Title: Come What May
Author: DC Luder
Summary: The Family reacts to Jason Todd's attack. Some better than others.
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: My sincere apologies for my absence over the last six months.
Even a busy, non-stop day at the Preserve hadn't been enough to clear my mind.
I had caught up on meaningless tasks, read through and signed grant proposals and met with our head veterinary staff to prepare for the following year's building additions. I had eaten bites of a turkey club sandwich in between returning phone calls and responding to a full inbox of e-mails. At one point, I had realized that even being in my office had been counter productive in trying to recover from my horrible morning. Sitting at my desk, the picture of Bruce with the kids on the back terrace had kept staring at me, as had the bare patch of skin on my left ring finger.
At the very least, the commute should have done the trick, just as it had on any other occasion where Bruce and I had been at odds. Being alone and having the hour ride to and from had always been my most productive me time. That day, I had spent more than an accumulated two hours in my car, alternating between silence and blaring music to help center myself.
Any of the anger and hurt that I had been able to ease returned the second I passed through the gates of Wayne Manor.
Rather than park in the garage, I chose to leave the SUV out back and to the left of Tim's Honda sedan. With Alfred already being pulled in every direction, I had called him midday to inform him dinner was on me for the evening. Although he had protested, I had suggested he pick up Leslie a bit early so she would be able to join us. On time.
"Very good, madam," had been his reply.
I had paused for a moment before forcing myself to ask, "Where's Bruce?"
"Downstairs… tending to some research."
"Shall I forward the call, Ms. Selina?"
"No…" I had said a bit too sternly, leading me to add, "I'll talk to him when I get home."
Stepping out of the car five hours later, I realized that my words had been far too optimistic.
Laughter and playful barking drew me to the rear lawn. Nathan and Ace were well into one of their endless games of fetch. No matter how many times my son threw the ratty tennis ball, Ace would promptly retrieve it, race back and drop it at his pint-sized master's feet. It went the same for whenever Alfred tried to dispose of the once brilliant green ball. Ace always found a way of getting it back.
"Hi Mom!" my son called out before throwing the ball, lofting it way up and out to nearly the rose garden fence line. Ace bolted, his ears upright and his eyes never wavering from his bouncing prey.
Approaching Nathan, I touched his shoulder before leaning over and kissing his mused hair, "Hey, kiddo, you just get home?"
"Little while ago," he looked up at me, "Tim said to tire him out really good."
I appraised the lolling tongue and frantic panting as Ace trotted back with tennis ball firmly held between his jaws. Before my son could take the ball from the dog, I intervened, "Looks like he is plenty tired… maybe you should let him throw the ball for you."
Nathan shook his head, "I don't think so."
Keeping my hand on his shoulder, I turned him towards the service entrance, "Come on… let's get this poor dog something to drink."
He lead the way into the atrium, kicking his sneakers off before wiping Ace's paws dry with a towel. I watched on as he opened the door, following his canine friend into the house. The kitchen was devoid of life, making Ace's pants seem painfully loud. While Nathan topped off the dog's porcelain water bowl, I filled two glasses with ice water, marking my son's with a blue straw.
Dog sated, Nathan climbed up onto a stool and blew bubbles before taking a few long swallows. I sipped mine slowly, wary of my son's pouting face. Most afternoons when I returned home, he asked a million questions about what cats I had visited with and if there were any new ones coming into the Preserve. Seeing him quietly sit and drink was unnerving.
"You okay, Nate?" I finally asked.
"Yeah," he replied without looking up.
"Doesn't sound like you are…"
After sipping down the last of his drink, he finally looked up at me, "I just… I think the Tooth Fairy forgot all about me… I still have two loose ones that haven't come out and… and the one that is still under my pillow."
My heart sank. I swiftly covered by saying, "Well, I will get to the bottom of this, kiddo. That Tooth Fairy is not going to forget about you after I get done with her. No one messes with Shere Khan and gets away with it."
He smirked around the straw, then proceeded to smile with the bit of plastic resting in the gap left by his absent tooth, growling lowly.
"And guess what?"
"On my way home, I ordered dinner from Santo's…"
"You did?" his blue eyes lit up. Under the tutelage of Tim and Dick, my son had grown to become obsessed with the Italian eatery. They taught him how to breadstick sword fight, that you can manage to stick an entire giant ravioli in your mouth and that root beer tasted better after you burped. Thankfully, it offered a take-out service that prevented my son from demonstrating his acquired antics in public.
"I did… Should be ready in about ten minutes… you want to come with me to pick it up?"
"Can we get Italian ices?"
"Sweet!" he leapt from his stool , the sudden motion causing the dog to jump to his feet, ready for action. Thankfully, it was only following Nathan as he raced out of the kitchen and into the corridor. I called after him to get his coat from upstairs, to which he replied, "Santooooooooos!"
After leaving a handwritten note on the kitchen counter that I had kidnapped my son, I also sent a text message to Tim telling him that he was free of Nathan Duty and solely responsible for Mattie. By then, Nathan had returned, armed with his blue and red Giants jacket. When he asked if Ace could come, as he had the night before when we picked his sister up from Terry's, I declined, "I ordered quite a bit. Not going to be room enough for you, him and food."
It was a seven minute drive to the restaurant, made even faster with Nathan finally asking me about the big cats and if they had missed me the week before. When we arrived, our broad selection off of the dinner menu was already prepared and bagged. Before I paid the three digit bill with a credit card, Nathan eyed the Italian Ice display. Keeping my word, I added a lemon ice to the tab.
He carried the bag of side salads and breadsticks while I handled the heavy lifting. Baked ziti, penne a la vodka, spinach ravioli and eggplant Parmesan for Leslie, Dick, Mattie and Alfred. For Nathan, I had picked his favorite, a pepperoni filled calzone, leaving the chicken Marsala for myself and the grilled pepper and steak rustica for Bruce.
Since the place had opened years earlier, we had always ordered the same thing, stealing bites from one another. Sharing tiramisu afterwards and a walk through Cole Park…
Not three miles into the trek back home, I slowed to a stop before a massive amount of flashing lights. As Nathan asked what was going on from the back seat, I replied that I didn't know.
There were a pair of ambulances, three state troopers, a fire engine and two of the Bristol police cars on both the left and right shoulders. In the middle of the road were the remains of two vehicles, one a large black Avalanche truck and the other appeared to be a blue Ford Focus.
"Is it an accident?"
Or what was left of it…
"Can I have a breadstick?"
When I spotted a tall man in grey khaki approaching, I rolled my window down and asked Nathan to be quiet. The trooper sighed before nodding at me, "Just going to be a few minutes, ma'am. Still waiting on a tow truck."
"Of course, not a problem." I wanted to ask if everyone was okay but from the look of the smaller sedan, I doubted that it would have been an answer anyone wanted to hear.
The trooper nodded again, smirked at Nathan in the back and then returned to the scene.
"Nate, you can have one breadstick," I gave my delayed answer as I reached for my purse.
I decided the best person to contact was Mattie. No matter where she went in the Manor or even in the Cave, her cell phone was never far behind, usually kept right with her inhaler. She answered after a few rings, "Hello?"
"Hey, kiddo, it's me… We're going to be a little late… there's an accident on 42 that's blocking the road."
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Oh, we're fine. It just might be a while before they let traffic through… I gave your brother a breadstick… worse comes to worse, I'll let him have part of a calzone. Is Alfred back yet?"
"I don't think so…" she sighed before adding, "Mom, I hope it's okay, Terry came over after gymnastics practice so we could do homework."
"Homework… is that why I hear Just Dance menu music in the background." As listened to her laugh nervously, I said, "That's fine, if Dad asks, just tell him I said okay… How is everyone up there?"
"Good, I think they are all downstairs still."
"Probably, well I shouldn't be more than twenty minutes… I'll let you know when I'm coming up the drive, I'm going to need all hands on deck to unload all of this food."
"Okay… thanks, Mom."
After hanging up, I went to toss the phone back into my purse when it buzzed back to life. Looking at the display, I froze upon seeing Bruce's name. Burying it in my purse, I ignored the call, not surprised when the phone grew silent for a moment before offering another chime, signifying that a voice mail was waiting for me.
It was a long fifteen minute wait at the accident before I was allowed to slowly creep down the right hand lane. From there, the rest of the ride home was without obstacle. I heard Nathan sneak a second breadstick out of the bag but didn't reprimand him for it. After all, the Tooth Fairy had forgotten about him, the least she could do was let him have his favorite snack.
I distinctly recalled seeing the missing tooth the day before but it had never registered that the next step was the check under his pillow after he went to bed. I had been too concerned about Bruce and Talia and everything falling apart once again. Rather than actually be there for my children, I had pretended to, watching movies with them, trying to deter questions about our house guest and bribe them with late bed times and snacks.
My mind was so caught up in feeling guilty, that I barely noticed the gates didn't budge when I approached them for the third and final time that day. Slamming on the brakes, I stopped just before the front bumper touched the right hand gate. Nathan laughed and asked who had taught me how to drive.
I chuckled as well, pressing the remote control once more. Again, the gate didn't budge.
Dialing Mattie's phone, I was put further at unease when it simply rang and rang before going to voicemail. I even called the house line, Bruce's cell and then finally Tim's.
"Selina, where are you?" he greeted me coldly.
"At the gate. It's not letting me in."
"Of course… I just locked it down… there, that should do it." A second later the gates opened and I passed through, keeping one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone.
Trying to remain outwardly calm, I asked, "What's going on?"
