Twelve Days To Christmas
Twelve days to Christmas
Another drink. Most successful men enjoyed a drink after a long day of hard work. He was successful, oh, yeah! And he worked hard. Only that he worked nights.
Every morning before dawn he went home, changed out of his work clothes, reported to Alfred that he was still in one piece or let him patch him up if necessary, and then he sneaked out to the bar down the street for a late night cup.
He despised people who drank in the solitude of their room until they passed out. He also feared it. He dreaded giving in to the despair. He feared that once he let the darkness envelop him he might not be able to come out of it. And the city needed him. They blamed and cursed him, but they needed him still. No, the bar worked for him. Besides, Alfred had developed the bad habit of hiding his booze lately. He had to talk to him about it, he was the Master after all. Someday.
"Marco…" he spoke quietly and the bartender came with the JD bottle to refill his glass.
He preferred to sit at the bar in moments like these, although there weren't that many customers around to bother him at that early hour, just a couple of businessmen passed by their prime reading the newspaper over the morning coffee. None of them raised their eyes when the door opened to look at the new arrival.
He did. It would have been hard not to. Underneath all that grief he was still human and the sight of a beautiful woman always caught his eyes. Long legs, with a slim shaped figure and long wavy blonde hair, she was beautiful no doubt. She walked to the bar and before sitting down she took off her white coat and placed it on the chair beside her, revealing an elegant and expensive two piece beige outfit with a white silk blouse underneath.
"Hello, has Mr. Schwartzberg arrived?" she asked the bartender with a soft voice in which dwelled a slight hint of foreign accent.
"No, ma'am," the man shook his head, "I haven't seen him today. What can I get you?"
"Just water, please," she said and checked her watch. A couple of minutes passed and she checked her watch again.
"Excuse me, I couldn't help hearing your conversation…" the young man sitting at the other end of the bar put down his glass and moved closer. "If you're waiting for Mr. Schwartzberg, I'm afraid he's not gonna make it," he smiled down at the woman.
"Oh?" blue-gray eyes looked up at the tall man, a delicate eyebrow arching up slightly wondering who the stranger was and hoping he wasn't trying to pick her up.
"Mr. Schwartzberg hates being late… and he would never leave a beautiful woman like you waiting," he grinned.
"Thank you," she gave him a polite smile. A model, she had to be a model, that's why her features with expertly applied make-up to enhance her beauty looked familiar to him, as if he'd seen her somewhere else before. "That's too bad… he was supposed to show me his art gallery today."
"Are you an art amateur?"
"I am an art expert actually," she replied with an indulgent smile. She was used with people failing to take her seriously until they saw her at work.
He looked impressed. So she wasn't just another blonde bimbo to add to his collection. What was Schwartzberg up to? "In that case allow me to accompany you and give you a tour. I happen to own a few pieces exhibited there and I would like to hear your opinion on them. Are they a good investment or have I just thrown the money out the window?" he smirked.
"I guess I could take a look…" she accepted the invitation without making any promise. There was a fee to pay if he wanted her services and besides there was something in his composure that told her he knew exactly what art pieces he'd bought and how much they were worth.
"I'm Bruce, Bruce Wayne."
The woman smiled like that name wasn't totally foreign to her and as her head tilted the diamond stud earrings and two thin gold necklaces laying at the base of her neck sparkled in the morning light.
"Elizabeth," she held out her hand with perfectly manicured long fingernails and let it rest in his for a brief moment. He noticed a heavy ring on her left hand but it wasn't on her ring finger.
"You're not from here, are you?" Bruce asked conversationally while he held up her long coat to help her put it on.
"I'm European," she chuckled amused. "No, in fact I grew up here, but then I moved to Europe to study and stayed there."
"Well, things have changed since then," he warned her and opened the door for them to walk out of the bar.
It was an atypical winter for Gotham. No snow, but the cold cut you to the bone.
* * *
The sun coming in through the large windows of the giant penthouse had woken her up. For a moment she couldn't remember where she was but then she smiled at the memory and stretched on the wrinkled sheets. She could still smell his scent surrounding her although the bed was empty and the whole place seemed to be too quiet for him to be around. Even if a little disappointed to be abandoned like that she assumed he did have to do some work once in a while to make all that money he seemed to have. And he had lots, just look at this place. Her feet padded naked on the polished floor. Time to do a little exploring.
Quite minimalist in style, she thought. While cozy and fully functional it looked like he'd either just moved in or was not planning to stay there for long. Expensive stuff and he must have hired a very good decorator but no unnecessary things from what she could see. She liked it.
The couple of rooms she entered were pristine, not one particle of dust or object out of place. He must have a great maid. And not that many personal things, except for the endless line of suits. Now how about some food?
"Good afternoon, Miss," the older man with a stiff back greeted her when she entered the dining room. He didn't look surprised by the sight of an unknown woman walking around the penthouse wearing one of Bruce's shirts and apparently not much else. Good points for him, bad points for Bruce.
"Hello… you must be Alfred, right?" she smiled and tucked a rebel blonde lock behind her ear.
The butler nodded. "Would you like some supper, Miss?"
"Elizabeth… Elizabeth Dent."
To his credit, Alfred didn't even blink. "Welcome to our home, Miss Dent. May I suggest some slippers?"
* * *
The blueprints spread on the table had Bruce leaned over them studying them concentrated. It was one of the few days when he got to spend the afternoon in the office. The company ran like oil without his interference, but when Lucius had called, he'd known it had to be pretty important. In a way, maybe he'd done him a favor, separations were always awkward the morning after, and noon was no exception.
"I'm not sure I follow…" he mused in that low tone of voice of his that could become so much rougher scaring the crap out of the enemy. "Why are you showing me these?" he looked up at Fox.
"This project was commissioned six months ago by an art organization. They're pretty serious usually, a good reputation in the long run… they deal with expensive art objects, some famous ones occasionally, but even so they couldn't afford it," Lucius shook his head.
"So someone is financing them… or using them, which is basically the same thing." He looked back down at the prints. "What does exactly this thing do?"
"It tests the composition of materials, the consistency, the age of substances, the insides of things… without touching the actual object."
"Is it working?"
"This is only a prototype," Lucius pointed at the prints, "but this is all they requested to have ready before the holidays. Yes, it's working. I was just looking over the final product earlier before closing the file to make sure everything was in order like I do with most projects… their specifications were very detailed and everything was respected," he nodded. "Similar things have been done before, more or less advanced, it's not the invention of the century really…"
"Then why did they need us to make another one if it's already available on the market?" Bruce wondered.
"There is a slight difference; they wanted to speed up the process, run all the tests simultaneously. The thing is… when a specific combination of the beams is working they send out an impulse that might interact with certain materials."
"Can you be more precise?"
"I still have some tests to run… it could be a coincidence…"
"Things are never coincidental, not in this town," Bruce said knowing the other man fully agreed with him. "And Schwartzberg just flew in an art expert from Paris… hmm…" he tapped his fingers on the surface of the desk, "we need to keep an eye on this."
* * *
First the coat was off, and then the suit jacket followed. "Alfred, has Elizabeth left?" Bruce called out from the vestibule as he loosened his tie.
"Yes, Sir. She had a late lunch and apologized she couldn't wait for you, but she had an appointment she had to go to," the butler answered from the living room, "and she also didn't want to leave Ben alone for too long."
Ben? Who the hell was Ben? She wasn't married. Her boyfriend maybe? "Did she say by any chance where she's staying?" Bruce grinned sheepishly standing in the doorway. They hadn't exactly talked about private details.
"No, Sir. Miss Dent said she would call you."
Bruce's fingers grasped painfully onto the door frame. "Miss Dent?"
"I believe that is her name, Sir. Or at least that's how she introduced herself to me," Alfred's voice was slightly ironic as he continued, "Are you alright, Sir? You look a little pale."
"Oh God…" Bruce groaned and let himself fall on an armchair. "Elizabeth… she is…"
"Harvey Dent's sister, yes, Sir," Alfred nodded. "They even look alike, same blue eyes and same blonde thick hair… quite a handsome family if I may say so."
Bruce laid his head back and stared at the ceiling. No wonder she looked familiar. "Alfred, what have I done?" he moaned.
"Sir, we've had that talk when you turned fourteen. And you've been practicing on regular bases, I doubt you've forgotten." The remark brought him a disapproving glare. "Maybe I should have told you to ask their name before bringing them home," he added.
"Alfred, she's Dent's sister…" Bruce repeated like the man didn't understand the complexity of the situation. "Am I ruining his entire family now?" he asked sarcastically and turned his head to look outside the window at the city that was succumbing to darkness.
"I'd be more worried about her reasons for being here, Sir… if she's anything like her brother…" Alfred settled for shrugging his shoulders and cocked his head.
"You mean like… revenge?" Bruce looked back at him. "I don't think so… she's a sweet girl, very smart too." Only that one had to pass by her look and cold and rather reserved approach to see it.
"Or answers… it could be just as bad, or worse."
"What answers could she possibly want?" Bruce wondered. "Dent is dead, we caught the Joker… case closed."
"But it isn't really over, is it, Master Bruce?" Alfred asked wisely. "Not for those directly involved… Batman is still out there. They still haven't caught him, and with God's help they never will, but there are rumors… after charging him with those cops' deaths, people are ready to believe he killed Dent too. Now imagine if she heard those rumors… in her grief she could easily believe such things, especially since she isn't familiar with him and what he stands for." Alfred stopped to take in a deep breath and let out a sigh, "Let me tell you, I am relieved that she is not aware of your connection with him… 'cause if she was, then I'd be really worried."
That was a silly supposition, no one knew beside Alfred and Lucius, not even Gordon. "So what's your suggestion?"
"Tread very carefully when it comes to Miss Dent, Sir. We don't know what she's capable of yet."
* * *
Eleven days to Christmas
As they approached the gallery she had visited the previous morning Elizabeth's face flushed remembering how that meeting had ended. Luckily it was cold enough to attribute that blush to the outside weather condition. It wasn't much warmer inside the gallery either.
"I apologize again for yesterday, Miss Dent," the large man accompanying her said. "An emergency came up and my secretary left you a message at the hotel but you were already out."
"That's alright, Mr. Schwartzberg. Mr. Wayne was kind enough to show me around. He also offered to show me the vault but I didn't think that would be appropriate in your absence," she smiled ironically.
