Fallen Castle (Pt.1)

Morning came sooner than hoped, and Sharon was even less enthusiastic about daytime travel through the ruins of the mainland part of Gotham. They holed up in a small apartment building, breaking into a studio that was just barely large enough to accommodate the both of them. Casey found the bed almost immediately, and crashed hard under the summer worthy sheets, still fully dressed from the road. Sharon took a moment to secure the apartment, then did her the favor of removing her shoes and throwing extra blankets down.

Come too far to let you fade on me now, she thought to herself.

To her surprise, the cabinets revealed some leftover coffee grounds, which proved to still be in decent condition. She found a pot, got water boiling, and turned a clean sock into a coffee filter after failing to find any alternatives. Proved to not be that bad.

Over the course of the day, she kept overwatch and let her… she wasn’t quite entirely sure what to call Casey, escortee? Partner? She’d protected her, gotten separated, and now were inseparable, at least as far as she could tell. She couldn’t in good conscious leave her to her own devices, not here in this city, and Casey didn’t seem too keen on leaving her either.

She’d think it a bit strange if strange didn’t describe the sudden eruption of activity throughout the day. In the ruins, she could see a full garrison's worth of LexCorp soldiers moving through the streets, ratting out the displaced and downtrodden already there, packing them into trucks and shipping them out of the area. Sharon was starting to think the ruins served as an exclusion zone, a buffer, between Gotham and her waterways and the rest of mainland New Jersey. Exclusion Zone, there’s a good designation she thought idly to herself as she observed a pair of helicopters, LexCorp's military type, thunder overhead and shake the complex with how close they passed. Woke Casey from her cycle, which led to them sharing coffee and Sharon working through their first real conversation.

She still wasn’t much on talking, but she was alert and listening, all excellent signs of recovery in Sharon's mind, at least when she had coffee passing through her. She told her about the SEALs, her being fresh Navy corpsman when Luthor’s offensive started, escaping to the Arctic and enduring the almost two-year long process of turning the naval personnel in elite soldiers, then taking the fight to Luthor on any and all fronts they could. She left out the details, the days spent in the mud and sewage, the days they came under fire, the days they began to wear down from losses. She told her that they were finally discovered, after almost a decade of fighting underground, the last bastion of freedom she knew of taken by a force three of four times their size. She reckoned it was something like that. Which brought her to… two weeks ago, roughly.

“Are there others?” Casey had asked, “Other survivors, like you?”

That had practically ripped her heart out. “I don't know,” she had answered, “I haven’t had any radio traffic from them since.”

Saying that however reminded her almost immediately of her unexplained rescue, and her mysterious rescuer that’d contacted her over radio two nights ago. Sharon didn’t tell Casey of that, and wasn’t about to call that moment either. She didn’t want anything done until she had the cover of night, which was still hours away. Casey wound up falling back asleep on the two-seat couch, under Sharon sitting on the rim and continuing to keep herself awake with coffee and observation.

When night came once more, Sharon waited on waking Casey. The winter night would be long enough, and she had a contact to make.

She turned her radio on and waited, listening to the open air. Nothing.

Sharon took a deep breath, and depressed the talk button.

“Radio check, radio check. Anyone on this channel.”

She let go, and waited. And waited. And waited.

She was almost done waiting when that same female voice crackled over the radio. “Red? Damn it’s good to hear your voice again, glad to hear you’re still alive and kickin'!”

She laughed, quietly and off the air. “Good to be alive. Any updates from my guardian?”

“Depends, you want the good, the bad, or the ugly?”

“Send it.”

“Copy, so there’s word that we’ve got a new Batman around, and he’s got help, but you probably knew that. They had a recent scrape but got away, so they’re still on the run.”

“That’s good. What’s the bad?”

“Bad is that reports are starting to come in of Navy SEAL activities, mostly rumors and speculation pulled off homeless. This is high tier stuff, and right now it’s got some of the heads involved.”

“Okay… and the ugly?”

“Killing last night. Could be a copycat, but it looks like the Joker is back.”

Sharon froze. Gotham was known for its gallery of extremely dangerous criminals, terrorists, and militants, but most of them weren’t the reason why the SEALs had stayed the hell off New Jersey coastlines. Joker was all three of the above, and had been the ghost they avoided like a plague for the last decade, longer even as his tactics, or apparent lack thereof, had given even FBI SWAT a string of crippling losses. His only check had been the Bat, Gotham's native vigilante, and after him Naval Intelligence considered two options. Either Luthor was keeping him in check now, through whatever means he had, or Joker was unchallenged in Gotham, and possibly across New England.

