Chapter 1: Prologue | The Offer
Come with me.
They were words said on an impulse, said only as they faced the end of the world.
And, after he turned her down, after he sacrificed himself for his damn city, Selina Kyle never expected her words to come up again.
She was wrong.
“That offer of yours still stand?” Bruce asked her later, after everything. His voice was soft, his fingertips lazily tracing imaginary lines across her skin.
Her gut, her instinct, said no.
Her lips, the traitorous things, said yes.
They left together, putting thousands of miles and an ocean between themselves and Gotham. They wandered aimlessly around Europe until, at Bruce’s suggestion, they settled in Florence. It was a casual, uncomplicated existence.
Until it wasn’t.
Chapter 2: The Boy From the Circus
Bruce hadn’t given Selina any idea of where he was taking her. A surprise, he’d said as they’d gotten into the cab. She wasn't sure what she’d been expecting, but this bright, candy-colored nightmare of an auditorium wasn’t it.
Among other things, she was overdressed.
“This is a circus,” Selina observed as they took their seats.
“It’s performance art,” Bruce replied.
“Which is apparently your fancy, blue-blood way of saying circus.” Selina watched his forehead crease.
“It’s not a traditional circus,” Bruce argued. He was more or less right; there were no animals or ringleaders or balloons in sight, and the colorful program in her lap promised acrobats, tightrope walkers, contortionists and jugglers. “It’s contemporary. Cultured.”
“Cultured?” Selina raised an eyebrow. “There are clowns,” she pointed out. He shrugged.
“They’re artsy clowns.”
“You’re impossible,” she said. “Is this your idea of a romantic night out?”
“Who said I was trying to be romantic?” Bruce countered as the lights began to dim. Selina ignored him, fighting a smile as she turned her attention to the stage. After several months of comfortable and unlabeled coexistence with Bruce Wayne, she had to admit she still enjoyed his company.
For the most part, that is. When he wasn’t doing ridiculous things, like taking her to a circus under false pretenses.
That’s what she got for spending her days with an eccentric ex-billionaire who suffered from too much imagination and had a flare for the dramatic.
As the night continued, Selina had to concede this was no typical circus. In fact, it was quite the spectacle. The performances flowed together, one into the next, engaging and beautiful. Early on, a man balanced high on a tightrope, walking along the super thin wire with ease.
“I can do that,” Bruce whispered in her ear.
Next came the aerial performers, climbing and twisting up large ribbons of colorful silk. The following act was a female contortionist, balancing on one foot, twisting her other leg up and behind her head.
“I can do that,” Selina teased Bruce back, seeing that familiar hunger flash in his eyes.
The final act was a trio of acrobats—a man, woman and boy in bright, skin-tight costumes. The couple flew high above, swinging back and forth on the trapeze. Together, separate and then together again, alternating, perfectly synchronized. The small boy flew between them, around them, like a bright little bird. All three moved through the air in colorful streaks of red and green and yellow. Selina let herself get lost, mesmerized by the beauty of it. It was almost magical.
Until a rope gave way and the beautiful couple plummeted to the ground.
The magic was gone and in its place, center stage, were a pair of broken bodies. Selina was on her feet before she realized it. So was Bruce. Several other audience members had done the same.
She’d seen death before, but familiarity didn’t make the sight any better, it didn’t keep her blood from running cold or stop that sinking feeling in her stomach. Center ring was not the streets of Gotham, but in that moment it might as well have been. She could hear the gunshots, the sirens in the distance. She could smell the thick odor wafting in from the docks and the tinny, metallic scent of blood. The lines of chalk on pavement. Selina shook her head against the wave of memories, pushing them back, pushing them away.
After the initial outcry from the audience there were a few scattered screams and gasps through the auditorium, but for the most part, it was deathly quiet in the seats. On stage, however, there was a commotion, a flurry of people flooding the area, medics and stagehands.
Selina tore her eyes away from the chaos to glance at Bruce. His face was hard and blank, but there was a frightening intensity in his eyes. Unlike the rest of the horrified audience, he was no longer looking at the fallen couple. Selina followed his gaze to the outskirts of the main stage, where it settled on the acrobat boy in his garish costume. A boy with wide eyes and broken heart written across his face.
A voice over the loudspeaker ordered the audience to the exits. She followed Bruce as they made their way up the stairs. They had only taken a few steps before he abruptly turned to face her.
“I’ll meet you outside,” he said, disappearing into the moving crowd. Selina would have followed, but she lost sight of him before she had the chance.
Continuing alone, she made her way through the crowd and out of the building, finding a secluded spot to wait. As the night grew colder, she silently cursed the unsuitableness of her short, low-cut, inappropriately fashionable dress.
If she’d known Bruce was going to bolt off on some unknown mission, leaving her at the mercy of the elements, she’d have dressed more warmly.
Or stayed home.
Selina frowned, tugging her jacket tighter as she waited.
The crowd began to thin. She glanced at her phone, checking the time and growing more impatient by the minute. After a half an hour, most of the crowd had dispersed. Selina was about to give up, already calling for a cab, when she spotted Bruce walking toward her.
He wasn’t alone.
At Bruce’s side was a dark little figure, Bruce’s deep brown overcoat draped across his shoulders. He was in street clothes now, but there was no mistaking him.
It was the acrobat boy from inside.
What do we have here?
As they got closer, Selina could see tear streaks down the boy’s face, She could hear him hiccupping and breathing uneven, gaspy little breaths. She found Bruce’s eyes in the darkness but couldn't read them.
“This is Richard,” Bruce introduced without preamble. Selina greeted him, shooting a quick, questioning look at Bruce as she did. It was ignored. The boy didn’t say a word, but when he looked up at her, his blue eyes were unfocused and far away, looking past her, through her.
The taxi she had called for pulled up to the curb. Bruce didn’t need to say anything else. Selina wasn’t sure how he’d managed it, but it looked like the kid was coming home with them.
The ride back to their apartment was silent and tense. In the back of the taxi, the boy sat between them, eyes still unfocused, unblinking. He hadn’t spoken a word but continued to hiccup at regular intervals, a pattern broken only by the occasional stray sniff. Bruce reached over, pulling his heavy overcoat tighter around the boy’s shoulders.
“It’s OK,” Bruce said. His voice was firm, but still softer than Selina had ever heard it. He repeated those same words a few times over, like a mantra. They sounded empty to her ears, hollow and unfulfilling.
They’re also impractical and wrong, Selina thought, her eyes narrowing. But however empty the words sounded to her, something in them seemed to comfort the boy. After a few minutes, his breathing evened and the hipupping slowed to a stop. She glanced over to see him slumped against Bruce’s side.
“Shock,” Bruce mouthed silently over the top of the boy’s dark head. No kidding, she thought. She opened her mouth to speak, but Bruce caught her eye and shook his head, nodding down toward the boy against his side.
Fine. Selina pressed her lips together, turning her attention out the window. She glared at the dark, fast-moving hillside and the approaching lights of the city. It was rare for Selina to relent, but tonight she held back on pure instinct. There was something going on with Bruce, and it was more than him being his charming, stoic self.
Selina glanced back, watching Bruce’s face in the darkness as he stared at nothing. He was on edge, muscles tense, mouth set in a hard line. She didn’t know what it was and she didn’t understand it, but it was there, a dark cloud of emotions masked by a stony facade.
Whatever it was, it had to be more than just watching two strangers fall to their deaths.
He was from Gotham too, after all.
She would have asked, but Bruce made it clear talking was prohibited and Selina knew better than to press. The whole atmosphere was eerie, like walking through an abandoned minefield. As if one false word from her might set him off.
In the awkward silence of the cab, the only sounds to reach her ears were the hum of the car engine, the dulled, diluted noise of the world outside and the soft, constant breathing of the little boy in the seat beside her.
That last one seemed louder, more intrusive, than the rest.
By time the taxi rolled to a stop at their corner, the kid had passed out. Without a word, Bruce gathered him in his arms, carrying him to their building’s door and up the flight of stairs like he weighed nothing at all. Selina followed behind, moving forward only to unlock their apartment door.
Once inside, Bruce nodded toward their couch, an oversized yellow number that took up most of the living room. Selina cleared away the stray decorative pillows, making room. Bruce set the boy down; he stirred but didn’t wake. Selina reached over and pulled her soft throw blanket from the back of the couch down over him.
She watched for a moment, making sure the kid was really asleep. He looked impossibly young; if she had to guess, Selina would have said he was nine, ten at the oldest. Her eyes scanned over him, over the mop of jet-black hair and the long, dark eyelashes that stood out against light olive skin, the fingers that loosely gripped the edges of Bruce’s coat and the steadily rising and falling chest.
Satisfied the boy was asleep and going to stay that way, Selina looked up again. Bruce was nowhere to be seen.
But he wasn’t getting off that easy. A full explanation for the night’s events was long overdue. She went looking for him. Given the smallness of their apartment, there wasn’t much to search; she saw light streaming from the bathroom and went to investigate.
From the door, Selina could see Bruce standing at the mirror, his back to her. He had already changed for bed, wearing only a well-worn pair of sleep pants.
“So, do I finally have permission to speak?” Selina asked, pushing the door open. Her smirk faded at the sight of him. His head was bent and he was leaning over the sink, hands balled into fists against the countertop. She could see the outline of muscles in his back, tense and shifting. Tension radiated off him in waves; she could almost feel the heat of it.
At the sound of her voice, Bruce looked up and into the mirror. Their eyes met in the reflection.
God, he looks tired, Selina thought as she stared back into his dark eyes. Beyond tired. In that moment, he looked so much older. Haunted. The heaviness behind those eyes dissipated every ounce of indignation she had left.
Instinctively, Selina stepped closer, rising up on her toes as she reached over and wrapped her arms around Bruce’s chest. She let her chin rest against the slope of his shoulder and sighed, holding his eyes in the mirror as she waited.
“I had to,” Bruce said at last, looking away. His voice wavered a bit; Selina found it unsettling. “It’s just for tonight,” he added. He was as stiff as a statue, unmoving but for the rhythmic motion of his breathing. She continued to watch him, studying the hard lines of his face in the mirror. Without realizing it, she found herself nodding in agreement.
With a heavy sigh, Bruce turned in her arms, his own wrapping their way around her waist, pulling her closer. It was so unexpected, so uncharacteristic of him, Selina didn’t have time to react. She froze in place as his head fell to her shoulder. She felt him breathe in deep, exhaling slowly as if trying to steady himself, his breath warm against her skin.
In all the months they’d spent together, Selina had never seen him like this. He seemed shaken and she knew from experience this was not a man easily shaken.
What the hell is wrong with him?
A few awkward seconds passed, his weight heavy against her. On impulse, Selina reached up and ran her fingers through his dark hair.
“Hey, it’s OK,” she heard herself say. The words felt dead on her lips, but she said them anyway, not sure where they’d come from. “It’s OK,” she repeated. His grip tightened and her breath caught in her throat. After a moment, she felt him relax again. Only then did Selina realize she’d repeated to him the same hollow words Bruce had said to the boy in the back of the cab.
They were surprisingly effective.
Bruce pulled back, resting his forehead against hers. His fingers weaved through her hair as his eyes lingered, searching. There was an overwhelming intensity in them; Selina refused to look away. He leaned in and pressed his lips against hers.
Bruce had kissed her hundreds of times since leaving Gotham, but none of those kisses had been anything like this one. There was no passion in this, no heat or longing or desire. Nothing recognizable. It was chaste, comforting.
It confused the hell out of her.
Bruce leaned away, looking down at her again. Selina didn’t know what he saw or what he was thinking, but his eyes had softened around the edges and the tension written across his entire body before had all but disappeared.
“I just hope you know how quiet we’re going to have to be,” Selina whispered, breaking a moment that had become far too intense for her tastes. Bruce smirked, looking a bit like himself again. she sighed, relieved at the sight.
Relieved and, she realized, exhausted.
“Come on.” Selina flicked off the bathroom light and took his hand, leading him through the living room to their bedroom.
The boy on the couch didn’t stir at all.
Chapter 3: New Arrangements
Sharing a bed with Bruce had been an adjustment; the man had absolutely no sense of personal space. He didn’t just lie down, he sprawled, limbs stretched haphazardly across their king-sized bed, reaching from side to side, end to end. Most mornings, Selina would wake with heavy arms draped around her waist, with her legs tangled up in his. Untangling wasn’t easy; Bruce was a big guy and a heavy sleeper.
She found that a solid kick to his left knee usually did the trick.
This was such a habit of his that it was more than surprising when Selina woke the next morning to find she had not only full range of motion, but also the entire bed to herself.
She would have stayed, slept in and enjoyed it, but something was not quite right; namely, Bruce was up and about and the clock hadn’t even hit eight.
Bruce Wayne was a lot of things, but a morning person he was not.
Selina rolled over, blinking against the brightness of the day, the warm sunlight streaming through sheer curtains. She waited for her eyes to adjust before stretching her sleep-tight muscles and pulling herself out of bed.
Glancing across the room, she saw that not only was Bruce awake, but he was also already getting dressed. Really dressed. In his suit.
Being awake before Selina was unprecedented, but the suit was downright puzzling. She came up behind him, looking over him with a deliberate eye.
“You’re awfully dressed up for a morning run,” Selina quipped, running the tips of her fingers across his shoulder blades, the fabric of his suit jacket smooth to the touch. He didn’t respond. “Did someone die and you just forgot to tell me?” She heard him make a soft grunt.
“I have a meeting this morning,” he answered. Selina tilted her head, raising an eyebrow.
After a few months of living abroad on his various nest eggs and off-the-books emergency funds, Bruce had reestablished contact with Lucius Fox and was hired, under his assumed name, as an offshore consultant for Wayne Enterprises. The position was lucrative, legitimate and came with a nice benefits package to boot. It also gave Bruce the ability to contribute to the process of rebuilding his family's company, if anonymously and from afar.
And if Fox had ever batted an eye at the dependent he had claimed, Bruce never mentioned it to her.
“You work from home,” Selina pointed out, “for a company four thousand miles away.”
“True,” he said, buttoning his collar. “This is not work-related.”
Selina then remembered their unexpected house guest; her eyes darted to the closed door. She listened but didn’t hear any noise from the other side. Even still, she felt a twinge in the pit of her stomach. Bruce was up to something and, whatever it was, she’d bet good money it had to do with the sleeping kid in their living room. A sleeping kid who would not stay sleeping forever.
One practical thought led to another.
“You aren’t leaving me alone with him, are you?”
“Why not?” Bruce asked, fastening his shirt cuffs. “You’re not afraid of a little kid, are you?”
“Of course not,” she said. “It’s just that I...” Selina searched for one of the hundred reasons this was a bad idea before settling on the most obvious. “I’m not good with kids. I wouldn’t know what to do with one, especially not one who watched his parents die.”
“You do all right.” Bruce’s reply was typical and cryptic and technically sounded like a compliment. It only annoyed her more. Her eyes narrowed. “You will be fine,” he amended. “You can relate. You’ve lost people.”
It was the truth, more or less, but Selina still felt the need to clarify.
“No one I couldn’t stand losing, Bruce.” The words came out softer than she'd meant them to. Bruce seemed to consider them a moment, but didn’t respond, going back to fiddling with his tie.
Not yet, anyway, Selina added to herself as she watched him finish getting dressed. That old sinking feeling settled in her chest as memories she kept buried threatened to come flooding back. Memories of those first days after Bane, after everything. Back when Bruce was certainly dead, again and for real and not coming back this time. Because people don’t cheat death more than once. Because no one was that lucky. Or that clever.
Except for Bruce Wayne, apparently.
Selina shook her head and refocused, reminding herself that the man in question stood in front of her, alive and well and cleaning up nicely in his Armani.
He was also about to go on a secret unexplained mission, leaving her alone with a grieving kid. A kid he had decided to bring home last night without so much as a head’s up.
In hindsight, faking his death was one of the least annoying things Bruce had ever done.
Selina got dressed and trailed after Bruce as he creaked open the bedroom door. She held her breath as they tiptoed past the dark, bumpy form of sleeping boy on the couch, still wrapped in Bruce’s coat. She followed Bruce across the apartment to the front door.
“And what exactly am I supposed to do when he wakes up?” she whispered at Bruce’s back as he stepped out to leave. He turned, ducked his head back in the doorway a moment and shrugged.
“You could always start by feeding him.” Selina caught the barest of twitching at the edges of his lips before Bruce turned and headed down the stairs, shiny dress shoes tapping all the way down. She listened to the sound as it faded away, and soon found herself glaring down an empty stairwell.
Selina shut the door as quietly as she could, turning around to see that the object of all this upheaval was already awake, standing in the middle of the room and staring back at her with the widest blue eyes she had ever seen. The overcoat had been left balled up on the couch; his t-shirt and jeans were worn and wrinkled. His face was still heavy with sleep, black hair disheveled, wild and sticking up in places. Selina had the strangest urge to reach out and smooth it down. All in all, the kid looked this side of miserable. He looked absolutely lost.
Well, that made two of them.
“He left?” God, he sounded so young. He was so young. Selina took a deep breath.
“He’ll be back,” she offered. It was weak at best. The boy didn’t say anything, looking down at his feet. A few awkward seconds passed. Might as well give it a try, she thought.
“You hungry?” He didn’t answer, but his head shot up and she got an enthusiastic nod. Close enough.
At least now the day had some direction. A plan. Selina headed into their tiny kitchen, the boy following close behind. He didn’t say anything but then, neither did she, focusing instead on cooking. It was much easier than conversation. She scrambled eggs and burnt toast to a mute audience of one.
When it was done, she set the plate on the small center island that doubled as their dinner table and motioned for him to sit. The boy clamored up the barstool with a surprising amount of grace, but he tore into his breakfast like he hadn’t eaten in days.
Food is comforting. Selina had heard that once. Guess it’s true.
She leaned her elbows on the counter across from him, resting her chin in her hand. She watched, waiting for him to do something surprising or unexpected. He just ate. The silence was unnerving. Selina felt like she had to say something, anything, to break it. She paused, trying to recall the name Bruce had used last night.
“So, Richard,” she began.
“Dick,” the boy corrected, his voice small and quiet.
“Dick,” she amended. It wouldn’t have been her choice of nickname, but at least he was talking. “So, Dick, how old are you, exactly?”
“Eleven,” Dick mumbled around a mouthful of eggs. Selina nodded, looking him over. He seemed small for eleven, but she supposed that helped, what with being an acrobat and all.
And with that one question, Selina had exhausted all the safe topics of discussion she had. What did one say to a newly orphaned kid from the circus? I’m sorry about your parents? Your act was really great until, you know, they died? So, how long are you planning on sleeping on our couch?
Luckily, Dick didn’t seem to mind the silence. He ate and she watched him eat. A minute or so passed before he spoke again.
“You’re not eating?” he asked, munching on a piece of toast.
“Not hungry,” she answered, shrugging.
“Oh,” he replied. “I’m always hungry.” Well, that was good to know. So far she’d learned he was eleven, perpetually hungry, and preferred being called Dick. Progress was being made.
Where the hell was Bruce? This was his project, not hers.
As Dick finished off the last of his eggs, Selina felt a twinge of panic, unsure of what should come next. Intentionally or not, Dick helped her out.
“Do you mind if I watch your TV?”
“TV? Yeah, sure,” she said, speaking fast, relieved he’d thought of something to do on his own. “It’s all in Italian,” she warned, hoping it wouldn’t scare him off.
“That’s OK,” Dick said, hopping down from the barstool. Selina picked up the plate and had just set it in the sink when a warm weight pressed against her side. A pair of skinny arms wrapped themselves around her torso. She froze, looking down to see the boy’s face pressed against her arm, his eyes closed.
A hug. She hadn’t unexpected a hug. Unsure of what to do, Selina reached over with her free hand and patted his back a few times.
It was weird.
“Thanks,” she heard him say softly, giving her a little squeeze.
“For what?” Selina asked. Dick tilted his head to look at her. His eyes were clear now, as blue as the sky. Robin’s egg blue. He shrugged, a small, sad sort of smile on his lips.
“Breakfast,” Dick said as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. Then he let her go; she watched him leave the kitchen.
Selina shook her head, unable to shake the anxious feeling that had settled in the pit of her stomach. She heard the television click on in the other room and glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was only then she realized Bruce hadn’t given her a time he’d be back. He also hadn’t told her what he was doing. None of this was unusual. In fact, secrecy was a habit they shared, one that hadn’t bothered her until today.
Most days, Selina didn’t care what he did or where he went.
Today was different.
Selina spent the rest of the morning alternating between keeping her hands busy with housework, trying not to look at the clock, and keeping an eye on the kid camped out on their couch. The last of these proved to be the easiest; Dick didn’t move or make a sound. Occasionally, she’d glance over at the head of tousled black hair, barely visible over the back of the couch, just to make sure the boy hadn’t disappeared.
Or maybe it was to remind herself he was still there.
Several hours and a clean apartment later, Selina still felt caged, nervous energy coming out of her pores. Normally when she got stir-crazy, she’d take a walk by the river, take in the city. Browse an open-air market. Clear her head.
But of course, she couldn’t leave. A minor in the house and all.
Seriously, where the hell was Bruce?
Then she remembered Dick was a child of the walking and talking variety; if she went out, he could come with her. Surely a walk in the fresh air would do the kid some good. Selina was heading into the living room to suggest this when she heard soft, uneven sobs coming from the direction of the couch. She froze and took a few retreating steps back into the kitchen.
Crying. Selina didn’t have the slightest idea what to do if the kid was actually crying. All she knew was that she hated when people saw her cry, when they tried to console her with empty words and awkward, unwanted embraces.
Feeling pitied made her want to hit things.
Deciding to let the kid have some privacy, Selina gave up the idea of a walk, escaping to the small balcony for her fresh air.
Leaning against the thin, wrought iron railing, Selina sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. She absolutely hated not knowing what was going on, hated being left in the dark. She considered calling Bruce, even took out her phone a few times, running her fingers idly over the screen, but always thought better of it. She wasn’t desperate.
At least, not yet.
Frustrated, Selina focused outward, distracting herself with the view of the city. She looked out over the edges of the historical district, the Arno and its offshoots in the distance, all bathed in warm afternoon sunlight.
Bruce had been the one to pick Florence, and although she hadn’t known why at first, Selina had been far from objecting. After a lifetime spent in one of the grittiest, dirtiest cities on earth, Florence was, in its old-world way, almost heavenly. Selina was now convinced such a place, so full of history and beauty, was good for the soul.
Almost good enough to distract her from racing thoughts and mild feelings of anxiety. Almost.
Unable to wait any longer, Selina again took out her phone.
Planning on coming back tonight?
A second or so after she’d sent the text, Selina heard a faint beep from the street below. She glanced down in time to see the top of Bruce's head disappear into the doorway.
“About damn time,” Selina muttered before stepping back inside. She hoped for Bruce’s sake there was a hell of an explanation for his all-day disappearing act, as well as an exit strategy for their little house guest. Also, a heartfelt apology for the abruptness and inconvenience wouldn’t hurt.
She wasn’t holding her breath.
Once inside, Selina checked on Dick, who hadn’t moved from his spot on the couch. He didn’t appear to be crying anymore.
The front door creaked open and Bruce emerged, a file folder tucked under one arm and a small suitcase held in his other hand.
Dick turned at the sound of the door, and while he didn’t smile exactly, Selina saw him perk up at the sight of Bruce, his eyes more lively and awake than they had been before.
She tried to ignore the fact that those eyes were also puffy and red.
“Honey, you’re home,” Selina said, shooting Bruce a look that demanded he explain himself as soon as was humanly possible. Bruce gave her a quick, dismissive sideways glance before focusing his full attention on Dick.
“Morning,” Bruce greeted him, which Selina found ironic—it hadn’t been morning for several hours. “Figured you might like a change of clothes,” he said, setting the suitcase down beside the couch at Dick’s feet and dropping the file folder on the coffee table. Dick ran his fingers over the suitcase, which Selina realized must be his, and quietly thanked Bruce. “Maybe even a shower?” Bruce suggested, nodding toward the bathroom.
Selina had to hand it to the kid; he took passive-aggressive direction like a champ. Dick nodded, scrambling to his feet. He took the suitcase with him and headed into the bathroom without another word. Selina waited until the door shut and she heard the water running before turning back to Bruce.
Without preamble, Bruce began to fill her in on where he’d been and what he’d learned. The meeting he’d had was with the director of the circus and their lawyer.
Oh, this can’t be good.
Bruce retold the facts simply and to the point. Dick Grayson and his parents were originally from the States and had lived and worked as performers with the circus for several years. Dick had spent most of his life traveling with them in different circuses and performance groups and the like, mostly throughout Europe. He had no other family to speak of, and, as he was still technically a U.S. citizen, the current protocol was to send him back to his parents’ original state of residence to be put into the government-run foster system.
Unless of course, Bruce added, a more appropriate, more ideal situation could be found here. A financially stable, childless English-speaking couple with clean records, for example.
Or, in their case, an independently wealthy ex-vigilante and ex-crook with exceptionally good faked papers.
“Have you lost your mind?” Selina hadn’t meant to say those exact words out loud, but she couldn’t help herself. During the course of Bruce’s recap, she had settled onto the couch, watching as he paced and talked. She didn't like where this conversation was going.
Not one little bit.
He was right about the records, of course. Selina hadn’t known how he had done it, but soon after settling in Florence, Bruce had managed to get them both legitimate paperwork. Birth certificates, passports, dual citizenship, the works. And on paper, their two new aliases were also husband and wife. It was easier, he had said. Helped keep their cover, helped to make everything more legitimate. It didn’t mean anything, he had gone on to assure her. Just a practicality. Nothing more.
At the time, Selina hadn’t been sure whether to be relieved or insulted by his repeated assurances on the subject. Now, looking back on it, the whole thing felt terribly convenient.
The implications of Bruce’s little speech hung in the air.
“We should ask him to stay,” Bruce said finally. He was looking at her, but Selina could tell his mind was far off, someplace else.
“Stay?” she repeated. “As in permanently?" She kept her voice low, trying not to sound as frantic as she felt. Selina hated getting rattled, but playing it cool was hard to do when Bruce was throwing curveballs at you.
And proposing the joint guardianship of an eleven-year-old kid was a hell of a curve ball.
“Just the next seven or eight years,” he said. “We have the resources. We have the time. It makes sense.”
Selina just stared at him.
It was unnerving, how much of what he said sounded like an already agreed upon plan rather than a serious topic to be discussed. Especially when using a word like we. Bruce didn’t use the word we. Neither did Selina. All statements between them were generally made in the much safer I context.
Until today, that is.
Selina closed her eyes, massaging her temples with her fingertips. Whatever sense this foolish idea made to Bruce, Selina couldn’t wrap her brain around it. Or any solid coherent thought. Biting words sat on the tip of her tongue, but her mind was clouded and she couldn’t quite get them out. She wanted to question his intelligence, his sanity, and his sense of reason. And if she could somehow work in an attack on his manhood, well, that would be a bonus.
She wanted to tell him that taking in a wayward child had never been part of their deal. Of course, she couldn’t say that, because they didn't exactly have a deal. Or arrangement. Or anything that resembled the kind of stable relationship suitable for adopting a child.
This was what she got for not having a long-term plan for this whole Bruce Wayne situation.
“We could do this.” There was that insidious we word again. Bruce was either oblivious to her inner turmoil or choosing to ignore it. Either way, it ticked her off. “It’s the right thing to do, Selina.”
That got her attention. She looked up at him, taking in a deep breath.
“Are you even considering asking my opinion on this?” Selina wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer. Bruce paused at the question, but not for nearly as long as she thought he should have.
“No,” he replied.
Well, at least he was honest.
No. The word circled her brain. Selina felt her shoulders stiffen, the resentment building; she took another deep breath and tried to contain it, to control it.
This entire situation was getting out of her control.
“And if I’m not OK with it?” Selina tried to keep her voice tight, but it betrayed her, cracking in places. She used to be better at this.
“Aren’t you?” Bruce asked, his expression blank. It was as if he knew what her answer would be. As if it was going to be the answer he wanted it to be, simply because he wanted it.
Damn him. She heard the shower click off in the bathroom. The urgent need she had felt all day to escape became overwhelming. She needed fresh air, needed to clear her head. If she stayed in this conversation one more second, the whole thing might just deteriorate into fisticuffs.
She was good, but he was still Batman.
Without another word, she stood, brushed past Bruce, and left. Left the room, the apartment and the building.
At some point between last night and this afternoon, Bruce had clearly lost his mind, but it was nice to know he still had enough sense not to follow her.
Selina spent the better part of the following hour walking along the length of the river. In the space of a single day, the quiet and uncomplicated life she had grown accustomed to had been turned upside down. In hindsight, Selina should have expected this, sooner or later.
Nothing good ever lasted.
The fact that Bruce wanted to take the kid in wasn’t a surprise—the man had an altruistic streak that bordered on the psychotic and occasionally, the suicidal.
There was a statue sitting in Gotham City Hall to prove it.
But while Bruce’s reaction to this situation did not surprise to her, her own reaction did. Selina couldn’t figure out why this mattered to her, why she was letting this crazy whim of Bruce’s be her problem.
These kinds of things—messy, complicated things—were not Selina’s problem because she did not let them become her problem. This was no different.
Except that it was. Because Selina liked her nice new little life with its comforts and lack of commitments. Because Bruce wasn’t the worst company in the world. Because she wanted to keep her slate clean and it was easier not to lift pretty things off snobby rich women when he was around. Because she had gotten used to not being alone.
Less than six months since going straight and already she’d gone soft.
If Bruce had asked for her opinion, Selina would have told him that never had two less-qualified guardians ever existed. But he hadn’t asked for her opinion, and as much as she wished it didn’t, that stung.
