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Good Soldiers

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‘Are you going out tonight?’

The question is casual, drops lightly from Max’s lips; its intent is anything but.

‘I thought I should.’ – Dana’s reply is equally easy dinnertime conversation. – ‘There won’t be anyone else watching the streets tonight, after all. What with, you know, that.’

‘It’s tonight?’ Max’s hand freezes where she was reaching for her spoon.

The timepiece on the wall is cheap, a plastic board on the blink, but the LEDs still flash, lazy though they are.

‘It’s eight o’clock,’ Dana says, glancing up. ‘The service must’ve started already. You weren’t at the wake?’

‘No,’ says Max, ‘I wasn’t.’ She scrapes up the last bits of gratin cheese from her plate, pushes it into her mouth, bites hard on the metal cutlery to calm her racing pulse.

‘You should go soon,’ she continues. ‘Especially if you’re the only one getting any work done tonight.’

Dana’s laugh is brittle. ‘All the people in town, today, all the capes, and I’m the only soul on patrol.’

‘Need help suiting up?’

It slips out, something she didn’t even plan on asking.

Dana’s expression is hard to read; they’re getting good at that, these days, exchanging one mask for another like the poet wrote over a hundred years ago. Preparing faces for the faces that they meet. You don’t even need a cape, a cowl, a domino. Invisible masks hide the most.

Then – ‘All right,’ Dana says, all of a sudden toneless. Another forced laugh. ‘You know your way around the electronics, don’t you, after growing up with Ter.’

That’s a joke, Max knows, because Dana’s dress is as back-to-basics as possible, lightweight for manoeuvrability, skintight, unarmoured. Dana insists it’s what she’s more comfortable with, but privately Max wonders how much of it is meant to scream, Look at you, Ter, dependent on your costume, even now.

It is an unease in one’s skin, Max reflects, that sends one into a frenzy to shed it, to replace it with the skin of another. But there is a taboo on that leather cape, on the shadow of the Bat. Somewhere inside they are aware that they are mere pretenders, pope and antipope, children playing dress-up in clothes that do not fit.

Even tonight?

Especially tonight.

In Dana’s culture bats represent a change of fortune, the welcoming of prosperity.

There is a menorah in the window, which is Max’s way of saying she can still believe in hope, after all her years in Gotham. There is a red altar beside the kitchen door, Dana’s, with the porcelain figures of Fu Lu Shou.

There is hope in this household. Maybe.

Max thinks of Dana flying over rooftops, on this night of all nights, flipping and twisting in the air high above the dirges and ululation of the funeral. Maybe she’ll meet the old man’s soul, floating past her in the sky; maybe she’ll meet his ghost; maybe she’ll leave him far behind, going higher amongst the ’scrapers than he ever climbed before.

‘I’ll help you dress.’ Max finishes her glass of water in one swallow.

* * *

She owes the Old Man a lot, there’s no getting away from that. He gave a chance to two scrawny kids from the wrong side of the city, turned one of them into his son and the other into – well, a niece, if not a daughter. On these nights, though, she can’t feel grateful, because she can’t but feel he held them back, and not unintentionally.

Max is not Barbara Gordon. In so many ways she is not-Babs, so many ways she cannot count. She wasn’t born into society, never danced in tea-dresses, nor went to college on a ‘father’s scholarship’. The calmness of self that Gordon projects has never been part of her hyperactive nature. There’s no word on the street about an eye in the sky, like there was for the Oracle in the Clocktower.

But then she never called in favours to build HQ, because she had no contacts to ring up. Her PhD she earned for herself. This life she built for herself.

Max won’t call herself Oracle, won’t call herself a legacy hero. She doesn’t want to wear that cape, it’s not hers to inherit.

She shakes the thought off, and says into her mic, ‘Slow night, babe?’

‘Slow night,’ Dana agrees. ‘I’m sure the old-timers are paying their respects.’

‘Jokerz won’t care. Royal Flush won’t care.’ They weren’t around, like Ivy and Freeze were, in the old days. They didn’t fight alongside the Bat for so long that they forgot which side of the line was theirs. No respect. Children these days, no respect.

Of course, Max and Dana and Ter, they didn’t do any of that, either.

‘Point taken,’ says Dana, anyway. ‘I’ll keep my eyes open.’

Dana takes her advice, when she gives it. She’s been looking at patterns since high school. She has her own files, separate from the Bat-cave, and likely more detailed than anything Terry has. She’s seen the old man’s files; he got sloppy at record-keeping, as the years went by.

‘Hey,’ says Dana, after a beat.

‘Yeah?’

It’s not safe to have only half your mind on the job, so – maybe a little reluctantly – Max closes the accounts folder from work and calls up a police map of the city instead.

