runespoor: in the background, dick doing a stand-up while in the foreground Babs faces the reader, frowning, eyes narrowed. (babs/dick otpotpotp)
[personal profile] runespoor
Title: Neither Fate Nor Fortune [on the AO3]
Characters: Barbara (Jason, Bruce, Jim; Bruce/Jason)
Rating: PG-13
Series: Bring on the Night
Warnings: character death, ableism, violence, depression, offscreen underage, and all the content warning that comes with only mildly sanitized vampirism.
Summary: Barbara becomes Oracle, and Gotham's dead Robin is a vampire.

Canon timeline: I'm going with the idea that The Killing Joke takes place some months before Death in the Family. I'm playing loose with the chronology of some of the post-Death in the Family pre-No Man's Land storylines because of reasons.
Inspiration: I made canon soup from sources as diverse as Gotham Knights #43-44-45, Batman: Turning Points #3, Batman Chronicles #5 (Oracle Year One: Born of Hope), the DCAU, the Elseworlds Thrillkiller and Supergirl & Batgirl (spoilers for the latter two), Batman #424, and Gotham Central. I may be forgetting some.

Thank you to Discowing for betaing and cheerleading, to [personal profile] salinea for bearing my regular whining, and to [personal profile] moetushie whose remix of the first fic made me want to go on.

written for the [livejournal.com profile] dcu_bang 2012, this fic is accompanied by a fanmix made by [livejournal.com profile] ecto_gammat whose link is pending due to the hurricane.


In Greek mythology, the bearer of bad news has no name.
 
A silly, flimsy memento from school that ran all through Barbara's brain as she wheeled herself out of her apartment, into the bus, where she had to wait for the driver to activate the lowering platform, and into the police station. She wheeled up the delivery ramp, and to the elevator. No-one stopped her, the sergeant at the front desk recognized her - still, or yet, or again - as the red-haired daughter of the commissioner in her new wheelchair. Six months, but it felt new to people who didn't live with it. She read it in their faces when they looked up, in the first moment of surprise before they remembered.
 
Sure, mythology had Hermes, quick-witted and laughing, and Iris on her rainbow wagon, but they were gods concerned with the affairs of the gods only. There were no figures of heroic messengers carrying their messages all throughout the land that didn't die at the end. Anonymous men bringing their messages of death and finding death at the end of their path.
 
Fitting, then, that it was Barbara who'd find herself telling her dad about the death of Jason Todd. She'd been Batgirl, once, but now she wasn't. Like the messengers of Ancient Greece, she had no name.
 
It would've been different, if the death had happened in Gotham. Then it might have been her father, coming home tentatively, desolate wrinkles behind his glasses, and Barbara carefree of his news. (It would – still – not have been Bruce. Alfred had been the one to call her. She wondered if he would call everyone. How many phone calls?)
 
It would've made sense, in Gotham.

She only needed to look out the window, grim blocks like teeth biting into the sky, sky dirty gray with blotchy pollution, drizzly rain like prison bars. Prisons like sieves for murderers and crime schools for small-time crooks. Gotham chewed kids like Jason up, so they'd only end up dead or in jail (Barbara remembered the statistics for violent deaths among delinquents).
 
It would've been tragic, because a kid dying always is, and it would've been sudden, because crime-fighters get their life ruined in a moment's time, but it would have--
 
Well. She'd been lying if she told herself she hadn't seen it coming. (Maybe Cassandra wouldn't be a half-bad alias for the role she was taking, the soothsayer of bad news that was never believed. Only Cassandra had never fooled herself; clearly something Barbara still needed to work on.)
 
Instead Jason had died in Ethiopia, under a blaring sun in a place where Gotham was so removed a concept they might have made it up, a myth to frighten children and make them behave.
 
When she reached her father's office, it was empty, her father talking with his detectives, or otherwise waiting on the roof – wouldn't that be ironic. Batman would be a no-show, then, and not just because Alfred had told her he was still in Ethiopia. Soon Alfred would be there as well, flying out to take care of everything that needed – carry home Jason's coffin and Bruce's empty shell.
 
Batgirl never was as close to Batman as Robin, but Barbara had gotten pretty good at reading through Bruce's bullshit. He'd let Alfred deal with everything; he'd retreat into himself, cut his conscience from the outside world. He was a zombie when bad memories of his parents struck, and he surely couldn't be any better now.
 
He was so very good at pretending the real world didn't exist. He'd denied the fact that Dick was growing into a young man with his own life, he routinely ignored Alfred's chidings, and he'd asked Barbara for her opinion on Jason's issues – both as a professional, he'd said, ignoring that Batgirl had been retired for more than a handful of months then, and as an outsider, ignoring that dragging her back into her Batgirl identity meant denying she was even an outsider – and ignored her warnings.
 
And now Jason was dead and she was in a wheelchair.
 
She stayed a long time staring at nothing, coming up with scenarios of how things could have gone differently. Maybe if she'd insisted. Maybe if she hadn't retired permanently. Maybe if she'd shaken herself from her post-op depression earlier, if she'd faced Bruce then, instead of walling herself into her own denial. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
 
When she came right down to it, what remained was that Jason was a good kid in a mixed-up situation and Bruce had failed him – and she'd failed to prevent it.
 
She didn't blink when her father came in and turned on the lights.
 
"Babsie?" He was still at the door, sounding concerned. "Sweetie, what's wrong? Is it the phantom pains?"
 
"Dad, you remember the boy I was tutoring, Bruce Wayne's adopted son."
 
She didn't look up, eyes trained on her own fingers. She'd lost the calluses from constant exercise before she'd lost the use of her legs, but she still expected to see them.
 
She had to try a couple of times before she could get the sentence out.
 
"He's-- he... he died."
 
*
 
The funeral was the second Barbara attended on a personal basis. The first had been her parents.
 
Back then Gotham was something that happened to other people, but the city had happened to them all the same. At the time, it was Chicago, and it'd been raining, too, because Gotham doesn't have the monopoly on tragedies. The rain dripped down Barbara's rain hat during the priest's sermon, puddling down her neck in icy streams.
 
Thinking back, it had been good training for Gotham. Just not quite good enough. But then, nothing could be.
 
It didn't rain for Jason, just looked like it should. It was a small affair, small enough as to be offensive – six people, not counting the ghosts. There should've been paparazzi, or at least a security cordon at decent distance; or a handful of schoolmates of Jason's and neighbours of Bruce's; or, in the absence of everything else, a red-and-blue blur, a millionaire with a blond goatee clasping Bruce on the shoulder, and the princess of the Amazons for moral support. There should have been Dick, but Dick was in outer space and hadn't returned from Tamaran in months.

Alfred must have passed the calls, pulling the strings and given the orders at Bruce's request. Closing the world as narrow as he could around his pain. It was anyone's guess whether he'd wanted Jim and her in, or whether Alfred had gone ahead anyhow, and Barbara wasn't in the mood to play that game.
 
Bruce stood apathetic and mute where Leslie was guiding him, her features wrenched in grief, and Bruce walked without seeming to watch where he put his feet. Small gravel got in the way of her wheels, catching in the spokes, and when they reached the mattress of well-maintained grass that was to be Jason's last resting place – the new grave next to Thomas and Martha Wayne's, under the stony stare of the same angel – her father had to push the wheelchair, and she had to sit back, let it happen. Babs gritted her teeth, and for a moment hated the entire world.
 
Bruce didn't seem to acknowledge their presence, either. There was no flicker of recognition as he shook her father's hand, then her own. He was far away behind his eyes, didn't move when her father shook Alfred's hand and gripped it in pain, and Alfred's composure slipped, just a little, as Leslie caught his arm in hers. Barbara wheeled herself next to Bruce and glared at him the whole time, out of the corner of her eye.
 
She contained herself as long as she could. She wasn't there for Bruce, or for Jason, who was dead and beyond caring. She'd come because she wouldn't let her father watch the funeral of the son of his closest friend alone.
 
They'd trusted him to know best. She'd trusted him to put Joker behind bars, Jason had trusted him to train him to the best, and her father had trusted him to keep everyone safe. They'd grown complacent, and so had he.
 
It could have been her.
 
She was small and exposed in her wheelchair, a sitting duck for any ambushed sniper, and she'd let herself slip up since she'd retired Batgirl, and physical therapy was slow and demanding in ways she'd either forgotten from her training or never experienced.
 
She'd opened her door, and it could have been her. It could have been the arrangements for her funeral Alfred made. It could have been her father left without a family in the world, truer than Bruce.
 
Instead it was a fifteen-year-old kid whose only crime was to have been dumb enough to trust in Bruce.
 
When they lowered the casket, Barbara used the cover of noise to hiss the thought that had been bubbling since she'd entered the Wayne Family Cemetery for the second time.
 
"I told you."
 
He gave no sign he'd heard, not that she'd expected him to; and when he stepped forward to throw the first handful of dirt on Jason's coffin, she looked away. It was a travesty of a family funeral, a sham of the bonds they'd tried to build, and she grabbed her father's hand and clutched, a mutual reassurance that not all was fake.
 
*
 
These were the things Barbara missed:
 
- five-minute showers when it was too hot, instead of the drawn-out undertaking it had become;
 
- unthinkingly going for the stairs when the elevator was taking too long;
 
- reaching for the product on the higher shelves at the supermarket;
 
- having people talk to her rather than the chair. There had always been people – mostly men – who'd talked to her chest  rather than her face, but she hadn't expected it to suddenly become the majority.
 
- being able to choose where to go, without being forced to depend upon someone else.
 
When she'd seen Jason, not long before he died, he'd suggested she invest into a wheelchair without handles. He was perceptive enough not to ask why she hadn't, yet, which fit with her previous observations: Jason might be terrible at maths, but put him in front of a novel excerpt or a historical speech and he'd have no trouble telling you what the speaker wanted to achieve, how, and what they weren't saying. She wasn't Batgirl then, but Barbara could see the detective abilities Bruce must have been enchanted to find.
 
He'd been entertaining, smart as a whip and funny in a mean way that made Barbara laugh and ticked at the back of her mind when she went home. He was more lonely than Dick had been, and on a couple occasions she found herself giving advice on how to deal with reluctant classmates, sharing experience she would never have thought he'd find handy. Dick had scampered to Tamaran, leaving his family to rearrange themselves without him; he'd only have himself to blame if Barbara inched herself in the space he'd left, and adopted herself a little brother.
 
Before she was shot, she'd envisaged going into politics. Running for senator made more sense than running all over downtown Gotham after small-time crooks, or even than gathering evidence against one corrupt judge. If she wanted the power to change the world she needed to change scales; Bruce's measures were a stopgap, only efficient because he had the Wayne fortune to back up the Batman's actions in the daylight – not just with charities, but with the developing of new branches of Wayne Enterprises, with new jobs, with outreach programs Barbara could never set up.

All the power was concentrated at the decision-making level. She could see herself, with her secret experience as a crime-fighter and her practical knowledge as a cop's daughter, making laws that would be easier to implement, thought-out to benefit both the civilians and the police.
 
The chair slowed her down physically, impeded her agility, went in the way of the self-defence movements she'd known by heart since she was twelve. It made her a target for bad journalists in want of a story, it made her a human-interest, pathos-ridden casualty of her father's career. She'd seen her image been used both to boost her father's popularity and thus that of the mayor, and attack them, the proof of Commissioner Gordon's ultimate powerlessness.
 
If she'd been willing, she might have been able to use herself that way, spin a story that would push her quite far indeed. It would've pushed the chair, and her in it, and Barbara couldn't shake the fear of a faceless assassin shooting at her, and being unable to leap away.
 
Camera shots were unpleasant enough.
 
*
Sometimes Barbara dreamt. They weren't all figures of skinny men in novelty hats hunting her down and shooting her, as if she was nothing more than a paper target in some amusement park. More often, they were strangely involved storylines about a different life she could have had, in worlds elsewhere.
 
She was Batgirl, and Dick had left Gotham. It was only Bruce and her now. He took a Robin again, this scrappy street kid with a cold-eyed smile, but even then it was most often Bruce and her, Batgirl and Batman. She was the foremost partner, the first back-up. The one allowed to say things Robins would get rebuked for.
 
"
You're in a cheery mood," she'd comment when Batman's scowl made no sign of alleviating.
 
"We haven't recovered their loot yet," he'd say, without taking his eyes away from the Batcomputer's screen.
 
She put an arm across the chair's back, resting her chin on her arm, and, letting her other arm trail down over, rapped the top of Bruce's head with her gauntlet. "Will you relax? They're behind bars, they're not going to hurt anyone again. Knowing the Terrible Trio, if you just leave them alone, they'll be spouting clues to get your attention in no time, and then you'll have the place where they hid the stuff they stole, presto."
 
He swiveled in the computer's chair to answer her. "That'd be letting them win. They'll know they've outsmarted me. That's a rumor that would make quite the waves while they're jailed."
 
"We both know letting the crooks tire themselves out before closing in on them is the smart thing to do." She contemplated the top of his head with an arched eyebrow, while he turned back to face the screen and refused to reply. "Is this a pride thing? It is, isn't it? It's not what
they'll think; it's what you think."
 
"Barbara, if you don't mind. We're supposed to be working."
 
"Oh, I think not. You're just getting frustrated and feeling like the Terrible Trio got one on you."
 
"We still need to find their hiding place," he said, but he'd paused in his clicking through files. If anything, he looked tempted.
 
She shrugged, and straightened. "Well, you do what you want, but I'm going on patrol. Jewels will keep."
 
He started, as though to stop her or say something, but she strode to the railing and jumped, making her way to her bike. When she was on the last floor, Batman's gauntlet came down on her shoulder. She turned to face him.
 
"I'm coming with you," he said.
 
She smiled. "Good. Let's have
fun, boss."
 
She followed him with her eyes as he got into the car, the smooth ripple of his cape, the swing of his shoulders.

 
*
 
After Barbara had left the hospital, she'd retreated to her father's house.

Living alone in her third-floor, liftless apartment would've been impossible, even if she'd been able to get out of bed most mornings. If she'd had to, she might have been able to get a househelper: between her contacts and her father's, there were favors friends would've been happy to do. If she'd had to, she might have. But her brain had gone fuzzy, numb and groggy whether she was on painkillers or not, unable to consider further than the limits of her world, from her bed in the office downstairs her father had turned into a room, to the bathroom next door, to the trip to the kitchen where she'd dine with her father, on the other side of the living room – and always, the screeching of her wheelchair. Money was tighter than it'd been in years. It just made more economical sense for her to live under her father's roof again.
 
Twice a week, Barbara would go up to Wayne Manor, for Jason's math lessons. She'd tried to think of it as thinly-disguised charity, but found that she lacked the proper indignation at the thought – though if the first couple of lessons hadn't happened before the Joker shot her, she might have felt differently. Her life had taken to being directed by "mights" and "might have beens".

The first few times after her accident, her father drove her there. Seeing him at the doors of Wayne Manor – separated only by a few meters, maybe, from Bruce and Jason, only some stairs between him and the Cave where she'd trained and sweated as Batgirl – jarred her enough that soon she waived off his offers. She'd sealed that part of her life off, locked the costume in a closet, but seeing her father knock on that door, she felt at though the closet's door might slam open at any time, cracking under the weight of the secrets she' kept, and parts of her old life would engulf her.

Then it was Alfred who picked her up at her father's house and drove her back. At first, Barbara didn't know what to say, and the last thing she wanted was to make small talk at a well-intented outsider's compassion, be it Alfred. Alfred was silent, though. He didn't impose on her misery any more than he had on Bruce's bouts of depression. She should've remembered that. And, slowly, she started looking forward to these trips as much as she'd once dreaded them.
 
She was doing better, so much that shortly before Jason's death, she'd started riding the bus there. When the weather permitted, wheeling herself from the bus stop in Bristol to Wayne Manor – and from the garden's portal to the manor's door itself – was rather pleasant, actually. Longer than by car, but that was half the point. She didn't have so much to busy her days.
 
