by Constance Eilonwy
This takes place during the events of The New Batman Adventures Episode "Knight Time," and is set firmly in the continuity of the animated series. It is based mostly on dialogue, information, and impressions from the episodes "The Shadow of the Bat," "Batgirl Returns," "Scratch Your Back," and "Chemistry" (which I'm assuming falls after "Knight Time" in the continuity), and particularly "Old Wounds" and "Sub Zero." I also have to admit influence from the relationship between Nightwing and Oracle in the DC comics.
Thanks to Batya, who offered insights into the characters of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon that made my head spin, to Liz, Batman stylistic consultant, who offered such details as the Turkish coffee, and to Michael, stunt coordinator.
Disclaimer: Batman and related characters are the property of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation, borrowed without permission and with respectful intentions. The title refers to how long it takes to fly from Bucharest, Romania, to the New York City area, based on a web search of airline flights I did in 1998. Recent research indicates it can take as little as 7 hours on Air France. However, I refuse to allow improvements in air travel to upset a story which was partially based on careful time-planning. But on some airlines, it takes 13 hours. As I have never taken the trip myself, I make no claims as to accuracy and take dramatic license as needed. If there are any hideous time gaffes or other flaws in realism, please let me know. Praise and adoration would be nice, too ;)
The "fasten seat belts" light flicked out as the plane reached cruising altitude. Dick unclipped his seatbelt like one escaping chains. Beside him, Barbara didn't even look up from her magazine. She unbuckled her belt with one hand and continued--whatever it was she was doing, which would be difficult to term reading. Nose uplifted slightly, she flipped the magazine pages over rapidly, pausing only now and then.
The vibrating hum of the plane's engines surrounded them. The passenger across the broad aisle stirred in his sleep and let out a snore. A soft, murmured conversation came from a few seats ahead of theirs. The only other sound was the soft flip as Barbara turned over her magazine pages.
Dick shifted in his seat uneasily, and his knee bumped hers. She hardly seemed to notice, except her leg moved away from his. Coughing, he pulled out the airplane safety guide and studied the layout, from habit. Then he stuffed the guide back into its pouch, leaned back into the generously-sized plane seat, and closed his eyes. His fingers curled around the end of the armrests as he took a few deep breaths. It looked as if he were dozing.
Barbara glanced at him, then quickly moved her eyes back to the magazine. A loose strand of red hair drifted down along her cheek, and she tucked it back. When she glanced up again, he was looking at her. Her gaze snapped back to the magazine.
"Babs, can you close the window shade? It's kind of hard to sleep with the sunlight."
"Of course," she said pleasantly, and pulled down the shade.
"Glad everything turned out okay at home," he said.
"Hm-hm," she murmured. Flip Her foot moved, fidgeting against the footrest.
"Could you stop that tapping?"
"So sorry." The foot stilled.
Silence thudded between them. The plane roared on towards Gotham--home.
"That's it. I can't take it anymore." Dick rose to his feet.
"What?" Now, finally, her eyes fixed on him, magazine genuinely forgotten. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going...to have a smoke."
"They don't let people smoke on airplanes."
"Then I'll just step outside."
Her eyebrows went up at that. His fist struck the back of his seat before he turned and started back along the aisle.
"And you don't smoke!" She called, leaning across his empty seat to watch him go.
"I'm thinking of starting!" He called back, and vanished through the curtain separating first from coach class.
Several passengers' heads swivelled, staring at her. She subsided back into her seat.
"Damn him," she said under her breath.
At least the in-flight meal gave them something to do.
Dubiously, Dick eyed the piece of meat speared on the end of his fork. "Sure could use some of Alfred's cooking right now. This stuff tastes like my gym socks." He took the bite anyway.
"At least we get those great salted peanuts." She held up her hand, letting a small packet swing back and forth.
"Hey!" He finished chewing, swallowed. "How come you have those and I don't?"
"Because I stole yours." She held up a second package with her other hand. A half-smile tugged at her mouth.
"Why, you sneaky...gimme my peanuts!"
"I don't think so." She transferred the second packet to her other hand, the one closest to the window, out of his reach, and held both packets down out of sight.
He grinned. She should have known to watch out when he grinned like that. Moving with a suddenness and precision that at first left her unable to react, he closed his fingers around her wrist and bent her arm up against her chest, effectively pinning her. His other hand flashed across her legs and pried a packet of peanuts from her grasp.
Too late, she started her countermove, and for a split second they were eye to eye, nose to nose. Time stopped for a heartbeat, then started up again.
Opening his fingers, Dick released her wrist as suddenly as he had grabbed it. He sat back in his seat and his fingers went to work tearing open the little bag of peanuts. Barbara sat, arms at her sides, not moving for a second or two, eyes staring straight ahead. Then she cleared her throat, picked up her fork, and started on the limp green salad.
One day earlier
The trip east had been easier, in a way. Both had been too taut with worry to think about anything else. It had been deemed safest to travel as themselves, via public airline, suits in special, lead-lined pouches in their duffel bags. No one but Tim would know that Gotham was any less protected.
