Bedtime Stories (Dinah & Jake, complete)
Dinah was spending more time than she liked away from Wayne Manor. She was getting better at compartmentalizing her emotions, at keeping the pain and the guilt over not getting to Jake in time at bay. Better at shoving aside the hurt over losing Harry when she was at home. She could do all of that, but only for so long. It was easier to take some time out to get her mind off things every so often. Usually it was just an hour or two a day, but a part of her still felt like that was too much. Even if there were days when Jake didn't seem to be aware of anyone who was there, she still felt like she shouldn't miss any of it.
She hadn't done anything as Black Canary since she'd been bitten by that hyena. Nights were the hardest, and she wanted to be there. There were too many nightmares for Jake, and she needed to be there for when he woke up in a panic.
She didn't sleep much herself. It was hard to just go straight to bed after Jake did, so she'd spent most nights reading through the books Harry had given her. There were parts that left her in tears, and she'd almost stopped reading after the ending to the first book. If Roland hadn't been dead already in the City, she might have found him and caused a world of pain. But she kept reading. She might not have always been able to understand the family dynamics of the Ka-tet, but the important thing was that he had had a sense of family there. He had been loved.
It was at least a month after she'd started reading before she came to the decision. Jake needed a reminder that there had been something before the Joker's torture and brainwashing. That there had been love, and life. That he hadn't always been the boy that Joker had tried to make him into. That he still wasn't truly that boy.
She couldn't shield him from the pain that was in those books alongside the love and the sense of purpose that he'd had during his time with Roland, Eddie and Susannah. But perhaps she shouldn't be trying to shield him. It was a life well lived, and he needed that reminder.
Dinah waited for a day when Jake had been more calm to try to read to him. It would hopefully be best to do so as she was tucking him in at night. Perhaps it might get through to him, and perhaps it might give him something to fill his dreams other than nightmares.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
From the very first words, she had his undivided attention. While Jake didn't watch Dinah herself, his eyes never strayed from the book in her hands. He was rapt, entranced by the words that described the gunslinger's time in the town of Tull, the trap laid by the man in black, the slaughter of ever man, woman, and child with cold and calculated precision. The tale told to the man Brown and his pet raven, Zoltan.
And then the gunslinger's lone trek across the wastes of the desert, how he had arrived, half-dead, at the way station. The way a shadow had stirred and stood as the gunslinger rushed forward, gun in hand. And watched as the man with the blue bombardier eyes had toppled to the ground in thirst and exhaustion. The text had skipped ahead, but Jake licked his lips, making a small sound of protest.
"I thought he was going to shoot me," the boy said, his eyes distant. "I almost wanted him to. I was so scared, so tired of being scared. But he fell, and I was still scared. I'd go over to see, and he'd open his eyes and... and eat me whole, gobble me up like a monster. But when I went over, he was asleep, and I thought he was dead at first, but he was breathing. He was too big to move, and the guns, they were so old but they shone. I got some water from the machine in the back, and I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn't wake up, so I poured the water on him, and his skin was so dry it soaked it all up, so I got more water and made him damp as I could and tried to get something under his head. And then I got some more water and sat down to wait and see if he'd wake up. He looked like a cowboy, all in leather and denim and some kind of cotton shirt with a bandana, and the guns of course. I didn't know if he'd wake up, but he was the only thing there. Except for the priest, and the priest had been scary and didn't stay. But he seemed different, and not so scary while he was asleep, so I sat and waited for him to wake up. I didn't want him to die, but I was scared of being alone again."
By the end of the speech, his voice had faltered to barely a whisper as his mouth and throat dried up. Jake's hands curled into Oy's fur. The billy-bumbler was always by his side, without fail, and nothing could be done to move Oy away. Not that anyone had tried.
Dinah gently brushed the hair off Jake's face while he talked. It was more than she'd heard him say in the entire time he'd been home. It was progress and she was encouraged by it. A part of her wanted to just keep reading, but she didn't want to push him too hard.
Instead, she looked down at him.
"He cared for you a great deal," she said gently. "And you're not alone now, Jake. You're safe here."
She was sorry that Roland wasn't in the City, and she knew that she and Alfred couldn't fill that void for Jake. All the same, she hoped that they could give him that sense of family that he deserved to have. She would do whatever she could to convey that to him. Words weren't enough, she knew. Words were empty. It was in being there, every day. In reminding him whenever she could that she wasn't going anywhere. That she cared for him.
Jake shut his eyes for a moment, leaning slightly into the feel of her hand. It was a comfort, helping to soothe the skin that felt out of place atop his burning mind. But it didn't last long. His memories were still fractured, and what lifeline she was offering by these words were badly needed.
His eyes weren't quite so empty when he opened them again, but what they showed was pain and longing. "Read more?" he asked, trying hard not to let it sound like a plea.
