The Summer of Her Discontent
© 2000 by Constance Eilonwy
Chronology, Dedications:

Batgirl, Batman, and others are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. Annie is mine. "Send in the Clowns" is from the musical A Little Night Music, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Oreo cookies are the property of Nabisco. (Hm. Sondheim, Batgirl, and Oreos. Ah, you're intrigued now good reader, aren't you? ;)

This is set in the Animated Series universe, although since I'm a fan of the comics as well, both are influences herein. This story takes place a few weeks after the flashback segments of Old Wounds in which Dick Grayson leaves Gotham. It's a prequel to my other story, Thirteen Hours (blatant plug!) which takes place after he returns to Gotham.

This one is for Laura, who obsessed with me, beta read, and volunteered information about firearms; Missy, who listened patiently to my goobing about Dick and Babs and who is a great chemist and friend; and Nicole, technical advisor extraordinaire, thanks for the final check. Any implausibilities are my fault, not theirs.


Night 1

11:46 pm

"No."

The word was final, inarguable, as flat and hard and cold as marble.

"I'm ready to do this!" Batgirl folded her kevlar-covered arms and glared at the taller form all in black. "A few weeks ago you were ready to let me work with you. What—"

She had been about to say, What changed? However, she knew exactly what had changed.

"Not tonight." Again, that deep note of finality. He turned away, cape swaying, and sat with his back to her at the bank of super computers.

"That's what you said last night…and the night before that…"

The cowled figure stubbornly refused to reply. The glow of the massive computer screen caught him in sharp silhouette, emphasizing the rigid set of his shoulders.

"People are dying," she persisted, "And you're refusing my help."

"It's nothing I haven't dealt with before. I work better alone."

Silence fell between them, broken only by the hum of the batcave's computers and its air regulation system.

"Fine then." Turning deliberately, she mounted the curving stone staircase, darkness folding behind her. She did not look back.

The black-cowled figure remained seated, and although he stared at the data on the computer screen, he may not have actually seen it.


12:37 am

Shoot the rappelling gun. Listen for the sound of the hook engaging. Tug on the jumpline, test it. Take up the slack. Leap, fly for a second before your own momentum carries you to the next plateau, the next rooftop or ledge.

She'd done it so many times, and each time was like the first. Somewhere deep inside, the place where it was impossible to lie to herself, she knew she did this, in part, just for the kicks. For the adrenaline buzz. It was breathtaking.

Batgirl landed gracefully and crouched on the rooftop, her cape settling over her shoulders. Sheer luck—beginner's luck, some would call it, had allowed her to spot the pink convertible careening along Burnett Avenue. She'd followed it, then made a guess as to its destination, and anticipated it. Now, she waited.

There was no wind in the still, limp, hot summer air. Below and around her sprawled Gotham city, like a living creature restless even in its time of rest. The lights of a bridge glittered beyond the rising bulk of another building and a luminous moon blotted out the starlight. It was a massive moon, almost frightening. On hot clear nights like these, it seemed very close, as if she could shoot her jumpline and swing across to its mountains and valleys.

"And maybe grab a quick snack—hey, what if it's made of white chocolate instead of cheese?" The imagined, playful voice echoed in her mind, as did her glib reply: "If it were made of chocolate, bird brain, we definitely would have gone back."

Her gloved hand reached out to the roof border to steady her. She shook her head, clearing it. There would be none of that.

The neighborhood spread below her was trendy, recently gentrified. Turn-of-the-century rowhouses, relics of Gotham's troubled past, had been converted into galleries and shops.

Most crooks would prefer to go stealthily, avoiding any noise. They might use glasscutters to slip in and out without mess or fuss. But the convertible burned rubber as it took a screaming turn off 4th, then barreled to a chaotic halt outside Dixon's Fine Jewelry.

Sometimes she thought he enjoyed being caught. It gave him more opportunity to make fun of the members of the GCPD, the staff of Arkham, and the vigilante he hated.

Four broad-shouldered, massive hulks of men in white face paint, red-and-black striped shirts, and absurdly delicate toe shoes leapt out of the car. They were a troupe of mimes that followed the spinning dance of a laughing, screaming, whooping green-haired clown of death.

The darkness suggested the memory of a familiar, brash, male-bravado voice remarking, "Hope they don't start the party without us."

Shut up, she thought. Shut up. Don't remember. Not now.

"Okay boys, this is it. Remember, you break it you bought it." The Joker put his head back and laughed at his own joke, standing boldly in the middle of the sidewalk as if no one could ever permanently restrain, box, or jail him.

Which no one ever had.

"Hit it, Harley!" he ordered.

"Right, Puddin'!" With a joyful, girlish titter, a girl in a black and red harlequin outfit stood up in the front seat of the convertible. To her shoulder she easily hefted a bazooka that looked twice her weight.

"Fire!" he cried gleefully.

There was a sound like a catapult filled with jello, and a large, heavy projectile hurtled from the bazooka. As the giant cream pie shattered the glass, she knew she'd waited too long. She shook her head. She should have taken them out before they broke the window.

