The page wrinkled in Barbara's shaking fingers.
Her eyes roved over the photo, and she analyzed the lines, the color, the light, the shadows. She could process these things easily, she'd been doing so for as long as she could remember. It was one of the first things he'd taught her.
The park. Center of the West side, towards Cherry Hill.
She could remember the date, the position of the sun in the candy blue sky, and the bright sunlight bouncing off of everyone and everything in sight. In her mind's eye, she could see Dick standing close— but not too close, never too close—and Bruce standing behind them both.
"What do you see?"
She'd raised an eyebrow. "A park. A pond. Uh…ducks on the pond? And people."
Squared shoulders, determined set to his jaw. She couldn't see Dick's eyes behind those ridiculous sunglasses, but she could tell they were scanning, observing, catching things that she'd never thought to search for.
"Lady over by the pond has a headache. Keeps rubbing her temple. Guy sitting on the bench—the one with the book, not the one feeding the pigeons—hasn't turned a page in the last fifteen minutes. Keeps watching the kids over on the playground. We need to pay attention to him just in case he tries anything."
She'd huffed. "He's probably watching one of his grandkids."
"Not like that. People who have grandchildren don't look at kids the way this guy is."
Their mentor's hand clasped Dick's shoulder proudly. "Good."
"Showoff," she muttered.
Then, Bruce had turned his gaze on her. It was sharp, but patient. "Your problem, Barbara, is that you're seeing the picture as a whole. Sometimes, that's useful, but not here. Look at the people as individuals. Read their body language. Notice their expressions, the way they move. Try to see the small things."
He took them to other places, and she'd picked up environmental observation easily enough. People had been harder; they kept moving, kept shifting, kept changing. But she'd practiced. She used to make Alfred take her to the park every other day, while Dick was busy with his Team, and Bruce was busy with the League. When Alfred was too busy, which was often, she'd sneak out the windows and go on her own. It was when she'd had no one that she learned to watch people the way she was supposed to.
And, after months of watching, practicing, and poring over psychology textbooks from the Gotham Library, she'd finally gotten it.
To celebrate, Bruce had given her her very first set of binoculars. Dick had been decidedly ticked.
The photo she held in her lap showed three people on a picnic blanket, in that same park. She and Dick—back when they'd both been thirteen or so—and Bruce, patiently sitting off to the side. Alfred had snapped the picture right after telling the two teens to stop tossing handfuls of grass at each other. Barbara could see in the picture, that Dick still had a few green blades stuck to the collar of his shirt, and she had a few sticking up from her red hair.
The page turned with a soft rustle.
This next photo had been taken on the steps of…where had it been, exactly? That night, the night of the couples' gala, she wasn't so concerned with the venue as she was with the chafing material of her dress, and the way that Dick looked in his suit….
She and Dick stood side by side. He held her arm hesitantly, testing the waters, and his smile seemed a bit forced. In his defense, so did hers.
Bruce and Selina were right next to them, and their smiles were real. Genuine. They'd been so happy together…
Dick settled down onto the couch next to where she'd parked her chair. Barbara glanced up, and the library materialized around her once again. "Hey, Dick."
"They're almost ready for us."
"People are asking where you went. Damian's missing, too. And Tim."
She sighed, and Dick leaned back into the plush cushion. It was still a fairly new couch. The old one had been covered in blood and spray-paint, so it had been one of the first things to go, once they'd started cleaning up after the Accident. Barbara wasn't even sure why she'd picked this place to hide; some of the worst memories of her life had been in this room.
But the Library had scrapbooks. Alfred was nothing if not meticulous, and he'd always made sure to record their family through the years, sticking photos in a whole series of bound books. The one open on her lap now was the first that she was featured in.
"I get it," Dick said. "I hated being in there, too."
"The service was horrible," she said bitterly. "They didn't know him at all. Not really. Not like we did."
The League had taken over the funeral, holding it in the manor's sitting room. Superman had said a few words over the open casket, all about the great friend Bruce had been. Diana waxed on about his merits, what a worthy and skilled warrior he'd been. Great strategist. Good teammate. Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Black Canary, Green Arrow. Each of them had something to say. But none had the right thing to say.
