“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.”Albert EinStein • WHY SOCIALISM?
League Of Shadows
Periods of quiet never lasted very long in Gotham City, and Black Mask knew it well.
The Peter Pan trial had burned brightly, and burned out. What was expected to be the trial of a depraved child killer was a terrifyingly whimsical prance through the mind of a man who nervously fiddled with his cap in the courtroom, and gave to cartoonesque theatrics in the courthouse halls.
Jeremy Tetch was found not guilty, by reason of insanity, and was committed to the Arkham Psychiatric Hospital.
The media had abandoned the “Peter Pan” moniker for something more fitting, and Jeremy was henceforth known as “The Mad Hatter.”
During the trial, Black Mask was able to grow his business, consolidate operations, and, most importantly, to do so without interference from the police or the Batman.
Not that he believed in the Bat, per se. Sure, he had guys who swore they’d encountered this pulp-story-horror, but the stories had drawn into decline as Mask’s own influence and legend grew.
“You could be a petty thug or a career crook, if you ain’t workin’ wit’ da Mandatum, they send Death himself to find you.”
At first, the stories made it easy for Roman’s crew to assimilate smaller operations into his own, and that is exactly what he’d hoped would be the way of things. Consolidation, he thought, was the best way to insulate himself and the Mandatum against Gelio. The commissioner presented a much more clear and present threat to his operation than any other single man – Bat or otherwise. The way Black Mask understood, this Batman wasn’t looking to recruit, he was literally trying to “fight” crime. The Bat was a criminal too – if he even existed. To the people at his underground casino, Black Mask was more of a novelty. A value-add for rich people who wanted to brag about playing cards with Death. But the stories hadn’t gone away, they’d just been verified.
A bullet sped within inches of Black Mask’s face, and he refocused on the situation unfolding around him, removing his pistol from the shoulder holster strapped beneath his jacket, and firing off three shots in quick succession. Three men hit the floor; one was writhing, clutching at the bleeding wound in his shoulder.
“If that greasy prick boss of yours wants to start trouble with my operation,” Black Mask’s voice was like muffled thunder behind the ornate skull, “you tell him I’m looking for him.” Black Mask crouched over the man who was outright sobbing now, and Mask chose to believe that it was from fear, and not blood loss. “Lattanzi, huh? Guess we’ll need to get the commissioner a message a different way.” Black Mask rested the barrel of his pistol against the man’s forehead, and turned to the boy who stood behind him.
“Family over everything.” He squeezed the trigger, and the boy winced.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are so sorry for the interruption, but unfortunately we will be closing our card tables a bit early this evening. You are welcome to trade in your chips for an additional five percent for the next hour, and if you’d like a nightcap, please consider this a personal invitation to enjoy a drink on my tab at the Iceberg Lounge,” Black Mask announced to the illicit casino. The bustling room that had fallen completely silent when the police burst through the door announcing their warrant and declaring everyone in the space “under arrest.”
“Next week’s games will be held in a new location, and whoever invited you this week will almost certainly have that information for you next Thursday!” the murderer in the ornate skull mask turned to his associate, using a handkerchief to wipe bits of viscera from his facade.
“Antonio, get this shit cleaned up, Vinny, go help out with refunds in the cages. Adrien, send the dealers and the girls home, and give ‘em something to make up for the lost shift. Phil, get the Consul on the phone, tell him we need a space in his territory for a week from now.”
“Annette, have you seen Al?” Bruce Wayne popped an olive into his mouth; Annette swatted at his hand with a wooden spoon.
“He’s in the gym with those boys again. Been out there since early this morning,” Annette answered, returning Bruce’s sly smile.
Bruce inclined his head.
“You know, those children from the orphanage?”
“Oh. Right,” Bruce had no idea what she was talking about, but he opened the door to the back terrace, and marched across the yard to the outbuilding where his body had been brought to its pinnacle.
He opened the noisy, corrugated metal door, to a sight – twenty or so boys (and a few girls) engaged in martial arts training. Most of them younger than he was when Alfred had started his training.
