To Play the Fool
Five years later
"Oracle, we've got trouble." A woman with red hair dressed in a sensible sweater and jeans ran from the upstairs window down to the kitchen on the ground floor. "They've got tanks and they're going door-to-door," she said, grabbing a backpack waiting near the back door.
"You need to get going then." The Oracle, a woman dressed in black leather with a scarf wrapped around her head, replied calmly. "Scrub the other locations and find new ones."
"You're coming with me, aren't you?"
"You know as well as I do that one of us has to be caught. Your father will literally – not figuratively – kill me if I let that be you."
She swung the backpack over her shoulders and flung open the door. "This doesn't feel right to me."
"They won't kill me. They can't afford it if you escape." Despite her companion's tension, Oracle remained relaxed, seated at the table. "If you want to complete the Mission, you have to leave me, Babs."
With a nod and a courteous breath of hesitation, the red-haired woman darted out of the back door, taking to the rooftops with a bit of parkour. She headed away from the coming search party, and out of sight of casual eyes. When she wanted to run and hide, very few would be able to catch up to her.
Once she was out of sight, Oracle picked up her book from off the table and wandered into the living room to continue reading it. She didn't pay much attention to it, seeing as how she'd read it three times before. It did serve as a good cover for covertly brushing past the window to observe two gunmen staking out the street while the main force dealt with a sweep of the neighbor's home. Subtlety: not their strong suit, or at least not the hand they wanted to play today. Heaven knows they tended towards the insidious and pervasive.
The door burst open under the weight of combat boots and mercenary soldiers. Oracle reacted instinctively to the vaguely Arabic men with submachine guns swarming into her home, and ran for the back door, knocking over chairs and a bookcase behind her to block their way. Undeterred, they seemed unable to be stopped by such petty obstacles, keeping right on her heels.
Once outside, she raced through the back lots of the string of houses, jumping over short fences with some practiced grace. Even with the scarf flowing annoyingly behind her, she couldn't let anything slow her down. The men behind her fired a few shots at her direction, hitting her in the back, but even that barely slowed her step.
But this sting had been set specifically for her. A few of the men had been dispatched to head her off. They came in through a narrow pass between the houses and hit her from her left in a violent tackle that left her pinned to the ground face down. After a few moments of struggling, two of the men got her on her knees with her hands on the back of her head, fingers interlocked.
As they worked to handcuff her, their leader approached the group flanked by two other gunmen with scarves covering half their faces as unnecessary backup. A tall, massive man with a decidedly monstrous look to him strode up to the prisoner, his hands resting on the fleece lapels of his leather coat. He looked down at the woman in black over a muzzle-like mask that gave his breathing a somewhat mechanical edge. With hands that she knew could break her neck like a twig if he should so desire, he ripped the scarf off her head.
"Well... Jenny Harkness. Taking after your late sister, no doubt."
"Bane. Unintelligible, as always."
"Where are the others?"
She adopted a slightly exaggerated expression of confusion. "What others? There's only me here."
With a sigh, he abandoned the notion of talking sensibly to the Oracle. "Take her in for questioning," he ordered his men.
"Where are the other Sirens?"
Oracle, with her wrists handcuffed to the table, and her scarf hanging haphazardly over her shoulders, examined her questioner. Thin face, perpetually tired eyes, medium build. It must have been his mind that put him second in command to Bane. With two months working in Gotham, she'd had time to do her research.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she answered him, meeting his piercing blue gaze.
From a manila envelope, he produced three 8"x10" photographs. He pushed one forward, one that depicted a black-cowled woman in body armor and a short cape. The photographer caught her in the middle of beating a mugger with a pair of retractable batons. "Word on the street is this one is named Batgirl. Rumor is that her father is Commissioner Gordon. Excuse me, former Commissioner."
She turned the photograph straighter. "Funny place to get red hair."
A second photograph featured a purple haired woman in a trench coat firing a crossbow bolt at a terrorist. "This was taken a few seconds before she murdered one of our peacekeepers. The men have taken to calling her the Huntress."
"She really must not like y'all. What, did you kill her parents?"
Disregarding her statement, he showed her a third picture. This one of a disciplined fighter wearing a blonde wig, leather jacket and fishnets riding a hand-built Harley Davidson. "She calls herself Black Canary. She's been spotted at the edges of the city, possibly trying to smuggle out the weak and injured."
"She looks chilly. Who seriously goes crime-fighting wearing fishnet tights?"
"We know that you are their leader, known as the Oracle."
Tucking a stray bit of hair behind her ear, she leaned forward and pushed the photographs back at her interrogator. "You know what I like about all this? We've got people starving, desperate for medical supplies, getting mugged and robbed on a regular basis, and a freaking 12 megaton bomb in the middle of the city – and you go and get photographs developed. That's a show of misappropriated resources if I ever did see one."
"The Sirens are an unauthorized police force threatening the free will of the people of Gotham," he said, forcefully taking back control of the conversation. "With or without your cooperation, they will be removed."
