"Are you sleeping with him?"
Barbara's hand stopped in the middle of drying the last of the dishes. It wasn't that she was shocked at the question; it was more that she was convinced she must have misheard the question. She blinked, standing there in the kitchen, holding a glass in her hand, looking at Dick like he must have said anything—anything—other than what she had just heard come out of his mouth.
"Am I what?" She didn't even sound outraged, just confused.
"Are you sleeping with him." Dick's arms were crossed now, and he was giving her a level stare, across the gleaming counter-top. Gleaming because that was what Alfred did, before he had a day off. He made sure that every last surface in the kitchen was polished to a blinding glare, in what she could only imagine was some kind of guilt at actually taking twenty-four hours to do nothing but putter in his garden and toodle around the farmer's market in Gotham or whatever other sweet harmless pleasures he got up to on his days off, which were rare enough—especially now. The guilt-to-gleam ratio was probably higher than usual, and she found herself staring at the counter-top as a way of processing what Dick had just said to her.
"You're asking me if I'm sleeping with him."
"You heard me."
She nodded. She had, after all. She plucked at the towel slung over her shoulder and folded it. "I see," she said.
"It's a yes or no question, Babs."
"You want to know," she said slowly, "if I'm sleeping with Bruce."
"You're living here, aren't you? When was the last time you spent the night at your apartment? When was the last time you left this house, actually, or did any work that wasn't telecommuting? Because hey, if you want to turn your whole life purpose into being nurse, physical therapist, and cheerleader rolled into one, that's your choice, but I can think of better reasons to do it than because you decided to sleep with him. So are you?"
She spread her hands on the counter and considered him. "There's a trick I taught him in the hospital," she said. "He's mentioned it once or twice, so I know he uses it, when he has to. The trick is this. When you wake up in the morning, in those seconds when it all comes back to you and you just feel like you can't stand it, you come up with a list of reasons not to kill yourself."
Dick was frowning. "A list?"
"Yeah, you've never had to make a list, have you? You'd think family and friends, loved ones, would be the main things on the list. But that doesn't really work—at least, it didn't work for me, and I'm betting it doesn't for Bruce, either. Because after a while you start to think, yeah, but wouldn't their lives actually be better if they didn't have this dead weight to drag around, if they didn't have to care for me and look after me and worry about me? And so they actually become a reason to kill yourself. You're much better off with small, simple things like, damn, I don't want to kill myself before I see the season finale of that show I've been watching, or damn, I didn't taste that new Ben and Jerry's flavor. So maybe I'll kill myself tomorrow, and do those things today. And each day, you think of a new list."
She tossed the towel she had been folding into the linens bin under the sink. "That's where he is," she said, to Dick's silence. "At the stage of making a list to get through the day, and you're wondering about his sex life. Not that you would know any of this, because you haven't asked him. But that's it, that's where he is. And sex? Jesus Christ, Dick. Do you have. . . any real grasp of what's happened to him? I can tell you this, I can tell you he is probably never going to have any sex life, of any sort, with anyone ever again. Even if that worked for him physically, he wouldn't be able to handle it, not like he is. Happy now? Is that what you want for him? He's forty-five, and he's shut the door on that part of his life forever. But that's what you want for him, right? That's what you were hoping to hear?"
Dick had the decency to drop his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.
"No, you're not. You're just secretly glad you got to hear what you were wanting to hear, which was personal information that was none of your damn business."
"But I'll tell you something else," she said. "If he ever wanted to, if there was any part of him that ever wanted me in that way, just the smallest part—which there isn't—but if he did? All he would have to do is crook his little finger, and I would be there for him, in whatever way he needed me to be, and if that meant being in his bed, then you better believe it. It would make your head spin, how fast I would say yes. So how about now—is that what you were hoping to hear?"
Dick's lips had gone thin and tight-pressed. "Babs," he said.
"Oh, shut your trap," she said wearily. That was always something Dick used to tease her about, her old-fashioned expressions. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. How do you like them apples.
He looked at her another minute, then gathered his keys from where he had tossed them on the counter and headed to the back door. "You're not even going to go up and see him," she said.
"I have patrol," he said, that same tight-lipped sound in his voice.
"Sooner or later you're going to have to try to forgive him."