"Did he?" he smirked. "Well, Mr. Wayne has one fine sense of humor and he has a lot of power in this city and not only here, but even he doesn't have access to my vault without my approval," he claimed. "This way please."
They walked along the gallery without stopping to admire any of the pieces exhibited and he showed her the way downstairs to the underground level where the vault was. Lights went up ahead of them as they advanced towards the quite common looking door. The double key and code lock was opened without much fuss and she was invited inside.
"This is where all the precious items, that are not currently exhibited, are stored. This room has seen more than half of the world's treasures only in my lifetime and several more before that as I inherited the business from my grandfather."
"So it's a business now?" she asked looking around at the items showered by discreet spotlights.
"Everything is these days, Miss Dent. This just happens to be a more beautiful one," he stated matter of factly.
"Indeed…" she murmured approaching an exquisite Renoir to admire it from close and then turned around. "I don't see…"
"That was the problem I had yesterday morning. The shipment was supposed to arrive, unfortunately it can't be flown over because some of the pieces are very fragile and can't stand the variation of pressure, and it seems that every country from middle Asia to here needs a different permit at the border. It will take two more days I'm afraid. I'm sorry I have wasted your time, I hope you will find ways to entertain yourself in the city until they arrive."
"I guess I will…" she smiled. "It will be interesting to see how it evolved in the past decade."
"It changed a lot; especially during the last year… the streets are safer now."
"Ah, because of the caped crusader I keep hearing about?" she wondered.
"I won't deny the fact that he needs to be caught… but he did help. Him along with your brother…"
"Yeah…" her eyes lowered and a shadow flew over her face briefly.
"Anyway…" Schwartzberg coughed to clear his throat. "I don't want you to feel totally abandoned so I'd like to invite you to the fundraising we're doing tomorrow for the benefit of young artists. Mr. Wayne is a big supporter of arts… or his bank account is, so he's bound to be there too."
"That sounds interesting," she smirked. "I'll consider it," she promised and took another look at the Renoir before leaving the vault.
* * *
Small robberies weren't his thing, but this one wasn't exactly small. As he waited for the truck to approach the bridge he fought the conflicting feelings tormenting him and he nearly missed it. If he let the thugs rob the truck of its precious cargo then Elizabeth would be left without her object of work and she'd have to return to Paris to her cozy apartment near Place d'Etoile. That was a good thing, right? It was best for everyone. But if the cargo disappeared then he'd have no lead on what the prototype was meant for. People never worried when things worked according to plan, didn't the Joker say that? Better let things unfold and then stop them just before the very end than start from zero again.
Decision made he jumped off the bridge just when the truck was passing underneath it making a pedestrian witness think it was another suicidal person who'd had enough with this shitty life. Thank God for the cape that broke his fall.
The truck continued its way for another ten minutes or so until it was surrounded by a set of four other cars and forced to pull up on the side of the desert suburban road. The small army carrying guns had no trouble convincing the driver and the guard set beside him to get out of the truck and under gun threat they bullied them to the back and forced them to open it.
The avalanche of bodies that fell over them took them by surprise mostly because they were already incapacitated.
"Well, well, well, looks like someone's been doing our job for us," the head of the gang commented with disdain.
"Yes, and now it's time to pay!" a dark creature, the nightmare of every criminal in the city, burst out of the belly of the truck and started to throw punches to the right and left.
Guns discharged but he merely flinched being too busy taking down the thugs one by one until only the driver and still conscious guard where left standing.
"I wouldn't stay here long if I were you," he told them and disappeared not taking the time to help them separate their own men from the attackers and put them back in the truck.
* * *
Ten days to Christmas
Since it was an art benefit Bruce made an effort to respect the evening's theme and showed up with a redhead on his arm, a well-known soprano whose temper was just as feisty as her hair, on and off stage as well. Still young and therefore in her pre-porky period she spoke little, as if saving her voice for less mundane activities than speaking, settling for nodding and smiling most of the time. It worked for Bruce, he wasn't really interested in making conversation and he had brought her mostly for decorative purposes.
He had no feeling of loss when he had to release her to do her two number show accompanied by the orchestra directed by an over sea composer. It was all part of the entertainment. He was even relieved because he only had eyes for Elizabeth, though he did wince a little when his date started to hit the higher notes.
"Mr. Schwartzberg did say you might be here," he approached the blonde woman with a smile and a glass in hand.
"Mr. Schwartzberg told me you were going to be here," she smiled accepting the offered drink. "Do you think he's trying his hand at matchmaking?" she joked.
"Oh, I hope he's not quitting his day job, he's much better at that," he smirked. And he was so not the right man for her. Anyone could vouch for that, even those who only knew him as Bruce Wayne and had no idea about his nightly activities. "I'm sorry I had to leave without saying goodbye, I got a call from the office…"
"I'm sorry I had to leave too, work called…" she replied with a similar smile.
"Yeah, Alfred told me," he nodded and frowned. "Who's Ben?" he blurted out.
Elizabeth laughed. "Ben… maybe I'll introduce him to you."
"We could all go out…" he didn't look thrilled by that idea.
"A double date?" she suggested. "I don't think so, Ben doesn't like redheads," she smirked.
"I hope he didn't give you a hard time for being absent (?) the entire morning…"
"And part of the afternoon too… Alfred stopped me to lunch," she smiled.
"Yes, he told me about that too… must be nice for him to have company for a change, he gets lonely at times."
"I take it you don't spend much time at home?"
"No, I'm… busy…" that was mildly put "and I'm the only family he's got," and vice-versa.
"I know how that feels," she smiled melancholically and Bruce wanted to kick himself for reminding her that.
"Another drink?" he attempted a diversion from the sad subject.
"No, I'm fine… I'd like something to nibble though."
"The appetizers are that way… shall we go?" he offered her his arm.
"Won't your date mind?" she asked but let her arm slip around his.
"I think she's well taken care of," he gestured with his head towards the soprano who was chatting up a storm to the foreign composer, "she won't even notice," he smirked not at all bothered by it.
* * *
The door opened with a click letting Elizabeth and Bruce enter the hotel suite. When the time to leave the party had come he'd offered to give her a ride home in his limo that was waiting outside. No one mentioned a thing about his date.
"Nice room," Bruce mused, "cheap art work… Schwartzberg could do better than that."
"Funny, I thought the same thing!" she chuckled. She took off her gloves and slid out of her coat.
Bruce watched with unhidden admiration the way the blue-gray dress that matched the color of her eyes clung to her figure. God, he really had to get those thoughts out of his head. "This is much better…"
"Which one?" she turned around and gasped seeing the painting on the wall he was facing. "Oh… but… this is a Renoir…" she moved closer to investigate the sudden apparition. The painting hadn't been there when she'd left the room earlier in the evening. "And it's an original too…" What puzzled her most was not the fact that someone had obviously entered her room, but the acute feeling that the painting was the same one she'd seen in the vault at the gallery.
"Yes, Schwartzberg said you liked it," Bruce grinned.
"Oh… you shouldn't have…"
"Don't tell me you can't accept it… it means nothing to me," or to his bank account. Oddly enough, it meant something to him whether she accepted it or not. He wanted her to have it.
"Well, in that case… thank you," she smiled and a moment later her smile got wider reaching her eyes "Hi, honey… how are you?" and she wasn't looking at him anymore but somewhere behind him.
Bruce turned around to face the competition and… nothing. There was no one standing in the doorway. He lowered his eyes a few degrees and then he saw it, the biggest dog ever.
"Bruce, this is Ben," Elizabeth ran her fingers over the Great Dane's big gray head. "My brother gave him to me last time he visited me in Paris, when he decided I spent too much time inside Le Louvre and that I needed exercise," she grinned.
Ben rubbed the side of his back against her leg nearly toppling her over.
"That's one strong dog," Bruce commented. He almost regretted Ben not being human; at least he knew how to deal with people.
"Don't tell me you don't like dogs," she teased him.
"No, it's them who don't like me usually," he muttered.
"Ben is a sweetheart, he's only allergic to rubber and he never gave me any problem. He's the best guard I could wish for, I feel safer than if… that flying guy…" she waved a hand in the air.
"Batman," he helped her memory.
"Batman," she nodded, "if Batman guarded me. I can walk into town with Ben at any hour of the day and no one dares approaching me."
"Maybe in Paris, but not here. Not with our class of criminals," he said sarcastically but he did reach out with his hand in a friendly gesture. Ben sniffed it and sneezed. "Bless." At least he hadn't tried to bite his fingers off. "OK, I believe you but can you send him to the other room?"
"I thought we were going to the other room?" she replied promptly.
"Ah, right…" he remembered and leaned in to kiss her lips.
* * *
Nine days to Christmas
"I will have to apologize again for the delay, Miss Dent," Schwartzberg spoke while they walked along the same dark corridor as they had before. "The shipment was attacked on the outskirts of the city. Our guards barely made it alive."
"That's awful. Does that mean you don't need my expertise anymore?"
"No, no… we saved the cargo…" he reached for the vault to open it. "I mean…" he rolled his eyes "Batman did… but still we have it all… in here," he opened the door.
Boxes of various sizes were stack up neatly along the walls. There was barely any room left to breathe inside.
"I'm impressed," Elizabeth, taking advantage of her slimmer form, slid in between two piles taller than her. "You didn't say there'd be so many. This might take longer than planned. I can't promise I'll have them all checked by Christmas," she warned and slalomed towards the center of the room where a few small boxes laid open on a table surrounding a small army of Buddha statues.
"I perfectly understand. If 70% of them are certified by then, it will give enough credibility to our exhibition. That is all that I am expecting of you. The rest can be done later. You have no special plans for the holidays I hope?"
"No, I'm afraid not…" she took another look at the little Buddhas.
"That's great then. Gotham gets really vibrant during the holiday season, you'll like it."
Elizabeth shrugged. She wasn't in a holiday mood, not yet anyway. "So when can I start working?"
"Tomorrow. Given the circumstances I have to double the security and unfortunately I can't hire Batman because no one seems to be able to find the damn guy. But starting with tomorrow you'll have the lab all to yourself, plus two assistants. Of course, you'll only have a limited amount of pieces at a time inside the lab but you will work it out, I'm sure."
"Of course." More room for the dog.
* * *
Bruce waited with his hands shoved in his pockets watching how the white rays penetrated the five inches tall ceramic Buddha. Encased inside the prototype the statuette was only vaguely visible because of the stained glass walls, but all the data was displayed on the plasma screen in front of him, including the chemical analysis.
