Title: One And Only: I
Author: D C Luder
Summary: Third in the (what is now, I guess) the Time Will Tell Series. Set four years after the conclusion of Life Is Good. The Family moves on and... apart?
Rating: PG 13
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: It is highly advisable that you read Time Will Tell and Life Is Good or you may be a tad bit lost. I am writing this due to the numerous requests for a sequel. That and I am absolutely obsessed with the concept of the Bat and Cat living happily ever after.
A/N 2: References made to Robin: Year One
"Moving on, is a simple thing, what it leaves behind is hard."
The door creaked quietly as it opened.
Despite the fact that my watch was in a ceramic dish on the dresser across the room and that the nightstand's clock was out of my sight, I knew it had to be at least quarter after six. Only one hour and forty minutes after falling asleep. I felt Selina shift under the covers beside me, her left hand moved off of my side as shaped fingernails gently scratched my bare skin. As if mimicking her owner, I felt Isis' claws knead the flesh of my lower leg.
After she sighed, I heard my wife whisper, "Shh, Daddy's still sleeping."
I kept my eyes closed and listened to quiet footsteps on the floor. Small feet with silver painted toenails buried within cotton slippers. I heard a quiet giggle and then felt as two tiny hands pushed down on the mattress as a pair of knees crawled up to join them. The left knee, as of yesterday, had a pink adhesive bandage on it in light of a bicycle mishap. Selina sat up in the bed and lifted the covers as our visitor slipped in between us.
"When did you wake up?" Selina asked.
"Six-oh-five," Mattie replied. I heard her snicker as one of her fingers traced a circle on my shoulder. Her mother told her to stop and she did with an exaggerated sigh. "When can I wake him up?"
"Later. He needs to sleep. You need to sleep. You've got a big day ahead of you."
"Yeah," Mattie resumed touching my shoulder. Through the material of the blanket, the pressure was almost nonexistent.
"Are you excited?"
I didn't hear a reply, but I knew Mattie was. For the last month, she had been fascinated with the fact that she was going to kindergarten. As much as I had debated, lectured, yelled and even pleaded, Selina remained completely anti-private all-girls school. However, since it was she who was going to school, we let Mattie "decide". The majority of the friends that she had met from playgroups and summer soccer were enrolled at the Bristol Elementary School. Two votes public, one vote private. When I cornered Alfred he shook his head and scurried off mumbling about dusting the displays in the armor room.
As part of an introduction program, the school had put on an open house a few days earlier. Picnic out on the football field with two dozen five-year-old's and their parents. As if it wasn't hard enough to accept the fact that my child was attending school, I had to commemorate it with the bumbling parents of tiny tyrants with dry hamburgers and noodle salad.
Selina had reminded me on several occasions that it was going to be all right and that Mattie would still love us even though the school had a new playground. I had once asked if I should have a playground installed on the rear yard and Selina had laughed before slapping my cheek gently, "Grow up."
"What time is it?" I heard Mattie ask.
My daughter paused and then spoke softly, "Can I?"
"Be nice about it," Selina replied as she slipped out of bed.
The tiny finger that had been doodling on my back began to poke. When I didn't respond, she whispered in my ear, "Daddy, wake up." Then harder poking. On most mornings, she would wake me around seven or so, and no matter how late I had gotten to bed, I would get up and have breakfast with her and Selina. But after a less than desirable amount of sleep, doing anything related to being awake seemed unjust.
Finally, I grumbled quietly and she took that as an invitation to jump on me, "Time to get out of bed, sleepy head!"
After letting out a breath, I rolled over on my back, allowing her to sit on my chest. She bounced a bit and then leaned forward to kiss my nose. Black curls tickled my face before I could say, "Good morning."
Before my mind could register the fact that she had wrapped her slender arms around my neck, Mattie had jumped off of the bed and dashed out of the room. After sitting up and clearing my throat, I called out after her, "No running." Mattie's padded footfalls slowed and then faded as she reached her room.
As I carefully swung my legs over the edge of the bed, Selina emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in my blue robe. Instead of commenting on it, I threw her a look and then went about rising to my feet.
There were two quiet pops as my knees fully extended and not even a second later, a flare of pain registered in the back of my mind. I had overdone it the night before, touring most of the city on foot by myself. Of which had been practically unnecessary in light of the quiet nights the city had been offering over the last few months. Even still, I had been restless and the rooftops kept me company.
I felt her eyes on me and gave one last stretch before walking over to her.
