AN: I'll be trying a slightly different style this time around. If I feel good about it, I'll use it for the rest of the story. Any feedback you could give would be greatly appreciated! Also, applications for beta reader are open. By applications, I mean just ask and I'll send you a copy.
Valeria and Franklin stared in horror at the spot where Laura had stood. There was nothing left, not a spot of blood or a scrap of clothing- she was gone.
Valeria was the first to speak, her mind racing a thousand mile a minute looking for answers, "M-maybe if we got Dad's electron manipulator, we could calibrate it for Laura's atoms by… I mean, if she was disintegrated then we'd have to find the atoms that were most recently bonded together by their cascade variance and I think we could calibrate the paraxon accelerator to-"
Annihilus grinned sickeningly, cutting her off, "A foolish gesture, merely postponing the inevitable. Fear not, you shall join her in oblivion, now. All fall before Annihilus!"
Franklin stepped forward, his eyes glowing bright blue, "I'm sick and tired of you! All you've ever done is hurt my family! Never again!"
"SILENCE!", Annhilus crowed, "And DIEAUUUAGH!"
The Lord of the Negative Zone fell to his knees, clutching the bloody stump that once held his Cosmic Cube. He looked around wildly for it, doing his best to stem the flow of purple ichor from his wrist with his other hand, "W-where… how?!"
His eyes fell on Franklin and widened in horror, "Y-you…!"
Franklin glared at him, holding the Cosmic Cube, "Looking for this?"
Annihilus watched Franklin pull his disembodied hand off the Cube, a mortal chill crawling up his exoskeleton, "Y-you do not know what you're doing…! S-stop! Annihilus is the will! Annihilus is the way!"
Franklin raised the Cube, "No."
The Lord of the Negative Zone staggered to his feet, "N-no! Do not-"
There was a surge of power from the Cube, and Franklin scattered Annihilus' atoms across space and time, as far as the Cube's power could send them. Franklin stood there for a moment, contemplating his actions.
Valeria timidly put a hand on his shoulder, "Can… can you use the Cube to bring Laura back?"
Franklin closed his eyes for a moment before turning back to Valeria, "No. She's not dead, just… gone. If she was dead I could bring her back, but… I can't even find her. She's not in the multiverse anymore. We could use the Cube to make another one but… it wouldn't be her."
Valeria nodded in determination, ignoring the tears trailing down her cheeks, "Then lets fix everything we can."
Franklin nodded and the blue cosmic energy faded from his eyes, "We have the Cube now. We'll undo all of this. All that we can, at least."
Valeria glanced over, "Dad's gonna be mad at you for using your powers…"
Her brother ignored the comment, readying the cube, "Let's do this."
Earth-0, Gotham City
Laura continued to make her way through the underbelly of the city, taking care to avoid leaving a trail. Facility training dictated she make separation as quickly as possible before attempting to blend in. She made another turn, dashing out onto a main street before finally slowing down to a walk.
It was two lanes wide and poorly lit, despite the street lamps that lined it. The businesses were all gated up for the night, and graffiti was on almost every surface. There were broken beer bottles in the gutter and she could hear a mix of gunfire and sirens in the distance.
'Two kilometers. Acceptable safe-distance achieved.'
Laura tilted her head towards the ground as she walked, taking care to be as inconspicuous as possible. She kept her eyes up, though. Facility mandated information gathering as her top priority in this scenario. As she walked, she made sure to take note of every street sign, every advertisement, and every written word.
It was obvious that she was no longer on Earth. Or at least, her, Earth.
It was the only reasonable conclusion. The creature would not have bothered with a psychic attack, not when it had power at its disposal like the Cube.
She stopped walking and clenched her fists, fighting the urge to unsheathe her claws and turn them on herself again.
"Well, well, well, look what we have here."
She stopped and looked to her right, down the alley she had unwittingly paused in front of. Five men stepped from the shadows, predatory grins on their faces. They didn't seem gang affiliated, merely common thugs. She could smell a sixth further into the darkness of the alley. It was obvious they were scum, the way they dressed, the way they leered at her- they were like animals. She labeled them in her head- Blue Shirt, Black Shirt, Tall One, Gold Chains, and White Shirt.
The tall one in the middle stepped forward, "You lost, little girl? Maybe you've already had a rough night, just look at ya!"
