Thanks to Kathy, Debbie, PJ, and Aiyokusama for the beta. Thanks to Elle and Blue for creative consulting. This story is over, but not the AU. I'm planning a fourth installment soon.
"Holding Up the Sky" and "We Traveled So Far" written and performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter on her Age of Miracles album (Zoe, 2010). "Cabaret" original lyrics by Fred Ebb. Recorded by Jill Hayworth on the Cabaret original cast album (CBS, 1966) and by Liza Minnelli on the Cabaret motion picture soundtrack album (Hip-O, 1972, 1996). Some lyrics have been improvised from the original.
I found myself between two lifetimes
The sunset and the dawn
I reached out and took the lifeline offered up to me
between here and gone... here and gone
—Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Holding Up the Sky"
Chapter 38—Between Two Lifetimes
Bruce picked up the phone again. "I have to get there," he said tersely. "If anyone else tries—"
"No bat suit," Maggie replied crisply. "At least, nothing with an obvious bat insignia. I can't countermand the terms of your release. I can testify on your behalf at a hearing, but that won't keep you out of a holding cell until it convenes. Car and gadgets weren't mentioned in the judge's ruling last summer. Use what equipment you're comfortable with. And within ten days time," a hint of steel crept into her voice, "you will present yourself at the police academy, to take the required tests. If you fail any of them, you will enrol in the necessary courses. Classes begin the last week of February—contingent on your passing a psych evaluation, of course."
Something about Maggie's unruffled self-assurance rankled with him. As much as he wanted to agree and end the call, he heard himself counter, "And if I don't pass the psych eval?"
Maggie took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. "Then tonight is the last time that you will operate in this city with my sanction. I can't have a loose cannon on these streets. And I can't knowingly turn a blind eye to one going forward, either." As Bruce opened his mouth to reply, she continued, "Would you? If you were sitting behind my desk?"
That checked him. If he were trying to give someone a chance to do what they had done in the past, knowing all the while how badly it would reflect on him if things were to go wrong... And if the last time things went wrong, that same person had got thirty of my colleagues killed... He closed his eyes. Even if Sawyer's sole motivation in placing these stipulations was to cover her own... backside, it was reason enough. She wasn't his enemy. She was going as far as she could to help him, but he had to meet her the rest of the way.
He brought a hand to his forehead. The police academy. Testing. A psych profile. Guns... He pressed his lips together firmly. Enough. Tim needed him. He let out a long breath. "I accept your terms. Now, what information have your people garnered so far?"
"Barbara, have you got a fix on the origin point of Joker's broadcast?"
There was a moment's hesitation. "Not yet. Looks like he's done the cyber jamming equivalent of putting chewing gum in a lock; crude but very effective." She sounded annoyed. "I can break through, but it'll take time."
Bruce nodded to the monitor. "Acknowledged. Barbara, on the footage, just when he specifies that it's me he wants—that noise in the background... could it be a subway train?"
"Yeah, maybe," Barbara said, "but even if it is, you're still going to be looking for a needle in a haystack. It's just going to be a slightly smaller haystack."
She was right. With fifteen subway routes crisscrossing the city and trains stopping every two to seven minutes, depending on the time of day, Joker's hideout could be anywhere in that underground labyrinth. Bruce glowered. "Acknowledged. Keep me informed."
Barbara didn't close the channel. "You're going after him."
"I have to."
There was a long silence. "Now I understand about the deputization order in the GCPD system. And why you brought up that whole gun business this morning."
Bruce tensed, clenching his fist involuntarily. But all he said was, "Sawyer works fast. I need to do the same."
"Bruce." The monitor screen split vertically and Dick's image filled the second half. "You don't have to do this. I can wear the suit."
"He'll know it's you."
"Not necessarily," Dick said. "Up until now, I haven't really tried to be you in the suit. Actually, it was important enough that everyone know that I wasn't you. But that doesn't mean I can't change tactics." His expression hardened. "Besides, we have no reason to believe that Joker will let either of you go, even if you do follow his instructions."
