Disclaimer: All characters are the property of DC comics. No financial benefit is being derived from their use. "Land of the Living" lyrics by Wayland Patton and Tia Sillers. Recorded by Pam Tillis on her Greatest Hits album.
A/N: Reference is made to events taking place in recent issues of Batman and Nightwing comics, as well as to scenes previously depicted in Batman #614 (during the HUSH arc), as well as to Identity Crisis. The reader may also wish to look at Batman: The Killing Joke, A Death in the Family, Batman: No Man's Land, Vol. 5., Robin: Unmasked, and Outsiders #17.
A/N: It's not very often that I dedicate my work to anyone, but this chapter is an exception. People who know me on the DC message boards, know that I've said in a few threads that my fan-fics are of two kinds. There are the Psion Force stories—and then there are the ones I write in reaction to something penned by one of DC's official writers—because it hits me that they aren't going to depict a scene that I feel needs to be shown. And, the thing is, every single time I show one of those scenes, somebody sends a review that goes something like: "you've managed to make the down fall of poor benighted Nightwing not seem quite so irreversible as the naysayers would have us believe." (Thanks, Simon920!) Or "frankly, while I doubt we'd ever get that kind of heart to heart in the comic, I wish we did. This would have fit in nicely." (Phoenix83ad, that means a lot!). And that tells me that I'm not the only one who had that reaction upon reading the story that served as my inspiration. And it feels great. You all… get it! So, when a story that I thought was a single-chapter standalone generates five requests for a second part… well, I start brainstorming.
Having said that, this chapter is dedicated to Knottaclue, giveGodtheglory, Simon920, nightgirl, and cmar. Because I really would not have written it, without your feedback.
Chapter Two: Exculpation
"…And all I could think," Dick continued dully, "was that he was right. It was never going to stop. If I wasn't going to kill him, I was as good as signing the death warrant of everyone else I knew. But I couldn't do it. And then I heard her… Tarantula, telling me to move. She told me all I had to do was get out of the way, and she'd take care of the rest."
He studied a fixed point on the carpet in the den. Bruce hadn't said a word since he had started talking. He had begun with the fire at Haly's, and continued through with the murders of the 35 people unfortunate enough to be at home when Mouse and Giz had destroyed his apartment building. No, Bruce hadn't said a word. His body language, however, had spoken volumes. Especially his eyes. Dick couldn't meet them now. "I could see she had a gun. I knew that right at that moment, I was the only thing keeping Desmond alive. Worse. He knew it. He was laughing, saying that even then, after everything he'd told me, I was still trying to come up with a way to save him from her. And I was. And then… we can look for excuses, like I tried to do the last time, with Joker. I was beyond stressed. I wasn't analyzing things closely—if I had been, I would have made a copy of his confession disk so I'd have a backup in case Flores did turn out to be in Desmond's pocket. Which he did. But it doesn't change the fact that… she told me to move out of the way of her shot. And I did. And she pulled the trigger."
He closed his eyes and hunched forward on the sofa, elbows on knees, forehead buried in hands, waiting for Bruce's weight to leave the sofa… for the footfalls indicating that he was picking his way through the jumble of debris that had previously been arranged atop his desk, for the door to click shut behind him. He hadn't anticipated the arm, which wrapped itself fiercely around his shoulders, drawing him close. Dick drew a shuddering breath. "I killed him. She pulled the trigger, but if I hadn't gotten out of the way—"
Bruce's response was to stretch his other hand out to pull Dick's away from his eyes. "Look at me," he ordered softly. Quiet though the voice was, Dick knew that tone. He forced himself to comply. The mask was quite definitely slipping, he noticed, but he read neither hatred nor revulsion in the older man's eyes.
"I think," Bruce said, "that this may have been one reason that I didn't want you to stay with the police department. Sooner or later, it was almost inevitable that we would be discussing something of this nature… and it's not a conversation to which I'd been looking forward." Alfred had brought down Dick's crutch before leaving the two alone. Bruce reached for it now, and handed it to Dick. "Walk with me," he said, getting up and indicating the elevator down to the cave.