The store alarm rattled into the night as Batgirl shot her line, tugged at it, and leapt. The GCPD would come in due course, but it would take time for them to get there. The Joker would be gone, leaving behind any number of carelessly dropped clues. It was all part of the game.

"Oh, no you don't," she whispered, and landed with both feet striking the back of one of the mimes, who was about to climb through the window.

It was so easy to almost but not quite imagine a green- and scarlet-clad figure landing lightly beside her. So easy. Almost.

Another mime rushed her, and she let him, grabbing his arm. She used his own weight against him and threw him over her shoulder. He fell back onto the hood of the car. The convertible's suspension buckled.

The other two also ran at her. Forcing herself to hold her ground, she waited for just the right moment. Jumping straight up, she grabbed the L-shaped store sign. She kicked with both feet, sending them staggering back.

"Oh, you numbskulls!" the Joker howled. "Don't just stand there, try again!"

The two advanced, a bit more cautiously. She still dangled from the sign. With one hand, she pulled a small round pellet from her belt and dropped it. A thin stream of red smoke hissed from the pellet. Then it burst with a small explosion. Clouds of scarlet smoke enveloped the thugs.

They coughed and staggered as Batgirl swung, arching her body as she jumped. She landed lightly, clear of the smoke. "Thank you, Alfred," she murmured.

"Oh, poo!" The hated voice spoke behind her. She whirled to face him. "It's a mangy bat brat. The girl!"

"Play time's over, Joker," she said, hoping her voice sounded appropriately menacing.

"…never been able to figure out how he does it," Robin complained as they perched on the roof of a cathedral.

He hooked his arm around the neck of a bulky gargoyle to steady himself, leaning forward into the wind, at ease at the dizzying height, while she remained a bit further back on the ledge, leaned against the sloping roof. Their capes and her hair blew sideways in the wind.

"…he somehow puts just the right pitch to his voice. It's like ice, only darker. And it makes crooks lose bladder control. I wish I could figure it out."

"Hm," she said. "Maybe you're not supposed to."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," she said, a tad impatient with him, "that's his method. You have your own style. You just don't do dark and menacing."

"Gee, thanks."

"Yo, Wonder Boy, that wasn't meant as an insult. I mean, there are other ways of scaring people." Her eyes fell on one of the stone ornaments, a bird of prey with its wings spread, beak open, talons curled to strike. It was sharp, fierce, and agile-looking—not as ominous as the gargoyles but small and deadly. She didn't comment; it would just swell his head further.

"Huh," he said. "Still, let me try." He cleared his throat and said in a voice not at all his own, "Put the gun down. NOW!"

"Um…" she said. "Needs work."

"Put…the gun…down. Now."

She bit her lip.

"PUT THE GUN DOWN. Now."

She began to choke. He glared at her, and tried again.

"Put the gun down now."

She burst out laughing.

"Drop the damn gun before I take it from you and ram it up your nose, you snot-faced extortionist little worm!" he said desperately.

That only made her laugh harder.

Harley Quinn jumped on her from behind, and Batgirl silently cursed herself. Idiot. Sentimental fool. The daydreaming could get her killed.

Batgirl leaned forward, throwing the harlequin to the sidewalk. The girl landed on her back, limbs in an undignified sprawl, then rolled onto her stomach and got to her knees. Her lower lip trembled. "P-puddin'," she sniffed. "Sh-she hurt me!"

"Oh, Harley, that's because you don't have a knack with the ladies the way I do."

Batgirl tensed, watching every minute movement of the Joker's body. The pool of light cast by the streetlamp only heightened his surreal appearance, washing the white out further and darkening the red mouth and the green hair.

"Oooh, I'm scared," he said in a falsetto. He flung out his sickly white hands. "Are you going to beat me up, too?"

She made her move, letting a kick fly. He dodged, darting around her, and she turned desperately, keeping him in her sights. As if from nowhere, he brought up a gun with a boxing glove at the muzzle. Before her reflexes could adapt to this twist, he pulled the trigger. The glove smacked her in the stomach. She fell to her knees, gasping for breath.

He reached down and grabbed her by the hair, yanking her head back and putting his face close to hers.

It gave her a good, long look into his eyes, and she felt what she knew of the world twist into a dark, bloody, cacaphony.

"My, you are feisty. So you want to play with me, little girl? Watch out, you might get hurt."

"I wouldn't count on it." Her pulse throbbing too fast in her throat, she guided her fingers by feel into a slot on her utility belt. She brought up a plastic, palm-sized cylinder and pressed a button.

A mist shot into the Joker's frightening face. He screamed and released her, then hopped up and down furiously, rubbing at his eyes.

Batgirl smiled and pocketed the cylinder. "Mace," she said. "A Gotham gal's best friend."

The roar of the car's engine coming to life caught her attention. "Come on, Puddin'!" Harley shouted. "Let's get outta here!"

