Title: What Lies Ahead: Epilogue
Author: DC Luder
Summary: He he. He he he. He ha ha he he. Hee ha ha ho ho ho he ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Author's Note: Brown Bear, Brown Bear is quoted from Bill Martin Jr.'s picture book.
"Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me… Red bird, red bird, what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me…" I paused as Dick walked into the nursery. After he sat beside me on the floor, I turned the page of the large picture book, careful not to disturb Ethan as he half-slept on my lap.
Before I could continue, Dick read quietly, "Yellow duck, yellow duck what do you see?"
I leaned against his arm slightly and answered, "I see a blue horse looking at me."
We read together, back and forth until we made it to the end of the book. After seeing a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep, a goldfish, a teacher and children, Ethan was asleep. Dick gently took him into his hands, carefully laying him on his back in the crib before wrapping him snugly in his swaddle. By the time he turned around to help me up, I was already back in my wheelchair and quietly making my way for the door.
Once we were both in the hall and the nursery door had been closed three-quarters of the way, Dick pumped his fist in the air, "Seven for seven perfect afternoon naps… we rock the shit out of parenting."
I couldn't help but smile before admitting, "Yes, yes we do."
Having had Ethan as our adopted son for a week, Dick and I had finally settled into a fairly comfortable routine. Mornings unfortunately started at half passed six as Ethan's voice began cooing over the baby monitor. Although we both had less than two hours of sleep after our nocturnal activities, I had decided it was best for Dick to sleep in before having to go into work at the firm.
After changing Ethan's diaper and putting him into fresh clothes, Ethan and I spent the morning together, sharing breakfast and watching half of an hour of Franklin the turtle's misadventures.
Dick generally surfaced from the bedroom around nine-thirty and showered and dressed for the day before coming out to greet us. As he took over watching Ethan, I took half of an hour to shower and change for the day. By then it was ten in the morning and Dick was off to work.
Since he was so young, there was little to do activity wise during the day. We listened to music, I read to him, he played in his hanging bounce chair Dick had installed in the open arch between the den and the main hall and once noon rolled around it was lunch time. After a hearty meal of smashed fruit and rice cereal, he was ready for a nap after another diaper change. With baby monitor at hand, I took the down time to clean up the apartment, catch up on work from the night before and to exercise. Once Ethan was awake, usually around two, we spent the afternoon playing and spending time with one another.
Dick was home by five most nights and was more than eager to take over baby duty so I could catch a nap. We had moved our dinner to later in the evening so that Ethan could eat with us before his nightly bath before bed. Once he was settled in, Dick and I pretended to be a normal couple for thirty minutes by watching whatever sitcom was on before he made his way to the training room before I took to the computers.
The first three nights Ethan had woke around midnight, fussy and miserable as he adjusted to his new routine and surroundings. I put Oracle on hold in order to tend to him in the nursery but after the second night, I decided to bring him in to my cyber fortress. He had been mesmerized by the lights of the monitors and as I gently rocked him in my lap, it took less than fifteen minutes for him to fall back asleep.
When I had told Dick after he had finished patrols that evening, he had said, "Well if you get to show him about what you do…"
I had promptly interrupted, "If I catch him playing with a Batarang, so help me, Richard…"
"A Batarang is dangerous for a baby," he growled jokingly, "I was thinking I'd look out for my son's welfare… start him out with maybe a domino mask. Avoid bolos and gas pellets since they're pretty much choking hazards."
I really loved him.
With it being New Year's Eve, Dick had closed the firm for the day to allow Will to spend more time with his girls and so the he himself could spend time with his own son. And naturally Tim was able to stay home and spend it with Cass and Robbie.
They had been something off about them over the last week. They patrolled opposite sides of the city, rarely worked with one another and had been staying out later than usual. When Cass had dropped by to hang out with Ethan for an afternoon a few days earlier, I had asked if she and Tim had gotten in a fight.
She had shaken her head, "No… why?"
"Oh, no reason."
"Did he say we were in a fight?"
"No, I just… you seem to be avoiding one another."
That night, they had toured the city side by side, taking on evil doers in tandem.
Something was going on…
"So what should we do with this time to ourselves?" Dick leaned in and spoke softly in my ear.
I kissed him before he stood upright, "Sleep."
"Sleep it is!" he called out before looking back to the nursery. He waited a beat and then said much more quietly, "Sleep it is."
We were due at Wayne Manor for dinner around six, which meant we would be testing our fates to see if Ethan would stick to a schedule at a different place. At Christmas, he had done very well considering his entire world had been changed for the second time in his brief life. He had almost made it through dinner before his fuse had burnt down to nothing. We were hoping he would be much better prepared this time around.
Dick led the way to the bedroom, turning the baby monitor on before sitting on the bed. I joined him a moment later after pulling off my slip-on shoes. As he reclined on top of the covers, he patted his chest and I moved over to rest against him.
He took a deep breath before asking, "Do you really think he's leaving?"
I nodded, "Selina said Bruce was pretty adamant about it… And I think Alfred's actually starting to like the idea of some time off."
"But a whole year?"
"I'm sure he'll visit… After all, he does have a personal jet at his disposal."
He muttered, "Wish Santa gave me a jet…"
It hadn't taken long for the word to spread about what Bruce's gift to Alfred had been. With a year's worth of paid vacation, Bruce had all but ordered Alfred out of the Manor and to Leslie's side. Although my initial response should have been excitement for Alfred, I instead found myself growing poignant. Side from Dick and Bruce, Alfred had been the one constant in my life, or rather both of my lives.
To the outsider, Alfred was a graceful gentleman's gentleman, a necessity in the life of a billionaire of Bruce Wayne's stature. But to us, he was an integral part of the Family, the rock we had all turned to in times of need. Had there been no Alfred, it wasn't too far-fetched to deduce that there would have been no Batman. Or if there had been, he wouldn't have lived very long.
And that simple fact would have changed all of us.
Although Bruce and Alfred relationship could be summarized as a father and son, it was far more than that. There were times that they're differences had created a chasm between the two that it was a wonder they even spoke to one another. I couldn't help but think back to when Alfred had quit during Bruce's recovery from being broken by Bane. Rather than stay at his master's side in an obvious time of need, Alfred had left, not wanting to witness anymore self-destruction as a wheelchair bound Bruce toured the world trying to find Tim's father and his doctor, Shondra Kinsolving.
