The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
The doorknob is cold under his hand.
Out in the hall, Terry looked startled to see him. Bruce isn't sure why. To be more specific, he's not sure what would be worse: if Terry thought Bruce wasn't physically capable of making it down to the hospital, or if he didn't think Bruce would come to see Tim.
"Hello, old man," Tim says roughly. Barbara says nothing, but her hand is tight around the rail at the side of the bed.
He doesn't know what to say.
"I'll see you later, Tim." Barbara leans down and hugs him, then leaves, just brushing Bruce's arm on her way out. Only as she passes him do her eyes begin to brighten with tears. Bruce crosses to her empty chair and sits, gratefully.
The silence hums around them. It lasts longer than it should. There are dark circles under Tim's eyes, but he looks alert enough. He's only in for observation, after all. He'll probably be home tomorrow.
He doesn't smile, but he does reach over and put his hand over Bruce's wrist. "It's okay."
"It's all right, Bruce." Tim squeezes Bruce's wrist, his grip firm but careful. "You came."
He doesn't sleep much that night. As usual. Ace is still resting on the couch, paws twitching softly in his sleep. Bruce brushes a hand over the dog's head, then turns and goes down to the Cave. As he sinks down in the elevator, he's steeling himself against the sight of its violation. The broken glass, the Robin costume torn from its stand, the graffiti trailing down the stairs. But when the doors open, the glass has been swept away. The graffiti has vanished. Patches of the floor are wet, and the air reeks of solvents and cleansers.
Terry moves out of the shadows. He smells of chemicals, too, and there's a paint-smear up one side of his face.
Bruce stares him down. "You have the week off, McGinnis. I didn't think I'd have to remind you."
"Yeah, well." Terry's eyes are red. Possibly from the chemicals.
He lowers himself carefully into his chair, powering up the computer with a touch. There are streaks on the monitor, but it's usable. Terry makes a disgruntled noise behind him. "You have to rest sometime, Bruce."
"I am resting."
Terry snorts, then comes to stand at his shoulder. There are still faint smears of red paint on the control board. Terry's probably been at this for hours.
"So... how'd it go with Drake?"
Bruce's ribs hurt. There was a look Tim used to give him, when he didn't think he was being observed. Old and knowing, sarcastic but fond. It had always looked so very out of place on a boy of Tim's age...
He's grown into it.
He held Bruce's hand. Wouldn't let go until Bruce promised: Thursday night, dinner. He'll meet Tim's wife, his children.
"It was fine."
"Terry." The promises weren't all that hard to make. "Thank you. Go home."
"Hm," Terry says.
Bruce doesn't hear him leave, but he knows when he's alone.
However uncharacteristically, Terry does take the next few days off. Bruce doesn't see him in the cave, and the suit isn't activated even once. Perhaps Terry's proceeding on the logic that if he rests, so will Bruce.
It's a theory.
Thursday night comes soon enough. Tim sends a pre-programmed route for the car. Bruce stops along the way and picks up flowers for Tim's wife.
"Oh!" Ann Drake's smile says very clearly that if Bruce hurts any member of her household, she'll have his head on a spike despite his senior citizen status. "They're lovely. Thank you."
Tim's sons, Jimmy and Paul, are fourteen and twelve. His daughter is nine. The boys take after their mother, both in their fair coloring and in their caution around Bruce. Their reticence isn't hard to understand. Bruce doesn't suppose Tim has ever spoken about him very warmly, and if the boys have done any research at all...
Officially? Tim Drake was kidnapped, in order to extort a ransom from his wealthy guardian. After his rescue, he spent over a year in various hospitals, under the care of Leslie Thompkins, and the rest of his adolescence in one European boarding school after another.
If the boys know that their father has nightmares, then they must also know why.
"Clear out, kids," Tim says, coming in from the kitchen. He reaches to tousle Jimmy's hair, getting Paul instead when his brother ducks. "I want to talk to the old man."
The boys head out into the backyard. Allie follows. Tim settles down on the couch and smirks. "You don't have to be on your best behavior. I already told them you were a cranky bastard."
Bruce laughs, shortly. It hurts. "Thanks."
On the other side of the clear patio doors, Jimmy's trying to involve Paul in a soccer game by repeatedly kicking the ball at his feet. Paul's standing still and staring down at his handheld, letting the ball bounce off him and back to Paul. Allie's shouting for someone to boost her onto the trampoline. Tim's got a nice place, here. A good life.
It doesn't make Bruce feel any better about sending him away.
The boys help their mother clear the table. Tim and Bruce retire to the back yard to watch the sun set over the city. Tim lifts Allie onto the trampoline, then picks his way through the toys scattered in the grass, back to the plastiform patio chairs.
"She'd sleep on that thing if we let her," Tim says as his daughter flips and bounces. Allie doesn't squeal or yell, just practices springing higher and higher, over and over, tumbling and popping up again. Bruce recognizes some of the moves. Tim sees him noticing.
"You're never too young to learn."
Bruce can't tell from the tone if that was a dig. He doesn't think so.
He takes a breath. Looking Tim in the face is... difficult. But this is why Bruce came. He's been avoiding this too long.
"Are you all right?"
Tim smiles crookedly. "Some nightmares."
"I've had nightmares since Arkham." Tim says, rubbing at his jaw. "I remember thinking... if that was the worst of it, I was getting off easy. You had nightmares, and you did okay."
Bruce huffs a laugh.
"I always knew what you were thinking." Tim looks out at the deep red sky.
"I know." It was one of the reasons Bruce chose him.
"That doesn't mean you don't have to say it out loud," Tim says, then winces, making the same short tsk-noise he always did when a punch or a kick got away from him.
On the trampoline, Allie bounces higher and higher, tumbling and rolling from one edge to the other. Bruce thinks she's too close to the edge, but Tim doesn't say anything. Bruce holds his tongue.
It's getting cold out here in the shadow of the house, and Bruce's joints ache. He doesn't move. "It wouldn't have been fair to bring you back, when you couldn't be--"
"--Robin. I was too far gone. I had no place for anyone that wasn't..." He grits his teeth. "It would have been wrong."
He watches Allie execute a perfect backflip without ever taking her eyes off her father, or his guest.
"I thought it would be better. A clean break. I didn't want to hurt y--"
"It's okay, old man." Tim says, and the sharp reproach in his voice is no less than Bruce deserves. Too little, too late. "I get it." He frowns, stubborn and frustrated, the lines in his face abruptly defined.
This is an expression Tim has worn often over the years. It occurs to Bruce that his wife and children have never known a man that didn't look just like this-- a man bleaker and older than he should be, a man who's seen too much.
"Just... let it be," Tim says, and sighs.