The Joker staggered to the car and fell into the back. Harley stepped on the gas with great exhuberance and the pair roared away. Batgirl took a few running steps after them, pulling her rappelling gun, and then stopped in the middle of the street. She knew her own limits—she simply lacked the upper body strength to drag a convertible going at full speed to a stop. Appearances to the contrary, Batman couldn't do that, either.

If she'd been able to jump onto the car…

From within the store, the alarm continued to jingle hysterically. The GCPD would be along in a moment. She returned to the sidewalk and slowly and methodically paced, broken glass crunching under her boots, her eyes on the ground.

Her boot stepped on something small. She knelt, moving her foot to one side, and picked up a steel cylinder that just fit in the palm of her hand. She had the feeling she ought to know what it was for, and why it was significant.

As she slipped the cylinder into her utility belt, something caught her eye on the leggings of one of the mimes. There was a white smear that might have been paint. Batgirl reached into her utility belt and cut away the fabric, then tucked the sample into a pouch.

A distant siren joined the alarm. "Time to go," she said aloud, and got to her feet.

A moment later, she was gone, leaving only the four mimes lying in a pool of light surrounded by broken glass.


2:07 am

Barbara Gordon sat comfortably barefoot and cross-legged on the floor of her studio apartment, dressed in shorts and a Gotham University t-shirt. She held the clear plastic bag containing the stained cloth up before her face, and frowned at it.

She needed help with this one.

Uncoiling her legs, she rose and began to hunt. She located the cordless phone under a pile of clothes tossed carelessly onto a chair. Her friend Annie usually kept odd hours.

Sure enough, Annie was up. "Bring it here. I can't sleep anyway. You can help keep me out of trouble." There was a chuckle that made Barbara grateful that her friend used her skills for good and not evil.

"Great," Barbara said. "I'll be right over." She hung up.

Going to the closet, Barbara pulled out the cardboard box on the floor. "Let's see…I know that cd she lent me is in here somewhere…" She pawed through old cassettes, movie stubs, Pinky and the Brain plastic figurines, Frisbees of various sizes, and photographs.

So much could be learned about a person from their closet. Hers held a box full of markers of an entertaining life spent out in the sun, and a secret panel holding a kevlar suit outfitted with special features to cope with the night.

Her fingers brushed the smooth surface of a snapshot and she paused, arrested as if frozen in time. The glow of the closet light spilled out around her where she sat on her knees, her shadow trailing behind her across the rug.

Finally, she moved, and picked up the photo.

There they were, caught for all eternity, looking like nothing more than the most normal boyfriend and girlfriend in the history of the world. "Blindingly cute together," was how Annie assessed them.

They were seated on a broad rock in the park, the spring sun striking them from the side. Both were in shorts, he in a black t-shirt, she in a blue tank top. She sat in the foreground, one knee up, one leg stretched out along the rock, leaning back against him. He had twined his fingers with hers from behind. Perfect.

Normal.

So normal with their trips up the coast and their concerts and their picnics and their movie dates.

So what if he'd run off in the middle occasionally? He did a lot at Wayne Industries and for the manor, fearing the label of freeloader.

"C'mon, Babs, gimme the Frisbee."

"Uh-uh." She tucked her body around it, laughing as he tried to wrestle it from her.

People passing by stopped to smile at them where they tussled together on the grassy plot in the park.

"Don't make me get tough with you," he said, imitating an old actor who always played the gangster parts. He pinned her with his weight.

There was a flash of light, and suddenly Dick rolled off of her and bounced to his feet. "What the—"

She sat up, picking grass out of her hair, and watched as a cyclist raced away furiously, camera hanging around his neck.

"Damn!" Dick thrust his fist down as if throwing something violently away. "I recognize him. He's from the Tattletale Weekly."

"Oops," she said.

He flopped down beside her. "Why can't they leave us alone?"

"Maybe because you're the ward of the most famous rich man in Gotham, and I'm the commish's daughter? It's not like we haven't been photographed together before," she said.

"Yeah." He lay back on the grass and let the early evening sun hit his face. "Just sometimes…I wish they'd give us some peace."

She lay on her side and propped her head up on her hand, elbow bent, and looked down at him for a moment. Then she glanced at her watch. "It's getting late," she said.

He looked at his watch, too. "Yep. Gotta go. Bruce has me on a…special assignment. For Wayne Tech. I should check in."

"I have stuff to do tonight, too," she said. "Ever since I graduated, the GCPD's been calling me for more work. This time it's research. Means extra cash."

Neither one moved. Impulsively, she lowered her head and kissed him on the nose.

"Hey," he protested. "You missed."

"Guess I need more practice," she said, and kissed him for real.

"Let's just stay here," he said, a minute later. "We could watch the sunset, lie back and look at the stars…forget Wayne Tech."

"Yeah. Let Bullock do his own research."

The sun lowered in the sky. The shadows grew longer.

"Yeah."

They were silent a moment.

Then she said, "We should go, I guess."

