Disclaimer: The characters and concepts in this story are the property of DC Comics and their affiliates. This is an amateur writing effort meant for entertainment purposes only.
Summary: Blake meets knuckle dusters, knuckle dusters meet Blake, and everybody meets Oracle. Set three weeks into No Man's Land during The Dark Knight Rises. AU.
Rating: K+ for violence, some language, and mild sexuality.
Warnings: Smallish spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.
Author's Notes: Special thanks to M for reviewing, and those readers that put the story on their favourites. It was much appreciated!
The City of the End of Things
Someone was pouring acid on his face.
"Whoa!" Barbara dropped the cloth she was dabbing on Blake's cheek and placed her hands on his bare shoulders, restraining him. He was all but jumping out of his skin in shock. "Easy, easy...Blake?" she leaned down until they were eye to eye with one another, but Blake's gaze kept darting over her and around her. Barbara slid her hand over his left cheek, the one that wasn't bleeding, and held his head steady. "John," she said sternly, "John, look at me."
It took Blake several long moments to get a fix on her. The burning on his cheek roused him into a whole world of other agonies: pain in his head, pain on his arms, pain in his chest...the awful taste in the back of his throat. He tried to breathe, but his ribcage was tight from injury, so every breath was more of a short, sputtering gasp. His vision started to fizzle into gray clouds again, the perfect match to his cloudy thought process. Blake fought harder this time though. He followed the feeling of Barbara's fingers on his cheek to the look in her eyes as she stared at him. Her words started to sink slowly through the thick blood pounding in his skull, and he let her command him to slow down, take it easy, just relax. "You're okay," she assured him, rubbing a thumb affectionately on his cheek, "You're okay..."
Blake stopped fighting, stopped searching. There was nothing else he needed to see except her green eyes, her fixed stare. That dogged Gordon determination shot right through him and cast aside all the gray clouds and disorientation. His chest started to loosen, and with every slow breath, shallow as it might be, his vision started to clear. He could make out Barbara's face first, got lost temporarily in her mane of messy red hair, was charmed to see she was still wearing a librarian issue cardigan in spite of losing her job to Bane's New World Order. The room beyond presented itself soon after, a sparse, stone-walled chamber dimly lit by two lanterns and a haunting, blue glow emanating from somewhere behind Blake. He was slumped in what appeared to be her only piece of furniture aside for a stool and a coffee table: a well-worn arm chair that rolled off the production line when Abe Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
"That was the most cogent you've been for thirty minutes," Barbara replied, rubbing his cheek one last time before drawing her hand away. "Welcome back."
"I said that out loud," Blake noted glumly. He winced when he realized that he said that out loud too.
Barbara picked up a damp cloth from his lap with a smile. "Don't worry about it. If you're able to make historical references, you're probably not bleeding into your brain. Do you remember what day it is?"
"No," he replied, swallowing hard against the stale taste of vomit lingering in his mouth, "But I didn't know what it was before I got pummelled in an alley."
"You remember the alley – good. What were you doing there?"
"Aside for getting my ass handed to me?"
A rush of panic ran through him. He had forgotten something, something important. Life-or-death important. He rewound his memories, from the beating he received by Cobblepot's smallest to the beating he gave the thugs of two warring gangs to Reilly's boarding house where Todd fell earlier and injured his leg.
Blake nearly leapt out of the chair all over again. "I gotta get to a pharmacy," he declared.
Barbara was faster this time. She had him by the shoulders and kept him seated. "Calm down, tiger. I sent some antibiotics with a friend over to Reilly's the second we got back here. They should have arrived by now."
"How did you...?"
"Criticizing my chair is not the only thing you decided to do in your out-loud voice, Detective. You told me the whole story on our walk here. Well, you mumbled the whole story on our walk here." She held up the rag again. "This is going to sting. Rubbing alcohol. Antibiotics are hard to come by, and I would hate to see that pretty face of yours get infected."
The smell as the rag approached his cheek was enough to make him gag, but Blake held his composure this time, breathing raggedly through the process. Barbara's touch was tender, but the alcohol was sharp, hot, and biting like a piercer's needle. It was enough to make him want to puke again, or at the very least lose consciousness. Unfortunately, the pain was acute enough that Blake's post-concussive grogginess dissipated completely, and he was fully aware of every subtle nuance pain was playing on his body. The fact that he was shirtless no longer escaped him either.
"Uh, what happened to my shirt?" Blake searched the seat for his clothes and found only a worn blanket had been draped over him, one he had thrown off in his earlier fit.
"I couldn't exactly check for cracked ribs through a jacket and tee," Barbara replied, drawing the rag away finally. She dug through an open plastic case on the coffee table, withdrawing a package of steri-strips from an orderly pile of other adhesive bandages. "You were lucky, by the way. He wasn't strong enough to crack anything, even with the steel knuckles, but he left a couple of good bruises."