Bruce shook his head. "He recognized Tim. He'll recognize you."
"Dick. Trap or no trap, it has to be me. There's no other..." He stopped. "He has to see me," Bruce said slowly. "But that doesn't mean I have to go alone."
Dick blinked. Then a slow smile spread across his face. Bruce returned it briefly before he sobered once more. "Meanwhile, we still need to narrow down where he's holed up. How long will it take you to get over here?"
Bruce saw Dick punch a button and his image on the screen receded slightly, revealing that he was currently seated behind a steering wheel. "Put it this way," Dick said, still smiling. "When your perimeter alert goes off in a minute or two, don't be too surprised."
They watched the broadcast again for the twelfth time. Dick nodded, "it's a subway train, all right," he said with a frown, "but they don't usually squeal like that."
"The older ones do when they decelerate," Bruce said. "Wait," he leaned forward with narrowed eyes. "The train is decelerating, but it's not stopping. Rewind a few seconds... stop. Playback." As the sound of the passing train burst from the speakers again, Bruce nodded. "The brakes squeal a bit, but that's not a sudden deceleration. The driver was anticipating it."
"What would you say," Dick asked. "About 35 miles per hour?"
"In that range, yes."
"So, too fast to stop comfortably, but slower than... "Dick snapped his fingers. "The number six train."
Bruce nodded sharply. "The double-hairpin turn between Kiley and Oxoloff Stations."
"Orpheus's old turf. He's in the Hill."
Bruce's fingers flew over his console keyboard. "It would be helpful to know if that train was headed east or west, but this still narrows it down considerably." He paused, thinking aloud. "The Hill was hit hard during the 'quake. The old tunnels weren't salvageable, so the city sealed them off and laid down new tracks in some of the existing catacombs during the rebuild. Joker must have found a way inside that maze." He opened a comm-link. "Barbara, I need the locations and access codes for any supply rooms, maintenance tunnels, or anything of that nature in either of these two locations." He highlighted the relevant sections of the subway map.
"I'm on it. I guess you're taking the coaster car?"
Bruce shot Dick a sharp glance. Dick shrugged. "I haven't used it since you've been away, but it should be operational."
"He'll be expecting the Batmobile," Bruce said thoughtfully. "Does the six train still go on reduced service at one AM?"
Dick nodded. "But watch out for hikers."
Dick made a face. "Local idiots who get their thrills by tramping through the subway tunnels during the downtime. If the city ever settles, I'll drop them a friendly warning one night."
Bruce's lips twitched. "Before or after you ride the top of the monorail blindfolded?"
"Hey. You showed me how to do that."
"After you nearly got yourself killed doing it the wrong way."
"After you thought I was going to get myself killed doing it my way." He made an exasperated sound. "You're modifying one of the suits for tonight?"
Bruce nodded. "I can't wear the symbol, but I need the Kevlar."
"Well, since I've been wearing your costume for the last few years, you could always..."
"I'm not wearing the Nightwing suit, Dick."
"Hey, turnabout is..."
"No." Bruce turned back to the city map. "Bring me up to speed," he ordered. "What's changed in the Hill over the last three years?"
Bruce had never approved of the rail car with its gleaming bat-symbol painted over the hood, so like—and yet so different from—the stylised image he'd adopted. It hadn't been his idea. Years ago, when Bane had put him out of commission, he'd entrusted the city to Jean Paul Valley, and it had been Valley who had created the car so that he could get around the city without worrying about traffic congestion. The design had been something which—as Dick had aptly pointed out—closely resembled a roller coaster car. It was designed for travel on either the subway rails or the elevated monorail. In addition to being a timesaver, the car also afforded a greater element of surprise—the Batmobile was somewhat conspicuous. Still, despite those advantages, Bruce had never cared for it. While the coaster car was faster, it also made it far too easy to miss criminal activity taking place above ground. Besides, although Bruce rarely admitted it, he loved driving through Gotham at night.
