Post by Admin on Feb 23, 2018 16:48:41 GMT -5
Issue #26: “Dancing toward Disaster”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
We could be dancing to disaster,
We could fall with every step we take.
We could be dancing towards disaster,
With every thrill that we share,
We could be dancing to disaster
But I get the feeling we don't care.
There is no time left for wasting
Looking back round the corners we've turned.
Don't count the cost or we're lost,
For the bridges we have crossed have all been burned...
—Mike Batt, “Dancing Towards Disaster”
Tim was no stranger to freefall. It had been a major component of being Robin—up there with martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, evidence gathering, and computers. The cave under the manor was part of a vast network of underground tunnels and caverns, which included steep cliffs and sheer drops. Long before he’d ever leaped from a skyscraper rooftop, he’d fastened his lines to stalactites and rock formations and, under Bruce’s watchful eye, swung out over the chasms of the catacombs.
Experiencing freefall while immobilized in a weighted net with another person tied to him was an entirely different experience. On Hatter’s orders, the enthralled henchmen had unlocked a trapdoor and shoved them through. Now they were tumbling down a dark, narrow shaft, and it seemed to be taking a lot longer than it should to hit bottom. There was a strange scent in the air—one he couldn’t quite place. When he saw cupboards, bookshelves, and an empty jar of orange marmalade float past him, he suspected that the smell was some sort of hallucinogen. If so, it might also explain why he was finding it hard to focus, much less work on getting free of the tight mesh. Feeling Cass’s weight pressed against his—which, under different circumstances, might have been kind of nice—didn’t help. He was glad that she wasn’t panicking. Blind struggling was only going to get them more tangled up.
“Do bats eat hats?” A mocking voice crackled over a speaker system. “Do hats eat bats?”
Tim’s eyes widened as a dim light illuminated a large pork pie hat sitting at the bottom of the shaft. The hat flipped over of its own accord, revealing a row of sharp iron teeth arranged neatly around each half of the brim. The hat seemed to give a silent hiccup. Then the two rows snapped together like a bear trap and drew apart once more. Again and again they came together in a parody of chewing. A wooden cupboard plunged into the maw and Tim heard a series of loud grinding cracks as the hat set about reducing it to sawdust.
He resolved not to scream as they continued to plummet and the hat surged upwards, rising violently toward them…
“Thanks for coming in this late, Dick. Or should that be, ‘early’?” Sal Fiorini’s booming voice sounded much louder at this hour, without the constant background sounds of telephones, printers, faxes, and quiet conversations. Patrick Morgan Wayne Enterprises was never completely empty, but at 2 a.m., it was usually just the graveyard shift in the tech support call center, just the security guards, and the cleaning crew. Tonight, there was no graveyard shift; tech support was running from Metropolis. Meanwhile, tucked away in an office on the twentieth floor, Sal Fiorini, Dick Grayson, and two IT professionals were on-hand to implement the rollout of a new security system.
Dick looked up from the display on his computer terminal. “It’s no trouble,” he smiled. “I’m used to keeping late hours.” He’d long ago given up on trying to turn in early on his nights off, unless he was actually tired. It was a lot easier for him to keep up a consistent sleep schedule—even if he was out of sync with the majority of his colleagues. As for Sal… Dick had no idea what hours he kept, but whenever there was a security issue on the premises, the stocky executive was always on the scene.
“True. I just thought you might want to be on-hand when we implement your program.”
One of the IT people—a middle-aged woman whom Sal had introduced as Kristen Sanders—glanced up sharply. “That was yours?”
Dick nodded. “’Fraid so.”
“Why the heck aren’t you in IT?”
Dick spread his hands wide. “You’d better ask my boss about that. Sal? Why aren’t I in IT?”
Sal grinned. “Because I got you before Tal Moritz snapped you up.” He turned to the other tech. “Fabritzio?”
“Metropolis confirms they’re live. We’re set to go.”
“Good.” Sal looked at Dick again. “Nervous?”
“I shouldn’t be,” Dick replied. “Everything worked like a charm in the test region. I’ve rechecked the code at least a dozen times.”