Alfred hadn't had the heart to set up chairs for the service, so members of the Team had pitched in, working to arrange the flowers and pictures and chairs so that it was all perfect. The sitting room—never used when Bruce was alive for anything but impressing visiting investors—now held the casket, and the entire superhero community.
The Batkids had seated themselves together in one corner of the room at the beginning of the program, glaring at anyone who got too close. They'd always been reserved, but now they were standoffish. They'd always been distant, now they held themselves apart. Wally and Artemis had moved to sit near Dick and Barbara, then turned away when they'd seen their faces.
Tim had been the one to scare most of the guests off, though. Especially Bart and Jaime. But it wasn't just his bat-glare that frightened everyone away. Half of his face was still a little swollen and purple, and the only thing keeping his cheek from splitting back open was the series of spider-like stitches stretching up from his mouth. Even without the wound, Tim could be scary when he wanted to be. But now, grief-stricken, wounded and angry, Tim was downright frightening.
The all looked like #&%%.
And they were all very, very angry that Dick was the only one allowed to say anything at their father's funeral.
"They just don't see it like we do," Dick said, easing his arm around her shoulder. She leaned against him, resting her head on the couch's armrest.
"They don't see him like we do," Barbara said softly.
Maybe Clark and Diana had figured that since Dick was the first protégé, he would be able to sum up the things that the rest of his family was thinking and feeling. Barbara was sure that they hadn't meant to snub the rest of them like they had.
Even so, the service had been absolute torture.
And once it was finished, everyone was allowed to walk past the casket to say their goodbyes. Food was eaten, memories exchanged. Barbara had ended up cornered in the crowd, with no room to easily maneuver her wheelchair, and wound up trapped in a conversation with her well-meaning friends. Zatanna, Artemis and M'gann were soft-spoken and gentle, but she'd been reading people long enough to sense their fear. But whether they were afraid because of Bruce's death, or her ice-cold demeanor, she couldn't tell.
But she didn't miss the look of absolute horror that washed over M'gann's face suddenly, and the way that she'd sagged against the dining table like her feet had been cut out from underneath her. Zatanna and Artemis had rushed to her aid, but Barbara had pressed both hands to her temples, gasping.
"How could you?" she'd demanded. "How dare you?"
"I'm—I'm sorry…Barbara, I'm so sorry!"
"Who put you up to it? Was it Canary? Superman?"
"Babs, I just—"
"Stay out of my head, M'gann!"
Her raised voice turned heads, and her tone scared even her. So, she threw manners out the window, and barked to the crowd that they'd better get out of her way, or get run over. Once she was out of that stuffy dining room, her arms had pumped and pumped until she'd rolled into the solitude of the library. She made sure to lock the door behind her.
But, of course, if there was one thing the members of her family were good at, it was finding each other. And picking locks.
Dick's hand settled next to hers on the page. He pressed his lips together in something that was a bit like a smile, but not quite. "I remember this. Just after your first mission with the Team. He totally forced us into that party."
She squeezed her eyes shut. "He totally did."
"That was the night we figured out Catwoman's secret identity, remember?"
Barbara glowered. "They should have let her come, those %$#&%$#."
"I know." His hand trailed over her hair. "But she's waiting out in the family plot behind the manor. She'll be there when we…" Dick's voice trailed off, and Barbara lifted her head to look up at him.
She knew Dick was exhausted, in every sense of the word. Physically, mentally, emotionally. Between getting all of them through treatment and recovery, helping to plan the funeral and services, and making sure that none of his siblings killed anyone for saying 'he's in a better place now' for the hundredth time… Barbara wondered how he hadn't run himself into the ground yet.
"So. Anyway," he sighed, "I've already tracked Jay and Steph down. They managed to sneak their way down to the cave, lucky little... Found you, so all I'm missing now is Tim and Damian. Any ideas as to where they'd be?"
"I hate to give them up, Wingnut." She managed something like a smile, but not quite. "But if I were you, I'd check the roof. Both sides, since I doubt one would be up there if they knew the other was there too."
He nodded. "Sound theory. What makes you think that?"
"Because," she smacked the arm of her chair with contempt. "If I wasn't stuck in this $#%& thing, it's where I would be."