"I told you, Mr. Wayne, it looks clean. The data are identical with the first test's results." Lucius pushed his swivel chair away from the control desk and went to retrieve the object of their discussion.
"It looks clean…" Bruce nodded pensively. "But should we trust it?"
The Buddha was placed on the desk. "We better trust it. We built it," Lucius smirked.
"Of course, I'm familiar with the quality of our products first hand, but still…" Bruce didn't look too convinced. He picked up the statue in his hand and watched it quizzically. "Maybe I should bring in another one?" he wondered out loud.
"Let's not turn Batman into a thief…"
"Yeah, 'cause after becoming a murderer that would be worst for his reputation," came the sarcastic remark.
"The little guy is clean now… give me a few more hours and I'll have a full report for you," Lucius said. "I've got a few ideas."
"We don't have that much time… Christmas is approaching and they want a live demonstration at the opening of the exhibition. And like you said… Batman is no thief. I have to take it back."
"Isn't this is one of those things that it's easier to steal than put back?"
Bruce looked at the Buddha he was holding in his hand and smirked, "Maybe not this time."
* * *
For a city that never slept Gotham was awfully quiet that evening. Wrapped in her long winter coat Elizabeth walked along the sidewalk holding onto Ben's leash. She had been in her teens when she'd left and the place had changed so much she hardly recognized it. Gone was the candy shop around the corner or the arena where her brother used to play hockey. She remembered the times when she sat on the bench and cheered for him until she froze or ran out of voice, whichever came first. That was all in the past now.
There had been a pale tentative of snow earlier in the day but it had melted before even reaching the ground. The clicks of her heels were muffled by the layer of mud covering the pavement. The hotel was in a good area of the town and it offered walking dog services but she liked doing it herself when she could. The dog stopped to sniff the trunk of a tree apparently marked by a rival. A few pedestrians passed by in a hurry to get home, and there was also an occasional bum. As long as they didn't make eye contact she felt relatively safe.
Ben raised his head and his ears twitched as if picking some kind of signal. She only heard the screech of tires and a faint whistle. The dog obviously heard more. His long tail started to wiggle lazily and he walked forward making her follow him. She decided to accommodate him a little longer although they had gotten quite far already from the place they temporarily called home. Somewhere in the distance ahead on the street the Wayne Tower was boldly raising towards the sky guarding the city.
It happened really fast. One moment she was walking and the next a dark shadow was grabbing her and dragging her inside a gang entrance. Elizabeth was too shocked and scared to have other reaction than let out a startled squeak.
"Don't scream, I'm not gonna hurt you," the masked man with pointed ears told her in a low rough voice as he held her up against the wall. His hands were squeezing her hard on purpose to make a stronger impact on her. "Go home… leave Gotham… you're not safe here," he warned.
"But…" she stammered.
"No but… Schwartzberg is up to something… something is gonna happen on Christmas, something bad…" he warned.
"What?" she gasped.
"I don't know, there's something about those Buddhas…"
"You mean the one you stole?"
"Could be… or another…" he admitted.
"I can look for it if you tell me what it is… I work with them every day."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because if you're onto it then it has to be big and people's lives are at stake…"
Damn white knight complex, she had it too. "Who said that? Didn't you read the headlines?" Don't you know what I'm capable of?
"My brother," she blurted out "he trusted you!"
"And look where it got him!" he snapped back. He should have saved him, and Rachel, and lots of other people.
"Even more so… he's gone but you're still here. You can continue to work for what he stood for. And you do!"
"I don't do it for him. I never have. Our interests just coincided for a while."
"And he trusted you," she insisted, "I believe in him."
"Your brother's judgment wasn't always right." And she didn't know even the half of it.
"It doesn't matter… he's my brother," she whispered. Tears glinted in her eyes as she looked up.
His hands relaxed slowly on her upper arms. The urge to comfort her was overwhelming but he couldn't allow himself to give in to it. "Go home… there's nothing left for you here." Not even that playboy billionaire who spent each day with another woman on his arm, especially not him.
"I can't!" she whimpered. "I need to find him."
If there had been more light around the place she would have seen his eyes open wider. "Harvey's dead," he grunted. "Go home." He released her and stepped back avoiding the last moment a collision with the Great Dane.
Both Elizabeth and Ben watched him fly high above and disappear somewhere on top of the building. "Come here, boy," she murmured and pulled the dog closer to give him a hug wondering idly why he hadn't attacked. Ben sneezed.
"Bless," the word echoed faintly coming from the sky.
* * *
Alfred lowered his feet off the bed, slid them into his slippers and put on the robe. Whoever knocked on the door at that late hour better have a good reason. And why the doorman hadn't announced the visitor before allowing its access to the top level of the building he couldn't understand.
"Elizabeth…" Bruce showed up behind him wearing a similar robe and hair tousled seemingly from sleep. They both stared at the woman standing in the doorway.
"I'm sorry… I didn't know where else to go." She was shaking all over and looked like she'd been crying and she was struggling not to do it again.
"Come in," Bruce's arm opened to circle her shoulders.
"I'll make hot chocolate for all of us," Alfred said with a gentle smile, "and look for a bone," he glanced down at the dog.
Seated at the kitchen table they both stood with a hot mug in front of them while Alfred moved around the kitchen making sandwiches and trying to avoid stepping on the Great Dane's feet.
"This is unbelievable!" Bruce grumbled. "Who does this guy think he is? He threatened you?"
Alfred gave him a look over his shoulder and rolled his eyes.
"He's not what I expected him to be…" Elizabeth murmured staring into her cup.
"What did you expect? The man is crazy. Who else would run around at night wearing a mask and cape and looking like a bat?"
"Very good point, Sir," Alfred approved from standing in front of the fridge.
"It's not that…" she shook her head making the soft locks bounce slowly around her face "he's not crazy… but he scared me," she confessed. "Batman is not supposed to scare people."
Bruce found it hard to hide the smirk in his eyes, Wanna bet? "And you are such an expert in Batman issues because…?" he teased her.
"Harvey told me… umm…" she sniffed "we talked all the time. He admired Batman for what he stood for and what he did. You know that," she turned to Bruce "you organized a fundraiser for him so you must agree with it."
"No, no," Bruce interrupted her, "I admired your brother for what he was trying to do. I never agreed with this Batman character. He should be put behind bars. We've got the police for that."
"The police failed to protect my brother."
"So did Batman."
"At least he got him out alive." Alive, but with what price? he thought. "They couldn't do the same for your friend." His face darkened and she bit her lips, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that…"
"You know about Rachel?" he spoke quietly. Time had passed but the wound was still open.
"Yes, I told you we talked a lot…"
"I dread asking what he told you about me," he smirked.
"Oh, it wasn't that bad…" she smirked back. "He feared you had too much influence on Rachel. Harvey wanted to marry her," she smiled melancholically.
At that mention Alfred dropped a knife on the floor and bent over to pick it up with difficulty. What else had the siblings talked about?
"I would have liked to meet her…"
"You would have liked her… and she would have liked you too." While being different, Bruce was convinced the two women would have gotten along well. Pestering the guys. Yeah, they would have been great at that too.
"You think?" Elizabeth wondered.
"I'm sure of it. Rachel and I grew up together, we had no secrets…"
"More chocolate, Miss Elizabeth?" Alfred interfered, worried by a possible confession.
"Thank you," she murmured and held up her cup.
"So what did Batman want? He didn't hurt you, did he?" Bruce wanted to know.
"No," she shook her head "he asked me to return home. He was adamant about it."
"Maybe he was trying to protect you," Alfred suggested.
"I hate to agree with this but there is something… I just discovered that my company has built a prototype for Schwartzberg's foundation… he plans a live demonstration at the opening of the new exhibition… the one he put ads all over town for…"
"Yes, the Buddhas… he didn't tell you anything about the prototype, did he?"
"No, he didn't. Maybe he considers it's not related to my job," but as she said it she realized she found that hard to believe.
"Something that can do your work in less than half of time? I'd say it's very related," Bruce disagreed.
"Then what? It can't be some sort of vendetta since he doesn't really know me and I'm pretty sure he and Harvey didn't have much in common either because my brother wasn't interested in art. And it can't be an attempt to ruin my reputation. I know I'm good at what I do but I'm relatively new in this field so there isn't much reputation to ruin. If his goal is to prove that his prototype can't be wrong then he needs a bigger and more respected expert to achieve that," she reasoned.
"I don't know…" Bruce mused, slightly annoyed that she made perfect sense and he didn't have anything to hold onto and convince her. "Perhaps Batman knows more and he just didn't want to say it. Maybe… maybe you should listen to him… hmm?"
"I thought you didn't trust him."
"Well," he leaned back into his chair "I wouldn't want to see you get hurt…"
"We sure wouldn't want that," Alfred nodded from behind him to reinforce his opinion. "More cornishon sandwiches?" he offered her the plate with a paternal grin.
"No, thank you," she shook her head absentmindedly.
"You won't even consider it?" Bruce's piercing gaze refused to leave her face.
"Well, considering the fact that everyone knows I won't be home for Christmas and there aren't many days left… there's no point in going, is there?" she smirked a little. "Besides…" her eyes lowered and she let out a small sigh "I still have things to do here… it might take a while, and I kinda like being back," she smiled and chuckled "except for the encounter with the Bat."
"I thought you don't know anyone in town," Bruce said just to distract her attention from that episode because the memory was making her pale again.
"No, not anymore… well, there's still you," Elizabeth gave him a weak smile.
"I'll add an extra plate at the table for Christmas dinner," Alfred informed her affably without asking for his master's permission.
"Thank you, Alfred," her look was grateful but then her eyes turned to Bruce. "Can I stay here tonight? I… I don't want to return to the hotel," she wrapped her arms around her and shivered.
"Yes, of course," Bruce replied immediately. "You can stay as long as you want. Please feel at home."
Alfred raised his eyes at the ceiling and drew in a deep breath as if trying to calm himself down.
"Thanks. I apologize for waking both of you and then keeping you up," she rolled her eyes.
"Don't worry about it. I was kinda in the mood for a hot chocolate," Bruce smirked.
"Sorry anyway…" she ran a hand over her face and then through her hair "I'm a mess, I'm gonna go wash up."
"Sure… you know the way," he nodded.
Both men watched her leave fascinated by the way her hips swayed and nodded in the same rhythm they moved.
