A/N: "Leatherwinged Bat" appears to be an old English folk song of unknown authorship. The lyrics quoted were recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary on their Peter, Paul and Mommy album (Warner Bros, 1969). Other versions may (and probably do!) exist.

"Interjections!" written by Lynn Ahrens. Performed by Essra Mohawk. First aired on Schoolhouse Rock, 1974.

"Love This Pain" written by Marv Green and Jason Sellers. Recorded by Lady Antebellum on their Need You Now album (Capitol Nashville, 2009).

She's got a restlessness
A beautifulness, a thing about her
But here I am again calling her back
Letting her drive me crazy

It's like I love this pain a little too much
Love my heart all busted up
Something 'bout her, we just don't work
But I can't walk away

-Marv Green, Jason Sellers, "Love This Pain"

Chapter 28—Can't Walk Away

Why had it taken him this long to talk to them? Bruce grimaced as a list surfaced in his mind. He hadn't wanted to admit the extent to which Arkham had affected him. He hadn't wanted to worry them. He'd thought that, if he told himself often enough that he was managing on his own, it would ultimately become true. His hands tightened on the steering wheel as he drove back to the manor. Alex had called it, well over a year ago.

"Admitting to vulnerabilities is not something to which I am accustomed."

"Well, it would be surprising if, before you went into a physical fight, you took a moment to tell your sparring partner exactly where your weakest points were …"

Not that he and Dick had been fighting. Far from it. But old instincts and disciplines ran deep.

He hadn't wanted to burden them. Even if they were willing to help him shoulder his load, his stresses were his to deal with. They had enough on their plates already. Somehow, he'd gotten it into his head that opening up to them would be as disturbing as... as... as remaining in the room when Jim turned around to finish his sentences—and somehow the Earth was still spinning on its axis, even though he'd started doing that too!

Actually, Bruce reflected, he hadn't had to elaborate much further. Once he'd admitted that there was a problem, once he'd secured their willingness to help, he hadn't known what else to say. Instead, he'd attacked two helpings of baked ziti with dogged determination, barely looking up, except to pass the water pitcher, or to ask for it to be passed back to him.

And they'd left him alone. They hadn't badgered him to open up, but at the same time, their body language had made it clear that, if he'd chosen to, they would have listened. He'd always known that this was true, but somehow, he'd never fully believed it before. Strangely, although there'd been almost no conversation at all during the meal, the silence hadn't been awkward. When had Dick gotten over his inclination to fill every lull in a conversation with small talk?

After dinner, he and Barbara had gone over the Christmas menu. He was going to have to make a few changes, but it didn't look as though he'd wrecked anything beyond repair yet—except for the mixing bowl. Barbara had even had a supply of raisins on hand, although he was debating whether to go through to work of making the pudding. Maybe he should stick to the trifle. If he was feeling adventurous, he could always make a fruitcake. Nobody expected those to be good.

His lips twitched. Wouldn't it be ironic if, despite his best efforts, his were to turn out edible? They'd never let him live that one down.

That night, he dreamed that he was back in Arkham. It was a blistering inferno, and he was caught in the middle of it. Dick was calling to him, telling him that he had to leave, but someone was trapped inside. He pressed onward, into the conflagration, ignoring Dick's cries.

Then the ceiling collapsed, burying him under beams and plaster. He felt no pain—in fact, the fire wasn't even hot—but he was pinned under the debris, unable to move.

He felt someone tugging on his ankle, and he struggled. He knew he had to keep moving, keep pushing forward, but there was that pull again. No... There was someone he had to get to. He had to get out from under the plaster, and... and...

"Hi, Daddy!"

He wasn't pinned under debris, he was tangled up in the bedclothes. That was probably the only thing that had stopped him from kicking... His eyes flew open and he became wide awake in an instant. "Helena!" His heart began to race. If he hadn't woken up when he did, if he hadn't been a restless sleeper, he could have... he'd almost...

He sat bolt upright, fear quickly yielding to rage. "What are you doing in here?" he yelled. "GET OUT!"

Helena's lower lip began to wobble. Hurt and confusion warred briefly in her large blue eyes. Then the tears started.

At her first whimper, Bruce felt his anger utterly drain away. "Helena..." He got out of bed and approached her.