He sighed, his breathing as fast and uneven as mine, "I'll unlock the service entrance for you as well… but it will lock back up again in ten minutes automatically."
He interrupted me, "Cass, Mattie and Terry are in the den… I'm in the study… when you get here… meet me there."
"Please." The tone of his voice had me agreeing without further question, hanging up and pocketing the phone as I pulled up next to his car once more.
I helped Nathan bring in dinner, setting the bags on the counter before telling him to go sit with his sister in the den while I found everyone else. With Ace meeting us in the corridor, I felt slightly better about sending my son off on his own. Pulse throbbing in my temples, I quickly jogged to the study, finding the door open and Tim standing alone in front of the fireplace.
"Okay, what is going on?" I asked, drawing his attention. He looked utterly depleted, the last few days finally catching up with him. Looking more closely, I realized there was something else, something worse than just being tired, frustrated and pushed one step too far.
Something I couldn't put my finger on.
It was after Tim quietly and calmly explained what had taken place over the course of the last thirty minutes that it hit me. While Nathan and I had been picking up dinner, the League of Assassins had blown a hole into the back of my house. When Nathan had been debating between cherry or lemon ice, Bruce had been fighting for his life against Jason Todd. As I had been telling my son to be quiet while I spoke with the state trooper, Dick had been loading a wounded Alfred up in the subway tunnel car to take him to the Free Clinic.
"Why not have Leslie take care of him?" my lips managed to form words.
Tim hesitated before replying, "Because… they took her..."
Although my lungs had decided to no longer process air, I found it painfully possible to ask, "And Bruce?"
After he replied that Alfred had seen both Leslie and Bruce dragged outside to a pair of helicopters, I realized what the look was on his face was. I suddenly felt the same emotion course through me as I fell to my knees, unable to breathe or even cry. I had a taste of it that morning, unable to even utter another word at Bruce before storming away. And even the night before, leaving my wedding rings on the counter.
It was pure and utter defeat.
I felt Tim's arm wrap around my shoulders, heard soft words filled with concern and even caught a glimpse of his pained face. Floating, I felt myself rising from the cold floor and slowly falling to the plush leather couch of the study. I had spent countless afternoons on the very same couch, teasing Bruce while he attempted to work at his desk, doing anything I could to distract him.
Each time his brow had lowered and he had growled, "Selina," had been a victory…
Tim's fingers checked the pulse at my wrist before they traveled to pinch my fingernails down in order to elicit a response. Looking up at him, I wanted to say I was okay but the words wouldn't form on my lips, nor would the air leave my lungs.
What seemed like hours later, I managed to ask, "…Tim?"
Setting a hand on my shoulder, Tim looked me directly in the eyes and said, "I'm here."
"Bruce… he…" my voice faded as I forced myself to sit up, an attempt to appear less vulnerable made fruitless while failing to brush his hand away.
Tim didn't try to stop me but remained at my side on the couch, "Jason could have killed him if that was their plan… but he took him. Alive. And Leslie… To take care of him…"
I continued, acting as if I hadn't heard him, "Bruce called me… twenty minutes ago… maybe he… maybe he said where they were…"
He shook his head, "Talia installed signal blockers and interference equipment last week… that's what cut the security system, the generators… and no calls were able to go in or out. It had to have been before…"
"You said they took him to the helicopters… what if he was able to-."
A grim look took hold of my face. Although I wanted to explain to Selina that her husband had been beaten to near unconsciousness before a seizure had taken hold of him, I didn't. Instead, I told her to stay put and that I would get her phone so that we could listen to the message he had left her. She quietly nodded before telling me it was in her purse, sitting on the kitchen counter along with our dinner.
Exhaling slowly, I left her alone in the study, navigated the halls under the dim lighting and retrieved her cell phone. Keying it out of sleep mode, I found the display reading 1 Missed Call, 1 New Message.
Adding another reason to hate myself to the list, I pressed play.
There was a brief pause before I heard Bruce's soft voice, "I know you don't want to talk to me… but I hope you will at least listen. You said this morning that I didn't understand why you were upset… But I do. I understand that there is nothing I can say or do that will take back what I've done… But I want you to know that I regret hurting you. I regret every time I've brought tears to your eyes. I don't deserve your forgiveness, because I won't forgive myself. I do love you, Selina… and as difficult as it may seem, everything that I have ever done was meant to protect you."
"If you'd like to delete this message, press one. If you'd like to save it your archive, press-."
I pressed two, not wanting to erase what may have been Bruce's last words to his wife…
An ill-timed feud, one no doubt they were both regretting given the night's violent twist.
None of us had seen it coming. Although, we all should have…
Not an hour earlier, Cassandra and I had been at the Watchtower, standing in the tension filled room with Talia and J'onn. Without warning, I had been given a glimpse into Talia's mind, which regrettably had unearthed the fact that she had not been running from Jason and her father, but working for them. Anger filling every fiber of my being, at her and myself, I had asked, "They're coming to the Manor now, aren't they?"
"They have been and gone by now, Timothy. I told you…" she had responded quietly, "I didn't want to leave."
That she had. She had pleaded with Bruce, begging not to be taken to the Watchtower.
Her idea of a warning, thin as a piece of tattered paper, just as weak and as full of holes.
Appearing in the Cave to Bruce that night, seemingly forever ago, had been no coincidence. Catching him off guard, playing the tortured soul, it had garnered her way with him for decades. Had she crept up on myself or Dick, she would have been instantly shipped off to the Watchtower to be held prisoner, not protective custody. She had pressed the right buttons, pushing Bruce over the emotional limit by telling him about Jason, naturally leading to his involvement in the exhumation. An empty coffin where he had laid the broken bones of a teenage boy, serving as an incentive to believe her lies all the more.
"What have you done?" my voice had been a whisper.
The images, her memories, had been emblazoned into my brain. Her painful childhood had been no surprise as I had spent a majority of the summer revisiting every fact we had on her and her father. The images of Ra's and Talia admiring images of Bruce had been no shocker, either. Ra's had researched his prospective heir to the point of deducing his secret identity. What had my mind spinning were the flashes of Jason growing from wild teenager to violent man, of he and Talia kissing passionately…
Of the child that she held in her arms…
"I have done nothing, Timothy… perhaps you should ask yourself that question."
Staring into Talia's hazel-green eyes, I had felt my blood beginning to boil, my pulse throbbing in my temples and my breath felt as if it should have been accompanied by flames. Once again, she had played us the fool, luring us right into her father's snare. Her siren tongue had spun the right verses, told the right stories and dropped the right amount of hints.
Without an ounce of remorse, I had punched her square in the face.
"Tim!" J'onn had reached for me before I could retract my arm to strike at her again, the hold on my upper arm unbearable in his vice-like hand. Cass had stepped forward as well, ready to either defend me against a retaliation or step in to keep me from making another mistake. Talia had managed to keep herself upright despite the force of the blow, only taking a step backwards in recovery.
She had hid her shock well, going as far as smirking as she had replied, "It seems you are not like him after all…" Talia had delicately touched her bleeding nose, her fingers not even bothering to staunch the flow, "So much anger, so little control."
"You haven't seen me angry, yet," I had snapped back, involuntarily straining against J'onn's hold. Although he had been more than capable of lifting me with his pinkie finger and tossing me to the other side of the Watchtower, he had simply used enough force to keep me in check. When I had glared up at him, he had stared right back with expressionless, red eyes.
I felt his presence before the words echoed in my mind, "Rage will not get you the answers you need. You know this."
After I had exhaled slowly, J'onn had released me, remaining at my side as a precautionary measure. Although I knew my face had still been flushed with anger, I had managed to soften my jaw and brow in order to ask, "Where are they taking him?"
Talia had licked a dollop of blood from her upper lip, tapping her brow before responding, "You saw for yourself… I don't know the exact details. I knew enough to set things in motion for Jason and my father. The rest is up to them."
"I don't believe you… I don't believe a word that passes through your venomous lips," I had growled.
Which was why I had J'onn bypass her needing to utter another word entirely.
Leaving me out of the equation, he had melded his mind with hers once more, fast forwarding through the unnecessary and searching for anything remotely related to Bruce's kidnapping. I had stood by, watching silently along with Cass as J'onn's hand gently touched Talia's temple, eliciting a shocked look on her usually calm visage. J'onn's brow had not so much as twitched throughout the exchange, his focus entirely on the task before him.
Cass had whispered, "What did you see?"
"She's been working with them this entire time… Her father, Jason… all along."
"To do what?"
I had hesitated, looking down at her before answering, "Hopefully J'onn's finding that out right now."
We had waited another five painfully quiet minutes before J'onn drew his hand away, leaving Talia to stumble back two steps and gasp for air. Without wasting a moment concerning himself with her distress, J'onn had faced us, "There are some details to be had, but nothing of an exact location."
"What kind of details?" I had asked curtly.
"They were to be transported via helicopter to a private airstrip outside of the city. Talia was to escape and join them but if she had been five minutes late, they were to depart without her."
She had glared at me, finally wiping the drying blood from her face, "They are long gone, I assure you. Jason was under direct orders not to wait for me."
"That I do believe," I had replied.
J'onn had readily agreed to continue working with her and to get in touch with Barbara afterwards. Leaving her in his custody, Cass and I had rapidly made our way back to the teleportation bay. By then, the Cave's security system had regained control once more, automatically increasing the ranks given the intrusion it had endured. Entering the bypass codes from the Watchtower arose suspicion, but after the back-ups cleared, the system had granted me access.