"Free will?" Oracle spat. "No one feels free until they feel safe. How can you possibly say that you have liberated us when you've released all the dangerous inmates into the streets? I personally don't care that they were unlawfully incarcerated due to the Dent Act. We just wanted them gone so we could feel free to live our lives. The people of Gotham deserve to live the way they want, right? The Sirens, from what I've heard, are just helping them do that."
The interrogator sat back, staring her down and gathering clues from her demeanor. Clearly she knew the vigilantes, but she would not give up any information on them apart from what the League of Shadows already knew. "I know you won't talk just because I ask you to. I also know that your parents are alive and well in upstate New York, at least for now. Give us the information we need and it will remain that way."
The somewhat amused and cocky demeanor the Oracle once displayed melted away to expose a steely anger. Leaning forward, she gave him a half smile and unleashed her own barbs of information. "Barsad. You and I both know the League of Shadows doesn't have the manpower or connections to leave Gotham and threaten the only family I have left. Furthermore, the Sirens are more of an annoyance than an actual threat of destabilizing your hold on Gotham. On top of that, if I have taught them anything, they will have sanitized all hideouts, cut off all contacts and established new footholds whenever they know one of their own has been taken captive. So, Barsad, I'm just a burned contact. I can't tell you anything you want to know."
"Then that's truly unfortunate for you." Gathering up the photographs, he stood and knocked on the door, signaling the other guards to let him out.
"I can give you one name, though."
"There's a girl in Tel Aviv. Her name is Rebekkah. She has an adorable little boy. Looks just. Like. You. Coincidentally, my dad has also found himself mysteriously reassigned to Israel recently," she added with a wink.
Barsad slammed the door after him.
"Oracle, you are being charged with 48 counts of forcibly keeping the peace, three counts of sedition, one count of secession, 39 counts of attempted emigration, 165 counts of spying, 372 counts of assault and battery – "
"Okay, now you're just making up numbers, Crane," the Oracle said.
" – and one count of promoting vigilantism. How does the guilty plead?" The crazed psychiatrist looked down on her through dark, hooded eyes that held a sense of power. With a fraying suit, he certainly did look like the Scarecrow he saw himself as.
"I don't feel guilty for any of those things. Maybe the spying one a little bit, and I've never actually fought with anyone, so that one's bogus. But I would do it all again." She stood up from her accusatory throne and turned to face the crowds in the 'courtroom' of City Hall. Instead of the rag tag, worn and weary masses from the most impoverished of Gotham's citizens, she was surrounded by a jury of former inmates, murderers, gangsters, thieves and rapists, each shouting their own opinions of her sentencing. Had it not been for the terrorists keeping them in line, they probably would have tried to kill her with shanks and switchblades by now. All for good reason. At one point or another, she had seen to it that they pay for their crimes, whether by being thrown in jail before she left Gotham or sending the Sirens after them when she returned. But as she eyed each of them with a piercing blue gaze, shooting cold into their bones through their dingy winter apparel, they became silent, curious and reverent.
"I take it you would like a few moments to speak to the court," the Scarecrow said from atop his pile of discarded law books. Such a fitting place, sitting atop the law.
"Heathens of Gotham, listen to your Oracle," she announced in a strong voice. "For the past few months, this city has been scourged, chastened and terrorized. These are necessary steps for the purification of a city. I remember the days when it seemed there was no respite for Gotham from people bent on destroying every good thing: Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, the Joker. I remember how we felt like there was no dawn to the darkness we were in.
"But then, there was light. It came from the darkness; someone willing to beat back the scum of Gotham so the goodness could bloom. Every time he bled for us, we felt freed. Every time this city burned, we were purged of filth and pride. Every time we are given the worst day of our lives, we find a way to bring about a better one. And now?
"We are in the midst of the worst this city has ever been through. But this will be Gotham's Millennium. Order is returning to this city. This brief absence of law will not be a haven for you any longer. You know of whom I speak." She turned her gaze to Bane. "The Batman will return. I don't know what you've done to him, but he is coming back to redeem Gotham from its sins. He will rid us of each and every one of your men and personally see to it that you are dragged straight to Hell! I have foreseen it."
"Enough!" Bane shouted. "Judge, make your ruling."
"Oracle, for these and all your sins," the Scarecrow said, "I sentence you to death or exile. What is your pick?"
She broke her gaze away from the masked terrorist, and with a sly smile she said, "Exile please." Then she raised her scarf over her head and walked to the door that awaited her doom.
The snow crunched under her feet during the long parade from the courtroom to the river. Terrorists and criminals pushed and dragged her the length of the path to the place of exile, monitored carefully by Bane following just behind her. When they reached the ice, they threw her unceremoniously onto the ground.
"Walk," Bane ordered.
The Oracle got back on her feet, brushing the dust off herself. "How many have you sent here to die?" she asked him.