Tonight, though, the coaster car was simply the quickest way to Joker's hideout.
Bruce took a deep breath. Then he donned a black motorcycle helmet. He was wearing the Kevlar suit, minus—as Sawyer had stipulated—the bat-insignia. He'd left off the cape as well, but kept the gloves, boots, and utility belt. He'd thought about leaving the helmet off, but it just felt strange going into action with nothing covering his face. He pulled down the silver-mirrored face shield and turned to Dick. "Ready?" He asked, vaulting into the driver's seat.
Nightwing followed suit on the passenger side. "Set." He looked at the ensemble a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.
Bruce tensed. "Well?" He barked.
Dick shrugged. "Nothing. Just thinking that if you do get in with the department, you might want to propose that suit design for the SWAT team."
Any response Bruce might have made was cut short when Selina approached them. Helena was clinging to her leg. "Hope you two weren't going to leave without saying goodbye."
Bruce swung out of the car and pushed up his visor. "We'll be back soon, I hope." He placed both hands on Selina's shoulders. "We'll be fine."
"I'm not worried." She smiled wearily. "Well, okay, yes I am, but I know you can handle it."
That makes one of us. He suppressed the thought and bent down to his daughter's eye level. "Good night, Helena," he said gently. "I'll see you in the morning."
Helena smiled. "Night."
"Hey," Dick stooped down, pulling off his mask in a swift motion. "Got a goodbye hug for your big brother?"
Helena's smile grew bigger as she flung her arms around his neck. "Bye bye."
Dick grinned at Selina. "You, I'm not hugging."
She laughed. "Just get him back in one piece, will you?"
Bruce whirled and started back toward the coaster car. "Let's go."
All at once, Helena let out a wail. "Nooooo! Daddy!"
Bruce stopped. "Helena? What..." She was already running forward and crashed full tilt into his leg. Undaunted, she seized his hand in both of hers and began to tug. "No!"
"Helena!" Too sharp, he thought guiltily. "Helena..." he bent down again and gently caressed her hair. "Helena, I'm sorry, but I do have to go."
In answer, Helena pressed her forehead into the back of his hand and kept pulling. "No..."
"Come on," Selina scooped her up then. "Daddy has work to do. He'll be home in the morning." She looked at Bruce. "You'd better leave. She's not going to calm down until you're gone now."
Bruce nodded. "If Tim weren't..."
"I know. We'll be fine."
They got into the car. As Bruce turned on the ignition, Helena let out another wail. "Daddy! DAAAAAAADDDDDDEEEEEEEEEE!"
"There are maintenance rooms on either side of the double hairpin," Oracle said. "But there's been a construction order filed with the mayor's office to shore up the walls in the west tunnel only."
"Meaning that the walls are weaker there, giving Joker a better chance to break through," Bruce nodded. "Good work, Oracle."
"Hey, I learned from the best, B."
Bruce's lips twitched. Without missing a beat, he replied, "Keep us informed of anything further, O. Over and out."
"ETA seventeen minutes," Dick said. "We're going to have to switch tracks in about twelve seconds, eleven..."
"On it. Triggering now." One section of track shifted and the coaster car shot off down a different tunnel.
As Bruce steered the car, he realized that something had changed. He was focused. He was alert. Sights, sounds, smells, all felt clearer and sharper. He noted every crack in the crumbling mortar, every new bolt that hadn't yet had the chance to dull with grime and dust. Beneath the mirrored visor, a slow smile spread across his face. He was back. It was about time...
As they approached the double-hairpin curve, Bruce reduced the car speed to 10 miles per hour. There was a track switch almost immediately after the second curve, which would move the car onto a side rail, out of the way of any Gotham Transit trains that might happen along, should the rescue mission take longer than anticipated.
Slowing down was the only thing that allowed him to slam the brakes in time, when they saw a figure with a long walking stick a few hundred yards ahead of them.
The walker whirled, his eyes widening in fear as the coaster car bore down, screeching to a halt six inches away from him.
