Title: Come What May
Author: DC Luder
Summary: When push comes to shove…
Author's Note: I know… it's been a year. My sincere apologies. Let's get this show back on the road.
The look on my daughter's face would have been enough to break my heart, had it not already been shattered.
I sat beside her, my reddened eyes unable to leave her stoic face. Tim knelt before her, explaining what had happened in the time between when she had been playing video games with Terry to when Cassandra had opened the costume vault door. She was barely able to put her questions into words, asking them in brief, quiet sentences. The more he spoke, the more distant her eyes grew, soft azul turning to cold ice. Her lips were thin lines as they pressed together and when I touched her slender shoulders, I felt the weight of the world on them.
For the second time in one year, she had watched her father slip through her fingertips.
Tim rising to his feet finally drew my attention away from Mattie's face. As I looked up at him, he spoke, "I'm going back downstairs to check in with J'onn… I'll see about someone coming to secure the terrace doors."
I nodded, my own words failing me. The doors… an entire new wall needed to be put in…
He leaned over and kissed Mattie on the top of her head, whispered into her ear and then left.
Not twenty minutes earlier, Tim had been picking me up off of the study floor as I had fallen out of sheer shock. I had been unable to regain my senses, rambling on about how Bruce could have possibly left clues in the voicemail on my phone. He had tried to express that it was impossible given the extensive measures Talia had gone through to seal off the Manor from the world. Tim had relented nevertheless and agreed to retrieve the phone from my purse. As I had sat alone in the study, I found myself growing hopeful even though I should have known better. My breathing had finally evened out and the pounding in my ear drums had grown quieter.
I had felt as if I should have been engulfed with anger at Talia betraying the Family, particularly Bruce, but instead I was wholly consumed with worry for his and Leslie's safety.
Surely the fury would rise to the surface in due time…
Getting to my feet, I had slowly made my way over to the desk, seeing that it had not been cleared off as it had been every night I had spent in the great house. The laptop, although in sleep mode, had still been out, as had a hard cased onyx pen and a manila folder. The tab was marked SX Notes in Bruce's crisp penmanship. It had been open, revealing countless pages, both of printed x-rays and handwritten notes.
Early Christmas gift to me… agreeing to brace himself for another surgery on his leg.
I had been leafing through the printouts and reading his words as Tim returned, my cell phone in his right hand. Without hesitation, I had crossed the room, reaching my arm out for it. Although he had relinquished it to me, he had done so while saying, "I'm sorry… I listened to it."
At that moment, I could have cared less. As I keyed the device to life, I had asked, "What did he say?"
"It…" he had paused before looking at me, a twinge of shame in his eyes, "It was before they came."
"Are you sure?" I had countered with, not out of lack of faith in him but out of the desperate need for his answer to be different.
Staring at the phone in my hand, I listened as he said he was going to go speak with the kids in the den shortly, asking how I wanted to go about it. It had taken a solid minute before his words had sunk in, drawing out my delayed response, "We need to tell Mattie first… Terry… he's learned too much tonight as it is."
I had pictured my son from earlier that evening, how he had been smiling as he helped carry the bags of dinner from Santo's.
How he had practiced throwing solid spirals with Bruce in the back yard the other day.
How he had started summer by mastering tricks on his bicycle and dives in the pool.
How he had skipped crawling and gone straight to walking as a baby…
Finally, I had found my voice, "I'll tell him later tonight… After Mattie."
Minutes later, we were in the den, directing Cassandra, Nathan and Terry out of the room, leaving Mattie free to react anyway she wanted to. Being her father's daughter, I was not surprised to see her slowly close up, trying to contain whatever was going through her mind. When Tim left, I expected some sort of response or change in demeanor, but there was none.
Despite my frail state, I had to be there for her…
"Mattie?" I asked softly, rubbing my hand gently between her tense shoulders.
After I repeated her name, she blinked and looked up at me, her voice still painfully quiet, "Are they going to kill him?"
I was taken aback by her question, and it didn't help matters that there was no answer I could give her. Instead, I offered her, "You heard what Tim said… they took Leslie with them because they needed her…. To take care of him. They wouldn't have done so if they were going to kill him."
There was no change in her face, meaning my words had made no impact on her dark thoughts.
I squeezed her one arm gently, "Mattie, listen to me… Tim and Cass and Dick… Barbara… the Justice League… they are all working together… they will find Dad… and Leslie… and bring them home. Do you understand me?"
She nodded, the slightest tremble in her lower lip suggesting I was doing more harm than good.
"And besides… they've kidnapped your dad many times before… and he always gets the best of them. I know you've read the cases, kiddo… so you know it's true."
Mattie nodded again, swallowing hard before replying, "What about Terry?"
I exhaled slowly, "It's not the end of the world… if he was going to stick around, he would have found out eventually, right?"
"I'll take him home after I get Nate tucked into bed. But it's going to be a couple days before he come over again… and before you can go over there."
"I understand," she said, her voice starting to return to normalcy. There was a moment of silence before she inquired about her little brother.
"I'll worry about Nate," I leaned in and kissed her forehead, "You worry about you."
Her eyes softened as she nodded once more. I told her she should go to the kitchen try and eat something and she reluctantly agreed. I walked with her into the hall and for a few strides, making sure she was heading in the right direction. Before we parted ways, Mattie stopped me briefly by latching onto my hand with hers. When I looked down at her, she asked, "Are you not eating?"
Touching the phone in my pants pocket, I replied, "In a little bit, I'm going to go shower and change, then I'll be back down." She seemed wary of my answer, forcing me to add, "I'm okay, kiddo. Go eat before your brother devours everything."
I waited until she was nearly to the open arched entrance of the kitchen before I turned and backtracked towards the rear of the house. Before reaching my destination, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, preparing myself based on what Tim had described. Opening them, I found his words coming to life before mine, leaving my throat closing shut and my chest growing tight.
The French doors were gone, as was most of the wall. The thick carpet was sprinkled with broken bits of glass, wood and mortar. Although two of the overhead lights had blown, the remaining pair managed to spotlight two specific areas of the room, one being the drying pool of blood where Dick had found Alfred. The other had been the back right corner of the atrium, where there was not only a broken chair and speckles of blood, but also a visible crack and dent in the paneled wall.
Tim had said Bruce had put up a good fight. I didn't doubt it for a second…
My cell phone chirped from my pocket and I retrieved it frantically, foolishly hoping to see my husband's number on the display. Instead, it was a text message from Mattie and upon opening it, I found that it was a picture of Nate with a breadstick mustache as he pinned it between his upper lip and nose. A sad smile made its way to my face and as I put the phone back in my pocket, I decided I could listen to Bruce's message after I tended to our children.
Arriving in the breakfast nook a few minutes later, I was surprised to see everyone in seemingly good spirits. I relieved Cassandra of watching everyone and noted that Tim had gone back down to the Cave. She nodded, grabbed his untouched takeout container from the table and bid everyone a good night before leaving.
Although I wasn't the least bit hungry, I did my best picking at my chicken Marsala, making it appear as if I was doing more than moving bits of mushrooms and chicken around my plate. Mattie had opted to share her ravioli with Terry where Nate had put an impressive dent into his calzone, considering he had snacked on bread sticks and eaten nearly everyone's croutons from their side salads. I asked if Terry wanted to try any of the other dishes but he silently shook his head.
"Well, after we get done eating, and I get this vacuum cleaner to bed," I nodded towards my son, "I can take you home… did you need to call your Dad to tell him when you'd be back?"
Terry shook his head again then forced words through his tense lips, "No… he's away until tomorrow night… and… Tim… said he was taking me home."
"He did?" I asked.
"Yeah… he… he was here for a minute before you came in… said he would… that… he…"
"Wanted to talk to you?" I finished for him.
He all but winced, "… Yeah."
I genuinely felt for the boy. No doubt Tim only wanted to make sure he fully understood how important it was to keep what he had learned to himself, as well to make sure he had no questions or concerns about what had transpired earlier. Tragically, Terry had a penchant for action and spy movies and was probably already convinced he was as good as dead.
Sure enough, just as we were washing and drying the last of the dishes, Tim appeared in the kitchen, offering to go out with Nate to walk ace one last time. Although he was putting on a good front, it was not good enough. As Nate donned his sneakers just inside of the service entrance, I asked if they had learned anything and he shook his head, adding, "Dick is on his way back soon… Alfred is stable but Dr. Bryce is keeping him there for the night. We're going to meet when he gets here… but if you want to stay upstairs, we can talk after."
I nodded but said nothing as he followed Nate and Ace outside.
Leaving Mattie to say goodbye to Terry, I told her to have Nate come upstairs when he was done. Exhausted, more mentally than physically, I opted to ride the elevator up to the third floor. Under the corridor's dim lighting, I navigated to Nate's bedroom and then his attached bathroom. Wanting him in a calm mood before I sat down to talk to him, I started to fill the bath rub with hot water and lavender soap.
Anything to help make what I had to do easier.
Just as I was shutting off the water nozzle, Nate appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, fighting back a yawn. Ace looked equally exhausted, to the point that the big sable dog opted to collapse on his dog bed as opposed to supervising his master's bath time. I left Nate to play and soak in the tub while I went about picking up his room. Given Alfred's busy day, he most likely had been preoccupied with more important duties.
