Title: Life Is Good

Author: DC Luder

Summary: The second story in the Series of Three. Set three months after his
recovery, the Dark Knight is back with a vengeance.

Rating: T

Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.

Author's Note: This chapter has been modified from its original version.
Finally had a chance to start revamping this seven-year-old gem. Hopefully, I
can stop working on the sixth story in this series long enough to take care of
the long neglected second one...

^V^

"Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever
you call it, whoever you are, you need one."

Jane Howard

^V^

"Five out of ten, old man," I said between gasps, unable to gloat as I pinned
Bruce face down on the training mats, "Going to have to do better than that."

My left arm had his pulled back to the painful point of near dislocation as my
free elbow dug a rivet into his right kidney. We had been sparring for well over
two hours and neither one of us had won a consecutive round. He growled beneath
me, signaling his surrender and I released him.

A little over a year earlier, I would have lost every match to him and I would
have never said aloud, "Little slow on the take down, Bruce, that's how I got
your arm."

But a lot can happen in a year…

He rolled over onto his back and looked up at me, his facial expression
suggesting that I needed to learn when to shut up. Rather than back down, I
continued to grin at him, knowing how much it bothered him. Especially after he
had to stare at said smile for going on two hours, whether I had the upper hand
or not. The fact that I had been helping him tune his skills over the last three
months, from physical strength to reaction times, was a blessing. One I wasn't
about to take for granted.

With every passing day, he had advanced further and further, nearing his long
lost level of perfection. In my year as Batman, I had honed my skills in order
to portray his image as best as I could, building on my normal lean frame in
order to pack the power behind his infamous one-hit knockouts. I had sacrificed
a portion of my sanity, for sure, but someone had to carry on the grim and
brooding presence.

There had been times when Barbara had been concerned about me going over the
edge while wearing myself too thin. I had been as well but had managed to brush
it off, carrying on as I always had and worrying about others instead of little
old me. Miraculously, when I had hit a proverbial wall and began to question my
future, of a life I had never intended on living, Bruce had come back to us. I
was more than happy to hand back the cape and cowl to Bruce the very second he
felt he was ready to wear it. There was no denying that the year spent in his
shoes had made me a better crime fighter, but it would be nice to get things
back to normal.

Namely to get back into my own tights and back to living the cape free life.

Still grining, I offered my hand to help him up which he surprisingly took it,
while thinking how much he had changed in the last year. He enjoyed family
dinners, he smiled at his infant daughter, he showed no hesitation in kissing
Selina in plain sight. I had feared that the changes would have faded once his
memories had emerged but thankfully they had remained intact, albeit kept under
tighter control.

He had to lose everything in order to learn that there had been more to life
than his never ending war on crime. Bruce had all but dropped the fop act in
public, claiming that the changes in his personal life were responsible for his
rapid maturity. The press had eaten it up,, all to excited to see Gotham's Son
finally settling down. Tim and I joked that really, they wanted to see him
marry Selina only to countdown to the nasty divorce. Out of both of their
hearing ranges, of course.

My string of thoughts were interrupted when I became airborne.

Bruce had grasped my arm tightly and then rose quickly to get the momentum he
needed. He threw me at the foam-padded wall eight feet away where I landed with
a pronounced thud. Any air I had in my lungs came gushing out. Winded, I
watched helplessly as Bruce approached me, his calf muscles jumping with each
step.

"Dick, what was the first thing I taught you?"

I had landed upside down, my torso standing up right against the wall with my
legs dangling in front of me. One arm was pinned behind my back as the other
laid limply to the side. Even In the awkward position, I managed to chide him,
"Um, don't slide down the banisters?"

He shook his head and stared at me with cold eyes.

I guessed, "Um, expect the unexpected?"

He nodded and then offered a slight smile before reaching down and giving me his
hand.

Rolling to my side in order to right myself, I accepted the help and was about
to attempt to throw him when he glared at me. Once I was standing in front of
him, I smiled, "Just checking your reflexes, Bruce."

He narrowed his eyes briefly before replying, "Right." After a pause, he added,
"That's enough for today."

Rubbing my sore neck, I concurred, "Agreed. Did you still want a spot for
weights?" Since he walked away without a word, I called after him, "I'll take
that as a no?"

