Title: Now And Then: I
Author: DC Luder
Summary: After six weeks of unsuccessful searching, the Family fights for a day of normalcy.
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: Hang on kids, it's going to be a bumpy ride!
"One may smile, and smile, and be a villain."
"When can he have chocolate?"
There was a pause on the other end of the comm. link before Barbara replied, "Dick, he's not getting chocolate tomorrow."
"But didn't the pediatrician say he could technically have some at or around twelve months… and, I mean I'm no expert, but I think eleven and half months is at or around-."
"Sorry… But I just grabbed these guys trying to break into the ATT store across from the chocolatier on Aiken Ave and they had this cute little My First Valentine candy box in the window display…"
She finally laughed, "You love too much, Dick."
"I know, it's my greatest character flaw aside from giggling whenever someone says 'duty'."
As excited as I was for Ethan's fast approaching first birthday, I was all the more eager to celebrate Valentine's Day with him and Barbara. A day of normalcy after six weeks of scouring the streets of Gotham, searching for the grinning face we had all come to loathe.
We hadn't turned up so much as a single green hair let alone any indication as to where the Joker had fled to. Since New Year's, we had been practically working around the clock in order to find him. Tim, Cass and myself had taken to feigning work at the office while secretly mapping out old hideouts, making lists of former thugs who had worked under him as well as neurotically checking the police scanners and morgue reports.
After particularly difficult evenings, I couldn't help but think back to New Year's Eve, on the ride home from Wayne Manor. Ethan had been mumbling to himself in the back seat, fighting off sleep as best he could. Somehow, I managed to drive most of the way to the Clocktower with a vast majority of my attention on him rather than the road. Barbara had reached over and set her hand on mine as it held the shift stick, "You know what?"
"What?" I had replied.
"I think… I think it's going to be a good year… for us."
Not three hours later, the Joker and Harley Quinn were no longer residents of Arkham Asylum and nearly a dozen people were dead.
"Well… maybe he can have a flake of a Hershey kiss," Barbara's voice interrupted my thoughts.
"… I said maybe. I don't need him as hyper as you… Oop, Diana's calling, got to go."
After the faint click of disconnection sounded, I allowed my self to sigh, my breath fading into the air in a puffy white cloud. I had been touring the Village for a good two hours, picking up the slack while Batman carried out his unrelenting search for the Joker. My lens display showed it to be quarter after two and the temperature hovering around twenty degrees. At least it wasn't snowing.
I watched from above as a pair of cruisers arrived and picked up the trio of miscreants that had tried to make off with a crate of iPhones. Just as I was about to depart for Little Stockton, I heard light footfalls approaching from behind, an accomplishment considering they belonged to heavy high heeled boots.
Without turning, I said, "Happy Hallmark Engineered Holiday, Huntress."
Once she stood beside my crouched form, she replied, "Same to you… Been busy?"
I nodded as I rose and began trekking across the icy rooftop. Even though it had been clear skies for the last three days, Gotham was still recovering from a cold snap that had followed far too closely to a day of freezing rain. Although the ice had made the city glitter in the sun, it was still a pain to traverse it at night.
After taking a few steps after me, she asked, "How's the little one?"
Pausing, I turned to face Huntress, "Listen… I know… this is really our only social time together but I'd rather not openly talk about what happens when I'm not freezing my ass off on a rooftop in the middle of the night."
Huntress bit her lip briefly before responding, "Sure… sorry…"
I suddenly felt like a jerk and was quick to apologize, "No… I'm sorry, it's just that… being a father… It definitely has altered my perception of things."
She smirked, "Yeah, I noticed you're no longer leaping into as many vans emitting gunfire."
I smirked as well, recalling the last time we had seen each other. A week and half earlier, I had been on the tail of a van that had was carrying eight armed men that had cleaned out the safety deposit boxes of Bank of Gotham Where I would have usually dove in through the front windshield, I had opted to crash my cycle into the front bumper. After they had violently crashed into an empty bus stop, Huntress and I had moved in to drag their moaning and bleeding bodies out before the vehicle burst into flames.
"Hard to change diapers with only one functioning arm," I suddenly admitted.
"I could only imagine…" she suddenly looked towards Midtown, "Well, crime waits for no one." As she randomly leapt off of the roof, I was left standing alone just as tiny white particles began falling from the sky.
"Women," I muttered before finally making my own departure, heading in the opposite direction towards Little Stockton.
I was just crossing into the borough fifteen minutes later when I heard a gruff voice over the comm. link, "Nightwing?"
"Rodger dodger," I answered before spotting a gentleman trying to open a car door with a crowbar. As I watched from the second story roof of a dark bakery, I continued softly, "What's up?"
"Possible lead I need you to check out… Royal Flush strip club."
"That's the best Valentine's gift ever…" I whispered as I began to prepare for the jump down to the ground.
"Just do it," before silence.
After I took out the rookie carjacker and secured him on a street sign that declared No Parking From Here to Corner, I backtracked into the Village in order to pick up my cycle. Unfortunately, the one I had used as a road block earlier that month was unsalvageable.
Even with the ice, I managed to get to the strip club within fifteen minutes. After driving by, I didn't see anything out of the element but had long since learned that appearances were misleading. As I parked in an alley two blocks away, Batman's voice found it's way to my ears once more, "I've run into six ex-cons this last week who have had Joker cards in their wallets."
"Where'd they get them?" I asked as I quickly made my up a fire escape.
"After some persuasion, one of them said he had been approached by a man at the Royal Flush."
"Hmm, what kind of cons are we talking here?" I questioned as I began to make my way back to the club. I slipped on a small patch of ice and took a moment to recover before finally getting my question answered.
"Small time thugs… mostly muscle… aggravated assault, grand theft, nothing too heavy."
I was just about to jump the alleyway onto the club's roof when I spotted a familiar figure smoking on the side door's step, "I see, well I'll get back to you."
Even though my landing had been nearly soundless, the man looked up, taking one last drag on his faux-cigarette before tossing it to the cold pavement. I approached at leisure, "What are you doing?"
