She stays silent through most of the debriefing. She watches Dick lead from the far edge of the room, and his body looks stiff and at attention, muscles coiled tight like he’s suddenly not the most limber person she’s ever known in her entire life. The familiar body-language reads defensive and severe, and it’s one Barbara recognizes from all those fights with Batman. But Batman isn’t here; he’s several lightyears away serving some sort of imagined penance for sixteen hours of missing time, and she’d call Dick on it but the entire team is watching and this isn't the time to be having those sorts of conversations. The entire meeting unfolds with this quiet sense of ill-ease in the pit of her stomach. She feels like she’s missing something. A clue, an untold side to the story, a missing piece of the puzzle. No one on the mission got themselves killed, no one else was captured, and they’ve uncovered the Light’s new ally. It's been a successful mission, all-in-all.
Why does it feel like an abject failure, then?
Barely anyone comments when Beast Boy narrates how M’gann defeated Aqualad, while the woman in question, the one that actually did the conquering, just sits there. There’s bleak avoidance buried in her gaze, and at first Barbara assumes its guilt that’s driving M’gann’s reclusive behavior, guilt at defeating a former friend, but there’s something larger, darker, almost like… shame.
“All right,” Dick says, avoiding everyone’s gaze. “That’s it for tonight. Everyone… good job.”
The words feel hollow and empty for a victory call.
Later that night, she follows Dick and Tim back to Wayne Manor and helps Tim put his stuff away in the Batcave. (They’d been wearing their civilian clothes the entire mission, a tactic that might prove troublesome because already one of the blonde-haired abductees has started asking questions. Tim has volunteered to handle it.) She helps Tim clean up the grappling hooks and lay away the detonator charges they’d brought along on the mission. He’s talkative as usual, but Barbara finds it difficult to keep up with the conversation because she’s half-preoccupied. Dick is even moreso. So it isn’t surprising when Tim begs off halfway to sunrise, leaving both Barbara and Dick in the middle of the large cavern alone.
Dick seats himself in front of the three largest flat-screen monitors, digging through the Wayne database as he tries in futility to unravel information about the Reach. He hasn’t said a word in over an hour and though she’s long used to Bruce’s monotonous research sessions, it’s just wrong on Dick. She can hear the bats in the distance. It’s the only noise for a long time, before Barbara finally treads forward and drops a hand onto his shoulder. Dick stiffens, barely a half-inch, but she feels it resonate up her arm and through her whole body the same as if he’d flinched away from her touch by yanking back his arm. She wonders if he’d been so drawn into his own little world that he’d forgotten she’d been there at all, but Dick is always mindful of his surroundings.
“You all right?” she asks.
He shrugs it off. “Yeah.” And quickly redirects. “Check out these figures. The Reach can hold over two thousand of their kind on each ship. We know of one officially hovering over the UN. Who knows how many more they’re hiding on Earth?”
No one ever got on this team by being anything less than bold, so she decides to mention the topic that Dick is trying desperately to avoid. “I’m sorry. About Aqualad.”
He tenses again. “It was… bound to happen.”
His voice is crisp, firm – almost taut with strain and yet more than little resigned. How he can convey so many conflicting emotions with a single sentence, she’ll never know, but Dick has always been a walking contradiction.
“I know this must be hard for you,” she goes on to say, “But there’s nothing you could have done. Aqualad picked his side. What happened to him tonight wasn’t your fault—”
He jerks up from the chair. Barbara falls back a step or two, watching him as he unleashes some storage of energy by pacing to the back wall. His entire body is radiating restrained emotions, especially something akin to guilt, and she wants to tell him that everything will be okay, but that’s a lie neither of them believe in anymore – not blindly, anyway.
Batman never raised children to believe in fairytales.
“Aqualad did this,” she repeats, stubbornly. He needs to hear this before that insufferably big savior complex he inherited from Bruce engulfs accountability for too many things. “This isn’t your fault, Dick.”
It’s the wrong thing to say, apparently.
His fingers curl in an angry fist, but she’s always known Dick to be restrained and controlled. Traught. She’s only seen him let loose a few times before – just once, really, when Jason… when that happened, so she isn’t prepared for when Dick lets go this time. He smashes a hand through a corner of a brick wall. Barbara flinches out of instinct. The broken shards of brick sink beneath the rushing pool of water below, and the cavern suddenly seems empty again, painfully silent. Dick lets his hand drop at his side, busted skin and blood already running down his knuckles. His breathing sounds choked.
“This wasn't how it was supposed to go,” Dick says, so softly that she isn’t sure he meant for her to hear it.
The words feel disjointed to her.
To be honest, she hadn’t known Aqualad that well. By the time she’d joined the team, Aqualad had already moved up the ranks and she rarely had reason to join him on missions. He spent a lot of months in Atlantis, too. She knew Dick’s friendship with him had been one forged early on in their youth, one of shared burdens of command when the team was just a handful of sidekicks still earning trust and independence from all the adults. That type of bond… it isn’t a trivial thing, even when broken.
Still, she feels an undercurrent of hidden meaning, of unspoken truths. It gnaws at Barbara in the silent wake.
Finally, after beats of silence have spooled out between them like yards of yarn come undone, she approaches him as calm as she can. Though, inside, she feels like her stomach is made up of worms and grief and anger and confusion, and mostly she just hates seeing people she loves in pain. She turns Dick around and without a word or hesitation pulls him to her. At first, it’s literally the most awkward hug of her entire life because he just stands there, as firm and severe as he’s been all day, and she thinks it’s weird that she’s only ever been this close to him when they’re sparring or in the aftermath of a disaster. Then his rigid posture starts to melt a little, his shoulders softening before crumbling completely. His arms suddenly go from limp to vice-like around her torso, and she feels him exhale out over the spot where her shoulder meets her neck. It’s suddenly, desperately, painfully intimate.
