After the Bat – Chapter 3

Summary: John Blake was given a legacy, and a city, to protect.

1.

So Blake met with the two boys again, this time a little more prepared. "Look, I could get you both in a lot of trouble with the law," he said when they arrived, coming down the little elevator that he hadn't really understood was an elevator, but of course it was.

The taller of the two snorted. "Please."

The short one was shaking his head, but he had a smile on his face. "So, that suit you wear, let's have a look at it."

"This is not playtime, this is not a tour," said Blake. His head was already starting to pound.

Tim shrugged. "Okay, then we won't. Do you have a shielded untracable computer for doing research? Please tell me it's not just a normal connection."

"Satellite uplink. Plugs into a private network. Something called Watchtower." Again, too much. Damn these kids. Blake had no idea how to keep them from learning too much while also not antagonizing them.

Tim shrugged. "That's interesting. I take it you inherited that?"

Blake had to work out why he felt so insulted. "Because I couldn't have done anything smart on my own?"

Tim just gave him a small smile.

"Because that's... okay, y'know what, that's not—where did you learn to do that kung-fu stuff?"

Tim shrugged. "Circus. Anyway, look, there's a couple of things I think you know, or should know already, but I don't know. I was just a kid when Batman was around, doing his thing."

"You're just a kid now," said Blake.

Tim rolled his eyes. "O-kay. I get it. God! I get it. Okay. Pick a skill."

"What?"

"You already know I can take you in a fight. Although that might have been just one trick, maybe I'm a one-trick pony, maybe there's nothing else I can do, you should ask what else I can do. But pick something. Pick anything. Pick something you're good at. What are the skills you think the Batman should have?"

"Doesn't he just sound like he's a hundred years old?" asked the older kid, Jason. He sounded fond of the kid, kind of proud. There was also a bit of an edge.

Blake shrugged. "What? Stealth, ninja stuff, I guess."

Tim nodded. "Misdirection and theatrics. Okay. So, let me show you something." He put both hands behind his back. "Guess where Jason is."

Blake rolled his eyes, tilting his head slightly at the kid.

Who was gone.

He paused, thinking about it. "He just stepped back behind me. He's right behind me." His back itched. How did the kid move so quietly?

Tim shook his head. "That would be a no. Give up?"

Blake narrowed his eyes. "Sure, I give up."

Tim shrugged. "Why didn't you see where he moved?"

"I don't—you put your hands behind your back. Drew my attention."

"Right. That's the simplest trick I know, really. Draw attention here, do something here—but it works on a bigger scale too." Tim grinned. "But if you want ninja lessons I'd have to call in a specialist, and I kind of got the idea that you didn't like the idea of working with kids. So calling in one or two more would probably be a little much."

Blake rubbed his eyes. "Right. Where is Jason?"

"He's behind me, of course." Tim moved aside, revealing Jason.

Blake frowned. "What? How'd you do that?"

"More sleight of hand. He wasn't behind me to begin with. Not until after you almost but didn't quite look behind you. You were working too hard on not looking behind you. Details. But that's not really important. Let's talk about crime lords, and why power vacuums can draw out worse things. Also, about how Cobblepot has your face. That's a psuedonym, right? Cobblepot? No way it's his real name. Real people don't have names like that."

2.

Renee had already figured out that John Blake was their 'Junior Bat.'

Not to a point that she'd be comfortable taking to court, mind you. But once Gordon had given her the name it had taken her about fifteen minutes to confirm that he had dropped right off the grid after the Bane incident. Another fifteen minutes to find out that he had been spotted in a few rough dives, fishing for information about the new mob boss muscling in on Gotham.

That was enough for her gut. An ex-cop who wanted to know way too much about what was going on? Who apparently didn't have an address, or a job? Who was still in Gotham, but couldn't be reached? Too many coincidences.

Gordon trusted the Bat too much, though, figuring that if he'd picked the rookie that this was kosher. Even if you accepted that the Bat's brand of vigilantism was necessary—Renee wasn't one hundred percent sold on that—there was no guarantee that this kid could handle the job.

So here she sat, in a bar in the middle of the day, waiting for her contact. Wondering how she could possibly evaluate the next Batman.