He shrugged his shoulders under an oversized, dirty leather jacket before reaching inside the coat, "Now would be a good time to hit me… Wouldn't want to be seen voluntarily fraternizing with the good guy…"
After a sigh, I said, "I'm not going to hit you."
He smirked, "Either you hit me or I hit you."
"Damnit… All right, hold still."
I lunged forward and picked the man up but the jacket before shoving him into the metal door that lead to the club, hard enough to make a loud bang but not hard enough to bruise him. As I slowly lifted him up off of his feet, a task considering he was both taller and heavier than me, I heard pounding on the other side of the door, "What's going on out there!"
The man in my grasp turned his head, "Friendly conversation…" I slammed him into the door again before he could finish, "Might want to get the underage's out of the club Bernie, the masked brigade's on their way."
After hearing a loud curse from inside, I shook my head and let the man slip back down to his feet so I could look him in the eye, "Does you're wife know where you are?"
He shook his head before offering a smirk, "No doubt she thinks I'm where I've been for the last few weeks…. And I would hope no one would tell her otherwise."
"I want to live to see my son's first birthday, Bruce, you can lie to her all you want but I won't."
Bruce nodded, unrecognizable under the two weeks worth of scruff, two too many layers of an Adidas knockoff cologne and his hair dyed a dirty blond color. I had suspected he had started his own undercover operation given his lack of communication of late and wasn't too surprised to see my hunch had been right.
"So, anything I should know before I go in there?"
"I've yet to see any Joker cards being distributed-."
Again, not surprised at Bruce beating us to the punch, I asked, "How long have you known?"
He shrugged before making a move to walk by me, "Not long-." I grabbed his jacket and slammed him into the door, hard enough to cause another loud bang and hard enough to make him cringe. He corrected his answer after saying, "Nice touch… Almost a week and a half… Wanted to look into it before presenting it to Tim."
I tried to stare him down but found it impossible, especially seeing him in his current blond and grungy state. Once I let him go, I growled, "Get out of here… and for the love of hygiene, shower and shave or I'm telling Selina you've been hanging out at a strip club all week."
Without another word, he walked down the small set of stairs.
I shot a line up to the roof and when he looked back, I was gone.
In what my mother called true teenage style, I balanced the new cell phone I had gotten for my birthday between my ear and my shoulder as I carefully chopped strawberries into tiny pieces. At the same time, Taffy sat on my foot, quietly begging for scraps while I managed to itch my nose with the back of my hand.
All the while talking to Alfred.
It was hard to believe he had been gone for only a month and half and that another ten and a half months would pass before I would see him again. Even though we wrote to one another each week, I had finally convinced him to use his satellite phone at least one a month to talk. Just as when he had still been at Wayne Manor, he filled conversations with advice on how to handle problems with friends and family. And my father.
Since the Joker had escaped there had been a noticeable change in the Family. Tim, who was always so carefree and happy, rarely allowed himself a moment's peace. I hadn't really noticed it until I had stayed with Cass one afternoon while Mom took Nathan to a doctor's appointment. Where Cass and I made quesadillas and watched a movie, Tim had been in the office, trying to distract himself with work from the firm that he had neglected. When I asked Cass if he was okay, she had shrugged, "Robbie's in there offering support… and entertainment."
It had been hard to tell whether Dick and Barbara were upset over the fact that the Joker was on the loose or if they were simply distracted with raising Ethan. Whenever we visited the Clocktower or the rare event they came up to the Manor, Dick seemed his happy, silly self and Barbara was all smiles, most of them real. I guessed that they couldn't sulk and dwell on evil clowns with a giggling baby living with them
Unfortunately, no matter how many smiles Nathan and I offered, Dad was all sulk and dwell.
Luckily, I kept busy with school and riding and friends and gymnastics so that I could pretend everything was normal. Nathan had also picked up his first extracurricular activity: indoor Junior PeeWee football. He practiced twice a week on the field I once played indoor soccer on when I was his age. In the fall, he would be eligible to compete on the Junior PeeWee team, of which already had him battling uncontrollable excitement. Mom and I had attended every one of his practices, cheering him on in his miniaturized football gear and helmet as he learned the rules and plays of the game.
Dad had been to the tail end of three practices.
Alone in the kitchen, I spoke into the phone, "I think he's been leaving at night."
"Oh, and for what reason?" Alfred asked.
I swept the tiny chunks of strawberries into a glass bowl before starting, "Well…"
"It is not in my place to report you if obtaining said information has been at the result of forbidden activities."
As a smile crept onto my lips, I wiped my hands before finally taking the phone into my hand, "I've gone into the Cave… at night. Only a couple times, though. And he's not there… not anywhere. And I know he's not in the house…"
"Have you discussed this with Master Timothy, or Master Dick?"
"No… I want to be sure… I don't want to get him in trouble."
"And what if he is acting under their guidance?"
I paused as I began combining the strawberries with the pancake batter I had prepared earlier, "Hmm, maybe… But he would have told Mom and… me. And I don't even think they'd ask him after what happened."
"True, but perhaps they have found a role for him that would involve… fewer explosives."
"Fewer explosives, that's no fun… and Dad's all about having fun." I sighed before changing the subject, "How's Leslie?"
"Busy but content."
I suddenly wondered if Dad was secretly enjoying his return to his former lifestyle.
As I tested the cast iron griddle that had been warming on the stove top, I spoke while I carefully poured batter for the first pancake of the morning, "That's good… Did you get Nathan's drawing?"
He laughed quietly before replying, "I did indeed. I may run out of wall space at the rate he is producing such fine pieces of art."
Nathan had decided to draw Alfred different African animals with each letter he scribbled. That week it had been an meerkat, notably inspired by the fact that he had watched The Lion King at school the week before. Alfred saved each of our letters and had taken to hanging the drawings he received in the small bungalow he shared with Leslie in addition to three nurses and two doctors. When he first explained it to me, I asked him to compare its size to a few of the rooms in Wayne Manor.
I couldn't help but drop my jaw when he had replied that the entire structure would fit inside the informal dining room.
