Title: Come What May
Author: DC Luder
Summary: Sixth story in the Series of Three. Not long after having their world turned upside down, the Family gets life back on track… for a while.
Infringements: All recognizable and related characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: Shout out to K-Pax and the constellation Lyra.
"A man cannot free himself from the past more easily than he can from his own body."
There were worse ways to spend a muggy, mid-August afternoon than dozing in a chaise while my children swam in the indoor pool. Even as they splashed, squealed and squabbled, I found myself smiling, reclining into the padded chair, eyes closed beneath dark sunglasses.
Given that the first half of the year had been nothing but Hell on Earth to those I called Family, I had begun to accept that the second half would be the opposite. Starting with Tim and Cassandra's impromptu and secret wedding, summer had been smooth sailing. For those within the manor, Mattie and Nathan were both as lively as ever, Bruce and I had never been closer and Alfred had finally found bliss after Leslie agreed to move in. Gotham was safe for the first time in six months, forever free of a certain stark-raving mad, homicidal clown. From my late night chats with Barbara over the last few weeks, the city's two protectors had only the minimal amount of scumbags to battle with.
A sigh of relief after all we had endured.
"Mom?" I heard Nathan ask, along with a significant amount of dripping water.
Opening my eyes, I noticed he was standing beside me, fresh from his latest aquatic and acrobatic feat. Since they were very young, Bruce had spent a significant amount of time teaching both of our children to swim and dive. Although Mattie preferred to practice holding her breath, her brother desired nothing more than to make the biggest splashes possible.
"You need a towel? They're over on the chair by the diving board."
"I know," he nodded, water running from his flat, dark hair, "I just… was Dad coming home soon?"
I glanced at my wristwatch, surprised to see it was nearly five. "He should be. He had a doctor's appointment after work, he said he'd try to be home before six."
Despite the warmth of the pool room, he shivered slightly, "Can we stay here until he gets home… I want to show him something."
Sitting up, I suggested, "Well, you've already been at it for an hour, kiddo. Maybe we can take a break, have a snack and then you can go back in when Dad gets here. How does that sound?"
Rather than be disappointed, he nodded again and said, "After one more cannonball."
Nathan took off and leapt back into the pool, easily clearing his sister as she made her way to the ledge of the deep end. After calling out to him harshly, Mattie pulled herself out, quickly wringing out her hair and wrapping a towel around her bikini clad body. Bruce had been adamant that she only wear her two piece suit when it was just Family around, never when she had friends over. Not that she had many friends over lately…
As promised, and perhaps destined by the stars, Mattie had slowly shed her normal teenage life in exchange for her training with Tim and Cassandra. Bruce had stepped in at times to monitor her progress, especially in the fields of deductive reasoning and detective work. Given that she was my eldest child, I had found a way to become involved as well, teaching her how to unlock doors and safes and defeat a variety of security countermeasures. With her thirst for knowledge and dedication to her studies, I had hopes that Mattie would be ready to make an attempt on the Clocktower's defenses by the fall.
When Bruce had found out, he had naturally overreacted, claiming I was superseding his efforts. I had to give him a painful reminder that she was my daughter as well and it was my duty, as a mother, that I prepare her for the world I had brought her into. Digging my claws into the new scars that traveled up Bruce's sides, I had also added, "And you, of all people, know what I'm best at."
"He needs to stop doing that, I can't concentrate when he's jumping in and out of the pool all of the time," Mattie muttered as sat in the chaise next to mine.
The regrettable side effect of her determination to one day wear a mask and cape had, at times, turned her into a miniature Bruce. It had always been a concern of mine, one that I tried to nip in the bud every time it surfaced. With trips to the Preserve, afternoons spent shopping or going out with her friends, I did anything to take her mind off of the real purpose driving her Family…
"Like you didn't do the same thing when you were his age?" I countered.
"I was diving with Dad when I was six, not splashing around," she sighed, "It's annoying."
"He's your little brother, that's his job. Besides, the sun is out so that means it is time to have fun and relax, not brood and complain."
After a moment, she nodded, forcing a smirk to her lips although I doubted it had anything to do with what I had said. Luring her thoughts elsewhere, I asked about her plans for the coming weekend and if she wanted to have a party before school started up in three weeks. Although at first she had seemed reluctant, after ten minutes of talking, I had her convincing herself that it would be a fun way to end the summer.
"As many people as I want?"
"Yep. And I'll be sure to lock your father in the Cave."
Nathan, who had taken to bouncing a small beach ball on his head in repeated succession, used his six-year-old peripheral awareness while announcing, "Daddy!"
Mattie and I looked as well to see Bruce passing through the double doors. He was in the same suit he had departed in that morning, altered only in that the tie was loosened and faint stubble covered his jaw. Although Ace preferred waiting in the cooler corridor, he opted to follow Bruce into the pool room, walking a step behind him and out of the way of the cane. In the brief time the German Shepherd had been with the Family, he had bonded closely to us all, especially the children. Since Bruce's last stand with the Joker, however, Ace had taken a particular interest in him, ready and willing to save his life again.
Nathan clamored out of the pool, speed walking to his father before asking, "Wanna see my water flip, Dad?"
Bruce nodded, "Of course, tiger." Nathan patted Ace's broad head before returning poolside. I smiled to see the dog taking a moment to look from the youngest to the eldest Wayne before opting to continue following Bruce. Slowly walking towards us, Bruce barely relied on the cane Leslie and Alfred forced him to use. He had regained considerable strength in his torso and lower limbs in the last two months, having lost most of it from his injuries and weeks of bed rest. Even though he was still refusing to undergo more orthopedic surgery to gain mobility in his left leg, I still intended to convince him otherwise.
Once he had kissed Mattie's damp brow, he looked to me, "What, not up for a swim today?"
"Kittens may, but cats don't like water," I smirked, not surprised when he carefully sat in the chair on the other side of me, the big, sable dog promptly laying at his feet. Had Bruce gone for a chaise, he would have reclined and never been able to get back up, spent after another long day.
He had only just started resuming partial duties at Wayne Enterprises two weeks earlier and it was already taking its toll. His daily schedule of physical therapy in the morning at home had remained the same, but his quiet afternoons with the kids had been traded in for five hours at the office, some days even six. I knew he was growing frustrated being cooped up in the house but pushing himself mentally and physically at work wasn't the solution to his problem.
Leslie had already been forced to increase his anti-seizure medication in order to combat fatigue induced episodes. Even before going back to work, he had suffered at least two or three of the minor bouts a day but after changing his schedule, he was up to at least eight of them. His first week back had ended abruptly when he had a grand mal seizure, forcing his assistant Melinda to call the paramedics. Bruce had come out of it and regained his composure enough to decline medical transport, shortly followed by his calling Alfred to pick him up early.
Rather than be deterred, it had only seemed to fuel him. As it always had…
I reached over and touched Bruce's hand as it rested on his stiff knee, "Good day?"
He nodded, watching as Nathan made his way back into the pool with a trademark jump, "Actually, yes. Lucius and I finally broke some ground on the East End project. He's been trying to line up other corporations to pool money into it… We have Hart, Dexacorp and possibly Daggett in line with us."
"Lots and lots of money, then," I smirked. Using what happened to Bruce Wayne in Crime Alley for good, Bruce had decided to begin a massive effort to help put the East End back on track. New housing developments, better schools and recreation facilities not to mention better utilities and support systems for the families that lived there. It would take years and billions of dollars, but with the first steps scheduled that fall, Bruce was itching to get things in motion.
"It shouldn't be a project solely dependent on Crime Alley's most famous victim," Bruce replied, "It should be a city wide effort."
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Mattie had flinched at her father's mentioning of Crime Alley. Before I could remark on it, she stood from the chaise and said, "I'm going to go shower."
"You done swimming?" Bruce asked her, his lips were smiling but his eyes weren't.
She took the time to walk over to him, kissing his cheek before explaining, "Yeah… for today anyway. Besides, Alfred needs his sous chef ready at a moment's notice."
We watched in silence as she walked away, her wet, bare feet impossibly soundless on the tiled floor. Ace moved slightly, as if to get up, but proceeded to rest his head back down on his giant paws. I faintly heard Nathan demanding that we watch his underwater acrobatics and turned to find him pouting in the deep end. Bruce also diverted his attention back to the pool, "All right, let's see it, Nate."
While Nathan flipped three consecutive times under water, I spoke softly, "You need to talk with her."
"I have talked to her," he answered without taking his eyes off of Nathan's fluttering shadow, "Many times."
"Bruce, talking to her and with her are two entirely different things."
He glanced at me just as Nathan surfaced, "Dad, you're not watching!"
"I am," he looked back to his son, "Let's see it one more time, then you have to get washed up. Take Ace for a walk." He waited to continue until Nathan was spinning in the water, "She says she's fine."
She saw her father, defeated by his greatest enemy, bleeding to death.
She had ridden with him in the ambulance, watching his heart give out three times.