"Well done, Master Bruce!" Alfred congratulated him. "Now she moved in. And she brought the bloody dog too."
"Just help me get out of this thing before she comes back," he opened the robe revealing part of the costume hidden underneath.
* * *
Eight days to Christmas
It changed things. Elizabeth's presence inside the penthouse threw Bruce's schedule completely off the charts. She was out all day working and when she came home late in the afternoon he was just preparing to go out. But now he couldn't stay out very late because that might make her suspicious, and making love in the dark so she wouldn't notice the fresh scars or bruises was no fun at all. And then in the morning he was still asleep when she left for work.
As for Elizabeth, she spent her evening teaching Alfred a bit of French cuisine, that is when she didn't go out on her own in her mysterious trips in the city. Bruce was too busy to notice and Alfred had too much work to do attending for two as it was. Still her well-being mattered to Bruce, and that made him one day around lunch time, that would be morning to him, show up at the lab.
"I'm sorry, Sir, no one enters without an access pass," one of the two stiff guards standing at the door stopped him.
Bruce rolled his eyes. "Tell Miss Dent Bruce Wayne is here, she is my pass," he smirked.
On the other side of the steel door Elizabeth grinned at herself. He was such a character while in public, such a stereotype, so different from when it was in private just the two of them, or three including Alfred. It didn't mean he didn't try, he did, but he often forgot, and when he did she caught a glimpse of the person inside. It was very confusing.
She waited a moment longer and then went to the door. "It's alright, let Mr. Wayne in, I give him clearance," she grinned and stepped back inside leaving the door open.
Bruce didn't bother to rub the guard's nose in it that was beneath him. He walked in and swept everything in with one glance. She looked cute in that white lab coat, with her blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail.
"Eh… only 30% done and Christmas is at the end of the week. Nothing to worry about," she joked.
"Is it a lot of work then?" he pretended not to know what she was talking about.
"Quite a bit," she nodded. "There are over 50 pieces that need to be evaluated, age, period, technique, creator when possible… and among them there are at least a dozen from periods I'm not familiar with so I have to make some calls, lots of calls apparently," she laughed.
He smiled enjoying her laughter. He seemed to have caught her in a good mood. She didn't look as cold and inaccessible as she had when he'd first met her, but then again he knew how warm and tender she could be. That part scared him.
"Any fake ones?"
"A few… but in the sense that they come from a different period in time, they're still valuable, some even more than predicted."
"Hmm…" he grunted like that wasn't interesting to him. He didn't plan on investing in little Buddhas. "Do you still have time for lunch?"
"I do… if you're asking," she smiled.
"Let's go then," he nodded towards the door.
"Let me get my coat first…"
While she went to change Bruce casually extracted a tissue from his pocket and placed the small statue wrapped in it on the corner of a desk. Little Buddha was rejoining his people.
* * *
It was during one of the trips around town that Elizabeth stopped by the police station and asked to speak to Lt. Gordon. Jim was reluctant to see her. Dent's case was closed and if the matter was brought up again, he couldn't think of another reason for her to be there, then it would be risky business. The memories weren't nice either.
"Miss Dent, I didn't know you were back in town," he said when he met her in a tiny office. She had requested a private meeting.
"You can't know everything, Lieutenant. If you did you'd be out of the job," she grinned.
"Fair enough," he nodded and gestured for her to take a seat. "What can I do for you, Miss Dent?"
"I need a favor… I know you used to have a close working relationship with my brother, a successful working relationship," she insisted, "I know you can help me."
"Of course, anything I can do I will." It was hard to say no to a woman like her, and she was Dent's sister, he could do at least that for her, regardless his personal feelings for Dent and what he'd almost done to his family.
"I want to have a meeting arranged with Batman."
She could have asked for the moon and Gordon wouldn't have been more shocked. "Batman?" he blinked at her in surprise. "Miss Dent, we have orders to apprehend him as soon as possible."
"Yes, I've heard about that… but that's not my problem. I just want to talk to him."
"Miss Dent, this is highly inappropriate… you're assuming that I, by some chance, would be able to contact him."
"But I know you can, Harvey told me," she asserted.
Gordon pushed his glasses higher up his nose. This was very dangerous ground they were on. "Even so…" his voice lowered unintentionally "that was when we still had the sign…" but people had destroyed it in their anger "…there's no way to do it now," he shrugged.
"You're a resourceful man, Lieutenant, my brother used to think so. I'm sure you'll think of something."
He couldn't help grimace at the mention of the former First District Attorney. There were a lot of things she didn't know. "What… what makes you think he'd be interested in seeing you?"
"Because he approached me first."
"He did?" Interesting, maybe there was something to this story. "Did you inform the police?"
"And tell them what? That he gave my dog a sneezing attack?" she laughed derisively. "Who would have taken me seriously?"
"Hmm…" she had a point. Of course, if she mentioned the Buddha collection things might have been different but they still wouldn't have been able to do much. "Assuming there was a way to do it…" he had to be careful there, one could never know when his office was bugged, "what would be the message to send?"
"Tell him I have some answers for him. And you better find a way to do it before Christmas or it might be too late."
"I see…" he muttered. "I'm afraid I can't promise you anything."
"Just try. That will do, thank you." Elizabeth got up and started for the door. "Oh, and about that reported missing Buddha…"
"We have no new leads on that one…" his voice sounded apologetically although it wasn't his intention. It was the way the police worked. Slowly.
"Well, you can stop looking, I found it in my lab when I returned from lunch yesterday… what were the odds for that?" she asked rhetorically and wiggled her fingers at him, "Good bye, Lieutenant."
Gordon watched her pensively and mused mostly to himself as she walked away, "I wouldn't mention the dog if I were you."
* * *
Seven days to Christmas
The sheet fell off her back uncovering creamy skin as she rolled on the bed. She propped her head in her hand, her hair turned into liquid gold by the sun coming through the window caressing her shoulder, and she watched Bruce as he put on a new shirt.
"Rough night at the poker table?" she teased. Those bruises on his torso were even painful to look at.
"You can say so…" he grinned back and fumbled with his pants.
She nodded quietly refraining from pushing it. She'd tried and she knew he would just joke around and refuse to answer. He clearly had secrets, but who didn't?
"So I'll see you tonight?" he asked over his shoulder. There had to be something wrong with that shirt, though she couldn't see what that was, 'cause he went to pick another one.
"I'm not sure… I might not be free," she hesitated.
"Got a better offer?" he smirked.
"I might," she chuckled.
"May I ask who?" he looked interested. "Don't say Alfred or I'll never recover."
"No… poor Alfred, I think he still hasn't gotten used with my presence here."
"You're avoiding the question." Bruce stood still holding a tie in his hand.
"Umm…" Elizabeth pulled herself up in bed with the sheet wrapped around her although he'd seen it all before and she crossed her legs in front of her in the Indian style. She tucked a lock behind her ear, "Batman…"
"You have a date with Batman?" he took it in stride.
"I hope so," she grinned.
"Have you developed a fetish for rubber? Ben might not like that."
She laughed and shook her head. "I'm serious."
"Why do you want to see him?" Now he looked serious too. "He scared you."
"True, he did… but he never threatened me." He'd only told her to go home; there hadn't been an 'or else' said. "I think he wanted to scare me and it worked because he took me by surprise. But he's working on something… and I think I can help."
"You do?" Bruce wondered.
"I looked over the prototype plans you brought me. I think I've got an idea."
"Well, tell me about it and I'll let Lucius know."
"You don't care about this boring stuff…"
Bruce came to stand at the edge of the bed and looked down at her. "But I care about you… and this sounds like a dangerous adventure you're embarking on."
"I think I'll be safe… and it's not just about the prototype, there has to be more to it or Batman wouldn't be involved."
"I suppose so… but I still don't like it. If you want to play the Good Samaritan go join a pet rescue agency or something."
She rolled her eyes at him; they looked less gray and bluer than when he'd met her. They always seemed brighter when she was excited. "You do that… oh, I forgot, you don't like dogs."
"Right," he grumbled. "When are you going to meet him?" And why didn't he know anything about that? he wondered.
"I don't know yet… I talked to Lt. Gordon and I asked him to arrange something."
"Lt. Gordon?" Now that was a surprise. The girl didn't waste any time.
"Yes, do you know him?"
"Vaguely… he was in charge with Harvey's case, right?"
"Yes…" she bit her lower lip "…that's why I want to see them both."
"I don't understand." Images of her showing up with a chainsaw and starting to hack them into pieces flashed through his mind. God, Alfred really had a bad influence on him.
"Bruce, there's something I didn't tell you…" she shifted on the bed to sit on her knees. "Two weeks before coming here I got a phone call… it was Harvey."
"That's impossible. He's dead." Bruce face was immobile like stone. Inside he was fuming wondering how the hell had Dent gotten to a phone.
"That's what I thought too until I talked to him on the phone… he sounded troubled but I'm sure it was him… I need to find him."
"Well, that's easy, fourth tomb on the left," he said sarcastically deliberately hurting her feelings. "I was there, I saw him being buried, and so did you," he frowned at her and in the same time reached out to touch her face.
"It was a closed casket," she leaned her head into his hand. "He's still somewhere out there…" there was no doubt in her as she spoke "and he's suffering," her eyes filled with tears.
"Elizabeth…" his voice softened "this can't be."
"You don't have to believe me, and I'm not asking you to help me… but don't try to stop me," a hint of her brother's stubbornness showed in her eyes.
"Let me know when you go to meet him."
* * *
A woman voice echoed in the poorly lit backyard coming from inside the house "I told you to take that out!" and a little boy sneaked out the door carrying a ball in his hand. He dumped it on the porch and he smiled and waved at the dark silhouette waiting in a corner. "Hey…"
"I came to talk to your father. Will you call him for me?" the rough voice didn't scare him at all.
"Sure," he grinned and sauntered into the house. He was doing Batman a service. How cool was that?
A couple of moments later Gordon walked out and carefully closed the door behind him. "Are you sure you should come here?" he asked quietly.
"Are you afraid it might ruin your reputation?"
"I fear some of the neighbors might call the police," Gordon replied with a quick glance around. He sighed; the exhibitionist was there in the balcony of the second story of her house flashing her breasts at the dark knight in spite of the cold air, like she always did when he showed up. "If they catch you here, I won't be able to help you."
"They won't," the reply sounded more like a grunt. "I have some information for you."