No, that wasn't quite true.
 
She'd found something to busy herself with. Something she could do; something she was good at. Something that protected her better than Batgirl's cowl had ever protected her identity, and that didn't make the young woman in the wheelchair easy pickings for sadistic killers.
 
*
 
On the Internet, she could still hunt any criminal. She sifted through lines of code, collected data from all over the globe, tracking and analysing.
 
On the Internet, it wasn't a disadvantage to be nameless.
 
*
 
One of Barbara's favourite things about the Internet was how easy it was to lose herself-- no. Scratch that. How easy it was to lose the rest of the world, replaced with a virtual reality that was closer to her than what was outside her window. All she needed do was cling close, and allow herself the leisure to roam. It was a type of rest as comfy as any dream; when her body slowed down and her eyelids threatened to slip, all she had to do was keep herself stocked on coffee or energy drinks, just as you'd recharge a battery.
 
It tampered with her perception of time more than she'd be comfortable admitting to anyone else, but that was the point. She'd returned from Jason's funeral and fired up her computer, and promptly occupied herself with the tracks of the cyber criminal Interface, fabricating an invisible web so that the slightest change in Interface's illegally-acquired shares would trip Babs' alarms. Babs' father had been hot on Interface's trail, and disillusioned with how difficult catching a cyber criminal was; it played a part in Barbara's motivation.

She'd gone to sleep a handful of times – slumping on her desk, half-smashing her keyboard, or on her bed (three times her father had offered – threatened – to physically put her into bed himself if she didn't) – and she hadn't kept the closest watch on how many days or nights it'd been, shutters drawn no matter the hour, when the window creaked open.
 
Idiot.

 
She'd already been attacked once in her own home; she'd already been attacked by Interface's goons; and she'd still let her guard slip.
 
Babs started to wheel around, slow fingers gripping for the escrima sticks she hid under the arms of her wheelchair – slow, too slow, how long had it been since she'd last slept? The windows were supposed to be secure, there was an alarm, anyone who came in that way was bound to be good.
 
The list of mistakes she'd made ticked by in her head, fast as the computer she'd been working on, as she took a breath between her teeth. She'd have to reevaluate, if her mistakes didn't get her killed. Barbara's mind had always been faster than her body, even when she was Batgirl on yellow heels and she made up in smarts what Dick provided with acrobatics, but tonight her body was especially sluggish. Adrenaline would be nice.
 
When, after what seemed her like an eternity of exasperation and gloom, she finally faced her opponent, the escrima sticks slipped from between her fingers. They clattered to the ground, unheeded, as Barbara stared dumbly ahead.
 
Jason was sitting on the window seat, wearing Robin's costume. She'd fallen asleep on her keyboard again.
 
"Hey," the figment told her. "Don't mind if I let myself in."
 
Barbara crossed her arms. She didn't feel asleep, but she wasn't entirely awake either. Lack of sleep had detached her consciousness from her body, cloaking her senses with a blanket of heavy cotton, and her internal clock was broken enough that she needed to glance outside to realize the 0513 encased in the bottom right corner of her computer screen had referred to the hour before dawn, not to the afternoon. Which made sense: Robin only came out at night. Her thought process was impeded by the lack of sleep, too.
 
Asking the question wouldn't make the situation any more surreal than it already was.
 
"What's this? Am I dreaming now?"
 
The Jason apparition looked startled, his eyebrows jumping up under the thin cloth domino. God, that mask didn't hide anything, did it. She'd often observed it on Dick's face. What was Bruce thinking?
 
The corner of his lips twitched up in a smile. "Heh. Nice to know I'm your type as well. But no, you're as awake as I am – speaking of, you plannin' on a cruise round the world, Babs? Cause it's not bags you've got under your eyes, 't's suitcases."
 
It sounded like Jason. The curve of his smirk and the jab of his chin were Jason's, too. She wasn't sure whether her subconscious would chide her for the hours she kept through Jason's mouth, and why it'd want to remind her of Jason's worst flirting habits.
 
Pinching herself didn't make the figure vanish in a puff of smoke.
 
She'd seen his coffin being swallowed by earth. More than that, she'd seen Bruce's grief, the all-consuming vortex of his depression. Leslie Thompkins had had her hand on his arm the entire service.
 
Even if Bruce would go for so cruel a hoax, for any reason, she had her doubts whether he was so good an actor. Even Batman must have his limits. Babs' money was on funerals of family members being one of them.
 
"Okay," she said. Her voice rang weirdly in the room. On the other side of her door, her father must be getting ready for his workday. "Are you a ghost, then?"
 
He cocked his head. "Do we believe in ghosts?"
 
"You know, I'm not sure."
 
"Huh. Anyway, no, I'm not a ghost." He thumped his chest with his fist. "Flesh and blood, and just as well. Can you imagine getting stuck as a ghost for all eternity, haunting Wayne Manor? I'd go crazy with boredom. Probably drive Alfie crazy too, with nothing else to do than play tricks on people.  No, let's see what behind door number two."
 
With a wry smile, Barbara wheeled herself closer to him, touching his tunic to reassure herself he was really there, chatting like he hadn't hit his daily quota. Her hand didn't go through; he was as solid as she was, not like any ghost she'd ever heard of.
 
She searched for his eyes behind the mask, but the eyelets were down, whiteing out his eyes. That at least had changed since Dick had been Robin, but she missed being able to see the eyes of her partner. If she'd kept on being Batgirl, she might have switched to that as well.
 
"I'm guessing you're not alive either." What a strange sentence to say.
 
Memories of the Manhunters the heroes of Earth had driven off one year ago, and the robots they'd used to infiltrate and replace humans, tickled at the back of her mind.
 
"Are you a cyborg?"
 
He didn't look like the pictures she'd seen of Nightwing's teammate, bulky metal parts covering or replacing parts of his torso and his limbs. Then again, never underestimate Bruce's inventiveness when properly motivated, and keeping Robin normal-looking certainly was a motivation. She poked him, ran her hand down his arm; she couldn't feel any metal.
 
Jason stepped back with a laugh, letting her hand fall back down. "Nice, but no. Told you: still flesh and blood!"
 
"Then I have no idea what Bruce came up with," she said, frankly. Maybe she'd have been a little less frank if she'd had her content of sleep.
 
He smiled, his teeth showing, white and even and as perfect as Dick's – as perfect as Wayne money could buy.
 
No. More.
 
"I'm a vampire," he said.
 
*
 
In retrospect, Barbara should have been more freaked by the mere prospect of that conversation. People returning from the grave? Since when did that happen? How did that make sense? At the very least – since there was a Justice League, after all, and aliens were the least bizarre of their membership – since when did that happen in Gotham?
 
Her excuse, when she thought back on it, was that insomnia distorted the limits of what she could accept. She had first mistaken Jason for a dream apparition.
 
Jason telling her he was now a bloodsucking fiend, well, she took it into stride.
 
It was only when she awoke the next morning, and blinked at the rays of sunlight falling through the slits of her shutters, that she started being aware of the enormity of the thing.
 
Master Bruce couldn't answer the phone at the moment, Alfred reported, but Alfred would let him know Miss Barbara had called.
 
Bruce, of course, didn't call back.
 
*
 
"When you say 'vampire', what do you mean?"
 
It was a couple of nights later, in Barbara's room. She had her computer turned on, and Jason – Robin – was making himself at home on her bed.
 
He'd peeled his mask off and had taken his gloves off when Babs had frowned. He didn't look like he'd just come from patrol – no bruises or sweat that Babs could see, not a new scratch on him – but the knuckles of his gloves were stained, like somebody's nose had given under a punch. When he stretched his legs in front of him and crossed his ankles, she noticed a spray of blood drips on his calf.
 
"You thinkin' of joining the ranks of the undead?"
 
He raised an eyebrow, lazy and insolent, and Barbara was forcefully reminded that brat was part of the Robin job description.
 
"Trying to see the difference between our lives and a pulp novel."
 
"Undeath," he corrected. "Your life; my undeath."
 
She stared at his self-satisfied smile. "This is going to get exceedingly tiresome fast," Barbara stated.
 
"Are you asking me to lay off with the puns?"
 
"I wouldn't dare. You'd take it for a challenge."
 
"I knew there was a reason you're my favourite. Not counting Bruce."
 
"That's because I'm the only one aside from Bruce," Babs noted in a distant voice, opening a new document on the computer, before turning to face Jason again. "Now spill, Brat Wonder. What does 'vampirism' cover, exactly? Blood, sunlight, garlic, stakes?"
 
Jason rolled his eyes. "Bruce is making these exact same experiments back at the Cave, you know," he informed her, or at any rate the ceiling. "Can't you share notes or something? Going through this twice is kind of a drag."
 
A sharp rap of her escrima stick on his knee made him jump and focus. "I'm not asking Bruce, I'm asking you. Besides, who'd know better, Bruce or you?"
 
It was a cheap shot, and an obvious one, designed to divert Jason's attention from her admitting she didn't want to ask Bruce. Not that he'd be unable to guess what she wasn't telling him – she and Bruce weren't speaking. He wasn't stupid. But hopefully he'd react to that rather than start picking at her business.
 
"Okay, okay! So – not sure about garlic, I don't need to eat but Alfred's got garlic in the kitchen and I can go in and out no problem, Bruce hasn't said a word about stakes yet, but given that stake in da heart is a pretty foolproof killing method, fangs or no fangs, I'm gettin' that the working theory is that it works, and crucifixes do nothin'. Okay, they make me feel bad about not having gone to confession since I was like eight, but that's not like it's anything new, so..."
 
"Blood and sunlight, Robin."
 
He did nothing so obvious as deflate or look away. It was hard to read guilt on Jason's body language, Barbara had already noticed on more than one occasion. He didn't fidget either, or leap into a handspring, which she'd have expected from Dick if he was put on the spot.
 
Instead, he grinned wide, and settled more comfortably on her bedspread.
 
"Both true. Sunlight is—okay, let's put it this way: you know how some crooks think Batman sleeps in a coffin during the day? Turns out it's pretty much spot on. Also blood is yummy."
 
He was going for a distraction. Barbara humoured him.
 
"Yummy," she repeated, dry.
 
"Fucking yummy," he insisted, gesturing with his hand. "I'd suck blood lollipops any time."
 
She set the subject aside. No doubt Bruce would quizz him extensively, maybe break it down to blood types. Barbara, however, didn't intend to feed him, and so didn't care much. It was a little unnerving to be having a discussion with someone who viewed your organs as a potential food source, but not so much more than having a discussion with someone who'd potentially plant a bug in your bedroom if he suspected you were in cahoots. She'd worked with Batman for years: Jason needing blood to survive didn't even reach the top three of shocking things she'd seen.
 
"Blood confections aside, any other change?" She nodded at the unbroken skin of his knuckles. The new scuffing on his gloves said he should have some kind of mark left from the fighting – unless Bruce had changed the gauntlets into pure Kevlar – but there was nothing, like he'd spent the day typing away at a computer.
 
"I dunno if you ever worked with metas, but healing factors are fucking sweet."
 
Barbara kept her voice neutral. "Sounds handy. Anything more?"
 
"Abilities related? Bruce is testing me, on stuff like general perception, strength, speed, etcetera. Apparently the PR on vamps flying, turning invisible or dissolving into a swarm of bats is a bust, which chaps my ass a little, cause flying is never going to stop sounding like a major kick. Can you imagine Bruce's face, if it'd turned out I'd got actual superpowers out of the deal?"
 
She couldn't. And, despite Jason's forced carelessness, she doubted he could either.
 
She could barely start guessing how he'd come to resurrect Jason as a vampire to begin with.
 
"So now what? You're going to keep on being Robin?"

Now that she knew what he was, she could see that when he smiled his teeth looked a little more than human.
 
"Well, sure," he said.
 
And he's okay with that, the question burnt her lips. She didn't ask, though. The answer was self-evident.
 
It must be nice to be able to to avoid the consequences of one's actions by turning into a creature of legend.
 
She didn't say that, either.
 
*
 
She'd used the insurance money to buy the estate that had not properly been Wayne Manor for almost two decades, because it was grand and remote. Under the mansion she found a maze of tunnels and caves, that she used to install gymnastics apparatus, radio equipment, and the rebellious, screaming outfits they wore on missions. From her travels she'd brought back a souvenir, young, sweet Richard, who was in love with her enough to find her idea of putting on costumes that branded them delinquents attractive – busting up the lowlifes using police badges as shields.
 
She was Batgirl there too, long free red hair and tight pants, and Robin, in his bright leather jacket, followed her every order. They were the scourge of police corruption, the rallying symbols of youths chanting for peace and queers whose clubs were hit regularly with cops demanding a pay-off, a promise of modernity in a city stuck in the past, spring in Gotham at last.
 
If he'd known, her father wouldn't have approved. He didn't approve of what he knew already, the teenage two-bit gigolo she kept at her home. As for Barbara, she didn't approve of the GCPD, and hadn't since her mother's murder had slid by unsolved, like so many others in this forsaken police department. He wouldn't have approved of her putting herself in danger, or making a mockery of justice, wouldn't have approved of her taking the law in her own hands. (Maybe she'd have taken Detective Wayne's advice. Maybe she'd have got into the police, if they hadn't been in Gotham, if she hadn't seen the work of the rare righteous cops slowly choked to death in the degradation of their city, if she hadn't been angry at her father the commissioner.)
 
"I love you," Richard said, breathlessly, with a puppy look in his eyes at the end of the night.
 
"Get back to bed," she told him, listening in to police's frequency, pinpointing the links between organized crime and the GCPD.
 
A redhead and an acrobat, they were remarkable in their nightly personas, and noticeable enough during the day. Maybe Barbara should have been more careful, or maybe optimism in Gotham was doomed from the start.
 
One night a travelling aerialist family were gunned down in the middle of their show, and Barbara returned home to find Robin loading guns.
 
When death kissed him on the lips, and he died in her arms, Barbara knew the coat of guilt would forever hang onto Batgirl's shoulders.

 
*
 
Thursday had been lasagna day at Casa Gordon since Jim had taken Barbara in.

At first it was because Jim was making an effort to keep his schedule consistent with hers, to give her a sense of family, to make sure she wasn't alone too much; he tried to stay away from the station on the weekend, packing as much work as he could on normal working days. After four days at the station when he got home on Thursday evenings. the total mass of his energy amounted to shoving two dishes of frozen lasagna in the micro-wave. She'd have survived on crisps and milk, but Uncle Jim was determined to give her healthy food and regular meals.
 
Babs didn't say anything. Her parents had never kept much in the way of a normal schedule, and most meals were taken in liquid form, as far as she could see. The nine-to-five myth, she'd never had much opportunity to watch it up close, and she'd have been perfectly willing to live on greasy take-out, like her mother used to set on the kitchen table with a sigh, but Uncle Jim had taken it to heart to do things different. Uncle Jim, she'd been quick to realize, was every inch as stubborn as her father's slurred cursing implied, and Barbara was willing to go with that, too.
 
She could still remember the first time she'd decided to make the lasagna herself. Police was buzzing with worry about a new super-criminal, a guy who left his victims frozen in hard ice. Unlike what the Saturday morning cartoons would have you believe, they were impossible to revive after they'd been set free from their ice prison. Commissioner Gordon was up to his neck, regularly called out by pen-pushers who criticized all the more freely because they were part of the city the Commissioner was sworn to protect. It was around that time Robin had made his debut.
 
Probably he'd been better against crooks than Barbara was in the kitchen, but Jim didn't say anything to humiliate her. He'd thanked her, said it was very good, and asked how her day had gone. She didn't need to do the cooking, she knew that, right? Her job was to focus on her studies, and that was just fine.
 
Oh, she knew that, she said. But she wanted to help.
 
Uncle Jim had looked at her from behind his glasses, swallowed, nodded, and after clearing his throat, said a scratchy okay. Then they'd hugged and both had cried a little while the lasagnas were getting cold. They wiped their eyes the same way, pushing their glasses up so they could reach with a Kleenex.
 
