AN: Okay, so I know this was supposed to be the last chapter, but the length is just absurdly long and it works better as two separate chapters. Apologies about the delay. I had a family wedding that sucked up my entire life.
The Reach start corralling people like cattle.
Over the next few days, citizens start seeking sanctuary, pouring out of their houses in waves. The smaller alien spacecrafts, a type of jet with tele-beam technology, are often seen running routine sweeps of the cities. They're making house-calls. Looting starts up among the masses. Scared families with hastily thrown together suitcases and fear-filled eyes take to the streets. It's like the whole world shudders and breathes in as one while the Reach spread out throughout the globe.
Barbara spends most of the time in damage control, attempting to usher as many people to safety as possible. Dick sends out teams of three to the farthest reaches of the world, and Barbara ends up working with Stephanie and Tim on organizing a massive operation in the upper east coast of the US. The first priority is getting people to safety; then they can execute the next stages of rebellion.
In the meantime, the Reach utilize minimum lethal force in gaining control, probably because they don't want to diminish their experimental gene pool, but for every life lost Barbara feels the aching burden of accountability. It was their duty and obligation to stop this invasion from happening, and even if their efforts had been seen as, charitably, a snowball's chance in hell, a pebble in the face of a mountain – Barbara didn't become who she is and don on the cape because she consoles herself with the notion that causalities are "small." There are no small causalities. Every life lost feels like a lash across her back, and she knows Dick feels it even more acutely.
It's almost pathetic how easily the Reach take over Earth. NORAD falls without anyone even blinking an eye, and the US military force engages in a few skirmishes before the Reach unleash a massive computer virus and EMP bombs across seventeen large cities, and the President comes on the television briefly to announce an unconditional surrender. The rest of the world follows after, first France, then the Middle East and Asia and the line of European countries start tripping over themselves on who capitulates to the Reach first.
After which, the TV channels all broadcast a barren emergency broadcast message, and the world is plunged into anarchy as alarm grows. More people are taken. More nations start panicking. When the TV finally comes back on, the Reach have taken control of everything – the media, the leaders, the entire world.
It's as bad as anything they feared.
It's been a busy day and even more harried night.
"Got the rest of the supplies!" Steph hollers. "If we book it, we can make it out of here within the hour."
Barbara nods. They've been coordinating with Gotham PD to set up a response site in the Gotham Academy facility. She walks by her old haunts and feels a strange sense of déjà vu wash over her, but mostly, it's surreal to see her former high school transformed so much. Her father is still in his coma, tucked away in the quiet east wing near the chem labs where few know he's there, but she's been working closely with detective Renee Montoya under the guise of Batgirl and they've been managing well enough. After a few hours or relocating, Barbara thinks she has everything nearly set up. She carries bags and boxes, and listens to the kids rampage up and down the gymnasium like miniature elephants. She double-checks on the generators, then places a box of medical supplies in the kitchen.
Dick and Barbara have been preparing for this for a while so the school is actually well stocked. First aid kits, flashlights, working communication in walkie-talkies and functioning cell phone, food, bottled water, extra warm clothing, emergency supplies including tools, bedding, towels and plastic sheeting – all bought by Wayne Enterprises. It's still not going to be enough in the long run, but for the moment, it'll do.
She avoids visiting her father's bedside for as long as possible, but before she leaves, she slips quietly into his room and stands watch. She loses track of time. Detective Montoya finds her like that sometime around midnight, and if she thinks it odd that Batgirl is watching so gravely over Commissioner Gordon's bedside, she doesn't comment on it.
"He's stronger than he looks," Renee says. "He'll come out of this thing. In the meantime, we've got officers that'll lay down their lives to protect him."
The Reach are collecting hospital patients all across the globe. Experimenting on the wounded or sick, the rumor is.
Barbara fights down a rush of nausea, and turns to Renee. "Good luck," she says.
"Right back at you, Batgirl."
The new team HQ, a quiet bunker sixteen levels below the surface in a military base somewhere in Colorado, makes her miss the Cave like a missing limb. It has none of the warmness, none of the history, and all the same stale air. Well after midnight, when Barbara finds herself keyed-up and wide-awake, she wanders out of the sickbay and walks through the base. She quickly winds her way to the command room where Dick is going over reams of paper with a pen clenched between his teeth. She walks across to Dick, and finds him so absorbed in his work that he barely even registers her approach. He has a five o-clock shadow, and two empty cups of coffee within arm's reach. There are strategic maps of the United States sprawled over two different tables, and Barbara can see blocks of Reach strongholds all highlighted in red. The Justice League have managed to maintain hold of most of the west coast, but there are still small pockets of weaknesses.
Barbara stares at the outline near the waters where Gotham City is drawn in greens and blues and that horrible, horrible red. Her comatose father now rests near the backroom of a high school gymnasium. The place isn't in a redzone, but it's only a matter of time. She drops a hand onto Dick's shoulder without even thinking about it, and he looks up to catch her gaze.
Wally stumbles in on them like that, and she means literally. "Hey," he slurs, shit-faced drunk as he rights himself. "Aww, look at that. Young love."
