Author's Note: The end, for now. A whimper, not a bang. Sequel to happen, but right now. Think by the end of the year, hopefully.
A big giant thank-you to all of you who read and reviewed. I appreciate you sticking with me for all these years.
They stay up well into the morning, and Barbara has several of Alfred's remarkably stiff vodka tonics.
He tells her everything: how it all started, why he chose a bat, what his plans were for Gotham.
"I wanted a better Gotham," he says, cradling his own drink between his hands. "I wanted a city like my parents wanted – where people were good and decent, the mob wasn't in control, and police fought for what was right."
"So you decided to find some body armor and dress like a bat," she says. He laughs.
"I did." He takes a drink. "Now I'm not entirely convinced that was the best option."
"I think the end result is what matters," she says. "But it's too early to determine that." She doesn't want to judge his success based on the current atmosphere (and body count).
He sighs. The first glimpses of sunlight creep over the horizon.
"You can see all of Gotham from up here," she says.
They sit in silence, and maybe it's the alcohol, but she decides to tell him what's on her mind.
"I wish you had told me who you really are," she says, tracing the ridges of the fancy crystal glass with her fingertips. After all that's been said between them, she doesn't want to meet his eyes right now.
"Why?" he asks.
"It would have been easier – for me – when you kept stopping by the library." She takes a breath. "They used to say stuff about it – the older librarians. They were jealous. It would have made it easier to understand what was going on if I knew why you were coming."
Maybe it's the alcohol, maybe it's something else, but she tries her best not to cry in front of him.
"I wish you had told me that was going on," he says.
Barbara laughs. "What was I supposed to say? 'Oh, hey, by the way, you need to get Bruce Wayne off my back because the other librarians are spreading rumors?' Yeah, that wouldn't have come up in casual conversation when you were busy trying to distract me."
It's her turn to take a deep breath. It's been a long day, and an even longer month. She's starting to feel the strain of everything: her back hurts, her head hurts, and her brain hurts. She wants nothing more than to go to sleep and wake up and she's back to where she was the morning before Bruce Wayne walked into the library.
"How are you holding up?" Bruce asks.
"I'm not sure," she says. "Ask me that question in a week."
"Agreed," he says. He runs a hand through his hair and she understands why she acted so silly around him before. She isn't that girl anymore – she feels older now, as absurd as that seems. It can hardly be weeks when it feels like a lifetime ago.
Barbara doesn't know what ghosts haunt him, and isn't sure he'll ever tell her, but she knows that they've both been through a lot and that has to count for something in the end.
Alfred arrives in time to refill their glasses and bring them some water and buttered toast, which she accepts gratefully.
"You know, you were right," Bruce tells her between bites.
"You mean I was right that dressing like a bat is just asking for trouble?" From somewhere in the kitchen, she hears a muffled chuckle and is glad that least someone in this household is sane.
"About being a vigilante. About Batman."
"Not entirely," she says. "Sure, you worked outside the law and with the law but you're more of an outlaw now than a vigilante."
"But now…" he trails off. "Now I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to do."
Barbara finishes off her piece of toast and licks butter off her thumb.
"Watch the sunrise," she says. "And then rest. And then we can figure out what to do from there."
She knows he's looking at her, and she knows she's being presumptuous, but she reaches for another piece with a shrug. She refuses to look at him.
"Look, buddy, I'm in this now so you better deal with it."
He laughs, but doesn't say anything else. Beneath them, the city rises to the news that the Joker is captured and their district attorney is dead.
It's cloudy on the day of Dent's public memorial, and Bruce finds himself there out of lingering respect for the man. He's already been to the funeral, seen the coffin – Dent's body, Rachel's ashes – lowered into the ground. His seat is on the stage, a position of honor given out of respect for his contributions to Dent's campaign. In front of him, Gordon gives a heartfelt speech about the impact of Dent on Gotham City. Despite what happened that night, he knows the Commissioner means every word.
And Barbara's there too, even though she said she wasn't going.
It's not difficult to find her at the back of the crowd, watching her uncle at the podium. Her hair is pulled back, and she wears a leather jacket. A messenger bag is slung across her body.
Alfred likes her, which is why he encourages her presence at the penthouse. Bruce finds that she's the only one he can talk to besides Alfred. He thinks it's the same for her, which is why she accepts his invitations or why she invites him to her tiny apartment when she finally decides to move back home (she was going to get a dog; he installed a high-tech security system from Wayne Enterprises, to make her feels safe). It's a tense friendship built on months of secrecy and scant days of truth, but it's one of the few things keeping him steady right now.
In honesty, he's not sure how long that steadiness going to last.
Barbara meets his eyes. She was fairly vocal about the massive display of public affection towards the fallen district attorney, and equally vocal about the sudden display of public hatred towards Batman. She had her own plans for how things should go, and while Bruce hasn't exactly dissuaded her, he's not given her his seal of approval. He knows that doesn't matter, that Barbara is going to do what Barbara is going to do, and there's very little that he can do to change that.
He can only hope that she has the right idea.
Barbara turns, and walks away from the memorial service towards the back of the crowd. From her bag, he can clearly see her pull out the helmet, and even after she disappears from view, he knows where she is when he hears a bike rev, then the screech of tires as she peels out. There are several cries of confusion and anger that disrupt the memorial, but Barbara and her bike are long gone.
Gordon's speech wraps up, and the crowd breaks out into applause. Bruce joins them, watching as balloons are released into the air as a symbolic gesture. The crowd cheers even louder.
Bruce has put his faith in the people of this city. He hopes to god they won't fail him now. He hopes to god he won't fail them now.