A/N EEK! The last chapter! I apologize in advance for all the typos, but I'm hopping on a plane to go home for my sister's high school graduation in a few hours, and I'm not taking my laptop with me. (My parents have Internet, but there's a lot of competition to get computer time.)
In Which Unlikely Alliances Find a Beginning
This saying good-bye on the edge of the dark …
- Robert Frost
Dick huddled against his mother's headstone, tears running down his face. For the last five years, one idea had made meaning out of past pain and had given shape to the future, and now that idea had been stripped away. He felt lost, useless, and stupid for having walked so blindly, but underlying all of that was sheer terror. The world had turned inside out, and at the moment it seemed there was nothing left to believe in. He pressed closer against the cool stone, trying to derive some comfort from its granite immobility.
There was no sound of approach, but when Dick finally wiped his cheek on his sleeve and looked up, Bruce was sitting on the grass a few feet away, watching him. The boy stiffened and glared at the man who no longer seemed like a friend and father. "Go away."
Bruce didn't try to argue but asked. "Can I say something first?"
Dick rested his head back against the stone and remained silent.
"I have to apologize for two things. The first is not understanding how … serious you are about wanting this … training. Alfred tried to tell me, but I didn't … or didn't want to … understand him. I didn't think it was possible that you could actually know what you were asking for. I thought maybe you just thought it was glamorous or exciting or like any other crime fighting job. But that's not it, is it?" Bruce spoke slowly, as if the thoughts were only now revealing themselves to him. "You feel the same way that I do – that it's got to be done, and that you've got to do it."
Dick lifted his head and looked cautiously at his guardian. "Maybe."
Bruce sighed. "You've got to realize that it took me thirty years to get to where you are now. But just because your journey was shorter doesn't mean it's wrong. I get that. Finally."
"I used to think that," Dick said bitterly, "but you just showed me that I didn't, remember?"
"That's the other thing I have to apologize for. I told you that I was going to try and convince you to drop this, but I still didn't … play fair. Incredible as it seems at the moment, I really do believe in Batman, and I believe in what he does. But the things that I showed you – there was only one conclusion you could come to." He paused, but Dick didn't speak, so he continued, "You told me that there can't be a law if it doesn't apply to everyone, and that's true. But the problem is that in Gotham, the law is already broken. It doesn't work for anyone. I still don't know if that justifies what I do, but I can promise you this: the moment this city has a system that resembles justice, and it doesn't have to be perfect as long as it works, then Batman will disappear."
Dick nodded slowly. "Ok."
Bruce took a deep breath. "What I'm asking for is another chance."
The words seemed to linger on the light autumn breeze. Dick bent his head again and picked up a bright orange leaf. Twirling the stem between his fingers, he tried to sort through the muddle in his head and heart. Hope was blossoming again, but it was timid and slow. Dick reached out and slowly traced the lettering on the headstone, remembering a promise that he had once made there. A promise he was still determined to keep.
"All right," he said finally. "Another chance. For me too."
"Thank you," Bruce said quietly.
Dick looked at him seriously. "Can people make mistakes and still be heroes?"
"I think they can. You want to be a hero?"
"Yes," Dick said frankly. "I do."
"Well, then." Bruce pushed himself to his feet. "We'd better get started.
"I'd like to see my sister, please." Niko tried to stand straight and not fidget while a nurse gave him a hard look through her bifocals.
"And your sister is?"
"Ari … Ariadne Pappas."
The nurse looked down a list. "Room 346. Take the elevator to the third floor and go to the right. But don't excite her and don't disturb any of the other patients."
"Yes … I mean, no ma'am." Niko rolled his eyes in relief as the elevator doors hid him from the nurse's disapproving gaze. For a moment, he'd been afraid she wasn't going to let him in.
