So these two costumed crimefighters walk into a cafe.
They sit down at what used to be their usual booth in the far corner. The proprieter approaches with cups and a pot of coffee. "Long time, no see," she says pleasantly as she pours.
"I know," Nightwing says, looking up at her, flashing a smile. "We were worried you'd be out of business."
She grunts. "Came close awhile back." She finishes pouring the coffee. "But I'm still here, hanging on by my fingernails."
"Aren't we all," Nightwing says, lifting his cup to his lips.
"You need menus?" she asks.
"Not me," says Nightwing. "But check back after I've had a few cups and you might just sell me a piece of pie."
She turns to his companion. "How about you, kid?"
Robin shakes his head. "No, thank you."
"Let me know if you change your minds." She takes the coffee pot and walks away.
"So," Robin says, pausing to take a sip of coffee, "what was with you and that guy we nabbed earlier?"
Nightwing leans forward, elbows on the table, cup in his right hand. "That would be the troubled young man we found wandering down the middle of Wieringo Boulevard who we delivered into the tender care of Gotham City's world famous mental health care system?"
"That would be the guy, yes," says Robin. "He was going on about something to do with parallel universes or something, and you gave me this look."
Nightwing's mask shifts slightly as he wrinkles his brow. "What look did I give you?"
"You gave me this 'get a load of this guy' look."
"Well? Did you get a load of that guy?"
Robin smirks. "What I mean is, you acted like he wasn't the first person saying that sort of stuff you'd run into lately."
"So it wasn't so much a 'get a load of this guy' look as it was a 'What? This again?' look."
Robin looks to the side as he ponders this. "Yes," he says, turning back to Nightwing.
"Well, that was because before we met up to patrol, I was talking to Wally and I had made the mistake of asking him about the multiverse." Nightwing takes a sip of his coffee and puts the cup down.
"So you knew what I was getting at but you decided to be a dick about it."
Nightwing tries unsuccessfully to hold back a grin as he says "But, Tim, I am a D–"
"So what did you and Wally talk about?" Robin interrupts, raising his voice slightly. "Regarding the multiverse, I mean," he clarifies, a bit softer.
"I don't even remember how we got on the subject," Nightwing says, leaning back into his seat. "Oh, yeah, I said something and Wally told me it reminded him of something the Earth-2 version of me would have said."
"What did you say?"
"Wally was telling me about this bank robbery he interrupted. Two guys in ski masks, guns, nothing all that noteworthy. But when Wally shows up, the one guy turns on his partner like 'Look, now the Flash is here, we're screwed and this is all your fault!' And he goes to shoot the guy, but of course Wally zips over and grabs the gun before he can do that. When he was telling me about it, Wally said that he not only prevented a bank robbery, he prevented a thief from becoming a murderer. And I shrugged and said something like 'Well, second-degree murderer,' just to bust his chops, you know?"
"Wally looks at me and says 'You were so your Earth-2 self just now' or something. Because apparently I'm a lawyer over there." Nightwing picks up his cup. "Good for me," he says before taking a sip.
"I wonder what the Earth-2 version of me is like," says Robin. "I hope he's somebody cool."
"You don't want him to be like you?"
"Are we gonna throw down in this coffee shop? Is that what's gonna happen?" Robin asks, voice rising with mock anger.
"The Earth-2 you couldn't possibly be any cooler than you, because you're already the coolest person alive." Nightwing tilts his head, reconsidering. "Second coolest."
"Right," says Robin. "Can't forget Mr. Freeze."
"You know I could second-degree-murder you at any moment, right?"
The proprieter returns to refill their coffees. "Thinkin' about that pie yet?" she asks.
"Give me one more cup to decide," says Nightwing.
"Will do," she says, and floats away.
"So that's what it was with the guy we picked up tonight?" Robin asks. "You just had the multiverse on the brain?"
