(of a) Kind
Archive: Ask first, please.
Barbara Gordon had been surprised by the invitation to the latest Titans' getaway. On reflection she was grateful for it, and for Dick's insistence that she attend as his guest. The Titans knew she had been Batgirl, which meant they had just enough familiarity with her life and former career to accept her as one of them. The fact that none of them but Dick knew she was the voice of the seemingly all-knowing Oracle made it easier for her to relax and just be *Barbara,* for a change.
Bruce had made one of his country estates available to them, and the afternoon of swimming, eating, and talking (including gossiping about their fellow heroes, of course) had been followed by a rather...raunchy game of Truth or Dare. She'd enjoyed the game, more than she wanted to admit.
But she couldn't sleep yet, not after all that.
Barbara made her way back out into the darkened pool area of the estate, musing. After her dare with Roy, he'd asked if he could call her, and if he did...she might just say yes. *Would* say yes, she told herself firmly. There wasn't any reason not to. Many excuses, but no reasons.
Her bathing suit was nearly dry from the afternoon. She changed into it and slid into the pool, her strong arms propelling her easily through the water, pulling her legs behind.
After a few minutes there was a sound from the pool deck. She lifted her head, using her arms to tread water.
His voice was a smooth, mellow baritone. "Didn't expect to find anyone else down here."
"Couldn't sleep," she explained.
Cyborg--Vic, she reminded herself--raised a golden eyebrow at her. "You shouldn't be here by yourself without someone to spot you. What if you got a cramp?"
"I can take care of myself," she said, stung.
"I didn't say you couldn't," he replied easily.
"You were going to be swimming alone," she challenged him, knowing she was being unreasonable and not quite able to stop herself.
"I can't drown." His golden body rippled, sprouting an unnecessary pair of swim trunks to cover his sexless form. "I don't have to breathe. Mind if I come in?"
"Of course not." She smiled at him in apology for her snappishness. He was, after all, only being concerned, like he might for anyone. Only her reflexive need for independence had made an issue of it.
Vic dived smoothly into the water and paced her for a few laps, though she knew very well that the capabilities of his new body would have allowed him to go much, much faster. It was a silent gesture of companionship, and for once she shut off the part of herself that demanded self-contained solitude and simply accepted it.
Despite the fact that Cyborg had come back to the Titans after nearly destroying the world in his Technis form, Barbara knew that all his teammates trusted him implicitly. Batman's paranoia notwithstanding, Vic had been a steadfast member of the team in the past and seemed determined to be one again.
That quality of *allegiance,* she thought, had always set the Titans apart from every other team. Even Wally, now settled into his JLA seat on the moon, still considered himself a Titan to the core. Even Dick, with all the stresses of the life he'd built in Bludhaven and the recurring demands of his mentor in Gotham, never found himself too busy for the Tower. The legacy of children and teenagers who had grown up together under the most extreme circumstances imaginable was a group of adults whose ties to each other superceded almost any other.
There were times she envied them for it. But then, her solitude had always been at least half self-imposed.
Her entry into the superhero world had begun, she remembered with a wince, with a nascent crush on Batman. Which had vanished nearly immediately upon *meeting* him. But there'd still been the thrill of hurling herself from the rooftops, the adrenaline rush of motion and righteousness. Though the latter had come later; at first, it really had been all about the adventure, and maybe the opportunity to help her father. She hadn't been looking for an adjunct family, or a partnership, or a team to save the universe with. All she'd wanted was the freedom to fly over Gotham.
The family she'd gained nevertheless, mainly due to Dick's cheerful acceptance and Bruce's eventual capitulation. But she'd still worked solo more often than not, and her eventual retirement as Batgirl had been greeted with obvious relief from Bruce and a distracted, reflexive protest from Dick, whose attention was newly taken with Kory. She'd had college, and a promising career, and then her world had blown apart with the ring of a doorbell and two bullets.
And then, eventually, Oracle. Which made her the center of the superhero universe, or so she liked to pretend, and still ultimately solitary. Barbara was honest enough to admit she *liked* it that way, even as she'd recently welcomed Dinah's determined efforts to socialize in-between missions.
Vic, though...what she knew about Vic came mostly from her files, and Dick's occasional comments over the years. Even before the Titans he'd tended toward a large social group--well, a gang, but still--and acted as the peacemaker more often than anyone had expected. Dick had spoken of being willing to leave his beloved team in Vic's hands when his absence demanded it, and that faith more than balanced Batman's distrust.