Bruce's throat hurts. He nods.
That night Bruce's dreams are worse than they've been in years. Images and scenarios flare and bubble in the darkness. He's searching for Tim. Caught in the quake of '09. Someone's at his side. Someone touches his shoulder. When he turns to look, it's only ever ghosts.
Barbara's bleeding through her bandages. The blood's spreading across the bed and his hands are helpless, fumbling. He can't find the wounds. "Bruce," she says, hands twisting in the sheets. "Give me back my heart."
He doesn't listen; he can't afford to be distracted. He has to stop the blood. A half-burned oak beam finally snaps, falling with a clatter into a pile of fire-scarred timbers. Bruce looks up. Dick is moving through the ruined west wing of the house. His shoes and cuffs are black with soot. "Rebuild?" His eyes are burning. "Why?"
A torn tapestry hangs above them on the only remaining wall. It shows a boy lost in a forest, a field of stars above and below. Tim's body is so small.
The last light of a red sunset falls over Dick's face. "I say let it burn."
When Bruce gathers up Tim's small form it unravels like a puppet, white and red and black strips of cloth unrolling, spilling in every direction. He tries to clutch them, keep them close, but they flush redder, wet and dripping with blood. It seeps through the bandages and overwhelms them, and that's when he realizes it's coming from his own hands, seeping from his own skin. Wet on his lips and over his tongue.
"It never comes out." The voice over his shoulder might be his own. Someone breathes cold on the back of his neck. He doesn't turn, doesn't speak. Everything about him is poison. Hands, mouth, voice. He can feel it dripping slow through his eyes. The shadow that falls over his shoulder is so familiar...
His eyes fly open, and his heart is pounding, pounding.
He goes down to the Cave; he has to stop three times along the way to catch his breath. His bad leg aches, as well, but the leg is mostly psychosomatic. He doesn't let it slow him down.
Terry's out patrolling. Back on schedule. The monitor shows that he hasn't stopped by the Cave tonight. There's no reason he should have, Bruce reminds himself. Terry doesn't need a babysitter any more.
But over the next few nights, it becomes obvious that Terry's avoiding the Cave. When briefings are necessary, he shows up, doesn't crack jokes, and leaves as soon as he can. He drops off evidence and doesn't stick around to get the analysis in person. Sometimes he sends it in the car and doesn't come in at all. If he arrives at the manor early, he wanders the halls or the grounds instead of coming down to the Cave. Bruce watches him sometimes, on the monitors. His face is always blank, unworried.
Terry's in the manor now.
Bruce tries to school his face into something only mildly reproving, as he rises from his chair. He doesn't... he can't blame him. He remembers the report detailing the Warren McGinnis murder scene. He knows that the Joker's modus operandi must have struck a chord in the boy's memory.
Terry didn't obsessively scour the graffiti from the walls of the Cave entirely out of consideration for Bruce's sensibilities.
He follows a thumping sound down the hallways of the Manor, timing his footsteps to coincide with the sounds in order to hide his approach to the ballroom.
The invasion of the Cave is the kind of thing that could throw Terry off his game, if he lets it. Even if that's what's going on-- Bruce won't let it. Terry is better than that.
He pushes open one tall door. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm not the Bat twenty-four seven, you know. I just work here."
Bruce stands in the doorway, and waits.
"Ace was bored." Terry pushes his hair out of his eyes and grins as he wrestles the tennis ball out of Ace's tightly clamped jaw. He wings it down the length of the ballroom with a smooth movement, and Ace goes bounding after it, untrimmed claws scrabbling on slick marble.
The ball gets one bounce before Ace snaps it out of the air and takes a victory lap around the ballroom. Terry chases him down, not as efficiently as he could. His movements are calculated in their lack of calculation, playful enough not to trigger Ace's defensive responses. He gets the ball back, tosses a smirk over his shoulder at Bruce and raises it to throw again.
"Your birthday is next month." Bruce times the remark exactly, and Terry's throw goes wild, the tennis ball smacking into a wall-mounted candelabra and knocking it sideways. Terry plasters an I-meant-to-do-that look on his face and Ace pounces, barking the ball into submission before snapping it up.
"What? I mean, yeah, it is."
"I assume you'll have plans with... people. But make time on the evening of the twenty-third. Formal dress." Bruce turns from the door.
"Formal? How come?"
Safely out of sight, Bruce lets himself smile. "That would be telling."
"A magic show." Terry says flatly, as they make their way up the velvet-carpeted stairs. "This is revenge for the musical, isn't it."
He's not really complaining. He's testing. Bruce ignores him, leading the way towards their box seats.
"Zatara the Second, Master of Magic, in his first North American Grand Tour." Terry reads from the program. "This your way of telling me I need to study up on escape artistry?"
"Well. Now that you mention it..."
"Yeah, thought so."
Bruce gives his voice a little of the treacly smoothness he uses on reporters, Wayne-Powers board members, and Terry's mother. "Terry, do you really think I'd give you a lesson in your own shortcomings for your birthday?"
"You don't really want me to answer that..." Terry settles back in his chair.
They sit in silence until the curtains draw back. The stage is set plainly, just a few carved pillars with draperies looped and garlanded between them. A few tables, a few old painted boxes. At center stage is a young man wearing a top hat and tuxedo that would've been old-fashioned when Bruce was young.
He sweeps his hat off, bowing deeply. "Good evening, Gotham. I'm Zatara, second of that name..."
Bruce closes his eyes. For him, the show holds no surprises.
It's isn't hard to get hired as temporary help; Bruce tells them he's twenty-two, and that his name is John Smith. He's really only seventeen, but he doesn't think anyone can tell just from looking.
Three weeks into the tour they arrive in San Francisco, and Bruce manages to slip into the back of the theater as everyone else is leaving. Zatara's daughter makes a slow circuit of the auditorium, locking the doors as Zatara himself takes the stage in order to rehearse. She passes by Bruce without noticing him, and Bruce smirks a little, adjusting his position so that he's got a better view of the stage.
His heart is pounding, and he tries to slow it, moving his breathing into a practiced pattern. It works better than he would have expected; the tour doesn't give Bruce much time to study. His Japanese is already getting rusty, and he has some idea that he'll need it, where he's travelling next. It's been almost fun, travelling and working with the tour, but his life isn't about fun, and he can't afford to be distracted--
A sharp voice interrupts his thoughts. "Well, well! I spy with my little eye--"
"Ah!" Bruce straightens up, whacking his head purposefully on a crate, clutching his skull and blinking. Trying to look stupid and harmless.