They stay like that for a long time. She doesn’t know how long.
When she pulls back, she keeps her voice soft but firm, “Dick, talk to me. You don’t have to carry this all by yourself, y’know?”
“There’s nothing to talk about, Barbara. I just…” he sighs, heavily, then puts a few feet in between them again, regaining his equilibrium with every step he takes. “I just need some time to myself.”
He’s been doing that more and more, lately.
They’ve never been “best buddies.” Not officially, anyway, because he has Wally for that. They’re not partners either, because mostly Dick’s partner has always been Batman, even after going their separate ways. They’ve never been anything close to boyfriend and girlfriend, despite what the rumor mill and nearly half of their close friends allege (and the other half suspect). They’ve never even acknowledged out loud what sort of relationship they have with one another. It’s just… there. She’s Barbara and he’s Dick, or he’s Nightwing and she’s Batgirl. At some point, without her even realizing it, they became a pair. A pair of what, exactly, she doesn’t know, but one thing’s for certain: she knows Dick Grayson in a way that no one else does.
And she knows when he doesn’t want to be pushed.
Problem is, Barbara’s never been one to let others set her limits.
“Hey, kiddo,” her dad greets with a warm smile. She can smell tobacco in the air, but she saves the lecture for another day. “You’re home late. Busy night?”
“Yeah, sorry. Got caught up studying with Dick.”
There’s a flash of disbelief that flitters across his face, but it leaves quickly. Barbara sometimes suspects her dad’s onto her game, that she spends her nights playing vigilante with his oldest friend and two billionaire wards, but mostly Barbara suspects her father is just getting wary of her “studying” with boys until all hours of the night. Especially Dick Grayson. Tonight, though, the sense of incredulity is tainted when he gets a good look at her. He’s never been the best at reading her when she doesn’t want to be read, but tonight something must show up anyway because his eyes darken and his voice goes that gentle soft rumble she used to hear late at night whenever he checked in on her before turning into bed. (On those nights he managed to make it home, anyway.)
“What is it, Barbara?”
She shakes her head and smiles. “Nothing, Dad. It’s just…”
She’s just tired of people closing themselves off, is all. It’s a hypocritical stance to be taking in front of her father, though. Barbara doesn’t have the gall or the self-delusional conviction to voice it. At least not tonight, apparently. Instead, picking her way across the living room, she tosses a smile at her father, half full of bravado and the other half empty charm. “Just tired, is all,” she says, and pivots to climb the stairs. “Good night!”
She hears his answering call as the door to her room shuts, and Barbara sags against the wooden frame.
God, she’s tired.
They have a mission the next week in Bialya, which Dick claims is a complete coincidence, but Wally has since rejoined the team and asserts the exact opposite. That this is a kind of curse, a jinx, a place for fixed bad luck. Barbara stays out of it, mostly because the tension between Dick and Wally has nothing to do with the place of their new mission. She tells others to mind their own business as the team flies across the globe to where the Reach have now joined Brain in experimenting on humans.
The enemy camp is in the middle of the desert, and Barbara splits off into teams of four with M’gann, Connor and Beast Boy. It’s mostly recon, and the group maintains radio silence the entire time. Even chatter over the psychic bond is subdued, so when the team splinters off into small pairs, Barbara is almost eager at the chance to step away from the tension.
Barbara doesn’t step away far enough, though, because she’s still within hearing when M’gann starts to plea, “Connor, we’ll figure this out. I’ll fix what happened with him. I promise!”
Connor exchanges a pained sort of look with her, and Barbara and Beast Boy turn and look away because – yeah, it’s none of their business. But later on, when she overhears Dick say something eerily similar to Wally (“We’ll fix this! I’m telling you, we can still do this.”), Barbara isn’t so sure she can afford to be this willfully ignorant to whatever it is that’s so very, very broken.
Over the next few weeks, she starts to suspect that in their routine of worrying about the apocalypse, she and Dick have completely missed something rather obvious. Tim has a girlfriend. Or at least, she suspects he does because he disappears at random times of the day and only returns hours later with a pleased smile on his face. She knows he isn’t spending that time with any of their teammates, and he’s unusually closed off about the topic when pressed. Mostly, Barbara is of the mind that he’s a little young to have a girlfriend. (Dick disagrees, but of course as the resident Casanova, he would.)
It’s only a little while later that they find out the girl in question is one of the abductees they rescued from their raid on Aqualad’s ship. “Stephanie Brown,” she recognizes easily enough. Anyone that’s seen Barbara’s unmasked face during a mission is on a very short list. “What are you thinking, Tim?” she demands.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” Tim defends himself. “She spotted you a while back coming out of the Gotham Police Station with your father. She started asking questions. I intervened, and she… she isn’t going to be a problem, Barbara. I promise.”
“Listen, your girlfriend—”
“Friend!” Tim stresses, high-pitched and red-faced, not for the first time. “She’s just my friend!”
“Yeah, whatever,” she exchanges an eye roll with Dick over this, getting a thrill at finally being on the other end of that particular brand of incredulity. “She knows about our secret identities. I don’t have to tell you that it’s trouble.”
“She won’t be any trouble,” he insists. “I promise.”
Weeks later, formal introductions are being made to Alfred, which – just, is unofficially the seal of approval on a relationship that Barbara can already see will spell disaster. She’s still holding her judgment on Stephanie, but Barbara has to admit the younger girl has some spirit and spunk. A little too much, perhaps.