I turned down Nate's covers, adjusted his pillows and smiled to see the tooth was in fact still in place. I replaced it deftly with a dollar bill and felt an ounce better about the ordeal. As I sat down, I felt the phone in my pocket once more, the message still there waiting to be heard.
First things first…
Nate emerged from the bathroom in blue striped pajama shorts and a yellow tee-shirt, looking every bit the innocent six-year-old that he was. He climbed into bed, yawing once more before asking if Ace could come up and join him. When I obliged, he called the dog over and it lofted itself up with ease before lying directly beside my son.
"Where's Dad?" Nate asked suddenly.
Instinct took over for a moment, "He's… uh… he won't be home tonight, kiddo."
I found myself unable to answer him and yet unable to lie. Instead, I found a place in the middle, telling him that he was out of town for a few days for work and that he would be home soon. That sated his inquiries and his next question was if he could watch a movie instead of reading before bed. I kissed his cheek and told him if he picked it out, I would put it in the player for him.
Nate grinned and readily replied with, "Jurassic Park."
Leaving him under the watchful eyes of his protector and his favorite "grown-up" movie, I returned to the hall just as Mattie was climbing the last of the steps. I waited for her to reach me before asking her if she was all right. She shrugged and said, "I don't know…"
"If you need me, you come get me, okay?"
Mattie bit her lip, nodded then said, "Same goes for you."
I watched as she walked to her bedroom, closing the door silently behind her.
Once I was in the safety of the master bedroom, I finally retrieved the cell phone from my pocket. Although I brought up my voicemail inbox, I waited to press play until I was seated on the bed, uncertain as to what was waiting for me. Given how angry our last words had been to one another, I expected an apology. What I hadn't expected were words so painfully saturated with remorse that they brought tears to my eyes.
"I know you don't want to talk to me… but I hope you will at least listen."
I would have given anything in the entire world to say one word to him…
"You said this morning that I didn't understand why you were upset… but I do."
I knew he had understood and yet I had coldly accused him otherwise…
"I understand there is nothing I can say or do that will take back what I have done…"
If he walked through the door right then and there, I would have forgiven him of anything he had ever done or ever would do…
"But I want you to know that I regret hurting you. I regret every time I've brought tears to your eyes."
His pillow was saturated in my tears…
"I don't deserve your forgiveness, because I won't forgive myself."
I had been wrong in blaming him, damning him…
"I do love you, Selina… and as difficult as it may seem, everything that I have ever done was meant to protect you."
I love you, too…
I listened to it again and again, the tears quickly turning to sobs as I paired his voice with his face, trying to picture him being there and apologizing to me in person. As to not wake my children, I muffled my painful cries into a pillow, the phone pressed to my ear as if it was his lips speaking into them.
When my tear ducts ran dry, I finally rose from the bed, feeling weak and disoriented. Looking at the bedside table, I was surprised to see it was nearly eleven. Suddenly not wanting to miss their meeting in the Cave, I jumped to my feet and made my way to the bathroom to freshen up. There was no undoing the red and puffy state of my eyes, but I took the time to wash my face and brush my hair. Putting the comb away, my eyes caught the glimmer of white gold on the counter, the rings I had left to spite Bruce.
When I went to replace them on my left hand, I noted that his was present as well.
Where I had done it out of anger, I knew that Bruce had removed his wedding band for the same reason he had any other time since I had first put it on his finger.
As I put it on my thumb, I heard his voice in my ears, "For safekeeping."
As with anything that I had ever asked of Will, he didn't hesitate to say, "Yes."
His interview so many years earlier, where I had offered him a full-time position with DJG Security after dropping a few over the top Gangs of New York jokes.
"Yes, I'd love to... And no I'm not wearing plaid pants to work."
Whenever I had asked him to lunch when we were swamped with work and appointments, his desk overflowing and phone ringing endlessly.
"Hmm, a triple decker BLT or answering this damned phone... yes, let me grab my coat."
Making him promise to hang on after the Joker had fired a bullet into his gut so that I could go hunt down his gunman.
No matter what, Will had always answered in the affirmative without question. From the first day we met, he had always been someone I could count on, and in my life that was a rare liberty. Granted, I had and would always put my faith in any member of the Family, but there had been the few off chances when I had been turned away by them and even worse, let down.
But never with Will.
Tragically, there was a downside to being so reliable...
I had forced my pained voice to soften in order to respond with a chide remark, "You are the only person I know that answers when a number is blocked."
Will had laughed softly, "I live life dangerously. What's up?"
We had a long standing joke that we shared the middle name of "Danger". Both retired detectives, he from the harsh streets of New York and I from the cold alleys of Bludhaven. We both had scars from what we had endured, those emblazoned on our flesh as well as on our souls. We only differed in that he had let his life on the force drag him through a vile divorce and endless custody battle where I had traded mine in for pure family bliss.
That's not to say there weren't Babzilla jokes dealt in the safety of my office...
"I need to ask you a huge favor."
"Need a babysitter?"
Glancing back to the closed exam room door, I said, "In a way, yes."
Not willing to relay too many details over the phone, and also wanting nothing more than to get back to Alfred's bedside, I had simply told Will to meet me in the rear parking lot of the Free Clinic. He had said he would be there in fifteen minutes, but whether he took the train, cab or his own vehicle, it would be at least twice as long before he showed. Not to his fault, but simply because the city streets at night were just as brutal if you were behind a wheel or a mask.
Thirty minutes. It had offered me just enough time to force myself to cope with the evening's events. Or at least come up with a way to pretend to, a feat considering what the night's events entailed...
Rather than remain in the corridor, I reached for the door handle of the exam room and pushed. Cracking it open just enough to peer in, I found Dr. Bryce carefully leaning over Alfred's torso with a portable digital radiograph camera, mapping out his internal structures and bringing them immediately to life on the screen on a nearby counter. When I had been shot for the first time, I had to painfully sit still under the large and looming radiograph machine that had taken up nearly half of a room just down the hall.
I smirked sadly, thinking how much Alfred hated modern gizmos and gadgets.
As Dr. Bryce appraised the images, I slowly stepped into the room and shut the door behind me. With my limited medical training, I was able to spot an intact, small caliber bullet just underneath his collar bone. Jason Todd could have easily aimed three inches to the right and put Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth into his grave. He had meant to maim, not murder. The question was whether it had been his idea or that of his wicked mentor...
Without looking from the screen, Dr. Bryce set the camera down on the counter and said, "Missed the subclavian arteries... bullet was low velocity, I'm guessing... just made it into the minor pectoral muscle group."
Thinking as to when a bullet had blasted through my shoulder earlier that year, tearing muscle, nerves and vessels, I nodded slightly, "That sounds like a good prognosis."
She glanced up at me, pausing before replying, "It is. He's lucky."
"I feel as if there is a penny joke here..." I smirked at her.
After she offered a sad smile, Dr. Bryce continued, "I gave him a mild sedative, a local should be fine for extraction... I want to push type specific blood and fluids for now... get his pressure back up to normal."
"And then he can go home?"
Dr. Bryce stared at me for a moment before saying, "He's not going anywhere until I reevaluate him in the morning... He's lucky but I'm not about to test it anymore than I have to." She hesitated before asking, "Do you... have somewhere to go?"
"I do. I have someone coming to watch over him... to make sure he stays safe."
I shook my head slightly, "No. He's going after who did this."
"And who took Leslie... and Mr. Wayne," she added for me.
"Yes," I answered, my tone dropping on its own. After a moment of listening to the cardiogram blip and beep, I added, "He'll bring them back."
She squeezed Alfred's limp hand briefly, "I hope so. For his sake."
Staring down at his pale, motionless face once more, I swallowed back the dreadful thoughts that had been trying to breech the surface since the alarms had sounded in the Cave. Those that had only grown harder to resist upon finding Alfred's bloodied form laying in the shattered remains of the atrium. For some, it would have been easy to pretend that there was no chance of them not being returned safe and sound, but I had been taught better...
I had seen worse.
Dr. Bryce's soft voice interrupted my thoughts, "Did they hurt her, too?"
"Not from what we've learned."
As expected, her next question was, "And Mr. Wayne?"
My moment of hesitation and the involuntary twitch of my lower lip was the only answer she required.
Before making matters any worse, I looked down at Alfred one last time then left her to do what she did best, heal the wounded. After four long strides, I made it to the end of the corridor and walked out through the rear entrance. Before the door closed behind me, I shot a grapple up the three-story building's rooftop and started to ascend. Once I retracted and secured the grapple gun to my belt, I opened up my comm link and cued the connection by asking, "O?"
Less than a second later, Barbara replied in a rushed voice, "How is he?"
I relayed Dr. Bryce's initial evaluation, explained that Will was coming to stand guard and that Alfred wouldn't be released until the morning. Barbara sighed, paused, then said, "That's good to hear. What did you tell Will?"
"Nothing yet... figured I'd do that face to face." Before she said anything, I added, "Any word from Tim?"
"He wants you back as soon as possible... he wants to meet before they head out after Jason."
An inkling of hope rose into my voice, "We have a lead?"
"I'm working on that... not to mention we're going to finish interrogating the hell out of Talia with J'onn's help-."