He looked exhausted. Another late night. He kept saying that he was overloaded with work but on a hunch, I had called Barbara and she had informed me that the city had been relatively quiet of late. Meaning that whatever thugs Batman had come across, suffered his frustration via broken wrists and abdominal contusions. Natural Bruce, when one life is stressful, relieve said stress through the other life.
I smiled at him as he stood, stretched his legs and then approached me. He touched the sleeve of the robe I wore, "This yours?"
"Nope, I stole it," I grinned.
"Mrrow," I mumbled before wrapping my arms around his waist. I was about to kiss him when I heard a voice clear near the doorway.
We both looked to see Alfred, trying his best to hide his embarrassment by studying the ceiling. "Breakfast will be served in fifteen minutes," he spoke, glancing at us briefly. Despite the years that had passed since I had entered Wayne Manor for good, he still hadn't completely adjusted to my presence. I couldn't blame him, for decades it had been just him and Bruce. Add a woman, a child and a neurotic cat and he was bound to be twittered.
Before either of us could comment or thank him, Alfred turned on his heel and made his way down the hall. I had still been looking at the door when Bruce leaned forward and kissed my cheek. Stubble scratched my chin and I pushed him away slightly, "Better get ready. Don't want to be late for the first day of school."
Unbelievably, he rolled his eyes and stepped away towards the bathroom. Within seconds, the shower was running.
I sighed and followed the call towards my daughter's room. She was on her hands and knees, with her head buried beneath her bed. "What are you doing?"
"I can't find my sneakers."
I picked up a small pillow that was on the floor and set it on the chest at the end of her bed. "They were downstairs last night, outside the door." As she continued her fruitless search for her missing foot apparel, I noticed she had yet to change into her clothes for the day. We had picked out the outfit a week earlier, made any necessary revisions and had finally decided on the perfect first day of school ensemble. Although Mattie had wanted to wear a dress, Bruce had insisted on some sort of pants. She had demanded, with the cutest pout ever, why she couldn't wear a dress.
And it was worth every jewel in the world to see him try to explain to her that little boys liked to look up the skirts and dresses that little girls wore.
Since the forecast was hot and muggy, she had picked out a pair of khaki Capri pants with a purple sleeveless button up top that tied in the front. I refolded the garments and set them on the bed as she stood, the corner of her mouth twisted. I smiled, "Hey, those waffles aren't going to eat themselves, you better get ready." She suddenly beamed with a smile and reached for the clothes. As she pulled off her socks, I asked, "Do you want me to put your hair up?"
As she shook her head, curls bobbing, she said, "No. I like it down."
"Well you get dressed, I'll get your sneakers, okay?"
"Kay," she said in reply.
Leaving her to her own devices, I returned to the bedroom to get dressed myself. Bruce, who must have showered and shaved in record time, was already at the dresser pulling on a pair of dark slacks. He then went about donning a slate blue long-sleeved shirt and tucked it in before cinching his leather belt. Before I could announce my return and update him on how Mattie was coming along, he asked, "Have you seen my shoes?"
I glanced at the closet, where eight pairs of dress shoes rested in a neat rack. He followed my gaze, "No, I bought a new pair yesterday. Wanted to break them in."
I sighed and walked over to him. "They are just shoes, my dear, I'm sure you can survive if you wear a different pair," I said while I straightened his collar. Smiling, I thought how much Mattie was her father's daughter.
He scanned the room briefly, not as determined as Mattie had been, and then selected a pair from the closet and quickly donned them. I knew he was nervous about sending her off to school and I knew there was nothing I could do to relieve it. He would never admit to it, but he was most definitely not ready for his little kitten to leave the nest. Over the last few weeks he had questioned why I wasn't as worried as he had been. The only comfort I could offer him was that I was concerned, but happy that she was going to move on. What I didn't tell him was that I was reasonable enough to know that this was kindergarten, not Harvard.
With husband and child dressed and headed downstairs, I was able to wash up and change, in peace, into a knee length black skirt and silk sleeveless blouse. After finding my shoes and putting on a gold bracelet, I went to join them for breakfast. Alfred and Mattie had several discussions on what would be her first day of school breakfast. Unlike her outfit, this important decision had been made once and had no alterations made.
Upon entering the kitchen nook, I smiled to see Mattie already eyeing a plate of blueberry waffles, stacked as a high as the Gotham County phone book. Bruce had went about making himself look preoccupied as he sipped scalding coffee, scanned the newspaper and checked his watch every minute or so. He sat to the left of his daughter, so I chose the empty chair to her right. After moving onto the society pages, Bruce looked up and offered a quick half-smile.
