by 'rith

Archive: Ask first, please.
Fandom/Continuity: Modern DCU. Strictly canon as of post-Flash 206. Naturally I didn't finish it before the comics presented a different version, but that's why all fanfic is AU anyway.
Disclaimer: All characters property of DC Comics. What I have done with them is mine. Thanks to Nika, Smitty, and Carmen for handholding.

Wisconsin, Linda thought, was a fine place to get lost.

After a brief stop in Iowa to see her parents, she'd cast around for a quiet place to settle her body and her thoughts. Memory of a fluff report on resort locations by one of her former co-workers brought her here. She'd rented a private villa just outside of Lake Geneva on the southeastern edge of the state, far enough from the lake proper to avoid tourist pricing but close enough that a 15-minute ride in the likewise-rented car would take her to anything worth seeing in the region.

Not that she had much interest in sightseeing. She'd spent a lot of time walking without a destination in mind, enjoying the peace and the time *not* to think. About anything. At eighteen she'd left her parents' farm for the frenetic rush of Keystone City without a pause to look back, and the quietude here was close enough to the Iowa stillness without the burden of memories imposed on the landscape. She knew it was a cliché to return to where you began, as it were, but this had been precisely what she needed.

Time, and distance. Space to let herself *be* for awhile. Linda loathed the new-agey implication of "finding yourself," but it seemed to be the applicable term.

This morning she had settled on a park bench with a new novel in hand, after a visit to the local bookshop (not a chain, which inordinately pleased her) and a recommendation from the proprietor, who'd stepped in when he'd found her staring aimlessly at the shelves. "Nothing violent," she'd said. "Nothing too funny." He'd suggested a mystery by a local writer, and fifty pages in she was glad she'd taken his advice.

She put the receipt from her breakfast croissant between the pages as a marker and laid the book down, staring across the lake. It was fine, breezy day with just a hint of the never-distant winter chill in the air, far away from super-villains and--

"Ms. West?"

Linda braced herself before turning to see who'd called her name. Not so long ago, she'd been approached on a regular basis by people who "knew" her by association with Wally, and who wanted a moment with the superhero's wife. she supposed might be recognized from her reporting career. That much celebrity remained her own, even if fame was the least of what she'd lost.

The handsome--no, *gorgeous,* she was married but still had eyes--man was standing far enough away not to intrude on her personal space. Dark hair, blue eyed, casually but stylishly dressed. "Yes?"

Instead of answering, he pulled a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket. Odd, she thought, since it was no sunnier than it'd been a moment ago. He put them on and started to say in a somehow deeper voice, "We've met before--"

But now she recognized him. Funny how such a small thing could change the shape of a face, but this man had stood with Wally at both weddings, the first time in a hideous wig, the second in spandex and a mask. The spandex suited him far better. "I know who you are," she said flatly. "But you have me at a disadvantage."

Too sharp, but he merely nodded and took off the glasses again. "My name is Dick Grayson."

A mark of trust, she knew, particularly from one of the clan associated with Gotham. She should be properly appreciative, but.... "Wally said you were the detective in the bunch. Or did he send you?"

"Dick" looked startled, then smiled. "No, he didn't. And it didn't take a lot of 'detecting' to find you. We've--" she understood that 'we' to mean the heroic community-- "been keeping an eye on you."

"Why? It's not necessary now" Now that no one knew who the Flash was anymore, and so by association his wife had become a private citizen again too.

The *rage* she'd felt over having her memories stolen--again!--had only slightly been blunted by the understanding that the agent responsible had meant it as a *gift.* Time to heal in the wake of Wally's and her loss, free of the obligations of being a superhero and a superhero's wife. What he'd failed to understand was that healing couldn't be accomplished in a vacuum.

Wally was who he was. Linda had fallen in love with Wally West, who happened to be the fastest man alive. She'd married the Flash as well as Wallace West, fully aware of what that meant. That had been taken from her, her memories rewritten, so that the "life" she and Wally shared during those months after Zoom's attack had been nothing but a false construct. Wally *was* the Flash. To strip that from him meant creating an artificial persona, not the man she'd loved at all. To strip those memories from her....

Linda had become a journalist once upon a time with a firm and unwavering belief in rooting out the truth. Being thrust without consent into living a lie seemed the greatest violation of all.

"Just as a general precaution," he was saying. "And...because Wally wouldn't."

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "But you didn't have any qualms about infringing on my privacy."

He had the grace to look embarrassed. "I don't know how much Wally's told you about me, but I've been worried about him. And you, too," he added. "Someone reminded me recently that the things we do make life hard for those around us. I wanted to make sure you were all right. For your own sake, not his."

The offer of empathy was kind, but it made her feel weary. For her husband's friend she could be gracious, to a point. "I'm fine. You didn't have to come out all this way."