So maybe there were some things that hadn't changed…

I crossed the training bay and retrieved my towel and water bottle from the lone
bench. With August about ready to give way to September, the outside world was
hot and muggy, but the Cave remained a tepid sixty-three degrees. My efforts
over the last hour had left me drenched with sweat and parched. After drying my
face and quenching my thirst, I looked over to the weight area and watched as
Bruce effortlessly lifted a pair of fifty pound dumbbells, extending them
straight out in front of him as he crouched and slowly brought them to his sides
as he stood straight. His time off had included a fairly regular exercise
program that I had set up for him but in the last three months he had followed a
progressive overload to put the bulk back on and the strength back into his
form.

After watching him do a set of ten reps, I said, "Okay, I'm going to shower and
head upstairs…" He paid no attention to me and I added even louder, "You know,
for dinner. With our Family… and we're going to shave Mattie's head after
dessert."

"Try it," he replied before picking the dumbbells up again.

Smirking, I made my way out of the training bay, I paused when I noticed Alfred
approaching from the main center of the Cave. "I reminded him… not sure it made
its way through his ego."

Alfred had nodded curtly before continuing towards Bruce. If anyone could get
him to take a break, it would be Alfred. I was unable to hear what the
gentleman's gentleman threatened, but I did hear Bruce's reply, "I'll be up in
twenty minutes."

As he returned my way, I smirked, "So, Al, how goes the war?"

He looked over my disheveled form in a clear amount of disgust, namely worn
lycra leggings and sweat stained tank top with my hair arranged in a
gravity-defying style. I had arrived to Wayne Manor fresh from duty in
Bludhaven, trading my pristine uniform for attire that was in desperate need of
an extra rinse cycle, even before I had worked out.

"Swimmingly, sir," he replied, shaking his head slightly.

For so many years Wayne Manor had been home to just him and Bruce. I had come
along and stayed on for almost a decade and when I had left, Jason had filled
the void briefly. After he had died at the hands of the Joker, Tim had forced
his way into our lives but he had stayed next door with his father and step
mother, leaving it just as it had always been. Just Bruce and Alfred.

In the last year, it had changed once more, but not with the presence of a new
young boy learning the ropes of being a vigilante. For the first time in nearly
forty years there was a woman and young infant in the great house. Although it
brought great joy to our lives, especially Alfred's, it was a still a change
that needed time to adjust to. I couldn't help but wonder if the older man
seemed tired from being over worked or if he was getting used to the fact that
his youngest charge had mastered crawling.

I took a sip of water and then wiped my face with the towel, "So we haven't had
a family dinner in a while… anything special going on?"

"I haven't the foggiest as to what you are referring to, sir."

I nodded and looked over at Bruce who had traded the pair of dumbbells for the
leg press, "Selina's not pregnant again, is she?"

Alfred's eyes shot from their sockets before he could control himself, "Heavens
no, Miss Mattie is quite enough for them to handle at the moment."

I laughed out loud, surprised when Bruce actually looked over at us.

At that, I retreated to the costume vault, passing the locked entrance in order
to hit the showers. I smiled to see that Alfred had already set out clean
clothes for me along with putting out a new toothbrush on the small, stainless
steel sink. After eight minutes of scrubbing, I emerged dressed in dark jeans
and a fitted charcoal gray tee shirt. Naturally, Bruce was still hard at work,
the clink and clank of weights echoing in the Cave. Rather than coerce him to
call it a rest for the night, I bypassed him entirely and made my way to the
stairs.

There was no point in aggravating him. We all had tried to make his life
adjustments as quiet as possible over the last few months, especially where it
concerned his retaking of the role as Batman. Although he had gone into the city
three times in the last week and a half, he had remained inactive, simply
touring around in the Mobile or traversing rooftops. The city had been
relatively quiet, making life easy for the rest of us. Even though I had been
behind the wheel of the coolest car in Gotham for over a year, Bruce had taken
over leaving me as the passenger just as I had when I was younger. His eyes had
remained locked forward as he guided the Briggs-Wayne jet engine powered vehicle
through the streets of his city...

But he didn't do anything but watch.

I thought back to his return after Bane had broken him, how he had trained under
Shiva for months before returning to Gotham. And even then he had returned, he
wouldn't take back the mask from Jean Paul. He simply did as Shiva told him,
standing on gargoyles as he stared out at the city, taking on her little
acolytes and getting his mojo back. Selfish on some level, I had hoped that he
had found whatever he had been looking for, because play time was over.

When I had arrived earlier that evening, Bruce had told me that he was ready. I
had nodded, not sure what to say to something so unexpected and yet something I
had anticipated greatly. To prepare, I had already started to phase out of the
guise of Batman in order to increase my time as Nightwing. With Cass and Tim,
the city had been taken care of enough so I could actually make the hour trek to
Bludhaven to remind the citizens they indeed still had their own guardian.

