Thanks to all for the feedback on this ficcie. This one has been a rare character study than plot-oriented (typical for me), but a fun ride nevertheless for this writer. I do very much appreciate the feedback. With that, the conclusion:
Chapter #6 - Checkmate
Diana was quietly ruminating alone in the commissary when she felt a presence behind her. Alfred stood stiffly, a cup of afternoon tea in hand, silently waiting for an invitation. Diana inwardly smiled. No matter how hard she'd tried during the six months she and J'onn had lived in the Manor after Watchtower One's destruction, she'd been unable to get Alfred to ever relax or confide in her as a friend. Much to her chagrin, to date, theirs had been a professional relationship. Today, there was something about the look in his eyes that gave the impression that might change.
"Good morning, Alfred. Would you like to join me?" she asked, patting the chair next to her.
"Thank you, Princess Diana." Alfred replied crisply, then sat down with the exaggerated mannerisms that only an English Butler could seem to pull-off without appearing ridiculous.
"Alfred, please, it's Diana." She gently rebuked.
"I'm sorry, Princess Diana, but where I come from, people are taught that titles are something to be honored. Master Bruce will remain Master Bruce to me, whether or not he chooses to don the cape and cowl permanently."
"What other option does he really have, Alfred?" Diana asked pointedly. "You've seen the reaction in the press. Even the shareholders have filed suit. What's the latest allegation? He embezzled billions of dollars out of the company to pay for Justice League expenses?"
"Unfortunately, they may have a point." Alfred replied with a chuckle, looking around the expanse of the orbiting space station. "Except any shares of WayneTech they try to recover from the charities that now control the stock will end up taking food out of the mouths of starving children. That will be a public relations disaster for which those lawyers are not prepared. Master Bruce was well aware that if he did anything else with the company the SEC would have taken it over by the end of the trading session."
"What's the latest in Gotham?" she inquired.
"You haven't been watching the news?"
"Not since the Manor collapsed, no." She admitted. "It's too depressing."
"The good people of Gotham have taken it upon themselves to show their gratitude for Master Bruce's help these many years. As we speak, they're erecting…a shrine for lack of a better term, at his parents' grave."
"What are you talking about?" she asked, perplexed.
Alfred reached up and turned on the monitor in the corner. "It seems that a number of people who were rescued by Batman over the years are laying flowers on his parents' grave. Somewhat of a tribute to the tragedy of Bruce Wayne, I gather."
The LCD monitor displayed an MSNBC broadcast of people lined up over a mile long outside the Gotham Memorial Cemetery plot where Thomas and Martha Wayne had been laid to rest more than twenty-five years ago. A pile of roses stood more than five feet tall in front of their headstones. The reporters took turns interviewing those paying tribute, all of who gratefully recounted their tales of rescue at the hands of the Dark Knight.
They watched in silent, rapt attention at the spectacle of it, then Diana finally turned off the television twenty minutes later. "It reminds me of Hector's funeral during the siege of Troy. We halted our siege for a day of tribute. The only difference is that Bruce isn't dead."
"I worry that the Bruce we know is dead," Alfred replied dryly. "Have you noticed that Batman has taken over on a full-time basis? He barks at anyone who calls him the name his parent's gave him, including me."
"I noticed," she replied with a frown. "I'm hoping it's temporary. He'll snap out of it, won't he? I was assuming that he had other options besides full-time engineering work here on the Watchtower."
"As for Master Bruce's other options, I'm not sure what other choices he has, but having known him for as long as I have, I am concerned." Alfred stated forlornly.
"Despite Master Bruce's past misgivings about having to act the playboy… the fop if you will, in order to protect his public identity, I always thought that flirting and dancing with pretty girls wasn't all that bad a way to keep one foot planted in every-day reality."
"This…" Diana pointed around, signifying the expanse of the Watchtower, "…isn't reality?"
"As a child, this is about as far from reality as I could ever imagine." Alfred replied drolly. "While I like you very much…"
"The feeling is mutual." She interjected, softly placing her hand over his.
"… most people on the planet think the League is more of a collection of demi-gods then anything else. I'm worried that if Master Bruce is forced to reside here all of the time, his obsession will become even deeper, more dangerous than it already is." Alfred finished darkly.
"What are you saying?" Diana inquired, the confusion evident in her face.