Helena flung herself to the ground in a shuddering heap, her back to him, still crying. It wasn't a tantrum. She wasn't kicking. She wasn't screaming. She wasn't even wailing. Instead, the sobs were closer to hiccups.

Bruce knelt next to her and stroked her back. "Helena, I..." he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."

Helena snuffled, but she didn't pull away.

Bruce kept stroking her back. "You can't pull on me when I'm sleeping," he said softly, knowing that she probably wouldn't understand what he was saying, but hoping anyway. "I could have hurt you without meaning to." He winced. It appeared that he already had. He scooped her up in his arms, holding her close and making soothing noises. After a moment, he felt small arms wrap about his neck. She was still teary-eyed, but at least, she didn't seem to be afraid of him now.

Softly, he began to sing an old song he hadn't thought about in years.

"I" said the little leatherwinged bat
"I'll tell to you the reason that
The reason that I fly by night
Is because I've lost my heart's delight."

Howdy dowdy diddle-dum day
Howdy dowdy diddle-dum day
Howdy dowdy diddle-dum day...

Jim found them there some time later. Bruce was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with Helena asleep in his arms. She was sucking her thumb.

"I didn't want to wake her," Bruce said in a low tone. Then, firmly, "We need another safety gate."

"Another one?" Jim's eyebrows shot up. "What's happened now?"

Bruce told him. "I think you can appreciate the necessity," he added.

Jim nodded understanding. "You'll need to make sure she has a few more toys in the bedroom, though, if you mean to keep her confined there while you're sleeping. That, or move her bed down the hall to the nursery."

"Quiet toys," Bruce agreed. He smiled fondly down at his daughter. Then he glanced up. "Is that the phone?"

"I'll get it," Jim smiled.

He was back a few minutes later, holding out the cordless. "It's Barbara. She's got a message for you from Selina."

She'd chosen the restaurant well. It wasn't a dive, but neither was it a place likely to attract anyone who would recognize Bruce Wayne or Selina Kyle well enough to identify them. Her hair was now chestnut brown, and worn in a tousled bob. Hazel contact lenses covered her green eyes. Bruce noted approvingly that she had not only altered her skin tone with liquid foundation, she'd remembered to also use the coloring on her hands and wrists. He recognized her, though, by the way she crossed her right ankle over the opposite knee when she sat, by her smile, which he would know anywhere, and by the way her eyes lit up when she saw him walk in.

" Brewster?" she called.

Bruce frowned. Dick had had his reasons for registering him under that name when he'd been in the hospital. Bruce could even admit that they'd been good ones. It didn't change the fact that he thoroughly detested the name 'Brewster'.

"Brewster, don't you know me?" she continued, getting up from the table. "Irena! From the retreat."

He eyed her as if trying to place where he'd seen her last. So this was how she was playing it. He fought not to let his annoyance show. They should have just sat down together without fanfare. Or met at a bar later, where he could have bought her a drink. However, if she was going to play the 'long lost acquaintances' card, he could as well.

"Irena?" He exclaimed in his best 'Brucie' voice. "My gosh, it is you! How long has it been? You look amazing."

Selina let an uncharacteristic giggle leak into her voice. "You always did have a way with words, Brewster." Then, in an undertone that only reached his ears, "Vapid enough for you?" Still smiling, she continued, "Come on, sit down, we've got hours of catching up to do!" She grabbed his hand and half-led, half-dragged him back to her table.

"Well, Bruce said dryly, "you're nothing like the person I was expecting to meet here."

Selina grinned. "Thank you," she said in her own voice. The smile faded. "How is she?"

"Mischievous," Bruce replied. "Learning new things every day." He sighed. "Running me ragged."

"Poor dear."

"She seems happy enough."

"I didn't mean her."

Bruce shook his head. "I haven't heard otherwise, so I'd presume Harley is still at large?"

"She didn't break out," Selina pointed out. "She got released. So far, she seems to be keeping her nose clean." She took a sip of water. "If I thought she'd found someone new to get hooked up with, or at least got Joker out of her system, I'd have a lot fewer worries."

"Yes," Bruce said heavily. "So... nothing has changed."

Selina leaned forward as though she were about to say something. Then she seemed to think better of it. "Nothing."

"I see." He pushed his chair back from the table. "It was good running into you, Irena. I need to be on my way, though."