"--a certain somebody who shouldn't be in here!" The magician's daughter plants her hands on her shapely hips, frowning. Behind Bruce, Zatara himself clears his throat. Bruce freezes, glancing towards the empty stage, then drops his gaze to the floor, blushing and rubbing at his skull.
"And just who are you, young man?"
Zatara is tall, with penetrating brown eyes and an old-fashioned mustache, but otherwise he doesn't much resemble Thomas Wayne. But he's left his jacket and waistcoat lying across a crate, and the sleeves of his button-up shirt are rolled up to the elbows in a way that makes him look more than a little like Bruce's father, coming home from a midnight emergency at the hospital.
"My name is John--" Bruce begins.
"John Smith, as if that's a real name," Zatanna chimes in from behind him. Bruce frowns. He's worked hard to blend in, but obviously Zatara's daughter has noticed him. "Listen, roadie, maybe you remember signing a contract when you got hired on this show. You can read, right?"
"Yes-- Look, I know--" He snaps his head around, trying to look even more confused. He should've known this wouldn't work.
"Oh, so maybe," she says, circling him, "you remember the part about the professional code of the magical fraternity? How any attempt by a member of the crew to discover, imitate or publicize those secrets--"
"I just..." He'll cut his losses and leave. Find someone else. The necessity of compromise itches at him already. He'll find someone else, but they won't be the best, and that's what he needs--
"Zatanna," says Zatara, in that voice that commands and is kind, both at once. "Why don't you go check this week's numbers at the ticket office."
"What? But Daddy--!"
"I'd like to speak to this young man alone," Zatara says mildly.
Zatanna frowns, and glares a terrible glare at Bruce, but says nothing more. The stage door slams behind her.
Zatara reaches out and takes Bruce by the wrist. Bruce looks down, startled. There's a thin, jagged scar on the inside of the older man's arm, and pale spots of scar tissue circling his wrists. Rope-burns. "You'll have to forgive my daughter. We are each others' only family, which makes her rather protective."
"That's-- that's all right." Bruce says nervously as Zatara pulls him onto the stage, into the glare of the lights.
Zatara raises an eyebrow at his unease. "So you're not a performer."
"No... No, sir."
"A debunker, then. One of these modern young men who sacrifice the mysteries of the order on the altar of science, is that it?"
"No, I just--" Bruce swallows. He knows he's got just one chance. That's all you ever get. "You're the best. I know you are. At escapes, and illusions. I need-- I have to learn from you."
"Why learn magic if you don't want to become a magician?"
Bruce takes a breath. "This isn't about what I want."
Zatara considers. "You have to learn from me... And why is that?"
"I made a vow."
He hasn't said it out loud yet, not-- not to anyone besides his parents. Not even to Alfred. It sounds-- oh, Bruce knows how it sounds. But Zatara only studies him for a long while, and then nods.
"I believe you... John Smith. Unfortunately, as my daughter explained, we magicians have a code of conduct. Our secrets are not to be shared."
"I. I understand--" Bruce knows he should leave. He can't quite make himself turn away.
Zatara goes on as if Bruce hadn't said anything. "Here, for instance."
He makes as if to pass a small silver key to Bruce, who reaches out for it automatically. The key vanishes from Zatara's hand, and when Bruce pulls back, startled, his hand jerks to a stop. He's cuffed to the brass handle of a large upright box-- the same box that Zatara disappears an audience member into every night of the week, and twice on Saturdays. Bruce pulls at the cuffs, but as far as he can tell, they're real, functional, and the box's construction is solid. He narrows his eyes at Zatara.
"I can't tell you how to escape," Zatara says, leaning back against a table. "That would be against the code. So I suppose you'll just have to try for yourself... Go on, then. I'll let you know what you're doing wrong."
He smiles. Bruce smiles back. He feels something battering against his ribcage, something small but growing.
It feels... not like joy. Better.
"Well, okay." Terry says as the curtain closes for intermission. "That was... quasi-schway. I wouldn't mind learning how to do some of that stuff. Especially the trick with the twins."
"Dana might mind."
Terry taps his program against his knee. "Oh... Dana's through with me. We broke up the other night."
Bruce glances over. "I'm sorry."
"Ah, you're not. But it's cool." Terry leans back in his chair, studying the elaborate construction of the concert hall's ceiling. "Hey, maybe eventually... You know Dana's parents have given good ol' Gotham U. enough money over the years, so that's where she'll be going, I guess."
"Is that where you're planning to attend?"
"College? Why would I do that?" Terry rolls his eyes. Bruce gives him a dangerous look, and he relents, grinning. "All right. But no night classes."
He hadn't slept at all, that night. Just stared at the cuffs, stared at the box. He could've pulled the handle off the box, could've unscrewed the screws... The box was too heavy to pull to the edge of the stage, and there wasn't anything there that could help him, anyway. Despite his promise of assistance, Zatara wasn't much help.
Every time Bruce had tried to steer the conversation around to escape artistry, the older man would deftly turn it to some obscure historical or mythological story. Despite himself, Bruce had almost dozed off during a lecture about the descendants of lost Atlantis, who'd apparently settled in a secret city somewhere in Turkey. If there was a clue in there about how to escape from handcuffs, Bruce had missed it.
He'd mostly managed to avoid talking about his own past.
"Dad!" Zatanna stepped onto the stage and stopped dead, staring from Bruce to her father. She was wearing short-shorts and a black Zatara tour t-shirt. "Have you been here all night?"
"I suppose I lost track of time," Zatara said mildly. "Young Mr. Smith and I have been having quite an interesting chat."
Zatanna's jaw dropped. "You have two shows this afternoon, Dad! Oh my God, look at him!" Bruce had slumped to a sitting position hours ago, his arm stretched above his head, still cuffed to the box. "You really think he's gonna figure it out if he hasn't already? If he had any potential at all--"
Bruce tuned her out. Maybe the point was to wait till he couldn't feel his hand any more, then dislocate his thumb. A little harsh for a first lesson. But if that was what he had to do, then he was prepared to do it.
He thought so, anyway.
"Let's not be too quick to jump to a certainty. I find them far too confining." Zatara stood up, flexing his shoulders slightly. "'Six impossible things before breakfast, you know,'" he added as he passed Zatanna on his way out of the theater.
Zatanna raised her eyebrows, looking back at her father, then crossed to the middle of the stage and sat down in the seat he'd just left. As if unconsciously, she fell into exactly the same position he'd used, her ankle propped on her knee, shoulders back. Seemingly from nowhere, she produced an apple; Bruce really could've sworn she hadn't had anything in her hands when she'd come onstage. She held it up for a moment, considering, then balanced it on the back of her hand. Tilting her arm, she rolled the apple carelessly from her elbow to her wrist and back, turning her hand and catching it at the last minute.