Lasagna Thursday remained a tradition even after Babs had her own apartment, and somewhere along the line her father had learned how to make a mean homecooked lasagna dish.
 
Maybe it was coincidence that Jim first touched upon the subject of the Robin over a plate of lasagna. Or maybe it was such a reassuring, homey sense that it lured them into confidence, and coaxed the words out of Jim's mouth without his noticing.
 
(Except he'd never said too much about costumed crimefighters at home. He was far more likely to keep her updated on news from the station – Kasinsky was back from maternity leave; Burke had been in the department for all of three weeks and Jim had received two requests that he take some remedial class on harrassment in the workplace; Foley and Chandler had butted heads again; Procjnow thankfully wasn't taking the Metropolis job after all –, to launch into a rant on Pettitt's gung-ho mentality or to describe the last tall-tale some crook attempted to sell them than to evoke bat-eared vigilantes. Or their colourful sidekicks.)
 
Or maybe, maybe, maybe... Maybe he knew.
 
(Fuck, she'd thought she'd left all the doubts and the second-guessing and the constant paranoia behind with Batgirl's mantle.)
 
She finished her mouthful, put her fork down, and asked, "why do you think there's a new Robin?"
 
Her voice didn't tremble, and if she'd had nothing more than a couple of months of experience at this, she'd have been proud.
 
Jim took his time to answer. Babs flipped through the memories of her conversations with Jason. He'd explained most of his visits away by saying Batman was answering the signal, and he'd never hinted that he was in contact with the police.
 
"Crooks talk," he said. "It reminds me of the first time, before—well, before Batman had even told us about his partner. I haven't seen him, and I don't know anyone on the force has seen him, but we've already been told a number of stories."
 
"Anything special about those?"
 
There must be. Jason never stopped bragging about how much faster he was, how much more resilient—that wasn't fair. Barbara had eyes, she'd noticed the speed herself, just watching him jump in and out of her bedchamber window.

Jason gloated the bad guys hadn't even been able to touch him, much less stop him, sometimes, when he visited her after patrol, vibrating with adrenaline (like a human, the way he'd done when he was alive, down to the sharp, short arm gestures he punctuated his conversation with), and he complained about Alfred's insistence on post-patrol check-ups ("I swear, I tell him and I tell him I'm not hurt, but he doesn't believe me until he's inspected me himself, doesn't even trust Bruce with me"), but it wasn't obnoxious. It just came and went, one sentence spilling out with the rest of what he told her.
 
Would that be different from what they usually tell? Criminals – a superstitious and cowardly lot. Bruce was only human, for all the inhuman training, and that had never stopped the crooks muttering about three-meter high demons who bound you in shadows and walked through walls. (About Batgirl, it was said that if she knew your name, she could make you fall in love with her until you'd answered her questions, and she could tell if you'd cheated on your girlfriend. Standard seductive demon/goddess protector of women stuff.)
 
He shook his head and sighed. "Least we can tell is—there's a new Robin in town."
 
When it was clear that he wasn't going to go on, Barbara took a second helping.
 
*
 
You could find everything on the Internet, provided you knew how to look. You could even get away with it, if you knew who not to trust.
 
Masks and aliases.
 
When she'd started recognizing the Internet as a community, when she saw that the screen name people called themselves was considered by everyone as who they were, she'd been filled with relieved surprise. Not so different from what she'd known, then. Not first hand, Batgirl being strictly a Gotham hero, but what she'd understood from Batman and Robin's tales, each with their team and their network of contacts. Superheroes had a community, and through Dick's adventures she'd grown familiar with it.
 
Sure, there were no faces – no costumes – to associate with the words appearing on her screen, but--
 
There was code. That was even easier.
 
People could change handles, populate a chatroom with sockpuppets, bounce virtual interlocutors from one continent to the next, swap speech patterns, impersonate a housewife from Munich, a developer from Oregon, a high school kid from New York, a scientist from Taiwan, a journalist from Cairo, a community organizer from Peru, hide and hide and hide, but they couldn't make code disappear. People were like criminals – or gymnasts; they had their favorite tricks, and the closer to them you got, the more they'd rely on their best moves.
 
If you picked the right string between your fingers, you could let them lead you right to them.
 
It made Barbara smile, how people thought they were losing their opponent in a maze, when in fact they were setting a trap of their own making.
 
Forget Superman – was that how Martian Manhunter felt? Wonder Woman? That lasso of hers that made people say the truth, wasn't it exactly like what Barbara was doing with code?
 
(Or was it how Catwoman felt, Babs wondered at night, when she broke into some place supposedly no-one could?)
 
The one time Barbara had used Batgirl out of Gotham, she'd been gathering data on a dirty senator, whose staff she'd infiltrated as an intern. She'd been looking for information, even then, and she'd finally got a hold on compromising documents.
 
Looking for knowledge on the Internet, as far she'd been able to tell, was the norm. Everybody was searching for an answer, everybody had something to sell. Not everybody knew what they sat on was a secret, but when you let it be known you were interested they'd graciously share. Money went from a bank account to another, but often you'd get your info for nothing more than the tacit acknowledgment of a favor (knowledge, still). It was a system.
 
She could enter one of the seedy chatrooms where web-savvy Gotham crooks hanged (crime was getting organized through the interwebs as well, and she was there and no-one else was) and ask what was the deal with Robin. If she wanted to make a deal where there might not have one before.
 
Or she could wait, without guarantee she'd get a result. Maybe criminals thought just saying Batman or Robin's name on the Internet was enough to invoke them. (It wouldn't work; for all that Batman's existence was hotly debated, it was a household name, she might as well put an alert on "Kory Anders". There were others, though, more useful names, that she was making it her business to follow – "Jim/James Gordon" yielded good results.)
 
Or she could bait them into it. Get them swapping gossip about heroes, sharing tips. She'd start with Superman; nothing revealing about telling Superman jokes.
 
At the end of her infiltration session, she'd learned three new dirty stories about the Big Blue Boy Scout, none of which a variation on the "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" gimme, and she'd come to the conclusion that Gotham skels felt a sort of condescending envy for the world's premier superhero, but she was no closer to her goal.

For the petty crooks of Gotham, Superman didn't mean anything: the bright-lit avenues of Metropolis and red capes proudly flapping in the wind were so distant they might as well be on another world. They could take the kids on a vacation trip to Metropolis, and they might even be spectator to an instance of Superman stopping Metallo in the middle of the street, but with their children gasping and giggling next to them and their partner buying ice cream for everyone, it had no more bearing on them than carny tricks at an amusement park. Superman belonged to the League, to the City of Tomorrow, catching falling planes and rescuing earthquake victims. They'd tell each other scary tales, but they believed in Superman actually impinging upon their life no more than they did in Santa Claus.
 
On the second day she tried, she threw the topic on the JSA. They'd had their headquarters in Gotham not so long ago, and their members might have left or retired, but half the team had been Gothamites. Now, if she could stop the topic from zeroing on Canary's costume, she was golden.

* Johnny O (~suicidestrander@email.net) has joined #UnderGotham

DanTheMan: if youd told me back then id say this I woulda laffd in your face, but here comes :
DanTheMan: I miss those days.

Alan: great. thx, Johnny. now we're in for a rousing round of nostalgic bullshit.
 
DanTheMan: Alan, how old are you? cuz if you weren't working then, you oughtta shut your mouth. It was a goddamn sight easier back then, and that's a fact.
 
len: Alan, I'm not saying it was perfect, okay, but it was special. Sure, they were goody-two-shoes, but they were proper heroes. In our town, y'know? None of this 'I hear Detroit's nice this time of the year' or 'teehee, we're making a super-special League embassy in Paris, and we're gonna call it Justice League Europe, 'cause it sure looks like motherfucking Europe needs its own League team' bullshit. I mean what's this, baseball? It was the first team in the world no matter what the HELL kinda lies the League is spewing these days, and it was ours. People respected us back then.
 
Alan: eurgh. sry old geezer, i just threw up a little in my mouth.
 
monster frank: ur a twerp that shuld be ashamd to call urself a gotham kid
 
Alan: yeah yeah i know this one. sry bout that, i mist the "respect your elders" speech when my old man spent twenty years in the big house after that sissy GL sent him there.
 
CosmicJim: Wildcat broke my jaw once. Spent six months drinking soup with a straw. Hell of a left hook.
 
*** Alan has quit
 
DanTheMan: canary broke my jaw TWICE.
 
monster frank: canary broke a warehouse roof over my head
monster frank: they got us out before we were squashed but yknow I never thought of that girl the same way after that

DanTheMan: I was talking about old canary. But yeah, I hear the young one's not a washup either.

* Bill (~fourisdeath@email.net) has joined #UnderGotham

len: Is it just me, or is the new guy always worse than the old guy? I mean, look. Young Canary packs a whole lot more of firepower than the old one. Lanterns nowadays are superspace supercops.
 
CosmicJim: Robins...
 
Johnny O: Making Gotham a stranger place, one soul-rending inane pun at a time.
 
monster frank: right ? evry time I hear one... if I wanted to work for a pun spouting costume freak Id work for a pun spouting costume freak. gimme a break!
 
Bill: Time out. your telling me Robin is real?
 
DanTheMan: wouldya look at that. a newbie. lets not take too long on that, so here it is in two wrds: 1)yes virginia there is a Robin, 2)the jokes about the costume – all true, 3)they changed a while back robins i mean, and 4)the new one is a nasty little shit.
 
monster frank: 2b)if u kno whats good for u u wont make them
 
CosmicJim: Emphasis on 4) Robin is a NASTY LITTLE SHIT.
 
DanTheMan: If it were my kid...
 
monster frank: not to big to put across ur knee and spank, heh? tho I guess its sort of a relief that big ol bat is having kid truble as well. I mean, if he cant get it right, what hope do we poor schmucks have?
 
len: Frank, I've done six years in the big house when my kid was knee-high, came out to find a surly gnome in her place, and I still managed better than the Bat. Successful parent figure the Batman AINT.
 
Barbara kept watching, but after this point the discussion devolved into bemoaning of family issues and bitching about how the pay never was good enough.
 
*
 
If the crooks didn't believe the Robin on the streets was new, it didn't take too long before Barbara started monitoring rumors that there was something new about him.
 
He was faster, and—he'd never been gentle, but he was rougher with himself (you know Robin, he's never acted like he cares for his own skin, one crook commented over a drink, but now he's not even gonna look if someone's shooting, like he thinks he's goddamn Superman or something), and--
 
There was something.
 
Whisper on the streets was meta.
 
Jim wasn't saying a word about that. After brief reflection, Babs hacked into the GCPD network. It wasn't the NASA, but she broke in with disturbing ease. That was discomfitting, but less so than her discovery of the GCPD's files. Their system was cheaper and less well-maintained than hers, and they plainly weren't paying anyone to keep their files on their computers. Most of their computer activity consisted in keeping in touch with the mayor's office and sending put-out e-mails about budget. It wouldn't help.
 
Their inside surveillance system was better. They had video cameras filming the interrogation rooms – Barbara remembered when they'd been installed, the fight between the mayor's directives and the cops' reluctance, the tension between the budget and preventing another lawsuit against the good police of Gotham, and her father in the middle of it – and others set at discreet, interesting angles. It wouldn't do if the police station got robbed and evidence went missing or people could just disappear or lose the notes on an ongoing investigation. The security cams covered almost all of the station, and enough of them were mobile. Corruption wasn't as prevalent as it'd been when her father had arrived, but it still ran rampant (second most corrupt police department in the country. After Hub City, good old dependably hellish Hub City). There were no cameras in the Commissioner's office; she could've told you that.
 
She wasn't spying on law enforcement for kicks, or to get some wacked-out satisfaction out of vicariously keeping an eye on the police she'd spent a handful of years as a teen thinking she might join. But she really did need to be in the loop, and like the criminals, the police was one of the elements of the Gotham scene she needed to be on top of.
 
*
 
She'd been taken in by the Waynes after Jim had been killed protecting them from the mugger. They gave her the best psychiatrist a little girl could hope for, whose dad had been shot down before her eyes and who'd grasped his fallen gun, and yelled at his murderer to freeze, glaring with tears streaming down her face, lips twisted so she wouldn't bawl, pointing the gun at him. They never pretended to replace her father, but raised her as Bruce's sister all the same. They would have been enough, if not for the tragedy that had placed Barbara in their care.
 
Bruce was the one who found the Cave beneath the Manor, but Barbara was the one who explored it.
 
"You're really creepy, Babs," he'd tell her when she was back, jeans streaked with mud and shivering with cold, nodding in sympathy. "Here, look, I've gotten a new Lord Peter Wimsey novel at the library. I'll lend it to you, I'm almost done."
 
"Don't you dare spoiler me," she warned.
 
She didn't stop frowning at his affronted look. "I would never, who do you take me for?"
 
"A blabbermouth," she said.
 
It wasn't entirely true; Bruce was given to flight of fancies, but he could keep a secret as well as the grave.
 
"Barbara... I know you're Batgirl," he'd approached her with the truth when she was on the bench, with no place to go. "I have money. I can help."
 
The focus, he lacked, but he channeled his own not inconsiderable powers of deduction – and the Wayne fortune – into the Batgirl's enterprise.
 
It was he that gave her the first idea of closing off Gotham, at the end of a particularly trying fortnight when she'd been chasing Solomon Grundy – a monstrous zombie that'd been lured into Gotham by the rumors that members of the Justice Society lived there. She was nursing her recenty-dislocated shoulder, listening to him pace and argue on the phone with the DA's office over Grundy's case. After Harvey hung up, Bruce slumped on the computer's chair, and moaned.
 
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could keep meta criminals out?"
 
Barbara raised an eyebrow, and gestured at her wounded arm. "You'll find no counter-argument over here. I wasn't after Grundy for my health."
 
"If we could just... lock Gotham up. Throw the Society and
their freaks out. Go public with Oracle – put the entire goddamn city under surveillance once and for all."
 
Usually this might be the time when Barbara made fun of Bruce's wild imagination.
 
But Bruce's ramblings had caught her attention, sparked the vision of a brighter future ten years down the road.
 
"Yes..." she breathed. "Clean the city for good. If we go public with the Oracle's system... We'll have to expand it, of course, so it covers the entire city. People won't commit crimes if they know they're being watched. And the Oracle will always be watching. Oh, there'll still be some crimes, of course, but-- so much fewer. So much more manageable."
 
Bruce's expression had shifted as she spoke, stunned at first, then captivated. "That's—that's beautiful, Babs. No, that's
gorgeous."
 
Barbara had already recovered, her mind firing on all cylinders to find a way to implement her most ambitious plan yet. "We'll need legal backup."
 
Bruce was blinking rapidly, still stricken.
 
"Bruce," Batgirl ordered.
 
"I'll—call Harvey," he said when he came back to his senses. "He'll—oh, he'll love it. I'll show him. He'll just need to be talked into it a little."
 
"Then get working on it. I'm counting on that boyfriend of yours."
 
It was her that locked Gotham up, that made it safe. It was the eyes of her Oracle, watching everywhere.
 
It was her that opened Gotham again, when Bruce would've let it locked forever. She was the Bat but he was the blinder of the two, unable or unwilling to see that if these methods dragged on she'd be called the villain, too enamored with romantic ideals to be truly practical, too unreasonably distrustful of the future to be truly great.

 
*
 
"Babs? Are you awake?"
 
Her father's voice sounded a little unsure, muffled through the door.
 
"Sure, come in!"
 
He entered, awkwardly, and stopped himself with his hand still on the door handle. Barbara hadn't pulled the blanket of her bed yet, and the mug of tea she'd stolen after breakfast was still emitting vague volutes of steam by the computer. Usually, he might cluck his tongue at her drinking caffeine again so soon, and tell her she should try and only imitate his good sides when she pointed she'd been raised as a cop's daughter and he'd buy another cup of coffee outside soon as he reached the station.
 