Ariadne was in a room with three other beds, all of them full. When Niko came in, she was lying still on her back, hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor, an oxygen tube in her nose, her eyes closed. Niko swallowed hard and stepped closer. He didn't exactly understand what was wrong with his sister except that the fever that had stolen her sight when she was a tiny girl had also done something to her heart.
Although he hadn't made a sound, Ariadne stirred and murmured, "Niko?"
"Yeah, yeah it's me." The teen drew a chair up to the side of the bed and sat down. "How you doing?"
She tried to smile. "Ok. I'm just tired."
"You too tired to listen to a secret?" her brother asked, trying to keep his voice cheerful.
"Tell me," she whispered.
Niko bent his head so that he could whisper back. "You remember that idea you had about doing secret things for people? Well, I did something." Briefly, he told her about the pizza and the anonymous note.
When he was finished, a full smile curved Ariadne's lips. "Did you really sign it 'A Friend of the Batman'?"
"Would I tell you a lie?"
"I thought the Batman didn't do stuff like deliver pizza," she teased.
"I still don't think he does. But … maybe his friends can." Niko reached out and very gently tugged on his sister's hair. "Besides, it felt kind of nice."
"I told you," she said, faintly but smugly. "What are we going to do next?"
Niko groaned. "Next?"
"Of course next. Now listen, I have an idea …"
Alex sat by the window of his modest apartment, sipping a mug of coffee and staring down into the busy city street. Since being ordered out of Wayne Manor the day before, he hadn't heard anything from his employer, and he didn't yet trust his own temper enough to try calling. And if he was honest with himself, his conscience as well as his temper was unquiet. He had gone too far in accusing Wayne of harming his ward, even though he firmly believed it to be true.
Actually, Alex felt guilty about more than yesterday's scene, which had simply been the culmination of several months worth of veiled conflict. Yet again, he asked himself exactly why he detested Bruce Wayne so much, and he came up with the same answer he always did – the guy was a flake. Insincerity oozed from his every pore. Alex couldn't help wondering whether the billionaire had ever been honest with him. Yesterday, he realized, not without a tinge of ironic amusement. Bruce Wayne had been completely sincere while booting his erstwhile employee out of the mansion.
At least, Alex was fairly certain he was now an erstwhile, former, and otherwise ex employee. He hadn't actually been told not to come back, but the chances were a hundred to one that his official dismissal was in the mail. Or on the other end of the phone line, he thought as the instrument on table jingled. It rang three times before Alex got to it, and even then he lifted the receiver slowly, reluctant to face the inevitable.
However, it was neither the clipped tones of Alfred Pennyworth or the lazy drawl of Bruce Wayne but the slightly quavering voice of his mother. Alice Peaceable lived in a pleasant retirement home a short distance outside of Gotham City proper, but her many social activities did not keep her from taking an active interest in her son's life.
"Alex, I was just going to leave a message on your machine about dinner tomorrow night. I'm making your favorite. Why aren't you at work?"
Alex flopped down in an overstuffed chair and stared up at the ceiling. "I might have gotten fired yesterday."
"Wayne threw me out of the house, but he didn't actually tell me I was out of a job."
Alex closed his eyes and repressed a groan. He hated these knowing silences of hers – it was much worse than a barrage of questions, because he could only make uneasy guesses about what she was thinking. "It's probably for the best. Given the way Wayne and I get along, it would have happened sooner or later, so it's better that it happened sooner."
"Hmmm," Alice murmured. "Did I ever tell you that I once met Thomas and Martha Wayne?"
"What … You mean his parents?" Alex sat up, interested despite himself. "No, you didn't."
"It was on the train. They both used to ride the train all over town, you know."
"No, I didn't," Alex responded, mentally trying to picture the current Wayne with his thousand dollar suits and hundred thousand dollar sports cars on the graffitied and rackety city train.