"I guess," says Nightwing. "I don't know. When I think about it for too long . . . I mean, the whole thing is just bizarre, don't you think? Even after having all these years to get used to it, the idea that there are other versions of us running around somewhere out there, it's just . . . weird."
"Weird in, like, an uncomfortable way?"
"I guess. Because it's confusing, and confusion is uncomfortable for me, yeah."
Robin cocks his head to the side. "What's confusing about it?"
"Well, for one thing, which version of me am I?" asks Nightwing. "Take the other me Wally was talking about for example. To me, he's the Earth-2 me. But who am I to him? What is our Earth even called? Earth-One? Earth-Thirty-Two?"
Robin sighs. "It's Prime Earth, isn't it? Or New Earth. I don't know, I lost track at some point. Does it matter?"
Nightwing shrugs. "It would at least be nice to know, wouldn't it? In case it ever came up?"
"Like if you order a package from an interdimensional version of Amazon and they need a complete address?"
"Oh, my god, you just know there's an interdimensional version of Amazon . . ."
Robin yawns. "I may have to skip the pie," he says. "I should get some sleep at some point. I have an 8:00 a.m. class tomorrow."
Nightwing pulls back a plate at the top of his gauntlet and glances at his watch. He lets out a chuckle. "Good luck with that."
Robin raises his cup. "Thank you."
"See much of Bruce these days?" Nightwing asks.
"Mm-hm." Robin swallows a sip of coffee. "We still do the Dynamic Duo thing. Not as often as we used to, but yeah."
"Same thing happened when I started college," Nightwing says. "Look at you, a little hatchling about to fly from the nest."
Robin winces. "Bats don't make nests, but . . ."
"That explains how we turned out," Nightwing says, finishing his coffee. "Okay," he says, pulling a small roll of cash from a compartment in one of his gauntlets, "you need to get some sleep."
Robin slides out of the booth. "You sure you got this? We can go halfsies."
Nightwing shakes his head. "I'll get this one. You can get the next one."
Robin grins. "It's a deal."
"Landlady, thank you for the excellent coffee as always," Nightwing says to the proprieter as he walks past the counter. "I promise I won't wait so long before darkening your door again. Sorry we couldn't stay for pie, but please take note of the fact that I have left you just a ridiculously generous tip."
She shoos him out the door with a wave of her hand and goes to clean up the booth.
Outside, Nightwing offers a handshake that Robin turns into a hug. "Don't be a stranger," Robin tells him as they part.
"You, either," Nightwing says, turning from him and starting down the sidewalk.
He finds his motorcycle where he left it, tucked into an alley around the corner from the cafe.
A few minutes later he's riding down Perez Avenue when a call comes over the police scanner. A break-in at the offices of the Gotham Gossip. Nightwatchman incapacitated. Perpetrator reportedly armed with a freezing gun.
"Small world," Nightwing says to himself as he turns left and speeds down Furlong Street.
He's less than a minute from the Gotham Gossip offices when a familiar voice comes through his earpiece.
"He's on the move," she tells him. "If you want to catch him, go past the newspaper office and turn right onto Pennsylvania Avenue."
He's so surprised to hear her that he doesn't respond at first.
"Hey, loser," she says, "answer your fucking radio."
"Yes, ma'am," he replies finally. "Passing Gotham Gossip office building, hanging a right, proceeding down Pennsylvania. Ready for further instructions."
"He just turned left onto Lyle," she says. "If he stays on there past the 1200 block, there's a long straight stretch where you can catch him. And don't be a smartass."
"I wasn't being a smartass!"
"You were so taking a smartass tone! With your 'Awaiting further instructions.'"
"I had no idea. I'll be sure to watch that from now on."
He imagines her rolling her eyes.
"Okay," she says, "get ready, your left is coming up."
"Acknowledged," he says as he blasts across Lyle Avenue and continues straight down Pennsylvania.
"What the hell was that? You missed your left."