Thirty seconds after I had taken a seat, Alfred appeared with a glass mug of hot tea. For New Year's, I had given up coffee, and after nine months, I had only diverged a handful of times. I thanked him as he left the room as quickly as he had entered. I knew he would be busying himself instead of joining us for breakfast. After all, the child needed a lunch to take with her.
I sliced up two waffles and set them on Mattie's plate and let her pour the syrup. She proceeded to eat the small pieces as quickly as possible without drawing attention to get herself in trouble. Alfred had been fighting an uphill battle of teaching her proper etiquette while Dick and Tim proceeded to "corrupt the poor child." I offered Bruce some but he muttered, "I have coffee."
Before I could comment, Mattie spoke through a mouthful of waffle, "That's not breakfast, that's a drink."
I smiled warmly and nodded in agreement while looking at the surprised look that was plastered over Bruce's face. His lips were pressed together and he had dropped the paper on the table before looking at his child. She had returned to her meal without a second thought. I could tell he was about to say something, so I cut in, "Mattie, don't talk with food in your mouth."
She paused, swallowed and then said, "Sorry, Mom."
After three minutes of silence, Bruce took a waffle and put it on his plate.
Once I had finished my breakfast, I left for the kitchen with my empty dishes. Alfred stood at the counter and was deftly wrapping a sandwich with wax paper. When he looked up at me, I smiled warmly and approached his left side. With a quick glance, I recognized the contents of Mattie's lunch: plastic applesauce cup with re-sealable lid, roast beef sandwich, plastic thermos with one-hundred percent apple juice, two wrapped oatmeal cookies and a yogurt cup, also in a plastic re-sealable container. I was about to ask if he was planning on any fresh fruit when he reached over towards a ceramic bowl near the sink and selected a ripe plum.
Since he was busy, I decided to tend to my own duties. After rinsing out my breakfast dishes, I walked over to the side entrance that lead into the rear of the kitchen and opened the door just enough to grab Mattie's sneakers. Before returning to the nook, I moved towards one of the rear cupboards, retrieved a small bag of cat food, measured out a cup and then proceeded to evenly distribute the food in two fish shaped ceramic bowls that were set on a small plastic mat near a glass water bowl. As the pieces of kibble chimed, I made soft kissing noises and within seconds, I heard the music of paws on tile.
As Alfred proceeded to pack the contents in Mattie's purple lunch bag, I spotted Isis' sleek black form trot towards me, with the striped calico body of Taffy not far behind. As the two wrapped themselves around my ankles before moving on to their breakfast, I mused on how even though Bruce had never been an animal lover, when his daughter had asked for another cat for her birthday, he was the first to step up and search for cat breeders. With hardly any trouble, I encouraged Mattie to ask for a cat from an animal shelter or as she had told him a "kitty without a home".
Taffy had been the third cat we had looked at while visiting the Gotham County SPCA. She had light green eyes and a striped calico coat that reminded me of a harlequin. Bruce must have been on the same mind set for while Mattie played with her new cat, he had said, "She name's it Harley and it will live out side."
"We're going to be late," I moaned.
I sat on the top step outside of the front door. Just as I had been for twenty minutes. I had my backpack, my inhaler, my lunch, my snack, clean socks, and that little bottle of hand cleaner gel stuff. I seemed to be the only one ready to go. Dad was checking the car, again, making sure it had gas and windshield stuff in it. He had already done everything anyone could possibly do to the car the night before. Even filled the tires with air. I had asked if he could do my bicycle tires and he said, "Maybe later."
But he hadn't.
Mom, who was sitting next to me on the step, reached over and touched my knee, "No, we won't be late. Besides, they can't start without you."
"I hope not," I sighed before looking at my lunch bag. It was a new one, with an icepack in the bottom and was shiny on the inside so my applesauce and juice would stay nice and cold. My friend Ashley had the same one, but hers was pink and mine was purple.
Dad finally shut the hood and stopped in front of me, "You have your lunch?" I nodded and he continued, "Your inhaler? Clean socks? Sunscreen? The cell phone?"
"Daddy," I whined as best as I could. Sometimes it worked with him, but somehow I didn't think today would be my lucky day.
Before he could repeat his questions, Mom stood and said, "She is ready, my dear. Are you?"
He looked at her with the same face he gave me when I used his ties as scarves for my dolls. He then sighed and went to his side of the car and got in. Finally. As Mom got in the passenger side, I climbed up into the back seat and buckled in. Setting my bag on the floor, I sat up straight and smiled as brightly as I could. Dad always looked back at me with the mirror whenever we rode in the car. I looked at his reflection and noticed he still had a worried look on his face. So I stuck my tongue out and crossed my eyes.