"It was right at rush hour, and I barely even managed to squeeze in the car. Of course there wasn't any place to sit, especially not for a black woman. And then this white gentleman stood up and took off his hat, and said, 'Ma'am, may I offer you my seat?' I recognized him and I recognized his wife, too. They'd been in the papers an awful lot for all the philanthropic work they'd been doing. So I sat down and Mrs. Wayne smiled at me and said something about how the train was so crowded. Then we talked about the weather and the traffic until their stop."
"And?" Alex prompted.
"And nothing. I never saw them again, except in the papers. Well, don't be late tomorrow. I don't want the brisket to get cold." She hung up.
Alex resumed staring out the window. And nothing, my foot. He knew exactly what point his mother had been trying to make with her innocent little story. Thomas and Martha Wayne had been perfectly nice people until they'd been gunned down in front of their eight-year-old son. The same son for whom Alex had little sympathy and less respect.
His uncomfortable reverie was broken by his doorbell. Relieved at the distraction, Alex jumped for the intercom switch. "Yes?"
"Peaceable? It's Bruce Wayne. Can I come up?"
He's come to fire me in person. "Uh, yeah." Wondering why he suddenly felt so nervous, Alex the button that would let his visitor into the building. Two minutes later there was a knock on his apartment door. Alex swung it open and stepped back to let Wayne into the apartment. The billionaire sauntered in, hands stuffed in his coat pockets and his face expressionless.
"Would you like to sit down?" Alex offered hopefully.
"No." Hands still in his pockets, Wayne prowled across the room to the window, where he stood staring down into the street, much as Alex had earlier.
The silence grew oppressive. Come on, man, just get it over with, Alex mentally pleaded, but his unexpected guest remained obstinately mute. Unable to bear the waiting any longer, Alex cleared his throat. "Look, Wayne, about yesterday …" He paused, but the other man declined to finish the sentence. "I'm sorry. I overstepped my bounds. I shouldn't have said what I did." There, I did it. Maybe now he could get some peace from his conscience.
"No, you shouldn't have." Wayne finally turned away from the window, his blank mask dropped to reveal yesterday's anger. "But as much as I'd like to fire you, I can't. You're the best tutor Dick's ever had, and frankly, I don't how I'd explain it if you just disappeared."
"You … you want me to come back?" Alex stammered, shocked.
"No, I don't want you to come back. But I don't have a choice. I don't like you, Peaceable, but I need you." As though physically unsettled by his bitter confession, Wayne began pacing the length of the room. Alex dropped onto the arm of the sofa and watched him. When the billionaire reached the far wall, he turned back and demanded, "Have I ever interfered with your teaching?"
"No," Alex admitted, then added, "Except when you pull Dick out for phony doctor's appointments."
Wayne nodded slowly. "If I promise not to do that anymore, will you promise to stop goading me into it?"
Alex couldn't stop the shock that took control of his face, as he realized that Wayne had understood all of the snide jabs made at his expense, insults he never would have understood had he truly been as shallow as he appeared. Before he could get past the surprise to thinking up a response, Wayne strode forward until he was a threatening mere inches from Alex.
"If you come back, Peaceable, there is one thing we're going to be absolutely clear on. Richard Grayson is my son in everything but DNA, and you will respect my authority."
"Good." Wayne stepped back, allowing Alex some breathing room. "So can Dick expect you on Monday?"
Alex drew himself up to his full height and met Wayne's challenging gaze fearlessly. "Yes."
The other man nodded curtly and strode toward the door. When it was shut securely behind him, Alex half collapsed onto the sofa and let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. What just happened?
Apparently, he still had a job. That was good. He would have missed Dick and worried about him in the hands of a less competent mathematician. But on the other hand, every assumption he had made about his employer had just been seriously shaken. The Bruce Wayne who had just left had been as earnest a man as Alex had ever met in his life. And yet, the fact remained that the billionaire spent a majority of his time acting like a jackass. Thomas and Martha Wayne, two perfectly nice people until they were gunned down in front of their son. Then maybe … maybe … acting like a jackass is just another way to outrun the past.