Barbara exchanges a sour look with Dick, though. “You realize Bruce is going to kill us, right?” she whispers to him. “He’s gone for a few months and a fourteen-year-old girl discovers our secret identities. I plan on laying this all at your feet.”
“What?” Dick says, incredulous. “How is any of this my fault?”
She shrugs. “I’m sure I can think of something clever.”
“Oh, ha ha. Don’t even joke about that. Bruce doesn’t have a sense of humor. Besides, she’s just Tim’s friend – girlfriend – whatever. She’s not joining the family or anything.”
Barbara isn’t the mistrustful type.
Of the Batclan family, in fact, she’s often wondered if somehow she has the least bit of emotional trauma to deal with, because there is no family tragedy that drove her into this life. She isn’t an orphan, and while her father slaves away at a job that leaves such certainties as far off from given as can be, she grew up without the experience of visiting graves.
She is no longer that naïve thanks to the Joker.
Jason’s grave is at the far end of the Wayne Cemetery. She doesn’t visit it often, mostly because the short journey across the grounds feels like a march to war. But ever since Mount Justice was destroyed, there’s been a selection of different areas for team mission debriefs. Tonight, it’s at Wayne Manor. She sees Impulse visit Jason’s grave, and the abrupt reminder of how long it’s been since she’d gone by with roses makes Barbara feel miserably guilty.
The mission overview doesn’t take long, and just before they set out on the bioship, Barbara steals a few minutes to visit the grave.
Dick finds her like that, five minutes later. “Barbara,” he calls, softly.
“Just give me a few moments,” she insists.
He comes to stand beside her, and for a long while neither of them interrupt the silence despite the fact that the clock is ticking down on getting their next mission started.
“He was so young,” she says, just to break the awful hush.
Dick doesn’t respond – he never responds to anything about Jason. Like it’s too painful to even utter his name.
She has an epiphany in that long, deafening span of silence that follows. Jason’s death was the moment Dick had started to pull away, the moment he had started to keep secrets from her. It’s a soft painful sort of revelation, like a piece of the puzzle sliding into place and it makes a perfect sort of sense only in retrospect. Because at the time, when Jason died, when everything had been raw and angry, she had seen the world through fuzzy and indistinct glasses, and she hadn’t even noticed Dick withdrawing until months had passed and her own malaise had slowly lifted like a fog.
She sees things clearer now, and it hurts all the more like an old festering wound suddenly fresh and anew.
“C’mon,” he says. “We’ve got to go.”
She follows him back to the bioship without comment.
The team is more or less silent for the next mission. It's a six hour flight and by hour four, all the younger kids have managed something that remotely resembles sleep or are screwing around with computer games pulled up on the same full-sized monitors that read missile trajectory. It wouldn't be accurate to say that Barbara is the oldest of the group, because she isn’t, but sometimes she feels like it because she is constantly worrying about stuff. She monitors sleeping patterns without even meaning to. In fact, she can classify the sleeping, eating and startle-response habits of most of her teammates.
And lately, she’s been noticing M’gann is getting less rest than usual. Depression isn’t an unknown quality to any of them, but this sort of behavior from M’gann is proving to be a distraction on missions at best, and outright dangerous at worst. Barbara doesn’t know what to do about it, or even if she should do anything at all. They’re friends, her and M’gann, but not close enough that she feels comfortable broaching the subject without it seeming out of place.
So, she corners Dick into doing it. “You have to talk to her.”
“What?” he startles. “Who? M’gann?”
Barbara rolls her eyes. “Yes, Boy Wonder. I’m talking about M’gann.”
“I’m not Boy Wonder anymore,” he grits out, wryly, but it’s a long-standing in-joke between them, one that he claims he doesn’t find nearly as amusing as she does. (That’s a lie.) “And don’t worry about M’gann. I’ve already talked to her.”
“You have? And how did it go?”
“She’s just… having a hard time with Artemis’ death. She needs time.”
It’s a simplistic response to a complicated knot of things life has thrown at them lately, but it’s also reasonable. So she takes his point.
But about halfway through the mission, when she sees M’gann and Dick arguing over something of relative inconsequence during live battle, Barbara has a hard time deciding whether or not to take everything at face value anymore. The weird tension that she’s seeing develop between Dick and practically every member of his former team is hard to miss. First Wally, now M’gann. Artemis is gone, and Aqualad a traitor. The only one that Dick hasn’t alienated or been alienated from is Connor, and the way he’s going, Barbara suspects it won’t take much time for that to come to a head, too.
What’s going on with you, Dick?
Despite the Reach’s lofty entrance into the public world, there isn’t a lot to be said about them. To the media, they are respectful and intelligent. To the masses, they are civil and kind. To the scientists of the world, they are revolutionary. To the soldiers of the world, they are self-proclaimed pacifists. To the skeptics, they are patient with their answers. To the believers, they are welcoming.
To the Justice League members, they are distant.
The feeling is returned in kind.
The fact that Batman and Superman held a joint conference (or, in reality, Dick dressed as Batman and Connor disguised as Superman), and cautioned the world against the Reach has done little in abating problems. The world continues to march on to the tune of G. Gordon Godfrey’s entirely un-ironic song of acceptance.
The night after the press conference, Batgirl is seen out on patrol with “Batman” because appearances must be maintained. It throws her, as it always will, to see Dick in Bruce’s costume. She remembers three years ago, when Bruce had taken up sky diving and he’d brought Barbara and Dick along for lessons; the way the two men had acted apart had never been more apparent than when she’d watched them fall through three thousand feet of air. Bruce was contained and deadly while Dick had been getting his yaya's out by throwing himself out of the plane, spinning and twirling to flip-flop around while the air soared around him. Barbara had laughed so much, and she’d suspected that even Bruce’s severe disapproval was mostly for show because it was hard to watch Dick like that and not be amused.