Saving time by teleporting together, we had arrived back at the Cave in a flash of white. Stepping off onto solid ground, I had immediately detected the acrid smell of smoke. I had barked at Cass to check the main entrance to see if it was secure while I had raced towards the computer bay. My first act had been to stomach the urge to run blindly up to the Manor without knowing what could have been waiting for me. Instead, I had immediately run a scan of the grounds revealed nothing out of order, but the evaluations of the Cave and Manor reported back a laundry list of problems.
The main tunnel's security door had closed not ten minutes earlier, recording that there had not only been an obstruction but an explosion. I had brought up the footage coinciding with the time of incident, sighing with relief that it had been Dick breaking his way back into the Cave and not anyone else. The grandfather clock entrance had also reported an explosion but no significant damage, video again showing Dick in his suit racing into the Manor.
"Tim?" Barbara had asked as the Oracom came up on the main screen, "What the hell is going on?"
"Trying to figure that out…" I had growled.
"I had no access to the system for the last fifteen minutes…" her face had been filled with worry but somehow her voice had remained strong, "I'm thinking it can't be for a good reason."
"It was Talia… she's been working with Ra's and Jason… the second we left, they came..." I had caught her up to speed with what had transpired at the Watchtower, leaving out the brief moment I had lost control and let my anger get the best of me.
She had allowed herself a moment to defeat her shock before responding, "I picked up air traffic in Bristol just in case something was up… two helicopters moving in opposite directions. One north and one south. Neither have landed so far but both radios are silent, no digital communication whatsoever."
"Keep on them, we'll take care of things here."
As I had offered what little J'onn and I had learned from Talia, I had turned to the third major flag that the Cave's report had brought up. Specifically, it had been a notification that the costume vault was sealed from the inside with two occupants, only one of which the Cave recognized as having clearance: Mattie E. Wayne. Bringing up the security feed, I had sighed with relief to see she and Terry were safely sitting on the bench towards the back of the dressing area. I could have cared less at that moment that Terry was surrounded by the guises of Batman, Nightwing and Batgirl.
His learning the truth had tragically been the least of my worries.
Closing the Oracom, I had heard Cass jogging across the main tier. Without looking back to her, I had begun reviewing the security scan reports from the Manor, specifically that the back terrace entrance sensors recorded damage from an explosion. Motion sensors on the upper floors had yielded no sign of life but there had been some movement on ground level. It had been in the same area that had been blown up, making it either a very good or a very bad sign.
There had been one camera that had survived the blast, one that had scanned the rear atrium during the assault. It, along with its former partner on the opposite side of the room, had the ability to pan and focus in based on activity, capture images in infrared if needed and all in glorious high definition. Not mentally prepared to rewind and watch what had transpired while Talia had been making a fool of me, I had chosen to simply watch the current feed.
Surprisingly, it had been of Dick helping a battered, blood covered Alfred to his feet.
As Cass had come to stand behind me, a gasp had escaped her usually silent lips. In an effort to help distract her obvious concern for our favorite gentleman's gentleman, I had said, "Cave and the Manor's sweeps are done, no one but Alfred and Dick… I'll help them… Mattie and Terry are in the vault, get them out and get them upstairs. Keep them in the den for now."
She had asked quietly, "No one else?"
I had risen to my feet offering her only a headshake before striding away, not certain if I had the ability to vocally admit that Bruce was gone.
I have done nothing, Timothy… perhaps you should ask yourself that question…
Instinctively, I had stopped at the medical bay en route to the elevator, picking up not only the gurney but gauze, tape and pre-measured dosages of morphine. It had become practically second nature when it came to doing triage for myself, or even for my allies. If anything, we had all gained enough knowledge and techniques working side-by-side with Alfred and on occasion with Leslie, over the years.
We had all earned our badges of honor fighting the war on crime…
I had arrived at the elevator just as the doors opened, surprised that although Alfred had been limp in Dick's arms, he had still been capable of protesting. Hearing him complain about being jostled about had been music to my ears.
"Well, the next time I get shot, you can jostle me around," Dick had tried to joke, but it had fallen flat. I had locked the gurney in place before helping him lay Alfred down as gently as possible. The starched white shirt along with his green sweater had been stained crimson with blood, the wound seeming to be just beneath the collar bone. Although saturated gauze was in place, I had immediately grabbed what I had taken from the medical bay and added it on top, pressing down with as much force as I had dared.
Alfred had winced audibly, leaving Dick to ask, "Not going to let a little bullet hole get the best of you, are you, Al?"
"Not in the least," Alfred had replied quietly as I unlocked the gurney and began to move it with my right hand firmly on the guard rail
Where Dick had been trying to lighten the tense moment, I had found myself doing the opposite. Before we had even reached our destination, I had asked him to replay what had happened, earning a low-browed look from Dick. Alfred had done his best replaying the evening, starting with his return home to the alarms sounding and Bruce ordering him to get the children with Leslie to the Cave. Upon reaching the medical bay, I had asked him about the intruders, barely noticing as Dick traded his suit's gloves for latex ones, let alone when he had started cleaning and examining the wound.
Alfred had paused to wince before saying, "I found them in the rear sitting area… Master Bruce doing what he could to disable them… He was rather successful in his efforts… until…" he had winced, then finished, "Until Master Jason shot me."
"Are you sure it was it him?" I had asked.
"He could have killed you if he wanted to," Dick had interrupted, "This shot was perfect to disarm you, no major blood vessels, no major tissue or bone damage… He just wanted Bruce to think that he had killed you. To set him off."
"That it did," Alfred had remarked before looking to me with glassy eyes, "And I am afraid it was indeed Master Jason…"
"Did they say anything?" I had asked gruffly, "Did he say anything?"
"Nothing really… just… threatening Master Bruce… angering him… before attacking him… I heard the bones crunch from the other side of the room…" It had been then that his lower lip began to quiver, reliving the terrifying moment of uselessness.
I had joined him in self-hatred, quietly listening as he noted that Jason had said that they needed Leslie, that they had planned to take her to care for Bruce. Dick had noted that if they had been able to study the Family long enough, plus with Talia's seamless integration, that they would have known how bad off Bruce had been of late.
And that if they wanted his doctor, they didn't plan on killing him.
Biting my tongue, I had remained silent instead of adding, "Yet."
I told him that we would get him back. Both of them.
Minutes earlier, I had been trying to keep Alfred from getting to his feet, the same unknown force driving him as it had his eldest charge for decades. When I had tried to coerce him to lay back down, he had harrumphed at me. Accepting that there was no stopping him, I had managed to focus on making sure that all of his one-hundred and fifty pounds remained upright.
Bleeding and bullet ridden, he still had no intention of taking orders.
Although I had wanted nothing more than to scoop him up and race down the corridor to the elevators, I suffered in silence as I helped him along, step by step. I had somehow kept myself from further asking him questions about what had happened, not wanting to upset him any further. Instead, I had simply focused on his breaths as they passed by my ear, his pulse as it had throbbed under the hand I had wrapped under his arm ad resting on collarbone.
As a result, I had been ready when he collapsed five steps later.
"I've got you, Al," I had said while taking him carefully into my arms.
"Unnecessary, Master Dick…"
"Sorry, Al," I had replied, "I learned how to ignore fruitless protests from the best."
He quivered slightly as I had stepped forward into the elevator car, whispering softly, "And yet… you still can not properly arrange… flatware."
I had been unable to hold back a smirk, pressing the basement button before providing my verbal code, "He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze."
The elevator had quickly descended, although it seemed as if it took an eternity to reach the subterranean level. It had also been painfully silent, silent enough for my pulse to throb loudly at my temples and for me to hear the blood dripping from Alfred's form to the floor of the car. When my gaze fell down to his face, I had found his eyes staring off to some unknown distance.
"We'll get her back, Al," I had said just before the car landed softly, "Both of them."
He had slowly turned his head to look up at me, lower lip trembling.
The doors opened to reveal Tim waiting with a gurney. A moment later, I found that he was also ready with the interrogation.
We hastily moved the stretcher to the medical bay, my focus entirely on keeping Alfred still while Tim seemed concerned more on getting what he could before the older man passed out. While he led the questioning, I did as much triage work for Alfred as I was able to. Given the last fifteen minutes had been pure madness, I was surprisingly capable of stilling my hands to trade my gloves for green latex ones. Cleaning the wound best as I could before applying a fresh compress bandage, all of the while checking the pulse in his left wrist before comparing it to the right one.
During it all, Tim was trying to pry information from the only witness we had.
The low brow, the stern voice, the mask of Batman without the cowl.
I remained silent and focused while Tim asked about the power outage, the number of men that had been sent, what they said and sounded like. He asked about the helicopters, if Jason had said anything hinting as to where they were headed next. I grimaced when Tim asked for details about Bruce's condition upon being abducted, as well as Leslie's. Alfred regrettably had little to offer, claiming that he had only briefly seen the League of Assassin members before being gunned down by Jason.
"He could have killed you if he wanted to," I said while shaking my head, "This shot was perfect to disarm you, no major blood vessels, no major tissue or bone damage… No doubt he just wanted Bruce to think that he had killed you. To set him off. To make him more vulnerable."
"That it did," Alfred answered and then turned his head to face Tim, "And I am afraid it was indeed Master Jason…"
"Did they say anything?" Tim asked again, his voice, "Did he say anything?"