Those dark angled brows rushed together. "You think I blame him for Damian getting hurt? I know that wasn't his fault. Damian's alive because of him, I know what he did to save Damian."
"It wasn't Damian I was thinking of."
"Then what the hell did you—"
"Himself. The fact of what happened to him. That's what you can't forgive him. He got hurt, and he's not going to get better."
The kitchen was still. The house was still, in fact—Alfred gone for the night, Damian long asleep upstairs. She could hear the faint whirr and click of the washing machine, down the corridor from the kitchen in the laundry room, but that was just because her hearing was especially good, and the house was especially quiet. Dick's clench of his keys was convulsive, like maybe he wanted to hit something. For a second she was sad that he wouldn't, because of what a joyful release it would be to lay the smackdown on him.
Lay the smackdown, he had teased her once. Who says that?
I say it. Because I am the queen of smackdown.
Queen of dork is more like it. We need to work on your vocabulary. Being good with words is an important part of this job, you know. Your superhero sass sounds like somebody's grandmother.
Ah, your ass sounds like somebody's grandmother.
He had given her an incredulous look before busting into a sputtering grin, throwing back his head and laughing. Well, they had been younger then, and more easily amused. It was hard to remember when anything had been funny. Back then it had all seemed like such a blast, like nothing could ever really go wrong. Turned out that was the actual joke.
She could see him weighing a response, and rejecting every one before he turned and walked away. Then he had slammed the side door and was gone. She waited until she heard the distant roar of his bike, and then finished putting away the dishes. She needed to go upstairs and check on Bruce one more time before bed, see if he needed anything.
It had taken her a solid ten days to get to Gotham, after it had happened.
It had been days of garbled messages on her cell, which hadn't really come through because she was in the middle of the Karakum desert with only intermittent reception between one range of salt flats and the next. By the time she had pieced together the urgency in Dick's scrambled voice mails, and made it to an airport—by the time of the six flights with multiple missed connections, by the time of the grounded planes in Frankfurt, it was day ten. She had missed the dreadful days when it was touch and go with Damian, and with Bruce as well. She had not stood in that waiting room with Dick, or with Jason, or with Tim, or with Alfred, when they had faced the possibility of losing both of them at once. By the time she had gotten there, Damian was making the recovery of youth and health, and his multiple surgeries were already fading from his memory.
Bruce had dragged himself on his elbows to his son's side in that warehouse, wrapped his son's bleeding body in the cape to protect him from the flames, and somehow, on the tattered bloody rope of his own will alone, had dragged the two of them together out of the hell of that burning building. The fire had spread to every warehouse on the docks by then, and the inferno of explosions was all around them, but inch by excruciating inch, his own spine shattered, Bruce had hauled them both out of there.
She couldn't imagine what the pain must have been like for Bruce, and he did not of course talk about it. Did not, in fact, talk about much.
When she had arrived in Gotham, she had gone straight to the hospital. By then she had read enough of the e-mails, talked to Dick enough, to know exactly what the score was with Bruce, exactly what the devastating toll of those familiar words—partial spinal cord injury—really was. In the first days and weeks of her own injury, she had held onto the elusive meaning of "partial" in "partial SCI." She had hoped it meant a possibility of recovery, sure, but also an indefinable line between her own situation and those poor sons of bitches who had a complete SCI—until she had had it explained to her that in fact, complete spinal cord injury would be someone whose lower half had been sliced clean off. Bifurcation, basically. So I'm supposed to be grateful I'm still connected by a couple of threads of meat and tissue, she had thought. I'm supposed to be grateful that other people can still wedge me into my pants.
She didn't say anything when she arrived at Gotham General; didn't really spend much time talking to Dick, even, beyond the quick hug and kiss on the cheek, beyond his desperate squeeze of the air out of her lungs—that shocking instant of recognition that he needed her far more than she had ever needed him, and that was fine. She had known where she was really needed, though. Still clutching her sour airport coffee, her coat thrown over her arm, she had gone straight to Bruce's room, where he lay propped at a twenty-five degree angle—and that was good, that they were allowing even that amount of pressure on his spinal column—and walked to the side of the bed where his face was turned, away from the door.