"I don't pretend to be a psychiatrist, but Master Bruce needs an occasional reminder that he is human," Alfred replied, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, "Or I fear the League will run a risk that his usual paranoia will escalate into some latent kind of psychosis. Being Bruce Wayne by day kept that psychosis in check. Now, I'm not so sure."
"What would you suggest?" Diana asked thoughtfully.
"I wish I knew," Alfred sighed wearily, finishing his cup of tea. "But there are only a few people, including, I hope, the two of us, to whom he'll listen."
"I've been trying, without much success." Diana admitted. "Who else is there?"
"I believe Master Bruce respects the opinions of Mr. Stewart and Mr. Kent. Of course, there is always his son. Master Dick has always had a way of injecting some much needed humor into the worst of situations."
"What about Batgirl? Robin?" she pressed curiously.
"Currently on the inactive roster by order of Himself, Miss Gordon and Master Drake are considered too young to be entrusted with an opinion." Alfred replied dryly. "Of course, that decision was made by the same man who decided as an eight-year old to become a superhero."
"I see." Diana mused. Shaking her head for a moment to clear her thoughts, she decided to settle on another topic. "May I ask what your plans are now? Are you and Dr. Thompkins going to stay on the Watchtower?"
"The Detective deduced that we've become…romantically involved. Master Bruce has been so kind as to provide both of us homes in somewhat remote areas where we can live out the rest of our lives without any outside interference or inquiry. Mine's in Switzerland, hers in Barbados. We're going to pay them each a visit, see if there's any upkeep that needs to be done. In a few weeks, we hope to return to see how Master Bruce is faring in his new life."
"There's something you should know before you leave, Alfred. I'm in love with him." Diana blurted sharply.
"Have you told him this?" the valet asked.
"Not in so many words, no. My approach has been a little more…direct." She admitted with an embarrassed grin. "But he's been avoiding me since then." She sighed wearily. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. I just…thought you should know."
The older man smiled warmly. "That news warms my heart more than you know. I thought when you lived at the Manor that Master Bruce acted somewhat out of sorts. Now I know the reason."
"Do you have any idea how he feels about me?" She asked, mortified to be pressing Bruce's surrogate father for information but tactically realizing that she might not be presented with another opportunity in the near term.
"To be honest, he hasn't confided in me directly." Alfred noted. "He's gotten very good at masking his feelings. He gets a little better at that each day. But I will say this, I don't believe for an instant he would have so easily given up his identity for anyone else."
"Thank you, Alfred." Diana replied, feeling a little bit better. "You're too kind."
"Not at all, Miss Diana," Alfred's eyes winked mischievously. "Not at all. In fact, I have an idea that might be interesting."
Batman was stalking down one of the 'Towers myriad corridors. With his cape billowing behind him, Flash had once noted Batman looked eerily like Darth Vader walking around the Death Star. While a technician scurried to get out of his way, Vibe and Wildcat made a point to cross his path.
"Morning, Bruce." They both chimed in unison.
Not breaking stride, he scowled back at them but said nothing. Since his encounter with Diana in the Jeffries Tube, he'd become more convinced than ever to clearly delineate to the League that Bruce Wayne was a thing of the past. Only Batman existed now. The revelation that he had no life, no existence to return to, was welcome in an odd way. Batman could now devote one-hundred percent of his time to the mission without the daily interruptions of being Bruce Wayne, CEO and public playboy.
He'd started working with J'onn two days earlier to upgrade the systems capabilities of the Monitor Womb. The Martian had been somewhat perplexed that he'd been able to upgrade the power relay in the Jeffries Tube so quickly. He didn't have a new project at hand to give to Batman so the Dark Knight decided to stay busy by re-vetting the entire corps (over 200) of civilian technicians. He'd spent the last 48 hours barricaded in his bedroom working through the hard copies of the files, comparing the background checks with additional information he was able to pull from various police and security agency networks.
He was on his way to meet with J'onn to discuss possible security problems with seventy of the technicians (not that he was overly paranoid) when the two men called him Bruce. He dismissed it as a lapse on their part until Booster Gold and Vigilante rounded the corner.
"Morning, Bruce." They called out in succession.
His eyes narrowed sharply behind the cowl, at a loss to determine why the associate members would treat him with such…disregard. Making his way to the Monitor Womb, he finally located J'onn huddled with a group of technicians.
