A/N Gold star for me. Huge thanks as always to reviewers! It's hard for me to believe you all are still interested in reading this story after all the massive delays. You rock!
Scotland's burning, Scotland's burning,
Look out! Look out!
Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!
"I can't believe I'm actually helping my dad carry out his completely corny plan," Barbara grumbled, staring down at the gift bag in her lap. Ever since the riot, Gordon had been forced to keep an extremely low profile. Now it was Sarah's birthday, and he had asked Barbara to help with the secret surprise plan.
"Hey, it's all part of the new and better Barbara, right?" Trevor asked lightly, pulling the car up to the curb.
"Yeah, yeah." Barbara heaved a huge sigh as she stared out the window at Sarah's modest house. A row of flowerpots with dead leaves hanging over the edges stood in a line in front of the garage, a yellow smiley face beaming out from one of them.
"It's laughing at me," Barbara said, staring at the pot.
Trevor rolled his eyes. "You'd better hurry up and go in, or we're going to be late picking her up."
Barbara climbed out of the car and trudged up the walk. The key was hidden under the smiley face plant where her dad had said it would be. Letting herself in through the garage side door, she put the gift bag on the kitchen counter and went back outside. "What kind of cop puts smiley faces on her flower pots, anyway?" she muttered, as she re-hid the key and turned the pot so that the face was angled away from Trevor's car. "And what kind of cop is stupid enough to put the key under a flowerpot?"
They made the drive to the police station in silence. "You'd better go in," Trevor said, when he pulled up in front.
"Right." Barbara climbed out again and went inside. "I'm looking for Detective Essen," she told the front desk officer.
The man pointed over her shoulder. "She's right there."
"Barbara, is everything all right?" Sarah asked, looking concerned.
"Oh, totally fine." Barbara stared at Sarah's smiling face and wished the woman wouldn't look so sincerely friendly. You should hate me. Really. "But there was some mix-up with the car that was supposed to pick you up, so Dad asked me and Trevor to give you a ride. I hope that's ok."
Sarah shrugged. "Sure. Thank you."
"Yeah, well, he's waiting outside," Barbara blurted, and then mentally kicked herself for sounding so abrupt.
On the ride back to the house, she had never felt so grateful for Trevor's gift for empty conversation. He managed to make a discussion of the weather last almost all the way. The silence that filled the car during the last block felt heavy, but then they were at the house, and Sarah was climbing out. "Thank you, guys."
"Anytime," Trevor said easily.
Barbara gave a little wave, then frantically rolled down her window. "Hey, Sarah!"
The detective turned around on the front walk. "Yes?"
"Thank you." She smiled before turning around and starting again toward the house.
Barbara slumped back in her seat as Trevor powered the window up, and stuck her tongue out at the jeering smiley face. "Why is everything I say to her so awkward?"
"You haven't actually apologized yet, have you?"
"No, and I can't even imagine how awkward that's going to be."
She sat in a glum silence until Trevor pulled onto the freeway. "So what exactly is your dad's plan?" he asked as he merged.
"There's some sort of clue in the bag that will tell her where to go for her romantic birthday surprise." Barbara repressed the impulse to make a gagging noise.
"What is the surprise?"
"I don't know. Probably dinner at some fancy restaurant. He asked Grandma whether he should cook a birthday dinner, but she told him absolutely not. There's nothing less romantic than my dad's cooking."
"Is that it?" Trevor pressed.
"I'm sure he got her a present too."
"I mean, he's not going to propose or anything."
"No!" Barbara exclaimed. "I mean, he wouldn't do that without talking to me and Jimmy. No way."
"I'm sure not," Trevor said hastily. "I was just wondering whether he'd said anything to you."
"Believe me, you would have heard about it before now." She laid her fingers on her chest and pushed the hard circle of her mom's wedding ring against her skin. Despite her new resolve to be nice to Sarah, it was much too hard to think of her dad actually marrying somebody else. Somebody not Mom. Not yet, Dad. Please, don't marry her yet.
The smiley face had laughed at her as they drove away.
"Trevor, turn around," she said suddenly, her hand closing into a fist over the ring.
"What?" he asked, zooming past a pickup and slipping in behind a convertible.
"We have to go back to Sarah's house, right now!"
"She's probably already left for your dad's surprise."
Trevor cut across two lanes, causing an SUV to slam on its breaks and its horn, and swerved onto the exit ramp. "What's going on?" he demanded, as he drove under the overpass and got back on the freeway.