"I was thinking, I don't have to be at work and it's a beautiful morning, so we might go and spend some time in Robinson Park?"
 
Out of habit, she glanced at her computer. It was whirring gently, and there seemed to be nothing new on the topics that interested her.
 
"Sure, why not?"
 
His face brightened into a relieved smile.
 
"Great! That's great honey, it's been—ah, it's great."
 
She smiled back at him, puzzled by his reaction. They left the car home; Barbara had taken the same route several times a week over the past few months, for her escrima lessons.
 
She didn't need any help negotiating the sharper turns or any of the crosswalks, and Jim didn't try to lend her a hand. The park's alleys were hard and dusty, no more difficult to maneuver than asphalt, the kind of ground that was hell on a runner's ankles. It hadn't rained in a while; she hadn't noticed the season was so dry already.
 
Barbara tried to remember when had been the last time she'd gone on a walk with her father – or even been to a movie, a restaurant. An exhibition. They hadn't even gone out for her father's birthday. Had it been months since--?
 
Since before she was shot.
 
No wonder her dad had been so happy when she'd agreed to come out.
 
"Babs?" Her father was looking at her with his eyebrows raised.
 
"I was just thinking it's been a while since we last did something together," she said, smiling. "It's... it's nice."
 
Jim smiled back. "It is, isn't it?" he sounded pleased with himself.
 
"It's been a while since you had a real day off, too, if I'm not mistaken," Babs noted. This wasn't just her; it was both of them, and life in Gotham. "Things quieting down at the office?"
 
"Things are quiet today, and if we're real lucky it'll last until tomorrow morning. I wouldn't feel right asking for more."
 
"Hmm," Babs agreed. "Inzerillo and Cassamento found a compromise, or they were just tired of you busting up their made men?"
 
"Little of column A, little of column B," Jim admitted. "Tired of their own men disappearing on them, if you believe the gossip. Couple of handmen up and vanished, one moment to the next, right before a grab. Del Arrazio made a big deal out of wanting the case – he had this theory they were cutting from their bosses and the bosses did them in – but it doesn't look like it's panning out. No execution, no bodies. Bock's been telling me they're leaning toward the possibility they're just gone."
 
"Maybe it was Witness Protection," Babs suggested.
 
"Del Arrazio's considering it. His three big hypotheses are they're gone the way of the WP, or down the Gotham River, or they've actually managed to pull a fast one and they won't be found before la famiglia does. He's right cheerful at the moment, Del Arrazio is."
 
"Poor Bock."
 
"Poor Bock is right, he's been sending me these glances begging me to assign them some other case. And I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but I don't get the feeling these names will turn to black anytime soon." He grimaced. "I'm going to have to let it go pretty soon, too. Can you imagine the racket if it got out I was investigating the disappearances of three mafiosi without a body to show for it?"
 
"I can see the headlines already," Barbara dryly agreed. "Safer crime in Gotham City. Your tax dollars at work."
 
Jim winced. "It sounds pretty bad, doesn't it?"
 
"Yup," she cheerfully confirmed. "But how's this for a spin: you could look into it because things were so quiet right now! Now tell me that doesn't sound like an argument the mayor wouldn't be pleased to reuse for his campaign."
 
"He'd be more pleased if I could show him a figure about robberies being down or robbers being convicted, I"m afraid," Jim replied, just as dry.
 
Barbara reached over to pat her father on the arm, and tactfully didn't say what they both knew, to wit that Robbery was a hotbed of incompetency and corruption and unlikely to get any better at actual policing in Jim's lifetime.
 
Poor Dad.  Barbara could hardly tell him, of course, that the men in question had had a crisis of conscience when they'd been confronted by Batman and Robin, and according to all likeliness they'd spilled their guts and ran for their lives before their bosses realized what they'd done.
 
Barbara and her father spent a very pleasant afternoon, buying an ice-cream and the cinema's programmes on the way home, and were debating whether to got out see Dead Poets Society or Mildred Pierce, which was showing at the Monarch Theater. Barbara was persuading Jim to her side of the debate when the phone rang: a madman had taken the inside of a restaurant hostage and demanded the Mad Hatter was released.
 
Anything that related to a costumed freak was an emergency, and Jim had to tear in a rush.
 
After that, of course, there was no more question of Detective Del Arrazio's search on the missing mafiosi.
 
*
 
She was nowhere, a spectator, a camera's eye on a wall.
 
The balcony stood over a wide boulevard, so high that the cars' rumbling were muffled in the distance. The rosy veils of dawn started to spread over the roofs, pushing back the blue-grey dimness of the dying night, and she could feel, without feeling it, the warm breeze of summer. On the balcony, a man breathed avid gulps of the air, still untainted with the day's pollution. The first rays of sunlight brushed across his shirt. His eyes were closed in an ideal picture of serenity.
 
Serenity was cracked when Robin landed on the balcony's edge, silent. Menace read in every line of his body, and for once the bright colours of his suit didn't make him into a herald of good cheer. They spelled danger, like a tiger's orange coat or a poisonous frog's vivid skin, the red tunic revealed for the warning it was.
 
The man's eyes opened, and widened in terror. He stumbled back, for the door – and out of the light.
 
Robin was on him in an instant, too fast for Barbara's human eye to follow, pinning him into the last shadows of night. Predator on prey.
 
Robin's gleaming fangs shone in the semi-darkness, just before he bit down on the man's throat, and drank.
 
He was still drinking when Batman descended from the roofs.
 
The man's body had been limp for minutes now.

 
*
 
Barbara woke up in a cold sweat, out of breath. The room was dark, after-images of the dream replaying on the ceiling, vivid and bloody.
 
Adrenaline was surging through her body already, and she grabbed her glasses, pushing herself up and reaching for the chair as soon as her glasses were securely on her nose.
 
The chair didn't slide away, Barbara didn't pinch a finger in the spokes, getting from the bed to the chair only took her a few seconds, and then she was rushing for the computer, cursing under her breath when the monitor needed moments to light up.
 
She slid through the GCPD's security as easily as through butter, fervently calling up the excerpts of interrogation tapes she wanted, open logs and logs of dates and interviews and the final notes of Del Arrazio.
 
She kept reviewing the same moments of the interviews, the same sentences.
 
"--I lost sight of him when the Bat and his brat jumped on us--"
 
"I'd be happy to help, Detective, but I told you, it's kind of a blur--"
 
"We were separated, one moment he was there and the next he was gone--"
 
"--swear it's the last I saw of him, to be honest I thought he'd ratted us out to the Bat and that's why he fucked off before it all went to hell."

 
Rewind.
 
"--it's the last I saw of him—"

 
Her hand snagged on a knot when she was passing it through her hair. Barbara didn't look away from the screen, chewing on her lower lip in concentration.
 
The dates fit (well yes), and the facts fit (that was why she was even contemplating this in the first place), and the--
 
Barbara muted the video where Paolo Rozzi was explaining for the fifth time that as far as he knew, Sergio Cavallero had just vanished off the surface of the Earth after their deal was interrupted by Batman and Robin.
 
And she had that feeling.
 
Feelings weren't evidence that would hold out in court, but for everything else, they were a cop's, a crime-fighter's biggest ally. Jim had always told her, since she'd come to live with him, to trust her gut. Bruce never said it in so many words, but when he built a narrative out of what he knew, in the finest Holmesian tradition, he too relied on instinct.
 
She needed to know.

"Come on, baby," she muttered. Lines of code in the firewall protecting Batman's system scrolled in front of her. "Let me in... you know you can trust me, I'm so good, you don't want to resist me, do you?"

if (sendto(tcp_socket, &buf, sizeof(buf), 0,
(struct sockaddr *)&peer, sizeof(peer)) == -1 ) {
perror("sendto failed (you need root rights)");
} else {
printf("iptables packet of death sent successfully\n");
}
close(tcp_socket);
return 0;
eta
i


A tiny smile curved up her lip when she found the open port. "Yeah, that's just right..."

Now she had limited access to the computer. The next step was finding names of users, users also being administrative tools that she would coax into helping her gain further access.

$ cat /etc/passwd
root:x:0:0:root:/root:/bin/bash
daemon:x:1:1:daemon:/usr/sbin:/bin/sh
bin:x:2:2:bin:/bin:/bin/sh
sys:x:3:3:sys:/dev:/bin/sh
mail:x:8:8:mail:/var/mail:/bin/sh
backup:x:34:34:backup:/var/backups:/bin/sh
batman:x:1000:1000:cave,,,:/home/batman:/bin/bash
robin:x:1000:1000:cave,,,:/home/robin:/bin/bash


Cute. She didn't care about any other user than root, anyway, no matter what Bruce named them.
$ su root, Barbara typed, fast, in reply. "Let me in," she chanted, her teeth gritted. "Let me in, let me in, let me in..."

PASSWORD:
10 SECONDS BEFORE SHUT DOWN.


The question blinked in bright, bold caps.

Babs hesitated, and the countdown shifted to 9.

Her fingers twitched on the keys. "Fuck."

She cast for the right idea, desperate, but possibilities bustled in Babs' mind, dozens of dates and names that were meaningful to Bruce, hundreds of combinations, billions of shorthands. For a man who'd created a vacuum around him, he didn't lack in life-changing things – events, people, ideas, and god knew what else.

5, the screen warned her.

Fuck him and his romantic hang-up on symbolic bullshit.

Wildly, Barbara froze the countdown, and fed the open window a line of code meant to have her own computer acknowledged as a secondary hub – like the Batmobile's computer.

EMERGENCY PASSWORD OVERRULED
 
The cursor blinked cyan in approval, and Batman's files appeared, organized and free for the taking.
 
She was in.
 
Barbara took a breath, and tried to open the search engine, but found she couldn't; her hand was trembling too hard.
 
Okay, that's something else.
 
She put her hand down, bent her head back, and breathed deep in and out. Tried not to think that time was not on her side and every second that went by might be a second where the corrupted software rewrote itself and ejected her as a spy after all.
 
(It was Batman's system and she'd hacked it what if he realized) (what was she doing) (she was hacking Batman's files because she didn't trust him) Barbara deliberately pushed it out of her mind, and opened the files. She'd done the hard part already.
 
She didn't doubt that if she looked, she'd find a file with Jason's name on it (one with hers). It might contain everything she was looking for. But it would be secret, buried deep underneath a veiny mass of encryption, deep as the file with Thomas and Martha's name. She didn't know for sure it existed, but she'd bet her life it did – all the photographs and the details, all the hints the police had found at the time and the leads they had searched for – the world's best researched cold case. And she'd bet that Bruce rarely ever dared open it. If it the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents was ever solved, it wouldn't be by Batman.
 
Entering the names of the missing mafiosi in Batman's monstrous database was far easier. She obtained three short but complete records on their lives, achievements, and rap sheets, and the last time they'd been spotted. It coincided with the dates Inzerillo's men had told the police and Jason had given her.
 
There was nothing about their going missing.
 
Barbara did several searches to be sure. She checked by date; by employer; looked for their name in Batman's terrifyingly complete list of "DECEASED"; then the "MISSING" and "PRESUMED DEAD" lists; checked the "OTHER" category as a last resort, and grimaced when she found only Harvey Dent and Selina Kyle's files archived.
 
As far as Batman's database was concerned, Angelo Scarpa, Jake Lipari and Sergio Cavallero were just-- continuing.
 
He might not know. She couldn't rule it out entirely. Or he might not have updated his files yet – no, he'd updated the files of the colleagues that had been arrested (convicted, not just brought in for questioning).
 
Maybe he didn't bother—she had just looked through two categories long enough to fill a small phonebook of people whose fates Batman didn't know, and bothered to mark as such. He definitely bothered.
 
Microphones in the interrogation rooms of the station were a practical measure. It was unlikely he'd retired it.
 
He knew. Barbara leaned her elbows on the desk, put her hands on her chin, and breathed shallowly, slowly through her fingers. Of course he'd know; they hadn't found the bodies.
 
Idly, Barbara opened the records of the three dead criminals again. Assault, robbery, extortion; charges of domestic abuse that had rapidly been dropped, and suspicions of arson that had led nowhere.
 
Nothing too surprising, considering who they'd been.
 
Type of death not too surprising, either. A mobster's life expectancy might be longer than that of a gang member, violent deaths were a hazard of the job.
 
They'd been bad men, and they'd had a bad end coming to them from the start. If that end turned out slightly different from the usual... Well. It sure as hell was no more wrong than a 15 year old dying under some madman's beating.
 
Babs' hands fell open in realization. This was what Bruce had been thinking all along, wasn't it? This was why he'd made Jason a vampire in the first place. Weighing how wrong things weren't, compared to Jason dying.
 
She had to assume the deaths were accidents. She couldn't imagine Bruce letting it slide if Jason had meant to--
 
No.
 
Bruce had always let things slide where Jason was concerned. He'd find a way to justify cold-blooded murder, just as he'd decided to ignore the incident with Garzonas.
 
She had to assume the deaths were accidents, because the men who'd died were no worse than those who hadn't, because they hadn't been the kind of predator Jason reacted most badly to, and because their deaths served no purpose.
 
Jason hadn't told her, but then again Jason was a good liar.
 
And Bruce wouldn't tell her anything that would endanger his precious Robin, even if they'd been on speaking terms.
 
Barbara deleted all the traces of what she'd done, carefully, before logging out.
 
*
 
She was the first one to realize what was going on, she was sure; she was the only one with all the pieces. But there might be others, if there were more – accidents.
 
It turned out once she'd programmed her alerts, keeping an eye on the Gotham forums and chatrooms required as little effort as remembering to change VHS to tape a movie when the first was full.
 
*
 
Rolling Thunder
Location: Gotham
Number of posts: 2
 
Hi!
 
I've been away from Gotham for a while and I was wondering why everyone's so sure something's up with Robin?
 
 
NotReally
Location: New York
Number of posts: 653
 
Oh my god, not again with the Robin questions. Just let it go, guys.
 
Pretty fly for a bat guy!
Location: Gotham
Number of posts: 72
 
did u even look thru the archive b4 u posted u stupid bitch
 
Robinfan01
Moderator
Location: Bristol
Number of posts: 19487
 
Welcome to the forum, Rolling Thunder.
 
This question has already been discussed [LINK]here[/LINK] and [LINK]here[/LINK]. Please remember to use the search function before you create a new topic.
 
As someone with a fresh perspective on the issue, is there anything you could contribute to the conversation? We've had a lot of newcomers recently, but not often from people with your history.
 
@Pretty fly for a bat guy!
Lay off the newbies, will you?
 
*
 
"Babs? Have you seen the paper? I wanted to do the crosswords."
 
Her father's voice came from the living room. Barbara sent a guilty look at the half-filled crosswords she'd been absently doing while she waited for her water to boil.
 
"Yeah," she called. "I'm sorry, I started on them!"
 
"Ah, well, it's okay, you can keep them. You're better at them than I am, anyway."
 
"That's not true," she said, entering the living room and waving the paper.
 
Jim gestured at the TV. "Look. I'm just as happy with a good movie, you know."
 
"Is that what is it?"
 
Glancing at the TV, Jim couldn't repress a grimace. 8 to 9 slot, the channel he'd turned on showed one of Gotham's most popular talk-show. "Well, no," he admitted. "But it might be interesting either way. I need to be on top of what people say, you know."
 
"And Eye On Gotham is the best way to do it?"
 
"Shh, I can't hear what they're saying over the noise you're making," Jim shushed her, smiling.
 
Barbara hid her chuckle behind her hand. "Alright, let's see what's the latest gossip in Gotham, then."
 
"—is making himself rather scarce, wouldn't you say, Devlin?"
 
Vesper Fairchild's guest, Devlin Davenport of Davenport Enterprises, answered her inquiry with a cheesy smile. "Just so, Vesper. You could say that he's been living like a hermit – I've heard the phrase before, and I have to say that it's quite appropriate in this case! I'm the exception, of course, he and I are quite close. In fact, just the other day Bruce told me that since his boy died, he--"
 
The screen went dark.
 