"Nothing really… just… threatening Master Bruce… angering him… before attacking him… I heard the bones crunch from the other side of the room…"
With the bleeding under control, I proceeded to straighten Alfred's arm, wiping the top of his hand before inserting and securing an IV line. With lactated ringers dripping into his bloodstream, I went about, pressing down just above the crease to encourage his cubical vein to stand up. His unmatched theatrical ability kept him from expressing the true extent of his pain. Intravenous morphine would allow him to actually feel comfort rather than feigning it.
With a bumpy ride on the tunnel shuttle in his immediate future, Alfred was going to need it.
As I was administering the pre-set dose into the IV catheter, Alfred sighed quietly, "Leslie came out… I had sent her to tend to the children…"
"Which she did… Cass is with them now, they were in the vault, safe and sound," Tim reassured him while I went about withdrawing the needle and re-attaching the IV line.
Appraising his vitals, Tim resumed asking about Leslie's condition, "Did they hurt her, too?"
Alfred shook his head slowly, took a painful breath and then answered, "Not terribly… One of Jason's men struck her… he was swiftly and painfully reprimanded… Jason did say something to the effect that… they needed her. For what, I don't know…"
"If they wanted Bruce alive… then they would want his caretaker to see that he stayed that way," I noted.
Keeping my focus to Alfred, I adjusted the blood-spattered rubber glove that was suffocating my right hand. Although we had managed to get Alfred in somewhat stable condition, he still needed to be seen by someone with the finesse to remove the bullet without causing further damage. I had dug out my fair share of bullets over the years but not out of a seventy-four year old man. He needed someone who spent her days tending to the victims of violence without batting an eye.
"Tim, can I talk to you for a second?" I asked.
He looked to me before nodding, following me away from the gurney as Alfred muttered softly to himself. The drugs finally taking effect I hoped, and not that he was succumbing to shock Out of hearing range, he inquired, "What?"
"I can't do anything more for him… I'm going to take him to Dr. Bryce."
"And expose all of our identities? It's bad enough that Terry just spent the last half-hour in the god damned costume vault," he responded in what resembled far too much of a growl for my preference, "Adding to that… it's the last thing we need right now."
"He needs a doctor, Tim."
He shook his head, "We have his own blood right here in our bank for transfusions, we have everything we need-."
Invading his personal space in one step, I growled back, "He needs a surgeon. I'm not about to go digging around in a seventy year old torso, are you?"
Tim looked over his shoulder briefly at the still figure laying mere yards away. The stern look that had been resident on his face a moment early began to fade, waning with every painful breath that Alfred took. Before he turned back to face me, Tim pointed out, "And what do we tell her?"
"Simple enough. We tell her the truth." His head spun around at that, but before he could respond, I proceeded, "Bruce Wayne was kidnapped tonight. Along with his physician. During the process, Alfred was shot trying to intervene. We are here to bring them back. No police. No FBI. Just us."
He took a moment before replying, "The truth… something we don't do very often."
I sighed, then said, "Speaking of the truth… what are we going to tell the kids?"
Tim visibly winced, "I don't know… obviously Mattie knows something. As does Terry."
He stayed and helped me gingerly move Alfred into the cramped subway car. With the IV bag stationary and the emergency medical supply bag at hand just in case, I promised my partner that I would return as soon as possible. He nodded, told a drifting Alfred to hang tight and shut the door after giving me a curt nod.
Given the ties the Wayne ancestors had to the Underground Railroad, most of the tunnel had already been completed long before Bruce decided to put it to use. He had bought up property that covered old drainage systems, failed suburbia subway lines and any loose ends needed to get a direct line to the heart of Gotham. The original efforts had started not long before I had joined the Family as an orphaned acrobat and had not been completed until I was just about to quit.
Like Bruce had always said, a great deal in life required time and money. And he had both.
For the most part, the tunnel had been used primarily for emergency exits, both from the city and from the Manor. The former was often done so while evading police while the latter was spent running to their aide. On a few rare occasions, it had been used for transporting materials from the main cave to the various satellite stations located within the city. It had three final destinations within the city, one in Midtown, one in Chelsea and the last in the East End.
More specifically, three blocks from the Free Clinic.
Before the shuttle car pulled up to a stop, I donned my mask before checking Alfred's vitals. I felt myself frowning when he didn't complain about me tending to him, concern growing when he barely even looked up at me as I hovered over top of him. Each of the tunnel stops had a small satellite cave and motorcycle waiting and ready, but I was still debating on the best course of action when we arrived. Carrying was a no. Doubling up on the cycle also seemed to be a poor decision.
Grappling and rooftop hopping was even worse.
The car finally slowed to a halt, having made the trek at an average speed of one-hundred and twenty miles an hour. Taking a second to regain my bearings, I turned to Alfred, calling his name softly before resting my hand on his uninjured shoulder. His eyes fluttered open, taking far too long to find my face.
"Here comes the fun part," I sighed, checking the bandages adhered to his shoulder.
"I shall grin and bear it, young sir," proving his determination by offering a slight smirk.
Helping him to his feet, I wrapped an arm behind his thin shoulders, supporting as we made our way out of the car and onto the narrow platform. The door was up a steel ladder with ten rungs and although he claimed he was capable of making his way up on his own, I told him to shush. Securing a grapple to the top, I made a makeshift harness and set the retraction to slow. As he inched upwards, I leapt up the ladder and opened the door before he arrived.
Just a three block hop, skip and a jump left, I mused.
As gently as I had at the manor, I hefted him into my arms and moved as quickly and smoothly as possible. He made a remark about my carrying him distracting me from spotting hoodlums. Forcing a smile, I told him to worry about holding onto his IV bag and that he was responsible for watching my back. Despite the evening's complete lack of good graces, we fortunately made the trek to the Free Clinic without running into any unsavory characters.
As I closed in on the rear parking lot, I activated the comm. link with the verbal command, "Dana Bryce."
Her line rang twice before her genuinely sweet voice greeted me, "Dr. Bryce."
"I'm going to need you in ready at the back door in two minutes."
She hesitated before asking, "Have you been shot?"
"No... but someone else has…"
"I'll be ready."
Her life had forever changed when she accepted a position at the Free Clinic. On its own accord, providing emergency and preventative health care to protagonists and antagonists of Gotham's East End was more than enough to change someone's life. But working at the clinic also meant there was an entirely different brand of patient that relied on her efforts. Ones that wore masks and only sought out medical treatment if they were on their death beds.
Her first true encounter with one of Gotham's masked guardians had been when Tim and Victor Zsasz had both lost their fight with one another. Victor had gone into police custody and had been taken to Mercy General to have his jaw wired back together. Tim had dragged his bleeding figure to the Batmobile and sent it on auto-pilot to the clinic. Leslie, along with Dr. Bryce, had managed to put him back together before he had bled to death.
Baptized by the blood of Batman.
When we reached the back steps, my arms were crying out with fatigue and Alfred's head was starting to loll. Before I could knock, the steel door that said "Staff Only" pushed open, revealing Dr. Bryce in pristine scrubs. The calm look on her face ebbed the second she recognized the figure in my arms. She didn't say a word as I carried him into the exam room, remaining silent as she securely shut the door behind us.
Despite the pained look in her eyes, her voice remained sure and soft, "Alfred Pennyworth, you just can't keep out of trouble can you?"
He forced a smirk to his lips before admitting, "Caught… red-handed."
As she started taking vitals and examining the wound, I found myself providing answers to questions she didn't even ask. I told the truth, or as much of the truth as I dared to, hinting that her loyalty to Leslie and to the masked faces of Gotham was more important than ever. I continued while she remained silent, her focus seemingly only on using a portable digital radiograph to take films of his torso.
Finally, when she administered heavy sedatives and local anesthetics to his shoulder, Dr. Bryce looked up at me.
"You have never and will never have to worry about my loyalty. Understood?"
After sighing, she looked to the monitor to where Alfred's ribcage was displayed, "The bullet is fairly superficial. Removing it won't be a problem, but he's not going anywhere tonight."
"I have to get him back to…" I started to protest.
"To where? Wayne Manor? That doesn't sound like too safe of a place right now." Since I was unable to suppress my shocked expression, she continued, "I'm sorry… I didn't mean it like that… Moving him is a bad idea in general, at least until morning. The wound itself isn't serious, but given his age… it's best to play it safe."
Voiceless, I simply nodded in agreement. Looking down at Alfred's unconscious form, an idea came to mind. "Fine, I trust you to take care of him… but that doesn't mean I can't leave you with some backup."
"Backup?" there was a fraction of fear that broke through her voice, "Are these people coming after him?"
Shaking my head, I answered, "No, but like you said, Doc, it's best to play it safe."
Stepping into the corridor, I used the comm. link to call Will's cell phone. Generally, after dinner with Ronna, he fell asleep in his recliner while watching ESPN. Surprisingly, he answered on the second ring, "Hello?"
"You are the only person I know that answers when a number is blocked."
He laughed softly, "I live life dangerously. What's up?"
"I need to ask you a huge favor."
"Need a babysitter?"
Glancing back to the exam room door as Dr. Bryce shut it behind me, I said, "In a way, yes."
Bruce was six years old when he fell into a cavern on the grounds, gashing his left knee open. Thomas had put seven pristine sutures in to close the wound, a shaken up boy putting a brave face on for every pinch. His father had taken charge of his only son's medical care from the day he had brought him home from the hospital. Many would have thought it a conflict of interest, but Thomas always had the boy's interest at heart.
He had told me once that if he couldn't trust himself caring for Bruce, he couldn't trust anyone.