It wasn't hard to guess that the Titans were his safe haven, like the Clocktower was hers.
"Nice form," he commented, and it took Barbara a moment to register that it hadn't been a come-on but an honest statement of appreciation.
"...thanks," she managed on her next breath, and rolled over into a backstroke so she could talk without gasping. She didn't bother to project her voice over the splashing of their limbs through the water; Vic would hear her even if she whispered. "I swim a lot. Best way to keep up my--what muscle tone I have left."
"It's paid off." His tone was musing, reflective. "I don't need to anymore, but it's still...."
"Worthwhile," Barbara finished for him, and turned her head to see his nod of assent.
But it was late and she was tiring, and there was no reason to wear herself out. She swam to the pool's edge and pulled herself up, proud of the strength in her arms that enabled her to do so without struggling. She was stronger than she'd been when she was Batgirl, and fully aware of all the irony of that fact.
She sat at the edge of the pool, toweling off her hair and blotting the water out of her ears. Vic followed her lead, hauling himself out to sit beside her. His golden "skin," she noted, wasn't even wet.
"I missed swimming."
She glanced sidewise at him. "Hm?"
"Couldn't really swim in my old body, with the cyborg mechanics. I was rust-proof, no matter what Green Genes says, but still," he grinned in rueful acknowledgment, "heavy metal. Tended to sink like a...stone." He rolled his eyes at his unintentional pun on his own name.
"This new form must be a blessing to you."
He was quiet for a moment. "In some ways, yeah. I can *feel* again. That's an amazing thing. But it's not me. I look in the mirror and there's a golden statue there. There's nothing left of my body, my original skin. I've lost something that defined *me.*"
At least, Barbara thought, she still had that. But for mobility, would she have sacrificed her own body? Not a choice she'd ever been forced to make, or one she wanted. But she'd lost half of herself, too. "I...know what you mean."
"I know you do. Sauna?"
She blinked, then laughed. "Sure."
Vic watched as she levered herself into the chair. He didn't offer to help. He didn't mention the missing handles or the escrima sticks taped under the seat. He did not, like everyone else, seem to need to question her desire for self-sufficiency. She was grateful for the courtesy.
The sauna was behind the pool house so it was only a short trip, Vic walking beside her. He opened the door for her without making a fuss about it, waiting for her to cross the threshold of the antechamber. Bruce--or more likely, Alfred--really had thought of everything, and there was a neat pile of hair bands in a small basket next to a pile of towels and mini-fridge stocked with bottled water. She grabbed one of each and opened the door to the larger inside room, wheeling inside. Vic set the temperature gauge while she tied up her hair, glanced her way, then stepped back into the antechamber and returned with a large pile of towels.
He gestured toward the bench behind her. "I c'n put these down, if you want, maybe more comfortable?"
It would be, too. "Thank you," she said, and watched as Vic spread a thick layer of fabric that would keep her legs from falling asleep on the hard wooden slats. Not that she would feel if they did, which could be dangerous if left too long.
By the time she had swung out of the chair and settled her body along the now-padded bench, the sweat had started to rise on her skin. Vic was sitting on the opposite bench, looking entirely cool and composed. "Can you feel the heat?" she asked without thinking, then bit her lip. "I'm sorry, that was--"
"Yeah," he said, overriding her half-spoken apology. "It's good, actually. You'd think it'd be otherwise, since this body's basically a living computer."
If he was going to *indulge* her curiosity, he only had himself to blame. Vic was still a cyborg in truth, a human mind and soul encased in alien metal that shaped itself to his least thought. It was a testament to his resilience that for all the changes he'd suffered since the initial catastrophic 'accident', he'd remained whole of mind, if not of body, and retained his sense of humor. Better than she had, in all honesty. "Do you need to sleep?"
"We still playin' Truth or Dare?"
She blinked at him, then smiled. "No. Just curious. It's an occupational hazard, or was--ex-librarian, you know. My--my *other* former career."
No need to explain the business of secrets and identities; Vic merely nodded. "I sleep, but the body doesn't, if that makes sense. Set the circuits to calculating pi to keep 'em busy. Sort of like white noise."
"You learn to adapt," she mused, more to herself than in reply, but Vic answered her anyway.