“And we’ve gone over it at least a dozen more,” Kristen chimed in. “It should go off without a hitch.”
“Yes,” Sal nodded. “It should. So, the good news is that even if we do run into problems, nobody’s job is on the line over this. We’ve checked the angles. We’ve run the tests. Now let’s take this baby live.”
Fabritzio entered a line of text on his keyboard. “New building security parameters are now in play,” he replied.
“And we seem to still be standing,” Kristen announced with a straight face. “Um… I mean, rechecking other building systems now. So far, everything seems to be working fine, but it’s going to take a couple of hours before the scan’s complete.”
“I’ll make some more coffee, then,” Sal replied. “Seeing as we’re going to be here for a while.”
“I can do that,” Dick protested.
“So can I. You can put the next pot on, assuming we’ll need it. Let’s let the scan run and then we can set about getting the rest of our systems back from Metropolis.” He smiled. “Nice work, people.”
Dick smiled. He’d been pretty sure that his code would interface properly with PMWE’s existing systems. Moving the essential ones to the backup site in Metropolis was just a precaution. The real test would be how well it would react the next time someone attempted a bomb threat, or a system hack, or some other security threat. As sure as he was that his modifications would work, he hoped that it would be a long time before they’d need to be put to the test.
Tim fought not to close his eyes as they plunged toward the hat. If he was about to die—and he had to give Hatter props for this one; he’d never considered that he might meet his demise at the hands of a ravenous porkpie—he was going to stare death in the face as he did. He and Cass passed harmlessly through the steel jaws. Another hallucination, Tim thought, as they landed awkwardly on a pile of sticks and dry leaves.
“You. Okay?” Cass asked blearily. “How…?”
Tim groaned. “Yeah, Batgirl. Just fine. I think Hatter was just trying to keep us off-balance. In more ways than one.”
“Yes. It worked,” Cass said flatly.
Tim felt the cords dig in more tightly as Cass tried to sit up. “Don’t pull too hard,” he warned. “You’re cutting off my circulation.”
“Mine too. Sorry.” She slumped back down. “Can’t get loose anyway. Now what?”
“Now?” Hatter chortled, coming forward from the shadows. “Now you learn one of the deep secrets of life.”
Tim raised his eyebrows. He felt Cass tense behind him as she said, “What?”
“Why, yes, my young friends,” Hatter beamed. “One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” His smile took on a sinister note as he reached into his waistcoat pocket and extracted two silicon chips. “And you… are going to do something really worth the doing… for me.”
Hatter snapped his fingers and two of his hulking thralls approached the captives from either side. Rough hands seized hold of them, lifted them to their feet, and held them immobile, as Hatter drew closer.
A lot of the fine art of command, Derek reflected, was acting like you were in control. He knew about The Iceberg Lounge, of course. It was an open secret that its proprietor, Oswald Cobblepot, had underworld connections. This was always proclaimed with a wink and a nudge, because if Cobblepot were really as shady as reported, of course, he would have been arrested long ago. Many people believed he cultivated his reputation in order to attract a specific clientele.
Gotham criminals were often a flamboyant, colorful lot, and on any given night, Gothamites and tourists alike flocked to the lounge hoping to catch a glimpse of one. In New York and LA, it wasn’t uncommon to visit upscale restaurants hoping to spot a media celebrity. This wasn’t much different.
Also, Derek reflected, it wasn’t that different from visiting a zoo: people liked flirting with danger—so long as there was some sort of protective wall in place. There was an unwritten rule that if the more “ordinary” clients didn’t bother the “costumes,” then the costumes wouldn’t bother them. Anyone attempting to acquire an autograph was usually intercepted en route and politely, but firmly, asked to leave. There were stories about the fate of the last idiot who’d managed to reach Killer Croc’s table. Derek suspected that they were the stuff of urban legend. All the same, he kept to his own table, sipped his mineral water, and tried not to stare when he recognized Two-Face and known crime family scion Minas Falcone seated nearby.
“Mr. Powers,” a deferential voice broke into his thoughts. “I’m told you wanted to see me?”
