags. She unexpectedly inhales familiar scents from one of the bag. Vic had come back with products that were either from her apartment's bathroom or he bought new ones in one of the bags sitting on the floor. She takes that bag to pack her costume and gear in before turning to look at him. Helena had not gone a day without thinking about running her fingers through his hair, staring into his inquisitive eyes, and especially the way their lips meet when she uses different shades of lipstick on him.
"So tell me about the Huntress," suggests Vic.
"If you know me then you know her," remarks Helena.
"I saw Huntress reborn. Tell me about her birth."
"Out here makes me feel like I could be looking at Sicily except I know its not. So for me Huntress as you know her today had her origins in my life after leaving America for Sicily. I had heard stories about it from my father, from other members of the Families, but hearing is one thing, seeing is another."
"So the Family sent you to Sicily?"
"They sent me to stay with the Asaro Family, their cousins by alliance and blood."
So past meets present as she starts to tell Vic about her years with the Asaros in Sicily. The journey across the sea begins not longer after her parents' funeral and she recounts her most vivid memory of all the Families sending bouquets of flowers. Alliances and bloodlines could link the families yet either is only as strong as it is weakest link or so the saying goes.
"Lately I wonder if minding me had more to do with guilt than it did with responsibility."
He just listens because it is one of the few things he feels he is usually able to do right especially by her.
She mentions Tony and Rosie Angelo who were close to her family before her parents were killed. Something she eventually comes to share with Tony is losing loved ones because Tony lost his sister yet over the years she and Tony lost touch. She regrets losing him because he was a rare thing to have after losing her parents, someone like a brother she never had, but then he did his best for her even after losing Rosie. It feels like a punishment to survive when loved ones die violent deaths, this is clear to anyone who spends more time listening and watching instead of talking and walking.
All left undone and unsaid is looking like the only way to find answers to questions she thought she put to rest years ago, but then someone wants to remind her of that which she never really forgets ever. Still as she leans against him in their seats on the charter bus, she believes in him because he believes in her and for now that's plenty for her aside from their love. They would do this together or not at all that is the unspoken deal between them as the bus pulls away from the station.
A/N 1: Richard Dragon, Zen teacher, tea brewer, deep thinker - he plays a pivotal role in what Helena needs to learn. Much of the dialogue is again a lift from certain conversations in the comics, but some of it is not. Some of it wouldn't apply given the continuity I'm using for this story.
A/N 2: Several references made to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which is a film that deals both with the origins of Batman and with him being a prime suspect in the mobster murders. It feels like a notable parallel to what's happening to the Huntress.
A/N 3: Jim Corrigan is a cop who was murdered and became the Spectre in the comics. He doesn't appear in Cry For Blood, but there is someone who is keeping tabs on the mafia families back before and after Helena was born. Having him in the story is due to DC Showcase: The Spectre. Since there is likely to be flashback chapters ahead.
A/N 4: I realize more than a month has passed since my last update, but as much as writing is... it takes time and my health has been iffy.