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Purgatory

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“He’s at it again, Martha,” Thomas says, helpless.

On the bed he never occupies enough, Bruce is frowning in his sleep. He doesn’t move; doesn’t shake. He’s trained himself out of it decades ago, the poor dear.

As a child he was haunted by night terrors; Martha remembers with a pang how after a charity call out, she’d slip into her son’s bedroom to kiss him good night, and she’d find him laying wide awake, his eyes huge in his face. She’d hug him and soothe him back to sleep; if she woke up again later that night, she would find him restlessly twisting in his sleep. He never complained, never came to her and her husband’s bedroom to say he couldn’t sleep.

That he turned out the way he did may be as much their fault as the circumstances’; Thomas put a lot of stock in dignity, and she valued self-control.

They’ve watched, over the years, as the nightmares pursue him even in his sleep. Sometimes barely distinguishable from those he confronts every night.

This morning Bruce is having nightmares about them. They can always feel it when he does, tugging in the place where their hearts used to be. It’s more of a surprise when a whole 24-hour goes by without that familiar pain, calling them to their son’s side like a baby’s cries call parents to a crib.

On the other side of the bed, the air shimmers. Smoke-like, two translucent shapes begin to form, until Mary and John Grayson are floating above the floor, looking at Bruce as well.

“This is one of those,” Mary says, and the twist of her lips is bitter. Her husband squeezes her shoulder; Martha registers the gesture, and absently reaches out for Thomas’ arm, resting her hand on his. Thomas doesn’t react; the four of them, they can do nothing but watch the phantom-images of Bruce’s dream, hazy like an old movie.

In his nightmare, Martha and Thomas are lording over John and Mary, saying that they’re not good enough, that their circus-raised offspring isn’t good enough for the Wayne name, and John and Mary get in their face.

Mary tenses visibly. Sometimes dream-Mary mentions Jason, and none of them likes watching the vision of a thirteen-year-old Jason, happy and laughing in the bright costume of Bruce’s partner, dancing across graves while Bruce looks on, so grief-filled he seems to sink into the earth.

Martha lets go of Thomas and reaches across the bed to grab Mary’s hand. Today they’re fortunate enough that Bruce’s subconscious doesn’t put them through that torture.

“I don’t know why he does this,” John stammers. In the dream, the figment of guilt wearing John’s face has started ranting that at least he never made his wife into a target by putting a string of pearls more costing more than most people see in three months around her neck.

Thomas has put his face in his hands. You need to know him very well indeed to notice that his shoulders are ever so slightly shaking. Mary sends him a sympathetic smile. “He doesn’t believe it,” she says. “We all know this, he doesn’t truly believe it. None of us were like that.”

Truthfully, Martha would like to share Mary’s optimism. She’s much less sure than her counterpart how she and Thomas would’ve reacted in life, had Bruce taken in and adopted boys, almost teenagers, from such a different social background from theirs. It all seems so far away now; Martha doesn’t know if they would have opened their hearts to Dick and treated him like their grandson, or if they wouldn’t have suggested that Bruce find him a good home, and shower him with gifts and scholarships from afar. She has the nagging feeling that their view would’ve been much closer to Jack Drake’s than she feels at ease imagining.

Sometimes Bruce has nightmares about Jack Drake, too. It’s far easier to be here with John and Mary. In the afterlife, Martha avoids Jack and Janet Drake with more energy than she thinks she would’ve devoted to it alive.

“When do you think it will be over,” John asks. He sounds as helpless as Thomas did earlier.

“I imagine it’ll depend on when he wakes up,” Martha says, and she attempts to sound cool-headed and indifferent. John doesn’t quite recoil, though his lips purse. “At what time is night falling today?”

There’s a core of cold anger in her, and she guesses that she’s what ignorant people would call lucky, that none of her friends call her out on it. But she’s an old ghost whose son hasn’t had one undisturbed night since the day he suddenly stopped being a child; anger at the world is their heritage.

*

“Do you think we’re the lucky ones?”

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Sheila wishes she could take them back. She stops watching the way her whisky swishes in its glass and looks up.

None of the others seem outraged, so maybe she didn’t make that big a faux-pas. Except Catherine, of course, who is looking at her as though Sheila was something she’d found stuck to the bottom of a toilet. That’s nothing out of the usual.

Adeline chugs the entirety of her shot in one gulp, puts the glass back on the table with a clink, and shrugs philosophically. “Depends on what you call lucky, I guess.”