"Yeah. You do."
Barbara knew that he was speaking for her as well, which ordinarily she might have resented, but if anyone had earned the right....
Which also made his next words less intrusive than she might otherwise have found them. "So you've known Robbie forever, huh?"
No real secrets about that, not after her earlier confessions. "Something like that."
"An' I'm guessing the reason you guys aren't an item is that chair."
What struck her was the *way* he said it. Not with that apologetic tone that came into other people's voices when they referred to her paralysis. Just as a matter of fact. And as a matter of fact, there was no dissembling.
"Part of it, yes."
Vic merely nodded, and again it struck her. No condemnation. No assurances that Dick couldn't possibly care about that, or that she was being silly. Just accepting things as they were.
He probably, she thought wryly, had gotten a lot of practice with that particular concept. "What about you and--Sarah, wasn't it?"
"Sarah Charles." His expression was unreadable, would have been even in a wholly human face. "She's...moved on."
Vic spoke rapidly, as if he were trying to convince himself as well as her. "Nothin' I shouldn't have expected. Would've been stupid to expect her to wait. Far as she knew, I wasn't comin' back, and she deserves the chance to be happy."
"Still hurts, though," Barbara said softly, and Vic shrugged his agreement.
She leaned her head back against the wall, closing her eyes and feeling the sweat trickle down her back. She hadn't meant to pursue it, but the lateness of the hour and the fact that Vic more than anyone would not only sympathize, but *understand*: "Super-tech wheelchair, a whole new super-tech body, and none of it makes up for what's been lost."
"No." His voice was very quiet. "It doesn't."
"*Everything's* changed. Not just the obvious. You adapt because you have to, because there's no choice otherwise, but even after you've done that for yourself you can't win back the way other people see you. You can't change the fact that you've been crippled, been *maimed,* and that's how the world sees you now. And the worst part is--""
"The pity. They can't help it."
"Yes. Exactly." Barbara lifted her head again and met his red sensors--his *eyes*--with her own. "Underneath all the love and support they can offer. Always that." She took in a deep breath, to stop the flow of words as much as anything, and realized how dry her throat had become. She groped for the neglected water bottle and drained it; without comment, Vic got up, held his hand out for it, and returned in a moment with another.
She took it, not meeting his gaze, and delayed the desire to apologize for her outburst by lifting and shifting her legs' positions to ensure constant blood flow.
"I don't think," Vic finally said in a thoughtful, measured tone, "that anyone in their right mind would pity you...Oracle."
She schooled her face to confusion even as her pulse rate jumped. "Wha-- I don't know what you're--"
Vic was regarding her with a calm, intent certainty. "Your cadence and word choices. The vocal synthesizer you use can't disguise those." He seemed to register her shock and raised a hand in apology. "Cripes, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--it's hard to turn off the Omegadrome processes. They automatically register that kind of thing."
"...oh." She took a breath. "Okay."
"Look, I know it's a big secret, I'm not gonna start tellin' people."
Barbara tilted her head, considering. "So maybe you can give me a hand in modifying the systems so no one else makes that connection?"
Vic grinned. "Glad to and flattered. I didn't know anyone was allowed into Oracle's lair outside of the Bat-guys."
"I'll take any advantage I can get. And besides..." she smiled at him conspiratorially, "Batman doesn't know everything. Though it doesn't hurt to let him believe everyone thinks he does."
He laughed, easy and unforced. "Explains a lot, though. Everyone wondered why Batman seemed to *trust* some mechanical voice that came out of no--"
The sudden blast of an explosion outside ripped through the air and brought them both sitting bolt upright. "What the--"
"Grant," Vic said immediately, identifying his teenaged teammate Damage, and held up a finger in a 'wait' gesture. "Enhancing audio input," he said aloud, probably as a courtesy to her. Between one blink and the next a device like an oversized hearing aid had grown over his right ear.
"...it's okay," he said after a moment, grinning. "He slipped." Barbara hesitated for another second, then relaxed back onto the bench. "I don't want to know, do I."
"Probably not," he said, still smirking. "It's okay. He went back inside. We should, uh, probably stay in here for awhile, though. If you're not baking."
"Someone in the pool?" she guessed. "I'll be fine, if you turn down the heat a little."