Not a moment later, Mom walked in, casually dressed for the day in dark boot leg cut jeans and a fitted pink and white striped blouse. She smiled and nodded before pouring herself coffee. I was about to ask Alfred if he wanted to talk to her but he suddenly announced, "I am afraid I must be off… perhaps we can resume our chat tomorrow?"
"It's a date."
After we said our good-bye's, I hung up and returned the phone to my pants pocket, all the while keeping a keen eye on the pancakes. As she stirred in sugar, Mom asked, "How's the old man?"
I nodded, "Good… he's going to call tomorrow when it's less busy there… that way he can talk to everyone." After I flipped the pancakes, I continued, "Is Nate up yet?"
She shook her head, "Snoring away. Guess we had him up too late last night."
We had stayed up the night before watching movies in the den. Nathan had started a popcorn fight and even though Mom and I joined forces, he managed to win after we ran out of kernels. Picking up afterwards had been a pain but it had been well worth seeing Mom wearing an empty bowl on her head as a helmet, crying out, "Take cover!"
I didn't need to ask where Dad was.
Mom took a careful sip before offering, "Anything I can do?"
I shrugged, "I haven't made the whipped cream yet.."
We worked in near silence for another twenty minutes, with Mom at the stove top pouring and flipping pancakes while I went to work with the mixer. Nathan arrived in the kitchen wearing his Twister game pajamas. He shuffled in rubbing his eyes but when I told him I had left the most important part of preparing breakfast for him, he came to life and leapt onto a stool at the island counter.
As Mom helped him with the over-sized heart shaped cookie cutter and pancakes, I set the kitchen nook table for three and put another setting on a serving tray. I arranged four of the shaped pancakes on the plate with their points touching in the middle. I then dressed the center with a dollop of whipped cream and a few slivers of strawberries. After pouring a fresh cup of coffee, I put it on the tray and began to carry it out of the kitchen.
Mom stopped me just as I approached the door, "Don't be long, kiddo, I'm not sure I can keep the wild child from eating your breakfast."
I smiled back at her over my shoulder before passing into the hallway. Once I made my way to the study, I set the tray down on an end table beside one of the big leather chairs before walking to the grandfather clock. At first, Dad had been adamant that I would not know how to activate the Cave entrance but not a month after I had learned the truth, I had brought up the fact that in an emergency, the Cave was the safest place in the house.
He had grunted in response before growling, "Follow me."
Once the time was changed to 10:20, it unlocked itself and moved on hidden hinges. I backtracked, grabbed the tray and passed through before the entrance sealed itself shut once more.
Even though I had walked down the stone steps countless times, I still couldn't help but stare. The main floor of the Cave was lit by only the auxiliary lights, rendering most of it in shadow. As quietly as possible, I crossed in darkness, heading towards the computer bay where Dad had practically been living since the Joker escaped. Mom had explained that even though he was no longer Batman, his experience with hunting down the Joker was the best chance Tim, Dick and Cass had at doing the same.
Dick had joked a few weeks ago that it was like having two Oracles, one in each ear.
I was surprised to see the chair empty, considering the screen was inundated with windows and files. As I set the tray down on the work counter, I scanned over them, recognizing many of them to be GCPD criminal profiles and mug shots.
I jumped at the sound of Dad's voice echoing in the Cave. It took a moment to find him in the darkness, approaching from what I had dubbed the Bat-locker room, but Dad just called it the showers. He was wearing a park of dark stone washed jeans and loafers but had yet to put a shirt on. As he made his way towards me, he pulled on a dark blue dress shirt , rolling the sleeves before beginning to button up. Once he was in the full light of the monitor, I smirked to see he had finally shaved off of all of the stubble he had allowed to grow.
"I made breakfast," I pointed to the covered plate on the tray.
"Thank you," he leaned in and kissed my cheek before taking the coffee, leaving the plate.
"Strawberry pancakes," I added.
He glanced at me as he took a seat, "I'll eat, but first… caffeine."
As he eyes went to the monitor, mine kept their aim at him. I had never been able to see him as Batman and with Tim in the cowl, I had decided this was going to be as close to it as I would get. He was obviously stressed but there was this strange clarity about him, especially when he explained what he was working on. I wasn't sure if was just spending time with him in the Cave or finally seeing him do what he did best, but it was all that I wanted to do. During school, I found it hard to stay focused and during gymnastics practice or time working with Cass I always seemed to work harder and push myself farther.
Mom said it was official, I was truly my father's daughter.
Without being asked, Dad alternated explaining what he had been working on with taking sips of coffee. I tried to absorb every bit of information and every detail as he tried to make order out of the chaos of information before us.
"So what do the cards mean?"
He sighed before replying, "Hard to say… could be a false lead, could be he's selecting recruits… could be he's just trying to distract us from the bigger picture."
"He's not okay, yet… right?" I asked as I pushed the tray in front of him.
"Subtle," he smirked before saying, "It's possible… but not probable…"
After being in the coma as a means of imprisonment, Dad had originally projected it would be at least two to three months before the Joker was physically able to return. Unfortunately, the doctor that he and Harley Quinn had kidnapped was still missing and it was uncertain if he was being kept to help rehabilitate the murderer or if he was even alive at all.
I found myself studying the faces of the men that had received Joker cards when Dad questioned, "Why hearts?"
"What?" I asked. He pointed to the heart-shaped pancakes, and I stared at him, "Dad… seriously?"
His face could not have been more serious.
"It's Valentine's day."
The serious look suddenly vanished as surprise took him over, "Oh no…"
"Oh yes," I shook my head before offering, "I'll distract Mom if you want to run out quick to get her flowers."
He abruptly rose from his seat, leaving behind his work and his uneaten breakfast. I was quick to follow him towards the stairs, trying to listen as he muttered to himself. When we reached the ground floor of the Manor, he paused and said, "If… if something happens to me, I want you to know how much I love you."
"Mom won't kill you, Dad.," I grinned up at him, "I'll protect you."
I woke to a tongue caressing my neck.
"You need better mouthwash," I mumbled before pushing him away.
The tongue remained persistent as it traveled up my neck to just behind my ear.