"Well, except for you, Leslie," he had added, his mustache twitching as he had smirked.
When Bruce was seven, he fell climbing the great oak on the rear lawn, leaving him with a broken wrist and two of his baby teeth prematurely departing. Alfred had been watching him that afternoon and was positively devastated that the child had injured himself in his care. With Martha in the city for the day preparing for a charity event and Thomas literally elbow deep in surgery, Alfred had been instructed to bring Bruce to me.
It had been nothing more than a few hairline fractures to the radius and a sprain to the wrist. Bruce had watched in awe as I pointed out the injuries on his radiograph and his eyes had never left my fingers when I had secured his arm in a cast. The incisors he had knocked out had not chipped or broken, leaving him with a perfect gap on his lower jaw. After I had given him a lollipop, he had grinned, showing the stick protruding through the hole.
As Bruce had studied his arm, I had cleaned up the exam tray and chatted quietly with Alfred. His self-hatred was palpable, and despite my reassuring words that Bruce would be fine in a few weeks, he refused to adhere to them. He had remarked that from then on he would have to keep the child within arm's length and under stricter supervision. At one point, I had set a hand on his shoulder and said, "He's a little boy, Alfred… Let him act like it while he still can."
A year later, Martha and Thomas were dead and Bruce was no longer a little boy.
That dreadful night, I had held his shock riddled eight year old body tightly in my arms, my years of training and experience unable to mend his invisible wounds. He had felt so stiff and lifeless, his eyes as cold and dead as those of his parents. When Alfred had arrived to retrieve him, I had waited until I was alone in order to let my tears flow. I had felt helpless for the first time in my adult life. And tragically, it had not been the last.
Being dragged away from a bleeding Alfred and a seizing Bruce had left me in a similar state.
I tried to keep up with my captives as they stormed towards one of two helicopters. Both had landed on the pristine lawn, the force from the rotors sending what few leaves remained on the nearby trees flying. Although I tripped twice, they did not slow their stride in the least, simply dragging me by the arms until I managed to right myself. There was no denying that the beginnings of shock were creeping over me, the sudden onslaught on the Manor, finding Alfred laying on the floor, the uncertainty of what was to come…
Craning my head around, I caught glimpses of Bruce as another pair of men carried his twitching form. I feared that he was to be loaded in the other aircraft but allowed myself a moment of relief to see they were following us. As loudly as possibly, I tried to call out for them to put him down, but my voice had been overpowered by the helicopters.
Reaching the craft, I was promptly lifted and roughly set down on the rubber matted flooring. The two men that had taken me boarded as well, one keeping his gun trained on me while the other offered a hand to help others climb up. Lastly, the pair carrying Bruce arrived, throwing him into the helicopter as if he had been a duffle bag. I winced when he landed hard on the floor, his head nearly hitting a metal support bar of one of the seats.
Instantly, I leaned over him, quickly checking vitals as the convulsive movements ebbed to an eerie stillness. I felt one of the men looming over me, but when no one interfered, I resumed my work. Although his pulse bounded under my fingertips, Bruce's respiration was practically nonexistent. As with the serious bouts he had endured over the last few months, his brain had yet to click back on, leaving his body to fight for itself.
An ectopic heartbeat left him with mild irregularities in cardiac activity, a ripple effect leaving an irregular rhythm and strength in his pulse and breathing. His chest cavity swelled and shrank intermittently as his lungs begged for air. I held my own breath until he was able to gasp on his own, hungrily drawing in oxygen before exhaling loudly. Keeping my fingers on the inside of his wrist, I sighed with relief as his pulse became more steady with each breath he took.
That was until I heard a low, angry voice from behind me, "Good, he's alive."
I had turned and looked up at the red-headed monster that claimed to be Jason Todd. He appeared to be staring solely at Bruce, his eyes painfully unfeeling. Not an ounce of the light and life that had once been there, always paired with mischievous smirks and clever remarks.
Before I could utter a word, he turned towards the cockpit and called out, "Let's go!" then turned to me and said, "Eyes on your patient, doc."
Without a word, I did as I was told. My eyes, hot and glassy, trained themselves on Bruce's bloodied face. Surrounded by dark clothed men strapped into seats, we were left unsecured on the floor, feeling every shift the aircraft made and every gust of wind that fought against it. The only sounds had been Bruce's labored breathing and the whir of the rotors, both all too deafening.
A cursory exam yielded that on top of his post-convulsive state, he had cracked ribs, a bruised trachea and his abdomen was tender and rapidly bruising. Bruce's nose had been broken as well, slowly leaking dark blood over his lips. His already struggling left leg was swelling after enduring a significant strain, or worse, a fracture. They had showed him no mercy, as if it had been two decades earlier and he had still been the face behind the cowl.
Ten minutes into the flight, I found the nerve to look back up at Jason as he stood behind me, holding onto a metal grip with a gloved hand. When he spotted me, I pleaded, "He needs a hospital, he needs medication…"
Jason shook his head, then set his sights back to the outside world as it flew by, "He'll be fine."
"He has internal bleeding…"
Without warning, Jason lifted his foot and stomped his heel into Bruce's abdomen sharply. Although I gasped in shock, Bruce did not so much as flinch. Jason then locked eyes with me once more before replying, "You're right, he probably does."
I wanted to demand how he could have struck out at the Family that had once been his but I was unable to find the nerve or words. Instead, my gaze fell back to Bruce's still face, my hand sneaking between us to latch onto his. I didn't realize that I was crying until I tasted the tears on my lips.
Although a lie, I said, "I'm here… and everything's going to be all right."
While monitoring his vitals, I kept the world outside in my peripheral vision. The changes in the air and tree lines suggested we were moving inland as opposed to down the coast, a southwestern direction of travel. Adding in the time we spent in the air, I wasn't surprised when the aircraft began its descent over the Gotham County Edmund T. Barlett Memorial airstrip.
I had used it at least a dozen times returning from treks from Africa a lifetime ago.
Touching to the ground, the men immediately rose from their seats and leapt out of the helicopter. Protectively, I continued my tight hold on Bruce's hand, my eyes darting left and right but unable to keep track of so many moving figures. Jason debarked in one, smooth jump but chose to stand just outside of the helicopter bay doors. He barked something at the man standing beside him. As hard as I tried to read his lips, my eyes had found something else to focus on, namely the military transport plane that was ready and waiting on the runway.
As dread started to take hold of me, I felt Bruce's fingers gently squeeze mine.
A sliver of hope.
It was a light pressure, his fingertips barely exerting force as they touched mine. It was a conscious effort, the hold not jerky or ebbing, but steady and certain. I asked as loudly as I dared to, "Can you hear me, Bruce?"
Unexpectedly, his eyes fluttered open, only for a moment before the lids fell back down. He then forced them back up, revealing bloodshot whites surrounding icy blue irises. In spite of the bruised trachea, he tried to speak but it came out as a slow, raspy mumble.
"It's okay, I'm here… I'm here, Bruce."
"Shh…" I said before gently touching his brow with my free hand. The fact that he had regained conscious so quickly following the episode eased some of the worry I was enduring. He still required a neurological evaluation but the fact that he had managed to croak out my name was a good sign.
Before I could offer any further reassurance, Jason leaned forward and called out to me, "Let's go, doc."
Turning to face him, I spotted his out stretched hand and the stern look on his face. Behind him, two of his men were waiting and ready with an empty gurney, outfitted with five point restraints. They were prepared for a wounded captive, I thought to myself as something cold churned in my gut.
Squeezing Bruce's hand even harder, I shook my head, "No, I'm not leaving him."
He offered me a second chance and from the glare in his eyes, it was going to be my only one, "Now, doc."
I defiantly set my jaw, unwilling to move an inch voluntarily.
"Fine… be that way," Jason shook his head before leaning into the bay, viciously grabbing hold of my ankle before yanking it.
Despite my protests, he persevered, forcing me out of the helicopter and dropping me onto the ground. I felt something pop in my wrist as I landed but it did not stop me from trying to climb to my feet. Jason immediately wrapped an arm around my waist in order to lead me away from the helicopter. I continued to resist, looking back only to see Bruce also being roughly dragged out of the bay and loaded onto the gurney.
My voice was drowned out by the engine of the plane as its engines primed, "Bruce! I'm still here!"
"He can't hear you, doc," Jason growled into my ear, the tension in his voice was matched by that in the arm holding me upright.
Ignoring him, I called out again and again, unable to fight back tears as I watched him weakly struggle while being strapped down. Jason turned to look back only once, muttering something to himself. The other men that had been with us on the helicopter were already boarding the plane, still silent and unsympathetic. Two remained ground level, presumably to help load the gurney.
One stepped forward and bowed his head before speaking, "There has been no word."
Jason brought us to a stop, his torso yielding a heavy sigh, "None?"
"God damn her…" he looked back to see the gurney approaching. He released his hold on me and said, "Load them up. She has five minutes, then we take off."
"Yes, sire," the man nodded slowly before reaching to put his hand on my elbow. Although I wanted to resist, to run back to Bruce, to escape into the woods, there was no point. If anything happened to me, there was no telling what would then happen to Bruce. Abandoning him was not an option, it never had been.
Save for one occasion. And we had both paid dearly for it.
I found my feet carrying me up into the plane, one climbing up after the other on the metal stairs. Rather than resist and strain my voice, I moved quietly and without resistance. The man had no visible weapon on him, save for years with the League of Assassins. Yet he gently guided me passed the others as they secured themselves in with buckles and harnesses. The interior had been modified with a small section closed off in the rear, passing through the solid metal door, I found it to be living quarters.