"As it happens, so do I, but I didn't know how to find you…" That was mostly said for anyone who might be eavesdropping. Gordon had a pretty good idea how to find him if he really had to.
"Gather the forces and be prepared, Christmas' Eve will be a blast," he warned.
"Christmas' Eve… the midnight mass?" Gordon wondered not seeing the point.
"No. Schwartzberg's new exhibition."
"Why? What's going to happen?"
"I don't know yet, but it's going to be big."
"I bet. The last Nobel Peace prize winner is going to attend. Perfect timing." And how ironic was that? "By the way, Elizabeth Dent wants to see you. She might have something on it, or at least she claims she does."
"Does she? Let's arrange a meeting then."
Wow, that was easy.
He didn't wait for more questions. He was gone, disappearing into the night, and Gordon was left contemplating his neighbor's generous breasts. If his wife ever did that he'd have to shoot her.
* * *
Six days to Christmas
The cell phone beeped a note from Beethoven's Ode to Joy which made it vibrate and thump against the desk. Schwartzberg glanced at the screen and frowned. "Will you excuse me for a minute?" he apologized to the potential client he was in a middle of a discussion with and, in spite of his rather large mass, swiftly moved to the adjacent room. He made sure he was alone and the door was closed before grunting into the phone, "I told you not to call me on this number."
"Good day to you too, Mr. Schwartzberg. How's the business doing?"
"The business is doing fine," he grumbled. "The preparations for the exhibition are almost done, we've got an expert double checking the merchandise and the prototype is ready and fully functional I was told. I will have it delivered over in a couple of days for testing. Also our special guest has confirmed his participation to the opening," he informed the caller.
"Good, good… just so you don't think we've forgotten, I'm confirming our participation too." Schwartzberg didn't look too enthusiastic when he heard that. "I can't wait to say hello to our friend… and good bye…"
Schwartzberg swallowed hard and blanched.
* * *
Ben was pulling onto the leash struggling to walk up the abrupt flight of stairs without toppling his mistress over. Gordon moved ahead of them periodically glancing back to make sure she was keeping up with him. Why had she brought that monster of a dog with her he couldn't understand. It wasn't like she needed it for protection, but she'd refused to let it wait in the car. So now they were climbing the fragile stairs leading to the rooftop where he and Batman met on occasions. If he was coming.
Thirty minutes later they were still alone and freezing up there.
"He's not coming," Elizabeth muttered between clenched teeth shivering lightly.
"Something must have come up," Gordon shrugged his shoulders.
He shrugged again in lack of an answer. He couldn't pretend he understood the Bat, he was just grateful for his help. The dog rubbed his back against the woman's legs, part to warm up and part asking if they could leave already, and then his attention was caught by something and he sneezed. Elizabeth tensed. He was there.
"A patrol followed me all along the river. Your men are getting better," he told Gordon landing swiftly right beside them.
"I know," the lieutenant nodded bemused. He wasn't so sure it was a good thing in this particular case. "This is Miss Dent…" he started the introductions but got interrupted.
"We've met." Batman's piercing gaze turned to Elizabeth, his silhouette towering over her like a dark shadow although she wasn't exactly short either. "What do you want?" he growled.
"Good question," she smirked. "I have some information for you and I do want something in return. What's fair is fair," she claimed.
The mask prevented her from seeing his eyebrows rising. No one had ever asked for something in return before. That was selfish of her. And some… he had no idea.
"Let's hear it first."
"You said there's something about the Buddhas… well, there is," she told him. "The second biggest statue… it's not a fake, but someone's been tampering with it."
"The statue is made of metal, an alloy very popular around the year 200, and its papers state that its clothes have been added 300 years later. My tests revealed the same thing."
"What made you suspicious?"
"It was too clean, no dust in all those wrinkles… too…" she shook her head finding it hard to explain. "Someone has gone through a lot of trouble to make it shiny and clean recently. It's not the current museum or private art collectors' procedure. My guess is that it was done to hide something… like working on it somehow."
"Is it possible to do that without you or another expert noticing it?"
"It is. I wasn't asked to do a full expertise; there wasn't time and need for it really. It's just a backup plan for them to stage a big show presenting a new testing prototype built by Wayne industries so…"
"What could they have done to it to make it less apparent?"
"Remove the clothes layer, work on the inner body and put it back on. I can't check because I don't have authorization to dismantle the statues."
"Isn't there any non-invasive test you can do?"
"The scanner from the lab didn't reveal anything. Of course it's not the most advanced there is, probably Wayne's prototype could do better… or we could try to weight it and see if the weight differ from the one stated on the owner's certificate but then we'd need a crane to lift it since it's made of metal and weights over a tone."
Gordon watched the entire exchange like it was a ping pong match while settling for petting the dog who pretty much did the same thing. Except for the petting part. Well, the human wasn't wiggling its tail either.
"And Schwartz won't accept extra tests so further down the line," Batman concluded.
"With it being the image of the whole campaign and featured on all posters, no, I don't think he will risk a scandal or having it removed from the collection before the opening of the exhibition."
"So it can't be moved and there's little chance for the statue and prototype to get in the same room before then," he reasoned.
"It could get stolen," Gordon deadpanned and they both watched him surprised. A policeman suggesting a robbery. Nothing was impossible in Gotham.
"But I'm not 100% sure of this…" Elizabeth hesitated.
"Are all your test results stored at the lab?" Batman asked.
"Yes… do you need the access code?"
"No." He started for the ledge.
"Wait… what about my request?!" she called out after him.
"What do you want?"
"I want you to help me find my brother."
The two men exchanged a look.
"Your brother is dead," he said and jumped over the edge.
"Wait!" her yell got lost in the air.
"Miss Dent," Gordon shifted uncomfortably in place, "your brother fell from a great height, he could not be saved," the words were almost metaphorical. If she only knew.
"Don't try to convince me, Lieutenant, I know he's not dead," she cut him short.
"If you have any doubts you can have the grave open," God forbid "but you'll need a court order for that and that will take time, especially now during the holidays," he made another attempt to discourage her.
"There'll be no need for that," her voice was as cold as the air they breathed. Elizabeth wrapped her coat tighter around herself and reached for Ben's collar. "Come on, boy, let's go home." At least he didn't tell her to go home, she thought bitterly.
* * *
Five days to Christmas
For once Bruce woke up early, according to his standards. The bed had suddenly become uncomfortable. He looked around and discovered Ben was sleeping splayed across his feet. Groan. He so much preferred his mistress.
Partially still asleep he stumbled along the corridor and followed the coffee scented trail that led him to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Master Bruce," Alfred greeted him without stopping from squishing the last of the oranges needed to fill the fresh juice jug. "I was just about to bring you breakfast. Are you not well?"
"'Morning," he mumbled letting himself slump on a chair. "Yeah, I'm fine…" the answer was half cut by a yawn and he rubbed his eyes. "Has Elizabeth left already?"
"Yes, Sir. Miss Dent left at 8:30 like she usually does." Alfred offered him an orange juice glass. "She was… not happy," he stated diplomatically.
"Was she?" Bruce muttered distracted.
"Very," Alfred nodded. "May I suggest doing something nice for her?"
"How about getting a Christmas tree? We didn't have one last year," he reminded him.
"Sure," Bruce shrugged. "Call and have one delivered." He changed the juice for coffee. Much better!
"No, Sir, I was thinking more of doing it the traditional way."
"You mean go all the way to the depot and pick one then carry it home?" Bruce stared in doubt.
"Exactly, Sir. She might like that," Alfred smiled.
"But I don't have time for that," Bruce whined making that 'I don't wanna' childish face.
"Yes, you do, Sir. Right after you meet with Lucius today," he informed him.
"He called earlier to inquire if you were going to stop by the office today. He also said if you could bring the art expert to have a chat. He's curious about some things."
"Is he?" Bruce muttered. Maybe Fox had discovered something. "I like the way you think about everything." And organize my time. His tone of voice suggested exactly the opposite.
"Thank you, Sir."
"I guess we'll be getting a Christmas tree then," he sighed.
* * *
The taxi pulled up in front of the Wayne Tower just when Bruce accompanied by another man was leaving the building.
"I'm sorry I'm late, I couldn't find a taxi," Elizabeth apologized. The traffic was a nightmare because of the last minute Christmas shopping.
"I should have sent you the car," Bruce replied taking the blame on himself. "Elizabeth, this is Lucius Fox… he's the one who told me about the prototype. This is Elizabeth Dent…" he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to make the introductions.
"Miss Dent, I'm sorry for your loss," Lucius said genuinely as he shook her hand.
"Thank you…" she murmured and retrieved her gloved hand. It was easier to receive the condolences now that she knew her brother was alive. "So you are familiar with the prototype, Mr. Fox? What can you tell me about it?" she grinned curious.
"Well, that depends on what you're interested in… but I can show it to you. That is if you're not in a hurry," he added.
"Please?" Elizabeth turned to Bruce and brought her hands together in a mock plea.
"We can spare a few minutes…" this one agreed like he was doing her a big favor when that had been his intention all along.
They walked back inside the Applied Science department, to the lab where the prototype resided. "This is it," Fox showed her the inoffensive looking box that pretty much resembled to a phone booth. "It does… well, a lot of things, except for making coffee," he joked.
"There's no fun in it then," Bruce expressed his opinion on the matter.
Elizabeth smiled condescendingly, "It is for some." She walked around the box. "Why this size?" she wondered and looked at Fox for an answer. Big enough for a real life size human statue, it wasn't wide enough though, for example the top three Buddhas from the collection she was investigating would never fit inside.
"It was required in the specifications. All we did was follow them," Lucius said. He knew she'd seen them because he'd given them to Bruce to show them to her. "Would you like to see a demonstration?"
"Sure, if it's not too much trouble…" she smiled keeping her excitement at bay and took off her coat and her gloves to get ready as if she was the one who was going to perform the experiment.
"OK." Lucius turned it on, fiddled with the controls and then looked at her. "What would you like to test?"
Elizabeth slipped her hand in her coat pocket and produced a coin. When Lucius turned it around in his hand he discovered it was burned on the other side. "Interesting."
Bruce frowned and hiding a grimaced he pretended he was bored of the conversation. He went to turn on one of the various computers lying around the place, he sat down and started playing Solitaire.
The experiment went smoothly showing no surprises. It also identified several DNA samples, among which one that belonged to Harvey, Elizabeth was convinced of that. Bruce saw that too as he watched the results rolling in a small window in the corner of his screen.