My eyes opened to see he was standing in the doorway with a brown paper bag and two Styrofoam cups in his hands. When I followed his gaze to my left, I suddenly realized why the tongue had been accompanied with such bad breath.
"Robbie, off…" I pointed to the floor and after wagging his nub of a tail apologetically, he slowly climbed off of the bed before finding his down dog pillow. "So gross. He licks his butt…"
Tim sat on the bed beside me, setting the coffee on the night stand, "Well… I don't lick my butt."
I stared at him for a minute before offering, "Well… come here then."
He set the bag on the night stand before leaning over me, resting his weight on his hands as they positioned themselves on either side of me. "Well… that depends… what mouthwash do you use?"
"Same as you."
"Ah but I have used it in the last hour where it's been, what, a month for you?"
I went to slap him but he blocked it before arranging his body on mine, pinning my arms down with his hands. He then allowed his full weight down on me, despite my protesting laughter and half-hearted kicks.
"I'm sorry, it's been two weeks. How silly of me to forget," he shook his head as a grin spread over his face.
A grin that I had missed in these last few weeks.
He kissed my lips, still holding onto his grin, "Hmmm, I think I need to explore this matter further… get all the facts on the case."
I laughed after he kissed me again, "What case?"
Tim paused before declaring, "Should Cass, like Robbie… use a better mouthwash?"
Before I could try to escape his hold and take my revenge, his lips found mine, this time not breaking away. He had little to do in terms of undressing me considering I was wearing a three-quarter sleeve black cotton shirt and a pair of matching shorts. I on the other hand had to work through belted jeans, a wrinkled button up shirt over a navy tee and an undershirt.
I couldn't help but laugh when he shivered and said, "Brr…"
"Yeah… but I think we can fix that."
We had gone to bed a little after four in the morning, tired and quiet after another tedious night of touring the city. After washing up and changing for the night, we had fallen asleep quickly, with Robbie snoring away at our feet. We had both decided that for our Valentine's day gift to one another was to not do anything the next day aside from eating, sleeping and watching movies. And patrols.
A normal day.
While we could still have one.
When the coffee was long cold, we were plenty warm. Tim ran out to get water and plates for our lunch in bed. While he was gone, I fixed the blankets, picked up two of the pillows that had somehow landed on the floor and reached for the paper bag. Just as he returned, he said, "They had the Duet Magnifique special so I got halves of the chicken salad croissant, turkey bistro, French dip and croque monsieur."
As he got back under the covers I claimed the croque monsieur and turkey bistro knowing the French dip was his favorite. We ate in near silence, minus the faint whines and grumbles Robbie was trying to contain as he begged from his bed.
As I drained the last of my water and finished my last bite of turkey, Tim asked, "Theme?"
He shrugged, "Not really in a Bond mood."
"I know, it sounds strange but-."
"No, what else then?" I asked.
We mentally reviewed our DVD and Blu-Ray collection and finally decided on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. After losing to two consecutive rounds of Thumb War, I rose from bed and ran downstairs to the den to retrieve the movies. After running back up the stairs and down the hall, I paused at the doorway and leaned against the frame, "Captain Barbossa, I am here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against-. Hey, no working!"
Tim looked up from the laptop he had frantically been typing on. He stammered, and I knew it was because I had caught him not because I was standing nude before him, "I…. I was just… reviewing-."
I shook my head as I crossed my arms over my chest.
He closed the laptop promptly and set it back on the his night table, "I'm sorry… I'm here now."
We made it through the first two movies before finding ourselves restless. It didn't take long for the both of us to decide that if we jogged at a normal speed through the park as a couple, it would fall under the "normal" category, especially if we took Robbie with us. We changed into Lycra pants and shirts before dressing Robbie in his leather leash and collar. After stretching in the atrium, we set out at a walk, letting Robbie get into the groove before starting into a light jog once we reached the park.
Forty minutes later, just as we were about to call it quit, Tim's cell began buzzing from his pocket. He paused as he retrieved it and I smiled when Robbie cocked his head at the ring tone. Instead of listening in on his conversation, I packed up a few snowballs and threw them for the Boxer to catch.
Just as he was about to catch his tenth snowball, Tim approached, "Up for dinner?"
"Hi, I'm Cass, have we met?"
He snickered before explaining, "That was Selina, she said Mattie would be honored if we attended dinner tonight. I guess Dick, Barbara and Ethan are there visiting now and she decided the whole Family might as well come up."
"But what about At World's End?" I whined.
"You've seen it how many times?"
I shrugged before quoting the film's opening line."… In order to affect a timely halt to deteriorating conditions, and to ensure the common good, a state of emergency is declared for these territories by decree of Lord Cutler Beckett, duly appointed representative of His Majesty, the King. By decree, according to martial law-."
"… My point exactly. So, Selina said dinner was at seven and it's," he paused to glance at his watch, "Six-fifteen…"
We looked at either for a fraction of a second before taking off in a dead run towards the Townhouse. With Robbie bounding beside me, I took a sharp left and leapt over a snow bank that had iced over the last week. Tim spotted my change of course and pushed into the run harder.
Despite our efforts to race each other, we arrived at the front steps at the same time.
Rather than shower together, I offered to feed Robbie and pick up after our day in bed while he washed up first. After picking out something to wear for after I showered, I sat on the bed and opened the laptop.
After Dick had visited the Royal Flush club the night before, Tim and I had met across from the Clocktower. He had reported that he had managed to get a bit of information from an informant he had run into outside of the club.
Tim had nodded before inquiring, "Reliable?"
He had laughed, "You could say so," before telling us it had been Bruce.
Tim had been speechless. I had simply nodded.
Nightwing had continued his explanation, "He knows about the Joker cards. Wanted to get a little more insight on it."
"I bet," Tim had grumbled, probably more upset over the fact that I hadn't known about Bruce going undercover rather than the fact that he knew about the con's carrying cards before him.
The last document that had been opened had nothing to do with the Joker, or Bruce or Batman.
It had been a word document with only a few lines written under the title Wedding Ideas.