She had to watch him limp around, forget things he'd just been told, put his hearing aides in and endure seizures, blaming herself for everything that he suffered because of that night.
She was anything but fine.
"I wonder where she learned that motto," I sighed.
Before he could counter, Nathan climbed out, huffing and puffing/ the dog instantly jumped to his feet, meeting his young charge halfway and escorting him back to us. When they reached us, Nathan asked between pants, "Did you see?"
Bruce put on another fake smile, "I saw, that last time you did four of them."
"I know," my son's vibrant blue eyes lit up as he drew air in hungrily. When I told him to go get a towel and take Ace out, he nodded, patting the dog's head again before calling him to heel.
Alone, without the splashing, squealing and squabbling, the pool room was very quiet.
Looking to Bruce, I saw him sitting forward, staring down at his fingers as they trembled slightly. Rather than start an argument, I reached out and took his hands into mine, stilling them. "Bruce, you can't change what's happened to her, what she's seen… But you can stop her from having to go through life as you did. Blaming herself, losing herself in her work. It's bad enough we have you and Tim, we certainly don't need a trifecta in this Family."
He took a moment to respond, "I've gone over it with her, dozens of times, recounting what happened and what she saw… I keep reminding her that everything is fine. That I'm fine."
"Well, it's not enough."
"Why do you say that?"
I hesitated before answering, "She's doing it again. At night."
Bruce sighed, letting his shoulders fall back. Shortly after he had come home from the hospital, Mattie had quickly reprised her role as caretaker, even with Leslie residing in the Manor. Although Bruce had been quick to settle into his new routine, Mattie had remained vigilant and ever concerned with his well-being. I let it slide during the day, but found myself all too often losing the fight to get her to accompany me to the Preserve, or to even go outside and enjoy the warm weather. The worry that had plagued my teenaged daughter's face all summer was as difficult to bear as the reason it was there in the first place.
Given that Bruce never slept with his hearing aides and rested soundly with the amount of medications he was on, I had been left as the one that woke at all hours of the night. Before it had been his role, going to bed late, restlessly laying beside me, rising early when sleep became futile. I had made a comment about not long after he had returned home from the hospital and Bruce had told me to wake him the next time I couldn't sleep.
It had been a kind gesture, but one we both had known I wouldn't take him up on.
Not two weeks into June, I had been startled by a soft noise, drawing me from my fitful slumber. It had been Mattie, sitting on the edge of the bed beside Bruce, just staring down at him. When she had noticed that I was awake, she quickly said she had a bad dream and wanted to see him to be sure he was alive. It had broken my heart, hearing the fear in her words, coming in her soft voice. I had let her stay with us that night, hugging her close to me and making sure she slept feeling safe.
In the morning, I had convinced her to come with me for the day. As we had ridden up to the Preserve together, I had confronted her about what had happened. Mattie had confessed that every night she had a bad dream and would always sneak into our bedroom and watch him breathe. After that night, she had stopped, perhaps having been called out on it forcing her to realize how erratic her behavior was. On some level, I honestly couldn't blame her for doing so, especially since I always reached out and touched him whenever I woke from my own nightmares.
Last night, Bruce had a petit mal seizure after dinner, brought on by extra physical therapy and a longer day at WE. He and I had been sitting on the couch in the den as Mattie and Nathan fought over what movie to watch. I had hoped the mild tembling of his arms and the distant look on his face would have subsided before they had turned around. Regrettably, Mattie had looked back to ask for help with Nathan's whining, her smile quickly giving way to a look of dread.
"Dad?" she had called out, running over and drawing her younger brother's attention.
"Mattie's he's fine," I had been quick to assure her, "Just tired."
"Daddy?" Nathan had approached as well.
After I had told her to take him back over and to pick out a movie together, neither had budged, not until Bruce had relaxed and started blinking. Having lost the last twenty seconds, I reminded him what we were doing and that the kids needed to play theater director.
Bruce had paused before looking at them, "Go on, or I'll pick."
That night, she had snuck back into our room to check on him.
His sigh brought me back, "I'll talk to her. Tonight. After dinner… and maybe she needs a night off from work with Tim and Cass."
Rising to my feet, I kissed his rough cheek, "Now, was that so hard?"
As I pulled away, he whispered, "No, dear."
When Nathan and I had been getting ready to go swimming, Alfred had been on his way into the city to pick Leslie up from the Free Clinic and collect Dad from his doctor's appointment. To surprise him, I had decided to get a head start on our Friday dinner, starting off with putting a marinated beef shoulder into the oven. As it started cooking, I had quickly prepared bruschetta topped with crushed almonds and arugula along with spicy caramelized walnuts and figs in a triple crème-cheese, putting both in the fridge to chill.
After an hour in the pool and seeing Dad arrive home in one piece, I wanted to keep my lead on Alfred Pennyworth. A quick shower later, I raced back downstairs in khaki shorts and a navy blue tank top, my flip flops long announcing my arrival. Stepping into the kitchen, I smiled to see Alfred checking the entrée, nodding as it sizzled quietly.
"Went with the rosemary dressing," I offered as I joined him.
"A wise decision," he replied, closing the door in order to face me.
"And I was thinking lemon risotto. And maybe you could make the kale and pancetta side you made a few weeks ago."
Alfred's approval beamed from his face, "I could not have conjured a more perfect meal, my dear. But do not concern yourself with dessert, a patient of Leslie's prepared a magnificent plum tart… Now if you would be so kind to start a pot of boiling water, Miss Mattie."
Carrying out my task, I kept an eye on him as he removed his light cotton sweater before rolling up the sleeves of his pristine, white dress shirt. Donning his trusty green apron, Alfred proceeded to inquire as to how my aquatic adventures had gone.
"It was fun, nice to cool off," I replied, heading over to wash my hands in the deep sink.
"Quite the scorcher today," he remarked. Idle talk. At least I wasn't the only one in the kitchen with something else on my mind…
"Where's Leslie?" I asked, watching as he retrieved kale, Percorino Romano cheese and pancetta from the refrigerator.
"Oh, I believe she's freshening up. Regrettably the central air unit was malfunctioning at the Clinic today."
I could only imagine how much longer that had made her day, a warm, muggy health clinic filled with sick people…
Since it was such a nice night out, I had already decided that we would eat out on the stone terrace overlooking the back lawn. It took two trips, but I managed to take all of the dishware out to set the table for six, save for the plates. By the time I returned to the kitchen a third time, Alfred had already brought out the entrée, sliced and served it. As he finished the kale side, I retrieved the bruschetta and caramelized dishes from the refrigerator.
"I could smell this divine meal from the second floor," I heard Leslie as she passed into the room.
Turning to smirk at her, "Hopefully it's wafting to the third floor."
Alfred hesitated as he deftly spooned out equal servings of the three sides to each plate, "Miss Mattie, in case the aroma of our efforts have not ascended that high, would you be so kind as to-."
"Fetch my family," I finished for him, "No problem."
On may way upstairs, I found Kitten and Taffy sparring on the second floor landing. Much younger, my father's new feline friend wanted to play nonstop where my cat longed to sleep in front of windows and chase crumpled up paper balls at her leisure. After rescuing my childhood pet, I kissed her calico face, carrying her up with me to the third floor. Once she was secure in my room, I backtracked to Nathan's door, knocking until he called out.
I opened it and looked inside, "Nate, dinner's almost ready."
He was spinning around in his underwear, a red towel wrapped around his neck like a cape, laughing to himself. He had already bathed after swimming that afternoon but still hadn't gotten dressed. When Nathan spotted me, he paused and said, "Can I wear pajamas?"
I shrugged, "Sure, if you want." Watching him run into his walk-in closet, I waited until he emerged wearing blue flannel pants and a bright red shirt. Tim had explained earlier that year that all my little brother had been exposed to about superheroes was locked away in his mind, to be returned to him when he was older. Although he still loved capes and flying, he thankfully had no memory of being at the Watchtower nor was he able to remember learning the truth about our Family.
Six was a bit too young, especially for a wild child like Nathan…
Once he and Ace were racing to the stairs, I continued on towards the master bedroom at the end of the hall, surprised to find one of the double doors partially ajar. Seeing how my mother had caught me once again sneaking into their room at night, I was wary of simply walking in. Instead, I opted to peer in, looking and listening before leaping.
Before I spotted them, Dad's voice came softly, without emotion, "- enzymes are through the roof and the red blood cell counts are lower than they were when Leslie took them two weeks ago."
Mom then replied, "I don't understand, it's only been, what, a little over a month since she bumped you up to a higher dose. And that was after weaning you on to start with."
He cleared his throat before saying, "Well, right now, my liver is the biggest concern, anemia a close second. But with my blood pressure already on the rise, Dr. Kohl thinks it's best we take a different approach, especially since at this dose I'm still having absent seizures."