Bruce's stomach grumbled. Zatanna scowled at him.
Bruce took a breath, looking around the stage. "So..." he offered. "From the look on your face, you didn't understand that last bit any more than I did."
Zatanna stared at him."You've got to be kidding me."
"Six impossible things? It's from 'Alice in Wonderland!'"
"Where have you been living, John Smith? A cave?" Zatanna asked loftily. Staring out at the empty theater, she made the apple disappear with a flick of her wrist.
Bruce frowned. "I never did ask-- how do you know my name?"
"Okay, wow." Terry is staring as the final curtain sweeps shut. "How does he do that? With the swords-- and then at the end, the cuffs, the tank-- There's really no holograms? Come on, it's gotta be holograms."
"When I was your age, I saw his grandfather do the same trick. No holograms." Bruce says, then takes a second to realize that-- yes, he really just said it. 'When I was your age.'
Terry's smile widens. "So that's where you learned all that escape stuff. You gonna teach me any of it?"
"No." Bruce says. "I'm not." He fans the two thin strips of plastic in his hand.
Terry's eyes widen. "Backstage passes?"
Zatara II doesn't look much like his namesake. That man always gave the impression of quiet, unshakeable wisdom. There was a certain restful quality about him that Bruce now knows doesn't automatically come with age.
The younger Zatara reminds Bruce more of Terry and Max. There's just something about the young ones. A kind of changeable, chameleon quality. They change their eye and hair color at whim. Alter their DNA just as easily. Under a Jokerz' painted face there might be a street punk or a valedictorian. They could be anyone. They often are.
Zatara is perhaps an inch taller than Terry. His clothes are impeccable, and his short dark hair is neatly combed back, despite the grueling two-hour performance he's just completed. His eyes are a bright, piercing blue.
"Mr. Wayne." He raises his hand and a cylinder flickers into it, bursting out to become a top hat, which he respectfully tips to Bruce. "I hope you enjoyed the performance."
"Very much. But I remember when you used to call me Uncle Bruce."
Zatara's mouth twitches. "It got on Father's nerves," he says apologetically. "You never seemed to care much for it either."
Terry snorts. Bruce inclines his head to the side. "My personal assistant, Terry McGinnis."
"Charmed." Terry says, demeanor and tone perfect as he shakes Zatara's hand. "Your show is incredible."
"I'm glad you think so." There's a flicker of interest in Zatara's eyes as he sizes Terry up. Bruce wonders if Terry's aware of it.
"Terry's quite interested in the mysteries of the order." Bruce offers.
"Oh... yeah." Terry looks at Bruce warily. "Mysteries. Always been a fan."
Bruce moves forward absently, turning his attention to the table of props that Zatara was so carefully putting away. Terry's very, very good at reading him. It's not as annoying as it should be. He turns so Terry can't see his hands, and picks up a set of handcuffs. "Do you have much contact with Kent and Inza?"
Zatara smiles. "I spoke with Inza last week, in fact." He shrugs off his jacket. The shirt underneath is crisply white, unmarred by sweat. "When I told her I'd be playing Gotham, actually, she asked me to give you her regards-- and a message. According to a mutual friend of yours-- Boston?-- Tommy Monaghan is where he should be."
Bruce grunts in satisfaction. "Good."
The small talk has its desired effect; Terry is distracted, eyeing the painted box that Zatara's twin assistants emerged from during the show. This'll be a double lesson, then. The cuff clicks around Terry's wrist, smooth as silk.
Bruce leaves him cuffed to the box and turns to Zatara. "I should warn you, this will probably take a while. I hope you didn't have plans for after the show.
The cuffs rattle as Terry tugs at them. "...Hey, c'mon!"
"Not really. I prefer to strike the stage myself, if I can. Secrets of the order and all that." Zatara crosses the stage and pulls a chair out for Bruce. "I could have something brought up, if you'd like. Tea?"
"Thank you, but no." Bruce sits, leaning forward to rest his hands on the crook of his cane.
"So... do I get a hint, or anything?" Terry complains.
"You have everything you need to escape." Bruce replies without looking at him. Zatara pulls up a chair and straddles it backwards, running his hand back through his hair and mussing it a little. Bruce smiles.
"So how are the Nelsons?"
"Well, Kent has become quite reclusive since his... retirement. Inza's the only one who ventures out of the Tower any more."
Terry clears his throat, raising his voice. "So I figure out the trick cuffs, figure out the trick handle, or round off my birthday with a dislocated thumb-- have I covered all the possibilities?"
"All but one." Bruce says mildly.
"And that would be?"
"Spend all night cuffed to a box." Bruce clears his throat, turning back towards Zatara. "You were saying?"
He can't quite hear Terry's muttered response, but that's all right. Zatanna's son is laughing. "You too? And here I thought Mother was exaggerating to make me feel better."
"All night and half the next day," he admits. "Your mother came in the next morning to start setting up for the early afternoon matinee. She wasn't thrilled that I'd kept your grandfather awake all night... He did two shows that day." Bruce looks off into the distance. "You carry on his traditions admirably."
Zatara actually ducks his head, blushing slightly. "I appreciate th--"
"Worst birthday present ever." Terry suddenly appears over Bruce's shoulder, tossing the cuffs to Zatara, who does a perfect double take even as his hand shoots out to catch them. "Didn't you get my e-shop wishes? New jacket was on there. New bike-- I even linked to the store's node. Spend all night cuffed to a box? Wasn't on the list."
Bruce glares suspiciously past Terry. The handle is still attached to the upright chest, thank God. The thing's probably older than Bruce. Not that he actually expected Terry to resort to force, but how else--
"Did I mention that I like those new model off-road Fujimis?" Terry's grin is wider, more honest than any expression Bruce has seen him wear in almost two months. "Cherry red."
"Excuse me." Zatara rises to his feet and steps close to Terry, slipping his hand into the pocket of Terry's pants.
"Hey, whoa--" Terry flinches but doesn't retreat. It's hard to decide who looks more surprised when Zatara retrieves a silver handcuff key. "You-- planted the key on me? When?"
"Before he cuffed you. You had the key all along," Zatara says. Terry laughs.
"I get it... 'You have everything you need,'" he says, imitating Bruce's mocking tone. "Wow, old man. You spent all night and all day locked to the box? Key in your pocket the whole time? That's just sad."
It really was.
Zatara frowns. "But if you didn't use the key, then how--"
"Sorry." Terry's smile gives nothing away. "Secret of my order. You know how it goes."
