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Chapter 6: Knightmare

 

Barbara awoke the next morning in a cold, empty bed.  After a brief search, she found her husband asleep on the sofa with their cat, Bytes, and a “Love the Librarian” mug balanced on his stomach.  The cat’s nose was nestled inside the mug, and Barbara guessed she had finished whatever hot milk had remained there.  She took the mug delicately from Dick’s fingers and then tussled his hair.

“I can explain!” he gasped, scaring the cat, who promptly decided his left shoulder provided the quickest way off the couch and swiftly used it as an escape ramp.  Dick’s eyes darted around, fell on Barbara’s amused smile, and he relaxed.  “Nightmares,” he explained.

“Would have been my guess,” Barbara answered, waving the mug.  “Want to talk about it?”

“Well, Bruce came back.  It was like: you know those old Kaufman and Hart plays with all the lunatics and crazy eccentrics running around in different subplots? It all builds to this explosion of absolute chaos at the end of Act II, just when the bank examiner, the cops, or the stodgy future in-laws walk through the door.”

Barbara chuckled.  “Dick, you’re doing a wonderful job managing the team,” she assured him.  “You really don’t need to be worrying what Bruce is going to say when he gets back.”

“Azrael and Jean Paul were fighting a duel over Cassie, Tim had been greened or hatted or something and was running around to all the rogues taking orders for ice cream deliveries, Whiskers and Nutmeg were stuck in the case with Jason’s old costume, Nigma comes in wearing a chef’s hat asking where Alfred keeps the muffin pans, Bruce looks over the whole thing, glares at me, and asks why the giant penny is sitting in the driveway.”

With effort, Barbara kept her light chuckle from erupting into a full belly laugh.

“Well it’s all over now, Puzzlemuffin, ELFIN FIZZLE PUN.”

“What?” Dick blinked.

“FUN FUZZ MIZZLE PUFF,” Barbara repeated flirtatiously, batting her eyes—which suddenly had question marks in them.  “LUMPEN PLUME MUZZLE,” she purred seductively, as her entire body, apart from the gold question marks in her eyes, blushed into Oracle-green. 

“Nuzzle Puff!” Dick gasped, sitting up in bed with a start.  His heart was pounding and he’d twisted the bedsheet into a tight coil, but apart from those details, everything was fine.  The bed next to him was empty, though; Barbara must already be up.  

He found her in the living room, a book in her lap that she couldn’t read because Bytes was curled in it.  She was petting the cat sadly, and looked up at him.

“Couldn’t sleep,” she said simply.

Dick’s eyes narrowed.  

“Because of her,” he growled disapprovingly. 

“I don’t know what you mean,” Barbara answered, turning her chair and wheeling towards the kitchen. 

Dick followed, undeterred.

“Babs, I know you had words with Black Canary last night.  Son of great detective, remember; remember who trained me?  Com was tied up right around midnight, and after that you sounded funny.  Preoccupied, like something was bothering you.  Now you want to tell me what happened or let it stew?”

“I gave her an out of town assignment, that’s all,” Barbara declared, spooning cat food into Bytes’s bowl. 

“And?” Dick prompted.

“And nothing.  She complained about it.  She always complains now, about everything.”

Dick’s eyes darkened into a Bat-like interrogation glare.  

“Everybody complains. Tim grumbles about extended patrols, and Cass gets that defiant little head-tilt, Jean Paul evidently squabbles with Az, and Helena probably curses under her breath.  You tap your fingernail on the wristrest when Bruce does something you don’t like.  Heck, even Alfred probably has some secret butlerish form of protest, like not putting a doily under the dinner rolls or something.”

“And what do you do?” Barbara smiled.

“Make jokes mostly,” Dick admitted.  “Point is, everybody grumbles about work, Barbara, but not everybody upsets you to where you’re losing sleep over it.  Tell me what happened on the Com last night; what did the bitch do now?”

 

Jean Paul awoke in a cold sweat. 

“Az?” he called out, forgetting he didn’t need to speak to the angel out loud.  “Az, where are you and what are you doing?”

Go back to sleep, Mortal.  You have not rested long enough to restore your human faculties. 