She hasn’t seen Dick laugh like that lately.
In fact, she’s hard-pressed to remember the last time Dick laughed at all, and you could always count on him to find something humorous about a situation. Dark humor, sure, but it was a quality he adopted from a young age. That sort of thing came with the territory of being orphaned, and she can still remember his cackling laugh from when they were kids, how he’d make up words like “whelmed” and “traught” and a thousand other dorkish things, and the more Barbara observes him that night during patrol, the more she hates the fact that he’s playing dress-up as Batman.
Dick should never act like Bruce. He isn’t Bruce. He just… isn’t.
All in all, the night is tense. They take out a group of thugs in Gotham’s crumbling strip of neighborhoods near the Narrows. Barbara backflips away from gunfire while Dick advances, and the two move as one to corner the group into a room where the lights all go out. They take out six guys one-by-one before the authorities arrive.
“Ready to call it a night?” he calls out, from behind Batman’s mask. “I’m beat.”
Which is total bullshit, because he never gets tired before four in the morning but lately he’s been using that excuse more and more. He’s keeping secrets from her, she’s sure of it. She’s been getting undeniable vibes for months now, but it’s taken her this long to confront them head on. It makes her think of a clear distinction, one that would suit her well to remember.
Dick might not be Bruce, but he’s definitely learned well from him.
Afterwards, when they part, Barbara ostensibly headed for her dad’s place while Dick heads back to the Manor, she decides to shift course and follow him. She doesn’t know if its paranoia or due diligence, but she can hear Bruce’s voice in her head telling her to follow her intuition and so she does. Dick hasn’t even done anything overtly to arouse her suspicions, and she doesn’t even suspect of him of anything in particular. It’s just… gut instincts. Gnawing and loud, and she can’t shake off the feeling that he’s been lying to her about something for far too long.
When she follows him back to the Manor, her shoulders slump in relief and a tide of embarrassment washes over her at being so paranoid, but no less than two minutes later he’s leaving it again. She blends into the shadows as he pulls out his motorbike and reeves the engine, taking off at a reckless speed. Barbara has no clue where he’s going, but she can’t follow him without him noticing so she has no choice but to rush into the Batcave and use the GPS tracker on his bike to find his final destination.
When he rides full-tilt to the edges of Blüdhaven, Barbara can’t for the life of her figure out what he’s doing there. He stays there for a full hour, and then finally starts heading back. She retreats before he makes it back to the Manor, but on the way out she doesn’t notice that Alfred spots her.
The next day, when she sees Dick, she asks lightly, “Get some rest last night?”
He shrugs casually. “Yeah. Pretty much crashed as soon as I got home. Man, I was tired.”
She keeps silent, and smiles. It feels like it’s plastered on her skin.
She starts watching him after that. Well, at first, it had been about watching out for him, but somewhere on the third day of surveillance, Barbara has to admit to herself that she’s venturing past friendly concern into stalker-mode, but it’s for his own good.
She sets up a hidden network in the batcave, feeling only vaguely guilty about the invasion of privacy but her gut instincts are too adamant. It’s a little disconcerting (and secretively satisfying) that she can set up surveillance without tipping anyone off. Bruce would probably discover her in a heartbeat, had he been around, but it’s not like the rest of ‘em have hung around just for their pretty-boy looks. Pulling one over on Dick is a real surprise, but even Tim is a boy-genius.
But she finds she has a knack for hacking, a previously untested skill that she explores as she sets up monitors in her bedroom and breaks into security feeds and traffic cameras all across Gotham to track Dick when he starts venturing out into the city in his civilian clothes. Mostly, it’s a never ending stakeout. She accrues hours worth of useless footage and a growing pile of ignored homework.
“Barbara,” her father calls up from the stairs. “Dinner!”
“I’ll take it up here, Dad!” she calls back. “I’m studying!”
She can hear his sigh from all the way up in her room.
Life marches on.
Rocket’s wedding takes place late May, and Barbara is a bridesmaid. She dresses up in a bright yellow sundress, and feels a little doubtful about how the color probably clashes with her red hair, which is spooled in curls over her shoulders. Everyone assures her she looks lovely, but it isn’t until she sees Dick dressed up in a tux that she wishes she could have chosen her own dress, something strapless or possibly backless, just to see what his reaction would have been.
The ceremony is picture perfect, with cooperative weather and a beaming couple fumbling and crying their way through their recitals – until about halfway through the walk back down the aisle when chaos breaks out. Abra Kadabra shows up. Barbara has no idea what his beef is with either the bride or groom, but he looks particularly menacing with his black hair sleeked back in a ponytail and poet shirt hanging open at the collar. He mutters a few curses, and Wally and Barry Allen take him on, but it’s Zatanna going above and beyond the normal duties of the Maid of Honor, that manages to drive him fully back.
Not, of course, before Abra manages to ruin the wedding cake and nearly outs the secret identities of two-thirds of the superheroes sitting in the pews.
“Well,” Rocket says, bewildered. “That was random.”
Turns out, it might not have been as random as one would think.
The Reach have given Abra Kadabra real powers. Before this, it was Barry Allen who had proved to everyone that Abra’s magic was nothing more than simulated science from the future. Now, it seems, the Reach’s experiments on humans are unleashing hidden potential. Abra Kadabra had always wanted real magic, and testing it out at the wedding of a Justice League member, with over two dozen superheroes in attendance, was a bold way to make his announcement.
Abra isn’t the only enemy gaining new powers. Shimmer, Mammoth and the Terror Twins all turn out to have extra powers, revealing themselves and their newfound skills at particularly threatening times.