The bare minimum but it was certainly more comfortable than the thinly padded seats that the others were occupying. A pair of bunk beds were turned out with dark blue sheets and quilts a shade lighter. There was a small bathroom area, complete with sink and shower. To the left was a desk with overhead cabinets, one of which was marked with a red plus sign.
Ignoring the man ushering me, I immediately reached for the knob of the medical cupboard, not surprised to find it locked. Rather than reprimand me, the man spoke in broken English, his accent suggestive of western Europe, "It locked… don't touch."
I opened my mouth to demand it be opened when the gurney passed through the door and silenced me. The area itself was fairly specious given the plane's size, nearly sixteen by twenty four feet. Overhead lighting was far better than what had been in the helicopter, although it only displayed Bruce's poor state in better detail. When I moved to approach him, I felt the hand grasp my arm again, causing me to look back and ask, "Please… let me help him."
He didn't release me until after the gurney was locked into small divots in the floor. The moment I was free, I was at the stretcher's side, retaking slightly improved vitals and trying to get Bruce's attention once more. His skin was paler under the better lighting, his eyes appearing to have a more difficult time focusing. Lifting his soiled sweater, the cold twisting in my gut returned at the sight of bruises that had rapidly formed under the skin.
When I began to palpate his stomach, Bruce drew air in sharply and winced.
Both a good and bad sign.
As I proceeded with my exam, I heard Jason approaching, speaking sternly with one of his minions. When he passed into the small room, the others departed, shutting the door behind them. Alone with us, he spoke just as harshly as he had earlier, "Better buckle up, doc, we're taking off."
"He had a grand mal seizure… after you nearly beat him to death… he needs to be examined."
"Then you better make it quick," he snapped back as he took the seat on the far right, securing the belt across his lap.
There was a chair beside him and two more on the opposite wall, the latter being my eventual place when the plane departed. However, before I would allow myself to settle in for the next leg of our trek, I wanted to make sure I was able to do as much as I could for Bruce. Including asking Jason to unlock the medical cabinet.
"He's obviously in pain… you no doubt have a score of analgesics-."
Jason hesitated before responding, "You know what he used to tell me? That pain was a weakness. That we had to endure it, not succumb to it." He sat back as the plane shifted around us, "He'll endure it. Just like I did."
His name passed through my lips for the first time that evening, "Jason, please…"
My words fell once more in his unwilling ears.
Rather than grow silent, I spoke loud and clear, "You know… after he has an episode like that… I ask him simple questions when he comes to. Questions he knows the answers to without thinking… What time it is… where he is..."
Looking over my shoulder at Jason, I lowered my brow, "I can't ask him any of those… because even I don't know the answers."
"Then ask him something else," he replied, entirely unphased.
I sat down carefully on the gurney, gently placing my hand on Bruce's bruised cheek. It took some effort, but his eyes found mine shortly before he rasped, "Les…lie."
"It's okay…" I repeated my lie once more, "I'm here… Bruce… What's Mattie's middle name?"
A look of confusion marked his brow for a moment, causing my heart to flutter. Then, he managed to say, "Eliz-beth."
"And when was Nate born?"
I smiled down at him as tears found their way to my eyes again, "Who are you married to?"
He swallowed hard and answered, "Sel-ina."
After eight minutes, I hoped that the power would never come back on.
I would have much preferred to sit in the darkness of the costume vault with Terry for infinity than have to explain its contents under the halogen lighting. Even with its own battery back up, the vault automatically directed its power resources to countermeasures and security as opposed to comfort. It was meant to be a safe house for the costumes of Gotham's protectors… or the protectors themselves in an emergency.
Or their kids.
My heart was beating loudly in my temples, nearly as loud as Terry's breathing as he sat beside me. I wanted to tell him it was going to be all right, that we were safe, but I didn't want to lie. My mind kept drifting to the worst possible scenarios, such as my mother and brother arriving home to find armed and dangerous men in the house or Alfred and Leslie being harmed while standing up for the Family. Or that the Manor was on fire above us from the explosion, that Dick and Tim and Cass were all being hunted down as well.
Or that the bullet fired had hit my father…
My morbid thoughts were interrupted as the light bands that outlined the floor of the costume vault started to glow, followed quickly by the overhead ones embedded into the titanium ceiling. My heart, which had been bounding a moment earlier, suddenly skipped a beat out of dread.
My eyes instantly adjusted to the illumination and immediately found Terry's face as he stared in wonder at the wall to our left. It held shelves of masks, gloves, utility belts and body armor plates, all grouped together based on who they belonged to. Wide-eyed, he shifted his gaze passed me and to the right hand side, where racks held tunics, leggings, boots and an endless supply of batarangs, grapple cartridges along with smoke pellet packs and explosive gel vials in ballistic cases.
I hesitated before responding, "Yeah?"
Terry finally looked at me before asking, "Is there… a reason your dad has a panic room full of Batman stuff?"
I exhaled slowly, then gave a partial answer, "Yes… there is a reason."
When I said nothing more, I felt him shift to face me on the bench, "Mattie… what's going on?"
Not lying, I replied, "I don't know."
"Upstairs… the alarms, the power," he took his cell phone from me, "We need to call the cops."
Without warning, I struck at his wrist, causing the phone to fly out of his hands and smash into the metal grate of the floor. He jerked away from me in a way that caused me to hate myself for reacting without thinking. The look of fear on his face was one I had put there, not the explosion, gun shot and screaming…
"Terry… I can't let you do that… I'm sorry."
"Because… I just can't."
Terry's fear gave way to confusion before he asked a second time, "What is going on?"
Dad had said for me to take him all of the way downstairs.
The price of keeping him safe had been exposing the Family secret.
Terry was Family… bound not by blood but by flesh, as was Dick, Tim and Cass.
"We can't call the cops because they can't help us. Not from people that would come after my family."
"What do you mean they can't help?"
I exhaled slowly, surprised to feel my heart slowing as an eerie calmness washed over me. When Dad had told me the truth, his brow had been wrinkled with worry and his eyes filled with pain. I felt the opposite as I started with, "The people that would come after my family are people the cops can't find… that they can't fight."
He remained silent, his lips tightly pressed together.
I rose to my feet and stood before the racks of masks on the wall, "The people that would come after my family… are the people that would come after Batman. People that only he can find… and fight."
My focus moved to the cowl on the top left corner, the one marked with a bullet hole in the left temple, barely coated in a fine layer of dust, "My dad's never been in a single accident in his life… Every scar is from him saving someone's life… He spent twenty years saving people until he just couldn't… that's why he had knee surgeries. That's why he had to get radiation. That's why he looks fifteen years older than he is."
Without looking back at him, I kept my gaze on the blank lenses of Nightwing's mask, "And Cass and Dick… They both have spent their entire lives behind a mask, behind secrets. But Dick was always too bright, too optimistic to wear the cowl… He was meant to be Batman…"
I reached up and touched the cowl that sat waiting and ready, "But Tim was."
"My dad wasn't mugged in Crime Alley in April... The Joker killed Tim's parents and he couldn't… he couldn't do it… he couldn't wear the mask and face the Joker… and not kill him for what he did… My dad had to… had to... Even though he knew he couldn't win."
When I turned to look at him, Terry's mouth was agape in shock, his eyes wide in disbelief.
Sighing, I then offered, "That's why we can't call the cops, Terry. Because if my Family can't take them down, no one can."
He rose to his feet suddenly, walking three steps away before turning back to me, "I can't believe this… your whole life… your whole family…"
"I've only known for a couple of years. Dad tried to hide it from me… to protect me. Like I did to you."
He stared at the masks for a full minute before whispering, "Your dad is Batman."
"Was. After what happened with the Joker, Tim came back… Dad will never do it again. That's for sure."
Terry was silent for another minute before he asked, "What about you?"
My suit was in the safe at the rear of the vault, physically out of sight and mind until my training was complete. I decided to mentally bring it out into the open, "There was another… a woman. She wasn't close to us… wasn't really part of us… but she died trying to protect our secret. Huntress. When I'm ready, when I'm trained… that's who I'll be."
"I…" he shook his head as he fell silent.
I wanted nothing more than to unlock the door, race up the stairs and save my Family from the unknown faces that had attacked the manor. I wanted Tim and Dick and Cass to beat every last thug into oblivion. I would have done anything to be there to catch the last one trying to escape out the back, knocking him out cold with a kick to the back of the head. Rather than sit helplessly, I should have been at my father's side, helping him back to his feet and making an old joke as he brushed himself off…
Instead, I stood quietly with Terry in the costume vault, unable to do anything.
A knock sounded on the vault door, causing both of us to jump. Listening carefully, I found it to be Morse code, the raps coming softly through the thick titanium. I jogged over, telling Terry to stay back, deciphering the words as best I could. Exhaling in relief, I put the pieces together as saying, "Mattie, it's Cassandra. Coast is peanut butter and jelly."
I depressed and held the yellow button for the mandated ninety seconds before the locks disengaged and the door opened with the hiss of hydraulics. Throwing myself at her, I wrapped my arms around Cass's back, closing my eyes tightly as I pressed my face into her shoulder.
"You okay?" she asked.
Unable to voice a reply, I nodded before letting go. When she spotted Terry, she didn't seemed surprised in the least, simply asking if he was alright as well.
"We're okay…" I said as I looked back and motioned for Terry to join us. As he did, I added, "We came right down when the alarms went off."