"Hundreds," he replied. "Hundreds of people that you could not save."
"Have any made it to the other side?"
"If they didn't fall through the ice, they did not receive a welcoming from the United States army." He gestured to the military positioned on the one surviving bridge of Gotham, guns ready to fire on anyone about to cross the border.
"I see. So bullets here, bullets there, ice and water everywhere. Doesn't look like I've got much of a chance, does it."
Barsad pushed her backwards onto the ice. It creaked with the added pressure underneath her feet. "Walk."
"You know what's nice about little sisters?" she asked, removing the scarf from her head and dropping it to the ground. She then tapped her collar, causing a flurry of metal ribbons with bright red eyes to encase her head. "Hand-me-downs."
Then, with a dramatic bow to Barsad and Bane, she laid down on her stomach and began army crawling over the ice as fast as her little arms could drag her.
She appeared like a vision in the desert, a woman with short, blonde hair and the lead of a thoroughbred horse in each hand. A colorful scarf had been tied over her hair, its ends drifting off into the barely noticeable breeze. Even in the middle of hell, she wore perfectly applied dark eyeshadow and burgundy lipstick. She looked like a lost movie star from the Golden Age of film with her loose white blouse, tan trousers and black sunglasses.
"I'm looking for a billionaire playboy who spends his evenings hiding in the dark recesses of his basement," she said, calling out to the bedraggled man with emaciated features and an overgrown head of hair. "Have you seen one?"
Bruce trudged up the sandy hill to her, halfway believing his eyes were fooling him. "I'm sorry to disappoint. I, myself, was looking for an arrogant, condescending, genius who should probably just get a job as a PI so she can put her intelligence to work."
After five years of radio silence, when the two were finally standing face to face, neither of them knew what to say for a minute. But Jenny smiled and Bruce breathed a sigh of relief that she was real.
"You ran away," Bruce said, blurting out the first thing he could think of.
"You did too," she said. Not an accusation, just a statement of fact. "I just went farther."
He nodded. "Fair enough."
"There's a private airfield a couple of miles from here. I've hired a jet. I'm glad I found you alive, but we need to start moving. Gotham needs the Batman again. Gotham … it isn't good."
"I thought you had sworn never to step foot in Gotham City ever again."
A brief grimace of painful memories crossed her face, but she quickly recovered. "I knew I was needed. The needs of the many, you know?"
Reminded of why he dug himself out of the pit, he prepared to mount his steed. Like a gentleman, he helped Jenny onto her horse before getting on his. Clicking her tongue, Jenny led the way out of the desert at a reasonable pace.
"Why did you leave in the first place?" Bruce asked as he easily guided his horse to follow hers.
"Bruce, ultimately, we were never going to work out. You're too much like me, and nobody likes being around me. On top of that, you are too much like Jackie."
"You could have at least said something before you left."
Jenny turned back in her saddle to look him in the eye. "You could have said something long before I did."
Guilt washed over him. Days after the impromptu funeral, he hadn't been able to look Tex's sister in the eye. Even though Jackie had said plainly and clearly otherwise, he felt incredible blame for not reaching her in time. "I'm sorry."
"You were grieving. Everyone does so in their own time and in their own way. I wasn't capable of grieving with you, Bruce, so I left." The two of them jostled with the rhythm of the horses and the tangled mess of their own thoughts and emotions. "I should have let you know I was going to be okay."
He nodded, accepting and forgiving her just a little bit more. "But you came back."
"Gotham doesn't let go of people like us, does it."
"Not often," he agreed. To be honest, his relationship with the city wasn't great. He spent years fighting for its honor; when it fought back and killed people that he loved, he gave it the silent treatment for five years. Now when it needed Batman most of all, it guilt-tripped him into coming back for one last rescue. "I have to be perfectly honest with you, Jenny. I'm not sure that the Batman is going to survive the next battle with Bane."
She snorted in laughter. "Of course the Batman is going to survive. Passed down from generation to generation for hundreds and even thousands of years. The names and origins will be forgotten and dissolve into myth and legend, but not the mission. The warrior that fights to redeem others is a powerful, lasting narrative. One that Jackie fell in love with and devoted the extra years of her life to becoming. In a sense, Tex isn't your sidekick; she's your inheritance."
"I wasn't talking so figuratively."
"I wasn't either. (Jackie may have left me a hint or two.) Should you survive your encounter with Bane, I'll have some fake IDs made up with some emergency supplies and cash just outside of Gotham waiting for you. Then you can retire safely. And if you die, I'll make sure your funeral is well attended."
"Thank you." There was a weird stir of a weight being removed from his psyche. Something about having an escape route. And permission to hand off the Batman mantle. The damned thing had aged him in such a short time. But until then, this was him: the Dark Knight who enters the tournament at the last minute to save the honor of the kingdom without thanks or praise.
Bruce dug his heel into the horse's side and trotted past Jenny. "What are we waiting for? Let's go save Gotham."