Disclaimer: All characters are the property of DC comics. No financial benefit is being derived from their use. "House of Cards" written and recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter on her album Stones in the Road, released 1994. Used without permission but with sincere admiration.
The Wind About To Blow
And now I feel the wind about to blow, and baby I'm so scared
You're repeating the past instead of letting it go
And I don't wanna go back there
Now we're standing here face to face, afraid to move or else
I wanna prop up this fragile place, I can't do it all by myself
'Cause when we dream, it's of the wind, blowing cold and hard
When we wake up we still live in a house of cards
--Mary Chapin Carpenter, "House of Cards"
Chapter One: Guilt
"…And as we grieve," the minister's voice intoned solemnly, "we ask ourselves why? Why were these talented, dedicated young men, beloved and respected by their families and peers, taken from us?"
I wish I had an answer for you, the man said silently. He was standing several feet behind the rest of the crowd, his figure partially obscured by the shade of the trees beneath which he had sequestered himself. He was not a person at whom one would normally look twice. A knitted cap covered his head, stopping a scant half-inch above dark eyebrows. An authentic-looking knife-scar marred the man's left cheek. Three-day stubble adorned his jaw line, and he wore an army jacket, zipped up over a charcoal-grey top. Camouflage pants and combat boots completed the ensemble. Anyone passing him on the street would probably walk past without even registering his presence. Which was, of course, what he had planned on, when he had donned this particular costume.
Planned. He frowned. Planning was what had caused all of this in the first place. Planning for a worst-case scenario, and failing to create a contingency failsafe in the event that said scenario was prematurely or improperly activated. And now, Officers Michael Brett, Samuel Loucks, Manuel de Pareja and twenty-four of their police brethren had paid the price.
In the last ten days, he had paid his respects to twenty-one of these fallen. Tomorrow, there would be another service for the remaining three. More than a dozen still remained in the I.C.U.'s at various hospitals in the city. The man hoped—no, actually 'prayed' wasn't too strong a word, this time—he prayed that tomorrow's burials would be the last. He could see Akins walk over to a woman who was tightly clutching the hand of a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old. De Pareja's widow and son. The police commissioner's back was toward him, preventing him from reading Akins' lips, but the woman, a forced smile on her face, nodded mechanically, pulling the little boy closer. The child's eyes screwed tightly shut, and he turned away.
The man closed his eyes in empathy. When he opened them, they met the boy's squarely. The boy frowned slightly, unsure, then looked back at Akins.
That tore it. Without realizing what he was doing, the man took a step forward. Four steps more would carry him away from the relative safety of the trees. His fingers fumbled at the zipper on his army jacket. One inch lower and the bat-symbol on the uniform beneath would be revealed. You want me, Akins? I'm right here. Go ahead. Snap the cuffs on—G-d knows I deserve it. But his fingers froze on the zipper-pull. And his legs refused to take another step. And after a moment, Akins passed on, unseeing.
Bruce Wayne watched the rest of the service in detached silence. As the three coffins were lowered, the sun continued to shine brightly down. That seemed all wrong. It should have been raining. That would have been the perfect weather for today. But it had only rained three days out of the last ten, and sun was predicted for tomorrow as well.
He waited for the crowd to thin before retreating back through the trees, to the parking lot, where a five-year-old Dodge Neon, kept on hand specifically for those rare occasions when he needed to appear in public as neither Bruce Wayne nor Matches Malone, awaited. Once outside the gates of the cemetery, he accelerated fifteen miles beyond the speed limit. No sirens blared behind him.
The noonday sun, coming in through the window, beating down on his closed lids finally forced Dick Grayson awake. As usual, a pain in his leg as he shifted position reminded him of the bullet wound—days old now. It was healing nicely, according to Alfred. A short while longer and he would be back in costume.
Doing what? He shook his head, sitting up. Balancing on his crutch, he headed for the washroom. He splashed cold water on his face. Feeling the cobwebs clear, he made his way back into the room and rummaged through the bureau, pulling out shirt, pants, and socks at random.
Alfred entered carrying a covered tray. How did he always know when to come in? Dick wondered wryly. The elderly man wished him a good afternoon as he shook his head, eying the assortment of clothing on the bed. He set the tray down on the table, pulled out a different shirt and pair of socks, and exchanged them for the ones Dick had selected.