Bruce vaulted out of the car, an LED flashlight in one hand. Fear and fury were uppermost in his mind as he flicked it on, catching the walker—or 'hiker', from what Dick had described earlier—full in the face. "These tunnels are off limits to pedestrians," he said in an ominously calm voice.
Blinded, the hiker took a hasty step back. His heel caught on a bit of uneven ground and he fell on his posterior. "I... I was ju-just..."
"Nearly run over," Bruce said, in the same flat tone.
Still seated, the hiker tried to scuttle backwards.
"You'll make better speed if you stand up," Bruce stated. "In five hundred yards, there's a ladder to the surface. You'll come out on McCarthy, just north of Joudrey. It should take you less than five minutes if you go now."
The hiker blinked. Then, slowly, he pushed himself up.
"Now..." Bruce said menacingly.
The hiker ran.
Bruce stalked back to the car and got in. "Well?" He demanded, seeing Nightwing smirking.
"Nothing. Just... this is really starting to feel like old times."
Bruce brought the coaster car to a halt several yards past the maintenance door. "There should be a tarp in the trunk," he said. "Give me a hand covering this."
"You know what to do once we're inside?"
Dick sighed. "Stay in the shadows. If it's a choice between tailing you and finding Harrier, find Harrier. Leave Joker to you, but try to take down Harley before she can back him up while you walk right into his trap. Have I mentioned how much I hate that part of it?"
"It's not something I'm looking forward to either," Bruce pointed out. If you do find Harrier, signal me."
"And if you're in over your head, signal me." When Bruce didn't answer, Dick sighed. "I'm not nine anymore. You don't have to keep protecting me."
"I might say something similar to you."
Dick winced. "You do realize that if you go through with what you're planning, you'll be expected to have backup that actually covers you, as opposed to going off to do their own thing?"
"Probably," Bruce admitted, "but let's take this one goal at a time." They were at the maintenance door now. He opened a channel to Barbara. "Oracle, do you have that access code?"
"Affirmative, B." A moment later, she rattled off five numbers.
"Got it." He turned to Dick and took a deep breath. "Listo?"
Dick shook his head, but he was smiling. "Hep."
Bruce punched in the code and a green bar lit up over the keypad. The door slid open. "Let's go."
Inside the maintenance room, they found that the bricks and mortar of one of the walls was crumbling, leaving a fissure wide enough for a grown man to easily fit through. Bruce stooped down and picked up something from the dust. "Quinn passed here," he said.
Dick looked at the grimy white pompom and nodded. "We're on the right track, all right."
"Wait five minutes," Bruce said. "Then come in, but stay out of sight. Let me keep Joker occupied."
"Got it. Still hate it, but got it."
"You didn't have to tag along, you know."
"I could always turn back."
Bruce stopped. "Actually, I'd prefer you didn't."
For a moment, Dick wasn't sure he believed his own ears. In a more subdued tone, he said, "Then I won't."
Bruce nodded curtly and stepped through the crack. "Be careful," he said. Then he was gone.
"I will be," Dick said to the empty room. His expression hardened. "Careful you don't notice me following you." He activated his comm-link. "Oracle, are you picking up that transponder?"
"So far," Barbara said. "But he's going to kill you when he finds out you tagged his belt."
"Hey, he told me to tail him. I'm just making sure I don't lose track."
"And he used to do it to you."
"Well, there is that..." he admitted with a grin. Dick waited five minutes. Then he took off after Bruce.
As Bruce made his way cautiously through the catacombs, he tried not to think about a night nearly three years earlier when another of his enemies had captured someone he cared for. His jaw hardened. He had failed Alfred, but he wasn't going to fail Tim.
Harley had left a clear trail on the dusty floor. No somersaults or cartwheels—at least, not recently. Judging from her footprints, she'd been carrying something roughly her own body weight with her.
He followed the trail around the bend and saw a thin beam of light coming from a crack under a door. He frowned. There were two doors directly ahead of him and, unlike the path he'd been following, the entire area from where he was standing to those doors had been swept clean. As he drew closer, he realized that there were two more doors; one on the right-hand wall and one on the left.