With one eye, I glanced through the small opening, finding them sitting on the edge of the bed together, my mother gently massaging his left leg. She had traded her casual attire for a sleeveless blouse and dark capris. In the time they had been upstairs, he had only shed his shoes, tie and suit coat. Apparently, he had been talking this whole time, not wanting to distract himself…
Mom stopped massaging for a moment before remarking, "Well, I vote libidolessness as a close third."
"Selina…" he shook his head
"Did you tell him about that?"
My father looked at her coldly before answering, "No. One thing at a time. And besides, that… goes along with liver malfunction. It metabolizes the tegretol and sexual hormones."
She resumed rubbing his leg, "Well, what's next then? You couldn't be on Depa-whatever, right?"
"Right, Depacote, because of the risk of hyperammonemia and my already sub-par liver."
"And no spleen," she used her other hand to poke his stomach.
He echoed her, "And no spleen."
"So, what can they put you on?"
"Well, unfortunately I have to cut this cold turkey, flush it out of my system, and then start on Phenobarbital. Mixing them and I'll be right back in the hospital…"
Last March, my health class had completed a six week course in drug identification. The word coming from my father's mouth instantly brought up quizzes about barbiturate overdoses and addiction. That and it sent a shudder down my spine.
"Side effects will practically mimic the ones I already have, fatigue, in-coordination, tremors…" he explained, "But without impacting my liver or red blood cell count as badly."
A sad look came over my mother's face, one she quickly hid with a smirk, "Well, if that's what we have to do, then that's it." She leaned in to kiss his cheek before getting off of the bed, walking out of sight.
Kitten suddenly raced between my feet, dashing into the bedroom before bounding onto the bed. Dad smirked as the little cat clawed at him between sporadic laps over the surface of the king sized mattress. When he had leapt down and took off towards the windows, I knocked on the door.
"Come in," Dad called.
I opened it the rest of the way, "Hey, dinner's ready."
"I thought I smelled something delicious," he smirked as I approached the bed.
Mom called out from the walk-in closet, "Where's your brother?"
"He headed down already…" I paused as Dad carefully put weight on his feet, using his hands to push himself to stand up. When he caught me looking, Dad offered another half-hearted smirk but before he could say anything, I pointed to his cane as it rested against the bed.
"Yes, Dr. Wayne," he picked it up and proceeded to lean on it, "Better?"
"A little," I lied.
I left them to make their way downstairs on their own, knowing they would be using the elevator where I would descend the stairs. While most of my friends were also sitting down to dinner with their families, I doubted that any of them had the same thoughts coursing their minds. Piper certainly didn't have to worry about keeping track of her father's health and Katarina didn't have to trouble herself with training for a life of crime fighting. Angie had asthma and used it as an excuse not to do anything while I spent my days hiking at the Preserve, shadow boxing in the Cave and swimming in the pool. Marc didn't have to worry about closing his eyes at night and seeing his greatest fears come back to life…
The only other soul that had an inkling of what I had been going through that summer was Terry, and even still I kept the worst of it from him.
We had a date, of sorts, planned for Saturday night. Nothing special, just movies and home made pizza at the Manor. Unfortunately, he wasn't allowed to spend the night anymore, further cemented by the bedroom door incident in July. Mom said that eventually Dad would back down from his opposing stance, especially as life continued its trek to normalcy.
Eventually, like when I graduated college.
Dinner on the terrace was nicer than I could have hoped for. In addition to the outdoor lighting, Alfred had situated small candles on the table and they flickered in the soft breeze. Leslie recounted her day at the clinic, announcing that she had delivered four babies, two of them twins. Mom rehashed what we had done at the Preserve and Nathan was reminded twice not to feed Ace under the table. I did my best to play along, talking about my weekend plans, smiling when Dad grumbled about Terry coming over and laughing when Nathan found himself wrought with hiccups.
A nice, family dinner.
I looked up from my near empty plate to see that Dad was standing next to me. Another glance around showed that everyone else was gone save for Mom and Leslie as they carried dishes into the house. As I quickly started gathering my plate and silverware, Dad briefly put his hand on mine to still them.
"You cooked, Mom is helping Nathan clean."
"No, it's okay, I don't mind…" I started to rise from my chair.
"Well, I figured we could go for a walk," he suggested, a smirk once more on his face.
"Didn't you already walk this morning, with Leslie?"
Nodding, Dad replied, "Yes, but after sitting all day… I could really use it."
Reluctantly leaving my dinnerware, I followed Dad towards the stone steps of the terrace, waiting for him to get to the walkway before going down them myself. Everyday, he did flexing exercises and strength training with Leslie in the morning to regain mobility in his torso and to build up his stiff, left leg. Usually by the time he made it home from work and sat through dinner, he was exhausted and ready for bed but still braved spending time with us in the den.
After his seizure the previous night, I had figured he was headed straight upstairs after dinner.
Slowing my pace, I walked with him on the flagstone laid path that led around the house, not surprised when he branched left towards the rose garden. The only sounds aside from our footfalls were the tap of his cane and an intermittent grunt of effort. After the second surgery on his leg, Mom said he would need at least four more to regain the maximum amount of mobility. I was confused as to why he had decided not to endure them, even going as far as asking him boldly one night.
He had replied quickly, "No more rooftops for me. This," he had touched his rigid knee, "This is my reminder."
"That's a little more than a scar," I had countered, thinking back to all the times he had said his scars were mementos.
"I need a little more of a reminder," he had admitted.
With the sun setting, the roses were not nearly as full and lively as they were during the day. My work with Mom and with Tim and Cass had taken up most of my free time that summer, preventing me from aiding Alfred in tending to the various gardens on the property. Walking through the fragrant flowers, I made a mental note to join him the next time he pruned.
Although we had only been walking for six minutes, he cleared his throat before taking a seat on the wrought iron bench. As he set his cane against the arm rest, I joined him, still not uttering a word. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore, "Mom told you about last night, didn't she?"
He sat back, putting his right arm on the back of the bench behind me, "Yes, she did."
"I didn't mean to, I-."
"Mattie," he waited until I looked up at him, "It's okay."
"No, it's not, it's-.
He cut me off again, drawing his hand from behind me in order to put it on mine as it gripped the edge of the seat between us, "Mattie, it's okay. I know… I know how hard it is seeing me like this… Because it's just as hard for me. Just as it is for Mom and Alfred and Leslie…"
I thought to myself that they certainly were more capable of keeping their struggle to adapt in check but kept my mouth shut.
Dad apparently read my mind because he added, "And I know it seems as if everyone has moved on, accepted it… but they weren't there, they didn't see what you did."
Although his hand covered mine, my mind couldn't help but think back to when it had twitched as he suffered a grand mal seizure in the ambulance because a fracture in his skull…
Because he had fallen from a four story building.
Because he had faced the Joker alone.
Because of me.
"Look at me," he pleaded softly, "Mattie, please…"
I found myself admitting quietly, "It's been almost three months… and it feels like it just happened..."
Even though I had been putting on a decent brave front, he had seen through it, pulling me into an embrace, kissing the top of my head. After a moment, he said, "You'll never forget what happened, Mattie. And I'm sorry for that. But you have to understand that you can't blame yourself. Had you stayed in the Watchtower, had he never learned who we were, had you never even been born…"
Pulling away, I looked up at him, waiting for him to finish.
"If he wanted to hurt me, he would have found a way, and there's nothing you could have done to stop him. Do you understand?"
Nodding, I replied, "I understand."
He kissed my brow again, "Now… about your late shift medical rounds…" I expected him to say they were unnecessary and that I needed to stop. Instead, he offered, "At least wake me up for the next one… do a proper examination."
"Babs, get the camera, quick!"
I sat on the floor, encouraging Ethan to continue his toddler dancing to the song playing on the stereo. He was clapping his hands, giggling, stomping his little feet and shaking his diapered bottom, all in beat with the music. It was quite possibly the cutest thing I had ever seen him do.
"Babs!" I called out again for good measure.
Using the remote control from the coffee table, I keyed up the volume and hit the replay option for the satellite radio. Ethan squealed in delight as the song came on once more, putting all he had learned in his eighteen months of life to work.
I heard Barbara sigh as she entered the den, "I am not video taping him dancing to this. And he shouldn't be listening to it, he should be listening to his Wow Wow Wubbzy CD, Dick."
"No, he loves this song," I pouted at her as she approached us. After turning my attention back to my son, I grinned while singing along, "She shot me, she shot me, bang bang, she shot me, she shot me, she shot me, bang-!"
"I'm going to shoot you," Barbara growled as she took the remote away. turned the volume down and switched it to the CD function on the stereo. The upbeat, sassiness of K-naan and Adam Levine was instantly replaced with the goofy musical styling of Wubbzy, "Look look look look don't touch! Even though you want it so much!"
Where I had been disheartened by the sudden change, Ethan still continued to dance around, even singing along in his own garbled language, "Loo loo loo loo dontut!"
"See," Barbara patted my head, "He loves every song, not just the ones you do."
Rising to my feet, I brushed my slacks off with my right hand, "Just take all the fun out of being a cool dad, why don't you."