"God, I hope he can handle this alone," Dick said, as they collected their luggage at Otapeni Buchare airport.
"He's a smart kid," she said, a crease of worry appearing in her forehead. "He'll be okay. Right now I'm more worried about Bruce."
They walked out through the automated doors. The Romanian night was chilly.
"We'll check in with Tim when we get to the hotel," Dick said, as they threw their bags into the back of a cab and climbed in after. "And then we go do what we came to do." In halting Romanian, Dick gave the address of their hotel to the driver, then shut the plexiglass window for privacy.
"We're just going to walk right in there?" She said, fiddling with the strap of her bag. "And if he is behind this, do you think he'd actually just confess everything, and give Bruce back?"
"If he doesn't, we'll make him do it," Dick said, voice flat, with a hard note that was unusual for him but not unprecedented. He watched the lights of Bucharest slide by outside the window for a moment, then turned to her. "You haven't gone head to head with him, have you?"
"No," she said. The lights played shadows over her face in the dark cab. "You have."
"Yes. And the first time, I wasn't exactly...ready for it." His expression went slightly sullen, then went poker-face again. "You're in for an interesting experience," he told her.
"Ah, detectives, what a pleasant surprise. Please, do sit down." Over six feet tall, Ra's Al Ghul moved with smooth grace, gesturing at one of the generous chairs of the richly decorated library. The firelight played over his gaunt, slender features, darkening his already shadowed eyes. His voice held equal grace, and equal shadow, as he settled into a deep armchair himself. "Would you care for some turkish cofee?" One long fingered, brown hand waved at a serving tray, where an ornate brass coffee set waited.
"No, thanks," Nightwing said rudely.
"Then perhaps the lady?" His eyes travelled over Batgirl, appraising, committing to memory.
"No, thank you," she said, politely. Neither she nor Nightwing chose to sit.
"You're new," he said to her. "As are you...perhaps." He fixed a hawk-like gaze on Nightwing. "Your voice is familiar. You've grown since we last met."
Nightwing's eyes narrowed, white night-vision lens slits in his mask. "We don't have time for small-talk, Ghul."
Ra's crossed his impeccably clad, breech-covered legs and steepled his fingers. The firelight gleamed off the high polish of his black boots. "Well then, what brings you to Romania?"
"I think you know," Nightwing said coldly.
"Actually, I don't, detective. Perhaps you could enlighten me?"
"Where is he?" Nightwing stepped closer to the chair. His sleek shadow fell over Ra's.
"He?" Ra's looked up at the young man consideringly, then let out a short bark of a laugh. "You mean Batman? My, you have grown. This is a switch. You, confronting me, to rescue your esteemed mentor."
A faint beeping sounded in the cozy stillness of the library, preventing whatever might have happened next. Startled, Nightwing pulled out his cell phone. He half-turned, while Batgirl watched Ra's al Ghul carefully, her hands loosely curled, limp, but ready at her belt.
"Nightwing here... What happened?...he is?" Several degrees of tension visibly drained from the line of his shoulders. He let out a long breath. "That's a relief...Who!...You're kidding...okay, I've got to go. We'll get back as fast as we can. Oh, and if we're not back within 48 hours, you know who to blame," he said, shooting a glance at the man in the armchair. "...Nightwing out."
Nightwing snapped his cell phone shut and put it away. "Come on." He took Batgirl's arm. "We're leaving."
"So soon?" Ra's rose from his chair with the smooth power of a panther.
In a motion that looked like reflex, Nightwing pulled on Batgirl's arm, moving her halfway behind him.
"I take it Bruce Wayne has turned up safe and sound."
"Okay, so it wasn't you this time."
"Sorry to disappoint you...Nightwing, was it? A fitting name. I like it." He turned his gaze to Batgirl. "My dear. It has been a pleasure. I wish we had more time to talk." Before either could move, he reached out, took Batgirl's gloved hand, and kissed it with a gallant motion. Then he returned to his chair and the dark coffee waiting for him on the antique table.
The two masked figures left quickly.
Morning found Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon on their way home, nothing to think about now, but each other. -----
"Ladies and gentlemen, we should be arriving at Charles DeGaulle airport in approximately one hour. We've encountered some heavy cloud cover, so some turbulence is perfectly normal and nothing to be alarmed about. Our crew will be bringing drinks around shortly."
The captain's message, which was in French, was repeated in English and German while a stewardess started moving through first class with a cart of coffee and drinks, the coffee in fine brass serving pots that reminded Dick and Barbara unpleasantly of Ra's al Ghul.
"Coffee, monsieur? Coffee, mademoiselle?" The stewardess stopped at their seats, friendly smile in place.
Dick rubbed his hand over his face, which bore the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow. "Yeah. Could use some caffeine. Babs?"
The stewardess poured some hot liquid into a porcelain cup. "How do you take your coffee, monsieur?"
"Black, two sugars."
As she added the sugar, the cabin lurched suddenly, and the stewardess' expert hands faltered. The cup flew from her hand, splashing steaming dark liquid onto Dick. The cup landed on the floor of the cabin and rolled away along the rug.
