Back in the days before cell phones, there were always situations where you couldn't reach someone and you urgently needed their ass on the corner of Sequoia and West 64th or at the abandoned diner across the street from Locklear's with the information yesterday, and all you could do was call their pager and wait.
That's what Jim Gordon's relationship with Batman used to be like. (Batman probably doesn't have a cell phone, either. There is probably no place for it in the suit; even though Jim has never seen Batman in clear light, he can testify there is not a spare centimeter of space between his body and that suit.)
It used to be, Jim would go up to the roof and plug in the huge floodlight, and the bat signal would shimmer into being against the filthy smog-laden clouds, and usually sooner than later Batman would appear, silently, in front of him or behind him or on one memorable occasion, standing straight up from in front of his feet, as if materializing from the floor, so smoothly and quickly that Jim had to tilt his head to look up into Batman's eyes; Jim never backs away from Batman.
Then Rachel Dawes died. Then Harvey Dent went down. And everything changed.
For weeks Batman was gone completely; and the light is still unplugged now, over a year later, with Batman still ironically the most wanted man in Gotham (ironic because Jim, possibly the only person who doesn't want to arrest him as well as the one who ordered his arrest, wants him too - his help, his partnership, his grunted monosyllabic conversation - his silent presence).
He knows Batman is out there again now. He receives Batman's little messages: open windows and fluttering curtains, files carefully disarranged on his desk, criminals trussed and waiting at the scene, razor-edged bat-shaped throwing stars on the ground. They've started to meet again, sometimes - on fire escapes, street corners, in burned-out buildings, inside Gordon's car, sometimes even in elevators - but that bat light on the roof of the station is still no use. Jim can't page Batman anymore. Their conferences are dangerous, furtive, nearly silent, and few and far between. Jim still stands alone on the station roof at night, peering down into the shadows. He takes his coffee there now, and he avoids peering into empty shadows still, a vestigial habit of courtesy that does nothing more than the abandoned bat signal.
He kept one of the throwing stars.
He goes to the roof regularly - not at the same time every day by any means; Jim's too used to Gotham, or maybe too used to Batman's paranoia, for that - and keeps a silent vigil for the length of a cup of coffee, or a little longer. Then he goes back downstairs, as alone as when he came up.
Batman must be the only person in the city this lonely at this moment, he thinks sometimes. But he'd rather share the burden of Batman's secret, for all it's walling him off from everyone else. It's not a tenth of what he'd do, or what Batman is even now doing, for the city. Jim and Batman both understand the cost of their charade. Batman's never insulted him by questioning his dedication.
No, Jim reflects bitterly, everything he can do to help Batman for the city is his to do. Batman doesn't ask - he just lets Jim know what he needs, somehow. But as for Batman himself, who is Jim's only friend (ironically, again, because Batman, who of everyone in the city is probably most in need of friends, no doubt would say he has none), Jim can't ask, and not because he hasn't spoken the words. Batman never stays to listen to the entire sentence.
It's been a month since he's seen even a piece of Batman - a looming shoulder, the pointed ends of his cape, his gloved hand - and Batman was gone before he could say "How are," and Jim was left alone in a piss-stinking alley to finish for no one's ears but his own, "- you holding up, can I offer you a drink then, do you want to come in sometime, if there's anything I can do," out loud and still cautiously quiet, like there was anyone to hear, or they'd know what the hell he was talking about if they did. "Fuck." He kicked the corner of a nearby dumpster, unleashing a gust of putrid eu de Gotham, and stopped right there in the stink and smoked a cigarette before walking to the nearest subway stop.
He's lonely. His team pity him, though they know better than to ask after Barbara or the kids. They bring him dinners at his desk without being ordered, and don't push when he declines their invitations; the same secretary, Birda, who used to field calls from home for him now fields all the invitation cards that come with the promotion, and fixes his bow tie for him unasked when he heads to the Ritz, the Wayne penthouse, or the Opera House ballroom with grave sympathy in her eyes.
Jim doesn't feel sorry for himself, exactly. That would imply that he thinks something's wrong when life isn't fair, when in fact, he's resigned to guarding his back against life's unexpected stabs as best he can. He just - he's just lonely, and, as crazy as it probably is, worried: because the Batman might be the best Gotham's got at looking after his own back, but that doesn't change the fact that the only person who occasionally helps him with that is Jim. And cops aren't the only ones hunting for him.
