The Love Below
A/N: I do not own Batman Beyond. I do own Outkast's album "The Love Below" but it's just a copy. Either way, happy holidays and enjoy the story!
He always called her at the most inconvenient times.
"What's your plans for the holidays?"
Max shrugged and then remembered that they were on the phone and he couldn't see her.
"I don't have any."
"What do you mean 'you don't have any'?"
"Mom pulled the Christmas shift. She'll be gone Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My sister's going to her boyfriend's house to spend the holiday with his family."
"Why don't you go with her?"
Max winced. "I don't like the look of a third wheel on me. It's not very flattering."
"What? So you're just gonna sit around the house in your underwear drinking spiked eggnog?" Terry's voice was so indignant that she had to laugh.
"What if I do?"
"Well, not that I mind the mental image, but why don't you come over and spend it with us?"
She froze, honestly surprised. Terry had the most annoying habit of catching her off-guard sometimes. "No, Ter, I couldn't. It's your family, not mine."
"Tch, since when? My mom says she sees more of you these days than me." A touch of bitterness crept into his voice that she wanted to comment on but he pushed past it.
"Besides, I can't let you be alone for Christmas. It's unheard of."
"Bruce does it all the time—"
"Bruce tries to do it all the time but last Christmas he had a visitor who took him out for a 'drive' so he wasn't alone."
Max's pulse skyrocketed at this news. She knew almost nothing about Bruce's personal life other than old news feeds from the 1990's. "Who?"
"Come to our Christmas dinner and I'll tell you."
She groaned, flopping onto her back on the bed. "You sadist."
Terry chuckled good-naturedly. "Come on, you know you wanna."
"Terry, I haven't had a real Christmas since I was ten years old. I would just get in the way."
"You won't. I'll pick you up Thursday at 7AM so we can go pick out a Christmas tree."
"7AM? Are you kidding me?"
"Bye, Max." His cheerful voice left the phone and she was stuck yelling at a dial tone instead. She hung up and palmed her face, wondering why she hadn't refused him more fervently. Then again, it wouldn't have helped. When Terry had his mind set on something, he'd get it. And she'd be kicking and screaming the whole way down.
Her doorbell rang at exactly 7:00AM and she couldn't have been any madder. Terry was always late for everything—picking up Dana for a date, taking her cat to the vet when she had to work late at the computer lab, hell even for his own doctor's appointments—but he chose today to be on time. She stomped to the front door in her pajamas and opened the door, glaring right up at his grinning face.
"I. Am not. Going." She snarled. His grin widened.
"Yes, you are."
"Says me. If you aren't dressed in five minutes, I'm going to get Matt out of the car and we're going to sing Christmas carols outside of your door until the police come and get us. Loudly. In Spanish."
The blood ran out of her face. She'd heard Terry sing before. It disrupted every dog in neighboring apartments. She slammed the door and raced to the closet, throwing on a pair of jeans, a blue sweater, boots, a heavy coat, ran a comb through her flaming pink hair, nabbed her purse, and opened the door. He had the nerve to look slightly offended.
"Oh, come on. My singing's not that bad."
Max spared him a sarcastic look as she locked the door behind them. "The last time you sang, my landlady told me she thought my cat was passing a kidney stone."
Terry stuffed his hands in his pockets, pouting. "No one can hit that high note in 'Memory Lane', dammit."
A smirk crept onto her lips before she could stop it. "Then maybe you shouldn't keep attempting it every time you get drunk."
A faint blush crowded his cheeks just as they stepped outside and Max could already feel her spirits lifting despite the frigid wind. December always blew a huge pile of snow throughout Gotham. Ice and sludge crunched underfoot as they walked towards the car crookedly parallel-parked out front with Matt in the backseat, drawing smiley faces in the frosted window. A bright smile lit up his face when he spotted Max and he waved. She couldn't help smiling back. Cute kid.