You knew it was a trap going in. Don't go whining about it now.
He took a deep breath. Then he took a handheld device out of one of the pockets of his utility belt and placed it against the door on the left wall. Over his comm-link, he heard raucous laughter, punctuated by a breathy, "Aw, Mistah J! You're such a kidder!"
He frowned, removed the device, and set it against the next door. The sound of heavy blows and muffled groans greeted him. White hot rage boiled within him and he took a few steps back in preparation for a flying leap.
If Joker is beating someone up right now, who is Harley talking to in the other room?
He froze. Joker could have a henchman doing the beating... But then, he'd still want to be in the room watching.
Bruce moved on to the third door; the one with the light shining under it. Now he heard slow, ragged breaths, punctuated by sporadic moans.
There was no sound at all from the last door.
He nodded to himself. No matter how he sliced it, no matter which door he opened, Joker had a surprise rigged. However, if he was right, there was nothing of interest to him behind the first two doors. Tim was behind the third door—unless those sounds were pre-recorded. The only question was whether Joker and Harley would be too. He frowned. Or all the sounds might be pre-recorded and they'd mined this place with booby traps and left the premises entirely.
He thought for a moment before he removed a lump of C-4 from another pouch of his utility belt. Carefully, he tore the lump in half and in half again, and flattened the smaller piece against the first door. It didn't take long to prepare and insert the blasting cap. He did the same with the other three doors. Then he set the timers and stood back.
When all four doors blew off their hinges a moment later, he fired a flare gun into the pitch blackness of the last room and was rewarded by a high-pitched squeal. With grim determination, he took a step forward.
That was when a boxing glove on an extending arm crashed into his abdomen, propelling him back into corridor.
"Batsy!" Joker exclaimed, leaping out of the room, "How positively smashing to see you after all this time!"
"Okay, CBW. There's a rotating security camera around the next bend. It sweeps 180 degrees every twenty-five seconds."
"Roger that," Dick nodded. While it didn't really matter if the City discovered their presence in the tunnels, they couldn't discount the possibility that Joker had hacked the grid. Bruce didn't care about being spotted. He wanted Joker to know that he was coming. Dick, however, was operating under a different imperative. "How many seconds to the start of the next sweep?"
There was a moment's pause. "Eleven... ten... nine..."
"Thanks! Got it."
He timed it perfectly, snagging his grapnel around one of the ceiling rafters and swinging above the camera's range before it could catch him. He was just rounding the next bend when he heard the explosions. Don't panic, he told himself firmly. Until you know whether that was Joker or Bruce, do not panic and do not break cover. Stick to the plan. Still he quickened his pace through the rafters. That blast had sounded close...
Had Bruce been a fraction of a second slower, or a few inches closer, the punch he took would have cracked ribs. Instead, it merely knocked him backwards several feet. As he stumbled, he let fly two batarangs.
Joker laughed and twisted out of the way. "Predictable as ever. But seriously, Bats, it's been a dull couple of years without you. How ya been? Pull up a chair. Let's have tea. I forget," he giggled, raising the glove again, "do you want one lump, or two?"
Bruce glanced quickly down the corridor, his eyes panning from floor to ceiling. Dick was holding position, perched on one of the rafters—he'd never have spotted him, were it not for the infra-red scanner built into his helmet.
"Harrier," he snarled.
Dick frowned. "You sure?" he said softly into the comm-link.
"Oh, now Batsy, if I gave away the top draw so early in the evening, nobody would want to stick around. Why, Harley hasn't even given you your door prize yet."
"Harrier!" Bruce snapped, as a raucous voice giggled.
"Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere it comes, B-Man!"
Bruce dodged and the heavy wooden board passed over him and continued toward Joker.
"Harley!" Joker snapped, flinging himself to one side "WATCH where you throw that thing!"
"Sorry, Mistah J. I thought fer sure he wouldn't duck in time. Aaah!" She cartwheeled away from the extending boxing glove.