Something I was going to be able to do a hell of a lot more.

Climbing the stairs up towards the Manor, I smiled recalling how Bruce was
planning on "telling" Jim by simply hsowing up at his office as if nothign had
happened. Jim, along with the close members of the Family had known about
Bruce's recovery since day one and but unlike the others, he had not been filled
in on the plan to return to his former life.

When Barbara told her father that Bruce had remembered, he had instantly asked
when he was returning as Batman. When, not if.

As much as Jim loved having me around, he missed his friend.

Once in the study, I made my way down the wide corridor, quickly headng towards
the den. As I neared the archway, I heard giggling, both infantile and
adolescent. Glancing in before entering, I saw that Tim was scribbling in a text
book as he sat on the leather couch while Cassandra entertained Mattie on the
floor. It was always difficult to pass up snooping about the kitchen to see if
there was a need for dessert taste testing.

It was made easier considering I had a baby sister to play with.

Mattie, dressed in a tiny purple tee shirt and even tinier blue jeans, was
sitting on Cassandra's lap, gripping onto a plush spotted leopard with her hands
and mouth. Selina had warned me last week that the teething was in full force
and to be wary of her chewing on my shirt or ears. Without saying a word, I sat
next to Cassandra and waved at Mattie as I said her name softly. The child
bounced and giggled even more, revealing her bottom two teeth.

It was unreal that she was the product of Bruce and Selina's genes, for she
seemed so carefree and innocent, traits she certainly hadn't inherited. Her dark
curls were growing daily and Selina was having a hard time convincing Bruce that
their daughter needed her first hair cut before the end of the year. Perhaps
that was what bothered me the most, was picturing Bruce as the doting father.
With me, he had been so awkward that it literally frightened me to see him with
an infant when he couldn't even pat me on the back without having it feel weird.

But now, he cuddled and rocked and burped and washed and changed and played and
told stories and sang to and kissed and loved an adorable little person with
never-ending silver-blue eyes and senseless mumblings.

Then again, who wouldn't?

^V^

I smiled at Dick as he sat beside me, "Want to hold her?"

"Sure," he reached out and carefully picked her up off of my lap. As he held in
front of his face, he grinned, "Hi, Mattie."

She reached out briefly and touched his face with the tail of the stuffed cat
then brought it back to her lips.

"Where's mommy, Mattie?" he asked softly.

"Mow."

Dick looked to me and I explained, "Mommy. Or maybe it's meow."

He laughed at that and mewed back at her before arranging Mattie in his lap.

After a moment, I offered, "Selina is in the nursery. Put clothes away."

He looked at me before kissing the top of Mattie's head, "Did you go shopping
for clothes again? Girl, you are out of control already…"

It had been a fun afternoon, even though I didn't like shopping. Barbara and
Selina focused mostly on selecting toddler outfits for the fall, shoes for her
to wear once she learned to walk and pajamas to keep her warm through the
winter. I had gladly taken the duty of pushing Mattie's stroller, entertaining
her when she became fussy and even carrying her around a stuffed toy area that
made her blue eyes widen in wonder.

I had never really had experience with small children, even when I had been one.

Everyone in the Family said I was a natural.

It was nice to be a natural at something that didn't involve violence…

Even though I still lived with Barbara in the Clocktower, I found myself
spending most of the summer at Wayne Manor for a number of reasons. Aside from
helping with Mattie, I worked with Bruce as he trained practically nonstop to
prepare for taking the cowl back. I also worked with Tim, decreasing the amount
I held back on him while sparring in order to increase his skill.

In whatever time was left, I found myself spending time with Alfred, learning
about the finer things in life. He often joked that he was going to turn me
into a proper young lady even if it killed him. After a summer, I learned to
stomach belches instead of letting them loose, how to properly eat at a formal
meal and how to make proper introductions. Other than that, not much had taken.

Mattie started to make a move off of Dick's lap and he helped her to sit on the
floor, "Let's see some of these mad crawling skills in action, monkey."

Leaving the sodden cat behind, she rapidly crawled towards a ball ten feet away.
Selina said because of all of the time people spent playing with her, she was
flying through her baby milestones. She had been crawling for over a month, she
loved banging things to make noise, picking things up with just two fingers and
could roll over and push herself up to sit on her own. Her language skills were
coming around as well, she was almost ready to put the parts together to start
actually communicating instead of just mimicking.

I had told Mattie that there was no rush to learn to speak, that it had nearly
taken me sixteen years.

