Roy had Climaxx blasting on the juke when Donna and I got there. Garth looked like he wanted to cover his ears or slide under the table to get away from all the noise. But, as usual, he was too polite or shy to say anything. Passing by, I "accidentally" unplugged the damned thing with my foot, cocking a grim smile. Garth smiled at me in return, those strange purple eyes of his flashing gratitude my way. Tula did the same.
"Hey!" cried Roy, nonplused. "What's with you, man?"
I didn't say anything. And, thank God, neither did Roy. I'm not sure what I would have done if he had. I wasn't really in much of a mood to deal with anything just then. Too tired and sad to fight, too angry not to. Angry at the world for being without Wally West, angry at the sicko who murdered him, even angry at Wally for letting it happen. For leaving me. Just like my parents did.
I sat back and listened. Listened to Donna's tales of Wally and all the friendship that passed between them. To Roy's mirthful stories of Wally's misadventures on the Romance front. I listened to them all, each in their turn, one by one. And when my turn rolled around, to my horror, I discovered that I had absolutely nothing to say. No sad ballads or humorous ditties to bring a smile to anyone's lips or a tear to the eye. I - I wasn't ready to talk about Wally. Not yet, anyway. Not even with the other Titans. I - couldn't. It was Garth who saved me.
He lay a quick hand on my shoulder. "It's all right, Richard," he told me in that soft voice of his. He always calls me Richard, my actual name. He's the only one who does. "We understand. You must mourn Wallace in your own way, your own time."
Damn him! He wasn't going to make this easy, was he? Why did he have to be such a nice guy, anyway? Why couldn't he be more like the rest of us, huh? Sometimes petty and irritable and all that? Why did he have to be so peaceful and calm, like a deep, still mountain lake, so blasted understanding, so, so ... so Garth?
Outlined beneath the loose shirt he wore I could catch an occasional glimpse of the bandages holding his cracked rib in place. For a moment I wondered how he had explained those bandages, missing practice and pool time, to his coach. Coach Dorrance wasn't a slave driver, or anything. Not like some. But he certainly did believe in discipline and practice. That's how he won three Olympic gold medals. Dane Dorrance, the "Sea Devil", was the scourge of pools everywhere from sunny California to Australia in the early 60's. Now, he's one of the best swim coaches in the world. I stared at those bandages.
And just that suddenly, just that thoroughly, I realized *exactly* why Garth was so always so calm and peaceful. He had to be. Surrounded, engulfed, by his adoptive father's rage and abuse, he could either force himself into the quiet scholls of peace and acceptance ... Or he could respond in kind with more rage and even vengeance.
A descending epiphany struck me blind side and I knew in my bones that I did not want to see Garth angry. Instinctively, I sensed that if Garth ever did lose his temper, I wanted to be far, far away.
Like, maybe, in the next solar system.
One day all that pent up rage and suppressed fear was just going to explode like a star going super-nova. And either Garth or, worse, Arthur Curry was a dead man. I'd known that for a long time, really. It took Wally's death, I guess, though, to finally galvanize me into action. One friend was enough to lose. I wasn't going to lose another. No way. I just had to hope that Garth didn't grow to hate me for what I was about to do.
Offering up silent prayers, I forced myself to wait until the others were gone. I caught Tula's eye and nodded imperceptibly. She nodded back in perfect understanding. She lingered over her iced tea just long enough.
I tried to keep my voice casual and friendly. I swear to God I did. But I don't think it worked. I was just so damned angry. Garth jumped as if he'd stepped on a jellyfish laying on the beach, his head jerked guiltily up and he stared at me. He knew. Oh, yeah. He knew what was coming. And I let him have it with both barrels.
"Buddy," I demanded, "how long are you gonna let Arthur use you for a punching bag, huh?" I pointed to the bandages peeking like shy children from between the buttons of his shirt, my hand rock steady, thank God. "Look at you. Trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey!"