Al was shielding himself behind a heavy bag, encouraging the child assaulting it with barked commands on where on the “body” to attack next.
For their part, none of the children looked in Bruce’s direction when he entered. Alfred acknowledged him only with a brief glance,and Bruce removed his shoes, striding toward the boxing ring, where a young woman was sparring with a boy. Both looked like teenagers, and both looked carved out of stone.
The woman was smaller in frame than her male counterpart, but she dodged and weaved in and out of the punches he threw with such grace that if you watched only her, it almost looked like the young man wasn’t moving at all. After some time, she threw what appeared to be a wild haymaker, but it was a feint, and she tangled her elbow into the boy’s attempt at a block, locking his arm in hers and then throwing the boy over her shoulder in a motion that, to a casual observer, looked like it defied gravity. The boy kipped up onto his feet, landing in a fighting stance, and touched gloves with the girl before exiting the ring.
“Bruce!” said the latter with a smile, and Bruce recognized the voice as Barbara Gordon, Dick’s campaign manager, and Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s daughter. Bruce pulled himself into the ring, handing Barbara a towel which she tossed to the turnbuckle behind her. “Why don’t you put on a pair of gloves and we can go for three rounds?”
Bruce unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a ribbed tank top and a bruises across the exposed flesh of his body, and began wrapping his hands. The aged leather gloves were padded, but afforded manual dexterity that traditional boxing gloves didn’t.
“Al and I just went for a few rounds last night, so go easy on me, Barbara,” Bruce lied.
Barbara rode her bike almost everywhere she went, she was big on walking, and she’d played some sports in school – she was athletic before whatever this was, but now, she moved with a speed and grace that suggested that she’d been training for much longer than Bruce would’ve thought.
He was, of course, pulling his punches. But Barbara hit hard enough and quickly enough that she would’ve contended with some of the more physical street-toughs that he’d run into on patrols.
“Why are you pulling your punches?” Barbara said between heavy breaths. “Is it because I’m pulling mine?” She dodged a playful jab across her left shoulder, and swayed beneath a quick 1-2 that he threw in followup.
“Make it interesting,” Bruce said backing up, but keeping his hands up in guard. “If you hit me in the face, you win. But if your back touches the mat, I win.”
“And I won’t hit you in the face, either.”
Barbara rolled her eyes and nodded, and then was inside of Bruce’s reach as quick as a blink, bobbing beneath his punches, and jumping over a low sweep that he hadn’t honestly expected her to account for.
A series of jabs landed on Bruce’s ribs, and he answered with a feigned grunt for almost all of them. She had him back to the rope of the ring, harassing him with a flurry of punches that she never intended to land. It was a clever ruse, but a wild swing put Barbara’s punch over the top rope just enough, and he pulled the middle rope up and over, trapping her wrist in place.
“Hey–“ Barbara cried out, seemingly in protest, then swept her foot out and up for a hard kick to Bruce’s shoulder, “yah!” The move would’ve knocked her off balance if she hadn’t had the support of her binding, and if Bruce weren’t so much taller than her, that would’ve connected with his ear. Instead, he caught her ankle in his opposite hand, pulling as she freed her wrist and pushing into a throw that should’ve left her on her back, but the librarian instead allowed her feet to float above her, and her hands touched the ground, springing her back toward Bruce, landing with her thighs on either side of his shoulders.
She gently tapped a smiling Bruce in the nose, and said “boop,” and slid from his shoulders, standing, and offering a deep bow to her opponent.
It wasn’t that Bruce let her win exactly. It was that he allowed her to play to her outs to see if she could win. And Barbara Gordon played to her outs masterfully.
“Well fought,” Bruce congratulated her, returning the bow. And for the first time since they’d gathered around the ring to observe, Alfred and the other young people offered polite cheers for the best fight they’d seen yet.
The late morning air moved and warmed as the sun made its slow crawl to the center of the late March sky, and Barbara Gordon was toweling off the last of the moisture from her hair, and sitting across the patio table from Bruce Wayne, who had, it would seem, decided not to hit the showers, instead producing a pitcher of ice water and two glasses.