He deflated a little, and leaned back against the backrest. "I'm sorry." His eyes fluttered shut, and his hands waved, as if he were putting pieces of a plan together in his mind. "Right. Okay. Just gotta get them…get us all out to the back…they asked me and Jay to be pallbearers, but they won't let Tim 'cause he's too short…after that, we have to find a way to keep the metas out…out of…"
His eyes shot open, and he bolted upright. "Oh, $%#, Babs. Gotham. What are we going to do when this all gets out?"
Barbara sighed, straightening in her chair. Her hands folded gently over her lap as she shut her eyes. "Dick. I…I don't know." Her eyes stung a little bit, and she took a deep breath. "Bruce had a contingency plan for everything. Even this, but…I was that contingency plan. Did he ever…did he tell you?"
"Yeah," Dick sighed. "He asked me, too, a few years ago. I turned him down, said I didn't want it." He leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees, and met her eyes. She noticed that they were red-rimmed and bloodshot. More likely than not, he, just like the rest of them, hadn't slept much in the last few days. If at all. "When he said it was you, I was thrilled. A little shocked, that he'd pick out a successor when he had so much time ahead of him, and—" Dick swallowed hard.
"But then, this happened." She shook her head, and gestured to her legs. Then, she reached out to put a gentle hand on his knee. "Dick. I…I have a bit of a confession to make."
He looked up. "What?"
She told him about the surgery. Everything. Even the part about the dangers, the risks. His face slackened further and further with every word, and once she'd finished, he laid his face in both hands, and let out a long, sad sound.
"It's still a few months away. And with everything that's happened…" Barbara's eyes brimmed. "Dick, I don't think I can go through with it anymore. If something went wrong…it's selfish of me to consider that risk, of putting you all through another…"
A sob wrenched out of her throat. Tears flowed down her face as she wrapped her arms around her sides. Her mouth fell open in a silent scream as it hit her. It finally hit her.
Bruce was gone. He was dead.
He. Was. Dead.
Dick was down on his knees before Barbara had the chance to respond, and he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. He held her like that, there on the ground, and she could feel his shoulders shaking too. She could even feel the tears on his face as he pressed his cheek to hers.
"H-hey," he said, as brightly as he could manage. "It's okay. It's all okay, Babs. Get the surgery done. He'd want you to. We'll figure it out. Everything's going to be…"
When Barbara pulled sharply away, his breathing hitched. She slammed both hands down on his shoulders and looked him square in the eye. "No," she said, "We have…we have to stop saying that."
His blue eyes were wide. "What?"
"Dick, it's…" She looked past his head, up to the mantle above the library's fireplace. There, hanging on the wall, was a portrait. Dick followed her gaze, and she could feel his muscles slacken as they both stared up at the framed painting of their family.
It had been Bruce's idea, which was a surprise in and of itself. Usually, Alfred was the one to force everyone to pose for pictures, or place stock in sentimental mementos like framed portraits. But, after Barbara's accident, and after stripping the library clean of almost all the decoration, Bruce had announced that they'd all be posing with a professional artist for a family painting.
It hadn't been easy, getting everyone to dress up and stand still for so long. Barbara could still remember the look on Jason's face when Alfred had forced him into that red bow-tie. But, after a few hours of standing and sitting in one place, the man Bruce had hired to do the portrait had snapped his fingers with a grin, and declared the piece finished.
And now, it hung above the fireplace in the library. Bruce was seated, and his sons were gathered in a semi-circle behind the chair. Stephanie sat on his left, Barbara on his right. The only one missing was Damian, but they hadn't met him yet. But someone had sneaked into the library a few days ago, before everything had gone to #&%%, and stuck a badly cut-out picture of Damian's scowling head in the spot right above Bruce's shoulder.
Barbara was willing to bet money that it was Jason who did it.
They stared at the portrait for a few more minutes. Then, Barbara remembered what she'd been about to say, and turned to Dick.
"We need to stop saying that its all going to be okay. Not everything will."
"I know. "His chin dipped. "But what am I supposed to say to the others?"
She paused. "I see your point."