Quickly, he averted his eyes. I knew from the instant the words left my lips that they were a mistake. A big mistake. Oh, hell. Sometimes my mouth lives a life of its own, totally independent of the rest of my body, you know? I guess that's one of the reasons that I'm always so willing to overlook Roy's laser-zap mouth. Even when he lays it on me. Which he frequently does. I understand what drives him; why he does it. He doesn't really mean it. The guy Roy is toughest on is Roy.
But, right now, this moment, what *my* brainless ire meant was that I had lost any chance I ever had of actually talking to Garth.
Which only made me angrier, of course.
"Christ on a Cruise Missile, Garth!" I exploded. "How long is this gonna go on, anyway? Until one or the other of you is dead? Are you going to let the son-of-a-bitch kill you, Garth? Is that what it's gonna take, huh?" Mom Wayne would have washed my mouth out with soap for that. She and Dad Wayne refuse to let me curse in their presence. So I don't, usually. But right now I didn't give a damn. I was fighting for a life here. And I had no intention of losing.
Garth looked away. "He's my father."
Honest to Christ, the words were past my clenched teeth before I could stop them.
"No, he's not! He's not your father! He's just some guy who found you on a beach! That's all!"
I discovered, then, just how right I was about not making Garth angry.
I went crashing across the room, sailing headlong like a small, light ship caught in the grip of a sea storm. Swimmers can surprise you with how strong they are. Those long lithe muscles can easily fool you. Garth is about the same height as I am, true. But size isn't everything, believe me. The strongest guy on the planet is a Turkish flyweight weightlifter. His name is Naim Suleymanoglu. I met him at the Atlanta Games. He's five foot three inches tall, weighs one hundred twenty-one pounds, and he's the only man in the world who can lift *three* times his own body weight. They call him "Pocket Hercules".
I certainly never suspected that Garth was this strong. Or fast. Jeezuz, he was fast. Almost before I could snatch a painful breath or clumsily lever myself to unsteady feet, he was on me again. The really scary thing was he wasn't snarling or red faced with wrath. Not in the least. He was cold as arctic ice. I saw his eyes. I know. They were as clear as a bell when he hit me, again and again, pounding me into the hardwood floor. Faintly, as I fought to push him away, to get him off me, I heard the owner, Mr. Gardner, yelling at him to stop. Guy Gardner has a loud voice, so even disoriented as I was, it was hard to miss.
But Tula was the one who finally dragged him off me. Don't ask me how. I was a little busy at the time, myself. I took several ragged breaths, drawing much needed air into my starved lungs and then I heard him coming for me again.
But this time I was ready for him. I braced myself, grabbed his reaching hands and sent him flying over my still prone body. Thank God, Garth doesn't know jack about any kind of fighting or I could have been in serious excrement here; a world of hurt. Hey, I don't advertise the fact that I've been studying the martial arts since I was a kid, so not many people know it, okay? In fact, Sensei Dragon is an old teacher of mine and he'd love to get me on the MA team. He'll have to stand in line for that. Right behind the football coach, the basketball coach, the hockey coach, and the gymnastics coach. To name just a few. I started studying when I was four years old because my parents thought it was great exercise for a flyer. Not to mention a good thing for a Rom circus brat to know in an emergency. Townies get nasty sometimes.
I leapt to my feet just in time to see Garth, his eyes flashing angry purple fire, come charging across the room at me yet again. God, it was almost a relief to see him angry, now. Anything but that chilling emptiness I'd sensed in him before. Anything but that. That scared the crap right out of me, frankly. This, I could deal with.
But, as it happens, I didn't have to.
Tula intercepted Garth, slipped her slender body between the two of us before anybody could stop her. I would have yelled at her to get out of the way but I knew she wouldn't listen.
She reached out and grabbed Garth with those deceptively strong hands of hers. "Garth, stop it!" she commanded. "Stop it!"