Terry's humming something as he drives Bruce home. It's modern, jittery and atonal, but one of the best things Bruce has heard in some time. Occasionally, he stops humming and clucks sadly to himself. "Feet of clay, man, feet of clay. I'm just-- I'm disillusioned like whoa. All night and all morning cuffed to a box--"
"All right. How did you--"
"Oh, and I meant to ask." Terry says. "Was Zatara giving me the eye or what?"
Bruce laughs low in his throat. "You don't waste time."
"Hey, I didn't say I wanted his IP address or anything. Although it'd definitely help me out as far as the inevitable post-Dana relationship minefield."
"Oh?" This should be good.
"See, the recovery period is key," Terry explains. "If I stay single for too long, it looks like I'm moping. Which-- I almost hate to tell you at this late date-- the ladies find unattractive."
"And since me and Dana have mostly the same friends and the same hang-outs, there's also the potential for it to look stalkery if I keep showing up alone," Terry continues blithely. "But I can't just show up with a bunch of random one-night wonders, either."
Bruce closes his eyes, listening to the hum of the car, aware of the slight flicker of every light they pass. Unconsciously, he calculates the car's speed as the shadows pass over his face.
"Also, because of the proximity factor, it'd look like I was trying to throw it in Dana's face. Which is again, way unattractive..."
They're approaching the off-ramp that takes them up the hill to the Manor. Terry always takes the curves a little faster than he should. Bruce has long since given up telling him to slow down.
"So you'd think, start dating someone else seriously, right? But that also looks sad and pathetic, I guess. Either like I'm forcing it, or like I never really cared about Dana, and either one of those potentially crashes any possibility of ever rebooting with her..."
"Max explained this all to you, didn't she."
"Oh, glacial!" Terry laughs. "I'm getting dinged by the guy who spent thirty-six hours locked to a box."
It was more like sixteen. Bruce opens his eyes, and gives Terry a significant look.
"Yeah, all right, it was Max." Terry stares out through the windshield at the road ahead. "There were little pie charts and a timeline and everything."
"And how does Zatara fit into this analysis?"
"Well, he's rich, famous, talented... and cute," Terry notes. "Plus his availability is limited, 'cause he's only in town for so long. Someone like that, you get while the getting's good, so there's no 'How soon is too soon' factor. And the guy-on-guy factor means Dana won't automatically be making comparisons. 'Is Terry's new girlfriend hotter than me?' You know."
"So it was Max's idea for you to... date boys." Do the kids these days still say 'date?' God, sometimes Bruce feels old.
"Hey, we can't all be Kinsey zeroes." Terry's tone is careless, but Bruce does catch the worried flick of his eyes.
He grunts. "You know I couldn't possibly care less."
"Yeah, yeah." Terry says, but a smile is fighting its way to his lips. "You just hate being reminded that I still have thoughts in my head you didn't put there. Anyway... it's all hypothetical. We didn't swap info." Terry parks the car neatly and hops out. His dress shoes crunch on the gravel as he comes around the car and opens Bruce's door for him. "Guess I'll just have to go home, eat ice cream and cyber-cry on Max's virtual shoulder."
"Hm," says Bruce. "Check the pocket where he planted the key."
"Huh?" Terry delves in his pocket. His eyes widen and he pulls out an old-fashioned calling card. There's a hand-written note on the back, in smooth, elegant script. "Oh..."
Bruce turns away, making his way up the stairs to the Manor.
He has several meetings with Wayne-Powers board members in the week that follows. He never thought he'd miss the glad-handing and the schmoozing, but it feels good to be in the office again. It feels good to be back at the helm of his father's company.
It occurs to him, later, down in the Cave, that perhaps one reason it isn't as irritating as it used to be-- is that doesn't feel like an act as much as it used to.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry." Terry jogs down the stairs, three minutes late, one arm out of his shirt. "I was showin' Zed the town. Said I'd meet him after patrol if I could, so let's pray for rain, huh?"
"Hn." Bruce mutters, and then, "That's what you said? That you'd meet him after patrol?"
Terry finishes pulling his shirt off, emerging tousled and squinging. "Huh? No, I said I had homework. He doesn't actually know, does he?"
Bruce leans back in his chair. "His mother did... Zatara probably assumes I'm an old sorcerer and you're my apprentice."
"Uh..." Terry blinks. "You're not kidding."
Bruce shakes his head.
Terry finishes suiting up, pulling the mask on over his head. He utters the next phrase in Batman's low, rough tones. "You're weird, old man."
It's a quiet night. Barbara's had every available uniform on the streets since the Joker's satellite laser cut a path through the city wide enough to drive a tank through. There are copters roaming up and down the jagged trench, so even looting's been kept to a minimum. The biggest problem so far has been routing traffic around the city until the roads could be repaired.
"Oh, this is cute." Terry's voice crackles over the comm. "Check the sign."
Bruce looks up. He'd been monitoring the spycams, instead of the video feed from Terry's cowl. He remembers staring into it, at first, mesmerized. It was like being Batman again, seeing the things Terry saw. Being able to control him, or at least to make rather stern suggestions.
That phase of their partnership hadn't lasted very long at all.
Terry's on the south side of town, near Cathedral Square. The freeway that runs inland from Port Adams has been diverted, and for a moment Bruce is speechless. Then he sighs. "I blame the schools."
"Hey, I caught it, didn't I?"
The sign reads 'Temporary Exit: Cathedrel Square.' Bruce would assume the repair crew was simply overworked, but the sign isn't even city-grade plasteel, judging from the way it cracks when Terry kicks it over. Just plywood, painted with the kind of reflective sheen they put on bikes these days.
Terry fires his boot-jets and follows the road south, then takes a few sharp turns, each detour marked by clumsy, amateurish plywood barricades. He hasn't engaged the suit's camouflage mode. It's not even half-dark, but then again, this is Gotham. There are always enough shadows.
"This is Jokerz territory," Terry muses over the comm. "But they don't have the subtlety for something like this." Even Batman's laugh is different than Terry's, just a bare breath of static. "You know what I bet? A couple of Ts got dressed up in city-issue coveralls and walked straight into Jokerz territory carrying their stupid signs--"
Terry cuts himself off as he approaches a blind corner, cutting his jets and landing in an alcove. The detour leads here, into the gaping maw of a dimly lit warehouse. Theoretically, at least, the detour should lead through the warehouse out the other side. Practically speaking, it's a nice place for an ambush. Terry slips around to the side of the building and fires the boot-jets briefly, slipping across the roof till he finds a convenient gaping hole in a skylight.
Terry scans slowly across the warehouse, making sure Bruce gets a good look. There's a couple of armed Ts at the mouth of the warehouse, and one lone gang member manning a huge metal arm, the type they use at large-scale recycling plants. "Probably grabs the cars when they come in," Terry observes, "then those other twips slide underneath and slice the wiring to the security box."