Barbara pauses, thrown. As a speedster, it takes an alarming amount of alcohol to work on Wally's metabolism, but clearly, judging by the state of the near-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hands, Wally has been making the effort. It's been nine days since the Invasion, and they haven't heard a thing from Aqualad or Artemis. Barbara doesn't know what to think of that, but Wally has been spiraling further and further into desperation and despair with each passing day.
Dick winces just looking at him. "Wally, man," he says, rising. "What are you doing?"
It takes the combined effort of both of them to get Wally into bed that night. Things have settled down between the two boys over the last few days; it's not, in Barbara's expert opinion, the same steadfast friendship that once stood tall, but something must've happened recently because the inexhaustible tension between the two has finally dissolved. Wally still worries over Artemis to the exclusion of nearly everything else, but he no longer holds Dick solely responsible. Maybe because he sees how the Reach are tearing the world apart; maybe because he knows Dick tears himself apart just as much. Barbara doesn't know what happened to change his way of thinking, and she won't push the subject unless Dick or Wally bring it up themselves.
Knowing both boys, that's likely never going to happen.
"You know," Wally says groggily, before drifting off to sleep, "Artemis always rooted for you two to get together."
Dick disappears in the middle of the night, and she goes searching for him back at the Wayne Manor to check up on him because that scene back there with Wally must have been brutal on him. She expects to find him going over logs again. He's been locked in a holding pattern of reviewing intel and trying to figure out the Reach's weakness. Short answer: they're aren't any. At least that Barbara can figure out, and she's been looking at this thing from all angles. Their best bet of fighting the Reach had been before the invasion, but now that there's hundreds of smaller ships and a half a dozen motherships across Earth, she isn't sure how to fight the numbers.
They need a miracle.
Alfred stops her before she can make it down to the batcave, redirecting her to his room. "I strongly suggested that he get some rest before I became obstinate about the matter. Master Bruce has taught him some rather unappealing habits."
She frowns. Dick is starting to worry her a little; she knew he'd take the invasion badly, but perhaps she underestimated just how personally he'd take the failure. A cloud of rebuke has fallen over him, as if he's holding himself solely responsible for an alien invasion, and it's a type of accountability and darkness that sat better on Bruce more than it ever did on Dick.
Bruce. What she wouldn't give for Batman's guidance right about now. Or Superman and Wonder Woman and Martian Man, or… any help, really. They need all the help they can get.
Alfred doesn't say a word when she makes it down the hallway towards Dick's room. "Dick?" she calls out, easing open his door.
Dick is nowhere to be seen. His room, like any other in Wayne Manor, is opulent and large. It has the standard décor, but he's added in his own personal touch here and there. Exercise equipment is strewn across the expanse. There's a pile of books on the bureau underneath his large flatscreen TV, a Flying Graysons poster that's over a decade old hung up on the far wall, and just two or three other framed photos on the corner table near the window. One is of his parents, another of Wally, Artemis and Dick, and the last one – she's surprised to find – features herself at the last Christmas party. She's giving Dick a kiss on the cheek underneath mistletoe.
She stops at the edge of the door, and frowns. Where is he?
She finds him in the Batcave, unsurprisingly. "You better hope Alfred doesn't find you down here," she teases, pulling back her mask so that it pools in a hood behind her.
But then he turns, and it's as if someone has ruptured her windpipe because he looks devastated, eyes filled with grief and the stark look of guilt. The sight tears right through her.
"Babs," he exhales, roughly. "Babs, I—" he trails off, words of no use.
She's never seen him look so lost, but she's clearly caught him in a moment when his guard is completely down. She's across the space in a flash, and she's not even sure how it happens, but suddenly she's holding him while he crumbles against her like there's suddenly no strings holding him up anymore; he drags in air like his lungs have collapsed, and his eyes are shining with unshed tears. The sight throws her. Through thick and thin, through death and defeat, Dick has always managed to maintain a level of calm – of traught – and she wonders what triggered this emotional avalanche tonight before she glances up at the monitors behind him and sees footage of a dozen civilians lying in a mass grave. Insubordinate populations must be culled, the closed captions on the news reads.
The Reach are sending a global message.
She closes her eyes when Dick makes this sickly noise from the back of his throat. "Dick. Dick. Stop. Breathe."
Sharp air whistles past the constricted muscles of his throat, and she repeats the command, coaxing him to breathe in and out in a semblance of normalcy. (It's entirely an illusion, she knows.)
"Christ, I screwed us all over," he chokes out. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
She closes her eyes again. The truth is a part of her has been expecting this moment for days. He's held himself together remarkably well under months of inexhaustible strain, but the last few days have chipped away at his cool exterior and she's been holding her breath waiting for the dam to break.
She puts a hand on his cheek, brings his unfocused eyes to meet hers. "Dick," she says, and she's surprised by the emotion she feels because it's almost…anger. "Dick, this is not your fault."
There's a particular tone he's been conditioned to respond to, and mostly it's something that only Batman has ever managed, but she finds herself replicating the commanding tone without even trying.
