“A … job.” The girl was practically shaking with rage as she stared at them both. Dinah had had her misgivings about this from the beginning, and now they were multiplying. “This was, what? An interview?!”
“No, it was your pre-employment test,” Babs said calmly. Dinah hated it when the redhead was like this: completely committed to a course of action and unwilling to even consider backing down. It was what made her so formidable as Batgirl and Oracle, her stubborn resolve that was so much like Bruce’s.
It also made her a complete pain in the ass to deal with at times. If Babs was certain she was right, it took an act of God to sway her. Dinah put a hand on her shoulder to plead for silence and said, “What Oracle means is, the position we have in mind comes with a high security clearance, and we need someone who can be absolutely trusted.”
“A high security clearance, huh?” the brunette spat, her eyes flashing fire. “Higher than knowing Superman’s home address?”
“Higher than that, yes,” Babs agreed.
“On the order of knowing the real identities, full power sets, and potential weaknesses of a lot of other heroes, too,” Dinah put in.
“Not interested,” Elise snapped, and turned on her heel. Dinah tried hard not to grin; the girl wanted to make a dramatic exit, but she had no idea just how far from Berkeley she was.
“Afraid of the commitment?” Babs asked sweetly, and Elise spun around like she was on a pivot.
At that point Dinah just leaned against the wall and watched the show. Obviously Babs had touched a nerve there, and if she was on to something it was best to just let her pursue it. Looking at Elise over her green-tinted lenses, she replied, “We’re not talking about a summer job, here. This would be a career, and it would be integral to the future of the superhero community.”
Elise stalked back toward them. “Look, I don’t know what you heard from J—Superboy, but I am not afraid of commitment. I am afraid of people who kidnap me and threaten to electrocute me. At least, I’m afraid they’re not quite right in the head. No matter who you say you’re working with or for, the only thing I’m interested in right now is getting the hell out of here.”
She might as well not have spoken, for all the effect her words had on the redhead. Babs continued, “We have a variety of aliens, meta-humans, and hybrids, as you know, and there are some very brilliant and very twisted people working at ways to harm them. Going after their specific vulnerabilities, based on their unique physiologies. We have researchers and chemists on our side, too, but most of them are working on small pieces of the puzzle because we can’t trust them to see the big picture. What we need is someone who can oversee the whole operation, someone with the skills and the training whom we can trust absolutely.”
Elise just blinked, and Dinah stepped in. “On behalf of the Justice League of America, I was kinda hoping you would be that someone.”
For a moment, just a moment, she could see in the girl’s eyes that Elise understood the scope of the opportunity being offered her. And then her lip curled. “Yeah, well, I’m still not interested.”
“All right then,” Babs said. “I’ll call a cab. Canary, walk her out, please?”
“Sure, O,” Dinah sighed.
The next fifteen minutes were filled with awkward silence. Clearly Elise hadn’t expected them to be so calm about her refusal. Then again, she was a civilian, no matter who she’d dated, and she just wasn’t used to a world where people got kidnapped and threatened and scared spitless on a regular basis. Her outrage was almost tangible, and to have it met with casual acceptance threw her off.
As the cab pulled up, the girl turned a venomous look on Dinah. “You know, I might’ve gone for it if not for the whole electroshock therapy thing your friend has going on up there.”
Dinah managed not to sigh. “Oracle can be pretty intense. She knows how steep the cost can be for what we do—and what the price is for not doing it. Sometimes she gets a little too wrapped up in it all.”
“Yeah,” Elise half-laughed, and headed outside. They were in San Francisco, not far from her college; it wouldn’t have been smart to fly her all the way to Gotham. And besides, here they were close enough to Star City for Dinah to drop in and see Roy and Cissie and all the rest.
Dinah watched the cab leave before headed back in to the control room. Babs was never far from a half-dozen monitors set to survey her kingdom. “So that didn’t go as planned,” Dinah said, deciding that ‘I told you she’d be furious’ was too confrontational.
“Don’t worry,” the redhead told her. “I have contingencies in place already.”
Bats and their backup plans. “Oh yeah? Because she seems pretty set on staying out of the game.”
“Very few people can walk away once they’ve had a taste of the vigilante life,” Babs said with an ironic arch to her brows. “We’ll get her back in the fold. Just wait.”
Dinah chuckled. Babs had confidence to match her determination. “Yeah, well, while I’m waiting, I’m going to go over to Star City and make sure the kids have eaten something other than pizza since I was here last.”
“Of course they have,” Babs said with a smirk. “There are hot dog stands and taco trucks in the city, too, you know.”
Three images layered together. That fallen leaf with its flecks of darkness and its tattered edges, framing a composite. The tricycle again, in achingly sharp detail, but now it was superimposed above a ghostly shot of a car. Not one of the neatly lined-up vehicles in the one he’d seen earlier, oh no. This was a slightly blurred image of a car in a junkyard, its front and rear ends crumpled, the roof mashed flat, sleek door panels dented and dull, with spangles of shattered glass splayed across the hood.
Not the car, though, Dick saw instantly. Not the same car Terry had been driving a year ago, with Robert in his car seat up front. It had rained that evening, not a huge storm, just enough water to lift the oil on the roads. It was dark, the road was slick, and Terry liked to drive fast. A dangerous situation, but not an unusual one. All it had taken was one more variable to make it a fatal one. Perhaps a deer had darted out, forcing Terry to swerve. Perhaps an oncoming motorist had left their high beams on, briefly blinding Terry for a few, crucial seconds. Perhaps he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. Regardless, he’d lost control of the car, crashed through a guardrail, and hit a tree head-on.
