Author's Note:Welcome to third and last installment of the Changeling Sequence. This story is going to be a big different from its predecessors. For one thing, it's going to be far darker, especially given the DC canon it will be based on. It will also be probably closer to the feel of my other long Batman fic, Deluge in the Wasteland. In fact the scene in first few paragraphs borrows directly from the ending of Deluge. And, as the title suggests, this story will focus more on the parental figures (all of them) than the children, though of course everyone from the previous two fics will be heavily involved. Hopefully with this story I will be able to tie up all the loose ends introduced in the other two fics. I hope you enjoy and please review!
By: Silver Spider
In her dreams, things are different.
In her dreams she's holding the child of her blood, and she's not alone as she had been in reality. Her beloved is with her, his hand a comforting weight on her arm as he smiles down at their newborn son. There's another young boy in the room, the child of her heart. He regards his baby brother with some apprehension but mostly curiosity and excitement, then reaches out to touch the infant's cheek.
"I thought babies are supposed to be cute," he comments, and both new parents laugh.
A picture perfect scene.
Long dark lashes slowly fluttered open as the early morning sun hit her lids, and Talia lay there for a long moment without moving. She was awake, but all of her attention seemed centered on the sensation of the warmth of the rays on her skin and the feel of the Egyptian cotton sheets beneath her fingers as she wondered just what felt so very wrong. Realizing what it was, she screwed her eyes shut.
Simply a dream. Talia hated the good dreams perhaps even more than the nightmares. They were reminders of all her mistakes, all the things she ever hoped for and could never have. She opened her eyes again, looked at the clock on the nightstand, and rose with a sigh.
The shower was gloriously hot, the pressure from the powerful jets massaging the back of her neck. She lathered some shampoo into her hair and was just about to go for the body wash when the shower sliding door to her right clicked open. The man she'd thought she left sleeping in the other room unceremoniously stepped in. Talia gave him a look, but he simply waved his hand dismissively.
"I know." His lips quirked into a smile. "It's morning, and you're not in the mood."
She wanted to be annoyed, but her own mouth curved slightly. "I suppose even the world's greatest detective has to pick up on a detail like that after a few decades."
Bruce's smile widened. "Wonders will never cease. Pass the body wash?"
Back in the bedroom fifteen minutes later, she was almost fully dressed and reached for the security id on the table. Her photograph as well as the large L of "LexCorp" greeted her but before Talia could snap it onto the pocket of her perfectly tailored business suit, a strong arm wrapped around her waist while the other hand plucked the id away from her. She scowled, especially when she felt herself being tugged against a still-very much naked chest.
"You are getting my clothes wet," she complained. "I need to go to work, Bruce."
"No, you don't." Alright, that was valid.
"I like working. I may very well go mad if I did nothing."
He didn't have to point out that of all the jobs in the world she might have chosen anything but LexCorp. It was just another discussion that they did not have to have because both knew just where it would end up. She could never do enough to make things right, and Bruce was too pragmatic to begin a conversation that could go in circles at best.
"You know what we're doing, right?" Bruce rested his chin on her shoulder, his arms still encircling her. Talia sighed, resigned to both being late for work and having to change into a new suit, and leaned back against him.
"We are having an affair."
It was the thought they had both been having for months, since shortly after the first time he had come Metropolis. And it was an affair, even if neither had taken any other lovers since well before it began. There was an unspoken mutual understanding that no one was to find out about it. Talia did her best not to think about the fallout if that ever happened.
"Have you ever…" he began then stopped, apparently following the same train of thought that had just passed through her mind. He wanted to ask if she'd ever thought of stopping or better yet going out in public together, of returning to Gotham with him and telling their children. The truth was that the prior was an inevitability she tried not to think about. The latter was a dream she had no right to hope for.
"I think," she turned to face him, mouth curved in a seductive smile as she placed both hands firmly on his naked chest, "I may be able to miss one day of work after all."
He grinned and tugged her back in the direction of the bed, and for the next few hours Talia forgot that it was morning and she was really not in the mood. Really. It was another two hours before either spoke again. With the warmth of the bed and his body beneath her, Talia felt relaxed and sated. And safe… don't forget safe. She was nonetheless surprised that it was her who broke the silence first.
