Title: Change of Plans
Author: DC Luder
Summary: Now that he's back, Bruce has to decide whether to stick to tradition or follow a new path.
Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.
Author's Note: Bludhaven Bruce Wayne's birthday challenge. Quasi-sequel to last year's "Happy Birthday, Bruce".
"It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection."
The first birthday I could remember was my fifth.
Despite my age, it had been an extravagant affair at the Manor, the old house decked out with balloons and streamers, children running everywhere and colleagues and socialites having too good of a time. I distinctly recalled my mother making me wear a red sweater I had loathed and my father letting me take it off not an hour into the party. A boy, the eldest of the Clarkson progeny, had spilled punch on the carpet and covered it with his party hat.
Later, I had told Alfred what had happened and he had smirked, "Nothing club soda cannot mend, Master Bruce."
The three birthdays that had followed did not involve celebrations that were nearly as extravagant. For my sixth, it been my first grade class and their parents joining my family for an afternoon of games and red velvet cake. My seventh had been just myself, my mother and Alfred, with my father away for a trauma surgical conference in Chicago. My eighth had been dinner and a movie, a night out on the town with my parents.
Every February the nineteenth that followed left a foul taste in my mouth.
No, I reminded myself, that wasn't entirely true.
Dick's second year living at the Manor had changed that. Having learned of my birthday from the society pages, he had taken the initiative to give me a surprise. After he had finished school that day, he had dedicated hours to washing and scrubbing the Batmobile to black, glossy perfection. He had even installed padded seat covers in order to make the late night drive home from patrols more comfortable. I had thanked him for his efforts and rewarded him by letting him tag along for the only way I had celebrated my birthday for decades.
Namely leaving two red roses in Crime Alley for my parents.
The years that had followed, he had always found some gift or gesture to bring light to the harrowed day and more often than not, accompanied me to that filthy patch of street.
I had missed my last birthday, fighting my way back through time in order to over come all odds and make my way home. Knowing Dick, he had most likely carried on the tradition of laying the roses, but since my return I had never thought to ask. In fact, since I made it back to the land of the living, I had barely asked any of them on how they had coped in my absence.
Instead, I had studied them under the guise of the Insider, testing their resolve and trust, looking for changes in how they defended Gotham. In what Dick would have called "true Bruce form", I had studied them up close and from afar. With Tim was already working by my side, I had focused on Dick and Damian, Stephanie Brown along with Barbara, her father and even Selina, wanting to see how they had carried on under the assumption that I was gone forever. It hadn't been a surprise to see that not only had they carried on the war on crime, but they had flourished doing so. Deep down, I had wondered if my stepping back into the light would subtract from what they had accomplished, individually and as a group.
In the end, I had convinced myself that if my death brought about such change, my resurrection would only inspire them further.
Coming out of the shadows had nearly been a spiritual experience, if I had believed in that sort of thing. Confronting the madman that had nearly destroyed my life alongside my eldest and youngest had been worth every ounce of pain I had endured in the previous months. Since I had already encountered and fought with Dick and Damian as the Insider, I had been aware of the alterations they had made in their combative methods. As Batman, Dick still utilized his natural acrobatic abilities while adding in the quick, hard hitting movements that sent assailants to the ground. Damian had also evolved, avoiding possibly lethal strikes in order to simply disarm and occasionally maim his opponents.
It had been difficult not beam with pride right then and there.
And yet not long after finally fighting my way back to Gotham, I had departed once more. My time away had reminded me of the dangers that wrought havoc around the globe, threats that needed to be struck down by brave souls. Creating Batman Inc. might have been the most foolish thing I had ever done, but the same could have been said for anytime I had donned the cowl. If there were those out there willing to comply to my oath, willing to risk it all for the greater good, then there was no reason that criminals shouldn't fear the night in cities other than Gotham.
Especially if I was able to leave my city in very capable hands…
I had given the cowl to Dick once before, shortly after I had taken it from the deranged Jean Paul Valley. Although he had accepted it without question, there had been no denying the unease it had brought to his usually light face. I never knew it had been because he though of it as a test, a reward or practice for when I eventually would be unable to wear the mask. Again, I had never asked.
Alfred had called my return a new lease on life. He had also added that he was unable to specifically refer to it as a second one seeing how he had lost count of how many times I had danced with death. Everyone had changed, except for him.