"You did everything you could—"
"I could have done more," he insists, stubbornly. "I should have."
"What? What more could you have done?" she demands.
She hears his breath catch slickly in his throat. He doesn't have an answer to that and neither does she. It's a question they've been asking themselves nonstop since the invasion began, and the fact of the matter is, this invasion might have been pretty much unstoppable from the get-go. It pisses her off that he's holding himself accountable for it, then. Whether he knew about the invasion for months or not, whether he'd had plans in place to prevent it, and failed – he doesn't deserve to be scapegoat for an oncoming storm, not even in his own head. The men in her life have always had an ego the size of the moon, even if well-intentioned, but this is one of those few occasions where it frustrates her more than words can describe.
"Then all of it was for nothing," he says to her. "This entire year I've spent lying to my friends and family. Wally's resentment, the months I had to watch you with Jason—" she jerks back, because the declaration of jealousy floors her in a way she isn't expecting, though she probably should; Dick is already moving on to list the next item in his manifesto, "The danger to Artemis and Aqualad. I destroyed one relationship after another for this, and it was for nothing."
Her throat feels tight with emotion, and she can't even identify what it is. "The hell you did. I'm still here, aren't I?" He holds her gaze for a lengthy beat, and she realizes what that says about her, about them. "I know what you did, Dick. I know precisely what've you've been doing, and after everything, I still trust you. More than anyone else in the world."
She realizes the full weight of truth only after saying the words. Is that foolishness? To trust him so much after knowing how far he can go in lying to her?
Or is that just consequences of… love?
The moment is charged with emotions, the sort of reckless clash of his desperation and her reassurance. And then, something happens that she can't predict: he breaks, and not in the way she expects. His mouth suddenly crashes heavy on hers, hot and demanding. He opens her mouth with his own, tangling their tongues, robbing the breath right from her body. The kiss is like sensory-overload rushing over her. His hands are everywhere, but they quickly settle on tugging frantically at the fabric of her cape to pull her closer, and then she responds, then she moves towards him, finding her hands fisting around his shirt in need. She doesn't just respond, she breathes in the kiss and parries back every advance he makes with one of her own. They've always been well-matched in maneuvers, her and Dick, but this is different. It's completely unthinking. It's an exercise in instinct.
It feels damningly right for a girl who prides herself on thinking everything through.
When he pulls back, he stares at her, gaze searching for her reaction. "Is that… do you—"
"Shut up, Dick," she tells him, and pulls him back to her for another kiss.
Even as it's happening, she realizes it might be a mistake.
She can't tell you why she does it, only that it's more her instigation than his; she leads and he follows as she tugs him up, and it's probably fueled by a desperate need of receiving comfort as much as giving it, but she can't even define it that clearly. All she knows is that it feels right while being just a little bit wrong, and it moves faster than it should. It's frenzied and rushed the first time. He yields control the entire time, but Barbara climbs on top and she can't stop herself from setting a reckless pace, hips slanting in a frantic staccato and breath panting over his collarbone. Her hair falls in a red curtain framing his face and he breathes her name like it's a reverent sort of prayer; he kisses her with a marked intent that makes her absolutely crazed, and it's a state of too much emotion and too little said that passes between them in the hours before dawn.
The second time, he keeps her hands pinned above her head, laying heavy over her as they tangle up his expensive silk sheets. They finally make it back up to his bedroom and she's thankful that they don't run into Alfred or Tim on the way, but the truth is the thought of anyone else occupying the entire planetis suddenly a far off consideration. His fingers dig into her wrists, and he feels a perfect sort of heavy that she can't even describe but it's one that she's never felt with any other man including Jason.
"Feel so good," he murmurs into her skin, "wanted this for so long," and she arches up to silence him with a kiss.
The final time, it is achingly slow and long, their urgency and burning possessiveness temporarily satisfied. Already, he's learned what she wants and craves, and it intimidates her to realize that there isn't a single aspect of Barbara Gordon and her life that Dick Grayson doesn't now know.
He might even know too much.
In the morning, she finally acts on thought rather than impulse.
She sneaks out of the Wayne Manor while Dick slumbers. She completely misses the morning debrief with the team. Stephanie and Cassandra both call her on her cell, but she lets it go to voicemail. The aftermath of spending the night with Dick feels weightier than any other walk-of-shame that Barbara has ever committed in her life. Despite her affections, or any of his, what she has with Dick is special and the thought of screwing that friendship up, even if it means a chance at something more, isn't one she wants to entertain in the middle of an apocalypse. She should know better. Last night had felt right, but it had been driven by reassurance and desperation, and neither emotion is particularly conducive to starting a relationship.
Besides, she knows Dick's reputation. More than that, she knows the man. He's gone home with women before and then never called them again. Zatanna and Rocket have both regaled her with stories of their breakups with him, and while it's all amicable now, there's only so many tears spilt over a guy that Barbara can see shed before she takes home a clear message.