Seeing his arrival, the group of technicians all bellowed out "Mr. Wayne!" "Good Morning, Bruce" and other variations of the personal greeting.
He pulled J'onn aside and growled, "What's the meaning of this?"
The Martian was nonplussed by his fierce display. "They're just saying 'Good morning, Bruce.' I fail to see the harm in that."
"Who put you up to this?" Batman snarled, leaning in as anger flashed behind the cowl.
"Perhaps you should have a talk with Diana," J'onn replied passively. "She thought it would be a good idea for you to enjoy more personal interactions with your teammates. In fact, just this morning in the commissary, she made a public announcement, insisting that everyone call you Bruce."
"Even the technicians?" Batman demanded indignantly.
"Even the technicians." The Martian responded. "After all, they're people too."
Batman turned on his heel to storm out of the Monitor Womb, but J'onn put a hand on his shoulder to restrain him. "Where are you going?"
"To find Diana." Batman replied cooly. "We're going to have a little talk."
"That will have to wait for later." J'onn replied. "There's a communications relay I'd like you to examine. It's been giving highly variable readings during peak solar flare activity. I'm afraid it needs to be replaced."
"Fine." Batman growled as J'onn punched up a schematic of the Watchtower. "Where is it?"
Twelve hours later the Dark Knight eased himself into a chair next to his bed. The communications relay had proven difficult to access but even more difficult to repair. While the readings from his side indicated the relay was working properly, J'onn kept finding a number of irregularities on his end of the data stream. Reluctantly, Batman had replaced the relay, a task which took the rest of the day, including adjustments to ensure the line of sight satellite tracking system was working properly.
His body ached from the last few days of labor. Dropping his gauntlets on the floor, he'd just started going through the motions of undressing so he could take a shower when his doorbell chirped, announcing a visitor. Batman quickly pulled on his uniform, then opened the door.
Alfred stood in the doorway. He cleared his throat then with a flourish produced an embossed envelope addressed to "Master Bruce Wayne."
Batman looked at him with a glare, then muttered, "What is it, Alfred? I'm tired."
"I believe it's an invitation, Sir. Why don't you open it and find out?"
Batman measured the gaze of his valet. He'd known him long enough now that he could pretty well judge the outcome of a conversation before it happened solely based on Alfred's expression. Today it told him that he was going to have to accommodate the man or face his wrath in some fashion later on.
Reluctantly, he opened the invitation. There was only a simple inscription on it, stating "Bruce Wayne's Ball, 7 p.m. GMT, Commissary"
He looked at the clock then turned his gaze to Alfred. "It already started, huh? What scheme have you cooked up today?"
"Why don't you walk with me to the commissary, Master Bruce, and find out for yourself?"
Batman sighed with resignation, then lurched to his feet. "Let's go, Alfred."
The one thing that was immediately apparent during their stroll to the commissary was that the Watchtower appeared empty. Usually beehives of activity, the corridors were lacking the usual flurry of League members and even devoid of the technicians who typically scurried about at all hours.
They finally stopped a minute later at the door to the commissary, then Alfred surprised Batman by stepping up and knocking at the door.
"Who is it?" a metallic voice rang out from behind the door.
"Master Bruce Wayne," Alfred announced loftily.
The door opened with a whoosh. Perplexed, Batman strode into the room and immediately found himself surrounded by fifty other people dressed up in his uniform.
"Hi, Bruce!" They all yelled out on cue.
A blond-haired woman was standing directly in front of him, dressed as Batgirl. By the mane of hair and the curves of her body, he immediately knew it was Black Canary. "Dinah!" he barked, "What is the meaning of this?"
"I'm sorry, Bruce!" She replied with a smile. "Please call me Batman."
"No, I'm Batman!" John Stewart yelled, landing next to her. His suit was the most impressive in terms of technical detail. Batman remembered that his ring allowed him to wear whatever he wanted.
"Nice suit, Batman." Batman muttered with a smirk.
"Thanks, Bruce." John replied with a good-natured slap to the other man's back. "Go have some fun."
Batman nodded then wandered off to find Diana. He was reasonably sure she was the mastermind behind this entire charade, and he was determined to find her. Searching the crowd, he bumped into another Batman an inch taller than his six-foot, three-inch frame, accompanied by a raven haired Batgirl with violet eyes. He leaned in, then recoiled in shock when he realized who it was.
"Lois? What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry, Bruce!" She deadpanned, then muttered the next line as if she'd rehearsed it a few times. "Please call me Batman."