But he came back.
They both had.
Selina had dropped by the day after Christmas to visit and had told us about the gift. I had been unable to hide my shock and when I asked how she had come up with the idea, she smirked, "Actually, it was Bruce's."
Dick had been quick to joke, "He's getting soft in his old age, you ought to whip him into shape… so to speak."
Selina had grinned, "Oh, don't you worry, he gets a good flogging on a nightly basis."
Selina and I then erupted in laughter as Dick blushed before promptly rising to his feet in order to flee the den, "Excuse me, ladies… I think I'm going to go throw up…"
A smile grew on my face thinking of how often my husband found his jokes turning against him, especially when Selina was present. Even though it was a lifetime ago, I couldn't help but think of all the times he had faced her as a teenaged crime fighter whose voice had yet to change. I had no doubt that she had enjoyed harassing him, almost as much as she had taken pleasure from teasing Bruce when he was in the cowl.
Holy Cat Litter.
I was about to ask Dick if he remembered the time we had tried to race each other from one end of the city to the other without using any form of a bat-vehicle when I realized he was fast asleep.
Had we been kids again, I would have stuck something up his nose or drawn on his face.
But since I was a responsible adult, the communication guru for dozens of superheroes and a newfound mother, I simply rolled his upper lip under itself, waiting for his saliva to dry before letting it rest in place.
"… But you're bleeding."
"I didn't ask you for a medical evaluation, Tim, I said for you to do it again."
He had called me the night before, calling me at the Townhouse rather than contacting my on the comm. link. That in itself put me off guard considering I could count the number of times Bruce had socially called me on one hand. I had just come in from a run with Cass and Robbie and I had answered out of breath, "Yeah?"
"… Is this a bad time?" After I explained my fight for air, Bruce continued, "I was wondering if you were free tomorrow afternoon, I'd like to go over a few things with you."
Leaving the location off from his inquiry meant he wanted to meet in the Cave. And although I had certainly developed the highly regarded skill of being able to read Bruce's emotions through his words and actions, I was clueless as to what his intentions were. Naturally, I suspected he had used his inhuman abilities to figure out that I had proposed to Cassandra even though neither one of us had uttered a word to anyone. With that in mind, I had gone to the Cave expecting to be lectured about the risk of taking our relationship to that level while we were still fighting crime.
Instead, Bruce had asked me to hit him.
Not in those words but it had sure sounded like it.
I had been at the computer, reviewing some soot I had taken the night before at a private residence that had been burglarized that had no sign of fire. There had been an arson less than a week earlier surely enough the soot matched the samples from the arson. As I pondered how the two were linked, Bruce had approached with his reflection on the monitor sporting black nomex pants and a frown.
As I stood, he had asked, "I have a task for you, if you're up to it."
I had learned long ago that if he even mentioned he had the slightest desire for your involvement in something, you always replied in the affirmative.
"I'd appreciate if you'd keep this in confidence."
"Loyalty, secrecy, courage, remember?" I smirked, quoting the oath he had made us all take as we had entered his war on crime.
After a frown and a pause, Bruce finally explained, "I want you to test me, on everything I've taught you, right from the beginning."
Nothing to do with Cass and I… but I wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. "Can I ask why?"
"I need to know... if you would be able to train someone… if there was a need for it later on."
"As in Mattie?" I smirked again. The glare he shot me caused my cremaster muscle to clench. To smooth things over I quickly offered, "Just joking…" When he visibly relaxed, I looked over my shoulder to the costume vault, "Well, let me change quick, then we can hit the mats."
As I changed into my own nomex training pants, I stretched my legs, arms and back before mentally driving out Tim Drake. When fighting a man who had mastered every form of combat, it was best not to be distracted by the fact that I had left Sims 2 running on the computer at home and would no doubt find my Sim family burning in the streets later that night. When my bare feet stepped onto the cold granite of the main floor, I found myself holding my shoulders higher, clenching my hands tighter and breathing deeper.
There was no Tim Drake.
Bruce was in the training bay, shadow boxing an imaginary foe while facing away from me. Although I had my own collection of scars, the latest and most garish courtesy of Victor Zsasz, Bruce had four times as many. Looking over his back, I could only find six patches of flesh more than two inches square that weren't marked.
I suddenly wondered if I would look the same after another fifteen years of crime fighting.
Just as I planted my first foot on the mat, I expected Bruce to stop and turn to face me. Instead, he continued, throwing jabs and blows to the air that would send a human to the emergency room. For some reason, I had always thought that after he had stepped down that he wouldn't maintain his physique. It wasn't that I expected him to grow a beer belly, more like he would have trimmed down the massive form he had developed, the perfect balance of strength and speed.
He had slimmed down a bit, barely noticeable to the casual observer. But I knew his body almost as well as my own. As Robin he had seemed enormous, and even still as a grown man his six-two frame was intimidating, even if it only carried one-ninety five rather than his former two hundred and ten pounds.
I smirked to myself, thinking he probably didn't want have to suffer through getting all of his suits retailored.
"So, where do you want to start? Sparring, sword fighting, spelunking sans flashlights?"
Bruce finally turned to face me, an off look on his face. Before I could say anything, he replied, "You left out Savate."
"Ah yes," I carefully began to circle him to the left in order to position myself in the center of the mats, "How could I forget the fighting of French feet." Dick would have been proud of my alliteration. "All right, let's see a fouetté," I had my hands up, ready to strike down on the roundhouse-like kick, which made contact with the instep.
The last time I had truly sparred with Bruce, not including our impromptu bo staff beatings two years previous, had been four weeks before he had stepped down. He had left me with more bruises than I usually suffered in a month. Nothing different from any other time I had faced him in my training, but what had been different had been that he had let me call the shots. At the time, I had thought he was testing me to make sure I was keeping on top of my skills but had I known he was getting ready to hand me the cowl…
Bruce's right leg was like a whip, aiming for my head. After I deflected it, he then went for my kidneys and once I had struck aside his ankle, he headed for my calves. Without a word, he switched to the left leg, this time the kicks coming slower, more exact in their aim and delivery.