“Listen,” her radio crackled, “I don’t know much, they’re keeping everything real hush-hush, but if he is back, he’s on nobody's team but his own, and he'll have a lot of support coming back to him. Hate to say it, but I think LexCorp an’ us have a common enemy.”

Sharon couldn’t agree more. Better to let those two duke it out though. “Copy update, Guardian,” Guardian was a good callsign, “Keep me posted-"

“Mila? Who's that?”

Aw Hell.

Sharon turned, cutting the transmission off. “Person who got me out of-" pain tore through her head, as though her brain threatened to tear her skull in half and escape into the night. Her vision warped and twisted, and she knew she’d lost her balance when she hit the floor. Casey was on her, but it wasn’t Casey she saw. The gaunt, tortured version of her loomed vacant and empty over her, the empty maw screaming silently into her, tearing at every muscle and tendon she had.

The only thing she had to hold on to was her aura, her emission that, for the last day or so, she’d been blind to, bands of light fighting against the dark and twisted illusions. Her concern and worry, bands of rosegold and copper, a blue strand of anxiety, and something else entirely.

She snapped back to reality in the most jarring fashion, her head practically bursting from the pain. She tasted blood, and could tell she’d bitten a chunk of her cheek. Casey was practically weeping over her, shaking her to snap out of it. The radio voice, Guardian, was firing off questions and clearly just as worried.

“Casey, Casey, Casey,” Sharon brought her hands up and grabbed her by the elbows, “Stop- stop shaking me. Please.”

The breath got blown out of her when Casey fell on her, hardly able to talk through the crying. Sharon, still hearing the radio channel open, rolled with her to retrieve it.

“Guardian, I’m clear, I’m clear.”

“What happened!? I heard a second voice and you cut out, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, it’s- she’s just…” she thought for an appropriate answer all the while Casey squeezed tight to her and cried her eyes dry. “Bluebird.”

“What?”

“Callsign. Bluebird. That’s who I have with me, Bluebird.”

Silence.

“Umm… okay? So… I’m ‘Guardian’, she’s ‘Bluebird,’ and you’re…?”

Sharon thought for another moment. “Cardinal?”

“Cardinal? Why? That doesn’t- oh, red hair, right. So, does ‘Bluebird’ have blue hair?”

Couldn’t hurt to have an ace up her sleeve. “Yeah, yeah blue hair.”

“Cool, any other updates from you?”

There were, if she wanted to share that much, but she still wasn’t confident this air was entirely secure. She decided to settle for some basic, and purposefully vague info. “Crossing the Exclusion Zone, en route to… the Castle.”

“More code?”

“Copy. Closing air for tonight, any last remarks?”

“Yeah, if ‘Exclusion Zone’ is what I think it is, don’t die.”

Sharon shut her radio off. Copy that.
_________________________________________________

Graves waited for a response, but it became clear after a minute that the SEAL wasn’t responding. Which was fine, she had her tracker on screen. She wagered the ‘Exclusion Zone' was that space of unrecovered ruins between Gotham's far shore and the rest of Jersey. She turned the Joker's card over in hand, admiring how quickly he’d regained his old assets. She had been more than certain after getting him contained in Arkham that they’d demolished most of his staches.

They’d discovered the killing that morning, thanks to a regular patrol officer in downtown. The male subject had been killed by extreme trauma to the neck, not exactly the Joker's M-O, but the woman had been carved a smile, while she was still alive according to forensics that afternoon after looking over the body. The letter and all evidence related to the matter had been transferred from the city police straight to the federal, and photocopies of everything given straight to her, except for the card. That she had kept the real thing.

What disturbed her most, far more than Joker's return, was how quickly he’d come to learn of their new Bat problem. The meeting she had displayed his information at was closed doors, nobody got in without invitation. Which meant she had a mole, one that likely has been feeding the damn clown for years now.

In her most professional opinion, she should have just killed the insane bastard personally instead of following Luthor's orders.

She had to let the system work though, they hadn’t spent the last decade building one from the ashes just to abandon it now. All the information on Joker and ‘Cardinal' got pushed aside for the moment as she went to bring up Slade and his progress, glancing for just a moment at a pending debrief from Dorrance on their botched mission against their new Bat. Couldn’t use the backup I gave them, she thought, Had to go classic on him.

She caught Slade just as dust erupted outwards from the discharge of a rifle, one that definitely wasn’t his. She keyed up his suit, “Wilson, I don’t suppose you’ve got some good news for me?”

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