Title: Yesterday, for a long while
Author: Propaganda
Recipient: Te
Featured character: Barbara Gordon (animated)
Author's notes: Title from Stephen Dunn's poem "Slant." It's sort of a good idea to have seen one or two episodes of Batman Beyond before reading this, as well has to have seen Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Thank you to and for audiencing and beta, and to the countless people who listened to me at some point.
Rating: For teens and adults.
Spoilers: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Summary: Then again, it's not like she is the model for the mental health of former costumed vigilantes.
E-mail: goodpropaganda@gmail.com
LJ name: notpoetry

Barbara feels sorry for Terry.

The boy is blatant about his feelings for Bruce. He's gotten better at hiding things since she first met him, juggling his identities as well as any of them ever did, but she knows there are some things that are just too difficult, if not impossible, to hide.

She feels sorry for Terry, but she also likes him. Maybe even respects him. It takes a lot for her to respect someone who runs around in bat-ears and swings from buildings by grapple hooks, in spite of (or maybe because of) her history. But she's told Bruce she doesn't think he could've picked a better heir, and she's meant it.

It's just that sometimes, quietly, privately, she thinks about what it could've been.

But Terry's the Batman now, and she's Commissioner Gordon, and Tim's got a high-paying job at a company he'll never know is owned by Wayne Industries. She accepts change in just the way she always has, and keeps going.

Terry's halfway home from school when Barbara pulls up next to him in her unmarked cruiser and slides open the passenger side door. "Hey, kid."

Terry leans down and peers at her through the open door. "Commissioner?"

She drums her fingers on the steering wheel. "I'm skipping out early. Care for a coffee?"

She can see Terry's hands tighten on the straps of his backpack. What a simple tell. She takes half a second to wonder if Bruce knows the kid brings the costume to school, but she already knows the answer and so doesn't bother asking.

"I kind of have to get to Mister Wayne --"

"Kid," she says seriously, and tilts her head so she can meet Terry's eyes, "the city will not crumble if Batman takes a coffee break. I would've been a lot saner if someone had told me that. So get in the car."

He does. She can see his smirk out of the corner of her eye. "Did you talk to Bruce this way?"

"I still talk to Bruce this way." She floors it down the street and whips around the corner. Defensive Driving is her default.

The kid's pretty quiet, holding his backpack on his lap like she's seen rescued kids hold onto teddy bears. She's always surprised when she's reminded that while he's not as young as Tim was, he's still not much older. He's a high schooler, with tests and girls and parties to worry about. Bruce has probably offered to homeschool him, just like he did with Tim, but Terry seems...rather more independent.

He's more like Dick than Tim, really, she muses, as Terry stares out the tinted windows and she waits for a stoplight. High-spirited, high-strung, full of passion and a lot of anger. She's a bit scared of that anger, just like she was scared of Dick's, and eventually Tim's.

But Terry was never a Robin. He never could have been a Robin. It takes a certain kind of boy to steal the Batsuit out from under the nose of the Batman himself. It takes a certain kind of anger. A different kind of anger than it takes to put on a pair of bat-ears and high heeled boots and step out on the street to fight crime. A different kind of anger than it takes to steal the Robin suit.

Tim didn't start out angry. But both of them, all three of them, could hold grudges.

She doesn't like to think about how many years went by before Tim would pick up the phone. She tracked him through college, grad school, kept notes of his girlfriends and felt guilty the whole time for acting like him. Even when Tim called her, at least ten years after he...was fired, and filled her in on the portions of his life she'd missed out on, she couldn't keep herself from finding excuses to drive by his apartment building at least once a week. Tim seemed to live a normal life better than she ever did -- she, after all, couldn't stay away from crime fighting. But she doubts that Tim's wife knows who he used to be, even now.

It's unlikely that Tim will ever have a healthy approach to his past. Then again, it's not like she is the model for the mental health of former costumed vigilantes.

She parks the car and Terry climbs out, looks at the diner. "Favorite place of yours?"

"Open twenty-four hours a day and serves coffee that could burn a hole through your stomach. Of course it's a favorite." She sees him swing on the backpack and almost tells him to leave it in the car, but she knows he wouldn't. She never used to be far from her costume, either.