"Say goodnight, Babs," he said.

"Goodnight, Babs."

"Why didn't you even say goodbye?" she whispered at the photograph.

The endless refrain ran through her head before she could stop it. How could I have missed it? I thought I knew you. I thought you knew me. Why didn't you know?

They'd been friends as well as lovers. Only the lovers hadn't known they were friends.

Normal and perfect.

She swallowed hard, then stood and deliberately went to the window. Opened her fingers. The night breeze caught the picture, twisting it, spinning it away until it became lost in the night.


2:45 am

"Well," Annie said, adjusting her glasses, "I ran a quick IR on it. The white stuff is a mixture. Mostly titanium dioxide, some calcium carbonate."

Barbara gave her friend an expressively blank look. "IR?"

"Sorry. English translation: infrared spectroscopy. And you still have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

"It's okay." Barbara waved her hand. "What am I dealing with here?"

"TiO2. It's a non-toxic white pigment. They use it in Oreos, bunch of other things, including paint. Calcium carb's also a filler for paint--lime, to put it in plain English."

"This probably doesn't involve the cream filling of cookies, but, hey, with the types I mix with, you never know..." She ignored Annie's curiously raised eyebrow and added quickly, "What about this?" She pulled the cylinder from her pocket.

"Oh, nitrous," Annie said, as if spotting an old friend.

"Nitrous…" Barbara said slowly. "Nitrous oxide?"

Annie began cleaning up. "Uh-huh," she said absently. Then she stopped and put her head to one side, her eyes narrowing in her pretty face. "May I ask why on earth you need me to be analyzing the possible remains of oreo cookies at three o-clock in the morning?"

"It was only two when I called you." Barbara grinned, then continued, "It's for a friend." She hopped down from the stool. "Come on, I'll treat you to some cheese fries."

"Evasive much?" Annie carefully moved her equipment to a sink and began to wash up. "Someday, you tell me what this was all about. Er…speaking of evasive…have you heard from Dick lately?"

"No," she said shortly.

"Oh," Annie said, soft.

Silence fell, broken only by the running water and the clink of glass pipettes.

"I'm sorry," Annie said, finally. "What a jerk he turned out to be. He always seemed like such a great guy, y'know?"

"Yeah. I know."


Night 2

10:06 pm

She jerked awake, heart thundering, sweat clinging to her back and neck. The cool breeze wafting in through the open windows made her shiver.

Hands shaking, she drew her knees up and forced herself to take deep, even, breaths. "Come on, girl," she said aloud to herself. "It was just a bad dream. Can't go out on the streets rattled like this."

She'd been having a lot of bad dreams, lately.

11:04 pm

"Your friend was right."

Batman hit a key on the terminal and a string of letters popped up.

She leaned in closer, resting her fingers on the console. "That's it?"

"Uh-huh."

She grinned. "So, paint? Or oreo cookies that had a bad night?"

A glance through night-vision lenses slid her away, just for a flicker, and returned to the screen. "Paint. I isolated a particular urethane used on large commercial sailing vessels."

"What about the cylinder?"

"Nitrous Oxide," Batman said, in a voice that redefined grim.

"I know," she said. "Laughing Gas."

"Looks like the Joker's trying to build a better toxin."

He hit a few more keystrokes and a schematic of the Gotham waterfront appeared. In another window, text began to scroll rapidly. A rectangle formed around part of the schematic, and the view zoomed in.

A name and a picture of an industrial ship appeared in a third window:

THE TAKAWARAI MARU

Batgirl stared at the name, then at Batman, impressed. "How did you do that so fast?"

"Since the substance is a marine coating, I ran a check on ships in drydock for repairs and painting. Of those ships, only one is sitting empty and temporarily out of service." He paused. "It's obvious, even for the Joker." He got to his feet and moved briskly towards the long black car that slept like a dragon, ready to spring to fire-breathing life at a touch.

She started to follow him.

"Stay here." He turned, pointing at her.

"What am I, a dog?" she retorted.

He lowered his hand. "You aren't coming."

"Why? I found the stuff. I caught four of the Joker's gang, by myself. I didn't have to tell you about this. You're not the only one I know who can analyze this."

"So why bring it to me?"

She sighed, putting one hand on her hip. "Because…because only you could have found the location so fast. Because I thought this was too big for me alone, and I thought you might…"

"I'm sorry," he said, voice lowering a shade. "I can't let you. Go home."

"So that's it," she said bitterly. "Do it all by yourself. The lone Dark Knight. My information is good enough for you to use, but I'm not good enough to work with you."

Footsteps approached them, Alfred coming down the stairs. For the moment, they ignored him.

"You're upset," he said calmly.

"Yes, I'm upset."

"You need to learn to control your emotions."

"You are a piece of work, Batman. First I can't do this because of…some reason you won't tell me, and that upsets me, and now I can't come because I'm too upset."

The ball of frustration and anger suddenly made a click in her mind. About what it must have been like to try to follow this remote man, try to love this remote man, try to live in his shadow and yet be a fiercely independent person.