In fact, there was a big drug bust last night that went more than halfway to shit, four bodies in the morgue, two cops in the hospital after a fatal car chase, and Jim far too fucking late at the scene, looking over the carnage and then back to the warehouse district with his detectives, pacing around the perimeter and expecting any moment to find a footprint or another bat-shaped calling card, and finding nothing, nothing. It could be something else - someone on his tail, or preventing one of those crimes that never makes the news on the other side of town - or it could be something else. Jim hasn't heard anything all day.
Until a metallic skittering, right there at his feet on the roof of the station, has him bending over and abandoning his empty coffee cup on the ground in favor of picking up the calling card he's been waiting for. He looks over his shoulder, up and around, shoulders tensing, but Batman is already gone again, leaving only that indefinable expectant just-vacated silence in the air. Avoiding everyone else and not bothering for a detour back to his office, Jim runs down the stairs and doesn't stop when he hits the street, just pulls his jacket closed with his free hand, the other one wrapped carefully around the throwing star in his pocket, and walks briskly down the sidewalk like he has some idea where he's going.
He couldn't tell you a thing he passes, whether there's a single other person on the street, whether it's day or night, before he's suddenly not on the sidewalk anymore, but halfway down a sunken stairwell in an alley, clutching the rail to keep from falling the rest of the way down.
A flickering yellow security light below them and to Batman's left illumines a bar adorned with padlocks, a wall of graffiti, a fresh piece of chewing gum that Jim has put his hand in, and Batman standing a step below him, calm and almost expressionless (it's not an emergency then, thank God) even though the light is falling over his mask, revealing the gray flecks in his dark eyes, which, Jim realizes irrelevantly for the first time, are not brown, but a dark amber-like hazel.
"I've been keeping a low profile," says Batman, his harsh voice a little clearer than usual, but not much. "Staying out of sight." Jim only nods. "You've been doing good work," Batman continues when he doesn't say anything. "But if you need - "
Jim shakes his head now, "I admit I miss the security of that big damn floodlight. It's a kind of assurance, knowing it's there, but -" he pauses, awkward suddenly. They both know that Batman is there anyway, watching from some other rooftop, somewhere out in the darkness while Jim keeps his own watch in the nerve-center of the city police. "We manage. We'll manage."
Now Batman is silent, studying Jim. The mask shadows his face but Jim thinks he's frowning slightly, tense or considering. His silences are always the same, even after a month: nothing to catch up on. How's it going, Jim can't say and wants to, does it feel lonelier out there now with everyone against you? Jim has missed Batman's silences.
"There was a big bust last night," he offers, tilting his head and watching carefully.
Batman dips his pointy-eared head. "I heard. I was - tied up elsewhere," and with a sudden and entirely inappropriate, but not entirely unprecedented visceral shiver, Jim's wondering wildly if he means that literally - and if so, where and - now he's started thinking it, it's like he can't stop - what position?
"I wondered," Jim says, and holds his mouth tightly shut to keep anything else from slipping out.
"You're on the roof a lot," Batman says abruptly, tightly, but not as if he knows that he's dropping a conversational bomb, one that explodes with horror in Jim's chest - pleasant or unpleasant, he doesn't know.
"Not waiting," and Jim doesn't flinch, "just a place to go. To watch. I don't want you to risk being seen there now."
"Which is why it took me so long to get that message to you." Batman shocks Jim with the dryness in his voice, and yes - he tilts his head, just a little, into the light, and that's an amused light in his eye.
For long moments Jim is lost, and Batman nods down at his trench pocket. As if in a dream, Jim pulls out his hand still wrapped gingerly around the throwing star - he knows from experience where the edges are, how to carry it around without slicing his hand open.
He opens his hand and offers it to Batman, who shakes his head, eyes still gleaming with amusement in the dark, Jim would swear, and says, "I've got more. Keep it, in case." Jim nods dumbly.
And then Batman strikes him more speechless still by continuing - the most sentences he's said in a row, maybe, at least outside of one of those lightning-paced information briefings he likes to conduct upside-down through air vents and windows. "I'm fine," he says, his voice, unless Jim imagines it, even harsher. The armored chest rises and falls. "I'm holding up. I'm used to working alone, but I miss the signal too. You can offer as many drinks as you want. Somewhere other than your office, I might take one."