Great. Not only had he failed to prevent Blockbuster's death, not only had he handled himself like a rank amateur during the recent mob war, but now it seemed that he couldn't even coordinate his wardrobe.
Blockbuster's death. Dick cringed inwardly. He was going to have to talk to Bruce about that. The sooner the better. Before Bruce found out for himself. And will you bring up what happened afterwards? On the roof? He shook his head slowly. He didn't know if he'd ever be able to tell Bruce about that one.
"Is he in the cave, Alfred?" Dick asked casually.
"Master Bruce had a mid-day appointment," Alfred responded. "He is expected back shortly."
Dick frowned. "On a Saturday?"
Dick sighed, more than a little relieved.
"Master Dick? If there is any way in which I might be of assistance…"
Could you tell me the best way to let Bruce know that I walked away from a man, fully cognizant of the fact that as soon as I got out of the line of fire, Tarantula was going to blow his head off? How about the best way to 'fess up that I neglected to mention that minor detail when Tarantula followed me back to Gotham? Like I conveniently "forgot" to tell him that she used to work for Blockbuster, may have murdered Chief Redhorn, am I leaving anything out? Oh, well, I guess Babs probably already told him Tarantula attacked her too, so that doesn't exactly count, does it?
On second thought, Alfred, I'd better not ask you for your advice. See, I don't think I could handle it if you and Bruce both knew how badly I've let you down over this. And I know that Bruce would keep this to himself—if only to spare you.
Dick shook his head. "I really have to talk to him."
Alfred looked as though he wanted to say something more, but restrained himself. "I shall tell him so when he arrives." He looked Dick over again. "Master Dick, while I realize that I might obtain more obedience from the average brick wall, I feel constrained to point out to you that your wound would heal far more rapidly if you would only rest that leg."
Dick forced a smile. "Duly noted, Alfred. Thanks." Well, as long as he was penned up in the manor…. "Could I see today's paper?"
Alfred frowned. "Master Dick, I really think…"
"What?" His smile became more genuine. Sadder, but more genuine. "It'll depress me? Alfred, even as much as you and Bruce have been tiptoeing around me for the last week and a half, I've picked up a few hints. At this point, if I don't get the facts about what's really going on out there, I'm just going to start imagining something worse. C'mon!"
The older man sighed, turned and left the room. He returned a moment later carrying a folded newspaper. "Somehow, Master Dick," he stated, depositing it next to the breakfast tray, "I doubt that it would be possible."
As Alfred departed, Dick turned the paper over to the reveal the headline Civilian death toll rises to 38. His eye dipped cautiously below the forty-eight-point type and byline. Anita Blain, 30 succumbed early this morning to gunshot injuries sustained in last week's pitched battle between… He forced himself to read on. The press was clearly playing up the events as much as possible. Dick suspected that had this happened in Metropolis, the coverage would have been more balanced. Who was he kidding? Had this happened in Metropolis, Clark would have stopped things before they had a chance to balloon so far out of control.
Alfred was right. Just now, he couldn't imagine things being worse. Dick pushed the paper away and sat lost in thought.
Dick balanced the tray, with its half-eaten breakfast on the palm of the hand not maneuvering the crutch. Alfred hadn't returned for it yet. No matter. He could probably handle the journey down to the kitchen without mishap. He reached the top of the stairs without incident. Now came the tricky part. Dick thought for a moment, then leaned the crutch against the top of the railing, and used the banister to negotiate his way down. At the foot of the stairs, he hesitated. He could probably make it to the kitchen with the tray, but if he was wrong, Alfred was not going to appreciate the fragmented crockery that would almost inevitably result. Things were already in enough of a mess for him, without causing another one that would land him in more trouble. He set the tray down on a nearby end table.
He looked back up the stairs, grimacing. Now, the crutch would come in handy. He could hear voices coming from the den. It sounded like Bruce was back. Dick drew a deep breath. Now. He had to tell him now. While he was still psyched up for it. He followed the voices, hand brushing the wall for support. The voices became clearer as he advanced. Suddenly, he froze, listening.
"You heard me the first time, Alfred. I don't think you have any idea how close I am to turning myself in to GCPD. Probably for my own good."