"Wouldn't want you to get your hopes up… meanwhile, it's nearly that time of day."
Glancing at the digital display on the stereo, I sighed before glancing down at my blissfully happy boy, "He has no idea it's coming, does he?"
"You wrangle, I'll prepare the bathroom."
Although Ethan had a bath every night, every Friday night made for a special evening. In addition to spending fifteen minutes in the tub playing and splashing, he had to undergo getting his finger and toenails clipped as well as his ears cleaned. Before being shot by the Joker, it hadn't been too difficult to manage seeing how I would hold him and Barbara would tend to him. Having only the use of my right arm had made things interesting, especially considering how strong our little man was getting to be.
His last doctor's appointment two weeks earlier had him at twenty-eight pounds and just over thirty-one inches tall. Physically, he resembled a two-year-old but there were times he still acted very much like a one and half year old. Great with his hands, he loved to feed himself, stack toys, carry random things around the apartment and above all else, throw balls. Whenever we visited the Manor, I loved to watch Nathan carefully playing a babied down game of catch with a plush ball. However, he was fussy when he didn't get his way, namely not getting something even if he asked for it properly with "peas". And of course, the Friday night grooming rituals.
Luckily, with my therapy going full steam ahead and the need for additional surgery looking less likely with each passing day, I would soon be able to restrain Ethan Gordon-Grayson right and proper. Until then, let the screaming commence.
I let Ethan finish his one-toddler dance party as I began picking his toys up from around the den. As he caught on to what I was doing, he began helping as well, picking toys up and putting them in his basket once I directed him to it. We had a busy night at the Clocktower, notably having Will and his girlfriend Ronna over for dinner after a long day at the Firm. Regrettably, the attack that left Will and I in the hospital had put a damper on things at work, clients hesitant to get security advice from those that were shot in their own offices.
To be fair, they were dealing with punk kids and half-rate burglars, we had to fend off a homicidal lunatic.
In order to set things right, we had been working twice as hard to assure our current client base that all was well and that we would once again earn their faith and trust. To do so, we had arranged for a banquet to be held the last week of August for current and prospective clients, pretty much a meet and greet with top notch food. In addition, we intended to openly discuss the tragic events from earlier in the year and to demonstrate a few of our own security countermeasures, of which would be made available to our higher end and more desperate customers.
When the idea had first come up during lunch back in July, Will had even suggested we go in topless, showing off our scars.
I had countered, "Well, no more French Dips for you then, pal."
He had naturally quipped, "And no more double Reubens for you, chief."
Although we had been close since day one, Will and I had grown that much more since Tim had inducted him into the Family in the midst of Joker's reign over Gotham. The veil had been dropped, leaving literally nothing between us. He had claimed that he had his suspicions, evident from three key factors. First, how quickly we had all changed in demeanor the very second the Joker had escaped from Arkham. Second, our combined frequent absences and generally poor mental and physical condition. He had joked that the third factor had been that were all kung fu masters.
Much like Jim Gordon, he had once been a damn good detective and no matter how hard we had tried, he had been able to see through it.
One night, not long after we had finished moving him into Tim's old townhouse, we had spent the night drinking imported beer and eating grilled meat on the back terrace. It was a luxury I had rarely allowed myself, namely because I had spent nearly every day of my life counting the hours until dusk fell. With Barbara and Selina having a girl's night at the Clocktower, Tim and Cass lost in newlywed bliss and Bruce home alone with the kids, I had sought refuge with Will.
Amidst the bottles of Beck's and a perfectly grilled rib eye a piece, he had confessed to me that being nearly the same age had left him practically worshiping the Boy Wonder. How he had cut out articles of me, blurry photographs, had even forced his mother to make him a Robin costume for him to wear long after Halloween had passed. I had listened quietly as he went on about how he had always dreamed of being a superhero, but when reality sank in, he had opted to be a police officer.
After a sad sigh, he had chuckled, "And it turns out I didn't have to choose, look at you… you did both."
"Yes, I did," I had replied, flipping a bottle cap back and forth over the knuckles of my right hand, trying not to think about my left hand as it sat limply in a sling, "But you were married long before me. Had two beautiful girls… You went to bed, woke up in the morning, didn't have to count the bullet scars when you looked at yourself in the mirror… I had to wait. I had to wait so long to be happy."
"You weren't before?"
I had shrugged before answering, having to fight back images of fallen allies, old and young, "Don't get me wrong, I love what I do. Who I am. My Family… it's just… it's not an easy life. Every time you put on a mask… it makes you ask if you made the right choice, to take that step."
Turning to look at him, a trademark smile on my face, I had answered him, "And thankfully, I can always answer… yes. A thousand times yes… Now, if I had known we were going to be having girly talks, I would have stayed home and gotten a pedi from my wife."
Will had smirked at that before responding, "I've seen you in flip flops, I'm not sure she would touch your feet."
It was no wonder we were best friends…
Somehow, Barbara and I had started acted like a normal couple again, partially indebted to the fact that Ethan was in our lives but mainly because we were no longer being hunted by the Joker. We alternated Friday night dinners between the Clocktower and Will's place, took Ethan to play dates at a local child care center and flipped coins on diaper change duty. Sundays were generally reserved for treks up to the Manor so that he could see his grandparents and spend some time with his under-aged aunt and uncle. We had even started calling Alfred and Leslie his great-grandparents, of which Nathan was quick to rename as "Peanut Grandparents" while his father and mother were "Plain Grandparents."
With that creativity, he was going to make a damn fine Robin some day.
Although I was still on the mend, I kept up as much as I could with Tim and Cass, whether it be hanging out in the Clocktower's training bay or visiting them at their new home in Bristol. Some nights, I even made the effort of listening in on the Oracom, offering my usual playful banter. It was only Tim, Cass and Babs on the communication line and none of them were nearly as clever or witty as I was. As expected, Bruce had withdrawn from his late night eavesdropping, focusing more on his recovery and his daughter's training than grunting and snipping on the comm. link.
It was unreal to me that after all Mattie had done with each of us over the years, Bruce had finally made it official. It had started when she was six years old, practicing gymnastics with me and combat with Cass in secret. He had to have known from the start that she was born to be draped in a black cape, covered in Nomex and Kevlar from the neck down and, of course, with a mask covering her bright blue eyes.
It had been a Family joke since she had been born that frigid day in January thirteen years earlier. It wasn't until recently that we had come to realize that she wasn't meant to be a Robin. Mattie had taken it upon herself to prove to us that she was meant to be the Huntress. Something Helena would have laughed about to no end…
"Dick, tub's ready!" I heard Babs call from the bathroom.
Looking down, I smiled at Ethan as he started to pull toys back out of the basket, quickly finding his plush police car that Trey had gotten him in March for his birthday. I bent at the waist and kissed his caramel colored hair before whispering into his ear, "Rubber Duckie, you're the one…"
He scrunched his shoulders up and suddenly spun around to face me, his tiny little teeth exposed in an evil smile.
I continued, "You make bath time lots of fun… Rubber Duckie, I'm awfully fond of you…"
Ethan proudly called out, "Woo woo be doo!"
After picking him up, I continued singing loudly, carrying him down the hall, "Rubber Duckie, joy of joys! When I squeeze you," I promptly hugged him tighter, "You make noise! Rubber Duckie, you're my best friend, it's true!"
He cried out again as we reached the open door, "Doo doo doo dooooo!" Letting him down on the tiled floor, Ethan ran to Barbara, hugging her legs, "Doo doo doo dooooo!"
"Very good," she leaned over and kissed his head before pulling his tee shirt off.
I cleared my throat from the door, "You want to do this, I'll get the kitchen?"
Babs looked up at me before nodding, "Sounds good to me. I'll let you know when he's ready for medieval torture."
"Rodger that," I said before returning towards the front of the apartment.
Before making my way to the front of the apartment, I opted to change out of my work clothes and into sweats and a tee shirt. Mere weeks ago, it would have been an agonizing task but after diligent work at the physical rehabilitation center, it was tolerable. I was due for an evaluation at the ortho clinic in two weeks, something I was excited for and yet dreading. To date, the nerve graphs in my shoulder had remained intact and viable and my last MRI had shown little to no inflammation in the vessels and muscles.
If I could cut short my immobilization period, I could start rebuilding strength and flexibility in my arm and then tune up reflex times and get back to the life I loved. Race over rooftops, soar from skyscrapers, one-punch some deadbeat loser. I dreamt of the next time I could put my mask on, feel the cold wind wash over me and hear the sound of my feet on the pavement.
Sighing, I put my arm back in its sling.
Soon, Boy Wonder, soon.
It took nearly twenty minutes to clean up the kitchen, run the dishwasher and put the remnants of apple crisp in a Tupperware box. I made it back to the bathroom just in time to see Babs helping Ethan out of the tub, wrapping a big, green towel around his little body. In minutes, he would be wiggling and crying in my arm as his mother carefully and quickly clipped his nails and swabbed his ears.