"No wonder Dick left," she said softly. "You did this to him all the time, didn't you? You made his life so impossible as Robin he had to leave Gotham. You drove him away."

The small gasp made them both turn. "She doesn't mean it, sir," Alfred said desperately. He held something in one hand, a card.

"I think she does," the cowled figure said.

"Robin used to be so angry, on some nights," she said. "And he'd never tell me specifics. And Dick…Dick would be upset and angry too. And he never told m…told Barbara anything, anything at all."

"I have some good news, I think," Alfred spoke up, his tone of voice a verbal white flag. He walked over and handed a postcard to the silent dark figure.

Batman took it, read it without comment, and handed it back to Alfred.

"What?" she said, unable to gain anything from Batman's expression.

"It's from Master Dick," Alfred said.

She snatched it from his fingers.

On one side was a picture of a high, snow-covered peak. On the other, in Dick's casual scrawl, a single line of text:

I'M FINE. TIBET FASCINATING. JAPAN NEXT. DICK.

"I take this as a positive sign," she heard Alfred say. "He is aware how worried we must be, and has taken pains to reassure us."

"How considerate of him," she said sarcastically, a catch in her voice.

From the remote figure standing by the black car came the flicker of a reaction. He lowered his head slightly and put his gloved fingers to the front of his cowl.

Batgirl thrust the postcard back at Alfred and quickly walked away, heading for the dark shadows at the back of the cave that promised openings and escape.


11:07 pm

She went cautiously but rapidly through tunnels new to her. The batcave was only one chamber of a more intricate network of caves, only partially explored. She had no fears of getting lost, noting the turns she took.

Around her, the cave walls twisted, the ceiling lowered or soared. Bats rustled in the corners. The beam of the flashlight sliced through the darkness.

Ahead of her, she heard a rushing noise, and followed it. She stopped suddenly, teetering at the edge of a small underground stream.

From her right a soft glow emanated. She turned and ducked through the low opening in the cave walls. The stream cut through and emerged in a natural hollow space: a grotto.

Phosphorescent fungus covered the walls, giving the hollow a silver glow almost like moonlight. The stream glimmered in this light as it hurtled onward. The flashlight had become redundant so she switched it off, and in the softer, silvery light noticed the objects strewn along a stone ledge.

A baseball glove, leather so neglected it had dried and cracked. A football, which had long since given up its air and lay in a shapeless, oblong lump. Books, everything from Raymond Chandler to Mark Twain, worn and dog-eared. Magazines of a more illicit nature tucked into the leaves of the larger volumes. Stacks of comic books, tied into string bundles. A pair of rubber glasses with false nose and mustache. A poster lay curled up in a tube; gingerly she opened it, revealing the lobby card of a Marx Brothers movie. She released the tube and it snapped closed.

Something crunched under her feet. She knelt, and found newspaper clippings that had fallen from their original position. There were headlines like BATMAN FOILS BANK ROBBERY and BATMAN AND ROBIN: CROOKS QUAKE IN FEAR. Beneath the headline DARK KNIGHT DOES IT AGAIN, someone had used black pen to draw a most disrespectful curling mustache on the somewhat blurry face of the crusader.

She picked up another clipping, a photograph of a very young Robin in action, with a caption:

BOY WONDER STOPS BEATING IN ALLEY, SAVES LIFE OF MOTHER OF 2.

Letting the clipping drop, she slowly moved to the edge of the stream and sat with her knees tucked up under chin. The cape became almost comforting around her shoulders, like a security blanket.

Here were the markers of a life spent in the sun, along with signs of another life that belonged to the night. Like the cardboard box filled with clutter, and the kevlar suit in the secret panel at the back of the closet.

The batcave was a shadow world with its monuments of past battles, its servant, and its knight. There was no place in this world for weakness. Angry outbursts seemed absurd beneath the soaring heights of the cave. In that world, there were no tears.

But here in the grotto, such emotions seemed acceptable. The boy who had made this his sanctuary had made it a place for play, laughter, or just thinking. It was intangibly human set against the vastness of the main cave with its supercomputers and its high tech equipment. The clippings—they could have been any kid's clippings, any kid who dreamed that maybe, one day…except they weren't just any kid's.

She pulled off her cowl, quickly, before the tears could violate it. She hadn't let herself cry, not once in the last few weeks. Bad dreams were one thing. She had no control over that. Even as the silent sobs ripped through her, she felt ashamed.

After a time, quiet footsteps approached, and the beam of a second flashlight.

Startled, she swiped away the salt water from her cheeks, and looked up.

Alfred stood a few feet away, head averted as if politely allowing her time to compose herself.

She cleared her throat, and Alfred joined her at the stream. To her surprise, he sat, somewhat stiffly, next to her.

"Master Dick used to come here often as a child," he said. "Particularly after he and Master Bruce had argued."

"Did that happen a lot?"