As she moved to sit up in order to hold the ball in her lap, I looked to Tim.
Where I had Barbara as a tutor to cover my studies, Tim had to actually attend
school. In preparation for juggling his senior year in high school and his
career as Robin, he had already started reading his fall semester books. I tried
to not pick on him about it, but it was hard not to.

That afternoon, while he had been reading through his calculus book, I had kept
him company.

And watched two James Bond movies.

On surround sound.

While eating popcorn.

And two hours later, he was still at it, writing down notes in the margins in
hopes of learning a semester's worth of mathematics in a single sitting. I
wanted to tell him to call it quits but I didn't feel it was my place.

As the thought passed through my mind, Dick threw the gnawed on stuffed cat at
Tim, landing it perfectly in the open book. Tim jerked and looked to us. I
pointed at Dick and he nudged me, "Way to rat me out."

"Seriously, dude?"

"Seriously, dude yourself," Dick countered as he rose to his feet. You were
reading that thing when I got here, the whole time I was downstairs… it's
vacation, bro, act like thus."

Tim carefully picked up the snow leopard and set it on the end table, "I'm
almost done with linear approximation…"

"Well, you're done now."

We all looked to see Selina standing in the doorway. Although Tim and Dick had
grown up seeing her as a foe, I had really only known her as a friend. Except
for Mattie, she was the one that made Bruce happy. And after learning to find my
own happiness in life, it was nice to see him doing the same.

Even after remembering who he was.

"Dare I ask where he is?" she proposed.

Dick answered, "Alfred's in the kitchen."

Selina smirked as she walked into the room, standing beside Mattie before
responding, "Thank you, Dick's stomach for your input. I meant where is the
wayward father of my child?"

I smiled. Dick was usually the one to make jokes but Selina always managed to
shoot them right back at him. On rare occasions, they would go back and forth
until Dick backed down. Like the Pong game Barbara played.

Even in her simple attire of a long black skirt and fitted white blouse, I could
see Catwoman growling underneath her cool exterior. She wasn't angry, but
clearly upset, if not worried. It had to be difficult, seeing him prepare to
return to his old life after spending a year with just her. Or maybe she was
upset because he was putting the mask back on and she wasn't.

Dick explained that he had tried to get Bruce to come upstairs with him but had
been unsuccessful.

Selina flexed her fingers, her glossy nails catching the overhead lights just
so.

Where Dick had failed to coerce him, I knew Selina wouldn't.

She promptly left the den, growling under her breath as she stormed off.
Throughout his recovery, dinners and family time had been important, doing what
we could to help support him and each other. Since his recovery towards the end
of May, family had remained important, but had to compete with his drive to
regain his physical perfection.

The only thing he never balked at was his daughter. He would drop anything to
spend time with her, something that brought deep-seated jealousy out in the
physical language of both Dick and Tim. They had been at his side longer than I,
earning the respect of our mentor over years of dedicated work.

All Mattie had to do was smile.

When I had first met Batman, I had known him to be a dark and aggressive being,
one who thrived on the image he portrayed along with the skills he had to back
it up. Although the others seemed to think that the last year had brought out
the man who had been trapped inside, I had seen it long before.

I had seen it when he had taken me aside during No Man's Land, quizzing me to
see if I knew any spoken or signed language. When nothing had clicked, he had
resorted to performing a kata, of which I matched perfectly, movement for
movement, I finally had been able to communicate with him by drawing in the
dirt, creating symbols for Barbara and Commissioner Gordon to demonstrate that
they were father and daughter. I had then drawn the symbols used by my
biological father David Cain and related the relationship to him and myself.

The sadness in his eyes had said the man had been there all along, he was just
hiding behind a mask.

It was nice to see him no longer hiding, no longer keeping everything tucked
away.

Something I had learned to do, as well.

^V^

I heard Selina's heels clicking on the granite steps long before I saw her.

At the rate of frequency, I could tell she was angry, aggressively striking the
ground with her feet. The last I had known, it was fifteen of seven but that
could have easily been twenty minutes ago. Funny how time flies when you were
bench pressing your own body weight.

My eyes straight up at the cavern's ceiling, I spotted Selina approaching in my
peripheral vision. Her stride was still fast and furious, but not loud enough to
cover her grumbling, "… thinks he can play down here all night… I think not…
Immature, pompous…"

As she stood beside me, glaring down at me over crossed arms, I simply stated,
"Wait."

She watched on silently as I completed a final set of reps, forcing the weight
back into the rack with a little more effort than I would have preferred. As I
sat up, flexing my wrists and popping my neck simultaneously, I then said,
"What?"

"What?" she echoed impatiently, "How about there is a full house upstairs and
yet you remain down here, all by your lonesome?"