Batman licks his lips, fast, the only sign of nervousness in an otherwise casual speech that, from any friend (any friend that Jim doesn't have) but the Batman, would be made up of ordinary, day-to-day words, but that coming from the bat mask are as shocking as an impromptu strip-tease from the mayor (but far more welcome). Jim wishes he knew which of them is more shocked.
"As for coming in some time," and then he really smiles, just slightly, but a pleased curl of his firm mouth that shocks Jim, perhaps, more than all the rest, like a double shot of vodka to the gut, sharp and warm and enervating - "I'll remember the invitation."
He can't swallow. How is Jim supposed to talk, if he can't even swallow?
Batman's trademark silence stretches out, his black arms crossed under his black cape, waiting like a shadow.
"Yeah," Jim finally breathes, some kind of acknowledgement at least.
"The officers," says Batman, "Last night - the ones in the car -?"
"In the hospital. Tubby is critical; Miller is okay. All alive." Batman nods his head shortly, the regal bat code for Good, keep going. Like always, the lengthening silence draws the rest out like poison from a wound: "It was my watch."
"You know the deal went down during the banquet on purpose," Batman chides. "There wasn't time for you to get away."
Jim forces his shoulders straight. "I know," he says.
"We can't be everywhere," says Batman, and that We, familiar territory though it is, still gives Jim a spark of pride. Then he steps up to the next stair - Jim's stair, so close that Jim has to look up into his face, though his shadow blocks out the light now and he can no longer make out the color of the eyes behind the mask.
"Have that drink ready," Batman says, a suggestion that sounds like an order as usual but for an unfamiliar note, light and almost tentative, in his voice. While Jim is staring, he disappears straight up and away.
Jim stops to buy liquor on the way home that night, at a place lit up neon near the police station because it's the nearest one he's sure will be open still this far after midnight.
[§ § §]
It's two nights later when Jim wakes suddenly, eyes flying straight to the open window, and finds Batman kneeling on his floor, his cape curling over his hunched shoulders in the darkness like a blanket, both hands clutching one tensed thigh.
Jim pushes himself up in one slow-motion move, sliding off-kilter out of bed and reaching for his glasses on the nightstand while tilting at a forty five degree angle to the world until he finds his balance.
A pale flash shows under Batman's dark gloves and a long tear in the leg of the suit. His head is bent, and when Jim crouches carefully to the floor next to him, he grits out, "There might be some blood on the floor."
Jim waves that aside. "Were you followed?"
"Not a chance." He looks up, though, and says seriously, "Lock the window. Better to go downstairs." Easier to escape, he means.
It's surreal, following the Batman down his own stairs and into his kitchen. Of course it's no surprise that he knows the layout of Jim's house. The kitchen is empty and seems paradoxically grimier with only a handful of dishes piled in the sink and the drifts of paperwork on the table that were never allowed to accumulate before Jim lived alone.
Batman sits on one of Jim's wooden kitchen chairs, on the faded checked cushion, looking ridiculously human-sized for once, instead of the eight-foot looming shadow he turns into standing up. He pulls one of his gloves off and rasps, "Water." Jim doesn't turn the light on, just turns the cold tap in the sink and waits for the old water to run out of the pipes. It's hard to tell from Batman's voice if he's out of breath, in pain, or for that matter, has bronchitis. Maybe he secretly smokes more than Jim, and that's where the voice comes from. Jim doesn't think so.
He puts a clean dishrag under the tap to wet it and hands it to Batman, then pulls out one of the three chairs that's been empty for months.
"Should I get a needle and thread?" says Jim, while Batman peels back the cloth around the wound on his thigh and dabs at the seeping blood, black in the darkness. Batman's mouth is tight, but he doesn't cry out or hiss at the contact with his leg.
"It's just a knife," says Batman, dismissively. "Nowhere near the artery. Some hydrogen peroxide?"
"I don't know what happened," Jim protests.
Batman looks up at him. "I'm not going to disappear before you get back," he says, sounding amused. "I don't know where the band-aids are."
"I've heard that one before," Jim mutters on his way to the tiny downstairs bathroom, just to say something though he's well aware it doesn't make sense.