“Azrael, we’ve talked about the dreams.  You don’t sleep.  You don’t dream.  Whatever you do to pass the time while I sleep tends to come out in my dreams.  I’ve gotten used to the sword fights clanking away back there while I’m in a rowboat trying to ask Sally Fellingbrook to the prom. I got used to the one sitting in the lecture hall at MIT, realizing I’m in my underwear, and then when Professor Whitman tells me to stand and complete the equation on the board, hearing you booming about “a swift stroke of Divine Flame to purge the heresy from your soul!”  I’ve even adjusted to the one where I’m stuck in that hole at the back of the Batcave, like Winnie the Pooh with Batman and Nightwing, Robin and the rest of them underneath all pulling on my legs, Bane and half the rogues in Gotham above ground pulling on my arms, and what are you doing, Az? You’re stepping through “The Devotion to the Most Glorious St. Dumas by Way of the Sword.”  But I’m used to it, all of it.  But this?  This was—this was—kinky!  This was perverse!  Huntress and the arrow and the sword and the purple teddy, with the wind blowing up the, y’know.  And Catwoman and Charlotte—Was that Nightwing with Charlotte from Sex and the City?  Az, this whole thing has gotten completely out of hand.”

Calm yourself, Mortal.  Human dreams are a necessary—

“It’s out of control, Az.  This whole thing.  We’ve got to settle it.  It’s that simple.”

 

Dinah Lance had never been a superstar in the kitchen, but she liked baking.  Cooking a meal was drudgery, but baking something simple, like scones from a mix, that was something she always enjoyed, a wonderful way to relax after a rough case.  When they were together, Ollie was the serious cook, almost as impressive in the kitchen as he was in the field. He introduced her to the relaxing properties of the kitchen. They used to do it all the time, him making a complex chicken carciofi while she cut up potatoes, he’d splash some wine over the chicken and offer her a taste, pull her in when she reached for the bottle, say “Not so fast, Pretty Bird” and kiss her with the sweet tang of chardonnay clinging to his moustache. 

It wasn’t the same now, of course, cooking on her own.  But it had become a habit, a way to decompress after a rough case.

And this had been a rough case.  Internet porn, for godsake!  At first, she thought it was a joke, and not ha-ha funny but how-ridiculously-psychotically-Brucelike-vindictive-was-everybody-going-to-get funny.  She’d blown up at Barbara when she got the assignment: It was bad enough that they sent her out of town as much as they could and had Batgirl keeping tabs on her whenever they couldn’t.  She was a member of the Justice League, how dare they, how dare they presume to send that little girl to tail her like she was some kind of witless CRIMINAL!  And NOW, now the great cyber-goddess Oracle had come up with a new cheap, petty way to insult her—let’s send her to Canada to investigate Internet porn.  Ha-ha-ha, Barbara, I’ll bet you and Dickie-the-dick were up all night cooking this one up!

It was a childish outburst, a bitter and humiliating outburst, and Dinah realized the moment the words left her lips that she’d lost control.  But rather than answer in kind, Oracle had only waited quietly until the venom spent itself, and then she waited a moment longer—either collecting herself, or else making sure Dinah had really finished. 

..::We’ll obviously have some personal matters to discuss when this is finished,::.. the crisp Oracle voice said calmly over the receiver.  ..::Right now, a man named Waters, an architect and father of two living in the suburbs outside Keystone, was sent an email by a coworker.  The email contained a link to a video on a website in which his daughter who ran away a year ago last November was ‘appearing.’  He contacted INSIDER, one of those TV news magazines, and they assigned one Harold Piskiter, an investigative journalist, who tracked the website as far as a ‘data center’ in Canada and hasn’t been seen since.  Now if the disappearance and possibly the kidnapping or murder of a journalist is beneath Black Canary, seeing as you’re a former member of the Justice League and all, then I’ll give the assignment to someone else.::..

“No,” Canary answered abashed.  “I’ll… take the case.  Barbara I-”

..::Good.  Transmitting the details to your com now.  Oracle out.::..