Uncertainly, Dick rose to his feet. Bruce was moving a little faster than he needed to. It was an effort to keep up. Seeing this, the bigger man slowed and waited for Dick to get inside the elevator car before stepping in after him. A moment later, the doors parted on the third level. Bruce ignored the computer station and strode briskly toward a bank of filing cabinets standing against the far wall. Unlocking one of the drawers, he pulled out a cowl—one of the newer ones he'd been wearing for the past year or so. He tossed it to Dick. Dick caught it one-handed, and looked at it, confused.
"I'm stumped," he said after a moment. "Why am I holding this?"
"Did you take a good look?"
"One of the ears is missing," Dick replied, shrugging. "Is that supposed to mean something?"
"Yes. You're going to tell me what it is."
Dick glanced up at him. "Excuse me?"
Dick frowned. But he held the cowl closer, examining it closely, first with his eyes, then with his hands, paying careful attention to the stub where the missing ear had been. All the while, he could feel Bruce's gaze resting on him. Now that he knew that there actually was something to find, it didn't take him long to look up. "This has been shot off," he said.
Bruce nodded. "By Jim. The night I thought the Joker had killed Tommy Elliott."
"So he fired at you? Jeez, Bruce, I told you sooner or later he'd get fed up with that disappearing act you always used to pull on him." It was a feeble joke, at best. Dick remembered an instant later that James Gordon was moving away from Gotham, the better to live near Barbara. Lucky him. Leaving Bruce behind though. That had to hurt. "Sorry, Bruce. I didn't mean to—"
Bruce waved a hand at him, dismissing the comment. "He tried talking to me first. I didn't listen. All I could think about was… tearing that… stupid leering grin… off of that pasty face… once and for all. I thought about Barbara. And Jason. And my hands seemed… inadequate. I… so help me; I wished I had a crowbar. I think Jim fired twice. Once clear over my head. The second shot… he was standing at point-blank range, so it wasn't as incredible a feat as it would initially appear, nicking off that ear. That was what it took to stop me from following through with… what I had started."
"I remember," Dick said finally. "Afterwards. In the cave. But, Bruce, you didn't kill him."
"And you haven't been listening. I didn't kill him because at the crucial moment, somebody was there to pull me back. And trust me, I didn't give in easily."
Dick handed him back the cowl. "I understand what you're trying to do, but let's face it, that was spur of the moment. You weren't thinking straight. I was."
"Were you? From what you've been describing, you'd had little sleep, less food, and more… excitement in the week or so leading up to Desmond's death than you'd had for quite some time." Dick opened his mouth, but before he could utter a sound, Bruce continued. "Before you try telling me that you were coping well with that situation, I want you to think very hard about exactly whom you're addressing."
A brief smile flickered on his lips as the import of what Bruce was saying hit home, then faded. "Bruce, even if the pressure was getting to me, I knew damn well what was going to happen when I got out of the way. Are you saying I was right to step aside?"
Bruce shook his head. "No. I'm saying that…" He broke off. "What you did was… understandable. Not right. Understandable. When Joker murdered Gordon's wife… I remember thinking that… if I had ended things after Jason… it wouldn't have happened. If I'd ended them the night Barbara was shot, Jason would still be alive. A few months prior to that, and Barbara would still be walking. I've sworn—repeatedly—that I would never take a life. And some nights, when I think about the lives destroyed because I uphold that vow, I wonder just how badly I'm fooling myself. And after everything that's happened recently…" He let his voice trail off. A moment later, he continued.
"When you told me that you were joining the police force, I knew that sooner or later, deadly force would have to become a necessary option for you. And I was expecting that one of two things was going to happen. Either, you would fire on someone in the line of duty, and try to come to grips with that, or… you wouldn't. And as a result, someone, maybe your partner, would pay the price." He waited for Dick to meet his eyes again. "I didn't want you to have to deal with that. And on some level, I thought that getting you off of the force would resolve the issue."
