Working Title: Reverie
Nightwing stared at his comlink with a comical expression on his face. Robin snickered. "What's the matter, Nightwing? Never had a girl hang up on you before?"
Nightwing looked at Robin and said in a puzzled tone, "Actually, no. Not like that. Oracle's been kind of cranky the last couple of days, but I've never had her be outright nasty before. What's eating her?"
Robin sobered immediately, and looked solemn. "Don't you know what today is?"
Looking confused, Nightwing shook his head negatively. And then it hit him with the force of a speeding train. The blood rushed from his face, leaving him a pale, ghostly white. Robin reached out a hand to steady him. "Whoa! Don't pass out on me!"
Taking in a deep breath, Nightwing looked at the younger vigilante. "I can't believe I forgot. I could kick myself."
Robin shrugged a little. "Batman and I don't contact her at all on this day. I can't believe you forgot, either." His tone contained no reproach, but Nightwing flinched anyway.
"I just.... it hurts too much to remember. It's not like I ever really forget, but I usually find ways to keep myself busy and I try not to bother her. I guess, like you and Batman not contacting her, that I don't contact her because I think reminders of what she's lost would bother her too much today." Nightwing paused. "I'm going to see her."
Robin shook his head adamantly. "Forget it. Believe me, you *don't* want to see her tonight."
Nightwing gave Robin a quizzical look. "How can you say that?"
Robin just continued to shake his head, crossing his arms over his chest. "*I'm* not going with you. The last time I intruded on _this_ day, I almost got my head taken off. Literally."
Nightwing looked flabbergasted. "No way! Babs isn't violent."
"Tell that to her pitching arm," came the succinct reply.
Firing off a jump line toward the nearest building, Nightwing paused at the edge of the rooftop. "We've left her alone long enough, Robin. It's time we all stop tiptoeing around the subject."
Robin called after him as he swung away, "You're going to regret it, I'm telling you! She even told Black Canary that she hoped a missile blew up on her yesterday!" He sighed and opened his comlink. "You better get there a little early tonight," he said into it.
* * * *
The sound of breaking glass shattered the stillness of Barbara Gordon's loft apartment.
Nightwing would bet that was a chair hitting the wall.
If he wasn't mistaken, that was one of her large pans bouncing off the edge of something metal. The stove?
There went the coffee table.
Ouch, he thought. There went, if he wasn't mistaken, her television set. Not like she watched it often anyway.
*WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! THUD!*
He didn't recognize that sound until the thud. She'd broken a chair over something else in the apartment. Viciously.
Finally, silence reigned. For a few moments, it was as if the world held its breath. Soft, ragged sobs floated into the night air.
From his perch on the rooftop, Nightwing had to physically restrain himself from entering the apartment.
He'd never seen her angry enough to break every dish in the house. He'd always thought her passionate nature beautiful. His opinion hadn't changed, but he suddenly realized the depths of her passion... and her rage. It was brutal, and terrifying. She was capable of anything in this state.
To hear her pain in the smashing sounds and her breathless sobs was agonizing. He wanted to help her, but there was nothing he could say. Nothing he could ever do that would ease this day for her. So instead, he would simply sit nearby, making sure she didn't do anything too crazy.
"How is she?"
Nightwing didn't turn at the sound of the gravelly voice behind him. He'd known Batman would show up here tonight. His voice was soft as he answered his father, full of regret and concern for the redhead whose tears were tearing his heart from his chest. "I've never seen her like this."
Batman remained silent for several minutes. "I know," he finally replied. "She gets like this every year, though."
Nightwing's head jerked around and he stared at his mentor in shock. "It's always as violent as this? I'd heard that it was... hard. But I never dreamed..."
Batman's face carried its usual impassive expression, but the undercurrents in his tone were of pain. "I had hoped that time would ease it some, but it doesn't. For two or three days before, she gets edgy. Sharp with everyone. This is the one night of the year that she's completely offline."
Swallowing hard, Nightwing nodded. "I noticed it before, but this is the first year I've been close enough to actually come here."
Batman's glance at his protege held no censure, but it was clear that he didn't believe the words.
Nightwing had the grace to flush. "Okay... maybe this is just the first year I've had the nerve to actually show my face." He turned to look down over the edge of the roof, listening to the sound of Barbara's grief. Softly, he said over his shoulder, "I wasn't there the night she was shot, so I guess I figured I didn't have any right to be here on the anniversary."
He looked up in surprise as Batman's hand descended onto his shoulder in a comforting gesture. "She never wants company anyway." The quirk of lips was faint, but Nightwing caught the sad almost-smile. "She threw a lamp at me the one time I had the temerity to intrude on her when she was like this."
Nightwing's soft sigh was the only reply.