Bruce may not have wanted her opinion, but he clearly wanted her blessing. He wanted her to be a part of this. And if Selina said no, if she made him choose, she wasn’t entirely sure he’d choose her.
She didn’t want to find out.
The question wasn’t if the kid could stay or not. Bruce had made it clear that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer on this.
The real question was if she was staying with Bruce.
Selina didn't have to stay—that was the beauty of their whole open-ended, undiscussed relationship. No strings. No commitments. In the back of her mind, it was the reason she had never tried to sort it out with him, why they’d never had the talk. Selina made sure she always had an out. She figured it was the same for him.
It was an arrangement that, up until an hour ago, had been suiting them both just fine.
Going from ‘casual and undefined’ to taking in an eleven-year-old kid to raise was a hell of a jump, but if this was what Bruce wanted, so be it. Selina wasn’t going to stop him, but she didn’t have to stay and play house with him anymore either. There was nothing keeping her in Florence. Nothing keeping her with Bruce.
Selina found herself walking back toward the apartment as the sun began to set, less angry but just as confused as when she’d left.
She climbed the stairs, opening the door to see two dark heads over the back of the couch, silhouetted by the TV on in front of them, the only light in their darkening apartment. Two pairs of feet were kicked up on her pretty little coffee table. Bruce’s head was bent towards Dick’s; she could hear him roughly translating the plot of some sappy Italian soap opera to the kid. He had done the same for her many times, but there was something different about him now. The comfortable, relaxed way he sat, the strange softness to his voice. He seemed almost content.
The entire scene felt annoyingly right.
Selina had her answer; she wasn’t ready to leave. Not yet. If these were the new conditions of their unconventional relationship, then maybe she could find a way to adjust to them.
And if staying turned out to be a mistake, it certainly wouldn’t be her first.
Selina crossed the space between the door and the back of the couch, leaning over to place a soft kiss on Bruce’s temple. He tilted his head up to look at her, surprised at the gesture. A question lingered in his eyes. Selina glanced over at Dick, his black hair still damp from the shower. He was wrapped up in her cozy throw blanket, blue eyes wide, engrossed in the quarreling lovers on the TV. She shook her head and bent down to whisper in Bruce’s ear.
Chapter 4: Objects in Motion
A trial run. That was what Bruce called it when he explained their offer to Dick.
“If it works out for you, you are welcome to stay,” Bruce told him, “If not, we will help you find a place that will. Deal?”
“Deal,” Dick agreed, solemnly shaking Bruce’s extended hand.
Selina had assumed life would change after that, but to her surprise, it stayed more or less the same.
At first, that is.
In the beginning, Dick was so quiet it was easy to forget he was there. There were days early on when he reminded Selina less of a kid and more of a ghost, one who wandered aimlessly around their apartment and ate their food.
As far as conversations went, there were none. Dick would say please and thank you, ask short questions here or there, but beyond that, he kept to himself. He’d watch TV, sleep and eat. Reset and repeat.
“Grief,” Bruce explained. “It takes time. He’ll come around.” Selina didn’t know what made Bruce so sure, but she didn’t have much choice but to trust him. Of course, in true Bruce fashion, he had been right.
Dick may have been quiet at the start, but it didn’t last.
It started small. A few words here, a few words there. A random comment, a rare smile. But pretty soon those stray fragmented sentences morphed into full-blown rambling stories, complete with animated expressions and dramatic hand gestures, Dick’s clear blue eyes wide and brightened with enthusiasm.
Dick liked to talk. A lot. About anything and everything. And, since neither Selina nor Bruce were big talkers themselves, they made the perfect audience. Their once companionable silences were now filled with long strings of rambling words, stories and jokes.
It was a shift.
Dick’s favorite topic, especially in the beginning, was his parents. Selina and Bruce heard about every act, trick and feat The Flying Graysons had ever performed. His parents had always been flyers, Dick told them proudly, up in the air on ropes, trapezes and swings for as long as he could remember.
“They always said it was dangerous work, what we did,” Dick recalled. “That was part of what made it so special.”
And that was how he viewed it, more or less. Where Selina would have been angry, Dick was accepting. He mourned them still, but the anger at their deaths Selina assumed would be there, under the surface, simply wasn’t.
“That’s the difference between an accident and an intentional act,” Bruce had said to her. “No one to blame. Easier to accept.”
Selina didn't see much of a difference. She could have found plenty of people to blame and a hundred different reasons to be angry. But she also was under no illusions about herself; Bruce was by far a better person than she was, and Dick, as he stood, would likely grow up to be a better person than the both of them.
If they didn’t ruin him first.
Selina wasn’t counting it out; when it came right down to it, she didn’t have the first clue how to raise a kid. She was also was fairly certain her gut instincts on the subject were the wrong ones. Bruce, on the other hand, didn’t appear to worry about their suitableness as guardians at all.
It must have been nice, knowing with absolute certainty you were right all the time.
It also made you come off as a smug, arrogant bastard.
Lucky for Bruce, it was a look that suited him. The smug arrogant thing was difficult to maintain, however, with a cheerful eleven-year-old constantly throwing his arms around you and squeezing with all his might.
In addition to being a chatterbox, Dick was also a hugger. Bruce and Selina, by their very natures, weren’t much for hugging, but it didn’t stop Dick from hugging them anyway. It took a little while, but Selina was starting to get used to random embraces that came out of nowhere, arms wrapped around her, a silly grin on his face.
At least, she’d stopped tensing up and backing away.
The talking and the hugging were a start, but when Selina looked back on it, the real indication Dick was becoming himself again was when he started climbing the walls.
Dick’s acrobatics, like everything else, came back in pieces. One day, out of nowhere, he hopped up on the kitchen counter to chat at Selina while she cooked dinner. She didn’t think anything of it, but the next day she walked in on him doing handstands in front of the TV. A few days later, Bruce caught him backflipping over the back of the couch.
Before long, there was no surface in their apartment safe from being climbed on, jumped over or balanced around. Dick would swing on doorframes and balance himself between narrow hallway walls. He was constantly balancing on chairs, doing handstands on the arms of the couch or cartwheels off the coffee table.
They were never getting their security deposit back, that was for damn sure.
Dick was a kid most comfortable in motion. And, once he started moving, it was impossible to get him to stop. It wasn’t that he was badly behaved; Selina hadn’t known a more respectful, obedient kid in her life. The problem was that as Dick became more and more himself again, neither Selina nor Bruce had the heart to ask him to stop the acrobatics he loved so much.
They were both getting soft.
He was hell on the furniture, though. After two broken lamps and a busted coffee table, Bruce finally spoke to him about it.
“Maybe you should go outside,” Bruce suggested. “Fresh air, more space, less things to break?”
That had done the trick. Not only did Dick find a large patch of grass to practice on, far away from all her breakables, but that night, he came back full of stories of the neighborhood kids he’d befriended.
Which, if Selina had to guess, had been part of Bruce’s plan all along.
Soon Dick was spending every day outdoors with the local kids, running through sprinklers, playing tag, or doing whatever kids did to keep themselves busy during the long summer months. As long as he came home in one piece, Selina didn’t ask what he was up to.
Each night, Dick would wander back to the apartment at dusk, hot and sweaty and happy as a clam. Selina had to push him toward the shower or else he’d pass out, just as he was, on her nice clean couch.
Children were easier to wash than couch cushions.
How Dick managed to make such fast friends with the neighborhood kids without knowing a word of Italian was beyond her, but Selina attributed the bulk of it to his personality.
Dick, as they soon learned, was friendly to the point of absurdity.
He would talk to anyone: street vendors, old men playing chess in the park, ladies walking their dogs or pushing strollers. Dick would go right up to strangers to ask them a question or start a conversation. People who were waiting in line or drinking coffee, reading books, checking their phones, minding their own business.
Selina quickly learned the Italian for ‘sorry.’
One morning while they waited in line at the market, Dick struck up a conversation with—or rather, started talking at—the elderly woman in line in front of them. After a moment, the woman looked over his head to smile at Selina.
“My, your son likes to talk,” she said in Italian, walking away before Selina could correct her. Dick was unphased.
“Well, I do like to talk,” he agreed with a grin, gathering their bags up in his arms as they headed home.
That wasn’t the part Selina had meant to correct.
Learning Italian was not the problem for Dick that it was for her; he picked up a good deal of it from his new friends. Unfortunately, many of the new words he learned from them were ones Bruce frowned on being repeated.
Culture is culture, Selina had argued in defense of Dick’s more colorful grasp of the language. Besides, there was something immensely satisfying about swearing in Italian and Dick was a good teacher.
As summer faded and his new friends returned to school, Dick grew bored. Bruce had offered to enroll him in school with them, but he declined.
“My mom always taught me,” he told them, explaining that he’d never attended a formal school and was not interested in starting now. Bruce and Selina agreed to let him continue homeschooling.
Bruce, being something of a genius, had no problem with the math or the sciences or anything else that came up in Dick’s textbooks. For her part, Selina approached the teaching thing a bit more hands-on.
She took him outside.
“We live in Florence,” she said to Bruce. “What better place to learn some history?”
On the days when Bruce’s work for Wayne Enterprises kept him home and tied to his laptop, Selina took Dick on spontaneous trips to the various museums and gardens in and around the city. She soon discovered Dick was a pretty decent companion, bright and cheerful and interested in everything.
It was a pleasant surprise.
And even though Selina had already visited most of Florence's historical landmarks and museums, seeing them again with the kid was a different experience entirely. She found herself looking at the city with fresh eyes, following Dick around as he bounced from sight to sight, observing it all with excited, rambling commentary.
Of course, keeping Dick from climbing up all the magnificent architecture and history like a spider monkey was something of a chore, but all in all, it was worth it.
It was almost fun.
His studies and museum trips aside, Dick still seemed bothered by something. Selina couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. Once he’d completed his schoolwork for the day, Dick would wander around the apartment, listless. Before long, he started asking them for things to do. Curious, they complied. After a week, the apartment was spotless and the desk Bruce used for an office was meticulously organized beyond even his standards. But something was still off with the kid, and they were running out things for him to do.
It was Bruce, the master interrogator that he was, who finally got to the heart of the matter.
“I miss practicing,” Dick confessed to him after some gentle prodding. “With the circus, there was always something to do. Some new trick to learn. Something to be better at.” Bruce remained quiet, his brow furrowed.
Selina had come to find that look all manner of unsettling.
“OK,” Bruce said. “We start tomorrow.”
“Start?” Dick’s eyes widened. “Start what?”
“Get some sleep,” Bruce said as he walked away. His voice was level, commanding. “I’ll wake you when it’s time to begin.” Dick’s eyes followed Bruce into the other room, then he turned to Selina, the most amusing scared rabbit look on his face.
“What on earth is he talking about?”
“I almost never know, kid.” Selina put a hand on Dick’s shoulder. “Sometimes, it’s best to just go with it.”
The next morning, Selina woke to an empty bed, an empty couch and a quiet apartment. She figured Bruce had been true to his word and had taken Dick with him on some secret mission, but, really, it wouldn’t have killed him to leave a note.
A couple hours passed. Selina was sitting on a barstool at the kitchen island with a cup of coffee when she heard the front door open. Dick’s voice followed, bouncing off the walls. He was chattering on about something to Bruce, but she couldn’t decipher what.
They entered the kitchen, disheveled and sweaty in their t-shirts and sweatpants. Dick had a ridiculous grin on his face and Bruce seemed more focused—more purposeful—than Selina had seen him in a long time.
“So, where have you two been?” Selina asked.
“The roof,” Dick answered.
“And what, exactly, were you doing on the roof?”
“Can I tell her?” Dick asked, looking to Bruce. Selina raised an eyebrow. Asking permission to speak was more than different for Dick; it was damn near unprecedented.
“Yes, Selina we can tell,” Bruce answered. This back and forth between them was new. There was something in Dick’s eyes now when he looked at Bruce, something like awe. He turned back to Selina, his face more serious than she’d ever seen it.
“We’re training,” Dick stated, his eyes alight.
“Training, huh?” Selina repeated as she shot a glance at Bruce. He had the nerve to look pleased with himself. “I see.”
The next logical question was to ask what they were training for, but Selina didn’t have to ask it. She did, however, need an explanation.
“You. Breakfast,” she told Dick. “You,” she pointed at Bruce. “Room.”
“What did I do?” Bruce asked, his hands out at his sides. Selina had to hand it to him, he could really turn on the innocent act. All that practice being Bruce Wayne, eccentric billionaire.
She caught Bruce exchanging a quick glance with Dick before heading toward their bedroom, swaggering not unlike a punk on the way to the principal's office. Dick, smart kid that he was, appeared to know better than to ask questions and got busy fixing himself a bowl of cereal. Selina followed after Bruce into their bedroom, closing the door behind her.
“Is there a problem, dearest?” Bruce asked as he turned to face her, his voice laced with sarcasm.
“Please tell me you're not seriously doing what I think you’re doing.”
“That’s pretty vague,” Bruce replied.
“And that’s not an answer.”
“Dick is incredibly talented for his age, you know,” Bruce said. He was distracted. “Quick on his feet, good reflexes...”
“...and you’ve seen his uncanny sense of balance,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken. Ambition gleamed in his eyes. “A fast learner too. A definite quick study.”
“Are you training our foster kid to be a ninja?”
Bruce just looked at her, tilting his head slightly.
“Here, let me help you,” she said. “The words you are looking for are ‘No, Selina, of course not.’ Now, repeat.” She stared him down with a look that had frightened half the toughs on the East End. It didn’t have the same effect on Bruce. When he still failed to answer, Selina repeated her question.
“Are you training our foster kid to be a ninja?”
“I wouldn’t call it that exactly,” Bruce conceded, “but, yes, I am.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why not?” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. Selina had to fight the sudden urge she had to hit him.
“Because it’s a horrible idea.”
“Well, for one thing...” she paused, searching. “It’s not safe.”
“It’s the opposite of unsafe. I’m teaching him how to protect himself.”
Selina tried again.
“He’s too young.”
“Irrelevant. He’s been a professional acrobat half his life. If anything, rigorous physical training is his normal,” Bruce stated. “Next?” Her eyes narrowed at his condescending tone. Then a new reason hit her; a smirk threatened to creep across her face.
“You’re not as young as you used to be,” she said, her voice slipping into a tone of mock-concern. “You could hurt yourself.”
“Oh, now that’s just mean,” Bruce replied. “Also untrue. If anything, regular exercise is the best thing for me. Anything else?”
“You should have been a lawyer,” she grumbled. The playful air between them faded. She settled down on the edge of the bed.
“Too many rules,” Bruce countered. He sat down beside her, the mattress creaking under his weight. When she didn’t smile, his expression turned serious. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?” he asked. “Why?”
It was a damn good question. Selina wasn’t sure why, but the whole thing reeked of Gotham. Of grit and dirt and struggling to survive. It was too close a reminder of who Bruce had been before. Of who she had been before.
Of all the things they'd left behind.
Selina didn’t answer, focused on tracing the scrolled pattern of their duvet with her fingertip. He was close; she could feel his eyes on her, puzzling her out.
“Hey,” Bruce said, reaching out to still her fidgeting hand. Selina pulled it away. “It doesn’t have to be this,” he said. She looked up at him again; there was no trace of condescension or arrogance in his face now. “We can find something else.”
Selina thought back to the excitement that had lit up Dick’s face that morning, to his growing boredom and boundless energy that had no outlet.
No, she thought, this is exactly what the kid needs.
She glanced back at Bruce.
What they both need.
“One condition,” she said.
“No masks. No capes.” Selina tried to keep her face even, but a hint of a smile slipped through. Dick would love a cape. She really hoped Bruce never mentioned capes as a possibility to him.
“You have my word.” His tone was casual but Selina could tell he meant it. “You’re welcome to join us, you know.”
“No, thanks,” she said, shaking her head. “You boys have fun. Try not to hurt yourselves.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bruce replied, matching her playful tone. “Masks and capes do have their time and place, you know,” he added, trailing his hand down the length of her arm. She fought the urge to roll her eyes. Bruce was joking, flirting even, but she caught the truth behind his words.
“Aww, do you miss it?” she asked. To her surprise, there was a long pause before he answered. She felt the hard, mocking smirk on her face soften.
“Sometimes,” he replied.
On an impulse, Selina reached up and lightly placed the palm of her hand flat against his face, covering from the bridge of his nose to just above his eyes. She felt his eyelashes flutter against her palm. The edges of his lips twitched in the beginnings of a smile. She leaned in close, her lips inches from his.
“Ah,” she exclaimed softly, as if making a discovery. “There you are, Batman.” Bruce replied with a low rumbling in his throat. Selina chuckled at the familiar sound as she leaned back again. Bruce reached up, gently pulling her hand away from his eyes. He didn’t let go, keeping her hand in his and bringing the palm of it to his lips. His eyes, deep and serious, found hers and held them. She felt the smile on her face fade as the moment turned from harmless and playful into something different, something far more intense. Bruce was studying her again, searching for something, but she still didn’t know what.
One day, Selina would try to figure him out. For now, she settled for breaking eye contact and pulling him back with her into the pillows.
“Careful,” he mumbled against her neck. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Oh, shut up.”
If Dick had been bored before, he certainly wasn’t now. Between his studies and his new training regimen, the kid was both mentally and physically exhausted by the end of each day. All of his excess energy had been focused into training. The strangest part was that Dick actually seemed happy to be so exhausted.
And he wasn’t the only one who seemed happier these days. Selina noticed a change in Bruce as well. There was a new sense of purpose about him, a determination in his eyes she hadn’t seen since Gotham.
It was refreshing, seeing Bruce engaged and focused again. Selina hadn’t realized it, but, like Dick, Bruce had been getting bored.
It wasn’t the most flattering of thoughts.
At any rate, Dick had a new skill set to learn.
Bruce had a new project to focus on.
And Selina had a new and increasingly crippling sense of boredom.
For the first time in her life, she felt domesticated. She spent her days going through the motions a normal life. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Cooking, cleaning, laundry. And, sure, it beat struggling to survive and was better than being alone, but it was also dull.
Boredom made her fingers itchy. Every once in awhile, Selina found herself daydreaming of lifting things that weren’t hers, of coming home with something new and shiny and pretty and not at all paid for.
She didn’t, of course. Clean slate and all.
But that didn’t stop her from thinking about it.
Life as a thief was a lot of things, but it had never been dull.
This dissatisfaction of hers did not go unnoticed. Both Bruce and Dick offered for her to come up to the roof and train with them. Bruce’s were casual but sincere mentions, while Dick all but begged and pleaded with her to join in. Selina declined every time.
As far as she was concerned, she was finished fighting for her life and wasn’t interested in fighting for fun.
However, that didn't stop her from feeling a prick of envy when she caught Dick dragging Bruce away from his computer for a spontaneous extra training session, or when she found them both passed out from exhaustion in front of the TV at night, a heap of blankets and dark, messy hair.
Retirement, it seemed, suited some people better than others.
A month or so after the training sessions began, Selina walked out onto their balcony to find Dick precariously perched on top of the thin iron railing. His eyes were closed and his arms were outstretched for balance, a ridiculous smile on his face. Sunning himself on a ledge like a damn cat.
“Dick,” Selina said slowly, afraid she’d startle him.
“Yeah?” he answered, eyes still closed. He didn’t startle at all, as if he already knew she was there. He must have heard her come out, Selina reasoned. Still, this hyper-awareness of his surroundings was new.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her tone slow and cautious. No sudden movements.
“Balancing. Meditating.” The balancing in random places, on top of random things, that was all Dick. Now, the meditating, that was new. That was Bruce.
“Could you stop, please?”
“Why?” There was no defiance in his voice, only honest curiosity.
“Because there are better places to meditate and I’m worried you might fall,” Selina said, speaking slowly as if to a much younger, much less intelligent child.
“Selina, relax,” Dick said. “You’re talking to a professional.” It took everything Selina had to keep a straight face.
“Professional or not, we are still three floors up and I am not in the mood for a trip to the ER.” Dick opened his eyes and turned to her, his smile widening like the Cheshire cat’s.
“OK,” he said. It wasn’t until Dick hopped down that Selina realized she had been half-holding her breath. “I don’t know what you’re so worried about. Bruce said you used to do stuff like this all the time.”
“Meditating in stupid and inconvenient places?” Selina asked.
“No,” Dick said, chuckling. “The acrobatic stuff. Balancing and backflips, you know?” Selina did know, and she was pretty sure Bruce had left out the part where the backflips were her escaping out of windows and the balancing was on the ledges of the penthouses she was robbing.
Dick leaned back against the railing, smiling that radiant smile up at her. There was a point he was getting at, Selina could tell. And she was losing her patience.
“What the hell are you trying to say, kid?” Dick’s eyes lit up at the word ‘hell’ and she sighed.
Of all the small changes that came with Dick, cleaning up her language was one of the more difficult ones. To be honest, it was a chore and felt unnatural. Not that it mattered to her— word were words—but Bruce was archaic about cursing these days. Even with the tame ones.
“Bruce also said you used to be a pretty good fighter too. Even if you have gotten a bit rusty.”
There it was.
“Did he really use the word ‘rusty’?’” she asked. Dick nodded, beaming now.
Well, that was just unacceptable.
That evening at dusk, for the first time since Dick’s training had started, Selina joined them on the roof. There wasn’t much up there except a few old and worn practice mats, but it was a large and open space, perfect for an ex-vigilante and his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student to train in whatever super secret ninja arts they were training in.
Or, in this case, it was perfect for said ex-vigilante to get his ass thoroughly kicked by his...well, whatever Selina was to him, she wasn’t rusty.
What ensued was an impromptu sparring match that ended with Bruce flat on his back, pinned against the gritty roof floor with Selina above him, straddling his waist. Selina couldn’t help smirking at him as she held his wrists down against the concrete above his head.
Retired or not, it wasn’t everyday one got the best of the Batman.
“Looks like I won,” she gloated between breaths. True, she was a bit more out of breath than she’d have liked to be, but that didn’t mean she was rusty. Out of practice, maybe, but not rusty.
Satisfied with her victory, Selina released Bruce’s wrists and leaned back out of the attack position. She stayed on top of him, keeping him pinned down. To his credit, Bruce didn’t even struggle. In fact, he had the audacity to look comfortable.
“Don’t let her fool you,” Bruce called out to Dick, who was grinning at them from the sidelines. “I let her win.”
“Let me win, my ass.”
“Language,” Bruce chided. His hands, now free, came to rest lightly on the tops of her thighs. She tried to keep her face stern and commanding. It was difficult.
“Language, huh?” Selina let her voice drop a touch. “And what, exactly, are you going to do about it?” she challenged, leaning back over him again, her hair falling down around her face and his. She let her lips brush against his ear before adding, “Mr. Wayne? ”
She felt his grip on her thighs tighten slightly, fingertips pressing into her jeans. She pulled herself upright, eyes still locked with his and holding. His lips were parted, eyes a bit glazed. As smug as she felt, Selina found her breath still uneven; she wasn’t sure it had anything to with sparring.
From the street below, she could hear children shouting. Dick’s friends, from the sound of it, calling for him.
“Hey, guys, can I go—?”
“Yes,” Selina and Bruce answered simultaneously, neither breaking eye contact with the other as Dick clamored across the roof toward the stairs. Selina listen as the heavy metal door clattered shut behind him, heard his footfalls on the steps as they faded away. She sighed, sitting back and crossing her arms. Bruce just looked up at her, hands steady, waiting for her to continue. Or get up. Or do something. Selina hadn’t decided what her next move was. She went with more gloating.
“So, who’s rusty now?” The lack of surprise on his face, that obnoxiously serene countenance, tipped her off. The arrogant prick looked as if he’d expected this all along. Damn it. “You planned this?”
“You kept declining our offers to join,” Bruce countered. “I had no choice.”
“I see,” she replied, raising an eyebrow. “And you thought you’d use Dick in your little manipulation?”
“My manipulation?” Bruce was oozing innocence now. “The whole thing was his idea.” Selina rolled her eyes.
“You’re a bad influence.”
“I’m a lot of things, Selina.”
She didn’t have a witty response for that; she settled for nodding in agreement.
“Now, tell the truth,” Selina said, running a single fingertip along the line of his jaw. “You didn’t let me win, did you?”
Suddenly, the world blurred and now she was pinned down against the rooftop, her back hitting the ground with a soft thud. She found herself staring up into those dark, triumphant eyes. The sky behind him was hazy, pinkish in the darkening twilight. The back of her head was cushioned, cradled from the hard concrete behind one of his hands. His weight on top of her was immobilizing but not crushing. Careful. Controlled.
And very, very distracting.
“Define ‘winning,’” Bruce said. He leaned in closer. “Ms. Kyle,” he added before pressing his lips against hers, effectively changing the subject.
Selina sat at the breakfast table with Dick, skimming through news articles on her phone, sipping a cup of coffee and waiting for her brain to wake up. Bruce was still fast asleep and, other than the occasional snore echoing across the apartment, it was quiet.
Unusually quiet, Selina realized.
No rambling. No babbling. No loud chomping noises.
She glanced over the table to see Dick’s bright blue eyes fixed on her, his face far too concerned and intent for so early in the morning.
Selina ignored his stare at first, enjoying the silence, but after a few minutes, she gave up.
“OK, kid, what is it?”
“I’ve never heard you laugh,” Dick answered. Selina raised an eyebrow, biting back a comment as she waited for him to continue. “I mean, when I tell jokes and stories, sometimes you smile, but you never actually laugh.”
“Maybe that’s because you’re not very funny,” Selina answered, watching Dick scrunch up his nose and shake his head, dark hair falling into his eyes.
“No, I’m funny. You’re just too serious.”
“Is that so?” Selina said. Then she saw a flash—an idea—flit across Dick’s face. She knew in an instant what it meant.
As she predicted, Dick’s newest mission in life was to make her laugh. For the rest of the week, he jumped out at her around corners and made goofy faces. He made up outlandish stories and jokes, complete with animated gestures and sound effects, but all he got from Selina were rolled eyes and the occasional smirk.
If she wasn’t so stubborn, Selina would have faked a laugh just to humor the kid, but she didn’t and it only made him try harder.
“If he’d put this much effort into training, we’d be up two levels,” Bruce had complained to her, smirking as he’d said it.
He found this development amusing, no doubt.
“Don’t even start or I’ll sic him on you next,” Selina replied. She wasn’t sure how she became the target of Dick’s attentions. Sure, she could be serious, but Bruce was damn near stoic. She had told him as much. He’d shrugged.
“Maybe he just thinks you could use it more.” Selina wasn’t sure what Bruce had meant by that, but it aggravated her just the same.
One afternoon Selina was stretched out across the couch, her feet kicked up over the side, using every bit of her imperfect Italian attempting to follow the plot of the crime drama on TV. She was just getting the gist of the story when she felt the lightest of tickling across the arch of her bare foot. A short yelp left her lips as she tucked her legs back. She clapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late; Dick’s head popped up over the foot of the couch, all smiles and messy black hair.
“Gotcha!” Dick said as he climbed over the edge, rolling down next to her, contorted as usual, his legs hanging over the arm of the couch, his head back against the cushion. He looked up at her, upside down, grinning widely.
“Hardly,” Selina said. “Tickling is cheating.”
“Say’s who?” Dick asked.
“Me,” she replied, and before she realized what she was doing Selina found herself leaning over, catching Dick under his arms and tickling him mercilessly. He twisted and turned in her grasp, his laughter loud. After a moment, Selina realized she was laughing too.
Well, what do you know?
“That one was real,” Dick said, catching his breath as he rolled down off the couch to the floor. Selina sighed and shook her head.
“Fine,” she replied. “You win.” Dick beamed up at her, a mischievous grin returning to his face as a new idea took hold. His eyes gleamed.
“Do you think Bruce is ticklish?”
A smirk crept across Selina’s face.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Adjusting to Dick’s presence turned out to be much easier than Selina had thought it would be. Sure, there was the ‘no swearing’ thing, and she couldn’t walk around the apartment in her underwear anymore—although she had a feeling that one was more of a hardship for Bruce than for her—but overall, Dick had managed to fit himself neatly into their lives. It was not the outcome Selina had ever expected from this arrangement, but she wasn’t about to question it.
Selina wasn’t in the habit of questioning good fortune, rare as it occurred.
Despite the tragedy that brought him to them, Dick was a happy kid. He had a sunny kind of confidence; Selina had no idea where it came from. It wasn’t at all like her’s, which started out as a survival mechanism courtesy of Gotham’s East End, or Bruce’s, the finely crafted determination that had helped make Batman a legend. No, Dick’s confidence came from a lighter place, it was more joyous. It was almost as if when the kid did things, he did them just to prove to himself that he could. And he usually could.
It was a strange world for such a child to end up with the likes of them.
There was one thing, however, Dick did have in common with both Bruce and Selina.
The subject of nightmares had only come up between them once, in the early days of their cohabitation, when Selina was still learning the ins and outs of the complex Bruce Wayne managment system.
It started out perfectly innocent. Bruce had looked so troubled, so bothered and fitful in his sleep one night Selina thought waking him up would be a form of relief.
She’d been wrong.
She should have known attempting to wake an emotionally damaged ex-vigilante ninja from a nightmare was a bad idea.
It was lucky for them both Selina had such quick reflexes.
Even so, Bruce spent a week sleeping on the couch before Selina could convince him to come back to bed, and that was only on the strict condition that she never try to wake him up like that again. She’d used the opportunity to ask Bruce how long he’d had his nightmares.
“Only the past thirty years,” he’d replied. “You might want to get some ear plugs.”
Selina never mentioned it again. She didn’t know what his dreams were of and, to be honest, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Whatever unspeakable horrors haunted the Batman’s dreams were probably more than she could handle.
Selina had plenty of horrors of her own to deal with.