From there we had worked through the three remaining kicking styles of Savate: the chasse which were front kicks, revers which involved lateral reverse hook kicks and the coup de pied bas which were only directed to the lower legs, sort of like a sweeping kick. After that we went through the various punches before turning them into combinations.
After twenty minutes of review, Bruce's blows were no longer coming at me with the purpose of practice but rather the purpose of injuring. My blocks came quicker but it wasn't long before I found myself going beyond the defense and into offense. Following a particularly nasty direct bras avant strike that hit me in just below my ribcage, I finally growled, "That's it," before throwing the exact same jab to Bruce.
"You can't attack in anger," he replied calmly before attempting to kick me in the thigh.
I defended the blow and retaliated with a hook, uppercut and front kick combination that he barely avoided, "I thought I was teaching you."
"So did I."
It was then I saw it, the little spark in his eye that was almost an urban legend because of its rarity.
Bruce was having fun.
When I had first become Robin I had given it my all any time I fought him, doing whatever I could to impress him with my growing athleticism and skill. But no matter how well I did, he always showed me that I wasn't good enough in one way or another. Eventually I learned that it wasn't to insult me or discourage me, it was to feed my desire to better myself. And after all the years that had passed, I still wouldn't consider myself his equal.
But I was pretty damn close.
The mild mock combat quickly evolved into a full-on spar, strikes and kicks coming at lightning speed, aiming for vital organs and sensitive areas. He took the lead, hitting me in the left kidney before jabbing me in the right one. As he pulled back his hands, however, I took the opening he had left to knee him in the belly.
Every blow I delivered, I asked a question, starting with, "Why are we doing this?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Yes it does," my uppercut barely caught his lower jaw as he evaded me.
He spun slightly and threw a side kick that drove his heel into the side of my knee, "It shouldn't matter."
I recoiled before going back to the offensive, "It does."
"Why?" he asked with a grunt as he attempted another side kick, that time aiming for my head.
I caught his foot in one hand and instead of shoving it away, I wrenched it upwards, pulling him off balance, "Because I said it matters."
Just as I was about to strike him with my free hand, I heard a soft voice, "Can I have winner?"
Bruce and I both looked to see Mattie standing less than ten feet away at the edge of the mats. I instantly let his leg go and we both did our best to assume casual stances as she approached. Bruce said, "Mattie, I thought we decided you weren't to come down here unless you had permission."
She looked up at him, fighting a grin, "I do have permission. Mom said for me to come down to tell you to stop fooling around and get upstairs to help Alfred move his luggage into the car." Without waiting for a reply from her father, she took a few running steps and leapt in the air, kicking her leg out at me. Unlike her father who had attempted a similar maneuver a moment earlier, she had succeeded although she had ended up only being able to reach the middle of my chest where he had aimed for my neck.
Out of sheer shock, I had lost my balance and taken a step back, of which she had dropped to the ground to kick my feet out from under me. A moment later, I was on my back staring up at bats sleeping in the ceiling of the cave. Then Mattie's face appeared as she stood above me, "And she told me to tell you to stop enabling him."
After she left, Bruce offered me a hand up and once I was on my feet, I looked over to him, "Joking aside, I hope I never have to train her… because she'll never let me forget that."
"Yes, Master Dick."
"… I don't want you to go."
Although Alfred didn't so much as glance away from the onions he had caramelizing before him, I found his voice a fraction softer when he replied, "Master Dick, I believe you once told me that every bird needs to spread its wings."
"But… can't you spread your wings… in Florida or something?"
His left eyebrow twitched slightly before he asked, "Are you suggesting that because of my age that I would find pleasure in the twenty-seventh state of---."
I shook my head as I stood from leaning against the counter, "No-no-no... I would never… I mean, it is nice there but not just for, you know old people."
Finally, Alfred looked over, "Master Dick… are you crying, sir?"
I turned away and wiped at my eyes, "Onions, Al... my Achilles heel."
During the week that had lapsed between Christmas and New Year's, I had been consumed with my new role as a father and had been unable to make it up to the Manor to see Alfred. And after having him in my life since I wore Transformers socks, I felt guilty for not making the time to properly say good bye to him. I had convinced myself there would be plenty of time later in the week but when I found it was New Year's Eve, it finally sank in.
When everyone was ringing in the new year, he would be on his way to Africa.
And it really hit home when we arrived at Wayne Manor to see Bruce and Tim carrying out brown leather luggage to one of the town cars.
Upon first walking into the kitchen, Alfred had greeted me as it had been any normal Family dinner. He had even gone as far as asking me to taste test pork tenderloin and blue cheese puffed pastries. For the first time in my life, my stomach churned at the thought of eating Alfred's fine cuisine. Although Alfred had rejected my offers to help cook, I stayed with him, sitting at the island counter watching him at work. As his masterful hands deftly worked on dicing red onions and pancetta for an asparagus salad, we talked about Ethan and how he was fairing in his new home. As he checked on the wild mushroom strudels, the conversation had switched to my work and how things were progressing with the firm.
When he turned his attention to caramelizing onions and searing Atlantic salmon, I finally gave in.
"Well, Master Dick, I would do my best to keep that particular fact secret from those who desire to know your weaknesses."
I smirked and replied, "Oh, Babs already knows."
After removing the onions from the heat, Alfred glanced over at me briefly but as he was about to speak, Mattie walked into the kitchen, "Are you sure I can't help, Alfred?"
When she spotted me, I informed her, "He turned me down, too… The man is on a mission."
Alfred cleared his throat as he returned to the stove to carefully flip the salmon steaks, "It is my responsibility to prepare meals for this family and as my final evening before my sabbatical, I shall see to it that I carry out my duty to its fullest potential."
"Does that include Turtle Cheesecake?" Mattie asked hopefully.
He glanced quickly at the refrigerator before returning his gaze to the stove top. When I began to walk over to investigate, Alfred spoke quietly, "Richard."
Mattie smirked and said, "Busted," before about facing and heading back into the hall.
Alone again, I found the brief moment of humor ebbing. On the ride up, Barbara had made one last effort to show me the bright side of Alfred leaving but it hadn't taken. I understood that he and Leslie loved each other and that having an entire ocean between them was agonizing. I also knew that Alfred had literally sacrificed his entire life to stand at Bruce's side and to tend to those who also chose to join his war.