Bruce noted with satisfaction that Dick was no longer in the hallway. He must have slipped by in the confusion. "Where..." he snarled, "is... Harrier?"
"Someone's got a one-track mind," Joker taunted. "Harrier. Harrier. Always Harrier. What about me? What about my needs, huh? You know what your problem is, Batsy? You're selfish. I mean, look, I invite you down here for a little reunion, and you don't even dress for the occasion. Even for some two-bit punk, you wear the suit. What's the matter, Batsy? Don't I rate?" His eyes narrowed. "Hmmm... come to think of it, I did demand the one true Batman. Now, if Dent were here, he'd probably flip a coin to decide whether it counts if you treat this like a come-as-you-are." His smile grew more menacing. "That's what Dent would do... but I'm not Dent. So, maybe I oughta just snuff the kid anyway."
A metal shield slid down, cutting them off from the four open doors.
Bruce launched himself at Joker. To the untrained eye, it looked like a clumsy charge, born out of uncontrolled rage and poor judgment. Joker giggled, his body already moving to evade the attack, even as he readied the extending arm.
That was when Bruce fired his grapnel, snagged a ceiling rafter, and rose into the air, delivering a high, stinging kick square to Joker's chin.
Joker merely laughed. "So, it really IS you, Batsy!" He calmly wiped the blood off his chin. "I thought for sure, someone would have done you in by now." He blinked his eyes rapidly. "Think of it, Batsy. Someone else taking my rightful role and, hee hee, punching your ticket for you. Think of the injustice! But that's what I love about you: you'll do anything to make sure justice is served for all. But not quite yet. First... How about a little appetizer, before you get your just desserts?"
In one swift motion, he released the boxing glove once more.
This time, it plowed into his solar plexus.
Even as Bruce groaned, his body was already reacting, rolling with the blow as much as possible, twisting in mid-air and swinging out with the grapnel again.
He raised his lower body, caught one of the rafters between his ankles, swung over and up into a handstand, somersaulted, landed in a half-crouch on the rafter, and stopped short. Harley was seated cross-legged on the floor calmly training a rifle on him.
"Oh, hey, B-Man. Fancy meetin' you here."
Dick froze when the shield came down, but the faint hissing sound spurred him to action. When you were dealing with Joker, hissing usually meant gas, and gas usually meant Smilex. Automatically, he pulled a gas mask out of one of his boot compartments and quickly fastened it in place. Then, holding another mask at the ready, he went in search of Tim.
Even as his mind was processing the situation, Bruce's hands were reaching toward his belt.
"Helmet," he whispered, "sound-proof mode."
There was a faint electronic beep. Then his world went silent.
From what he could read of Harley's lips, she was telling him to keep his hands visible. That was fine. He didn't actually need anything in the pouches, but she would have been suspicious if he hadn't made the attempt. He raised his hands calmly, waiting for Joker to move into position. There was no way that the clown was going to give Harley the honor of finishing him off. He'd claim that prize for himself. Bruce's gauntleted thumb found the remote control button at the base of his index finger and he waited. A little closer... more... yes, perfect. He pressed the button and the heel of his boot retracted, releasing a small disc.
Harley saw the device fall and whipped the gun around, firing before it hit the ground. That only ensured the desired effect a split-second earlier as the disc emitted a 170-decibel sound blast. Harley dropped the gun, pressing her hands tightly to her ears. Joker followed suit. Although the noise only lasted 20 seconds, that was time enough for Bruce to restrain them with plastic zip-ties. Incapacitated by the sonic grenade, the pair was in no shape to resist.
"Helmet," he commanded, "normal mode." Now he heard the faint hum of an electric generator, groans from his two captives, and various other ambient sounds. He activated his comm-link. "O. Do you read?"
"Loud and clear, B. Status?"
"Alert GCPD: two for pickup. When did you last hear from Nightwing?"
"He checked in about ten minutes ago. Want me to raise him?"