It was as if someone had bathed him in a sudden chill wave from a Winter cold sea. He hauled himself up short and for an endless moment they just stared into one another's eyes. Then she gathered him in with easy strength and held him tightly, protectively against the world and its pain.
He rested his midnight dark head on her breasts and closed his eyes like an exhausted child. They slipped soundlessly to the floor and Tula stroked his hair, kissing his eyes, still embracing his quaking shoulders.
"Shhhhhh," she soothed. "Shhhhhh. Shhhhh. It's all right, lover; it's all right. Dick - Dick didn't mean anything. Of course Arthur's your father. He adopted you, didn't he? That means he wanted you. Wanted you enough to adopt you." Garth murmured a plaintive answering something in a musical language, all liquid vowels and consonants, that I couldn't follow and Tula whispered a reply in the same tongue. Probably Hawaiian. Or maybe it was Maori; I don't know.
I collapsed into a nearby chair and buried my face in my hands. "Garth, I - I ... ." I breathed in harsh gasps. " ...Oh, God ... I'm sorry ... I'm so sorry .. "
Tula looked up at me and nodded, still stroking Garth's hair. "He knows, Dick," came her soft reply. "He knows. You were only trying to help. Thank you for that. But ... Dick? I think right now you'd better go, okay? I'll call you later, I promise. But right now ... just go."
Stiffly, I rose and fled. Fled from Garth's anger, fled from Tula's unexpected understanding, but most of all I fled from my own stupidity.
'Way to go, Grayson! Why didn't you just stab him again while you were at it, huh? He was still twitching!'
I remember stumbling into the parking lot, and leaning up against the cool metal roof of my Jag. I love that car. Usually when I'm in a pissy mood, I just pop behind the wheel, peel out, and *voila*! Everything's all better. It's like magic, man. Good for what ails me. But no hotrodding it in front of Mom or Dad Wayne, of course. Hey! Do I look that stupid to you? Don't answer that. Right now I certainly felt that bone, stick stone dumb, I can tell you that much. As for the car ...
I didn't think it was going to work this time.
I was right.
Fumbling in my pockets for the keys, I barely felt the hand that came to rest so lightly on my tense shoulders. Which really should say something about my state of mind. Just what that might be isn't very flattering. I must have jumped a foot into the air. And if later events are any indication, I guess I never really came down, did I? How else can I explain what happened next? There's no excuse for it. None. So I don't make any.
"Dick?" Her voice was low and throaty, brimming over with its own sadness. I think that's what got to me. The sadness. As I was sad. And she sounded so alone. Just as I was alone. God, the echoes of myself that enveloped me with the sound of that mourning voice were eerie. It was like seeing myself in a mirror ... darkly.
I recognized her voice immediately. When I spun around to face her I wasn't at all shocked or surprised to find myself staring into Bette Kane's wide, crystal blue eyes. I felt as if I were peering right through her, down into the place where Bette hides from the damning world that keeps hurting her. And I think I was.
I just wasn't peering down far enough.
I just couldn't bring myself to even try and smile. I know I said *something*, but I have no idea what the Hell it was. Something inane and stupid, I'm sure. I guess I was hoping that she might just go away and leave me alone if I played dumb enough. Or ...
I honestly don't know.
I didn't want to be alone. I knew that much with sudden, illuminating clarity. I was beginning to think it was pretty important that I not be alone, in fact. The trouble was, I couldn't think who I wanted to be with. Donna? Of course, I did. Donna fixes everything. 'Yeah, right, Grayson,' I growled at my own selfishness, 'as if Donna doesn't have enough to worry about with Linda. Just what she needs right now, another basket case on her hands.' Roy? No. I just wasn't ready for that mouth. Not right now, anyway. Garth? I closed my eyes in pain and didn't let myself think of the damage, the soul deep hurt, I'd just done to one of the few people in the world who didn't deserve it in any way. No, not Garth. Babs? I would have loved to. But Babs, truth to tell, never really approved of Wally's womanizing. Guess it's hard for a woman to understand that kind of thing. She'd console me and pet me and that would be nice. But her heart wouldn't be in it. My coaches? The only one of them all who might understand was Coach Allen and he had his own grief to deal with right now. Mom and Dad Wayne? For a second I brightened at the prospect. I had always been able to talk to them about anything. Anything at all. They never failed to listen and comfort me; always willing to help. But ... But - damn it! I was a grown man, now! I couldn't go running back to Mommy and Daddy every time I had a boo-boo, for Christ sakes! I just ... couldn't.