This was a hell of a burden to put directly on her shoulders. She had known the old man was tired, and she'd known he considered her the best he had. And that wasn't for nothing; she was a lot better than most of his detectives.

There were one or two grizzled old-timers she wouldn't want to bet weren't better than her. But their loyalty could be... strained. She was probably the best detective who Gordon could trust with something like this, anyway.

It still hardly seemed fair.

The prostitute came tottering in on high heels, sinking down into the booth opposite Renee. "Hey, sweetie," she said, dipping her head down. "How's business?"

Renee had busted Ruby a handful of times. "What's the word about this new Batman?" she asked, trying to keep her voice businesslike. Calm.

Trying not to sound like she had no idea what to do if she caught him.

Ruby shrugged. "The Bat used to walk the Street, you know? Not down here with us, but up on the roof. Word was that he never went after a sister, but that pimps were fair game. Like he knew the difference between a thug and a girl just getting by. Also wasn't so hot on boys coming around and beating up the girls just because they could. We felt safer when he was walking. This new guy, he ain't walking that beat, he hasn't even noticed us yet. It ain't the same guy."

"Yeah. Any word on what kind of guy he is?"

Ruby looked around, making sure nobody was close enough to hear, then leaned forward. "Way I hear it, cops ain't too healthy for the guy."

Renee shrugged. "What does your man say about it?"

Ruby always got out of jail, within hours. She was under the protection of some little hood, somebody who would bail her out. That meant she knew things most other people didn't know.

It also meant it was hard to get things out of her against her will. She knew the cops couldn't take her off the streets permanently, so Renee didn't have leverage.

That left bribery, and Ruby was way too expensive for her.

"The girls always liked the big strong Bat, liked feeling like he was in our corner. I'd have never said a word on him, even if I had known anything about him, which I didn't. This new guy, I'd probably tell you, but I don't know anything," said Ruby, offhandedly. Then she looked at Renee with those too-piercing eyes. "You know the short man took over this stretch of road this week? Did it all civilized, hasn't killed more than he had to. Last time we had a takeover like that they killed a bunch of the girls, just to prove they could. He didn't. Could have, but didn't. Says he won't start it if we don't start it. Nice, quiet, reliable. If I had to pick between a mystery man who probably doesn't give a damn about my ass, and a nice quiet and reliable boss who won't kill me if I don't ask for it? It's an easy choice."

She didn't sound entirely convincing. Renee raised an eyebrow. "But?"

"But if he really is like the Bat, then that's different. So maybe I'm waiting and seeing what he's like before I decide."

Renee nodded. She'd heard a similar spiel across town, downtown, and uptown. No surprises. Still, while she had Ruby here... "What do you know about the killer the short man hired?"

Ruby's face closed down. "Don't know nothing," she said, even though it was clear she did.

Renee nodded, accepting the answer. "Okay, that's fine." She peeled a few twenties from her pocket and dropped them on the table. This was expensive, especially on a lousy little detective's salary, but usually worth it. "Cut the heads right off some guys. Serious ninja stuff."

"He doesn't make his own kills," hissed Ruby. "Has a little girl with him, makes her finish them off. Training her. Freaks me out. You stay away from that, Renee. Stay far away from that."

3.

Tim felt like the biggest man on earth, right about now.

Jason was a little more reasonable, dragging Tim back upstairs for dinner. After dinner, hanging out on the big porch, Jason tried to talk sense into him.

"A guy like that, a guy like him, he doesn't understand," said Jason.

Tim shrugged. "You have so much to worry about, don't you?"

"What? Yeah, I do. I worry you're trying to help this dude, and he's pig-ignorant. You seen the news?"

"I saw."

"Some guy cutting heads off mobsters. Sound like that hitman you were talking about? Tim. Tim. Think about this. If your little Bat-dude goes down, it could come back to us. That hitman could come back to us. Things turn ugly, then. Things turn very ugly. I don't want to see that. I mean, I'm safe, you get that? Safe as anything. I walk away, things turn bad, and who's gonna accuse a little punk with a record of rolling with the Bat? But you, you're different. You have skills, you have connections, and somebody is going to put that together."