"No trouble." She supposed it wasn't, what with transporters and whatever other gadgetry he had access to. "But how are you *really* doing, Linda?"

"I'm--" she started, and stopped before she offered the facile and too-obviously false assurances. If for no other reason than his friendship with Wally, her visitor deserved better. She absently waved to the bench and he sat, seeming to understand that she needed a moment before answering.

She *wasn't* fine, wouldn't be for a long time, though she was coping better than she had been. The worst of the grief had passed in the span of false memories. The anger would, she suspected, take longer.

Zoom had stolen her children. He'd killed the babies she'd made with Wally and most likely left her barren.

It was Wally's loss no less than hers, and she hoped--prayed--that he didn't think she was *punishing* him by staying away this long. She simply...hadn't been able to cope any longer, seeing the anguish in her heart mirrored in his face, feeling the weight of his guilt. Hunter Zolomon had been Wally's friend before he'd turned deadliest enemy and she couldn't blame Wally for that, she *didn't,* and yet....

"I'm angry," she said finally, and Dick nodded. "I hurt. I'm very, very tired. And I'm not ready to pick up the pieces and go on."

She could feel him weighing and measuring his response before he spoke again. "Is it easier here? Away from Keystone?"

"Yes." And then, because her patience was infinitely thinner these days, "Why don't you ask me what you really came here to?"

He met her eyes squarely. "Are you going to go back?"

Now she understood why he was here. "You think I've left Wally for good, don't you."


"Never," she said firmly, "That was never the point. I told Wally I'd be back. I meant it. I realize that in your world things happen so fast that you don't have time to process them before the next crisis, but this is *mine,* and I need time."

The relief on his face was so plainly evident that she almost laughed at it. She knew from Wally that Nightwing's marriage to Starfire hadn't worked out. Maybe in his head, she and Wally represented some kind of romantic ideal, some sort of happily-ever-after dream that from all accounts was anything but the model for heroes and their significant others.

"I'm not leaving him," she said, more gently this time. "But this is...this is real life. I accepted the risks when I married him, but that doesn't mean I'd been prepared for-- that I could just go *on* like normal after--"

Ahhh, God, and she'd been doing so well until now. The lump in her throat blocked any attempt at further speech. Dick made a small, sympathetic sound and shifted on the bench, as if he wanted to comfort her and didn't know how.

"I-- I'm so, so sorry," he finally said, all awkwardness. "For everything you've been through. I always...admired Wally for being so open with his identity, even given the cost. I'd give anything for this not to have happened to you two."

He still thought this was about *secrets.* "So would I," she said, "except I never would have asked--the Spectre, was it?--to do what he did."

She'd clearly surprised him again, and overrode his incipient reply. "I won't insist that Wally to reveal his identity all over again to the public, believe me. But if *he* chooses to--that's his decision, and I'll stand with him either way. That hasn't changed."

"You'll be safer now," he said with obvious caution.

"And I'll take it. But if I'd insisted on 'safe,' I wouldn't have married Wally to begin with."

He stared at her a moment longer, then bowed his head, accepting. "I thought I understood before why Wally loves you. I didn't know the half of it."

The sheer irrational anger that rose up at his comment both surprised and dismayed her. It was...too much, to be admired for her resolve after she'd fled from her husband, too conflicted to stay and work things out *with* him, so cowardly that she'd chosen to leave a *note* rather than look him in the eye and tell him that she needed time apart. Wally would forgive her for that, she knew, just as she knew he understood why by the fact that he hadn't come after her.

Dick could keep his illusions. There was only so much she was willing to share with a semi-stranger, no matter how close he was to Wally. And part of her--the bitter part that huddled over the pain of her loss like a jewel--wasn't ready to be comforted or absolved so easily.

It was simply easier to ask the question he expected her to ask. "Is is he?"

He glanced out over the lake, avoiding her gaze. "Missing you. Keeping busy."

She could imagine. She'd been purposely avoiding news out of Keystone, not wanting to be drawn back into the pattern of worry and fear whenever Wally went out to fight another one of his too-frequent battles. *Accepting* that Wally was the Flash, that he needed to do what he did, would never mean that she could blithely resign herself to the inherent dangers of his profession.

But even more than that...she wasn't ready to reenter the Flash's world. Not while every mental picture of that costume still held an afterimage reflection of Zoom's. Not while, despite all her insistence that she didn't blame *him* for what had happened, she didn't trust herself to look into his face and wholly believe it.

After a long moment, Dick turned to her again, a conspiratorial gleam in his eyes. "You won't tell Wally about this visit, will you?"

Banter, she could do. It would be good to keep practice, if nothing else. She considered him appraisingly. "I might be willing to forget to mention it to him...if you took me to lunch."

He grinned. "'Might.' But I'll take those odds." He offered his arm. "Shall we?"

"You're buying. I found this great little Italian place--"


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