Bette Kane melted into my arms, embracing me tightly, as if she were drowning and I was the only thing keeping her afloat. "Oh, Dick!" she sobbed into the hollow of my unresisting shoulder, "it's just so awful! How could something like that happen here? How?" Her tears moistened my shirt, soaking through the thin fabric until it reached my chill flesh, anointing it with her fear and grief. She clung to me, shaking like a leaf.
"W-what if the killer comes after someone else, next?" Her voice trembled. "W-what if he comes after me?" I'll never forget the terror that lurked in her voice, like the monsters that lurk in all closets when you're a small child, watching, waiting ... pouncing when you least expect them. That's what makes them so monstrous.
She clutched at me with frantic, demanding hands. "I didn't sleep a wink last night. I keep seeing his face! The-the man ... the man ... the man who .. h-hurt me ... " In my arms her body shook. "He kept coming after me and coming after me. Dick, I'm so scared. So scared."
And like a White Knight on his destrierre, I came riding to her rescue. Or at least that's what I told myself. I realize now, with 20/20 hindsight, that I was really riding to my own rescue. Bette was just the excuse I used is all.
Neither of us wanted to be alone. Sometimes a relative stranger is easier to talk to than someone close to you, you know? But that's an excuse and I said I wasn't going to make any of those. So we ended up at the Gotham Towers in one of their suites. I paid cash. But, then, most illicit deals that go down are paid for in cash, right? The ride there was in almost complete silence. Neither of us really had anything to say, I guess. We both knew the score. Or so I told myself. All the way over, though, she lay her hand on my thigh, stroking the long muscles there and leaned into my shoulder.
We tried to slip in unnoticed. And I thought we succeeded. The sunglasses I wore apparently didn't work. "Is that Dick Grayson, Olympic gold medal decathlete, behind those Foster Grants?" More stupidity. They were Gucci's, anyway. Didn't fool anybody, I'm guessing. Thank God. I grabbed the key and fled onto the elevator, Bette in tow. When we reached the suite, I tipped the bellboy lavishly, a c-note, for no reason. Well, I suppose it was to keep his mouth shut more than anything else.
I didn't put it all together until a lot later, of course. Too much later. Until it was all over and it was too late. Christ, it was so perfect. Like a row of dominoes standing in a line, waiting for the first to fall. If just one of those dominoes hadn't fallen, or fallen only a little off center ... Things would have been so different. So damned different. But things came down the way they came down, so the GCPD was finally able to lift a clear set of prints at Wally's place. Off Wally's body, in fact. Bette stroked his cheek with an ungloved hand before she left him. They put out an APB on her, but they couldn't find a single trace of her anywhere. Then somebody remembered that she'd been seen hanging around me for the last week or so. That put the fear of God into them, let me tell you. The way they had it figured she was setting me up to be her next target. Well, they were right about that, weren't they? So they started looking for me.
When they went to Babs' apartment to question her about my whereabouts ... that's when they found her. Babs answered the door and took a bullet from a .357 Magnum at close range through her spine. The doctors still call her survival "a medical miracle". The Police must have just missed Bette by minutes when they arrived. They rushed Babs immediately to the hospital and the doctors were able to save her. She'll never walk again, but she's alive. I'm still tempted to fall to my knees and pray like JP whenever I think about that.