Laura paused, considering her next move. She was still wearing the clothes she had worn when defended the children from Annihilus- a nearly destroyed leather jacket, ripped and torn jeans, and a v-cut shirt that was surprisingly unscathed. She'd need to acquire new clothes if she wanted to blend in. She'd need food, too. Money was the easiest way to get them.
She looked up, giving the man a deadpan stare, "I need money."
The thug's mouth split into a wider grin, "Yeah, I can think of a thing or two I'd pay a girl like you to do. Why don't you hang out with us?"
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. She'd worked under a pimp once before to survive after she'd escaped from the Facility. She'd die before she did it again.
The other thugs began chuckling while Tall One reached for her, "Damn, girl, you trippin' or something? C'mon, you can sleep it off at my place."
When Tall One grabbed her arm she reacted like she was trained to.
She spun and wrapped her arm around his, using the momentum of the turn to pull him into an arm-lock. From there, all it took was a step forward to slam him face first into the brick wall of the adjacent building. He roared and struggled, thrashing against her grip. She threw him down on the concrete, stepping back as the others leaped over their fallen comrade towards her.
Blue Shirt stepped up first, throwing a wild right hook. Laura ducked under it, striking him in the solar plexus, winding him. She grabbed onto his arm and spun, sending him sprawling into his allies. Gold Chains dodged his tumbling comrade, diving at Laura. She jumped, stomping down with both feet when he was below her. The blow sent him straight into the ground and left Laura crouched on top of his prone form, ready for the others. She let her claws extend, slowly. After what they had tried to do, she wanted them to know what they were dealing with.
"AW HELL NO! FUCK THIS SHIT!"
Black Shirt reached into his pants under his shirt in panic, reaching for his gun. Laura tensed, about to pounce, before a voice from deeper into the alley rang out, "STOP!"
A sixth man bounded forward and shoved Black Shirt back against the wall, keeping him from drawing his weapon, "Stow that shit!"
He paused stepping forward and gesturing to the downed Blue Shirt, "Get his ass up."
Begrudgingly, Black Shirt and Tall One helped their comrade up. New One turned to her, "Everyone take it easy... Don' think nobody wanna die tonight…"
Laura said nothing, meeting New One with a blank stare, ready to act at a moments notice. He was tall, but not as tall as Tall One. He was dark skinned with a shaved head with a single diamond stud in one ear. He wore similar clothes to the other, a shirt one size too big with baggy pants, but he carried himself with more authority. He was obviously the leader.
Staring warily at her claws, New One inched forward, raising his arms in a non-threatening manner, "Hey… You need money, right? Well I saw you move, and with those claws… I think we can help each other out. I know a guy looking for somebody with the right skills, you know what I'm sayin'? He went underground and is lookin' for protection. Not just thugs, I mean the best money can buy. Nobody knows why, but I don't really care. I'm thinkin' you have what it takes."
Tall One turned and stared at him incredulously, "You talkin' about taking her to the Penguin?"
Laura paused for a moment before stepping off Gold Chains, content to watch this conversation develop. Tall One appeared displeased with the idea, but New One wasn't backing down.
He turned, arms spread, "This be our ticket, man! We bring her in, we can get in good with the Penguin! We'll be one step closer to the big leagues!"
Black Shirt glared, "Man, I don't wanna be in the big leagues. You wouldn't catch me dead rollin' with those freaks. That's how the Bat finds you."
New One whipped around, his anger palpable, "Don't be no pussy, man. The Bat can't be everywhere. We're goin', cuz I say we're goin'. You got a problem with that?"
Black Shirt's frustration was evident, but he was quick to back down, "Naw, man. I ain't 'fraid of nobody."
Satisfied, New One turned back to Laura, expectant, "So… you game?"
There was a beat.
Laura frowned, "…who is the Penguin?"
New One paused, his face splitting into an unsure grin, "Girl, you serious?"
He erupted with laughter, "HAHA! Girl, Penguin is the guy to know in this city. Whatever's going on, he knows about it. Shit, you new in town?"
Laura stared for a moment. If this 'Penguin' was as well connected as New One claimed, then he would be an invaluable source of information- as well as money. Still, New One's scent was one the same as the rest of this place- gunpowder, drugs, and desperation. He was not a man to be trusted. Still, desperate times called for desperate measures, and right now Laura had nothing to her name but adamantium claws, a healing factor, and the shredded clothes on her back.