Terry opened the passenger door for her and then went around to the driver's side, getting in. Matt instantly started in on him.
"What took you so long? It's freezing in here." The eight year old complained. Terry rolled his eyes, revving the engine.
"I was gone for like three minutes, Twip. Lose the attitude or I'll leave you here."
"Yeah, right. Mom would ground you forever."
"Go play in traffic."
"Children," Max said mildly, suppressing a giggle. "Can we just get this over with?"
"Yes, ma'am." Terry replied with a slight sneer, checking his mirrors before pulling onto the main road. Max settled into her seat, grateful as the warm air wafted in from the air conditioning.
"So where are we heading? Wal-mart? Big Bob's Christmas Tree Emporium?"
Terry shook his head. "Nope. Someplace better."
Her eyebrows rose in interest. "Wait, are you talking about getting a real pine tree?"
She stared at him. "You do realize we'll be the only three people doing that in all of Gotham, right?"
"We've gotta have a real one. It's not the same thing to have those little plastic things."
She sighed. "If you say so. But you should know there aren't that many place to buy one."
He flashed her a grin. "We're not buying one."
"…are we gonna shoplift one?"
"Ooh, let's do that!" Matt chimed in from the backseat. Terry tossed a dirty glare at him in the rearview mirror.
"No, we're not. You'll see."
To her bewilderment, they drove past downtown Gotham and almost out of the city limits entirely. She was wondering if they were taking some sort of road trip but then she realized there was only one thing this far out of the way that had trees.
"Bruce lets you chop down trees on his property?" Max asked, her voice hushed in shock. Terry nodded, driving through the already open gate.
"It was his suggestion."
Terry smiled. "Yeah. Every year, Alfred would take Bruce and the boys out to get a tree from the yard and decorate it together. I thought that was a pretty schway idea for us."
Max glanced up at the snow-frosted mansion, wondering if she ever would understand the man living inside it. When she met him, he had seemed so cold and calculating. Who knew there was a heart beneath that frigid exterior?
"And the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day."
Terry parked the car and they all hopped out, heading to the trunk to gather the equipment: a large double-handled saw, a huge sled that had been crammed in there only by the grace of God, twine to tie the tree on top, and small axe for chopping off wayward branches. Matt insisted upon tugging the sled himself and Terry wouldn't let her handle the sharp stuff since, quote, "You're already mad at me, I don't need you armed", so they started up the rolling, snow-covered hills in search of the right tree. Strangely enough, Max couldn't recall the last time she had been in a forest, or anywhere out in the open air. Before school let out, she had watched other students run around pelting each other with snowballs but she never joined in. It seemed sort of juvenile for high school.
"Alright, Matt, see anything good?" Terry asked. The small boy put one gloved hand over his eyes to block out the sun, which Max noted as obscenely cute, and pointed to one in the distance.
"That one looks pretty good."
"Matt, that's a telephone pole."
"…I knew that."
Max suppressed another giggle. "Here, why don't I pull the sled and you can get up on Terry's shoulders so you can see better?"
"Sweet!" The kid dropped the sled and scurried over to his brother, who shook his head but stooped enough for his brother to climb onto his back. Max took the reins and pulled the sled, watching with amusement as Matt continued searching for the mythical perfect tree but only succeeded in engaging in more argumentative moments with his older brother.
"What about that one?"
"That's the same tree, Matt."
"I think it has a bear in it, let's go this way."
"Well, fine! Why don't you just pick a tree?" The eight year old groused, crossing his arms. Max shook her head, coming to a stop beside a modest looking tree that was only about six feet tall.
"Alright, boys, what about this one?"
Terry turned, giving it a glancing over and smiling. "Do you ever stop being perfect?"
She rolled her eyes. "Flattery gets you nowhere, McGinnis."
He lifted Matt off his shoulders and set him down, flashing her a grin before lifting his saw. "I beg to differ. Here, grab this side. Hold it level and move slow. Matt, line up the sled on this side of the tree and step back. Ready?"
