I'll find a way back to the higher ground,
And see the view I saw before!
I'll search the world
Until the answer's found -
Turn my despair around
Somehow I've got to rebuild
All the dreams that the winds have scattered,
From what fate has shattered -
I'll retrieve what mattered!
Somehow I've got to go on,
Till the evil has been defeated -
Till my works completed…
Leslie Bricusse, "The Way Back"
The Way Back
Disclaimer: DC owns the characters. I only play with them. Sometimes, not all that nicely.
A/N: Thanks to Kathy, Debbie, and Aiyokusama for the beta! This fic is a sequel to two of my earlier stories, Locked Inside the Façade and Lost to the Night. I started writing this series in the summer of 2005, during the buildup to Infinite Crisis. From the end of the "Sacrifice" Arc in Superman onward, this story veers away from established continuity. If you missed the first two parts, you might want to read them first, if only to stop wondering why Maggie Sawyer is now the police commissioner and Tim's in San Francisco…
"The Way Back" written by Leslie Bricusse. From the Jekyll & Hyde soundtrack (1997: Atlantic). "River of Dreams" written and performed by Billy Joel on his River of Dreams album (1998: Columbia/Sony).
In the middle of the night, I go walking in my sleep
Through the jungle of doubt, to a river so deep
I know I'm searching for something, something so undefined
That it can only be seen, by the eyes of the blind
In the middle of the night.
I'm not sure about life after this
God knows I've never been a spiritual man
Billy Joel, "River of Dreams"
Prologue: In the Middle of the Night
Bruce reached for the cord and pulled the vertical blinds closed. Perhaps, without the moonlight shining in, he would finally be able to sleep. He closed his eyes again. When he opened them, the digital clock told him that a mere four minutes had passed since the last time he'd checked the display.
This was ridiculous. He was going home tomorrow. There was no reason to be apprehensive. It wasn't as though he was venturing into the unknown. It wasn't even as though he'd never been alone at the manor. Besides the occasional vacation, there had been more than one time when Alfred had resigned his post and gone his own way. This was the first time, though, that Bruce knew that his oldest friend wasn't coming back. Or, he reflected, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he would never leave again. They'd buried him on the grounds.
He closed his eyes again. The last four days had been… good. There was no better way to describe them. He'd been staying with Dick and Barbara since the hearing. It was still hard for him to accept that this was real, that he was truly out. He wasn't going back to the hospital, nor to Arkham. That was behind him now. And yet… there were moments when the last two years felt as though they had been a dream.
Of course, Bruce knew better. It had all happened. Alfred and Jason were dead. He'd been arrested, unmasked, and bound over to Arkham. His old life was gone for good. In some ways, this was a relief. Although it had been necessary as a cover, he'd never really enjoyed playing the vapid socialite. Now, he no longer had to. He didn't need excuses to get out of board meetings, either. His company had moved on without him.
He sat up in bed angrily. Was this what it came down to, now? He was not, absolutely not, going to lie here and give in to defeatism. He didn't think that Dick would be back from patrol yet, but Barbara had to be up. And if there was one person on whom he could count to kick him off the pity pot…
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. His bare feet sank into the pile carpet. He found his slippers with little difficulty and crossed to the door. Instead of the brass knob, however, his hand closed on Turkish cotton. He grimaced. Time was when he wouldn't have needed the reminder, but bathrobes weren't standard issue at Arkham.
He slid into the robe and stepped out into the hallway, shielding his eyes against the stronger illumination.
Nightwing fired his de-cel cable and stepped off the rooftop. He would never tire of the exhilaration of falling. The roaring in his ears, the sudden surge of adrenaline, the way the wind whipped through his hair—oh, how had he not realized how much he'd missed that? When he was less than two stories above the ground, he released his jumpline and turned three perfect somersaults, to land in a half-crouch between the two rival gangs.
"Sorry, guys," he quipped. "Tonight's fight is cancelled on account of scattered shuriken." With that, he let fly a shower of nightarangs with one hand, while extracting several more from a compartment in his opposite boot with the other.
"Argh!" One of the thugs clapped a hand to his suddenly-bleeding wrist. "Who the frag are you?"
"You don't recognize me?" Nightwing asked, tossing more of his patented throwing knives. "I'm wounded." He ducked as another youth swung a length of chain toward his head. "Well," he amended, "not literally." He fired off a new grapnel, which snagged on the railing of a third-floor balcony, and launched himself into the air. "'Scuse me if I'd like to keep it that way." He pulled his legs up and wrapped them around the jumpline, so that he was hanging upside-down. From that position, he continued to rain shuriken on the toughs.