He nodded with a glint in his eye, then did a double take when he realized the origin of Clark's Batman suit. "That's one of my old ones," he exclaimed. "Where did you get it?"
"Alfred loaned it to me, Bruce," Clark replied, duplicating Bruce Wayne's voice with chilling precision. "And by the way…"
"I know, I know, 'Please call me Batman'" Batman parroted back. "Where's Diana?"
He scanned the crowd, looking for the tall Amazon, but stopped searching when he saw Nightwing crossing the room. Much to his surprise, instead of Zatanna, Nightwing was towing a petite blonde 'Batgirl' that Bruce immediately recognized as Supergirl. Nightwing (dressed as himself) walked over to shake his hand. Nightwing broke into a wide grin and hugged him.
"Great party, eh Bruce?" the younger man slurred. (Batman later found out that Booster Gold had spiked the non-alcoholic punch).
Batman nodded absently, then pulled Nightwing aside. He keyed a button on his belt that emitted a hypersonic field so that a super-hearing meta wouldn't eavesdrop on their conversation.
"You're dating Supergirl? Kind of dangerous, isn't it? What happened to Zatannna?"
"I asked her out after the aikido class but no luck. She gave me the 'let's be friends' speech." The younger man confided. "Kara was available so, I just thought, you know, why not ask her out instead?"
Batman nodded in understanding, flipped off the switch, then he walked his son back to rejoin the group. He studied his inebriated son and his tipsy date with cold detachment, then shrugged with resignation.
'Knowing how Kara's looking at Dick, Clark will probably be screaming for Nightwing's head in the morning.' He thought with a silent laugh.
Knowing that young lust was almost impossible to extinguish, he turned his attention to another couple who emerged from the throng of Batmen. Alfred and Leslie Thompkins, both dressed in the uniform of the day, approached him with knowing grins. Bruce bowed respectfully to the two of them.
"So you played some part in this, I take it?"
"It was a group effort, sir. Perhaps the right analogy would be that it was a family effort." Alfred replied.
"Do you mean Batwoman?" a sultry voice whispered behind him.
Starting his gaze at her black stiletto heels, Batman's eyes slowly crawled up her legs, lingered a moment too long at the generous amount of cleavage Alfred had tailored into the suit, then finally met her gaze. Instead of a cowl, Diana had opted for a flared mask similar to the one Huntress now wore as part of her new uniform. Her raven hair spilled either side of the mask. Her outfit was constructed from leather instead of his nomex-kevlar weave, but knowing that her bracelets protected her from bullets and other weapons, there wasn't much call for the additional armor.
He nodded in appreciation. "So it's Batwoman, is it?"
"Tonight? Yes. Tomorrow? Who knows?" Diana replied with a smile, then surprised him by slipping into him, murmuring a soft "Dance?" then rocking into him before he'd had a chance to reply. As if on cue (he was certain she'd rehearsed it with the group in advance), a number of couples quickly joined them on the dance floor. He played along, cautiously waiting for the next surprise. She didn't say anything, so he decided to break the ice.
"So everyone is Batman tonight? Are you trying to tell me something?"
"Everyone gets to be Batman tonight, Bruce" She replied warmly, then surprised him by kissing him long and hard on the dance floor. "That is, except for you."
"What was that for?" he asked, stunned by the public display of affection.
"For saving me, for taking care of Gotham for as long as you did, and for all you've done for the League," she answered, then gave a little shrug that said 'Oh what the hell?' then kissed him hard again.
The song finished. Bruce slipped out of the embrace, heading for a quiet spot away from the crowd. Refusing to be cast off, Diana surprised him by wrapping an arm around his waist as they walked. "So I take it you set this up?" Batman asked.
Before she could reply, Booster Gold and Vibe lurched into them. Judging by the amount of liquor on their breath, the two of them had decided to pre-party the party.
"Great party, Batwoman!" Booster stammered with a grin.
"Yeah, the cape rocks!" Vibe added. "Thinkin' bout' adding one to my uniform."
"You do that." Batman growled, visibly annoyed by the interruption.
Diana picked up on the tone of his voice, noting it was the one he usually used right before launching an explosive batarang attack. She dropped her arm from his waist then escorted the two men back to the punchbowl.