"Ow!" He sprang from his seat.
"Je regret, monsieur, I am so sorry, here," the stewardess frantically handed him several towels. "Oh, dear, the turbulence...so sorry..."
"That's...okay..." he said with teeth clenched. He started wiping his jeans with a towel, but a sound made him turn sharply.
Bent double in her seat, Barbara was gasping for breath, her fingers gripping the edge of the seat in front of her.
"Babs!" He reached his hand towards her. "Are you okay?"
She looked up, and a laugh burst from her. His look of concern melted into annoyance.
"Sorry," she squeaked, "I know it's not funny..." she doubled over again, shoulders shaking.
"Sure, it's hysterical, a real laugh riot."
Barbara pounded her fist on the armrest, tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Dick." She sat up, took a deep, tremulous breath, looked at his face, and let out a hoot of laughter.
"For cryin' out loud!" Snatching another towel, he shoved past the cart and headed for the lavatory.
When he returned a few minutes later, the stewardess was still there.
"Monsieur," the stewardess said to Dick, "may I please offer you another drink?"
Dick dropped into his seat, tucking in his black t-shirt, which was slightly damp. "Yeah. I'll have...something strong. Make it a double. Oh, and you got something for her?" He jerked his thumb at Barbara, who was stiffling her laughter with small snorting noises, face averted to the window. "Like a tranquilizer?"
The stewardess blinked, then started preparing his drink. "Certainly, monsieur," she said, with an aplomb that would have impressed Alfred.
Charles De Gaulle Airport
"An hour to kill until our connecting flight."
Dropping his duffel bag to the carpeted floor of the airport's first-class lounge, Dick fell back onto an empty couch. There were only a few other passengers present, reading, or dozing as they waited.
He pulled off his black leather jacket. "Think I'll take the opportunity to get forty winks."
"Fine. Then you can take twenty winks instead and keep one eye on our bags while I stretch my legs." Barbara dropped her bag on the floor next to his, and paused. "Okay?" She said, voice more conciliatory.
"Sure, no prob, Babs." He shrugged, putting his sneakers up on the couch. Reaching down with one arm, he lifted each duffel, one at a time, and deposited them in the space between his body and the back of the couch. "Anyone trying to get these will have to wake me up first--and you know I can sleep light enough to hear a footfall on carpeting." He folded his arms behind his head. "Just don't forget to come back and wake me in time to catch the plane," he said, eyes closed.
"Got it. Tempting as it is to leave you here, I won't," she added, but her voice was teasing. "Besides, you'll probably hear the boarding call over the loudspeaker anyway. If I am late, meet me at the gate."
Charles De Gaulle Airport
New magazine in hand--the cover featured an article on a new flexible synthetic material that could withstand extreme heat--Barbara Gordon yanked open the
lounge door and darted inside.
The other passengers had left. Dick was still stretched out on the couch, duffel bags safe under the curve of his arm.
"Dick, get up, we're going to miss the plane...well, what do you know? He's out cold." She folded her arms, magazine flopping over from one hand, and looked down at him, shaking her head. Probably he had been tireder than he'd thought. "Dick!"
He stirred slightly, but something told her it wasn't her voice that had disturbed him. Her hands dropped to her sides and she took a step closer.
He was muttering in his sleep, his hand clenched around a fold of couch fabric so hard his knuckles were white.
"Dick!" She reached down and touched his shoulder gently.
"Dick, we're going to miss the plane--"
She shook him slightly.
"No...NO!" He struck her hand away and sat straight up, the word tearing from his throat in a shout. His chest heaved once or twice as he caught his breath. One hand came up to rub at his forehead; then he looked at her. After a few seconds the distance went away and his eyes were his own again. "Babs? What...?"
"The plane! Our flight! Hurry!"
He cursed, then leapt from the couch, grabbing up one duffel bag and tossing her the other one at the time time. Together, they ran, slamming out through the lounge door, then racing through the terminal.
"What happened? Why didn't you wake me up in time?" Dick shouted at her. A neat row of someone's matching luggage loomed before them. He leapt, clearing the obstacle cleanly.
With equal ease, she followed. "There was some security problem, backed up the crowd. I couldn't get through."
"Any idea what was going on?" Dodging on the balls of his feet, Dick lowered his head, avoiding being struck by the topmost suitcase on a cart piled high with luggage. He darted around a couple with three children in tow.
"They were looking for someone." Barbara dodged and weaved through the crowd after him, her red hair flying out behind her. A man with a suitcase stepped into her path. She leapt in mid-stride to the left, missing him, and kept on running without breaking pace.
"Last call for boarding, Flight 714 to Gotham airport..."
"You couldn't have avoided the crowd?" They had reached the gate. He skidded to a stop on the carpeting, and breathing only slightly faster than usual, handed his boarding pass to the clerk.
"How was I to know? Do I look like I have ESP?" She pulled herself to a full halt, feet stilled firmly against the carpeting. Her upper body swayed a bit with the sudden stop, but she didn't overbalance. She held out her boarding pass, then trotted after him into the boarding tunnel. "Besides. Whatever happened to Mister Wake-at-a-footfall? How come you didn't hear the boarding call?"