She clenched her fists, ignoring the feeling in her gut to kill him and leave. He was scum and she knew he wouldn't be missed. She had to live with that, though. She had to trust him… for now.
Decision made, she redirected her attention back to New One, "I will go."
New One's grin widened imperceptibly, "Glad you see things my way."
Laura turned her head, looking back at the exit of the alley, "So where will we meet this… Penguin?"
New One grinned like a serpent, walking up behind her and placing a hand on the small of her back, "To the place that all the most powerful men and women in Gotham used to go- The Iceberg Casino!"
She turned her head to stare him in the eye, "Do not touch me."
He backed off, arms raised, "Sure baby, sure. Whatever you say."
New One took a step back into the alley, where his associates had regrouped, "Right this way."
Laura turned and followed, unable to shake the feeling that Logan and the other X-Men would tell her she shouldn't be doing this.
Tim sighed in frustration as he surveyed the nighttime cityscape from his perch on one of the many apartment buildings around the city, searching for any sign of Laura in the alleys below, "Times like these, I wish I had a Robin to follow me around..."
He fingered his comm., "Hey Oracle, I think I found what we were looking for."
There was a moment of silence before Barbara responded, "Alright, hit me."
Tim leaped from his perch, crossing the gap to the roof of the adjacent apartment building, "I think the source of the signal is a girl- 5'4" to 5'7", long black hair, fair skin. She had an athlete's build- probably one thirty five to one fifty pounds. Her clothes were pretty torn up, too. Looked like she had been in a serious brawl before she got here. Oh yeah, and metal claws sticking out of her knuckles that cut through my cable like it was twine."
Barbara's disbelief was obvious, "Metal claws? You're sure she wasn't just holding them?"
Tim paused for a moment as he jumped the gap between two more buildings, "Doubtful. They were retractable. I'm guessing cyborg, android, or metahuman. She was fast- very fast. Made quick work of a mugger. Took his hand right off. He'll live."
"And you're sure she was the anomaly? Maybe she was investigating it for somebody else."
"I doubt it. Why would she stop to take out that mugger? And if she was investigating it, she took whatever it was with her. There was nothing else there. Either way, I'm still in pursuit. Trail looks cold, though."
It was obvious from her town that Barbara's dissatisfaction with the situation matched Tim's, "Alight, pack it in for now. Finish your patrol, then head back to the cave. I'll let Bruce know and I'll see what he thinks. Who knows, maybe we'll find her quick and easy. Oracle out."
Tim readied his grapple and huffed, looking out over the sprawling city, "Yeah… quick and easy."
Laura smelled Gotham Bay before she saw it. Its stench was distinct and not entirely unpleasant, like most of the city, but the others in the group didn't seem to notice. They were either ignorant to it or simply didn't care- most likely a combination of the two. New One, who referred to himself as Colt, raised his hand, stopping the group. He stepped forward and turned to Laura, gesturing across the Bay with his arm to a structure further down the bay that looked as though it were built into an iceberg, connected to the mainland via a long pier.
"And that," he started, "That is the Iceberg Casino."
Laura stared at the odd structure, "Will we be going there?"
"Hell naw," Colt grinned, "That shit closed down 'bout two weeks ago. Don't mean Penguin doesn't keep contacts nearby. Friend o' mine told me about this place."
Colt started walking again, "Right over here…"
Another minute of walking brought them outside a seedy looking bar. Colt turned to the group, "Welcome to the Roost. Penguin sure do love his birds."
He lead them inside and they were quick to find a table while he approached the bartender. Nobody ordered drinks, content to watch as Colt was approached by a second man and taken through an 'Employee's Only' door.
While they waited, Laura had a chance to take in the scenery. It was a dive bar at it's best, reeking of cheap booze, cigarettes, and sweat. There was a scantily clad female server, aged beyond her years, making rounds. It seemed like the patrons knew better than to fool around with her- they knew who ran the place. Even in a bar as run down as this, the Penguin kept standards. Laura smiled. Logan would like it here.
Before long, Colt reappeared with another man. He was tall, brown haired with dark chocolate eyes. He wore an aged black suit that didn't quite fit right, like it was merely a poor disguise to hide his true nature.
Laura didn't like his smell.
He stared at Laura, "…this is her? Are you joking?"
Colt grinned, "Hey, man, I wouldn't play you that way! She's legit! I swear!"
He paused, considering her for what felt like minutes in silence.