Bruce considered. That had been before he'd slipped past him. "Negative." He eyed the metal shield that cut him off from the rest of the hideout. He'd used up his C-4 on the doors earlier. A quick check of Joker's pockets revealed a remote control device, but as none of the buttons were labelled, he wasn't going to risk blowing up the place. "I need you to raise something else."
A feeble giggle made him look down.
"It doesn't matter, Bat-Boob," Joker smirked. "On the other side of that wall, your former birdie's been breathing in a nice unhealthy dose of Smilex. By the time you get through, it'll be too late for you to do more than bury the kid." He giggled again and sang softly, but menacingly,
"But when you've got him decked out so serene
He'll be the happiest corpse you've ever seen.
No. Not again. Too slow, too late for Alfred. Not Tim, too.
Joker was still going strong. "Hey, come on, Batsy. Wasn't that old butler of yours a music hall actor? You've got to know the words! C'mon, sing it with me. Bet you've got a great baritone!
"What good is sitting, alone in your room?
Come hear the music play
That was all he got out before Bruce's fist sent him painfully into oblivion.
Barbara's voice came crisply over the speakers in the helmet. "Hang on. I've almost got it. And Nightwing just checked in. He said to tell you that Harrier's hurt... badly, but his breathing is okay."
Bruce exhaled slowly. It wasn't the same situation. Then, he'd been hungry, exhausted, feeling the effects of over three days on high alert. Now, nearly three years later, he might not yet be fully back to where he had once been, but he was doing better than he had that night. And he wasn't alone. And Tim was alive. He closed his eyes. "Understood."
"And I've got that shielding under control now," she added, as the metal wall slid up.
Nightwing was on the other side of it, wheeling a gurney. Tim was lying on it. "It's bad," Nightwing said grimly. "Someone worked him over pretty well with a blunt instrument; he's almost definitely got a few cracked ribs. I can't tell about internal injuries but the suit armor and his restraints deflected some of the impact. Oh, don't panic when the breathing mask comes off. I gave him the Smilex antidote, but his facial muscles are still a bit stiff."
Bruce nodded. "Harrier?" He asked, looking at Tim for confirmation.
Tim lifted his hand and gave Bruce a weak thumbs-up.
"Let's get home." He looked at Nightwing. "We'll have to move him into the back seat of the car. Carefully. Radio ahead to Raven. Have her meet us in the cave. Her healing talents will be helpful."
Dick blinked. Of course, it made sense—he'd been about to suggest dropping Tim off with the Titans, so that he could avail himself of just that opportunity. But for Bruce to request it... he really had come a long way.
"You got it," he grinned.
Although Dick couldn't see it through the mirrored visor, Bruce was smiling too as he took the other end of the gurney, steadying it for the trip back to the coaster car.
Bruce was sitting in the cave again, the gun and ammunition on the table before him. He stared at the items through hooded eyes. He had to do this. He'd done it years ago. He'd hated it then too, but he'd still done it.
The elevator door whooshed open and Dick emerged. He took in the scene at a glance. "Tim's asleep," he said. "Raven's just left. You've been down here for awhile," he added. "I was just coming to make sure..."
"I'm all right," Bruce said quickly. He shook his head. "No. I'm not. I don't like being strong-armed into things; even when I recognize the necessity. I don't like taking other people's orders. I don't like guns. And I'm about to be thrust into a situation that will force me to endure all three factors."
Dick let out a low whistle. "What are you going to do?"
Bruce fixed him with a piercing gaze. "Manage. Somehow."
Dick hesitated for a moment. Then he got another chair, pushed it next to the table and sat down. "It's not going to be easy for you," he said bluntly, "but when have you ever let something like that stop you?"
Bruce grunted. "Are you speaking from experience?"
"A bit, I guess," Dick shrugged. "I wasn't a cop for very long." He made a face. "And the truth is I was pretty lousy at it. Or at least, I probably would have done better if I hadn't been spending my off-duty hours doing what I'd been doing since I was nine. High-stress day and night jobs take their toll. Especially when your C.O. wants to know why you keep falling asleep in briefing and you can't exactly be honest about it, but the regular lies make you look even worse than usual. Not that you're going to have that particular issue."
