Barbara's first thought was, 'Talia knows who I am?!', but her second was 'She wore that to swim in a gym pool?' There are swimsuits that are for swimming in, and then there are swimsuits that are meant for lying around on a chaise by the pool while Adonis-like pool boys bring you tall cold drinks, and Talia's tiny crocheted bikini fell into the second category. The third thought was more a realization: She is not interested in me. It's Adele she's here for.
In the meantime, Adele blinked once, and replied, "I'm sorry. I had no idea we were loud enough to disturb anyone. Ready to go, Babs?"
The cut direct! "Ready enough," she replied, tucking her hair dryer in her gym bag. "Shall we hit the juice bar on the way out?"
Talia looked nonplussed. Barbara had always thought that men were so much the focus of her universe that other women barely registered, and this confirmed it. Women were Talia's servants or they were her rivals, never her friends. Maybe nobody had ever given her the brush-off before. She tried again. "You didn't disturb me. I'm sorry. I haven't been in Gotham long, and have yet to make any friends here."
"I'm sure you will, in time," Adele gave her a nice smile before turning to Barbara again. "The juice bar it is!"
Talia did not pursue them as they left the locker room, and once the door closed behind them, Barbara took a deep breath, and began, "That woman—," then stopped. How could she tell Adele what she knew about Talia without revealing a lot more than she meant to?
Adele remarked dismissively as they crossed the lobby to the juice bar, "Eurotrash. And wearing more make up to swim in than I wear at midnight in the club. We get her sort in the Iceberg all the time. Unless…" her eyes narrowed, "there's something you know that I don't."
"I might," Oracle admitted, "She's the daughter of an extremely powerful and unethical man." She ordered a Berry Blowout power shake.
"Some might say the same of me, only without the 'extremely' part," Adele dimpled up, and placed her order for a Tropical Oasis protein blend. "What level of power are we talking about here? Local? State? Regional?"
"Global," Barbara replied. "Probably comparable to the Pope in terms of resources and followers, only with lethal intentions."
"That sounds…Hmm. You know this how?" Adele raised a questioning eyebrow.
"I can't explain."
"Hmm," Adele repeated. "You know, it's so nice out—let's take our juices and drink them in the park on the corner. Who knows how many more days we'll have like this?"
"Sounds good to me," Barbara replied.
It was indeed a lovely fall afternoon, the sky that rich intensity of blue reserved for autumn, when it will contrast best with the coppers, crimsons and golds of the leaves. They settled down at one of the tables with a chessboard permanently inlaid in the concrete, Adele on the seat provided, and Barbara at a right angle in her chair.
Seemingly apropos of nothing, Adele remarked, "When I was a teen, I mostly lived inside my head." She took a sip of juice. "I wove this whole story of what my life would be like when I moved to Gotham City and met my father. A lot of it was just castles in the air—you really don't want to know what I fantasized about Batman back then—but in my daydreams, Gotham was this wonderful place, sparklingly clean and brightly colored, very Pop Art, where Batman and the Rogues played a nonstop game of Capes and Robbers, and nobody ever really got hurt."
"That sounds like a wonderful world," Barbara looked down at her useless legs. "I wish we lived in it."
"So do I. My real hero was Batgirl. After all, she was just my age, and a girl, too! In my daydream, we would of course be friends, even though she and I were on opposite sides—this was back before my dad was reformed—because we really had a lot in common. You see, even though I might have a criminal mind, I also have a good heart, and I would never hurt anyone who didn't deserve it, and I especially wouldn't be involved in anything that hurt children. So we had this secret pact that whenever one of us learned something the other really ought to know, she'd pass it along. And whatever happened, we'd stay friends."
Barbara' hackles began to raise. Was Adele really trying to—? Surely not. "So what happened when you got to Gotham City found out what it was really like? Disappointment and disillusionment?"
"No, nothing of the kind, because I was finally living rather than waiting and daydreaming. I knew Gotham would be dirty and violent, I knew the people would be sordid and not so much fun. Where I grew up, we were always tripping over minor and not so minor celebrities behaving rather badly, completely unlike their on-screen personas. When you see the guy girls all across America are writing poems about, staggering around with a glass of rum in his hand before falling to his knees and vomiting copiously into the pool—. Anyhow, the thing that made me saddest was that Batgirl disappeared just a couple of years after I moved here."
"Really?" Barbara knew there was an edge in her voice, but as much as she wanted to just roll off and end the conversation, she also had to stay and find out exactly where this was going. "I mean, I know she disappeared, but for that to be your biggest disappointment—."
"It was," Adele nodded, taking a sip of juice. "Any number of things could have happened to her. I mean, she might have decided what she really wanted to do was open a cupcake bakery, or maybe she was going to have a baby, or she got killed saving the world in one of these recurring crises. Or maybe, since this is the real world where people really do get hurt, maybe the Joker shot her and left her paralyzed."
Silence. Silence. Silence.
"Nobody else has a head of hair quite like yours, and is also five foot ten with a dancer's build," Adele said into the gap. "Batgirl vanished from the scene exactly when you were shot. Exactly. We are both too intelligent for a simple denial to work."