She didn’t talk about her nightmares either, the ones where she was a kid again, skinny and weak, back on the uneven streets of Gotham City. Chased in the dark by unseen figures, running in endless circles on smog-filled streets. Hungry, helpless and alone.
There were ones built on more recent memories too. Six months worth of occupation and terror fueled those dreams, bringing with them a host of other feelings. Guilt. Shame. Regret. She often woke with the sounds of rolling tanks and gunfire still in her ears, the hollow echoing sound of that far-off explosion over Gotham Bay.
When she woke from these dreams, it would take several minutes to calm her racing heart, to remember where she was. To remember she was safe. She’d look over to see Bruce awake—somehow he was always awake on those nights—staring at her with those dark eyes of his, waiting for her to speak. She never did.
They did not talk about their nightmares, but even still, Selina and Bruce both had enough experience to know the tell-tale signs.
When Dick began showing these signs, neither one of them missed it.
It wasn’t until about four or five months in that Dick’s nightmares seemed to start. He tried to play it off, acting as if nothing was wrong, but each morning, Selina saw that haunted look about him, eyes red and tired from lack of sleep, his face worn. Every time she’d broach the subject, Dick would shake his head, his normally bright smile forced.
“I’m fine,” he’d say with a shrug before bolting off in the opposite direction.
But he wasn’t, and as the days passed, it only seemed to be getting worse. Eventually, he started napping on and off during the day, staying up later and later at night.
Late one night, Selina awoke to soft groans coming from the living room. Before she was even awake enough to process the sound, she felt Bruce stir and climb out of bed. She stayed still, listening to each of his subtle movements as he slipped out of the room.
After a minute, a sliver of light appeared, changing the bedroom from pitch black to something more hazy. She wasn’t sure what compelled her, but a second later, Selina slipped out from under the covers and silently crept toward the door. She heard hushed voices and leaned in close to listen, keeping to the shadows, staying out of the dim stream of light that filtered in through the cracked door. She couldn’t see anything, but she heard the coffee table creak; Bruce must have sat down on it, across from Dick’s place on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Selina heard Dick whisper. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“It’s fine,” Bruce said, his voice a little louder than Dick’s, echoing across the apartment. “You OK?”
“It was just a dream,” Dick replied, his voice tight. Bruce must have given the boy his no-nonsense ‘go on’ look, because he elaborated. “It was just...my parents. Falling.” Bruce didn’t answer, but Selina could imagine him nodding his head. “It’s silly.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yeah, it is,” Dick said, so quiet Selina had to strain to hear him. “Only little kids have nightmares.”
“I have them all the time.”
“Really?” Dick’s eyes lit up; Selina could hear it in his voice. “What are yours about?”
Oh. Selina winced. Dick had stumbled into forbidden territory and he didn’t even know it. To her surprise, Bruce answered.
“A lot of things,” he admitted, “but mostly the night my parents died.” That caught Selina off-guard. War and terrorists and bombs and psychotic clowns, sure, but she never considered his parents would be part of Bruce’s nightmares. He hardly mentioned them at all, and when he did, it was always in a distant, detached way. As if he didn’t want to think about them for too long.
“They died too?” Dick asked. Selina wished she could see Bruce’s face, but she knew if she went out there, if she let on she was listening, this rare moment of honesty would be shattered.
Selina tried not to dwell on the fact that it was easier for Bruce to let his walls down with Dick than it was with her.
Bruce must have nodded at Dick’s question, because the boy spoke again.
Boy, this kid was bold. Though, to be fair, he didn't know any better.
“They were shot by a mugger when I was eight.” Straight and to the point, that was Bruce. Selina knew the story. Most Gothamites did. The martyred Waynes were like the city’s damn patron saints.
Until Batman, that is.
The irony of that fact had failed to hit her until now.
Even though Selina knew the story, it was different hearing it from Bruce. More personal. More real. For all the scattered mentions Bruce had ever made regarding his parents, Selina had never heard him once mention the night they died. She found herself inching closer toward the door, listening more closely.
“Were you there? Did you see it?”
Amazing, the stuff Bruce let this kid get away with.
He had been there, Selina knew. Bruce had watched them gunned down by some petty mugger and was left, for whatever reason, the sole survivor.
There was a joke around the East End about how filthy rich a couple bullets had made eight-year-old Bruce Wayne. The lucky little bastard, they’d said. And at one time, she’d agreed. He didn’t seem very lucky to her now.
Rich or not, there was nothing lucky about a little boy watching his parents bleed to death.
Selina’s breath caught in her lungs.
A little boy watching his parents die before his eyes. A child becoming an orphan in one single tragic moment.
With that, all of the signs Selina had missed the night of the circus came back to her, suddenly clear. Now she realized why Bruce had been so distracted that night. Why he’d seemed so lost. Why he’d insisted on bringing Dick home with them, and why he later was so resolute on taking Dick in.
Dick was Bruce. In all the tragic ways that mattered.
Selina shook her head as Dick’s voice brought her back to the present.
“Who took care of you then?”
And now Alfred? Without realizing it, Dick was tap dancing all over the unspoken rules for how to interact with Bruce Wayne. And Bruce was just going with it, no walls, no pretense.
Selina somehow found herself in the ridiculous position of being jealous of an eleven-year-old.
“Someone who cared,” Bruce answered. There was no malice or anger laced in his voice; the last time Selina had tried to mention Alfred she’d gotten both.
Selina had brought up the subject of Alfred to Bruce only once, the day they’d seen him in the cafe. She’d questioned the bizarre nature of their almost meeting, asking why they hadn’t done anything more than nod politely at each other at a distance and then go their separate ways. Bruce had given her a weak line about some understanding they had, his tone making it clear further discussion on the subject was unwelcomed.
Selina thought they were both being idiots, but she kept that opinion to herself.
Now, not only was Bruce mentioning Alfred to Dick, but he was doing so with genuine positive emotion in his voice.
It was official. The kid was magic.
“Will it ever get better?” Selina heard Dick ask. He sounded so young; Selina felt her heart ache just a little before she could stop it.
“You’ll never stop missing them,” Bruce said, “but it can get better, if you let it.”
“Is that what you did?” Dick asked.
“I spent a long time being angry.” There was an unmistakable conviction in Bruce’s voice. “But yes, eventually, it started to get better.”
“Time and reflection,” Bruce answered. And costumed vigilantism, Selina added to herself, smirking in the dark. On the other side of the door, Bruce continued. “Having people around who care about you helps.”
“Like Selina?” There was a pause that seemed to go on forever. Or maybe that was just because she was holding her breath.
“Yes,” Bruce said. “Like Selina.”
Enough eavesdropping. Selina backed away from the door and crept back to bed. She closed her eyes, focusing on regulating her breathing and slowing her heart, which was beating much faster than it should have been.
Selina listened to the muffled sounds of them saying goodnight. The light clicked off, plunging the room back into semi-darkness. A moment later the door creaked open, and she felt Bruce slide under the sheets beside her, drawing close. His arms wrapped around her and she felt him sigh, his body warm against hers. Selina fidgeted and mumbled, pretending to be asleep.
“Liar,” Bruce whispered against her ear. Her eyes opened again. Of course, he had seen through that. The goddamn Batman and all. “You’re not as quiet as you think you are,” he continued. The words sent a shiver down her spine. Resigned, Selina wiggled herself deeper into his embrace, reaching up to hold on to the arms that wrapped around her. She could feel his breath, warm and constant, against the back of her neck. She tried not to think of the little boy in the alley.
“We can’t all be ninjas, Bruce.”
Nearly six months after Dick came to live them, Bruce suggested it was time to leave Florence. He’d done so one morning at the breakfast table from behind his laptop, mentioning the potential move as casually as he would the weather.
Dick, who was mid-chew, cocked his head to one side to look at Bruce, his half-eaten bagel suspended in midair. Selina, however, didn’t miss a beat. It was always an understanding that Florence was never going to be permanent.
Of course, there had always been an understanding that none of this was permanent, but Selina didn’t let herself dwell on that point.
She took another sip of her coffee and waited for Bruce to continue.
Not everyone shared her patience, however.
“We’re moving?” Dick asked, finding his voice. He was so startled that he seemed to have completely forgotten about his breakfast. Selina knew from experience it took a lot to distract Dick from a meal. It was an amusing sight and she silently applauded Bruce for his timing.
“Depends,” Bruce said, taking his eyes off the screen and leaning back in his chair. “Would you be coming with us?” Both Selina and Dick gave him identical confused looks. Bruce cleared his throat and clarified. “You never officially decided you were staying, remember?”
Bruce was talking to Dick, but for some reason his question hit a nerve; Selina felt the tiniest twinge of uncertainty, a whispering at the back of her mind.
“Oh!” Dick exclaimed. “Yes. Yes, of course I want to stay!” he answered, the words running together. “If you still want me to, that is,” he added, his voice uncertain.
“I do,” Bruce said, catching Selina’s eye for a moment before focusing on Dick. “After all, we still have a lot of work to do.” His tone was serious, but the ghost of a smile on his lips was a dead giveaway. And it was evidently enough reassurance for Dick.
The boy turned to her.
Here it was. If she wanted to, Selina could undo the last six months with a single word. She could let them leave and stay in Florence alone, or move on to someplace else.
As easy as that.
But Selina didn’t want to leave. This life wasn’t perfect or planned, but it was working out.
For the moment, that was all she could ask for.
Bruce had turned his attention back to his work, but Selina knew he was listening, waiting for her answer as intently as Dick was.
“Of course, I do,” Selina said, reaching over to ruffle his already unkempt black hair. Dick batted her hand away, the smile on his face so bright it hurt to look at.
“That’s settled, then,” Bruce said, coming back to the conversation. “Now, on to the next order of business. Where to?”
“You already have someplace in mind, no doubt,” Selina said. Knowing Bruce, it was reasonable to assume he already had plan (as well as a contingency plan for that plan), which was why the next part surprised her.
“Actually,” Bruce said, “I thought you’d pick this time.” Selina looked over at him, a smile creeping across her face.
Bruce had chosen Florence, now it was her turn. She didn't have to think twice.
Selina had always wanted to live in Paris.
For those who are interested, story-related graphics for each chapter can be found here on Tumblr.
Chapter 6: Habits
Paris was a cliché. Selina knew that when she picked it, but few places in the world held the same charm for her that Paris did, so when Bruce asked, the choice was automatic.
Bruce found them a quaint apartment to rent, one with two bedrooms and a spectacular view of the city. It also happened to be in a building that had its own private, empty rooftop.
The man had a way with details.
Less than a month after settling in Paris, Selina suggested they take a trip to one of the city’s fashionable shopping avenues. Bruce and Dick were less than thrilled with the prospect; their reaction had been a simultaneous and emphatic ‘no.’
Which, naturally, Selina was not going to take for an answer.
Dick had been the easier of the two to win over.
“There will be pastries,” she told him, watching his face perk up. “Loads of pastries and chocolates and tarts. As much as you can eat. You’ll have a sugar high for days.”
That had sold Dick on the spot.
Bruce was the more difficult one to convince. He loathed shopping, despising window shopping in particular because it had, as he so charmingly put it, even less of a point. She and Dick were welcomed to go without him, Bruce told her, but he was not interested in a shopping trip.
That is, until Selina dropped the names of a few of the lingerie boutiques she’d considered visiting. But, since she certainly couldn't take Dick into any of them with her, they’d have to be skipped.
By the time Selina and Dick were ready to leave, Bruce had miraculously changed his mind.
The whole avenue reeked of money; it permeated the air, laden in the sights and smells. Behind the large glass windows that lined the street were every luxury item imaginable; extravagant jewelry and high-fashion clothes in colorful, avant garde displays. It was an overwhelming atmosphere, rich enough to satisfy her heart’s more girlish desires and effective in quashing her less savory instincts.
Even still, Selina could have sworn she felt Bruce’s eyes trained on her more often than usual. She wasn’t certain if she was grateful or insulted by the extra attention.
Since Selina had made a promise—or rather, a bribe—to Dick, one of their first stops was a pastry shop. The three of them lingered in front of the window, eyeing a rainbow of delicate pastel macaroons, piles of shiny fruit tarts and rows of chocolate-topped eclairs, sticky and decadent. Dick was almost drooling at the sight, his eyes wide. Beside him, Bruce was less than enthusiastic, muttering things like “Food is fuel,” and remarking on how devoid of nutrients everything was.
Selina rolled her eyes at the two of them before wandering away, drawn to the window of the shoe store next door. She weaved around various passers-by, glancing back a moment through the crowd to see that, despite Bruce’s numerous complaints, Dick had managed to drag him inside the pastry shop after all.
She was eyeing a pair of iridescent green pumps when she felt it: a movement at her side so slight, so subtle, she almost didn’t notice.
In one swift motion, Selina reached down and caught the thin wrist slipping out of her purse. She turned to face her would-be pickpocket, looking down to see the wrist in her grasp was attached to a wiry, dark-haired boy. A street urchin by the look of him, her wallet gripped in his grimy little hand. He wiggled furiously, but Selina held firm.
“Well, what do have we here?” she asked. The boy responded by attempting to kick her shins. Selina sidestepped his attack, twisting him around and holding his arm behind him. “Oh, now that’s not nice,” she said. People continued to pass by, stepping around them.
Apparently, Parisians were as numb to crime as Gothamites.
“Lemme go,” the boy said, pulling against her.
“Not until you give me back what’s mine,” Selina said, shaking the thin wrist in her grasp, indicating the wallet still in his hand. “Drop it.”
The boy twisted around to look at her; his face was a tiny mask of fury, but it was the look in his eyes that caught her attention.
There was fear in those eyes, but it wasn’t of her. It was, however, familiar. It was this look in his greenish-blue eyes that loosened Selina’s grip just enough for the boy to wriggle out of it. The wallet hit the pavement at her feet with a soft thud.
Selina watched him run away, his pounding footfalls echoing in her ears as he disappeared among the throng of shoppers. She found herself staring into faceless, moving crowd.
“Everything all right?” Selina almost jumped at the sound of Bruce’s voice at her side, pulling her out of her trance.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped. Bruce snickered as he dipped down to retrieve her fallen wallet. “Everything’s fine,” she added, shaking her head, attempting to regain her composure. “Just some kid trying to pickpocket the wrong person.”
“I see,” Bruce said. He followed her gaze down the crowded street.
“Someone tried to rob you?” Dick asked, appearing on her other side. Before she knew it, he was pushing the square box of pastries he’d just gotten into her hand. On instinct, Selina placed a quick hand on Dick’s shoulder, stopping him before he could run off after the little thief.
Now where the hell did this come from? Selina shot a glance at Bruce. He failed to respond. Of course. With the move and settling into the apartment, Selina hadn’t joined in on any of their training sessions in months, but if Dick continued to show these more overt vigilante tenancies, she was going to have to make a habit of dropping in more often.
It wasn’t natural for a kid to run head first into the unknown in the pursuit of great justice.
As far as Selina was concerned, it wasn’t a natural thing for anyone to do.
“It’s fine,” she told Dick, pulling him back. “Let him go.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Bruce asked, studying her.
“Please,” Selina said. “I’ve dealt with worse. This kid was nothing.” She forced a smirk.
“It’s a wonder he got away then,” Bruce said, reaching over to slip the wallet back into her purse. There was something in his eyes Selina didn't like at all. Something like doubt. And a touch of amusement.
She wondered if Bruce actively tried to be a condescending ass or if it was just his natural state of being.
“Dumb luck, I guess,” she answered, the words coming out less cavalier than she intended. She ran her eyes across the crowd again, but it was a useless gesture; the boy was gone.
“If you say so,” Bruce replied. They continued down the street, resuming their window shopping, but Selina had lost interest in the pretty things that filled the storefronts. She followed Dick and Bruce as the kid bounced from window to window, pointing at various trinkets and displays, munching on pastries as they went. But she was distracted, only half paying attention to him.
Selina had come across pickpocketing children before, but something had been off about this one. Unusual. He’d been rough and tumble—a street rat, no doubt—but when she thought about it, he had not been as seasoned or as crafty as Selina would have expected for his age. He’d also spoken to her in English, not French. English with an American accent. Which begged the question, why was this particular kid picking pockets in the middle of Paris, France?
More than any fact, it was that look in his eyes Selina kept coming back to. She couldn’t get it out of her head; it stuck with her, unable to be shaken.
She’d seen that brand of fear before, in the Gotham street kids the mob used as lookouts. On the girls who worked the main track in the Bowery. It was the kind of fear that came from the immediate threat of someone bigger and stronger than you were, the fear of the consequences of not getting your job done.
It was the look of one who worked the streets like their life depended on it, because it did. Because someone else was holding the strings.
The rosy light of the city seemed to have dulled since the afternoon, greying around the edges as the sun began to set. Everything was dirtier, less shiny than she remembered it being when they first arrived.
For the briefest of moments, it felt like Gotham.
“It’s getting late,” Selina said, breaking her long silence. “We should head back.” Bruce sighed, relieved at the suggestion. Even Dick, who, with the help of refined sugar, had been doing a decent job of keeping himself entertained all day, agreed with a stunning amount of enthusiasm.
They were halfway back to the apartment when Selina noticed her phone was missing.
“You know, I figured that thing would have a tracking device,” Selina said, leaning over Bruce’s shoulder to look at the screen of his laptop, “but this is ridiculous.”
As soon as they had gotten back, Bruce headed straight for their bedroom and his work desk. Selina had come in a few minutes later to find him tracking down her stolen phone with a program that, by the look of it, was far too advanced to be run-of-the-mill, anti-theft software.
Selina wasn’t surprised, but she was a little suspicious.
“I might have made some modifications,” Bruce said.
“Standard military-grade GPS.” His eyes never left the screen.
Sure, no big deal.
“You put military-grade tracking on my phone?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’ve upgraded Dick’s too,” Bruce said, his tone far too casual for her liking.
“It doesn’t,” Selina replied. “Any other upgrades I should know about?” He didn’t answer. She cleared her throat, waiting.
“I’d rather not say.”
“Fine. Keep your secrets,” Selina said. “Just as long as you didn’t implant a tracker in me while I slept.” She paused. “You didn’t, right?”
“That wouldn’t be exactly ethical, Selina.”
“Would that stop you?” He shrugged. Selina could have sworn the corner of his lip twitched.
“Would I tell you if I had?”
“Relax,” he said. “You are, as of now, untrackable.” There was a slight curve at the edges of his lips. “Doesn't mean the thought hadn't crossed my mind.”
Selina didn’t find that surprising at all.
“You know what they say,” she said. “You only implant subdermal tracking devices in the ones you love.” Bruce stopped typing for a moment to look up at her. His lips were smirking but there was something deeper behind his eyes.
“Is that what they say?” he teased back, his voice soft. Selina smirked, pinching him on the arm in response.
It was then Selina heard a series of loud noises coming from the living room. She recognized them immediately; they were the dull, random thump thump-ings of Dick’s free-form acrobatics. By the sound of it, she guessed handstands. Maybe backflips.
The downstairs neighbors must love them.
If Bruce noticed the racket, he didn’t comment.
“This is a lot of trouble for a phone that can easily be replaced,” she told him.
“This is not about the phone,” Bruce said. Selina raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. “There was something that bothered you about the boy who took it, correct?”
The memory of that boy’s eyes had been nagging her all day. Of course, Bruce had sensed that. There was no point denying it.
“I trust your instincts,” Bruce continued. “I want to know what it was.”
“I thought you were retired.”
“Just curious.” Bruce must have felt her looking at him, because he added, almost under his breath, “Old habits.”
Selina couldn't argue; she knew their pull. Of course, her old habits were slightly less savory than Bruce’s. Falling back into the habit of selflessly saving the lives of others was infinitely preferable to going back to lifting pretty things that weren’t hers.
Much less fun, of course, but definitely more preferable.
Selina heard a crash outside their bedroom, the undeniable sound of something valuable breaking into a thousand pieces.
“Don’t worry!” Dick shouted from the other room. “I’m OK!”
Selina sighed, rubbing her temples as the happy thudding noises resumed.
“Don’t look at me,” Bruce said, his eyes fixed on the screen. “You’re the one who promised him sugar.”
“You’re the one who gave it to him,” she countered.
“Now how’s that fair?”
“I didn’t say it was fair,” Selina replied, smirking. “So, is that it?” She reached forward to touch the blinking red dot that had finally stopped moving on the screen. Bruce absently batted her hand away. He had a thing about fingerprints on computer screens.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said. Apparently satisfied, Bruce leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, his face fixed in that serious expression he got when deep in thought. Selina shook her head, fighting the urge to roll her eyes.
“So, you’ve found it. Now what?” It was a throwaway question; Selina didn’t have to ask him what his next move was. He was going to find the kid. Now, she just had to figure a way to go with him without too much of a fight.
Selina was formulating her plan of attack when Bruce looked up and asked, “Up for a little walk?”
Well, that was easy.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, watching Bruce nod in approval. He glanced down, reaching over to play with the hem of her dress, observing the bright cobalt fabric with a critical eye.
“You should probably change into something more practical,” he said, the fabric of her dress still between his fingers, “and maybe more...black?”
She didn’t bother repressing a smirk.
“Oh, I’m sure I have something that will work,” Selina said. She turned her back to him, inclining her head toward the zipper on the back of her dress. “A little help?” she asked, feigning a level of innocence she certainly did not possess.
Fortunately for her, it was a charade Bruce was more than happy to play along with.
“You really know how to show a girl a good time,” Selina told Bruce dryly as they surveyed the ominous, dilapidated building his fancy tracking device had led them to. He didn’t bother responding, moving forward to push open the heavy, rusted door.
The derelict neighborhood they found themselves in was clear across the city from their apartment. The walk over had been straightforward and much brisker than Selina had anticipated; Bruce was positively humming with purpose this evening.
Good thing comfortable shoes had been a part of her wardrobe change.
They were both in more practical clothing now; dark outfits ideally suited to a night of sneaking around the slums of Paris in search of a pickpocketing street urchin.
Because, as it turned out, they were the type of people who did that.
“As soon as he sees us, he’s going to run,” Selina said. She followed Bruce up the creaking stairwell, each step echoing louder than the last.
“Then we won’t give him the chance,” Bruce replied. He stopped at the third floor, continuing down a narrow hallway lined with doors, their paint cracked and peeling. The light in the hall was dull, yellow and flickering. A musty, dank smell filled the air.
To call this building ‘rundown’ would have been an understatement. The entire place appeared to be actively decomposing; Selina wasn’t certain the whole thing wouldn’t collapse under their feet.
Bruce stopped abruptly at one of the dozen doors, the number 302 faintly outlined where metal brackets had once been fastened. Selina gave him a questioning look. He held up a single finger before inclining his ear toward the door, head tilted down. Satisfied with whatever he heard, or failed to hear, Bruce went to pick the lock, but the rickety knob turned in his hand, already unlocked. Selina watched his frown deepen as he stepped inside. She followed behind him.
“He’s not here,” Selina said. Bruce turned, meeting her eyes and leveling an exasperated look in her direction.
Of course not, Selina, she mentally kicked herself. She used to be better at this. She closed the door behind her and whispered, “You sure this is it?”
Bruce didn’t answer, his eyes scanning the environment systematically from right to left. His gaze stopped at a weathered coffee table off to one side of the room. He looked back at her and then nodded toward the table. She followed his eyes to the pile of wallets and cellphones in the middle of it, catching sight of hers among them.
“How the hell did you—”
“It’s the only vacant apartment in the building,” Bruce supplied. “Don’t touch anything.”
“What am I, an amateur?” Selina asked. She saw his lips twitch.
“Now what?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
“We wait,” Bruce answered, positioning himself beside the door. He blended seamlessly with the shadows; she almost had to squint to see him.
“We just wait?” she asked, coming up beside him.
“This works better without the talking.”
So stoic. Selina stared at the lines of his face in the darkness, shaking her head. No talking, huh? A smirk tugged at her lips.
I can work with that.
After a moment, Selina sighed, leaning up against him, letting her body curve around his. Bruce didn’t stir. She reached up and ran a finger down the side of his face. Nothing. Determined, she rose to her tiptoes and let out a soft, deliberate sigh beside his ear. He didn’t even humor her with a flinch.
It was like seducing a damn statue.
“You’re no fun,” she whispered up at him. She moved away, straightening as she brushed imaginary bits of dust off herself. She caught Bruce rolling his eyes.
No fun at all.
The next several minutes were wasted in absolute silence. In an attempt to fend off complete boredom, Selina let her eyes wander around the studio apartment. It was mostly empty, devoid of any real furniture beside a coffee table which had seen much better days. The apartment was vacant but clearly being squatted in, at least temporarily. And, like the rest of the building, it was in rough shape; the wallpaper was curled with ripped edges, the wall beneath dotted with water spots. The cheap linoleum floor was cracked, peeling up in places, faded and yellowed with time. There was a rough pile of blankets bunched up in one corner of the room. Makeshift bedding.
The rush of familiarity almost turned her stomach. Selina had seen worse places than this. She’d spent some of the rougher nights of her childhood in places worse than this, but that had been a long time ago.
Not long enough to forget, but almost.
After an eternity, Bruce raised his hand, drawing her attention. He tapped his ear and nodded toward the door, indicating for her to listen. She concentrated, closing her eyes for a second. She heard the faint sound of a single set of approaching footsteps. A moment later, there was a jingling at the door handle.
It happened fast. As soon as the door creaked open, Bruce had the boy by the front of his sweatshirt, spinning him around and into the apartment, slamming the door shut in the process. She could tell Bruce wasn’t using enough force to hurt the kid, just enough to startle him into submission. It was amazing, the level of control he had.
Still, he did almost lift the boy clean off the floor.
“What the hell, what the hell?!” the kid shouted, eyes wide, swinging his arms at Bruce. The drawstring backpack he’d been carrying dropped to the floor. For all his thrashing about, Bruce held him at bay without much effort.
“Quiet,” Bruce snapped. Even without the mask, that voice had a strange power. The boy froze at the sound and stopped struggling. He looked terrified.
Whoa, dial it back, Batman, Selina thought, watching the kid’s face. It’s not like he’s a hardened criminal. Bruce seemed to realize this a second after Selina did, because his tone softened.
“Relax,” Bruce said, a little less menacing this time. “We’re not going to hurt you.” At the word we, the boy tore his gaze away from Bruce, peering over Bruce’s shoulder at Selina. His eyes met hers for a second time. A look of recognition flashed across them.
“You...” the boy said, eyes going wider. “Y-your stuff,” he babbled, “it’s on the table. Just take it and go.”
“We’re not here for the phone,” Bruce said before Selina could respond. The boy turned his attention back to Bruce, clearly confused and appearing less frightened with every passing second.
“Then what the hell do you want from me?”
“Answers,” Bruce said. “Don’t run,” he added before letting go of the boy’s sweatshirt front. To his credit, the kid didn’t try to run. Of course, Bruce was blocking the only exit. He did, however, grab his bag and scurry to the other side of the room. Once safely behind the coffee table, the boy pulled open the drawstring of his bag and fished out a messy wad of cash.
“Here, have it,” he said, holding it out to Selina while keeping a wary eye on Bruce. She was, it seemed, the lesser of two evils.
“We don’t want your money, kid,” Selina said, walking toward the table. He took another step back as she rifled through the pile of stolen things for her phone. “I will take this back, though.” She slipped her recovered phone into the back pocket of her jeans.
“OK, you got your stuff,” the boy said, speaking quickly. “So we’re done here now, right? You can go?”
“What’s your name?” Bruce asked.
“What the hell is it to you?” the kid snapped. Bruce inched toward him. The boy, predictably, overreacted.
“Jason,” he spit out, his hands up. He backed away until he was pressed flat against the wall. “It’s Jason, shit. What’s the matter with you, man?” Selina looked away, pursing her lips together and hoping the darkness hid whatever ghost of a smile she couldn’t contain.
Laughter would probably kill the whole interrogation vibe Bruce was going for.
“How old are you?” Bruce asked.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed.
“Ten,” Jason amended. Bruce grunted and continued to glare, but Selina got the feeling it had more to do with his displeasure at how young this kid was then the boy himself. There was a lengthy pause, and when Bruce failed to continue his line of questioning, Selina decided to step in.
“Where are your parents, Jason?” Selina asked, because tonight, apparently, she was the good cop. Jason turned to look at her.
“What are you, lady, social services?”
“Do we look like social services?” Bruce interrupted, his voice looming on the edge of threatening. “Parents? ”
“Dead,” Jason answered. His eyes had shifted down, focused on the piece of curling linoleum he was scuffing with the tip of his sneaker. His face was all hard lines and edges.
Dead parents? Selina wasn’t surprised.
It happened to the best of them.
“How long?” she asked, forcing her voice to be softer than normal.
“Don’t remember my mom,” Jason said, “but Willis bought the bullet a couple months ago.”
“Murdered?” Bruce asked.
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you’re a snitch,” Jason said, looking back up at them, a sneer on his lips. There was a clear note of disgust in his voice. Selina recognized it.
Every street rat knew ‘snitch ’ was synonymous with ‘dead man.’
“Where are you from?” Bruce asked. The tension in the air had lessened, but Selina still had to hand it to the kid; considering the circumstances, he was playing it remarkably cool. He’d relaxed some, leaning back, his arms crossed with one foot planted back against the wall, propping himself up. He was still as far from them as he could manage, but it was apparently a great enough distance for him to feel a little safer.
And, in turn, a little more cocky.
“Paris, can’t you tell?” Jason replied. Bruce didn’t respond, but his glare spoke volumes. “Chicago,” the boy relented, his shoulders lowering as he sighed. “But I’m not going back there, so don’t even—”
“How did you get here?” Bruce cut him off. It was clear Jason had figured out by now that not answering was not going to be an option. Selina heard him let out another heavy sigh.