Jim's hand was convulsed over the remote. His face was wrinkled with a deep frown that made him old two decades older.
 
"Vultures," he muttered. In his mouth, the word sounded like a curse.
 
Silence fell over the room. Jim was glaring at a piece of carpet somewhere by the TV set. Out of a habit she hadn't lost in the year she'd spent out of costume, Barbara kept her breathing quiet.
 
"They can't let it go. They can't--" He interrupted himself. His fingers were drumming on the plastic of the remote, though Babs doubted he knew he was doing it. "And of course he's not helping," he started again. His voice was muted with anger. "Helping us to help him. Even his friends--"
 
"Dad," Barbara said. Her father looked up at her, blinking; suddenly aware of her presence. She didn't know what she was going to say, just that she'd had to stop him before he went further. Before he slipped up more than with that pronoun 'us'. "You know it's more complicated than that," she finally said.
 
For a long time, she thought he was going to call her bluff. But in the end, Jim only let out a long sigh.
 
"Yes. You're right, Barbara." He sighed, with a tired little laugh. "It's hard, losing something. I just wish I could—ah, well. You'd tell me, if there was anything I could do, wouldn't you, Babs?"
 
She froze. "Dad?"
 
He didn't seem to realize. "I know you're a big girl, but if you ever needed something, you know you can always ask me."
 
She breathed. "I know."
 
She couldn't tell him, of course. And he was starting to talk about her. Feeling sorry for her. And that was almost worse.
 
"I think my computer's done compiling," she excused herself. "Good night, Dad."
 
*
 
Barbara had her alarms, and her aliases, and the people she knew to look at for the latest piece of news. She had her surveillance in the station, and in the local TV stations. She had her one-way road to the Batcave, though she'd rather not use it for things she could lean as easily elsewhere.
 
All she lacked was letting her own ear drag in the streets, and, if she was honest.
 
This way was faster.
 
She picked up on the disquiet of the underworld before anyone said anything conclusive. It might be a city-wide conspiracy; or it might be something the crooks felt better not mentioning out loud. (Superstitions, but not just; in a world where she could program video cameras to tape a discussion when certain names were uttered, superstition was as good a safeguard as any.)
 
She watched her father out of the corner of her eye, but he was out of that loop.
 
She made a note to test the waters with Jason when he'd drop by. Going for Batman might be more efficient, but they hadn't spoken since Jason's funeral.
 
A laudable plan.
 
Instead, it was as if Gotham decided she'd needed a reminder some things couldn't be planned for, anticipated, or manipulated, and that Gotham was a force no-one could put a leash on.
 
She was in the bath, savoring the hot, relaxing water after an afternoon spent training on her escrima with Dragon, when the news came on.
 
"—a hostage situation in the Laffco Toy Factory. The Joker, stripped of his title as ambassador of Qurac, is celebrating his return to Gotham City--"
 
The bottle of foam bath fell into the bathtub with a splash.
 
Unperturbed, the radio kept talking.
 
"Negotiations are in the process, as the police tries to convince Joker to let go of the workers, but the Joker has so far refused to comply. A security cordon has been set up around the plant while we wait for the hostage-takers to make demands, or for the police force to make a decision."
 
"Thank you, Angie."
 
Barbara kept her mouth shut until she had her computer fired up and it didn't matter what she was bottling.
 
The plant held chemicals, and a series of industrial accidents a decade earlier had put the owner on the brink of bankruptcy, but he'd miraculously managed to scrape up enough funds to pay off the damages to his ex-workers' families and hire a couple bright newly-diplomed chemists to avoid having to sell, which was really just another way of saying he'd been bought off by the mafia.
 
That the mafia had interests in the business was really just another way of saying the security had been vastly improved since the series of unfortunate events ten years ago – if Barbara didn't know better, she'd suspect the mafia had been involved in making sure the business would thank them for coming to the rescue. She did know better: it seemed obvious. Among these security measures were convenient if not quite state-of-the-art video cameras.
 
By the time she was there, so were Batman and Robin.
 
The radio's commentary from the other room related that the hostages had been rescued, but – ruckus in the distance, less impressive a sound than what movies wanted you to believe – the Joker had sabotaged the plant, so that it might explode at any minute. An engineer of the firm had been dispatched in a hurry to deal with the PR, and she was trying to minimize the danger the plant was to the city at a normal time by emphasizing that the kind of havoc the Joker was known for creating would be enough to change a NASA lab into a high-risk zone à la Tchernobyl.
 
The camera angles she could choose from were less varied than she'd have wished. A number of cameras had been blown up already, and most of the others were lost in clouds of thick, solid fumes.
 
She could see the Joker, alone on a walkway, Batman and Robin nowhere in sight.
 
He was howling with laughter on the mute film, when suddenly, his shoulders froze. His rictus moved into shaping a scream – Barbara could read the words on his lips, the exaggerated horror and fury.
 
"I killed you!"
 
She squinted, but her view on the rest of the walkway was obscured by columns of swelling smoke. She riffled, frenetic, between the other views – skewing across Joker's back, paning too low to see more than feet and knees – but there was nothing she glimpsed at amidst the smoke, only Joker standing alone, violet suit and green hair.
 
He stumbled back from a walkway full of nothing Barbara could see but smoke.
 
Swapping back to the first camera, she could see his face, his eyes blown wide. Dimensions removed from the nightmare tourist figure that had shot her through the spines. He'd taken pictures, she remembered the flash through the hot and cold pain that washed alternately over her lower body. She'd looked, eyes scrunched with the warmth of tears, and then she'd spent nights sweating as her subconscious replayed the memories, until getting rid of the blurriness altogether, and Joker's stark grin was burned into her mind as he snapped picture after picture.
 
She started saving the feed onto her computer.
 
Screenshots showed nothing, nothing more than the panic written large on Joker's face. The terror.
 
She knew what he was seeing, what he had to see – he took another step back – but when the fumes gaped open for a second, giving her a full view of the walkway's length, there was nothing. He was alone on the screen.
 
The last camera died, and Barbara hurried into the living room. Hostage situation with the Joker involved, there had to be TV crews. The reporters and the police had to be outside. The plant was falling into pieces, they must be waiting, not knowing what was going on – if the plant finished burning up, if the Joker--
 
he'd wanted to run, he'd looked like he'd wanted to run (she'd never forget his face), but there was a break in the walkway, wide enough that an untrained human wouldn't be able to cross. He was backing away from nothing (something) toward that gap.
 
Everyone waiting outside, waiting for the Joker to reappear--
 
what if he didn't?
 
What if, this time, he didn't?
 
Her thumb slipped twice on the remote's ON button before she could press it correctly, and she flipped channels until she found the local news.
 
The reporter showed a face where relief was taking over gravity. "--as the Joker is being taken into custody."
 
A zoom showed Joker, handcuffed and a little burnt along the edges and alive, horribly and definitely alive, being shoved in the back of a police van. The camera held the view for a few seconds, even as the reporter went on to mention the fire brigade's efforts to get the chemical fires ravaging the plant back under control, as if the camera thought it safer to keep an eye on him, or couldn't admit he'd made it out of the inferno.
 
She knew exactly the feeling.
 
*
 
When she used to be able to use her legs, if Barbara wanted a problem solved or a question answered, she would go out and confront it. It was as if telephones didn't exist then. She must have wasted considerable hours going from one place to another looking for information she could have as easily had by phone, over the years.
 
Nowadays phones were one of her best friends.
 
The phone in her father's house was black. It had a small crack running along the plastic of the handle, where it must have fallen. She'd been glaring at it for over fifteen minutes now.
 
Fifteen minutes was long enough. It didn't take a decent driver fifteen minutes to cross the docks to Bristol unless there was a traffic jam, and Batman was more than that. The night was young, but it was unlikely that the patrol lasted afterwards.
 
She could call. And when she did, Alfred would be terribly sorry, Miss Gordon, but Mr Wayne wouldn't be there.
 
She went back to her room, abandoning the phone. It didn't ring and she didn't call.
 
*
 
There were plenty of souls in Gotham City who'd lost a loved one to the Joker.
 
The forums buzzed with relief that he'd been caught again, and the occasional bitter remark that he'd escape again – six months, one year, and then he'd roam the streets once more. Behind the relief and bitterness, it didn't take much digging to hit the chorus of whispering wishes.
 
Too bad he didn't burn in the fire, Darkstar89 typed.
 
Nineties Now was trying to raise an acclaim for police brutality. It's gotta happen sometimes.
 
Give me five minutes in the same room and a shotgun,
Xtreme Blood Justice was more explicit.

Aliases had IP adresses, names, Ids. Aliases had jobs. Background checks kept people with a record from working in some capacities, but not people with grudges.
 
Plenty of souls in Gotham City with no lost love for the Joker; all she needed was one with a grudge.
 
Among the people working at Arkham Asylum, seven had suffered a loss at his hands.
 
*
 
Bruce wasn't at the annual police ball.
 
Barbara had arrived with her father, at an hour that a high-spirited Bullock had called "fashionably late". His partner had shaken his head and muttered repressively that Bullock don't be an ass, that Bullock had chortled at. Jim had diplomatically moved over to the next long-suffering cops, and exchanged pleasantries with their plus-ones.
 
Of all the black-tie social occasions, this was by far the least terrible. Gotham was good at black-tie parties, and joyrides, and travelling festivals – at every sort of entertainement that seemed like it didn't belong to the gritty routine of the city, empty promises of taking you far away from bloody Gotham. People were quick to forget that each and every one of these type of parties attracted the costumes. Moths to a flame. The police ball, at least, had the advantage of having a lot of cops on the scene.
 
Taking a glass of champagne from one of the buffets, Barbara wheeled at leisure through the crowd.

When she'd been much younger, she'd been a little put out at the presence of the law then: all that liquor she wasn't allowed to taste, it seemed almost a shame. It had been just a short few months after she'd come to live with Uncle Jim, and he hadn't wanted to leave her alone at home. Probably he hoped she might make friends. Barbara hadn't been a great people's person at that age. She'd spent hours daring herself to try and swipe a glass, without ever quite working herself up to it, a gangly, freckled girl that Jim pushed to sociability, and who slinked back to the walls when he didn't, in surly awkwardness.

After the first year, it was better, of course. By then she'd had ample opportunity to taste many types of alcohol under varied pretenses, and she'd had no doubt as to the mediocre quality of the sad sparkly wine poured in great quantity at the ball.
 
She'd never actually worked up the nerve to test her theory before she was of age, which, Barbara reflected, was probably giving the off-duty best and brightest of Gotham too much credit. Aside from her dad and two or three others who knew her age, no-one would've glanced twice at a poised young woman, made to look older with the make-up, reaching for a cup of light champagne instead of a soda.
 
Luckily adulthood came with its own disappointments. As a child, you had to learn that Santa wasn't real; then you dealt with puberty; and, once you were finally stabilized, you'd cope with the discovery that not all alcoholic liquids were the drink of the gods.
 
All in all, not too high a price to pay as far as Barbara was concerned.
 
She was grown-up enough, now, to realize that what she'd taken for adult confidence and sophistication as a teen was simply a mix of stiffness and good humour, and the latter slowly overcoming the former.

The attendants were cops, and she was a cop's daughter. Jim had raised her so that she understood them, so that – if she wasn't one of them – they were part of her; in a way, she belonged here. Most of them only wore a suit at weddings, and Bullock at least regretted the absence of stronger liquors – "or at least honest beer, it wouldn't come pricier than that cat piss they're giving us, and damned if it wouldn't be half more palatable."

It could've been stiff, a gigantic masquerade of people parading in roles that didn't suit them, but instead the mood was relaxed. It was the kind of thing she'd imagined as a child, when she read about languid family lunches stretching into the Sunday afternoon.

A handful of people were trying to dance, most were happy chatting about, in nice clothes they didn't have much opportunity to wear. From time to time a burst of laughter arched and echoed over the heads, like a champagne bubble.
 
Catching up with old acquaintances was nice and almost painless. When a colleague of her dad looked at her, Barbara couldn't see in their face the split-second surprise at finding her in a wheelchair. Cops didn't forget what had happened to the Commissioner's daughter. It might have been uncomfortable if Babs had been more self-conscious, or more paranoid, or something, but in truth it pleased her. She liked not feeling as though she ought to justify the chair.
 
She tried to catch up on their work, while she was at it, but it was less easy than it should by any right have been. There seemed to be a moratorium on shoptalk. All around the room, when someone started telling someone else about their current headache – or complaining about a judge – or exchanging pessimistic pronostics on next week's news stories – a wandering colleague would accost them loudly and demand to be brought up to date, only to veto the subject. "Hey, leave the job behind, willya? It's a party! Have fun!"
 
Thoughtfully, she took another sip from her cup, and she was almost surprised to find she'd drained it.
 
Next to her, a guy caught her gesture and raised his glass – also empty – in communion.
 
"Seems like we're going through a dry spell. Care for a refill?"
 
The champagne wasn't that bad. The buffets were far apart enough that there was no throng of people to cross through to reach the tables.
 
"Alright."
 
Barbara made no move to relinquish control of her glass, and the guy followed her cue. His other hand – the one that didn't have a glass in it – brushed against the back of her chair, but he didn't otherwise make a move to try and push her.
 
On the way, they made small talk.
 
"I'm Tommy, Tommy Burke – Detective Burke, if you want," he said with a smile, downplaying, "but we're not on the job, so... all my friends call me Tommy. You are?"
 
"Barbara Gordon." She didn't stifle her smile.
 
Tommy paused with a dramatic wince, and flashed her a grin when he was sure he had her attention. "Will you hold it against me if I tell you I-- don't have anything witty to say to that?"
 
It was corny enough that Barbara couldn't help but chuckle. Tommy smiled, pleased. He smiled a lot; probably his favourite method of interaction. She wondered if he used that when he interrogated suspects, too. Handsome enough, in a bland kind of way.
 
"They warned you against the boss' daughter?" She kept her voice casual, idle, as the waiter opened a new champagne bottle. There were cups already poured out on the table; she could just extend her hand and grasp one of these, without need for anyone else.
 
Tommy waited too, though Babs didn't know if he did it to be polite or because he didn't trust the glasses that were already filled to still be bubbly or because, like Barbara, he didn't like to drink anything he hasn't seen poured out from a fresh bottle if he could help it. That fact didn't change even if the room was full of cops.
 
Tommy nodded in thanks at the waiter as his glass was being filled, then answered Babs. "Well, they told me you were frighteningly smart, but they didn't mention you were also lovely."
 
Babs arched a sardonical eyebrow. "Frightening?"
 
He had an expressive face – the one thing he really had going for him, beside his pleasant bone structure, was his cultivated boyish smile. Babs pegged him at around a decade older than she was. Not really boyish anymore, unless he was looking for a woman who'd give him orders and send him to bed without supper.
 
At the moment he had the expression of the man who'd just shifted gears because they realised they'd trodded onto dangerous territory. Clearly he had her pegged as a feminist, a woman who didn't appreciate her intellect being cast in a defavorable light. "They did say I should be thankful the Commish didn't brag, because if it were them you wouldn't be able to shut them up. I extrapolated."
 
"And what else did you extrapolate from that warning?"
 
"That we should be introduced. There's a lot more people I should know in Gotham than I'm used to."
 
"You're from out of town?"
 
"Cherry Hill. Tranferred just six months ago."
 
"How's the adaptation going?"
 
"It's different," Tommy said with more diplomacy than she'd given him credit for. He must have been fielding similar questions from his colleagues for a while. It deserved at least a bit of an answer.
 
"You get used to it." It sounded cryptic, but it wasn't, really. Of course, by the time he'd realise that, he wouldn't need the reassurance anymore. "I grew up in Chicago, myself."
 
"Really? I'm not sure I believe that. The guys who told me about you at the station think of you as a true-bred Gothamite, at least."
 
She smiled. "I said I grew up in Chicago," she reminded him. "I'm from Gotham now."
 