"My left is coming up," he tells her.
"Your left was back there! You blew right past it!"
"Englehart Street is just ahead. It runs diagonal and crosses Lyle four blocks over. I can cut him off." He sees the sign for Englehart rushing closer.
"Great idea," she says as he leans into his left turn. "Except for the fact that–"
He jerks the bike hard to the right, rolling up onto the sidewalk to miss the huge city truck that is suddenly in front of him.
". . . there's a street sweeper on Englehart at the moment."
He passes the truck and steers back onto the street. "Since when are they street sweeping in this part of town at this hour on a Sunday?"
"Since they switched the schedule two years ago," she tells him. "You've been away too long."
"Also, it's Monday. Technically."
He laughs and shakes his head as he speeds toward the intersection with Lyle Avenue just ahead. "Where is he?"
"Coming up on the intersection in a hurry. You should get there about a second after him."
"I thought you were going to cut him off?"
"I was," Nightwing says. "But now I have a better idea."
"We saw how that worked out last time."
"You love it."
A car races through the intersection with Lyle Avenue. "Is that our guy?" Nightwing asks. "White sedan, looks like a Mercedes E-Class?"
Nightwing turns onto Lyle Avenue and closes the gap between him and the Mercedes. He veers to the right and moves up alongside the car. "Are you watching?" he asks. "Because otherwise this thing I'm about to do to impress you will just be an extremely dangerous waste of time."
"I'm watching, but you might want to hold your horses," she says. A moment later the engine of the Mercedes dies.
Nightwing pulls his bike to the curb and jumps off. The driver of the Mercedes hits the brakes. The car rolls to a stop a hundred feet or so ahead.
"I was gonna do something really cool just now," he assures her.
"I believe you."
The driver's door swings open. Nightwing sees a figure emerge and move toward the sidewalk on the far side of the street. The figure raises a small rifle and fires a stream of blue energy which Nightwing dodges. The stream connects with a car parked behind him, coating its front quarter with a layer of ice.
The figure makes it across the street and vanishes between two buildings.
"Is it Mr. Freeze?" she asks through the earpiece.
"That would be one guess," he says as he crouches and moves up along the passenger side of the stalled Mercedes. He opens the front door and leans inside. "It has a remote kill switch, I presume?"
"Sure does," she says. "You're welcome."
"How'd you figure that out?"
"There's a traffic enforcement camera at the intersection between Lyle and Englehart. I snagged the license plate, ID'd the vehicle, saw that it had a kill switch. Yada yada yada."
Nightwing's eyes narrow at the sight of a speckling of blood on the steering wheel. "I'll tell you one thing," he says. "It's not Mr. Freeze."
"It could also be Captain Cold," she says. "Or Killer Frost."
"I don't think it's Killer Frost."
"Could it be Blizzard?"
"Who the hell is Blizzard?"
"I have no idea. I'm pretty sure I just made that one up."
"Who can keep track?"
"Well, if you want to find out who he is, he's not far away. I just caught him on a CCTV camera on Youngstoun Court a block west of you."
Nightwing jogs back to his bike. A minute later he's rolling down Youngstoun Court, eyes scanning the street from side to side. "Where was he headed when you saw him last?"
"There's an alley between 20306 and 20308," she says. "Try over there."
She's barely finished her sentence when another icy blue beam blasts out at him from the alley. Nightwing ditches the bike, ducking the beam. He hits the pavement and sees another beam rushing toward him. He rolls out of its path, plants his feet beneath him, and leaps just in time to avoid another beam. Somersaulting in the air, he lands atop the roof of a car parked just down the street from the opening of the alley.
"Good guess!" he manages to gasp out before springing away from another beam.
He scurries over to the front of 20308 Youngstoun Court and flattens his back against the wall. He takes a breath, and dives to the far side of the alley. Another ice beam blasts out, just missing him. A moment later, the muzzle of the rifle emerges from around the corner. Nightwing snatches it, grabs its wielder by the front of the shirt and yanks him out onto the sidewalk.