He was halfway to the door when he heard footsteps behind him. "Brewster, wait. I'll walk with you partway if you're heading west on Neville."

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that he was going east instead, but he shrugged. "Suit yourself."

They'd been walking for half a block, when Selina moved in closer to him. "Something has changed," she admitted. "I... It would serve me right if, after all this, you pulled a Rhett Butler on me, but... what we talked about at Thanksgiving? About how much of what we were to each other involved—"

"I remember the conversation," Bruce said quietly.

"Okay. Well, the answer depends a lot on who you are." She took a deep breath. "If, every time we start getting close, you pull away, one of these days, I'm not going to wait for you to show up with a dozen roses, an apology, and an offer to take me out to Santorini's that gets pre-empted by a big spotlight over the skyline." She bit her lip. "I never cared about the playboy image, Bruce. I get the need for cover, and I'd be lying if I told you I hadn't flirted with handsome men for the same reason. Sometimes, I even enjoyed it. But if I ever believed for one moment that it was more than an image thing with you, I'd be long gone." She was studiously avoiding eye contact. "It's probably not fair to drop this on you at a point when we can't be seen openly together. Maybe I'm doing it this way so that if I really have burned this bridge, or if you need more time to know where you stand—"

"I know where I stand," Bruce cut her off. "But I don't know if it's... healthy. For either of us. Irena, up until very recently, I'd made my peace with the idea that I wouldn't have any long-term relationships. It had nothing to do with my feelings and everything to do with my work." He half-turned toward her. "Seriously, Irena, would you be comfortable with waiting up for me every night, wondering if this is the one where I don't make it home? I wouldn't wish that on anyone."

"Except..." She let her voice trail off.

"Don't think I didn't go through periods where I tried to encourage him to quit, too." He sighed.

"Well, honestly? Thank your lucky stars he didn't. Anyway, who says I'd be waiting up for you? I don't know if you noticed, but you aren't the only card-carrying member of the spandex set around here."

Bruce glanced about to ensure that nobody was in earshot. Selina caught him at it.

"Please," she scoffed. "I'm not that much of an amateur. Now seriously, where did you get the idea that I'd stay home and hold down the fort?"

Bruce blinked. "I would have thought with Helena..."

"That's where babysitters come in. Or Dick's 'two-nights-on, one-night-off' policy." She gave him a hard stare. "If you've gone over the reports, you've seen it for yourself. The city hasn't been suffering. Neither have we."

"I know," Bruce admitted. It was his turn to look away. "The problem is, old habits... old attitudes... die hard. And my knee-jerk reaction—"

"Now how did I know there was going to be a jerk involved?"

"It's not funny, Sel-Irena. I want you to be safe. I want you to be alive. And since even you acknowledge the danger in being seen with me, the wisest course of action would be to make this meeting the first and last one of its kind. At this moment, there are only two things preventing me from following that course of action."

Selina blinked. "I hope one of them is Helena."

Bruce nodded. "Of course, it is. I'd never dream of keeping you away from her."

"What's the other one?"

Bruce didn't answer.


He turned to her. And then, remembering what she'd said earlier, he placed both hands on her shoulders and took a half-step closer. "It is the most sensible decision," he said haltingly. "I know it is. But..."

She tilted her head up to meet his eyes. "But?"

It was almost like watching a mask slide away as he pulled her closer to him. A rueful smile spread across his face. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Barbara came by later that afternoon, armed with a number of cookbooks. "If nothing in here appeals to you, we can go online," she said, "but I find it a lot easier to lose a printout then an actual book, once we start messing up the table and counters." She grinned. "First thing to remember: Clark is vegan. Your other guests aren't. But a lot of what you're serving is either already vegan-friendly, or can be made so. The smoked trout salad, for example... there's other stuff to it than fish, right?

Bruce nodded. "It's served on a bed of mesclun." He thought. "Garnished with capers."

"Yeah, that sounds like the version I was thinking of. Ok. So the way I see it, you can still serve Clark the greens without the fish. Maybe put some toasted nuts in it—or candied nuts."

"I don't..."

"Drop 'em in sugar-water and toast them in the oven. The water evaporates, the sugar sticks. I can do it myself at home, later. Anyway, that can be prepared last minute, so leave it for now. The dressing... is it that one with the crème fraiche?"

"How did you know?"