They both deflated. Dick was right. What were they supposed to tell their siblings? That nothing was going to be okay? That, now that Bruce was gone, the city was about to descend into complete chaos? Barbara's fists clenched.
"No," she said. "Not everything is okay. But I'm with you, Dick. We can't tell the others that. #&%%, we can't even tell the League that."
His eyes searched hers as he leaned back, perching on the balls of his feet. The pose was a bit ridiculous in a full suit and tie, but Barbara wasn't in a laughing mood. Instead, she looked back up at the portrait. "So, then, what do we do?" he asked.
"Well, I guess we do our best to stem the flow until we come up with something better." She bit her lip. "Dick, if I did go through with the surgery, and if I survive it…"
"When you survive it, Babs."
"Right. Once I'm back on my feet, we'll have another able body to help out. And…maybe I go through with Bruce's contingency…"
He shook his head distractedly, running his fingers through his hair. "Babs. That's going to take months. At the very least. What are we going to do until then?"
"I don't know."
He stood, then. His feet took him around the room as he paced back and forth. His jaw was grinding, and he kept clenching and unclenching his fists, as if he wanted to turn and sink his fist into the wall. Eventually, his steps slowed with his breathing. Barbara watched him silently, biting the edge of her lip.
There was an obvious solution. It was at the forefront of her mind, and she would have bet money that the same was true for her partner. But she couldn't bring herself to say it, just in case she was wrong. Or, if she was right, she didn't want to be the one to suggest something that she knew went against everything he had been working for. For years.
"I'm not him, Babs. I can't be him."
It was on a rooftop. Back when things were normal—at least, as normal as they ever got when you ran across rooftops for a living. They'd sat together, Nightwing and Batgirl, watching the cars pass on the street below. Dick and Bruce had just had another fight, about what exactly, she couldn't remember.
"He has this thing…it just….I don't know how to explain it, but it's not me. I can't be like that. I can't be the Batman, Babs."
Across the room, Dick stopped. His hand rested on the back of the couch. His shoulders slumped, like someone had just dropped all of the weight in the entire world on top of him. That weight was so heavy that it took two hands just to keep himself upright, as he sagged against the back of the couch. When he raised his head, his red and blue eyes caught hers. They were filled with dread.
But he wet his lips, and, slowly, took a deep breath. "Hmm," he sighed.
Her brow furrowed. "Dick?"
"We both know what needs to be done. United front, right?" he let out a dry laugh, and swung a little against the couch. "We can't…can't let anyone know that we're anything but strong, and together, and…"
"United," she said. She could almost taste the word, and it had a bittersweet tang. "A united front."
"Right." Dick shut his eyes. "Gotham needs a Batman. More than it needs a Nightwing."
"It's okay." He tried something like a smile, and opened his eyes. They were filled with tears. "This is what he'd want, right? He left it to us, to clean up the messes he left behind. He was the one who left—"
His voice shattered on the last word.
His face tightened, eyes squeezed shut once again. Two tears leaked out of his eyes, trailing down his face, and landing on his clenched fists.
Barbara wheeled herself over to him, and this time, he was the one to collapse into her. Arms wrapped around her torso, head buried in her lap, shoulders spasming as he gasped for air. She closed her eyes, and let him cry.
He'd never cried like this. When Jason and Stephanie had died, he'd been devastated.
"It isn't fair," she said. "I know it isn't fair."
She ran her fingers through his hair, feeling her own eyes fill up with tears. "But I want you to know, Dick…I want you to know that it's not all going to be on you. I'll be with you each step of the way, right at your side. I promise."
A soft knock at the door made them both jump, but it was only Jason and Stephanie.
"Hey, guys," Jason said softly. "We found Tim and Damian."
Steph hugged her arms around her stomach. "Diana sent us to come get you. They're ready…"
"Ready to go," Jason finished.
Barbara nodded, pasting on the fakest smile she'd ever worn. "Okay. We're coming."
She looked down. Dick had straightened, and was trying to get to his feet. His eyes were puffy, but he sniffed and shot their siblings a quick nod. "Right. Let's go."
Dick helped her wheel her way out of the library, and past their four siblings. Tim and Damian were both quiet and reserved. Their eyes were almost as red as Dick's.