She can't avoid him for long, though. The world is still ending. So she uses Zeta-tubes to travel to the team HQ. She first catches sight of him on the third sublevel just as the elevators open for him, and for a brief second that stretches out for eternity, their gazes are locked on each other as if the entire world doesn't exist around them. She sees snatches of confusion in his eyes. She feels a strange little heart palpation that's makes it feel like her heart has jumped up into her throat.
She's the quickest to break the gaze and walk away.
Barbara lingers in quiet uncertainty the entire day and finds any excuse she can to avoid him in the hallways. By midday she's thankful to get sent out to escort a group of refugees to safe harbor, but when she makes it back, it's to find that Dick has assigned himself as her partner for the night's patrol and that others have somehow noticed the tension. No one says anything directly to her, but Barbara's too perceptive herself to miss the gossip. She thinks about what people must be saying about them behind their back now that they've noticed something amiss, then realizes it isn't anything they probably haven't said a dozen times before.
Dick, apparently, thinks it's funny. "So," he says, lightly, "About last night. Wally started up a secret betting pool on how long it'll take us to go public."
She likes to think both of them realize what's happening, what this means, and it scares him as much as it scares her. His laughter, therefore, isn't amusing to her at all. "That's not funny," she tells him, in a warning sort of tone. (It's a relief to be able to get angry at him, actually. She doesn't know what that means.) "Are people really betting on that?"
"I told Wally to put down two days," is Dick's answer.
She glares at him. He smirks in response. She wonders if his amusement is mostly for show. Knows, deep down, that it is. Dick isn't a man low on self-assurance or esteem, but she can read the anxiety in his eyes, the way his arms are folded tightly over his chest. Jokes or not, he's being more confrontational about this than she'd been expecting. His response is also rather telling in that it tells her that Dick's thought about this. About telling others. About what happened last night.
Barbara looks away and uses her grappling hook to soar from one skyscraper to the next. "This isn't the time or place," she tells him, as she lands on a gargoyle statue.
Dick follows her, pressing, "We can avoid talking about it, but don't you think that's a little ridiculous? We slept together, Babs."
She shushes him, almost violently. "Nightwing, I swear to god if you don't keep your voice down I will—"
"Who's going to hear us?" he says, getting a little exasperated, "and it isn't the end of the world… well, okay, maybe it is, but not because we had sex."
He is utterly infuriating.
There's a beat of silence. "Was it a pity-fuck?" he asks, strained.
The question throws her so much she whirls around to face him. "What? No! God, no, Dick."
"Is it Jason?" Dick asks next.
She straightens. "I broke up with him already. You know that."
"Then what?" he demands, losing his cool. "I thought last night was something…something. But you've been avoiding me all day and you're acting pissed off like I was the one who ran out on you. I left my copy of English-to-Barbara translations at home, so how about you just spell it out for me as clear as possible. What's wrong?"
The strong winds make a whining noise, and her cape flutters about her. She should spit it out pointblank before she loses her nerve. It was a mistake. She knows Dick would require no further words than those four, but she can also imagine how those words would hang suspended in the frigid air; how his face would close off. It always does when she wounds him in a way he can't control. She stalls at the idea of him turning around to leap away, because she doesn't want that. Not really.
She doesn't know what she wants.
(That might be the biggest lie she's ever told herself.)
"Hey," he says softly, walking up to her. She doesn't know what he reads off her expression, but he gently runs the pad of his thumb over her cheek, and such an intimate gesture would have seemed out of place just twenty-four hours ago. A shiver runs down her spine at his touch. "Let's just take it one step at a time, all right?"
I swear to God, Richard Grayson, she doesn't say aloud, you break my heart and I'll break your kneecaps.
Unsurprisingly, an alien invasion doesn't leave much room for them to figure out their budding relationship, whatever it is.
The next day, there's fighting.
Wondergirl crash-lands next to her with an oomph. Barbara has a few seconds to react before a figure comes hurdling at her from behind, and Barbara turns, hoping to use the momentum of her attacker against him and vault him into the air, but then she realizes she has no chance of taking down anything that can take down Cassandra. Instead, she dodges some blast at the last second and goes for cover. The assailant runs right passed her, unable to slow down, and then knocks himself unconscious when he hits the wall headfirst.
"Well," Cassandra remarks, "At least they're not clever."
Barbara helps her to her feet, then winces when Cassandra, called Wondergirl for a reason, uses a bit too much of her strength in the grip. Barbara shakes her hand loose and Cassandra offers a contrite expression, apologizing profusely. They look around. The place is a disaster.
'Batgirl? Wondergirl?' M'gann's voice drifts over their telepathic-bond. 'You all right?'
'Affirmative,' Barbara answers, 'But there are still two members of the Reach's army out there somewhere. Be on the look out.'
'Understood. Alpha Team, move out,' M'gann orders.
A second later, Stephanie lands silently next to both girls, dressed up in her newly fashioned costume, a head-to-toe black suit that she uses when being Spoiler. She holds up a hand. 'Guys, we've got more bad news. Queen Bee isn't the one here. Aqualad's right hand gal is here instead.'
'Tigress?'both Barbara and M'gann say at once, in excitement.