To say that my seemingly nonstop efforts to get life back on track had been
without consequence would have been an outright lie. For a year, I had only
lived the life of Bruce Wayne, spending time with family and friends, asking the
love of his life to marry him and welcoming their firstborn child into the
world. That role had been complicated slightly by taking up responsibilities in
the public eye, resuming fairly trivial duties at Wayne Enterprises.

All that had changed the second my entire life came back to me, flashing in
rapid fire before my very eyes.

Adding a third life to the mix, the violent one of Batman, had set things off
kilter. Even without completely returning to the cowl, the changes were
blatantly noticeable. I had tried my best to keep the grunts, cold looks and
obsessive behaviors contained but they had bubbled over after being kept in
confinement for a year. Selina had broached the subject with me numerous times
over the last three months, claiming the change had been so sudden in me that it
was almost scary.

The others had seen it too but she had been the only brave enough to come
forward.

Whether they had been scared to or wanted to avoid upsetting me…

"I'll be up in a few minutes," I replied, rising from the bench. Without pausing
to receive her reply, I walked over to the metal bar that was mounted eight feet
up into the rock of the cavern. I jumped up and began to do my chin ups as,
ignoring her gaze.

I knew she was uncomfortable with how I had decided to return to my work,
especially how soon after my recovery. We fought more, she sighed when I finally
climbed into bed instead of rolling over to face me and what little time I spent
with her, most of it was focused on Mattie. Deep down, I felt that she wanted us
to live happily ever after, without nights waiting for me to come home, dead or
alive. As much as I hated the looks she gave me, I knew she also loved me and
supported my choice as much as she could.

Just as she had throughout my entire recovery.

A year lost forever as I had regained my basic life skills. My life had been
intermittently been replaced by a far kinder, gentler man, one who wasn't afraid
to laugh or cry. Upon regaining my memories, I had been able to see all of the
changes my injury had brought to our Family. Not only had I found the courage to
propose to Selina, but I had never been closer to her, Barbara and Dick. The
youngest members had been the ones to distance themselves, trying to wait it out
until I "returned".

But they had been there that night, they had seen it happen, seen my proverbial
demise. The night I jumped in front of Gordon, taking those bullets at
point-blank, had been the death of Batman. His blood had seeped out onto the
pavement and his soul was lost.

He was about to be resurrected.

Although I had disclosed it to the others, I hadn't told Selina that I was
actually returning that night. I had tried to, a number of times throughout the
day but a pained look would fall across her face and deter me. She thought it
was just going to be another night out with Dick on patrols, but I had much more
planned. My comeback would be ferocious in order to remind the underworld of my
city that its protector was unpredictable and would reach out at any time to any
one of them.

As I had told Dick, expect the unexpected.

Then again, we hadn't spent that much time together, save for breakfast with
Mattie, lunch downtown and briefly when I had returned from work. She had been
shopping with Barbara and Cassandra that afternoon to get some new clothes for
our rapidly growing child. When they had left, Mattie was excited to be going
out with her mother and had been a handful to get into her car seat.

Selina had joked that it was a sign for when she was going to be a teenager
spending her weekends wiht my Black AMEX card at the mall.

I small smile crept onto my lips as Selina approached me, "What's so funny?"

"Nothing."

She narrowed her eyes, something I had learned long ago as an indicator that
there were devious thoughts on her mind. Without warning, Selina smiled
affectionately and widened her green eyes after a few blinks. Before I could
make a move to jump down from the chin up bar, I felt newly manicured nails
scratching my bare feet.

"Bruce, if you are not showered and upstairs in the next ten minutes, I have a
very bad feeling that you may be sleeping alone tonight."

I dropped to the floor, keeping a solemn look on my face, "Is that so?"

She nodded knowingly and then looked at her watch. I stepped closer and looked
at her watch's face as well, "That's ten minutes fast."

"So?"

"So you can't time with that, no matter how fast I go, I'd still be late."

"He foiled my evil plan yet again," she said dramatically. When I leaned in to
kiss her, she shook her head, "Shower first, love later."

"Yes, dear."

She kissed my cheek and then walked away. I looked back to the training bay
briefly and I heard her call, "Nine minutes, Bruce!"

I was showered in three minutes and then half dried and dressed in another
three. Before heading to the granite steps, I ran my hands through my cropped
hair, trying to ignore the gray at my temples and roots that hadn't been there a
year earlier. I had made the mistake of having it cut shorter than usual in the
beginning of June, revealing more light hair intermixed with the dark.