Dinah paused her recollections to test the consistency of the scone batter.  It seemed a little sticky, which was how she liked it.  She loaded a healthy dollop onto the fork and dropped it onto the waiting baking sheet.

“Who do you think you are?” a voice graveled accusingly from the window.

Dinah slammed down her spoon angrily.  “Don’t come into my home uninvited, okay, Dick?  And don’t stand there talking to me like I’m some criminal you’ve rousted or—”

Something stopped her from speaking.  Her voice simply seized, mid-word, and not from any telepathic pulse or mystical stripping of powers, but from a look.  A look of such loathing and disgust, a look of absolute primal hatred.  Nightwing pointed to his temple.

“See this, this is a mask,” he said gruffly, “Mask on, it’s Nightwing.  It’s business; it’s not personal. If I decide to be personal in my dealings with you, I take off the mask, and then you can call me Dick.  That’s the kind of distinction and respect I was taught, because I was taught how to live in this life, taught by the best.  Taught by a man of honor and integrity, a man you betrayed.”

Again Dinah tried to speak, but found her voice was utterly frozen. 

“Just like that cheating Ollie of yours.  No loyalty.  Not a thought to the good thing you were wrecking or the good people you hurt.”

No longer in her kitchen, Dinah found herself back at the old satellite Watchtower, the Oracle hologram hovering before her.

“So Ollie cheated on you,” Barbara’s voice said mockingly.  “You don’t deserve any better, Dinah.  You’re a coward.  You were a weak, miserable coward when you didn’t take a stand on Dr. Light.  You were a weak, miserable coward when you attacked Bruce, when he did what you wouldn’t.  You’ve been a weak, miserable coward every day since, pretending.  Hiding from yourself what a corrupt, deceitful coward you really are…”

Dinah found her voice at last, erupting into a fierce, uncontrolled canary cry that echoed off every surface in the satellite as the whole structure began to shake uncontrollably.  Only the Oracle hologram remained still and stable, as computer consoles sparked and bits of support beams fell from above.

“Taught by a man of honor and integrity,” Nightwing’s voice repeated in a deep, ominous voice not overwhelmed by her canary cry.  “A man none of you are good enough to serve with, no matter what kind of powers you have.”

On the word ‘powers,’ Dinah felt her cry fall back into her throat, choking her.  Her chest heaved, and she found herself bolting upright in bed, the ‘canary cry’ sensation in her throat transformed into a tense ball of nausea.  She raced to the bathroom, heaved a few times, and then made her way, weak-kneed back to the bed.  She sat for maybe a minute in a daze of cold-sweat and self-loathing.  Then she took a deep breath, stood, and got dressed.

 

Azrael located Huntress staking out a Goth club in the East Village.

There she is, Mortal, he said stoically.  But I warn you again, this plan is not sound.

No, no it’s not, Jean Paul agreed.  She’s going to think I’m the freakiest psycho she ever made the mistake of having coffee with, and I’ll never hear from her again. 

Then why are you resigned to this course of action, knowing it is doomed to fail?

Nightwing, that’s why.  Nightwing and Catwoman.   Assured mutual destruction, Az, that’s where we are now, thanks to you and your Nightwing-slept-with-Huntress maneuverings.  If I think of Catwoman while I’m with Helena, you’ll produce thoughts of Nightwing’s lips touching Helena’s—ew, oh, my eyes, don’t even go there, damnit, Azrael.  And that’s it; if that happens, we’re both out of the game.  She’s gonna be laying there all by herself, and if you think the bat clan can hold a grudge over something like a mindwipe—ha.”

I fail to grasp the analogy, Mortal. 

Assured mutual destruction, Az; like Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War, the only winning move is not to play. 

I concede that something of a stalemate has been reached.  Nevertheless, asking the lady to ‘choose’ seems to be a flawed course of action.

Yeah. Yeah it is, Az.  Because we’re going to have to tell her the whole thing: the Order of Dumas, the System… Right now, she thinks I’m a guy in a mask who can kick butt.  An hour from now she’s going to think I’m Norman Bates.

Unless you’ve got a better idea, Az. 