Which was why his call the morning after Valentine's Day had caught my attention.
Selina and I were in Turkey, celebrating the holiday not for its traditional sense but that we had just signed on twenty-eight year old Hakan Kemel as the guardian of Ankara. With crime rates skyrocketing in the last five years, the nation's capital was being over run by drug trafficking, the country itself accounting for fourteen percent of the global supply of heroin. And where there were drugs, there were syndicates, there was gambling, prostitution, illegal firearms and deaths totaling to more than four thousand annually.
The mixed martial artist had lost his family when a fire fight broke out in a public square, gladly accepting the terms of his probationary period as the city's guardian.
Our flight to Peru left early on the sixteenth, giving us all of the fifteenth to rest up and plan for our next endeavor. I hadn't been surprised that Selina was willing to accompany me on my globetrotting, but it was unexpected that she had yet to grow tired of it. Foolishly, I had told her the previous week that if she did want to return to Gotham, I would arrange for it. Her response had been along the lines that she had no intention of letting me out of her sights after all I had put her through.
Nearly six in the morning in Ankara, the phone rang. Since we had been staying under a pseudonym in a suite at the Hilton, I shot upright in the bed, grabbing the phone before it could ring a second time. Glancing over to see Selina still sleeping, I whispered into the receiver, "Merhaba?"
The gentleman at reception pleaded for forgiveness for calling, "Saat, efendim için özür dilerim."
Rising, I found a pair of discarded boxer briefs, donning them while asking, "Nedir?
"Amerika'dan gelen sizin için bir çağrı var. Ben içinden göndereyim mi?"
A call from America, I thought before telling him that I accepted it, "Evet, ile göndermek."
Stepping out of the bedroom with the portable phone, I disregarded my robe and quietly closed the glass doors while waiting for the call to be connected. Navigating the dark suite, I walked towards the living area where the beginning of dawn was daring to cut through the large windows. It was a seven hour time difference between our location and the east coast, and seeing how anyone capable of finding me was limited to Barbara…
"My apologies for the early hour, sir."
Making my way down three steps and into the sitting room, I replied, "It's a late hour for you, Alfred."
He hesitated before explaining, "I had intended to call yesterday when Ms. Barbara provided me with the location you were residing at, but I thought it best to wait… in the event you were observing Valentine's Day with-."
Taking seat on a chaise, I cut him off, "It's fine. We're only here today, tomorrow we leave for Lima."
"Ah, very good, sir. A much more palatable climate than Turkey, no doubt."
There was another pause, forcing me to ask, "Is there something wrong?"
"Oh, no, sir. Not in the least… Surely if Master Dick and MasterDamian weren't busy striking terror into the hearts of evildoers, they would be delighted to send their regards."
His way of gently suggesting that I needed to check in more often.
Fighting a yawn, I also had to hold back the curtness in my voice, "Then can I ask why you are calling me at six in the morning… eleven at night for you?"
"If I may be so bold, sir… I was inquiring as to when you intended on coming home."
There was no answer to that question, not even a false one. Instead, I responded with, "There's a lot of work to be done outside of Gotham. When it's finished, then."
It was obviously not the answer he wanted to hear as he was quick to say, "Well, sir, if that is the case, perhaps we could change the master bedroom into a home theater for Master Damian. He has already been shopping for new television…"
"Is he causing trouble?" I found myself asking. Although Damian was finally coming into his own, out from under his mother's hold, he still had a long way to go. His encroaching adolescence was something that would put mine, Dick's and Jason's combined to shame.
"No, sir. He has been rather cooperative of late. In fact, I cannot recall the last time he has called me a fool… or when he last ridiculed Master Dick for more than a five minute rant."
I heard a soft sound from the bedroom, forcing me to glance over my shoulder briefly. Exhaling, I finally asked, "Then what?"
Alfred showed no hesitation in his response, "A little over a year ago, we had a small, quiet dinner at the Manor before Master Dick and Master Damian departed for the evening. Master Dick was also kind enough to fulfill your annual obligation… I was thinking about having another dinner… and I know it would mean the world to both of them if you were in attendance."
He interrupted without contest, "I would hate to spend another year with both of them staring at your empty chair, sir. Especially considering you are now physiologically capable of filling it."