He almost smiled.
Mom said suddenly, "Mattie."
"Sorry," I mumbled as Dad's smile grew. After a quiet giggle, I sat back and looked out the window. A second later, the car moved and I watched as we passed our house and moved down the drive. I was hardly scared about going to school, but I was kind of sad for being away from home all day. I would miss Alfred and Mom and Dad. But then again, I would be with all of my friends and Ms. Tyner and we would have an hour of recess on the playground.
As I was looking out the window, I saw a hawk over the treetops. There were a few hawks at home and when Dad took me for walks he would point them out and put me on his shoulders so I could see better. I was about to say something about it when Mom asked, "So, you start soccer this week, right?"
I nodded, "Yep," I thought back to the horse calendar in my room, "Five on Friday."
Dad said something quietly and Mom shook her head, "And you have a riding lesson on Wednesday, but we'll have to change that because that's when your games will be when they start."
"When do we find out when the first one is?" Dad asked. He liked to know when everything was happening and where. He worked a lot so I guess it helped to know when he had to take time off. Mom shrugged and I did the same.
Everyone stopped talking for a while. With the radio off, it didn't take long for me to get bored. I tapped the back of Mom's seat a few times with my foot, just soft enough so that she wouldn't feel it. When I stopped, I asked, "Was Dick coming to dinner tonight?"
Mom nodded, "Yep, and Leslie too."
"What about Barbara?" I asked.
They both paused and Dad said, "No, she's coming up later this week sometime, her father too."
I smiled at that. I loved Barbara. She helped me learn how to play games on Dad's computer. I was supposed to call her Aunt Barbara, but she said I didn't have to if I didn't want to. Her dad was fun too, I called him Uncle Jim. He had a big moustache, bigger than Alfred's.
Thinking of Alfred made my smile grow bigger. Last night, he had come in just after Mom had tucked me in. Dad was working late and Alfred came and told me he would come see me good night when he got home if it wasn't too late. I had been upset, but Alfred read me a chapter more than what Mom had and then made sure I had fresh water and a curly straw. Dad never came in, so it must have been real late when he had gotten back. But when I woke up, first thing, I ran in to wake him. It was a little earlier than normal, but I couldn't wait to see him.
The car slowed suddenly and I recognized the wide front lawn of the school. There was a row of yellow school buses and an even longer row of cars. Dad pulled into the visitor's parking lot and parked next to a blue van. After he pulled the key out and unbuckled he turned around and smiled at me, "Ready, kitten?"
I nodded and quickly unbuckled and grabbed my belongings. After I opened the door and hopped out, Mom got out as well and offered to hold my backpack. I shook my head and said, "No, I got it, Mom."
She made a noise and when I looked up at her, her smile seemed fake. I gave her one of mine and that seemed to please her.
As we met in front of the car, Dad took my free hand and led the way towards the front entrance of the school. I didn't see anyone I recognized yet, but I knew they would be there. About fifteen feet from the doors, Dad stopped and knelt in front of me. He looked upset, sort of, like he was confused and sad all at once. I looked over his shoulder and I saw my friend Katrina waving next to the door. I was about to wave when Dad reached over and touched my hand, "I want you to be very careful today. And on you best behavior. If anything happens, you know how to get a hold of me, your mother or even the house. If you need anything, call. If you want to come home early-."
Mom cleared her throat and he looked up at her. His face changed, brightening slightly, before he continued, "But have fun, okay. Enjoy that new... play ground."
"I will." Before he could get up, I leaned over and wrapped my arms around his neck, and said in his ear, "It's okay, Dad. I'll be okay."
He nodded and kissed my cheek before I let go. While he stood, I turned and hugged Mom as she said, "Have fun with the girls. Remember to ask about Ellen's birthday party, see if it's still on the eighteenth."
Dad had stepped to Mom's side and eyed the play ground carefully. He told me to stay out of the sand, not to run on the wooden planks or to go on the high monkey bars. Mom said to do whatever had the shortest line of people and Dick taught me how to twist the chains of the swings so that you spun really fast.
"We'll be here when you get out at two-thirty," he said.
I suddenly wondered if they were going to leave at all, or if they were going to stand on the sidewalk until school let out.
Before I could ask, the warning bell rang suddenly and Dad nodded once more and said, "Bye kitten."
"Bye Dad, bye Mom!" I waved hard and then trotted over to Katrina, who had been waiting for me. We hugged quickly and then went through the open doors. When I was about halfway through, I leaned back and saw they were still standing there, looking sad. I blew them a kiss and giggled when Dad pretended to catch it.