Thankfully, not all of their enemies are going for the meta-gene. Tigress, whose been making a bigger splash in the water ever since Aqualad fell out of the picture, starts leading more and more assaults inland. About an hour before midnight on the fourth of July, the distant noises of gunfire and explosions blend in with fireworks at the east end of Star City. Barbara has no idea what the Light are doing, what they have planned next, or even if tonight’s mission is a recipe for disaster. Dick’s gotten intel (again) from some unnamed source, and they move out to cover the quarter mile of unguarded territory.
She gets into a fight with Tigress, but mostly Barbara comes out without a scratch on her because Wally dives in last minute with a save.
“Thanks,” she tells him, afterwards.
“No problem,” he beams, so openly and honestly that Barbara has to do a double-take.
She hasn’t seen Wally smile like that since before Artemis was killed. It’s been months since anyone’s been able to draw him out of his gloomy shell, and even Dick has given up on trying. (It’s been no big secret that things have been tense between both friends ever since Artemis’ death. Even Green Arrow and some of the other Leaguers have commented on it.) She watches Wally walk away, wondering what she missed.
Dick doesn't call for simple stuff. Never has. Sometime during the next morning he texts mission tomorrow, which, after staring at her phone's screen for a full minute, Barbara decides to feel annoyed about. Despite the fact that she’s been following him for weeks now, he’s been crafty enough to cover his tracks.
“Alfred,” she says, tentatively, turning towards the elderly man as he reapplies a bandage on her forearm. “Have you noticed anything strange about Dick lately?”
Alfred merely peers at her, face neutral. “Define strange, Miss.”
She opens her mouth, then promptly closes it. “Never mind,” she says, claming up. “Probably just my imagination.”
Alfred pats her on the shoulder. “In my many years, I’ve come to the stark conclusion that there’s very little to our imagination that is not seeded in reality. If you suspect something is bothering Dick or altering his behavior, may I suggest that the direct approach is the best?”
“Ask him?” Barbara says, dubiously. “You think I haven’t tried that?”
“The men in this family are a stubborn breed,” Alfred allots. “But persistence is not without results.”
“Yeah,” she says, tiredly. “I’m just worried what happens when my persistence pays off.”
She asks Dick to join her for dinner later that week, and spends hours trying to figure out what to say. Navigating through the awkward revelation that she’s been following him for some time is going to be painful to explain, but she’s willing to endure it if it means they both come clean.
The way Dick keeps lying to her, keeps feeding her lines of a duplicitous nature and then turning around to sneak off… the truth is, it hurts. It hurts more than she can ever put into words. It rips a silent hole through her lungs because it’s like he’s saying he doesn’t trust her. That after everything they’ve been through together, all the troubles and heartache and goddamn pain they’ve endured together, it doesn’t mean enough to him. Everything about their mission goes sideways when she thinks about that, and it's not just about the lies, it's everything. By choosing to keep her in the dark, he’s taking away one of the few foundations she thought she had left in this world.
She hates him for that, a little.
“So,” he says, suddenly crashing onto her sofa without making a single sound at his entrance. “You’ve finally asked me out on a date, huh?”
She rolls her eyes. “In your dreams, Boy Wonder.”
He lets the nickname slide without comment, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. It’s a stupid sort of smile that would make other women melt, but she’s long built up an immunity (…mostly) to it because she knew him when he was still in red-and-blue shorts and half her height. He’s dressed in civilian clothes tonight: light t-shirt and dark jeans, a fair-weather denim jacket and a pair of comfortable boots that probably cost more than her mother’s favorite pair of diamond earrings. Despite her protests, the idea of this being any sort of date makes her stomach flip, but Barbara knows where the boundaries of their relationship lie.
Dick Grayson isn’t dating material. At least, not to her.
It’d be… too messy.
She spreads out Chinese takeout for them on the corner of her living room table. Her dad’s working late and she has the apartment to herself for the night. It’s not much, and definitely nothing in comparison to the Wayne Manor, but she is the farthest thing from self-conscious about her small two-bedroom apartment because this is Dick. As much as the tabloids sometimes follow him around, the Ward of playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne, he’s a man of deceptively simple tastes.
“Catwoman ran into “Batman” the other night,” Dick remarks, for what amounts to shop talk for them.
Barbara rolls her eyes. “Uh, oh. How long did your charade last with her?”
He grins again. “How do you know she didn’t fall for my act?”
Barbara stares him down, because the thought of Selina Kyle thinking Dick was actually Bruce underneath that mask is one she doesn’t want to carry forward too much. She’s never trusted Catwoman, and can’t for the life of her figure out how Selina has Bruce wrapped up so tightly around her finger. It’s sex appeal, obviously, but it’s more than that, but Barbara will never understand it and won’t even try to dissect it. Some relationships are too contradictory to ever comprehend.
“You think,” Barbara begins, with a smirk, “that a woman like Selina Kyle can’t tell the difference between you and the big guy?”
“I play a convincing Dark Knight,” Dick protests.
She pauses, then says, rather wryly, “You’ve been playing a convincing Dick Grayson too, lately.”
He freezes, then raises an eyebrow at her tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She sighs. “It means you’ve been keeping secrets from me. Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Richard Grayson.”
“You’re using my full name,” he remarks, wryly, dropping chopsticks back onto his paper-plate like he’s suddenly lost his appetite. “That’s usually a sign you’re about to yell about something.”
“Is not,” she throws back, voice rising. “Though I am completely justified. Dick, I need you to be honest with me.”
“I am,” he says, staring her right in the eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
It’s the boldness of the lie that gets to her.