Barbara grinned. "Bruce, maybe I haven't gone to anywhere near as many gala dinners as you have, but I've had smoked trout salad a few times, and liked it enough to want to look up the recipe." The grin became a grimace. "It's just a good thing we all get enough exercise—that stuff is deadly." The smile returned. "Of course, you could substitute vegan sour cream, if you want to cut back on the calories and turn it into something Clark will eat. Or just make sure you have a vinaigrette onhand, if you do want to go all out."

Bruce looked stricken. "I should have considered the calories."

"Bruce, it's Christmas. We can indulge. And if it turns out the next day that I can't button my jeans and I'm looking to hit the person who did it to me, I know you'll agree to a spar. Now. What kind of shape did the roast end up in?"

Bruce relaxed. "It's fine. I've put it in the freezer for now. I had to cut away the burned bit, but the sauce should hide that."

"Exactly." She frowned. "You said you already did the Brussels sprouts and potatoes?" At his nod, she shook her head sadly. "It would be fine if they were in gravy, but roasted? You might want to eat what you already made and prepare a fresh batch of each a couple of hours or so before you plan on serving them."

He sighed. "And they actually came out well."

She shook her head as her frown gave way to an amused smile. "Bruce. Three years ago, if you'd had to make Christmas dinner on your own, you would have hired a caterer or served up cold cereal and toast."

"I'm not sure I could have managed toast."

"State rests, your honor. So now, you're serving up stuff that's..." she lifted the glass dome off the cake plate, took a Yorkshire pudding, bit into it, and grinned "...actually pretty darned good, even at room temperature, but you're still a little fuzzy on what can be made ahead and what really shouldn't be. Relax."

Bruce covered his eyes with one hand. "I'm serving Christmas dinner in four days. To company. While trying to manage a toddler. I don't think 'relaxing' is on the agenda."

Barbara's smile vanished. "That's the problem," she said quietly. "You're doing it again."

"It," he repeated blankly.

"You're taking it all on yourself, and you're not giving yourself any downtime. It's worse now, because you can't even kid yourself that you can relax once you take off the costume. Bruce... what would happen if you ran on the treadmill for six hours at five miles per, without a break?"

"It would overheat between hours three and four," Bruce replied. "I know from experience."


He sighed. "I'd probably end up with muscle cramps—if I was lucky. More likely, ankle injuries, such as overpronation. Depending on how much water I was drinking during that time, dehydration could be an issue." His voice dropped. "Heart problems."

Barbara nodded seriously. "Hit the pause button. Get off the treadmill, do some stretches. Give yourself a break. Hell, take it off hill-mode." She smiled. "Bruce, this is a dinner. With friends. You think they're coming because they're expecting cordon bleu? You want to do something elegant, by all means. Let me introduce you to puff pastry dough, wonton wrappers, and mini muffin cups; you won't believe how little effort goes into making some of those party canapés. But seriously? Don't stress."


"When she's awake, we can take turns minding her."

Right on cue, the nursery monitor on the table emitted a joyous squeal. Barbara pushed the stack of cookbooks across the counter toward him.

"I'll take my first turn now, while you check out the cookbooks. Look for recipes that freeze well, or for the kind where it says right in the description that you can make it a few days ahead. And unless you want to spend about two hours constantly stirring the same pot, avoid anything with risotto or béchamel. Particularly, avoid risotto in béchamel. I'll be back in a few minutes."

She wheeled out of the kitchen, leaving Bruce alone to come up with a more realistic menu.

Late afternoon found Dick in a satellite Bat Cave under Aparo Park, working on his tumbling. While he preferred to attack from above, he couldn't afford to get sloppy with his floor work either. He began with basic flips and somersaults. Then he ran through a series of cartwheels, beginning with a basic right, followed by a side cartwheel and then a lunge-to-lunge. From there, he moved on to one-armed cartwheels and dives, to culminate in an aerial cartwheel. After that, he began to work elements he'd seen in various Olympic routines with moves he'd learned in the circus and various maneuvers he'd developed during his years with the Titans. He'd just come out of a triple salto and into a punch-front, when he became aware that his monitor was beeping.

With a sigh, he did a double back-flip to reach the edge of the mat. Then he grabbed a towel and a bottle of room-temperature water and trotted over to the console.

"Go ahead, Vic," he said with a slight frown. His former teammate usually didn't call on him for anything less than a major crisis. "Everything okay with the Outsiders?"