Dick shook his head. "And all this time, I couldn't figure out how you trusted me to chase ninjas over rooftops twenty stories high, but thought me being a cop was too dangerous. That wasn't it, was it?"
"No. Although, I admit it was a tense moment when Alfred told me you'd been shot."
Dick nodded. "I can see that, now. Bruce… about that time before… with Joker… when I thought he'd killed Tim…"
"That time, someone was there to fix things. This time—"
"I failed you." Both men spoke simultaneously, then stared at each other, one incredulous, one adamant. "How?" Dick asked, just as Bruce fired out
"NO! You listen to me, Dick. You have not failed me. Do you think that Barbara doesn't—didn't pass word on about what happens in your life? Alfred was at the funeral for the people in your building. Did you suppose that he had gone behind my back? The fire at Haly's may not have made the Herald's front page, but Alfred circled the article and left it where I'd see it. But I assumed that if you wanted my help, you'd ask for it. If not, Bludhaven is your city. You've shown me in the past that you had a handle on things. It occurred to me to find some excuse to stop by, regardless, but—"
"Something came up," Dick finished. Something always came up. Some charity function, or Bat-related business or… oh. Oh… crud. "Sue Dibney."
Bruce nodded. "And then the attempt on Jean Loring. And—"
"Jack Drake." Well, no, actually, that one had come after the mob war. After Blockbuster. So what? You want Tim to ever hear you say that one doesn't count? He shook his head. Between the shockwaves running through the JLA, the normal crime situation in Gotham, this whole business of having to adjust to having… and then to not having a new Robin… factor in all of the shouting matches he'd had with Bruce over the years when he had accused Bruce of not believing that he, Dick was capable of managing on his own… Dick couldn't exactly blame him for not being there this time.
"I thought I did have a handle on things," he said, softly. "And then, almost overnight things just—"
"Spiraled out of control," Bruce finished. "It's happened to me on more than one occasion." One corner of his mouth quirked upward. "Less than two weeks ago."
Dick smiled back in response. "You know, you're taking this a lot better than I expected, considering. I guess, from what you said, you've been planning for this for a while."
Bruce frowned. "That's not entirely accurate, you know."
"Yeah," Dick agreed. "From what you were telling me before, you were expecting me to be a little more of an active participant."
Bruce turned away. "No." From his body language, he seemed to be struggling to resolve some dilemma. Finally he squared his shoulders and turned partway back toward the younger man. "You were feverish for five days. Delirious. You… talked. Extensively."
"Oh." Okay. People did tend to babble on in that state. So he must have mumbled something or other about killing Blockbuster. But, Bruce shouldn't be acting this… nervous? No, that wasn't exactly right. Confused? No. Unsure. That was closer. But why… Dick blanched. I couldn't have gone into… "Bruce? Was Blockbuster all I talked about?"
Bruce bowed his head. "No."
Oh, man! "I… what did I say?" If that doesn't sound like I'm trying to make up some other story, I don't know what does.
Bruce forced out the words. "Enough for me to make certain… inferences. Given the nature of the people with whom I frequently interact, it is possible that my perceptions have been colored. It could be that I am incorrectly jumping to a conclusion that is… less than savory. Are you able to clarify?"
"Do—" Why was his voice suddenly coming out in that squeak? "Do I have to answer that right now?"
Bruce slowly shook his head. "You just have."
Dick closed his eyes. "I'm sor—"
"Don't!" He interrupted. "Look at me." He waited for Dick to comply. "Don't you dare try to apologize." He ducked his head so that his eyes were level with the younger man's. There was anger, there, yes… but overlaid with a pain so profound that Dick had to force himself not to look away. "Are you hearing me? What happened with Blockbuster was one thing. What happened after that was not your fault."
"But, I should have fought her!"
"Dick. You were in shock. You were exhausted. You had just made a difficult decision and the consequences were sinking in. In that state—"
"I still should have fought!"
"Fine!" Bruce shouted back. "Suppose that you should have. Are you telling me that because you didn't, what happened next was somehow acceptable?"