"Bonjour," the steward at the plane said brightly. "Have a pleasant flight."
"Yeah," Dick muttered, as they found their seats. "It should be a real barrel of monkeys."
"I said I was sorry. Besides, it wasn't my fault. How many times do I have to explain it?"
"Fine, let's drop it."
In the window seat this time, Dick frowned and watched the landscape of France give way to ocean. Barbara opened her magazine and began studying the article. Finally she sighed and tucked the magazine away.
She caught her lower lip between her teeth for a moment, then ventured a tentative look sideways at Dick.
"Hm?" He said, eyes still out the window.
"When...I came in to wake you up, you were muttering in your sleep...it sounded like you were having a nightmare."
"I don't want to talk about it." Voice flat, rigid, closed.
"Now you sound just like him," she said softly, folding her arms and slouching deeper into her seat.
"I am nothing like him!" He turned from the window, eyes dark with anger.
"I didn't say were like him, I said you sounded like him. What is your problem, anyway?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You've been touchy this whole trip."
"And every time I try to actually talk to you, all the armor snaps down." She gestured with her hands.
"Look, there's nothing to talk about. See?" Turning in his seat, he spread his arms as wide as he could in the small space. "No armor. I'm not even mad. I know the time thing wasn't your fault."
She folded her arms again, looking at him. Her hand began rubbing her upper arm in a gesture that looked almost wounded. "Okay. Everything's fine, then, right?"
"So why won't you tell me about your nightmare?"
"Don't want to talk about it," she finished for him, turning back to her magazine.
Without warning, Dick spoke. "Why are you so curious to hear about it, anyway?"
"I just..." she paused. "Before you left Gotham, even when I was still just Babs, and you were just Dick, there were things you wouldn't tell me. The night you had the fight with Bruce...you were so angry. All I wanted to to do was help, but you wouldn't tell me what was wrong."
"Neither one of us was ever 'just' anything, though, were we?" he said. "Anyway, this dream definitely wasn't anything Dick could tell Babs."
Her eyes widened slightly. "Then...it was about..."
"Just forget it. Why should you care, anyway? You got what you wanted. You got to work with him. Allowed into his world."
"Well, sure." She shrugged. "You know, it wasn't easy getting accepted into that boy's club of yours. Now, what was it you first called me?" She tapped her finger to her lips. "An...amateur? You told me to go home, little girl."
"I never called you 'little girl.' I never...thought of you like that. It's just...you were a stranger, new. And obviously, yes, an amateur. I didn't want you to get hurt."
"Oh, how magnanimous of you."
"You're good. You're very good at what you do. Is that what you want me to say? You don't need to hear that from me."
"How do you know?"
He snorted. "Well, yeah, he isn't exactly free and easy with the praise, is he?"
"Why do you always talk about him like that? Like he's some kind of stone statue without feelings? After you left, he took it hard."
"Why are you defending him?"
Across the aisle and up one row, a white-haired elderly couple had turned to stare at them, wrinkled faces kind and curious. When Barbara noticed them they both quickly turned away. The woman nudged the man, whispering something. He shrugged.
"He never did anything to hurt you," Barbara said, lowering her voice.
"Not on purpose, no. But how could I expect you to understand? You worship the ground he walks on."
"Wasn't much fun, being your consolation prize," he said, close-lipped, so quietly she almost didn't hear.
"Consolation prize..." Realization dawned in her face. "You idiot!" Her voice rose. Several passengers turned in their seats to stare.
"Excuse me," said the overweight British gentlemen in the seat just behind Barbara's. He wore a beige suit of expensive material and was balding. "Do you mind keeping it down?"
"I swear to God, Dick," she murmured under her breath, so that only he could hear, "one day that chip on your shoulder is going to get so heavy you'll fall right over!"
"You expect me to believe you never felt that way about him?"
She gritted her teeth, then let out a breath, and said slowly, "Maybe, at the beginning, it was sort of a school-girl crush type of thing. And I did admire him. But eventually, that's all it was."
"Right. You copied him, while I was just the kid in tights."
A stewardess passing by with pillows looked at them, blinked, then quickly looked away, face rigidly holding its smooth, professional, friendly expression.
"No. You're good at what you do, too. You're almost as good as he is. Is that what you want to hear from me?" She looked down at her hands, knitting her fingers together. "At first I thought you were trying to get rid of me."
"Get rid of you? But I..."
"You know, waiting for me to trip up so you could send me home. Keep things the way they had always been, I guess. And while I was running around trying to copy him, you were the one who always seemed to be around."
"Gee, thanks. How annoying for you."
"No! I mean, you were always there.You covered my back more times than I can count. After a while...it didn't feel like you were trying to get rid of me anymore."
"Did you trust me?"
She blinked. "Yes." She met his gaze, realized, and her hand lifted in protest, before he even began his next words.
"Then why didn't you tell me."
Her hand dropped. "The same reason you didn't tell me. Did you trust me?"
"As much as you trusted me."