Cyborg nodded. "Just getting back to you on that business you asked me to look into a month ago."

The frown deepened. "I'm listening."

"Walters, or if you prefer, Matheson is in the employ of Vanessa Devereaux. She's a fixture on the Manhattan social scene. Owner of Devereaux Designs—"


"Small line but high-end. Word on the street, though, is that people who cross her don't usually live to boast about it. Some guy defrauded her out of some investments. He ended up, um..."

"Not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead?"

"Exactly. There's never any evidence that she's involved, but when you start asking 'who benefits?' Her name keeps coming up."

Dick nodded. He'd seen the type before. "And her connection with Flass?"

"She dated him. He dumped her, after he got what he wanted. Dick? Is there any reason you haven't asked Oracle to find this out for you?"

Trust Vic to think of asking it. "Hey, if I do end up coming to New York to deal with this, I'll be needing you guys for back up anyway, right?"

Cyborg blinked. "For one middle-aged non-meta and maybe a few bodyguards? Dick, what's going on?"

He closed his eyes and stalled for a few moments. Then, "It's complicated." He hesitated. "It's complicated," he repeated, "because I know that this is something I need to do. As much as there's this part of me that wants to let this one slide, I can't let Devereaux get away with murder. Even if, by taking Flass out of the game, she ended up doing us a huge favor. Barbara's father said as much, and I didn't hear her disagree. Then or later. So, if I tell her what I'm planning..."

"You think she'll try to talk you out of it?"

"Not exactly. I think on this one, she'd leave it up to me. But if I tell her what I'm planning, she might, might, mind you, ask me if I'm positive it's a good idea. And I'm just ambivalent enough that maybe I'll decide not to bother after all." He shook his head. "Bruce taught me better."

Cyborg nodded. "Ironic, isn't it?" he asked. "You planning to take down the person who basically saved Bruce's hash, and all because you don't want to let him down."

Dick blinked. "No, that's not it," he said quietly. "That would have been true once, I agree."


Dick squared his shoulders and met Cyborg's penetrating gaze with one of his own. "I don't want to let me down." He gave his former teammate a wry smile. "I'll be in New York in about two weeks."

"We'll expect you."

"Interjections (Aw!) show excitement (Darn!) or emotion (Hurray!).
They're generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point,
Or by a comma when the feeling's not as strong.

Cass focused on the words as she watched the animated sequence on Metube. It had been Tim's idea.

"One thing I've noticed, Cass. You usually don't need people to tell you things more than once. I know you learned the alphabet in the first place using kinetic methodology—um... by handling 3-D models of the letters..."

"I know... kinetics," she said testily. "So?"

"So, maybe if this doesn't work, we can try making punctuation models, too."

Cass opened her desk drawer and pulled out a number of pieces of shaped polymer clay. "Tried. But comma and apostrophe look same. Exclamation point? Or hyphen on side with period underneath? Colon? Semi-colon? Everything... repeats. She held up one of the two parentheses pieces sideways above her eyes, so that the curve of the upper bracket faced upward like angry eyebrows. The other, she held before her lips, like an upside down smile. "Confusing."

"Okay," Tim said, grinning. "Maybe auditory?"

"You mean... books on disc?"

"Well, not exactly." He walked over to her console and typed a few terms into Giggle. "This used to be on TV-a bit before my time, but...

Now, while Tim sat in another corner of the cave writing a criminology paper, she watched the clips and struggled to absorb the words. She had no problem memorizing the song lyrics, any more than she'd had difficulty remembering the materials that made up the letters of her kinetic alphabet. The hard part had always been remembering the name of the letter. If the GED had just asked her to list six punctuation marks, she could have done it. Unfortunately, it expected her to use them.

With a sigh, she looked at the worksheet that Tim had prepared for her.

"No I can t believe you re going without me", she read aloud. She frowned. Tim had told her that some of the sentences had more than one right answer. She needed to figure out the correct punctuation.

She took a deep breath and picked up the pen. 'No' was an interjection, but should it be an exclamation point or a comma? She decided to come back to it later. A 't' on its own wasn't a word. It needed to connect to 'can'. Hesitantly, she marked an apostrophe in the empty space between the word and the letter. She added another one between 'you' and 're'.