Nightwing throws the ice-rifle to the sidewalk behind him and draws back his fist. He looks down at a young man, no older than twenty, blood still trickling from his broken nose.
Nightwing lowers his fist. "Don't tell me you're the Earth-2 Mr. Freeze."
Through his earpiece he can hear her snort. "What?!"
"Nothing." He turns to the young ice-rifleman. He pulls a nylon zip tie from a compartment in one of his gauntlets, binds the ice-rifleman's hands, and sits him down against the front of 20306. "What's your name?"
The ice-rifleman says nothing. "Have it your way." Nightwing turns aside. "Did you get enough from CCTV to run facial recognition?"
"Not quite," she says, "I had to enhance the image first. It'll just be a second."
He turns back to the ice-rifleman. "What happened?" he asks, gesturing at the young man's crooked nose.
"The guard at that office," comes the answer. "Surprised me from behind. I turn around and he cracks me in the face with a billy club or something."
"Serves you right for ripping off a newspaper," Nightwing says. "Don't you think they're having a hard enough time already?"
"Got a result from facial recognition, if you want it," she tells him through the earpiece.
"Let's hear it."
"Ask him if the name Richard Brody means anything to him."
"Richard Brody?" Nightwing asks the ice-rifleman. "Is that you?"
The ice-rifleman groans. "Goddammit," he mutters.
"I'll take that as a yes," says Nightwing.
"Age 18, just graduated from high school at P.S. 107, currently employed as a security guard at Haberstock Systems," she says through the earpiece.
"Haberstock Systems. Why does that sound familiar?" asks Nightwing.
"Because it's who the G.C.P.D. contracts to handle long-term evidence storage."
Nightwing glances over his shoulder. "Long-term evidence like Mr. Freeze's freeze gun." He turns to Richard Brody. He takes a breath to speak, but holds it for a second, at a loss. "You stole Mr. Freeze's freeze gun from an evidence locker to knock over a newspaper office?"
"Not exactly," says Richard Brody, looking down.
"I'm guessing you stole that car, too?"
"I had a reason."
"I'm sure I'm not the only person who is just dying to hear it."
"You got that right!" she shouts excitedly.
"You'll think it's dumb," Richard says.
"The dumber, the better, in your situation," Nightwing says. "Other than a wealthy white man, a young white dumbass who did something foolish but didn't manage to hurt anyone is the best thing you can be in our criminal justice system."
"He did freeze the nightwatchman at the Gotham Gossip," she reminds him.
"Did you freeze the nightwatchman all the way, or did you just, like, freeze his legs or something?"
"I froze his feet to the floor," Richard says.
"He'll be fine," Nightwing says with a wave of his hand. He crouches down next to Richard. "Tell me your reason. Maybe I can help."
Richard takes in a deep breath and exhales with a ragged groan. "I know a girl who works at that newspaper. We went to school together. We went out for awhile, but we broke up after graduation. Last night I got kinda wasted, and I was thinking about her, and I wrote her this really pissed off, like, letter or whatever, and sent it to her work email."
"Just the sort of level-headed adult we want guarding supervillain paraphenalia," she says through the earpiece.
"So," Nightwing says to Richard, "you had second thoughts about the email and were breaking into the office to delete it before she came into work this morning. That it?"
"You're right," Nightwing says, "I do think it's dumb. But if you tell it to the cops the same way you just told it to me, it might be dumb enough to spare you from the worst you could get for something like this."
"Speaking of the cops," she says through the earpiece, "should I clue them in to Young Master Brody's location?"
"Yeah," says Nightwing, reaching into a compartment in his gauntlet. "Let 'em know where to pick him up." He pulls out a few gauze pads and places them in Richard's zip-tied hands. "Here. For your nose."