"Someones," he agreed, getting up again to adjust the dial on the wall. That simple motion reminded her how deeply ingrained patterns lingered. Vic could have stretched a hand across the room like Plastic Man, or maybe even connected to the device via his cyber-empathy without any movement at all. Yet he'd chosen the physical movement, simple motion that recalled his lost body. He didn't have to look human at all, for that matter. But all of those choices probably kept his sense of self, his *human* self, intact.
She had her own ingrained patterns, her own mnemonics that kept her from forgetting everything she'd been. Rigorous exercise routines to preserve what muscle tone she could, and the way she'd once again become one of Gotham's crime-fighters. She recognized the irony in the fact that Oracle had already accomplished more than Batgirl ever might have, but that didn't stop her from wanting--needing--to hold onto those echoes of her past.
If she were truly being honest she could admit that her feelings for Dick were among them. She loved him--that was without question--but part of her had to wonder how much of that was because he *was* part of that past. In his eyes she would always be the teenaged girl swinging high above Gotham's skyline, even as he saw and appreciated the woman she was now. He was her link to the past and the hope for her future and here she sat, knowing that Dick would be with her without any hesitation whatsoever, and still unable to ask.
Which had always been the problem. Or one of them.
He wouldn't push, knowing how resistant she was to that, and so they'd ended up orbiting each other, eternally circling. Delaying the inevitable for no reason but her own stubborn pride and irrational, gnawing fear.
Vic had been watching her, Barbara realized abruptly, and she shook her head at her own contemplation. "Sorry. I was just...."
"Yeah," he said, eyes not quite meeting hers, "I miss Sarah too."
She breathed out a small, shocked laugh. "Am I that obvious?"
He shrugged, half acknowledgment, half apology. "All that kissing today...."
"Yeah," she said, and neither of them found it necessary to explain further.
"None o' my business, of course," Vic said after another long silence, "but you didn't have to be alone tonight."
"Well," she said evenly, "neither did you."
He half-smiled. "This body's good, but it's not *that* good."
It was too much, but she found herself repeating his words for herself: "*This* body's good, but it's not that good."
"You're still human." It was said simply, without overt bitterness, but with a flat quality that reminded her altogether too sharply of all her own defenses.
"...I could've been a cyborg," she said after a moment, not entirely sure why she was volunteering. Or maybe because diverting the conversation was actually easier than pursuing the topic. "Steel offered, you know. To build me an exoskeleton. I could be walking now."
Vic had gone very still, watching her.
"It wouldn't have made me less human." But there were so many other reasons, and despite how much had already been said, none of which she felt inclined to discuss with this man she barely knew.
He nodded slowly, consideringly, as before declining to ask the obvious question.
"And I think," she said softly, "the fact that your teammates were willing to gamble the safety of the world on your innate humanity more than proves the point."
"Just proves the Titans never had any damn sense," he replied, his voice slightly roughened, and Barbara grinned.
"Isn't it fortunate that you're available to provide it to them, then?"
Vic barked a laugh, shaking his head. "Point."
He had only been an image on a monitor screen, before today; now he was a *person,* whole and entire, and that had no doubt been part of Dick's ulterior motive for inviting her along. "The Titans are lucky to have you, Victor."
"Can say the same for you and our entire community."
She smiled, grabbing up one of the spare towels and dabbing at her face and arms. "Is it safe to get out of this sweatbox?"
The "hearing aid" reappeared. "All clear," he reported, "they've gone back inside."
She'd no doubt hear about who "they" had been tomorrow, but she was finally, actually *tired* now. "I'm in desperate need of a shower. And then sleep. You..." she quirked a smile at him, "going to count pi?"
"Yeah." Vic held the door while she maneuvered herself back into the chair. "Thanks for keeping me company."
"Birds of a feather," Barbara murmured, knowing he would hear. Tomorrow, she might be discomfited with how much she had said and he had deduced. Her need for solitude and self-sufficiency would remain intact, regardless of how much he or anyone else might understand.
Knowing someone else shared some of the same burdens might simply make the need easier to bear.
Other Truth or Dare fics available on my page: Dick and Jesse get closer in "Reverberations" (NC-17); Barbara follows up on her dare with Roy in "Leaving Delphi" (R).
As for why Grant exploded...there is a reason, but aya and/or TBoarder will have to write that fic to illuminate it. ;)
Practice, of a sort, for a much longer Barbara fic that deals with some of the same issues.