“Yes, depends on what exactly you mean by that, Sheila,” Catherine says, in that icy tone she always takes when talking to Sheila. The only exception was when they were both looking at Jason, looking over Jason, Sheila supposes, and he was still brain-dead, on that cliff with Talia, and she touched his shoulder as she spoke to him of – Batman, Sheila thinks, but she’s not certain, it’s all too fuzzy, it all mixes up – and he cried. That’s the only thing she remembers for sure, Talia touching Jason’s shoulder, and Jason, her brave, brave boy, still basically a vegetable, crying. Proving he wasn’t lost after all. It was the only time Sheila felt that way about Jason.

She thinks Catherine knows. If she were to use these words about Jason now, Sheila thinks, Catherine would punch her.

“Well, we’re not doing so badly,” Lili slips when Sheila doesn’t answer, lost in her mind. Damn whisky. “Free booze, quiet, and a pleasant view.” Lili is Rose’s mother, which is something Sheila always has to remind herself after the first couple of drinks or so; Rose looks even less like her than Jason looked like Willis.

At the moment, they’re watching over the Titans training. It’s mostly the boys, and Sheila suspects that’s what Lili says when she’s talking about the view.

“Depends on how you rank your kids being dead, I guess,” Adeline says. She doesn’t sound grudging at all, and she doesn’t even tap her glass against the table to have an instant refill. That’s a property of the afterlife that both Sheila and Catherine have largely abused of over the years.

“That reminds me; is Jericho alive or dead?” Sheila asks, because what the hell, she’s working up a nice buzz here, and it’s been on her mind for a while.

Adeline snorts, and Lili’s the one to answer. “Alive at the moment.” They’ve got a good relationship, these two. Sometimes Sheila envies them; she wishes it were so easy between Catherine and her. But again, their links are markedly different. They have shared a man, but that’s the end of the parallel between Sheila and Catherine, and Adeline and Lili.

“You never told us what you meant by lucky,” Adeline reminds her.

Sheila shrugs. The sun is shining bright over San Francisco, as bright as the sun of Ethiopia but with a light, smooth breeze in the leaves. It feels wonderful on the skin, Sheila knows without having ever experienced it. She never came to the West Coast when she was alive. It’s funny; back then she used to think of the people in America and consider herself pretty worldly, but here and now, she’s the second least-travelled of the four of them. Catherine never left Gotham. Which, some would say, is a journey in and of itself.

“We’re not doing so badly,” she finally says.

The sparring doesn’t cut off when Rose and Wonder Girl join in. On the contrary, it intensifies. Both Lili and Adeline brighten at the sight – Adeline has taken a liking to Lili’s daughter, maybe that’s why she lets Lili be the only person to call her Addie. To Sheila’s no-longer-so-untrained eye, the fight seems to grow more vicious. She’s watched some of Jason’s activities over the years; like Catherine, she knows from vicious.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Catherine look away, to the boy in the red tunic and black cowl. Catherine’s lips thin, and her hand clenches into a fist, but she releases it after just a second.

Sheila looks away, as well, to the bay and the horizon. She has no patience for proud parenthood, never did even when she was alive. (If she searches for it, deep inside, she can feel where Jason is now. It’s cooler than here, dark, and there’s a sense of urgency to whatever he’s doing. A bullet hisses past him and embeds into the wall, two inches from his head.) She’s craving for a smoke. She’s hasn’t lit a cig since the day she died, but she doesn’t think she quit. There’s no change in the afterlife. She still wants it as badly as she did on the last day.

When Rose erupts into a whoop of gloating and Superboy calls Tim, insisting he should join them, to the sound of Wonder Girl and Kid Flash arguing with Rose, Catherine disappears. It’s been months since Sheila felt the slight tug inside, indicating that Jason is thinking of them. There’s no relief at Catherine leaving, nor is Sheila in a hurry to go herself. They’ll find each other again soon enough.

Damn, but she needs a smoke.

*

The best thing about the afterlife is the open bar. Roger owns up to that.

That’s the kind of thought that would’ve made his wife shake her head sadly and his brother scowl disapprovingly in life, but that’s the second best thing about the afterlife: no more killjoys no ruin his fun, especially not them.

They don’t have a leg to stand on, anyway. Not after that stunt they pulled his little daughter found out a few years back. He hasn’t seen Thelma since; he wonders where she is, if she’s made friends. He misses her, in spite of the open bar. Just not when he’s at the open bar.