"What's that," Richard says, nodding at Nightwing's gauntlet, "like, a utility belt?"
"It most certainly is not," Nightwing says, standing. "What's this girl's name?"
"Darla," says Richard. "Darla Mazzucchelli. Why?"
Nightwing looks away. "I'll take care of your email problem for you." He sighs. He turns back to Richard. "You're in enough trouble as it is. But listen to me: no more sending shitty emails or texts or, I dunno, snapchats, whatever it is you kids do these days, to your ex-girlfriends. You got it?"
"Yeah, I got it," says Richard, looking up, holding one of the gauze pads to his bloody nostrils. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," says Nightwing. "Us Dicks need to stick together."
Richard gives a confused chuckle. "What?"
"Nothing. Shut up. Just sit there, the cops'll be here any second."
Nightwing returns to his ditched bike and leaves Richard Brody to wait for the police, who judging by the sound of the approaching sirens are only moments away.
"'Whatever it is you kids do these days,'" he hears an amused voice say through the earpiece as he turns from Youngstoun Court onto Edgewood Drive.
"I know, I know," he says, smiling. He takes a breath. "Hey. Barbara?"
"Are you gonna be up for awhile?"
"I can be."
"Are you still at the same place?"
She laughs. "Yeah. Do you remember how to get here?"
"I think I can find it," he says.
Twenty minutes later he's perched on the ledge beneath the clock on the north side of Barbara's apartment building. He taps on the glass of the clockface. He hears Barbara's voice from within, telling him to come in.
"Hi," he says as he climbs into the room, her room, her room which only he and a few others know about, her secret room where she is not Barbara Gordon, but Oracle. He smiles awkwardly. "It felt weird having to knock."
"It felt weird having you knock," she says. She gestures toward a couch against the wall to the right of the clockface. "Sit. Please."
He sits. She rolls her wheelchair over to within a few feet, folds her hands in her lap, and grins. "So."
"How have you been?"
"Not bad. Did some traveling."
She raises her eyebrows. "Where to?"
He shrugs. "Shanghai. Kathmandu. Rabat. Harrisburg."
"And now you're back."
"Just for a day or two. I thought I'd drop in on Bruce. See Alfred. I actually went on patrol with Tim earlier."
"Yeah. Then we had coffee."
"Oh, god, not at that place near the Tricorner Bridge you always used to go to."
He chuckles. "Yes! That place."
"It's still there?"
"Same as ever." He leans back on the couch. "Speaking of which. Things haven't changed much here," he says, looking around the room.
"Some things haven't," she says, gesturing behind her at the bank of computers. "I still try to help out when I can."
"So I noticed. Thanks, by the way."
"All part of the job."
They watch each other for a moment without speaking.
He opens his mouth, but before he can get the words out she says, "How's Tim? I don't see him much since he started college."
"He seems good. He hasn't changed much, either."
"Who else have you seen since you've been back? You mentioned Bruce. And Alfred."
"Not yet. Today's my first day back in town. I think I need to psych myself up before I take that long drive to Wayne Manor."
She chuckles. "I know what you mean," she says, looking over at the clockface, which glows from the moonlight, casting shadows of its hands and numerals across the floor.
"Oh," he says as though he's just now remembered it, which he has, "before I came back to Gotham I stopped over in Keystone, caught up with Wally."
"I talked to Wally a few months ago."
She nods. "Mm-hm. He was in Gotham on a case. I helped him track down some tech he thought the Weather Wizard might have been after."
"Oh, wow," says Nightwing. "Hmph. It's funny. He and I were talking, and I made a joke about something, and he said that I reminded him of the Earth-2 Dick."
"I never met him."
"Yeah, me neither. But . . . I don't know. Do you ever wonder about all the other versions of you that are out there somewhere?"
"Do you really?"
"I really do. Living the lives we've lived, knowing the things we know, how could I not?"
"Yeah. He's a lawyer, apparently. The Earth-2 me."