Now it's in a glass case in the last refuge of an old, bitter man, and she couldn't think of a better place for it.

She's glad when she sees the back of the grey head at 'her' table, and lets her gratefulness show in her smile when she slides into the booth. "Hi, Tim."

"Barbara." He smiles at her, genuine, real. Nothing like the strained smiles he'd give her over her desk, over her kitchen table. Nothing like the grins he couldn't keep off his face when he crawled into her bed, before Bruce made him leave for good, the ones that would make her shudder and close her eyes as she reached for his shoulders. No. This is real, and she won't think about that.

Not any more than she has to, at any rate.

Terry hasn't sat down yet, is looking back and forth from her to Tim. Tim gestures for him to take a seat and he does, sits down clumsily next to Barbara, his long legs bumping the underside of the table. "It's good to see you, Mister Drake," he says awkwardly.

Tim laughs, and it doesn't make Barbara shiver. "Call me Tim, Terry."

"Sure," he says. The backpack is in his lap again, like a shield, like a security blanket. He probably sleeps with the thing, Barbara thinks, and an image springs unbidden to her mind: Tim, brow smooth and mouth slack, sleeping as still as (not the grave) she would ever see him, fingers curled loosely around a batarang.

He stopped sleeping with it after it happened, but he held her the same way, even twenty, thirty years later, as if afraid his fingers would leave some kind of mark he wouldn't be able to shine away.

Tim had ordered them coffee before they'd arrived, and the waitress brings it by now. Babs wraps her fingers around the steaming mug and watches Terry add eight packets of sugar. Tim drinks his black, just like she does; she can't help but wonder, briefly, when he stopped drinking the sweet, milky mixture he'd had at breakfast every morning.

Fixating on the details helps her to forget the larger picture, sometimes. It always has. Noticing the way a woman's earrings swung when she bobbed her head had helped Officer Gordon forget that she was bringing her news that her daughter had been found dead, gagged and bound in an alleyway. Keeping track of Tim Drake's girlfriends had helped Batgirl forget -- repress --

Terry is talking. She pushes old memories out of her head and tunes back into the conversation.

"It's sort of a funny story, actually," Terry says in response to a question of Tim's she hadn't heard, with the sort of smile that means it's really not funny at all. "I stole the Batsuit in order to go after these guys who had...done some pretty terrible things."

Namely had his father murdered. Barbara's seen the files, done the deep background check for her own records even though Bruce had equally extensive ones on his own computer. The boy's criminal record alone...despite the fact that he'd had a far more stable family life than Tim ever got a shot at while growing up, she can't help but wonder if Terry is the sort of boy Tim would've grown to be, without their intervention.

Probably not, she thinks ruefully, and takes another swallow of her coffee. There are not quite that many similarities between them, in the end.

Terry is not motivated by the same things they were. His reasons for taking up the cowl are closer to Bruce's than to anyone else's. She knows why she did it -- to prove something, to be a different person than the one she'd felt herself becoming, and ...

A good portion of it was love. A labor of love for Bruce, for Batman. Terry's in love with Bruce, just as in love as she was, as Dick was, as Tim was, but he is not doing this only out of love. He has something to prove, and something to avenge. Terry never could have been a Robin.

Tim looks genuinely interested in listening to Terry talk; Babs has heard the story from Bruce already, so she watches Tim. He's lost weight since she last saw him, a month or so ago, three weeks after that bedside reconciliation -- or as close to one as they'll get, at any rate -- with Bruce. His paunch is shrinking, his face is thinner -- he looks like he may have been working out.

He would have been a good Batman, she thinks suddenly. Had things been different -- so many things -- he would have been a good Batman.

Right, another part of her mind says wryly. And had things been different, you and Dick would be on speaking terms. You wouldn't want to sprint away whenever you saw Bruce. And Tim. Well.

Tim has scars he won't let her touch. Tim insists on keeping the lights off. They have never done anything in the light. Barbara has brushed the hair back from his forehead in a gesture she never thought of as motherly and told him, repeatedly, that they're both old, they're both long past their prime, and neither of them were ever candidates for beauty pageants, anyway, so get over yourself, Mister Drake.