Trevor jerked his geometry book out of a stack in his locker and slammed the metal door shut. Ready to sprint for his next class, he nearly ran headlong into Barbara Gordon, who was standing just behind him. "Sorry," he apologized automatically, his brain busy processing her pale face and the dark circles beneath her eyes.
"Starbucks after school?" she asked.
"Sure," he agreed, trying not to sound too eager.
"Ok." She walked away, and Trevor had to grit his teeth to keep the ecstatic grin off his face. It had been hard to stay patient over the long weeks since he had first made his proposal, but at last the waiting had paid off. He already knew what Barbara was going to say to him, but he looked forward to hearing it anyway.
When he got to the coffee shop, she was already waiting for him at a corner table, a steaming latte in front of her. Wanting to prolong the anticipation, Trevor got his own cup of coffee before joining her.
Barbara cut straight to the point. "I've thought it over, and I've decided that you're right. We could do something. We have to do something."
"We will," Trevor assured her. "Together, you and I will do a whole lot more than something. I can promise you that."
Her mouth curved contemptuously. "You don't have to promise me anything. Truthfully, Trevor, I don't need you. But I do need your resources, and you need mine."
Fine. If she wanted to play it cool, then he would reciprocate. Trevor raised one eyebrow in what he hoped was a disdainful manner. "Your resources?"
"Information. Don't tell me you didn't approach me because my father is the chief of police."
The ironic thing was, he hadn't. It was Barbara herself Trevor wanted, and her potential access to police knowledge was only a plus. But she wouldn't believe him if he tried to convince her and in the long run, her misconception might play to his advantage, Trevor reflected as he nodded and said, "All right. You have information. I have more material resources. It shouldn't be too hard to make a start."
Barbara leaned forward slightly, her expression a little fierce. "This isn't going to be about cheap thrills. We're going to do something that matters."
"I've never meant anything else," Trevor answered impatiently.
She remained unyielding. "And don't think I'm agreeing to become your flunky."
"Of course not. We're partners." He offered his hand across the table.
Barbara gave him a long, searching look. Trevor refused to look away and kept his hand steady. At last she reached out and grasped it. "Partners."
Selina Kyle sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair, watching intently through a one-way glass partition. An intercom allowed her to hear everything that was said by the two men behind the glass.
"And then what did you see?" one of them asked softly. He was of medium height and slender build, with wavy brown hair that cascaded over his pale forehead to brush the rim of his glasses.
His companion was shorter, heavier, and darker. He was also extremely agitated. Instead of answering the question, he demanded, "Where's Will? I want to see Will."
"First tell me what you saw," the other insisted.
"I told you. I already told you a hundred times. Where's Will? Let me see my brother, you dirty bastard, or I'll…" He rose threateningly from his chair, but his companion remained seated and unafraid.
"Louis, you can't see Will. And in the future, you will address me as doctor." Although he spoke in an even, quiet tone, Louis shrank back and melted into his chair.
"Why can't I see Will?" he whined piteously.
The doctor leaned forward and said deliberately, "Because Will is dead."
"No!" Louis screamed. "It's not true! You're lying, you're lying, you're…" He broke off mid shriek as his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell off his chair, jerking convulsively. The doctor watched impassively for the thirty seconds of the performance. Then Louis lay still, except for the ragged breaths that sounded as though they clawed their way out of his chest. "I saw you," he at last said faintly. "You hit him on the head. And then you tied him up with a rope and threw him in the river." With a final shuddering breath, he became motionless. The doctor rose and let himself out of the room.
"An entertaining performance," Selina greeted him as he entered the hallway. "And this has happened before?"
"Almost exactly. This is the third time I have broken the news of his brother's death to him. Each time, he fell into a convulsive fit, followed by an imagined vision of the death scene, and then unconsciousness. When he wakes, he has no memory of what has happened."