It’s not quite how he’d been given to understand Heaven was supposed to be, but then they wouldn’t have let him in, even if he’d believed in Heaven.

“Just because we’re stuck here doesn’t mean there’s no higher place,” a man lower down the bar remarks. “If anything, being stuck here is doing more to convince me there’s a higher place than anything else. My name’s Jack Drake,” he offers, extending his hand.

“Roger Gordon,” Roger answers, stretching the arm that’s not resting on the counter with a glass in his hand to shake with Drake. “Hadn’t realized I was saying that out loud.”

“It’s no bother,” Drake assures. Then he frowns. “Hold on – Gordon? Are you related to commissioner Gordon?”

Drake’s from Gotham, then. Only people to call Jim commissioner. Isn’t that just Roger’s luck. “Brother,” he says, and then, because he’s used to seeing that shadow of judgement in people’s eyes, and he can see it in Drake’s right now, he adds, “you don’t look like you’re from Gotham.” He’s allowed to get revenge on stuff. Thelma used to accuse him of being petty, but it’s not about that. It’s about self-respect.

Drake bristles. “Well, that’s—“ On the inside, Roger smiles. He’s never met a Gothamite who didn’t get up in arms about their shitty, crazy city; and he’s met his fair share of them in the afterlife. “Not all of us are crooks,” Drake finishes in a milder tone.

“I don’t doubt that,” Roger says with a wide smile.

“It’s funny,” Drake says. “I used to barely consider myself a Gothamite – we used to live in Bristol, on the mainland. It’s attached to Gotham legally, but…” he shrugs. “We were sort of like you, we saw the Joker more often on TV that in real life. Well, except for that time Poison Ivy took us as hostages.”

He can’t help the snort. “Sounds like Gotham to me.” Drake smiles a little.

“Yeah, I suppose it does.”

“Hey, I don’t mean it that way. I’ve got my daughter in Gotham. Damn, but she loves that city. Ah, maybe you’ve heard of her, you being from Gotham and all. Barbara Gordon?”

The other’s eyebrows arch. “The commi—oh, I see. I thought she was your brother’s daughter.”

It still stings. “Surrogate,” Roger chooses to grit out. Technically, he should say adopted. Even more technically, he might even just say yes. But it’s nobody’s business but the Gordons. Him and his little girl and his bastard of a brother, who still took as good care of Babsy as anyone could wish for their child. Better than Roger did before he got himself killed, that’s for sure.

“I’ve heard a lot of good about her,” Drake assures, in a tone that means he’s probably heard her described as a smart, good woman, and isn’t it a shame. Maybe some of the gossip about her and Bruce Wayne’s heir, back when they were dating.

“No you didn’t,” Roger retorts. “Not fucking enough. My daughter’s devoted her life to protecting this goddamn hellhole. And she wasn’t even born there!”

The glass is clenched in his hand, glinting sharply in the bar’s light, like a threat. Like Babs’ glasses, when she’s focusing all those brains of hers on someone’s case. Sharp and glinting, like her teeth reflected in the computer screens she navigates like other people breathe. Sharper than Jim, sharper than Roger or Thelma. Roger’s not sure where she gets it from, and he’s not sure what she gets from him, either.

It’s been one of his main pastimes, trying to figure out which part of Barbara’s accomplishments he’s entitled to being proud of. She’s a stubborn woman, for one thing. Maybe it’s because of Jim, but that’s one thing where Roger never was his brother’s lesser. Gordons are too stubborn for their own good. Then you’ve got someone like Babs, who takes it and makes it how good she is.

After a few moments, Drake sighs, and he leans at the bar, resting his forearms on the counter. “My boy’s like that, too. I wish he wasn’t, but…” Another heaving sigh, like the man’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He kind of is. Man’s got kid trouble and isn’t even on Earth anymore, to blind himself properly to his trouble. You can’t find yourself excuses in death; and the irony is, you can’t even make amends.

“I didn’t tell him enough I was proud of him,” Drake says. Confides. Like Roger’s his goddamn priest or shrink now. Like having kids too mulish to say fuck it to that city and too smart to be expelled from the business, one way or another, made them kin or something.

“Way I see it, if you didn’t tell him that then you’re not the one who’s got the right to be proud of him.”

Drake’s breath catches like he’s just been sucker-punched. Too bad. Roger doesn’t believe in coddling any more now than when he was still breathing. “Maybe,” Drake finally concedes. He’s not leaving, though.

“Here.” Roger pushes another glass out of thin air in Drake’s direction. “Drinks are on the house.”