"No, no, no, no..." I grumbled as I glanced over the hanging erase board that charted out scheduled shifts. It had been my first chance that day to check it, seeing how I had spent most of the morning on the phone with the Assistant DA's secretary's replacement.
Next to "DII Grayson", six shifts were marked, and for Monday the fifth, instead of the eight hours I had signed on for, I was scheduled for twelve. After mumbling obscenities at the erase board, I strode down the hall to a half door that kept the rest of the precinct out of Scheduling. I rang a small buzzer and was greeted twenty-nine seconds later by a squat hairy officer named Burt Cleveland. When he recognized the scowl on my face he smirked and asked "What can I do for you, Richard the Brave?"
"You can start by telling me how my shift grew by four hours."
He took a seat on a near ancient stool and retrieved a day old newspaper. After he had opened up to the Sports section, he shrugged, "Grayson, what can I say? Your rookie is on temporary leave, you get to help pitch in to cover his hours."
Having partially known that had been the cause, I sighed heavily before turning away and walking towards the stairwell door. As I took the steps two at a time to the fifth floor, I cursed Officer Trey Richardson. He had been my "officer with aspirations for Detective placement" for less than a month and already he had used up all of my patience. Having hardly any desire to do anything, he was a piss poor student and an even lesser human being. When I had asked him why he wanted to be a cop, his reply had been that he figured girls would have all the more reason to want him.
And the city issued this moron a weapon.
After seating myself behind my desk, I engaged in a staring contest with the phone. I had distinctly asked for the reduced shift so that I could head to Gotham for dinner. Any other night it wouldn't have been that big of a deal, but this time, it was to celebrate Mattie's first day of school. And now her big brother would be in his uncomfortable desk chair instead of at the dinner table.
With one final breath, I picked up the receiver and dialed seven familiar digits. After two rings, Alfred's voice answered, "Wayne Manor."
"Good morning, Al, I take it they've left for school already?"
"Ah, a grand deduction, sir, seeing how it is now a quarter after eleven."
"I wasn't raised a dummy," I paused and let out a sigh before continuing, "Listen, Alfred, I need you to tell Bruce I can't make dinner tonight, my shift was changed over the weekend and I'll be working until ten."
I could almost imagine the look that was coming over his face. He replied, "That is quite tragic, Master Dick. However, I feel that such information should be delivered directly to him from you."
"Richard, it is not proper to complain."
"Sorry," I mumbled in defeat, "Fine, I'll call him on the cell."
"What a splendid idea."
After hanging up, I dialed Bruce's cell and was surprised to hear Selina, "Yessum?"
I cleared my throat, "Hey, how did the munchkin do this morning?"
She laughed quietly, "She was great. She was worried about being late because you-know-who was being anal about everything. But once we got there she couldn't wait to get over to her friends. I practically had to drag him back to the car. He's called about six times, seeing if she wants to come home or if she's in the nurse's office."
As a smile formed on my lips I said, "That's pretty much how I pictured it. I remember my first day at Bristol Middle School. I wasn't even out of the car and Bruce was commenting on the athletics program and I was already eyeing skirts." I heard the clinking of silverware in the background as silence fell between us. "Lunch on the town?"
"Yeah, I even made him drive all the way to Midtown. He's been staring at his water glass for thirteen minutes. Here, I'll hand you over to him."
There was a rustle and then I heard their muffled conversation. He asked who it was and she replied, "He hails from the Haven."
"Dick," he spoke. I already knew this was going to be ugly, for his voice had that dark overcast that often arose whenever he was in a bad mood.
"Hey. Heard everything went smoothly today."
"Yes. I suppose it did."
More dish and utensil music.
"Anyway, the reason I called was that my shift was rescheduled."
"Meaning?" he inquired, his voice growing quiet.
"Meaning... that I won't be able to make dinner..."
"Can't you get it off?"
Typical CEO thinking, I thought to myself, Sure Bruce, lemme just walk right out the front door any time I want like you do at good old WE...
"No, I can't. We're understaffed as it is. You know how it goes."
He didn't speak for a full minute. I wondered if he had hung up on me and was about to let loose the air I had been holding in my chest when he said, "Fine. Whatever."
"You're not mad?"
"I'm not. It's Mattie's dinner, not mine."
And with that he did hang up.
"Almost done," I said to the small child sitting on the exam table. Her mother, a part-time waitress and full-time recovering heroin addict, stood on the other side of the table, rubbing her young daughter's back as I inserted the needle into a thin upper arm.