In sheer frustration, she balled her hand into a fist and let it fall to the arm rest, rattling her seat.
"I say, do you mind?" The Englishman protested again, faintly, behind Barbara.
"Maybe that's not saying much," she said coldly. "Obviously, I trusted you more than I should have."
"How can you say that?"
"What am I supposed to say? How do you think it felt, always having you there, and then you weren't anymore. You walked out. Like that." She snapped her fingers. "You left without even saying goodbye."
"Huh. Taking his side again?"
"I'm not taking sides. I'm just saying...you didn't have to leave." She looked down, sadly.
"There was nothing to hold me there," he said defensively. "Can you give me one reason I should have stayed? One reason?"
She raised her head. Her face had the blank, shocked look of someone with the wind knocked out of them. Then she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, and let out a breath.
"Well, if you can't think of one," she said, voice clipped, "I guess there wasn't one, was there?"
A note in her voice, something beneath the anger and the bitterness, made him look at her hard.
Seconds passed before he finally spoke again.
"But...when I left, you were mad," he said softly, turning in his seat, one hand resting on the top of the seat in front of him, leaning slightly closer to her.
She averted her head, refusing to look at him now. "Yes." It was almost a whisper.
A newspaper, turned in the hands of another passenger, rustled in the silence
"Because you don't just offer someone the future and then take it back," she said, voice caught at the back of her throat.
He pulled back from her slightly, slow realization growing in his eyes; his hand, almost of its own accord, reached out towards her. He opened his mouth to say something in reply.
"Nobody move," a male voice said slowly, loudly, commandingly, accent american.
Heads going up sharply, a movement almost synchronous, Dick and Barbara watched as two rows ahead of them, a man with wide shoulders, thin features, and blond hair cropped short rose to his feet and turned, something small and black held in his hands--handgun, semi-automatic, made of what looked like plastic, like a child's toy.
The other first-class passengers gasped. One woman saw the gun and screamed. From coach came the faint sounds of a similar command from two more voices, one female, one male, and small cries and screams of surprise. The elderly man put a protective arm about his wife's shoulders as she moved closer to him.
"And you two..." the man added, stepping out into the aisle and approaching Dick and Babs, who had tensed in their seats. "You've been arguing all the way from Paris. It's driving me crazy." He aimed the handgun at Dick's face. "So keep your mouths shut!"
"Y'know," said the portly British gentleman, "I've been waitin' for hours fer someone to tell them that."
He dialed the cell phone under his jacket, with Babs on lookout. Hunching over as if to tie his laces, he put the phone to his ear. "Come on, pick up..." he muttered.
"Dick!" She said sharply, a warning.
A gun pressed to the side of Dick's head, just above his ear. Slowly, he sat up. The blond terrorist looked down at him with a grim smile on his face.
"Hang up and hand me the phone." He held out his free hand.
Through the earpiece, the ringing on the other end was audible, along with the abrupt click as it was answered. Then Tim's voice-- "Hello? Hello?"
"I said, hang up!"
"Now, give me the phone."
Dick had only paused for a second, but that was all it took. The barrel of the gun moved from Dick's head to Barbara's.
"Give me the phone."
He obeyed immediately.
"As for the rest of you," the blond man said, pocketing the cell phone as he turned to sweep his gun over the cabin, "if anyone else tries anything like that, you'll be executed where you sit, shot in the head."
The sick-passenger routine worked. Despite the suspicions of the blond terrorist, Barbara was permitted to go back to the lavatory--which gave her a great view of the situation in coach. She returned, dropping back into her seat as if exhausted, hand on her stomach. A quick glance passed between Babs and Dick.
It was time to start planning strategy.
"Even the food disagreed with me," she said, loudly and petulantly.
The blond terrorist gave her a look but didn't come over with his gun. Not yet.
"Now, dear, no one else is sick. It's probably nerves."
"Oh, that's typical." She flipped her hair back over her shoulder. "You can't even choose an airline without terrorism and food-poisoning. I swear to God, Richard, the moment we land, the moment we land..." Her voice, rich with fury, trailed off. She looked Dick right in the face, eyes speaking volumes. Imperceptibly, so that she almost missed it, he nodded.
There was a chance the terrorists would be cool-headed enough to remember they shouldn't risk shooting a hole in the plane at 30,000 feet. But both of them had learned a long time ago not to trust chance with the desperate.
The blond terrorist's glance swept over first class. Satisfied that all was as it should be, he leaned against the side of a seat six rows ahead of Dick and Babs, gun held at the ready.
Keeping his hands low, Dick turned his palm upward in a question gesture.
With her hands in her lap, Babs pointed towards the back of her seat, then stuck up one finger.
I only saw one in coach. Her glance went to the cockpit door, and she pointed to it. The third is still in there?
Babs gestured her finger towards the blond american, then spun the finger in a little circle.
We can take him out.
Palm face down, hand flat, Dick waved his fingers back and forth vehemently, then moved his hand towards the direction of coach.
No. The one in coach would start shooting the moment we touched him.
Barbara pointed her thumb at the overhead compartment, and met his eyes.
Dick shook his head. Too risky.