Together, they walked down the hall and into the sitting room, dragging their feet against the old carpet. The casket was in sight, now closed, and every head in the room turned as the Batkids stepped past the chairs and mourners to the front of the gathering precession. They walked slowly, perfectly in step. United. A united front.
Jason and Dick nodded to each of them before turning to the long, sleek black box. Their fingers curled around the brass handles.
Clark, Barry, Hal and Arthur took their positions in front. Together, they lifted the box off the pedestal, and the procession out the back door began. One of the white lilies on top drifted to the carpet, and Stephanie paused to snatch it up off the ground before it could be crushed by the oncoming loafers and stilettos.
Damian's hand rested on Barbara's armrest. She looked up at the boy, then covered his fingers with her own.
Tim quietly offered to push her wheelchair, and for the first time, Barbara didn't protest.
Together, they stepped out the back door and into the brisk cloudy day.
The weather was appropriate, without being cliché.
No rain or hail to match the mourners' dispositions, but the skies were filled with dark, low hanging clouds. The chilly breeze carried a sharp scent that promised moisture. It flowed through the trees in the family cemetery out behind the manor, filling the air with the soft whisper of rustling leaves. It blew a few stray strands of red hair over Barbara's face, and she brushed them away with her tears.
Alfred was saying a few things over the casket, but it was all static.
She and her siblings were gathered at the foot of the grave, but all that she could see, could fixate on, was the headstone. Tall, about waist-high to a standing person, and dark. Even darker were the words chiseled into the sleek surface:
"JUSTICE FOR ALL"
"Justice," Barbara whispered. Her hands curled in her lap until she could feel her fingernails biting into her palm.
"And so we know," Alfred concluded, "That Bruce Wayne is not truly gone. He lives on through his children. They are the legacy that he left behind, to watch over his city, and continue the Batman's crusade. And, wherever he may be, I am sure that Bruce may rest in peace, knowing that his life's mission rests in willing and capable hands. Thank you."
There was no applause, but everyone nodded solemnly, shooting the Batfamily more pitying glances. Barbara looked up at the old butler. She'd never, ever, heard him address Bruce as just…'Bruce'. There was something…wrong with that. But she wasn't quite sure what.
Clark nodded, and took over. He reprised his speech from the service, but she doubted that anyone was really listening.
As Barbara looked out over the sea of black and gray, her mouth twisted. She could see Kara, Conner and Karen standing over near Clark. Artemis, Roy, the other Roy, and Cissie all standing with Oliver and Dinah. Barry, Wally and Bart near them. M'gann and J'ohnn. Kaldur and Arthur.
All of them had their mentors by their side, right here.
She didn't want their pity.
"I can assure everyone here," Clark said, authoritatively, "That we will honor Bruce's memory by retiring the Batman mantle. His uniform will stand in the Watchtower as a memorial to—"
A voice cut through the air like a knife.
"Actually," Dick said sternly, "You won't."
All eyes shot over to the Batkids. The younger ones glanced at Dick warily, but Barbara squared her shoulders and set her jaw.
"I'm sorry?" Clark reared back.
"He said you won't, Clark," Barbara shot out. "Or is your super-hearing not as good as you say it is?"
Jaws dropped. Karen's fists clenched, like she would have enjoyed nothing more than snapping Barbara's neck right about then. Clark himself took a slight step back, his face a mask of shock. Then, it settled into something a little more stern, reprimanding.
"Dick, Barbara, I understand that you've both been through a lot in the past few days. But the League has made a decision, and you need to realize—"
"That it's an idiotic decision," Dick snapped. "Bruce made his intentions clear to his family." His arms crossed tightly over his chest, and his siblings straightened, glaring at Superman. Barbara could practically feel their collective anger radiating behind her; they'd side with their older brother over a meta any day.
"Batman doesn't die." Dick's voice thundered over the crowd, and they all shrank back a little bit.
Clark frowned, sympathetic. "Son. I'm sorry but he's gone. You need to—"
He paused. Barbara couldn't see Dick's expression; she could feel it.
"Don't," he said. His voice dripped with searing hot venom. "Call me 'son'."