"No, I'm not saying that!"
"Then what are you saying?"
"I don't KNOW!" His eyes were burning. No, damn it! He wasn't going to cry. For the second time that day, Bruce's hands were on his shoulders, gently easing him down into one of the swivel chairs. Funny. He hadn't even noticed the pain in his leg flaring up again. He sank back against the seat cushion. Bruce handed him a handkerchief—not a tissue, he noted with surprise. This was a real, honest-to-goodness linen handkerchief. Did they actually still make those things? Monogrammed, yet. He shook his head, disbelieving, then passed the fabric across his eyes. "I didn't mean to shout," he mumbled. "Sorry."
Bruce sat down next to him. "No. I am. Sorry I just put you through that. And… two nights ago, I was out on my rounds. And I saw her. She was outnumbered, outclassed, and outgunned. Literally. I watched her. She has a few good moves, the kind that the majority of street-fighters wouldn't know, but she relies on them too much. Twelve against one. She ran out of ammunition, dove for cover behind a dumpster, and I still watched. Remember, at that time, all I knew was that she was involved in Desmond's murder. I suspected the rest, but until you confirmed it just now, I didn't know. I stood there, and I saw the look in her eyes. She knew she only had a few seconds left before they'd have her. And I remember thinking about how I'd heard you mumbling that she said that all you had to do was… walk away. And I couldn't help thinking about… poetic justice."
"But you didn't."
"No. But I hesitated. And if I were out tonight, and saw the same situation, I can't tell you that I'd react as quickly now as I did then."
Dick stretched out a hand and laid it on the older man's forearm. "You shouldn't have to. I—when I drove out that night, I had it out with her. She's not in Gotham anymore."
There was a long pause, before Bruce spoke again.
"Alfred thinks it'll be another few days before the bandage comes off of that," he pointed to Dick's leg. "After that… it's up to you. Whether you want to wear the suit again or not, this place is your home for as long as you need it to be." He realized that Dick's right hand was still on his arm. Following his gaze, Dick made as if to remove it. Before he could, however, Bruce covered it with his left. "What happened with Desmond," he continued, "if you need to discuss it, I'm here. The other matter falls… too far… outside the scope of my expertise." He waited for Dick to meet his eyes, again. "But it is something that you need to address. Maybe it's something that you can do alone, I don't know. But if you can't… then, you shouldn't have to. What I'm trying to say is… when Drake threatened to go public with our identities, I told you then that there were other aliases waiting for all of us, should the need arise. If you need to talk about what happened with somebody, and feel that you're getting close to talking about other activities in our regular lives, don't let it deter you. We'll manage.
"Actually," Dick said slowly, "there's a woman I'm working with in the Outsiders who might have some clue where I'm coming from. She's not really the kind of person I would have normally picked as a good listener, but recently, I found out that she's got some pretty intense things in her past—things that make me think she'll probably have some ideas on how to... work through this. Thanks for making that offer, Bruce. It means a lot. Really. It does. But let's wait before we do anything drastic, huh?"
"If you say so," Bruce said. "The offer stands."
Dick nodded. "You're going out tonight?"
Bruce hesitated. "I was planning on it. But if there's something you need to—"
"No, I was just wondering if you wanted me to stay down here for a while. If I'm going to be sticking around, I should probably bring myself up to date on what's been going on lately. And if you did need something researched tonight, I could probably handle that for you." He grinned. "I mean, if you're sure you still want to put up with me, and all."
Bruce clapped him on the shoulder. "The sentiment is mutual." He turned on a monitor. "Let's get your passwords reset."
Come down from that dark cloud Just hurry back
What's done is done
Don't you go down believing
You're the only one
That ever felt heartache
Turn to regret
We've all got something
We'd like to forget...that's right
To the land of the living
Things have changed
Since you've been gone
The world is turning
In the land of the living
Take a deep breath
Life goes on...life goes on
Just hurry back
Pam Tillis—"Land of the Living"