Batman squeezed his foster son's shoulder, and then moved to perch on the ledge next to Nightwing. His voice changed, becoming more 'Bruce' and less 'Batman.' "You know, she's come so far that it's hard to remember sometimes how angry she still is inside. She hides it well. It's only today that it sends her into this frenzy. They say that time heals all wounds... I guess we both know that's a bit of a lie."
The smashing sounds began again from below, interspersed now with angry, tearful outbursts from Barbara.
Both men were silent as she hurled invectives at the air around her; cursing the Joker, cursing her own stupidity in opening the door without looking first, cursing the guards at Arkham for letting him escape, the police for not notifying Jim Gordon sooner, and even herself for not fighting the Joker harder.
In spite of the anguish that her pain was causing him, Nightwing had to smile faintly. "She knows better swear words than some of the dock workers."
A particularly vicious epithet floated upward to their ears, and even Batman's lips quirked faintly. "She's more creative with her swearing, too." Both men's faint smiles faded as her breathless sobs began again. She was exhausting herself.
"Did you notice the one thing she hasn't said?"
Batman hesitated. Then he nodded. "I've come here every year to keep an eye on her. She's never said it."
Nightwing looked at him. "Never?"
"Once. There was one time, the night of the shooting when I went to see her in the hospital, that she threw an accusation at me. That the Joker and I were laughing at her that night." Batman's voice was carefully neutral.
"Why would she think you'd been laughing at her?" Nightwing was shocked.
Batman shook his head, regret coloring his voice. "I think I cracked that night. When I caught up with the Joker, he told me this stupid joke and... I couldn't help it. It just... hit me."
Nightwing peered incredulously at his father. "What??"
Batman shrugged a little self-consciously. "That night, I had to wonder which of us was actually mad. I don't know what happened. It was stupid, and I laughed. The two of us were laughing like fools when the police caught up with us."
Stunned into silence, Nightwing could only stare.
Batman colored beneath his cowl, but didn't defend himself.
Nightwing could only shake his head, muttering, "Someday you'll have to tell me what joke was so funny that he got you to crack a grin in the Bat suit." He paused to listen, and there was silence from the apartment below. "Do you think she's fallen asleep?"
Nightwing nodded, and shifted position so that he was sitting more comfortably. "I always wondered something."
Batman looked at him, waiting.
"How did you find out that Barbara was Oracle? Did she tell you?"
"No." Batman looked out over the skyline. "I wasn't completely certain when 'Oracle' first showed up. It took a few weeks." He began to talk, slowly at first. "I first started seeing references to 'Oracle' on some of the underground bulletin boards. I got curious."
* * * *
Bruce sat at the large computer in the Batcave, studying the printouts in front of him with a puzzled expression. Some of the hardcore hackers on the underground boards were reporting a 'ghost in the machine.' Someone calling himself 'Oracle' reportedly hacked into NORAD. That should have been next to impossible. Some of the best hackers in the world had tried that system, and all of them had been caught. This Oracle was possibly the best Bruce had ever seen, if these reports were correct.
Leaning back in his chair, Bruce absently sipped at the cup of coffee that magically appeared at his elbow every so often. He was good with computers, but not that good. He could use a source like this Oracle. He began to put out feelers of his own on the boards, using his "Matches" handle.
* * * *
Batman smiled faintly. "It was the same handle I used to send Barbara to Richard Dragon for self-defense lessons. She had no clue back then that Matches was an alias for me."
Nightwing made a soft sound of acknowledgement, one ear on this explanation while the other was listening for sounds from Barbara's apartment. She was crying again. It broke his heart.
Batman continued. "It took a few weeks to get any response..."
* * * *
'Hear you've been looking for me.'
The message flashed across the Batcave's huge computer monitor without a signature. Batman typed his responses back. 'Oracle, I presume?'
'Possibly. Who are you and what do you want?'
Bruce pushed the cowl back and pursed his lips as he replied. 'I hear you're the best of the best. I have a job for you, if you're interested.'
'It's pretty lucrative. Sure you don't want it?'
'Very. I'm picky about what jobs I take. I can afford to be. And you don't have anything I want, "Matches."'
* * * *
Batman shook his head. "I didn't know at the time that she was already working for the Suicide Squad. Or working WITH them, anyway. She wasn't interested and gave me the brush-off, hiding her tracks." He smiled ruefully. "Never knew just how good she was with computers. It took me two weeks to follow her trail and figure out that she had the Batcomputer tapped. I showed up on her one night, in the cowl."
* * * *
Batman entered the apartment, bypassing her minimal security easily. He stood silhoutted in the window, watching Barbara Gordon type fast and furious on keyboard connected to an array of 6 computers. "Good evening, Oracle."