The startled declaration gets raised eyebrows from both Stephanie and Cassandra, and Barbara doesn't even need to see M'gann's face to recognize the sheepish quality that taints her voice. 'Right. Spoiler and Wondergirl, fall back to retreat positions. Batgirl, join me in the eastern quad to pursue Tigress. We can try to acquire enemy intel.'
The part where Artemis will be freely giving them said intel is left unsaid.
Everyone moves out, and Barbara joins M'gann at the edge of the building in better spirits than how they'd started off this mission. "Thank god," M'gann says to Barbara, secretly. "I was worried the worst had happened to her."
She spoke perhaps a bit too soon, because the next thing either girls know, Artemis – without the visage that had camouflaged her as Tigress all these months – goes sailing through the air and lands with a hard, abrupt crash. She skids across the cement floor, and then coughs up blood.
"Artemis!" M'gann screams, before she can stop herself.
Enemy fire opens up.
Barbara tackles M'gann to the ground as a barrage of bullets hit the wall above their heads. She has no idea what's going on, but it can't be good if Artemis has been unmasked. She looks over and spies the other woman still lying unmoving in the same position she landed in, and Barbara can only pray that Artemis is knocked unconscious and not… something worse.
Two seconds later, a different sort of blast joins the fray. A sharp surge of ice-water jets through the air, pinning their assailants to the wall. Barbara turns to find Aqualad emerging from the other end of the room, shirt torn open and a bloodied blade made of ice at his side. M'gann dives into action before Barbara can recover from the shock, and the two former-teammates join forces in protecting Artemis' prone body on the floor.
By the end of it, between Aqualad's icy-barrage and M'gann's telepathic attack, Barbara barely has to lift a finger. The Reach's small incursion is defeated within seconds.
Artemis groans as she comes back to consciousness. "Did we get 'em?" she slurs.
"Yes," Aqualad says, gravely. "But unfortunately, we have failed to stop word from spreading about your true identity."
It takes roughly only a minute for Barbara to get the gist of it, because Stephanie and Cassandra are still outside waiting. Apparently Artemis' cover had been blown sometime during their most recent op, and instead of allowing his friend to suffer, Aqualad showed his true colors to his father. What had transpired was a full day of battle, after which they'd both found their way across the country to a place where they knew Dick would send a team in to rendezvous.
"Go find a place to hide," M'gann instructs. "We'll pick you up later."
"Here," Barbara says, writing down the number of one of her secure lines. "Call by the end of the night."
"Where are we supposed to go?" Aqualad says. "The Reach know we are double agents, and the team still thinks of me as the enemy."
"I know a place," Artemis cuts in, before anyone else can say anything.
"We go to my family," Artemis answers, looking pale. "I heard intel that my sister is holding out with my mom back in the boroughs of Gotham City. If we can make it to them, we'll have safe harbor for the night."
"Are you sure you'll be safe there?" M'gann asks.
Artemis grimaces. "Assuming neither one of them kills me on sight for being alive, yeah."
Barbara winces in sympathy. "Call when you reach safety."
M'gann gives each one of them one last hug, and then joins Barbara in rushing out the door.
Wally hollers with glee when he gets the phone call. "Babe!" he exclaims with relief. "It's so good to hear your voice."
"You too, Wally," Artemis says, sounding choked up. "We're at the old ironworks district on the east side of the city. 1135 Pierre Street—"
She's barely finished saying the sentence before Wally has zoomed away, and the phone clatters to the floor in his wake. Barbara exchanges a look with M'gann and Conner, but Dick merely grins and shakes his head silently. He picks up the phone just in time to hear Wally's arrival on the other end of Gotham City, and Artemis' resulting intake of breath.
There's a series of indiscernible noises after that – something crashing, hushed whispers and the sound of someone crying – before Aqualad comes on the phone. "Wally and Artemis are… preoccupied at the moment."
Everyone grins, even Conner.
"Yeah," Dick says, "What about you? You all right?"
Aqualad pauses. "We have found a haven for the night with Artemis' mother and sister, a miracle given I nearly lost my head as soon as I was spotted. My cover is blown, Nightwing. Not only with my father and the Reach, but I was unable to stop Cheshire from speaking with Roy. Word will soon spread of my deception. You'll have questions to answer on your end."
Dick closes his eyes, then marshals his resolve again with a quick steadying breath. "You two are safe. That's all that matters."
"A hearty declaration," Aqualad says, "But we both know that isn't true."
Dick shakes his head. "Talk to Red Arrow. You'll be able to convince him to keep quiet for the moment. He's your best friend."
"Was," Aqualad says, rather tiredly. "It will not be easy."
Dick opens his mouth to say something, then thinks better of it. Eventually, he settles on, "I'm sorry none of this worked out, Kaldur. You've sacrificed so much, and it was for nothing."
There's a pause, before Aqualad says in a weighty voice, "Maybe it was not entirely for nothing."
Kaldur's plan is crazy.
It's outright suicidal.
"It might be the only way to defeat the Reach," Dick declares, grimacing.