"That flower pot with the smiley face. I angled it so we couldn't see it when we parked on that side of the street, but when we dropped Sarah off it was turned back."
"So maybe the neighbor kids saw you hide the key and decided to mess around. I'm sure she can handle them."
"Trevor, what if she's the answer to the riddle? My dad assumed it was me because I have the same name as my mom, but what if it's her?"
Trevor glanced at her, and then pushed his foot down on the accelerator. "Can you call her?"
"I'm working on it," Barbara muttered, scrolling through her past calls. She finally found the right number and hit call. It rang six times before going to voice mail. "She's not answering."
Cecilia stumbled and Rick grabbed her arm before she could fall. "I'm pretty tired," he said. "Could we take a break?"
"You are a very tactful young man," she said, sitting down on a arching tree root.
"We've been hiking through the jungle for forever. I really am tired."
"How's your shoulder?" she asked, offering him the canteen.
He made a face and gulped before answering. "It's all right."
"I don't believe you." She closed her eyes and rested her head against the tree trunk. "But there's nothing I can do about it."
Rick recapped the canteen and handed it back. "How long ago did you have malaria?"
"A year. But I relapsed about three months ago. Nina pulled me through." She took a drink and hung the canteen back around her neck, but made no move to get up.
Overhead, a monkey screamed, and was joined by a dozen others. Rick frowned, trying to pinpoint a sound beyond the racket. "Cecilia, do you hear that?"
"Truck engine," she said after a moment. Standing up, she paced in a circle, listening intently. "Which direction?"
"This way," Rick said, pointing west.
"I agree. Come on." She plunged into the trees and Rick scrambled to catch up.
"I thought we were avoiding people," he said as he shoved through a giant fern.
"I'm hoping we're far enough north that whoever that is won't know about us."
"Do you want a ride or not?"
Another twenty yards west, they stumbled onto a rough track that looked as though it may have been mowed down by a tank. The roar of the engine was much louder, and Cecilia pulled Rick back out of sight. "Whatever happens, Grayson, keep your mouth shut. The last thing we need is for them to hear your accent."
"You're hurting my feelings," Rick hissed, and then the truck jolted into view. An old and battered Toyota pickup, it had a fence of wooden slats affixed to each side of the bed creating a fence to hold in piled supplies. As the vehicle rattled passed, they could see that only two people rode in the cab, and the back was half full of sacks.
"Looks like our lucky day," Cecilia breathed and then she stepped out onto the road and waved her arms. Ahead of her, the truck bounced to a halt, engine still running. Cecilia jogged up to the cab window and spoke with a driver. After a minute, she beckoned Rick to join her, and the two of them climbed into the back, finding seats on sacks of rice, between bunches of bananas.
"What did you tell them?" Rick asked quietly, as the truck bounced forward over the track.
"That you barely escaped when paramilitaries attacked your village. I rescued you, and now I'm taking you to your aunt up north before I rejoin my commander. They'll drop us off at the river, before they make their delivery."
"Who are they?" Rick asked, peering through the back cab window at their unwitting rescuers. The man and woman wore t-shirts and blue jeans instead of fatigues, and he saw no weapons.
"FARC sympathizers. Their son, who is your age, joined a year ago, and they take him and his company supplies from their farm. By the way, you haven't spoken since you saw your parents slaughtered, so pipe down."
Rick slumped down on his bag of rice. Cecilia settled into the corner of the truck bed and smoked her last cigarette. After a while, Rick scooted across to sit next to her, so that he could whisper. "The trees are thinner along the road. Do you think I'm transmitting?"
She shrugged. "Maybe. There's nothing we can do about it right now."
It was after dark when the truck rattled to a stop. Rick heard the rushing of a river, and then the driver stepped out of the cab and came around to the back. "El Guaviare," he said, pointing.
"Muchas gracias, Señor," Cecilia answered, hopping down and gesturing for Rick to follow.
The farmer broke off a cluster of bananas from one of his bunches and handed them to Rick. "Vaya con Dios, comrade," he said, patting him on the shoulder.
"Two kilometers until we're out of the jungle, and then one more to a village," Cecilia told Rick as they hiked along the river bank.
"They seemed nice," Rick said reflectively, starting on his third banana.
"You don't feel guilty for lying to them, do you?" Cecilia asked.
"No," he said hastily. "But I think they might have been glad to help anyway, don't you think?"
"I don't know," Cecilia answered. "But you should believe that."