She held her hands out at him, palms up. We have to try. She put her thumb and tip of her forefinger together as if holding a tiny marble. Just the stuff from the belts.
After a long pause, he nodded. Far below, the Atlantic Ocean gave way to the rocky northeastern coastline of america.
The terrorist in the cockpit, a woman wearing glasses, opened the door, and stood with her back to the jamb, gun arm extended back into the cockpit. Her glance moved between her associate and the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator.
"Ready, mate?" She also had blonde hair, pulled back into a flawless french braid, with black roots. Her Australian accent may or may not have been genuine.
"Frederick!" The blond american called. The curtain separating first from coach had been tied back. The third terrorist, a small, dark-haired frenchman, appeared, taking a stance similar to that of the woman.
The two at the cockpit door could be taken out with one leap and a kick, at the same time. The one at the curtain would be even easier. Dick began a slow shift in his seat, hands bracing on the armrest--and Babs lightly touched his arm, stopping him. He looked at her questioningly. She tapped her fingers on the hull of the plane just below the window, then pointed at the gun held in the blond's hand. For a second undecided, he held his position. Then, slowly, his nod full of resignation and disappointment, he sat back again. Barbara lifted her hand, palm flat, then brought it down at an angle across the top of her other hand, and rested it there.
When we land.
"Why don't we just land in Gotham, Stan?" The woman asked.
The blond man's eyes narrowed. "Don't be an idiot if you can help it, Rebecca. Do you have any idea what lives in Gotham?"
At the curtain, the small frenchman murmured almost reverently, "La chauve-souris!"
"We land in New York. There's nothing like that in New York!"
"Okay, mate. You heard the man," Rebecca ordered, turning back into the cockpit. She left the door open this time. "Turn this plane. We're goin' to the big apple."
There seemed to be too many lights on the runway of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Outside the plane, the sun was setting in a glorious display of molten fire over the distant New York City skyline.
Rebecca had radioed ahead from the cockpit, gun stuck to the co-pilot's head. Their demands were simple, easily overheard through the open cockpit door: ten million dollars, a fast, long-range helicopter, diplomatic immunity.
Firetrucks, police vehicles, news vans, and countless sedans that had an air of government agency origin seemed to fly by outside the plane's windows as it touched down, then taxied to a halt.
The fasten seat belts light flicked out. Back in coach, someone was crying, very softly.
As soon as the plane had lurched to a gentle stop, Barbara rose indignantly from her seat. "Well, it's about time," she declared, popping open the overhead compartment. "Can we get out of here now?" Quickly, her fingers closed over the handles of her duffel.
"Sit down," the blond, Stan, ordered. He moved to her side with two fluid steps and grabbed her upper arm with a brutal grip. "I've had just about enough from both of you." Pulling on her arm, he flung her hard down into her seat, while Dick reached out to steady her.
Only Dick saw the look of pure, white-hot rage she gave Stan before a mask of timidity and submission fell into place. She hunched over her duffel bag defensively. "I'm sorry. I just want to get off this plane. I just want to go home..." she sniffed.
Disgusted, Stan moved away. Barbara stuck her tongue out at his back and unzipped the duffel just wide enough to fit her slender wrist through. She rummaged around, keeping her body hunched over the duffel to hide what she was doing, while Dick put an arm across her shoulders, as if to comfort, making it easier for him to take the small items she pressed into his hand without drawing attention.
Six small gas balls. Two packets of flash powder. A micro-sized radio frequency jammer. A homing device. A hypospray.
Dick, intent on gathering the items and tucking them away in the inside pockets of his leather jacket, only caught the movement in the corner of his eye. Then he did a double take, and stared.
The portly British gentleman was peering curiously over the top of Barbara's seat, watching everything they were doing.
"Babs..." Dick said, through clenched teeth.
"Not now, Dick, I'm trying to get the--" she whispered, hand stuck in the duffel.
He reached out, took her chin, and turned her head so she could see their watcher.
"Oh," she said.
The portly English gentleman gave them both a polite, curious smile. Then, in broad, deep tones whose origins were of a sudden clearly from the american midwest, he said "That's quite an arsenal you have there, m'dear." His arm came up, and a handgun similar in style to that of the three terrorists appeared over the top of the seat to point at them. "Stan, I think you'd better come take a look at this!"
"So, what you are you, CIA? NSA? You don't seem like DGSE...Interpol, perhaps?"
The portly american, whom Stan called Bill, leaned over them in a friendly fashion, as if he were hanging out at the local bar shooting the breeze. Stan knelt on the floor of the aisle, examining Barbara's duffel bag with one hand.
Thanks to her skillful rummaging, the leather pouch was resealed and stuck under her clothes. But sooner or later, he might find it, and even if he couldn't figure out that certain trick needed to open it, he would be very, very curious about it.
A low, rhythmic thudding sounded outside the plane windows, audible in the silence left behind when the engines had stilled.
"Helicopter's here," Rebecca called out. "And they're wheeling the disembarking platform up to the plane now."