"How strong is the feeling?" She whispered. It was almost five minutes before she lifted her pen again. Her eyes cautiously slid down the page. He'd given her ten? With a mental groan, she moved on to the next.

"We won we re the best." Cass blinked. She did know this one. Exclamation point, apostrophe, exclamation point, and on to the third.

Some time later, Cass stalked, cat-like, to where Tim sat. His eyes seemed practically glued to the monitor as his fingers typed line after line of text. He nearly jumped as Cass placed the sheet, face down, next to the keyboard. "Done. Taking break," she said. "Groceries now. Then science."

Tim grinned. "Sure. And then, grammar."

Cass sighed. "Okay. Later."

Tim waited until he'd finished fleshing out one of his key arguments before he put his essay aside and turned over Cass' sheet. As he went down the sentences, he began to smile. She was getting it. It wasn't until he'd checked the last example he'd given her that he realized that there was another line remaining.

In block letters, Cass had penned, "Gah! I can't believe you made me do ten!"

Tim laughed out loud. Then, at the top, he wrote, "11/10. Good work!"

Bruce hung up the phone. "Let's go," he said. "Kent's flight is on schedule to arrive in forty-five minutes."

Dick nodded. "Listo?" He asked with a broad grin.

A shadow of an answering smile flickered over Bruce's lips in response. He nodded. He was ready.

"Hup." The two men made their way down to the garage together.

Dick surveyed the vehicles before them. "DTS or Crown Vic?" he asked.

"Limo," Bruce replied, already striding toward it. "They'll need the room."

"I could get the car seat for Helena."

Bruce shook his head. "She'll be fine with Jim. If she gets restless, the drive could be difficult."

"Got it."

Bruce didn't say anything else until they passed the first road sign for the Mooney Bridge. Then, "About the other night—"

Dick grinned. "You said it yourself, right before the hearing. You know we're here when you need us."

Bruce nodded. "Knowing that I can depend on you has never been the problem. Allowing myself the luxury, on the other hand—"

Dick opened his eyes wide in exaggerated innocence. "You live on a twenty-five-acre estate. You own forty cars—fifteen of them valued at over $100,000 new, I might add—and we're not even including the Batmobiles. You are the only person I know who owns eleven Armani tuxedos—"

"It used to be an even dozen until I attempted to do my own laundry," Bruce muttered.

"Is that supposed to be helping your case? Bruce... besides reaching out to us once in awhile, can you list off any luxuries you don't allow yourself? I mean without going into the excesses that marked the last days of the Roman Empire?"

He'd already opened his mouth to reply, but at Dick's last sentence, he closed it firmly.

"Bruce," Dick continued, "Treat yourself. Trust us."

"Trust isn't the issue," Bruce replied pensively. "Maybe I just... have to know that I can ask for your assistance, even if I choose not to. Maybe the other night, I needed the reminder."

Dick nodded slowly. "Okay. I can get how we're your safety net, and you want to make sure we're in position before you take the leap... But maybe there's something you're overlooking."


"I mean besides the fact that that's our exit in 200 feet."

Bruce swerved across four empty traffic lanes to make it into the right one mere inches before the broken white line turned solid.

Dick grinned. "Bruce, you don't just set up the net when it's the main event. It's even more important to have it in place when you're practicing!"



Bruce kept his eyes on the road, intent on the signs ahead. "Arrivals," he said under his breath. "What gate are they...?"

"Clearfleet Airlines, gate seventeen. Keep going."

Bruce nodded. "There's the parking garage, on the left," he said, activating the turn signal."

"Yeah." He wasn't that surprised at the change of subject, but something made him try one more time. "Um... Bruce? About..."

Bruce's hands tightened on the steering wheel. "I... haven't entertained in nearly three years," he said slowly. "I... it's possible that I may need," he forced a smile, "all the help I can get."

Dick grinned back. "You'll get it."

"I kn—" He stopped. "I mean... thanks."

The flight from Kansas was showing ten minutes behind schedule when they checked the arrivals board. A moment later, however, the updated display indicated that its ETA was now three minutes ahead of schedule.

"Think Clark got out and pushed?" Dick whispered.

"Unlikely. Exhaling with sufficient force would achieve comparable results without his having to leave the cabin."

Dick laughed. Bruce elbowed him in the ribs. People were looking pointedly in their direction.