I smiled as I scanned through the list, italicizing my three favorites: Battle on a pirate ship (maelstrom? Kraken?), Russian Space Station (in Russian?) and Starbucks (complimentary lattes?).
I then added another: Sea World (with sea otters?)
Considering that my daughter had prepared breakfast, lunch and a dinner for the entire Family, I had ordered her to enjoy dessert and entertain guests rather than to clean up the dining room and kitchen.
I had finished washing most of dishes when I heard footsteps approach from behind me. Without looking up from the sink, I listened as he carefully set a stack of dessert plates on the counter top, "I think that's the last them."
"… Thank you," I replied softly as I reached for them.
He reached towards me and I waited to feel his hand on me but was surprised when he simply selected a towel off of the iron rack and began to dry dishes I had already washed.
Wash and dry, just as we had during his year suffering from amnesia.
I smiled as I thought to myself, Minus the bubble fight.
As we reached the end of our chore, Bruce cleared his throat and leaned against the counter, "Was Mattie still going to the movies tonight?"
As I shut the water off, I replied, "No, I told her I would take her and Katarina tomorrow afternoon."
"Ah." He waited a beat for asking, "Are you sure you're not mad at me?"
Since he had surfaced from the Cave that morning, he had been determined to get an admission of anger from me, one I was unable to give him simply because I wasn't upset. I had tried to brush his sincere apologies aside and eventually took to accepting them gracefully. I had even gone as far as trying to reassure him that it wasn't a big deal but my words fell on deaf ears.
Finally, just before Dick and Barbara had arrived with Ethan, Bruce had cornered me in the bedroom, asking "Selina… if you're upset, I understand-."
I had been staring at two dress I had selected from the closet, still undecided as to what I would wear for dinner. As I slowly looked up, I simply asked, "Gucci or Versace?"
He had stared at me before glancing down and saying, "Gucci."
I picked up the Versace dress, a steel gray knee length silk chiffon, and returned it to the closet, "I'll wear this one when you take me to dinner tomorrow night."
After that, he stopped asking.
I reached out and dried my hands as he held onto the towel, "Do you want me to be mad at you?"
"Then shut up," I stood on my toes and kissed his lips softly before heading towards the door. Just as I took the first step into the hall, Bruce had caught up and took my hand into his.
Since the Joker had escaped, I had seen Bruce not much more than a few hours a day, most of which was when he was sleeping beside me. That was if he even made it to bed. His typical schedule involved staying in the Cave from the moment he returned from work, if he had even gone, occasionally making it up for the tail end of dinner before heading back downstairs. At first, I had checked in with him in the evening, bringing him coffee and often a plate of the dinner he had missed.
After a few days of seeing empty coffee mugs and half full plates, I gave the task to Mattie.
It wasn't that I didn't want to make sure he was eating, it was more that I would much rather have Mattie spend time with her father, even if it was simply standing at his side watching him attack the keyboard unmercifully.
Over the last few weeks, I had found that Mattie's trips downstairs lasted most of the evening, even approaching her nine-thirty bedtime on most nights. Not wanting to pry, I had snuck down one evening, shocked not to find them at the computer, trying to fight crime through cyber space. Instead, Mattie was on the balance beam in the Cave's training bay, showing her father her latest routine from gymnastics practice.
I had left them with a smile on my face after hearing Bruce say, "Bravo, kitten."
When we entered the den, we found that Dick and Barbara had packed up their son's belongings and were making their rounds to say good-bye. Not unexpected considering it was approaching eight and the little guy had been busy since three that afternoon. As Barbara double checked the diaper bag, she muttered she was missing a bib and excused herself to the dining room to retrieve it.
Dick approached, the tired boy wiggling in his arms, "Say good night, Ethan."
I leaned in and kissed both of his cheeks, pleased to see his frown soften into a tiny smile. Dick shifted his hold on Ethan so that he faced us, "Say bye-bye to Papa."
I glanced up at Bruce to see a half-smile had formed on his face. With an ease that never ceased to amaze me, Bruce took the baby from his son, supporting him with an arm under his diapered bottom and a hand on his side.
"Bye-bye," Bruce said, as he shared a moment of eye contact with the boy. Ethan's smile grew and he reached out and latched onto Bruce's lower lip before moving to grasp his nose. When he withdrew his hand, Bruce leaned in and touched his nose to Ethan's. "Bye- bye."
Finally Ethan complied, "Buh-buh."
He only had a few "words" in his vocabulary, including buh-buh for bye-bye, pull for please and of course mama and dada. Now that he had settled into his new family, he spent a great deal of his time trying to communicate in his rambled language. Thankfully, whenever Dick and Barbara had made it up to visit with him in the last few weeks, Bruce had a hard time passing up spending time with his grandson.
Dark Knight kryptonite clad in Osh'Kosh Bagosh.
Bruce offered to see them out and after I kissed Ethan again, I watched them head into the hall, hearing the little boy babbling long after they were out of sight. Before I could head further into the den, Nathan came up and hugged my legs, "Mommy, you-ah my Valentine."
I leaned over and kissed his head, "And you are mine."
He grinned, showing the gap where he had lost his first tooth earlier that week , and ran back to the couch where his sister was sitting across from Tim and Cass. I joined them on the couch and asked as Nathan moved to sit closer to me, "So, big plans tonight?"
Tim shook his head, "Not really. Kind of spent the day in bed watching movies… so we're not too ambitious… at least not enough to get into trouble. What about you? Hot party, Mattie?"
She smirked as she searched through the small glass dish she had set out earlier that was half-filled with candy hearts, "Nah… We're going out tomorrow, right Mom?"
I nodded, "And you," I paused to tickle Nathan's neck, "Get to hang out with Dad for the afternoon."
He looked up at me and asked, "What a-h we doing?"
"It's a secret. And a surprise."
Nathan then said, "Hmmm…" before slipping off of the couch slowly and taking off in a dead run out of the room.
Tim laughed out loud, "Innate investigator, eh?"
Mattie smirked, "He watched Blue's Clues with Ethan all afternoon… he thinks he's a detective."