Stress and near death experiences tended to do that…

The whole gag about "sleeping alone" had started a two months earlier as a joke,
when Dick had made a sly comment that Selina was going to make me sleep on the
couch one of these nights. Somehow, it had developed into an actual threat when
she had made up the couch in the main den for me to sleep on after one
particularly hectic day. One I had failed to show up for our dinner date because
I had been training with Dick…

With forty-six seconds to spare, I passed through the grandfather clock
entrance, straightening my shirt sleeves as it shut behind me. Walking briskly,
I strode down the wide corridor and towards the dining room. Voices had brought
life once more to the old halls of the mansion and laughter renewed its
vitality. Hell, it renewed my vitality.

The double doors were open and I found everyone had already found their seats.
Before being shot, family dinners were so rare they were practically myths. Even
on holidays, we barely found the time to come together. Now, rarely a week
passed when we didn't all break bred with one another. Regrettably, Jim and
Barbara had not been able to make the trek u, promising to be up the following
week.

I smiled to see Selina was getting Mattie into her high chair as it sat between
her chair and mine, of which was often a feat considering our daughter preferred
to sit on someone's lap. Next to Selina sat Dick, seemingly occupied with a
hushed argument with Tim who sat across from him. Cassandra had been watching on
with amusement, although choosing to not partake in the sophomoric behavior.
After decades of refusing to join us for meals, Alfred readily took a seat with
us, mostly to supervise the feeding of his youngest charge.

He had outdone himself with eggplant and chicken parmesan over steaming pasta.
Mattie herself even had a small portion of an appropriately smashed chicken and
diced noodles. Since she had started on solids, Alfred had refused to let her be
dependent on baby food and insisted on making her meals specifically. Even
though he toned done some of his more extravagant culinary works, Mattie had yet
to refuse any of his dishes.

Taking my seat, I smirked at Selina who simply tapped her watch and shook her
head. Before I could defend myself, chatter began as the music of dishware. As
always, I went about feeding Mattie before taking my own meal. She was still
getting the idea of hand feeding herself and thought that her tiny blue plastic
spoon worked better as an musical instrument. I found myself intently focused on
her, blocking out the words of others and the looks they briefly sent towards
me. It was one of the few moments of my day where there was nothing else in the
world but my daughter.

Selina offered, "Bruce, I'll help her finish."

I shook my head, "No, she's okay," I leaned towards Mattie and offered her a bit
of my garlic bread and she thanked me by planting her marinara sauce covered
hand on my nose.

Selina smiled and reached over with her napkin to wipe Mattie's hands while I
cleaned off my nose. I stopped when I heard Dick and Tim snorting quietly.

I glanced over at them, "Laugh it up, boys."

"Sorry…" Dick wiped his own mouth, "It's just… you missed a spot."

Selina saved me, reaching over and wiping the last dollop off of my face. I let
Mattie play with what was left, watching her out of the corner of my eye as she
fed herself small pieces. She often mimicked what she saw and heard, especially
during large dinners. If no one acknowledged her, Mattie would ramble louder,
sometimes banging on the tray of her high chair or throwing her sippie cup.

I assumed it was her busy day out on the town that had left her fairly quiet,
leaving her content enough to listen as Dick quizzed Tim on calculus. Having
worked diligently over the summer to get a head start on his studies, Tim rolled
his eyes and stuffed his face to avoid answering. Although he had one last year
in high school, he had convinced his father to let him leave Brentwood Academy
in order to graduate from Bristol's Washington High School. And, it provided him
ample time to tour the streets of Gotham.

It had been difficult for him especially, seeing me recover from my injuries
dealt by Pasqualle. He had been there, along with Alfred, when I had fallen to
Bane a few years earlier, something neither of them should have had to endure
again. If anything, it had been worse, having lost the use of my mind instead of
my body. Since I had recovered, he had been bathed in relief, but there was
still a fraction of him that was different.

Something that I knew would never be the same.

Towards the end of dinner, I zoned out again, watching on as Selina removed
Mattie from her chair and held her on her lap. Now sitting in proximity of the
table, Mattie's fingers grasped the linen before moving onto more interesting
objects, such as a piece of garlic bread. She mouthed it for a moment before
mock feeding her mother. Selina realized I was watching her and smiled at me,
directing Mattie's gaze over as well.

I would never dream of hurting her. Nor my daughter. Our daughter.

And yet in two hours I was returning to the lifestyle that had nearly killed me
so many times, not just when Pasqualle shot me. With the plague, Ra's, Bane, the
Joker and my erratic mistakes as a youth…

How many nights had I spent with Alfred dragging my stumbling body to the
medical bay?