"When do you leave for Gotham?"
Beneath her, Bruce shifted, his forehead crinkling in thoughtfulness. "Maybe the later part of the afternoon. I should get back before the end of the day." She gave him a questioning look, and he elaborated. "It's Tim's birthday, and it's the first time neither of his parents will be there."
Talia rose on one elbow. "You should go now, then."
Bruce shook his head and smiled, pulling her back down toward him, and she got the feeling that he had reasons for delaying his return that he was not sharing. It was not crucial, and Talia tried not to think about the fact that she had missed both of her sons' birthdays. She was not certain if she might have contacted Jason on his - though sure that he would be angry on his Damian's behalf that she'd reached out to him alone - but just a month shy of the actual date, she received a surprise text.
Celebrating this 'birthday' now. Thanks.
It took only half a moment for her to recall that it had now been a year since his return to consciousness in the Lazarus pit. Smiling, she typed back. You are most welcome, darling.
People dealt with grief in about a thousand different ways. Some strategies were better than others. Jason often wondered where on that scale his righteous fury fell, knowing full well that it was probably not on the healthiest end of the spectrum. He did, however, knew for a fact that Tim hiding under the blankets again was no better which was why he only gave the younger teen till eleven o'clock before knocking once on his door then swinging it open a moment later without waiting for a response.
"Up and at 'em, birthday boy," he announced with more cheerfulness than he'd ever thought would come out of his mouth. "Let's go. Breakfast or lunch or whatever is ready."
"I don't want to go out." Even with the covers obscuring everything, Jason could tell he was making a face.
"You don't have to go out," he assured him, "but you do have to get up. There's waffles downstairs with your name on them."
"Alfred's waffles are like paste."
Jason smirked. It was a not-so-well-hidden secret that the only thing Alfred couldn't make was waffles. Everyone in the Wayne household including Bruce knew that, but no one dared even hint to the old butler that anything he made not perfect.
"I know. That's why I made them."
At this, Tim tilted his head rising slightly on one elbow. "You can cook?"
"I love how it's a surprise to everyone." He rolled his eyes. "Former street kid, remember? If I didn't learn to cook, I'd be eating worse garbage than I did. Don't give me that look. I don't want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to get up. Downstairs in fifteen, okay?"
Tim groaned but nodded. Trusting that he would find his way down to the kitchen soon, Jason took the stairs two at a time and arrived just in time to watch in mild horror as Damian took an enormous spoonful of honey and began to shovel it onto his waffles. He was about to ask why his little brother didn't use syrup like most people then remembered what part of the world Damian spent the first eight years of his life in and held his tongue. Still he was not about to deal with a sugar high nine-year-old, especially considering what was planned later. Jason grabbed the spoon out of Damian's hand and dunked it back in the honey pot just as the boy was about to add more.
"I think you thoroughly drowned them, little D," he told his brother. Damian gave him an annoyed look, but Jason leaned in conspiratorially and whispered. "Remember we have cake later."
"Chocolate cake," Damian made a face but complied and reached for his knife and fork, leaving the honey alone. He tore of a piece of waffle. Next to his seat, the enormous black Great Dane sat up expectantly and licked his chops.
"No." Jason's tone was a clear warning. "Don't give the dog stuff from your plate. He'll get sick, you know that. Come on, Ace," he snapped his fingers, and the hound instantly pivoted in his direction. "I'll feed you."
When Tim came downstairs, Jason had just finished filling the dog bowls. He straightened and taking one look at the teen's oversized black t-shirt with the stylized red 'S' in the center, rolled his eyes at Tim.
"I'm judging you."
The teen shrugged. "Bruce isn't here."
"I'm still judging you. Sit down and eat your waffles."
Tim didn't seem terribly bothered by this and dug into the food in front of him without great vigor but enough that Jason didn't feel the need to prod him again. The expression on his face when he tried a bite of the waffles told him that Tim had been pleasantly surprised and from then on the teen ate with a little more enthusiasm. Pleased, Jason picked up his cup of coffee. He looked at the kitchen clock.
"Seriously, kid, you might want to change after breakfast. Something non-hero-like and something you didn't sleep in." He looked at Damian. "You too. No pajamas today."