Barbara gives up trying to locate Dick two hours after he vanishes into thin air, absently muttering unclean language under her breath because there areimpressionable youth around. Still, she's getting a little annoyed with his disappearing acts lately, especially when they have things to plan. She sits at the computer console and tries to find matches.
The first step in the plan requires twelve volunteers. Two teams of six.
They've got eight already: Barbara, Dick, Aqualad, Artemis, Wally, Connor, M'gann and Tim. That leaves four more volunteers. Not just any volunteers, but the plan requires six of the total needed have to be females that meet the Reach's desired specifications. Mainly, ones without their meta-genes activated. Volunteers such as that, with the capability of completing the mission successfully? Barbara can think of two, maybe three women off the top of her head. The majority of the women on base already have their meta-genes activated. M'gann might be able to alter her DNA and appearance to fool the Reach, but that still leaves a frustratingly small number to choose from. There's Stephanie, possibly. And Artemis says she might be able to pull her mother and sister on board, but Barbara doesn't know what's more problematic: trying to pull off this ludicrous scheme with a wheelchair bound former con, or a con that's not even former by any recognizable standards.
Who else can they recruit?
She fails to think up any solid leads, at least ones that don't leave a bad flavor in her mouth. Sometime after midnight, she reluctantly goes to rest in the small room reserved for her and Stephanie. There's still been no sign of Nightwing. She goes to bed angry, and wakes up groggy when there's a gentle rustle of movement in the room.
Dick is standing over her, obscured by shadows.
"What…" Barbara mumbles, sitting up slowly and then glancing over to Stephanie's bed across the room. The younger girl is blissfully asleep. "What's wrong, Dick?"
He stands over her, motionless. "What if this goes badly? We can't lose everyone on this mission."
Barbara shakes her head and rubs sleep out of her eyes. "We've got two weeks to train. We'll get it right."
"With who?" Dick demands, softly. "Who can we trust to pull this off? Artemis' mother is in a wheelchair."
"That's no reason to discount her," Barbara says, frowning.
"And Stephanie's only fourteen."
"You were younger when you set out to save the world," she remarks, wryly.
"This isn't the same," Dick insists, in that hard sort of voice he gets when there's no joking around with him.
Dick always jokes; it's one of two default settings for him. But even in the shadows, she can see the stiffness and tension in his body, a posture of skilled and refined elegance etched into the hard lines of his body. He wears grace like a second skin, but the truth is she knows he works hard at seeming so effortless. His eyes always betray his concentration. His muscles are always coiled tight with enough tension that it feels like a rubberband stretched thin, about ready to snap. It occurs to her that there's nothing straightforward about Dick. He's all slippery lines and sharp angles, and he will never let anyone close enough to crack that veneer. Maybe not even her.
His sense of responsibility is simultaneously one of the most annoying and admirable traits about him.
(People have remarked the same of her.)
"Dick," she says. "We have no choice."
He's silent for a long beat, so still and motionless that she wouldn't even be able to tell he was breathing. "Maybe you shouldn't go."
She sucks in a breath. "Don't even think about trying to talk me out of this."
"We need someone to stay back and lead the others if we fail."
"Good," Barbara declares, sharply. "You can volunteer for that job, but I'mgoing."
Dick sits down beside her on the thin scratchy mattress, dropping his voice into a whisper, "First Artemis and Aqualad. Now you. I can't stand the idea of—" he breaks off, then confides, rather hopelessly, "I wish it was only me taking on this risk."
She reaches for him. "It's scary how much you remind me of Batman sometimes."
He flinches, like she hit him, then burrows into the folds of her arms without hesitation. She finds herself pressed back against the thin mattress, bearing the full weight of his body on top of her, and for a beat, she thinks it's going to turn sexual. They've only spent one night together. It's a series of memories she often replays in her head at random moments of the day, usually when Dick – intentionally, no doubt – brushes by her so close she can smell his aftershave. It's a heady sort of aroma, drawing out an instinctual reaction of lust. She feels like a schoolgirl with her first major crush, which is more than a little ridiculous because she's a grown woman with a history of dating. It makes her feel reckless; she shouldn't enjoy that so much.
But Steph is asleep across the room, so she doesn't have a lot of options. She just kisses him once, twice, long and drawn out, and then rearranges them so that she can tuck herself alongside his lean body. He releases a sigh, half of frustration and half of respite – because he's thinking the same thing she is: We need privacy. It's not in the cards.
"Go to sleep," she instructs, gently.
She doubts he manages even a wink throughout the night, though.
Wally wins the bet when Stephanie discovers them tangled up in blankets the next morning. It's rather pathetic that two individuals such as them, so versed in keeping secrets, apparently can't hide a relationship worth a damn.
"Don't feel bad," Zatanna teases, with a knowing grin. "It'd never last anyway. Dick is extremely high on the PDA scale."
"Seriously?" Barbara moans. "Selina Kyle? Can't we think up anyone else?"
"Can you?" Dick says to her, with a perceptive smirk. "Steph, Cheshire and Paula make three out of four. We need another capable woman we can trust. Can you think of anyone better?"