"Was staying my friend part of your master plan to take over the underworld some day?" Barbara almost didn't recognize her own voice.
"No. I don't have a master plan to take over the underworld. I don't think it can be done, for one thing, and even if it could be and I could do it, I am sure it would not make me happy. All I really want is to hang on to the Pinkney, for my dad to live a long, safe, happy life, and maybe to find somebody who thinks a sentence of thirty years to life with me is a pretty good deal. And, you know, it's hard to have a good life without friends to share it with."
"Of course, since I've also admitted to having a criminal mind, I strongly suggest taking whatever I say with a grain of salt." Adele added. "I certainly do."
Barbara considered the situation and sipped juice. "Adele—in our freshman year, what happened to the captain of the Knights—were you involved?"
"Yes. I planned it. I was there. I gave the orders, and I watched. I took the pictures and I stole his phone. I sent him several threatening messages. Ultimately I sent the phone to the police. I am not sorry I did it, and I would do it over again the exact same way." Adele's normally cheerful face became stony for that moment.
"I've wondered about that for six years." Barbara wondered if she should feel more shocked than she did. "You had help, of course. How did you sneak them on to campus?"
"Easy. I didn't bring a couple of musclebound thugs. I asked Dad's current pair of assistants, and they were really into the idea. After I gave them a makeunder, you could hardly tell them from any other female students, except that they were hotter than most. Certainly hotter than me, so I let them be the lures to get him away from the party and up to his room. Then they roofied him for a change, and the rest you know."
"Were you one of his victims?" Barbara asked.
"Me? No. But do you remember my original roommate, Faith?"
"Yes…" Barbara's eidetic memory pulled up a face to match the name. Beautiful dark blond hair, brown eyes, blushed a lot, bubbly.
"She was homeschooled for religious reasons, so going to Gotham U. was her first step out into the secular world. Some people made fun of her for being so godly, but I didn't mind. Better that than a pot-head or a sex addict. Except on Sunday mornings, when she always woke me up to see if I wanted to go to church with her, that bugged me a little. Faith had the faith of a child, though. She believed—I mean, really, deep down to bedrock, believed that Jesus would not let anything bad happen to her."
"And then she went to one of those parties," Barbara supplied the next line.
"Yes. Very early the next morning, I woke up to someone crashing around in the hallway. It was Faith. She had her top on all wrong and she couldn't even get the key in the door. I almost made her go to the campus clinic, but she said she just wanted to sleep, nothing was wrong, and to leave her alone. She was eight inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than I was, so I couldn't exactly force her. I went back to bed, and a few hours later she was back to normal. Then a few weeks later, she threw up in the center of the room one morning, and she threw up again the next morning, and the next."
"She was pregnant."
"Uh-huh. Though she didn't believe it until I bought a pregnancy test and barred her in the bathroom until she used it and stuck it back under the door to show me. She had a hysterical fit and broke the sink when she saw the result."
Barbara smiled at that, not happily. "Bet you didn't get your security deposit back."
"No, but it gets worse. Her family was very pro-life, but also even more pro-premarital abstinence. She was more afraid of telling them what happened than she was of God's wrath over aborting the fetus. I guess God would forgive her, but her parents never would. Even though she didn't even remember anything. Even though she was raped.
"However, if she went to a clinic anywhere in the area, there was the chance that one of the protesters would be from their church. They might even be a family member. So she snuck away to this horrible place in Allentown, Pennsylvania—there was an article about it in the New Yorker recently. Technically, it was legal, but there were so many code violations—anyhow, in the middle of the night, I got this call from her. She was in this flea-bag motel there, and she was sick.
"So I drove all the way to Allentown, found her half-dead with an infection because they didn't scrape out all the placenta, and got her to a hospital. She lived, but she lost her faith—that real, pure, child-like faith. All that was left of this lively, loving, trusting person was this grim dogmatic shell, all the bitter, intolerant, negative aspects of religion. She left Gotham U. and switched to a religious college. I never heard from her again."
"Was it the captain who did that to her?" Barbara asked, quietly.
"She had no idea. I chose him to be the example because he was the captain, because he set the standards of behavior among the jocks. Punishing him would send a very clear message, and if he wasn't guilty of raping Faith, he was sure guilty of something. As it happened, she wasn't among the pictures on his phone. So now you know.
"Oh, I said I never heard from her again, but I did see her a few months ago. Every now and then, we get these religious groups who invade the museum, kneel down in the halls and pray because we promote Darwin's theories of evolution without a balancing counterargument for creationism. The last time that happened, I saw Faith among them. She had a couple of kids with her, so I guess she got married and had a family, which was what she really wanted. She didn't look happy, though. She didn't look happy at all."
"Thank you for telling me that." Barbara considered a moment. "Is all that true?"
"Yes," Adele replied. "I have no proof, but it's true."
They sat there in silence for a while. A few scarlet maple leaves drifted down and a jet left vapor trails across the cerulean sky.
"'Joie Ducard's real name is Talia Al Ghul…"
A/N: Whew, so much talking! Thank you to Swordstitcher, USMC Girl, Tev, Bat-teen 28, and Erikismyangel1234.