She crosses her arms over her chest and sits back, tries to contain her hurt, and covers it with anger. Like her father used to tease, she’s a redhead and sometimes her temper can be a thing beyond her control. “Dick,” she says, through gritted teeth, “I know you’ve been hiding something. I’m giving you the courtesy of coming directly to you rather than using my considerable talents to find out the truth some other way. Do me the favor of not treating me like a fool?”
Dick reels back. “Whoa. Where is this coming from? Barbara, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He sounds genuine. He sounds confused. He sounds even a little bit hurt.
She’s never known Dick to be such a consummate actor before.
“Fine,” she says, clipped and aggressive. “Forget I said anything.”
Two could play at this game.
In real life, things take a long time to make sense.
And sometimes, they just don't.
Barbara isn’t sure which one this is, because when the Joker breaks out of Arkham Asylum, the world tilts on its axis. Alien invasions and monsters and secrets suddenly shrink in size, seemingly little by comparison. The truth she isn’t ashamed to admit, because she’s only human and has never claimed to be otherwise, is that the Joker frightens her. He scares her in a way that no other villain or superpowered monster ever has.
The part she does hide, the part she is ashamed about, is this: he makes her angry, too.
It's mostly anger, actually, for her. She acts calm and together on the outside, and she’s there to comfort others when they need it, but the truth is inside she’s never really gotten over Jason’s death. She doubts she ever will, that any of them ever will. It’ll remain an open wound no matter how many years pass. It’s injury and insult, and just because she knows that for a hundred different reasons, the best solution still remains taking that crazy, homicidal clown back to prison, none of that stops her from feeling like the world is worse off for Batman’s mercy. The Joker thought he could destroy what they had built, and for a time after Jason, Barbara almost believed he’d succeeded.
It continues to make her angry, a soft, simmering sort of rage at the injustice of it all. Because Joker is free and clear while Jason lies six feet under in the Wayne Cemetery. She hates the clown for that, and it’s just a glimpse into the twisted sort of darkness that forged Bruce into Batman.
And that sort of revelation scares her more than the Joker.
That she has it in herself, that same drive and darkness. Despite following so avidly in his footsteps, she’s never really considered herself to be like Bruce. She can respect a man and even idolize him more than a little, but she still acknowledges that he doesn’t have the answer to everything. Bruce Wayne is a superhero among gods, but he’s just a man, too.
She doesn’t want to become him, and she knows she’s not alone in that regard.
“As long as the Joker is out there,” Dick declares, “we’re doubling up when on patrol. No exceptions.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
No exceptions in Dick Speak is apparently not without flaws in its logic, because she tracks him the next night when he goes out on patrol by himself. She gives Tim strict instructions at the Batcave to stay home for the entire night, but because Tim is perhaps the most sensible boy to don the Robin cape, he actually reminds Barbara that her going out on her own to follow Dick is just as reckless as what Dick is doing. She can’t argue with that, as much as she wants to, so she reluctantly agrees to his back up.
Mostly, Tim stays out of any fights that break out between Dick and Barbara. Most of the time, he gives up in disgust and goes to do something somewhere else, calling, Let me know when the happy couple are done, okay? as he does it. Which just annoys both Dick and Barbara, but it doesn’t happen too often. Lately, though, ever since confronting Dick and getting back a flat, hard denial, the strain of tension between them has risen to unprecedented heights. Tonight is on one of those times where Barbara can feel a heated fight coming like some oncoming storm, and it makes Tim tiptoe around her all night long as they follow Dick to Blüdhaven. Again, with Blüdhaven.
What the hell is he doing there?
He ditches the GPS at the city limits and changes his ride, and she doesn’t know if he’s aware she’s watching him, or what, but he covers his tracks and counters her surveillance measures with triple redundancies. But Dick underestimates her ability to hack into the city feed because she spots him run a red light on the corner of Fifth and Lexington, and that’s enough to lead her right to the edge of the ironworks district. Barbara and Tim perch on the rafters across the street, watching through scopes as Nightwing enters an abandoned factory. They drop down for a closer look, and what she sees stops her cold.
Tigress, perched indifferently against a stack of crates.
Aqualad, strong and robust and so very much not defeated, standing at her side.
And then Dick reaches forward and shakes Aqualad’s hand, gripping strongly in an air of camaraderie and relief, and Barbara chokes off an exhale of shock. It doesn’t make sense. She sees it, but she doesn’t believe it. There’s a stark moment of stunned silence, before Tim breaks it beside her with a rushed, “whoa,” and the noise dislodges the non-functioning part of her mind.
“Are plans in place?” she overhears Aqualad ask.
“Affirmative,” Dick answers. “Hopefully we’ll finally be in a position to take out our enemies.”
“Good,” Tigress says, pushing off her perch. “We can’t afford for anything to go wrong. Just a few more months of this deception and we’ll be free and clear. God, I can’t wait.”
Dick stands tall and straight. “I think we’ll all be better off once this is over.”
Barbara watches the entire meeting unfold, but beyond the revelation of the players, it’s a bust on details. She can’t follow along with what’s happening because it doesn’t make sense. None of it. Tim stays quiet beside her, watching through binoculars as Dick converses casually with a man responsible for Artemis’ death and his right-hand woman. The entire time, Barbara tries to run the logical options.
“Tim,” she says, turning to him. “I want you to go home. I want you to wait for my call. If I give you the word, I want you to contact the League Members and tell them everything you saw tonight. If you don’t hear from me in two hours, I want you to contact the League Members anyway.”
“I can stay here and help,” Tim protests.
But he’s only a kid, still not even up to her shoulders, and no matter how capable he proves himself, she won’t ever be able to wipe Jason’s broken body from her mind’s eye. For better or worse, Tim has to live with that legacy.
“Robin,” she orders, “just do as I say.”