Derek blinked. The youth standing before him didn’t look a day over fourteen. His dark hair was slicked back away from his face and he wore a quilted jacket that made his stocky frame appear all the more imposing. Under his eye-patch, a jagged scar emerged to cover his left cheek from eye socket to jaw. “I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly. “You are…?”
“Fixx. Mister Fixx,” the newcomer replied.
“You’re a little young for this crowd, aren’t you?”
Fixx shrugged. “You’re a little naïve for this crowd, aren’t you?”
“Not naïve enough to think that I can double-cross a,” he coughed, “regular patron of this establishment in a business venture,” Derek retorted. “Nor to think that I can do a job on my own.”
“I thought you had a business partner,” Fixx replied. “Or do you have fewer qualms about double-crossing him?”
Derek wasn’t offended. The youth had clearly done his homework. “That partnership is nearing dissolution,” he returned. “It seems we both want different things and we’re fast approaching a parting of the ways.”
Fixx leaned forward. “Do tell.”
Derek shrugged. “I want to have a career for the foreseeable future and, judging by my partner’s actions…”
“Ah. And how do I know that in a few months time, you won’t be approaching someone else with a similar offer?”
Derek smiled. “I don’t like to let competent people get away from me. I don’t suffer fools gladly, but then, I suspect that won’t be an issue between us.”
“Indeed,” Fixx replied, stroking his chin. “Rest assured, Mr. Powers, I’m older than I look. If you’re willing to work together despite my apparent youth…” he leaned forward and dropped his voice a few decibels, “Gus Mannheim suggested I get in touch with you regarding some… assistance?”
Derek went cold. He’d made some phone calls to people he’d had dealings with in the past to set this meeting up, but he’d never realized that they were connected to… It didn’t matter. He hadn’t had any qualms about doing Paxton’s dirty work. He’d known exactly what kind of restaurant this was and exactly the kind of people who patronized it. Better to go in fully aware of the kind of organization he was associating with. He relaxed. “There’s a… rumor going about regarding a,” he smiled, “a contest. Something about a cash reward for the person who develops a specific, um, rodenticide?”
Fixx rolled his eyes. “There are always contests like that. Poor odds, high risks, no place for amateurs. Is that all you wanted?”
Derek smiled. “I think I know a way to even those odds. And I pay well for anyone willing to assume some of the risks. If you’ll hear me out, Mr. Fixx, I think you’ll be rather interested in the details…”
Fixx smiled thinly. “Mmm. Considering that Gus has mentioned a few times that the main reason his brother Bruno hasn’t been able to get more than a toehold in Gotham is because of the local rodent problem, maybe we can help each other.”
“Well,” Derek said, steepling his fingers, “that sounds a bit more promising. I suppose the first stage in developing the product would be studying the rodent in question. What are its habits? What are its weaknesses? I’m in a fairly good position to figure that much out, seeing that I have the opportunity to observe it on a regular basis. However, when it comes to exploiting those weaknesses,” he sighed, “let’s just say that creativity isn’t always my strong point.”
Fixx poured himself a glass of ice water from the pitcher on the table. “Interesting,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Because it can be mine. For the right price…”
Bruce was sitting in his Accident Investigation class—they’d started that module this week—when the message arrived. As soon as they broke for lunch, he headed down the long hallway to the RTO offices. He knocked smartly on the open door and entered when bidden.
“Sir. Cadet Wayne reporting as ordered, Sir!”
Sgt. Fochs gave him a quick smile that faded just as quickly. There was a sheaf of papers on his desk, which Bruce instantly recognized as his own report on Jandt’s actions. Fochs picked it up and began reading through it slowly.
Bruce waited, still standing uncomfortably at attention, as the minutes dragged on. His back was itching and he was standing in a draft, but he’d been trained to withstand minor discomfort levels.
Fochs finally set the report down. “How many other witnesses were there to Jandt’s drinking?” he asked without preamble.
Bruce started to reply. “Sir, it—”
“At ease,” Fochs interrupted.
Bruce relaxed his posture. “Sir, it was a public affair. Any number of people might have observed his drinking. His wife and brother among them.”
“The brother you claim wants to keep the entire affair quiet.”