The child paused and then squealed in over-dramatized pain as I injected the tetanus toxoid into her blood. I deftly removed it and pressed a small wad of gauze over the tiny hole in her arm. After quickly offering a sugar free lollipop and rainbow sticker, the tears ceased and a fraction of a smile appeared.
After helping her off the exam table, she bounded towards the door, her brown pigtails bobbing in tune with the hem of her denim skirt. I then turned to the mother, who had been a patient of mine for over a decade, "Alexis will be fine, the cut was fairly small and the tetanus is just a booster. The stitches can be taken out in two weeks, just come back then and we'll see her quick."
The frail woman nodded and then strode after her daughter who had begun to wander the corridor. At the door, she half-turned and offered a tired smile, "Thank you, Leslie."
After cleaning off the counter and the exam table, I washed my hands and smoothed out my white coat. When I passed through the door, I shut the lights off and headed towards my office. It was finally one-thirty and time for a fifteen-minute lunch break. Time for a few blissful moments of peace and quiet.
When I opened my door and saw him wiping off my computer screen, I grinned thinking at least I would still get peace and quiet, even if it wasn't by myself.
"Alfred Pennyworth, what are you doing?"
He about faced and hid the handkerchief he had been using behind his back, "Dr. Thompkins, I was simply-."
"Submitting to your bad habits, yes, I saw that. To what do I owe the honor?" I asked after closing the door and walking towards him.
"Well, as I recall, it was you who invited me."
When I caught on, I smiled, "Ah, how the aged mind forgets. Is it Monday already?"
"It is indeed."
As he neatly folded the scrap of cloth and replaced it in his pants pocket, I eyed the brown paper bag on my desk and finally became aware of the wafting odors. Fresh honey glazed wheat bread, crisp vegetables and smoky honey ham. Without warning, I wrapped my arms around him and grinned into his neck, "What a sweetheart."
"Quite," he replied.
Eight minutes later, we were seated on a recently painted bench under the towering oak trees of Hayden Park. Every Monday for the last two years we had shared lunch there in addition to splendid conversations. He shared his worries about the Wayne family and I found ways to comfort such troubles. However, for the last four weeks, our topic had been directly focused on the problems that had risen between Dick and Barbara.
Dick had fallen under an enormous amount of stress in his work at the Department, not to mention from his nighttime career as a vigilante. Barbara, who had always desired a serious relationship with her beau, had grown to miss the times when Dick had commuted regularly between Gotham City and Bludhaven. Small fights began to surface as the young lovers quarreled ever so often.
Then small love tiffs climaxed to an all out war.
When she had asked as to what his intentions were for their future, he had blown up at her, demanding that he had was doing his best to work on his future. She had countered with her concern as to if she was a part of his so-called future. And it had all gone down hill from there.
Having watched them both grow from awkward children to less awkward adults, it was difficult for Alfred and I to see them in such fowl moods. Alfred had assigned himself the task to try and cool down Dick while I had also taken up the responsibility of keeping track of Barbara. But no matter how much we aided or pried into, both gave a similar and frightening answer.
They were over.
And since then, neither had spoke to one another or had even spoke of one another. Nightwing had not been in Gotham in nearly a month and Dick Grayson only visited under strict schedules so that he would in no form come into contact with his once true love. With their childish behavior, they had unintentionally disrupted the circle of life in Gotham. If Batman needed assistance from his protégé it was his sole responsibility to seek it out. Family dinners were never complete, for one or the other would not be present. All in all, their earthquake was sending out aftershocks, one right after the other.
"He called this morning, said he would not be able to attend dinner."
"Oh, really?" I asked before taking a sip of iced tea.
"Yes, some sort of unexpected scheduling conflict. Upon inviting him, I had listed the guests specifically so to not ward him off."
"Right, because Jim and Barbara were coming up another time."
He nodded his head and studied a pigeon as it waddled by, "Well, now I suppose they could come up tonight, seeing how Master Dick is no longer going to be in attendance."
"Awful short notice, how unlike you," I winked at him.
"A rebel to the last, Leslie."
I laughed hard and gazed over at him. Our relationship had always been solid, running nearly thirty years. We had never seriously considered marriage and I doubted that we ever would. Besides, it was much more interesting to toy with the hearts of others so to set them up for their own matrimonial bliss.
After we had eaten, chatted on how Mattie was growing, it finally came down to the one topic we had only brushed on three times in nearly two months. I ruined our sunny September lunch by asking, "How is he doing?"