She had sat there, and his eyes had searched her face hungrily. Like he had been waiting for her. Waiting for her to say. . . what? Nothing, maybe. Waiting perhaps for the arrival of the one other person who would know the score, down in her bones. Would know what this meant. What this was. The one who would know.
So she did nothing but clasp his hand, and he had clasped back. Silent confederates.
"So," she said, after a while. "There's this list thing I used to do."
She had explained, and he had listened. And after she was finished, he had said, his voice hoarse and rusty-sounding, "Does this mean you are not going to help me get this over with?"
"You would never do that to Damian," she said. "Or to Dick. Or to Tim." And then, because she knew that score too: "Or to Jason. Especially to Jason. The Bruce I know would never do that."
He had turned his head the other direction. "Fuck the Bruce you know."
He hadn't let go of her hand, though. It was the first time she had ever heard anything stronger than a "damn" out of his mouth, and that only at the height of frustration. "All right," she had said. "Fuck him then."
"Tell me about where you were," he said.
"Turkmenistan. I started a company last year. I told Dick, but I don't know if he told you." He gave a brief nod, so she went on.
"It started off just me, and it's kind of grown by leaps and bounds over the last six months. I've got about seven people who work for me now, mainly on a contract basis, but still. Firms hire me to try to break their security in every way I can think of—hack into their systems, break into their facilities, you name it. Basically I'm hired to terrorize them, and then fix it. Only recently I've been doing almost as much work for governments as I've been doing for corporations."
He gave a grunt at that, which maybe signaled suspicion. "Only the good guys, I promise," she said. "It's not like I'm working for North Korea."
"No, just the country with the second worst conditions for press freedom in the world, and a human rights record that makes CIA black sites look like health spas."
"That was Azurov's government," she said. "Tipurmedov is working to change all that. Yes, there's a climate of corruption, and yes, his party's coalition is unstable, but he has to start somewhere. Trust me, Bruce, I can tell the bad guys from the good guys."
"Or you're so close to your own projects that you've lost sight of the larger picture."
"Like I said, you're just going to have to trust me that that's not the case."
"And are you keeping up with your training, or do you have employees for that now too?"
She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee. "Funny," she said. "New Bruce sounds a lot like the old Bruce."
He made a strange sound, just a small exhale of air, and she realized he was laughing—or maybe, as close as he had come to it in a while. He had released her hand, and his face was turned toward her again. "How the hell does this even work," he said. "Living like this. You tell me that."
She had a quick flash of her younger self, fifteen and perched on the edge of a rooftop, the skyline beneath her feet, the vertiginous rush of air in her face. You want me to do what now? And then the line had snapped into her hand, and she had been flying, soaring, weightless. A swoop of black on her left, and a steadying hand on her back. Don't let go don't let go oh my God don't let go! And a deeper voice, calm and steady as the hand: I promise.
"I'll show you," she said. "I won't let go. I promise."
She tried to put her conversation with Dick out of her mind as she went upstairs, not wanting Bruce to read her irritation on her face. He had enough on his plate without Dick's nonsense. She stopped off to check on Damian, who had fallen asleep curled up against Titus, of course. They were both stretched on the rug in front of the fireplace, so she banked the fire down while the dog watched her with silent eyes, and she fetched a blanket to put over Damian. Titus did not stir. "Good boy," she whispered.
The lights in the master wing were on, and Bruce was still awake. He was sleeping some better these days, though his hours were still wildly irregular—maybe always would be. Old habits died hard.
"All put away," she said cheerfully, as she entered. "Dishes cleaned up, too. Of course, Alfred will still tell me everything I did wrong when he gets back."
Bruce didn't say anything. He hadn't gotten ready for bed, which surprised her a little—normally by this time he had at least pulled on a T shirt for sleeping in, but he was just sitting by the window, fully clothed, in his wheelchair. His chin was propped on his hand like he was lost in thought.
"Well," she said. "If everything's okay, I'll head to bed then."
He was still silent, but she was used to his long abstractions by now. She filled the water carafe by the side of his bed, and tugged the sheets down—things she knew he could do by himself, but which made his life a little bit easier. He didn't object. "All right," she said. "If you need anything in the night, just buzz me. I think I've finally mastered the intercom system in this house. I can hack the world's most sophisticated computer systems in fifteen seconds or under, but apparently a basic intercom is beyond me. Anyway, I've finally got it figured out."