"Uh-uh-uh," he said, as he leaped from the cable, landed piggy-back on one thug's shoulders, bearing the young man to the ground. He quickly lashed out with his escrima at another. The second man yelped and dropped his gun. "It's all fun and games until someone pulls a Glock," the vigilante continued affably, "but once someone does…"
Nightwing's voice dropped an octave. His lips curled into a menacing snarl, "…fun's over!"
With that, he rolled clear of the man he was perched upon. Bracing both hands on the asphalt, he delivered a fluid, twisting split-kick into one thug's midsection. The youth fell back into two of his fellows.
At that point, about half of them took to their heels and started running. Nightwing directed his attention to the eight who remained. He moved through their ranks like mercury, blocking blows—which grew progressively more frantic—and countering with kicks and punches of his own. When he couldn't block, he evaded. When he couldn't evade, he rolled. Finally, his opponents lay on the pavement in varying states of consciousness. Nightwing didn't have a visible mark on him, although it wouldn't surprise him if he'd find fresh bruises later tonight, when he peeled off the suit.
"O., let GCPD know that the Hellcats and the Loboys won't be having that mixer tonight, after all," he said into his commlink. "I've got a few here who started partying early in the evening—I think they could use a lift to where they're going. I saw some others heading west on Flanagan."
"Done," Barbara's voice acknowledged. "How does it feel being back in the black-and-blue?"
Nightwing winced, thinking about the evidence of the past week's altercations. "I'm not sure I ever left," he said.
"Poor baby," she replied with mock-sympathy. "You want to make an early night of it, or can you stop at the jewelry buffet on Roussos on your way home? Apparently, Burnley's is having an all-you-can-stuff special on gold and precious stones. Or, at least, a couple of people seem to think so."
"You are an evil, evil woman," Nightwing said with feeling. "I'm on my way over there. N. out."
Barbara was carrying on a conversation with Wonder Girl. "Kid Devil did what?" She gasped. She sobered quickly. "Alright. Leave it with me. I'll pull what I have on Neron. Eddie's underage. Maybe that's a loophole. Oracle out." She closed the channel. "Missing the fine print I get," she muttered, "but how does anyone ignore a clause in twenty-four-point Arial Bold?"
She started punching buttons on her console. "Hi, Bruce," she said without turning around. "Gimme a sec." She sighed. "Come on, Kyle… answer the page." She took a deep breath and let it out. "I hope he isn't off-planet," she added, finally rolling her chair away from her systems.
"Sorry about that," she smiled wearily. "You know, when I was a teenager, my biggest problems were an overprotective father and the police academy's minimum height requirement. Today…" She let her voice trail off as she indicated a nearby swivel chair. "Have a seat."
"What's up? I though you'd be asleep by now."
"So did I," Bruce admitted.
"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Make yourself comfortable. I'm just finishing up a few things before Dick gets back." She hesitated. "Did you just want some company? Or…" She glanced at him. If he hadn't been gripping the chair arms so tightly, she might have thought that he was relaxed. "Are you," she paused, "okay with tomorrow?"
The Bruce of two years ago might have either taken offense at the question or changed the subject. The man who sat before her now closed his eyes. "I suppose I was being somewhat obvious," he admitted. He settled back into the chair. "I should be fine," he said lightly.
Barbara wasn't fooled. "But you aren't."
He didn't need to confirm it. "It's… home," he said. "I shouldn't be this apprehensive about returning."
"After Joker," Barbara said quietly, "after I started to come to terms with the… ramifications of what he'd done, I thought I had it all together. Until they told me I was almost ready to leave the hospital. Then, I had a panic attack." She grimaced. "They had to sedate me and keep me a couple of days longer for observation." She lifted her hand and carefully, making sure that Bruce could see what she was doing, placed it gently over his.
Bruce tensed for an instant. Then he brought his other hand over, covering hers.
"It was hard," Barbara continued. "Because everything was so familiar that it was easy to forget what had changed. And then, when I remembered, it was like a slap in the face. I'd be watching one of my favorite shows on TV, and I'd be laughing at all the punch lines. Then they'd cut to commercial and I'd decide to go walk into the kitchen and fix myself a sandwich… and realize I couldn't. Or I'd read about some show at the planetarium and think about driving up there—this was before I got my custom van." She sighed. "When I was in the hospital, I never had a chance to forget that things had changed. And once I got out, half the time people treated me like I was made of glass, and half the time they treated me like they expected me to just pick up where I was before I opened the front door." She grimaced. "I know they meant well."