"So what you're saying is that—Gotham adopts you? Did I get your meaning?"
 
"Something like that."
 
"Sounds painful," he said, frankly.
 
"Careful now. Going with your metaphor, you're talking about my mother."
 
Tommy laughed, and the conversation drifted to other topics. They chatted for a while, until, after his second refill, he was dragged away by a gaggle of colleagues, and Barbara excused herself.
 
It had been a while since she hadn't had a conversation with someone who wasn't "being nice" – even if they used painfully corny lines. She'd missed flirting.
 
The evening went well, the couple of squabbles that erupted quickly put to rest by friends' and partners' efficient intervention. There was no gatecrashers, especially not the costumed kind. Not a shot was fired.
 
By the end of the party people were agreeing to one another that it was much better to leave the costume parties to kids.
 
*

The days got shorter and the weather colder. Summer turned to fall, and Gothamites welcomed the rain back with the exasperated grousing that dressed their relief.

The same people who'd complained about how ghastly Gotham was in the summer – the heat, the smell—the sweltering boiling of six million people stuck day, day out on the island, and the tourists that didn't know better – now complained about the weather. They'd had barely any summer to speak of, and already the cold was back! The number of tourists lessened, chased away by the rain. They'd be back for the end-of-the-year celebrations, lured by the promises of a white Christmas and the glittering lights of decorations.
 
Barbara was ensconsed to her eyeballs in cybersurveillance, trying to track down all the anomalous incidents of Gotham, and she was monitoring the Internet rather more closely than she'd once expected to monitor non-criminal activites.

The main messageboard she'd been relying on for discussion of Gotham-based superheroes had closed down, and while it wasn't unheard of, in the cyberworld, it had given her some more work. Most of the ardent posters had moved over to mailing-lists that Barbara followed with a bit less assiduity than before – with the stringent moderation of the messageboard gone, the thought-provoking, acute discussions had dissolved into wild theorizing.
 
The moderator, when she tracked him down, turned out to be only mildly involved on the Internet, aside from some minor activity on messageboards and mailing lists devoted to photography. He was only interested in night-time photography in a city environment. The photographs he put up when asking for advice showed different views of Gotham, mostly downtown.
 
She might have expected it from a Robin fan. The kid had already been dedicated enough to maintain a messageboard for a while now. Plenty of superhero fanatics went photo-hunting.
 
Not all of them were thirteen and went looking for nocturnal heroes in Gotham. On one of the photographs, Babs recognized the angle of a building that had been restored on Moench. She only remembered it because the restoration of the facade had taken away the rotten gargoyles that clung on the rooftop's edges, including the one that looked like a fat-cheeked boy with thick glasses that she used to tease Dick resembled him. That gargoyle hadn't existed in several years. Tim Drake was thirteen; how young was he when he'd started hunting for photographs of his heroes?
 
How much effort could a ten-year old commit to a hobby before getting bored or disappointed, if they didn't yield results?
 
She looked back further. Dug deeper, into the constantly-growing graveyard of Internet history.
 
He'd had a small fanpage devoted to the Flying Graysons, once. A shrine, really. The texts were concise and full of childish adoration, and he'd put together a surprisingly good photo gallery. Most of which featuring Dick.
 
Barbara let go of the mouse and breathed.
 
She was busy with the case of the young Mr Drake. And there were these rumors of a new cape, one that targeted specifically the mafia, that required her attention for a while... Oracle had a lot on her plate.
 
When she looked up, October was stretching into November, and the Joker was dead.
 
*
 
They had more titles covering the issue than when the mayor was re-elected.
 
If you'd been in Gotham then and you weren't a Gothamite, you'd have believed it was sports season; if you were out of Gotham, national news said a few words about it.
 
JOKER DEAD
 
DEATH OF A MADMAN
 
RELIEF OVER GOTHAM
 
Titles varied, from the driest objectivity to quasi-jubilancy. KARMA AT LAST, gloated a local rag. A preacher went so far as to invoke divine justice. Conspiracy theories flourished, to the point that when you went out shopping for groceries, you'd hear two costumers taking the official story apart; the homeless lady brandished it as proof that the Joker had been an alien and the NASA had finally taken him into custody, the body nothing more than a double; the cashier nodded smugly and whispered that his landlord knew a guy who'd established pretty solid proof that the Joker had killed himself and cleverly disguised his suicide, his last deadly trick. Some people thought it was a state-wide agreement to dispose of a mass-murderer that would never make it to the electric chair; others believed Batman had done it; others yet, Two-Face on a "good" day, or a cop who'd never be turned over to justice. Nobody blamed the killer.
 
If she didn't leave fast enough the rejoicing turned to wishing someone had "done something" sooner.
 
That's why I think it wasn't a cop. Cops have always been completely useless when it comes to that guy. They catch 'im – and that's if the Batman doesn't exist – and they give him a slap on the wrist, just because he's crazy and so he's not responsible for his actions--
 
--I say, anyone who's killed as many people as this guy did is responsible alright, I don't care what the shrinks say, fuckin' bleeding hearts--
 
--and they can't even keep him behind bars!

 
"Police aren't the one guarding Arkham," Barbara pointed out as she paid for her milk, her bread. It didn't change anything but it gave her something to do beside grit her teeth.
 
They had no more interest in listening to that now than they did when Joker was alive.
 
Hey, maybe he was shot down trying to escape!
A brighter voice said, someone sympathetic to the police, who wanted them to be the "good guy". Or he was pushed in the stairs!
 
Laughter around. No-one believed it, but hey, hey, maybe, someone persisted, you never know. They didn't know Bullock or Pettitt by name, but they could describe them, or someone like them. To no avail. Cops like Bullock and Pettitt were never popular. Police brutality wasn't just a slogan, and no-one wanted to admit that a cop who'd violate the Miranda rights was a cop who'd violate the Miranda rights.
 
They do nothing except stuff themselves on donuts and push people around – my nephew got fined last week, because he was driving two miles above the limit! Two miles, can you believe it? Like they don't have something better to do, they have to come bother honest taxpayers!

 
At times Barbara was tempted to go shopping only in the stores close to the house, where they knew her and her father by name and by sight, and the manager would quickly shut up anyone said things like that when she was there.
 
It was all a question of getting out of the conversation before they reached that stage.
 
Well, sure, but see here, a fine isn't the same as getting us rid of the Joker. And maybe it's a cop who did it and maybe it's not, but I'd bet you my retirement plan they're never going to convict whoever did it.
 
And rightly so! Guy who did the Joker in, I don't care who he is, he shouldn't get a trial, he should get a goddamn medal for services rendered!

 
Hundreds of chats, all with the same tone. Barbara wheeled out of the shop, her groceries on her lap as she opened the umbrella.
 
If there was a consensus about the Joker's death, it was that nobody believed the death was natural, and everybody was grateful to the killer.
 
*
 
The Joker's death was ruled accidental, resulting from an allergy to his new prescription.
 
The doctor who'd made the original diagnosis, the secretary in charge of the records, and the firm Arkham had called upon to install an all-new computer system all came under scrutiny.
 
It turned out that while the paper files were complete, the process of uploading a decade worth of the asylum's history onto the new mainframe had corrupted some files, and the information had been mangled. No-one was guilty, and though accusations of shoddy work were leveled at the firm, Arkham refrained from suing, possibly to avoid being accused to having been overly lax with their security and the verification of their archives.
 
Eventually the conclusion was reached that the Joker's death had been – incongruous as it seemed – an accident. Maybe they didn't push too much; of all the casualties of the march of progress, few would be less mourned over than Joker's.
 
Barbara followed the proceedings and the autopsy closely. When they cut the Joker open, Commissioner Gordon was in the room, looking over the procedure. The cameras were at such an angle that Barbara couldn't see his expression; his arms were crossed, but it didn't mean much. It was cold in the morgue.
 
They'd left the face visible, either because they wanted the proof that there'd been no opportunity to swap the body, in case some higher authority called for an inquest, either for medical reasons or their own. The Joker's grin, frozen in death, had lost its terrifying mystique.
 
Barbara watched, dispassionately, as they cut him open. He was just a body, laid over an autopsy bed, his skin as greyish-white as the fabric they used to cover bodies. Inside, he had the same organs as any other human being. There was nothing that marked him as the most murderous criminal in Gotham's history. Nothing that made him different, that explained his sadism – no biological determinism to be safely blamed. He'd been purely a man-made monster; and now, all that remained was the body of a man, and the nightmares he'd sown.
 
They couldn't find the cause for his crimes in the empty husk, but at least they confirmed that of his death. No trace of foul play even after they'd spent twice, three times as long on this body as usual, because who could believe such a thing, that the Joker might have died a natural death. It was harder to prove a negative than to test for one type of poison, look for one type of wound.
 
Allergy; accidental.
 
There would be no grave to his name.
 
When Barbara zoomed in on the autopsy report, the words 'John Doe' at the top made her flesh prickle.
 
*
 
That night, she didn't dream.
 
*
 
"Barbara."
 
The voice came from behind her, dark and deep like the night. Barbara couldn't keep her heart from missing a beat. She'd been expecting it; she'd been preparing herself for the visit. But you can't really ever prepare yourself for facing Batman, can you?
 
She hadn't heard her window creaking, which might be the fault of her computers' whirring, or simply the sign that he'd come through another entrance.
 
"Bruce," she said, wheeling around to face him.
 
The mask was cast in disapproving foreboding, which owed less to her frivolous use of his name than to the original design of the costume. (Her window was still closed, she noted; he'd chosen a way in without potential witnesses.)
 
He looked like a block of the Gotham night smuggled in her room.
 
"What do you know about the Joker."
 
Her lips curled without wanting to. "And a pleasure to see you too."
 
She'd known it wouldn't be a social visit. There had been no social visits since Jason had died.
 
He didn't reply. Just waited.
 
She crossed her arms, and glared at the mask.
 
"Answer the question."
 
Her laugh was loud and raucous, ripping through the silence in sharp, sudden jabs. It finished as suddenly as it had started, leaving the silence like rags hanging between them, no longer enough to hide everything they weren't talking about.
 
"Oh, is that how it is?"
 
He crossed his arms, too.
 
"You're in my city."
 
"I think I've given enough for it that it's mine too, Batman." She raised her chin, daring him to deny her.
 
"Even then. We have rules."
 
"Really? What about Jason?" she challenged.
 
For a second it looked like Batman had—frozen. Then the impression vanished and it was as if he'd never stopped looming.
 
"What about him?"
 
"Well, to start, how does he eat?"
 
"Blood bags from Leslie's clinic," Batman said. "Me. Occasional crooks."
 
She'd have expected to grab the opportunity to tear into the occasional crooks, but the previous part—snagged in her brain. And kept replaying, like a surveillance tape a cop would replay again and again, on instinct, trying to pinpoint why--
 
She looked at him, taking in the curiously blank line of his lips, recalling, in hazy snippets, all the exceptions Bruce had made about Jason, the way Bruce Wayne had closed off after Jason's death, the way Batman had stopped seeing her and started hiding himself and Robin away since Jason becoming a vampire. His startle, just now, when she'd mentioned how he never seemed apply the rules to Jason at all.
 
It was like all the pieces slid together, where she hadn't thought there might be a puzzle.
 
Her lips curled.
 
"I see."
 
He didn't deny, and she was ferociously glad that he at least respected her enough not to pretend he didn't get her meaning, or that she'd misunderstood somehow. At least he respected her enough not to lie to her face.
 
"Does it make it easier to pretend you're not breaking your rule, when you're ignoring the criminals he's killed? You're even more of a hypocrite than I thought. And you come to lecture me about the Joker."
 
"They're accidents," Batman stated. "Five--"
 
"So was Joker."
 
"We both know better." It wasn't a dismissal; if it had, she might have thrown something at him then and there. It was the heavy tone he sometimes employed with her father, grim and subdued respect.
 
She wheeled up to him, until they were only two steps apart.
 
"Do we? Because we both know you had no business raising the dead. We both know better than to think the rules are okay with that, or with you being so far gone on that kid you refuse to listen to reason."
 
"That's different," Bruce said, and he sounded like he'd been having this conversation in his head for a long, long time. "Jason's different – Robin--"
 
"There's something about Robin, yes, yes, I was there for the first movie, thank you," she cut him off. "I know how this works, at least part of it, I was Batgirl, for fuck's sake, and I'm not a teen and I'm not dressing up any longer, but I'm still fighting the good fight. I know there have to be rules. But you have to admit some things are exceptions. Like Jason's an exception."
 
The Batman's fathomless mask stared back at her.
 
"This can't be."
 
Her breath caught, and something hot and tight knotted in her throat.
 
"Get out."
 
"Barbara—" he made a gesture, lifting his hand toward her; why, she couldn't begin to guess, when he was only able to show physical affection when one was on a hospital bed, pretending to be asleep.
 
She pointed at the door behind him.
 
"Get. Out."
 
As he turned to vanish, she wished she had a rifle, so she could load it, and knowing the noise, he'd know that she meant it.
 
*
 
Helena Bertinelli was a middle-school teacher in the inner city. She lived alone, in an old apartment building that she'd adapted into a loft, which she'd bought with her parents' inheritance.

There wasn't one veteran cop in Gotham whose ears wouldn't prick up at that name, and Barbara had been raised by the best. Almost two decades ago, the Bertinelli family was gunned down, with no other survivor than their eight-year-old daughter, and leaving the four remaining mafia families of Gotham to grab up previously well-defended territory.
 
She had subscriptions to four magazines that she used for her classes, and that her school's librarian was thankful she put them at the students' disposal, and the Gotham Times, whose unread issues could pile up until the week-end, before she flipped through them when she dragged herself into her kitchen by Saturday noon, and which laid forgotten by Sunday. When the heap grew too messy, she remembered its existence just long enough to scavenge them for more articles to show to her students, before getting rid of the rest.
 
The only phone calls she'd received were from her school, or the occasional parent who wanted to meet her to discuss their kids.
 
The apartment block she inhabited had been carefully disguised to look like four other families lived there. There were lights going on and off at intervals that were just too regular enough, if you knew what to look for; and four apartments fully furnished, but populated only with dressed mannequins was pushing the limits of probability, even for Gotham. Barbara spent two hours admiring the stage. At the end of her examination, her respect for Bertinelli's intellect had grown three sizes.
 
She didn't date, had no friends, and her closest family hadn't left Sicily in more decades than Barbara was concerned with.
 
She'd managed to do something that Bruce, for all his posturing with the League, had never been able to do, and that Barbara had never seriously considered: cut her life down to the single strip of work.
 
She called herself the Huntress.
 
Barbara hadn't meant to approach her so soon. She could admit, now, that she'd been planning on approaching her some day. Her study of Ms Bertinelli's habits, and the research she'd done on Huntress' training, had passed the point of "necessary information" some time ago. At the time, she'd justified it with the idea that all information was necessary – which was true – especially about a new cape in Gotham – but.
 
But.
 
Now she was facing the very real possibility that the uneasy situation between Batman and her could get worse. He'd as good as accused her of murder, and she'd as good as admitted to eliminating the single greatest threat they'd ever faced. She'd called him out on his bullshit, for god's sake. He never did like being made to confront his own contradictions.
 
She yearned for being able to ring Alfred, and demand to know what was going on. If only things hadn't got to the point where she couldn't imagine picking up her phone. If only.
 
She'd been doing like Bruce, with her buts and her if-onlys. And she couldn't afford to, not anymore. She'd lost the comfortable relief being able to lie to yourself brought you when she'd woken up with the crystal-clear knowledge that she was never going to stop needing the chair. And kept waking up with that knowledge, no denial allowed.
 
If she were Bruce, she'd be able to predict her opponent's movements, based on psychology, and on the fact that they'd known each other for long. That was how all of Batman's best plans went, didn't they? Finding the enemy's weak points and let them tangle themselves in a trap. It was a good method, as far as that went.
 