He swallowed, licked his lips. "No," he said. "You haven't. You have to hit the button twice to turn off the audio."
She froze by the side of the bed. The intercom in the kitchen. The one she had flicked off the minute Dick had come in, because she had known she was irritated at him, and had known there would be pointed words. She hadn't wanted Bruce to. . . hear.
He was still looking at the floor, brows furrowed, lost in whatever he was thinking. Her heart was pounding.
You're asking me if I'm sleeping with him.
All he would have to do is crook his little finger.
It would make your head spin, how fast I would say yes.
Oh God. She looked at the intercom on the wall beside him, and the little green light of on. Oh God.
"For future reference," he said, "you might want to make sure it's turned off the next time you decide to discuss the state of my psychological well-being, or the next time you decide you want to shock and horrify Dick, for that matter."
"Okay," she said, gathering herself. "But you might want to remember I'm an Irish cop's daughter, and if I want to shock and horrify somebody, I'm gonna punch him in the face, not play Wayne-games with his head. Just, you know, for future reference."
"Fair enough," he said, still not looking at her. "On the other hand, I can operate a two-button intercom."
"Not well enough to find the off button, I notice."
"That is also a fair point."
She stood there, unable somehow to move. He looked as lost in thought as he had when she came in. "You're mad that I'm mad at Dick," she said. "I get that. But I have plenty of reasons to be pissed at him that have nothing to do with you. And I didn't mean for you to hear. . . any of that. I'm. . . I wish you hadn't."
He made some strange shrugging gesture. He had been hard enough to read before, when he had the full range of his body; in the chair, and particularly slouched to the side like he currently was, he was almost impossible to read. But it was dismissal, that much was clear. A gesture reminiscent of the first time she had fucked up on patrol, and had had to face his wrath alone. Good luck, Dick had said, backing away, and she had telegraphed Gee thanks for the support with her eyes before turning to face Bruce. And the worst part had been his silence. He didn't appear angry. He had asked her to explain exactly what she did wrong, and she had complied, her face beneath the mask burning with shame. She would have opened a vein, in those days, before she would have disappointed Bruce. At the end of her litany of failure, he had nodded curtly, and dismissed her. He had raised an eyebrow when she had still been standing there. Go home, Batgirl, he had said.
"You'll let me know if you need anything," she managed, and walked across the vast room to the door. She closed it quietly, leaving him in peace. He still hadn't moved, and she wondered how many nights he just sat like that for hours, or fell asleep sitting in the chair.
She woke at two, as was her habit, to a sense of suffocation and guilt. Kicking back the duvet took care of the suffocation, but that left the guilt. She shouldn't have left Bruce like that; she shouldn't have basically walked out on him because she was embarrassed. She should have at least gone back to check on him.
She tugged on her robe and padded the dark, silent hall to Damian's room. He was still dozing on the rug, with Titus still curled protectively around his body. The dog raised his head and looked at her with accusatory eyes: Do you not trust me to do my job? So she closed the door quietly and slipped out, leaving the boy in more capable hands.
At Bruce's door she hesitated, but opened it as softly as she could. The lights were off—that was another thing, she had been so undone she had forgotten to help with the lights—and he was stretched in bed. He disdained almost all help for simple tasks like dressing and undressing, now, and of course he had unbelievable upper body strength. That had been a hilarious conversation with the physical therapist, a chipper young man named Luke.
"Wow," he had said, eyes wide in astonishment, the first time Bruce had effortlessly lifted the entire weight of his body on the bars above his bed. "You sure are fit, Mr. Wayne. How did you get in such good shape?"
Bruce had hesitated. "Ice climbing," he had said. Luke had looked surprised. Luke was a good therapist, but not what you would call a genius. "Ice climbing, really? Twelve months a year?"
"I alternate with wave jumping," Bruce had said, warming to his audience, "in summer months." Barbara had buried her smile in her coffee.
"You sure must travel a lot," Luke had said. "I'd love to travel like that. So you go to all those extreme sports competitions, like in Hawaii and stuff? My cousin, he went to the one in Australia, I forget the name of it. Took him fourteen hours to get there, though, I do remember that. But I guess long flights must not bother you, with all that traveling."