What I didn't know was how we were going to carry on without him.
When I had admitted as much to Barbara, just before we made the turn up the drive to Wayne Manor, she had said, "He's coming back."
I had paused before saying, "In a year… A lot can happen in a year."
We had remained silent for the remainder of the drive and just as I parked in front of the garage beside Tim's Honda, she said, "After all Alfred's done for us… for you… he needs this. Just promise me you'll---."
I cut her off, "Don't worry, I'll behave… besides, Bruce is the official party pooper of the Family, not me."
Thinking of that, I suddenly asked Alfred, "So, you going to get Bruce some sort of perimeter bracelet, make sure he stays out of the kitchen while you're gone?"
A smirk grew on the old man's face, "Miss Mattie will be the acting warden in my absence… Let us hope she is as lenient as I have been."
"Yeah, she's is getting pretty bold, isn't she? Question is will she be more like Bruce or Selina?" When he looked over his shoulder at me, brow raised in surprise, I explained, "Well, will she be broody and bat-like or will she be sassy and cat-like… that's what I meant, not you know.. crime-wise."
As he returned to the salmon, he replied, "As with many of her characteristics, I feel it is more or less a uniting of the two."
"Dangerous combination." When he didn't respond, I changed the subject, "So Barbara said Bruce hooked you up with a satellite-phone?"
After a curt nod, Alfred removed the salmon from the stove and arranged the thin steaks on a bed of butter head lettuce, "As well as a number of other gadgets… But the mail comes twice a week to the camp so barring any emergency I'll be corresponding in long hand."
"Oh, come on, Al… I'm sure we can come up with a cool e-mail address and screen name for you…"
"Miss Mattie needs to work on her cursive and Master Nathan can use it to practice his handwriting." He carefully poured the caramelized onions over the salmon before looking over at me, "And when was the last time you hand wrote a letter, sir?"
"All right, all right… My cursive's rusty, too I guess. Still think about it… Pennyworth_007… it's awful catchy. And texting is cost effective, better for the environment---."
Although he had disregarded my offers to help prepare the meal, he had been gracious when I offered to carry the platters out to the dining room for him. As he tidied up the kitchen and washed up himself, I went, as ordered, to the den to tell everyone dinner was ready. As I passed through the high archway, I found Bruce laying on the floor with Ethan and Nathan both sitting on his chest. Mattie knelt beside her fallen father, counting out loud before declaring victory to the boys.
As Nathan leapt to his feet and began a victory lap around the room, Bruce held onto Ethan's hips in order to keep the young boy sitting upright. As he began to sit up himself, Ethan reached out and latched onto Bruce's shirt collar before rocking back and forth in Bruce's lap. When Bruce smiled down at him, Ethan grinned back before looking away.
"Bashful, are we?" Bruce asked softly, "Wasn't the case a few minutes ago when you were pulling my hair…"
"Yeah, he pulled a chunk out of Dick's head the other day… That's why he got his hair cut," Barbara said before she suddenly spotted me in the room, "Hey, get lost?"
"No, I was acting taste tester," I defended.
Bruce rose and handed Ethan to his mother before pulling the dark sleeves of his sweater down. Unfortunately he hadn't done it quickly enough to prevent me from seeing several angry bruises on his forearms. I glanced around the room quickly to see Nathan had taken his running into the hall before pointing to my own arm, "Ouch."
"You should see the other guy," Bruce smirked before standing beside his wife on the couch.
I glanced over at Tim and even though he had done a fair job of hiding them with concealer, I still could see the mottling of bruises on the side of his neck and his right cheek. "Wait, you beat the crap out of each other… and didn't invite me?"
Before either could answer, Barbara spoke "Oh please, you had zero ambition this afternoon…"
After a shrug, I replied, "True… but next time we can tag team him… make it a fair fight."
Mattie, who was still kneeling on the floor, asked, "What about me?"
Before taking things any further, Alfred appeared at the doorway, dressed in a clean pair of dark slacks and a pale blue collared shirt under a navy sweater, "Why is it, Master Dick, that Master Nathan is the only one seated in the dining room?"
Mattie jumped to her feet and walked towards me before saying, "Busted."
Ethan was a trooper during dinner, sitting in the high chair that had once been Nathan's throne of terror. Rather than getting fussy as the meal progressed, he grew sleepy and just before Alfred revealed the Turtle cheesecake for dessert; I glanced over to see the little guy was fast asleep. I began to rise but Alfred beat me to it, "Allow me, sir." Just in case he ended up falling asleep early, we had brought up his reclining bouncer chair and set it up in the den. As Alfred deftly picked Ethan up out of his high chair, his little body didn't so much as move.
Although we generally stayed New Year's until the bat-signal went off, drawing us to the city, Barbara and I had decided to head home to get him settled in for the night. After saying good bye to Bruce and Selina and after kissing Mattie before picking Nathan up and hugging him upside down, I finally found myself face to face with Alfred.
Although my emotions were still running haywire and I wanted nothing more but to kidnap him and lock him in the Clocktower forever and ever, I found myself simply giving him a hug and saying, "Happy new year, Al."
"Happy new year, to you, sir," he returned the gesture and when I pulled away, I noticed his eyes were slightly glassed over. Before I could ask if he was all right, he smiled, "Onions, sir."
After Dick, Barbara and Ethan left after dinner, I ran upstairs to change and get ready to go the New Year's Eve party at Piper's house. When I had first asked him if I could go, Dad had been reluctant but Mom had said that it was either I go to a party or they host another one. After that he had said, "I'm sure you'll have fun at Piper's, kitten."
Even though I dressed nicely for dinner, I wanted to wear something different for the party. After all, it was my first major middle school party. Having already picked out my outfit, it didn't take long to change out of the clothes I was wearing and into a pair of dark stone washed jeans and teal fitted tee under a navy blue corduroy jacket that ended just passed my hips. After I pulled a pair of tan suede slip ons Mom had gotten me for Christmas, I ran into the bathroom and ran a brush through my hair quick before touching up my makeup.
Once I had grabbed my little tan corduroy purse, I headed back downstairs. Mom had told me she would be helping Alfred pick up which left Dad and Nathan in the den with Tim and Cass. Not wanting Dad to take me to the party, I opted for the kitchen. When I walked in, it looked like Mom and Alfred had just finished washing dishes. I smiled, "How do I look?"