Alfred's eyes went distant. "Not at first. But as Dick grew older, it became worse."

The stream hurried past their feet, inexorable. She stared at the black, shining water. It seemed like her life, recently, racing along beyond her control.

She sniffed, wishing she had a tissue.

As if by magic, the butler pulled a handkerchief from inside his jacket and gave it to her. It was impeccably ironed, the creases sharp. She stared at it stupidly for a moment, and then had an insane urge to laugh. The handkerchief seemed so incongruous.

"Thanks," she said, and blew her nose.

"I know Master Bruce can often appear…uncaring," Alfred said, also watching the water. "But I know he cares deeply inside. He is quite troubled by Master Dick's departure. He thinks he hides it well, you see."

The old man fell silent, and she glanced sideways at him, at the elegant black suit, the white mustache, the thin aquiline features. For the first time, she noticed dark circles under his eyes, and groped for words of her own to offer him.

"Beg your pardon for asking this, miss," he spoke suddenly, before she could. There was a cautious delicacy to his tone. "Your feelings for Master Dick…they…ran deeply?"

"Yes," she said flatly. "But I'm wondering now if I…if I…misunderstood his feelings for me."

"Ah," Alfred said. "And he left without saying good-bye to anyone—particularly not to you."

She nodded mutely, knees still tucked up to her chin.

"Miss Gordon…Batgirl…I know I'm intruding here. However, I would like to offer a word of comfort. I have taken care of both these boys for a very long time. Sometimes I think I know them better than they know themselves. I cannot presume to speak for Master Dick, but in my opinion, you were not mistaken. If you catch my meaning."

Now she turned to him again. His face was closed and dignified. She untucked her knees, stretching out her legs, and felt something frantic inside of her subside inexplicably into peace.

"Afred Pennyworth," she said, and leaned sideways to kiss the lined cheek, "you are a kind man." She got to her feet, then offered him a gloved hand.

He refused assistance, slowly getting to his feet. He looked scandalized, but pleased. "We should be getting back. It was at Master Bruce's request I come find you, incidentally. He feared you might get lost in these tunnels. They can be treacherous."

Together, they walked towards the grotto entrance. She took a last look back at the belongings on the ledge.

"I might as well go home," she said, as they moved out into the tunnel and looking back was at an end. "He doesn't want a partner, and certainly not Batgirl."

Alfred ran a hand through his thinning white hair. "Er…I wish you wouldn't, miss. As I said before, I have looked after Master Bruce a long while. Your…persistence may be what is necessary."

"You don't want him out there alone," she said, as they followed the thin beam of Alfred's flashlight. "You're worried about him."

"Please," he said stiffly, carefully keeping his eyes on the tunnel ahead, "don't tell him I said anything. It might embarrass him."

When they returned to the main cave, the shadowy, cowled figure was gone.


1:46 am

The pier looked stark under the brilliance of the moon and the regular pools of illumination from the security lights. Water lapped softly, accompanied by the distant low moan of a ship's horn. The massive, long bulk of the industrial ship rested in its mooring, as still as the moon which clearly revealed the name painted on the craft's side: Takawarai Maru.

Loosely translated, Laughing Ship.

A slender, agile, almost delicate shadow flitted in and out of the light, then leapt to the top of a crate and vanished. Moments later there was a soft "clink," and then the figure appeared again, revealed in silhouette to be female as it scaled the prow of the ship.

A moment later, Batgirl climbed over the ship's railing and dropped to the deck into a crouch. She moved swiftly towards the opening in the deck floor where light from below suffused upwards. After a quick look around for any sentries, she lay on her stomach and peered down into the hold.

Once again, he'd been right, of course. It was too obvious, even for The Joker. They'd probably been waiting for him. There were ten mimes, some standing around their leader like a bizarre honor guard in a farce, some watching over their prisoner. Several of the mimes favored bruises or injured limbs.

They had bound Batman so his arms and legs were immobile. No rope, no chains. Just his own jumpline.

As Batgirl watched, the Joker waved his hand and a hook at the end of a cable lowered. The Joker pushed the hook over to his captive and yanked the line over it. Then the hook began to rise with a whir of unseen machinery, pulling Batman off the floor. He struggled, turning back and forth, dangling.

"Now that's what I call being hoisted by your own petard!" The green-haired clown let out a whoop of laughter.

Ten mimes, it looked like, in all, although there were more no doubt ranged throughout the ship as look-outs. But could she take the ten and free Batman before the rest came running? What about The Joker?

She remembered the eyes she'd seen the night before, and shuddered.

"I think I've got the formula right this time, but who can tell, eh, pointy ears? We already tested the earlier version on Costard. Poor Costard." He shook his head sadly. "Ah well, you know what they say. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. So this time…" he smiled widely up at his captive. "I think I'll test it on you. Oh, it's perfect, isn't it?" He spun in a circle, clapping his hands together with delight. "You followed my clues just right. What fun it will be, to see what effect my new formula has on the big, bad, scary Batman." He pouted. "You're always so cranky. At last, at last you're going to get the joke!"