Barbara whirled around, her green eyes dilated with shock and her hand holding a Browning 9mm that came from nowhere.
Batman didn't move, but he was surprised with the rapidity of her move. He hated guns, and Barbara had never been much into them either. To see her holding a pistol on him with unwavering accuracy was disconcerting.
As soon as she realized who he was, Barbara clicked the safety back into place and put the pistol in her lap in one smooth move. The brief tremble to her hands gave away her nerves, but her voice was calm. "Good evening, Batman."
Tilting his head, Batman allowed a little of his surprise to show. "Are you going to tell me what's going on? It's not like you to point a gun at me."
Barbara shrugged slightly. "It's the only ranged weapon in my little arsenal." She smiled faintly, looking up at him. "Escrima sticks mean I have to let the person get close, 'Matches.' While I'm secure enough in my skills to do that, it's always a little nicer to keep them from getting their hands on me in the first place."
"I see." He studied her set-up. "So this is what the grant money paid for. Pretty decent."
Barbara gestured gracefully with one hand. "I'm surprised it took you this long to put it together."
Batman didn't touch anything, looking at her thoughtfully. "I knew the grant went for computers, but your application said you were doing library research. I knew your background, so it didn't click until you wouldn't take the job. It would have lured almost anyone else in."
Barbara shrugged slightly. "I already took your charity once, to get some semblance of a life back. I didn't need the job you offered. I make decent money."
"And you didn't want Batman to figure it out." His voice was matter-of-fact.
No, I didn't," she replied coolly. "I am rebuilding my life myself. With as little assistance as I can manage. I'm tired of other people being in charge of things because my legs don't work."
Batman reached out and touched her cheek lightly. "You know where to find me if you ever need me, Barbara."
* * * *
"And I left. She was doing okay, and I managed to throw some work her way every so often, and to convince her to let me help upgrade her security measures so that what happened with Interface never happened again. As her skills continued to develop and she began to work within the hero community, she would send me leads and information every so often. Little by little, she became indispensable."
Nightwing sighed softly. "Did you know that Ted Kord knows her identity now?"
Batman's displeasure showed only in the tightening of his lips. "No, I didn't."
"He's been a pretty regular visitor around here lately. I'm surprised Robin didn't mention it." Nightwing was quiet for a long moment. Silence was once again prevalent in Barbara's apartment.
"How did he find out?"
Nightwing shook his head. "I'm not sure, exactly. I think they'd been talking over the Internet, and then suddenly he knew her address."
Batman was quiet for a minute. "I don't think I like it. It brings him too close to everyone else's identities." He frowned about it, and then glanced at Nightwing. In a thoughtful tone, he spoke again. "Still, they do have a lot in common. Maybe it's a good thing. It means she's coming out of her shell."
Nightwing glanced at him and scowled. "They don't have *that* much in common. And I don't think she needs to come out of her shell quite that far." He lapsed into silence, frowning as he pondered Kord's relationship with Oracle. It couldn't be jealousy. He was just worried about Barbara.
Batman didn't comment on Nightwing's jealousy, hiding his amusement behind his cowl easily. His son was so transparent. He changed the subject. "How did you find out about Oracle?"
Nightwing was pulled from his thoughts by the question, and he smiled boyishly. "She told me, actually..."
* * * *
Nightwing was on watch in the Titans Tower when the message flew across his screen. 'Still keeping late nights, Boy Wonder?'
Startled, Nightwing looked around. Maybe one of the Titans was playing a joke. The cursor kept blinking at him. After several moments, the message changed. 'Not going to talk to me, huh? Okay, suit yourself. Got a hot tip for you: Bank hit by metahumans tomorrow at 2pm. First National on Wall Street.'
* * * *
"By the time I could form a response, the link was broken. But she gave me the hint in calling me Boy Wonder." Nightwing shrugged. "I went to see her a couple of days later. The bank was hit just like she said it would be, and we were there to stop it. I called her the next day, and she played it off. But the next night I was on watch, she linked up again..."
* * * *
Nightwing sat upright, and quickly responded this time. 'Who's there?'
'Okay... I'll buy that, given that you helped stop a major heist. What should I call you?'
'Oracle will do,' was the reply.
Considering for a moment, Nightwing framed his question. 'Are you a friend to the bat, too?'
'*laugh* I knew you'd get the hint. Talk to you soon, Boy Wonder.'
* * * *
Nightwing chuckled softly. "She cut the link again. And the game was on."
Batman listened thoughtfully, his eyes on his son. "You two have been playing games since you were kids. Don't you think it's time they stopped?"
Looking over his shoulder at his father, Nightwing smiled that charming grin of his again. "Yeah... but she doesn't quite agree yet. We're still doing the dance."