“My dad thought he could run from the mob,” Jason explained, running a hand through his short, dark brown hair. “He said he knew people here. He didn’t have much of a choice but to bring me with him.” Jason snorted. “Fat lotta good it did either of us,” he added softly.
“Where are you staying now?” Selina asked.
“Lady, you’re looking at it,” Jason answered. Selina recognized the familiar street bravado creeping back into his voice. In all likelihood, Jason had realized they weren’t going to hurt him, which was a good thing, but it also meant more of an attitude from the kid. Selina could handle that, but she got the feeling Bruce was starting to lose his patience.
“You haven't been here more than a couple days,” Bruce said. She wasn’t sure how Bruce knew this, but the abashed look on the kid’s face proved he was right. “Now, where have you been staying? ”
Jason must have also figured that lying to them was useless; his answer was surprisingly forthcoming.
“There are these guys, they got a building on the other side of the river,” Jason said. “They take in kids from the streets, give’em work and a place to stay, you know?” Selina did know, and she didn’t like the sound of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Bruce stiffen.
“Why aren’t you there now?” he asked. Jason shrugged.
“I didn’t make my quota last month, so they’re not too happy with me,” he told them, fiddling with the drawstrings of his knapsack. “I’m laying low until I got enough to go back.”
The story was one Selina knew before he told it. It was part of what she’d seen in his eyes that afternoon on the avenue. It explained the pile of phones and wallets, the wad of cash, the look of fear.
She’d heard it all before, seen it all before. It reeked of Gotham.
This time, she couldn’t stop the flood of paralyzing memories that rushed back to her. She felt the numb fingers, numb toes. Everything cold and dirty and dank. Never being warm enough, never feeling safe enough. She could still feel the hunger, that gnawing emptiness, the kind when you’d do almost anything for something to eat, just to stop the pain.
She looked up and took a steadying breath, her eyes settling on the boy again, noticing things she hadn’t before; that familiar pallor to his skin, the cracked lips, the clothes that hung on his body not quite right. It shook her out of her trance, brought her back to the present.
“When’s the last time you ate anything?” she asked, amazed at how steady her voice was, considering.
“I do fine for myself,” Jason replied. Self-reliance was the highest of virtues for their kind, but from where Selina was standing, this kid wasn’t fine at all. He was scared and he was starving.
And Selina wasn’t the only one who saw it.
“We can’t let you stay here alone,” Bruce told him.
“What are you going to do, take me to the police?” Jason scoffed. “Waste of time, man. Been there, done that. They’ll let me go in an hour, tops.”
“Then what should we do with you?” Bruce asked. There was no hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Nothing. I don’t need anyone’s help,” Jason said, the hard lines of his face softening a bit. “Look, I won’t try to steal from you again, all right? Just take your stuff and go.”
For all his bravado and in spite of the front he was putting up, there was a desperation in Jason’s voice Selina couldn’t miss. Suddenly, she realized Bruce was going about this all wrong. They were never going help the kid this way. She decided to take the lead.
“Fair enough,” Selina interjected, addressing Jason directly before Bruce could continue. She could feel Bruce’s eyes on her, questioning, but she kept her attention focused on the kid. “But, a word of advice? If you’re gonna steal, pick an easier mark.”
“What she means to say is, ‘don’t steal.’”
“No,” Selina said, ignoring Bruce, her eyes still fixed on Jason. “What I am saying is ‘steal smarter.’” A smile crept across Jason’s face as he nodded.
Selina turned and crossed the few feet between her and Bruce, who was still stationed in front of the door. She met his eyes briefly, noting the question that lingered behind them.
“Let’s go,” Selina told him quietly. She hoped Bruce would trust her on this, but she wasn’t waiting to find out. Selina stepped around him and opened the door, pausing for a moment to look back at Jason.
“16 Rue de Coulmiers,” she told him, looking him square in the eyes.
“What’s that?” Jason asked.
“It’s our address,” Selina explained. “In case you get hungry.” She walked out the door and headed back down the dim hall.
“What are you two, like creepy guardian angels or something?” Jason called out after her.
“Find a way to secure this door,” she heard Bruce say. A second later, the door closed. She heard the sound of Bruce's footsteps following behind her.
“I don’t like this,” Bruce said, breaking the silence that had lingered since they'd left the building.
“Who would?” Selina replied. They were halfway home, their pace considerably less brisk than it had been earlier. She was grateful he’d not fought her back there in front of the kid, but now she got the feeling he was regretting it.
Tough, she thought.
“I should have dragged him to the police station,” Bruce grumbled. Although it was said mostly to himself, it still felt like an accusation. “Or at least insisted he come home with us.”
“He wouldn’t have come,” Selina said. “And even if you made him, he wouldn’t have stayed.”
“I know,” Bruce admitted. She heard him sigh. “You made the right call.” Selina tried not to look surprised, but those words coming from his lips were more than surprising. She’d have teased him about it, but it didn’t feel right. Something about the context took all the joy out of her triumph. “So, what do you make of it?” he asked. Selina was certain Bruce already had it all figured out, but it was almost flattering, the way he was asking for her opinion.
Either that, or this was some kind of test.
It was probably a test.
“He’s scared,” Selina said. “Whoever’s running this racket is probably looking for him. They’d consider him an asset,” she added, all but hissing the last word. Bruce nodded.
Cheap labor was hard to find; child labor was all but free. The price was appealing to the less law-abiding of entrepreneurs. A little bit of food and shelter in exchange for having all the dirty work done for you by disposable minors who didn’t get jail time.
“And now?” There was an edge to Bruce’s voice; she’d made the call back there and now, he wanted to know what her next move would be.
“Now we wait and see if he shows up,” Selina said. “Not much more we can do.”
“I suppose not,” Bruce replied, sounding less than convinced. She did not believe for a second Bruce was interested in waiting for Jason to show up on their doorstep, but Selina knew there was no other way to gain the boy’s trust then to let him come to them, on his own terms. And if he didn’t trust them, they wouldn’t be able to help him.
And, for some reason, helping this random street orphan had inexplicably jumped right to the top of Selina’s to do list. She chalked this shiny-new altruism up as another unfortunate side effect of a year spent in close quarters with a bona-fide hero with a martyr complex.
Just once, Selina wished one of her bad habits would rub off on him. It’d only be fair.
Chapter 7: Like Old Times
It was a full three days before Jason showed up on their doorstep. Selina spent most of that time convincing Bruce not to go looking for him and the rest trying to convince herself she’d made the right decision, leaving the boy alone in the first place.
The night he finally came, Selina was in the kitchen trying not to burn dinner. Bruce and Dick were up on the roof, fitting in an extra training session before the sun set.
Just as the sauce on the stove began to simmer, Selina heard a knock at the door. She opened it to see a pair of blue-green eyes looking back at her from under the hood of a worn red sweatshirt.
It’s about damn time, Selina thought, unable to fight the smile that crept across her face.
“Hey,” Jason said, not quite meeting her eyes. “Uh, you said something about food?”
“Come on in.” Selina moved aside, gesturing for him to enter. Jason walked into the apartment, his eyes darting around the living room. She shut the door behind him, watching as he pulled back the hood of his sweatshirt. In the bright light of their apartment, he looked so much younger than he had the other night. He actually looked his age.
Then he opened his mouth.
“Nice place,” Jason said, his tone more suited to a teenager than a ten-year-old. “I wasn’t going to come, you know, and it’s not like I need it or anything. The food, I mean,” he told her. “But, other than being way creepy, you guys were pretty cool about the whole ‘I stole from you’ thing. So I figured—”
“It’s fine, Jason.” Selina cut off his rambling and formally introduced herself.
“So, is scary boss man here too?” Jason asked, hands shoved in his pockets. His eyes scanned the place warily, as if Bruce was going to jump out of the shadows at any second to scare the crap out of him.
It wasn’t a far cry from what the man was known for doing, but Jason didn’t know that.
“No, Bruce isn’t here,” Selina told him, “but they should be back any minute.”
“They? ” Jason repeated, tilting his head. As soon as the word left his lips, Selina heard heavy footsteps on the outside stairs. Dick’s voice drifted down, muffled through the closed door. Jason must have heard it too, because his head snapped toward the door. He inched closer to Selina.
The door opened and Dick came bounding inside, face sweaty and hair disheveled, Bruce a few steps behind him.
“I’m starving,” Dick said, dropping their gear on the floor by the door as he began working off his sneakers. He looked up, caught sight of Jason and did a double-take. “Hey, we have company!”
He couldn’t have sounded more enthusiastic. Selina really did not get him.
“It’s good to see you, Jason,” Bruce said as he ushered Dick further into the apartment, stepping inside behind him. “This is Dick.”
Dick didn’t miss a beat. He walked right up to Jason and held out his hand. Jason looked down at it.
“You’re kidding, right?” Jason said. His own hands remained stuffed in his sweatshirt pockets. Selina watched as Dick’s smile widened into something more mischievous.
Jason glared at him, unmoving. Dick stared back, grinning, his outstretched held steady. After several long and awkward seconds, Jason relented, pulling his hand out of his pocket and offering it begrudgingly.
“Nice to meet you,” Dick said, shaking the other boy’s hand a bit more vigorously than necessary, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah, OK.” Jason pulled his hand away, rubbing it on his jeans. “Nice to meet you too, Dick.”
Oh, this is going to be fun. Selina shook her head. She caught a sudden whiff of stale sweat and scrunched her nose.
“You two reek,” Selina told Bruce and Dick, waving her hand. “Dinner’s in ten. Use the time wisely.” They disappeared into their respective rooms to change as Selina gestured for Jason to follow her into the kitchen.
“I didn’t know you had a kid,” Jason said as he followed behind her.
“You didn’t know my name until five minutes ago,” Selina countered.
“Good point.” There was a smirk on his lips. “Why am I here again?”
“Food.” Selina nodded toward the sink. “Soap and water. Wash your hands.”
She wasn’t sure where that impulse had come from.
“Yes, ma’am,” Jason said with more than a little sarcasm. She moved to the stove to stir the sauce. Glancing over at the sink, she watched Jason take deep breath, his eyes closed. She could have sworn she heard his stomach growl.
Selina pulled a stack of plates from the cabinet and set a handful of silverware from the drawer on top of them.
“Here, set the table,” she told Jason as he dried his hands.
“Hey, I thought I was a guest,” Jason said. “You’re going to make a guest set the table?” She answered by setting the pile of plates into his empty hands. “Guess that’s a yes,” he grumbled. She shook her head as she watched him carry the plates into the other room.
Dinner was an awkward affair. Bruce, never a big talker, remained quiet. Selina didn't say much either, deciding it was best to give the kid some space. Jason was too busy shoveling forkfuls of pasta into his mouth to say much at all.
If it wasn’t for Dick, they’d probably have spent the entire meal in silence.
Of course, with Dick around, nothing was ever silent for long.
After polishing off two plates of spaghetti at breakneck speed, Dick spent the rest of dinner hammering their guest with an endless barrage of questions, ranging from So, what’s your last name? to Do you play video games?
While most of the questions went unanswered, the last one got a response.
“Before I came to this rathole of a country, I did,” Jason said as he dabbed up the last specks of sauce from his plate with a crust of garlic bread. Dick grinned. Selina knew where this was heading.
“May we be excused?” Dick asked. Jason eyed him as he shoved his last bit of garlic bread into his mouth.
“Go on,” Bruce said. Dick got up, grabbed his plate and gestured for Jason to do the same. Awkwardly, Jason followed suit.
“Uh, thanks for, you know, dinner,” Jason mumbled at them before following after Dick. A minute later, Selina heard them trampling across the living room to Dick’s room.
“You worried?” Selina asked Bruce as they finished clearing the table.
“Not at all,” Bruce said. “Dick can handle himself.”
She really did need to drop in on those training sessions more often.
But just because Bruce was confident in Dick’s safety, that didn’t mean Selina was. She also had absolutely no shame in sneaking up to Dick’s door a little while later to eavesdrop, just to be sure there were no impromptu fights or hidden knives or anything.
At first, there wasn’t much to hear but the smashing of buttons and the sound of things being blown up. Selina was about to walk away when she heard Jason’s voice rise above the sound effects.
“So, what’s their deal?”
“Who?” Dick asked.
“Bruce and Selina?” Dick asked. “Oh, they’re not my parents.”
There was a long pause filled with more clicking and explosions. Selina leaned closer to the doorway, staying out of sight.
“Wait, what?” Jason asked after a second.
“Yeah, they took me in last spring,” Dick told him, sounding distracted, “after my parents died.”
“Huh. Why?” There was another pause.
“I don’t know,” Dick answered. “It just happened.”
“People just do that?”
“I guess so,” Dick replied. “Good people do.” Selina heard Jason snort.
“Good people? What are those?” he replied. The boys got quiet again as something in the game got louder and more intense. After a minute, she heard Jason resume the conversation.
“But they’re not like, weird or anything, right?” he asked.
“No, they’re great,” Dick replied. “The best.”
With that, Selina tiptoed away from the door. She didn’t have anything to worry about.
They were getting along fine.
So fine, in fact, that when Selina returned to Dick’s room several hours later to insist on lights out, both boys protested. Or, at least they tried to, but Dick’s argument was invalidated by a yawn he couldn’t quite stifle and Jason’s by red, bleary eyes that were barely staying open.
“Yeah, I guess I should probably go,” Jason said, getting up from his place on the floor. It sounded like the absolute last thing he wanted to do.
“Why don’t you stay?” Selina said, having already gotten out a set of sheets and an extra pillow. “Ride the couch.”
“You want me to stay here? ” Jason asked as he followed her into the living room. She nodded as she leaned over the couch, fitting a sheet around its edges. “How do you know I won’t just steal something and bolt?”
“I don’t,” Selina said, “but you seem like a smart kid. And, if gratitude for dinner doesn’t keep you honest, I still doubt you want him coming after you again.” She watched the boy’s eyes widen.
Clearly, the Bat hadn’t lost all of his charms.
“As long as you’re sure,” Jason mumbled, yawning as he sprawled out on the couch. His head fell heavily to the pillow. Selina draped a blanket over top of him. She went to click off the main room light; by time she looked back, his eyes were already closed.
She eyed Dick’s closed door from the hall, seeing no light coming from under it. Satisfied he was down for the night as well, Selina slipped into her own bedroom, closing the door softly behind her. She looked up and sighed, catching sight of Bruce still wide awake and focused on his computer.
Two down, one to go.
“Still up?” she asked.
Well, wasn’t he just full of pep.
“Smart ass,” she muttered over her shoulder as she went to change for bed.
“So, a strange child sleeping on our couch?” Bruce said when she came back in from the bathroom. Of course, he already knew. Either he had supersonic hearing or had simply assumed she’d been able to get Jason to stay. “It feels like old times.”
“We’re not keeping this one, Bruce.” It was off-handed, a joke, but until that moment, Selina hadn’t realized the thought was even in her head.
“I didn’t say anything of the sort,” he replied. Selina wished she could slap the arrogant look off his face. “Just who are you trying to convince, Selina?”
For the briefest of moments, Selina let herself consider the idea. It took less than a second for her to shoot it down.
No. One was enough. One was more than enough. Everything was going well. Things had stabilized. There was no reason to rock the boat.
No reason at all.
“It’s late,” she said, changing the subject.
“You’re right,” Bruce replied, distracted again, his fingers tapping away on the keyboard. “You should go to bed.”
That wasn’t exactly what Selina had in mind.
She walked up behind him, reaching over to run her fingernails up his scalp, weaving her fingers through his hair.
“Come with me.”
“Later,” he said, unresponsive to her touch. Selina’s eyes narrowed slightly as she leaned over his shoulder.
“Now,” she insisted, staring hard at the side of his face. Bruce didn’t even blink.
“Soon.” A concession, but not good enough. Selina decided to change tactics. She reached down, letting let her hands creep across his chest until her arms were around him. He didn’t stir.
“You know, I can be very persuasive,” Selina said, adding, “when I want to be,” as she pressed her lips against the curve of his neck. She caught the slightest hitch in his breath at the contact.
“Is that right?” Bruce asked, his voice lower than before. Selina could have sworn she felt the pulse under her lips quicken.
“Mmhmm,” she murmured, lips still pressed to his skin. She tilted her head, lips close to his ear. “Come to bed,” she whispered in French.
Bruce reached over and closed his laptop.
The next morning, Selina woke early to find their little house guest in the kitchen, attempting to climb out onto the fire escape. She cleared her throat to get his attention. The boy yelped softly, swearing under his breath.
“Damn it,” Jason said, his voice barely above a whisper. “You scared me,” he added, one foot still propped against the window sill.
“We do have a front door, you know,” Selina pointed out.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to wake anyone,” Jason grumbled.
“Oh, how noble of you,” Selina said, motioning for him to come down from the window. He sighed as he climbed down. She ran her eyes over him a second; he didn’t appear to be taking anything with him that wasn’t his. That was surprising.
She’d almost expected it.
“You’re going to stop me from leaving now, aren’t you?” Jason asked. Selina shook her head.
“Nope,” she answered. The boy raised an eyebrow, tilting his head slightly. She tossed him an apple from the basket on the counter; he stuffed it into his sweatshirt pocket without a word. “Come on, I’ll walk you out,” she said, ushering him out of the kitchen, toward the front door.
“You’re free to go,” she said as she opened the door for him. “But come back tonight for dinner.”
“Is that an order?” he asked, looking back at her. Selina shook her head.
“It’s an invitation.”
“Huh.” Jason frowned, his brow furrowed. After a long moment, a slow smirk spread across his lips and he nodded. “See you around, S.”
With that, Jason pulled his hood over his head and clamored down the stairs, his footfalls echoing all the way down. Selina lingered against the doorframe, watching after him until he was well out of sight.
Jason did not come back that night. Selina hadn’t expected him to.
It would have been too much like following orders.
The next night, however, Jason appeared at their door right around dinner time, without any explanation of why he’d not come the night before or where he’d been since.
Not wanting to wanted to scare him off, they didn’t press the issue. Later, when Jason fell asleep on the floor of Dick’s room after several more hours of video games, Selina threw a blanket over him and let him be. The kid was gone by time they got up the next morning, but he was back again before dusk, cheerfully asking what was for dinner.
And so began a pattern.
At first, they only saw Jason at night; he would come for dinner and leave before they were up the following morning. Selina had no idea where Jason went when he left them, but each night without fail, the boy came back. As the days turned into weeks, Jason began coming a little earlier in the evenings, staying a bit longer in the morning.
No one minded.
For all this gruff, street smart nature, Jason was a good kid. He had been true to his word; never once, to Selina’s knowledge, did he attempt to steal from them again. Still, he was a different sort of child from Dick, less optimistic, harder around the edges. In spite of this, the two of them got along well. For the most part.
A good forty percent of the time, at least.
The trouble was that Dick had an uncanny talent for pushing people's buttons and Jason had a lot of buttons. Even still, most of the teasing between the two of them was good natured. Jason was clearly capable of giving back as good as he got, and Dick learned the few sensitive subjects to always avoid.
The one thing Jason absolutely did not want to talk about was his situation. He bristled at any suggestion he needed help, even though he did. Still, they found ways of helping him around his pride, like the stocked bowl of fruit they kept on the table for him to raid in the mornings and the outgrown clothes of Dick’s they left out for him to use.
It had taken Selina a full two weeks to convince Jason to let her wash that damn sweatshirt of his. It came out of the washer a full three shades brighter. For all his grumbling, she’d caught the kid more than once pulling the faded red fabric up to his nose to sniff it.
For a while, that was how it went. Jason’s nightly visits became the norm. They’d struck a good balance. Had fallen into a comfortable pattern. Everything was working out. No need to change a thing.
Of course, it often seemed as if Jason and Selina were only ones who thought so.
“Maybe we should think about making this more permanent,” Bruce said a month or so after Jason started staying with them. Selina knew this conversation was coming and had been more than happy to avoid it. She shook her head, searching for a good, solid reason why not.
A reason Bruce would accept, anyway.
“If we try to change anything now, we might scare him off,” she reasoned. “Besides, we’re just helping him out until he gets on his feet.” Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“Selina, he’s ten.”
Bruce wasn’t the only one giving her grief.
“Why doesn’t he just stay with us?” Dick asked one morning after Jason had left for the day. “I mean, he’s here half the time anyway.”
“I don’t know,” Selina replied, hoping it would be enough. It wasn’t.
“Well, you could always ask him to stay. Then maybe he would,” Dick said, surprisingly mischievous for so innocent a child.
“Thanks for the permission, kid.”
They both had a point, of course. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Jason could come to live with them permanently, as Dick had. She knew that. The reasons in favor of it still applied. However, for Selina, so did the reasons against.
Yes, Dick was great and, if pressed, Selina would have had to admit that she now had a hard time imagining life without his bright little presence around. And, technically, the arrangement had worked out so far, but that didn’t mean it always would. And it certainly didn’t mean adding a fourth person to this mess was a good idea.
As much as she sidestepped any and all discussions regarding the ‘Jason’ issue, Selina came to expect him at their dinner table. She’d grown used to the sight of him sprawled across their couch at night, used the sound of bickering and laughing and roughhousing that came with having two boys in the same small apartment. She found herself worried when Jason was later than usual, felt the slightest twinge of regret when she watched him leave.
This was dangerous territory and Selina knew it. It was uncomfortably close to attachment. Selina wasn’t in the habit of getting attached.
One afternoon, Selina and Bruce were coming home from a walk when they spotted Jason, in his faded red sweatshirt, leaning against the side of their building. It was an unusual sight. For one, he was earlier than normal, and two, he had never once waited downstairs.
Something wasn’t right; Selina could see it in the slump of his shoulders.
“You could have gone upstairs,” she called out to him as they approached. He tilted his head in their direction but didn’t look up. “Dick would have let you in,” she continued as they came up to him.
“Didn’t want to,” came his mumbling reply, head still down, face hidden under his hood. “Waiting for you two.”
Something was definitely not right.
“What’s the matter, Jason?” Bruce asked. His expression was even, his tone casual, but Selina could still hear traces of concern in his voice.
“Nothing,” Jason said. Lie, Selina thought. “I just came to tell you guys that I won’t be coming back here anymore and you shouldn’t come looking for me.”
Where did this come from? She shared a glance with Bruce. Jason still hadn’t looked up, his face hidden under that damn sweatshirt. Without preamble, Bruce did what Selina’s fingers were itching to; he reached over and pushed the hood back off Jason’s face. The boy jerked away, but it was too late.
Jason’s pale face was marred with several bruises and cuts, all fresh. There was a split down the middle of his lip, still swollen, and a large, angry bruise was forming across his puffed-up left cheek. Selina could feel Bruce tense beside her.
He’d been in some kind of tussle, and if Selina had to guess, it wasn’t some street fight with another kid.
These blows were dealt by an adult.
“What the hell happened to you?” Selina asked, moving forward to get a closer look. Jason backed away from her and she let him. She stepped back, gave him space. Still, Selina couldn’t take her eyes off his face. The blood coursing through her veins grew hotter with each passing second.
“It’s nothing,” Jason said, shrugging. “I’ve had worse.”
Selina began to tell him to come upstairs, but Bruce caught her attention over the top of Jason’s head. He shook his head slightly, telling her not to interfere.
And, for some stupid reason, Selina felt compelled to listen. She watched Bruce rest a hand on Jason’s shoulder, leaning down, eye level.
“Why can’t you come back, Jason?” Bruce asked.
“Look, you guys have been great and all,” Jason said, shrugging away, avoiding Bruce’s question and his eyes. “But this just ain't for me.” He glanced up at Selina. “Tell Wonder Boy ‘bye’ for me, OK?” Selina nodded, her lips pursed tight in a thin line. “And thanks, you know, for everything.” He started to walk away.
“Wait,” Bruce stopped him. He fiddled with the watch on his wrist, unhooking the clasp and slipping it over his hand. He dropped it into Jason’s.
“No, man, I can’t—” Jason started, moving to give it back.
“Take it,” Bruce insisted. “To meet your quota.” A look of understanding passed between them. Jason nodded, his fingers curling around the watch. After a moment, he shoved it into his pocket.
“Thanks.” Jason looked away again. His eyes were fixed on the ground. Selina saw his face was screwed up tight, as if the fading afternoon light was too bright for his eyes. “Bye,” he mumbled quickly, turning around and heading down the street without looking back.
As she watched him walk away, Selina was overwhelmed by the urge to go after him, to drag him back by the strings of that damn sweatshirt and make him stay where he couldn’t get hurt.
“We’re just going to let him go?” she asked Bruce as the tiny red figure grew smaller in the distance.
“We can’t make him stay,” Bruce replied. That careless apathy didn’t sound like him at all. It sounded like her.
Of all the times for one of her bad habits to rub off on him.
“I don’t understand you,” she said, her face growing hot. “How can you want to help the kid one minute and then the next you just let him go back to the son of a bitch who...” Selina trailed off, expecting Bruce to chime in and defend himself. He didn’t. He just stared at her, calmly waiting for her to finish. “What?” Selina snapped.
“You care about what happens to him.” His dark eyes stared straight into hers, unnerving.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “Of course, I care.”
As soon as the words left her lips, Selina realized how true they were.
“Me too,” Bruce said softly.
“Then why did you let him go?” Selina asked again, softer this time. Bruce failed to answer, as if he was still waiting for something. He didn’t appear anxious or worried. In fact, he seemed purposeful. In control. Like everything was going according to plan. Then it dawned on her. The watch.
“You didn’t?” Selina asked, catching a gleam in his eyes. “You did.”
“We should probably tell Dick we’re going out tonight,” Bruce replied, sidestepping her question. “That is, if you're up for it?”
The cuts and bruises on Jason’s face lingered fresh in her mind; Selina thought about the hand that put them there, recalled the fearful look in his eyes the day they’d met. The angry heat she’d felt before was replaced by something stronger, by a cold, focused anger that chilled through her veins.
“Up for it?” she repeated. “Honey, you have no idea.”
The tracking device in Bruce’s watch lead them to a rundown, abandoned factory on the other side of the river, smack dab in the heart of the city’s former industrial district, matching the rough description Jason had given them that first night.
They waited until the sun had set before heading out; the cover of darkness was useful for these sort of things.
As they both knew well.
They walked around the building, searching for a decent point of entry. Selina stopped to peer into one of the large windows, motioning for Bruce to do the same. The light inside was dim, but Selina could see the floor of the main workspace, lined with rough mattresses, occupied by children. Thirty or forty of them, by her estimate, all small and wiry. Selina tried but couldn’t pick out Jason’s familiar silhouette from among them.
“Looks like the right place,” she said. Bruce nodded and motioned for Selina to follow. At the back of the building they came to a set of fire escape stairs anchored into the brick.
“That leads to the manager’s office,” Bruce said, looking up at the unreachable metal rungs.
For once, Selina was one step ahead of him. By time Bruce had finished speaking, she was already shimming up the side of the wall. Free climbing up brick was a bit tougher than she remembered, but she managed to get just high enough to reach the bottom of the rusty fire escape. She pulled herself up onto it, then lowered the last few feet of the ladder down to Bruce as quietly as she could.
“You’re welcome,” she whispered as he joined her on the first landing. He rolled his eyes.
They silently climbed the three flights of stairs to the top. Selina could hear muffled voices as they approached the window. They took positions on either side of it and listened.
“About time you brought me something valuable,” came a man’s voice in heavily accented English.
“Oh, so glad you think so, Jacques,” Selina heard a wonderfully stubborn, arrogant little voice reply.
“Keep up the attitude and I’ll add a few more bruises to your collection. Understand?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Jason mumbled.
Outside the window, Bruce made a quick gesture for Selina to wait before disappearing down the stairs. Not two minutes later, he was back, motioning for her to come down to the landing a flight below the window. They kept their voices to a whisper.
“It’s just the two of them,” Bruce told her, fast and low. “Both in the room, both armed. The rest are children, all on the lower level.”
Selina glanced back up at the lighted window.
“OK, so what should we...” she turned to find an empty stairwell. “...do?”
Fine. We’re improvising. I can do that.
Selina climbed back up to the window, kneeling beside it. She peered in, taking in the layout as best she could without being seen. The window was situated behind a large desk and chair. There was a man seated at the desk, his back to her. She had a clear view of the door, and the bruiser of a man who sat in a chair by it. The rest of the room was out of view, but on the other side of the desk, she caught a fleeting glimpse of red.
“Now, you know the deal, boy,” she heard the man Jason had called ‘Jacques’ say, “I took you off the streets. You owe me.”
“Yeah. Got it,” Jason replied.
“Take off again and I’ll find you. And if I hear you’re working for someone else, they’ll pay.”
“I said I got it.”
Selina clenched her gloved hands, impatient. It took everything she had not to intervene right then and there.
What she needed was a distraction.
Before she’d even finished the thought, there was a loud crash outside the room.
“What was that? ” the larger man asked in French, rising from his chair.
“Go do your job and look, you idiot,” the man behind the desk snapped back. A second later Selina heard what could only be a scuffle between Bruce and the thug.
That wouldn’t take long.
Now, her turn. Selina opened the window and slipped inside. Jacques’ back was to her still, his attention focused on the door and the noise, but Jason, facing the window, saw her immediately. His mouth fell open, eyes widen. She brought a single finger to her lips. He quickly looked away.
“What the hell is going out there, Andre? ” the man called out, getting no response. Selina moved closer, eyeing the handgun tucked in the back waistband of his pants.
When he went to reach for it a second later, his hand came back empty.
“Looking for this?” Selina asked as she pressed the gun barrel against his temple, watching him tense at the touch of metal to skin.
“Andre!” he bellowed.
“You know, I don’t think Andre's coming,” Selina said. She glanced over at Jason. “Think you can get your hands on some rope, kid?” Jason nodded, disappearing out the door and down the stairs.