I cut in, "Is he bringing the rest of the League in?"
Barbara paused before saying, "I'm sure it has crossed his mind."
"Well, I'll see to it that it crosses it again," I responded, my tone coarser than I intended. "I'm sorry, Babs... I just... for this I think we need all of the help we can get."
Her voice was softer as she commented, "I'm not going to disagree with you. Our best chance of finding them before they disappear under the radar is to get all of the help we can. And as awful as it is to say, Bruce isn't here to complain about it."
"I can just imagine it... 'You asked who to help find me? Now I'll never hear the end of it... Next time, leave me kidnapped. It will be better off that way'," I offered in my best impersonation of Bruce's angry growl.
Barbara snickered softly before responding, "Spot on."
Picturing Bruce complaining about calling in his former allies to help save him should have brought a smile to my face, but I felt the corners of my mouth being pulled in an opposite direction. Granted he had survived all of his previous encounters with Ra's al Ghul relatively unscathed, he had done so in his prime. The League of Assassins had never been a match for his brains or brawn nor had their diabolical leader.
But he wasn't in his prime. Not even close. And it wasn't Ra's I was worried about so much as it was his new underling...
"Dick?" I heard Barbara ask, drawing my attention away from the images of the shattered atrium, Alfred's pale face and Jason Todd's empty grave that were swimming in my head.
"... Are you okay?"
"Yeah... just... I'm going to get Will up to speed when he gets here... then I'll head up to the Manor."
She waited before replying, "Okay... let me know when you leave."
"Will do, O," I said softly before closing the connection.
Although somewhere in my mind, I heard the cars driving around the block as well as bits and pieces of conversations as pedestrians walked on the sidewalk below, they didn't register. In fact, all my mind wanted to do was replay the last few days, from finding Talia right up until the moment I crashed my bike into the Cave's emergency doors. Briefly questioning our only lead turned friend turned foe to finding out that Bruce was once married to her. Looking over the last few days, I realized how very little of it had been spent with Bruce or even in the days and weeks prior.
My last conversation with him had been just minutes before the League had infiltrated the Manor, gunned down Alfred and left Bruce and Leslie as hostages...
"Just like that, huh. It's over," I had remarked as Tim and Cass followed Talia and J'onn to the Watchtower.
Bruce had ominously replied, "You know better than anyone that it's only just beginning."
Before I had left him alone at the computer bay, I had felt obligated to let him know about Selina's morning visit to the Clocktower. About her her admitting to them fighting and the reasons behind the feud. Surprisingly, rather than ignore me, he had offered a curt, "I know," as his fingertips attacked the keyboard.
As with most of my life, I had been unable to keep my mouth shut. I had told him that I had understood why he had kept his brief marriage to Talia a secret from the Family, practically letting him know that I wasn't nearly as upset by the revelation as his wife had been. And in his typical fashion, Bruce had replied without so much as looking up at me, "Is that all?"
I had smirked and replied, "Yes," before about-facing and making my way to the costume vault.
There had been no way of knowing that would have been our final conversation prior to everything going to Hell. Despite the fact that I had reached out to him regarding the most recent hurdle in his married life... I couldn't shake the cold feeling that I should have said something else. Something more. That letting him shrug my words off of his shoulders had been a irreversible mistake.
The digital lenses of my my mask picked up a familiar license plate number as a black GMC Terrain quickly braked and then turned left into the clinic's parking lot. I looked on to see Will, bundled in his faded brown leather coat the pink had purple scarves his daughters had made for him for his last birthday. Rather than force him to wait in the cold or to waste any more time, I opted to leap down to the pavement, allowing my footfalls to make a sound.
Will spun around the face me, instinctively reaching for the Sig Sauer concealed beneath the bulky jacket. Upon seeing my masked face, he exhaled loudly, appraising me with his eyes. After a moment, he offered a forced smirk, "Doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it."
I found the corners of my lips tugging upward briefly at his comment, "No, it certainly doesn't."
"So I take it whoever I need to babysit is in there?" he nodded towards the Clinic.
My frown returned before I could respond, "Yeah... let's go inside."
He followed me through the back entrance and as much as I didn't want to, I bypassed the exam room I had left Alfred in and snuck us into a medical supply room. Amidst the sterile packs, surgical scrubs and boxes of three-cc syringes, I felt safe enough to remove my mask. Will immediately said that it wasn't necessary but I nodded, "Yes. It is."
The worry lines at the corners of his eyes deepened as he asked, "What's going on, Dick?"
The words came too easily and although I had intended on sugar-coating things with him, I realized that there was no need. He had been baptized in his own blood and brought into the Family when the Joker had brought terror back to the streets of Gotham. He had never once let me down, lied to me nor done anything that had not been in the best interest of our friendship. There was no reason to hide a single fraction of what we were facing from William Cutting.
So I didn't
I told him about Talia breaking into the Manor after we had all spent a week rejoicing and giving back to the city we loved so dearly. How she had claimed that her presence was to warn us of an impending attack from her father and a man we had thought dead for over a decade and a half. That in an attempt to prove her poisonous words false, Bruce and I had dug up the grave only to find no remains and that Talia had been telling the truth. I explained that we had put her under watch at the Manor, causing unrest amongst its primary residents, specifically Bruce and Selina.
He remained silent as I explained that from questioning her, we had learned of the last known whereabouts of one of our oldest foes and the man we had once known as Jason Todd. And from that information, we had just started to devise a plan to hunt them down when the tables had turned. Where Talia had stabbed us all in the back once more, leaving her father's men invading the Manor, taking Bruce and Leslie and leaving Alfred to die.
I found my voice growing quieter as I admitted that we had no leads, no idea why they had taken them or where they were headed.
When my words finally ran dry, Will spoke, "Alfred's here, I take it?"
Nodding, I responded with, "Yes. Stable. Dr. Bryce is removing the bullet now and keeping him overnight for observation. Hopefully, we can transport him in the morning back to the Manor."
"Is it safe for him... to go back to the Manor? After what happened?"
I swallowed hard before saying, "They already have what they want. They won't be coming back."
"I'll stay. All night. And if we can move him in the morning, I'll help."
"I can't thank you enough," I said, sincerity replacing the pain in my voice.
Will nodded, then raised a finger, "I just have to call my boss and let him know I won't be in."
Always making a joke in the most serious of moments.
It was no wonder we got along so well.
"All right, one more throw, then we have to go back in."
Nate looked up at me, back at Ace and then wound up his tiny arm and launched the tennis ball into the darkness of the rear lawn. Ace bolted out of the range of the exterior lighting, only the jingle of his Rabies and dog license tags giving his presence away.
As we awaited the dog's return, Nate asked why I had not joined them for dinner in the nook.
Technically, I didn't lie as I responded with, "Well... just not hungry, I guess."
"I'll eat it."
I glanced down at his mischievous grin and smirked, "Oh really?"
He nodded, "Really."
"Don't you think a half of a two pound calzone is enough?" I inquired.
"Maybe for you," he shot right back at me.
Although the night had given me no reason to for the foreseeable future, I couldn't help but laugh. Every day, Nate was looking more and more like his father, but it was his mother's charisma that was shining through. He had been a handful from a toddler on, not misbehaving but simply keeping everyone on their toes. Whether it was running bare-bottomed about the manor, mastery level Hide-and-Seek or simply just the quirky responses he came up with...
When he reached his teenaged years, we were all doomed.
I needed Nathan's smirks and wisecracks more than I cared to admit.
Batman needed a Robin because the latter shines on the dark of the former...
Ace arrived a moment later, tongue lolling as he gripped the slimy ball beneath his massive jaws. Nate patted the dog's broad head and said, "Come on, Ace, let's go," before leading the way to the service entrance. I surveyed the darkness once more, knowing there was nothing lurking but unable to shake the thought there could have been.
After all... there had been just an hour earlier...
"Coming?" I heard the boy call out to me.
After one last look, I turned and jogged up the paved path and to the door as he stood impatiently just inside. He closed the door behind me and muttered, "... letting the heat out."
I smirked again and countered with, "Okay, Alfred."
He went to punch me for the comment, but I had slightly better training. I not only avoided the blow, but snatched him up and threw him over my shoulder in one fluid motion. As he laughed and kicked in protest, Ace circled my feet whimpering until Nate told him to sit. The dog relented and a second later, I did as well, setting the six year old back on solid ground. I watched on as he kicked off his sneakers and then grabbed the handle to the door leading into the Manor, calling his canine companion to follow.
Bringing up the rear, I closed the door, leaving my shoes and coat on seeing I would be leaving shortly. As I reached the kitchen, I just missed Nate and Ace heading into the hallway and out of sight, leaving only Mattie and Terry. Dinner had all been put away, dishes in the dishwasher and the counters wiped clean. Despite their hard work, there was still a painful look on Terry's face, a worried one on Mattie's.
"You ready to go home?" I asked, trying to make my voice as pleasant and normal as possible.
Terry literally gulped and I had to do everything in my power not to laugh.
Mattie leaned into his arm, standing up on her toes to kiss his cheek, of which was pale despite the recent time he had spent in Arizona. She then said, "Call me later, okay?"
He nodded, still unable to make his lips form words.