He would love us afterward, treated for being so brave by sitting on the couch with us for a little bit of TV time. Snug in his jammies, he would still cuddle for warmth, either crawling on Babs' lap or trying to sit behind me. Even though he would be tired, he would still whine about going to bed, but would eventually fall asleep in the crib I had assembled seemingly so long ago…
I had never seen myself as a father.
Combining what I had learned from my own late father and from Bruce and considering the smile Ethan beamed up at me when I sang the Rubber Duckie song, I seemed to be doing all right.
"Are you making... homemade mac and cheese?" I asked myself, following a heavenly aroma into the kitchen.
Despite the fact that I had a filling lunch with Dick and Will as per our usual Friday routine, I had found my mouth watering upon entering the house. I had stayed late to work out a few kinks in planning the Firm's upcoming banquet, leaving Cass to head home to tend to Robbie and pick something out for dinner. I had expected to arrive to takeout, possibly pizza from Santo's, but what I had found was far more appealing.
Cass was at the oven, checking the bubbling, cheesy masterpiece. As she turned to glance at me, she smirked, "Alfred's recipe."
Removing my suit coat and tie, I set them over the back of a stool, "He gave it to you?"
She nodded, closing the oven door, "Just have to ask nicely."
Hesitating, I forced my face to look solemn before asking, "I see you ask nicely to criminals every night."
Smirking, Cass shook her head, "I meant ask nicely for real. Not with my fists."
As Robbie raced into the kitchen and slid to a stop at my feet, I rubbed his wrinkled face as he snorted and whined simultaneously. The Boxer wiggled with excitement, from the tip of his nose to the nub of his tail. When I stopped petting him, he circled around me as if ensnaring me. Narrowly avoiding being tripped by the big brindle dog, I approached Cass, looking through the glass window of the oven before remarking, "Good, was a little worried for the old man for a second."
When I stood upright, Cass kissed my smooth cheek where not three months earlier the Joker's last shot seared my flesh. I had wanted to keep the scar as a visual reminder that it was the last time he would hurt anyone but Bruce had convinced me otherwise. Cass had pleaded with me from day one to have it altered cosmetically, but seeing Bruce bed ridden and permanently crippled from his final encounter with the Joker, his words had sunk in a little deeper.
"Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?" I had asked him, nodding to his elevated leg.
Bruce had stared at the immobilized limb for a moment before replying, his eyes locked on mine, "Whether we can see them or not, we will always remember how he hurt us. The first time, the last time and every time in between."
He always had a way of making his point impossible to refute...
"Did you get the caterer in line?" Cass asked as she leaned against the kitchen counter.
I nodded, "Yeah, he wanted more money. Dick said no, Will said he wasn't paying so he didn't care. I said fine but we wanted another table of hors d'ouerves."
"Problem Solving for Business. Got an A in that class. B- in Developing Legal and Ethical Environments in Business though."
"Is that why you watch me when I bend over to fill the copier?" she raised a single eye brow at me.
"Busted," I smirked back. "How long until that's ready?"
She shrugged, "Another ten minutes. Then it has to cool."
I kissed her cheek before saying, "I'm going to change quick, then we can eat… then you want to head over early?"
"You can go early, I'll tire Robbie out a bit."
"Good luck with that," I remarked. Grabbing my tie and jacket, I made my way towards the back of the house and up the stairs. Although my childhood bedroom had been on the first floor, it seemed odd to use it as a man grown, especially since I had the most awkward and painful adolescence in the history of the world. The true master bedroom, that my father had shared with mother and later with Dana, was also off limits. Save for the clothing and personal items I had put into storage, I had left it as it had been, making it a guest room if needed.
I had chosen to make the largest spare room ours. It had a full bathroom with white and blue tiles and a bay window, a small terrace that over looked the pool and a spacious walk-in closet. Robbie's bed sat at the foot of ours, pointlessly given how often he slept at our feet, even under the covers if he was ambitious. Prior to moving in, we had spent and afternoon feverishly repainting the peach colored walls a bold red with black trim and a white ceiling, moving furniture around and making it ours.
Seeing how Cass had the upper hand being in the kitchen and nearest to his dog food, Robbie had remained downstairs, forcing my trek to be carried out in solitude. Reaching the new master bedroom, I instinctively plugged my cell phone into the charger and emptied my pockets before stripping out of the rest of my suit. I hated having to dress up, longing for the business casual days the firm had once thrived in. Our new goal to promote our professionalism had taken its toll and its victims were my Henley shirts and mismatched socks.
I proceeded to don jeans, a pair of worn Sambas and a faded blue polo. Removing my wristwatch and wedding band, I set them in a small glass dish on the center of a credenza opposite our bed. To the left of the bowl were a number of photographs of Mattie and Nathan and one of Ethan in a Winnie the Pooh outfit. The right of the bowl were several pictures from our wedding, including one from the park of us on the swings. In addition, there was one of a seven-year-old me sitting on my mother's lap as well as a picture of Dad and Dana from my college graduation party.
The good old days.
Without letting myself flashback to finding them that night at Smith & Wollensky's, I jogged back downstairs, putting on a smile as I entered the kitchen once more. Robbie was nosily pushing his stainless steel bowl around with his nose while Cass carefully scooped out steaming macaroni and cheese, topped with perfectly browned bread crumbs. I quickly fed the dog to sate his deep-seated hunger and proceeded to let him out to romp in the yard.
After much debate, we had an Invisible Fence installed so that we could better contain his very free spirit. Far too often I had let him out at night only to have him take off after a deer or attempt to join a pack of distant coyotes. Cass had asked why our boy had to be electrically fenced in when Ace was perfectly capable of maintaining his own perimeter. I had demonstrated by saying that Ace was trained to perform over twenty commands without hesitation, in German.
I had then looked to Robbie and told him to lay down. Instead of lowering to the hardwood floor, he had spun around twice, leapt onto the leather couch and nestled up against the armrest.
She had still defended him, "He technically did what you told him to."
When he came racing back inside the house, I took his collar off and followed him back towards our dinner. Where Robbie had been able to inhale his kibble down in seconds, I was forced to wait to prevent burning my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Rather than actually use the dining room, Cass and I ate in the den, sitting on the couch with our feet on the coffee table as the six o' clock news began. Although our days were as humdrum as they came, an hour of dinner and TV was the last normal thing we shared together each day.
As the news anchors recounted the events of the week along with those that had transpired that day, I found nothing of interest and decided to multitask. I alternated mouthfuls of cheesy bliss with working on my laptop as it sat on the arm of the couch. Since I had left work, I had six new e-mails in my Firm inbox, none of which bore any degree of importance save for one. I clicked it, always happy to hear from one of our prestigious clients, the District Attorney of Gotham City:
To: Drake, Tim J.
From: Bryce, Tim L.
Hey there, figured I'd drop you a note quick seeing how I lost the RSVP card for the DJG Firm banquet. Count me, and Dana, as being both in attendance. If Dr. Thompkins is going to be there, could we be seated with her? If not, we can sit with the Commissioner and the Hizzoner. Much obliged, sir!
Timothy L. Bryce
Gotham County Court House
I had always found it interesting how many ways my life had crossed paths with Mr. and Dr. Bryce. By day, I managed their home security account for the Firm, had gone to his house to listen to his personal fears of an attack by the Joker and had even been responsible for him getting a dog. He was a pleasant man despite the demand placed on him by his work, and the same went for his wife.
When the sun set however, we were that much closer. Dr. Bryce had treated both myself and Cass for grievous wounds, when Zsasz had tried to fillet me and when the Joker had shot her. She had practically taken over the Free Clinic in the six months Leslie had been in Sierra Leone, diligently taking the overwhelming responsibility of doing what she could to help countless in need. As for her husband, he and I had shared many rooftop meetings at GCPD, both with and without Commissioner Kelsey.
They both had once been saved by Batman while being mugged.
But not by me…
"Heading over?" Cass brought me back?
Closing the Macbook, I nodded, "Yeah… probably should." I patted my stomach before continuing, "Let this digest while I sit in front of a much cooler computer."
"I'll be over in a few. Beat up the child before suiting up," Cass rose to her feet, taking my dish and spoon.
I stood as well, "Poor child… Well, be sure to ask Alfred nicely next time for his pork tenderloin. This was delish."
Cass smirked before shooing me, "Suck up."
The underground tunnel that traversed from beneath the Drake house to the Cave had originally started in a well. After much debate, I had finally built an outbuilding to cover it, deftly outfitted as storage for lawn equipment. The floorboards rose hydraulically after a biometric scan and pass code was entered into what appeared to be a Craftsman tool storage unit. The walk was long and quiet, giving me ample time to shed the thoughts and concerns of Tim Drake.
I was at the computer console by ten of seven, physically and digitally alone seeing how Barbara had yet to sign on from her workstation. After ten minutes of the keyboard clattering beneath my fingertips, someone had decided to keep me company.
"Was wondering when you were going to show up," I said without looking behind me.