Shaking his head, Batman stood. "If you're going to stay here with her, I'll go back on patrol." He glanced over the edge, listening. "She's about through. She might like the company now."
Nightwing listened as well and then nodded slowly, watching his father. "You do this every year?"
Batman shrugged just a little and replied quietly, "Penance." And then he was gone.
Nightwing grimaced a little in understanding. To listen to her rage at the unfairness was penance for not being there to stop it from happening. He braced himself for a moment, and then leaped from the rooftop to the window ledge outside Barbara's apartment. Bypassing the elaborate security measures easily, he slipped inside her living room.
Barbara lay on the couch, her wheelchair overturned next to it. She had her arm thrown up over her eyes, and she almost looked asleep. The apartment was a mess - broken dishes and dented pans littered the kitchen and dining room floors. Her TV was smashed against the bookcase next to it, a chair lay in pieces on top of the overturned coffee table. The only thing in the apartment *not* shredded or mangled was her computer array and the books - though she'd apparently hurled a few of those around the room after smashing the TV, too.
Nightwing moved on silent feet to pick up a quilt lying on the floor, covering her carefully with it. Dully, she spoke without opening her eyes. "How long were you up there?"
Hesitating, not sure whether to answer her truthfully or not, he finally moved to sit on the edge of the couch next to her. "Long enough to hear your very colorful use of English to malign the Joker's ancestors all the way back to the first appearance of man on the planet," he said with gentle amusement.
"You're supposed to be in Bludhaven," was her only reply.
"Yeah, well... when you bite my head off three times in a week and then don't return email all day, or answer your phone, I get worried." Nightwing paused, pulling off his mask. "And then I realized what day it was. And I got doubly worried," he said softly.
Barbara was quiet for a long moment, and then she turned to look at him. "You shouldn't see this. After this long, you'd think I'd be over it, you know? Dad calls me at least three times during the day just to check up on me, Bruce hovers outside the window most of the night... I just need to be left alone, you know?"
"Yes, I do." Barbara was too tired to get angry again, though. "I don't like for other people to see me in this mood."
Dick reached out and turned her face toward him, exposing her tear-swollen features. That she didn't resist him seemed a sign of how far the two of them had come since the day at the circus. "I've seen you in every mood that you have, except this one. I'd change it if I could. But I can't. So the best I can do is offer my shoulder, if you want a nap."
She couldn't even smile at him. There was no reassurance she could offer, though she could see the concern and the pain in his blue eyes. Barbara studied his face while he gently stroked her cheek with his fingertips. She could remember that same gentle touch from the hospital. His eyes had held the same pain then. And the same guilt.
She reached up and clasped his hand tightly. "There was *nothing* you could have done. Please... you've carried the guilt long enough, Dick. I don't want your guilt. That's why I don't want people around here. I'm tired of everyone feeling responsible."
Dick brought her hand to his lips, kissing it softly. "I can't help feeling responsible in some small way. Just as Bruce can't. You can't change that for us, just like we can't change what happened."
"I'm so tired. Tired of being strong for everyone. Tired of being alone." She turned her face away from him. There were no more tears in her, but the pain was still clear. "He took my life away."
Dick's tone was both gentle and firm as he drew her upward slightly and settled onto the couch with her back curled against his side and his arms around her. "He took your ability to walk, yes. But he didn't take your life. And in some twisted way, he gave you something, too."
Barbara jerked upward, arching her body away from Dick to peer at him. "How can you say that?" she demanded, outraged.
Shaking his head, Dick tugged her back downward so that she was leaning against him again. "Think about it," he told her quietly. "Although I would never in a million years have wished this on you, would you have become Oracle without it?"
Barbara paused. "I... don't know. I didn't want to be Batgirl anymore. I wanted out of the cowl."
Nightwing nodded. "Getting shot gave you a direction that maybe you wouldn't have taken before. Crappy way to _get_ it, true."
Scowling, Barbara answered. "I will _not_ be grateful to the Joker for shooting me."
Nightwing shook her gently. "I didn't say that. I just said that although he took a lot from you, he did _not_ take your life. And he did _not_ take away the essential spark that makes you Barbara."
Barbara curled into his embrace, silent for a long time. He almost thought she'd fallen asleep there, until her soft voice came to him. "I hate this day."
Dick whispered softly, "Sometimes I do. It's the anniversary of my biggest regret - that I wasn't here to spare you. And sometimes I don't. It's the anniversary of the birth of one of the strongest, most beautiful, most passionate women I know."
Barbara curled herself more tightly against him, her back against his side and her cheek resting against the curve of his shoulder, his arms cradling her. "Thank you for being here, Dick."
He kissed the top of her head and whispered against her hair, "Anytime."