I took a step towards the door I had just passed through, but paused when I realized Terry had yet to follow suit. Before I could say or do anything, Mattie pushed him in my direction, "Quit being a big baby."
He looked back to her for a moment, and then up at me, the same fear I had seen earlier in the broadcasting from him head to toe. Offering any sort of reassurance would have been futile at the moment, so I decided to simply lead the way outside to the driveway. He had made a grab for the the rear passenger side door but I stopped him with, "Why don't you sit up front with me, Terry?"
"Uh..." he managed, "Okay."
As I calmly took my place behind the wheel, I watched as he hurriedly shut his door and buckled in, cinching the strap tight and then gripping the sides of the seat as if he was holding on for his life. I smirked again as I inserted the key, woke up the engine and turned the headlights on. For a moment, I was tempted to ask what he wanted to listen to on the satellite radio but reasoned that the boy was having a hard enough time breathing regularly.
I maneuvered down the paved drive without uttering a word, the gates opening on command given I had already set a timer on the Manor's security system to allow a brief intermission from lock down. Although the most direct route to his house would have required a left hand turn, I chose to turn right, regrettably knowing it would set the boy off kilter slightly. A small price to pay in order to give us more time to talk.
I noticed him immediately tense when we headed in the wrong direction and rather than let him suffer in silence, I cleared my throat, "You know, Terry, we have quite a bit in common."
He looked at me, confusion starting to replace the fear etched into his face, "We do?"
"Yeah. A lot actually."
He hesitated before asking in a quiet voice, "What could... I possibly... have in common with Batman?"
Cruising the county road at fifty miles per an hour, I answered him, "First of all... I love video games. Any kind. If I didn't have a day job, I would sit and play FIFA or Call of Duty or heck... even Mario Party... all day long."
"Me too," he noted softly.
"Favorite soda... IBC Root Beer. Close second, obviously cream soda."
He smiled for a moment, "Yeah... my dad has a small fridge full of them in the basement."
Mattie had told me a similar fact once. As I noticed the tension easing from his body, I was very glad I had been able to recall the seemingly fruitless tidbit.
He shrugged, the rigid form relaxing a fraction, then said, "I love Connery. I have all of the old posters... but... Daniel Craig, he's just so... I don't know, cool, I guess."
"Agreed. He brings a new energy to Bond... but I will bleed Scotland forever."
"Totally," Terry said as he continued to soften into the leather seat.
I went silent for a moment, centering myself for the course the conversation had to turn towards. We had all come to think of Terry as a member of the Family gradually, and not because he was was Mattie's friend-turned-boyfriend. For once upon a time he had been six years old, just like Nathan, innocent and exuberant and carefree. He had a loving mother and father and older sister and the big, bad world had yet to lay its claim on any fragment of his existence.
That was until his mother had been mugged and stabbed to death in the loading bay of the social services department she worked for.
It had been one of my very first cases after taking the mantle from Bruce. No viable evidence, no leads, nothing to indicate a single suspect in the death of Dr. Chase Miller. One of my first cases and seven years later it haunted me that I had been unable to find the scum who had taken her life for the spare change in her purse. All of the petty crimes, major league criminals and mass murdering monsters I had brought down and yet this boy who had somehow found his way into our lives would never have justice.
As strong as I was, psychically and mentally, I doubted I would ever be emotionally strong enough to admit it to him that it was one of my biggest failures. Right up there with losing my father and Dana, for the deaths of everyone in the observatory and handing the cowl back to Bruce when he needed me most.
Every hero falters...
"You know... when I was young... someone... kidnapped my parents. My father made it... spent years recovering physically and I doubt he ever really was the same mentally..."
"And your mom?" he asked without hesitating.
I pictured her briefly, tickling me to wake me up for school in the morning. Teaching me to tie my shoes. Water balloon wars in the summer and snow ball fights in the winter. Much like nearly every member of the Family, fate had struck its cold hard blow, taking pure joy and turning it into sorrow...
His eyes fell to his lap and he returned to silence.
"I... knew right from the start. That she was gone... why she was gone... how... And... And even to this day, I really wish I hadn't... I wish I could have lived with some white lie... that she had died in an accident... anything but the truth," I paused to glance over at him, surprised when his gaze rose to meet mine. When I looked back to the road, I added, "I know your dad waited to tell you about what really happened to your mom. And I'm sure it was just as hard learning then as it would have been right from the beginning."
"I guess so," he replied. "I... kind of wish I didn't know either..."
There was a silent mile before I said, "What your dad did... what mine did... it was really all about being there for us... to support us... to protect us." My thoughts drifted away from the young man sitting beside me and even from the gathering that would be waiting for me back at the Cave. I found myself thinking of Bruce and Selina, their feud and its painful root. Continuing, I found myself saying, "There's different ways to protect people you care about. You can do it with your words... or you can do it with your actions..."
"Like being Batman?"
I sighed, "In a way... yes and no. Being Batman allows me to protect those that I care about... But... like tonight... it also puts them at risk of being hurt."
"Are they... are they going hurt Mr. Wayne?"
Even though I knew for a fact that they already had, I answered, "I don't know. Thankfully he's a tough old man. And doesn't take crap from anyone. You think I'm scary being Batman... you should have seen him."
That failed to have any impact on him. And then he said, "Oh I know... remember? He kicked Mattie's door in that one time?"
Before I could stop it, I found myself laughing, "Yeah, that's probably what most thugs felt when they had him chasing after them."
As I finally started making my way in the right direction, he said, "I... I promise I won't tell anyone."
"Oh, I know you won't. You're part of the Family, Terry... have been for a while. I just wanted to make sure you were okay... after tonight."
"I... I guess so. I... guess... I don't know," he stammered softly.
"Well... you've nothing to worry about. No one is going to be coming after you or your dad or your sister..."
Terry was quick to respond with, "But what about Leslie? And... Br- Mr. Wayne?"
I sighed as I turned onto East Main Street in Bristol, less than a mile from his house, "They'll be back soon... I'll see to that. And... it'll be a few days before you can probably visit Mattie again... and she might be out of school... but... you know you can call her anytime... or me, for that matter."
We fell to silence once more until I had turned onto his street and pulled up next to his sister's dinged up blue Ford Focus. I cut the engine and lights but my hands still found their way back to the steering wheel. When I realized for the second time that evening that Terry was stuck in place, I found myself able to so something about it.
"When this all settles down... when... everyone... is back on their feet... I'll give you a proper tour of the Cave."
He looked up at me, the fear and the confusion gone, leaving awe in his eyes, "Really?"
"Really. After all, I'm sure the costume vault wasn't that interesting."
"Actually... it was pretty cool..."
"We'll start there, then. Remind me."
He nodded, undid his seat belt and said, "Thanks, Tim."
As he stood to get out of the car, he paused and leaned in to look at me once more, "I hope they're okay... when you find them."
I nodded, but it wasn't until after he shut the passenger side door that I said, "Me, too."
The near opposite of the drive to Terry's, the way back to was done by speeding as fast I dared. I had three minutes to spare on the timer I had set just as I passed through the gate, beating the computer crays before they went about resetting the lock down. While that had been an incentive in itself, I also wanted to check in with Barbara and find out what she had uncovered... if anything.
While I braked roughly, parking behind the garage, I reminded myself that she was the best at what she did. If there was something to be found, she would. If there wasn't anything to be found...
I pocketed the keys, jogged to the Manor and let myself in, the locks clicking loudly as I shut it just in time. There was no need to tour the house searching for the others, so I immediately trekked to the den and to the grandfather clock. Selina had no doubt already ushered her children to bed and hopefully herself. Given how badly she reacted earlier that evening to what had happened to Bruce and Leslie, there was no use in hurting her any further as we discussed cold, hard facts.
Flying down the granite steps, I instinctively looked to the computer bay, surprised to see Cass sitting on the counter, staring off into the darkness of the Cave. Although I made no effort to cover the sounds of my footfalls and even exhaled loudly as I jumped up onto the raised platform, her gaze never wavered. It wasn't until I moved to stand in front of her that she glanced up, her expression painfully solemn.
"Hey... Cass... it's going be okay," I immediately offered, my hands quick to reach up to gently hold one of hers.
Cass nodded and then shook her head, "I know... and it's not that."
"Then what's wrong?"
She closed her eyes before she replied, "I watched it."
Before I could ask her to clarify, I gazed up to the massive digital screen to see the video Manor's surveillance video window that I had briefly skimmed earlier was at a different point of time. When I had watched it, I had focused on the present, looking for unfamiliar faces and relieved to have seen only a battered Alfred and a worried Dick. Deep down, I had noted that there would have to be time set aside to study the footage from start to finish in order to ascertain what had exactly transpired.
Cass had decided to get a jump start.
Reluctantly, I rewound the video until before the explosion had rocked the French doors. I watched in crystal clear, high-definition as the glass, wood and wall splintered amidst a quick burst of smoke and flame. Not fifteen seconds later, dark garbed men began infiltrating the atrium and the position of camera showed them pausing and staring briefly at the same focal point. They charged as a group, but the first two flew to the ground as an unseen force struck them down. Another two attacked, pivoting and retreating to try to lure their prey into the open.
Cass kept her sight trained in the opposite direction of the screen, her hand still limp in mine.