He has to pinch himself a little, pulling gauze and band-aids, hydrogen peroxide and Q-tips out of the drawer behind the abandoned pastel worm-shapes of Barbara's curlers. Batman with a band-aid in the kitchen sounds like Gotham's own demented game of Clue. Everyone knows that Batman wouldn't even need a band-aid.
The band-aids have My Little Ponies on them, another pastel orphan of the other people who no longer live in his house.
And Batman is still in his kitchen when he gets back, standing between the sink and the coffee maker. The ripped edges of the suit hang open on his thigh now, exposing a white gash with a dark center. "Does this work?" he asks.
"The sink?" says Jim blankly.
"The coffee maker." He's facing away from the grimy window now, but Batman is definitely smiling. Jim can hear it. "I said I might drop by for a drink."
Jim waves Batman back to the chair, handing him the hydrogen peroxide first, leaving the other things on the table with the My Little Pony band-aids strategically behind the rest. Then he fills the reservoir, measures grounds into a filter and plugs the machine in. "For some reason, I didn't think you meant coffee."
"We both like coffee," says Batman.
Jim sits down while the coffee percolates. Batman is dabbing blood away with his dishrag. Jim soaks a piece of gauze in hydrogen peroxide and offers it to him, then politely turns his gaze away when the muscles stand out rigid in Batman's thigh and arms and even his jaw, breath audible between his teeth.
"All those coffee breaks aren't so much about the coffee for me," says Jim cautiously. He makes the mistake of meeting Batman's eyes and gets caught in them, even though they're only visible as a wet glimmer in the dark, a hint of hazel in the light of the window.
"It doesn't matter," says Batman, quiet, lower and gruffer than usual, and Jim starts to thinks he means – well – this thing they surely aren't crazy enough to be doing, until he adds, "once you're addicted to the caffeine," mouth quirking slightly in a Bat-joke. Jim lets out a surprised bark of laughter.
Jim takes another piece of gauze and hands it to Batman for the deepest part of the wound, then peels the backing off a My Little Pony band-aid for him and leans over to put it on – long habit with My Little Pony and Bob the Builder band-aids, another habit made meaningless with the kids gone. It's also a habit that is drastically different, he realizes as he puts one hand on Batman's armored knee, because Batman's leg is thickly muscled and strong, his skin pale and fine under the ripped pants, and close enough to apply the band-aid is close enough to smell sweat and blood.
Blood isn't a smell with good associations for Jim, but the smell nevertheless catches him by the throat and won't let go, and while he's smoothing a second band-aid slowly in place, since he's absolutely not able to talk right now, he realizes that it's a comforting smell to him, which means that it's familiar.
Jim's been in a lot of close quarters with Batman before, something he's never really thought about because he and Batman have never really touched; aside from Jim's fingers on the Bat-thigh now, he thinks their most intimate contact has been the exchange of papers and coffee cups - through Batman's gloves – that and the press of his fingers on that stolen throwing bat, his lucky charm. Knowing this smell, though, that's more intimate than Jim knew; it puts Batman closer than a lover, close as a partner or a wife. Fitting, maybe, though they've never shared a patrol car. Jim hasn't had a regular partner since his strange partnership with Batman was born.
Jim doesn't look at what it means that that smell gets to him so viscerally.
Batman just says "Thanks," inscrutable but with an overtone of friendly to Jim's Batman-fluent ear.
"Any time," says Jim honestly.
Batman's face changes subtly at that. For some reason he seems to be unhappy with the answer – at least, that slight twitch is what Jim has mentally categorized as a Bat-grimace.
Jim opens his mouth automatically and says, "Look - ", then breaks off in confusion. "I mean – is this just a fluke?" He gestures awkwardly at Batman and himself and his little kitchen. "Because until two days ago I hadn't seen you for a month, but if you're going to be around more often like this – except sometimes in better health I hope – you're more than welcome." Batman's face doesn't change, and something makes Jim add, "That'd be a nice change."
"It would," agrees Batman gruffly, holding Jim's gaze. Batman can be very intense when he wants to, and his slightly narrowed eyes seem to be looking right through Jim. It doesn't make him uncomfortable anymore, hasn't for years, but Jim is trying to compose his face to show his his trust and loneliness and friendship openly, and that makes him squirm a little. They're always honest with each other; this openness is... something new. He's missed Batman, though, and trying to hide it would probably be pointless, definitely undignified.