“Take a seat, Jacques,” Selina drawled, keeping the gun level with his temple. He sank into the wooden chair against the wall, glaring at her. He muttered a few choice words of nasty French slang. She only caught a part of it, but it was enough for her to dig the barrel a little harder against his skull.
“You probably shouldn’t say things like that to the lady with the gun,” Selina told him. She heard the clearing of a throat and looked over to see Bruce, unruffled, standing by the door. He eyed her and the gun with vague exasperation. Selina fought the urge to roll her eyes.
“What took you, darling?” she asked Bruce just as Jason reappeared in the doorway, a length of rope in his hands.
“Who the hell are you?” the man snapped at Bruce. Bruce didn’t bother responding; he took the rope from Jason and proceeded to tie the man to the chair. Only once Selina was sure he was bound did she lower the gun. She watched him struggle against the ropes, his eyes settling on the boy in the corner.
“I’ll kill you for this, you little shit,” he said. Jason, for all his natural smugness, took a cautious step back. Bruce grabbed the man’s chin and jerked his face forward, meeting his eyes.
“Look at him again and I will beat you unconscious.”
Jacques didn’t so much as glance back at Jason.
“So, what is it you want? Money?” he asked. “A piece of the action? Maybe one of the kids, eh?” His tone became a touch more nasty, eyes leering. “Some of the girls I got are very pretty. Some of the boys too. Take your pick.”
Bruce answered with a solid punch to the face. Selina heard the unmistakable crunch of a nose breaking. She took a step back as the man sputtered and coughed. It was then she remembered the gun, the weight of it still heavy in her hand. It was comforting, familiar. In one swift movement, Selina tucked it into the back waistband of her jeans.
“How many operations are you running?” Bruce growled, grabbing the man by his blond hair, pulling his head back as far is it would go. Blood was pouring from his nose, down onto his fancy white shirt.
That was going to be some dry-cleaning bill.
“Go to hell,” he replied, his voice garbled by blood. Bruce elbowed him in the chest.
“Let’s try again,” Bruce said, his tone steady, unamused. “How many? ”
The man sneered.
This time, it was an open palm strike to the solar plexus.
“Deux,” he sputtered, gasping for air, leaning hard against the ropes that kept him tied to the chair. “Two,” he repeated in English, the word slurred. All the pain and blood loss must have been making him a bit woozy.
“Where’s the other?” Bruce asked. The man rattled off an address. Bruce glanced at Selina. “Call it in.”
Selina stepped over to the other side of the room and made the call to the police. When she looked back, the man tied to the chair had passed out cold.
“Whoa,” Jason said, finding his voice. He stepped closer, impressed. “Did you kill him?” he asked Bruce.
“Of course not,” Bruce snapped. Jason took a small step back. Bruce's face softened as he added, “He should come to right as the police arrive.” Bruce looked over the unconscious figure again. “Maybe tomorrow.” The tiniest hint of amusement laced his voice.
That was fun for him, Selina realized, shaking her head. She couldn't blame him.
She knew just how he felt.
“Nice,” Jason said, nodding in approval. He looked from Bruce to Selina, smiling the widest, most sincere smile she’d ever seen from him. “I don’t know how you found this place or who the hell you two really are, but that was awesome.”
Selina sighed, letting herself smile as the desperate, sinking feeling she’d felt since Jason walked away that afternoon began to vanish. The old familiar screech of sirens echoed in the distance, mixing with the mumbling sounds of children stirring downstairs.
“Time to go,” she told Bruce, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking down at Jason.
Selina knew what was coming before Bruce even said the words.
“Jason,” Bruce said. The boy looked up at him. “You have a choice. You can stay here and get rounded up with the rest or...” Bruce paused a moment, glancing up to meet Selina’s eyes. “You can come home with us.”
Jason looked over them both again; there was a smirk on his lips but something genuine lingered in his eyes.
“Lead the way, boss man.”
Bruce nodded at the window Selina had entered through. Jason moved toward it, but stopped suddenly, scurrying behind the desk. He fumbled through the drawers, looking for something. After a moment, he pulled out Bruce’s watch.
The flashing lights from the police cars could be seen now through the windows, their colors bouncing off the walls. Jason shoved the watch into his pocket and climbed out the window, disappearing on to the fire escape. Bruce followed after him, stopping by Selina’s side for a moment.
“Lose the gun,” Bruce whispered before climbing out himself. Selina pulled the gun out and set it down on the desk. She let her gloved hand run across it once before turning to follow them out the window into the crisp night air.
Chapter 8: Outlets
“Next time you guys do something cool, you gotta take me with you,” Dick told them after Jason filled him in on what happened at the abandoned factory.
Selina had never seen the kid look so disappointed.
He’s never going to let us leave the house without him again, she thought, trying not to laugh.
Dick’s mood turned around, however, once he learned Jason was staying with them for good. He grinned wide and threw his arms around the smaller boy. Jason glowered, struggling against the embrace.
“Don’t make me change my mind,” he grumbled.
“If you’re gonna be my brother, you’re gonna have to get used to this,” Dick replied. Something about that bothered Selina, but Bruce's voice distracted her before she could dwell on it.
“Of course, there will be ground rules,” Bruce told Jason. “If you want to stay with us, you have to stay.” Staying meant no more sneaking out, no more going off on his own. It meant rules and chores and schoolwork and the whole nine yards. Selina expected Jason to resist these new terms. To her surprise, he didn’t.
“I’ll do my best, boss,” Jason said, trading in his freedom for comfort, stability, and three squares a day.
Selina, of all people, understood.
Becoming Jason’s legal guardians turned out to be an easier process than Selina had expected. She wasn’t sure how much of it was due to the gaping holes in the system and how much was a result of Bruce’s single-minded determination.
If she had to guess, it was the latter.
Once everything was settled, they offered to enroll Jason in school, as they had with Dick, but Jason declined.
“If he gets to stay home, then so do I,” he told them.
Homeschooling Jason turned out to be ideal; it kept him close by while he adjusted. It also helped to keep their unconventional arrangement—and Bruce’s still relatively famous face—away from questioning eyes and nosy people. Which was a good thing; Selina wasn’t ready for questions.
She had no idea how to answer them.
Not long after Jason had officially settled with them, Bruce broached the subject of moving again.
“I know we haven’t been here long,” he said. “But we could use more space, considering...” He nodded in the direction of the living room, where the boys were bickering over who got the couch.
Why they couldn't just share the damn thing was beyond her, but apparently, that wasn’t an option.
“Oh, whatever do you mean?” Selina replied just as something—or someone—hit the living room floor with a thud.
The downstairs neighbors had to hate them now.
“Yes,” she agreed, blocking out the shouts coming from beyond their bedroom. “A bigger place it is.” Selina could tell Bruce had something specific in mind.
The next day, she found out what it was.
After extracting promises from Dick and Jason that they’d keep the apartment and themselves in one piece while they were away, Bruce took her on a quick day trip to London. He didn't give her any details on the way; it was only once they’d arrived in front of a large brick townhouse on the northwest end of the city that Bruce told her the place was already his.
“You bought this?” Selina asked, wondering how he could have managed it without her knowing. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility—stealth was kind of his shtick—but it still seemed unlikely. Bruce shook his head.
“I’ve had it,” he replied.
“You mean to tell me you’ve had a house just sitting here all this time?” Selina asked, staring up at the sturdy brown brick and white facade. “And, what, you just didn’t think to bring it up until now?”
“Never had a reason to,” Bruce answered. “It didn't seem all that exciting.”
Not exciting? Selina shook her head. It didn’t matter what he’d done or lived through; the born rich were just wired differently, thought differently, than everyone else. Not only was this place gorgeous, with three stories and a sprawling backyard, but it was also bought and paid for.
In her world, this was beyond luxury; it was pure extravagance.
It was certainly a step above exciting.
“Any other real estate you forgot to mention?” Selina asked as they entered through the front door.
“I didn’t forget to mention it.” Bruce stepped back, letting her take the lead, following behind her into the house. “And, yes.” Selina could hear the smirk in his voice.
“Always with the secrets,” she teased, glancing back at him. He shrugged. She caught a glimpse of that arrogant smirk, but there was something else, something different, lingering behind his eyes.
Selina shook her head, focusing back on the house. She wandered from room to room, taking in the vastness of the place; wide windows, crown molding, rich granite countertops. She tried not to look impressed.
It wasn’t easy.
This was no mansion, by any means, but it was the closest she’d ever been to living in one.
“So?” Bruce asked once all of the rooms had been examined and every inch of the property looked over. By then, they had made their way out to the backyard, everything around them bright and green and full of summer. Selina looked up at the house again. And there it was, that whisper at the back of her mind, nagging her.
A house. Two kids. This arrangement of theirs was starting to look an awful lot like commitment.
But like commitment wasn’t the same as commitment, Selina reminded herself. Commitments usually involved discussions and rings and paperwork with real names affixed.
None of which they had.
She could feel Bruce’s eyes on her, waiting for an answer. A smirk crossed her lips.
“When do we move in?”
Bruce’s London townhouse proved to be a perfect upgrade from their increasingly cramped Paris apartment, with plenty of room for two growing boys, an ex-vigilante and a former crook to coexist in sprawling comfort.
Dick and Jason each had their own rooms now, safe and neutral territories all their very own, and Bruce had an actual office to work from, where he could be up all hours and grumble at the computer screen to his heart’s content.
Selina’s bedroom was free of paperwork and her living room spared from a loud and destructive preteen turf war.
She couldn’t realistically ask for more.
It didn’t take long for life to settle back into a routine. The only real difference was the change in location and the extra kid.
But, as far as Selina could tell, Jason Todd was adjusting to life with them just fine.
Except for the temper, that is.
They’d discovered early on that Jason had a bit of a short fuse, but it took several months to learn the full extent of it.
The kid had a hell of a temper.
His anger was rarely directed at anyone in particular. He didn’t often disagree with Bruce or Selina, and while his squabbles with Dick were loud and aggressive at times, they never caused a meltdown.
The things that set Jason off were always little and insignificant. Stubbing his toe on a barstool. Getting an answer wrong on his math work. Not being able to find one of his shoes.
The warning signs of a meltdown could be seen in the sudden tensing of his shoulders, in the way his hands clenched and balled into fists. Sharp words and slamming doors came next; he’d storm off, shut himself away, only to reappear later, mumbling apologies and continuing as if nothing happened.
Once Jason got into one of his moods, there was no talking him out of it. The best they could do was steer clear and wait for him to cool off.
It was an approach fast becoming obsolete.
“One of these days he’s gonna hurt himself,” Selina told Bruce one night, coming to bed after avoiding another Jason-shaped meltdown. “Either that, or I’m going to lose it and strangle him,” she added, sliding under the covers. Bruce closed the book he’d been reading and looked over at her. “He’s just so angry,” Selina continued. “Angry...”
“...right down to his bones,” Bruce finished, sounding distracted. Far away.
“Exactly.” She knew the feeling, that chilling anger, radiating inward, cutting to the bone. “I suppose you’d know something about that.”
“So would you.”
Selina glanced over, meeting his eyes. He was right. She knew what it was like to burn with that kind of anger, ferocious and all-consuming. To be angry at the whole world.
So did he.
“I have an idea...” Bruce began.
“Of course you do,” Selina said under her breath.
“...but you’re not going to like it,” he continued without pause. Selina already knew where this was going, and Bruce was right; she didn’t like it, but she was out of better ideas.
“If you think it will help him, by all means, try it,” Selina conceded, settling her head against the pillow. “You think Dick will mind?”
“I think Dick will be thrilled.” Bruce turned off the bedside lamp. The room plunged into darkness. “He’s been hinting at it for weeks.”
“It’s too freakin’ early for this,” Jason grumbled over the breakfast table, stifling a yawn. It’d only been five minutes since he’d been shaken awake and dragged out of his warm bed by Dick. Bruce was already outside, having wandered through the kitchen a few minutes before to invite—or rather, insist—Jason come and observe their morning training session.
As grumpy as he was, Jason knew better than to say no.
Selina had more or less reconciled with Bruce’s plan, and he’d been right about Dick’s reaction; the boy was thrilled with the prospect of Jason joining in on their training sessions. Jason, on the other hand, still bleary-eyed and barely awake enough to drink his orange juice, was far from convinced.
Of course, he waited until Bruce had left the room before complaining.
“Why can’t this start later?” he said, his voice close to a whine. “It’s not like there’s anywhere we have to be.”
Selina couldn’t help but agree with him, holding back her own yawn and taking a long sip of her coffee. She too was only awake at this ungodly hour at Bruce’s insistence. She wasn’t sure why she’d agreed, but she had a feeling it had something to do with the inopportune timing of Bruce’s request.
Damn that man and his powers of distraction.
“If Bruce says we start early, we start early,” Dick answered, far too positive and upbeat for 5:30 in the morning. Jason snorted.
“I bet you salute him too.”
“I do not,” Dick grumbled, his eyes narrowing. Selina could sense the beginnings of a squabble brewing, but the boys were both still too sleepy to put much effort into it.
“What about bowing?” Jason asked, getting punchier as he grew more awake. “Is there bowing? ” Dick glared at Jason.
“A little,” he admitted. Selina held back a smirk.
Bruce could be aggravatingly old school at times.
“This is ridiculous,” Jason said, picking at a piece of toast. “I already know how to fight.” Selina could hear that old street bravado creeping back into his voice.
“Not like this,” Dick countered around a mouthful of eggs.
After a half-hour or so of watching Bruce and Dick run through their training sets in the backyard, Jason was properly humbled. He sat off to the side with Selina, watching as their moves grew more complex and intricate. Occasionally, Selina would glance over at him, seeing his eyes wide and his face full of poorly concealed awe.
“Whoa,” she heard Jason say beside her as they watched a carefully executed sparring match between teacher and student. He was clearly in awe now; Selina couldn't blame him.
Hell, even she was a little impressed.
It was clear Dick had improved since starting his training in Florence, now moving with a fluidity that almost rivaled Bruce’s. And for a man whose body had been to hell and back, it was remarkable how in shape Bruce was these days. Training Dick had gone a long way to keeping him limber, his muscles well-defined and reflexes sharp.
Selina’s eyes lingered over him a little longer than necessary.
The lesson ended with Bruce and Dick disheveled and sweaty; Dick’s eyes were bright and he wore that look he always got when happily exhausted. Even Bruce seemed to have a bit more spring in his step. They made their way over to where Selina and Jason sat on the patio.
“So you taught him all that?” Jason asked Bruce.
“And you can teach me too?” Jason asked. Dick nodded at the question, smiling wide, but again it was Bruce who answered.
“If you are willing to learn, yes.” Jason went quiet for a moment. Selina could almost see the gears turning in his head.
“I’m in,” he answered at last. “When do we start?”
“He doesn’t have Dick’s natural talent,” Bruce told her later. “But he’s driven, and that’s a start.”
After the first week, it appeared Bruce’s plan was working. All of that excess rage and raw emotion Jason had simmering just under the surface was now focused into his training. He hadn’t had a meltdown in over a week.
After a couple weeks, however, Jason’s enthusiasm faded. Selina had no explanation for it. She mentioned it to Bruce, but he didn’t seem concerned.
“He’s just tired,” Bruce said. “Once he builds up his stamina, he’ll be fine.”
Still, something felt off. And Selina wasn’t the only one to notice it.
“So, I’m kinda worried about Jason,” came a voice from nowhere just as Selina was pulling a load of towels from the dryer.
To her credit, she didn't startle.
“I don’t think he likes training with us,” Dick continued, coming into view as he hopped up onto the washing machine beside her. He pulled up his legs, folding them like a pretzel.
“What makes you say that?” Selina asked.
“Because he’s always grumpy after,” Dick said. Selina looked at him, raising an eyebrow. “Well, he’s grumpier after,” he corrected, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Any idea why?” she asked. Dick shrugged.
“Nope,” he said, reaching into the basket. He grabbed a towel and buried his face in it, breathing in deep. “I mean, it’s hard sometimes, training and all, but Jason’s tough, so I don't think that’s it,” he added, voice muffled behind the towel.
“And what does Bruce say about it?” Selina continued, yanking her clean laundry away from his face.
“That’s the thing,” Dick said, shaking his head. “Whenever I try mention it to Bruce, he just brushes it off.” That didn’t surprise Selina at all; it was exactly the response she’d gotten. “So I was thinking that maybe you could...”
“I’ll look into it,” she told him. Dick sighed; she could almost see the weight lifted from his shoulders. He hopped down from the washer, dark hair falling into his eyes.
“Thanks,” he said, leaning up and planting a quick kiss on her cheek. She froze. Dick was already halfway out the door when Selina heard herself calling him back.
“Yeah?” Dick answered, stopping in the doorway. Selina looked at him. He was bigger now—a few inches taller, maybe a bit lankier too—but those eyes were still the same, as wide and blue as the night she met him.
That was a year ago. It seemed longer.
It also felt like yesterday.
“Can you take these upstairs?”
“Oh, sure,” Dick said, collecting the basket of laundry. Selina watched him walk away, staring down the hall long after he’d gone.
Selina kept an eye on Jason over the next several days. Dick had a point; Jason was much grumpier after their training sessions than he was before them. As much as his feet dragged on the way out the door each morning, when he came back inside, his mood was worse, shoulders slumped and brow furrowed. He began coming downstairs later and later, until, one morning, he didn’t come down at all.
Selina found him upstairs, hiding out in his room. She peered through the half-open door, seeing him flopped on his stomach across the bed, doodling in a notebook. She knocked, pushing the door open in the same motion.
“Not training today?” She leaned against the doorframe.
“Don’t feel like it,” Jason said, not looking up from his sketching.
“Bruce is letting you skip?” Selina asked.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to notice.”
“Yeah,” Jason said, stretching out the word and tilting his head to look at her, “I kinda told him you’d asked me to help you inside today.”
“I know. I know. I lied,” he said, not sounding sorry in the slightest. “It’s just...” Jason paused, scrunching up his face. “I just don’t think this training stuff’s for me,” he said, huffing out a sigh. “I’m no good at it.”
Selina frowned. Admitting defeat wasn’t like Jason at all.
“You haven’t been at it very long,” she said. “Learning new skills takes time.”
When Jason didn’t look up, Selina changed tactics.
“Tell you what,” she continued. “You come down today and I’ll watch. If I agree that you are, as you say, no good at it, I’ll talk to Bruce and you’ll never have to do it again.”
That got his attention.
It took less than five minutes of observing the boy’s lesson for Selina to see the problem.
She was more than a little surprised that Bruce had missed it.
It was clear that Bruce had a kind of shorthand with Dick, who followed each and every command Bruce issued without missing a beat. The boy moved with scary precision, hitting each of his marks with little effort.
Jason, on the other hand, lagged behind, clearly struggling to keep up. She’d expected as much—this was all still new for him—but there was something else going on. As Selina watched, she noticed Jason’s eyes were, more often than not, fixed on Dick, mimicking his movements, attempting to follow his lead. As the lesson picked up, the crease in Jason’s forehead deepened, his eyes narrowed and his face dripped with sweat.
That was one unhappy kid.
Near the end of the lesson, Bruce had Dick and Jason spar. He wandered over to Selina as the boys assumed positions across from each other.
“Isn’t it kind of soon for this?” she asked once Bruce was in range. As far as she could see, they were still unevenly matched.
“Dick is careful,” Bruce said, his gaze never leaving the boys as they began to circle each other. “It’s the best way for them both to learn.” Selina raised an eyebrow. Bruce might have all his fancy ninja knowledge, but she couldn’t help thinking he was wrong on this one.
The match ended quickly and predictably, with Dick pinning Jason’s smaller body to the ground. Jason squirmed underneath Dick’s weight, his face red and eyes glaring. Selina glanced at Bruce, but he wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. He called out to them to part, ending the match and the lesson.
“It’s OK, Jay,” she heard Dick say as he climbed to his feet. He reached down, offering a hand to Jason. “Next time.” Jason glared, ignoring Dick’s offered hand as he scrambled to his feet on his own, brushing away the bits of grass stuck to his pants and shirt.
“Yeah, next time. Whatever.” He turned and stormed off across the lawn.
There was a frown on Dick’s face and a sag to his shoulders as he walked over to where she and Bruce stood. He mumbled something about taking a shower before trudging past them and disappearing into the house.
Bruce glanced across the yard to where Jason had stormed off. Selina held him back.
“I’ll take this one, champ.” She nudged Bruce in the direction of the house while she headed after their wayward ward. Selina found Jason on the far side of the yard, sitting on the ground, his back against the stone wall.
“I see what you mean,” Selina said as she slid down onto the ground beside him.
“That I suck? Gee, thanks,” Jason replied, eyes down, his attention focused on plucking up bits of grass, one blade at a time.
“I mean I see what your problem is.”
“That I suck?” Jason repeated. “Yeah, we covered that.”
“You are trying to be Dick.” Jason stopped ripping up grass to look at her. It had been a guess, but by his face, Selina knew she was right.
“And what, you’re saying I can’t be as good as he is?” Despite the tough act, Selina could hear the hurt in Jason’s voice.
“What I’m saying is that Dick is an acrobatic freak of nature.” Jason snickered. “But that’s one of his strengths,” she continued. “You have to play to yours.”
“And what are mine?” Jason asked. Selina paused, searching for an angle he’d respond to. Then it hit her.
“When you were working the streets, how did you pick pockets without getting caught?”
“Well, it worked best when I got them to look at something else,” Jason answered.
“Exactly,” Selina said. “We call that misdirection.”
“It’s,” she clarified, ignoring his raised eyebrow. “It’s called misdirection. What else?”
“I had to be quick too, I guess,” Jason added. “And pick the right time, when they weren’t looking.”
“Misdirection, timing, speed,” Selina listed. “All skills you already have. Now you just have to make them better and learn to use them here.”
“But Dick is—”
“Dick is talented and well-trained,” Selina interrupted. “But with a little practice, you could be just as fast and even more cunning than he is.” Selina nudged him with her shoulder, seeing a ghost of a smile on his lips. He looked up at her, those greenish-blue eyes of his wide, a question behind them.
“Can you help me?” Jason asked. For once, he sounded his age.
Damn. She should have seen this coming. Doling out advice was one thing; actually teaching the kid was another. Her gut instinct was no. This wasn’t her thing. This was Bruce’s thing. And it was something he did well. Up until now, at least.
Oh, what the hell?
“Sure kid,” Selina said. “But let’s keep this between us, OK? I don’t need Bruce complaining that I’m interfering with his precious methods.”
“You got it,” Jason said with a quick nod. “Bruce’s pretty uptight, isn’t he?”
“Yes, yes he is.”
“But you like him anyway?”
“I guess I do,” Selina answered. Jason nodded.
“I won't say anything, about you helping me and all,” he promised again. “I don’t want Dick to know about it either.”
“Then we’re agreed,” Selina said, standing. She brushed off the dirt and grass before offering a hand down to Jason and helping him to his feet. “Oh, and do me a favor,” she said as they headed back to the house. “Don’t mention the whole ‘acrobatic freak of nature’ bit to Dick.” A grin crept across Jason’s face.
“Because he’ll take it as a compliment.”
When it came to actual fighting, it was a given Bruce could instruct Jason better than Selina could. Those skills, the moves and the muscle memory and endurance, were all things Jason would develop over time. The things Selina could teach were different, more immediate. Her approach to training him was simple.
To make Jason a better fighter, she would teach him to be a better thief.
Selina knew from experience that fighting, like stealing, was largely a mental game; it was all about how to catch a person off guard while not getting caught yourself. The skills Selina had needed to effectively steal for survival were the same ones that helped her overcome men twice her size and come out alive when circled by a gang, outnumbered five to one.
Thievery took speed, knowing when to hit and when to retreat, and, when in doubt, knowing how to cause a clever distraction.
These were things Selina had learned the hard way—skills tied back to Gotham and to everything that she, most days, actively tried to forget. They were also not things a responsible adult would teach an impressionable ten-year-old. But Jason wasn’t a typical kid, she rationalized; he was already a thief when they’d found him, if a pretty weak one. There couldn’t be any harm in polishing skills he already had.
Lucky for her, Jason wasn’t hard to teach. The kid had a mind for lifting; he just needed practice to do it better.
And maybe a former master thief to show him the ropes.
“Hey, I did OK for myself,” Jason told her before they began.
“Until you got caught.” Selina watched him smile at the reference.
“Alrighty then, boss lady,” Jason said with flourish. “Teach me.”
Selina began by giving Jason specific items to pick at random. They were harmless little missions, like nicking a piece of bacon from Dick’s breakfast plate or taking a book from Bruce’s study, the lipstick from her purse. The main rule was that his actions had to go unnoticed and the other person involved had to remain unaware. As the days progressed and Jason improved, Selina increased the difficulty.
One afternoon, she asked him to retrieve a red pen from the desk in Bruce’s office.
“That’s it?” Jason asked. Selina nodded, waiting for him to catch on. “Wait, you mean now? ” Panic flashed in his eyes. “But he’s in there now,” Jason whispered.
“I know,” Selina replied. “Distract him.” She knew Jason would have much rather faced down a mountain lion then attempt to lift something from right under Bruce’s nose. “Unless you don’t think you can do it,” Selina added, watching the fear fade from Jason’s face, replaced by determination.
“Oh, I can do it.”
Eventually Jason came back, a smirk on his lips as he slipped a red pen into her hand. As proud as she was, Selina couldn't help pushing him just a little more.
“Good,” she said. “Now, go put it back.”
It was a humid morning, hazy with the sun still low in the sky. Selina sat on the patio while Bruce and the boys ran through their lesson. It wasn’t typical for her to observe, but when Bruce mentioned the night before that he was going to have Dick and Jason spar again, Selina made a point to be there.
If Bruce found her presence outside unusual, he didn’t mention it.
Their first match several weeks before had been disastrous; now Selina watched, anxious, as the boys circled each other again.
There was something different this time. Selina noticed Jason was more cautious, more deliberate in his movements than he’d been before. He wasn’t diving in headfirst; he was waiting for an opening, for the right time, aware of his surroundings, staying just out of Dick’s grasp.
Selina fought back a smile.
When the boys finally made contact, it was all a blur of limbs and dark hair. In the end, somehow, Jason caught Dick off guard. Dick ended up flat on his back, pinned underneath an out-of-breath Jason. But even though he lost and couldn’t be comfortable, Dick grinned up at the younger boy with a smile so bright it hurt to look at. Jason scowled back, putting every bit of his focus into holding Dick down as hard as he could. After a few seconds, Dick lost it, dissolving into a fit of laughter.
“What the hell is so funny?” Jason growled at him, giving his shoulders another push.
“I give!” Dick said through his laughter. “You win.”
“Wait, I do?”
“Yes,” Dick replied, trying to catch his breath. “You pinned me. Fair and square.” And he remained that way, even though Selina was pretty sure Dick could have easily tossed Jason off of him, if he wanted to.
“Really?” Jason turned to where she and Bruce stood for confirmation. Beside her, Bruce nodded. She watched as Jason’s smirk morphed into a full-blown grin as he turned his attention back to Dick.
“Ha!” Jason said, crossing his arms.
“Oh, so now you're gloating?” Dick asked. He reached up, caught Jason under the arms and began tickling him with determination.
“Hey! Knock it off!” Jason said between breaths, squirming in Dick’s grasp. “Damn it, Dick, knock it off!” Laughing now himself, Jason rolled to his side to get away, but Dick, who was still larger, kept the upper hand.
As the boys scuffled in the grass, Selina glanced at Bruce. His head was tilted to one side as he gave the entire scene in front of him a puzzled look.
“What, tickle fights weren’t part of your ninja training?” she asked.
“No, I can't say they were.” There was a hint of a smile on his lips. “He’s improving,” Bruce said, nodding toward Jason, who had momentarily gotten the upper hand in the tussle.
“So it seems,” Selina replied.
“He has a good teacher,” Bruce added.
“Aren’t you humble?”
“I was talking about you.” Selina glanced up again, meeting his eyes.
“You knew?” she asked. He didn’t answer. “Of course, you did.” She should have figured that if it happened in his immediate proximity, Bruce would find out about it.
At least he was consistent.
“You relate to Jason better than I do,” Bruce explained. “Having him work with you was the best way to improve his confidence,” he said. “However unorthodox your methods.”
Oh, so he knows about that too. Peachy, Selina thought. Wait a second...
“No,” she said, turning to stare at him. “No, you couldn't have planned this.” Bruce didn’t respond, but that annoying, self-satisfied smirk on his face was enough.
Damn it, Selina thought as she realized what had happened.
By taking a step back from the Jason situation, Bruce had assumed she’d step up.
He’d been right.
It was aggravating, how well Bruce knew her. How he anticipated her actions. How much he understood without seeming to try.
Selina wished she could say the same.
“Just tell me you didn’t send Dick to me this time.”
“No, this time he came to you on his own,” Bruce promised. “He was worried.”
“He’s a good kid.”
“They both are,” Bruce replied. Selina caught a fleeting look in his eyes, something warm and far away. She followed his gaze over to where the boys were rolling around on the ground.
Those grass stains are going to be a bitch to get out, she thought, watching their clothes get dirtier and dirtier as they tussled in the dewy grass. Their tickle fight had turned into another wrestling match, and although Dick was winning this time, Jason was still putting up quite a fight.
“We still need to work on discipline,” Bruce said, shaking his head as he left her side to break them up. The plan backfired on him as Dick and Jason, in an unprecedented show of unity, joined forces and managed to wrestle Bruce down to the ground with them.
Selina watched as Bruce allowed himself to be playfully overpowered, staying in control even as he let them have some of the upper hand. Selina could tell by their faces that Jason and Dick were getting an absolute kick out of this freestyle, rough-and-tumble play with Bruce.