"May I?" she asked and Lucius stepped aside to let her try her hand at that thing herself.
While she played with it he kept talking about the prototype telling her more details. About half of those things she knew already.
"Yes…" she let out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding.
Bruce raised his eyes from the screen. What? But she gave him no clue regarding what she'd discovered. Instead she seemed in a hurry to leave now.
"Thank you, Mr. Fox. This was very interesting. Good piece of work." She tapped the side of the box and retrieved her coin. "Bruce, are you ready to go?" The coat was carelessly hanging on her arm.
"Done already?" he moved two more cards and finished the game. "OK, let's go then…" he sighed but his eyes looked at Fox. If he wanted to say something he better said it now before they left.
"Miss Dent, is there anything about it that you might find… intriguing?" Lucius asked.
"Umm…" Elizabeth had to think for a moment "I never understood why they choose this material for the walls." She reached for Bruce's arm and nodded towards the door. "Come on… Good bye, Mr. Fox."
His long legs barely managed to keep up with her. "Elizabeth, what's the rush?" he asked once they got outside.
"I've got the proof, he's alive!" she exclaimed, her eyes practically glowing.
"What are you talking about?" his hand grabbed her arm to keep her still.
"The largest DNA sample has to belong to Harvey, and the most recent sample with the same characteristics is dated a week after his alleged death, four days after the funeral. He… is… alive."
Bruce gritted his teeth. He had to fight the sudden urge to strangle Fox and his stupid prototype. "OK, we'll hire a PI to see if that's true," he said reluctantly. Hopefully he was going to find a very bad one.
"Yes… today," she beamed.
"Tomorrow. Now we're going to pick the Christmas tree like we agreed," he told her gently but determined not to give in to that. "Alfred will be very disappointed if we don't. You know how old people are, when they set their mind on something they have to make it happen. And he wants to decorate the tree. Tonight," he added for good measure.
"He doesn't look that old," she muttered. "Uff… Ok, let's go," she linked her arm through his. "Let's get a big one… I want everyone to be happy!" she grinned widely almost dancing in her shoes.
"We should get a ladder too, I don't think we have one of those," Bruce muttered.
None of them thought about ornaments. Lucky for them Alfred had.
* * *
Four days to Christmas
"I cannot sign this!" Elizabeth leaned forward with her hands placed on top of Schwartzberg's desk and looked straight into his eyes. Whenever she was getting upset her voice let a hint of posh British accent slip out. "This isn't right," she shook her head and a long shiny fingernail pointed at the papers laying on the desk.
"This" he lifted the document on top "is a regular certificate form. I'm sure you must have signed lots of others like this one before."
"I have, but not before finishing the job," she stated. "In the beginning we agreed for me to investigate the entire collection, and then the shipment was late…"
"That was out of my control…" Schwartzberg raised his hands in the air in a defending gesture. "And I told you I'm not expecting any miracle, you get to evaluate as much as possible in the remaining time."
"Even with the two extra days there wouldn't have been enough time to certify the entire collection and you know it," she countered. She was frustrated because she felt an ambush coming on.
"That's why you only sign for part of it."
"But it doesn't say exactly which statues I checked and my conclusion for each of them independently."
"We have the test result sheets. Everything is stated in there."
"Those results can be stolen. They can disappear."
"From my vault? I don't think so."
That's what she'd thought about the lab too and then she'd discovered copies of them in Fox's office. She hadn't said anything about that but she had a pretty good idea how they had gotten there.
"Please, sign, Miss Dent…" Schwartzberg made the document slide forward.
"I'll sign them when I'm done," she told him stubbornly. And it wasn't going be that generic document provided by Schwartzberg, but one made by her that would cover her ass in case it was going to be needed.
"Very well…" the man leaned back in his chair making a disappointed face "…but it better be before the opening." If there was a concealed warning in those words she couldn't tell for sure.
"It will be before the opening," Elizabeth said coldly.
* * *
It hadn't taken him long to disarm the alarm system. The extra one set up at the vault's door was a little more problematic. And he really, really, didn't want to alert the cops. The success of the entire operation depended on it. He needed proofs. Mostly for himself, to be prepared and know how to proceed from that point forward. Too many questions and no answers, and he hated that. No lock was going to stand in his way.
A little bit of tweaking and voilà! The door opened with a click. God, he loved Fox's toys. They made him feel like James Bond at times. He pulled on the door and squeezed in. Hmm, it appeared that there was going to be a bit of a problem after all, the costume was getting in the way. No, that wasn't a fart, but the sound of the suit rubbing against the sharp edges of the boxes piled up one on top of each other forming small pyramids.
OK, here we go. A longer screeching sound that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up and he made it past the first line. Someone had been very organized here designing everything in circles. He allowed himself a breath of relief; ninja training hadn't been so hard. Ouch, a box from the top fell and hit him in the head. Bless Alfred for having made him such a resistant cowl. With infinite care he put the box back in place. Really, they could have left a path wider than for a five year old. And marked it! Were all Schwartzberg's employees anorexic? He felt like a bull inside a China shop.
Now where was it? Elizabeth had said something about the second biggest Buddha. Ah, he spotted a group of four larger boxes, each over one meter tall and slowly eased his way towards them managing not to break anything in between. Did she mean second according to height or circumference? What did big mean in an art expert's opinion? No, he didn't want an answer to that.
He detached the small scanner from his belt and ran it around the boxes taking his time with every one of them. It was a device more advanced than the prototype that sent the data directly to Fox's computer. Only the best for Batman.
"Did you get this?" he spoke quietly once the analysis was over.
"Yes, I did. And I think I know what the problem is," Lucius replied from behind his desk at the company headquarters. "Could you run number 3 again just to be sure?"
Bruce did. "Is this the one we were looking for?"
"It sure is. This little guy carries his own artisanal device in the back. Miss Dent was right," Lucius confirmed it.
"What does it do?"
"It doesn't have an energy source, but powered by the waves emitted by the prototype it sends its own impulses and it basically blows up from the inside any encased glass cavity."
"The statues… the smaller ones, they're usually put in glass boxes."
"Won't it blow up the prototype too?"
"Like Miss Dent has noticed, the walls are made of a particular reinforced glass type of panels, with perforations along the edges. In the absence of a sealed cavity the phenomenon won't appear."
"I see," Bruce muttered. "So protect one while freeing the others," he reasoned.
"The statue doesn't have to be inside to get activated," Lucius specified.
"Protect… someone else?"
"Looking by the size of it that would be my best guess," the other one agreed. "With all those glass pieces flying around…"
"We can't allow that to happen." Bruce started to backtrack his path out of the vault. "How long will it take us to have new boxes made? I'm on my way to the gallery to take measurements," he announced.
* * *
Three days to Christmas
Maybe he shouldn't have stopped by the penthouse for dinner, Bruce thought while he waited for the elevator to take him to the top floor. But they had been both pestering him, on one hand Alfred claimed that Elizabeth had been really disappointed the previous day after waiting the entire evening for him to show up so they could decorate the Christmas tree, and on the other hand Elizabeth was saying the same thing about Alfred. He felt pulled on all sides. Still he had to admit they were right and it would be nice to spend a night at home without having to run across roofs and fight criminals other than maybe in a dream.
He let himself in and busied himself taking off his coat in the vestibule. No sign that dinner might be ready, no inviting scents floating in the air, he noticed. He headed for the living room and was struck by the sight of the scene taking place in there. Alfred was on top of a two meter tall ladder while Elizabeth was sitting on her knees on the floor digging through various boxes loaded with Christmas ornaments. Laying on the leather couch with tinsel wrapped around his neck, Ben greeted him with a sneeze.
"Good evening, Master Bruce," Alfred nodded down at him.
"Hey…" Elizabeth gave him a smile.
"Did I miss anything?" Bruce stopped in the middle of the room careful not to step on anything fragile.
"Well, we decided not to wait for you anymore," she smirked "but feel free to join us."
Bruce's stomach growled in protest. "Don't we get to eat first?" he whined.
"We did," Elizabeth got up to hand Alfred a handful of shiny ornament to hang.
"You can make yourself a sandwich, Master Bruce. We're busy here," Alfred deadpanned from on top of the ladder.
So this was how it was going to be? They had both allied against him. Hmm. But it did look good, the house was starting to look like a home again. And Alfred deserved one. Elizabeth did too. He shrugged and went to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich as instructed. In fact he found all he needed just by opening the fridge. Dear Alfred, he always thought of everything.
He chewed in silence for a moment but he was alone in there while they were having all the fun in the other room. Not fair. Bruce picked up his sandwich and glass with milk and moved back to the living room.
"Help me up here, give this to Alfred," Elizabeth, returned on her position on the floor, held up a red globe while he passed by her.
Bruce put down the glass on the corner of the coffee table facing the couch and slid his index finger through the string attached to the globe. "More," he requested and she hung an ornament on each of his fingers, his other hand being busy with the sandwich.
He walked to the bottom of the ladder and waved at Alfred. "Get down from up there before you break something, old man," he teased him fondly.
"Thank you, Master Bruce," Alfred eased out a breath. He'd never liked heights that much. Of course that meant he'd have to make endless trips between the two of them until either the boxes got empty or the tree collapsed but so be it.
Holding the sandwich in his teeth Bruce used his free hand to climb up the ladder. "Where did you find all this stuff?" he asked setting himself to methodically hang the ornaments in the tree. He'd recognized some of them.
"They were stored in the basement, the fire didn't get to them," the butler answered. That and along with the wine collection was all there was left of the Wayne Manor.
Bruce nodded and signaled quietly for more decorations to be brought to him. The old house was still a construction site mostly but he'd been reassured the building was going to be back up and standing before the next summer. They better keep their word.
With his help the work doubled its speed making Alfred wish he was ten years younger and running for the marathon and when they were done they all stood at the bottom and looked at the result.
"Lovely, Master Bruce. Can I have my retirement now?" Alfred joked keeping a straight face.
"I'll think about it," Bruce smirked and leaned in to pick up his milk glass. "Oh, come on…" he groaned finding it empty. Ben gave him an innocent look.
"This is worth celebrating. I'll bring the wine," Alfred offered after a quick glance aimed in his direction. That dog better not have spilled any milk on the couch.
"He's bringing the wine," Bruce murmured towards Elizabeth. "Should we move the party in the other room in private?" he grinned.