God knows what Batman is reading into this look. The dissatisfied twitch is gone, but Batman hasn't relaxed an inch since the first bandaid – then again, he's still got a gash in his thigh. And he probably wouldn't take kindly to an offer of Advil. Jim is lucky when he gets a glimpse through the eye-slits. A gleam of light reflecting from those liquid eyes is usually the biggest tipoff to Batman's generally unspoken moods – a quick glint of laughter, a flash of apology, a warm glimmer of thanks. His eyes are hooded in shadow, now, as he looks down at Jim, revealing nothing.
"I meant it," Batman admits, gravel-rough. "But this isn't exactly the visit I had in mind."
The coffee maker finishes gurgling, so Jim gets up to pour two mugs out, even though he'll probably never sleep again if he drinks coffee now. There's a soft whisper of movement over his shoulder, and Jim turns around calmly with a Classic Rock Radio mug filled to the brim. Batman is just behind him, close enough to blend into his shadow – close enough to support himself surreptitiously on the edge of the counter, Jim notices. He hands over the coffee and Batman takes it from him silently, lifts it and sips.
"What did you have in mind?" Jim asks, curious in spite of himself.
Batman says quietly, "Jim," and deliberately touches Jim's arm, the inside of his elbow, just under the sleeve of his worn police academy t-shirt. Jim clamps down on a shiver, doesn't move.
Batman does a lot of staring, Jim thinks. But right now he looks frozen, locked in some internal struggle, not simply watching. Jim can't think what to say; he's not sure he should find out what Batman is thinking, even if another part of him is yelling selfishly for more. He waits, patiently, while his coffee lets off caffeinated steam.
He takes a sip after a while, and the tension seems to ease. Batman takes his hand away and takes a long gulp of coffee.
"Drinks on me next time," Batman says, setting his empty mug on the counter with a little click, and Jim honestly can't tell how he's supposed to take that.
[§ § §]
Jim doesn't realize he's been subconsciously expecting another visit from Batman any minute until the third person apologizes for startling him. Time for a coffee break.
Up on the roof of the building again with his coffee, Jim thinks about how he's gotten used over months to hardly ever seeing Batman, but one midnight visit (Drinks on me next time makes him picture where Batman would take people for drinks – down by the docks? Abandoned warehouse? A bat-shaped spaceship? A bar, even?) and he's jumping at every little noise. Jim usually doesn't surprise easily. He keeps alert, but he contains his reactions until later, because oftentimes on the job you don't have time to indulge them right away.
His caffeine addiction slaked for the time being, he's a little less jumpy, but it stays in the back of his mind. For days, because there's no sign of Batman but a few guys tied up and left on precinct house doorsteps until a week's gone by.
But when Jim gets home a week later and goes into the kitchen to look for the least moldy leftovers in the fridge, between his dirty mugs and the coffee maker on the counter there's a green bottle almost big enough to obscure the coffee maker: Laphroaig 1960 single-malt. Jim knows what it is even though he can't spell or pronounce it.
Jim starts laughing, a little hysterically, and sits down at the table with his head in his hands. Part of it's just relief, because he was starting to wonder from time to time if he dreamed Batman in his kitchen. Part of it's appreciation of Batman's sense of humor, and part of it's because now he's trying to imagine Batman buying expensive liquor for his (only?) friend. If he went into an ordinary liquor store, he probably wouldn't have to pay, but wherever he'd gotten this, he'd at least have had to disable some alarms to get in. It's not hard at all to picture him looming in line at the cashier. Maybe he ordered it on the internet.
Part of the laughter is the thought of Batman back in his kitchen again, and it's not funny – at least, he has to admit that it is funny, but that's not why he's laughing. Jim doesn't actually know why he's laughing.
He pours an inch of the stuff into a tumbler and uses it to toast the empty chair where Batman sat, and sips it respectfully before he even gets up to dig some cartons of aged Chinese food out for a midnight snack. It warms him up inside more than liquor alone should. It's almost like he's not drinking alone after all. It would be better, he thinks, if Batman were there in person. Jim lingers at the table a while.
Batman doesn't come again, and an hour or so later, Jim puts the bottle in a cabinet and goes to bed. Before he goes, though, he dusts off another tumbler, then washes it to be sure and puts them both, sparkling and clean, out in easy reach in the cabinet with his drinking glasses and coffee mugs. He'll probably be using it soon.