Mattie came to stand beside me as I continued outlining patrols to upload to the 'Mobile. She glanced up at the digitalized map of Gotham's infamous Bowery before commenting, "I think… I think I'm going to take a night off."
I let my eyes tear away from the screen only to find far too much sadness in her blue eyes for my taste, "You sure?"
Nodding she replied, "Yeah. Think I'll hang out with Mom and Dad for tonight."
I couldn't help but feel the tug of concern in my gut, "He all right?"
Mattie nodded again, "Yeah, it just… I don't know," she closed vaguely with a shrug.
Not wanting to force her into second guessing such an important decision, I smirked, "No problem, don't worry about it."
She glanced around the vacant Cave in all directions before asking, "Where's Cass?"
"She was taking Robbie for a walk, then she'll be over soon… figured I could get a jump start on things tonight."
"Anything fun?" Mattie was quick to ask.
"Nothing special. Usual cowardly and superstitious lot."
"Bummer," she remarked with a sly smile.
I had to admit, having her so openly and religiously involved in the masked half of my life had not been as big of an upheaval as I had expected. Truthfully, she had always been there, ready and waiting. Her extreme actions earlier in the year of sneaking out of the Manor in her hand made guise and "borrowed without permission" motorcycle had proven she had the finesse, just not the common sense. She, like most teenagers, thought she was invincible.
It was my job to show her otherwise.
After Christmas the previous year, Bruce had briefly tested my ability to school a pupil. Although that had been the reason he had given me, deep down, I had wondered if he simply wanted to test his own abilities. Cut short by the Joker's escape, I had rarely met with Bruce to do anything but deliberate over the meager evidence we had collected. At the time, I had thought that he needed to focus his energies elsewhere, which had made complete sense.
That was before Huntress had been killed for no reason, Dick, Will and Cass had been shot, Dad and Dana had been slain and I had done the one thing I had thought impossible. I had failed Bruce. I had given him back the cowl when he had needed me most, forcing him to do the one thing he had thought impossible.
Putting the cowl back on, facing the Joker one last time.
Mattie's sigh brought me back, "Well, guess it's a good thing, that it's quiet."
"I like to think so, too. Your Dad never did."
"He used to pretend he was angry but I knew it was because he was restless. Even on most quiet nights, he'd be out at all hours, trying to find the minutest crime to stop." I had kept a final thought to myself, that Bruce literally couldn't accept that the city was safe, knowing his parents had been murdered under the same false pretense.
Shaking dreary thoughts from my mind, I turned the chair to face her, not surprised to see her dressed in shorts, tank top and flip flops. Her skin was raised in goosebumps but it was hard to tell if it was because of the chill in the Cave or her seemingly endless excitement to be at my side. Where my work with her father had gone to the wayside, it seemed that Cass's efforts with Mattie had quadrupled. Dick and I had remarked once that skill wise, she was on par with us when we had first donned capes and masks, a direct result of her genetics and environment. It honestly wouldn't take long for her to be truly ready to head into the city to do shadow work, another six months at most before she was ready for real action.
When I had started her formal training earlier that summer, Bruce had been adamant that she needed a year of daily work before he would consider letting her go out with us to patrol. Cass and I had mused nearly every night on how it would be great to have another set of eyes out with us while Dick recuperated, and even after he came back. The lack of a Robin in the seven years since I had taken up the cowl had been easy to ignore at first but in recent years it had been sorely evident. After all, who was Batman without a young sidekick to keep him grounded?
Although where Cass was more than excited for her protégé to join our ranks, I was still a little uneasy. It wasn't a child I had met at the age of ten or a street kid I had adopted out of the good of my heart or even the geeky kid next door. This was a child I had watch grow from infancy to teenage hood. This was my mentor's baby girl, his kitten. Looking over her as she studied the monitor with a little smirk tugging at her lips, I couldn't fathom finding her injured after a fight or having her be kidnapped to lure me into a death trap.
Maybe six months was optimistic. Maybe Bruce was right, she needed at least a year.
For my sake, not hers.
For Master Nathan's sixth birthday, he had received an abundance of sports paraphernalia from his extended Family.
Master Tim and Ms. Cassandra had outfitted him with a new set of football padding and equipment to ready the young boy for his debut in the Junior Pee Wee League tryouts in the coming weeks. Master Dick and Ms. Barbara had provided him with a day at Gotham Stadium the weekend after his actual birth date, even arranging for him to be the Bat Boy for the first inning for the home team. From his sister, he had been bestowed World Cup paraphernalia, including the controversial new soccer ball. His mother had also followed the theme, giving him his own set of miniaturized snow shoes and cross country skis for the coming winter.
The boy's father had been the only one to go the academic route, purchasing for him a telescope.
Given my abhorrence to technological necessities, even I was impressed with the device. Where it offered the user to manually operate and search for specific stars and constellations, it also provided digital programming, requiring only your location and what you wished to see. Once it was lined up with a base star, it automatically located what you desired amidst the hundreds of thousands of flecks in the night sky. When timed correctly, it even offered views of Saturn, its moons as well as closer orbs, such as Mars. When Master Nathan had first found the distant red planet, he had quickly asked me if he would be able to see Martians.
"Only if they are en route, sir," I had quipped.
Even after a month had passed, the child still was fascinated with the device, although I was uncertain if it was the sights he was able to see or the fact that he was able to sit on his father's lap while seeing them. In the time since the young master had been born, so much had changed and so drastically that it was difficult for him to garner the attention he not only craved, but deserved. Thankfully, with his down time of late, Master Bruce had been able to make strides to right the imbalance.
After our pleasant dinner on the terrace, I had supervised Master Nathan aiding his mother in tending to the dishes. Given his rowdy nature in contrast to his sister's willing one, Ms. Selina had decided it was time the boy took on responsibilities in order to set a better model for later life. Although he enjoyed helping make desserts and treats, he showed little interest in cleaning and keeping things neat, a trait his mother had confessed to passing on to him.
"Cat's nest, Alfred," she had explained, "We don't clean."
Having raised two boys to adulthood under the roof of Wayne Manor, I had never instilled said responsibilities into their upbringing. I never punished Master Bruce for breaking vases or mirrors in bouts of rage nor did I ground Master Dick for climbing onto the rooftop. At the time, I had felt it wasn't my place to reprimand them given what they had endured in their short lives. Hindsight had proved otherwise, looking back leading me to believe that had I set stricter parameters, they could have grown into different men.
It was difficult to imagine them any other way.
"All done," Master Nathan proudly boasted as he offered me the spatula he had diligently dried for more than a minute.
After feigning a thorough inspection and an equally fake look of scrutiny, I smirked at him, "Well done, sir."
Master Nathan then looked to his mother as she supervised from further down the counter, "Can I go upstairs, now?" She offered him a curt nod and he instantly took flight, racing out of the room with his canine companion following close behind him.
Just as silence fell over the kitchen, it was interrupted once more, albeit in the form of Miss Mattie. Before either myself or her mother could chase her out, she offered, "Just want a glass of water."
"Good, because that's all you're getting," Ms. Selina responded.
Before the young lady fetched a glass from the cupboard, she stuck her tongue out at her mother, battling a grin while doing so.
I quickly retrieved the carafe of ice water from the refrigerator, "I take it Mr. and Mrs. Drake have yet to make an appearance downstairs?"
She allowed me to at least pour the water for her, "Actually Tim's downstairs. I told him we had leftovers but he said he ate already, that Cass made dinner."
Returning the pitcher, I smiled, knowing that Ms. Cassandra had asked for a number of recipes to prepare for their evening meals as to not rely on take out menus or what I brought down to the Cave for them. Given that she was by no means a conventional woman, Ms. Cassandra did desire to take on some domestic duties, of which I had thought to be a result of her recent unconventional marriage. I had inquired as to if she truly wanted to make the effort or if she felt as if she was being pressured to pursue them.
To my relief, Ms. Cassandra had shrugged, "Being married hasn't made it any different. Just want to make Tim happy after what happened, take his mind off of it."
Her efforts were minute in the grand scheme of things, but I knew they would be appreciated by her other half. I was grateful to have witnessed their evolution as they had pushed past their early years as fellow sidekicks into young adulthood and then on to courting and marriage. Much like the other members of the Family, they shared more differences than similarities and yet they had more than surpassed such hurdles. They had soared over them, rewarded with love everlasting.
As for myself, I had reached the same result although rather than battling the odds, I had simply waited. Leslie and I had shared a long, trying relationship that had been granted numerous peaks between a series of lows. Even long ago when my only charge had been a much younger Master Bruce, it had been difficult to remain close with her as his well being had come first.
It had seemed that as the years had passed, our lives had only grown more complicated given the number of others that joined Master Bruce in his quest. There would be a time, I had kept reminding myself, that the Family would become closer than ever, when there would be more smiles than frowns and new faces, young and old. When they were happy, we would be as well.
Miss Mattie's voice drew my attention, "Maybe I can bring him some of the plum tart?"