Perhaps she'd have relied on it, if Bruce hadn't turned Jason into a vampire, and didn't hide the deaths Jason caused. It didn't matter whether she thought he was the same man or not, or whether she thought she'd be able to predict him; it mattered that she took precautions anyway.
 
(She knew his weak points, for that matter. They hadn't changed; Barbara thought they might never change. They were still family, and his parents, and Dick, and Jason. She wasn't looking forward making plans to avoid pushing on them.
 
His way of adapting to them had.)
 
She wasn't Bruce; and Oracle's weakest point was how limited her direct action was.
 
It was slightly miffing to realize she'd been scouting for agents only when she was forced to admit it, but at least it meant she could remedy it.
 
*
 
Hello, Dick, it's me, Barbara.
 
I know we haven't been in touch for a while, and I'm guessing you haven't been in touch with Bruce either, but I wanted to get you up to date just in case. (Alfred probably has kept in touch with you, but I'm not sure how much he's actually told you of what's going on here.)
 
You may have heard about the Joker's death. Everyone's very happy about it, and they keep saying the person who did it should get a medal. That would be me, and the only person who's guessed – that would be Bruce – is less than happy on the subject. I'm sure you're recoiling in horror right about now. You can't believe I broke the rule. The rule. I know, Dick. I took the oath same as you, and I never forgot.
 
I still believe in the rule. I think murder is fundamentally wrong. It denies the victim their humanity on the most essential level. It makes them an object. I don't think I'm going to lose sleep over being responsible for the Joker's death, though. I know taking the law into one's own hands is wrong – I know that probably better than you and Bruce, actually, remember, I wanted to be a cop before I became a vigilante – and the sentiment of satisfaction I have, when I think he'll never be able to hurt anyone else, owes a lot to revenge. That wasn't my motivation. Or: that wasn't my whole motivation.
 
I'm not sure how much you know about Jason's death. You weren't at the funeral, and you haven't exactly been a big presence since you came back from Tamaran. Joker killed him.
 
Bruce brought him back. It might have been better if he'd begged Talia or Ra's for a Lazarus Pit, but for whatever reason he didn't, and instead made Jason into a vampire.
 
Did anyone tell you he might have killed a guy, before? A piece of work called Garzonas. That was a while ago, a short time before Joker shot me.  I think he did it. I told Bruce so. He didn't listen to me. Didn't want to believe.
 
Jason's still Robin, now. He's killed some more, though to be fair to him I think they're accidents. Vampires need blood, you know. Don't blame the kid for something that's not his fault. He's not some monster – only in the most literal sense; I've been monitoring the whole thing and they're isolated incidents.
 
Bruce knows. Bruce lets him. But he'll object to my getting us rid of the Joker.
 
Are you blaming yourself, or me, or Jason, or Bruce? You shouldn't, Dick. It's not your fault. You've got your own life, and it's good that it's taken you out of Gotham. You couldn't have prevented it anyway.
 
I'm sorry for dropping all of this on you all of a sudden, but things have really been coming to a head, and I thought it'd be better if you had all the facts, in case Bruce calls for you.
 
Take care,
Barbara
 
PS: For your information, just so there won't be any awkward scene if you feel like popping in to say hi, Bruce and Jason are screwing.

 
...Yeah, that would fly over well.
 
Better to leave him alone, ignorant and happy. In New York he was as far from Gotham as he'd ever been. He was so distant they might as well have made him up, out of wishes for something better, to be able to cope with the blood and the grime and the horror of Gotham, the way people look at the sky and think about shining, far-off stars.
 
Nothing connected him to Gotham anymore, beyond the tenacious strands of memory and sentiment.
 
Bruce had refrained so far from calling him.
 
Dick had gotten out.
 
She'd leave him alone as long as Bruce did.
 
*
 
I have something for you.
 
She sent the single-line e-mail to Tim Drake, with an attached file of a photograph of Robin that she'd copied from the Cave's files. Most of the family's pictures in Bruce's non-protected files revealed more than she was willing to share at the moment. It seemed like tempting the worst to select a picture taking place in the Cave; she was going to have a fun time enough already trying to keep Tim from discovering who was talking to him. Flipping through the most accessible of Bruce's pictures made it clear he'd been more interested in the training value than in the sentimental, which explained, too, why there were almost none outside.

She'd finally selected an old, old photograph of Dick swooping in. Given the photo's angle, she was pretty sure he'd been after whoever was taking the photo – possibly Crazy Quilt.
 
She wished the Drakes weren't careless enough that they didn't have a surveillance system in their house. Sure, they lived in Bristol, but she'd seen their house; they were Bruce's neighbours, and it was certainly a nice enough house to attract robbers. She'd have been able to repurpose one of the cameras to watching over Tim's reaction, rather than being left in dark.
 
After a few moments during which he must have tried to at least look up her IP address and come up blank, a reply appeared in her inbox.
 
Who are you? What do you want?
 
My name's Oracle. I'm one of the good guys. I want you to trust me.

 
She attached another picture from her selection. In this one, Batman and Robin stood on the roof of the police station, Batman talking with Jim Gordon, while Robin was doing a handstand on the edge of the roof. It was part of the footage that had been taken when some bright mind had decided to plant a camera by the signal in order to prove urban legends where real. Luckily, they'd noticed and dismantled the system before it could do any damage, and her father had restricted access to the roof to authorized personnel only.
 
I've never heard of anyone called Oracle. It's kind of hard to trust someone who won't even give you their names – hero or civilian.
 
In the third picture she sent, Dick was plopped in the seat of a photo booth, making faces. It dated back from shortly after she'd become Batgirl, and there were several others like that, featuring either Robin or her, that they'd taken when they weren't both on patrol, and that they taped to one another's locker for the other to find the following night.
 
You're very good, Tim, but you don't know everything there's to know.
 
This time, the pause was longer.
 
I'm not sure what you're talking about.
 
It was a careful sentence, too careful for someone with no idea what she was referring to. She hadn't meant anything specific by it, but it was clear Tim had noticed there were things that were different, now.
 
She was grinning.
 
Do you want to find out?
 
The latest photo was a bit different from the rest. It was still Dick as Robin – she'd decided on chronological order to send the pictures – but this one had been taken in New York. Dick was showing off in mid-air, beaming with his entire body. A candid of Wonder Girl's, Barbara would have bet.
 
Maybe I can find out on my own. Your sources are dated, by the way.
 
Oh, professional pride. All the better for the Oracle to wow you, young Robin stalker.
 
She sent two pictures, this time. One was Nightwing in Starfire's arms. The other was Jason – Robin – laying down the hurt on Captain Boomerang's minions. That one looked like it had been accidentally shot when one of the bad guy's had let their camera fall on the ground, while they were in the middle of examining the weapons loading.
 
Are they?
 
Well...

 
She replied with one of his own photos. A gorgeous view of the Gotham skyline, cutting clear over the blurriness of the city night sky. The cathedral's silhouette dominated the left half of the photo, while the failing streetlights in the street on the right cast an ethereal, gothic look over the landscape. It would have made a pretty decent postal card, if someone wanted something with claims to artistry.
 
If she'd had to, she could've shown where she thought Robin should have been swinging, at an angle in the street. It looked like a snapshot of Robin swinging across the street, the only problem being that the shot was empty.
 
What do you have to lose? she asked, blunt, pretending the question was rhetorical.
 
The kid sneaked alone in Gotham at night. All his carefulness went into not getting caught, not into avoiding putting himself in danger.
 
Maybe now was the time to assure him she had no interest in pubescent boys. But she preferred not to bring up that line of conversation for now.
 
Why are you contacting me?
 
I need your help.
 
I want to trust you, but I'm not sure how much you know
, he replied, with disarming honesty.
 
Guessing what he was worried about wasn't even a gamble.
 
If I wanted to hurt them, we both know there'd be more direct ways.
 
This time, she included a scan of a one-year-old article from a Gotham magazine, about the fundraiser for needy children. The journalist went back and fro between fluff piece and tabloid gossip, and consequently there were more pictures of the rich guests than the cause they were supporting. If you didn't know what to look for, you might think this was relevant because of the issue, but if you looked, you could see Bruce and Jason in the attendance. Plausible deniability was everything.
 
you know the secret? He hadn't cared about proper capitalization, in his eagerness.
 
(Barbara closed her eyes. She was manipulating a baby.)
 
That sentence needs a plural.
 
I've been doing some reading on vampires
, the reply came. So sincere, again. Tim Drake was a thirteen-year-old kid who'd wanted to be able to talk about his obsession with someone he could trust for years. For him, that was "someone he could trust with the knowledge".

Knowing Superman's secret identity might be more pressure than knowing Batman and Robin's, but Barbara wouldn't have bet on it. Maybe that was just because she was Gothamite.
 
Useful, but I had something else in mind.
 
Is it about Nightwing?

 
Interesting leap of logic here.
 
No, it's in Gotham. I have someone I want you to meet.
 
I can't wear a mask
, he protested. I'm not like them. I'm not a hero.
 
There would be time, later, to explain that someone could be a hero without a mask. A second, Babs had a guilty thought for her father, who'd spent most of her teenage years trying to demonstrate that same lesson to her.
 
It would be better to approach her in her civilian identity, anyway. You're good at keeping secrets. You'll have to keep that one for her.
 
Are you going to tell me her hero name too?
 
There wouldn't be much point in you approaching her if you didn't know who she was. I'm not asking you to spy on her, I want you to to talk to her.
 
I'm not very good at talking to people. Besides, most adults aren't willing to listen to kids.
 
She's a cape in Gotham.
 
I see your point. Okay. I'm listening. Reading.
 
Her name is Helena Bertinelli. She lives on Staton Street. I want you to tell her about me. Answer all her questions about me, tell her what you want about you. Don't let her give you the cold shoulder. You'll have the advantage that she's a teacher, a good one, so she'll be inclined to listen to what you have to say, even if she disagrees. Tell her I want us to work together. You're not a mask, but she is; and I also need someone who's used to the action side of the streets.
 
Bertinelli... is she the Huntress? You say I'm not a mask and she is, but what are you? You know a lot for someone who says they're not a bad guy, but why would you need someone in Gotham if you're a hero, especially a kid like me, and a newbie like Huntress? Do you even live here?

 
Oh, he was good.
 
Things are changing. I've been operating alone until now, but I want to stay effective – if I want to be more effective, I need to change my way of doing things. I need to expand, and if she wants to truly do good, she needs to get organized. I'm giving you the opportunity to step up your game.
 
Okay, you know both our names. Do we just call you Oracle?
 
I can't tell you all my secrets at once. You already know more than practically anyone else in the world, Tim: I exist.
 
Aren't you concerned I'm going to find out your secret ID?

 
He'd written 'scared' first, she would have bet. And thought better than to leave something that might look like a threat.
 
I know you'll try. You're good, but you're not that good. Yet.
 
*
 
When you asked Tim something, you had to be ready for it to be done fast. Babs wasn't sure if he didn't believe in putting things off, or if it wasn't the excitement of the request that that got to him. He'd been a spectator, and she'd invited him into the world he'd been recording since before he hit double-digits.
 
The following day, after school, the video camera of the clothing store in front of Helena's block caught a glimpse of a short, skinny middle-school aged kid with baggy jeans and a bagpack hesitating a moment before climbing up the steps to the apartment building, and ringing the door. A dark-haired woman answered, Ms Bertinelli herself.
 
They exchanged a few sentences on the doorstep – even from afar, Barbara could make out Helena's frown, and Tim gave off a clear aura of twitchiness – then, after Tim ran a frustrated hand down his cheek (it looked like a gesture that should want to rake through his hair, but given his hair was fixed into solid spikes – how much product went into the 'do, Barbara preferred not to imagine – he had to make do with the next best thing), Helena let him in, and closed the door behind them.
 
The same video cam assured Barbara it was almost half an hour later when Tim left. Helena looked thunderous, but stolen images here and there had taught Barbara this wasn't an unusual expression for her. Tim looked jittery, like he was coming home with the video game he'd stood in line three hours for. He sauntered past the store, and—didn't cross the street two blocks further, in front of another video camera Barbara had appropriated for the express purpose of checking up on Tim. The bus Tim was supposed to take to get back to Bristol came, and went, without Tim.
 
Barbara sighed. She was pretty sure that meant Tim had climbed to the roof, and that there would be professional quality snaps of Huntress added to his collection after tonight.
 
There was a new e-mail in her inbox.
 
Barbara smiled. Negotiations were open.
 
*
 
Three nights after Bruce's visit, Jason knocked on her bedroom window. When Babs peered out, he grinned and showed a bottle of champagne, and Babs opened. If a neighbour looked up, it'd look like she was entertaining suitors with very strange kinks, and they might well go gossiping to her dad. At least Jason looker older than he really was from afar, so they wouldn't think she was a cradle-robber on top of it.
 
"Look what I brought us," he said gleefully. "How does it look for a party!"
 
The bottle of champagne definitely came from Bruce's stock. Alfred kept the Wayne cave well-supplied, and bi-annual family dinners always came with the appropriate beverages. That Bruce didn't touch, because he never knew when Batman could be called, but he didn't keep his guests from enjoying them.
 
"Can you even drink alcohol?" she inquired.
 
"Nope, but that's not a reason not to celebrate. You're gonna drink, and I'm gonna enjoy it vicariously."
 
"You're not going to take embarrassing pictures, are you," she asked, throwing the last, cold mouthful of tea from her mug into the potted plant by her desk.
 
He snickered, and she threw him a warning look. He put up his hands in a gesture of defense. "Hey, no, what am I, a jerk?"
 
Best thing about champagne bottles: you didn't need special ustensils to open them. Barbara pulled on the cork, twisted it to loosen it up, and it popped free cleanly.
 
"Here, lemme fill your glass – mug – at least." He took the mug she'd put back on the desk without waiting for a answer, and made a grabbing motion at the bottle.
 
"Why?" she snipped. "Think I'm going to spill it?"
 
"No, it's so I can have the impression I'm participating in this getting-drunk experience. I never did it when I was alive, and now I'm never going to do it at all."
 
"Two things. One, no-one said anything about getting drunk. Two, maybe you can  feel the effects of alcohol, if you drink the blood of people who have been drinking."
 
"Maybe I can, but can you imagine Bruce's face if I come back zig and zagging? 'Sorry, B, got smashed on a wino's blood. Cheers!' Unless you're offering me yours, and even then, I'd be in for it."
 
"Maybe you can ask him," Babs said, in a neutral voice.
 
"For science? ...yeah, maybe I could." He was silent for a moment, lost in his thoughts, until Barbara cleared her throat, sloshing the champagne in her mug meaningfully. "Right, right." He lifted the bottle in a solemn gesture. "To the Joker's death. I'm glad he's dead."
 
"To the Joker's death," Barbara echoed. She took a sip. The champagne was delicious, made chilly by the night.
 
Jason sat on her bed, rolling the bottle between his hands. "Sorry I didn't come sooner. I wanted to, but Bruce kept me busy."
 
Out of the corner of her eye, she searched his expression. It sounded so natural when he said it. She spied the curve of his shoulders, the looseness of his fingers. She took another sip, rather than risk blurting out something she might regret.
 
"I'd guessed you were on a short leash," she agreed afterwards.
 
Jaosn grimaced, and leaned back. "Not really that. Want a refill?" he asked suddenly, noticing her mug was empty and lifting the bottle. When she aquiesced, he complied, and went on. "It's not just I was on a short leash, it's more that the Joker dying kept us busy. Yeah, he was worried about me, before the Joker kicked it. Barely let me out his sight, though I guess I can't blame him. And since then, well... On the one hand you had the freaks getting excited, on the other hand you had the gangs seeing a golden opportunity to expand while everyone's busy dancing with relief, plus with all the people celebrating there are always those that get a little bit too tipsy to make good judgment calls, so just on the basic patrolwork, there's been plenty more stuff to stop. And it was Joker, so."
 
She nodded, to encourage him to go on. Made a conscious effort to keep her grip on the mug from tightening.
 