Tim sighs, then searches her face. “What are you going to do?”
She looks down at Aqualad and Tigress as they escape onto a boat and disappear into the horizon of water. Dick stands alone on the docks, and he almost blends in with the shadows surrounding him.
“I’m finally going to get some answers,” she declares, coldly.
It’s a brutal sort of surprise attack when she assaults Dick.
He doesn’t see the pounce coming but she knocks him down from behind on the rooftop of the factory, and he hits the floor and log-rolls roughly forward. A second later, he’s already recovering and throws a smoke bomb with his trailing hand, and the smoke obscures her identity because he defends himself against her attack without the benefit of seeing who he’s up against. She knows exactly who she’s up against, though. She knows his strengths, his weaknesses, where he overreaches and how far and fast those miscalculations can be his downfall.
She flings herself against him, slams an elbow to his face and buckles a knee with her boot. He grabs her arm, twists at the wrist sharp enough for pain to flare out. She thrusts a flat-heel palm up against his nose and he staggers back. He uses the cover of smoke to disappear, and then attacks her from the side again, delivering a loud, solid kick that knocks her off her feet; she smashes into the nearest wall and it’s her audible grunt that stops Dick in his tracks.
The smoke clears, and Dick stares at her with widening eyes. “Barbara?” he says, breathlessly, like he’s suddenly forgotten how to form words.
She attacks again. It’s an angry sort of assault, all power and swiftness, too raw for her to contain. Even though he saw her coming, she must still catch him completely by surprise because he barely does a thing to stop the first two jabs she aims his way. He catches her fist on the third try, but she drops her shoulder and pivots, flinging him up and over her head so that he lands with a crash against the opposite wall.
“Barbara, wait!” he calls out.
She doesn’t. Bruce once told her that he fought the best when fueled by emotion, by a type of rage that sunk deep enough into his skin that he armored himself with it. She’s seen him deflect blows like he could barely feel a hit land, and she’s never gotten how he could do that, not really. She gets it now. Even when Dick starts fighting back, blocking her hits and then shoving her against the rooftop, she barely feels a thing. The blunt impact of being thrown against the gravel doesn’t even register.
She throws a punch with enough force to hear his jaw crack, but then Dick dodges backwards with a handspring. He rolls smoothly into a dive and goes sailing over the side of the building, catching himself on the rungs of a fire escape. She drops down after him onto the ledge, while he breaks through a second-story window. She follows him inside.
That’s where she loses her advantage, because the next thing she knows, a batarang works around her, wrapping her body up in a triple loop of thick fiber rope. Her arms lock around her body and she tips forward, trapped. She lands in a crash on the floor.
“I don’t want to fight you,” he says, lips bloodied.
His actions confirm that, actually. Once he knew who he was facing, he defended himself against her hits and threw a few punches in self defense, but he hadn’t attacked with anything truly offensive. Anger clouds the issue for her. She’s sporting a rough bruise on her cheek, where discoloration will shortly blossom from a hit he landed on her, but it’s like none of that matters.
None of that matters at all.
She frees a small knife she keeps in her utility belt and cuts the rope, hand-springing away from Dick. She lands on her feet a full six feet away, arms spread out at her sides, ready for attack again.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“Barbara, it isn’t what you think.”
“And what am I supposed to think?” she demands, furiously. “Months of lying, of secrets, of scurrying off to unknown rendezvous points, and then I find you meeting up with Aqaulad and his trusty sidekick. What am I supposed to think about that, Dick?!”
He closes his eyes, taking a staggering breath and then holds off her advance with a raised hand. The gesture is one that warns her off, but in a pleading sort of way like he needs a moment to recover, to clear his head. The expression on his face is as open and tortured as she’s ever seen it, like the thought of her discovering his shameful little secret is as painful to him as it is to her, but she can’t trust even that much. She can’t trust a word he says until some of this starts making sense. The sense that could justify months of betrayal.
“You’re right,” he says, eventually. “Aqualad and I have been meeting in private. We’re on the same side, but it isn’t what you think. Barbara, Artemis is alive. Artemis is Tigress.”
The words are so far out of left field that Barbara jerks back and narrows her eyes. “What?” she says, incredulous.
“Artemis is Tigress,” Dick repeats. “I’ve been meeting them in secret because we’ve been orchestrating a ruse to infiltrate Black Manta’s operation for nearly a year now. We’ve been trying to take down the Light and their allies from the inside.”
“God, Dick, how can I trust you?”
“Because it’s me,” he says. “You really think I would betray the League to the Light?”
She stops, wavering, and then shakes her head. “You’ve been lying to me for months.”
“I had to keep you in the dark. Only four people knew about this mission at the beginning. I had to keep it a secret.”
“You didn’t trust me, and now you expect me to trust you?”
“Barbara,” he breathes out, desperately. “I didn’t even tell Batman about any of this.”
The weather outside opens up with a sharp flash of lightning, and then a second later thunder rumbles. The rain hits the tin rooftop in a weird staccato sound, but neither Dick nor Barbara seem to notice. They stare at each other, caught up in a clash of silent recriminations and unvoiced pleas, and Barbara turns more at war without herself than she is with Dick. Because she wants to believe him, so badly, but if it turns out to be another lie she’ll never forgive herself for falling for it.
“I can’t,” she chokes out, pained. “I can’t trust you.”
His face goes stiff and blank, and it’s a clear tell that she’s hurt him, badly, but then he shakes his head and looks away, the gesture resigned and knowing. She waits for him to say something, to convince her. He put them in this position. He’s lied too many times.
None of that stops her from wanting to believe him.