He relented, turning to face Colt with a look of disdain, "Fine. Don't make me regret this, Colt".
"You got nothing to worry about, Tommy. Trust a brotha, would you?" Colt smiled, turning back to Laura, "Hey, girl, be sure you tell 'em who brought you here, alright?"
He winked at her.
Laura stared blankly back at him.
'Tommy' motioned her to follow him, so she did, quietly rising from the rickety wooden chair. She was lead past the 'Employee's Only' door down a long hallway, unfinished hallway. The walls were bare and the floor was only hard concrete, giving the impression that the bar out front was only a façade to the real workings of the building. The Suit stopped by a door at the end of the hall, opening it, and gesturing for her to enter.
"Visitor, Mister Paust."
She turned into the room, met with a bald obese man in a too-tight white suit flanked on either side by large men in suits, obviously bodyguards. He was hunched over a plain wooden covered with paperwork, reading some form. The man caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye and looked up, giving her a view of their icy cold pits.
Paust's voice was as cold as his gaze, "Who the hell is this? Get her out of here, we're looking for bodyguards, not dancers!"
Laura's eyes narrowed at the comment, but she kept her face neutral. She allowed the two guards to approach her. The one on the right reached forward to grab her arm, "Alright, let's go-"
She ducked down, avoiding his arm and sweeping his legs. His partner recoiled in shock, reaching for his gun. Before his hand had even reached the holster she was upon him. She grabbed his wrist and twisted, locking it and giving her control. She spun, flipping him over her back and slamming him onto Tommy. His gun clattered to the floor, giving Laura the opportunity she needed. She rolled with a flourish, kicking the man she tripped in the head as she rose with the pistol, sending him back down the floor with a grunt.
She was on her feet in an instant, pistol trained on Paust, looking down the barrel of the revolver he had aimed at her chest.
She stared him dead in the eye and announced, "I am here for that position."
With that, she lowered the pistol to her side, staring at him blankly.
They were like that for a moment, eyes locked as Paust's guards scrambled to their feet. Before they could fire, his voice rang out, "Wait!"
The bodyguards, unsure of themselves, froze. The man started at her for a moment longer before asking, "You're serious, aren't you?"
Laura didn't waver, "Yes."
There was another moment's silence before he responded, "There will be a background check."
"You won't find anything."
Paust didn't waver, "Then how can we trust you?"
Laura remained stoic, "Because if I wanted the Penguin dead, I would find him, I would kill him, and none of you could stop me."
There was something in the way she said it- Paust could tell that she felt every word she said was undeniable fact. From the way she had just performed, he felt inclined to agree.
He glared at her, "His name is Oswald Cobblepot. From this point on, you are to refer to him as Mister Cobblepot or 'sir'."
There was another pause before he lowered his pistol, "You'll be meeting him tomorrow night with the other new bodyguards."
Laura's gaze never wavered, "Will I be paid?"
Paust smiled like the cat that caught the canary, "But of course."
Colt smiled when he saw Tommy exit the 'Employee's Only' door alone. Colt waited until he approached before speaking, "What'd I tell you? Golden or what?"
Tommy frowned, offering a stack of twenties, "She'll do. Here's your cut."
Colt jumped to his feet, outraged, "Hey, I want summa that action! I brought that girl in!"
Tommy didn't react, save for raising the money higher, "This is all the action you're getting."
Colt snatched the money out of his hand, fuming in important rage, "Fuck you, man! Lets see if I ever do anything for your bitch ass again!"
He turned to his crew, "Fuck this noise. Let's go."
Tommy watched as they stormed out into the night, allowing himself a small smile, "Goodbye, Mister Colt."
Batman looked out over the Gotham nightscape from his perch above the waterfront district.
He touched his comm., "Oracle. I have a lead on the chemical supplier. We don't have a company name yet- the gang here didn't know much about the drop itself and everything was in unmarked containers. I need everything you know about polytheptane and a man named Layton Timbowski."
Barbara was quick to respond, "Will do. I had Tim investigate the anomaly. He thinks it came from a girl that appeared near the coordinates- apparently she might be a cyborg or a meta. There are plenty of girls who match the description Tim gave me, but I haven't found anything about a girl with metal claws."
Batman fired his grapple gun to a nearby building, "I'll get back to the cave and see if I can find something that'll be able to track any residual energy left over from the event. Keep me posted on what you find about Bronski. Batman out."
He fired the gun, swinging into the night.