"Point," Bruce admitted.
Dick shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You're going to have one other big advantage over me in this." He looked down. "Look, before I tell you what it is, I want you to know, I'm past it all now. And even when I wasn't, I understood where you were coming from. That doesn't mean it didn't affect me—that's why I know how big a deal it really is, or I wouldn't bring it up."
Bruce looked at him, his face expressionless, waiting.
Dick's lips quirked up in a half-smile. "Sorry if this comes out sappy. I figure, every few months or so, I'm allowed. Okay." His smile faded as his eyes locked on Bruce's. "Having a strong support network makes a huge difference. You'll have that. I didn't. Not only will you have that, you'll have people in it who really have been out there, doing what you're going to be doing. If a situation comes up that you think it might help to discuss, we're going to get where you're coming from."
Bruce blinked. "I didn't want you to be an officer," he said slowly, "but I hadn't realized that—"
"Yeah, well, it wasn't something I brought up all that much. Bruce, leave it. What's past is past. You can keep beating yourself up over it, or you can chalk it up to experience and move on." He shrugged. "Personally, I'd vote for moving on. Fewer ulcers that way, but hey, your call."
Bruce sighed. "If I can just..." his eyes flicked toward the gun.
Dick nodded. "Yeah, Hush did a number on you. Not the first time, either."
"If this is some sort of attempt at reverse psychology..."
Dick shook his head. "It's not. Seriously, Joker likes to think he's your arch enemy, but he's not the one who manipulated Black Mask, stuck you in Arkham, and messed with your head until you thought you belonged there. Look. Sometimes, like it or not..." He let out a slow breath, "the bad guys win. And we both know it. Maybe this is just one of those times."
Bruce frowned. Then slowly, deliberately, he reached into the box of ammunition. Almost at once, his hand began to sweat. He couldn't do this. He couldn't use a gun. What was he thinking? Walk away, then. Give Hush that victory. What's one more? His frown deepened. One more would be one more too many. Go ahead then. Jump through Sawyer's hoops like some performing poodle. This is a perfect excuse for you to back out. He stopped. He wasn't looking for excuses. And following orders wasn't necessarily a sign of weakness; some of the strongest people he knew respected the chain of command...
There was a barely audible click.
His eyes widened. Had he just done it? There was one less round in the box. It wasn't on the table. It hadn't rolled to the floor. It was in the magazine.
Slowly, carefully, he reached back into the box.
The second one was easier, but it was still an effort. His feelings were still present, still prominent in his mind, but they weren't in control anymore. He hated guns, and much as he tried to suppress it, he remained somewhat afraid of them and likely always would. But the fear didn't rule him. Hush didn't rule him. And even if he was going to take orders from Maggie Sawyer, that didn't mean that she was going to be ruling him either.
With a sigh, he slid the fifteenth round into the magazine and picked up the gun. He flipped the safety catch down, lifted the magazine, and slid it unerringly into the pistol grip bottom.
For a moment, he held the gun before him, taking care that it was pointed at the cave wall. Then he lowered it, removed the magazine, and set about taking out the rounds.
As Dick started to smile, Bruce shook his head. "I'm not sure this is cause for celebration," he said wearily. "But at least we know one thing now."
"Hush hasn't won. And he won't. Not now. Not yet. Not ever."
Dick grinned. "Not with us around. So." He flexed his fingers and leaned back. "Ready for the academy?"
Bruce shook his head. "Absolutely not."
Dick sighed. "Well," he said brightening once more, "we've got more than a week to change that. And besides," he added, smiling more broadly, "I don't think they're going to be ready for you, either."
It's worth it all learning at last
The future begins with the past
Step out of the shadow it casts
And let the sun shine on your shoes
Kick 'em off in the rain if you choose
There's nothing like nothing to lose...
—Mary Chapin Carpenter, "We Traveled So Far"