Her hand was sweating, and it wasn't just because it was warm, sandwiched, as it was, between both of Bruce's. She didn't usually think back on that period of her life. The shooting itself, yes. She had mentally replayed the fifteen seconds from the time she'd heard the knock on the door to the instant that she'd heard the gunshot and felt herself flying—or falling—backwards, full-force, into the coffee table, hundreds of times. And she remembered later, taking the computer classes, learning escrima, and making her first fumbling advances toward rejoining the hero community. But her time in the hospital, and later, those weeks she'd spent huddled in her room, mourning her loss and dreading the idea of going outside and facing other people's pitying looks… Well, she was mostly past that now. Thankfully.
Her discomfort didn't go unnoticed. Bruce squeezed her hand once, then released it. "You rarely speak about those days," he said.
Barbara looked away. "There's usually not much to mention." She forced herself to shrug. "It was rough. It got better. In time."
Bruce nodded. "I should have been there more than I was," he said awkwardly.
"The one time you showed up after that first night," she winced, "I probably made you wish you'd stayed away. Look. It's water under the bridge." A small smile flitted across her face. "Besides, you probably would have just loomed there trying to find the right words, and I probably would have thrown something at you." She took a deep breath. "There were no right words. Not then. And you've never been big on words, anyway." She smiled. "Besides, I know you stopped by my window more than a few nights, while you were on patrol. I was just faking sleep because I didn't feel like talking."
She almost laughed at his expression.
After a moment, he smiled faintly and rose to his feet with a yawn. "I'm going back to bed," he said. He hesitated. "Thanks."
He was almost out the door when she called after him.
"Bruce? If you… if…" she took a breath. "You know I can help out with more than just the… costumed business, if you needed to ask me something. Or… or tell me something."
He turned to face her once more. "I know that, Barbara. Good night."
She watched him leave, her expression unreadable. Then, she opened a new connection. She was pleasantly surprised when a deep voice acknowledged her communication. "Jason Blood."
"Jason, this is Oracle. I need your advice on how to break a contract with the devil…"
Sometimes, Dick thought that the reason Babs had waited for so long before she allowed him into her life was that she hated the notion of anyone seeing her at a vulnerable moment. He understood that. Hell, it wasn't as though he hadn't spent half his life with someone similar. He knew the signs.
So, when he came in from patrol and she didn't wheel around to face him, he realized immediately that she was in a bad mood. When he told her that he'd stopped the burglary, she mumbled something that sounded halfway positive, but didn't ask him for any further details. From that, he deduced that, while something was bothering her, it wasn't anything he'd done. And when he stole over and began to massage her shoulders, and she let her head fall forward, and took a slow, shuddering breath, he finally asked her, "Rough night?"
Babs took another deep breath. "Not really," she admitted. "Actually, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. Cass found out that Penguin's working with the Triads under duress—we might be able to use that. Huntress and Zinda had to make an emergency landing in Pueblo, thanks to an impending hailstorm. I've got them settled at the Trumpeter Inn, overnight…" She gasped as she felt Dick undo a tension knot. "Kid Devil… ah! Don't stop! Kid Devil sold his soul to Neron. I got a frantic call from Wonder Girl about it." She reached her right hand over her left shoulder and squeezed his fingers. "Bruce came up here a couple of hours ago."
Dick stopped. "Is he okay?"
"He thinks so." She hesitated. "Right now, he's just… in a spot I wouldn't want to be. But I had to go back there tonight, anyway. No," she added as Dick stopped massaging her and gently brushed his fingers along her cheek. "I'm alright, really. Well, as much as I'll ever be," she amended. Despite her best efforts, she could feel tears well up. She squeezed her eyes shut. "Damn." She pulled the chair forward forcibly.
Dick knew better than to follow. When Barbara got this worked up, he'd learned that the best thing to do, was give her space.
After a few moments, she wheeled back, visibly more composed. "I can't help thinking that his going home tomorrow is premature."
Dick looked at her. "Did you want me to ask him if he'd like to stay longer?"
Barbara shook her head. "It's not that easy. And part of me wants to say 'yes', but…" She hesitated. "I think he needs to try going back. If he doesn't do it soon, it's not going to get any easier."
"Does it need to be tomorrow?"
There was a long pause. "I think it does," Barbara said finally. "For better or for worse, that was what I told him, and he accepted it. He's… prepared to go back tomorrow. If I change things last minute, I think it's going to make it that much harder later. We have to do this."
Dick nodded, unconvinced. "And if he can't cope?"
"Then there are other options besides his moving in permanently with us. But he'll probably be more amenable to them if he figures them out."
Dick sighed. "I'm just glad your father's already gotten settled in."
Selina Kyle cuddled her fifteen-month-old daughter close. She could do this. She had to. The problem was that what she felt she had to do varied with each passing moment. It had all seemed so easy when Bruce was in Arkham. She had helped Nightwing watch over Gotham, and passed whatever intel came her way over to Oracle.