And, by the look on his face, so was Bruce.
This wasn’t training or lessons or anything serious. Nothing to be learned, no purpose or intent.
This was the first time she had ever seen Bruce just play before.
It was an endearing sight.
They’re ridiculous, she thought. But at least they were outside, on soft grass and far away from all her pretty, breakable things.
Grass stains aside, Selina didn’t have much to complain about.
Chapter 9: Among Thieves
“Tell me again why I have to come with you,” Jason said as Selina ushered him out of the house and into the crisp autumn air.
“Because you can’t wear this forever,” Selina replied, plucking at the threadbare sleeve of his beloved red sweatshirt.
“But I like it.”
“No kidding,” she mumbled, shutting the front door behind them.
As much as Jason complained about the mandatory shopping trip, once they were outside, his mood improved.
Until they got to the store and Selina asked him try jackets on.
Jason was less than enthusiastic with the idea.
After twenty minutes of arguing and a new hooded sweatshirt as a bribe, they finally found him winter jacket they both agreed on.
Selina located a register and bought it before the kid could change his mind.
Satisfied he wasn’t going to freeze come winter, Selina wandered over to the jewelry counter. She told Jason to stay close, letting him look around as she browsed the department store’s pitiful selection of necklaces, earrings and rings. They were all so poor in quality her fingers didn't feel the slightest bit itchy.
Once she reached the end of the counter, Selina glanced back at Jason. He was browsing several feet away, lazily turned a little display stand on the jewelry counter, running his fingers over rows of small, silver keychains in different shapes.
There was something about the way he stood, something in those alert eyes and even expression, that Selina didn’t like at all.
A second later, she watched Jason slip one of the little silver keychains into his pocket.
On one hand, it was a pretty slick pull; even her sharp eyes had almost missed it.
On the other, well, damn it.
Pretending she was still browsing, Selina made her way over to Jason, keeping her face blank even as the blood began to pound in her ears.
Once beside him, Selina glanced over the same display of keychains he’d been turning. She looked down at him. He grinned widely—too widely—back. She smiled, her lips pulled tight. Jason must have sensed something, because his grin began to fade. Selina glanced around for a moment before leaning down and hissing through her forced smile.
“Put it back.”
Jason stiffened, his eyes widening. He looked away; she could see panic and guilt written in the lines of his face.
“I’ll meet you outside,” Selina told him as she straightened, her voice normal again. She left the store, waiting just outside the main doors.
There was a chill in the air, but Selina barely felt it.
This is not good, she thought. Not good at all.
The worst part was that she really should have seen this one coming.
It was her doing, after all.
Regardless of intent, she’d taught their foster kid how to be a thief. A damn good thief. If Selina ever needed clear evidence she wasn’t cut out for this guardianship gig, here it was. The voice at the back of her mind was more than a whisper this time.
Damn it, Selina Kyle, what the hell are you doing?
Before panic could set in, Jason appeared in front of her, pockets empty, eyes down. He peeked up at her once before focusing back on the concrete. The sight of him brought her mind into focus.
Despite what she’d taught him, Jason knew the difference between having skills and using them to break the law.
If he was looking for sympathy, he wasn’t going to get it.
“Just what the hell did you think you were doing?” Selina said, keeping one hand firm against his back as they walked down the crowded street toward the subway station entrance.
“I-I just wanted to see if I could, I guess...I don’t know—” Jason stammered. He still wouldn’t look at her. They walked down the long stairway into the tunnel in silence.
“I didn’t teach you those things so you could actually steal,” Selina half-whispered, half-snapped at Jason as they got on the train car and took their seats. She could hear the hypocrisy in her words loud and clear. She didn’t like the sound.
“I know,” Jason said, his voice small. “Please don’t tell Bruce.”
Bruce. She’d forgotten about Bruce. That’s going to be fun.
Selina sighed as she glanced back down at Jason, taking in his wrinkled brow, the worry that crossed his face. Not much rattled the kid, but right now, there was something seriously bothering him, something more than the threat of Bruce’s stoney glare and endless platitudes.
Selina’s anger began to cool, replaced with curiosity.
“Because he’ll kick me out,” Jason said, looking at his feet. “That’s what happens to bad kids, right? They get kicked out.”
Oh hell, Selina thought. She reached over to tilt his face toward hers.
“You really think that, don't you?”
“Just please don’t tell Bruce,” he repeated, ignoring her question. She looked over his face. He wasn’t conning her; this desperation was real. And kind of heartbreaking. It reminded her that for all his smart mouth and street savvy, Jason was still just a ten-year-old boy.
A ten-year-old boy who was now, somehow, her responsibility.
Selina felt that old familiar panic, creeping in, threatening to take hold. She glanced at Jason. There was fresh worry in his eyes. At the sight of it, her fear was pushed back, pushed away.
Whatever she felt was trivial in comparison to the heartbreak on his face.
“Listen to me, Jason,” Selina said, keeping her voice stern so he would listen. “No one’s getting kicked out.”
“Yeah, but Bruce—”
“Don’t worry about Bruce,” Selina cut him off. “He won’t kick you out,” she reassured him. “He actually has a thing for reforming thieves,” she added, snickering at the thought. It was only after she looked back at the boy and saw his face that Selina realized her mistake.
“Wait, not you,” Jason said, his eyes going wide as he puzzled it out. He spoke low and fast. “Are you a thief? Like, a real thief?”
Damn. In her rush to reassure him, Selina had forgotten how clever Jason was.
He continued, his voice full of wonder, as if making some grand discovery.
“So, that’s how you know how to do all those—”
“Hush.” It took everything Selina had to keep herself from clamping a hand over his mouth. She glanced around the train car, eyeing the other passengers. Luckily, the train was mostly empty and the few people who were around didn’t appear to be listening. “Yes, I was,” Selina answered, quieter, emphasizing the past tense. She didn’t like the gleam in his eyes. The last thing Selina wanted Jason to look up to her for was being a thief.
Of course, until that minute, Selina hadn’t realized she wanted him to look up to her at all.
“But why?” Jason asked.
“Why do you think?”
The boy was quiet for a moment before answering.
“Because you had to,” he said finally.
“That’s right,” Selina replied, nodding. Her face softened.
Of course, Jason understood.
“Is that how you met Bruce?” His question was so out of left field that Selina just stared at him. Her silence must have spoken volumes, however, because he continued with, “You stole from him, didn’t you?”
Clever little brat, she thought, unable to fight the smirk that crossed her face.
“Once or twice,” Selina admitted, watching Jason smirk, validated by her answer.
“Why did you stop?” he asked.
“I wanted out,” she said. “No one can live that way forever.”
No one should have to live that way at all.
“Do you miss it?”
“Having to steal to survive?” Selina shook her head. “Never.” Jason frowned, looking away with a sigh.
It was true; she didn’t miss having to steal, but that wasn’t to say she never missed the thrill.
Jason, however, didn’t need to know that.
Their conversation drifted into silence. Selina let her eyes wander, looking out the train’s window at the blur of concrete passing by. She wasn’t used to subways; Gotham hadn’t had a working underground for years. It was for the best.
The city itself was suffocating enough.
She looked back at Jason. He was slumped in his seat, eyes focused on his sneakers. The kid looked absolutely defeated. On impulse, Selina reached over, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him to her. Jason didn’t resist, leaning against her side.
“It’s hard, being good all the time,” Jason said, his whole body shifting as he sighed. Selina looked down at the top of his dark head, recalling how often her fingers still itched at the sight of pretty things, how her eyes had never really stopped scanning for points of weakness and how her mind still planned out escape routes and quick exits.
“Oh, baby,” she murmured, letting her chin rest against the top of his head. “Tell me about it.” Jason burrowed closer, his body warm, heavy against hers.
Selina didn’t mind.
“You have to tell Bruce about today,” Selina told Jason as they climbed the steps to the front door. His chin jerked up as he looked at her, panic returning to his face. “I promise, he won’t kick you out,” she added.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Selina said. “Besides, even if he wanted to—which he won’t—do you really think I’d let him?” Jason shook his head. She put a hand on his shoulder and marched him through the front door, into the house and all the way to Bruce’s office. His feet dragged the entire way, leaving faint scuff marks on the tile.
She knocked twice on the office door but didn’t wait before entering. Bruce glanced up from his work as they walked in; his face softened at the sight of them. Selina didn’t let herself get too comfortable.
Considering the circumstances, she wasn’t sure how long his goodwill was going to last.
“Jason has something to tell you,” Selina said, nudging the boy toward Bruce’s desk. And after he does, she thought, you'll likely have something to say to me.
Because no matter how hard Selina tried to justify it, she knew teaching a kid how to steal and then expecting him not to try it was incredibly stupid and short-sighted.
Bruce observed them both for a moment before leaning back in his chair, ready to listen. After a long pause and one more soft nudge on the shoulder from Selina, Jason began relating back the events of the afternoon, rushing over them as fast as he could. Bruce listened without interruption, his eyes never leaving the babbling boy in the middle of the room. Once Jason finished, Bruce nodded but didn’t say anything. A few awkward, silent moments passed.
“Selina said you wouldn’t kick me out,” Jason added, sounding hopeful.
“Of course not,” Bruce said, his brow furrowed. “What you did was wrong and there will be consequences, but we don't kick anyone out for making mistakes.”
“Even stealing?” Jason asked.
“Even stealing,” Bruce confirmed. “For one thing, it would be hypocritical of us.”
“Right, ‘cause of Selina,” Jason said.
Bruce gave Jason a questioning look.
“You know, because she used to be a thief too?” Jason continued. Bruce’s eyebrows rose slightly as he glanced over at her. She shrugged.
Next time, I’m swearing the kid to secrecy.
“Actually,” Bruce said, shifting his focus back to Jason. “I was talking about myself.”
Now it was Selina’s turn to raise an eyebrow.
“No way,” Jason said, his mouth falling open, catching on to Bruce’s meaning a second after she did. “Her, I believe,” he said, pointing a thumb back at Selina. “But you? ” The boy stared at Bruce as if he’d turned green. “Nun-uh. Not possible. You’ve never stolen a thing in your life.”
“Believe what you want, Jason,” Bruce replied.
“No way,” he repeated. There was less conviction in his voice the second time around. “You ever get caught?”
Um, what? Selina had assumed Bruce was referring to some justifiable theft he’d committed as Batman.
She’d been mistaken.
“Like, caught-caught? Like jail? ” Jason asked.
“Once. For a little while,” Bruce admitted. Selina began to wonder if he was making this up, if this was all just some morality tale Bruce was spinning for Jason’s sake. But she had never known Bruce to lie.
Avoid a subject like the plague, sure, but he didn’t flat out lie.
There was a real story behind this and Selina wanted to hear it. But it could wait. For now.
“But why’d you do it?” Jason asked. “Because you had to, right?” Bruce shook his head. “Then why?”
“I wanted to understand,” Bruce said. He glanced at Selina. There was a look in his eyes she couldn't quite make out. He focused back on Jason.
“Now, about your punishment...”
That night, after the boys had passed out in their beds, Selina wandered back through the dark house to find Bruce in the family room, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch, pouring over a sea of paperwork spread out on the coffee table and the floor around him.
“Something wrong with your office?” Selina said, eyeing the scattered paperwork with a mixture of mild annoyance and ambivalence.
“Needed more space,” he mumbled, not looking up. She watched him collect a few stray papers and put them aside. Selina made note of it as she climbed onto the couch behind him, settling a leg on either side of his back. She let her hands rest on his shoulders, feeling the shift of muscles under her fingers through the soft fabric of his t-shirt.
“God, you’re tense,” Selina muttered as she began kneading the muscles in his shoulders. “Why are you so tense?” She heard an appreciative grunt as Bruce stretched out his neck and leaned back into her hands.
After a few minutes, Bruce set his paperwork aside to turn and climb up onto the couch beside her. Selina moved over to give him room. He pulled his shirt over his head, tossing it to the floor before turning his back to her again, a mischievous smile on his face. It made him look almost young. Selina shook her head and returned to her massage, digging in harder this time. She was rewarded with a soft, contented sigh.
Selina let her hands wander across his bare back, her fingers traveling over the map of ragged scars. Marks unique to him, once foreign to her eyes, now strangely familiar.
She had a few scars of her own; smaller, less noticeable, but carrying their own stories just the same. Ones he’d found on lazy Sunday afternoons in bed, tracing them with his fingertips, never asking where they came from.
His past. Hers.
She kneaded his muscles until she felt his body relax under her fingers. After a few minutes, his head drifted down with a sigh.
It was a sight to see.
It was also as good a time as any to get some information out of him.
“So,” Selina said, breaking the silence. “Jail time, Mr. Wayne? How unsavory.” He grunted in response. She continued. “You know, I just can’t imagine you in that orange jumpsuit. Not your color at all.”
“Is there something you’d like to ask me, Selina?” His voice was lazy and content, but she could hear a dangerous edge lurking beneath it.
“I was just thinking about what you told Jason this afternoon.”
“Ah,” he said. “Speaking of Jason—”
“I know,” she replied, cutting him off. “What was I thinking, right? Teaching the kid to steal? ” Selina was glad his back was to her. “Some role model I am,” she muttered.
“That wasn’t what I was going to say,” Bruce replied, tilting his head to the side. “Do you regret teaching him?”
“Shouldn’t I?” Selina asked, surprised. This was not the reaction she’d expected from him. “You heard what happened today,” she continued. “That’s my stellar influence, Bruce.”
“Today was not your fault,” he replied, his voice firm. “We chose the skills to teach them, but it’s up to them to use them properly.”
Reassurance and understanding were not what Selina had been expecting from this conversation. It was nice. It also made no sense.
“Nice try, Wayne,” she said. “But flattery isn’t going to distract me from your mysterious prison story.”
“You haven’t asked me anything yet,” Bruce said. “Am I really so unapproachable?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Selina teased, but Bruce wasn’t playing along. Under her hands, she could feel the muscles she’d been working so hard to relax tensing up again. After a moment, he sighed.
“OK,” she said. “When?”
“Before I came back to Gotham,” he answered. “The first time.”
The first time. Her memory was vague, but Selina recalled something about Bruce Wayne’s youthful disappearing act, the one where he’d been declared dead after seven years only to reappear out of nowhere. Selina had still been in her teens at the time, a little too busy growing up and struggling to survive to pay much attention to the comings and goings of Gotham’s prince.
“So, before B—”
“Yes,” he interrupted.
“And what, I wonder, was the prize that reduced Gotham's favorite son to grand larceny?” she asked, attempting to lighten an atmosphere that grew more tense with each passing second.
“A shipment of auxiliary molecular confinement circuits.”
“You could have just said ‘fancy technological thing-a-ma-jigs.’” Selina rolled her eyes, knowing full well he couldn’t see them. “What possible reason did you have for needing, well, those? Was it just the price tag?”
“They were valuable, yes,” Bruce said. “But more importantly, they happened to be what Wayne Enterprises was shipping through Bhutan at the time.”
Bhutan? Selina thought. Boy, he did get around.
“Wait,” she said. “You got caught stealing from your own company?” Bruce nodded. Selina snickered. “Couldn’t you have just asked?”
“That would have defeated the purpose,” he said.
“To understand.” Selina raised an eyebrow. It was the same word he’d used with Jason, yet she still didn’t know what he meant by it. “I wanted to know why,” Bruce continued.
“Why criminals commit crimes,” he answered. Selina felt her mouth open, but no words came out. Her hands stopped moving, coming up to rest on his shoulders. She pulled him back, leaning over to look at his face.
Yep, she thought. He’s serious.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Selina said, leaning back again. “I thought you were supposed to be a genius.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” he replied. She could hear him smirking.
“Well, damn,” Selina muttered, resuming her massage with a bit less enthusiasm than before. “I should have known it wasn’t anything real.”
“You forget, I’ve broken plenty of laws.”
“Breaking the law in the pursuit of great justice is different than stealing for kicks.” Or to survive, she added to herself. “I only meant that it would have been nice to know you weren’t always so damn good all the time.”
As soon as the words left her lips, Selina felt a shift in his mood, his body tensing.
“I’m far from good, Selina.”
If being a self-sacrificing superhero was not what Bruce would consider ‘good,’ Selina never wanted to know what he really thought of her.
Feeling spiteful, she pressed the issue.
“Really, Batman? ” The muscles under her fingers shifted.
“Doing what’s right doesn’t make you good,” Bruce said, spitting out the words. “You don’t know how close I’ve come to doing truly terrible things.” His voice was far away. “How badly I’ve wanted to do terrible things.”
Leave it to him to have misplaced guilt, Selina thought.
“I’ve actually done terrible things, Bruce,” she said. “Life goes on.”
After a long pause, Bruce nodded.
“That it does.” His body relaxed again as the tension in the air between them began to dissipate.
“Besides, being good is horribly overrated,” Selina added, her voice falling back into its old cadence.
“Is that so?” he asked, matching her playful tone.
“It is,” she said. “Trust me, Mr. Wayne.” Selina caught the soft smile on his lips. Bruce reached back, his hands searching out hers. Once he found them, he brought them over his shoulders and down to his chest, wrapping her arms around him as he leaned back further.
His weight against her was heavy but not uncomfortable. After a moment, his head drifted back, coming to rest against her shoulder. Out of the corner of her eye, Selina could make out a few streaks of gray mingled with the dark brown of his hair. Warm and content, Selina let her eyes drift, half-closed, the lids heavy. She inhaled, breathing deep. The air smelled comforting. It smelled like him.
Too comfortable, Selina thought, her eyes opening again. She frowned.
They didn’t do this, this cuddling-on-the-couch-holding-hands thing. It wasn’t them.
It wasn’t her.
Shifting, Selina freed one of her hands. She let it wander, traveling down his bare chest and across the flat plane of his stomach. He didn't stir. She went further, fingers playing with the waistband of his pants. Her hand had only just come to the buckle of his belt when Bruce reached over and stilled it, stopping it in its tracks.
Well, that’s new.
Selina waited, expecting Bruce to explain, but he didn’t. He didn’t say anything at all as he took her wandering hand and brought it up near his eyes. He turned it over slowly, as if examining it. She raised an eyebrow, watching over his shoulder as he studied her fingers and traced the lines of her palm, running his thumb over the sensitive skin of her wrist.
Against her instinct, Selina didn’t pull away, still waiting for him to speak or move. When he did neither, she waited for him to bring her hand to his lips, for this strange closeness to turn familiar, to turn into something heated and intense. But it didn’t. Bruce just leaned against her, observing her hand as if it were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.
There were clever words to that effect sitting right on the tip of her tongue. Biting words she knew would break this odd, chaste intensity. Words that would bring everything back to their uncomplicated normal.
Selina couldn’t quite bring herself to say them.
Bruce placed her hand back against his chest. He kept both his hands on top of hers, the heat of his body warming them, taking away the chill. She could feel his breathing even out, slowing to a steady pace.
This is fine, she thought, willing herself to relax, acutely aware of the warm, comforting weight of his body against hers. She wasn’t sure what was making her uneasy; they’d spent two years together, tangled in sheets, closer than this, but somehow, this felt entirely different.
Selina willed the feeling away, listening to the soft, constant sound of his breathing until her eyes drifted closed.
When she opened them again, her arms were empty and the morning sun was streaming in through the front windows. The messy piles of paper that had been scattered everywhere last night were gone.
So was Bruce.
Selina sat up, noticing a blanket over her that she was sure hadn’t been there the night before. The unmistakable thudding of boy feet echoed across the floorboards above.
Everything was bright and loud and far away.
Selina listened to the voices reverberating off the walls and down the stairs. She could pick out Dick’s voice from Jason’s, but she couldn't make out any of the words. It was all endless chatter, high-pitched, muted and incoherent, mixed with the deeper, steadier tones of Bruce, his responses short and clipped.
It was all familiar. Normal.
Everything as it should be, Selina thought, letting the words turn over in her mind. They felt heavy, like an anchor pressing down, making it hard to breath.
In the tumult of far-off voices, she recognized the sound of her name, pulling her out of her stupor. She shook her head clear and climbed off the couch, following the voices up the stairs.
Several weeks later, Selina stood by the back window, her fingers wrapped around her coffee mug, the gentle heat of it warming her hands. She watched as Dick and Jason began their stretches outside. They were both dressed in sweats, noses and ears already turning pink from the cold. She looked over them both from the toasty house, noticing for the first time all the small changes she’d overlooked.
In the eight months since he’d come to live with them, Jason had filled out. The street weariness that had been etched into his face was all but gone. And, with all the training and schoolwork keeping him focused and busy, his once volatile temper had much improved. He was calmer now, more focused, less angry.
Jason wasn’t the only one who had changed. Selina couldn’t help but notice that the childish roundness had begun to fade from Dick’s face, how everything about him now seemed larger, more sturdy. The boy from the circus was looking less and less like a boy every day.
Children grew. Selina knew that, of course, but she had never been close enough to witness it first-hand before.
It was bothersome.
“How would you feel about taking a little vacation?” Bruce asked as he came up beside her, casual in his grey workout sweats. She looked over at him, waiting for more. “Lucius called. They are considering a deal with a company in Cairo, but he needs a set of eyes to run over the fine details first,” Bruce explained. “And, seeing as I’m already on this side of the pond, he asked if I could go on his behalf.”
“Official Wayne Enterprises business? In person?” Selina asked, skeptical. “Won’t you be recognized?”
“Not necessarily,” he said, “You’d be surprised how quickly faces fade into obscurity. And with a different name? No one will look twice.”
“Uh-huh.” It seemed like an unnecessary risk. There had to be more behind this, something he wasn’t saying, but Selina didn’t ask.
Secrets were part of the deal.
“My business there won’t take more than a couple days, but I thought maybe we could all go, make a trip out of it?” There was something disturbingly normal about his suggestion. Still, a change in scenery wasn’t unwelcomed. Winter had just begun, but a vacation to a warmer climate already sounded ideal.
“Why not?” she said. Bruce nodded, a smile on his lips. Outside, the boys’ individual warm-ups had turned into a not-so-friendly sparring match, which, if left unchecked, would soon deteriorate into an amusing, rolling-on-the-ground, no-holds-barred fist fight.
It was nice to know not everything changed.
“That’s my cue,” Bruce said. Selina’s eyes were still fixed out the window at the sparring boys when she felt his lips graze her cheek.
It was automatic, like a reflex.
A familiar, domestic reflex.
What is this? she wondered, raising an eyebrow as Bruce pulled away. His face stayed close to hers. She could feel his stare, could feel him puzzling her out. After a stubborn moment, Selina glanced up to meet his eyes.
“You better go,” she said, looking back out the window. “Dick may be bigger, but Jason’s got a lot of rage.” Bruce snickered as he left, the back door thudding shut behind him. She watched him through the window as he joined Dick and Jason, breaking them apart and beginning their lesson.
A heavy silence followed, leaving too much room to think. Selina shook her head and focused her attention back on more pressing issues. Like the logistics of packing them all for a trip to Cairo.
If Selina had her way, there would be a luxurious pool, comfortable lounge chairs, a bar with those fruity frozen cocktails Bruce would glare at her for drinking and endless amounts of sunshine.
After all, Europe had made her terribly pale.
Chapter 10: One of Us
Bruce’s official business in Cairo only took a couple of days. As planned, Selina found a lounge chair in the sun and worked on her tan, while Dick and Jason swam themselves to exhaustion in the hotel pool. At night, the boys fell into their beds, fingers and toes wrinkled.
“Shouldn’t we make them shower?” Bruce asked. Selina shook her head.
“They spent all day soaking in chlorine,” she replied. “This is as clean as they’ll ever get.”
They were also already asleep, which meant they were quiet, not fighting and not getting themselves hurt. There was no way Selina was waking them up just to shower.
No way in hell.
Once Bruce’s days were free again, they went sightseeing. The pyramids and Sphinx were a big hit with the boys—Bruce included. Selina would never understand their morbid fascination with ancient dead things. She had much preferred their trip to the museum; same history but air conditioned and blissfully free of gritty, irritating sand.
Heat and sand notwithstanding, it was a relaxing vacation. On the sixth day, they visited an open-air market. It was a long and winding maze of cluttered stalls and shops, selling everything from food to textiles to souvenirs. There were oranges stacked in high pyramids, bowls teeming with spices, multicolored rows of beaded jewelry. Everything was bright and rustic, full of color. The air laden with smells earthy and exotic. Sandalwood and Argan oil. Fresh-baked bread.
The rich atmosphere was almost enough to distract Selina from the neverending pleading, whining and general nonstop babbling coming at her from both sides.
“Please,” Dick said for what felt like the tenth time.
“Come on,” Jason added.
“No,” Bruce said. “You’re not roaming around the marketplace alone.”
“We’ll be with each other; that’s not alone,” Jason argued.
“We’ll be careful,” Dick said, eyes wide, playing up the innocent angle.
“Don’t you trust us?” Jason asked, making a face he must have thought looked innocent. It didn’t. Selina rolled her eyes.
They made quite the pair.
“You are always talking about us being more responsible, you know,” Dick said. Bruce stopped, leveling a stern look at them both. They quieted down, pleading looks on their faces.
“Two rows over, no further,” Bruce relented. “And stay together.”
With hasty promises of good behavior, the boys scampered off.
“Giving in to them?” Selina asked, watching the two dark heads duck out of sight. “That's unlike you.”
“Dick had a point,” Bruce replied as they continued their stroll through the market.
“This is a test, isn’t it?” she asked. He smirked.
“It would be hard to test responsibility if we never gave them any,” Bruce replied. “Still, I’ll probably end up regretting this,” he added, almost to himself.
“At least then I get to say ‘I told you so.’” Selina paused. “Dick still doesn’t know you can track his phone, does he?” Bruce shook his head. “You’re just this side of diabolical, aren’t you?”
“We’ll give them ten minutes,” he replied. “Let’s see what they do with it.” Bruce reached down, lacing his fingers with hers as they continued walking in the direction the boys had headed. It took everything Selina had not to comment on the gesture.
If he wanted to pretend, she could play along.
They browsed the stalls at a leisurely pace, looking at nothing in particular, hand in hand as if it was the most normal, natural thing in the world.
As much as she tried to ignore it, the heat radiating from his hand to hers was distracting. Her eyes remained focused on the brightly colored items lining the stalls, but all Selina could think of was the slow, constant caress of his thumb, rough and calloused, lingering against the inside of her palm.
Damn him and his distracting ways.
They were coming to the last of the current row of stalls when Selina saw Bruce jerk his head to one side, listening to something in the distance.
“Hear that?” he asked, letting go of her hand. Selina had to focus a second before she caught it; the muffled sounds of children.
Angry, shouting children.
“Sounds like trouble,” Selina replied, glancing over at him. “You think it’s our trouble?”
“Probably,” Bruce answered as they left the marketplace, heading in the direction of the sound. They turned a corner to find Dick and Jason in the middle of a yard fight with a group of local children. There were four groaning boys on the ground at their feet, and they were making quick work of the two who remained. They stood back to back, moving in practiced unison, blocking and dodging clumsy attempts at punches and kicks.
It was a sight to see.
“Well, at least they stayed together,” Selina said. Bruce shot her a look before barking the boy’s names and heading over to break up the fight. Neither turned at the sound of his voice; Selina could see the adrenaline rush plain as day on their faces.
She remembered that feeling. The rush. It almost made her nostalgic.
By the time Bruce reached the fray there wasn’t much to break up; the remaining bullies had dispersed at the sight of him, and the ones on the ground had long stumbled to their feet and ran inside, leaving the dusty yard all but empty.
Selina eyed the building behind the yard as she approached. It was old and rundown, cartoonish pictures painted on its outer walls, smiling animals and oversized-flowers. Images once colorful now chipped and faded, long-dulled by the desert sun.
“But we didn't have a choice, Bruce,” Selina heard Dick say as she got closer. The kid was gesturing animatedly, his arms spread at his sides. She looked him over; he was a little dirty and sweaty, but other than that, there wasn’t a scratch on him.
“They had it coming,” Jason chimed in, shaking away the hair that had fallen into his eyes. With the exception of a small, superficial cut above his left eye where he’d clearly forgotten to duck, it looked like he too came out of the fight relatively unscathed.
“We had to stop them,” Dick continued. “They were beating this kid up.” Selina’s eyes followed Dick’s pointing finger to the far end of the yard, noticing for the first time a child standing off to the side. He was a tiny thing, with dark hair and wide, unblinking eyes, watching them all with intense interest.
“You’re always telling us to do the right thing,” Jason added. “What’s the point of knowing all this stuff if we can’t use it?”
“Enough,” Bruce said. He was about to begin the mother of all monosyllabic lectures when a small voice interrupted.
“You’re Bruce Wayne.”
The boy from across the yard had inched right up to them without anyone noticing.
All things considered, it was quite a feat.
What the hell?
His lecture forgotten, Bruce shared a quick glance with Selina before turning and looking down to address the little speaker.
“Excuse me?” Bruce asked. Yes, we must have misheard him, Selina thought. Either that or they were all experiencing some form of heat stroke.
“You’re Bruce Wayne,” the boy repeated. Selina saw Dick and Jason share a glance, identical confused looks on their sweaty, dirt-smeared faces. For once, neither one said a word. Bruce knelt down, one knee in the dirt, eye level with the boy.
“And how do you know that?” Bruce asked. The boy shrugged, his eyes never leaving Bruce’s face, as if he was afraid it would disappear.
“Everybody knows you,” the boy said. A tendril of panic crept through Selina’s chest.
The only place everyone knew Bruce Wayne was Gotham City.
Time to end this.
“Hate to break it to you, kid, but you got the wrong guy,” Selina said. “Bruce Wayne died two years ago.” The boy didn't even glance in her direction, his eyes focused only on Bruce.