Too many.

I had learned at a young age that the it wasn't about the well being of your
life, but preserving that of others. My father had taught me such strong morals
not only in the words he had read to me, but when he sacrificed his personal
life to save those that were hurt and dying. My final lesson had been when he
stepped in front of me in that a alleyway and sacrificed his life for mine.

I had spent my life dedicating myself to that idea, that I was supposed to
protect the innocent, no matter what the cost.

My face must have grown somber with my thoughts for Selina reached out and
touched my arm. Her face was faintly expressive with her underlying concern,
"Bruce?"

I smiled and took her hand into mine, "I'm fine."

And I was.

^V^

Although a quiet smile had found its way to my lips as I tended to the kitchen,
I still found myself battling dread.

The night before, Master Bruce and I had shared a lengthy conversation in the
study. He had just returned from a brief, inactive tour of the city, making his
way back to the Manor a little before one in the morning. Throughout his
recovery, I had made time to at least once a week allow him to vent and get any
concerns off of his burdened shoulders. Since the end of May, it had seemed that
every other night I found him thinking aloud to me, looking for guidance and
reassurance.

Something he had only looked for at the beginning of his career as a vigilante.

In a way, it was if he was starting anew. Taking the cowl after Jean Paul had
bastardized it several years ago, Master Bruce had in all senses been the same
as when he had last worn it. Perhaps a bit more cautious and slightly more
hesitant, but that all had faded with time. The changes in his mind that had
taken place in his sabbatical were far more definitive and far more troublesome.

It had been fairly expected considering his life's dependency on the cowl, but
his decision to return seemed to have come so quickly. Three months since he
regained his memories and he was prepared to take on the night once more. To my
surprise, upon delivering the news to me, he had continued, thoroughly
explaining his concerns for Ms. Kyle and his daughter.

In his past years as the caped crusader, he had only himself to worry for and
those of his allies. He had never had to worry about those waiting for him at
home. He had never anticipated risking his life each night while having a woman
to share his life with in addition to a child to raise. Master Bruce had also
admitted that he feared what it would do to the relationships he had developed
over the last year with his protégés.

Master Bruce had come to the realization that people actually cared for him,
that he was indeed loved by others and loved them in return.

Over the last three months, we had a number of discussions about the three lives
he lead as opposed to the two he had juggled before being shot. At first, he had
been worried for how it would affect his life as the Batman but I was quick to
point him in the right direction.

"Master Bruce," I had offered several weeks earlier, "If I may be so bold to
suggest that perhaps the lives of Bruce Wayne the billionaire may converge with
that of Bruce Wayne the family man, thus eliminating the need for … the fop, so
to speak."

Incidentally, it had been wise advice, as he had proceed to mature his public
image, subtracting all of the erratic behaviors that had marred his name and
replaced them with outings with his new family. He had made an announcement
about his engagement to Ms. Selina and she was always at his side for events. He
had been worried at first about ruining his efforts to distance Bruce Wayne from
being Batman, but he was quick to see that the focus of family had been more
than enough to keep his identity safe.

If only he had realized it years ago…

"Hey, Al, you in here?" Master Dick's voice broke my reverie.

"But of course, sir." I turned briefly to see him entering the kitchen, carrying
the last of the dishes from the dining room. I had always tried to maintain an
established lineation between myself and my charges, a line Master Dick sought
to cross on a daily basis.

"This is the last of it… except Mattie's spoon. I tried to take it away from her
but she screamed at me."

"She is certainly set in her ways," I smirked as I took the dishes from him.

"Just like Momma… and Poppa…" he sighed as he leaned against the counter. After
a moment, I handed him a clean colander and he promptly dried it with the had
towel sitting behind him.

Four dessert plates later, he asked, "Did Bruce tell you? About tonight?"

I nodded slowly, "Yes, we spoke last evening."

Two coffee cups and saucers, then, "You think he's ready, Alfred?"

I cleared my throat before replying, "I do believe it has been you that has been
there for his conditioning…"

"I know. And he is, I mean… He's in perfect physical condition, his reaction
times are still better than mine… But I don't know if… I'm sorry, it just feels
like it's too soon."

When I looked up from the sink, I nearly smirked to see he was spinning a saucer
on his pinkie, but the frown on his face stopped me. He paused, grabbed the
plate and promptly set it down. Offering him the empty carafe, I said, "Master
Dick, you have every right to be concerned… the last time he wore that mask, we
nearly lost him, and letting him put the cowl back on, we risk losing him once
again."