Barbara raised her head, pulling herself to her full seated height. "Gotham city needs a Batman. I don't expect any of you to understand how things work here, and I certainly don't expect you to understand how the Bats work."
"Without a Batman," Dick said, picking up on her words, "Without someone here to be a symbol, to be a beacon to this city, everything will collapse. The minute it gets out that he's gone…"
His voice didn't crack this time, but Barbara could hear the tremor. So she continued.
"Every thug, every low-life, every Penguin, Riddler and Joker out there is going to start hunting. And they will tear down everything that Bruce ever accomplished." She swallowed, and looked Clark straight in the eye. Then Diana. Then Barry, and Hal, and Arthur, and Oliver and Dinah. Every single major player in the League who ever dared to call Batman a 'friend'. "So here is how things are going to work, metas. You're not taking anything. You don't get to decide a &$#% thing. You will stay out of this city unless you're invited, and you will leave the rest to us."
She looked up at Dick. "To Batman."
Jason, Tim, Stephanie and Damian all clenched their fists. The crowd flinched back, now the focus of six stern Bat-glares.
"This is our city," Jason said.
Stephanie narrowed her eyes. "He was our mentor."
"Our father," Damian snapped.
Tim hesitated, though only because of the stitches in his face. But the words he did manage to force out were said with just as much conviction as the rest. "Stay. Out."
Clark and the others gaped. Superman's hands drifted out to the side as he implored them. "Please. Bruce wouldn't want this. Fighting over his grave…"
Dick rested his hands on the back of Barbara's wheelchair. "You're wrong, Clark. About everything. We are Bruce's legacy. We don't want to fight with you—with any of you—but if Bruce Wayne ever taught us anything, it's that you fight for what you know is right. We will continue his crusade, and keep this city safe. That was what we promised him just before he died."
"We made that promise," Barbara said, "And heaven help the meta who tries to stop us from keeping it."
Everyone looked away. Down at the casket, up at the sky, out at the trees, or the manor up on the hill. Anywhere but the six sets of angry blue and green eyes glowering back. Metas were stubborn, but at least they knew when they were beat. Barbara did feel a stab of remorse, though; many of them were her friends and former colleagues.
But eventually, everyone drifted away. They flew or ran or drove off to their cities and their lives. All perfectly intact, perfectly untouched.
They left the broken family behind at the gravesite. The seven of them stood there, watching the ground until they knew that everyone else had gone. Only then, did they sink to the ground, or shed a few tears.
Barbara still stared at the headstone. One word seemed to stand out above all the rest.
"Justice," she whispered again, like a promise.
No. Not like a promise. It was a promise.
Bruce was gone because of that clown.
Every night, her mentor had avoided the only sane response to that madman. And every night, that madman claimed more lives. The screams of the GCPD officers still rattled around in her mind, making her skin prickle with goosebumps.
The Joker had victimized the entire city. And now, he'd taken the one person who could stop him the 'right' way.
Maybe, just maybe, the 'right' way wasn't going to work anymore, not with him.
Barbara was done with the Joker. Done with every crime and murder he'd committed.
"Justice, Bruce," she whispered. "I promise."
Only Tim heard her. He shot her a sidelong glance, but said nothing.
It was Dick who finally spoke up. "I'm sorry," he said, "If I said anything you guys didn't agree with. But Babs and I talked it over, and we've decided that…" He inhaled, long and deep. "I'm going to finish what Bruce started. I'm going to be Batman."
They said nothing at first, only nodded.
Damian glowered at the gravesite, and Barbara glanced over at him quickly, expecting an explosion. But instead, he looked up at Dick with narrowed, tear-filled eyes.
"Very well, Grayson," he said, "Bring honor to my father. It is what he would want."
Dick opened and closed his mouth. He seemed almost touched. "Thank you, Damian. I'll—"
"Although, should you fail," the boy said, "I will make certain that your death is slow. And painful." He turned to Alfred, and sighed. "I grow weary, Pennyworth. I suggest that we all retire to the manor and get some rest. Tomorrow, Batman will patrol the streets once more."
Alfred sighed, giving the rest of them a long-suffering smile. "Right, then. I'll escort Master Damian to bed. The rest of you may join us when you see fit."