Cass glanced over her shoulder towards the elevator door the sound of wheels on granite echoed. I glanced as well in time to see Tim approaching the stainless steel doors with a gurney. My heart resumed its pounding from earlier before I was able to ask, "What happened?"
"Not sure yet… we just got back a few minutes ago. Tim wants me to take you two upstairs to wait for your mom and brother."
I had to physically force myself to look away from Tim to ask, "But what about… whoever is up there?"
"They're gone… it's safe now. I promise." Her tone was convincing, her face calm and certain but her eyes gave it away. Dark brown irises that were far too often unreadable told me that something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
"But what… who is the gurney for?" I felt panic creep into my voice.
Cass touched my shoulder, "We'll talk about it when we get upstairs, okay?"
"But-," I tried once more but she shook her head, dissuading me without saying a word.
We followed her across the main tier and as much as I wanted to watch Terry's reactions to seeing the Cave under its proper lighting, my focus was immediately drawn to the computer bay, the massive monitor alive with numerous windows. Two played security footage, one of the Cave's main tunnel entrance and the other of the rear atrium. Both were in disarray, the massive metal emergency doors of the tunnel with a smoldering hole and the tattered remains of a cycle. The footage from upstairs showed a massive gap where the French doors had once been, destroyed furniture and shattered glass.
Along with a giant bloody stain on the pristine rug.
Climbing the stairs, I fought the urge to rush passed Cass and run to the back of the Manor in order to see the damage for myself. Instead, once we reached the study, I walked alongside Terry as we followed Cass to the study and then to the den. I had one hundred questions to ask her and another one hundred more things to say to Terry but I remained silent as I took a seat on the leather sofa. It was my favorite one in the room, mostly because it was the perfect length for me to cuddle up with Dad while he sat and read the paper…
Terry sat beside me, also not saying a word. After a moment, I leaned over and set my head on his shoulder, barely gaining comfort when he wrapped an arm around my back.
I had no idea how much time passed, but it felt like hours before my brother appeared with Ace at his side. He said that Mom had told him to come hang out with us while she talked to Tim. Clearing my throat, I sat up and away from Terry, but before I could do anything else, Cass locked eyes with me and shook her head.
My brother was granted a second lease on childhood after my father told him the truth this spring, enduring far too much far too young. While my father had been lying in a coma, Tim had stepped forward, asking J'onn J'onnz to put a temporary mental block in place. As a result, while my guts churned in worry, he was content to sit on the floor and play with Ace while we waited. And waited.
"What's all over you, buddy?" I heard my brother ask as he stroked the scruff of his German Shepherd, "You're all sticky… If you got in the garbage, Alfred's gonna be mad…"
Cass, who had been sitting alone in the arm chair closest to the door as a means of guarding it, told him to run to the bathroom across the hall and wet a hand towel. Returning, he went to wipe the dog down but Cass took it from him, instead directing him to pick out a movie for everyone to watch. With Nathan occupied, she called Ace over and scrubbed at the dried mess on his neck. Even though the towel was a navy blue, it was coming away with dark patches on it, indistinguishable from afar.
But the red splotch that showed up on Cass's hand proved it was blood.
I wasn't sure if the dog or myself was the first to detect footsteps approaching from the hallway. We both jerked our heads around to the right to the doorway, although where I remained put, Ace trotted away from Cass and towards the entrance. Rather than growl and stand stoically, he wagged his tail and made a soft whining noise, then greeted my mother and Tim by circling around behind and then walking between the two of them.
"Hey, big guy," Tim patted the dog's broad head.
"I'm bigger than him," Nathan called out as he returned to the group wielding a DVD.
Tim smirked, "You're taller. He's still bigger." He then looked to Terry and I as we remained seated on the sofa. Something tugged at the corners of a mouth, forming what should have been one of his smirks. Instead, it made the frown that followed all the more painful to see.
Almost as painful as the look on my mother's face.
Despite her red eyes, she managed a warm smile as she approached Nathan, leaning over and kissing the top of his head, "Well, dinner is waiting in the kitchen… You want to help Cass get it ready for everyone?"
"Good, cause I'm starving," my little brother set the movie down on the table before racing to the door, "Come on, Ace! Let's eat!"
Cass rose and followed after him, although with less enthusiasm. With just the four of us remaining, I suddenly didn't want to know what happened. I didn't want to know why Ace had dried blood on him, why the back of the house was in pieces and why my mother had been crying. I just wanted to start the night over, to stay in my room with Terry, to eat dinner with my family and to go to bed with Taffy and a smile on my face.
I just wanted everything to go back to normal.
Terry was the first to speak, "Are you… Are you going kill me? Because I found out?"
Tim glared down at him and then smirked for real, "No… but that's because Batman doesn't kill." He paused briefly before adding, "You and I will talk later… in the meantime, why don't you go help Cass keep Nathan from eating everyone's food."
"Yes, sir…" Terry nodded his head rapidly then looked to me before rising and walking out of the room.
And then there were three.
The smirk faded from his lips as Tim inhaled deeply, taking to crouching in front of me. The simple gesture had the hair standing up on the back of my neck and the cold feeling in my gut turning to ice. I sat upright, hands gripping the leather couch cushion as if it was my only way of staying on the Earth. I didn't even notice that Mom had taken to sitting beside me, my focus entirely on Tim's face.
"Mattie… The League of Assassins came here tonight. They knew when to strike because Talia is still working for them."
"Where is she?"
"At the Watchtower with J'onn. She was supposed to join them tonight but I wasn't going to let that happen."
I swallowed hard before asking, "Why did they come?"
He cleared his throat, put a hand on my knee and answered, "Because they wanted your father. They took him… and Leslie to take care of him. In… the process of doing so, Alfred was shot… but he's going to be okay, Dick took him down to the Free Clinic."
He continued on to say that he had leads as to where they were going and that he intended to use Talia to track them down. I barely felt Mom rubbing my back with her hand. Everything felt numb and muffled, as if it was a bad dream and I was slowly coming back to reality. That I had stayed up too late the night before and had slept through my alarm clock and Dad was at my bedside trying to wake me.
Except it wasn't a dream.
And he wasn't there to say, "Good morning, kitten."
When I woke, my first thought was that the black out drapes had already been pulled back, letting in cold, bright morning light.
Second, I had no recollection of having gone to bed the night before.
Third, I had a vicious headache.
Still not entirely awake, I barely recognized the feline presence beside me. Moving my head to the left, I spotted Kitten sprawled out on top of the covers, his tail twitching softly as he half-slept. Never able to resist torturing him, I reached my left hand out and pinned the tip of the appendage down gently. Rather than spin around and seek instant retaliation, the kitten rolled onto his back and stared at me with sleepy eyes.
"You and me both, pal," I whispered roughly as I rubbed his full belly.
It seemed odd that he was allowing the affectionate gesture, causing me to retreat my hand before he changed his mind. He seemed genuinely upset that I had taken to ignoring him, staring at me briefly before rolling back to his side. When I shifted to lay facing the ceiling once again, he quietly rose to his feet and hopped off of the bed, no longer interested in me.
My left hand burned suddenly and as I lifted it, I wondered if he had already left his mark there from an overnight attack. Although my middle finger and wrist felt as if they had fresh scratches on them, there wasn't a single mark. Just in my peripheral vision, I watched as he slowly sauntered across the bedroom floor and out into the hallway.
Very odd, indeed.
Closing my eyes again, I tired to lull myself back to sleep, using breathing exercises to calm myself and attempt to push away the pain in my head. Unfortunately, it was shortly joined with an aching in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. My throat as well felt raw and sore, forcing me to wonder if I had caught something over the last week and it had arrived to ruin my weekend. Even still, the regular aches associated with illness didn't entirely match the pain that was registering.
In all honesty, I felt as if I had gone through an all out brawl and lost.
Ignoring the discomfort, I tried putting the pieces together from the previous night, only to find everything a complete blank. Not even diner with the kids or what could have possibly left me feeling so sore and painful. Sitting on my bed suddenly registered, the sun already set and the black out drapes pulled over the darkened windows. For some peculiar reason, I looked to the far wall, certain I had thrown the phone at it the night before but instead found it safely in the cradle on Selina's night stand…
Perhaps I had endured a seizure, pushing myself for far too long on little rest and on high octane stress. There was only so much my skull fracture fuzzed brain could tolerate and tragically, I would never adhere to its limitations. Never had, never would.
However, that mysterious something loomed in the back of my mind, something I needed to concern myself with but was unable to bring to clarity. Regrettably, without being able to appease my curiosity on my own, I would also be unable to fall back asleep. That, and the throbbing in my skull and abdomen certainly wasn't helping matters. A long, hot shower, breakfast with the kids and a quiet chat with Selina would hopefully right my gyroscope.
Or at least fill in the blanks.
Just as I was about to force myself to rise for the day, I felt a weight ease onto the mattress beside me. Opening my eyes, I found Selina sitting there, smiling for seemingly no reason at all. Oddly enough, I felt as if she should have been upset with me although I was unable to pinpoint why. The form of her lips was matched by a softness in her eyes, one suggesting I was either off the hook or about to meet my maker.
"Morning," I croaked as I reached for hearing aides on the bedside table.
She beat me to it, retrieving them from their case and placing them in my left hand. I stared at them for a moment, along with the wedding band that was snugly on my ring finger. The burning from the invisible wounds had started to radiate up my hand, begging to be itched and sated. Shaking my head, I inserted the devices and activated them before sitting upright, wincing as I slowly sat back into the pillows.