Mortal, as you well know, I am gifted with the sum knowledge of the Order of St. Dumas. That wisdom, regrettably, is rather spotty where women are concerned.

Something you might have considered before you stuck your nose into my lovelife.

Such recriminations are pointless, Mortal.  You should take it as a mark of the lady’s charms that my interest was piqued as it was, and a compliment to your own taste and judgment in choosing such a woman.

She is something, Jean Paul agreed.  She quotes the Godfather in bed, Az.  That’s what we modern men call ‘a keeper.’

That was the part about ‘ leaving the sword’—

And bringing the cannoli, yeah. What a woman, huh?

Indeed.

 

Oliver Queen kicked the door angrily when it didn’t open far enough in response to his furious pushing. 

“Damn damnit damn,” he growled. 

“That famous temper,” an amused, familiar voice cooed behind him.  “I’ve missed you, Ollie.”

He started, seeing that he had an unexpected visitor.

“Pretty Bird,” he smiled approvingly.  “You’re looking good.”

“What set you off?” she asked while he ushered her in and switched on the lights. 

“I taped the Rebels game,” he growled anew, “Going through hoops all night to avoid hearing the score or any details.  Last thing coming home, I stopped to gas up the cycle, and this blasted Officer Chattybadge spouts off the whole thing—lost in overtime—damn fascists.”

“Poor Ollie,” Dinah laughed, then as she went on, she segued into an uncanny impersonation.  “But since when you care about sports?  I thought they were all ‘a bunch of Neanderthals trying to prove their manhood in grotesque displays of one-upsmanship, nothin’ but a Who’s-Got-The-Bigger-Swinging-Johnson contest.’”

“They are,” he nodded crossly, although he was pleased she remembered his bluster in such detail.  “Besides which, free agency ruined the goddamn game,” he added.  “But I had a few dealings with one of the players last year, Pellosovich, his son was kidnapped.  Decent guy.  Been following a bit since then. 

He looked her over again, annoyance forgotten. 

“You’re still a slooow drink of whiskey, pretty lady.”

Dinah’s cheeks glowed.  She felt better in those ten seconds than she had in months. 

“So how’s Gotham; want some wine?”

“Um, sure,” she said lightly.  “Gotham’s, you know, the same.”

“Same as what, Berlin in the thirties?” 

“Not exactly,” Dinah said softly. 

Ollie looked up sharply.  His remark was the norm; her reaction was not.  There was no smiling roll of the eyes, no dismissive smirk; there was an undercurrent. 

“What’s the fascist done now?” he asked, handing her a glass of chardonnay.  “Usual decrees about his city, or has he moved on to strip searches and wiretapping.”

“No, it’s nothing,” she hedged.  “And not Bruce.”

“’Nothing’ and ‘not Bruce’ are two entirely different things,” he pointed out sagely.  “’Nothing’ means nothing is wrong in Gotham and you just came to see me because you missed the incomparable Queen charm.  ‘Not Bruce’ means there is something wrong that doesn’t happen to involve Bruce this particular time around.” 

He affixed her with that lovely, loving gaze that told a woman she could confide her innermost secrets to this sincere, caring soul.  When he spoke next, Dinah knew the voice would match the eyes, a tender, loving caress.

“What happened?” he asked gently.

“It’s Barbara.  Well, Dick too, but Barbara is the one that stings…”

She told the whole story, being sent out of town so often since the mindwipe came out.  Then this new case she’d been given, internet porn, how she’d blown up at Barbara, how she’d… she’d completely lost control of herself and screamed at Oracle like a brat throwing a tantrum or some kind of raving psychopath.  

Ollie frowned.

“Go on,” he said simply.

“She didn’t punch back,” Dinah said, ashamed.  “She waited, either collecting herself or making sure I was done spitting venom.”

“Don’t tell me,” he said, taking a healthy swig of wine, “she’s disappointed in you.”

“I’m disappointed in myself, Ollie.  I’ve been running from it for months and that was the last straw, it all came pouring out.”

“As well it should, damn Bats and his harping on the past.  You’ve every right to be pissed, Dinah.”