"Well, we'll have to put him on retainer, given he can find out what Bruce's secret surprise is," Tim commented as he rose to his feet.
"What if I can find out first?" Mattie said suddenly. And seriously.
The room was silent until I cleared my throat, "Well, Mattie why don't you start by finding your brother, tell him to come say his good-bye's." I watched as she winked at Tim before heading out of the room.
"That was… scary," Tim let out a long breath of air.
"And it's only the beginning," I said before telling him how much time she had been spending with Bruce of late.
Tim nodded, "And to think I figured he was holed up in the Cave by himself these last few weeks… Guess she's far better company than the bats."
"Less messy at least," Cass commented with a slight smirk.
By the time we navigated the corridor to the main atrium, Mattie managed to corral her younger brother and both were waiting beside Bruce. Nathan had his arms wrapped around one of Bruce's legs and was repeatedly asking what the secret surprise was. As we approached, Bruce looked to me, confusion plastered on his face.
I intervened after realizing my husband had no clue that there was supposed to be a secret surprise, "Nate, if Daddy tells you it won't be a surprise."
"That's right, tiger" Bruce added, still clueless.
After another pleading look to both of us, Nathan relented and went about hugging and saying good-bye to Tim and Cass and I smiled as I overheard him ask each of them if they knew. They shook their heads and told him to have fun with his father the next day.
Once they had headed out, Mattie asked, "Can I call Piper?"
Bruce asked instinctively, "For what?"
Mattie shrugged, "Because."
Before Bruce could continue his interrogation, I said, "Sure, kiddo, but not too late. And you," I touched my son's nose with a pointer finger, "Go pick out some pajamas, Dad and I will be up in a bit."
Nathan nodded before touching Mattie's hand as he ran passed her, "Tag! You-uh it!"
As they both took off to the rear of the house, Nathan to the stairs and Mattie towards the elevator, Bruce leaned towards me and whispered, "What's the secret surprise?"
"That's for you to figure out, detective."
"Mrrow," he replied.
I cleared my throat and Tim Bryce promptly knocked over a can of Coke Zero as he spun around in his desk chair.
Thankfully, my face was in shadow or else he would have seen a fraction of a smirk on my lips.
"Some guard dog," Tim sighed as he began mopping up the mess with a handful of tissues. He added, "Probably has his big, hairy German butt sleeping in bed with my wife…"
I had only visited him a handful of times since he had invested in getting a retired police dog. Since it had been me that had suggested it to him in the first place, I had prepared myself with Milk Bones. The first time I snuck in after Kaufman joined the Bryce family, he had trotted right up to me, the hair standing up on his neck and hips as he let out a low growl.
With the firm command of "Platz," the dog hesitated and when I said it again, he slowly reclined. I then gave him two handfuls of treats and hoped it would be enough of a bribe to allow me a few moments with his owner. After following the same routine a half of a dozen times, Kauf had taken to waiting at the upstairs window I entered through, laying down and drooling.
That night, I had Beggin Strips.
"Well, dare I ask if you have anything?" Tim finally asked as he tossed mounds of sodden tissues in the wicker trash can beside his desk.
I reached under my cape and retrieved one of the Joker cards I had found earlier that week, secured in a plastic bag. I tossed it onto his now dry desk along with a printout of the criminal record belonging to the perp who had been holding the card.
He examined the card closely before skimming through the papers, "Friend of yours?"
"He is now."
I had run into one David Hill five days earlier after catching him stalking a potential mugging victim. Just as he had reached into his coat for a weapon, I had jumped down on top of him before retracting the grapple gun and sending both of us skyward. With my hand clenched over his mouth, his scream was nothing more than a muffled moan.
After we had landed on the roof, he tried to scramble to his feet but I had latched onto one of his wrists and when his arm went taught, he involuntarily spun around to face me. Without letting go of his arm, I had kicked him twice in the stomach and once in the back of the head. As he had stumbled forward, I had stepped in front of him and allowed him to crash into my chest face first. When he had fallen backwards, I finally let go of him.
While he had rolled and moaned on the roof, curling up into a fetal position, I had searched his jacket and found the switchblade he had no doubt been reaching for as well as a near empty pack of cigarettes. In his pants pocket, he had a brown leather wallet that had contained thirty dollars, an expired driver's license and a Joker card.
As I had crouched down over his limp body, I gripped his jacket collar in one hand and held the card above his face in the other, "Where did you get this?"
He had begun to tremble, "I… I…"
"Where?" I had growled, forcing my hand around his throat.
After being deprived of oxygen for thirty seconds, he finally had gasped, "Royal Flush," before passing out.
I relayed as much to Bryce and then proceeded to inform him that I had come across six other cons that had also Joker cards in their possession. When he asked for their names, I tossed another set of printouts on his desk.
A smile came over his face, "You are resourceful, I'll give you that… What does it mean?"
Although I had intended to talk to Bruce about the Joker cards after dinner, I had decided not to and at the time I couldn't say why. Unfortunately, I hadn't been up to see him in nearly two weeks and had actually expected to find him with heavy stubble and tired eyes. Instead, he had been smiling through most of dinner with a clean shaven jaw and a keen gaze.
Certainly not the face of a man who was spending his nights hunting down a homicidal clown.
"It means he's making the first move," I replied quietly.
"By building an army of Blackgate Alum… I've spent the last month and a half pouring over his files… He left cards on victims and at crime scenes, I don't recall anything like this."
I wanted to tell him that there was no amount of reading that would prepare him for facing the Joker but instead I simply said, "He always has something up his sleeve."
Bryce offered a quick smirk before skimming through the six sets of records. I took a moment to look him over, interested that he looked more haggard than either Bruce or myself. Having already visited Kelsey earlier that evening, it was easy to decide that amongst us, Bruce had looked the best that evening.
Or at least he had been the last one to shave.
He suddenly consulted his wristwatch and sighed, "Damn, I suppose I better quit now… or Dana will find herself a new Valentine," he turned to look up at me, "I suppose you have someone waiting as well." I didn't so much as flinch and Tim added, "Or not."