"And leave poor Alfred alone? That's not nice," she smiled.
"He's got Ben," he smirked, his head starting to lower with the full intention to kiss her neck.
She chuckled, she loved it when he was being playful, and then her cell phone rang and she had to step away, leaving Bruce disappointed but waiting patiently behind her. No word was said during the short one way conversation. When she turned around she looked as pale as a ghost.
"What is it?" Bruce's voice went dangerously low.
"They got him…" she stammered giving him a frightened and confused look.
"I don't know… someone… they got Harvey… they put a recording on the phone… it was real… it was him…"
"What did they want?"
"They want me to sign those papers."
"Master Bruce," Alfred put down the tray with drinks he'd just brought, "I think you should tell her…"
* * *
With a quiet knock the door opened and Alfred entered the study carrying a drink.
"I killed her, Alfred… I could see her dying piece by piece as I spoke," Bruce said with a broken voice staring at the floor.
"She looked pretty much alive to me when she asked me to prepare the guest bedroom earlier, Sir," Alfred commented.
Bruce grimaced. Yeah, he'd expected that. At least it made his night job easier.
Alfred tilted his head seeing that his Master didn't saying anything. "Did you tell her everything, Sir?"
"No, I'm not a monster…" eyes flickered up with a hint of annoyance. "I told her only what she needed to know… no need to speak badly about the dead."
"Only that he is not dead, is he, Master Bruce?"
Bruce sighed and shook his head. "She'll never forgive me…" he made a pause. "She wants to see him."
"That's not wise. He could tell her things…"
"He doesn't know anything, nothing related to us anyway."
"What if he feels the sudden need to confess his sins when he sees her? They used to be close," Alfred reminded him.
"He's insane… he could be delirious, anyone could tell her that," Bruce shrugged not totally convinced.
"Miss Elizabeth is smarter than that. Let's hope she's not too smart for her own good."
There was another pause before Bruce spoke again. "It will kill her to see him like that, Alfred." And she wasn't going to let him comfort her, not after the talk they had just had.
"It won't, Master Bruce," Alfred sounded confident. "And what doesn't kill her it will make her stronger."
Was that what had happened to Dent? Bruce wondered.
* * *
Two days to Christmas
Trees passed along the side of the empty road lit up briefly by the car's headlights. They were sitting in the backseat in silence, each looking outside through a different window while Alfred was driving. Given the condition of the icy roads, the night was incredibly freezing, they would have been probably safer with Bruce behind the steering-wheel but he had a status to sustain.
There hadn't been much talking between them since he'd revealed the fact that he'd known all along where Harvey was and was partially responsible for keeping him there. Truth to be told he paid for it and it wasn't cheap. She hadn't asked about that. She seemed to have the great ability to ignore everything that had happened between them and turn off any feelings she might have for him. And even if she was supposed to be only the rebound girl, it hurt.
Still, he didn't insist for her to stay when she said she would move after the exhibition's opening night. She only stayed because she preferred not to let Ben alone while she worked. No one asked Alfred how he felt about that. And Bruce knew he had to let her go. She hadn't been the right woman for him to begin with. To that added the family and their past history, it just couldn't be. He had to accept it and return to his solitary life. In a way he'd shared more with Elizabeth than he'd done it with Rachel, and in the same time he'd never let her in. Better let her go, Bruce, you've had your change with Rachel, don't tempt the Gods.
Big iron gates opened and the car rolled along the alley leading to the massive building visible behind the tree curtain. A private asylum outside the state where Dent wasn't considered a celebrity. Physically he'd recovered some after the fall but psychologically the reports showed no improvement. His days alternated between depression and madness, with occasional violent episodes.
Currently, he was tied up to a bed fully pumped up with anti-psychotics and totally unresponsive. It was the only reason why they were allowed inside his confinement room. The doctor responsible for the night shift let them in after discussing his condition with them for a couple of minutes and then he left them there. Harvey's head was turned to the side and only the good side of his face was visible, thank God!
"Harvey…" Elizabeth murmured approaching the bed and tentatively reached out to touch his hand.
No answer. The patient didn't even blink, although he was awake.
"He doesn't hear you…" Bruce's hand rested on her shoulder. The doctor had been pretty clear on that, Dent had stopped responding after the last escape from his room. Oddly enough, he hadn't tried to leave the building, he was looking for a phone. That had happened two weeks ago, just before Elizabeth's return to Gotham.
"Harvey…" she tried again "you have to get well… remember that day when it was raining and we wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower but it was closed? You have to take me there, Harvey. You promised," her voice broke into a sob.
An eternity passed until he spoke in a whisper. "Rachel… I promised Rachel to take her to the Eiffel Tower."
Bruce winced. Death brought no peace. The poor bastard sill suffered after losing his beloved Rachel. So did he and part of him felt compassion for him. It was a small part.
"I'm sorry she's gone…" Elizabeth murmured. "Bruce told me about her… but you still have me. You have to come back to me… who else to defend me in this big bad world if not my older brother?" She was crying.
Bruce felt his eye water too. He wasn't sure if for Rachel or her. Maybe both. Life was a bitch.
Harvey refused to answer.
"Let's go…" Bruce gently steered her towards the door when it became clear that he was once again lost in his ongoing nightmare.
Elizabeth nodded reluctantly, murmured a faint goodbye and left the room, her steps reaching silently the corridor. Bruce remained inside a moment longer, enough to open his wallet and pull out a photo of Rachel that he carried with him all the time. He placed it on the nightstand propped on a medicine bottle. If asked whether he'd done it out of compassion or cruelty he wouldn't have known what to answer.
Several moments after he left Harvey turned his head and stared at the photo with a fierce look on his face. Underneath all those drugs that turned him into a vegetable most part of the day, he knew he wasn't mad. He was mad at the world.
* * *
One day to Christmas
It was an ingrate mission Alfred had to do that evening, take Elizabeth to the exhibition opening, alone. Bruce wasn't accompanying her, not even as a friend. It suited him, his gut was telling him there were going to be troubles at the event and Batman might be needed. This way he wouldn't have to disappear from the gallery and raise questions while risking not to make it back in time and miss all the action.
Alfred just hoped he wasn't going to show up with some bimbo on his arm. Sure, he'd told him to have fun but, really, even he should have better sense than that.
"The car is ready, Miss," he announced.
Elizabeth turned around from the fireplace where she was studying the photos displayed on the mantle, some of them had Bruce's parents in them, several showed Rachel, and she reached for her small shiny purse. There was a slight rise of her eyebrows definitely related to Bruce's absence, but she didn't ask openly about it. "I'm ready," she put on a commercial break smile.
There were lots of people at the gallery. Celebrities, photographers, and people who just wanted to see themselves in the papers and didn't give a shit about art. Officials were waiting on a side until all the important guests arrived, including the Peace Nobel prize winner who was late.
Elizabeth nodded shortly at the few she'd met already, gave Schwartzberg an icy cold blank look and placed herself at the opposite side as far from him as possible. She'd delayed until the last minute the delivery of her signed expertise report and she was aware that he couldn't possibly be happy with it. It wasn't what he'd asked for, it was what she'd thought to be appropriated while reflecting correctly the situation at hand, but only after she'd had a discussion with Bruce, one of the few they'd had since the visit to the asylum, during which he'd promised her that Harvey was going to be protected with all costs. She didn't have to give in to the blackmail and for some reason she'd believed him.
As she stood waiting with a glass in hand, a Barbie doll with perfect smile and perfect hair, her eyes scanned the crowd looking for him. One argument, OK, one big argument and she was still mad at him for keeping the truth from her, and he was acting like everything was over between them. She was almost tempted to believe that Harvey had read him right and he was that cold superficial bastard that money had made him be. Of course Harvey couldn't be objective on the matter because of his involvement with Rachel and his male territorialism instinct. She must have been an amazing woman since they had both been in love with her and still were to some degree. Elizabeth had no doubt about that, she'd seen that look in Bruce's eyes when he talked about her or looked at her photos. He couldn't be a heartless bastard if he loved her.
It looked like he was going to miss the opening though. Or maybe he'd never planned to attend it in the first place, what did she know? He never reported to her. He was a free man and no one could make him do something he didn't want to do. More people crowded in, she spotted Lt. Gordon in the room too, on official business perhaps, and she saluted him discreetly.
Jim watched her from far, how she retreated towards the thick curtain that separated the gallery in two parts and joined the organizers group, apparently unaware of the envious looks thrown by the women and those full of desire coming from the men's part. Mr. Wayne sure knew how to pick them. He was amused by the palpable change in the audience once that Schwartzberg did the opening speech and then let Miss Dent say a few introductory words. Women started to be proud of her while men were losing their interest slightly. She wasn't just a pretty doll, she had brains too!
The symbolic red ribbon was cut and the curtain pulled aside finally revealing the priceless fifty pieces Buddha collection. They were encased in big glass boxes, statues of all sizes, shapes and colors, grouped by period or owner, Jim didn't know, and they all had tags with detailed info attached. Miss Dent was available for more specific details for the connoisseurs like Schwartzberg had volunteered her during the speech. So far so good. Nothing out of ordinary seemed to be happening.
The guests were left to admire the exhibited items for a while and drink the fine champagne and then the piece of resistance was brought in. The famous prototype he'd heard about from 'the one who should not be named' rolled in on its wheels and stopped under the main spotlight. The bird talk about fine technology with new and improved features flew right over Jim's head. He was getting bored but not sloppy, he was paying attention to everything and his men stood on guard.
A demonstration was offered. A couple of statues were brought and one after another placed inside the large rectangular box with semi-transparent walls. The process went smoothly with the partial results displayed on the screen, some of the tests requiring a little more time than the others. He couldn't help notice Elizabeth's shoulders getting more tense with each test. He felt the same tension rising too.
At first no one noticed the glass boxes starting to vibrate, mostly because of the "Do not touch" signs attached to them. As the fourth Buddha was placed inside the prototype the vibration became audible causing a few surprised gasps and comments while people gave them half concerned looks and put one or two extra steps distance between them. The performer of the demonstration didn't seem worried at all.