When Bruce had finally been granted weekend passes from the asylum, she had been there to welcome him, and to introduce him to her daughter—who might well be his.
You never thought about the other possible father while Bruce was 'away'.
No, she'd wanted to forget about that night, two years back, when Bruce was lying in a hospital bed under round-the-clock police surveillance, and she'd been lonely and angry and miserable and bloody well not thinking clearly. She'd had a bit to drink—not so much that she hadn't known what she was doing, though it would have been nice to have had the excuse—but enough that she hadn't cared about the possible ramifications. No birth control method was failsafe, after all. She hadn't known the man's name, only that he'd had black hair, blue eyes, and rugged features. She'd been drunk enough to pretend that he was someone much more significant to her—someone she'd been with less than a week earlier.
When the test results had come in, her second thought had been that she was carrying Bruce's child. (Her first thought had been, 'but I was always careful! How…') How hadn't mattered. She might not have planned on having a child, but she had definitely wanted this one. And she'd wanted to believe that the child was Bruce's, but she'd never checked. And now…
Now that he's out, Helena is one more way that someone with a score to settle can hurt him. It won't matter whether she's biologically his—if she's in his life, she's in danger.
So, Selina reflected, was she, but she was a grown woman and capable of choosing which risks she would take. To willingly expose Helena to that kind of danger, though, was another story.
And you're only figuring this out now? Why did you come back into his life last year? Didn't you know that this would be an issue? Now he knows about her, and you've certainly given him every reason to think that you'll stand by him…
And she wanted to stand by him. But she needed her baby to be safe.
Nobody's safe. You learned that early enough. Wealth isn't a protection. Poverty isn't a protection. Intelligence, stupidity, action, passivity… NOBODY is safe. All you can do is minimize the risks and take your chances.
Unfortunately, minimizing the risks at this moment meant only one thing.
Her hand shook as she braced Helena against her shoulder with one hand and pushed the Sandicast ocelot bookends apart with the other. She twirled the combination lock on the wall-safe that the bookends had concealed. From within, she extracted a small address book. Oracle could do this properly, Selina knew, but there was no way that she could ask her. She couldn't go to Calculator either. Noah wasn't talking, but some way, somehow, Oracle had found something to hold over him. If Barbara asked him a few pointed questions, he might reveal all. Penguin would help, but the Bats had him under surveillance. Not that Cobblepot realized it, of course—Oracle was subtle. Still, if Cobblepot sneezed in the afternoon, she wouldn't be at all surprised if Nightwing would leave a thermos of chicken soup behind later that evening, after he'd finished interrogating the man. If she went to the Iceberg, the Bats would know. And they'd try to talk her out of it. Maybe, she should let them.
She sat down heavily in the armchair. Helena started squirming. Selina lowered her gently to the carpet. Helena toddled off a few steps and gleefully knocked over a small tower of blocks. A moment later, she was tugging on Selina's pant-leg, and trying to climb back up.
Selina scooped her up with a smile and a kiss. She sobered. She didn't know what to do, but she knew she needed time to think—without feeling pressured for a decision. After a moment, she picked up the phone and punched in a number.
"It's me," she said quietly. "I need to disappear for a little while…"
Calvin ducked into the shadows. He didn't know where the others were. They'd split up as soon as they'd hightailed it out of the alley where that crazy devil with the ninja stars had been laying the beatdown on their buddies. Oh, man, if he got out of this, he was going to go straight. He'd quit the Hellcats, get his GED, get a job, anything… just…
Nobody seemed to be following him now. Calvin leaned against the wall and tried to catch his breath. Had he really gotten away? He hardly dared to peer around the corner of the alley. If he did, then a cop, or worse, that black-and-blue demon would be peering right back at him. Finally, his heart still pounding, he forced his feet to take those two steps. He snaked his head out to the street. Nobody seemed to be paying him the least attention.
Calvin started to smile. He'd actually done it. He'd gotten away! Oh, man, wait 'til the gang found out he'd gone face-to-face with one of the pajama-boys and stayed free to tell about it! Now they'd respect him more. His street cred was made! He started to laugh long and hard, not caring who heard him.
That was when a Louisville Slugger swung forcefully into the back of his head and he went sprawling.
"Awww," a child's voice taunted. "Da poor putty-tat fall down."
Calvin stirred weakly. "Who?" he mumbled groggily, "who are you?"
All at once, he was looking at a pair of Converse sneakers and the bottoms of a pair of blue jeans. He hadn't even heard his attacker scoot around him.
The child gave a low triumphant laugh. "Batman's newest partner."