Fochs frowned. “Is there any chance that you misinterpreted what you saw?”
“Sir,” Bruce replied flatly, “I can only report on the events that I personally observed. I saw Jandt drink. I observed that he appeared to be mildly to moderately intoxicated. I heard his wife say that he usually allows her to drive when he is under the influence, but that this time, he failed to do so. And I heard his brother request that I sweep the matter under the rug.”
“Are you a supporter of Neal Jandt’s policies?” Fochs asked intently.
“I,” he hadn’t anticipated that question and hated being caught off-guard, “I haven’t made myself aware of them to date, Sir. However, it’s fair to say that after his behavior on Saturday night, I will be scrutinizing those policies a good deal more closely as municipal elections draw closer.”
Fochs didn’t smile. “An investigation is currently underway. IA will be speaking to you within the next day or so. I don’t have to tell you that all matters pertaining to this investigation, including your observations, are to be kept strictly confidential.” His eyes narrowed. “If they’re not part of this investigation, this isn’t their business. If they’re the subject of the investigation,” his voice grew colder, “we’ll decide what is and isn’t their business.” He waited for Bruce’s reaction. When he didn’t observe one, he continued. “In other words, Cadet Wayne, you filed a report pertaining to your observations on Cadet Jandt’s reactions. Do not discuss your observations with Cadet Jandt. He’ll have full opportunity to explain his actions and present his side.”
“Understood, Sir. Question?”
“Will the fact that he was under Hatter’s control be taken into consideration?”
Fochs’s face turned stony. “Not your concern, Cadet. You included that detail in your report. It has been noted and referred to the investigator. If you have anything else to add, save it for your interview.” He picked up the report again. “You’re dismissed, Cadet.”
Bruce saluted smartly and spun on his heel. He had to admit that Foch’s behavior had surprised him. From the way the RTO was acting, anyone would have thought that Bruce had been the one to crash his car while under Hatter’s control!
Bruce felt the familiar loathing when Farnham led them out to the firing range again. Although his handgun performance in the privacy of the Cave had improved rapidly, to the point where he was now at nearly 75 percent accuracy, things were different with an audience. Using a gun was opposed to everything he’d ever thought he stood for. Using a gun in public was more than horrifying. It was shameful.
Farnham was losing patience.
“Wayne! How hard is it for you to line up the three dots?” he demanded. “Or did they not teach you that in vigilante school?”
Maybe he only imagined that he was blushing, but his cheeks did feel as though they were burning. Of course he knew how to align his gun sights: the single dot of the front sight centered between the dots of the two rear. Pulling the trigger with the gun properly positioned was a different matter entirely. He gritted his teeth. This was all psychological; a simple issue of mind over matter. The problem was that in his mind, aiming a gun—even at a non-living target—was a serious matter.
“And your enemies were actually afraid of you?” Farnham demanded. “Your friends, sure. With aim like yours, I can see that. But how the hell did you strike terror into anyone else’s heart with that kind of shooting?” He shook his head wearily. “Get back in line.”
Bruce obeyed, muttering darkly under his breath.
“Repeat that, Cadet Wayne.”
Bruce fought down a surge of anger. “Nothing, Sir.”
“That didn’t sound like nothing, Cadet. I gave you an order. Are you going to obey, or am I going to assign this class twenty-five laps for your insubordination?”
He might well assign them anyway if Bruce repeated his comment aloud, he knew. Still, he squared his shoulders and replied. “Sir, I was commenting that when I faced my opponents in the past, I used batarangs, not guns.”
Farnham’s lips twitched. “Batarangs, Cadet?”
What the hell was so amusing? “Yes, Sir.”
The twitch became a full-blown smile. “Well, in that case, Cadet, you’re in luck. We’ve got some of your gear in Central Supply.” His gaze scanned the room slowly.
Someone coughed and Farnham pounced. “Cadet Norton!” he hastily scribbled an authorization on a notepad. “Report there and give the clerk this requisition. Bring back those… batarangs for the prima donna billionaire, over here!”
As Norton hurried to obey, Farnham called after him, “Meet us outside Simulation Room B!”
