No matter what the future brings…
— AS TIME GOES BY, Casablanca
January 16th, A-minus 5
Nightwing was desperate for some action. The mind-numbing deconstruction of thoughts and feelings past was making his teeth hurt. He longed to sink his fist into the soft solar plexus of a goon that deserved it.
He didn’t want to ask Babs for a lead, however.
He decided he could do so indirectly through Robin. Making up for his previous rudeness, he stoically let Spoiler finish her explanation that the language of the famous Robert Burns version of Auld Lang Syne is more sophisticated and elegant than the original folk song would have been…
When she finished, Nightwing tentatively asked his favor: Could they call Oracle and learn the whereabouts of a good old-fashioned brawl?
They did. But by the time Nightwing arrived, the last guy standing was booked for drunk and disorderly.
Robin and Spoiler called in again. This time Nightwing promised to take over their patrol on Valentine’s Day.
That call sent him to the docks—where an illegal shipment of drugs turned out to be an illegal shipment of Cuban refugees. INS agents were in place and the bust promised more red tape than bloodied lips.
On the third return to Robin and Spoiler, they were waiting with a list of demands: Nightwing would have Spoiler’s motorcycle detailed, get them tickets to the U2 concert at the Garden, next time Big-B called a ‘be here unless you’re dead’ meeting, ‘Wing would get them out of it. And oh yes, if THIS call didn’t pan out and he came back a fourth time tonight, he would bring a double order of hot wings from WingDings, 2 diet sodas, and a mocha shake.
He agreed. It didn’t matter; he was passed caring.
The final address brought him to a West Side rooftop where, instead of any visible crime scene, he observed a distant flash of light. Flash, flash, flicker, flash flicker—it was a modified Morse Code only the bat-family used.
Can’t pull one over on the all-seeing Oracle.
Sensing—hoping—that maybe he wasn’t in as much trouble as he’d thought, Nightwing shot a line and swung in the direction of Barbara’s apartment.
It’s been wisely observed that, while Bruce was at the core of Hell-Month, he seemed less aware of it than others around him. Those who knew only Bruce Wayne knew he was bad-tempered. Those who knew he was Batman knew he was more brutal. All he knew was that he hurt. As the day approached, he remembered more often that it was coming, and his stomach would churn and he’d push the thought away. Then he’d look at it, lurking in some corner of his mind. Ugly and foul. Waiting for its moment to return.
Then he would snap at Alfred or snap some thug’s wrist. It was all the same, a reflex. Hurt for hurt. Pain for pain.
The foul thing was never deterred. He couldn’t hurt it. Couldn’t frighten it. It was. His parents were dead. He saw them die and that left him this wretched, driven, tormented… Batman.
He clenched and unclenched his fist reflexively.
Dick was avoiding him since the fight in
Alfred was walking on eggshells.
Tim was avoiding him and walking on eggshells.
Lucius was sending e-mails instead of meeting in person.
Selina stood him up at D’Annunzio’s.
He clenched his fist again…
He told her the truth about Talia. Maybe he should have told her the truth about her instead. What was the more important revelation: that this nothing, insignificant dalliance in his past was a nothing, insignificant dalliance, or that he trusted her?
He unclenched his fist …it was stiff and sore. And it ached to punch something.
In the four minutes between the invitation addressing him as “Sillybird” and reaching Barbara’s terrace, Nightwing reconsidered his position:
He was not in trouble with Barbara. The girl could be prickly, sarcastic and even acid-tongued, but she would not summon him to an ass-chewing with a teasing endearment like “Sillybird.”
Why did he think he was in trouble, anyway? Felon’s guilt, maybe. He felt like a heel when he saw those notes from Clancy because it looked like maybe she read more into their flirting than he’d ever intended.
But he hadn’t done anything wrong.
So the women talked? So what? That didn’t mean he was in trouble…
It was awful to think he might have hurt Barbara—it was awful the way he turned right around and attacked Bruce. “Okay,” he thought, “screwing up a bit lately, and that’s why I’m making mountains out of molehills. Barbara talked to Clancy, Clancy talked to Barbara. No big.”