"Sir! Quite understandably you're distraught, but I hardly think—"
"Distraught? Alfred, more than sixty deaths can be chalked up to me as of today. The press may have the details skewed, but they're right about the main idea. Virtually everything that went wrong over the last two weeks can be attributed to the fact that I gave a… a terminated worker unsupervised access to my computers to clear out her personal files, and neglected to lock down any other data that I didn't want her copying on her way out of the cave."
"You couldn't have known, Sir."
Bruce laughed unexpectedly. "When Waynetech has to let people go, Alfred, do you really think we expect them to steal our product specs before they leave the premises? But we can't afford to take chances. So, our security monitors every key they hit, every file they copy. I've insisted on it since I took charge. But somehow…" He exhaled. "I made a mess of it, Alfred. All of it. Hacking the airwaves, hijacking the GCPD, somehow failing to notice that it was Black Mask under Orpheus's helmet…" Softly, he continued. "I failed, Alfred. I failed Gotham. I failed Stephanie. I failed Orpheus, Brett, Loucks, de Pareja… It's… all my fault."
Bruce's voice had grown progressively lower as he spoke, so when Dick heard the loud thud, it startled him. Books, he identified automatically. Knocking the reading lamp off the desk on their way to the floor. A muffled yell followed, then a sliding sound and another bang, which indicated that the desk blotter, complete with pens, paperweights and sundry notepads must have followed suit. "All! My! Fault!" It took Dick a moment longer to identify the origin of the third crash: a hollow globe impacting an oak-paneled wall. He continued on to the den, moving as stealthily as he could, although he doubted that anyone was paying attention.
Dick started. He didn't remember ever hearing Alfred just call him 'Bruce' before. It was always 'Master Bruce', or, more formally, 'Sir'. Slowly, he eased the door open wider. Bruce was standing behind the desk, his eyes squeezed shut, both his hands gripping the hardwood surface. Dick wondered idly if he was planning to throw that, too. Alfred moved toward Bruce, making just enough noise to alert the younger man to his approach. As he reached him, Bruce shook his head. "I failed, Alfred. Everyone. Utterly." Alfred placed a hand gently on his shoulder blade. Bruce slid away from it. "Don't touch me," he whispered. "I—it's all unraveling… my fault… I… Dick was right, before. I… drove… them all away again." He shook his head. "Maybe, it's better this way. I'm… poisonous—"
"No!" The syllable burst from Dick's lips before he even knew that he was going to speak. Both men turned as one to see him standing in the doorway, trembling. "Bruce, that is not true. You didn't execute the scenario—"
"It was my scenario!"
"And you opened fire on the crime bosses to set this whole thing off? You saw one of them pull a gun and you walked away?" Ouch. That was a slip if ever there was one, he noted. He forced himself to continue. "Bruce, listen to me. Gotham needs you. Now, more than ever. You want to tell me how much good you're going to do in Blackgate—"
"It would probably be Arkham," Bruce muttered.
Dick rolled his eyes. "Oh, that makes everything alright, then. What was I thinking? Look, it's like Alfred's been trying to teach both of us for I don't know how long—you make a mess, you clean it up."
If he had been only a few years younger, Dick probably would have clapped a hand to his mouth right about then. As it was, he paled a few shades. Bruce started, then glanced automatically at Alfred. The older man surveyed the disarray surrounding them and his lip twitched. He turned abruptly to the window.
Bruce looked over to Dick, again, his expression pensive. "The last time I was as… cut off as I am now," he said quietly, "it… wasn't good. I'm not sure things would improve were I to repeat the experiment." He closed his eyes, then opened them slowly. "Robin and Batgirl are in Bludhaven, right now. I understand if you feel the need to keep an eye on them."
Dick smiled, but the smile faded almost instantly. "Bruce," he said steeling himself, "you're not the only one who's… made a mess of things lately. And I don't know if it's fair for me to dump this on you, now. But, there's something you have to hear. And if I don't tell you now, I might not have the nerve to do it later. I don't know if there's anything you can do… or if you'll even want to… but you need to know what's been going on before you… start asking me to volunteer to stick around."
Bruce advanced until he stood less than an arm's length from his… his son. Then he placed both hands on the younger man's shoulders. "Go ahead," he said simply. "I'm listening."