Alfred sighed and looked away from me for a moment. When his gaze met mine, I saw the concern he felt for his "son", "Well. I've spoken with her, to in turn speak with him. As far as I know, she has yet to discuss the topic with him."
I nodded, my mind involuntarily reflecting back on this summer's radiographs that I had taken of Bruce's legs. He had fallen a good distance after being literally blown out of a bomb-rigged building and we both had feared a fracture. Luckily, it was nothing more severe than a hairline at the base of the femur. But the x-rays had also revealed troubling news that I had not expected. Or at least what I didn't want to expect.
News in the form of chipped cartilage in the knee joint capsules, a significant indicator of osteoarthritis.
"Well, you see him every morning, how is he moving, at least."
He shook his head, "He hides it well, but the stiffness is still evident."
"He'll never do anything about it. Until it's too late."
He drew a breath and then stood offering a hand to me. I took it and then proceeded to wrap my arm around his back. As we made our way to the exit, Alfred spoke, "Perhaps he thinks that it is already too late."
"He does have that pessimistic way about him doesn't he?"
"That he does, madam."
"Perhaps Mr. Drake could enlighten us?"
I sat up suddenly and looked up to see all fifty-eight students and the professor staring at me. As I ran my fingers through my hair, I mumbled to myself, "Way to fall asleep, Tim."
After glancing over the lecture notes on the chalkboard, I guessed, "Um, Backward Integration is more like an approach for growth where a company seeks control over its suppliers. And Backward Invention would be like a product strategy in worldwide marketing, where the uh, company produces a less intricate version of its domestic product for developing countries."
I must have been somewhat close to the discussion at hand, because the professor's pale face flushed red with anger. In the last two weeks of classes, I had already made it to the top of "students who annoy me" list. Fortunately, my grades had yet to suffer, but if I kept embarrassing him while he tried to embarrass me, I was sure my GPA would drop.
After the tweed sporting moron continued speaking to the rest of the class about marketing strategies in the global economy, the tall, lanky form of Dave Keller leaned closer to me and said, "Sweet, Timmy."
I offered a slight smile, "I almost defined Bait and Switch profiting. Good thing I changed my mind at the last second."
He laughed quietly, and since we were eight rows back, it went unheard by the professor. After glancing at my watch for the fifth time, saw that it was a quarter of four, I reasoned that there were only eight more minutes left and that I could do my best to stay conscious. It was my last class of the day, and seeing how I had started out at eight in the morning with Data Processing and Organizing, I was in need of a well-deserved break.
Bruce had left a message on my voice mail that if I was free, I was invited to dinner to honor Mattie's survival of her first day of school. I found that odd, that he had called instead of Selina but who was I to complain?
In my third year at GSU, I had somehow managed to develop the perfect schedule between school, life and Robin. As long as nothing extreme happened, I was always in bed at my private dorm room just after four in the morning. From there, I slept until eight or ten, depending on the day, and worked my way through the labyrinth of classes that made up my twenty credit semester. With only four semesters and an internship to go, I had yet to completely decide on a major. As of the moment, I was a Business Management major, minoring in Criminal Justice. Before that, I had been pre-med, pre-law, pre-anything that the school could offer me.
Needless to say, my father was this side of furious.
He had pushed for a business degree and to appease him for the time being, I had added a few management courses to the list of other random classes. Bruce was also displeased, but at least he kept it to himself instead of lecturing me everyday over the summer.
It wasn't until I noticed that my fellow classmates were beginning to rise that I realized class had been dismissed. After checking my watch, I grinned, he was letting us out four minutes early.
Before I could be asked to stay after class, Dave and I scooted out the back and headed for the rear stairwell. After traveling the two flights of stairs, we entered the lobby of Coleman Hall. Bronze mailboxes lined the walls on the left side while the right was dominated by large windows. After checking our still empty boxes, we reclined on one of the stuffed leather chairs and settled in.
It was just after I had closed my eyes that I heard "Awww, look Ashley, they're sleeping."
And then another feminine voice, "Poor little boys, school is so hard."
When I opened my eyes, I spotted the blonde head of Ashley already bending down to kiss Dave's cheek while her partner in crime, Megan, eyed me. I moved over as Ash seated herself between us, still leaving room for Megan to join us. They were both sophomores who lived a floor beneath me. For the most part, I wasn't very social on campus, mostly because I didn't have the time or energy. But it never hurt to have a little bit of Timmy Time when it could fit. I had dated Megan for two months her freshman year and it had ended as amicably as it had started. Even a year later, we were still rather close but despite her continued interest in me, I was on the bachelor beat for the time being.