"Wonderful," Alfred nodded as he dried his hands.
"And four years older…" Mom shook her head as she made her way out of the kitchen, "Well, why don't you say good bye, I have to go get my coat and purse."
"Okay…" I looked over at Alfred, surprised to see he was still looking at me. "I guess this is it."
"Afraid so, my dear… But I feel you are more than ready," he replied as he folded the towel and carefully arranged it on the small wrought iron rack beneath the sink.
Since he told me he was going to be with Leslie for a year, I had done my best to prepare for taking over the kitchen for him. He had taken care of arranging someone to clean the Manor, a really nice gray-haired lady named Annette, but had wanted to delegate the cooking to me. Although I was pretty much a chef already, Alfred had gone as far as teaching me the finer skills, like selecting fruit and vegetables at the market in Bristol.
Even still, I wasn't ready for him to go.
Over the week, as I helped him dress unused rooms with dust sheets, we had discussed just about everything. For the most part we talked about what he was going to do while he was away and what my plans and goals were for the year. As we tidied up and draped sheets on the furniture in a room I had never been in, one Alfred called the Morning Room, I asked, "Do you think I'd make a good superhero?"
He had paused and I could see he was visibly surprised. After he resumed covering a large painting that hung beside the far wall, he had posed his own question, "Well, do you want to be a good superhero?"
I had shaken my head, "I want to be the greatest."
After getting off of the step stool he had been on, Alfred approached the one leather sofa we had yet to drape. After patting the seat beside him, I walked over and carefully sat down as he asked, "And what traits, might I ask, would the greatest superhero have?"
I took a moment to think of the things that reminded me of Dad before replying, "Courage. Intelligence. Confidence.… Stubbornness… I'm not too stubborn yet but I'm sure I'll get there."
"I am certain you will, my dear… Now, aside from having such admirable qualities, what else would one need on a quest to become the greatest?"
After another quiet minute passed, I looked up at him, "A reason."
"A reason… a reason to be a hero. Dad had a reason, so did Dick and Tim…" I thought back to when Dad had showed me a set of video recordings last spring, "And Cassandra."
"And what is your reason?"
I had shrugged, "Exactly… I don't have one."
He had wrapped his slender arm around my shoulders, "And let's pray you never do."
As he stood before me in the kitchen, I took a deep breath before walking over, wrapping my arms around his back. Thankfully, I didn't have any eye makeup on yet since my eyes suddenly grew wet as he rubbed my back, "There, there, Miss Mattie. It's all right."
I pressed my face into his chest after saying, "I'm going to miss you, Alfred."
"And I shall miss you, my dear…"
I pulled back suddenly, "I'm going to write every week, I promise. Nathan will, too."
"I look forward to it already." After hugging him one more time, he leaned over and kissed the top of my head, "Do enjoy yourself tonight, Miss Mattie."
"I'll try," I wiped my eyes as I stood back, drawing a ragged breath.
Mom returned a moment later with my overnight bag in her hand, "Ready?"
After a quick nod, I stepped out of the kitchen, glancing back at Alfred once more, wondering how much he would change in a year. Then again he hadn't changed at all in my whole life…
Before we pulled out of the garage in the Jaguar, which Mom drove more than Dad did, Mom let me touch up my makeup again in the visor mirror. When I looked at her, she leaned forward and kissed my cheek, "Beautiful."
The ride to Piper's was less than fifteen minutes but it seemed to last seconds and we pulled into the spacious driveway at ten after eight. After she parked the car, Mom said, "Your father would say for you to behave yourself and don't do anything you wouldn't do in front of him… but he should have said it to you for himself because all I have to say is… have fun, kiddo."
"Thanks, Mom," I grabbed my bag and stepped out of the car. As a second though, I leaned back in and kissed her cheek, "And happy New Year!"
I ran up the stone pathway from the drive up to the front door. Without knocking, I entered the main atrium of Piper's house, smiling to hear laughter and loud music in the den. After dropping my bag off amidst several others along the wall, I undid my coat and followed the sound of fun.
Before I had even set foot in the den, I heard Piper's shrill cry above the noise, "About time!!! We've been waiting forever for you."
I glanced at my watch and saw I was exactly fifteen minutes late, "Sorry, I had dinner with my family." As I looked around the spacious room, I saw nearly twenty of my classmates and at least ten others that were in the grade above us. Naturally Piper had seen to it that there were equal numbers between boys and girls. There were a number of girls huddled in the back by the food that was set out, giggling and pointing to the other attendees. I also spotted another group of girls, trying to dance by the massive stereo system while a group of older boys were playing football on the XBOX.
After I commented on Piper's hair, of which she had cut and dyed strawberry blonde just for the party, I made my way over to a group of six boys that were playing cards on the floor by couches that sat several female spectators. It took only a moment to realize they were playing Hold'em, something they had become obsessed with during study hall. Rather than bet with significant money, they often gambled with coins and school supplies. Tonight, rather than pens and pennies, they had substituted miniature candy bars and crackers with cheese. After the next hand was won by Adam, Piper's love interest since like second grade, the hostess had declared, "All, right, my parents just went next door until midnight…"
There were a few cheers before someone called out, "Suck and blow!" followed by cries of approval.
Piper then directed everyone who wanted to play to sit in a circle in the middle of the room, boy girl, boy girl. As I sat next to Mark, he elbowed me and said, "Hope you brushed your teeth."
I laughed back at him and replied, "Nope, and I had extra onions tonight so get psyched."
Over the thirty or so present, only a dozen had chosen to sit in the circle. As I glanced at those who were standing by, I saw Terry smiling at me. When I patted the empty spot to my right, he shook his head but kept smirking. A moment later, Darren, a seventh grader, sat beside me introducing himself even though we had gym class together. Piper picked up a discarded Joker card from the poker game before sitting in between Adam and Mike.
She pressed the card to her lips before sucking in air to keep it on her face before leaning over and pressing the card to Mike's lips. As he took in air to hold it, he then turned and pressed the card to Andrea's lips and so on. It made six more exchanges before coming to me and after I successfully passed it on to Marc it continued to two more people before a boy named Ray dropped it and ended up kissing Katarina.