Sawing off the trunk wasn't as hard as Max thought it would be, though it did involve way more strain on her lower back. At the appropriate moment, Matt of course yelled "Timber!" as the tree toppled over onto the sled, spraying them all with snow and pine needles. Afterward, they tied it down securely to the sled and Matt hopped aboard as she and Terry pulled it back to the car for loading.
Moments later, they were safely back in the car and heading for the McGinnis household after stopping by the town's only Krispy Kreme for a box of Christmas-themed doughnuts and coffee (or hot chocolate, in Matt's case). Unloading the tree took effort, patience, and soundly boxing Terry and Matt about the ears for arguing, but they managed to haul the tree into the den where a stand had already been placed.
Max flopped on the couch, tossing her gloves on the coffee table and stretching her back. Terry plopped down next to her, letting out an exhausted sigh.
"Does it go that smoothly every year?" She questioned, unzipping her coat. Terry smirked.
"Does your Mom ever get to go?"
"Sometimes. This is only the second time we've used one of the trees from Bruce's yard. When Dad was still here, we'd go outside of Gotham and get two trees: one for this house and one for his."
Max's eyes softened on him. "Oh."
He shook his head. "Don't look at me like that."
"Sorry. I just…I know it's a little hard to think about family this time of year." She said, her voice low, gaze aimed at the floor. Terry sat up, his expression sobering.
"That's why we do it. It never gets any easier but it helps to remember."
She opened her mouth to say more but Matt appeared, whining about Terry getting the decorations out of the garage for him. They rented an apartment but each one had its own small garage on the left-hand side. Terry heaved a sigh and beckoned Max to help him carry boxes. She actually didn't mind the manual labor, mostly because she would be getting a peek into the McGinnis family's personal belongings. She had spent a couple dinners with them before but she didn't know much about Terry's home life.
Back when they still celebrated Christmas, Max's family had the standard decorations: bulbs, garland, lights, and an angel on the top of the tree. She would never admit it out loud but she missed racing around the tree with her small fists full of silver or gold garland as her mother and father watched on with amusement and her sister tried to finish her side of the tree in the meantime.
The McGinnis family decorations were a little different. They had many of the same things as her family—the glass bulbs, lights, and garland—but they also had velvet ribbons, homemade porcelain ornaments, candy canes, and miniature wreaths. The bickering between Terry and his brother soon fell away as she began unpacking a box full of homemade decorations. Some of them were photos attached to the fat bellies of ceramic Santas or stars made of craft sticks and felt. She found herself grinning at the pictures of Terry at the age of six with an oversized Santa hat and a half-eaten Gingerbread man clutched in one chubby fist. Part of her had always envied Terry's tiny family. It may have been a little damaged, but she could always tell their love was still intact.
"Looking for blackmail?" She jumped as Terry's voice came from right behind her. Being Batman gave him the endlessly annoying ability to sneak up on her. She set the last decoration down on the now crowded coffee table, tossing a challenging smirk over her shoulder at him.
"What if I am?"
He shook his head. "I've already burned all the ones of me in the bathtub so these will have to do."
She rolled her eyes, tugging the Christmas lights box closer and crossing her legs.
"Believe me, I have better things to do with my time."
"I'll bet you do." To her surprise, he took a seat directly behind her, sandwiched between her body and the couch, long legs splayed out on either side of hers. Automatically, her pulse raced in surprise of the sudden body contact.
"What are you—"
"Just hand it to me when you get the tangles out and I'll wrap it up."
She eyed him but he gave her nothing but that enigmatic smile of his, ice blue eyes full to the brim with humor, just daring her to protest. Max decided not to give him the satisfaction and instead began concentrating on untangling the Christmas lights rather than the hard contours of his well-muscled chest against her spine.