"Did you see all the toys?" demanded Tim. "The bike, the cloth, that wicked cool suit..."

"I saw you look at them, yeah, I saw your eyes. Want, need. Tim! Wake up! This only ends one way, it ends with you dead. This guy can't cut it. This guy is nothing."

Tim rubbed a hand over his jaw. "I think you're missing my point."

"I really am."

"The big blue Superman, there's a connection."

"What, you want to mess around with gods now? Tim. I can't handle this. I am going to walk, and who'll have your back?"

Tim gave Jason a big mournful look, complete with sad puppy-dog eyes. "I can do this, Jason. Can you trust me?"

"A little. Not a lot!"

4.

Blake walked right into the restaurant. High-end, high-class, crimson drapes. Lots of people in suit jackets that were obviously hiding guns.

The head waiter in the fancy suit with the snooty accent took him right to Cobblepot.

The little man looked up at him balefully, from under a frown that looked like it had the weight of the world. "Well, well, well. Fancy meeting you here."

"Found my real name yet?" asked Blake, sitting down without waiting to be asked.

"I didn't go looking, because I thought we had an understanding. Do you want me to go looking?"

"It doesn't really matter to me. I stopped living a real life a while back. I don't have a home address. I don't have friends. I don't have family. The standard weaknesses. I thought we should chat about something."

Oswald took a deep breath. "Do you know what it is like to be a gangster with an obvious physical defect?"

"Oh, I imagine everyone and his brother is always taking a shot at you."

"People think your default state is weak. And if you show even a little bit of reasonableness or kindness, people think you are especially weak. And then you have to do something brutal to show them you have stones. I would dearly love to make an example of you."

Blake nodded. "I did some digging on you. Did you know they used to call you the Penguin?"

The short man rubbed a hand down the front of his black suit. "You don't say."

"Back when you were a stock analyst out of New York. But you threw that away to be a criminal, to play these games. Why is that?"

"The stock market is dumb. People don't follow rules, and at the end of the day, you can't punish them for being irrational. I find criminals to be much more rational actors, and when they do step out of line, you can have them killed. What is it you really want, little wanna-Bat?"

"I wanted to ask you about the guy you hired, the guy who grabbed me with that whip."

Cobblepot raised an eyebrow. "Oh, yes?"

"He's the guy taking people's heads, right?"

Cobblepot smiled.

"The thing is, the way we left things the other day? I thought maybe you were going around thinking I was intimidated. So I thought I'd put it to a challenge. He's the best, right?"

Cobblepot's smile deepened, just a hair.

"I won't go after anybody else but him. Tell him to watch his back. After all, if I can do that, if I show you that, that would be something, wouldn't it?"

"I imagine so," said Cobblepot dryly. "Dear boy, don't you think you're biting off more than you can chew?"

Blake nodded. "Probably. That's part of the message. Beating me once won't make me stop. And if I actually stop your number one enforcer... well, that's a message all its own, isn't it? So, I'll be seeing you around." Blake stood up.

"You really think I won't have you picked off here and now?" asked Cobblepot, surprised. "You think I want to go up against you in some kind of test, some kind of challenge?"

Blake grinned widely. "I don't know. Would you like to try it?" He opened the suit jacket a little, revealing the armor. "Turn this into a big thing in your own territory, in the middle of the day? I think you'd rather this was taken care of quietly, just me and your man."

Cobblepot shrugged. "You'd be better off getting shot right here. I'm not doing you any favors letting you take this on the hard way. Okay, go ahead, kid. Go ahead and show me something."

5.

Cobblepot paused the security camera. "At this point he goes to the window and scales his way up fifteen floors in a matter of minutes, which I shouldn't have to tell you is frankly ludicrous."

"Much more theatrical this time," mused Cain.

"David, I'm not entirely sure you're taking this seriously. He threatened you."

Cain smiled, leaning back in his chair. "Did he? Foolish boy. I expected better of the apprentice."

"Yes, so you said. Multiple times. Are you sure you're with me on this, David?"