After another twenty minutes of Suck and Blow, of which I successfully transferred the card in each direction, Piper suggested we move on to Seven Minutes in Heaven. Although we had played Suck and Blow and Spin the Bottle before at parties, I hadn't played Heaven yet and wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. A few more joined the circle while Piper went to get a glass bottle from the kitchen. Just as she returned, Terry sat down across from me and said, "Hope you brought your game, Wayne."
"Oh, it is so on," I laughed back at him.
Piper put the empty Coke bottle in the middle of the circle and spun it, crossing her fingers as she knelt back down. Whatever silent prayer she made, it was answered as the bottle slowly stopped to point at Adam. She jumped to her feet and did her best to contain her excitement with a quiet giggle rather than the scream I knew was within her.
As they made their way to the coat closet, I took the chance to get up and check out the food. After getting a cup of orange soda and a plate of little turkey sandwiches and cheese stuffed croissants, I returned to the circle. Marc instantly reached over to steal a sandwich, a habit he had started back at the zoo trip. Instead of punching him, I pulled the plate away, "Your legs aren't broken, go over and get your own."
"You're so mean," he smirked as he rose to his feet.
When Piper and Adam returned, they were both wearing smudged pale pink lipstick. As the regulated "Oooo's" and "Ahhhh's" sounded, Piper sat back down and handed me the bottle, "Good luck."
I took a deep breath before looking around the circle, locking in on my target. I began to spin the bottle before it even landed on the hardwood floor. It proceeded to spin, near out of control, before finally slowing to a stop, pointing directly at who I had looked at before setting it down. A few people clapped and Angie had even gone as far as saying, "About time!"
Once I was on my feet, I looked over at my partner, "Shall we?"
Terry nodded as the color drained from his face.
Piper had left the light on in the closet and after we shut the doors, Terry spoke, "This is stupid."
"Totally, I bet Piper didn't even kiss Adam, made him put some lipstick on just to make it look like it."
A minute into Heaven, I sat down cross legged and Terry joined me amongst the shoes. "So, Alfred's leaving tonight?" he asked.
I nodded, "Yeah… I can't believe tomorrow morning he's just... going to be gone. I mean I know he's coming back but still."
Terry agreed, "Yeah, but you know, everyone needs time to themselves."
We proceeded to talk about plans for the next day and were quick to agree that we both wanted to see the new comedy with Vince Vaughn even though it sounded dumb. With two minutes left, Terry smirked at me, "Did you really eat extra onions at dinner?"
"Nah, and besides I brushed my teeth like three times toda---."
I was interrupted as a pair of lips pressed gently against mine. When Terry pulled back, he began to apologize, "Sorry… I…"
Before I would let him regret his bold move, I smiled, "Why'd you stop, there's still two minutes left…"
There was a soft knock on the door leading to my quarters and when I directed my gaze from packing an overnight bag, I smiled to see Master Nathan dressed in tiger striped cotton pajamas. I bid him to enter and he did, slowly walking towards me, "Alfie?"
"Can you w-ead to me?"
I had suspected that there had been some encouragement from his parents to propose the question, but nevertheless, I obliged, "I will do one better, young master. I will tell you the greatest story ever told."
The young boy's blue eyes lit up before his smile began to match them. Without another word he spun around and dashed into the hallway before yelling, "Alf-wed's going to w-ead to me, Mommy!"
When he glanced back at me, I nodded, "I shall meet you in your bedroom, Master Nathan."
"Okay," he said, barely able to contain his excitement as he ran off.
After speaking with Master Dick earlier in the evening, I mused that the young children were taking my leave of absence far better than the elder. Ms. Barbara, Master Timothy and Miss Cassandra had wished me well before leaving for the night, asking only that I enjoy myself and perhaps send a few postcards. Miss Mattie, although through teary eyes, had also been happy for me to go and her younger brother knew I was leaving but was still too young to understand how long a year really was. And their mother had all but ordered me to leave ever since Leslie had departed…
It was Master Bruce that I feared leaving behind.
Although he was in the capable hands of his wife and children, I was still coming to terms that for the first time, I was voluntarily leaving him behind without there being unrest between us. When he had taken to gallivanting the globe rather than to recover from his horrific injuries dealt to him by Bane, I had promptly left Master Bruce's employ as I was unwilling to see him further risk his life. Even as I had aided Master Tim during his time at Brentwood, my relationship with Master Bruce had been under considerable strain.
But at the moment, we had never been closer.
For the first time, he was truly happy and I made no secret that a large portion was due to the fact that he was no longer Batman. Although he denied it, it was the only constant that had changed as he had still been irritable and irate after he had taken Ms. Selina as his wife and had fathered his first child. With the Dark Knight removed from the equation, he was able to embrace a life he had never dreamed of having.
The life his parents had dreamed of for him.
As well as I.
After securing the zipper of the long neglected leather travel bag, I donned a pair of loafers before making my way to the main stairwell. Although I had taken to using the elevator of late, it was difficult to pass up an opportunity to travel up the magnificent staircase once more. Master Nathan had done his best to tuck himself in and as I sat beside him on the bed, he asked, "Whe-eh's the book?"
"The greatest story ever told is one that has never been written in its entirety because the story is not over." He sat up against his pillows and looked up at me as I began, "Once upon a time, there were a king and queen that lived in a grand castle overlooking their kingdom. The king and queen were very kind people and most generous to those in need. In fact, rather than act solely as a ruler, the king chose to study and become a physician in order to better help the people of his kingdom."
"A doctor of sorts. The queen also did her part to help the kingdom by collecting money and donations for the less fortunate. Since she and the king were very wealthy, she felt it was their duty to give back to the kingdom that looked up to them for guidance. One day, not long after the king and queen were married, they had a son…"
"A p-wince," Master Nathan declared proudly.
"Indeed, a young prince. He had dark hair and bright blue eyes and he was a very smart boy, and very energetic… much like yourself, Master Nathan."
"Like me," he grinned up at me. His gaze then shifted to the door and when I looked as well, I spotted Master Bruce and Ms. Selina standing by. "Mommy, Daddy, Alf-wed's telling me a stoh-y. The g-weatest stoh-y."
"The greatest story," Selina replied, "Well, we can't pass that up, can we, Bruce?"