They couldn't find me anywhere, though. They called, then went by my apartment, asked a ton of questions on campus. No dice. But then some brilliant Detective or another at the GCPD got the bright idea of calling Dad Wayne to see if he might know where I could be He didn't, of course. He told them that, as far as he knew, I was at my apartment in the City. Naturally, he demanded to know what was going on. He was worried, and who could blame him? I mean, how many times do the Police call *you* asking about someone close to you, huh? That would rattle anyone, including yours truly. Dad Wayne was always on my case to be more careful, to be more cautious. Especially after Atlanta, the medal, and all the publicity. I just figured that he and Mom considered it tasteless to flaunt yourself like that. They were like that; very old style, very old money. Me? I'm still a Rom circus brat at heart, sometimes. Sawdust and the urge to be "on stage" gets into the blood, I guess. So I just smiled and went along my merry way. I should've listened to him.
Oh, Christ! If only I'd listened to him ...
The GCPD were forced to tell him that I might be in danger. Dad thanked them politely, hung up and then took matters firmly in hand. He went looking for me on his own.
Dad Wayne knows a lot of people. One of them is Michael Jon Carter, owner, manager of the Gotham Towers. In fact, Dad was the one who first nicknamed Carter "Booster Gold" back in their frat days, for his wealth, his long golden blond hair and his boastful nature ("booster" ... get it?) So when "Booster" called to chortle over Dad's cell phone about his "philandering son", Dad was all ears.
The rest is history, I guess. Dad came barging in just in time to take the bullet Bette meant for me. She escaped, then disappeared with the GCPD hot on her trail. I watched them zip the only father I could really remember very well into a canvas body bag and haul it away like one hundred and eighty-five pounds of used garbage.
That was also when I found out what had happened to Babs.
I don't remember too much for about the next week or so. Until the doctors were able to tell Jim Gordon and I that Babs would recover. I cried in his arms like a baby. He did the same. God help me, I wasn't even there when they told Mom about Dad. The next time I saw Mom she called me "Bruce" and tried to feed me one of little Brucie's favorite peanut butter and "smashed nanner" sandwiches. I hate bananas, but I ate it anyway.
The next few days are a blur, really. I don't remember very much about them at all. I was numb. I couldn't let myself think about much of anything. So I just existed. Waiting. Waiting for the doctors to tell me little bits and drabs of information about Babs.
"She's out of surgery, now. It went fairly well," I remember a tired young doctor telling me after almost eight hours of surgery.
"It all depends on her, now," Leslie told me. I recall that part with perfect clarity.
"She's never going to walk again, Mr. Grayson. You have to understand that. Barbara will need all the help you can give her, now."
I remember Jim Gordon's wasted face; his tired shoulders slumped in loss and exhaustion. I don't think either of us said a word to the other in all the time we were there. Speaking was too much of an effort, I think. We just sat there.
I lived on caffeine from the coffee I filched from the nurses station and candy bars from the vending machines. I think I ate every single last Choco-Bar they had in the whole hospital. And then I started on the Twisto Snackees. A cute candy stripper brought me a sandwich from one of the machines, still wrapped in plastic. At the time I thought she was trying to hit on me and I got pretty angry. I told her what she could do with her blasted sandwich. Now, I guess, she was just trying to be a nice person. I apologized. That's the way it went for almost a week. I somnambulated from chair to chair in the waiting room, from place to place like a ghost haunting the place where they died. I guess I was kind of pathetic.
God, I was so lost. I didn't know what to do. The world just didn't make any sense anymore. I was terrified that it was never going to make sense again. Ever. I broke out into a cold sweat trying to think what I'd do then, if it never sorted itself out. Nothing came. I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her again, pointing that gun. I'd hear the sound of gunfire in my dreams and wake up screaming. I think the people at the hospital started to worry about me. I'm almost sure they called somebody.
Every time I heard them call a Code Blue over the hospital intercom I froze. When it was over (and it didn't turn out to be Babs, after all ... ) I'd stumble into the nearest bathroom and heave my guts up.