Blake shrank into the chair self-consciously, tugging the blanket free from behind him. He had been shirtless around a woman before and was not prudish enough to think that he had anything Barbara hadn't seen. Still, she was the daughter of his commanding officer, the only daughter of his commanding officer no less. If word of this reached Gordon, Blake would have bigger things to worry about then thugs in a back alley.
Barbara tore open the package and peeled one of the steri-strips from its plastic backing. No amount of gentleness could stop her ministrations from hurting, but Barbara's fingers were incredibly light on his cheek nonetheless. Blake got caught up in her stare again. She had her dad's unyielding gaze, the kind that was honour and duty bound to see tasks through to completion. That could be something as small as a bleeding cheek or something as big as a city. He tried to imagine those same eyes glaring at criminals in alleyways, but he still couldn't imagine Barbara taking out the men from tonight. She was tall but thin, trained in martial arts but maintained the poise of a ballerina. He found it hard enough now, in No Man's Land, to walk the fine line between cop and criminal. How she managed to mind her contradictions was beyond him.
Three strips saw his cheek closed nicely. Barbara folded the remainder of the strips up and replaced them in her first aid kit. The pain in his face settled into a nice, slow burn, and Blake was almost dizzy from the decrease. His chest ached dully, the blood started to swell in his head again, and he had to slump into the chair, head resting along the back edge. "Thank you," he murmured. "You saved my life."
"You're welcome," Barbara replied, a soft smile working its way across her face again. Blake basked in the warmth of her grin every second her could. It had been too long since he had seen someone smile, even if Barbara's mouth offered more of a suggestion than anything else.
She picked up Blake's hand from the arm rest and handed him some Advil. "Where'd you get your hands on all this stuff?" he had to ask. "Antibiotics? Advil? Bandages? You must have raided every pharmacy in the neighbourhood."
"No," she handed him a canteen of water, "just the right ones."
He downed the pills and took a few extra sips for good measure. The nausea was still creeping around his gut, rustling his abdominals a little bit, but the water washed away the stale taste of vomit leftover in his mouth from his earlier retching in the alley. "Never thought I'd see the Commissioner's daughter turn to a life of crime."
Barbara's eyes gleamed, and another smile appeared on her face, but this one was warmed by something other than the sweetness of thank yous. This was a clever, half-cocked grin. "It's only a crime if I don't pay for them."
"And how do you pay for drugs and bandaids in No Man's Land? Money's worthless here."
"Yeah, here, but all the pharmacies I shopped were national chains. They have a headquarters somewhere in the U.S., which I paid by an electronic transfer."
"Electronic transfer?" Blake shook his head, rubbed the good side of his face with his hand. "There's no internet in No Man's Land. There's barely power in No Man's Land."
"Are you sure about that, Detective?"
He balled his hands into firsts. Their conversation had entered sensitive territory for Blake now. He wasn't sure why the Internet was the subject that did it, but between the aftermath of the beating he received and the luxuries neither he nor anyone in the city had access to, Blake was just about ready to have it out with Barbara Gordon once and for all. "There's nothing here," he spat, "nothing. No cell service, no internet; no money, no drugs...barely any power in most of the city. So don't tell me you're transferring funds over the internet. If you could do that, why not do something useful? Why not work to save the city?"
"What makes you think I'm not?"
Blake glared at her. Three weeks they had been stuck in this hellhole. Three weeks without communication to the outside, without any type of provisions moving in or out of the city, and the only one with any resources at all was shopping online for pharmaceuticals. He opened his mouth to challenge her, to berate her for focusing on surviving instead of fighting, but the words rang hollow even in his head. He had seen Barbara work a hack on a laptop concussion from her living room with a concussion. She had just taken down several thugs to save his life, not to mention trekked who knows how far across No Man's Land to do it. If there was a way to save Gotham with her skills, she would do it. Or she would already be doing it.
A chill ran through him. "How did you know where I was tonight?" he asked. "All the alleyways in this city, you just so happened to come across the one I was in. How?"
Barbara let the silence eat away at Blake for a long moment. Or maybe she was debating whether or not she should even tell him. Or maybe time was just slowing down in lieu of his realization. Whatever the reason, there was a pregnant pause before she replied with simply, "Traffic cams."
Blake turned around in the chair to where the iridescent blue glow was emanating from. Behind him was an entire wall of computer monitors – small ones, large ones, fat ones, skinny ones – each streaming different content. Some was news broadcasts from other parts of the nation, others were security footage or images from traffic cameras, some were just endless streams of data and graphics that Blake couldn't quite place. Barbara had the entire city, most of the country, and probably most of the world under her watchful eyes from this place.