The old butler put a hand on Damian's shoulder, and led him up the path back to the house. They watched them go, stepping over rocks and tree roots. Damian's shoulders were hunched, his head bowed low.
Stephanie huffed. "Why is he so horrible?"
"Go easy on him," Barbara said softly. She looked at each sibling in turn. "All of you. I'm serious. He just lost the only father he's ever known."
Jason crossed his arms. "And we didn't?"
She shrugged. "I'm with you, Jay. But he's only ten. I don't think he's ever lost someone close to him before, so just be patient, alright?"
They nodded, and went right back to staring at the lowered coffin.
Jason finally cleared his throat. "Well, Golden Boy. You're gonna be Batman, huh?"
"Good." He clapped a hand on his older brother's shoulder. "With you all the way, man."
Steph and Tim both nodded. "Same here."
"Thanks, guys," Dick sighed. "You don't know how much that means."
Barbara smiled. "You guys go on. Get some rest. Dick and I will be up soon, okay?"
They hesitated, glancing back and forth at each other. Finally, Tim sighed, and turned, shuffling up the stony path. He didn't say a word, and barely made a sound. Barbara made a mental note to check up on him later, make certain that he'd be alright.
At the moment, she wasn't entirely sure that she would.
Jason reached down, and intertwined his fingers with Steph's. They started back, then paused.
"You know," he said, "We all heard what you promised the old man. Back at the carnival."
A line appeared between Stephanie's eyebrows. "He said to promise to 'take care of them'. Did he mean the Gothamites, or…?"
Barbara shared a long look with Dick. Then, she said, "I think we all know what he meant, Steph."
"And that's a promise we're going to keep," Dick finished. "This family stays together, no matter what. Agreed?"
Their younger brother and sister shared a smile, a nod, then turned and made their way up the hill.
Dick and Barbara watched them go. Once they'd made it past the tree-line, Dick let out a long, sad sound, and sank to his knees. No tears, no words. Just exhaustion. Barbara reached down, and set a hand on his shoulder.
"So," he said, "Think anyone from the League'll ever talk to us again? Or the Team?"
She shrugged. "Ah, we've done worse. They'll go massage their super-egos, then be back at our door as soon as they need us. And they will need us, mark my words."
Wasn't that how it always worked? The League, the Team, the Titans; they all liked to pretend that their powers were all they really needed. That the Bats were optional, dispensable even. But then, eventually, something always came up. Something they couldn't comprehend, couldn't handle. Not on their own. That was when Bruce usually went in. Solved the mystery, identified the perps, had the plan.
It wasn't just Gotham that needed Batman.
They'd be back.
A soft rustle behind them caught their attention. They didn't jump; they'd been expecting it.
"A beautiful service," the woman said. "Very moving. I especially enjoyed the part when you two put Big Boy Blue in his place."
Barbara shrugged. "Sorry, Selina."
"Oh, darling, don't apologize." The Catwoman stepped out from behind her wheelchair, and gave Dick and Barbara a small smile. "That boy scout deserved it, keeping me away from this whole thing."
The smile slipped, and she glanced down at the sleek black casket. Her brimming green and silver eyes were a million miles away as she reached into her clutch bag, pulling out a small golden chain. At the end of it dangled a large, perfectly cut emerald.
She extended her hand, and dropped it over the casket. The gemstone landed on top of the soft lily petals, glittering.
Her voice was husky as she said, "One of the first trinkets we ever fought over, him and I. Snatched it out of a museum. Travelling display, 'Cat's Eye Emerald'." She waved one hand, and wiped at her eyes with the other. She sniffed, and continued. "Before that night, I didn't know who he was, he didn't know who I was. But he chased me up onto the roof, and I was laughing as he cornered me. He grabbed my hands, probably to cuff me, and I leaned in and kissed him."
She let out a soft, dry laugh. "It was for shock value, right? Get him to drop me so I could run. But he pulled away, looked me right in the eye, and said my name. 'Selina?' And that's when I knew. It was the same little rich boy who used to follow me around on the streets when we were kids." Selina smiled at them, lips pressing together against a sob. "We were just like you two kids, back in our day. Inseparable. Ah, all the adventures, the mysteries! Of course, we grew up, went our separate ways. He became Gotham's native son by day, Caped Crusader by night. And me, well…" She waved a hand at herself with a wry little smile. "I was the cat burglar."