Not a minute into the brawl, Bruce finally came into view as did Ace, the dog violently ripping at his own opponent while Bruce did his best to hold against another determined cluster. The dog disappeared , bolting into the corridor and I assumed it had been at Bruce's insistence as his lips moved in an angry shout. Perfectly timed as there had been one assassin drawing a weapon to fend off the big, sable canine.
When the second wave rushed in, along with a dark garbed man in a full red mask, Bruce was barely able to stand on his own. He was only momentarily revived when a barely in frame Alfred appeared and was gunned down by the man in the red mask. Even though there was no audio, I could only have imagined the bellow that had escaped Bruce's lips.
For a moment Bruce held his own again, but he had not been remotely well enough to take on an opponent in a simple spar match let alone the best and brightest of the League of Assassins, they quickly started to land lucky shots at his weakest points, suggesting they had read up on what injuries he had endured since the last time they had confronted him.
I found myself barely feeling Cass's hand squeeze mine when Bruce finally fell to the ground, Jason having violently struck him in the throat, abdomen and his already weakened left leg.
I squeezed back just as Bruce's image began to convulse.
Jason Todd would be found.
And he would pay.
"Why?" the Martian growled.
I remained silent as I dabbed at the dried blood beneath my nose, noting the pulsating pain had yet to ebb. As I looked up at the Martian, I pulled my hand away from my face and responded, "My nose is broken."
"And as I have already said, it will be tended to."
"Waiting will increase swelling, which will make it more difficult to set it and then delay proper healing."
His red eyes narrowed briefly as he studied my face and then without warning, the Martian reached a massive hand behind the back of my head,cradling it gently, and then with the other tweaked my nose millimeters back into alignment. Even if he had given me time to prepare myself, I doubted it would have lessened the pain any.
"What bedside manner you have," I snapped as I reached up to cup the base of my nose.
The door opened slightly and a small first aid kit floated in and moved across the room before finding its rightful place in his hand. The Martian opened it, removed a small strip of butterfly bandages and adhered them to my face. Upon letting me go, he broke and shook up a chemical ice pack and offered it to me without a word.
"Thank you," I responded sarcastically.
"You're welcome," his words came monotonously.
Having remained at the Watchtower with the Martian following his revelations into my involvement with my father and Jason's work, he had yet to make any attempt to enter my mind. When he had gazed upon my memories, and then shared them with Timothy, I had felt utterly powerless. For two decades, myself and my father's men had always utilized verifying prototypes of telekinetic blocking devices, the latest being the most effective and efficient.
That was until the Martian crushed it between his powerful fingers...
Still in the small meeting room, I opted to take a seat as I applied the pack to my face. Timothy striking me had been an utter shock, but given what he had seen through the Martian's eyes, it may have been warranted. My beloved and his followers loathed being tricked, thinking themselves masters of detection and unmatched at investigatory work. Thus, consistently keeping them guessing and even offering up a few surprises had always been par for the course when interacting with them.
"Why?" the Martian asked again.
"Why did I betray them?"
"Why were you dishonest to them," he responded as he took two strides closer to me, his eyes never blinking and stoic as marble. "You led them to believe that you've spent seven months running from your father and Jason Todd... your mind tells me that you have been lying since you first set foot in Gotham."
"In a way, yes... and in a way... no. I still do not know what my father intends for Bruce. I was-."
"Following his orders?" he interrupted me.
"Doing as I was told... Because if I hadn't, there would have been no way of knowing what little I do. And I was assured it was not an effort to bring him harm, that I swear."
"Ra's al Ghul is not known for doing more good than harm." Before I could attempt to fruitlessly defend my father, he proceeded with, "I believe you in that you do not know why... Which in itself is a cause for concern. Use you as the decoy... to be left behind... as to not be in the way."
"I was supposed to accompany them!" I found myself snapping back at him.
He glared at me for a moment, "And what exactly was your plan of escape?"
"Does it really matter? I have missed my only way back to them... to my father... my son..."
"And Jason," he added.
I leapt to my feet and swung my arm to slap his face, sent off balance when my hand passed right through his face. Anger filling me, I snarled, "Do not dare to assume anything, Martian."
"There is no need for assumptions. Just facts. Those which you can not deny... those that show that you were working with him, not running from him. Those that say that had things gone according to plan, you would be with him right now, standing over Bruce's body," his tone had remained steady but the volume of her voice had grown and his eyes had narrowed, "That you say you hate him but-."
Somehow, I managed to hold my ground and replied, "You know nothing."
He stared at me quietly for a moment, then I heard his voice in my mind, "Educate me, then."
Just as before, I felt his presence moving within me but unlike before, I showed no resistance. I let him travel in and out of my memories, to take note of my thoughts and to gaze upon my usually barricaded feelings. I heard his soft voice asking questions and my mind eliciting answers all on its own, my lips never forming a single word. He began to look back at my most recent memories of me being with my father, regarding his plans. My memories of talking with him and with Jason, looking for anything remotely evidential of where they had taken Bruce and why. The most recent of said discussions came to life in my mind, with the Martian listening on intently.
Not two weeks prior to my departure from the base in Urfa, where I would leave them to plot and scheme whilst I slowly made my way to the United States and to Gotham...
"Talia, that is enough," my father had replied as he returned his gaze to the massive marble table before him, littered with open books, marked maps and sketches.
"No... I have had enough. I refuse to be a part of this if you don't tell me what you intend to do with him." I had been tempted to swipe the materials to the floor with the back of my hand, but had settled with glowering at him.
"We've been over this, daughter," he had started to respond.
Jason, who had been standing just to my father's right hand side, also chimed in, "And we don't have to time to go over it again."
"You have done no such thing. All you have done is assure me that you will not harm him and yet you want me to lure them in this facade... while you send the best of the League with Jason to retrieve him."
My father set his pen down before looking back up at me, "You know as well as I that not even being truthful with the Detective will sway him to come. If there was a better way, then I would utilize it, but there is not."
With his eyes still on me, I had proceeded to say, "Very well... then all I ask is why. Why go through such extreme measures for him to meet Damian... why not let me take him to-."
Jason had smirked and interrupted me, "What makes you think that's the only reason we're taking him?"
I had paused before saying, "Because you won't tell me otherwise..."
My father had spoken up during the brief silence, "Jason, escort her to her quarters."
"Gladly," he had smirked again.
My father had risen from his chair suddenly and bellowed, "Now!"
Jason had begun to cross the room to reach for me, but I had already about faced and strode out of the room. Walking quickly down the corridor towards my chambers, Jason had been quick to catch up to me, "Talia, stop."
I had. A second before I spun around to backhand his face. He had caught my wrist instinctively, his grip firm but causing no pain. Jason had sighed and shook his head, "Don't rile the old man up."
"He has no cause to be riled... I do."
Jason had loosened his hold on me, still remaining light contact as I dropped it to my side. When he was beside my father, he always wore a stoic look upon his face, but in that moment in the empty corridor, there had been a crack in his armor. I had used it to my advantage and asked why they were really taking Bruce.
"Talia... you're not the only one that your father is hiding things from... But you seem to be the only one that has a problem with it. He said it best, if there was another way to do it, we would." Something had flickered in his eyes and I felt his other hand at my waist, slipping down to grasp my hip, "Thought you were over him."
"I will always care for him... he is the father of my son. The last thing I would want is harm to befall him. Unlike you... who would want anything but."
Jason's brow narrowed slightly as he had responded, "Is it still that obvious..."
"It is." Wanting to prevent a feud on the subject, I had simply offered, "Which is exactly why I do not trust him to arrive in one piece if you are the one that is retrieving him."
The Martian's probed further, revealing more arguments with Father and Jason He had then moved forward, to my actual departure from Urfa, bidding farewell to my child. As a Cessna was loaded and readied by my father's men, I had embraced Damien, kissing the dark curls on the top of his head.
"I cannot go with you?"
"No, my darling. It is safer for you to stay with your grandfather."
It was as if he was standing before me at that moment, a look in his eyes I had never seen before. "If you're going alone... and it's safer here... then who will protect you?"
I had taken him in to my arms once more, "Wise beyond your years..."
The Martian's voice brought me back to the present, "Such measures to introduce him to the child... It seems quite elaborate to be the truth... more befitting to be a ploy."
Opening my eyes, I found him sitting in front of me, although hovering in the air as opposed to conforming to a chair. I found myself utterly relaxed where I had been tense and uneasy before, making answering him all too easy, "One would think so. But my father has never been one to take the easy approach."
"Why now? After so many years?"
I hesitated before answering, "My father always wanted Bruce as an ally, to train his forces... to sire his heir. Where my father could not obtain the former, he was able to have the latter. I had wanted to tell Bruce from the beginning, but my father believed it would have only led to more hostility between them. As to why he changed his mind after so much time... Perhaps it is because the Demon's Head chooses when and where with every aspect of his life. And of the lives he surrounds himself with. Because the Lazarus Pit won't last forever. Because perhaps he wants to make amends."
The Martian rose to his feet and stepped back, ushering me to do the same.
As he started to walk away from me, I inquired, "Is this to mean you're satisfied with my answers?"
He paused, "I assure you, they offer no satisfaction... Your words are truthful... Although I fear they come too late and offer too little. But they will be waiting for their own answers."