When he looked back to the files, I silently made my way out of the room, listening intently as he said, "Well, at least all Dana will do is make me sleep on the couch… maybe even the dog bed but who knows what kung fu you'll have to face…"
I spent the better part of the next two hours touring the city, alternating between the cycle and grapple. Nightwing had contacted me a little after three saying that the west end of the city had been cleared and that he was calling it a night so he could rest up for a six in the morning bottle feeding. I even checked in with Batgirl who had been touring the southern end of the city. She said she would meet me back at home after she checked the boardwalk.
After speaking with her, I contacted Oracle and updated her about my visits with Kelsey and Bryce. She had joked, "Did he give you any candy? A card, at least?"
"Funny," I had growled before closing the connection.
I made it to the Sat-Cave at a little before four, taking less than fifteen minutes to shower and changed before sitting at the computer. Although I had been tempted to make coffee in the small commissary, I knew I would end up working well passed dawn.
Once I was nearly through logs, a communication signal popped up and although I expected Barbara's face on the display, I smiled when Bruce's form appeared. I sat back in my chair and said, "Good morning."
He nodded curtly before replying, "Far too early for it to be any good… Barbara said you presented the cards to the commissioner?"
"Yeah, and Bryce… First real lead we've come across, they seemed pretty pleased even though we still have no clue what they mean."
Bruce looked down before saying, "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you sooner."
I couldn't help but smile, "It's okay… I just wish I had seen you undercover, Dick said you looked like a bearded Val Kilmer."
He grunted to himself before replying, "Not exactly what I was going for… I've sent you what I've been able to compile… Not much but-."
I interrupted him, "An insider's view is always better than an outsider's… Someone told me that once, can't seem to remember who."
For a fraction of a second, Bruce sported his trademark half-smirk. When it faded, he spoke, "It's a start, Timothy."
Nodding, I said, "But the question is, the start to what?"
Bruce took a moment to reply, "I'm sure you'll find out… one way or another," before closing the connection.
Still staring at the monitor, I commented to myself, "We'll all find out."
When I finally made it home, Cass and Robbie were sound asleep in bed and the gift candy heart box Mattie had given us was sitting on my bedside table. After sitting carefully on my side of the bed, I skimmed the chocolates before finding two coconut filled ones. Still chewing, I reclined next to Cass and pulled the covers over me, being sure not to disturb either one of the sleeping forms beside me.
Just as I was about to sneak another candy out of the box, Cass rolled over to face me and even in the darkness of the bedroom I could see her eyes were clear and bright. With a smirk, I leaned in and kissed her cheek before kissing her lips.
"Coconut… much better than dog butt," she commented.
I loved her.
"Sea World, hunh?" I asked quietly.
She didn't seem the slightest bit confused and replied instantly, "Seas otters are cute, swim on their backs, could bring us rings."
"True… But I think I prefer outer space… especially if Russians are involved."
We joked for quite a while, lying in bed and coming up with ridiculous wedding ideas. In all seriousness, we wanted something simple and painless, no where near the extravagance that both Bruce and Selina as well as Dick and Barbara had undertaken. With Jim and Maureen getting married later that summer, we had decided they would take care of the normal wedding quota, leaving us to do something random.
So far, we had been able to keep the engagement a secret, both deciding that if Dick and Barbara could keep their adopting a secret for ten months that we would be able to surpass them and make it a year. Even though I had proposed without a ring, I had offered to get her one but Cass had made the valid point, "No use for it… why have it?"
In place the ceremonial diamond ring, I hadn't gotten her a case of candy Ring Pops. After I had knelt before her and adorned her ring finger with a blue raspberry flavored one, she had taken a big lick before responding, "Now these… these are useful."
I really loved her.
Despite the fact that I had planned on sleeping in for the first time since the beginning of the year, I found myself waking at half passed seven, although not voluntarily.
I had fallen asleep on my back and as I looked up, I found my son sitting on my torso, tapping the middle of my bare chest with a pointer finger. When he realized my eyes were open, he asked, "Is it time for the sec-wet suh-pwise?" When I shook my head, he pouted for a minute then looked directly into my eyes, "Now?"
"No," I said softly, not wanting to wake Selina, "Not until this afternoon."
"Aftahnoon?" he gasped.
"Afternoon, so why don't you go back to-."
Before I could finish, he had already rolled off of me and jumped off of the bed, his little feet flying as he ran across the room and into the hallway. When two silent minutes had passed, I decided there was more sleep to bed had and I drew a slow, relaxing breath.
Just as my eyes closed, Nathan's footsteps entered the room once more, although rather than climbing onto the bed, he paused at my bedside table and began playing with the alarm clock. I watched on silently as he pressed the buttons carefully until he managed to change the time to 12:01.
He then picked up the clock and said, "It's aftah noon, Daddy."
Knowing there was little chance he would settle back in for the morning, I decided to get up as well. Even though Selina had no contact with my body, as I rose from the bed she shifted under the covers and mumbled something that might have been my name. I leaned over and kissed her brow before moving my pillow so it was next to her. Without hesitation, she hugged the pillow, her eyes never opening once.
After sending Nathan to his room to make his bed, a task he proudly performed but often forgot about, I washed up and changed into jeans and a gray wool sweater over a black turtleneck. By the time I made it to his room, his bed was made and he had managed to remove his pajama bottoms, leaving him in nothing but his underwear, a single red sock and a tee-shirt.
"Let's wash up, tiger, we have to go out and get breakfast."
As he brushed his teeth and combed his dark hair, I toured his walk-in closet and did my best at selecting something for him to wear. Although I didn't have the secret surprise planned in it's entirety, I had a general idea and wanted him to dress accordingly. Opting for comfort, I found him a pair of jeans, his black running shoes as well as a tee shirt and hooded sweatshirt.
I left his clothes out for him to dress while I made my way down the hall to check on his sister. After no answer from my curt knock, I closed my eyes and carefully opened the door and asked, "Mattie?"