“Do I?  It was a real case, Ollie.  TV news show had a guy investigating the porn; he followed a lead to Canada and disappeared.  Turns out he’s dead.  It was a real case, and I bit Barbara’s head off because I assumed it was a punishment.  Why do you think that was, Ollie?  Why do you think I’m expecting to be punished by the bat clan?”

He ran a hand gently through her hair.  He looked at her critically for a long moment, stroking her hair soothingly, but behind the tender manner, wheels were turning and a debate raged. 

“Which answer do you want, Dinah?  You said you’ve been running from it, well here it is, turn and face it: You never really know who you are in this world until you have your illusions stripped away.  Then you give up, or you step up.  It was a League decision and the League acted on it.  I happen to think they made the wrong choice, and so do you.  But that was the vote, and that’s what we did.  And now you come here with this story and ask why you’re expecting to be punished, and there are two answers.  Do you want to give up, or step up?”

“Step up,” she said decisively.

“Shit,” Ollie cursed.

Dinah raised an eyebrow.

“I hoped you’d say give up,” he said. “Give up answer is: ‘Because they’ve all got sticks so far up their asses that they’re tasting wood.  If they can’t get past it and see all the good you’ve done, then screw’em. Come back to Star City, where you’ll always have a home, you’ll always be welcome, and you’ll always be accepted.’”

“I see,” Dinah said with a smile. 

He refilled her glass.

“It is appealing,” she admitted. 

He refilled his own.

“And if I came back, how long would it be before I found you in bed with three groupies and a bottle of Stoli?”

“Stuck in the past, just like a Bat,” Ollie grumbled, emptying his glass in a series of urgent gulps.

“What’s the step up answer, Oliver?”

“Remember Seattle?” he said musingly, “We’d get in around three, get naked, put on the TV, channel 6 had those Murphy Brown reruns back to back until six.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Remember the one where the distinguished older anchor had a laughing fit on the air?”

“No, I don’t really remember the shows, Ollie.  Just the quiet time, cuddling ‘til dawn.”

“You should remember this one.  It’s important.  Jim, the old anchor, has to report a news story that Bush got a bee sting in his fat republican tuckus.  Typical sitcom, everybody else has their yuks when the story’s coming off the wire, but he won’t.  He thinks it’s undignified.  So he goes on the air and cackles like a hyena.  Then he goes into hiding because he thinks that’s the only thing people will remember about him, that one moment in his long distinguished career.  His friends eventually find him and talk him out of it, because if he quits now, that is the only thing anybody will remember.  That’s why you’ve got to step up, Dinah.  You’ve done a lot of good in the Birds and in the League.  You quit now ‘cause of this, then it’s gone.  Cancelled out.  This is all you ever were.

“The give up answer is they need to get over it.  The step up answer is you do.  You haven’t really faced up to it ‘til now, Dinah.  What we did, what it means.  Well, now it’s out there.  No more illusions for anybody, them or you.  The question is if you can rebuild those relationships, now, as this new person—that still looks like a slow drink of whiskey, by the way.”

 

When Azrael first showed up, Huntress was glad of the company.  She explained how she learned of the Goth club from one of her students.  Several boys had new tattoos that were more disturbing than the usual stuff meant to raise parental ire.  She had nothing solid, no real evidence of drugs or a gang or… or anything really, but something seemed wrong, so she was keeping an eye on it.

Azrael spoke admiringly of her instincts, truly the greatest attribute any crimefighter or crusader might possess, and not one that could be learned either.  While instinct could be improved through training and experience, the raw ability was a gift of nature. 

“Since it’s all surveillance at this point,” Jean Paul said pointedly, “no fighting on the horizon or any other activity that relates to crimefighting, I figured this would be a good time to talk.”

“Oh shit,” Helena hissed softly.

Within Jean Paul’s mind, Azrael pounced on the unfavorable reaction.

Listen well, Mortal, the lady has no interest in your declarations.  She undoubtedly wishes to focus all her energies on the righteous task before us.

Jean Paul ignored the outburst.

“It’s not that kind of talk,” he said gravely.  “I wanted to explain what Azrael really is, and then if that doesn’t weird you out too much, I’ve got an important question to ask…”

Ten minutes—and 800 years—later, Jean Paul concluded his story. 