To fill the silence that made her more and more uncomfortable by the second, she turned on the television and was thrilled to find that one of the classic Christmas films was on. Terry didn't exactly have the same reaction.
"…what the hell is a Grinch?"
Max's mouth dropped open. "How have you never seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas?"
He shrugged. "We never really watched TV on Christmas."
"That is unacceptable. You have to see this movie." She asserted, turning up the volume and calling Matt into the room from where he'd been sneaking doughnuts in the kitchen. To her dismay, he too had never heard of the Dr. Seuss cartoon. Soon, the air was filled with whimsical songs and Max found herself sucked into the movie just like she was every year. It wasn't until the end of the film that any of them spoke again.
"Well, now I know what to call Bruce during the holiday season," Terry mused. Max stifled a laugh.
"That's an understatement."
He shifted a bit and that was when Max realized they had finished untangling the lights sometime during the movie and she was leaning back against him as if he were a human chair. She hadn't noticed and he hadn't complained about it. And in typical McGinnis style, he decided to poke fun at her the moment she became embarrassed.
"Comfy?" He said with a sly grin. Max rolled her eyes.
"Way too comfortable. Maybe you should do some more sit ups, Captain Squishy." She gave his stomach an enthusiastic poke and he frowned. Of course, he had a perfect set of washboard abs, as Max pretended not to notice, but his ego was very easily bruised.
"Hey, when's the last time you've been to a gym?" He challenged, pinching her left thigh with emphasis. Max bristled, glaring at him over her shoulder.
"I do cardio at home, thank you very much."
Terry opened his mouth to say more but was interrupted when Matt groaned loudly. "Get a room. You guys are gross."
Both teenagers glared at the boy, who then jumped off the couch to go back in his room and play video games. Max moodily pushed the empty box aside with her foot, starting to stand up.
"Remind me to kill him later."
"So what's next on the agenda?" She asked, dusting off the back of her jeans. Terry stood as well, pausing to toss her a coy smirk.
"We could always get that room he was talking about."
She gave him a dirty look and he merely chuckled. "Mom gets home tonight around five o'clock so we need to pick up her Christmas presents."
Max arched an eyebrow. "You really want to take the Twip shopping with us the day before Christmas Eve?"
He had enough sense to look sheepish. "He insists. He won't let me pick out a present for him no matter what I say. I'll go take a shower and then we can head out."
"Good point. I could use one too, but I don't have anything to change into."
Terry thought about it for a moment and then nodded for her to follow him. "Hold on, I might have something."
She fought the urge to give him another suspicious look but trailed him to his room. She stood in the doorway and watched with amusement as he rooted through his dresser, tossing boxers and t-shirts here and there until he came away with something in her size. To her surprise, it was actually one of her favorites: a long-sleeved black shirt with the Tasmanian devil on the front.
"I've been looking everywhere for this." She said, smiling faintly as he handed it to her.
"You left it a few months ago when we were pulling an all-nighter for midterms."
"How'd you know it was in there?"
He shrugged one shoulder. "It's right next to where I hide the con—uh, cookies."
She arched an eyebrow at his last minute word change. "I'm not an eight year old. You're a big boy, even you have needs."
He gave her a slow smile that made the room feel woefully small to her. "That is probably the most exploitable thing you have ever said to me."
Max gave him a challenging smirk. "Well? Do your worst."
She probably shouldn't have said that but something about him brought out her playful side, even when she knew better. He walked towards her and placed one hand on the doorjamb, leaning down to her height with that same heated smile in place. His lips parted and she had to fight the urge to glance at them.
"Go take your shower, little girl."
Max grinned and walked down the hall with an extra sway in her hips, knowing that he would notice and not giving a damn.
A/N: This is indeed a multi-chapter story (insert dramatic gasp here) and the second chapter will be posted immediately after this one. Make sure you leave a review for both. I haven't attempted a multiple chapter fic in some time so I need encouragement. Thanks for reading!