Both deaths were later ruled accidental. At the time, all Donna had known was that she’d been a wife and mother in the afternoon, and that night she was a childless widow. She had called Dick, of course, while the highway patrolman who’d brought the news was still at the front door. Donna had been so incoherent with grief that Dick had ‘borrowed’ the Bat-Wing to get to her side faster. She’d wept on his shoulder, bitter tears of guilt, mumbling that it was her fault.
That photograph brought the memory back with painful clarity. Dick looked at the dripping print and saw the death of Donna’s hopes and dreams, the thing she’d refused to talk about for almost a year, and all the pain she’d kept bottled up like some rare wine that had turned to vinegar over the years.
“It’s still not your fault, you know,” he said, his voice rough.
Donna took a shaky breath. “Yeah, but … what if it is? I mean really, Dick. What if it was my fault?”
Sighing, Dick turned and cupped her face in his hands, making Donna look him in the eyes steadily. “Donna. It was not your fault. The worst part about it is that it was an accident. It could’ve happened to anyone at any time.” If only he could get her to believe that, she might be able to start healing.
“Yes, but … what if…?” She bit her lip, brows furrowed. “What if … sometimes, you know, things weren’t … so easy, and maybe sometimes I wished I could go back to the way things were before. Before I lost my powers. Before I got married. Before … before I had Robert….”
“Palone, that just means you’re as human as the rest of us,” Dick told her gently. “A lot changed in your life in a short time—just two years or so. Having regrets, maybe wishing you could’ve gone back and done it over, that’s normal.”
“No, Dick, that’s not what I mean,” Donna insisted. She wavered, and Dick thought for a moment she was going to shut down, lock all of this away again.
Then her eyes flicked to the photograph, and the story came tumbling out of her like the image had broken down a piece of the dam holding back a flood. “I … look, I did have regrets. Terry … I loved Terry, but I think we rushed into it. And by all the gods, you know how I loved Robert, but sometimes … sometimes I wished I would’ve waited to have him. There were times, when I thought about … about maybe looking into a trial separation, and … it would’ve been easier if I didn’t have Robert to think about, too.”
This was the first Dick had heard about Donna questioning her marriage. She’d always claimed to be happy, and amused him with a dozen little anecdotes about her day if asked how she was. On the one hand, it hurt not to have known about these doubts. Why hadn’t she told him? They told each other absolutely everything, even the worst mistakes they’d made and the most foolish things they’d done.
This wasn’t about him, though. Donna looked at him with eyes that were still heartbroken and looking for permission to heal. “Don, that still doesn’t make it your fault. Even if you wished you didn’t have either of them…”
She gasped, blue eyes going wide, and Dick leaned into her space to make his point, practically nose-to-nose with her. If she took nothing else to heart, she had to understand this. “…even if you wished you were free of both of them, Don, you never wished for this to happen. Never. And if you had a choice it wouldn’t have. Maybe someday you would’ve gone through with the separation, but you wouldn’t have wished this on your worst enemy, and especially not on the people you loved. It was an accident, Donna Troy. The truth of it is, accidents happen all the time. Not everything is a plot or a curse or revenge by some villain we forgot about the moment we locked them up. Sometimes it’s just life, and sometimes bad things happen. It isn’t your fault. It never was.”
Donna blinked twice, her expression almost blank, and then her lip trembled. Dick gathered her close just before the first sobs started, whispering to her that it was going to be all right, she would get through this, she wasn’t alone, and all the other things he could think of to say, when they both knew what meant the most was that he was there.
As his best friend cried on his shoulder, Dick looked at the photograph again. It was a haunting image, to be sure, but in a way it gave him hope. Leaves fell every autumn and the trees turned bare and black in winter, but each spring new buds came forth from what had seemed dead. Maybe, even if Donna herself didn’t know it yet, she’d begun to acknowledge the process of healing in the cycle of nature.
“You keep your little poacher off my stories, Kent, or I swear…!”
“Lois, you know perfectly well that story fell into International’s domain…”
Jimmy Olsen watched the argument, feeling like a spectator at a particularly vengeful tennis match, and then looked across the desk at Perry White, who just grinned in apparent bliss. The more things change, the more they stay the same, the news photographer thought.
He and Perry just watched the argument blossom to the point where Lois was poking Clark in the chest at every fifth word or so, and then the Chief cut in. “You kids better get this out of your systems before I decide to send you both on another assignment together. Hell, last time I got a set of twins to spoil rotten.”
Lois instantly turned her fury on him. “I still owe you for that damn lizard, Chief. You know that frikkin’ thing is still alive?”
“Hell, Lane, I never thought either critter would mean this much to you,” Perry laughed, and Lois narrowed her eyes to a steely glare.
Clark, at least, recognized when he’d been given a break, and sat back down, adjusting his tie. Lois was left standing, and eschewed her seat to prop her hip against Perry’s desk—the better to glare at all three of them.
It was all Jimmy could do not to laugh.
She and Clark always fought at work. The one time they’d managed to get locked in the elevator together for two hours, Lois’ frustrated wrath had been audible two floors away. Some reporters speculated that more than arguing went on in the elevator—and the supply closet, and certain conference rooms—but that wasn’t Lois’ style, or Clark’s. Both of them had more class, and more respect for the workplace.
Wanting nothing more than to continue cajoling Lois out of her mood, Jimmy said, “Chief, now that they work in separate departments, what kind of assignment would you be able to send both of them on?”
He realized his error the moment Perry grinned and Clark started looking nervous. “Funny you should ask that, Olsen,” the Editor-in-Chief began.