The man bore a vague resemblance to Superman when he wasn’t wearing his reading glasses – not that she believed the rumors from the office; Bruce Wayne was too busy, too well-known, too present to be flying around the world in red tights.
“How long has Alfred been–”
“Training people? Months. Since Dick…” Barbara trailed off. It wasn’t that she didn’t think about Dick everyday, it was that she didn’t ever feel like she needed to discuss Fatal Friday with anyone other than Alfred. But Bruce Wayne, well, Dick was his family, too. “Since Election Day. A lot of the volunteers and people working on the campaign I guess were looking for a distraction, and –“
“But all the orphans?”
“That was my idea. It felt like the kind of thing Dick would’ve wanted; spending the money for the victory party to do something nice for all these rascals who were just so scared. Help them forget about Peter…er…Jeremy for a night. And then, Alfred and I got to chatting about how they should be able to defend themselves. Push kind of became shove, and eventually, we were training something of a small army, but don’t tell Al I called it that.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Bruce said, waving his hand as if to dismiss the notion. “You were really impressive in there, by the way.”
“Don’t be condescending, Bruce. I did win after all.”
“That wasn’t my inten– sorry, you’re right. What I mean was who trained you before Alfred?”
“Well my father wanted me to know how to fight, of course. ‘Even a young lady can learn to protect herself,’ he would say. I took gymnastics and calisthenics for several years and took a couple years worth of dance classes – nothing professional of course, but, you know me, Bruce, I think quickly, and as Alfred has been teaching us to use everything in our environment when defending ourselves, I figured I’m part of my environment, aren’t I? Why not incorporate things I learned that weren’t conventional, right? There’s always been some self-study, whether it was taking courses at the night school or just practicing in my apartment. Dick taught me a couple things, too,” Barbara smiled.
She felt warm when she remembered Dick; not just for saving her life, but for the challenge. For the passionate, poor little rich boy who really cared about his beliefs and who was really just frustratingly bad at getting her to question her own beliefs – until one day she was questioning her own beliefs. Dick Grayson could sneak up on you like that. He didn’t make Barbara a better person or a better thinker, but being around him did. Barbara’s eyes were getting moist, and she felt the tug of an outside stimuli, and noticed that Bruce was talking.
“…cipline. And the way you were able to use the ropes to balance yourself. I’ll have to remember that if we ever spar again.”
“Oh, I don’t intend to tarnish my perfect record. Rematches are for the overconfident.”
Bruce chuckled, and Barbara took the initiative, standing up, and setting down her empty glass. Bruce Wayne mirrored her, bowing once again.
“Well fought, Barbara.”
Barbara opened her arms and hugged him, and she ticked a notch into her mental belt for catching Bruce Wayne off his guard for the second time that morning.
Alfred Pennyworth saw the last of his little friends into the bed of a second pickup truck, and slammed the tailgate shut, slapping in twice to let Barney know he was all set to depart.
Alfred waved at the children as they were driven away, their bodies stronger, their bellies full of breakfast, and a book in each one’s hands. He could feel Bruce behind him, even though he hadn’t heard the man approach.
“Mister Bruce,” Alfred said, turning. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
As they strolled toward the treeline, Bruce and Alfred small talked, and it occurred to Alfred that he and Bruce were spending less and less time in the same room as one another.
They grow up so quickly, he thought, half-joking.
“I can tell our young Barbara quite impressed you, and I think she can tell how much you were holding back.”
“I think so, too,” Bruce said. “She declined my offer of a rematch.”
Al let out a mock scoff. “And she’s smart, too!”
When they were in the shadow of the pines, Bruce sighed; it wasn’t a sigh of annoyance – the pupil wasn’t predisposed to making irritation obvious to his friends and family – it was a wistful, longing breath, like an expectation had been met without him being there to shepherd it along.
“I’m glad you were able to join us this morning,” Al said, inspecting Bruce’s face for tics or tells.
“What was that?”