It's not that she's not in love with Samuel. She is, deeply, madly, in a way that is comfortable and good and nothing like the way she was ever in love with Dick or Bruce. She has earned every mark on her body, and she knows there is far more than one way to love.

There's a thud when Terry climbs out of the booth. She looks up, and he waves the cell phone at her. She hadn't even heard it ring. "Duty calls. Thank you for the coffee, Commissioner."

Call me Barbara. "You're welcome, Terry."

"Be seeing you, kid," Tim calls after him, and Tim waves over his shoulder as he heads out the door. Tim turns back to her and drains the last of his coffee. "Do you mind if I ask what that was for?" he says, and sets the mug down on the table with a clack.

"I wanted you to talk to him. What do you think?"

Tim shrugs. "He's a kid. What do you want?"

She bites into the end of the plastic stirrer and ignores the defensive tone of his voice. "He is a kid. You know, Bruce said --" Tim winces and she presses her lips together. "Sorry." Tim waves a hand dismissively and sets his empty coffee cup on its side, spins it. They watch it go round and finally Barbara says, "Have you spoken to him since?"

"No," Tim says shortly. "My wife says he's called. But forty years of grudges don't disappear like that." He snaps his fingers and sets the mug right side up again.

You stopped holding a grudge against me. But that took over a decade, and she doesn't like to think about that.

There are days when she'd like to get a look into each of their brains, to open up their heads and pull out the drawers in the compartments she knows they have their minds divided into. Arranged by identity, then by how much it should be thought about. She'd like to take out the good memories, the ones they've all fondled so often they're worn thin like favorite sweaters. Some shared, some not, but she knows their minds work the same way hers does.

It is a different kind of love, this love she has for Tim. A boy with his arms wrapped around her shoulders, pinning her against the rooftop access door on some anonymous apartment building, her hands on his waist and his voice in her ear: "You're such a cradle robber." An older boy, one who gave up at night and let the laughter rip out his throat until it turned into sobs he hid against her shoulder. A man who kissed the wedding ring on her finger and reached over her head to turn off the bedside lamp before he would take his shirt off. And now, this man.

She doesn't know who he is yet.

"I won't get involved," Tim says suddenly, and Barbara looks up.

"I didn't ask you to."

"Then what, you brought the boy here for...for my approval? He does good work, Babs."

"You and I both know what Bruce and he are up to."

Tim frowns at her. "I'm not interested in rumor-mongering. Bruce's business is ... Batman's business." Unspoken: we never talked about this when it was us with him.

You never asked, Tim. "I'm not asking you to stage an intervention."

"Good, because I won't." Tim props his elbow on the table and rests his chin in his hand. "Why did you bring him here?"

She takes a sip of her chilly coffee more to give herself a moment than anything else. "I wanted to sort some things out," she says. Terry's not a Robin, but...Tim once was, after all.

Once. Tim was never an insecure boy, an insecure adolescent -- not even after they saved him. Not until Batman took Robin away from him, made him separate himself from everything he had been for years. She knows it's why, on the surface levels, Tim turns off the lights.

He never did, before. Then again, they never actually slept together -- fell asleep in a bed, limbs pressed against limbs, blankets tangled -- until after. When Tim couldn't sleep unless he was holding...someone. She's sure she's not the only one he turned to.

Tim wasn't the only one she turned to, either.

The Tim Drake she met after he contacted her was not the Tim Drake she'd known, but was (if she's honest) the Tim Drake she expected. Tim lost who he was, if he'd ever known who he was without being Robin.

But Terry...the boy juggles his identities, but he knows them, as well. There is a security of self that Nightwing faked, that Tim never had to begin with. Terry may be in love with Bruce, but he will never lose himself to Bruce.

It's something she'd like to think she has in common with the boy.

Tim clears his throat. "I really ought to be heading home, Barbara."

She smiles at him and pulls a cash card from her wallet. "Same time next week?"

"Sure. You can bring Terry again, if you want." A tiny wave, an equally tiny smile, and he turns and heads out the door.

She swipes her card over the sensor in the table and stands up, but waits until she sees Tim's car take off from the parking lot before she heads outside. She's not sure what she'd hoped to see by watching Tim and Terry together, but she feels more solid now, somehow secure in herself.

I can juggle with the best of them, she thinks wryly, and starts her car.