The Ts manning the door are relaxing, probably waiting for a car to trip a sensor before they get to work. They'll be easy to take out. The problem is the half-a-dozen more hard at work disassembling the night's haul, some working with heavy tools and others with nano-blades.
"What are you waiting for?" Bruce prods.
"Where's the drivers?" Terry mutters.
Bruce smiles. The kid is good. "What are you thinking?"
"Fire up the limo. Send it down here on autopilot-- no, shit, that won't work. I gotta see where they take the drivers." Terry paces, frowning. "They can't be dead, that's not T-style. They're just stashed somewhere out of the way..."
Terry stays crouched by the skylight for a long moment, long enough for Bruce to feel the urge to prod him again. He represses it. Finally he shifts, and mutters "Those who can't."
"Uh." Terry stands. "Something this guy used to say. In the gang I ran with."
There are days Bruce can almost forget Terry used to be a delinquent. Terry never talks about it, not unless he has to, and Bruce... Well. He's not so naive as to chalk all of Terry's indiscretions up to youth and bad companions. Still, he likes to think that Terry wouldn't have slipped too far.
"He was our tech," Terry murmurs, almost to himself. "Had this lo-jack code bug that could pop locks on any kind of wheels. Wasn't really into the violence thing."
Bruce doesn't bother asking how the story ends. As much as he doesn't like to think about it, he knows how hard it is to come back out of the dark. So many things could have happened, none of them good. If Terry hadn't been caught at the beginning of his fledgling criminal career. If Terry's father had chosen to bail him out, pay a fine and put him back on the street instead of letting him do his time in juvie. If any number of things had been different...
Terry walks to the edge of the roof and scans the street below.
"Where are you going?"
"Like I said, this is Jokerz land. The Ts have got one squat, but I doubt they've got two. Which means..."
It's there at the end of the alley. A dark van with an extended freight compartment. Windows dimmed. Terry engages the suit's stealth mode and circles around front. There's a Joker in the front seat. Except the face paint's a little too spare, and the costume really not quite as ridiculous as it could be.
"Bad time to be a Joker in my town." Terry's voice is low. He circles around again to the back of the van. Unlocks it with a short, sharp laser blast.
The drivers who took the 'detour' are piled inside, hands and feet bound with misappropriated riot tape. They shift, startled by the opening door, but Terry puts a finger to his lips.
He reaches in, pulling the closest hostage into a sitting position. She blinks at him, eyes reddened. Some of her hair is caught in the tape across her mouth. Terry leans in close to whisper. "I'm going to cut your hands free." She nods, and he slices the tape with the sharp edge of a Batarang. "Now, this part's gonna sting. Ready?"
She blinks, and Terry rips the tape off her mouth. Yanks her hair pretty hard, doing it, but she doesn't squeak. "What's your name?"
"Mercy." she whispers.
"Okay. Mercy. I'm going to take out the driver and then give you the keys. You want to head out between those two buildings." Terry points. "Head north. In about ten blocks you'll hit the trench and you can flag down a police copter. Got it?"
"Drive north. Find the cops." Mercy nods firmly. Bruce approves.
He turns off the feed to the monitor when Terry raps at the window of the van. No sense giving himself a migraine. He can review the record later if he needs to. But he won't. It all goes smoothly, and the radio link conveys everything important. Terry grabs the T disguised as a Joker and knocks him out with a single strike. Mercy is in the drivers' seat and heading out before the punk even stops twitching.
Bruce can see it all just as well without the video link. Maybe even better.
Terry isn't Dick. He isn't Tim.
And he isn't Bruce.
Bruce leans back in the chair in the Cave, eyes still closed. He had to cut himself in half to fit into the Batsuit. Cut away the parts of himself that needed friends or companionship. He had to not need people for anything at all; cut away everything that wasn't part of the Plan. Walk in the day like an empty shell, everything important hidden and subterranean.
If Dick had stayed, Bruce would have kept trying to cut him down to size. Probably one of them would have ended up killing the other over it. Barbara was smart enough to leave before it got to that point. Tim came closest to being the only thing Bruce ever allowed himself to need-- someone that could carry on the Plan without being crushed by it. At least, Tim had thought so. Tim had... wanted to.
Tim had never believed that Bruce was as broken as he knows he is. Tim probably thought he could carry on Bruce's legacy without sacrificing anything really important...
Bruce knows. He would've had to cut out his heart.
Terry's whistling when he gets home from patrol the following night. He doesn't seem at all tired as he hops down out of the car. Ace jumps up from his spot at Bruce's feet and welcomes him back, woofing softly and head-butting his knees until Terry gives up, kneeling down and shoving at Ace's head affectionately. "Who's a good bat-mutt!" he says, and Ace woofs at him some more. "That's right! You are. You're a good big scary dog!" He glances up at Bruce again and grins.
"You're in a good mood."
"Well, I guess I am." Terry says cockily.
"Seeing Zatara tonight?"
"So sharp!" Terry remarks to Ace, scritching between his ears. "Almost like a detective or something!"
"Awfully late for a date, isn't it?"
"We're staying in," Terry says idly, then looks like he's about to swallow his tongue. "Um. I-- Not to-- I mean, not that we-- Hey, um..."
"That night, at the show." Bruce says, amused. "How did you get out of the cuffs?"
Terry leaps gratefully onto the change of subject. "Spare lock-splice. Taped in my belt." He shifts awkwardly under Bruce's frankly disbelieving gaze. "Well... you never know."
"'I'm not the Bat twenty-four seven,'" Bruce mocks, imitating Terry's careless drawl. "'I just work here.'"
"Whoa, first of all, please never do that again. Second, since you bring it up, and since you always forget this, I existed before you met me. Carrying a universal lock-splice is a juvie thing, not a Bat thing."
"Of course," Bruce says, annoyed with himself. He should have known that. Terry looks no more comfortable with this topic of conversation than the last. "Go on, then."
"Yeah, yeah," Terry says. He gives Ace one more affectionate shove and hits the showers. When he comes out, he's wearing a new outfit, or at least one Bruce hasn't seen before. Not as formal as his theater wear, but the shirt's glossy tailored, and his hair is falling into his face so casually that it must have been carefully styled. "How do I look?"
"Schway," Bruce says, straight-faced.
"Can I take the car--"
Bruce is going to let him, but he takes a moment. Makes Terry wait for it.
"--yeah, thanks!" He's already gone.
Bruce leans back in his chair, and closes his eyes.
He frowned. "I never did ask-- how do you know my name?"
Zatanna blinked, flushing slightly, and the apple she'd just conjured dropped to the floor with a thump. "What?" She glanced down, frowned, then nudged the apple with her foot, sending it rolling over the stage to bump into Bruce's leg.