Master Dick bit his lower lip as he set the carafe on the countertop, "But it's
the same risk that was there before. Every night we set foot out there, there
was always a chance we weren't going to come back home."

"But the risk is different now. You are closer to him than you have ever been,
sir. There is more to lose."

After a moment he turned to leave, pausing when I said, "If it is any comfort,
Master Dick, you must remember that it is not that he's lost any of his
abilities… but more that you have gained them."

Finally, a real smile graced his lips, "Thanks, Al."

Knowing that he would be joining Master Bruce and Tim along with Miss Cassandra
in the Cave, I sought out the remaining individuals in the Manor. Ms. Selina had
taken young Miss Mattie into the den, long since baby proofed and safe for the
young child to crawl about. I found that Miss Mattie had taken to laying on the
floor with a stuffed tiger while her mother had opted to sit nearby on the
couch.

She glanced up as I entered the room, "And then there were two."

"Two and a half," I smirked while nodding towards Miss Mattie.

Where Master Bruce and his protégés were wary of his return to the mantle, their
concerns were focused on whether or not he was up to the challenge after so much
time away. Ms. Selina was upset, but for entirely different and certainly
justifiable reasons. Although she had given up her criminal ways before Master
Bruce had been shot by Henri Pasqualle, she had still lived an active night
life, acting as her own brand of vigilante in the East End. Upon learning of her
beau's fate and of her own pregnancy, she had hung up her cowl and claws for the
time being, willing to set it aside for the sake of family.

And rather than match her efforts, Master Bruce had not showed the slightest
hesitation in preparing to don his once more.

Having grown considerably closer to her in the last two years , I had learned to
read her fairly well. Seeing her seated on the couch, legs tucked up underneath
her as she stared sadly down at her daughter suggested she was troubled, worried
to be exact.

"May I join you?"

She forced a warm smile to her lips, "Of course."

Taking a seat in an adjacent chair, Miss Mattie spotted me and promptly crawled
over, setting her tiny, pudgy hand on my shoe before continuing onward.

I had been about to make a remark on her daughter in hopes to distract her, but
Ms. Selina spoke, "Well, I hope you're ready for a late night, Alfred."

"I beg your pardon, madam?"

Ms. Selina sat back into the couch with a heavy sigh, "Bruce is diving head
first into it tonight… Figured he'll come home needing a few dozen stitches."

"He does have an… off way of celebrating."

She smirked at that before asking, "How did you did you do it, Alfred? All those
years of waiting for him to come home."

I had never been asked that particular question before; therefore there was no
answer in preparation for it. "My dear," I said softly, "At first it was
unbearable, especially when he came home each evening brandished with some new
wound. But over time, the worry lessened as he grew more confident in his ways.
However, I did read many books waiting for him."

"You read to occupy the time?"

"Indeed, madam. At first, I read in the Cave and awaited his return. Then, I
read in the study outside of the entrance. Eventually, I found myself reading in
my bed."

"But didn't you want to know when he got home?"

I smiled, "Well, after several years, he installed a tone to sound when he
returned although I never really paid it any attention, unless it was set to
indicate an alert. Long before that, I always knew when he arrived as I would
listen to four distinct sounds in a certain order each night to be sure all was
well."

Just like Master Dick had moments earlier, she seemed to genuinely smile.

"First, there would be sounds in the kitchen and since Master Bruce is weak in
the stealth department at four in the morning, they were usually rather clear to
detect. Next would be his footsteps on the stairs. Every third one or so creaks.
Then would be him clearing his throat, which for some reason he tends to do at
the top of the stairs, where he is equidistant from both his room and mine."

Ms. Kyle inquired, "And the last one?"

"Either the sound of his wretched snoring or the water running from his bathroom
pipes."

She laughed softly and replied, "Well, I'll have to try that."

Having appeased as many members of the Family as I could, I regrettably found my
own fears were still running strong, knowing that even with his experience,
Master Bruce's hiatus would surely affect his abilities.

Ms. Selina had been correct, he would no doubt require some level of medical
attention upon his return in the late hours of the night. However, they would be
injuries as a result of carelessness, but of a twisted ritual he often noted to
be a baptism of sorts. It renewed his energy, thriving on pain as he carried out
his work. Many a time I had stitched his flesh together as he retold tales of
triumph over hordes of evildoers. I made it a point not to use anesthetics when
he was proud about his injuries.

Ms. Selina's eyes had suddenly flashed to the massive bay windows and my gaze
ascended to the night sky as well, where the Signal shone brightly.

Evildoers beware, the Dark Knight hath returned.

^V^