‘I was wondering,’ Dana continues, almost to herself. ‘You know the Joker? What happened to him, hm?’

‘What?’ What?

‘The Joker. Never caught, never found. No body.’

Oh, honey. That’s not my story to tell.

It’s a secret de Polichinelle in the industry, a veritable open secret. Like Barbara’s gunshot wound from all those years back. The Joker’s disappearance. Robin’s retirement. One of those secrets the Old Man imposed on everyone. ‘For my name, for my house, you will never speak of this.’ And for his sake they let him draw over history like the shadow-man he was.

It galls Max, all the secrets she keeps for the Old Man, even though he’s gone, even though he’s been dead this past week. He had a way of doing that, a presence, forbidding, threatening. He never meant to, but they knew what he stood for. Old money, an old lineage, and power.

‘Ah, heck,’ says Dana, and Max’s heart jumps at the change of topic, thud-thud-thud like she never knew how panicked she was. ‘It’s late, it’s three a.m. Nothing to report, love. I’m coming home.’

Max is burrowed under the bedclothes by the time Dana clambers through the open window, and is asleep when she slips beneath the sheets after her shower.

She sleeps fitfully. It is not a good night.

* * *

Grayson & Anders is on the corner of Essen and Tenth, with an art deco façade gussied up for the world. Max sails in, across its marble tiles, into the gilded elevators, with the insistent feeling that she is walking into another world.

She is a little uncomfortable with the fact that it is not-exactly the Old Man’s place.

Still, it is reassuring to know how she draws glances.

She came back all doctored up. Maxine Gibson, PhD. And if someone else’s idea of a Dr Gibson doesn’t come with purple hair, huge hooped earrings, casual pantsuits – well, more fool them. After what seemed like forever at MIT – seriously, the winters there are brutal and the summers even meaner – it feels good to be in Gotham, dressed as she pleases, the slightly-hazy breeze playing on her face and bare arms.

It feels just as good to be in this lovely, rich building, with the air-conditioning cool on her skin. Like a trespasser, even though her presence is legal. That feeling is delicious.

She’s not quite free, white, and twenty-one. She loves it, loves being not, loves being a person that the Old Man, a prisoner of his palace, was never.

Max is almost to her office when she hears her name.

‘Maxine! Dr Gibson! Maxine.’

She turns; it’s Mr Grayson, beckoning her to his office.

Mr Grayson. Richard.

She’s been caught staring at his face before. Her colleagues, the ones who don’t know her well enough, assume she’s sweet on the boss. In fact she sometimes gets lost matching jawlines to masks, and asking herself how anyone could ever have thought that mullets went with that white-and-gold circus costume.

Mr Grayson. Richard. Nightwing.

She trips over his names.

‘I saw Flamebird in the morning papers,’ says Mr Grayson.

‘Haven’t read the papers yet.’

It’s a dance, a guarded dance. They know each other; they know the other knows. But in the office they can’t be anything except Mr Grayson, CEO, and Dr Gibson, the crazy lady in Computing. And they don’t meet outside the office.

Maybe they should, but it’d be a sprocking costume party, what a laugh.

‘You weren’t at the funeral service,’ he says.

It sounds like an accusation.

‘Well, Flamebird was out last night. It’s in your morning papers.’ Max takes a breath, and adds, ‘Besides, he wasn’t my father.’

It is a cruel thing to say. Did they write that on his headstone? she asks herself. Putting him down in the family ground, beside the here lie Thomas and Martha, dearly beloved. Was he dearly beloved? Was he a loving son? Did they write he was a loving father, too?

She wonders, sometimes, how she got this job, but she’s aware also that she shouldn’t ask. For what it’s worth, she doesn’t believe Terry or the late Old Man had anything to do with it; her suspicions are more inclined toward the second Lady Shiva, the woman who mentored Dana. Richard has referred, once, obliquely, to a younger sister named Cass.

She wonders what kind of father the Old Man was.

‘It was a good service,’ says Mr Grayson, hesitantly. ‘Terence McGinnis gave the eulogy. He was a good son.’

‘And you?’

‘I?’ A laugh, fragile and sharp as glass, like the laughs Dana gives now when they talk about their night work. ‘I was a good soldier.’

‘Aren’t we all,’ answers Max, and turns to leave.

On her desk, when she gets back to it, she finds the usual reports to be read, the usual forms to be filled, and one of those brown paper envelopes that Mr Grayson will describe as ‘some stuff for my daughter Mari’.

She made the mistake of asking, once, if his daughter was named for Ms Macabe. She never asked again.

But she relishes the challenge those envelopes-for-Mari give, when they land once-in-a-while in her in-tray.

Her extension rings.

‘Hello?’

‘Lunch?’ – It’s Richard.

The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth. She pauses.

‘Why not,’ says Maxine Gibson.