Bruce watched them go then allowed a moment to survey the crowd. Despite the fact that Lois was pressed against him with two of her best features leading the charge, Clark was edgily watching Nightwing and Kara dirty-dance a few feet away. Batman thought about issuing Nightwing a careful warning then thought better of it. Satisfied he'd appeared at the party long enough, he seized an opportune moment when the crowd was distracted by a particularly risqué dance step Nightwing and Kara were undertaking to make for the exit.
He retreated alone to his room, grateful no one had spied him leave the party. Keying his access code to his room, he paused at the doorway, considering whether he'd risked Diana's wrath in leaving the party after she'd gone to such great lengths to set up. He shook his head, electing to face her wrath rather than deal with a group of drunken Batmen, then the door closed behind him.
The room was dark, his preference. He hung up his cape and cowl on the hook then slipped into the chair at his desk with the intention to start poring over the civilian's security files one more time. He flipped on the light switch at his desk, then jumped with surprised when Diana's voice floated over from the bed.
"Aren't you supposed to be the guest of honor at a party?" she asked with a sultry grin.
'Not my scene." He admitted, rising out of the chair. He did a double-take when he realized that her uniform was draped over a valet stand next to the bed. It was obvious that she wasn't wearing anything under the sheets. He gulped, then decided to keep the topic on subject as long as possible. "When did you get here?"
"Two minutes ago. I knew you'd slip away at the first chance you'd get." She teased. "So I decided to cut you off at the pass."
"Diana, why are you here?" he sighed, wearily settling onto the edge of the bed.
"To remind you that, 'Wherever YOU go, there YOU are'." She replied gently. "I'm going to be here for a long time to remind you who you are. Just because Bruce Wayne isn't a billionaire or works without sleep in a gothic manor anymore, that doesn't mean he's gone. You're still Thomas and Martha Wayne's son first and last, despite everything else that happens."
"That chapter of my life is closed," he protested. "Can't you see that there isn't any need for Bruce Wayne anymore?"
"It doesn't matter if you think of yourself as Batman first, before Bruce Wayne." She responded, carefully measuring her words. "Because I've fallen for YOU. Batman and Bruce are interchangeable. One part does not fall by the wayside because of circumstances. You do yourself and the rest of us a disservice when you say that Bruce Wayne has ceased to exist. But most of all, you dishonor your parents. That I will not tolerate."
Stung by the ferocity of her message, his eyebrows knitted in consternation. He heaved a weary sigh, his inner turmoil readily apparent. "I'm not sure I can honor the mission in a meaningful way. My enemies know my weaknesses now. What was difficult before might prove impossible in the future."
"You don't get it, do you?" She sighed, collapsing back onto the pillow with exasperation. "You're part of the League now. If I have to wear the Batwoman suit every night with you on patrol, then that's what I will do. You have fifty teammates here on the 'Tower who are willing to do the same."
He looked at her with resignation, then his countenance changed as he realized what she was offering. "You'd do that for me?"
"Do you love me?"
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Everything. Humor me."
He stared at her long and hard, debating about what consequences a confession might bring. A denial at this critical juncture of their relationship might cause irreparable harm, but the alternative of ending up like John and Shayera looked painful, bleak. He glanced around the room, then his eyes centered on the portrait of his parent's that Alfred had re-hung in his Watchtower residence. 'What do you want?' he silently pleaded, looking at them for answers. There was no reply, but his mother's gaze threatened to singe his skin if he denied how he felt.
"Yes, I do…" he murmured.
"Do what?" she prodded.
"Diana…" he protested, but she cut him off before he could start.
"Tell me why, Bruce. Why do you love me?"
His mouth opened and closed as he searched for the right words. Finally, he decided to list the obvious and see if he could gain any momentum. "Well, there's the obvious things. You're beautiful…smart…tenacious…kind…"
"Go on," she prodded with a smile. "This is good."
"And you're the only one who knows how to deal with my issues." He trailed off lamely.
"As usual, you're right." She whispered smugly, then patted the bed next to her invitingly.
He leaned closer until their faces were just a few inches away, but didn't slide under the sheets just yet. "What about you? If I'm not a billionaire or a cave dweller, who am I to you?"
"A friend and a valued teammate, to be sure," she replied thoughtfully, then pulled back the sheets. As he'd guessed, there was nothing between the sheets and the ethereal skin of the Amazon Princess. She pulled his face down to kiss him, "and from now on, my lover."