Simulation Room B looked like a barn from the outside. Farnham didn’t swipe his key-card to unlock it until an out-of-breath Norton returned with a cloth-wrapped package tucked under his arm.
They filed wordlessly into a darkened hall. Then Farnham flicked a switch and they looked around warily.
They were standing at the edge of an indoor junkyard. Before them stretched a sand-and-gravel floor that encompassed an expanse of junked cars, oil drums, crumbling stone walls, and piles of trash.
“Normally,” Farnham said smiling, “we wait until you’re used to the range and the other simulator before we let you try out this playground. But seeing as batarangs would ruin the screens in Sim A, I figured we could let Cadet Wayne show us how things are done.”
He turned to Bruce. “The task is simple. Cross the simulation ground and make it to the exit. As you make the attempt, you’ll encounter hostiles and friendlies. Take down the hostiles, spare the friendlies, and get out as fast as you can.” He handed Bruce the packet. “Any questions?”
Bruce unfolded the cloth. It was a medium-sized burlap sack. He reached inside and pulled out two stacks of batarangs, neatly tied into packs of ten. He should have realized, he thought with some dismay. For over a decade, he’d been incorporating tracking devices into the ‘rangs. It had made cleanup easier and helped perpetuate the whole ‘urban legend’ myth. When GCPD picked up the ‘rangs at a crime scene, he simply followed the tracker, slipped into the evidence room (or wherever else they were being kept), and retrieved his property. Of course, some had inevitably ended up in civilian hands, but then, there were also some decent replicas available for purchase on F-Bay. The authentic ones got lost in the shuffle. At any rate, a stray batarang in a private home hadn’t been a concern. Batarangs in an evidence locker, where they might be studied, catalogued, and possibly reach the attention of an organization like Checkmate or Task Force X had always been a bigger worry in the early days. Once he got on the radar of outfits like that, he’d known they wouldn’t rest until they’d found out who he was and tried to force him to join up. The last thing he’d wanted was to be roped into some organization and compelled to follow someone else’s rules.
He grimaced. He’d never had much appreciation for irony. The little he had was wearing thinner every day.
The batarangs he held now, Bruce realized, were from his early days. They were lighter, and the weight distribution was a bit different from that of the models he’d taken to using later on. Something must have showed in his expression, because Farnham took a step closer. “Problem, Cadet?”
Bruce took a deep breath. “No, Sir.”
He met his first hostile before he’d taken five steps. As soon as he flung the ‘rang, he knew his aim was off. The wing-point struck a glancing blow to the wooden cut-out’s hand. Had it been a real foe, the wound wouldn’t have been more than a scratch. He pressed on.
His eyes narrowed when the ground gave a fraction more under his foot than it should have and he dove behind a pile of crushed cars for cover. Three hostiles—no, two and a friendly—popped up. Two more batarangs promptly dispatched the hostiles.
By the time he’d thrown his fifth batarang, the weight was sitting properly in his hand again. And by the time he’d covered a third of the distance, he’d forgotten about Farnham, forgotten that he had an audience, forgotten that this was supposed to be some stunt to take him down a peg or two. He kept one eye fixed on the door at the far wall, even as he devoted the majority of his focus to the life-sized wooden cut-outs that popped up without warning, taking care not to attack the ones painted like police officers or civilians. He moved cautiously, but with purpose, using every scrap of available cover. When he had to come out in the open, it was with a lightning-fast dash that took him from one set of shadows to another.
After what seemed an eternity, he came to the end of the sandy gravel of the simulation zone. He stepped back onto concrete flooring and touched the door at the far wall.
“Go through the door, come around, and come back in through the front,” Farnham called out.
Bruce acknowledged the order. It was chilly outside and he covered the distance at a jog. When he pushed open the door, he was greeted by a mix of smiles and stunned stares. He realized that he was still holding three batarangs and he held them out to Farnham uncertainly.
Farnham took them with a fleeting smile. “You still need to qualify with a handgun,” he rumbled. “However, if you can come within 20 seconds of your time for today’s exercise, you’ll pass with flying colors. I’ll see you at the range tomorrow.” He looked around.
“That goes for all of you!” he bellowed. “Dismissed!”