"You said the word trust in there. Question asked, question answered."
He sighs. "You really think Selina is going to turn us over to the Light or the Reach?"
She doesn't, actually. Doesn't mean Barbara has to like this idea.
"Stop pouting," Dick says.
"I am not pouting."
"Uh-uh," Dick goes. "Anyone ever tell you that you're cute when you're upset—"
She has to shove him away because it's exasperating how much he's enjoying her discomfort. He's always gotten along better with Catwoman than Barbara ever has, because Barbara has never had the patience to figure out which version of Selina Kyle she'd face: villain, dubious ally, or sometimes paramour of Batman. Nowadays, Selina has been scarce around Gotham because of the invasion. In fact, to be honest, Barbara hasn't seen much of Catwoman since Bruce disappeared into space with the other five leaguers. They don't even know where to look, precisely.
It takes a full day of searching, and she'd be more annoyed about that except it affords her some time to spend with Dick, and – okay, maybe they get distracted from the search here and there. She firmly places the blame of that on Dick. He's the one that's always invading her personal space, or doing other non-appropriate things in public. (Zatanna had been right about the PDA.) They're dressed in civilian clothes: her, in dark slacks with a white halter-top and a brown leather jacket; him, in tight dark jeans and a tight t-shirt and – did she mention the tightness of his clothes? Because it's probably worth mentioning two or three times more. Possibly exclusively.
They finally find Selina in Old Town. "Well, well, well," comes the predictable greeting, when she spots them. "Look what the cat's dragged in."
"Repeat that one more time," Selina says, incredulous. "I'm still waiting for the punch line."
Nightwing sighs. "It isn't a joke. We're serious about this plan. We'll train you. We know two people that learned the skills, and they'll teach it to you."
Selina looks dubious and amused, but mostly annoyed. "You know people that can fly a Reach mothership?"
"It's a long story," Nightwing says. "And we need females without meta-genes to help us execute our plan."
Barbara takes this question. "Because in order to get up on the Motherships, we need to be taken. The Reach are always looking for new subjects for their experiments. Right now, we have intel they're looking for females to experiment on."
Selina gets a distasteful look on her face. "Females without the meta-gene?"
Barbara nods. "Two teams of six, and we need a female without a meta-gene on each team. We get up there, we take over the ship or we set explosives. Either way, we take down those six motherships in the sky, and we change the face of this invasion."
"That's… patently ludicrous," Selina says. "You're talking about a suicide mission. Two people infiltrating an entire mothership? Look, I'm a thief. I know how to break in and I know how to break out. I also know how to break people's faces. But what you're talking about is—"
"We have no other choice," Dick says.
"Where's Bruce?" Selina demands. "The last time you didn't say, but now I want answers. Where is he? No way he came up with this plan without a severe case of head concussions as an excuse."
"He's… indisposed," Dick says delicately. Selina's face grows cold and she turns on her heels, walking away with quick strides until Dick calls out, frustrated, "All right, all right! He's in space."
She stops, turns, and stares. "Come again, Boy Wonder?"
"Not Boy Wonder anymore," both Dick and Barbara say at the same time, annoyed. (Barbara is the only one that can call him that.) "He's in space," Dick clarifies, "with five other leaguers. They're… making amends. Consider it a diplomatic mission."
Selina huffs out a breath. "Figures. We get invaded by aliens, and Mr. Tall, Dark and Broody is out across the galaxy. He better have a damn good reason."
"He does, but that's beside the point. Will you help us?"
Selina pauses, wavering. "Twenty grand."
"I'll help for twenty thousand dollars. Steal of a price, if you ask me, seeing as I'm going on a suicide mission."
"You're extorting us for trying to save the planet?" Barbara practically growls. "I thought you and Bruce had some type of understanding. You'd help him and—"
Selina shrugs. "Bruce and I have a complicated relationship that borders on schizophrenia, but we do have an understanding. From time to time, that includes exchanging services for money. And before your mind leaps into the gutter, it's all legit. Alfred has my account information. You want me to help? Transfer the funds by the end of the day."
Selina starts to walk away, but Dick calls out with a bark, "Fine! We have a deal."
Selina pivots, and then rolls her eyes. "Sucker. Bruce would have negotiated down to ten."
"Whoa," Stephanie says, staring at Artemis with wide eyes. "You're the chick that died."
"Uh," Artemis goes, awkwardly. "Yeah."
Stephanie swivels to Aqualad. "And you're the evil dude."
Barbara steps in before Aqualad is forced to acknowledge that. "He's not evil, and she's not dead. They've been undercover this entire time."
"So that's the big secret you all have been carrying?" Stephanie says, whistling. "Wow, people going to shit bricks when they find out the truth."
That… is a fairly accurate description of what's likely to happen, actually.
The second step of the plan requires training, but it's like trying to corral a herd of cats.
"We've modified the bioship to replicate the Reach command deck," Artemis says, as she begins instructions. "We have two weeks to get this right. In that time, you all will learn this system backwards and forwards. We can't afford for anything to go wrong, so there is no room for pilot error."