The Joker reached out his hand and pinched the cheeks below the line of the cowl with his thumb and forefinger. The prisoner made a sound in his throat like a growl and The Joker snatched his hand away as if he had been teasing a panther. For a moment his smile wavered, but then he laughed. "I've got you trussed up like…like…well, like the way you always truss up ME."

He laughed again, and then, in an off-kilter, off-key fashion, gesturing dramatically, began to sing, "Isn't it rich/Aren't we a pair/Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air./Send in the clowns…there should be clowns." He stopped suddenly, and wiped an imaginary tear from his eye. "That song always gets me," he said, sniffing, "right here." He tapped the breast of his purple coat.

The mimes applauded like obedient lackeys. The Joker bowed modestly, then went to an open crate and removed a small cardboard box. He pulled out a glass vial of fluid, one of many nestled within.

From her vantage point, Batgirl could see Batman's fingers working ceaselessly at the binds that held him. Acid. Cutters. Or the right touch on a knot that would mysteriously free him with the finesse of Houdini. But these bonds were of his own craft. It might not be so easy.

Batgirl pushed herself up to her knees, ready. She was his last hope. No sidekicks left. No time to fetch the police—which is what any sane woman would do.

So, who ever said she was sane?

"All right, Batchick, put your hands up where I can see 'em!" The voice was female, high-pitched and a bit ditzy. Batgirl felt something round and firm press into her back between her shoulder blades.

"Harley Quinn," she said.

"Don't turn around. Get to your feet. Oh boy," she said, mirth rolling from her voice. "Won't Mistah J. be proud a' me when he sees what I caught!"

Glancing sideways and over her shoulder, Batgirl saw the pistol-sized uzi Harley had pointed at her back. As Harley prodded her towards the access hatch leading down below, she went pliantly. This was a quick route to where she wanted to go, and coming in as a prisoner might leave the Joker off-guard. Also, there wasn't time to fight Harley and get the gun.

"So, what do they call you?" Harley asked, shoving Batgirl so she would start down the metal stairs. "Batmaid? Robinette?"

"That's Batgirl to you."

"Whew, touchy. Hey," she said perkily, peering around to look into the masked face. "You look a little down, Batgirl. I mean, you vigilante types are always kinda sourpusses, but this is different. A gal can always tell." Harley sighed. "Guy trouble, huh?"

Before Batgirl could reply, they reached the bottom of the steps and emerged into the hold.

"…what a shame." The Joker walked in a circle around Batman, a syringe in one hand, the vial in the other. "What a pity. I would have expected the walking decoy to show up by now…let loose with a bad quip or two…he always did have a sense of humor. But word on the street is he's skipped town." He inserted the syringe into the vial, filling it with liquid. "Bye, bye birdie!"

"Hey, Puddin'!" Harley called. "Look what I got!"

She gave Batgirl a shove, and as Batgirl stumbled forward, she reflected that this wasn't quite the dramatic entrance she'd always imagined in her dreams.

"Well, if it isn't the feisty minx, Batgirl. Oops, my bad, forgot about her. Hmm…but since she's here…I was out cold so I missed the family argument, however I do feel I deserve some credit. After all, it was after our run-in that the bat kid vamoosed. Now here's another sidekick for me to dispose of. I'm setting records for efficiency. Nice work, Harl!"

Harley simpered, keeping the uzi trained on Batgirl. Two mimes moved forward with ropes to bind her.

"Let her go, Joker," Batman said in the voice Robin had tried so hard to imitate. "You don't need her. You've got me."

"Tut tut. How noble-minded. Let me think about it…" he put one finger to his chin and pursed his lips. "Mmm…No!"

The black figure dangling several yards off the floor suddenly dropped, bonds slipping from his shoulders and torso. His arms spread until he resembled the animal for which he was named. Two mimes fell from double blows. They didn't even have time to cry out.

Batgirl whirled, kicking one mime in the stomach, then raised her fist and snapped her arm back, punching the other.

"Hey, no fair!" The Joker protested.

Harley began firing the uzi at random. Several mimes dove for cover. Batgirl backflipped until she reached the shelter of a crate. Batman dove behind another.

"Er…Harley…Harley baby…" The Joker cautiously poked his head over a crate. "Could you…er…watch where you're firing?" The front of his crate was riddled with bullet holes.

"Oop. Sorry, Mistah J.," Harley lowered the gun, sheepish.

Batgirl climbed onto her crate, and leapt. The gun skidded away across the floor and Harley Quinn went sprawling. In seconds, Batgirl had Harley's wrists locked behind her in GCPD issue handcuffs.

With the gun no longer a threat, five mimes rushed Batman. The first went flying.

"You, my dear, are starting to get on my nerves."

Batgirl looked up from securing the lock on Harley's cuffs to see a pair of purple pants. She looked up further, into the Joker's face.