Dinah looked down at Jake, committing that little glimmer of Jake in his eyes to memory. He was starting to come back to her. She tried not to cling too hard to that tiny piece of hope.
Instead, she opened the book.
"Of course," she told him.
She started to read yet again.
He was quiet a bit longer, listening to the tale of the gunslinger waking and finding the boy, how Jake had shared his food with the gunslinger. And then, how the gunslinger had gone into the cellars to find more food for them. He echoed Dinah's reading in his own words.
It was the cellar that smelled so bad. The rest of the desert and the two dry, withered buildings that stood boldly in the expansion of it had been odorless. Even the hay in the stable had been without scent. Everything was dry, sapped, and Jake had been too afraid to burn any of the oil he'd found for warmth after the sun set, afraid that the buildings, maybe even the land itself might catch fire and spread.
But the cellar stank, with a wet and swampy stench that had made his head spin. Jake wouldn't tell the gunslinger this, but sometimes he had gone back to the trapdoor of the cellar and simply inhaled, as though the retching odor of potatoes, cabbages, and turnips long at rot made sense. It was something that seemed real, in this strange and barren place.
The morning after the man had arrived, he inspected the cellar. The ladder had held the gunslinger's weight, but Jake hadn't felt ashamed for not trying. He'd been afraid and unsure, and now he wasn't afraid. Well, no, he was still afraid, it would be silly not to be afraid, but he thought the man with the guns and the blue eyes wouldn't hurt him. Jake had already started to love the man, with a fierce sort of hero-worship that would deepen and blossom into something stronger.
The gunslinger went into the cellar, and he waited, going still for no reason that Jake could see. "You all right?" he called, nervously, but the man answered promptly. "Yes. There are cans. Wait." He disappeared from view, into the darkness, and Jake waited. He would have waited an eternity at the softly spoken command that had not been a command. But then the gunslinger was back at the ladder, arms laden with cans, and he passed them up. Jake took them, set them aside while Roland went back for more.
The noises began on the third exchange. A groaning sound. The gunslinger heard it first, and stopped, turning his head back to look in the cellar. Jake heard it a moment later, how could he not, as the sound grew and rose until it was filling the cellar, making the dry walls shake.
"Come up!" Jake screamed. "Oh Jesus, mister, come up!"
But he didn't. "Go away," the gunslinger said instead. His voice was calm. "Wait outside. If I don't come up by the time you count to two... no, three hundred, get the hell out."
"Come up!" Jake screamed again, but the gunslinger was already off the ladder, turning back, and moving into the darkness.
Jake ran. Out of the building, and was halfway across the stable yard when his legs gave out and he knelt on the hardpan, shivering and trying not to cry. One, two, three, four...
He made it to one hundred and nineteen when he saw a figure emerge from the building. The thought that raced across his brain was that whatever it was had gotten the man, and now it was coming for him. He wasn't aware of his scream, or that he had taken two steps back. But then the figure moved, and Jake knew him. He ran to the gunslinger, tears of relief coming from his eyes, and hugged the man. "I thought it got you, that it got you. I thought--"
The man held him, stroked his hair. "It didn't. Nothing got me." The gunslinger held him, comforted him, and...
"...and I knew I loved him. He was strange and wonderful and dangerous, but I loved him. He wouldn't leave me, he would save me."
And when the words from Dinah's lips confirmed that then, just then, was when Roland had begun to love him as well, Jake began to cry.
Dinah leaned over and gave Jake a hug, her hold loose enough that he could easily get away if he wanted to. She was never quite sure of the right thing to do in regards to him. What he needed seemed to change so much, sometimes from one minute to the next. There were times when a hug seemed to be the best thing, other times when a simple shoulder squeeze was all he could take, and yet more often than not any touch could set him off.
Jake wrapped his own arms around her, holding on tightly. "He... he loved me," the boy said, his words shivering with emotions that couldn't be untangled. Pain, love, surprise, assurance. "I... I knew he did, but... he loved me the whole time. The whole time."
His sobs softened, but tears still spilled, wetting Dinah's sleeve as he clung to her. "He was the first person who ever loved me. The first one who cared, who..." His voice caught, and he sniffled. "And then with Eddie, and Suze... we were like a f-f-family. I never had a family. My parents sucked, they didn't care about me. I was just something they should have, like a... a... a goddamn piece of furniture. They didn't want me, so I never belonged to them."
His grip tightened, breath heaving. "Do... do I belong here? I don't know anymore. It was so clear on the Beam. The Tower, always to the Tower. But I can't find the way anymore. I don't know where to go."
Dinah rubbed Jake's back. He hadn't talked much about his parents, but she bristled at the mention of their neglect. She was just glad that he had managed to find a new home away from them.
“You belong here,” she assured him. “You have people who care about you. You have a family here. I'll help you find your way.”
She would do everything she could to help him find a purpose here.