Selina's smirk ebbed a fraction, "I was just coming up to get you. Mattie wanted to know whether or not to make you breakfast, brunch or lunch."
"Lunch is fine," I replied as I went about popping each shoulder and elbow individually.
Selina shook her head before sighing, "Snap, crackle, pop."
Her words seemed oddly familiar, but again I couldn't place it. Instead, I found myself answering, "That's me… Might go back to bed… feel awful."
"Well after last night…"
"After last night what?" I asked. The muffled memory had started to take shape. I distinctly remembered calling her cell phone and leaving a message, but about what I had no clue. "What time did I go to bed?"
"We went to bed around eleven… didn't go to sleep until after midnight," the smile had returned as she moved to lay beside me, resting her head on my chest and draping an arm over my bare torso. I flinched under the pressure and she asked, "Little tender are we?"
The intense pressure in my abdomen felt as if it should have been paired with massive bruising but as I watched as her fingers trace over my bare skin, there wasn't a single one.
"Well worth apparently," I remarked, entirely not convinced. Rather than voice my uncertainties, I continued as I circled my left arm around her back, setting my hand on her hip, "I thought you were mad at me for some reason. But I guess not."
"Quite the contrary, Mr. Wayne," she teased as she continued dragging her fingers gently over my skin. Even with her presence, I continued to feel awful, practically sick to my stomach. In addition, there were sharp pains running up and down my sternum, leaving every breath a fiery agony. I muscled through it, breathing deeply and slowly in order to simply attempt to enjoy a moment with her.
She went on about how she wanted to take the kids to the aquarium that afternoon, and that she was going to see if Dick and Barbara would be interested in joining us, along with Ethan. Something tugged at the back of my mind, a faint reminder that I had something to take care of but couldn't grab a hold of it. In the months following my fall to the Joker, my short term memory had taken leaps and bounds as far as improving but every once in a while, I was reminded of just how much I had lost.
Her voice interrupted my thoughts, "Why would I be mad at you?"
"I don't know… some reason I felt as if…" an image flashed before my eyes, of her wedding and engagement rings sitting along on the bathroom counter. Before continuing, I looked to her left hand to see them in their proper place, "As if we had a fight."
Although the green eyes that stared up at me were clear and bright, for a moment they appeared to me as glassy and tear-filled. I blinked hard and shook my head, "I don't know."
"Bruce?" Selina asked, setting a hand on the side of my face.
Clearing my throat, I bluntly replied with, "Did I have a seizure last night?"
Selina looked up at me, "No… why?"
"It just… last night's kind of foggy... In fact, all of yesterday is."
She sat up slowly, propping herself up with a hand on the mattress and the other on my chest. I was unable to hide the wince at the simple touch and Selina's face was suddenly lost in worry. "Are you okay?"
"I'm… I… probably picked something up over the week, the flu maybe…" I offered my weak explanation when a sharp stabbing sensation registered in my stomach. I reacted without hesitation, leaning forward and pressing a hand to the epicenter of agony while letting out a gasp.
"I'm going to go get Leslie…" she started to rise from the bed, but when I had a vision of Leslie being dragged away by a masked man, I panicked and grabbed a hold of Selina's hand.
"Don't…" I managed through a sharp exhale of pain.
"Bruce, what's going on?" she reclined beside me, trying to pull my head up in order to look at her. My eyes were unable to find hers as another image came forward, one of racing after Mattie down the stairs in near complete darkness, of me following her one agonizing step at a time. Another flash and Alfred was laying on the rear atrium rug, bleeding to death while I was mere yards away.
It was as if I had gone back fourteen years, trapping myself in the bathroom as amnesiac visions tortured my mind…
"Selina…" I whispered, trying to catch my breath as a vice-like throbbing radiated from my left knee.
While one hand gripped mine, the other cupped m face. Her lips grazed mine, tears finally falling from her eyes, "I'm here, Bruce."
"Selina." I whispered again, my eyes closing on their own.
"I'm here, Bruce," she replied, but her voice had changed, sounding softer, lighter…
When my eyes fluttered open, I wasn't writhing in agony in the master bedroom of Wayne Manor. My wife wasn't trying to comfort me, nor were my phantom wounds imaginary. Nose broken, I could taste the dried blood o my lips as well as the remnants that had dripped down the back of my throat. The tightness in my chest was paired with at least two broken ribs and an unknown amount of fractures to my sternum.
Had I been physically capable of sitting up to look, no doubt my abdomen was black and blue from top to bottom.
But where the images of Selina had been faded, there had been someone holding my hand and cupping my face. Telling me that it was going to be all right.
"Les-lie.." I managed, although the simple act made my swollen throat reel in pain.
My vision cleared some, at least enough to see the deep worry lines on her brow and the painfully forced warm smile on her lips. Halogen lights overhead made focusing on my surroundings a task, but the small vibrations and endless hum suggested we were on a plane. Even moving my head took effort, especially since it resulted in my neck screaming in rebellion.
I was on a gurney, strapped down in five point restraints. The band of polypropolene over my chest was bad enough, but the one buckled down over my swollen left knee was next to unbearable. The cabin we were in was small, metallic and not designed for comfort, suggesting transport plane as opposed to a private passenger aircraft.
The answer to where I was, why I was restrained and how I received numerous injuries was provided when I spotted Jason Todd securely buckled into his seat, staring directly back at me.
"It's okay…" she squeezed my hand as she sat on the gurney beside me. "Bruce, I'm here."
Looking up at her once more, I realized I had not passed out or had been rendered unconscious. The look on her face was one I had seen dozens of times over the last few months. The tone in her voice as she asked me simple questions was familiar as well. It had become a tragic routine, one that followed every tonic-clonic seizure, a routine I would endure for the rest of my life.
Although given my current predicament, I had to wonder just how long that meant…
"What's Mattie's middle name?"
Mattie. I hadn't named her. The shadow I had lived in for over a year while recovering from amnesia had.
Mattie. My little kitten all grown up. She and Terry had been in her bedroom earlier that evening, although at the time I could have cared less about his unannounced visit. I had sent them running downstairs ahead of me, crossing paths with Alfred and Leslie. They were to take them to the Cave, secure everyone in the vault.
Alfred had come back, as had Leslie.
When the concern in her eyes had increased in my delayed response, I answered her through a dry croak, "Eliza-bet."
"And when was Nate born?"
On the day Barbara and Dick were married. Two months premature. Sending him in the neonatal ICU, leaving my wife barren and putting the entire Family through the wringer.
Selina and I had lived at the hospital and the hotel across from it for two months while we waited to take him home. Waiting to see him nestled in his bassinet beside our bed as opposed to a sterile incubator.
Nathan had been under Tim's care earlier that afternoon, given that I couldn't have been bothered to watch him or even spend an hour with him. I had been too busy worrying about Talia and Jason and Ra's to even ask him about his day at school.
Every day of his life was a gift, a gift I took for granted far too often.
Her smile seemed more genuine, but was suddenly joined by teary eyes.
"Who are you married to?"
Moving the pinkie of my left had carefully, it rubbed against the bare patch of skin on the neighboring ring finger
When I still wore the cowl, I left the ring in the safe of the costume vault each night before patrols. Selina had initially assumed that it did not fit under my glove comfortably or that it was better left at home then out and about on the town.
I should have left it at that.
After I retired, I had foolishly taken up the guise of Matches Malone to help Tim in an arson investigation. Before leaving, I gave the ring to Selina each night seeing how my counterpart wasn't married. My efforts had aided them in unearthing a massive insurance scheme but at the cost of a building collapsing on top of me.
The last time I had removed the ring and given it back to her had been the night I fought the Joker…
She had never asked me why I left the wedding band behind over the course of our marriage but I had told her one night, even without being prompted.
"Why tell me, Bruce?" she had tried to stop me when I had brought the subject up.
It had been a lifetime ago, when Mattie was just four years old. It had been at the tail end of a vicious month long battle with a crime syndicate that had tried to sink its talons into Gotham's south side. Combined efforts between myself and my protégés had put a large portion of their higher ups in squad cars and the remainder a firm suggestion to vacate Gotham.
There had been a cost. Dick had been hit by a fleeing car, Tim had barely survived a brawl with a dozen armed men and I had taken two bullets, one to the leg and the other putting a new line of sutures on my side. Cass had been unscathed as she patrolled the entire city while we had taken on the mob. I distinctly recalled Alfred pointing out that the three of us were forbidden from working a case together ever again if it resulted in so much soiled gauze…
"Because," I had paused while limping to the bed. Alfred had given me crutches but I had left them in the medical bay, knowing he would only bring them up when he woke me the next morning. Once I had tenderly taken a set beside her, I had looked down and said, "It's more than just keeping it safe while I'm out."
She had stared up at me for a moment, more upset than angry that I had come home bullet ridden. The usual lot of injuries associated with my work had never bothered her, but after what had happened with Pasqualle, I couldn't have possibly blamed her for worrying. After a beat, she had asked, "Then what is it, Bruce? Sentiment? Not really your style."
I had sighed before answering, "There might be a night that I don't come back... And I want this to be safe… until I can."
"And what if you never come back?" the lightness had faded from her voice and her green eyes.
Before leaning in to kiss her, I had said, "Come what may, I will always find a way back. I promise."
Thinking of her lips on mine, of how she had then cracked a joke that I was lousy at keeping promises and of how I had held in my arms until she drifted asleep that night, I finally answered Leslie's question.