As when we had arrived at the Watchtower, we encountered no others on the trek to the teleportation bay and upon reaching it, were swiftly returned to the Cave without hesitation nor hurdle. When the flash of light and shift in gravity subsided, I gazed to my left to see the Martian standing by my side. Looking to my right, I found angry faces a few yards away and no chance of escape in sight. Literally and figuratively.
"Good, you're back," I heard Timothy call out from the computer bay. He had already donned his suit, all but the cowl that sat idly by on the counter in front of him. I had seen Bruce in a similar state of partial guise many times, the dark, intimidating armor and cape contrasted only by the human face that was above it. It had always seemed to chip away at his presence, showcasing more man than bat...
Looking to just behind him, the daughter of David Cain was ready for battle as well, her full-face mask already in place. Although she tried to conceal it, there was notable tension in her stance, unbecoming on such a master of her art. Before I could utter a word, Richard emerged from the costume vault, his black and blue uniform on and his domino mask concealing a mere portion of his face. His fists were clenched as the Martian and I climbed up the short steps to join them on the platform, the tension thick enough to silence the expansive cavern.
"Is the lady of the house not joining us?"
Cain's daughter tensed even further, sprung tightly enough to strike with the speed and veracity of a monocle cobra. Richard took to standing beside her, setting a two-tone gloved hand on her shoulder as if that would prevent her from doing what she did best. Timothy was the only one to reply, his body language far too stoic as he said, "You are dealing with me... and only me."
"Do your worst," I found myself saying, while dabbing a finger at my bandaged nose.
"Why?" Richard stepped forward and replied, "Because you've already done yours?"
"I've done noth-."
Timothy took two strides closer to me in a fraction of a second, the gravel in his voice belying his exposed face, "Don't, don't feign innocence. Not now. Not after what you've done."
"And what is that I have done, Timothy?"
His scowl deepened as he suddenly lunged forward, grabbing me roughly by the wrist and dragging me to stand in front of the massive monitor with him. The cold glare in his eyes was enough to tell me to stay put, and I watched on as he jabbed at the keyboard briefly. Security footage came onto the screen and he leaned closer to me, growling in my ear, "Let's see your handy work."
It took me no more than the blink of an eye to realize what my handy work referred to as I instantly recognized the rear atrium of the manor on the screen. I reached to hit pause on the keyboard, not wanting to see what Jason and his men had done, especially since it had no doubt contributed to the scowls surrounding me. My father had ordered Jason to apprehend Bruce alive, but there was no questioning what amount of force had been used...
Timothy grabbed my wrist again, twisting my arm behind my back without warning, "You will watch... you will see what your lies have done..."
The first wave of league members had been no match for Bruce.
The second had forced him to tire, allowing them better luck.
The last had left him on the ground gasping for breath.
There was no other way...
And that was all before Jason had his chance.
"Enough," I managed, my voice far weaker than I had intended it to be.
A moment later, we had all heard the echoed, "Enough?"
Timothy's grip on my arm loosened as we simultaneously turned to see a blood shot-eyed figure standing behind us, her dark hair damp, loose and chaotic, her confident presence reduced to a quiet voice and a pale face. I watched as Richard move towards her, "Selina, let's go upstairs..."
"Is... that what they did to him?"
"Selina, please..." Richard offered again, knowing better than to try to touch her as he had with Cain's daughter. The look in the thief's eyes suddenly shifted, from pain and concern to pure rage.
Before either Richard or Timothy could react, she lunged at me. Her open hands delivered quick, painful blows to my face and neck, manicured nails knowing all of the right places that tore open with ease. I instinctively went on the defense, throwing in two solid strikes to her solar plexus amidst the blocks. As I readied myself to move into offensive maneuvers, Timothy's Lycra covered arms ensnared me from behind and forced us to separate.
Where I had been quick to acquiesce, the thief slashed out at Richard, freeing herself before charging back at me once more. As he tried to take hold of her, she spun around and jabbed at his still healing shoulder, not willing to be tamed. Timothy pivoted and tried to absorb some of the strikes but she managed to still hit my cheek bone hard enough for my teeth to rattle.
Given that the hold around me was unyielding, there was little I could do as a means of protecting myself. I narrowly dodged her fists and nails, Timothy doing his best to shield me from the worst of it given that he was already garbed for protection. Her eyes were a vibrant green, much too vibrant and close for my taste. The Martian stepped between us as a means of helping them pull us apart once more, the look on his usually stoic face suggesting he was prepared to do his part if need be. Richard's grimace showed the effort he was using to hold her back, as did the muttered curses he was letting through his lips.
The pale, soft look of confusion on her face was gone, her brow low and angry, her lips pulled back in a sneer. "You're not walking out of here, bitch, not until you're in a limp, bloody heap like Bruce was!"
"Selina, please!" Richard yelled.
I forced myself to relax in Timothy's hold and was rewarded by his releasing me willingly. He asked the Martian to take me to the medical bay but I refused, saying, "It's nothing. Just a scratch."
The thief growled lowly, "I'll show you a scratch!"
"Take her upstairs," Timothy snapped and waited until Richard had half dragged-half carried the thief away, her protests echoing through the cavern. "I will tell you one thing, Talia... you have made enemies here tonight. And that will be the first and last time I save you."
"I don't need you to save me..."
He stared down at me, "You've endangered the lives of her family... of her children... her husband. If there was no one here to stop her... you wouldn't stand a chance."
As I gently touched the laceration over the ragged scar on my cheek, I held my tongue.
Somehow, I had managed to eat most of my dinner and keep it down.
Somehow, I had managed to put on a brave front for Terry and my little brother and my mother.
Somehow, my Family had found itself in the clutches of another madman, another who had his sights set on the demise of my father...
My mother and Tim sitting me down to explain things had not helped much, in fact, it had only caused my already off-kilter mind to start spinning in faster circles. Nevertheless, I still was capable of walking, talking, breathing and carrying on as if everything was going to be fine. Just a hiccup, an unexpected turn of events with an easy fix. They just had to convince the woman that had betrayed all of them to help find which secret hideaway the League of Assassins had taken Dad and Leslie to. A walk in the park...
"I... I want you to come with me, when Tim drops me off."
I had been staring at nothing in particular when Terry's quiet voice found my ears. I focused on his face before replying, "I doubt he will let me."
"Who's going to protect me then?"
Smirked, I responded, "Like he said... Batman doesn't kill."
He had been less capable of maintaining his composure since I had led him into the costume vault earlier that evening. Looking back to the dreadful night I had learned of the Family secret, I recalled being angry, not afraid. In all fairness, there had been no reason for me to be fearful of my father or any other relative. Terry, although not justified, felt he had plenty to be scared of...
"Yeah... just much worse," he sighed. After a moment, he looked at me in the eyes and added, "Sorry... here I am worried about something stupid when you have something real to worry about."
I shrugged and offered, "Your misery is a good distraction."
"Oh? Shall I stub my toe?"
"Wouldn't hurt," I smiled, the need to pretend ebbing slightly.
"Then step in Ace doo-doo?"
Unable to hold it back, I snickered softly, "That would be nice."
Terry, still staring at me, took a step closer, "Anything to help. I mean it."
"I know," I sighed before leaning in and embracing him, feeling his chin rest on my shoulder.
Before I could say anything else, the sound of the service entrance door opening interrupted me, followed by footsteps belonging to Tim, Nate and Ace. We released one another just as they came into view, my brother and Ace quickly heading on their way by the kitchen and into the corridor. Tim paused and appraised us with a soft look on his face, of which he paired with an even-toned, "You ready to go home?"
I heard Terry gulp air beside me and noticed as Tim fought the urge to laugh from the other side of the room. I leaned against the troubled soul next to me, standing up on my tip-toes in order to kiss his cheek. When I told him to call me later, Terry managed to nod, look down at me briefly before his gaze returned to Tim. I nudged him forward and Tim nodded his sign of thanks to me. When they disappeared out of sight, I remained in the kitchen until the door open and shut one more time.
As much as I wanted to sneak down into the Cave to see what else I could learn about the tragedy at hand, I found myself drawn in the opposite direction of the grandfather clock entrance. Taking the stairs at a painfully slow pace, I couldn't help but think back to racing down them earlier, Terry at my side out of breath and my father bellowing from behind us. Somehow, it felt as if it had just happened while at the same time being forever ago...
Run downstairs… all of the way, Mattie...
As always, my immediate concern had been for my father, even before I had locked Terry and myself in the vault. With Tim, Dick, Cass and even my mother elsewhere, he had literally been alone in defending the Manor. Granted, Alfred had gone to his rescue but even that had ended with Dick taking him to the Free Clinic.
Reaching the third floor, I spotted my mother just leaving Nathan's room, no doubt having already tucked him in for the night. As much as I wanted to ask what she had told him, I kept my mouth shut as I approached her. She was quick to ask if I was okay, and rather than lie, I answered, "I don't know..."
"If you need me, you come get me, okay?" she offered.
I bit my lip, looked up at her and said, "Same goes for you."
Without another word, I made may way to my bedroom, glancing back once more at her before closing the door. Automatically, I went through the motions of heading to the bathroom to shower and change for the night. I could have easily just put on cotton shorts and tee shirt for pajamas, but I found myself putting on black leggings, a pink Lycra tank top and then a long sleeved gray shirt. Even with Taffy doing her best to keep me company with her rumbling purrs and playful pawing, the feline distraction just wasn't enough.