"Last night," Bruce said. "I told you my name was John, and you said 'John Smith.'" He smiled at her over the apple, shining it on the shoulder of his t-shirt and taking a bite. To this day he remembers its sweetness. "How'd you know it was Smith? Do you make a habit of memorizing the names of every roadie and day laborer that gets hired on?"
"Maybe I do," Zatanna said. She stood up, crossing her arms over her chest. "See, my dad? He's serious about those impossible things. He thinks dogs can see ghosts, that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and that there's good in everyone if you just know where to look. Me, not so much. And I noticed you, okay? You don't belong here."
"Oh," Bruce took that in. "So it wasn't just that you think I'm cute?"
"You think if you flirt with me I'll tell you how to get out of those cuffs? Ho ho. Think again, Johnny boy." Zatanna had a perfect poker face... But she'd crossed her legs, and she was kicking her ankle. She hadn't been doing that a second ago. And when she noticed him looking at her feet, she stopped.
He smiled, rubbing his thumb over the apple. "Come on, Zanna. Just a hint?"
"I gave you an apple and now you want a hint?" She sighed and stood up. "And my name is Zatanna. Get it right."
Wrong approach. Bruce dropped the flirty look and leaned forward, grunting slightly when his shoulder twinged. "Hey! Come on, I can't stay up here forever, you know! I mean, eventually your father's going to need the stage back, isn't he?"
Zatanna stopped at the edge of the stage and pushed a hand through her hair, thinking about that. "Okay, John Smith. Here's a hint." She turned around and smiled at him, and something in that smile made him forget all about his shoulder. "Everything you need to get out of those cuffs, you have with you right now."
"That's... not much of a hint."
"Sorry. It's all you get."
For almost fifty years he never wondered what it would have been like. What his life would have been like if he'd broken the Oath. If he'd been just a little more like a normal teenager, inconstant and changeable. If he'd let his heart and various and sundry other parts overrule his Plan.
He could have stayed with Zanna. He'd have been a good magician. He had all the right instincts-- for puzzles, for paranoia, for dramatics. He smiles, just a little, all alone in the Cave. Even Ace is asleep, snoring gently at his side.
He'd have married her, eventually, he supposes. They'd have had children. Zatara could have been Bruce's own son. Perhaps Gotham would have been better off; perhaps not...
It was hard to put it on, that first time. To know that he was remaking himself as a creature of endless night. Endless war. He still remembers those last few weeks before he found his way to the Bat, the way he'd clutched at Andrea Beaumont as though she could be his salvation, his escape. Even at the last, he hadn't entirely abandoned hope for some other way. A way out.
He'd never found one.
The problem with living to be old, Bruce has found, is having all the time in the world for all the things he thought he'd die too young to do.
He picks up the phone. He calls Tim.
The next day he sits and waits in the front hall of the Manor. He still doesn't know what he's going to say. He stands when he hears Tim's car in the drive. Ace sticks close, instinctively sensing his tension.
Tim's eyes grow wide as he walks in the front door. "Nice dog."
"Ace is very friendly."
Tim smiles and moves into the living room, walking slowly, absently. He drops his coat across the back of a chair, then looks at it as if realizing only now that Alfred's not going to hang it up for him. "I missed this place."
"I'm sorry you couldn't... that I couldn't take you back."
Tim looks away, out the windows. "You could have, Bruce. You just wouldn't."
He doesn't sound resentful, just tired.
"You know why it happened, don't you?" Tim's voice is low, like something Bruce would hear in his own dreams, or when he speaks to himself in the mirror. "I mean, now. After all these years..."
"It occurred to me to wonder. Yes."
Those trees out in front of the Manor have been growing wild, these last ten years or so. Their branches rattle against the windows, when it's blowing out. Ace woofs at them softly, and Tim frowns and scrubs a hand through his hair. "Three years ago. That's when I started losing time."
Three years... "Terry."
"I was so angry... I can't even. I did work late a lot, at first. I mean really. Just so I wouldn't bring it home to my family... I couldn't believe you would do that to another kid." Tim shakes his head. "And part of me... Part of me couldn't understand why it wasn't me."
"I... could have stopped him. But I didn't." Bruce admits.
"He... found the Cave all on his own. Broke in and stole the suit."
Tim nods. "And you let him get away with it."
"His father had been killed. He would have--"
"You let him."
"Yes," Bruce admits.
Tim nods. "He's..." He sighs. "He's done well by it. I think you picked a winner there."
"I didn't pick him," Bruce insists. No one ever believes him on this point, but it's true. "He chose it. It's what he wants."
For the first time, maybe, he almost believes it himself.
An alert from the board wakes Bruce at about 2am. Terry's headed back to the Cave in the Batmobile. It's an hour and a half early, he's using the second-quickest of the surreptitious routes back to the Cave, and the Batmobile is set to autopilot.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
He presses his hands flat against the arms of the chair. "Report."
"Dislocated shoulder. You're gonna have to help me pop it back in." Terry's gruff and apologetic.
"Get back here." Bruce cuts the connection.
Hopefully it's the left one. Terry's dislocated his right shoulder twice in the past three years. He's nowhere near Bruce's old record, but it's an injury that exacerbates itself each time. Either way Terry won't be able to push himself for at least three weeks.
It seems as though it takes hours for the car to arrive. Bruce makes his way over to the medical bay, pulls out a cold-pack and some aspirin and waits.
Finally Terry slides out of the front seat, dropping awkwardly to the floor of the cave, his arm clutched protectively to his chest.
"Hey," he says.
"Hey." Bruce replies.
"Left one this time, at least."
"I can see that." Bruce says. The line of Terry's shoulder is off, even through the suit. This one is going to hurt.
Terry pulls off the mask with his free hand as he approaches, but Bruce has to open the seams of the Batsuit for him. The bruises are already vivid. "When did this happen?"
"'Bout an hour ago. Ow, dammit!" Terry hunches forward as Bruce puts his hand on his back to steady him, pulling the suit off over the left shoulder.
"You should have come in as soon as it happened."
Terry's sweating a little. Wavering as he hops up onto the gurney bolted to the Batcave's floor. "I popped it in myself and put a cold-pack on it, but it came back out again."
"Which is why you should have come in," Bruce says grimly. "As soon as it happened."
"It's not gonna kill me. Just fix it, all right?"
"Hold still." Bruce puts a hand on Terry's back, grips his arm firmly and pulls. He's not as strong as he used to be, but he's strong enough for this.
The shoulder joint snaps back in with an audible pop. Terry curses fervently through gritted teeth, then slumps forward, cradling his arm to his chest. "Okay. All right."