"That's a good idea, and the ice cream should still be soft enough to scoop," her mother was quick to suggest.
I allowed Miss Mattie to once more retrieve the necessary dishware as I stepped in to slice the tart and plate it for her. She made a comment about being sneaky, and I replied, "In all honesty, miss, you are not supposed to be in the kitchen to begin with, let alone serving others."
"Can't a girl bring her teacher dessert without getting harassed?"
"No, my dear. She can not."
Once she had departed, Ms. Selina smiled while saying, "That girl… she's going to be a whole mess of trouble."
"I look forward to it, madam, keeps me young at heart."
She laughed at that before leaving me with, "Thank you, Alfred."
"My pleasure, dear."
Alone at last, I gave the counters a final wiping before admitting defeat, leaving the kitchen after shutting the lights off, save for those above the sink to act as a beacon. I had intended to direct the elevator to the second floor so that I may finally take my leave for the night, settling in with Leslie for a much needed rest on both our parts. Instead, I had accidentally hit the button for the third floor and as the car rose silently, I wondered if it had been on purpose after all.
Without hesitation, I made my way to the master bedroom. With the double doors both wide open, I passed through with ease, following the quiet and excited words of a six-year-old astronomer. Watching from just inside the terrace doorway, I couldn't help but smile at the scene before me. Seeing moments between father and son often reminded me of a different father and different son. Thankfully, there would be many more years shared between Master Bruce and his child than those that had lapsed between himself and Master Thomas.
But where a young Master Bruce watched The Grey Ghost, Master Nathan preferred televised American football games...
"Is it Scorpius or Scorpio?" Master Nathan asked, sitting upon his father's lap with his gaze never leaving the telescope.
Master Bruce was quick to explain, "Technically, it's Scorpius, but it can be called Scorpio."
"Oh… Can we find Hercules?"
"Sure… let me see for a second," Master Bruce waited for Nathan to slip off of his lap before adjusting the telescope.
As he stared up at the night sky, his head tilted uncomfortably back, Master Nathan said, "Alfred, we found Liar." He hesitated before pointing upwards, "See, it's right there."
I looked as well, not seeing anything more than clear skies. I then suggested to him as I stepped onto the terrace, "Do you mean the constellation Lyra?"
"Yeah," he nodded before looking to me, "Lyra. Dad's going to find Hercules."
"We're going to try, it's not really that dark out yet," Master Bruce responded, still dutifully adjusting the telescope.
Master Nathan leaned against his father's arm, trying to join him in peering through the lens. He proceeded to whisper something into his father's ear, and when Master Bruce nodded, the boy promptly climbed back onto his lap. After locking the telescope in place, the boy took over the task of observation, humming to himself before crying out, "Herculeeeeeeeees!"
Leaning back in the chair, Master Bruce nodded, "Yes, Hercules." With his child occupied, my charge looked to me, "Dare I ask where the women are?"
"I believe Ms. Selina is on her way up and your daughter was tending to matters downstairs."
Nodding, he then directed his attention back to his son, "Ten more minutes, tiger. Then it's bedtime."
"Hercules doesn't have a bed time," the boy grumbled, "Neither does Shere Kahn."
"No, they don't, but you do."
I waited for there to be another rebuttal, but was pleased when there wasn't. "Well, Master Bruce, you seem to have matters under control. If you require assistance, I shall be in my quarters."
He turned once more, barely able to hide the fatigue layering his face, "Thank you, Alfred…. Nate, say good night."
Master Nathan looked back at me and grinned, "Night, Alfred."
"Good night to you, young sir."
Making a second attempt at heading to my quarters, I was stopped once more, although it brought another smile to my face. Miss Mattie, instead of spending her evening in the Cave as she had all summer long, was walking towards me as I descended the stairs to the second floor. Before I could inquire as to her intentions, she asked, "Are Dad and Nate still on the terrace?"
"But of course, they've just located the star hewn Hercules. I take it you are not undertaking gladiatorial training this evening?"
Smirking, she shrugged, "Figured it was okay to have one normal night. With Dad."
"A very wise decision, my dear."
"Thanks," she smiled as she passed by. Before entering the master bedroom, she looked back to me, "G'night, Alfred."
"Sleep well, child."
When Leslie had decided to head upstairs shortly after dinner, exhausted after a long week at the Clinic, I had promised to join her within an hour. Glancing at my pocket watch, I sighed to see that it was just before nine-thirty as I reached the second floor landing. Only ninety-one minutes late.
Opening the door, I was surprised that the lights were still on. I had expected to find her already settled into bed but she was sitting on the far side of the expansive room, reading through a folder of materials. Soundlessly closing the door, I approached but Leslie didn't look up until after I had taken a seat beside her.
As she went about removing her glasses to rub her nose, I asked, "Casual reading?"
"I wish," she responded, closing the file, "Bruce brought home his blood work from his appointment."
Her tone was unsettling, although I kept mine steady, "And?"
Leslie shook her head, setting the folder on the end table, "I thought we were doing okay… but now we're back to square one."
She explained that the anemia had worsened and that his hepatic enzymes were on the rise. Adding to the fact that he was still suffering seizures on the higher dose of medication, the next step would be cleansing his system of the Tegretol in order to start him on barbiturates. I remained silent for a moment before reaching over and taking her hand into mine.
"A hurdle, one far easier to overcome than those that have come before."
Leslie sigh before looking down at my hand as it barely held hers, "Stiff."
"A bit," I remarked, "But no worse for the wear."
"I'll go get some liniment from the bathroom," she started to rise but I stilled her with a soft look. As she sat back, she turned to face me, gently using her other hand to massage my old fingers, "You needed more time off… To rest… That's why this year away was so important."
"A good three and a half months," I commented, "For me and for this Family, that was more than enough."
She fell silent again, her deft fingers slowly bringing circulation to mine. After a moment of silence, she responded, "You do too much, Alfred. You always have. Push yourself, always thinking of everyone else."
"And just where did you think Master Bruce learned it from?"
That brought a smile to her lips briefly.
Without notice, I leaned in and kissed her.
The smile returned, lasting much longer.
"Too bad the Bat-signal didn't come on, that would have been cool to see up close."
As I put the cover over the telescope, I looked over my shoulder and glared at my daughter as she leaned against the door frame.
"Just saying," she smirked back at me.
I turned around, trying to put a minimal amount of weight on the cane as I approached her, "First of all, it is never cool to see the Bat-signal. Second, your brother is still running around, so watch it."
"Yes, Dad," she said apologetically, standing up on her tip toes to kiss my cheek as I passed by. She closed the terrace door after me, "Mom said she needs back up in Nathan's room."
"And you didn't help?" I asked as I began to cross the room. Kitten had been sleeping in the chaise and as I passed him, he instantly sprang to life, racing across the carpet before clamoring into the hall.
When she joined me to walk at my side, Mattie replied, "She said she needed professional help. I'm still an amateur."
I shook my head, "You're something all right."
Mattie escorted me down the hall, stopping at Nathan's door and letting me enter alone. I paused to look down at her and she was quick to offer, "I've got your back, Dad."
Typically speaking, bed time was either a breeze or an abattoir with my youngest son. Most days, especially during the summer, he was exhausted after playing and swimming and pretending that the main staircase was a mountain that he climbed on his hands and knees. After a bath and brushing his teeth, he often raced around his room, catapulted from his exercise trampoline that Dick had given him years earlier and caused general havoc on the third floor. My institution of nightly stargazing, weather permitting, was to instil a quiet time before he settled in for bed.
I knew we shouldn't have looked for Hercules.
When I had sent him to go get ready, I had failed to take into consideration that he had already showered after swimming that afternoon and was already wearing pajamas. The fracture in the nightly routine had left a void, one he had decided to fill by pretending he was the mythological son of Zeus. As Mattie and I had been looking through the telescope, I had heard him running up and down the corridor, shouting the name of the demigod amidst roars and shrieks.
As I stepped into his bedroom, I spotted Ace on the floor, his tongue lolling out of his jaw as he panted frantically, ears back and eyes wide with excitement. He had apparently followed Nathan's every step and was exhausted from the effort.
"What is going on in here?" I asked, forcing my voice to be stern.
Nathan, wearing only his underwear and a towel around his neck, was trying to lift his bed, grunting with effort. I glanced to Selina as she stood by, arms crossed over her chest with her shoulders quivering as she fought laughter.
"Dad, I'm really strong, watch!"
I took to standing beside my wife, watching on as Nathan legitimately made an effort to lift his queen sized bed. She leaned into my arm before saying, "Well, he was off the wall pretending to be Hercules, tried to make his own toga out of his towel from earlier, kept tripping… so I gave him something else to play."
Noticing for the first time that it was a red towel hanging from my son's shoulders, I glared down at Selina, "How could you?"