She stood just inside Bruce's bedroom door, remembering Luke and his feckless demeanor. Luke who had made Bruce relax a little bit, with his stories and his sweet smile. Luke was good at what he did, all right. Luke had asked her out, and she had hated to have to disappoint him, he was so kind.
Bruce was stretched on his back in bed, chest bare. Clearly he was all right now. And then he raised his head. "Barbara? Everything all right?"
She winced. "Fine," she whispered, which was stupid, he was obviously already awake. "Go back to sleep. I was just checking on you."
She half-expected a sharp reply to that—for God's sake, I'm fine or did you think I had rolled off the balcony or something like that. But he said nothing. She crossed the room so she wasn't shouting at him across it. It was hard to get used to the house's vast spaces, at times. "I can't sleep, now and again," she said. "So I get up and check on people. I used to do it to Dad all the time, and James. Used to scare Dad to death that he was gonna plug me one night. But go back to sleep, I'm sorry I woke you up."
"You didn't," he said.
A bare-chested Bruce was. . . an amazing sight. She kept her eyes very firmly on his face, or they would be as wide as Luke's. "I wanted to say I'm sorry," she said. "For earlier. For what I said, and for then taking your head off afterward. I'm just. . . really sorry."
He nodded, like she had said something profound. "Well," she said, clutching at her robe. For some reason the sight of his bare chest made her pull the edges of her own robe tighter. She was very much not looking elsewhere, even though he slept under only a thin sheet, whose outline did not seem to be revealing any pajama bottoms underneath there. Of course he would sleep naked, of freaking course. "I'll let you. . . get back to sleep. Or back to not-sleep."
He was just watching her, with eyes as somber as Titus'. She turned to go, but he held out a hand. Really did just hold it, stretched across the bed in her direction, palm up. He wasn't looking at her. She wasn't sure at all what he was doing. It was the strangest gesture, even from a man prone to them. And then he bent his little finger.
Pretty much all the blood rushed out of her brain in a flood.
She stood there looking at his outstretched hand, and then she slipped off her robe. She tugged at her nightgown and pulled it over her head, and then she was standing there naked, in the moonlight slatted from the window. He had dropped his hand, and he was definitely looking at her now. She followed every flick of his eyes up her body, and tried not to squirm under that exacting gaze. "So you were telling the truth," he said. "About not neglecting your training."
The smile tugged at her mouth, even though her chest was pounding. "I don't lie," she said. "I don't say things that aren't the truth."
His nod this time was more hesitant. His hand had fallen onto the bedcovers, and now it pulled back the corner of the sheet. He was looking at her. It was an unequivocal invitation, and she slipped under the covers next to him. He lay there, propped on an elbow, looking at her. It occurred to her the outstretched hand had maybe not meant take off all your clothes right now. That had been quite the assumption on her part.
His hand was on hers, just looking at her hand, examining it. "So after my injury," she said, because she couldn't bear that he might be lying there worrying about this. "When I felt like having sex again. It was weird, because I could watch all the porn in the world, and my brain could be aroused as hell, but the signals couldn't travel down my spine. It took touch, to get me. . . physically aroused. I could respond to touch. But everyone is different, after an injury."
He was still just looking at her. "An injury," he murmured. "Makes it sound like I was wind-surfing."
"I just meant, you can tell me what you need. I'm naked in your bed. That's pretty much the universal symbol for not going to say no."
"Is it now." The corner of his lip quirked in his odd half-smile.
He was just inches away. She had never had the time to examine him from this close up before—the blue of those eyes, the lines around the shockingly beautiful mouth. The familiar, and yet deeply unfamiliar mouth. She put a hand on the side of his face, and he closed his eyes. They were millimeters apart, and she realized he would never close that distance. Not in a million years would he do it, though she was naked in bed beside him. So she leaned forward and brushed her lips against his, and the small sound that escaped him made her groan and curl her hand around his neck and press her long body against his even longer one.
"God," he whispered, and then his arms were around her, tugging her closer, stronger and more powerful than she had reckoned, and his mouth was crushing hers. He pulled off and looked at her. He was twining a piece of her hair in his fingers.
"God forgive me," he said, even more softly, and she kissed him fierce and hard.