Bruce cracks the fresh cold-pack and holds it against Terry's shoulder. Terry breathes shakily for a moment more, then moves to hold it himself, a bare second before the cold can start to make Bruce's fingers ache.
"You probably have some soft tissue damage. You're going to need to wear a sling for a while."
"Nnh." Terry grunts.
Bruce turns away to get some bandages, then stops and comes back to stand in front of Terry. "And we need to talk."
"Ow, god. That doesn't sound good," Terry grumbles. "Talk, about what? Maybe we could start with where the real Bruce is? Because this one wants to talk."
Terry blinks first. And sighs. "Yeah. I guess... a lot's happened."
Bruce nods. He goes and gets the bandages. Looking over his shoulder, he asks, "Are you still seeing Zatara?"
"He left town two nights ago, Bruce."
"Are you going to stay in contact?"
It's not really fair to push the boy like this when he's injured and hurting. But Bruce never did fight fair.
"I don't really have the time to be in a relationship right now," Terry says tightly.
"When will you?"
"Are you freaking kidding me?" Terry says, incredulous.
"What does that mean? Never?"
"No, it doesn't mean never, it means since when are you concerned with my social life? I mean in terms of actually wanting me to have one?"
"I don't want you to turn out like me," Bruce grits out.
"Whoa," Terry says. Then he doesn't say anything for a while. Finally he hops off the table and comes after Bruce, cold-pack still clutched to his shoulder. He stands there in his boxer-briefs while Bruce binds his arm up in the sling.
The movements are almost second nature, even after all this time. Like riding a bike.
"Hm," Terry says, and smiles. "Hey, remember the first time I dislocated my shoulder? Remember how you freaked? Ow." Terry winces as Bruce clips the bandage around his waist. "You said you weren't gonna let me out on the street for six weeks--"
"Which you negotiated down to three."
"Hey, medical science isn't all stone knives and bearskins like it used to be. You know they're doing great things with willow bark now. Listen, Bruce..." Terry sighs. As Bruce steps away, he turns and wanders over past the monitor, towards the mannequins in their cases.
Bruce stands still and watches him, moving like a ghost, pale against the darkness of the cave.
Terry stops in front of Robin.
"You know when I first started this job... I knew you didn't like me. And I figured I knew why." He turns away. His clothes are tossed onto a bench next to the monitor, where he always leaves them. He sits down and starts laboriously pulling on his pants, one-handed.
"I was arrogant, I was in over my head, I was a punk, yeah, yeah." He picks up his shirt in one hand, then leans back against the edge of the computer console, kicking one bare foot idly. "Sometimes I thought it was just guilt. Because it was your company, and Powers killed my dad, and that made it your fault in some crazy Bruce kind of way... Other nights, swear to God I thought the only reason you let me wear this suit was so I'd go out there and get myself shot in the head and be out of your hair faster."
Head still tilted back, he looks over at Bruce, his smile silencing any protest Bruce could make.
"But... that wasn't right. When Inque had me chained up, that night at the arena. You put on that suit, the one that fucked with your heart and you came after me. You risked your life... I couldn't figure that out. Why?"
"I had to."
"I get that now." Terry says. He looks down at his shirt, crumpled in his fist. Sighs and puts it back on the bench. "You couldn't let it happen again. Not another Tim, not on your watch."
Bruce locks his jaw.
Terry looks up at him calmly. The meds must be kicking in. His voice is soft. Compassionate. "You must've hated me for putting you in that position."
He takes a breath. "No."
Bruce thinks about it. "A little."
Terry rewards that with another smile. "I'm different, though."
"I see that now." He tries to put the truth into his voice. He really does.
"Being Batman... it's my choice. It was never about you." Terry stands and pulls his jacket on, slipping his right arm into the sleeve.
"Maybe your life would've been better if you'd married the girl you were in love with when you were my age," Terry says, and how the hell does he do that? "But, you know, again. The difference between me and you is I'm not you."
Bruce nods, once.
Does Terry have nightmares? He's never asked.
He suspects not. Terry hasn't had to cut anything of himself away, to become the Batman. Which makes him sound smaller, somehow, or lesser than his predecessors. But it's not that, it's not that at all. What Bruce realized, watching Terry face down the Joker-- what he finally saw--
He sees now what Terry is.
He's not Bruce. Not 'the Bat twenty-four seven.' He doesn't have to sacrifice anything to be Batman, because... he's changed what Batman is.
Not a burden, but an ascension. A redemption.
He has wings.
"Oh, and if you ever try to fire me again, I'll kick your ass, old man." Terry zips the jacket up, over the sling, then comes towards him. The hug is awkward, Terry one-armed and Bruce still clutching his cane.
After he's sat in the chair for a while without moving, Ace comes and noses at Bruce's hand. Bruce pets him idly. "Good boy."
Bruce never thought he was the pet-owning type.
Hell. For most of his life, Bruce didn't think he was Bruce, period.
It's taken twenty years to get used to being only Bruce Wayne. The truth is he's still not very good at it. Which isn't surprising. He trained his body, honed his mind. Cut away everything Batman didn't need. Let it fall away.
And when he couldn't be the Bat any more, what was left behind?
He thinks of the long gray decades holed up in the manor. Hardly human. Hardly alive.
And Bruce has to close his eyes and remember the look on Tim's face when he walked into that hospital room. The look in Barbara's eyes. And... it's not so hard to admit. To himself. He can think it.
Terry is brilliant. He's brought Batman to life again. He's honored Bruce's old vow a thousand times over.
But he didn't stop there.
He pushed, and he pushed, and he was there. Stirring up memories. Talking. Touching things. Needing, and Bruce... had to respond. From the start, the boy could get under his skin.
Bruce feels more alive than he has in... so long it frightens him to think about. He has a purpose, has a life. He would never have fought to get Wayne-Powers back under his control without Terry. He didn't think it was possible. Batman was dead, he was dead. But now?
He walks, he speaks. And he's... not a mask, any more. He's Bruce Wayne and it's strange how real that name feels. He can hear it in Terry's voice, and it fits. Wayne. Boss. Annoyed, affectionate, sarcastic. Pushing. Digging.
Bruce turns to the computer and calls up his itinerary. He adds 'Dinner with Drakes' to his itinerary for next Thursday, as if there were any possibility of him forgetting.
Ace follows him up to the elevator, and the elevator rises, up into the Manor. And when Bruce steps out, into his house, he doesn't... He doesn't feel like he's leaving himself down there in the dark. Doesn't feel like he's leaving the important parts behind, when he steps out into the light.
He doesn't live in the Cave any more.
He just works there.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
-- The Stare's Nest by My Window, W. B. Yeats