How are you going to get downstairs with the power out?
My last words to Dad had been solely of my concern for him, my wanting to know what his plans were to reach safety. It had been a waste of breath to argue with him, at that moment or any other. He had spent his life putting others before himself, and with unwelcome guests literally knocking at the door, there was no chance of him changing tunes.
He had kissed my forehead, as if it was to say, "Good night, Kitten."
Don't worry about me... Just go...
A lump rose up into my throat when realizations forced its way into acceptance.
He had no intentions of going down to the Cave... of seeking safety...
My cell phone chirped from the bathroom counter, causing me to physically jerk with surprise. Upon retrieving it, I smiled to see it was a text message from Terry, claiming he was alive and well. Shedding my morbid thoughts, I texted him back: Welcome to the Family!
His reply came a moment later: In lieu of flowers, please send turkey club sandwiches and curly fries.
I moved to sit on my bed, opting to exchange written messages with him as opposed to calling him. Words quickly turned to funny pictures we took of ourselves, editing them in an application that left our figures contorted and color distorted. I took pictures of Taffy and put a digital mustache and glasses on her. Terry responded by drawing a face on his foot, making the toes wild, orange hair.
For the better part of an hour, I was a teenager and all was well.
The last few days finally caught up with me and I felt myself dozing off, shaking awake when I felt my phone vibrate with a new message. A little after eleven, I said good night to Terry, making a kissy face and sending that as a picture. Two minutes later, he sent me one of him with a similar expression, although his mouth filled with foamy toothpaste.
Yawning, I forced myself off of my bed to connect my phone to its charger on my dresser, turn the over head lights out and then finally kick my feet free of socks before climbing under the covers. Taffy was quick to snuggle up in the small of my back, her purr just barely audible. In the dark, I found myself listening to the slightest of sounds in the silent house.
Nathan's television, just loud enough to detect through the wall.
The hum of my laptop on my desk.
My heart beating in my chest.
The sounds I did not hear began to slowly register, namely the near silent footfalls of my father coming down the hall. The faintest creak as he cracked the door to check in on me.
Don't worry about me..
I had held strong for the most part.
Soft sniffles sounded before I realized they were coming from me. I pushed my face into my pillow, feeling the material instantly absorb my tears. Taffy rose to her feet and began to nuzzle my shoulder, offering her endless feline affection. Although I appreciated her efforts, it wasn't what I needed.
I needed to hear those footsteps. The door creak. The gentle kiss on my forehead.
Good night, kitten...
"Selina! Just wait a minute!"
I inhaled sharply as I shot up in bed, shocked not to hear Dick's voice, but the angry tone that filled it. Listening closely, I heard feet moving quickly down the carpeted hall, accompanied by soft muttering that I presumed belonged to my mother. The last I had known, she had gone to the master bedroom to recover from the day, having promised to be there if I needed her. Dick's heavier steps followed, both seeming to pause at the end of the corridor. With their voices muted, I was torn between laying back down or getting up to investigate.
As I crossed my room in bare feet, I reasoned that I was my father's daughter...
With my momentary emotional lapse having vanished, I felt my mind sharpening, thinking back to lessons from Cass. I pressed my ear to the door first before slowly turning the knob and pulling it back. I first looked for any signs of movement or shadows and upon seeing none, I ventured to peer into the hall. Knowing they were at the far end of the hall, there had been no point in looking towards the stairs. Using the small credenza as a cover, I inched up to kneel beside it, taking a deep breath before gazing towards my parents' bedroom.
Aside from mumbled voices, there was no sign of them.
I could have gone back into my room. Gotten back into bed. Waited until the morning to ask what had happened.
As I quickly made my way towards the partially ajar double doors, I decided the alternative would have allowed me to sleep more soundly. Seeking cover once more, I opted not to risk looking in, at least not right away. Relying on my hearing, I detected that Dick's tone had softened considerably and the low growl from my mother had dissipated entirely.
No longer growling... instead she was crying.
Over her sobs, I hear Dick offering soothing words and sounds, telling her it was okay, that Talia had deserved worse and the my dad would be okay.
She drew a long breath, regaining some composure before responding, "I saw the video, Dick, I saw what they... he's anything but okay..."
"Like he hasn't been through worse? Fighting the League of Assassins is the equivalent of a paper cut in his medical records."
My mother responded in a defeated voice, "And fighting Jason Todd?"
"Okay... that's more like tennis elbow." There was a brief pause before he added, "It wasn't pretty... But he just proved what he could endure with the Joker. And no matter what he has become, Jason isn't an iota of that lunatic."
Before she could respond, a phone chirped and Dick answered it with, "Babs? No we're fine... I'll be down in a bit... He did? That's great... I bet he is, the old coot... Let him know I'll be back down first thing in the morning. Okay... Bye."
"Alfred?" a voice asked, sounding slightly more like my mother.
"Yeah, he just woke up... he's impressed with Dr. Bryce's work now that he has seen it first hand. He's also worried about breakfast as he promised Mattie he was taking care of it."
"I'll buy out the bakery if it means he can come home," she noted before sighing. A beat later, there was an awkward laugh and, "I broke a nail."
"It's probably lodged in Talia's face," Dick said, "Guess you never needed those metal claws all of those years."
"Guess not... I... I lost it. After that video... I saw only red. She's damn lucky you all were there... I'd be hanging her head on a spike."
Dick cleared his throat and replied, "As much as I would love to see that right about now... we do need her. As much as I hate to say it, she is our best chance at finding them."
"I thought she didn't know anything worthwhile?" my mother inquired.
"At this point... I'll take what I can get."
As I crouched just behind the left hand door, I had the sudden urge to sniff through my nose, my tears from minutes earlier coming back to haunt me. Doing so would have blown my cover, but retreating in order to clear my nostrils was just as unappealing. Thankfully my next course of action was decided for me as I heard my mother say, "Well.. you better get back down there... finish things up... and send Mattie in on your way out."
I rose to my feet but opted to remain concealed behind the door until Dick passed by. He offered a smile but his eyes failed to match the gesture. Dick nodded towards the master bedroom, saying, "Hey, fancy meeting you here-."
I cut him off by speaking softly, "Oops."
Rather than one of his trademark quips, Dick put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently. Without a word, he let go and silently proceeded down the hall and towards the stairs. When he was out of my line of sight, I drew a breath before turning to face my mother, my eyes finding her sitting on the edge of the bed. She patted the empty space beside her and I slowly crossed the room to join her.
The closer I became, the more disheveled she appeared. A long lock of hair was pulled loose from her ponytail, the remainder of the contained her mused as if from running about. There was a small red splotch of skin on her right cheek that already had tell tale signs of bruising. The left sleeve of her shirt was torn where it connected to the collar, exposing an abrasion. And just as she had remarked moments earlier, her right index finger was missing most of its manicured pearl colored nail.
"You're supposed to use your words," I offered in as steady of a voice as I could muster.
My mother smiled, nodding before saying, "I had no words to use."
"This means no dessert. No TV. No cell phone. No sleepover," I mimicked my father's fruitless attempts at punishment that had failed over the years.
Mom pouted, then declared, "That's not fair."
For a moment, I had nearly uttered Life's not fair, his steadfast reply to my complaints, but opted not to. Namely, because at that given moment, life was being utterly unfair. Instead, I climbed up on the bed beside her, tucking my left leg under myself while letting the other drape over the side. My mother moved to mirror the action, even letting her hands rest in her lap just as mine were.
"Does it hurt?" I asked.
She smiled sadly before responding with, "Nope."
I smirked for a moment, uncertain as to what to say next. I felt I should apologize for eavesdropping but she didn't seem to be too upset about it. Her distant gaze said I could have stolen the Jaguar out of the garage for a joy ride and it would have been the least of her worries.
"Yeah, Mom?" I replied, even though her voice didn't sound anything like my mother.
Her eyes fell to her hands again, this time mine followed hers. It was the first time I had noticed that Dad's wedding band was on her thumb, just as when he had been in the hospital after the Joker. Mom had explained at the time that she was holding it hostage, refusing to return it to him until he came home in one piece. She had worn it everyday when we had visited him and continued to do so during those first painful few weeks after he had been released. In fact, she hadn't given it back to him until their anniversary.
No doubt her rule had been renewed, keeping it safe until he returned.
She caught me looking at it and sighed, "Your father is forgetful."
"No he's not. He means everything he does, Mom."
Nodding slowly, she agreed in a quiet voice, "That he does. And tonight, he protected you. Terry... Alfred and Leslie."
"And he meant to," I said, trying not to think of the look in his eyes when we had parted ways at the stairwell earlier that evening. After a beat, I asked what had happened to her.
It took a moment, but she managed to respond with, "I did something I shouldn't have... I... I was upset and rather than take a step away from what had upset me... I let my emotions control my actions."
"Cass says that's a mistake in battle."
Mom agreed, "It's a mistake in anything."
"Did you hurt her? Talia?"
She nodded, her voice barely above a whisper, "Yes."
"More than she hurt you?"