Damian opened his mouth, no doubt in protest, but Tim beat him to it. "You said I didn't have to go out today."
"You don't, but…"
At that precise moment, the front doorbell rang.
Jason sighed and looked at the teen. "You have about five seconds to get upstairs and change or risk a lot of embarrassment. Not that we all won't enjoy it, but as your big brother it's my job to give you fair warning."
Still looking puzzled, Tim nevertheless slid from his seat and padded for the door but stopped and looked back at him.
"You're good at it, you know." He gave him what had to be the first smile of the day.
Jason tilted his head. "What?"
"The big brother thing. You're really good."
And with that he disappeared down the hallway and up the stairs. Jason pressed his lips into a tight line and tried very hard not to think of Dick and the fact that they hadn't spoken in months. Instead he looked at Damian.
"Are you planning to stay like that or what?"
The boy shrugged a shoulder. "It's not my party."
"Your call, kiddo." He was already pivoting, moving towards the front door. "If the girls think your Batman jammies are 'adorable' it won't be my fault."
At the door within just a few long strides, Jason nevertheless waited a few more seconds until Damian was upstairs before opening it. Seven individuals were looking back at him with various degrees of excitement. Jason didn't know which - if any - of them had ever been to Wayne Manor before, but Bart Allen and Garfield Logan looked just about ready to jump out of their skins, Conner Kent and Cassie Sandsmark were craning their necks for better looks inside, and even Raven looked mildly interested. Not surprisingly the first thing out of Bart's mouth was:
"Dude, throwing a party at Batman's place? Ballsy."
Jason, who'd made a bet with himself about which of the Titans would ask the question first, dodged. "Louder, kid. They only heard you in the palisades."
Allen turned a brilliant shade of crimson to match his hoodie, and Cassie gave him a light smack upside the head. Jason grinned.
"Come on in, guys. Ground floor is fair game, but save everyone a lot of trouble and don't touch my dad's stuff. Any of it," he added pointedly. "The birthday boy will be down in a sec."
The younger trio and Garfield all piled past him, but the second blond-haired girl who looked like she was trying very hard to pretend like she wanted to be there lingered on the threshold until Raven gave her a gentle nudge inside. Jason didn't have to guess who she was.
"You must be Mia," he tried to make his tone as mild as possible. "It's nice to meet you."
"Yeah," she nodded once, her smile strained and tight-lipped, and Raven ushered her inside leaving Jason alone with the last guest remaining on the steps. He surprised himself that he wasn't nearly as angry as he thought he would upon seeing the man again. Still his demeanor must have been less than warm because Connor Hawke raised his hands placatingly.
"I don't want to fight, Jason. I'm just trying to keep an eye on Mia."
A part of him wanted to physically bar the entry to the house and demand Connor tell him where his brother was and when he'd be back, but that bitter angry part voice in Jason's head was not as loud as it once was. He knew where Dick was, and it was far from Connor's fault that they weren't talking. Besides, picking a fight would have been less than a great example to set for Tim and Damian, and… well, Jason liked to at least try to live up to the faith his younger brothers seemed to have in him for some unfathomable reason.
So instead of something biting, he settled for a truer statement. "Hey, man, I get it. Got younger siblings, too. She okay?"
Connor looked visibly relieved and sighed. "Some days are better than others."
"We all know what one. 'Specially in this house."
Far from being a big fan of either Oliver Queen or Roy Harper, Jason could nevertheless sympathize with the loss and splintering of a family. Mia, who from what he'd heard had already had enough tragedy and hardships in her life, didn't deserve to have to deal with the chaos that was currently going on in the Queen household. At least Connor seemed to be a responsible adult, even if his father had yet to get there. Jason had to respect him for that and even more so for his next question.
"Hanging in there. I think he'll be happy to see his friends at least. I want today to be one of his good days."
He extended his arm in an open invitation, and Connor stepped inside. Tim must have come downstairs by then because he heard his brother's voice among the excited chatter from the kitchen. The teen poked his head out the door frame and grinned at Jason mouthing, Thank you.
You're welcome, kid, Jason nodded back and congratulated himself on a mission successfully accomplished.
"So," Connor tilted his head towards the group of teenagers in the kitchen then glanced back at Jason, "just how are you getting this past your father?"