"Is the imagined vision always the same?"
"No, so far each has been unique except …" The doctor hesitated, glancing at the inert form in the glass room. "I am always the killer."
"Which you were not."
Selina, too, transferred her gaze to the comatose Louis. "It wasn't at all like the trance I saw him enter in Gotham. That was a very peaceful experience."
"I believe his subconscious is inducing these fits as coping mechanism. It is making it difficult to proceed with my analysis of his true visions."
"You think he is holding something back?"
"I am sure of it, and I will persevere until I know what it is."
Selina smiled up at him, a slow, sensuous expression that drew the doctor's eyes to her full mouth, even as he took an involuntary step backward. "I have perfect faith in you, doctor. Will you come and keep me company tonight?"
He took another step backward, his eyes flicking nervously from side to side. "I…"
"Of course you will." She reached up and slowly drew one long, manicured fingernail down his cheek. "Bring your mask."
A soft swish behind him announced the presence of the Bat, but Gordon stubbornly kept his back turned, arms folded tightly across his chest.
"You have news?" the rasping voice finally asked.
"Metropolis PD found Will Rice's body in an alley. Shot twice in the chest. There's no sign of his brother."
"Is that all?"
All? Gordon wanted to scream. No, that's not all! And suddenly, he couldn't hold it in any longer. "My wife is dead because of us." Holding his breath, he waited for a response but got only silence. At last he turned, expecting to find himself alone. He wasn't.
"I'm sorry," the Bat said.
"Why me?" Gordon asked. "Why did it have to be me?" The Bat stayed quiet, folding his arms across his armored chest. "Or for that matter," the cop continued more softly, "why you?"
"Does it matter?"
"It mattered when I was walking my children behind their mother's body. But maybe you're beyond such merely human problems."
The Bat shifted so that his cloak cascaded forward around his feet. "I was there."
Stunned, Gordon could only stare at Gotham's legend, who, for the first time in five years, had offered a glimpse of humanity. And then the Bat spoke again.
"I understand. I have a son."
Gordon felt that he was seeing his ally for the first time, not as a semi-divine avenger, but as a man. Somehow, that made him all the more remarkable. New understanding flashed between them.
"I'll keep you updated on the Rice brothers. We should have a copy of the autopsy tomorrow."
Batman bowed his head, and with a swirl of his cape, melted into the darkness.
A/N YAY! For those of you who are interested (and those of you who are not), this story was 117 pages without author's notes. Not bad for just over five months.
Since this is the last chapter, please, PLEASE review! It doesn't have to be long or complicated or even signed – two anonymous words is fine. But as before, I'd like to get an idea of how many people actually read this story, since hit count is notoriously unreliable.
And for those of you (having been there myself, I KNOW who I'm talking to) who are right now thinking, "Wow, I'd really like to leave more than two anonymous words, but I just don't have the time right now. I'll come back later and write a really good review," please go ahead and leave the two words. Because (and as a review procrastinator I know what I'm talking about) 11 times out of 12, you don't come back, and two words is infinitely better than a long but imaginary review.
And now dumdumdum, the moment we've all been waiting for! (I mean that 'we' literally. I've been waiting to write this story since about the first chapter of Dark Horizon.)
Coming soon (hopefully a couple of weeks) to this site, the next installment of Philippa's staggeringly long Batman Begins cycle:
Richard goes undercover at an exclusive private school to track down a vicious killer, while Bruce finds himself increasingly entangled with the alluring Selina Kyle.
That's the short, official summary. In a longer, special feature sneak peek, it has been revealed that the story will be a mystery/action type tale (much like Dark Horizon, although hopefully better organized). There will be:
Lots of Dynamic Duo action
Romantic complications for at least three heroes
(and my personal favorite) The return of everyone's favorite cranky social worker!
See you all in June!
By the way, I'm in the mood to write a little Bat fluff, but I'm not sure about what. Any ideas?