"That makes sense."
"Absolutely. I bet you're a great lawyer."
"Thanks. I think." He sighs. "I wonder what he would think if someone told him that he reminded them of me. Would he be like, 'Oh, really? That's really flattering.' Or would he be offended, like 'That idiot? How dare you!'"
"You're hardly an idiot," she tells him. "Tonight's close encounter with a street sweeper notwithstanding."
"Well, I should have listened to you, I guess," he says with a chagrined expression.
"At last!" she exclaims, lifting her arms exultantly as she turns her face toward the ceiling. "He's finally figured it out!"
"Ha ha ha," he says sarcastically. Then he sighs, growing more serious. "I am an idiot, though."
"Why would you say that?"
He looks into her eyes. He holds her gaze for what feels to him like a long time, silent, open.
Finally he turns away, folds his arms, looks down at his lap. He laughs softly to himself. "Do you . . . do you remember that shirt you gave me?" he asks her.
"Which one? I think I gave you a few shirts."
"The 'World's Finest' one? With my name on it?"
"Oh." A broad, bright smile breaks out across her face. "Yeah. I do remember. 'World's Finest Dick.' Do you still have that?"
He shakes his head. "No. After we . . . you know. After that, I got rid of most of what I had that reminded me of . . . us."
"In that case, I agree. For getting rid of that totally awesome shirt, you are a massive idiot."
He laughs. "It's not just that. It's the way I acted back then. Blaming things on you when it was me who left. Being a jerk when I didn't have to be."
"Oh, I remember."
"Yeah. I regret that. I regret . . . you know. Treating you that way. But even more than that, there's been barely a day that's gone by since that I haven't wished . . ." He lifts his head and they lock eyes again. ". . . that I kept that shirt."
Her eyes glisten. Her bright smile has dimmed to something softer, sadder. "Who knows?" she says after a moment. "Maybe there's a world somewhere in the multiverse where you've still got it."
"Good for that me," he says wrly. His gaze drifts off to the side. "There are days when I feel like I would just . . . blow up my whole life if it meant getting that shirt back."
Barbara looks down and sighs. "The multiverse is a funny thing," she says. "I'm no theoretical physicist," she continues, lifting her gaze up to him, "but I've read that just as there are more than just our universe, our multiverse could merely be one of a multitude of multiverses, each one containing who-knows how many different versions of our world, and our selves. There might be no end to the number of usses out there. And who knows? There might even be an Earth somewhere, in some far corner at the furthest edge of spacetime, where you are not, in fact, an idiot."
Nightwing's smile is as soft and sad as Barbara's. "And," he says, brightening up a bit, "maybe one where we actually got around to taking that trip to L.A."
She laughs. "You hate L.A."
"I sure do," he says. "But lately I'm thinking it might not be so bad."
After a moment, he stands. "It's some ungodly hour," he says. "I don't want to keep you up."
"Okay." She backs away from him and watches as he crosses over to the window in the clockface.
"Oh," he says, turning back. "That kid I nabbed, I told him I'd delete an email he sent his ex . . ."
"I heard," she says. "I'll take care of it."
"Absolutely. You Dicks need to stick together and all that." She cocks her head to the side thoughtfully. "I'm definitely going to read it first, but then, sure, I'll delete it." She grins.
"This . . . this was nice," he tells her. "Thank you."
"Let me hear from you once in awhile," she says. "And take care of yourself."
"I'm fine, you know," she says just as he reaches the window. "Whatever you're feeling about how things went down between us back then, just know that. I've moved on. I'm happy."
"That's the worst part," he says. "So am I."
In a few seconds he's through the window, off the ledge, and on the sidewalk behind her building. He finds his bike. He heads east, turns, and speeds along the waterfront.
In a few minutes the dawn breaks over the ocean. He keeps his eyes on the road. At the edge of his vision he sees the bike's odometer rolling out the miles.