Once they had taken a seat on either side at the end of the bed, Master Nathan encouraged me to continue. After looking into Master Bruce's eyes, I continued, "The young prince loved his parents very much… in fact they were the most important things in his entire life. The king and queen loved their son as well and their lives were far better now that he was with them. One day… the king and queen celebrated the young prince's birthday not with an extravagant ball or feast but by visiting the theatre in the kingdom. Following the performance, the royal family made their way through the streets of the kingdom back to the horses and coach that had brought them down from the castle."
Ms. Selina reached over and took her husband's hand into her own.
"Unfortunately, the kingdom was not entirely made of good people… there were still criminals and thieves lurking about the streets, willing to do anything to steal gold and fine jewels. And unfortunately, one of these criminals came upon the royal family."
"What happened?" the young child asked as his hand touched my arm.
"The criminal did not recognize the king and queen and the young prince… and demanded they give him their gold and jewels. Now even though the king did as he was told, the criminal went to pull at a pearl necklace that was around the queen's neck. In order to protect his wife, the king dove in front of her, frightening the criminal so much that he… killed the good king. In a state of panic, he then proceeded to kill the queen."
"What about the p-wince?"
"As the criminal realized what he had done, he fled the street, leaving the young prince alone… with his parents at his feet. The prince's world had been forever shattered as those he loved most were now gone…"
When I looked to Master Bruce once more, he nodded.
"The young prince returned to the castle, no longer the bright, happy boy but a sad, quiet one. His loyal servant, who had looked over him since he had been born, was certain there was no way to comfort the young prince but he did his best. The young prince then made a promise to his late parents… that he would make sure that no other child, no matter if they were royalty or simple townsfolk, would ever have to suffer as he had."
"What did he do?" Master Nathan asked before yawning.
"Upon completing his studies, he travelled the world, leaving behind the castle and kingdom he had lived in his entire life. There he began a different sort of education… he began to master all forms of fighting and defense… science and math… language and arts… the young prince sought out every master of every skill that may help him in his quest to defend the people of his kingdom. After seven long years, the young prince returned to the kingdom, but not as a boy as he was now a man grown."
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Ms. Selina leaning against Master Bruce's arm. I then continued, "The prince knew he would not be able to become a city knight, not only because he was royalty but because he also knew that the criminals did not fear the city knights. No, the prince needed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, in order to assure that he would be able to keep his promise to his parents.
"So he became a dark knight. Rather than touring the streets by daylight, he prowled them at night, as did most of the criminals. By day, however, the prince upheld his royal duties, ruling his kingdom in his father's place. But as night fell, he removed his brightly colored cloaks and dressed in black armor and a cape to help conceal him in the shadows. The dark knight used his perfected skills work in order to hunt down the criminals that dared to strike out at his kingdom.
"However, it wasn't long before the dark knight became consumed by his quest, allowing the darkness of his life to overpower the light. Just as it seemed there was nothing left of the prince, he came upon another young boy, much like himself, who had lost his parents. The boy had been part of the traveling carnival and he and his parents had been the acrobatic act, flying high on the trapeze. A criminal had unfortunately cut through the trapeze swing in order to threaten the carnival's owner and when the young boys parents went to perform, the rope snapped and they fell."
"What happened to the boy, Alfred?" Selina asked, still leaning against her husband as she pointed at her son.
I looked down to see he had slipped down against the pillows, fighting slumber with all his might. "After seeing how very similar his life had been to the boy from the carnival, the prince took the boy to live with him as his ward. It wasn't long after that the prince allowed the boy to know of his true life, the life as a dark knight… It was then that the prince began to teach the boy all which he had learned in his travels, in order to prepare the boy to join his war on crime."
When I glanced down again, the boy's eyes had fallen heavily and his breaths came long and slow. After adjusting the covers, I rose from the bed and kissed his brow, "To be continued, young sir."
Once the three of us had made it silently into the corridor, Master Bruce shut the door behind him, "Thank you, Alfred."
"It was my pleasure, sir. I do hope you will be able to continue with the adventures of the prince and the young boy."
He nodded, allowing himself to smirk, "I hope I can remember it all."
Ms. Selina stepped forward suddenly, wrapping her arm about me, "Behave yourself, old man."
"I will do my best."
When she released me, she turned to Mater Bruce and nodded before making her way down the corridor to their chambers. As we stepped off on the second floor, he asked, "Was there anything else to go down?"
"Nothing that I can't manage on my own, sir."
He continued after me as I entered my quarters to perform one last tour of the various rooms. When I had convinced myself that all was packed, I returned to the sitting area with my coat, hat and leather bag in hand. Master Bruce, who had been standing at the doorway whilst following me with his eyes nodded towards my desk. I looked to see my massive leather bound journal in the center of it.
As he went to retrieve it, I shook my head, "I'm leaving it. To be completed upon my return."
"Are you sure?" he asked with doubt, knowing the importance of my daily ritual.
I nodded, "Miss Mattie has provided me with an interim journal to write in while I am away."
"And you're just leaving this one behind?"
"Well, it may need a reading or two, pages turned, keep the covers supple…"
A true smile broke his face as he realized my hidden intentions. With the discovery that he had lost several of his memories to the radiation therapies, he had been wrought with worry that he had not only forgotten parts of his life as Batman but also his life as Bruce Wayne. More importantly the life he had briefly led in the company of his parents. Seeing as how I had written my observations on the pages of my journal since the beginning of his life, I was fairly certain he would be able to fill in the pieces.
Peace of mind, at the very least for himself.
As well as for myself.
An unexpected snow shower had city drivers in a near panic and the forty-five minute drive to the airport had taken nearly an hour and a half. With the backseat and trunk containing Alfred's luggage, I had been forced to sit in the passenger seat as Alfred navigated the highway with a natural ease. I had known better than to offer to drive him into the city, simply out of self preservation.
Upon finally arriving at the airport, we pulled through the secure entrance behind the parking garage in order to pull onto the private air strip. With twenty minutes to spare before his scheduled take off, Alfred and his belongings were aboard the Wayne Gulfstream IV, already clean across the boards for the pre-flight checks. I had offered to have a Wayne pilot to at least get him to Africa but Alfred had insisted on doing it himself.
As he always had.