"So, what are you guys up to?" Megan asked as she crossed her legs and sat into the stuffed back of the couch.
Dave shrugged, "Not much. I still have Anthro at five but other than that the day is done."
Ash smiled and winked at Megan, "Good, because we were thinking you guys could take us out to lunch."
I laughed quietly, "Take you where, the Caf?"
Ash shook her head, "Into town, that new Deli next to Robinson Park is to die for. And they so have GSU student discounts."
I stood quickly, "Hey, discount, my second favorite word."
"What's your first favorite?" Dave asked as he counted bills in his wallet.
"Um... Beer?" I managed.
Since my car was parked closest to Coleman, it was unanimously decided I was driving. I had traded up from the Civic for a black Accord with a sunroof and killer sound system. Dave rode shotgun and tinkered with the bass and radio until he settled on a local alternative rock station. I sped along the Regan Memorial Highway at 73 miles per an hour, choosing to tune into the guitar and drum solos rather than the girl chat that was going on in the back seat.
After taking the Robinson Park exit, I was stopped at a red light just before the turnoff for the park's east end entrance. I felt a set of shaped fingernails teasing my neck and let out a sly smile. Dave turned up the volume and I unconsciously began to thump my head in tune with the music.
No annoying college professors, no term papers, no inmates escaping Arkham...
Just me, the gang and some grub.
The deli had actually been pretty good. The atmosphere was super casual and had quite a bit of college kid appeal, right down to the prices. I ate a side salad and drank a bottle of iced tea and Dave asked if I was starting to be one of the girls, since Ash and Megan also had similar meals where Dave had a Triple Decker Club sandwich. I shrugged, "Well, I have to do this dinner thing tonight, and the food's going to be really good so I want to save room."
"Like a banquet or something?" he asked.
I shrugged as I chewed on a cherry tomato, "No, my neighbor back home, his daughter started school and they are big on celebrating everything she does so it's like a first day of school dinner."
Megan's face brightened, "Ah, how sweet... My parents were like that, made a big deal about everything. Is she starting kindergarten?" I nodded, and sat back in the soft padded chair. She continued, "That's nice, that they still thought of inviting you even though you're at school."
"Yeah, Timmy's a real charmer, prolly has every Granny up there on Snob Hill in his pocket," Dave snickered and eyed Ash as she took her sweater off.
We all laughed a bit, knowing his joke had been harmless. We all had come from well-to-do families and Dave himself had grandparents who lived in Bristol, not forty miles from Bruce. I gave Dave my half of the bill, which included Megan and myself, and he walked up to the desk to check out. While we waited, Ash smiled, "You should get the little girl a toy or something, seeing how it's like a party for her."
Thirty-two minutes later I was in line at a toy store, with thirty dollars worth of books, sidewalk chalk and a pair of purple leopard cat slippers that Ash had picked out. I couldn't resist, partly because Mattie and her mother shared an infatuation with the color purple and with felines. But mostly because I knew they would irritate the hell out of Bruce.
In the last few years, we had taken up an awkward relationship. Whenever my father and I were at odds, Bruce would actually take the time to listen to my frustrations. Generally it would be done while we sparred, but at least he was making the effort to help. He and Dick had a huge blow up last fall, and to the date, I still haven't the clue as to what it had been about. All I knew was that Bruce tortured himself with relentless patrols for three weeks before they ever talked to each other again.
And where Bruce had stepped in for me, I had returned the favor.
It had always seemed that I was the communicator of the group. The being of neutrality. It was rough at times, but I managed. When Dick and Bruce were at odds, I was there to do my best to smooth things out. Selina once told me that I was wasting my energy and that the two of them would reconcile when they were damned good and ready. Even still, I couldn't sit by and do nothing.
On the drive back to campus, I ignored my passengers and looked out over the city skyline. Dusk was four hours away but city lights were already visible. While I drove, I recognized familiar rooftops and alleyways, train stops and cabs. I knew the city like the back of my glove. It was my home.
I thought to myself, Then why would I want to leave?
I had acceptance letters in my dorm room from five Ivy League schools, all drooling at the prospect of me enrolling. I had a bright future in just about any field I had interest in. Most of my friends from Brentwood were spread all over the nation, excelling far beyond what I had accomplished. And yet, I was still in Gotham, living the life I had been for nearly six years.
There were only three things holding me back.
A promise I made to man who was fighting a relentless war on crime.
A green mask that was hidden in my dorm room.
And a green mask that was housed in a glass case in the caverns below Wayne Manor.