Something winked in the light as she waved, and Barbara's heart twisted.
There. On her left hand.
"Oh," Barbara gasped. Tears stung her eyes. "Oh, Selina."
Dick saw it too, and his breath hitched like he'd been hit in the stomach. "When did he…?"
Selina paused, one eyebrow raised. Then, she glanced down at her left hand. At the glittering diamond ring. Slowly, she sighed, and covered it with her fingers. "Just a few days before it happened," she said, softly, "Out in his garden. We were going to surprise all of you."
Barbara reached out, and grasped Selina Kyle's hand in hers. "Selina," she said, "Anything you need, anything at all. Just let us know. You're a part of our family now, no matter what."
A shining tear slipped down Catwoman's face. "Thanks, kitten."
She pulled away, and started walking. Not up to the manor, but in the opposite direction, out into the woods. "You kids take care of yourselves, understand?"
Dick smiled. "We will. You too. Keep out of trouble?"
She turned her head, smirking, and shot them a teary wink. "You know me, darlings. I live for danger."
And just like that, she was gone.
Dick sighed, and got to his feet. "Well. The 'crusade' goes on."
"And so does life." Barbara extended a hand. Dick accepted it, and gave it a soft squeeze. "We've got a lot of work to do, Grayson, if we're going to keep this city in check."
"I know, right?" she chuckled. "But I get this feeling that things are going to be just fine. There's nobody I'd rather work for than you, Pixie Boots."
He gasped, affronted. "You haven't called me that in years."
"Well…" She shrugged, smirking. "There's a reason for that. Worst nickname ever."
He grunted into his fist. "Cough, Dominoed Daredoll, cough, cough."
"Well, I stand corrected." She put her hands on the wheels of her chair. "Now, shall we get to work?"
"Yeah," Dick said. "Let's—"
Something crashed inside the manor, so loud that they could hear it from where they stood down the hill. Both of them whirled around, ready to respond to the threat. Over the trees, splitting the air, came the long, shrill scream,
"DAMIAN YOU LITTLE $#&%!"
They both relaxed.
"Ah," Barbara said, "I think this will be your first official rescue operation as acting Batman."
Dick had gone pale. "Joy."
She laughed, and started rolling. "Race you there, Wingnut. Last one to the crisis drives to the hospital!"
They dashed up the hill, and Dick ended up pushing her wheelchair.
Who knew what would come next? Bruce had always taught them to plan for the unexpected, and be ready for the unseen. His protégé's had learned to take change and heartache in stride.
They'd learned the hard way that life was going to keep on knocking them down, throwing new obstacles and challenges their way. They'd keep falling. With their mentor gone, nothing was certain any longer.
Nothing, that is, but each other, and the mission.
The family business.
And that's what the family business was all about.
Learning to fall, so that you could pick yourself right back up.
Night fell, and the winds picked up.
The storm that had threatened earlier had finally found its way to Gotham, but the family was tucked safely inside the manor. By now they were likely all huddled in their beds, sound asleep. Alfred would probably be sitting by the fire, turning pages in one novel or another. Or maybe, he'd just be staring solemnly into the flickering flames.
There'd be no patrol tonight.
In the dark of the family graveyard, underneath the rustling trees, it had gone quiet. The prelude of the storm was the only source of sound.
The casket lid lifted.
That. Was. Fun.
I actually started this story when I got bored during rehearsals after school, and didn't think I was really going to do anything with it. Then, when it came time to pack up and leave home, I found the first few chapters and thought…what the heck?
I've learned a lot from writing this story, and I'm so glad that people have taken the time to read it, and give me such positive feedback. It's been fun.
And, yep, I'm afraid this is the end.
Well, kind of…
See, I had so much fun writing this, that I thought I'd do some more. There's still a few loose ends worth tying up, and so many more possibilities to explore with these characters.
So, on that note, stay tuned for Part Two: Family Business!
Til then! :)