"We don't have time now," Bill told Stan. "Bring it with us, along with the man's--it's in the overhead. We'll examine them later once we're at home base. Maybe we'll find something useful inside."
Stan rezipped the duffel bag. Dick's eyes met Babs'. This is bad. Very bad.
Bill turned to Rebecca. "You radioed them my cell phone number?" he said.
"Yes," Rebecca said.
"Tell them to call it now."
Rebecca stepped back into the cockpit.
"You two are good, I have to admit," said Bill. "That bickering couple routine, the upset stomach, your little spook toys. I'm impressed." He sighed. "It's just such a shame you aren't on our team."
"...all right. We agree. And in case your boys think to try anything funny, we're keeping two of your agents...that's right. We so much as smell a trace on the helicopter, and they'll be executed...oh, really. Well, you can tell interpol to kiss my--hey, he hung up." Bill handed the phone back to Stan. "That's it. We're getting out. Good news, folks!" Bill turned and called back into the coach cabin. "You all get to leave. You two..." he swung back to Dick and Babs. "You two are our insurance policy. Come on, get up." He yanked Barbara out of her seat, handing her to Stan. "Tie her hands," Bill ordered.
Stan roughly pulled Barbara towards the exit hatch, pulling a length of cord from his pocket. He wrenched her arms behind her back and looped the cord around her wrists, yanking it tight. When she twisted, trying to ease the pain of it, Stan slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. Her head moved with the blow, red hair falling into her eyes.
"Leave her alone!" Dick lunged out into the aisle, but a pinch-grip between his neck and shoulder stopped him.
"You want to mess with me?" Bill traced the barrel of the handgun along the line of Dick's chin, then pressed it into his neck. "Button it, big mouth."
Barbara turned, Stan restraining her. She shot Stan a glare and then stilled. "Dick, don't," she spoke, watching him; the tense lines of his shoulders and jaw as he glared at Bill levelly, ignoring the gun, were sure signs of what might happen at any second now. But it was too risky, too soon, not with the other passengers still on board.
With a blank expression, Dick relaxed, then stood submissively and let Bill ties his hands. Barbara let out a sigh of relief. Dick met her gaze. A look telegraphed between them, received clearly on both sides.
Wait for the helicopter. No news cameras to catch our moves on tape, no people to get hurt. It's our best chance.
The hatch swung open as a roar of noise and wind entered the plane. Blinking red lights flashed in the night. Outside the hatch a metal stairway waited.
With a relaxed, commanding air that might have suited a boy scout troup leader, Bill began giving orders to the passengers for disembarking, with Frederick lending a prod or nudge as necessary.
As the elderly couple from first class moved towards the hatch, the woman, leaning on her husband's arm, stopped in front of Barbara. In a warm, conspiratorial gesture, she put her head close to the young woman's.
"Why don't you two patch things up?" She whispered. "You're adorable together."
The elderly couple moved out onto the platform, the wind from the helicopter blowing the woman's white hair in the wind. Then they were gone, the man helping the woman down the steps, swallowed by the bright lights and the wave of reporters and law enforcement officials that enfolded them.
"Rebecca, where are we?" Bill demanded over the thud of helicopter blades.
"Midpoint between New York and Gotham," the woman answered, hands on the controls. "Heading south-southwest."
Through the small windows, a blur of darkness that was woods was visible below. In the distance, surrounded by the dark threading ribbon of a river, an ethereal aura burned--Gotham.
"Anyone on our tail, Frederick?"
In the seat next to Rebecca, Frederick turned. "Non. It is just darkness."
"Nothing on the radio, either," Rebecca reported.
Stan sat between Dick and Barbara with Bill across from them. The duffel bags were tucked in a corner. It was dim in the helicopter, only faint starlight and the pale lights from the cockpit offering illumination.
"That'll do," Bill said with satisfaction, turning from the window. He stood, stooping slightly beneath the curving ceiling of the hull. His fingers closed around Dick's shoulder, and pulled him from the seat. "Open the door," he told Stan.
The blond man complied, letting in a blast of cold night wind. Bill kept the barrel of the gun to the back of Dick's head. "We don't really need both of them now," Bill explained to his colleagues, voice raised over the sound of the helicopter blades. "We'll shoot this one, and keep her as our insurance."
Click. The safety moved off the gun. Dick held very still, hands gripping either side of the door. The wind ripped at his hair and jacket. Dark tree tops rushed by hundreds of feet below.
"You can jump," Bill shouted over the thud of helicopter blades, the beige cloth of his suit whipping about him, "I can shoot you, or I can push you. Which is it going to be, secret agent man?"
"None of the above," Barbara said mildly.
Her leg flew up. The powerful kick struck a precise point on Bill's wrist, knocking him back against the curving walls. His gun flew out the door as he slumped, momentarily stunned.
Simultaneously, Dick, whose hands had not really been tied for approximately twenty minutes, went up a crouch, then leapt at Stan.
Before the gun left his hand he managed one shot that went wild, tearing a hole in the helicopter hull. Frederick, out of his seat while Rebecca had to concentrate on flying, began to shoot repeatedly.