He opened the terrace door and removed his mask as he entered Barbara’s apartment. He was Dick here, not Nightwing. Bruce taught him the importance of those gestures from the first training sessions in the cave. Mask on was Robin/mask off was Dick. It was part of the discipline, but it was also a courtesy to him and to Alfred.
Barbara acknowledged his arrival with a raised hand, but kept her back to him and went on typing. It occurred to him that she seldom left her workstation during these visits, seldom powered down the monitor and stopped being Oracle.
“Barb, I’d like to talk. You think maybe…” He let the sentence trail off, expecting a muttered complaint.
Instead she turned from the keyboard with a warm smile and chirped: “I guess Gotham and cyberspace can spare me for a night. Howya doin, Studmuffin.”
“That’s the gal I fell in love with—I don’t get to see enough of you.”
The Clancy issue was dispensed with in exactly seven sentences: Barbara wasn’t a psychotic demonspawn, after all. She wasn’t thrilled when she realized his landlady had more than a professional interest in Dick, but she accepted his assurance that there was nothing deeper or warmer than ordinary friendship. They ordered takeout, and popped Casablanca into the VCR.
Abruptly, after Ingrid Bergman and not Humphrey Bogart urged Sam to play As Time Goes By, Barbara snapped off the television.
”What do you mean, you don’t get to see enough of her?”
“You said ‘that’s the gal I fell in love with, I don’t get to see enough of her.’”
“Did I say that? Well, I guess I meant—I don’t know, I meant—you were so cute and smiling and happy to see me—”
“Whereas I’m usually what?”
Now, Dick realized, he was in trouble…
All right, he decided, if he was going to be in trouble, let it be for something he really felt and not for some wild misunderstanding about Clancy: He was in trouble—or expecting to be in trouble—more often than he’d like. Barbara was crusty, prickly, sarcastic, dyspeptic, curmudgeonly and downright bitchy more often than not. She didn’t used to be this way.
“Before the chair,” she whispered so low he didn’t hear it.
“I know that girl is still in there,” he was saying, “under all the porcupine needles. And I’m always looking for her. But…”
“But instead you’re stuck with me,” Barbara spat bitterly. Bitter was the last thing she wanted to be.
She wanted people, she wanted Dick especially, to forget the chair, to forget what happened with the Joker…to see HER. So she acted strong, invulnerable. And too often, it only made them more conscious of all that had happened to her, of how much she’d changed.
“I can’t be that girl anymore, Dick. She’s gone. Joker killed her.” She removed the locket and held it out. “If that’s who you want to marry, you should take this back and just…”
“Whoa, whoa, waitaminute, stop, slowdown, NO….I said ‘that’s the girl I fell in love with.’ SHE is YOU, Barbara. You-past but still you. I asked You-present to marry me and that means all of you: you then, you now, and you every possible you-future. I’m pretty sure that’s in the contract somewhere: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health. That means whatever might happen, whatever we might become, we’re a set now. That’s the deal.” He took the locket from her hand and held the chain up, poised to lower back around her head. “You up for it?”
Selina awoke uneasily with no memory of having gone to sleep. That was never a good sign in Gotham City. It was even worse if one woke up not in Gotham City but in a private plane 30,000 feet over the China Sea.
By the time the plane landed in Mongolia, one might figure things were as bad as they were going to get. But then if one found out their host was Ra’s Al Ghul, they might consider that things could, in fact, get worse.
This was Selina’s thought. She delivered a glare that would have reduced Batman to ash. Ra’s appeared not to notice, then asked if she was partial to venison or game.
For someone like Selina, it was a bit of a letdown. Brought before the evil one himself, the great Ra’s al Ghul, practically immortal, megalomaniac, father of the demonspawn, damn near took out the entire JLA—and he asked “the chicken or the beef?”
To be continued...