Cain shook his head. "No, I am not. I told you before. We're under a limited contract. When the apprentice dies, then the matter is settled, and I go back to retirement. This is a final job... a favor to an old friend."

"Ah, yes, your mister Al Ghul." Oswald wound his hands into fists. "What is the connection here, anyway? Your Al Ghul died years ago, somewhere in the far east."

"The man he trained, his apprentice. I told you that."

"Yes, yes, you believe the Bat was trained in your ways... an assassin of your order." Oswald shook his head. Trying to get an assassin to explain why a man who refused to kill was such a threat and an insult was frustrating. "So this all comes back to revenge?"

"Revenge, and purifying the order. While the apprentice exists, then there is a chance that this bastard order will outlive the original. We cannot have that." Cain reached out, putting a hand on the head of the little girl who went everywhere with him. "Our order will be pure and perfect once again. Our order will topple cities, destroy civilizations."

Oswald felt a slight chill run up his back. The apocalyptic ravings always got to him, even though he knew they were just there for effect, just there to unnerve him. There was no way anybody actually believed anarchic howlings like that. "Yes, of course," he said.

"This city, this man, the disciple... he broke our order. He ended something that had been building up over millenia. To fix this will require... something bigger than I ever dared to dream while Ra's Al Ghul and I saw eye to eye. Something bigger than you can imagine."

6.

Eddie was pretty sure he was going to die soon.

He'd barely survived the Bat the first time through, and he'd had all kinds of resources then. People had trusted him to solve problems.

Now his mental illness was getting the better of him, and nobody trusted him. What was worse, he was having trouble seeing all the connections. He used to be able to tell riddles, he was pretty sure, and they had made sense. Everything had made sense.

Now he felt like he was turning into Crane, deranged, removed from reality. No longer even a part of this whole thing.

He remembered the little blond girl, Chloe Sullivan. She'd been smarter than him, smarter than anything he was prepared to handle.

So Eddie picked up his phone, and made the call.

"What?" growled the deep, throaty voice at the other end. He could feel everything inside of himself tensing up, trying to escape. He looked around the mob-owned hotel room, trying to gather his courage.

"Is Chloe there?"

"Who is this?"

"An old... an old enemy, I think. But we made our peace, more or less, and there are worse things, and I want to talk to Chloe."

Because she had made a lot of sense. She'd helped destroy the mob that propped him up, which he should have hated her for, but she had cut through the fog he was always walking through. She had clearly shown him the sides.

Maybe she could deal with all this.

Her voice, still sounding so young and idealistic. "Edward Nigma, Gotham city's man of riddles. What do you want?"

She was able to recall him so fast, able to cut through him. He thrilled at the power in that soft voice. "They're building an army, here, you know, one to cut down your special friend. And they have power, and they're gaining more every day." And he had helped them put together some of the pieces, to his own shame. "I want out. I want help."

The line went dead. Eddie spun, facing the door.

David Cain stood there, his trenchcoat wrapped tight around his body. His eyes glittered in the darkness, cold lumps of coal. Utterly without empathy. "This is what loyalty means you, Edward?"

Eddie shrugged. "I see it all so clearly. I see the next step. It won't work—it'll turn this all to ashes. It'll destroy us. It's not right."

Cain nodded, and something moved in the shadows behind Eddie.

He barely felt the blade that ran him through, feeling it as a push to one side. He looked down at it, surprised.

"Isn't she good?" asked Cain, whispering it. "The last hope of resurrecting the League of Shadows. The last hope of ending all the corruption in the world. Do you see how much rests on her? Everything Bruce Wayne left behind him must be destroyed, one step at a time. Everything must end."

Eddie sank to his knees, falling off the blade. Now he felt coldness, and a sharp pain in his stomach. But he couldn't quite draw a breath, couldn't ask a question. He looked up at the girl standing beside him, holding the blade.

There was something in those dark eyes. A hint of sympathy? Or was she enjoying watching him die? He couldn't tell anymore. It was all the same.

He coughed wetly, or tried to. Nothing seemed to be working, and the room was so very dark. He wanted to ask David Cain if he understood the price they would pay if they successfully killed the heroes, if he understood what came after that.

But Eddie had no more time left.

7.