Barbara, whose hands had not really been tied for about fifteen minutes, dropped and rolled, a bullet missing her by inches.
Something in the aircraft machinery went clank and the cabin lurched. Barbara rolled towards the open door, and grabbed a seat, catching herself.
"Stop it!" Rebecca yelled. "You're going to bring us down with all that shooting."
From her crouch, Barbara used her hands for leverage and leg-swept Frederick. The dark-haired man fell, still holding his gun. Barbara rolled to her feet and stepped on his lower arm. Frederick screamed a curse in his native tongue and lost his grip on the firearm. Fisting her hands together, Barbara clubbed him on the back of the neck. He lost consciousness.
After kicking Frederick's gun from craft, Dick picked up Stan's and threw it out as if it were a dead rat, something not to be handled longer than absolutely necessary.
Stan leapt at Barbara, wrapping his arms about her waist and bringing them both crashing to the slanting floor.
Dick turned to help Barbara, but powerful arms closed around him from behind, lifting his feet from the floor. Despite his paunch, Bill moved with an oily grace and strength. "You are good," he said, with genuine admiration.
"Thanks." Rather than struggling, Dick leaned forward. His feet met the floor. He hardly seemed to move as he used his opponent's weight against him, pitching Bill over his shoulder. The heavy man thudded against the far side of the helicopter, slumped to the floor, and lay still, eyes closed. "I learned from the best," Dick finishished.
Barbara's fingers closed around Stan's wrists as he went for her throat. "I've had about enough out of you, Stan. Hi-yaaah!" Lying on the floor of the copter, she kicked Stan in the stomach. As he gasped for breath, she grabbed him by the collar and socked him across the jaw. He went limp.
"Nice moves," Dick said, holding out his hand to her.
Rebecca let go of the controls with one hand, fumbling for her gun.
Using Dick's arm to propel her, Barbara leapt to her feet and launched herself at the pilot's seat. She grabbed Rebecca from behind, trying to pin her gun arm.
A pair of legs ending in sneakered feet shot past Barbara, catching Rebeccca in the face. She slumped over the controls. The helicopter pitched forward and lurched violently. Dick, using the pilot and co-pilot's seats like parallel bars, swung himself into the seat next to Rebecca.
Gently but quickly, he pushed the unconscious woman into the co-pilot's seat and grabbed at the controls. The helicopter continued to tilt. Barbara staggered back from the seat.
"What is it?" She yelled.
"I think it's the rudder. Get that door closed."
Kneeling, Barbara held onto a seat with one hand and slammed the door shut with the other.
"Okay, Babs, strap in, and hang on!"
Barbara dropped into a seat and fastened the belt. The helicopter began, slowly, to go into a spin.
Tree branches scraped against the hull with a sound like ripping claws trying to get in. Then the blades hit the leaves. The world went sideways and upside down.
And stopped with a tremendous jolt. The crippled blades powered down. An equally thudding silence descended in their place. The floor had ceased to move.
Hands shaking slightly, Barbara unclipped the metal clasp of the seatbelt. She clenched her hands and unclenched them; the shaking diminished. Gingerly, she got to her feet. "Dick?"
Silence. She stepped closer to the pilot's seat, something tightening in her throat. "Dick!"
A faint groan. The slumped form at the controls sat up and rubbed at his face groggily.
Barbara leaned against the side of the cabin. She closed her eyes for a moment. Then she opened them, and picked her way carefully over to him. "Dick, you okay?"
"Yeah," he said ruefully, pulling himself out of the seat. "Like landing a washing machine doing the tango. No prob. How are the four stooges doing?"
Kneeling, Barbara checked Bill's pulse. "He's alive."
They checked the rest. All were unconscious but seemed fine otherwise. Dick pulled his own cell phone from the pocket of Stan's jacket, then reached in again and took out the terrorist's phone. He looked at Babs.
"Who do we call?"
"Can you find something to tie them up with? Not...from our stuff. That'd be sort of a giveaway."
"Dead," she embellished, and gathered up the rope that had once held her and Dick.
"...hello?" Dick spoke into the phone. "Yeah, got a hot tip for you. You know the four terrorists on flight 714 to Gotham airport? The ones that held an entire planeload of passenger hostage for hours?...yes. Them. Well, you'll find them waiting for you in a clearing about thirty minutes from JFK. Oh, and we gift-wrapped them for you." He hung up and dialed another number. "Hello, Alfred? It's me...we're going to be a bit later than we expected...uh...we had a little trouble on our flight from Paris...tell you about it later...no, nothing to worry about...we'll rent a car. Oh, and Alfred? Did Bruce happen to catch the national news tonight?...Uh...yeah...no...he was?...then tell him...tell him Barbara and I are all right. We're together. We're all right." He hung up again and snapped the phone shut.
He looked at Barbara as she put the final touches on the knots holding Bill secure. The last one. She got to her feet and saw him staring at her.
"We are, aren't we?" He said softly. "All right?"
In the half-darkness she gave him a wan half-smile. "Maybe. We'll have to see."
They found their bags. Then together, they climbed out of the helicopter, and walked away from the tangle of branches and wreckage.