The trees grew thinner as they traveled on, and then Rick smelled smoke. Fires, he thought hopefully. Houses. Food.
The smoke stung his nostrils and burned his eyes, but he was too tired to understand what it meant, until they finally broke through the tree line. Beyond dark fields, an entire village was burning.
Barbara was out of the car before Trevor shut off the engine, and ran up the walk to pound on the front door. "If Sarah's in there she can't answer," she told Trevor as he came up behind her.
"Shhh," he said, tilting his head. "Do you hear that?"
The quiet rumble of an engine came from the garage. "Oh dear God," Barbara breathed, and ran to pound on the garage door. "Sarah!"
Trevor flipped over the flowerpot. "The key is gone," he said, but Barbara was already running around the side of the garage, to the windows. Wrenching a rock out of the border of the flowerbed, she slammed it through the glass. Fumes poured out, stinging her eyes. "Trevor!" she shouted, frantically breaking out more glass until she could reach through and unlock the frame.
"Lift me up!" she demanded, as her boyfriend skidded to a stop beside her.
"Open the door as soon as you get in," he warned as he lifted her up, and then she was wriggling through the small space and falling over the tool shelves that filled the space beneath the window. She saw a figure in the car, but ran to the door first and hit the switch, coughing as the exhaust filled her lungs.
Trevor ducked under the rising door, and together they tugged on the car door handles. "It's locked," Barbara groaned, gasping gratefully as cold air poured in through the open door. She could see Sarah slumped over the steering wheel, a trickle of blood on her temple. Scanning the tools she had knocked down, she snatched up a hammer.
"Not next to her head," Trevor warned, so she threw him the hammer, and let him smash in the passenger side window. It took three blows to break through the safety glass, and then he hit the locks and she was fumbling at Sarah's seatbelt and pulling her body from the car. Trevor ran around and hoisted Sarah over his shoulder, carried her outside and away from the poisonous fumes. "Call 911!"
Barbara found her phone and made the call, and then she called her father. It wasn't until she heard Gordon's voice that she realized she was crying.
"Barbara? Sweetheart, what's wrong?" His voice crackled out of her cell, and she found that she couldn't speak, that she was frozen with terror.
On the driveway, Sarah stirred.
"It's all right, Daddy," said Barbara. "She's going to be all right."
Somebody was crashing through the low bushes that filled the field the field in front of them. More silhouettes appeared, pursuing, and then came a spatter of staccato. The lead runner fell. Cecilia pulled Rick back into the trees as more shots sounded over the distant roaring of the fires.
"Back along the river," she started to say, when bullets zinged from behind them and slammed into the trees.
They ran, tripping over roots and running into low hanging branches in the darkness as the firefight raged around them. "Who's fighting who?" Rick gasped, when they crouched for a moment at the base of a tree.
"Doesn't make a difference in the bullets," said Cecilia. "We have to find shelter."
They hurried on, dodging dark figures and ducking at every loud crack. When Richard tripped and fell full length, Cecilia bent to help him up, and set her hand on an iron ring. "Help me," she hissed, and together they hauled up a heavy trap door. A net screen of leaves and branches was attached to it, so that even in daylight, it would have been nearly invisible.
They shut the door after them and fell down the short ladder, landing on a damp concrete floor. Cecilia pulled the flashlight out of her pocket and shone it around. They sat in a concrete cell, about nine by twelve feet. Wooden boxes took up all the floor space along one wall, and next to the ladder rested an oil lantern and a box of matches. "Richard," she began, but he was already opening a match box. A moment later, clear light flooded the cell, and they could see the blankets and the stack of canned food.
"A bolt hole," Rick said approvingly. "Do you think it belongs to FARC or the paramilitaries?"
Cecilia shut off the flashlight and lifted the canvas cover off one of the boxes. "Neither," she said, holding up a clear plastic bag full of white powder.
"Narcos?" Rick asked.
She nodded, dropped the bag back into the box. "The good news is, there's a chance nobody up there knows about this place."
"What's the bad news?" Rick asked.
"The cartels make FARC look like boy scouts. Hopefully, we'll be gone before they find out we were here."
Rick grimaced. "They don't like guests, huh? That is a lot of cocaine."
Cecilia eyed the boxes with a professional eye. "A hundred kilos at least. Don't touch it."
"No duh." Rick adjusted the lantern wick and began looking through the stack of cans. "Do you want peaches or beans?"