Tim watched Blake stalking through the shadows, and tried to suppress a yawn.

This was three nights in a row sneaking out, staying up, trying to use the hours of darkness to get stuff done. And all day long he had school and activities and watchful guidance counselors just watching for any sign of listlessness.

They were looking for signs of drug use, but how would they tell the difference between that and vigilantism?

Jason leaned closer to Tim, nudging him. "He's doing that all wrong again."

Tim nodded wearily. "It'll take more than a crash course to teach him to sneak like a ninja. You know, ninjas weren't a real thing, right?"

"Whatever. That's book stuff." Jason was way more interested in the practical mechanics of a thing than the theory and invented history of it.

Tim scowled at him. "What's bugging you?"

Jason shrugged. "At some point somebody is going to put a bullet in this guy, and you and me, we're just collateral damage. Tim, what the hell are we doing here?"

Tim made an angry huffing noise. "If you don't want to help out, just say so."

Jason couldn't put his bone-deep certainties into words. "I'm with you, you know that. I just... I just want you to be more careful."

Tim scrunched his shoulders together, as though the act could stop a bullet. Jason knew the cost to this already. He'd been on the streets. Maybe Tim had been part of some kind of circus of crime, maybe he knew things about fighting that made him some kind of little warrior prince of crime, but Jason knew the price that you paid for something like this.

You always paid with the lifeblood of those dearest to you.

But that was just morbid, and Jason was trying to be a little less morbid these days.

Tim's eyes never left Blake. "Why d'you think he does this?" he asked.

Jason squinted, thinking of the book he'd been reading. "Unresolved trauma? Deep-seated rage issues?"

"I think he's kind of noble, and stuff," said Tim.

Blake stepped out, into the path of the would-be muggers. He deployed a savage right hook, dropping one, then tried to wade forward, to take the rest all at once.

Tim winced, ducking his head and looking away. "Also, he's dumb as rocks. How the hell are we supposed to teach this guy?"

Jason didn't look away, watching Blake get hammered back by a series of blows to the body. "They should hit him in the head—that mask doesn't give him near enough protection there. He's vulnerable, and these yahoos gotta shoot for the belly? Can't they see it's armor? Dumb! Maybe that's how he's lived this long. They're all dumb."

Tim drew a deep breath, opening his eyes. "Okay, the real question is, can he be taught?"

Below them, on the street, Blake twisted, catching the incoming blows on the hardened chest piece, and lashed out, punching one mugger in the face. As the mugger staggered back he tried to kick the other one, but his aim was off, and he overbalanced, falling to the ground.

"Shit," muttered Jason. "He's gonna totally get killed by a couple of drunk muggers in the street."

Blake managed to scramble back to his feet. One of the muggers had produced a knife, and he lashed out, knocking it to the ground.

Then he began advancing, quick forward steps straight at them.

"He's got the guts," said Tim. But he was looking away, looking down.

"Just gonna get himself killed, that's what he's got," replied Jason.

But Blake was taking the upper hand now. Maybe he had intimidated them, or maybe he had hurt them. But now they broke and ran.

Tim let out a long breath. "Those guys were nothing. Zeros. If he can't even stop the zeros, how the hell is he supposed to actually take on the mob, take on this assassin? I'm not sure I can train him enough to get him ready for this."

"This is what I've been telling you!" snarled Jason.

Tim peered down at the dimly lit street. "So he saved the little old lady. Is she cussing him out?"

"I think so."

"Why?"

"Dunno. Probably for doing such a bad job of saving her."

Blake turned and sprinted away down the street, firing his grappling hook and using the quick-ascent system to climb up, straight up. Faster than an ascending elevator. When he reached the top he scrambled onto the rooftop, continuing to run, and fired again, this time cutting across the rooftops.

When he reached Jason and Tim he was breathing a little bit heavier than normal, but he still had his breath. "Well?" he asked, his voice tight. It was a hell of a question to have to ask two teenagers.

Tim shrugged. "What'd the old lady say?"

Blake worked his jaw a few times before answering. "Said I ought to be ashamed of myself for stealing his look."

Tim laughed. "And you don't even wear the cowl."