Her lip trembled and there was a flash of wet in her green eyes, "Nothing will ever hurt me as badly as what she did."
I noticed that she had not said to me.
I felt it was safe to assume that she had meant to your father instead.
Everything was blurry.
Sights, sounds, sensations.
Blurred by a white hot ball of agony.
Full consciousness seemed well out of my reach, all of my focus on keeping my lungs working despite the pain it caused. Unwanted stimuli of my environment jostling my body was sending flashes of lightning up my leg, through my chest and to the my head.
Even the simple task of opening my eyes was impossible, unwilling to yield to light.
Muffled sounds and the jump from hot to cold temperatures...
I had been near death enough times to reason that I was a stone's throw away once more.
In fact, it was eerily reminiscent of those early days after falling to Pasqualle's bullets. For nearly weeks, I had been confused by lights, sounds and movement... the pain overwhelming to the point it had been frightening. With the added hurdle of having lost all forms of communication and familiar faces suddenly turned foreign, it had been a small piece of Hell I had no desire to revisit.
If anything, this had been slightly better I had some of my wits about me. That in itself suggested that the number and severity of seizures I had endured since the fight in the atrium had yet to dissolve my brain. At least not all of it.
There were points where I had felt Leslie's presence, but I was unsure if it was reality or just a figment of my imagination. I had not specifically heard her voice or seen her face, but in faint moments of lucidity, I had felt her beside me, willing me to live. It was a subconscious feeling no doubt born from countless nights she had spare me from certain death.
Everything is going to be all right...
She had never let me down.
But I had failed her time and time again...
As brief moments where I felt more human than cadaver came more frequently, I tried my best to put the pieces of the attack together. A feat unto itself given that opening my eyes was a undefeated hurdle. I knew for certain the events of the day leading up to the assault, namely, spending most of the day fighting with and avoiding Selina. As much as I hated to, that in itself had distracted me from the full alert I should have maintained while Talia was in the Manor.
I should have seen them coming long before they had literally showed up on my doorstep...
No... it wasn't Selina's fault.
I had disrespected her, hurt her, lied to her again for the so-called greater good.
There was no need to blame her for clouding my judgment or deterring my attention while having Talia under our roof. Just as there had been no need to have Talia there to begin with as she would have been just as safe in a cell on the Watchtower. A mistake I had willingly defended despite the risk it had inevitably brought to my home. To my Family.
Selina wasn't to blame and even despite her once again betraying me, there had been no point in directing it even at Talia.
It was mine and mine alone...
The fight itself was hazy at best. An endless stream of black-garbed men, all yielding the telltale the skill set of the League of Assassins. Had I been a decade younger, there would have been no issue in taking them out single-handed. Ra's always had sent his best and brightest where I was involved, but even then they had never been an equal match.
But I wasn't a decade younger...
There had been one that had stood out amongst the others, sporting a red mask, walking slowly with the confidence of a proven warrior. There had been no doubt in my mind as to who was beneath the mask, even though I had buried him nearly seventeen years prior. I distinctly recalled wondering if he was sporting his trademark smirk beneath the glossy red cover...
Jason with a gun in his hands, as heartbreaking as that moment when Dick had killed the bank robber...
But Jason had not shot a criminal to spare the lives of others.
He had shot Alfred...
The rest... a haze of pain and darkness.
The first hint of life still flowing through my veins had been when a sudden jostle had caused torso to shift, resulting in the crushed bones within to move as well. The pain had been enough to jump start my brain and then a moment later, to cause me to lose consciousness. It had been long enough, however, for that brief sensation that Leslie was there.
My suspicions were confirmed when I heard muted voices, sounding distant but I rationalized that they were right beside me. I recognized Leslie's instantly even though I had been unable to make out the words. She was upset, most likely afraid of the other voice, a loud, growl.
More darkness. Then movement and blinding brightness even through my eyelids but only for a moment.
Then dreaded darkness.
And chirps. Field crickets, deafeningly playing sharp tunes. Nearly as loud as the sound of engines slowing... plane engines.
We were outside...
Leslie's presence had grown faint temporarily but there were others, breathing over me, moving me, talking in garbled tongues.
When the movement stopped, the pain did not ebb. But wherever they were taking me, Leslie would be there waiting.
Don't travel down that path.
I made another valiant attempt to focus on my surroundings, pushing the thoughts of any harm coming to Leslie out of my mind. The air was humid, painfully hot air and yet my eyelids were not blasted with blinding light. Night time but was still easily eighty degrees...
Someone was screaming. Leslie...
Focus, you damn fool.
The garbled voices made their way to my ear drums once more as the agonizing movement started up again. Rather than succumb to the pain once more, I forced myself to inhale and exhale at regular intervals, not permitting my brain to black out again.
Selina adored lilies. I used to surprise her every week with a dozen of a new variety or color each week.
I used to joke that they were practically for Isis and Taffy as they enjoyed mangling the petals.
I couldn't remember the last time I had bought her lilies...
The screeching continued.
Water. Moving water. More engine sounds, more voices. The air dropped suddenly in temperature but remained damp, genuinely refreshing my painful flesh.
But what about Leslie...
Something touched my brow gently and it took more effort than necessary to open my eyes, even for a moment. A bright light flashed into each and I was quick to close them.
It was still dark, but I was able to make out shadows of figures, walking by, not even looking down at me. Someone shouted ahead and the world around me lurched forward.
For the first time since the fight in the Manor, I heard words clearly enough to understand them.
A man's voice, "Sedation is wearing off."
"Good," another voiced hovered over me, "And perfect timing at that."
"Shall I bring the doctor?"
There was a moment of only water lapping and an engine chugging before I heard, "No... She'll just get upset again when we separate them... and we don't need that."
I was unsure if they remained beside me but was hesitant to confirm it by looking. I was right, Leslie wasn't with me... taken away but for what reason?
The water began to echo as the air grew cooler.
Another blast of shrieks, magnified as they bounced off the walls surrounding us.
I had heard that sound nearly every night for the last twenty years... even longer if I counted my nightmares.
They were bats. And we were disturbing their cave.
The lilies... I had smelled them before... a sweet, unique scent.
The haze in my mind cleared briefly, allowing me to think back almost a decade.
"Oh Bruce..." Selina had exclaimed as she admired the log stemmed, indigo hued flowers, "They're beautiful."
I had stood behind her, putting my arms around her waist as she had pulled one from the vase, taking in its aroma and then exhaling slowly. Selina had then held it up to my nose for me to admire it. While I had sniffed it, she had pulled the flower back suddenly and then smacked me in the face with it, laughter escaping her.
"Oh stop, big baby," she had remarked, returning the floral gem back to its brethren. "A Flame Lily... right?"
"Yes. Had them flown in from Central Africa."
Selina had shaken her head, smiling as she had turned to face me, "They have them at the florist in Bryanttown. Show off..."
"Me? Show off? Never."
She had stepped closer, taking my chin into manicured nails, "Have you seen the contents of the basement?"
Selina... What I wouldn't give to import every lily from across the globe if it meant righting the immeasurable wrongs... If it meant one more sly smile... One more chide remark...
Talia had not been entirely truthful, but nor had her words been completely false.
No doubt the others thought every syllable from her mouth had been slander.
She had been lying about her father's men following a false lead to the base of operations in Molomba... But had she been hinting at it all along for a reason? Telling me the truth in between the lies?
Water moving... echoing...
They certainly sounded much bigger than their North American brethren that I had come to know.
The climate... the flowers... the bats...
The base schematics fluttered in my foggy mind for a moment. Subterranean, like so many of his lairs, hidden from the eyes in the sky... even Kryptonian eyes...
My lids snapped open, clarity finding me for the first time since the alarms had sounded at the Manor. Still horizontal in a gurney, I found myself looking up into the clear, blue eyes of my fellow captive. Despite our predicament, there was no fear in her face, just relief.
"How long..." a raspy, weak shadow of my voice croaked.
"Two days. As far as I can tell... they took my watch... my phone..." she spoke softly before squeezing my left hand.
"Hurt... you?" I managed, my eyes trying to find any sign of injury on her form as it sat bedside.
She shook her head, "No. Just you."
I tried to clear my bone-dry throat but it only made talking more difficult, "Jason... did he say... anything?"
Leslie frowned for a fraction of a second before answering, "Just threats. To you. If I didn't do as I was told."
The image of Jason's sly smile flashed before my eyes. Of him firing squarely at Alfred.
I found myself whispering, "Alfred..."
Weakness twinged in her eyes for a moment, "He had a strong pulse before they took me away from him. Looks like the bullet was just under the collar bone..."
Amidst the pain pulsing in nearly every inch of my body, I felt anger surfacing as well.
Before I could say another word, I watched as Leslie turned away suddenly, worry taking over her face. I tried to look as well but even the act of turning my head was agony. I was supposed to protect her and I couldn't even lift a finger...
Leslie's eyes widening.
A chill made its way down my spine.
Then, "An unfortunate act carried out on a whim. One that I would never have ordered... nor condoned."
Leslie's hand gripped mine as if holding on for her life.
A subconscious act as her eyes never left our visitor's face.
He paused beside her, offering a curt nod before moving his gaze to me, "As are the injuries you have unnecessarily endured. My sincerest apologies, Detective."