“Hey,” a third voice suddenly speaks up, shattering the tense moment. Barbara whirls to find Wally and M’gann standing at the entrance, wearing heavy rain-coats and their costumed uniforms. The former waves a hand awkwardly, and looks to Dick. “Got held up,” Wally says to him. “Guess we missed the meeting with the guys?”
“You’re in on this too?” Barbara asks, before the words catch up with her brain and she realizes, of course. “Is… is Artemis alive?” she demands.
Dick nods to him, and Wally answers, “Yeah. She’s Tigress.”
It’s a sad comment on the state of affairs that she believes Wally over Dick, but there’s no way Wally would lie about that. Artemis was – is? – too important to him. She exchanges a look between the two men, and neither move. The ball is in her court. Adrenaline pumps away in her veins, but Barbara takes a deep, steadying breath and nods.
“Call them back,” she orders. “Aqualad and Artemis. I want to speak with them.”
It takes some maneuvering and protesting and sheer stubborn will, but she gets them to call back Aqualad and Artemis to the factory. Over half-an-hour later, during which Dick tries and fails to get Barbara talking, she’s standing in front of hard proof. She means to demand answers, but instead she finds herself as a passive recipient to it, like she’s being told a bedtime story full of monsters and magic. Tigress takes off her pendant, and Barbara is witness to a reunion between Wally and Artemis, complete with desperate kissing, while Aqaulad holds his post on the other end of the room, completely silent.
Dick explains everything. The ruse, the fake death, Kaldur’s slow rise to second-in-command in his father’s ranks, the Light’s partner and how they’d been trading off information. The reason for blowing up Mount Justice. Barbara stands rigid the entire time, processing the information and infrequently asking questions, and it’s usually Dick that answers but she can’t look him in the eye for the life of her.
For every question answered, there’s another two in follow up. She's not sure when Dick came up with this plan, but she’s almost positive it was his brainchild because she can read the deft touch of his labor throughout. Manipulation and misdirection – Batman would be so proud.
And a part of Barbara, the same part that trained alongside Dick all these years, can completely and utterly understand why he did what he did. She can appreciate the level of skill and sacrifice in doing any of this.
But mostly, Barbara can’t get over the fact that the lies have piled so high.
“Batgirl,” M’gann says, stepping forward. “I know how you feel. I felt angry too, that I was lied to about everything. It hurt, and it nearly cost Kaldur his mind because I attacked him not knowing that truth.”
“But you restored my mind,” Kaldur says to her, in that placating tone Barbara hasn’t heard from him in years. “I told you, my friend, all is forgiven.”
M’gann looks away, eyes filled with shame – and so many things about the last few months are suddenly making sense to Barbara. So many undercurrents of tension, of secrets. So many. “I’ve learned about what they’re doing,” M’gann explains. “I’ve learned what its cost them. You’re angry, and you have every right to be, but please listen to them. They did this with the best of intentions.”
Barbara stares at M’gann. “Does Connor know?”
She nods. “Yes. I told him not too long after I found out.”
“But the fewer people that know,” Dick adds, throwing M’gann a look of reproach, “the better.”
“We must leave,” Aqualad declares. “We’ve lingered too long.”
She’s witness to another round of Wally and Artemis kissing, and it suddenly occurs to her how painful this must be for the couple. Snatches of reunions only minutes long, the ruse of grief, the pressure of being a double-agent. She’s always envied Wally and Artemis for what they had (have), because it’s strong and unshakable. She pitied him when Artemis was taken, but now she wonders that even with all that, even with so much working against them, Barbara finds herself still envious. At least with Artemis, Wally has someone he can trust implicitly.
Barbara realizes she can no longer claim the same.
The ride back to Gotham City takes Dick and Barbara over an hour, the sense of urgency which had propelled her to Blüdhaven now stripped from her. She reluctantly settles into the back of Dick’s sleek motorbike because Tim had taken home her own transportation. Rain soaks both of them as she wraps her arms around Dick’s torso, keeping silent the entire ride, only stopping once to call Tim and tell him to forgo calling the Justice League. She leaves the full explanation for Dick to explain later, because the least he can do is face Tim when he tries to justify the layers of lies he’s laid down. Barbara won’t do that for him.
The city races by, and Barbara holds herself stiff. Her hair mats to her face in wet curls and she fights off a shiver, but she doesn’t mold herself against Dick’s lean body for extra warmth. In fact, she hates being so close to him. Once or twice, she considers forcing him to pull over and figure out another way home, but she’s in her Batgirl uniform and she’s never been the impractical kind. For one thing, Barbara still has questions left. She hasn’t voiced them yet, because her mind is still trying to sort out all the details, but she knows the conversation and explanations are far from over.
For another thing, Dick seems to sense her mood and isn’t pushing. So at least there’s that. He’s always been good at reading her, and for the first hour, it’s completely silent as he dips and bobs his bike through the shambled inner-city streets towards her father’s place. Eventually, they arrive. The steady thrum of rain is barely a footnote in the evening, though she knows she probably looks like a drowned rat under the streetlights. Dick climbs off the bike after her, and she turns around and faces him in the corner alley behind her apartment. There’s nothing to say, though.
The fire escape ladder is just above her head, and Barbara does a neat acrobatic flip to catch the steel rung and tug the ladder down. It lands with a heavy thud in the mud, and Barbara starts climbing up.
“Barbara,” Dick calls.
She stops climbing, and looks down at him.
There’s a beat of silence. “Are we okay?” he asks. The rain nearly drowns out his voice, but she can hear the anxiety lacing it, the thick stench of fear that coats over the words. She can even see it in his eyes. “Tell me we’ll be okay,” he says.
“I don’t know,” she answers, feeling bitter and small. “I just don’t know, Dick.”
It’s his fault for that.