It was maybe another half hour before Clark, Lois, and Martha entered the arrivals lounge. Dick flashed a broad smile, which Clark and his mother returned in kind. Lois' was more reserved, but the warmth with which she greeted them more than made up for it.

"You're looking well, Bruce," she said easily. "You too, Dick. Sorry it's taken us this long to get together."

Bruce blinked. Lois was absolutely serious. Bemused, he jerked his head in the direction of the exit. "I'm parked across the road," he said. "Shall we?"

Bruce was glad that he hadn't suggested getting takeout on the way home. While they were out, Jim had set up an array of cold cuts, cheeses, and sliced vegetables on the dining room table, along with a tossed vegetable salad, a container of hummus, and a basket of sliced white and rye breads. "I figured we'd keep things simple tonight," he said, trying to make himself heard over Helena's gleeful squeal. As soon as Jim set her down on the floor, she launched herself at Bruce, wrapping arms and legs around his shin.

"Looks like someone's gotten attached to you," Lois smiled. She bent down and reached out a hand for Helena.

Helena immediately darted behind Bruce, still hugging his pants-leg.

"She'll warm up to you," Bruce said tolerantly. "It just takes her a little time."

"We're not sure if it's heredity or environment," Dick added.

Bruce shot him a look that promised future repercussions.

Lois laughed.

Bruce had every intention of keeping Martha Kent out of the kitchen. He had been completely sincere when he had promised Clark that he hadn't invited her to the manor to spend her vacation cooking. After dinner, he had shown the Kents upstairs to the two guest rooms that the staff had made ready for them, and gone back downstairs to work on the Dinner. (It was impossible for him to think of Christmas Dinner without capitalizing the 'd'.)

He hadn't expected Martha to walk into the kitchen as if she owned it, don an apron, and start dicing onions. And when Clark had come downstairs and found the two of them hard at work, Bruce certainly hadn't expected her to thrust a bowl of potatoes and a peeler at her son and inform him that if he meant to remain in the kitchen, he would need to pitch in as well.

"I did try to dissuade her," he said later, after Martha had finally gone upstairs.

"I know. I should have warned you. When Ma gets a notion that she wants to do something, it... usually gets done." He smiled wearily. "Rao help us both if she ever decides to go the cape-and-mask route."

The sound Bruce made was suspiciously close to a laugh.

Batman hated it when they ran. He was tempted to just let the guy get away. He'd snatched a purse—it wasn't as though he'd killed anyone.

He hasn't killed anyone tonight, you mean. For all you know, he's the prime suspect in some ongoing investigation. Or, you let him go tonight and tomorrow, maybe he won't be satisfied with slamming his victim into a building. Maybe next time, he shoves her out into traffic instead.

He kept up his pursuit. Still, he groaned when the youth dashed up a flight of rickety wooden stairs and climbed onto the second-story balcony of a condemned building. Those structures were fire hazards waiting for sparks, more often than not, and he wasn't about to risk swinging onto a window ledge. The force of his landing might well be enough to cause the overhang to crumble.

Behind the cowl, his eyes narrowed. Someone had pried the boards off one of the first-floor windows, leaving a hole large enough for him to get through.

He stepped inside the building cautiously. The floorboards creaked as he walked. He moved forward, and then hastily pulled his foot back. The wood had given slightly beneath his boot. Damn. If the floor was rotting, this whole building was a minefield. Batman moved gingerly toward the stair case in the far corner.

All at once, there was a commotion upstairs.

"You little punk!" he heard a voice bellow. "I'll teach you to come onto Loboys turf!"

The next minute, the kid he'd been chasing charged down the stairs in a panic. Batman leaped out of the way.

"Hey! We got a Bat in here!"

At the thug's shout, footsteps sounded overhead.

"Rush him!" Someone shouted.

"Yeah, he can't take all of us!"

We'll just see about that, Batman thought, as he sidestepped the first attacker.

"Hey, Bat!" Several of the men on the upper level were brandishing brickbats and cinder blocks. "Catch!"

Batman leaped out of the way as a cinder block landed where he had stood a moment earlier.

One foot broke through a floor-board, trapping his ankle. Off-balance, he fell to one knee as a second cinder block hit the ground, mere inches from his position.

The entire building seemed to shake.

Then more boards gave way, and Batman plunged into the darkness below.