"Later," she said. First we have to make sure Wayne finds us without giving our position away to every psycho with a gun. You're definitely transmitting by now, so it won't be long." Digging in her pocket, she produced the stub of a pencil and a crumpled piece of paper.
"You really are Mary Poppins," Rick told her.
"Go take your spoonful of sugar," she told him, and hunched over her paper.
Rick ate the beans, along with a bottle of water (he automatically made a face before the first sip, having almost forgotten what water without Globaline tasted like), while she wrote. When she finished, she folded it up and exchanged her pencil for a pocket knife. Unfolding the largest blade, she tested its sharpness and then held the tip in the lantern flame.
"This is going to hurt, isn't it?" Rick asked.
"Yes. You'd better find something to bite."
He pulled off his shirt and clenched a folded sleeve between his teeth. "Go ahead," he muttered. He felt her fingernails prodding the old scar on his shoulder, and then hot knife sliced into his skin. Rick groaned and shut his eyes against the black spots that danced in his vision.
"Got it," she said, and he slumped in relief, the burning in his cut shoulder now matching that in his shot shoulder. He was pretty sure the bullet wound was infected, but there was nothing to be done about it.
The chip was wafer thin and round, the size of a nickel. Cecilia wiped the blood off on the edge of shirt, and dropped the chip and the note into Rick's empty water bottle. "I'll be back in ten minutes," she said. "Lock the door behind me."
It took her rather longer than ten minutes, and Rick was almost ready to take one of the rifles he found stored behind one of the boxes (along with a number of grenades and other explosives), when she rapped on the trap door.
"I almost couldn't find my way back," she explained, collapsing next to the ladder and accepting the can of peaches Rick opened for her.
"What did you do with the bottle?" he asked.
"I hid it. No one will find it unless they're tracking the chip." She set the peaches aside, three quarters uneaten. "We should sleep. Wayne will be here by morning."
Barbara sat by the hospital bed, her eyes glued to Sarah's pale face. Gordon had been forced to leave, to look at the riddle and the new set of clues that had been left in the garage, and Barbara had offered to stay. It wasn't necessary, given the security detail posted just outside the door, but she didn't care. She wasn't leaving until she had a chance to talk to Sarah.
The detective had woken earlier, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, and the doctors were confident she would make a full recovery. She had fallen asleep, however, and the clock hands were inching toward midnight.
Barbara stood and walked over to the window, threading both hands through her hair. She felt limp with exhaustion, and her body ached, but she could not go home. Not yet.
She turned around to look at the bed and found that Sarah's eyes were open and watching her. "How do you feel?" Barbara asked, hurrying back to her chair.
"Awful," Sarah whispered.
"I hear that's a side effect of carbon monoxide," Barbara offered, in a feeble attempt at a joke.
Sarah's smile was equally weak. "I hear you saved my life."
"Trevor helped," she said automatically.
The detective shook her head slightly, but seemed too tired to argue. She glanced at the glowing green number of the bedside clock and said, "It's really late. You should go home. I'll tell Jim I sent you."
"I'm not here because Dad made me stay." Barbara rubbed her palms against the legs of her jeans, trying to calm the agitation she felt rising in her chest. "I had to ask you something. Why didn't you tell Dad what happened at the department store, the things I said?"
Sarah was quiet for a long moment, searching for words. "Your dad worships the ground you walk on," she said at last. "And despite what you obviously think, I'm not going to do anything to come between the two of you."
Barbara clenched her fists, trying desperately to stuff everything back inside, but it wouldn't fit. "I knew something was happening to you. I made Trevor turn the car around. And all I could think about," her eyes blurred, and she sniffed defiantly, "was that you were going to die and you thought that I hated—" Her voice broke, and huge, ugly sobs clawed their way out of her chest.
Sarah pushed herself up off her pillows and tugged on Barbara's arms until the girl lay facedown in her lap. She put her arms around her, and laid her cheek on top of the shining copper hair.
"We had a fight," Barbara gasped. "The night my mom left we had a fight, just like in some stupid movie. I wouldn't let her hug me, and I never saw her again."
"Your mom would never want you to blame yourself for that," Sarah whispered.
"I know that, I know that, I know that, and it doesn't help!" Barbara beat her fists against the blanket as the sobs continued to tear out of her.
"Ok sweetheart," Sarah whispered, tightening her arms. "Ok."
To Be Continued
A/N So, I know this was a shorter chapter with no Bruce in it, but I promise the next one will be all Bruce, and then after that we're back in Gotham.
Cheers and much love!