Alfred drew in a deep breath. “Children were dying. We are meant to be the stewards of these young men and women, in loco parentis, as it were. Nourishing their bodies with rigorous training and a healthy meal, and nourishing their minds with discipline and books that will teach them to challenge authority, well that’s what I’ve always done as a surrogate for a father, isn’t it? It made sense to start training the next generation.”
“Is it safe? For them, I mean.”
“Kids trust grown-ups. Orphans are looking for any opportunity that might lead to them being in a safe home with loving parents. If one or two of the twenty children use this to more efficiently pick pockets, or to become career criminals, I think that’s a worthwhile trade, do you not?”
“But they’re still kids. So many of them are younger than I was. What if they put themselves into dangerous situations because of your training?”
“That’s part of the training, Mister Bruce. We spent the first two sessions just speaking, as equals, conceiving of times when knowing how to fight would be helpful. And then, with the authority of experience and a voice of kindness, I taught them how dangerous so many of those exact scenarios are. Some of them were describing daily interactions they’d had. But they’ve grown to trust me because I wasn’t telling them not to steal, or not to do their confidence grifts on people, only teaching them how to be more cautious, and how to better evaluate their surroundings. Give them better outs to play to, in a sense.
“I haven’t asked them to stop having fun, Bruce.”
The faint smell of petrichor lingered in the air. March had been mostly dry until last night’s storm.
“You’re looking for Dick’s replacement.”
Alfred narrowed his eyes, and leaned into Bruce’s space with upturned palms.
“I’m looking for your replacement. Your replacements.”
“There’s exactly one other living person who I could trust with the responsibility of this. Maybe the only other person who ever lived who I should’ve trusted with this. You. Even Dick was killed taking risks I wouldn’t have taken. Not when I was at my darkest points!”
Alfred withdrew, his face falling into something more parental, nurturing.
“Exceptionalism is anathema to what we believe, Mister Bruce. And you are exceptional. You’ve so rigorously exceeded the expectations of ‘limits’ that I would go so far as to say that no living man or woman is truly your peer. But that is not what we believe in. It’s not what we’ve been trying to teach. It’s not what Mister Dick died for.
“The idea that fixing this city, this country, or even the world depends on individual courage is romantic, but it’s not realistic. This isn’t a myth. You’re not Akilles!
“Or perhaps it is a myth, but if that’s true, you’re Patroklas and he’s Akilles!” Al pointed toward the sky for emphasis.
“Sustained victory is not going to be found in your bravery or talent alone. It will be found in the courage of the collective. In hindsight, I’m certain we went about this the wrong way from the start. We began the Yīnyǐng from the shadows. But if our goal is to inspire and empower people, we should’ve operated openly. Eventually we’d be driven underground, or worse, but we have resources, and by the time that happened, maybe it’d be too late to stop.”
Bruce didn’t immediately reply, and Alfred thought it was because he was letting the tension dissipate or perhaps that he was thinking about what was said. Probably it was both.
“I think so,” Alfred answered. “But not yet. We need to have some kind of litmus test to verify that she’s ready.”
“What happened to dispelling the,” Bruce’s fingers rhythmically waved in front of his face, “air of myth and shadow?”
“The conspiracy is in motion, Mister Bruce. We can’t fix the mistakes we’ve already made, we just need to optimize for the outcomes we want moving forward.”
“What kind of test were you thinking?”
“Physically, she’s up there. She’s more thoughtful than Mister Dick, even if she’s not as ‘quick.’ But from a recruitment mindset,” Al said after a time, “I suppose she’d need to detect something.”
Bruce looked Alfred in his eyes, seeming to know where Alfred was taking the discussion.
“She has some of the pieces already. And if she was as well-resourced as her father, she would’ve already figured it out, don’t you think?”
“Maybe not before today,” said Bruce. “But after this morning, I think she does.”
“We need some ground rules,” Bruce added. “First, we can’t provide additional clues. Nothing that she wouldn’t herself discover. No leading her to it.”
Alfred paused, then affirmed with a nod.
The pair turned back toward the manor, and continued laying out how their conspiracy might grow.