“But you're him,” he insisted, looking hard into Bruce’s face, his tiny fingers reaching out to tug on the edges of Bruce’s shirt. Bruce looked back, his face blank, unmoving.
Deny it and walk away, Bruce. Selina had seen him sidestep this before, on the way to Florence. A stranger had stopped them in the airport, asking if he was the famous Bruce Wayne. Bruce had handled it so smoothly, denying and disarming without so much as a pause, Selina had almost believed him herself.
She knew he could do it. She didn’t know what he was waiting for.
“Yes, I am,” Bruce replied. The boy’s face brightened.
“What’s your name?” Bruce asked.
“Drake?” Bruce repeated. The name meant nothing to her, but she heard vague recognition in Bruce’s voice.
This day was getting stranger and stranger.
Before Selina’s mind had a chance to register the bizarre exchange, a stout woman, her head covered in a nun’s habit, emerged from the building. The couple of children at her side pointed wildly at Dick and Jason.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” the woman called out. Her English was heavily accented, but Selina couldn’t place it. At the sight of her, Dick and Jason both shifted toward Selina. She didn’t blame them. A pack of bullies was one thing, but this fierce-looking nun was quite another.
“I’m sorry for the trouble,” Bruce told the woman as she approached. He stood and brushed the dust from his pant leg. “My sons were just defending the boy. They didn’t mean any harm.”
Sons? Selina had never heard Bruce call them that before. It’s easier, she reasoned, pushing all other possible explanations out of her head. It’s less to explain. That’s all.
The nun huffed, her gaze falling to Tim. Once she caught sight of him, her face softened.
“Then I should be thanking them,” she answered, running narrowed eyes over Dick and Jason. Selina felt both boys inch a bit closer. “Come,” she said to the little boy, taking him by the shoulder and attempting to nudge him in the direction of the building.
“But I know him, Sister Agnes,” the boy said, his feet planted, refusing to budge. The nun glanced at them all again, looking over Bruce with a critical eye.
“It’s possible, yes,” Bruce replied, distracted. “May I come inside?” The nun nodded, huffing again as she turned, leading Tim and the other children back inside, beckoning Bruce to follow behind them.
“Why don’t you take the boys back to the hotel,” Bruce told Selina. He’d turned to look back at her, but he wasn’t really looking at her at all. His mind was someplace else, far away. “They look like they could use a swim.” And now, he was deflecting. Not good. “I’ll meet you back there,” he added, not giving her a chance to respond before turning and walking away, leaving the three of them standing alone in the yard, watching him disappear into the building.
Two pairs of eyes turned to her, looking for answers.
Damn it. When did she become the one with answers?
“What just happened?” Dick asked.
“I have no idea,” Selina replied. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it already. “Come on, let’s go,” she said, her eyes still on the door Bruce had disappeared through. She shook her head and ushered them away from the yard and to the street for the short walk back to the hotel.
“OK, fine, since no one else is bringing it up,” Jason said. “Wayne? ”
“It’s a long story, guys.”
Once they were back in their suite and washed up, Selina gave Dick and Jason the super-condensed version of the story: She and Bruce had changed their last names when they left the States in order to ensure a fresh start.
It was a reasonable, normal explanation.
Selina left out the details: the atomic bomb, the international terrorist, the Batman.
Truth or not, she wasn’t in the mood to lose her credibility. Or to take a trip down Memory Lane.
And some secrets weren’t hers to tell.
“Was it because you used to be a thief?” Dick asked. Selina glared at Jason.
It was a wonder she had any secrets left at all.
“Yeah, yeah, I told him,” Jason said without a hint of shame. “First off, it’s nothin’ to be ashamed of. And second, whatever, he had a right to know.”
“It’s OK, Selina,” Dick assured her, his sky-blue eyes wide and earnest. “I know you're not one anymore. You’re good now.” Such blind faith; Selina wasn’t sure she deserved it.
She knew for a fact she didn’t deserve it.
“But what I don’t get is why you said Bruce died,” Dick continued. This was fast drifting into tricky, Bat-shaped territory.
Of course, Bruce would disappear and leave her to do this.
Two pairs of blue-ish eyes still looked at her, full of expectation. She sighed.
Keep it simple, Selina.
“As far as everyone we used to know is concerned, he did die,” she answered, hoping it’d be enough.
“Yeah, but he didn’t,” Jason argued.
“Clearly,” she said.
“That’s weird,” Dick said.
“That’s fishy,” Jason added.
“And that’s all you're going to get,” Selina replied. “Hungry?” She fished for the room service menu, hoping lunch would provide a suitable distraction. Food usually did with them. And, sure enough, as soon as the cart came, the barrage of unanswerable questions stopped.
At least they were reliable.
Unlike Bruce, who was off somewhere making trouble.
After they finished their lunch, Selina let the boys hang out on the king-sized bed in her room. They sprawled across it, watching TV. She settled into a chair by the bed, propped her feet on the edge and tried to keep her mind from wandering.
An hour or so passed before she heard the heavy hotel door click open in the other room. A moment later, Bruce entered the bedroom. Alone.
Until that moment, Selina hadn’t realized she’d been expecting anything different.
As interested and inquisitive as they’d been a few hours before, the boys barely looked up when Bruce walked in.
They had the attention span of goldfish.
“You three look comfortable,” Bruce said as he sat on the edge of the bed to pull off his shoes. He caught her eyes. He had something to discuss and it wasn’t going to wait long. “Boys, why don’t you go for a swim?”
That got their attention.
“By ourselves?” Dick asked as he turned away from the TV, eyes wide and shining. Beside him, Jason had perked up and was looking over too, waiting for Bruce to answer.
“Take your phone and don’t get into anymore more fist fights,” Bruce said. Without another word, Dick and Jason scurried off the bed and into the other room to get dressed. Within two minutes, the main door to the hallway whistled open and slammed shut again.
“So, tell me,” Selina said. “What have you been up to this afternoon?”
“Gathering intel,” Bruce replied, settling onto their now-empty bed. He sat up against the headboard and reached over to pull her feet, still propped on the edge of the bed, into his lap. Selina raised an eyebrow. This cavalier attitude of his was unnerving. He was up to something. And Bruce ‘up to something’ was never a good thing.
Not in her experience, at least.
“I had to find out how the boy knew me,” he said.
“Naturally,” Selina replied, her eyes narrowing. “And?”
“And I knew that name sounded familiar,” Bruce answered as he began telling her what he’d learned at the orphanage.
In a bizarre coincidence, Bruce did know the boy, sort of; he had known his parents, Jake and Janet Drake. They had been Gothamites; wealthy, high-society types who had traveled in the same social circles Bruce had. He’d been casual acquaintances with the couple for years and recalled passing mentions of a son.
“But you never met the kid before?” Selina asked, interrupting him.
“I must have,” Bruce said with a shrug. “Even if I did, he couldn’t have been more than a toddler at the time.” He shook his head. “Besides, the Drakes were better known as jet setters than parents.”
They had also been freelance archaeologists, Bruce explained further, and a couple of months before they had come to Cairo on a dig. A freak cave-in at one of the sites left their son an orphan, alone in a foreign country.
“Why is he still here?” Selina asked. “Doesn’t he have family back home?” Bruce shook his head. The occupation and uprising in Gotham that had targeted the wealthy had whittled the Drake family down to three. Now, there was only one.
Sister Agnes told Bruce they’d been working on sending Tim back to the States but were unable to locate any family members to claim him. The U.S. foster care system would take him in, eventually, but getting through all the red tape would take years, if ever.
“It’s rough for him here,” Bruce said. “He’s alone and a foreigner. Ostracized. Picked on. Beaten up.” She could hear the rising anger in Bruce’s voice. Injustice never did sit well with him. “It’s lucky he’s lasted this long.”
That’s when she saw it: that shining, determined look in his eyes. A part of her had been waiting for that look ever since he stepped into the room. It was the one Bruce got whenever he was about to suggest some grand gesture that was everything noble and heroic and devoid of common sense.
It was the same one he’d had that afternoon in Florence. That night in Paris.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Bruce began.
“Then you already know how this conversation is going to play out,” Selina replied, that old panic churning in her stomach.
“Time out,” she said. She pulled her feet from his lap and stood, her hands up, as if she could physically stop the serious leap in logic Bruce was about to make. “Can we please pause for just a second to talk about this before you—”
“We should take him in.”
“—say that,” she finished, her arms wilting to her sides. The beginnings of stress headache pricked at her temples.
Bruce had a knack for inducing them.
“This is too much of a coincidence,” Bruce continued, the determination written across his face intense and familiar.
“That’s all this is,” she said. “A coincidence.”
“He’s from Gotham, Selina.” Funny, the way Bruce said that. Like it was supposed to mean something. “He’s one of us.”
One of us? This was a strange time for Bruce to be grasping at ties to Gotham. As long as she lived, Selina would never understand his attachment to that damn city. If it wasn’t for the horrific death toll, she would have been happy to see the entire place nuked to oblivion.
“Look, I’m all for helping the kid, but there are other ways.” Bruce didn't answer. He was looking at her, but he wasn’t hearing her. “You’ve already decided on this, haven’t you?” It was a mostly rhetorical question, because, of course, he had.
If Bruce Wayne was breathing, Selina could safely bet he was making some major life decision without consulting her first.
That old question tickled the back of her brain.
“I don’t see any other option,” Bruce replied.
“You never do.”
“He doesn't have anyone else.”
“We’re not equipped for this,” she said. “He’s practically a baby, Bruce. Four or five, tops.”
“He just turned six, actually.” Leave it to Bruce to already know that. Selina studied his face, the set jaw and steady, unwavering eyes. “We can’t leave him here,” he continued. “I won’t leave him here.”
There it was.
All of this was a formality. As far as Bruce was concerned, this was a done deal.
Selina let out a heavy sigh. She should have been angry with him—she wanted to be angry with him—but she wasn’t. The man was addicted to do-gooding; he couldn’t help himself.
This wasn't new or unexpected.
This was exactly what she got for not having a long-term strategy for this Bruce Wayne thing.
“You’ve made up your mind,” Selina said. There was no point in dancing around it. “Why are we still discussing it?”
“I want you to agree,” Bruce said, reaching out and catching the hand at her side before she had a chance to move away. He held it fast, bringing her closer. “Has it been bad, so far?”
A clever trap. Selina felt his eyes on her but she didn't look back, glaring down on their intertwined hands, fighting the urge to pull away.
Bruce knew she wouldn’t argue her life now, with Dick and Jason, was a bad one. But, for all his attempts at compromise, when it came right down to it, he only ever gave her the illusion of choice.
Selina resented the hell out of it.
I can still leave, she thought, eyes fixed on their hands. This doesn’t have to be my problem.
None of this had to be her problem.
“He needs us,” Bruce said, breaking the silence. “This is the right thing to do.” He had a point. He always had a point. It didn’t make her resent it any less, but it did make arguing about it rather moot.
As arguing with him usually was.
Selina let herself look at him, into those damn eyes of his that were almost always her undoing, deep and sincere and aggravating.
She could adapt to this.
After all, she’d done it before.
A long moment passed before Selina nodded; she watched a smile cross his lips.
That smile should have annoyed her, but it didn’t.
Selina heard the hiss and click of the front door as it unlocked, followed by a pair of loud voices.
“We should talk to them,” Bruce said as he climbed off the bed. Selina nodded absently as he walked toward the door. She fell back down into the chair and glanced out the window, looking out over the city.
Here we go again, she thought, snickering softly as she shook her head.
Selina barely noticed Bruce was back before she felt a hand cradle her face, gently turning it away from the window. For a fleeting moment, his lips pressed soft against hers. When he pulled away, she caught a faint smile, a crinkling at the corners of his eyes. Then he turned and left again.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Dick said after Bruce explained everything to them. He and Jason were scrunched together on the little hotel couch, their swimming trunks and hair still damp. Selina watched Jason roll his eyes.
“Sure, as long as he doesn’t replace me,” Jason said with a snicker.
“You didn’t replace me,” Dick said.
“Not for lack of trying, golden boy,” Jason replied. Dick pinched him on the arm, grinning as he did it. Jason glared and pinched back, setting off yet another wrestling match.
That couch was not made for this, Selina thought, hearing it creak under the strain.
They were getting straight jackets for Christmas, or maybe she’d convince Bruce to line one of the rooms back home with padded walls.
Soundproof, padded walls.
“Boys,” Bruce said. Jason got in one more good elbow to Dick’s side before they settled down. Selina could tell by Dick’s face that Jason would pay for it later. She fought the urge to roll her eyes.
“Nothing is definite,” Bruce continued. “Tomorrow we will go back to the orphanage and meet him, and even then, we still have to ask him.”
“What’s he gonna say? No?” Jason quipped. Bruce gave him a hard look. Jason’s smirk faded.
“It has to be his choice,” Bruce answered. “Just like it was both of yours.”
Selina agreed. Choice was important.
Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble.
The next day, they returned to the orphanage as guests rather than intruders. Sister Agnes greeted them at the door with a bit more warmth than the day before—which wasn’t saying much. The other kids scampered off, hiding as soon as they arrived. Selina wasn’t sure if it was shyness or fear or the sight of Dick and Jason that kept them away, but she was glad for it.
The Sister left them in the main room, one obviously kept for visitors. Like the rest of the building, it was in sad disrepair; worn-down rugs and faded walls. There was not much in the way of furniture but an old couch and table. The walls were lined with children’s artwork, haphazardly taped up, the paper in varied degrees of yellowing and fading.
When Sister Agnes returned, the boy in question was by her side. When he saw them, his face perked up. Selina tried but couldn’t quite ignore the warm feeling in her chest at the sight.
“You came back!” The boy let go of the Sister’s hand to run up to them. He stared up at Bruce, smiling softly.
“Of course, we did,” Bruce said. He turned to her. “This is Selina.” At Bruce’s gesturing, Selina crouched down to the kid’s level.
His eyes were impossibly blue.
“Are you from Gotham too?” he asked. Selina nodded, seeing a faint glimmer in his dark blue eyes. The boy had dark brown hair, straight and neat, if a little shaggy, like it was starting to grow out of a clean cut. His face was round, soft around the edges, sharp contrast to the hard loneliness lingering behind his eyes.
It was that look that hit her.
Selina had seen that loneliness before; in the eyes of a newly orphaned circus boy and a pickpocketing street rat. Hidden behind the perfect, cracking facade of an eccentric billionaire. In the reflection across the bathroom sink.
One of us.
Bruce had been absolutely spot on.
Selina continued to look the boy over. Everything about him was little. Little hands, little feet, little face. He was so young and small and then it hit her.
This kid should never have been left, she thought. He was too little, too helpless, to be so far from home on his own. He should never have been carted all over the globe, never been left at the mercy of a foreign orphanage. This was a kid from privilege, born with every advantage in the world. He wasn’t like her or Jason or even Dick. There was no excuse for him to end up here.
No excuse at all.
Selina felt a slow burn crawl through her veins. Hating two people she’d never meet wasn’t rational. Selina knew that, but she did it anyway. She continued to watch his face even as he looked away, over at the two boys who’d saved him yesterday.
There was hero worship in those eyes. Dick and Jason were eating it up.
Great, she thought. That’s just what they need, an ego boost.
As Bruce introduced him to the boys, Selina rose to standing. It was then she noticed the faint bruises—old and new—on the boy’s small arms and legs. This wasn’t a good place for any kid, but Bruce had a point; this one wasn’t going to last here. He wasn’t tough enough.
No six-year-old should ever have to be.
“You wanna draw with me?” she heard him ask Jason and Dick.
“Sure,” Jason answered, his voice gentler than Selina was used to hearing it. “I like to draw.”
“I can color in the lines,” Dick offered with a shrug. Tim hurried out of the room, coming back a moment later with a hand full of paper and a bucket of broken crayons. They settled around the rickety coffee table, Dick with his long legs folded underneath it, Jason cross-legged beside it and the little boy kneeling at one end, balancing on his knees in order to reach.
Selina followed Bruce's lead, taking a seat behind the boys on a worn, battered couch that creaked with every move they made. They watched the boys interact. She wasn’t sure what Bruce was looking for; he surveyed the scene with intensity, studying everything.
As he always did.
Selina was more distractible, her attention often pulled away by the muffled, constant sounds of children in the other rooms. Every so often a blur would run past in the hall, or a small head would peek around the door frame. Once, Selina looked up to see Sister Agnes eyeing them from the hallway, a hard look on her face, as if the sooner they were gone, the better.
“Timothy’s too long,” she heard Dick say, cheerful as ever. “Can we call you Tim?” The boy in question looked up from his drawing.
“Tim,” he repeated, trying it out. He nodded. “Yes.”
“Tim it is then,” Dick said, grinning as he reached over to ruffle Tim’s hair. The little boy flinched, ducking away. Selina watched Dick’s grin fade. “I won’t hurt you,” he said. “I promise.”
“Oh,” Tim said, as if this was something new. “OK.” He went back to his drawing. Dick glanced over at them and shrugged. Selina shared a look with Bruce.
The boys continued to doodle and talk. Dick and Jason were doing their best to coax a conversation out of Tim, but the boy remained focused on his drawing, scribbling away with a black crayon. His expression was earnest, intent. Selina smiled. That look of concentration on his face was so familiar she found herself staring at him, trying to place it. Then she realized what it was.
He reminded her of Bruce.
After a few minutes, Tim stopped coloring and wandered over to them, drawing in hand.
“What’s this?” Bruce asked, taking the piece of paper Tim offered him. Selina saw a flash of surprise on Bruce’s face before the careful mask of neutrality came back down. She leaned over to see what had caught him off guard.
Tim’s drawing was a messy figure, all in black; a couple roughly scribbled ovals with stick arms and legs. With pointy ears. Wearing a cape.
Oh, for the love of God.
“Batman,” Tim answered. “Do you know about Batman?”
“Yes,” Bruce replied. “I know about Batman.”
Selina wasn’t sure how Bruce managed to keep a straight face.
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“It’s very nice, Tim.”
“Thanks. You can keep it, if you want.” Bruce thanked him and Tim smiled back before settling down at the table again. Selina waited until Tim was distracted, listening to Dick’s fifth attempt at conversation, before turning to Bruce and whispering through gritted teeth.
“This is the first time I’ve heard him mention it,” Bruce replied quietly. His face was even, but his eyes were crinkled at the edges, lips slightly upturned. He was amused and hiding it poorly. He thought this was pretty damn funny.
Well, that made one of them.
“He is from Gotham,” Bruce continued. “It’s not surprising that would be something he’d remember.” Selina watched as he looked down at the little drawing again, observing it a moment before carefully folding the paper into a neat square and tucking it into his pocket.
He’s really going to keep it, Selina realized. She’d never pegged Bruce for the sentimental type.
Selina let her eyes wander around the room again, at its rough walls and floors, everything worn down and foreign. She looked over at the table of boys, at Jason and Dick—clean, cheerful, confident as hell and terribly out of place. They didn’t belong here. Her eyes settled on Tim, with his intent face and painfully blue eyes.
Neither did he.
There really wasn’t a point in fighting it anymore.
“You should probably make this official,” Selina said quietly to Bruce. He turned to look at her, head tilted to one side, as if not quite understanding her meaning. Or maybe he was just not getting his hopes up. “Ask him,” Selina clarified. A genuine smile lit up his eyes.
“Tim,” Bruce said. The boy looked up from his drawing. “How would you like to come home with us?” Selina watched Tim’s smile grow, reaching all the way to his eyes. Next to him, Dick was grinning widely, and even Jason’s smirk had a kind of warmth to it.
“Forever?” Tim asked. There was a cautiousness in his voice that pulled at her heart.
“Forever,” Bruce replied. Tim didn’t have to say anything; the answer was written across his face. It was a sight worth every moment of anxiety Selina had felt leading up to it.
A blur of happy noise followed. Jason’s and Dick’s voices—loud and competing with each other. Bruce’s even tones. Tim’s quiet replies. Selina heard the sounds but not the words.
‘Forever ’ echoed too loudly in her mind, not leaving room for anything else.
Chapter 11: Hide and Seek
When it came to Tim, Selina didn’t have the slightest clue what to expect. She could remember being Dick’s age, she remembered being Jason’s, but she couldn't for the life of her recall what it felt like to be Tim’s.
This unfortunately left her without a plan of attack for the whole ‘take care of a wayward six-year-old’ thing.
The only thing Selina had expected was more noise. After months of living with Dick and Jason, she’d grown accustomed to the endless noise that came with raising boys. Everything they did—from talking to playing to fighting—was loud. They shouted across the house at one another and trampled up and down the stairs. They slammed doors as they came in or went out, dropped things, knocked things over, slid across the wood floors in their socks and banged into the walls.
But Tim wasn’t loud or wild or noisy at all. He was quiet. Extremely quiet.
Mice made more noise than this kid.
It was a far cry from what Selina was used to.
Unlike Dick and Jason, Tim was soft-spoken and light on his feet. There were times when Selina wouldn’t even realize the kid was in the room until he spoke or tugged at her to get her attention.
“It’s amazing how quiet he is,” Bruce said one day, ambition gleaming in his eyes. “Natural talent.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Selina had replied. She may not have had much experience with young children, but she was fairly certain that super special ninja training should not start at six. And, Bruce, for all his talk, must have agreed with her, because he let the matter drop.
Tim’s quiet nature was one thing, but when it came to keeping an eye on him, the biggest issue was that he liked to hide.
The first night back home from Cairo, they’d settled Tim into one of the townhouse's spare bedrooms. Later, when Selina went to check on him, she found the bed empty and the boy curled up and sleeping on the floor of his closet. At the time, she hadn’t thought much of it; she’d just nudged Tim awake and lead him, sleepy-eyed, to bed.
The next night, Bruce discovered Tim again sleeping on the floor of the closet. He scooped him up and carried him back to bed.
It was the night after, when they found Tim asleep underneath his bed, that Bruce decided there was no harm in leaving him there.
“When he learns he’s safe with us, he’ll stop,” Bruce told her. It made sense, but as they soon found out, bedtime wasn’t the only time the kid took to hiding.
Every day with Tim was an ongoing game of hide and seek.
It was cute. It was aggravating. It was certainly different.
They would find Tim hiding under beds and tables, curled up in closets and beneath cabinets. They’d find him huddled in the pantry or the coat closet or the crawlspace under the stairs. He was tiny for a six-year-old and, as a result, managed to fit himself into the tightest, smallest, most impossible of spaces. As the days passed, Tim’s hiding spots grew increasingly clever and inventive.
But for a kid who liked to hide, Tim’s favorite part was being found.
His level of happiness on being found seemed to depend on who was doing the finding. When Selina or one of the boys found him, they’d get a content smile as he crawled out of whatever space he’d wiggled himself into.
When Bruce found him, on the other hand, he would get a wide grin and cheerful “You found me!”
What could Selina say? The two had bonded.
It also helped that Bruce was very good at hide and seek.
This was not a surprise.
When Bruce was home, finding Tim took all of two minutes on a slow day. When he wasn’t, Selina and the boys could tear the house apart for the better part of a half-hour and still not find the kid. Then Bruce would waltz in, quiet them all with a look, focus with that frightening intensity for a minute, and head almost directly to the cabinet or closet or crawlspace their missing little ward was hiding in.
“Clearly, we need to work on our environment awareness,” Bruce told Dick and Jason, glancing up at Selina as he said it. She’d given him a well-placed hand gesture behind the boy’s backs as a response.
You can take the girl out of Gotham.
It took some adjustment, but, like Dick’s acrobatics and Jason’s temper, they all learned to work around Tim’s habit of hiding. For their part, Dick and Jason learned to not run the shower or toss heavy things into their closets without looking first. Selina and Bruce, on the other hand, learned that it was a good idea to check under their bed before assuming they were alone.
One afternoon a few weeks after returning from Cairo, Selina was coming down the stairs when she heard the familiar sounds of a classic Dick-Jason territory dispute. She followed the racket, finding them in an angry pile of arms and legs on the family room floor, wrestling over the TV remote. Selina was ten seconds away from calling it when she heard a soft sigh from the vicinity of the coat closet. The door was cracked open and she could make out a little face in the darkness, a pair of eyes looking out.
Distracted from the brawl, Selina pulled open the closet door to see Tim crouched down underneath their hanging coats and jackets.
“Well, look who it is,” Selina said with a smirk, but Tim didn’t look up at her. Those deep blue eyes of his were distracted, watching the other two boys, who were both still engaged in their loud, grumbling, harmless argument. “What’s wrong, kid?” she asked, ignoring the crashing sounds behind her.
“They’re fighting,” Tim stated.
“Uh-huh,” she said. The kid was new, but he wasn’t that new.
“Won’t they get hurt?”
“Probably,” Selina answered, shrugging. Tim didn’t look amused.
“But don’t they like each other?”
Oh. Selina frowned. What kind of upbringing did this kid have where he’d never seen play fighting before? Hell, even her pathetic excuse for a childhood involved play fighting.
Real fighting too, of course, but that was beside the point.
“They aren’t trying to hurt each other, Tim,” Selina said just as she heard Jason howl in over-exaggerated pain. “Well, not really,” she added, rolling her eyes. “They’re playing.”
“Playing?” he asked, scrunching up his face at the word. Selina nodded.
“Pretend fighting,” she answered.
“That’s silly,” Tim said, but even as he said it, Selina caught a hint of longing in his face. Another loud crash pulled her attention away from him.
Play fighting or not, this was getting a little too heated. Especially for indoors, so close to all her pretty, breakable things. Selina sighed.
One would think that little-ninjas-in-training wouldn’t have to resort to pinching, hair pulling and Indian rug burns.
One would be wrong.
“OK, you two, separate corners,” Selina said, stepping in to pull them apart by their shirt collars. She tugged the remote from Dick’s grasp. They both huffed down on either end of the large sofa, their clothes and hair disheveled, eyes glaring, brows furrowed.
And she thought the streets of Gotham were rough.
“He started it,” Jason grumbled.
“Did not,” Dick replied.
“Don’t care,” Selina said, tossing the remote aside. “Knock it off.” She hoped her glare was stern enough to distract from the smirk she couldn’t quite suppress.
This whole disciplinarian thing suited Bruce better.
Selina glanced back at Tim, who had crawled out from the closet and was quietly watching from the sidelines. She studied his face for a moment before an idea hit her. She leaned over to whisper in Dick’s ear. Leaning back again, Selina watched a grin grow across Dick’s face as he nodded up at her in agreement. He shared a glance with Jason, who looked intrigued by the possibility of adult-sanctioned mischief.
“Be careful,” Selina warned them both as she left the room, giving Tim’s hair a ruffle as she passed by.
“Oh, Tim,” she heard Dick say, his voice sing-song and mischievous, “have you ever heard of the tickle monster?”
“Tickle monster?” Tim echoed, genuinely confused. “That doesn’t sound real.”
There was a moment of silence before a sudden eruption of laughter as a pair of tickle monsters no doubt struck in the family room. Selina paused to listen, picking out for the first time the clear, bell-like sound of Tim’s laughter, mingling with Dick and Jason’s, echoing off the walls.
The first and only major snowfall of the season didn’t happen until after Christmas. And, as much as she hated the cold, Selina had to admit that the snow was kind of lovely, blanketing everything in a clean layer of white. Of course, it also meant a few days spent indoors for the boys, which, in turn, meant a brief hiatus in their daily trainings sessions.
At least, that’s what Selina had thought.
However, she soon discovered that Bruce—stubborn creature of habit that he was—wasn’t planning on changing up the routine one bit.
“It’s just snow,” he told her. “I trained on a glacier in the Himalayas.”
“Is that supposed to impress me?” Selina asked. “All it proves is that the super special ninja master who trained you was also batshit crazy.”
“That’s beside the point,” Bruce said, a small smile on his lips. “Hard weather is good for the stamina, it will teach them to be adaptable—”
“It’s too cold,” she interrupted.
“It builds character.”
“They’ll get sick.”
“That’s a fallacy.”
“Fine, how about this: No.” Selina crossed her arms; Bruce smiled at her. “I will cut you,” she added.
“OK, you win,” Bruce relented, his hands up in mock surrender. “No outdoor training until the snow melts.”
That was easy, she thought, raising an eyebrow. Too easy.
The next morning, Selina came downstairs to find Bruce and the three boys in the formal living room, pushing all their nice fancy furniture up against the walls.
Of course. She glanced at Bruce. The man didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed of himself.
“Isn’t it a great idea, Selina?” Dick asked as he and Jason shoved the largest of the couches up against the wall, Tim riding on top of it. “Now we can train inside!”
“Yeah, it’s not like we use this room anyway,” Jason said.
Selina begged to differ.
“And I can watch,” Tim added, climbing down from the back of the couch and grinning.
Bruce didn’t speak, that bland, carefully crafted look of innocence on his face.
Oh, I could strangle him.
They were going to destroy the house, she could feel it, but this wasn’t a fight she had any intention on picking; it wasn’t worth the effort and three to one weren’t her kind of odds. Without a word, she turned and walked right back out of the room.
Several hours later, Selina was stretched out on the couch under a blanket, reading a book and minding her own damn business, when she heard footsteps come up behind her. She didn’t bother looking up.
Two years of living with Bruce Wayne had taught Selina the many merits of the silent treatment.
Without a word, Bruce walked around to the front of the couch. He reached over and lifted her feet up just enough for him to slide underneath them and down onto the couch beside her. Selina continued to ignore him as he dropped her feet back down into his lap and, with an annoying degree of familiarity, began massaging them.
In Bruce-speak, this was about as close to an apology as Selina was going to get. She sighed, glancing over the top of her book.
“Can I help you?” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm.
“I couldn’t just postpone their training,” Bruce started without preface. This was clearly his attempt at an explanation. “You want them to develop a good work ethic and a strong sense of commitment, don’t you?” Selina huffed, amused.