Bruce spun on his heel, but not before he caught the grudging approval in the firearms instructor’s eyes. Then Kotsopoulos slapped him on the back and he managed to stifle his combat reflex.
Parade drills were next. Bruce hated them. They made him feel like a trained monkey. He’d never exactly been one to keep in step with everyone else. At least, he told himself, his problem was mostly psychological. Some of the other cadets had found it physically difficult to coordinate their moves. They were finally coming together. Which meant, Bruce thought, that Severin was due to change the routine.
“Right,” Severin snapped when they finished the last drill. “How many of you think you know your way around a horse?”
Bruce and three others raised their hands.
“Brenner, Norton, Parsons, Wayne. Tomorrow at this time, the four of you will report to the Academy stables. Captain Alanguilan will instruct you in mounted drills for the next two weeks. Don’t expect it to be a vacation just because I won’t have charge of you. Dismissed.”
When they headed back to the lockers to get changed for physical training, a messenger was waiting with an envelope for Bruce. When he opened it, he found that he was ordered to report to the administration building after his second class tomorrow. There was no reason specified, but Bruce had a strong suspicion it had something to do with the Jandt investigation.
Bruce was barely aware of the drive home. He was half-convinced that he could have done it in his sleep, although he wasn’t fool enough to attempt it. He wanted nothing more than a hot bath and sleep, but he had the Criminal Justice quizzes to grade, a report to write, and a Search and Seizures test to prepare for. This was on top of the normal material to review, to ensure that he would have an answer ready if one of the instructors called on him. He knew that they threw him harder questions and expected more thorough answers. Most of the time, he didn’t mind. It kept the class interesting for him. However, with everything that had happened since Saturday night, he wouldn’t have minded catching a break.
He came home to a dark and quiet house. He supposed that Selina was off on some errand. He sighed. Once in a while, it wasn’t terrible to have the house to himself, although he was glad it didn’t happen often. Farnham wasn’t going to let up on the gun handling, he knew. He might as well work in a drill now. He headed for the cave.
To his surprise, Selina was downstairs, using her whip to perform a modified trapeze routine, while Helena looked on from the fenced-in play area. His lips twitched. If anyone had suggested that he’d one day have a play area in the cave, fenced or otherwise, he probably would have laughed—in costume.
“Bruce!” Selina’s greeting interrupted his thoughts. “I’ll be right down!”
So saying, she snapped her whip and coiled it around one of the trapeze swings, then swung off her perch and sailed across the training area. As she reached the lowest point of her arc, she jerked the whip loose and flipped gracefully to the mat below, planting her feet solidly for the landing. As she walked toward him, however, Bruce could see the tension in her expression.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, taking an unconscious step toward her.
She sighed. “Harrier and Batgirl didn’t come back from patrol. They were following up a lead on Tetch. Barbara told me they both had their comm-links on, but their last known location had them heading into a shielded area. They were going to the lower levels of the old Apex Building. That far underground, communications—”
“—can be erratic,” Bruce nodded. “Yes, I know. But if they haven’t come back and they were on Hatter’s trail…”
“Yeah.” She clasped her hands together behind his neck and leaned forward to kiss him. “I’ll be careful,” she said. “Watch Helena? Jim’s over at Barbara’s now, but he said he can look after her when he comes back, if you need to study.”
“I do need to study,” Bruce admitted. “But I can do that down here for a bit. And she should be going to bed in about an hour, at any rate.”
“She should,” Selina smiled. “But she might have her own ideas about that one.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “She’ll just have to accept that she can’t have everything she wants.”
He glowered when Selina let loose a peal of laughter as she headed back upstairs.
The signal hadn’t gone up, but Batman didn’t need it to know that there was trouble. He was sitting on the balustrade of an Old Gotham apartment building, looking down at the street below, and trying not to worry. Tim and Cass were formidable fighters on their own. Together, they should have proved the equal of most foes. Their vanishing without explanation did not bode well. Oracle had been monitoring radio frequencies and keeping a close watch on the Iceberg’s activity, hoping to hear some word of what might have happened to them. He was sure that they were alive. If they weren’t, the news would have spread fast—stuff like that didn’t stay quiet for long. No, he was sure that they were alive. He just didn’t know what had happened to them. He swung up, flipped, and landed solidly atop the balustrade. It was a good deal wider, he thought absently, than the high-wire he’d learned to walk as a toddler. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he started walking, balancing on the edge, fifteen stories high.