Earlier in the week, when we had been planning his departure, Selina had wanted to tag along but as the day approached, she realized that it would be best if Alfred and I were able to part ways without an audience. Or rather in her words, "Hate for anyone to witness that you actually have a heart in this big hairy chest of yours."
Unfortunately, the dramatic scene that she and everyone else had predicted never took place. Once Alfred was ready to navigate the plan for takeoff, he had embraced me lightly before saying, "Good bye, Master Bruce."
"Alfred… take care of her."
"I meant Leslie."
He had smirked at that and donned his radio headphones before taking the pilot's seat.
After returning to the car, I waited until the Gulfstream had successfully taken flight before disappearing into the cloudy sky. After turning the key and navigating back to the highway, I allowed myself a sigh.
Just as I began to muse about the changes that had taken place in the Family over the last few months and even years, I saw of flash of light slicing through the city skyline. The signal. Instinct took hold of me and I reached for the cell phone in my pocket, dialing it without looking. I was just about to complete the call by hitting the "send" button but instead, I flipped the phone closed and set it in the empty seat beside me.
I had just managed to merge onto St. James North when the phone came to life. I picked up after the second ring without looking at the Caller ID, "Yes?"
"How'd it go?" Selina asked.
"Good… he'll be having a layover in Brussels tonight before heading south."
"How long will it take to get to Brussels?"
"Six and a half hours, give or take," I glanced at the dash to see it was half passed eleven, "Actually, with the time difference, he'll be there in time for lunch."
"A feast of Belgian chocolates…" she replied before asking, "So what's up, I see Gotham's celebrating in its usual style."
"Excuse me?" I countered as a Maserati nearly took me out as it slid in the quarter inch of snow.
I looked in the rear view mirror to see the beam of light was still piercing the night sky, "I don't know… but I'm sure they can handle it."
The amusement in her voice was hard to miss, "You're not even curious?"
"If I'm not mistaken, curiosity is in your department."
She waited a beat before purring, "Meow." Another moment passed before she asked, "So, Mattie called a little while ago."
"Everything's fine, she just wanted to wish us happy New Year before the kids went insane at the party. You know, with the midnight beer bongs and infinite lines of cocaine…"
I sighed, "It's not funny, Selina, Piper is already a bad influence on her with her wardrobe alone and I know her parents don't supervise the parties she hosts, at least not---."
"As well as you would? Might I bring up the fact that the party you supervised left Tim as a snow man in the back yard and Krypton's last son in a catatonic state?"
"… That was different."
She changed the subject abruptly, "Are you going to make it back by midnight?"
"Hopefully…" I grunted, with little hope in my voice.
"Easy there, stud, your optimism is overwhelming me," she laughed, "Well I hope you do because I had an awfully good idea on how we could celebrate."
"Oh really?" I asked as I finally made it off St. James in order to take the scenic albeit less driven route back to Wayne Manor, "Care to elaborate?"
Selina paused before answering, "Well, you have twenty-eight minutes to find out," before hanging up on me. I could have easily made it home in twenty minutes but I took my time, leaving just over three minutes until midnight struck when I came up the drive. Leaving the car in front of the garage, I entered the manor through the service entrance before jogging to the stairs. As I made it to the third floor, my watch gave me forty-three seconds.
As I approached the master bedroom, I smiled as I heard Selina's voice mutter, "Jackass… better hurry or he'll be moving into Alfred's room…"
I opened the door with ten seconds to spare, counting each one down as I took a step towards her. When I had left earlier that evening, she had been dressed in a black skirt and a white low cut blouse under a fitted purple sweater. Obviously, she had opted to change in order to spend the remainder of the evening in comfort as she had traded her outfit for a black sheer lace slip.
When I reached three, I was at the bed, already kneeling on it as I leaned in towards her, "Two, one…"
She kissed my lips softly, "Your watch is fifteen seconds fast, my love…"
With a sigh, I sat down and began to recline on the bed, "Well, I tried… good night, Selina."
"Good night, Bruce," she replied as she began to lie next to me.
Often when we feigned disinterest in one another, Selina managed to hold out longer than I. Although I had intended on overcoming self-control, every breath I drew was laced with her perfume. Out of the corner of my eye, I was able to see her lying still, the garment doing little to conceal the body I had memorized every inch of long ago.
Without warning, I suddenly rolled over and went about lying on top of her, supporting myself by my elbows and knees, my lips finding her neck with a mind of their own. She laughed as she ran a hand through my hair, "You held out a whole minute… Impressive."
"I'll show you impressive," I growled into her neck.
Later, with my clothes scattered on the floor and her slip somewhere amidst the rumpled blankets and pillows, Selina admitted between heavy breaths "You know what that reminded me of? Our first time… At the penthouse… "
While mentally taking my pulse, I nodded, "Now that was impressive…" before I could continue, the phone rang on the bedside table. I leaned over Selina and picked the portable off of the base, "Yes?"
The caller cleared his voice before speaking, "Bruce, it's Tim." There was a strain in his voice that sent a chill down my spine.
"I saw the signal," I replied, "What happened?" Selina sat up slowly, no doubt already sensing the tension in my posture.
"There was an incident at Arkham. Someone sent a gift basket to the security office, food, wine, party hats---."
"Poisoned?" I questioned as I rose from the bed.
He hesitated, "Yes. They opened it around eleven or so, started the celebration early. Eight that consumed food and are in critical condition at Mercy, another ten are dead…" I felt my stomach churn as he continued, "The party hats were tagged with Tetch chips… Thankfully only one of the guards wore them but before he collapsed, he unlocked several cell doors."
"No, actually his door was left locked so he's only an accomplice so far… But six inmates managed to escape their cells. The security officers that had been doing routine night checks caught a number of them, Harvey Dent was in an office looking for a coin to flip, Arnold Wesker was fighting with Socko and Amygdala was in a corner crying about the sound of the alarms. Ivy managed to get out of the building after using her pheromones on a few of the guards but when I arrived I managed to tranquilize her before she got off the grounds."
"You said there were six escapees… Who were the two that got away?"
Another hesitation before, "It appears they have a staff doctor as a hosta---."
"Who are they?!" I demanded. Even before he spoke, I knew what his answer was.
"Bruce… it's the Joker and Harley."