When no reply came, I opened my eyes and saw her bed was made, with Taffy nesting in a white, orange and black ball on the pillows. Next to the slumbering cat, I spotted a crumpled purple Post-It note and flattened it before reading through the feline teeth marks: In the study J
Upon returning to the hall, Nathan emerged from his bedroom with his hood pulled up, hiding his face. As he walked by, I pulled it off of his head and he spun around and looked at me before pulling it back up with a stern explanation, "Bad hai-uh day."
"Ah," I commented as we began walking towards the stairs, "Could shave it all off for you, then it won't be bad."
"I'd be bald!" he exclaimed as he began trotting down the steps.
"I was bald, my hair grew back."
He paused at the second floor landing and looked up at me for a moment before saying, "It gwew back gway… I don't want gway hai-uh."
We continued and I subconsciously ran a hand through my hair, "It was gray long before then, tiger."
"Why?" he shot back his infamous response to anything.
"I guess… every gray hair is from something happening in your life."
He paused again and looked up at me, "Something… like suh-pwises?"
Without warning, I lifted him in the air and threw him over my shoulder, "How's that for a surprise?"
I held him captive as I ran down the last set of stairs finally releasing him once we were in the main hall, "Mattie's in the study, let's go see if she wants to come with us."
As her half-eaten note had indicated, we found Mattie in the study sitting at my desk as she read. I knocked on the open door and she looked up with a delayed smile coming to her lips, "Morning, Dad."
"Good morning, kitten… Been awake long?"
She shrugged and put her bookmark in place, "Not long."
Even without my keen eye for observation, I would have been able to see behind her lie. She was wearing a pair of fresh pajamas that had not seen a night's sleep. The bags under her eyes were nearly concealed with make up but there was nothing she could do about the fatigued red in her eyes. The bookmark in her book was a good three hundred pages ahead of where it had been the day before when I had last seen her reading it.
"Nathan, go get your coat, I'll be out front in a bit."
He tightened his hood so that only his eyes showed and took off into the hall.
"Not long?" I asked quietly as I leaned against the desk.
She brought her legs up and pulled them to her chest as she sat in the chair. After a slight shrug, she finally said, "Okay… a while."
Mattie nodded and looked up at me, "I just… wanted to know… you know, what it's like to stay up, working all night."
I cleared my throat, trying to brush aside the fact that my behavior had once more impacted hers, "Not an ideal way to spend your weekend."
"I know… I don't know…" she looked at her bare feet for a moment before asking, "Dad?"
"Can you get me a latte?"
By the time Nathan and I had returned from the bakery in Bristol, Selina and Mattie had both dressed for their day out. Our adventure to the bakery and coffee shop had yielded two white cardboard boxes of fruit tarts, brioche a tete, Danishes and napoleons. Mattie had already prepared sliced fruit for everyone as well as individual dishes of yogurt. She took the boxes with a smile and began arranging the pastries on two glass dishes.
I set a large cardboard next to her on the counter and said, "Venti caramel latte skim no foam."
She smiled with gratitude and held a raspberry filled puff pastry to my lips. I ate it in one bite and heard Selina say my name in a tone I heard her use most often when Dick was teaching our children bad habits.
It was the first time I had heard being directed at me.
We ate in the nook, sharing the first breakfast as a family in far too long. Afterwards, we split the family in half for the day. Mattie and Selina went to the stable so that our daughter could have her riding lesson before spending the afternoon with Katarina for lunch and a movie.
Nathan and I were off for our secret surprise.
After I had surfaced from the Cave the day before, Selina had informed me that although I had managed to find a way to spend time with my daughter for the last few weeks, I had not done the same for my son. Therefore, we would spend the entire afternoon together doing whatever made him smile.
We started out the day at the Museum of Natural History where a new winter wildlife IMAX film was being featured. Sitting in a half-filled theatre, we were dead center before the sixty five foot tall screen as wolves, caribou and orcas came to life. Although it was hard to look away from the massive screen, I found my gaze drifting to my son's face, lost in sheer wonder.
With a smile.
From there, we toured some of the exhibits in the museum, spending quite a bit of time in the paleontology floor. As instructed by his mother, I used the camera she had given me to take his picture as he stood before a pair of raptors, a stegosaurus and a massive allosaurus.
With a smile.
While we made our way down the front steps on our way out, I suggested we grab a bite to eat as I helped him put his down vest on over his sweatshirt. He nodded and asked, "Can I pick?"
"Anything you want."
Thirty minutes later, we were sitting on red plastic coated stools at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. On the way over, he had admitted that Dick and Barbara had taken him and Mattie a number of times and his favorite thing on the menu was a hotdog with relish, onions and peppers with an ice cold root beer. I let him order for me and had to hide my shock when he said to the cashier, "A hambuhger with eve-wething."
While he enjoyed a hotdog with his favorite toppings, I force fed myself a medium well done burger with an array of condiments not to mention onions, pickles, green and jalapeno peppers, mushrooms, lettuce and tomatoes.
I spilled a dollop of A1 sauce on my shirt and Nathan grinned.
So far so good.
When we made it home around four that afternoon, I carried his sleeping form through the service entrance from the garage and straight upstairs to bed. He mumbled something as his chin rested on my shoulder and I patted his back, "You're welcome, tiger."
After helping him settle in for a nap, I checked both the master bedroom and Mattie's room before making my way downstairs. As I reached the ground floor, I retrieved my cell phone and called Selina. She answered on the third ring, "We're coming up the drive," before hanging up.
I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of cold water before finding a bottle of Bayer from the cabinet above the sink. After popping back three tablets, I drained the glass just as Selina and Mattie walked in.
Before I could greet them, Selina asked, "So?"
"So what?" I countered.
"What did you come up with for his surprise?" she replied.
"Secret surprise," Mattie corrected her.
With both of them looking at me impatiently, I simply shrugged and began to explain, "The thing about a secret is you can't tell anyone…"
Mattie rolled her eyes and made her way out of the kitchen as Selina said, "Please, he'll just tell me when he wakes up from his nap."
"Or will he?" I questioned with my face completely solemn.
"Fine, the kid's off the hook but…" she stepped towards me, pressing her body against mine as she whispered into my ear, "I have ways of making you talk."