And then the gasps and shocked cries were caused by something totally different, the apparition of Batman in the middle of the crowd. Everything happened so fast that neither Jim nor his men had time to react. The lieutenant watched how the cape crusader pushed Schwartzberg away from the door, turned off the machine, removed the sample and shoved Elizabeth inside. He slammed the door in the face of the startled woman, shouted "Everyone down!", and then he played with the controls. Two seconds later all the boxes exploded splaying pieces of glass all around. People cried out but miraculously no one was seriously hurt. The alarm started to ring and metal plates emerged from the floor to encase and protect the precious art works.
Elizabeth pushed at the door to get out making Batman shout at her "Stay there!" as if he'd known things were just about to turn uglier. And they did. Masked men came down through the ceiling holding their guns ready. Luckily the police forces came back to their senses and started doing their job. Batman helped too. He fought several attackers at once taking them down in a storm, sweeping clean the place around him.
Bullets flew across the room, a couple running into the prototype and failing to pass right through it thanks to the bullet proof glass walls. Elizabeth saw her entire life flashing in front of her eyes repeatedly, but she only screamed when Batman placed himself in front of the Nobel Prize winner to protect him from a gun machine aimed at him from distance and taking all the hits in the chest. An unstoppable force and an unmovable object. The cord thrown at the shooter brought him closer and ended up tying him to a column.
The entire episode took less than five minutes. Once only the police forces were left standing Batman, like a dark savior angel, disappeared through the ceiling before anyone could do something to apprehend him. After saving the day he was walking free. Again. Gordon didn't look too concerned about that.
Elizabeth's muffled protests echoed from behind the thick walls and Jim rushed to set her free. In his hurry he stepped on some larger piece of glass that broke so easily underneath his foot like it was made of egg shells. Sugar glass. Another thing Schwartzberg would have to answer for.
He unlocked the door, "Are you alright, Miss Dent?"
"Yes…" she stammered staring at the ceiling. "He's gone."
"Yes… he does that," Jim sighed quite used to Batman's antics.
* * *
"How're we doing, Alfred?" Bruce's voice came out through the speakers.
"I'm not complaining, Sir," Alfred glanced at the hot coffee cup placed next to the monitor.
"I'm still following the trace of the attackers' van. It might take a while." When didn't it? Alfred sighed to himself. "How's Elizabeth? Is she upset I missed all the fun from the opening?" Bruce asked ironically, with just a touch of worry in is voice.
"I couldn't say, Sir. Lt. Gordon gave her a car to take her home. She went to the hotel. She called and said she'll pick up Ben in the morning." Unlike his Master, at least she announced when she didn't plan on spending the night at home.
Alfred winced hearing the acute screech of tires.
"I'm bringing her home. Have the aid kit ready." Bruce was speeding heading for the hotel in a big hurry.
"Will do, Sir. Do you think she might attack you?" Alfred asked conversationally.
* * *
The room looked rather empty without Ben in it. And cold. Must be the rush of adrenaline running off her system, Elizabeth reckoned as she paced on the expensive carpet. She hadn't informed Schwartzberg of her whereabouts, it wasn't his business, so no one had bothered to cancel the room. That turned out to work in her favor now that she'd showed up at the hotel in the middle of the night when it would have been a real problem to find an available room.
She paced some more and stopped to stare at the wall. There was nothing there, the Renoir was stored safely inside Bruce's penthouse. Well, he could keep it. She didn't want it anymore. Bruce had turned out to be a bastard. He was still paying Harvey's bills, mind you. She'd have to do something about that. Her head was pounding with all the thoughts stirring inside and she needed air so she went to the French doors. She pulled on the heavy curtains and screamed faintly when her eyes ran into Batman standing on the other side of the glass on the balcony. It took her several heartbeats to overcome the initial shock and she reached out for the door handle with a shaky hand before he could break the glass to get in.
"You're not safe here," he warned her. "You didn't sign the papers."
But he'd caught the bad guys so that shouldn't be a problem, right? She was ready to protest. A quiet warning beep made Batman grab her and drag her out on the balcony. She shivered, the thin material of her evening dress not doing much in terms of protecting her from the cold air, but there was no time to get a coat.
"We have to go. There's a bomb." With that only warning his arm wrapped securely around her waist and they were flying over the ledge. A moment too late though. The room exploded with a loud bang and a rain of flames and glass and other parts of the walls was sent after them. Being in mid flight he couldn't shield her securely from it, pieces of glass cut into her dress, ricocheting into his costume and cape. A sharp piece flew right past the side of his face grazing the skin on his cheek.
One stop was made on top of the building across the street, allowing him a glance back, and from there they landed on its other side in the street, right next to a parked cab that he shoved her into.
"Go to Alfred. And stay there!" he ordered Elizabeth.
He disappeared and she stared outside along the busy street trying to figure out what had just happened. She vaguely heard the driver asking where she wanted to go. It was starting to snow heavily.
* * *
Was Schwartzberg the head of the operation? Bruce wondered. He tended to believe so, at least locally. The thugs hired to do the job at the gallery were going to confess it later in the interrogation room, Gordon was going to make sure of that. Assuming they knew who'd hired them. But for now Schwartzberg was still free and so was the van with the rest of his runaway crew. Good thing he'd put a tracking device on it before engaging in the show at the gallery. It made it easier to follow it, the Tumbler, or the pale copy of if he had to use until the new improved one was ready, could practically do it itself.
He maintained some distance waiting for them to get to the destination and possibly catch some more villains. This was getting boring. The same thing over and over again. A chase that never ended. Was is even worth it? He sometimes wondered. And sometimes he couldn't find the right answer. Sure, he'd saved some people, some priceless world treasures, but really, he should be home in bed sleeping, preferably with Elizabeth, and not playing Santa and delivering punches all night. And the scrape on his cheek wouldn't stop bleeding making a mess on his costume. He'd have to make sure to clean the car and suit of any trace of blood just in case. Where was Alfred when you needed him? At home, pampering Elizabeth. He better be, 'cause then that meant she'd made it there.
He wasn't at their base or he would have answered. He'd have to rely on a regular phone call. At least there was no one on his tail from what he could tell.
"Good evening, Sir."
"Is she there?"
"I'll be a little late."
"Very well, Sir."
Good old Alfred, he could always count on him. He hoped he was going to wait for him with a cup of hot coffee ready, no more of that vitamin, awful tasting cocktail. He glanced at the on board GPS map and nodded to himself. Uh-huh, he had a pretty good idea where they were going, he loved abandoned warehouses. He could blow up things and no one would care for damages.
The Tumbler was put in stealth mode and then some creeping, climbing and sneaking followed previous to landing in the middle of the escaped quintet that didn't know what hit it when blows started to land on them. This was the part he liked the most. Sometimes jail wasn't enough, they deserved a good beating too.
"Where is he?" he yelled at the last thug he'd taken down. Schwartzberg could be responsible for the local operation but he couldn't be the real leader. He was an art dealer, not a mercenary. And these people were. Someone else must have come with this idea to him and then hired them.
"Air… airport." The eyes rolled in the man's head and he fainted.
Bruce dropped the body disgusted to the floor. Well, at least he'd got something. He texted Gordon the location of the warehouse, along with the message, "Airport". Stop all flights." And then he was back in the saddle, The Dark Knight ready to finish his night shift.
* * *
On Christmas morning
Elizabeth sat at the table with her head propped in her hand, wrapped in a warm house robe. It was her third coffee that night and she was stubbornly fighting the need to sleep while waiting for Bruce. The lights from the Christmas tree flickered gently in the living room but Alfred and Elizabeth had decided to settle base in the kitchen. The butler looked a little worried too. Where was Bruce?
"Is he sleepwalking?" She'd been living in the penthouse for a week and out of seven nights he'd only spent two at home. He couldn't fool her; she had a very light sleep. So her question was entitled in her opinion.
Alfred found the idea amusing. If the worst happened they could blame it on that. "Not that I know of."
And of course you know everything, her clear blue eyes seemed to say.
"I'm sure he'll be home soon."
"Bruise, battered and… hungry?" she smirked.
The woman let out a sigh. She didn't understand him. He could have anything he wanted in the whole world and he wasted his time doing… what? She looked at the clock on the wall. It was past 4 o'clock in the morning. Another couple of hours and dawn would come.
Alfred turned on the TV and switched it on the news. The headlines mentioned the attack at the gallery, an explosion, suspects discovered in a warehouse thanks to Batman, and the news report culminated with images from the airport where the leader of a terrorist movement had been detained.
"You shouldn't judge him too harshly…" Alfred murmured watching the screen. A brief video of the Tumbler leaving the airport area was shown and he nodded, "It shouldn't take long now."
Elizabeth frowned. Nightly news was as scary as the daily ones.
"Smile, you're famous now," the older man teased her when the remains of the explosion video played again, this time connected with her glamorous appearance at the exhibition.
"Grrr," she winced, "someone should have told me that dress was too pale for my complexion."
"You looked perfect, Miss Elizabeth."
"Thank you," she gave him a weak smile. Her hair was down, the dress was ruined and she didn't feel that good. Her skin still itched in places where he'd put peroxide on the cuts. Nothing major though, he had light hands and he'd assured her there would be no scars left.
And then she saw him.
"Master Bruce, you nearly missed Christmas!" the butler scolded him good heartedly.
"Hey… what are you both doing up so early?" Bruce grinned tiredly from the doorway. Snowflakes still clung to his hair.
"Bruce!" Elizabeth's first impulse was to jump up and ran to hug him. She got a hold of herself before doing that but she did get up and took a step towards him.
"You mean late," Alfred corrected him. "Welcome home," he was relieved to see him in one piece.
The way their faces lit up at the sight of him gave Bruce the answer he'd been looking for all along. Yes, it was worth doing it and putting up with all that crap as long as he had people that loved him to return to. "Yeah, late…" his arm opened inviting Elizabeth to get closer.
"We were waiting for Santa," she smirked.
"Were you?" he teased her as his arm wrapped around her.
She didn't answer; she was too busy staring at the new cut that crossed his cheek. "What happened?"
"I cut myself while shaving," he deadpanned.
Blue eyes narrowed. Alfred held his breath. She looked like she knew something, or at least that she didn't believe him, but it wasn't her secret to tell. Instead of trying to find out more she leaned in and softly pressed her lips against the good side of his face. She'd gotten her answer too, an unexpected one, but one she could live with never the less. "Merry Christmas," she murmured.
Alfred thanked the Gods.
The acceptance in that kiss made Bruce's bones melt inside. He forgot about being tired, being hungry and in pain.
"Merry Christmas," he replied and grinned. "Let's go open some presents before we go to bed, eh?"