Lightning quick, he drew back his arm and strucked her sideways across the face. Batgirl went sprawling, but recovered quickly. She popped up on her feet, and swung at the Joker's laughing face. He ducked. As he came up, she let loose with a high kick that caught him full in the face. He staggered back, expression livid.

"You're no fun!" He put his hand to his mouth. Crimson blood dripped over the pasty white fingers.

She advanced, while yet another mime flew across the hold and smacked against a stack of boxes. Then another.

There were two left. They looked at Batman, looked at their fallen comrades, looked at each other. They turned and ran.

Batgirl landed a punch across the Joker's pale chin. He staggered again under the blow, yet kept grinning a bloody grin, as if goading her on. Then he pulled something slender from his breast pocket, right next to the plastic flower. It was too late to pull her next punch. His fingers clamped around her wrist in an iron grasp she couldn't free herself from. The needle glinted, penetrating her glove. There was a sharp pain in the back of her hand. She saw his gloved finger lower the plunge. He released her and the needle fell to the floor.

A black form descended over the bright clown. Double-fisted, Batman struck a swift, brutal blow that sent the Joker flying against the hull. He slumped the floor and lay still.

"Puddin'!" Harley shrieked

Batgirl stood very still, listening to her own heartbeat deafening in her ears, shocked.

She would not go this way. Not jabbed with a needle by a twisted, sick clown.

Nothing. She felt nothing yet. How long did it take?

Would it hurt?

Would she go mad first, laughing, screaming, until she finally succumbed to peace?

What would Dick think, when he found out?

Oh, god, who was going to tell her father? More importantly, what were they going to tell her father?

The dark shadow stepped into her line of vision, blurred, refocused, and blurred again. She tried to make sense of it and felt a wave of dizziness shake the world.

As Batgirl fell forward, Batman caught her, keeping her on her feet. He had something in his hand—a hypo spray. Hands grasped her shoulders, hands as gentle as her father's. Then she felt a quick, sharp pain in her arm.

"You're going to be okay," a voice said, deep and kind. "The toxin has a thirty second delay. The antidote works faster than that. It's going to be all right."

All right.

She believed that voice, she trusted that voice. When the blackness swept over her, she let it.


2:46 am

The hum of an engine was all around her, and a sensation of speeding swiftly through the night. She opened her eyes, and found herself buckled into the front passenger seat of the Batmobile.

Putting her hand to her head, she groaned.

"You okay?" Batman said, his eyes on the road ahead.

"Uh…yeah. I think so. Except for this headache."

"That's an expected side-effect."

"Of the toxin or the cure?"

Was she imagining it, or was there a small smile beneath Batman's cowl?

"The Joker?" she asked.

"Recaptured and on his way to Arkham."

"Oh." She closed her eyes and let her head sink back against the seat. "Good."

"You did decent work back there," he said.

Her eyes flew open and she sat up.

"I…might not have been able to handle all of them alone," he added.

Batgirl wondered if she were hallucinating. Despite her headache, she had to fight back a proud smile. "Thank you," she said.

They sat in silence as the car roared homeward.

"I don't get it," she said, after a few minutes. "If I did such good work…look, Alfred's worried about you. So am I. You need a partner, a sidekick. Someone to watch your back. I know you think I'm just a girl, and I do this for kicks, but I…"

SCREECH!

The car halted so suddenly she was thrown against the restraining harness.

"You really think that's why I refused?" The cowled figure spoke quietly. "Because I don't think you take this seriously? Or because you're a woman? You've seen me work. Tell me," he said, a note of dry humor in the voice, "do I seem as if I might underestimate somebody because she happens to be female?"

The car engine cut off, leaving ringing silence in its wake.

"Then…" Batgirl bit her lower lip. "Then it's me. I'm not good enough, dedicated enough."

"No. That's not it.

"Then what?"

"I never planned to have a partner, ever. I preferred working alone. But then Dick needed help." He looked down at his own gloved hands as they tightly grasped the steering wheel. "I can't explain it…but it seemed right, having him around. He became Robin, and he showed me that working alone isn't the only way. Or the best." He paused, then went on, as if each word hurt, "There's no practical reason I can't train you to take his place. But the truth is…you can't. Because no one ever can."

She stared out the front windshield, at the lonely street stretched before them. It was stark beneath the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. The arch supports of a bridge rising to the left were suggestive of some great cathedral.

"I keep thinking he'll come back," Batman continued, in a voice that belonged to Bruce Wayne, "that I'll turn around and there he'll be, as if nothing had happened. I…miss him, too."

With that confession, he touched a switch and the car hummed into life again.

They left the city, and now trees slid past the windows instead of buildings. The car dove into a tunnel and barrelled swiftly into the heart of the cliffs. Finally, they reached the haven of the batcave.

As she walked away, headed for the stone steps leading to the exit, she heard his voice, rough now, brusque, speak after her.

"Two Face may have something going down tomorrow night. Meet me here at midnight. Don't be late."

She sensed the dark walls back in place, letting no one in.

But for a moment, he had opened the gate for her.