Eyes. Watching eyes. The thought finally clicked in Blake's brain, and he let out an exasperated sigh for not having known in the first place.
He turned back to face Barbara. "Oracle."
She leaned back on her coffee table. "I guess this is why Batman doesn't bring people back to his cave."
"You're Oracle," Blake had to say it again for it to sink in. That was probably his concussion talking again. He felt dizzy and leaned back into the chair. Barbara reached over and pulled the blanket over his shoulders a little further.
"The boys at Reilly's gave me the name," she said softly, "but it fits."
"How did you put all this together? More scavenging?"
"Nobody has much use for computers in the city anymore. Getting back on the network was the hardest part. Once I did that though, everything else came together pretty easily."
"The eyes on the street," Blake muttered, recalling all the tags that had been popping up around his territory and Gordon's, "all the intel on the gangs in the area, running antibiotics back and forth...that was all you?"
Barbara shook her head. "Not all me, no. I have allies. Reilly's boys are good messengers. An old friend of mine works...security." The way she hesitated told Blake that there were other words she would have used to describe it, but security was the best euphemism. "I've been trying to get resources shipped into the city for Gotham's citizens, but it's hard to find a safe drop point or even a safe method to do it. That'll take a little more time."
Now it was Blake's turn to smile at her. "Gonna need a bigger boat for that, Quint?"
"More like an invisible boat," she replied with a smile, "or at least one that can bypass Bane's defenses."
Blake was stuck for a long while on the thought of her, neither cop nor criminal, something in between but far removed from the spectrum he'd been stuck in for most of his life. She had wanted to be more like the Batman, he knew, because he recognized that look in her eyes as one he caught in the mirror on occasion, but dressing up like a giant bat was a good way to get killed in No Man's Land. Hiding behind a computer monitor would have to do for the time being.
"Let's get you to bed, Detective," Barbara said.
"Oh, now," he said with a small laugh, "the Commissioner would really have my hide if I said yes to something like that."
Barbara didn't even bother responding to that. "Can you walk?"
Blake wasn't sure. His brain had settled at this altitude. The sudden change was bound to set him off course again, even if his legs felt more solid than they had back at the alley. He reached a hand towards Barbara then, which she took without any explanation and helped him up slowly.
His vision fizzled out again as he stood, which was just as well because it seemed like the walls and the floor switched places again. Blake slumped against Barbara, who held him up like he was nothing and waited patiently for his dizzy spell to pass. He clung to the feeling of the ground under his feet and to the solidness of Barbara's shoulders under his arm, blinking back the clouds until he found himself still standing in Oracle's base of operations.
They walked towards the stone wall at the back of the chamber. Blake was steadier on his feet this time, and the Advil had taken the edge off all the damage from the knuckle duster. He even took a few steps on his own when Barbara left him suddenly to extinguish one of her lanterns. She dimmed the other one until it was just light enough for them to see by and brought it with them into the darkest corner of the wall. Blake found that there was an opening there, one he hadn't noticed before because Barbara had hung a blackout curtain over it.
She pushed open the curtain, allowing Blake to step through. The smaller room had been fashioned into a makeshift sleeping area, with a cot along the nearest wall made neatly and tidily. The quilt folded at the base was one Blake recognized from the Gordon family living room.
Barbara left the lantern in the main chamber. She didn't need the light in here anyways. The smaller room was well-lit by a vast window, one that took up most of the wall. The whole of Gotham spread out beneathBlake like a sheet of black ice. He could see his neighbourhood in the distance under the cover of street lamps and sentries, could see shadows of thugs darting down alleyways and over rooftops, could see the lights from Bane's tanks prowling the streets, keeping their own definition of peace. He could see Wayne tower in the window's periphery, gutted and ransacked like a rotting wound, the perfect broken heart for the world's most notorious broken city.
"Is this the old clocktower?" he asked, taking another step towards the window.
"It is indeed," Barbara nodded. She pulled back the blankets on the cot for him.
Blake laughed at the sight of the city. From this distance, it was easy to forget about being cut off and separated, about being under the oppressive rule of a terrorist, about having to loot, steal, and fight for every breath. He felt safe finally, felt secure, felt like everything was going to be okay. When he looked back at Babs, those feelings didn't go away, but he was always aware of how fallible they were. He called it No Man's Land for a reason.
"Like the Babs-cave," he joked with her, eyeing her little fortress with a mixture of skepticism and relief, the same way he viewed everything, "here in the city of the end of things."
Barbara's third smile of the night was a sharp, decisive line. As determined as the Gordon's stare but more menacing, more intent, almost terrifying with its self-assuredness. "Oh, no, Detective," she said, "this is only the beginning."