"Hey, he stopped trying to climb Mount Olympus, also known as the shower door, and he started rescuing people trapped under heavy things… like Ace and his laundry basket. I have no regrets, Bruce." She kissed my cheek, despite the cold look on my face and then approached Nathan, "All right, Superman, looks like you've saved the day again."
Letting go of the bed frame, Nathan spun around twice, the towel-cape floating off of his back, "Did you see, Dad, I almost lifted it."
Sighing in disgust, I replied, "I saw… you're very strong."
He flexed both of his arms, his bare torso revealing little, tan muscles.
Selina started to straighten out the chaotic covers on the bed, "Now, you have to rest up for another day of being a superhero."
He walked over to her, tugging at the towel knotted at his throat until it came loose, "Where should I hang this up?"
She took it, made a slightly disgusted face before suggesting, "Maybe we can wash this cape… little dingy from all your hard work. Why don't you get your tee shirt back on, kiddo."
"Okay," he nodded, glancing around the room before asking, "Where is it?"
Selina looked around as well, but I cleared my throat upon finding it hanging from the on overhead light fixture. Before he could make the attempt to fly up and get it, I moved to stand under the light and reached up with my cane to unhook it.
When I handed it back to Nathan, he smiled up at me, "Thanks Dad, you're my hero."
"I try," I offered before nodding towards his bed, "All right, tiger, let's get to it."
He walked towards his mother while pulling his shirt on, "What are we doing tomorrow?"
"I'm not sure, Nate. What do you want to do?" Selina asked as he climbed onto the bed.
As she covered him up, he shrugged, "Can we give Ace a bath?"
We all looked to the dog as he laid on the floor, his panting had subsided the second he felt our combined attention.
"Sure, that sounds like a great idea," Selina said before kissing his head, "After breakfast though."
"Okay." He settled back against the pillows before saying, "Good night, Mom."
"Good night, honey," Selina kissed him again before rising to her feet, touching my arm before continuing out of the room.
"Want to read tonight?" I asked as I carefully sat on the bed beside him.
Shrugging, Nathan answered, "I don't know… I guess not."
He paused, then looked directly at me, "Where'd you and Mattie go, after dinner?"
"For a little walk, that's all."
"Can I come, next time?"
I nodded, leaning in to rest my brow against his, "Of course you can. Tomorrow night, just us."
He grinned at that, "Cool."
Shutting his lights off, I left the door ajar before heading towards his sister's room. As expected it was already shut but I was surprised when she bid me to enter after a short knock. Opening it just enough to peer inside, I found her on the floor with her laptop.
"Not too late, okay."
She rolled her eyes, "Dad, it's like nine-thirty."
"Not too late," I repeated. That time, she understood my subtle hint. If she intended on sneaking into our room again, not too late…
Leaving her, I continued on down the hall towards the master bedroom, treasuring the prospect of sleep. As much as I hated to admit it, Selina was right, Leslie and Alfred were right and Dr. Kohl was right. I was doing too much, stretching myself too thin already. Rather than accept defeat and lead a sub-normal and sub-efficient life, I was carrying onward. The fact that a mere half day at the office and a few hours of barely strenuous exercise spent all of my energy was pathetic.
Selina kept reminding me that it was my own damn fault, that next time I came out of retirement and was thrown off of a building, I shouldn't land on my head. A joke, meant to lighten serious matters.
Given how my left leg barely flexed and every step felt as if the Joker was breaking my knee again, there would be no next time.
Mattie had brought up a valid point earlier that evening. It had been nearly three months and it still felt like it had just happened. I could still feel the Joker's bones breaking in my hands, I could hear his laughter echoing in even the most quiet of moments and I relived every second of my free fall every time I closed my eyes.
My own damn fault...
As directed, I had brought home copies of everything Dr. Kohl had presented with me earlier that afternoon. Leslie had waited until after dinner to scrutinize the reports and write-ups, leaving most of the evening peaceful. I would surely get a verbal berating in the morning from her, before the rest of the household was awake. Tough love, she had always called it, tough love necessary to get through a thick skull. A thick skull with a new dent in the-.
"Bruce?" I heard Selina's voice through a fog, "Are you okay?"
It took far too long to realize I was leaning against the wall instead of walking down the hall. I was catching my breath but had no reason to, leading me to realize that I had endured another absent seizure. It took much longer for me to respond to her, leaving me standing there and blinking randomly as she jogged to my side, wrapping an arm around my lower back to help me stand upright.
I was angry at myself, despite having no physiological control over the matter, but hid it from my voice, "I'm fine, just lost my balance." To prove it, I leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Selina glared up at me, then sighed, choosing to accept the lie as opposed to challenging it, hooking her arm with my right one, "I'm down to tucking in the biggest baby of all, don't make it any harder than it has to be."
"Yes, ma'am," I forced a smirk to my lips.
Since it would take nearly two weeks to completely flush out the Tegretol from my system, it was going to be the longest ten days I would have to endure. There were no medically proven withdrawal symptoms from the drug and even if there were, I hadn't been taking it that long to begin with. What I was concerned the most about was the unchecked seizures. Dr. Kohl said he would be willing to put me on Phenobarbital after ten days of being off my current anti-convulsant regimen.
Ten days was a long time when you had brain damage effusion induced tonic-clonic seizures...
The plan of attack, aside from going cold turkey, was abundant rest and relaxation. I would be taking a leave of absence from Wayne Enterprises starting Monday, poor timing but my neurologist had said the sooner we started the new treatment the better. In addition, mild sedatives had already been prescribed in the event that my body was unable to maintain a relaxed state as it cleansed itself. Usually, I would have held off until it adapted better to my schedule, but having been given another lease on life, it was selfish for me to continue old habits.
That and it would have been hazardous to my health with not only Alfred but with Selina, Leslie and Mattie looming over me.
After leading me into the bedroom, Selina walked with me to the bed, letting go as I turned and took a seat on the mattress. She asked if I wanted her to get Alfred and I shook my head, "No, he's done more than enough today."
"So have you," she countered.
I waited until she had taken a seat beside me to reply, "Apparently."
Looking to her face, I could tell she wanted to ask how many episodes I had endured during the day but she kept the inquiry to herself. Our relationship had endured every imaginable obstacle over the years and had managed to persevere. Our current task to return to normalcy after what had happened in April was, to date, the most difficult. Unlike previous injuries I had endured, even including when Pasqualle had shot me, this one had resulted in ramifications beyond my wildest anticipations.
No, that was a lie. I had prepared myself for death facing the Joker that night in Crime Alley...
Before my thoughts could get any darker, Selina kissed my cheek before rising, "Well, I'm beat. Shower in the morning?"
"Co-ed?" I asked as she made her way towards the walk-in closet.
"Maybe," she smirked before disappearing into the small room.
It was a sensitive subject, one I had been keen on denying for far too long. Even switching from the high dose of Tegretol to the Phenobarbital would only prove to further detriment my libido. Known side effects combined with my general sensitivity to vigorous behavior had all but put our love life on hold, something we had always turned to in times of need and desperation. Whether we were arguing, stressed, scared or simply at a loss of what to do next, we had always been able to lose ourselves in each other, if only for a few minutes.
I hadn't made love to my wife in five weeks, or rather I hadn't been capable of making love to her in five weeks. Although she was still content with me satisfying her by other means, I wasn't. She tried to placate me, saying it was all right and that she understood what was going on, but it had no effect. Earlier, before dinner when we had been talking in our room, she had joked that we would have to get our fill in during my ten days of cleansing.
Earlier, when Mattie had been eavesdropping in the hallway…
"Here," Selina emerged from the closet, holding a pair of black flannel pants, "You can finally change out of all that Gucci."
"Thanks," I said softly as she paused to stand in front of me. A loose purple tee shirt and gray sweat pants that had been cut off at her calves, reducing temptation with the touch and feel of cotton.
I changed in the bathroom, downing my evening handful of pills with a cold glass of water. Intentionally, I had dropped the dose of the Tylenol PM so that I would be able to wake readily if Mattie came knocking. It was bad enough that her childhood had been cut short by learning the truth, it was worse that she would spend the few years she had left in it worrying about me.
On the way back from the rose garden, she had held my left hand, letting her fingertips dance over my wedding band. Before reaching the house, I had asked her if she was going down to the Cave and she had looked up and smiled, "No, I was thinking about looking up at the stars tonight, not bats."
I had expected Selina to drill me on our private conversation but she had acted as if it had never happened. She had contained her surprise when Mattie joined her Family upstairs as opposed to seeking out her mentors down below. It had bothered me to the point that I had taken the first step, asking her about her passiveness. She had shaken her head, "She's right here, spending time with you. You obviously said the right thing."
I had replied, "There's no right thing to say… not about that."
As I returned to bed, I smiled to see Selina had the covers pulled down and was teasing Kitten by tickling his back just in front of his tail. After I reclined beside her, he decided to take his aggravation out on me, racing across my chest with his claws out.
Although she was laughing beside me, I thought back to earlier, when her face had been solemn as she had disagreed with me, "Yes, there is. And you're the only one who knows it."