If it had been Bruce, he wouldn’t have worried. Well… no. He would have, but it would have been a different kind of worry. Bruce wasn’t exactly in the habit of checking in—something that had driven him crazy when he’d been Robin. Bruce hadn’t let him patrol on school nights, and Dick had often fallen asleep while waiting to hear his mentor’s tread on the stairs, or his voice in the study. First thing in the morning, he’d slowly ease open the door of Bruce’s room and peek in to reassure himself that, yes, Bruce had made it back safely. If he wasn’t there, Dick’s next stop was the cave. Usually, his search would end there. If Bruce hadn’t made it upstairs, he’d either be hunched over a computer in the cave, or lying on a cot getting patched up by Alfred.
But then there were the times that Bruce didn’t make it back for days, sometimes more than a week at a stretch. There were times when it was unavoidable. League business sometimes took him outside the solar system. There’d been that one time when someone had knocked him out and stuffed him into a baggage car on a train bound for the West Coast. By the time Bruce had come to, he’d been hours outside of Gotham and unsure how to get back. Dick privately suspected that he’d been too embarrassed to call for help. But there were the times that Bruce had decided that there was something he needed to investigate, gone off the grid, and left them wondering whether he was alive or dead. As terrifying as those days had been, at the back of Dick’s mind, there had usually been a calm, rational voice, saying “This is Bruce. This is what he always does.” And later, when he was older, it had been, “Why does Bruce always do this?” He’d hated it, but he’d also accepted that sudden disappearances and long stretches of silence were part and parcel of knowing Bruce.
They weren’t part and parcel of knowing Tim or Cass. He was worried about them.
All at once, he tensed, realizing that he wasn’t alone. Reaching into his belt for a batarang, he spun and leaped lightly to the rooftop. Then he saw who it was. “Hey. I was wondering what happened to you…”
Bruce rubbed his forehead and reached for the next test paper. He positioned the page next to the answer key and set to work. It surprised him a bit that, in this day and age, the multiple choice papers were still graded manually. He would have thought that the GCPA would have computerized the process. Perhaps, he thought, it was a deliberate ploy to pile more work on the squad leaders. He wasn’t even sure if he was joking about it; every aspect of the academy seemed to serve a dual purpose: to create excellent officers and to weed out anyone who couldn’t handle it. He rubbed his forehead again. The first five answers on the key were A-A-C-C-D. And on the test paper, it was... A-A-C-C—
Bruce closed his eyes as his daughter’s merry squeal interrupted his train of thought. He looked up and waved back. “Hi, Helena.”
Helena beamed. “Out’ide?” she implored, trying to scramble over the security gate. “Out’ide?”
A breath of fresh air would be welcome, but he didn’t have time. “Not now, Helena.”
“Out’ide!” she repeated.
Bruce shook his head wearily and went back to the paper. The next answer was a B and he marked it wrong. Then he realized that he’d actually been looking at question 6. That one was a B. He reached for the white-out, wondering whether the error would cost him additional push-ups. He didn’t care if it did, not really, but he hoped that it wouldn’t cause a communal punishment for the rest of the class. Calhoun would probably come up with some justification, something like, ‘when the ranking officer messes up, sometimes the people under him suffer too.’ It sounded like the kind of thing she’d say, he thought darkly.
A bell-tone drew his attention to the security array, but he relaxed when he saw who it was. “Selina’s out looking for you,” he said, when Tim approached. “Did you let Oracle know that you’d made it back?”
Tim didn’t answer.
With some irritation, Bruce swiveled his chair around to face him. “Tim?”
Instinct made him throw himself to one side. The H-shaped throwing knife missed him by less than a millimeter. As Bruce spared a disbelieving glance for the blade now embedded in his chair at throat-level, he registered that Tim was already tossing another.
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