"He had to make sure it was really an accident. That—kept him pretty occupied. And thus me, 'cause otherwise he'd still be going over the pieces and self-flagellating for being happy that sick fuck is dead, and questioning whether he's not seeing the parts that make it not an accident on purpose." He exhaled, silently, and tipped his head back. "You know how he is. The more he wants something, the harder on himself he has to make it."
 
He looked back at Babs, and grinned. "He's lucky to have me."
 
"So how come you're here?" she asked, rather than reacting to that. "You managed to give him the slip?"
 
"He's made his peace. Sure, it's anticlimactic as hell, but we've done every test and followed every lead, and he's come to see that the only way we'll know more is if he asks someone like Jason Blood or Doctor Fate or Zatanna to do a little hoodoo and show him. And that'll never happen. So he's let it go."
 
"Sounds like he's taking it worse than you."
 
"Well, one of us has to be functional. And it's not the same, you know? It's been, heh, it's been a lifetime since I'm Robin, but actually it's only been what, four years, four years and a half? He's been defining himself against the Joker for a lot longer than that. Joker's dead because Arkham's filing system is a sieve? I get how it looks suspicious, but it's neither the first time nor the last important details get strangled in red tape over there. I'm already on my second lease at life, I've done my self-actualization. Bruce's turn is now."
 
Wordlessly, Barbara raised her mug, and Jason obliged with a refill. She was doing fine emptying the bottle on her own; thank god he hadn't brought a magnum.
 
"How about you?" Jason asked.
 
Bab lifted her eyebrows over the rim of the mug.
 
"How are you doing. With the Joker's death," Jason insisted.
 
She unsealed her lips from the mug to give a one-sentence answer, in a light tone. "Fine. Why wouldn't I?"
 
Jason's brow furrowed in a thunderous frown. "Fuck that, Babs. Don't give me that. I know that kinda fine, okay? I've been dealing with it non-stop since I put on the goddamn pixie boots, so give me an actual answer or tell me to fuck off, but don't take me for a moron."
 
"You think it's impossible I have no issue with the Joker dying?"
 
"Fuck no, that's not what I said. Do I look like I have an issue with it? Night it happened, Alfred was whistling. I just wanted you to do the same pulling-down-the-baggage I've just been doing. You share, 'cause I care."
 
Now she wished he hadn't taken his eyelets down. He'd wear the same expression, but she'd have an excuse for ignoring it.
 
She looked away, at the window where she hadn't closed the shutters. The street outside was plunged in darkness, phantom streetlights illuminating the empty quietness of the street. The area was calm; the police patrol car drove by in the small hours of the morning, when the whole street was still deep in sleep, with only Babs – still working – and her dad – getting ready for his morning run – awake.
 
"I'm happy he's dead." She took a breath. "I feel like—maybe I should feel bad that I don't feel bad. But I don't. You were talking about self-actualization. Well, I've done mine, too. I'd done my self-actualization before he came back. And the person I am today has moved on. And now that he's dead, maybe the rest of the world can catch up with me."
 
She let it sank in. After a moment, Jason said, in a meditative tone. "Might take them a while."
 
Were they still talking about the rest of the world, or just about Batman? She shrugged, didn't ask for a clarification. Both were true.
 
"I can be patient."
 
Jason let her drain her mug without asking any more questions, and when she was done, gestured to offer yet another refill. She shook her head.
 
"No, I think I've had enough."
 
"Killjoy," Jason muttered, but he was smiling. He stood up. He didn't stretch, Babs noted; he hadn't needed to since becoming a vampire, he'd told her, but the habit had remained. It must have been recent that he'd lost it. "I'll leave you the bottle. I should go."
 
"You don't want him to know where you are?" she asked, detached. As if she hadn't been recruiting for if Bruce and her went at war over Gotham. As if she didn't care about the answer.
 
Jason snorted, and tapped his mask. "Sure he knows. Tracking device. I told him I'd be on Giordano by three, and I'm gonna be late if I don't get a move on."
 
"Is he going to go right back to pretending I don't exist?"
 
"I don't... think so? Look, Babs, no offense, but you haven't been the most forthcoming either, lately. I'm not saying Bruce is blameless, but when's the last time you picked up the phone or dropped by for a visit?"
 
She registered. It couldn't be coincidence that Jason had the time to come see her three days after Batman confronted her.
 
Maybe she'd got through to him.
 
"Don't be a stranger," she told him as he let himself out of the window. "And I won't."
 
*
 
These were the things Barbara knew about vampires:
 
- they were stronger, faster, and more resilient than normal humans, their senses more acute;
 
- the traditional flaws that folklore gave them were largely false, or might be true on a case-by-case standards, but she could hardly depend on them to draw up more precise rules;
 
- whether sunlight seared them to dust or not, months-old vampires fell into a deep oblivion when dawn rose, and they only came back to life after dusk had settled;
 
- the only food they could consume was human blood, though it didn't need be fresh;
 
- they couldn't fly, or dissolve into smoke, or turn invisible; they couldn't talk to animals;
 
- they didn't appear on film.
 
These were the things Barbara knew about Gotham:
 
- it didn't lack for monsters, and;
 
- it didn't lack for masks.
 
*
 
The driver had changed, since the last time she'd ridden the 3:45 bus to Bristol. This one was a young-ish woman who popped her gum at red lights; maybe the previous one had changed bus lines, or moved away, or been killed. This was Gotham; it didn't do to overlook a possibility.
 
The weather had turned cold enough on them in the past few days that the ditches on both sides of the road were frozen.
 
Barbara gave the sidewalk a wary glance, then snorted aloud when she saw the white grain of salt, glittering like jewels on the side of the road. She really shouldn't have worried; Bristol was the wealthiest borrough in Gotham, of course its roads and sidewalks would be faithfully salted at the slightest instance of frost.
 
The alley leading up to Wayne Manor, when she looked through the fence, was as faithfully devoid of ice.
 
She cleared her throat when Alfred's cultured voice answered the intercom. "It's, ah, me. Barbara."
 
Then she cursed herself. "It's me", she must have sounded like one of Brucie's bimbos. The fact that Alfred recognized her and welcomed her in before she said her name was even worse.
 
"With pleasure, Miss Barbara."
 
At least she hadn't introduced herself as "Barbara Gordon", she consoled herself, as the Manor rolled into view. And she was still "Miss Barbara" to Alfred. She didn't know what she'd have done if she'd been downgraded to "Miss Gordon". She might have had to pause behind a tree and sniffle a few minutes.
 
How strange that she was more nervous going to the Manor than she had been the first time after she'd discovered Batman and Robin's identities.
 
The stone wheeling ramp that had been installed for her benefit didn't bear any more trace of ice than the porch's stairs. Alfred couldn't have salted it between the moment she'd rung and now, and she hadn't called ahead. Did they salt it every day?
 
The door opened on Alfred before she'd rung, before she'd had time to brace herself. That was unusual. Usually, Alfred would've given her however long she wanted, even if he knew she was right there.
 
Maybe he'd been afraid she wouldn't ring, which sounded like something Bruce might do, and which she'd have scoffed at more if it hadn't been months since she'd dared called the Manor.
 
God, they'd really managed to cut themselves off all on their own.
 
"Welcome, Miss Barbara. Welcome back."
 
"Thank you, Alfred."
 
He didn't try to hug her. Sometimes it was really obvious who'd raised Bruce.
 
He cleared his throat. "If you'll, ah, follow me, I'll put tea on. I'm afraid Master Bruce and Master Jason are unavailable at this time, but if I might interest you in apple pie, you won't have wasted your time."
 
"It's all right," Barbara said. "I came to see you too."
 
"Which is very pleasing to hear. One could've let themselves be fooled into imagining otherwise, after your visits had grown so rare."
 
Barbara winced. That was almost as pointed as when Alfred directed his sarcasm at Bruce.
 
"I wasn't sure I'd be welcome," she reminded him simply.
 
"I... see. I apologize for the part I had in this failure to communicate."
 
"I've been told from an unexpected source that we've all done of ouf share of that, recently," she murmured. "I'm sorry too."
 
Instead of the living room, Alfred led her into the kitchen. That was a first. He interpreted her expression correctly, and explained. "Your hosts should be among us by five. In the future, you might want to schedule your visits for nighttime, if you hope to talk to them."
 
She looked away from the flames licking at the kettle, surprised. "What—both of them?"
 
Alfred retrieved two cups from a cupboard and set them down on the table. "Yes," he said.
 
"That's..." Barbara searched for words. It was like grasping water. "Unexpected," she finished. "I didn't know." Jason hadn't told her. Then again, it had turned out Jason hadn't told her a great many things about Bruce and him. She tried to remember the last time she'd heard of Bruce Wayne attending a luncheon, playing golf, anything.
 
"Quite recent," Alfred said, stopping the fire under the kettle. "It's been three days."
 
That put it right between Bruce's visit to her and Jason's. Barbara's stomach dropped.
 
Had it been what she'd said to Bruce?...
 
"I'm sorry," she said.
 
He tutted. "Don't be," he chided her gently. His hands were firm when he poured the water into the teapot to brew. "You have done nothing wrong, and they made their choice."
 
Was it really a choice—what if she'd completely failed to read Jason, what if every death hadn't been an accident after all—even if it had been a choice, how could it possibly be the right one?
 
She didn't want to press. All of her questions would completely skewer Alfred's discretion treshold. Instead, she mulled over the mass of horrible doubts swarming in her mind, as Alfred poured them exquisite tea.
 
Batman was a vampire.
 
This was going to require a lot more organization than she'd thought.
 
"You might want to ask him the question directly, but I do believe forcing him to acknowledge your presence and activity has made him realize Gotham is not as devoid of hope and defenders as he'd lured himself into thinking."
 
Barbara took a breath. The nightmare ideas were getting back under control, now; a gentle, easily-led column of sheep.
 
"I might. When things have calmed down," she admitted, taking the cup Alfred was handing her. "Thank you, Alfred." She'd had enough of extracting deep truths from Bruce's strictly-ruled psyche to last her for a while.
 
"Master Bruce has since assured me this will not disrupt his routine excessively. He'll only have to accept the invitations to such events as take place at night, and depend more heavily on Lucius Fox where Wayne Enterprises are concerned. I trust he intends to offer you to be the CEO." He took a sip of his tea.
 
"I'll think about it," Barbara said, half taken aback, half-amused that Bruce had already drawn plans for his new existence, and that Alfred was taking them in stride.
 
"He's also started looking for a way to stay active during part of the day," Alfred went on. Barbara bit the inside of her cheek to keep the inappropriate burst of laughter in. That... sounded just like Bruce. "He says you have inspired him."
 
After too long, Barbara remembered to react.
 
"...Oh."
 
Alfred's smile, though a little wan, was real.
 
*
 
EPILOGUE : A FEW MONTHS LATER
 
Tonight's a quiet night, or it just feels this way because every night since Bane seems quiet.
 
The earcomm crackles to life, and Robin's voice distracts her from her surveillance of the restaurant. Huntress is supposed to be patrolling in that area tonight, which is the main reason she recommended this restaurant amidst the half-dozen of her current favorites when her father asked her if she knew a good place. But it never hurts to be careful.
 
"So I just wanted to let you know your creepy little sidekick is at it again."
 
Babs risks a glance at the hour. "Did you just notice him just now?"
 
"Yeah," he says, and his voice catches with the wind in a way that says he's leaping across the street. "And don't give me that. He'd just arrived, his tennis shoe scraped against the metal stairs."
 
That's probably true, but it's also true that Jason would never have known someone was tailing him if Barbara hadn't asked Batman and him and Huntress to let her know the moment they thought someone was watching them. Now she compares the times they notice him with the times Tim follows them; Jason is the only one who always knows when Tim's watching. Jason has the advantage of having excellent vampire hearing, but Barbara is optimistic that Tim will get him someday. It's proving to be good training for everyone.
 
Batman wasn't overjoyed when she told him about the mysterious person who'd worked out his and Robin's identity out years before, but mostly that was because he would've wanted to snatch him for himself. Barbara said she thought it wasn't out of the question that her diamond in the rough wouldn't let himself be bought off for the price of the Robin uniform, and laughed when Batman dropped the subject like a hot potato or a bomb about to explode in a harbor.
 
A sudden movement in the restaurant she's watching catches her attention. She zooms in, and no, it's nothing, just a woman whose purse fell as she stood to go to the restroom. Still, she keeps a camera focused on the woman and another on the woman's table companion. Just in case.
 
"O? What are you doing?"
 
"Sorry, Robin. Surveillance detail."
 
"Don't tell me you're watching your Dad on a date."
 
She bristles. "I am not watching him. I'm keeping an eye on the scene in case anything goes south."
 
Jason sighs. "Yeah, you really kind of are. Does H need to hold an intervention again? 'Cause all this stalking is getting out of control. Your Dad's the commissioner, Essen's a police lieutenant, they're more than able to react to anything comes their way a lot faster than you're going to be able to send any of us. I swear, you're as bad as B."
 
"Don't you have some drug trade to disrupt," Barbara grinds.
 
"That was yesterday. Which reminds me, about disrupting: we've got a maybe on that Spoiler kid."
 
"Nice," Barbara comments. "Have B send me the stuff, I'll see what we can do."
 
"You gonna put the Boy Stalker on her case? Man, I'd almost feel bad."
 
"Robin," Barbara warns.
 
Jason snickers. "R out."
 
On the other screen, the signal that says Tim sent her a message is flashing. She clicks it, and a window similar to that of a chat opens. It's best viewed from her side, in front of a computer; Tim can only see the last few lines of text on the screen of his pager.
 
That was fast, Tim has written.
 
They could keep in touch through earcomms. It's not like Huntress hears Barbara's real voice, either. But he prefers to keep it this way. He's plenty sentimental, when you know him. Barbara suspects he'll only want to switch to oral communication when he's discovered her identity.
 
Metal stairs, she replies. He says you're wearing rubber soles; if that's true, then you're good for stripping to your socks next time. Or giving up.
 
No way
, the response comes at once. Babs can't help the grin tugging at her mouth. I'll be more careful next time, that's all. I failed because I rushed.
 
Sometimes you don't get a choice but to rush
, she feels obligated to remind him.
 
I like plans.
 
And thanks for that. If Tim required hands-on and constant attention, it'd be much harder for her to train him.
 
Good. Robin says they've narrowed their Spoiler possibles, so I'm giving that one to you. She's your assignment.
 
What do you want me to do?
 
Find her and everything there is to know about her. Feel her out if you want to, no ID breaches without letting me know.
 
I'm not going to tell her my ID, O
, he types back, as though she's a very slow toddler. Can I give her yours?
 
She smiles, wickedly.
 
Let's hear it, then.
 
I'm thinking you might be Batman after all.

 
Checking the cameras around the place Tim's tracker is blinking, she shakes her head. He's put himself in a blind spot. He must be having a good laugh right now.
 
Haha, very funny. Keep it up and I might change my mind about not sending you on that vacation with Impulse.
 
NO. O. PLEASE.
 
It might do you good to see something else than Gotham for a while. Talk with people who aren't slated to become Bats. It might even help you improve your recruitment methods. Not to mention your adaptation skills. You could see Nightwing.
 
What about my ID? I don't have a name.

 
Guessing she's yanking his chain. Well, good. She might have him trained into a decent banterer one of these days.
 
Then it's time to think one up, don't you think?
 
I will, Tim answers. Just not yet. I'm still figuring things out.
 
You don't have to stop figuring things out once you've settled on a name, you know. Don't let B & R get to you: this life – what we do – it isn't set in diamond. Plenty of people change names over the years. Plenty of people retire, and that's just right. See N and Flash. Or Arsenal.

 
She thinks he'll use the opportunity to rehash the old chestnut about Robin, and about Dick being special, but he doesn't.
 
How long did it take you?
 
That's sneaky of him. Using his insecurities to advance his investigation. It deserves a good answer.
 
Longer than you.
 
On her screens, Gotham glitters with all the lights of early night, like all the facets of her life reflected back at her.
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