"The teams are as follows," Dick declares. "M'gann and Connor are the first team. She'll alter her DNA to fool the Reach into thinking her meta-gene isn't activated. She'll get roped up with Connor, and they'll take down the mothership hovering over New York. Cheshire and Paula will take the Tokyo mothership. Wally and Artemis will take the Russian one. Aqualad and Selina will infiltrate the one hovering over India. That leaves Tim and Stephanie for Australia, and Babs and I will take on the last mothership in Egypt. Understood?"
Selina raises a hand. "One quick question. Whose brilliant plan was this?"
Aqualad steps forward. "Mine."
"Oh," Selina goes, staring at him with an uplifted eyebrow. "So my partner's the genius behind this? Fantastic. I'm suddenly rethinking my asking price. I should have gone for twenty-five thousand."
"C'mon, Selina," Barbara says, tightly, "Stop suffering from your inflated ego and just—"
"I don't suffer from it," she cuts in, smugly. "I happen to enjoy every second."
"If we can focus," Artemis says.
But Cheshire joins in, trading a look with Selina. "Oh, c'mon, let us poke a little fun. Neither of us are the heroic type, so it's probably a good idea you get used to certain amount of commentary from the peanut gallery."
"Jade," Paula Nguyen-Crock cuts in, severely. "This isn't a joking matter."
"But it's still a joke," Cheshire says, snidely. "Two weeks to learn how to expertly navigate an alien spacecraft? Not to mention, hello, we still haven't figured out how we're going to take over the mothership when we get up there. This is the plan that the crack-team that used to foil the Light's every strategy came up with? As a former employee with loosely-affiliated associations, I'm almost embarrassed."
M'gann releases a small sigh and declares, "This is a mistake."
Artemis rolls her eyes. "Yeah, but you're not the one that's going to end up with permanent babysitting duties if this entire thing goes wrong."
"I would have made you official Godmother already," Cheshire supplies, sweetly, "But you were already, y'know - dead." Speak of the devil, Lian starts fussing in her baby carriage, and Cheshire rises. "Wait, break time. I gotta go feed the kid. Be back in an hour."
"An hour?" Artemis repeats, incredulous. "We need to buckle down and focus."
"Tell that to your niece. She's a finicky eater."
Artemis makes some sort of choked, strangled sound in the back of her throat while her sister exits through the door.
Selina rises a moment later, and Barbara turns to face her. "Where are you going?"
"You heard the lady," Selina offers. "One hour break."
"But we only just started!" Barbara protests.
"Actually, I wouldn't mind a short break," Stephanie cuts in. "I just had a 32 oz bottle of soda, and the sugar is hitting my system and I gotta pee something bad."
"Seconded," Tim says.
(It goes on like that for a while.)
It's a Friday night when Barbara is parked in front of her computer screens, mug in hand and a frown-line between eyebrows. She's got different windows open for different angles and is playing them all at once; the Reach motherships are moving locations. She doesn't know why, but it can't be good.
"Babs," Tim says, timidly. "Maybe you should take a break or something. You've been watching their movements now for nearly twenty-four hours."
"Yes," Barbara replies, in the voice that says not now, Tim. She selects specific areas of each window, zooming in on the motherships. Some of the pictures pixelate, some don't, depending on the quality of the footage; she closes five of the six windows and then pulls up the remaining one into the center.
"Where's Dick?" she asks. "I want to show him something."
"Uh, I think he was in the mess hall with Bart and Wally."
She leaves the room without giving a response. The cafeteria is actually a pretty sizeable room, with large clear glass walls on two sides, and so when she's coming down the corridor she can spot the boys from a distance. She's so preoccupied with her findings about the motherships that at first she misses what's right in front of her; then she stops short. Dick and Wally seem crowded around Bart, engaged in an intense sort of conversation. They almost seem to be intimidating the younger guy, and the sight is so out-of-the-blue that Barbara doesn't know what to make of it.
She creeps around the corner, and stops at the doorway. "I don't know," Bart is saying, and Impulse is usually talking a mile a minute, speeding his way through every sentence like he's setting a record; this time his voice so slow and measured. "Look, you were never supposed to find out about that. I slipped up. Spoilers. I know I say a lot of things, but some things about the future you're better off not knowing. Besides, the future isn't set in stone. It all can change."
"How does it happen?" Dick demands. "You've got answers, then you have to—"
"I don't really know, man," Bart insists.
"That's not good enough," Wally says. "You can save her from going through that. Tell us what you do know."
"I know this," Bart says, firmly, standing up to both guys. "Oracle is a legend. One of the most important parts of the Justice League. I'm talking about the central nerve of the place. Using technology and computers to help other super-heroes? It changes the way this place operates. Up-to-the-minute espionage and intel. Coordination. Organization. Oracle is totally crash."
"I don't care," Dick grits out. "Tell me how it cripples—"
Bart holds up a hand, stopping Dick short because he's spotted Barbara at the doorway.
The guys all whirl around simultaneously, and Barbara looks on. "What's the Oracle?" she asks curiously.