I think it was the second or maybe third time that happened when I felt strong gentle hands hold me tightly, brushing my hair back to keep it from the foulness. A warm, soothing cloth laved my hot, flushed face and I melted into the secure arms and deep, compassionate sea green eyes of Joseph Wilson.
I began to notice, then, that I wasn't alone. There was always someone there with me. Donna. Garth. Tula. Roy. A coach or two. Someone spoke to me softly in a musical French accent. So Jean-Paul must have been there, too. I supposed they must have talked to me, but I don't really remember it.
Things didn't come into clear focus for me again until Leslie guided me gently into an empty office and laid the whole thing on me. Babs was past the crisis point. She would survive. God, I'm glad it was Donna with me and not one of the others. She's used to seeing me cry. I just fell into her arms and wept. I have no idea how Donna does it. She's strong enough for any three other people I know. And she's certainly strong enough for the two of us when she needs to be. Thank God for that. I was a wreck. I completely fell apart. Days and weeks of fear and tension just flowed out of me like a river and I didn't think I was ever going to stop crying. But eventually the tears ran out, dried up like a stream in the summer heat. Between Leslie and Donna, God bless them, I was in good hands. Leslie wanted me to understand that Babs was going to need a lot of support in the coming days. Her physical therapy was scheduled to begin in about a month or so and that was going to be pure Hell. I vowed to be there for her. Always. Like a drowning man clutching at an overhanging tree branch, I began to pull myself together. I had to. For Babs. I had to be strong for Babs.
And I thought about Bette Kane. I thought about her a lot in the days that followed. I couldn't stop thinking about her.
She was still out there. Still at large. The GCPD had no leads, no idea where she'd run to, I discovered. The current theory was that she had fled the state, maybe even the country. I didn't think so. She had unfinished business in Gotham, after all. My blood ran cold at the thought. Somehow I just knew, then and there, with absolute clarity, that as long as she was free, I was never going to be. That as long as Bette was unpunished for what she had done to Dad Wayne and to Wally and Babs that I going to be haunted. I still couldn't sleep. I'd wake up screaming and Alfred would be there. He almost never left me alone. I don't know how he did it. Doc Leslie was taking care of Mom Wayne, but Alfred took care of me.
Upon occasion, I'd fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. It was during one of those times that the solution to my problem came to me in a dream. Yeah, I know how crazy that sounds but it's true.
The problem was finding her. I woke up in a cold sweat tangled in the soaked sheets of my bed, breathing like a steam locomotive and I knew exactly how to find her. I could almost hear Coach Allen quizzing me in that calm, penetrating voice of his.
"What's the first rule of the track, Grayson?" he demanded.
"Make the enemy come to you, Coach," I whispered, hugging my knees to my chest. "Don't run their race.. Make them run yours."
I lurched into the bathroom on unsteady feet and bathed my face in cold water. Then I looked up into the mirror and smiled.
Oh, yes. I knew just how to draw Bette out of her snug little hidey hole.
"Hello, bait." I said. "Nice to met ya. Start wigglin' that ass, boy."
For the next couple of weeks I was a very busy lad, indeed. I must have hit every seedy nightspot in Gotham, every hotel or motel of note in the City. Each with a different woman on my arm. God knows what everybody thought. I try not to think about that. I couldn't let anyone know what I was doing, of course. I think everyone went to a lot of trouble to see that Babs never found out. For that I am more grateful than I could ever say. At least I don't think she ever knew. Well, if she did she never spoke about it and I guess that will have to do, huh?
I think Donna figured it out all on her own, though. She tried several times to talk to me but I just kept blowing her off. She finally stopped trying, thank God. And, oddly enough, I think JP knew, too. Because he didn't talk to me. I kept expecting him to come and preach to me all about my wayward ways and the Road To Hell and that sort of thing. But ... he never did.
Yeah, I think he knew, all right. And understood.
Azrael is, after all, the Angel of Vengeance and Destruction.
End, Part Four