It was my turn to remain silent.
Alfred closed with, "At the very least, if being with your family can not compel you to come home, perhaps honoring your… obligation will."
Turning the phone off, I set it down on the small end table adjacent to the chaise, making no attempt to rise and return to bed. I watched as the sun finally forced the dark skies to recede, breaching the horizon at precisely thirty-nine after six. It wasn't until nearly nine that I heard Selina's bare feet approaching, followed by a soft yawn.
"Please tell me you got up early to order room service."
I glanced up at Selina, nearly smirking to see her in the robe I had neglected, knowing she had nothing on underneath. Casting aside troubling thoughts, I asked, "What?"
She picked the phone up and waved it at me, "You know I would do anything for a fresh biscuit with honey right now." When I kept staring at her, Selina's brow rose, "You okay?"
Taking a seat beside me, she shook her head, "I doubt that… you snored like a champ… How long have you been out here?"
I lied, "Not long."
Without warning, she leaned over and kissed my cheek, "Go shower…shave… I'll order the works." When I didn't move, she stabbed the nub of the phone's antenna repeatedly into my side, "Do I have to repeat myself?"
Although I was able to leave her in the sitting room, my thoughts were not as easily discarded. Standing under the rain showerhead, I went through the motions of washing in hopes to refocus my mind. I needed the day to prepare for the trip to Lima, to help the city force out the rampant crime. There was no time to think about empty chairs at the dinner table or taking time for myself and my Family. They had carried on fine when they thought I was dead, there was no reason they were unable to do the same if I was in a different hemisphere.
… perhaps honoring your… obligation will…
I had made a promise to the graves of my parents that the innocent would not go unprotected.
Dick, Barbara, Jason, Tim, Cassandra and Stephanie all had taken vows of loyalty, secrecy and courage.
They had honored their solemn words without question, even under the impression that I had "died".
I hadn't even looked upon my parents headstones or visited Crime Alley since I had been back.
I stepped out of the bedroom to find Selina moving the contents of a food cart onto the small, marble topped table. Where I had dressed in dark slacks, a white shirt and a midnight blue v-neck sweater, she had also changed. Her long legs disclosed in white sailor cut pants and instead of cloaking her body in my robe, she had donned a three-quarter sleeve chocolate colored cardigan over a brown and white banded top. Her short hair was less chaotic and she had touched her face up unnecessarily with makeup.
The only thing that had remained the same was her bare feet.
Without looking up at me, she announced, "I convinced them to bring us our own buffet… sourdough bread, warm honey, black olives, tomatoes, oranges, fresh yogurt… you can have the beef sausage and omelet, but I call dibs on the biscuits. All of them."
I waited to take a seat until she had, quietly thanking her as she poured me tea before dishing out a heaping plate of food. She joked that after last night, she was starving which meant that I must have been famished.
Having her along for the last few months had proved to be helpful in more ways than I had anticipated. In the field, she was an experienced in my line of work and certainly capable of taking care of herself in a fight. As a cover for Bruce Wayne's travels, she gave the gossip column something to squabble about under the alias of cosmetic heiress Elva Barr. Deep down, I wanted to admit that those were the only reasons I had asked her along, to watch Batman's back as well as act as an alibi for Bruce Wayne.
Deep down, I knew I couldn't, that I had wanted her to accompany for more than an extra set of eyes or arm candy to show off at the airport…
"Again with the quiet, stoic face…" Selina sighed.
"What?" I asked, glancing to her.
She smiled, "You. Off in your own world. Trying to think a hundred steps ahead."
I wish I had been deliberating about Peru and about the countries that would follow, but my mind wouldn't stray from the streets of Gotham. It kept rerouting back to Dick wearing the cowl, both past and present. Tim touring the world on his own, before and after I had returned. Damian finally fighting against what he had been raised to do. Stephanie seeking to make Batgirl her own, Cassandra having forsaken the guise in order to give the girl a second chance. Barbara rising to challenge after challenge without hesitation.
And Alfred still being able to sway me with mere words even after I had made up my mind.
"Where's the phone?" I asked suddenly, standing from the small table.
"Back in the bedroom, why?" she inquired, her face showing more curiosity than confusion. The same look I had seen a thousand times over and would be glad to see another thousand.
I paused while walking towards the open glass door, "Change of plans."