“So when my father died, Azrael emerged just like always.  I didn’t want to be an assassin, tried to ‘buck the system.’”

Helena chuckled and beneath the Azrael helmet, Jean Paul’s mouth dropped open.

“You’re the first person ever to laugh at that joke,” he said with a pleased timidity.

“I know a thing or two about fathers and the family business, remember?” she reminded him with a grin. 

Jean Paul smiled back even though she couldn’t see it under his helmet.  She really was a kindred spirit. Maybe, just maybe, this could work out after all.

“Anyway, everybody knows the next part. I tried standing in for Batman, and the bat mantle and the System didn’t exactly mesh.  But that’s when Azrael started to seem like something ‘different’ from me, separate… Back then it was an actual apparition, in the armor, talked like my father.  I know that sounds really nuts… I guess it kinda was.”

He grew quiet and waited for some kind of response. 

None came.

Within his head, Azrael had gone quiet as well, and Jean Paul had never felt quite so alone.

“Anyway, after, y’know, Batman, I thought of Az as a, a kind of program, bunch of mandates and psychological conditioning, all programmed into my head.  But then little over a year ago, I started to see it differently.  He likes different movies than I do, different pizza toppings, even different video games. He’s not a program, he’s more like a person… that just happens to live in my head.”

“I see,” Helena said carefully.

“No, you don’t.  I know I sound crazy.  But the fact is, Az is a separate person—and we both like you.  And, well, we kinda need you to choose.”

“Choose?”

“Who you want to be with.”

Be… with,” she repeated.

“Yeah.  Like to date ‘n’ stuff.”

“You mean fucking,” she said flatly.

“Uh, that too,” Jean Paul squeaked.

“Okay, well, I’m going to think this over and I’ll get back to you,” Helena answered sweetly. 

“Mhm.  Okay, g’bye then,” Jean Paul said with sad resignation.  “It was really special, Helena.  I don’t regret a moment of it.”

Helena sucked in her cheeks, squelching the impulse to deny she was breaking off the affair.

“Goodbye, Jean Paul,” she said graciously.  “It was a good night, and I, I’m glad I got to know you.”

Jean Paul turned to go, and then Azrael turned back.

“I too found it a privilege and delight to know a woman of such estimable quality,” he pronounced grandly.

“How… nice?” Helena managed as he took her hand and bowed over it formally.

Again he turned to go.

“That man leaving the club,” Huntress announced suddenly, “He has the same tattoo as my student.” 

Azrael returned to her side and peered off the edge of the roof.  There was a faint whirring sound as the lenses in his helmet changed focus.

“A skull warrior bent over the body of a vampire courtesan, it is the Kult der Schwarzen Freiheit, but they were dissolved centuries ago and their mark has not been seen since.”

“Well, kids will do all kinds of sophisticated research for their own purposes,” Huntress explained drawing on Helena’s classroom expertise. “It’s only if you try and drill the Treaty of Paris into their heads that you can’t get them to read five pages.”

“Yeah, but if they’ve been gone for centuries,” Jean Paul pointed out, “then it’s not something you could just Google.”

“You never know what turns up in Wikipedia,” Helena mentioned, “Especially if it’s mentioned in a comic book or something.”

“Nay,” the Azrael voice boomed dismissively, “The mortal is ‘a geek,’ remember.  If the Kult der Schwarzen Freiheit showed up in comic book, video game, or science fiction/fantasy novel, he would know of it.”

“Hmmm,” Huntress said thoughtfully.

“Let us confront the individual that wears the mark and compel him to tell us where he got his tattoo,” Azrael began, then shifted tone.  “Or maybe it’d be faster if you ask him, nicely, y’know.  Beautiful woman goes up to a guy and admires his ink, he’s ready to brag a bit, don’t you think?”

“That could work,” Huntress said smoothly.

“It could indeed,” Azrael agreed.

“Beautiful, eh?”  Helena asked with a blush.

“Gorgeous,” Jean Paul affirmed.

To be continued...

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