Commitment’s a funny word, she thought, unable to fight a smirk.
“You have a strange way of winning arguments, Wayne.”
“I like to think of this as more of a compromise,” he said. Selina raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t want Dick and Jason training outside in the snow, remember?”
“And where are they now?”
“Outside, shoveling the driveway.” There was laughter in his eyes; his hands were warm on her bare feet. “Don't worry, they’re properly dressed and staying warm.”
“Teamwork and manual labor?” she asked. “How ever did you manage that?”
“I bribed them with playing in the snow afterwards,” he answered. “I might have also promised hot chocolate.”
“Bribes, Mr. Wayne? That’s not exactly your style,” Selina said. “Now what could have reduced you to bribing them with unstructured play and refined sugar?” He didn't respond, but there was a familiar look in his eyes. Then it hit her. “Tim’s outside too, isn’t he?”
Bruce nodded, lips upturned slightly.
All three boys out of the house.
“Well, now isn't that interesting,” Selina said, closing the book in her hand and shifting her foot in his lap. She watched him tense. “Whatever should we do with all this free time?”
Bruce didn’t have to answer; his eyes answered for him. Her heart quickened even as she suppressed a smirk.
“Upstairs?” she asked. Bruce shook his head.
“Why waste time?” Before she knew it, Selina was being pulled gently down the couch, the book in her hand sliding to the floor with a soft thud.
To Selina’s relief, the indoor training sessions didn’t last long. After a couple of weeks, the snow melted, her living room was put back in order and the boys moved their serious ninja work back outside.
Winter weather gave way to spring storms; loud, violent storms with hail that battered against the windows, pounding rain and rumbling thunder.
Selina loved a good storm. She always had. Gotham was its best when it poured; everything felt cleaner, a layer of grime being washed away as the constant pounding rain and thunder drowned out the angry noises of the city.
Selina may have loved storms, but not everyone felt the same.
One night, Selina lay awake listening to the sounds of a passing thunderstorm. Beside her, Bruce was already asleep, having no poetry in his soul or great appreciation for the little things.
She was just beginning to drift off when she heard the bedroom door creak open and little footsteps inch into the room.
Her eyes were still closed, but she didn’t have to look to know who it was.
It couldn’t be Dick. Dick would have ran up and jumped on the bed without hesitation, shaking them awake in that cheerful way that made her want to strangle him. And it certainly wasn’t Jason. Jason would have flung open the door and hovered near the foot of the bed, making impatient huffing noises until one of them got up.
That left Tim.
Selina could hear Tim’s breathing, shaky and uneven. Something had spooked him, she could tell, but he was hesitating, not comfortable enough with them yet to just come in and wake them up. She heard him sigh, but before she had a chance to answer it, Bruce’s voice cut through the darkness.
“What is it, Tim?”
That’s because it’s thunder. It was a good thing Selina wasn’t awake enough to speak.
Bruce didn’t reply, but she felt him tap the space between them with a heavy hand. It wasn't until another clap of thunder shook the windows that she felt something small and heavy scramble up onto the bed.
Selina opened her eyes in time to see the dark outline of Tim climbing under the sheets between them. He settled in with a sigh, staring up at the ceiling until a crack of thunder made him jump, pulling the covers up over his head.
She was not awake enough for this.
Looking over Tim’s sheet-covered head, Selina saw Bruce turn to his side, facing them both, his eyes still half-closed.
“Are you afraid of the storm, Tim?” Bruce asked, sounding more understanding than anyone just woken up from a deep sleep had any right to be. Selina watched the bump under the covers nod. Bruce reached over to pull the sheet down.
“Yes,” an uncovered Tim answered. “Aren’t you?” Considering who he was addressing, it was an amusing question. Selina closed her eyes, trying her best not to smile.
“No, I’m not,” Bruce replied.
“Oh,” Tim said. “You’re probably not afraid of anything.” Selina could almost hear the boy frown.
“Not true,” Bruce said. She opened her eyes again. It took a moment for them to adjust, to see clearly.
“Really?” Tim asked, his face perking up. “What are you afraid of?”
“Bats,” Bruce answered.
Oh, he must be joking, Selina thought, arching an eyebrow as she looked over at Bruce. His eyes were smiling, but there was something serious behind them.
“But bats aren’t scary,” Tim said, oblivious of the exchange going on above him.
“They are to me,” Bruce replied. For all that he was joking, Selina got the feeling Bruce was also telling the truth.
Well, I’ll be damned.
“Selina?” The boy asked, turning to look at her, his eyes wide in the darkness.
“Are you afraid of bats?”
“Nope,” she said, letting her eyes meet Bruce’s again. “Not at all.” She watched Bruce roll his eyes.
“Me either,” Tim replied, stifling a yawn.
“Wonderful,” Bruce said. “If a colony of bats comes for me in the night, I expect the two of you to fight them off.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe,” Selina replied, matching his playful tone. There was a smirk on his lips but his eyes were soft. The sincerity behind them made her pause. It was almost as if Bruce actually believed they would keep him safe.
Which was ridiculous, all things considered.
She was tired. She was misreading. It was a trick of the light.
Another flash of lightning lit the room, followed closely by its thunder. Tim didn’t jump this time.
“Can I stay?” he asked.
“Yes,” Bruce answered before Selina had a chance to speak. “Now, sleep.” Tim didn’t need to be told twice. Without a word, he burrowed further under the covers, making himself comfortable and stealing half her pillow.
Selina frowned. Given the combination of Bruce’s nightmares and temperamental ninja reflexes, she wasn’t sure letting the kid sleep in their bed all night was a good idea. It was then that Selina realized she couldn't recall the last time she’d heard Bruce have a nightmare.
Or, for that matter, the last time she’d had one herself.
She caught Bruce’s eyes again over Tim’s head. He held her gaze for a second before mouthing the words good night and turning over onto his other side.
Outside, the storm had started to move away, and soon everything was quiet again.
The next morning Selina was jolted awake by a pair of tiny cold feet pressing into her back. She turned over to find that, somehow, both she and Bruce had been pushed to the far edges of their bed, with all three-and-a-half feet of Tim stretched out between them. The kid was sprawled out across the middle of the mattress, still sleeping soundly, his head burrowed up against Bruce’s chest, his arms stretched out at his sides as far as they could go.
It was a wonder, something so little taking up so much space.
Selina’s hand crawled across the sheets, searching for one of those tiny, ice-cold feet.
That morning, Tim learned that Dick and Jason weren’t the only tickle monsters in the house.
After four long months stuck inside, Selina found herself going stir crazy. The first day it was even remotely warm enough to take a real, honest-to-God walk, she jumped at the opportunity.
On an impulse, she took Tim along with her, throwing a light jacket on the kid and leaving Bruce, Dick and Jason to their pre-lesson meditations in the backyard.
There was still a hint of winter chill in the air, but the sun was warm on her face. They walked a few blocks with no particular destination. Tim trotted beside her down the sidewalk, making a quiet game of jumping over the cracks in the concrete.
They’d been walking for ten minutes or so when they came to the nearest subway station entrance. Tim paused at the sight and went over, staring down the long set of stairs into the tunnel.
“You going somewhere?” Selina asked as she walked up to where he stood.
“Can we look?” Tim asked, staring up at her, head tilted to one side.
“At what, the commuters?” Selina asked. Tim scrunched up his face.
“No, silly,” he replied, a small smile on his lips. “The trains.”
It was an unusual request. Selina still didn't get the kid, but she figured humoring him couldn’t hurt.
“Lead the way,” Selina replied. She followed Tim down the steps. His short legs made a slow go of it, but eventually they reached the bottom platform. Tim spotted an empty bench and headed straight for it, climbing up onto it and settling in, his feet swinging inches off the ground. Selina sat down beside him, watching his excited face as the first train pulled into the empty station.
“So you like trains, I take it?” Selina asked. Tim nodded.
“Claire used to take me to watch them.”
“Claire?” Selina asked.
“She took care of me,” Tim said, distracted as he watched the people filter on and off the newly arrived train car.
A nanny. Selina had forgotten about nannies. The East End didn’t exactly have them. Unless you counted Big Lou with his eye patch and flyswatter. Which she didn’t.
“I liked her,” Tim continued, “but they didn’t.”
“Your parents?” Selina asked.
“They never liked any of them,” Tim said. “They always went away.” Selina wasn’t sure if he meant his parents or the nannies, but she had a feeling it was probably both.
People always leaving; Selina could relate. As far back as she could remember, no one in her life had ever stuck around for long.
Until recently, that is.
It was one of the first times Selina had heard Tim speak about his life before. She had always expected once he got comfortable with them, he’d talk more about his parents, as Dick had, but he’d never mentioned them at all until today.
He’d also never mentioned missing them. Not once. It was a fact that had always struck Selina as odd, but now she realized why.
Tim never talked about missing his parents because he didn’t miss them.
It was almost as if he’d barely known them.
Better known as jet setters than parents, Bruce had said of the Drakes, and now Selina understood what he’d meant. She glanced back down at Tim, who was looking beyond the scattered groups of people, eyes fixed on the train car as it pulled away from the station.
“The trains at home weren’t under,” Tim said, distracted again. “They were high up.” He lifted one hand up as if to show her. “Do you remember them?”
Always Gotham with this kid. Tim was, in Selina’s opinion, entirely too fond of that wretched place. But his hazy memories of Gotham were about the only thing from his past Tim had any attachment to at all, so Selina humored him.
“Yeah, I do.”
“These are nice,” he said, “but I like those better.” Selina couldn't say with any amount of honesty that she liked anything in Gotham better, but she nodded anyway. They sat, watching the trains come and go in companionable silence. From time to time, his hand would absently pat at hers, as if he was making sure she was still there.
It was a little strange.
As the minutes passed, Selina fell into mindless people watching, only to be pulled away by a small beep from the vicinity of her pocket. She wiggled, reaching for her phone.
Lesson over. Going to make lunch.
Like hell, you are, Selina thought as she replied back to Bruce’s text.
Over my dead body, Wayne.
For a man who was incredibly talented at many, many things, Bruce was tragic when it came to food. Not only did most of what he make taste godawful, but he also somehow managed to wreck the entire kitchen—dirtying every pot, pan, dish and piece of silverware they owned—in the process. At this point, Selina barely trusted him to make a sandwich. He was restricted to making coffee (for her, as he didn’t touch the stuff), pouring cereal (which neither of them ate, but the boys did) and mixing up that thick green kale smoothie thing, which only he was crazy enough to actually drink.
Selina was fairly certain that if she left him, Dick and Jason to their own devices, there wouldn’t be a kitchen left standing when they got back.
“You ready to go, kid?” Selina asked Tim as she stood up and stretched her legs. Tim nodded, climbing down from the bench.
“Can we come back?” he asked, looking up at her with bright, wide eyes and a hopeful expression.
No decent person could say no to that face, not unless they were also the type who liked to kick puppies and pop children's balloons.
“Sure,” Selina said. “And, hey, maybe next time, we’ll even take a ride on one.” The sarcasm was clearly lost on Tim, whose face lit up at the prospect.
Selina wondered if there was ever a time when something as simple as riding the subway brought her that kind of joy.
If there was, she certainly couldn’t remember it.
As they walked toward the stairs, Selina felt Tim reach for her hand, his little fingers wrapping around hers. It was to her credit that she didn’t indulge the urge to pull away. She wasn’t anyone’s safety net, but the warmth of his tiny hand in hers—that level of trust—was nice.
Misplaced, certainly, but still, nice.
Selina let him swing their arms back and forth as they headed home.
Chapter 12: Tipping Points
It was an unusual night in that the house was quiet. Typically, Dick and Jason would still be up, fighting sleep and each other for a few more hours before they wore themselves out and crawled into bed. But tonight, they had both fallen, exhausted, into their beds before nine o'clock.
It was a phenomenon Selina could thank Bruce for. Whenever he ramped up their training regimens, Dick and Jason spent the following week sleeping more and harder, too tired for infighting or territory battles. This gave Selina a few more hours each day where she wasn’t playing referee or waiting for them to hurt themselves doing something idiotic.
It only lasted a week or so—until they built their staminas back up—but it was a week Selina greatly appreciated.
Everything was quiet, but Selina checked on them anyway out of habit. She walked through their rooms, flicking off lights that had been left on, pulling off sneakers that never made it off feet and throwing blankets over bodies still clad in clothes worn all day. It was only in passing by the last room that she noticed Tim wasn’t in his bed.
Or under it. Or in his closet.
Unfazed, Selina wandered through the house, cracking open doors and peeking under beds and couches, until at last she found Tim downstairs, sleeping under the dining room table. His little body was contorted around the legs of the six high-back chairs. There was a crumpled fruit juice box in one of his hands and an array of paper scraps and crayons scattered around his head.
That was new. Selina wondered if they were really becoming so slow in finding him that Tim needed to bring entertainment and provisions into his hiding places. Or maybe he was just making himself comfortable. She smiled, looking over him again. Tim’s cheek was pressed flat against the soft Persian rug, dark hair falling into his eyes, hands slightly curled in sleep. Selina didn’t have the heart to wake up him just to send him to bed, and, since she’d never get him out from there without waking him in the process, under the table was where Tim was going to stay.
Besides, no one could accidentally step or sit on him there; as far as Tim hiding places went, it was pretty safe.
Bending down by the table, Selina collected the crayons and empty juice box. She set them up on the tabletop before gathering Tim’s scattered drawings into a neat pile and standing again.
Tim was a consummate little artist; each and every sheet in her hands was scribbled on, back and front. She flipped through pages of messy cars and trains, roughly drawn buildings and skyscrapers in every impractical color.
No farm animals or monsters for this kid. Only cityscapes. Only Gotham. There were even a few of the Batman, all in black, an imposing figure even in a child’s scribbles.
The Gotham that Tim drew seemed a much more pleasant place than the one she remembered. His bright little drawings almost made her homesick.
As she finished sorting through the last of Tim’s artwork, one of them caught her eye; it wasn’t of a vehicle or a building, but rather a group of people. Tim rarely drew people, but here he’d drawn five little stick figures of various heights and sizes, all with shades of dark hair. Three boys, a man and a woman.
Three boys and their parents.
Selina let the rest of his drawings fall onto the table in front of her as she stared hard at the two larger figures.
Her stomach sank, the word resonating in her brain.
They were parents.
She stared at Tim’s happy little stick family, her heart echoing loud in her ears. She took a deep breath, but it didn’t steady her; a wave of panic continued to build, threatening to crash. She couldn’t push it away this time. That questioning voice in her mind was no longer a whisper. It was more than a shout.
It was a siren, blaring, pulsing with each beat of her heart, roaring in her ears.
What the hell am I doing?
This wasn’t her. This couldn’t be her.
Selina Kyle wasn’t a mother.
Or a wife.
“Should I take him up?” A quiet voice—a real voice—broke through her thoughts. She looked up to see Bruce stepping into the room. His head tilted slightly to one side as he eyed Tim under the table, an amused expression on his face. Selina shook her head. “What’s this?” Bruce asked softly, coming up beside her. He took the drawing from her hands—hands that were not quite as steady as she’d have liked them to be.
Selina watched his face as he looked at the picture Tim had drawn. A small smile pulled at the corners of his lips and there was a light behind his eyes. Selina held her breath.
“I always saw myself taller,” Bruce joked, setting Tim’s picture on top of the pile with the rest. Her eyes followed it, transfixed. She could feel him looking at her. “You OK?” he asked. Selina didn’t answer. She shook her head again, attempting to clear it. Pulling her eyes away from the drawing, she absently gathered Tim’s empty juice box from the table. She moved past Bruce and into the kitchen like a woman on a mission. Like someone who knew exactly what she was doing.
It was a hell of a lie.
“Tim will sleep anywhere but in his actual bed,” Bruce observed, following her into the kitchen, his voice leveling back to normal. “Maybe we should try tying him to it?”
Here he was, joking, talking domestic, while the world crashed down around her. Selina turned and took a breath.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what?” Bruce asked, leaning back against one of the counters, resting his hands in his pockets, completely unaware of the gathering storm.
“This,” she repeated, looking around the room. “All of it.” Bruce’s eyes followed her gesturing around the messy kitchen. After a moment, he shrugged.
“I can help you clean up in the morning,” Bruce offered. “Better yet, we’ll get the boys to do it,” he added with a half-grin. She stared at him.
God, he just wasn’t getting it.
“Not that,” Selina snapped. “Everything.” She watched as realization crossed his face. He straightened, taking a small step toward her, that damn, quiet determination shining in his eyes.
He’s not going to let me do this, Selina realized, taking her own step back. But she needed this; these doubts had been pushed down, pushed away, too long. She couldn’t do this anymore.
She was drowning.
“It’s fine, Selina,” he said. “Everything’s fine.” They were comforting, simple words. But she wasn’t one of the boys and words meant so little.
Unable to speak, Selina shook her head. No, it wasn’t fine. Nothing was fine. But Bruce wasn’t listening to her. He wasn’t hearing her at all.
With each moment that passed, Selina found it harder and harder to breathe.
"You don’t know me,” she told him. It was the truth; Bruce couldn’t possibly know her.
She didn’t even know herself anymore.
Before Selina could object, Bruce crossed the space between them. Suddenly, he was close—impossibly close—the air around her warmed by his proximity. She didn’t look up.
This wasn’t something he could fix. This wasn’t something that would just go away.
Not this time.
Selina felt his warm hands on either side of her face, tilting it up. She hesitated, moving to look away, but Bruce wouldn’t let her. He leaned down, leveling his eyes with hers.
He’s looking for what he wants to see, she thought.
He was looking for something that wasn’t there.
"You don’t know me,” she repeated, trying to make him understand.
“I know everything that matters,” he replied, his eyes dark and certain. Against her better judgment, Selina let herself get lost in them. He was wrong, so very wrong, but she couldn’t find the words to tell him that.
She couldn’t find words at all.
Desperation welled up in her chest, taking the place of the panic, threatening to swallow her whole. On impulse, Selina reached up and weaved her fingers through his hair, gripping fiercely, pulling him toward her as she smashed her lips against his with bruising force. It was rough and desperate, hard enough to hurt. Selina didn’t care. She couldn’t get close enough, couldn’t kiss him hard enough. No matter how hard she pushed, she couldn’t bring herself back, couldn’t keep from drifting.
Against her, Bruce shifted, responding in kind. Anticipating her movements, matching her beat for beat.
As he always had.
Without breaking contact, Selina stepped back, pulling Bruce with her until her back hit the hard edge of the kitchen counter. In a single swift motion, he lifted her up onto it. She tugged at the fabric of his shirt, bunching it up, parting from him only long enough to yank it over his head, letting it fall to the floor. She pulled him closer, legs wrapping around his waist. She could feel his hands wandering across her back, sliding under her shirt, fingertips pressing into her skin with a constant, steady pressure. It wasn’t enough.
She was still far away.
Bruce pulled back a moment, swollen lips parted. He studied her face, heavy-lidded eyes searching for answers she didn’t have. Avoiding his gaze, Selina dragged his lips back down to hers. Her hands traveled down his shoulders, gripping his arms, digging her fingers into him until they ached.
No matter how hard she tried, Selina couldn’t shake the feeling of drifting. She was unreachable even as he held her, his hands warm against her skin.
Upstairs in bed, Selina stared at the ceiling, looking for an answer that wasn’t there. Beside her, Bruce was already asleep, out cold as soon as his head hit the pillow. As if he didn’t see. As if everything was normal. As if all was right with the world.
Her own words echoed in her mind on an endless loop.
I can’t do this.
She wasn’t meant for this. This parenting gig. This couple thing. This comfortable little life.
Restless, Selina shifted, turning onto her side. She let herself glance at Bruce, seeing him clearly, her eyes long adjusted to the darkness. He was facing her, eyes closed, sleep smoothing out his features. The sheets were pulled up to his shoulders, his hair still damp from the shower, dark and messy, disheveled across his forehead.
I’m not meant for this, she thought, but he is.
Bruce was born to be a guardian, a protector.
The only thing Selina was born to do was run.
Her gaze wandered over his face, coming to rest on the scar above his eyebrow. It was tiny and faint, all but unnoticeable unless you were looking for it. Unlike his other scars, Selina knew exactly where this one had come from.
She could still hear the crack, sharp and sudden, resonating through the sewers.
This one was hers. The collateral damage of her survival instinct, permanently etched into his skin.
What I had to do, her old mantra played over in her head. What I had to do.
What I have to do.
Selina slipped out of bed, silently got dressed.
Bruce didn’t stir.
Outside the window, the sky began to lighten. Tim would be up soon, Dick too. They were the early risers; Jason and Bruce would stay in bed until their alarms went off or they were forcibly removed.
Sometimes, it took both.
But right now, Selina needed them all to stay asleep just a little longer.
Tiptoeing out the bedroom and down the hall, her shoes in hand, Selina tried to pretend she didn’t hear Jason’s soft, uneven snoring, that she wasn’t aware of Dick’s tossing and turning as he kicked all his blankets to the floor. She ignored the urge to walk by their rooms and crack open their doors. To check on them, one more time.
They’ll be fine, she told herself. They have Bruce.
He was all they needed anyway.
Selina paused in the foyer at the base of the stairs to slip on her shoes and grab her purse. She didn’t let herself look over into the darkened dining room to her left, where she imagined Tim, tiny and peaceful, still sleeping under the table.
As she reached for the front door, a creak on the stairs broke through the stillness. The sound froze her in place. Selina didn’t have to look back to know it was Bruce. She could feel him there, at the top of the stairs, waiting for her to turn around.
“You shouldn’t have bet on me, Bruce.” She could barely hear herself speak, but she knew he was listening. He was hearing her now. “I was always going to let you down.”
Selina could feel his eyes on her back as she turned the knob and opened the door. She stepped over the threshold, pulling the door closed behind her.
Chapter 13: Misdirection
Once out the door, Selina limited her thoughts to actions.
Walk to subway. Find hotel. Right foot. Left foot. Repeat.
As long as she kept moving, she’d kept herself from thinking. But as soon as she crawled on top of the plush hotel bed, as soon as her head sank into the pillow and she was still again, her mind wandered. To them.
They were dangerous, unstable territory.
Selina closed her eyes, stopping the thoughts before they had a chance to form. She’d done what she’d had to do. There was no use thinking about it now.
She didn’t want to think at all.
All she wanted to do was sleep.
Reaching over to the nightstand, Selina fumbled for the TV remote, clicking the set on without a glance. She needed the noise, the distraction. Anything that would break the damn silence. Anything that would keep her from thinking.
The voices of strangers drowned out her thoughts as she drifted to sleep.
Selina woke with a start. She woke with smog from the docks in her lungs, the sounds of gunshots echoing in her ears.
It’d been years since she’d dreamt of Gotham.
Selina looked around, taking a moment to remember where she was.
Hotel room. London. Got it. The room was darker now, daylight fading. Rubbing her eyes, Selina glanced at the clock. She never intended to sleep the entire day, but with nothing—and no one—to wake her, she’d gotten a solid twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Twelve hours and yet somehow, it felt like she hadn’t slept at all.
The TV still blared. She switched it off.
Silence wasn’t much better.
Warm and uncomfortable, Selina sat up, her muscles tight. She hadn’t bothered to undress or crawl under the sheets; there were faint marks up and down her arms, where her skin had been pressed against the duvet.
Selina slid off the bed, bare feet sinking into soft carpeting. Her shoes were by the door, discarded right where she’d slipped them off that morning; her purse lay abandoned beside them, right where she’d let it drop.
They were the only things she’d brought with her. The only things she had.
She was going to have to fix that.
She was going to have to fix a lot of things. She needed a plan. A long-term plan. She didn’t know what it would be yet or where she’d start, but there was one thing Selina did know.
She’d been domesticated for far too long.
Later that night, after a shopping trip for the essentials—including a little black dress—Selina made her way down to the hotel lounge.
By the reaction she was getting, short and black still suited her.
The hotel bar was several steps up from the dives in Gotham where she’d gotten her start, playing games and picking pockets. Everything here was black and red, sleek lines and shiny surfaces. There was even a piano player in the corner, his jazzy, unrecognizable tune adding the perfect touch to the lounge's atmosphere.
Like the hotel itself, the bar catered to high-end clientele. Wealthy travelers. Successful businessmen. The idle rich.
Just her type.
Selina picked a seat at the bar and lingered there, watching the people filter in and out; older couples, groups of men, the occasional server with his drink tray, weaving through the chairs and people. Selina waited, that old itch, tingling in her fingertips. That old feeling, returning with a vengeance.
Ah, here we go.
He walked in alone, a businessman by the look of him, clean-cut with dark blond hair and an expensive suit, too pretty for his own good. The man reeked of money and entitlement. A jackass, too; Selina could tell by the way he sauntered, prowling, eyes greedy.
Selina let her eyes drift up, making eye contact. She held it a moment before looking away. It’d been a while since she’d played coy, but she still had the chops. After a few seconds the man in question was sliding into the empty bar stool beside hers with a wide smile.
“Buy you a drink?” he asked, staring at her with pale blue eyes.
Blue, but nothing like any of theirs.
Stop it, Selina told herself.
“I don’t drink with strange men,” she said.
“Don’t worry, Beautiful. I won’t be a stranger for long.”
Oh God, is he serious? Selina could have sworn she saw the bartender roll his eyes. She kept her face even, accepting the offer. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. The rush of the game.
As easy as riding a bicycle.
“The lady will have a—”
That got his attention. As it was meant to do.
“I said I didn’t drink with strange men,” Selina told him, answering the surprise on his face. “I never said I didn’t drink.”
“My kind of girl,” he replied, ordering the same.
“Baby, you don't know a thing about me,” she said. There was a smirk on her lips, but something in her own words stirred a memory. One of dark, determined eyes. But the face across from hers now was round and fair, unblemished, eyes pale and devoid of depth.
Nothing like him at all.
Enough, Selina told herself, holding fast to her sly smile.
“Not yet,” the man said, leaning closer. “But I’d like to.”
I’m sure you would, Selina thought, smiling through the sudden urge to punch him in the face. She glanced at his hand, catching the slight, tell-tale indent on his left ring finger. Her face remained even, but inwardly, she scoffed.
What a prince.
When their drinks came, Selina waited a moment, tilting her head, watching as he took a sip.
There it was, the wince.
Selina smirked. She could drink this one under the table, if she wanted to. Not that she’d have to, but it was good to know she could still pick them.
She met his eyes, taking a sip of hers without breaking her smirk.
Their banter was common; he flirted shamelessly and Selina played along. As the minutes passed, the man got bolder. Fingers drifted, ghosting over her arms, hands occasionally found their way to her crossed legs. Selina batted his wandering hands away, laughing as she did it, keeping playful while squashing her gut impulse to reach out and break all ten of his fingers.
One by one, if she had to.
After fifteen minutes of the most tedious, mindless conversation, he’d finally finished his drink, and that vacant look started to cloud his eyes.
Selina lifted her glass and knocked back the last of the scotch in one fluid motion. The man at her side grinned and ordered another round.
Reaching out to use his shoulder as leverage, Selina stood. She let her hand linger on his shoulder, let herself lean in, pretending to be more unsteady on her feet then she was, distracting him by her proximity. Emboldened by the contact, his hands wandered over her curves; she fought back the bile and forced another smile as she leaned over.
“I’ll be right back,” Selina whispered against his ear as her hand slipped into his jacket.
He didn’t notice.
They never did.
Not even Bruce had.
Knock it off, Selina, she thought as she walked away from the bar and toward the powder room. Selina shook her head again, forcing his face from her mind.
The liquor was going to her head more than she’d anticipated.
As soon as she was out of sight, Selina changed course, walking out of the lounge, toward the main lobby and its elevators. She boarded alone, glancing out once to be sure she wasn’t followed before pressing the button for her floor. As soon as the doors closed, Selina pulled out the man’s wallet, rifling through it.
A couple hundred in cash and a few cards. Not bad for her first pull in two years.
God, that was easy, she thought. Like child’s play. Like old times.
Selina transferred the cash to her purse and went to close the wallet again when something small and white fell out of one of the sleeves. She watched it flutter to the tile floor of the elevator. Leaning over, she picked it up, feeling a little dizzy on the way up. She braced a hand against the wall, steadying herself. Once the world stopped spinning, Selina flipped the little piece of paper over only to find herself staring down at two bright-eyed, smiling children.
It was a picture, glossy and bright. The little girl was about Tim’s age, the boy was no older than Jason. Her eyes were as wide and as blue as Dick’s, his hair just as wild and unkempt.
Selina shoved the photograph back into the wallet, slamming the thing shut.
It was no use. This time, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking about them, couldn’t push their faces away. They floated across her mind through a hazy fog of liquor and adrenaline. Dark messy hair, trusting eyes, smudged, grinning faces.
Selina felt the faintest pricks behind her eyes as her vision clouded. She blinked hard, willing them away. There was an ache, stuck in the middle of her chest, pressing down, making it hard to breathe.
She stared up into the fancy polished metal walls of the elevator, seeing her distorted reflection in the shiny surface. A stranger’s face stared back at her.
Suddenly, Selina felt remarkably sober.
The door opened at her floor. She reached over and pressed a button. The doors closed again. She watched the lighted numbers, flashing in turn, counting down; her mind grew clearer, more focused, with each one.
Once back on the ground level, Selina headed straight for reception, stolen wallet in hand.
“Got a pen?” she asked the man behind the desk, who handed her one before turning to help another guest. Selina pulled out the picture again, flipping it over to scribble a note on the back. She slipped the photo back into the wallet and left it on the counter before turning and walking back toward the lounge.
“Miss, you forgot your—?
“Not mine,” Selina called over her shoulder. “Found it.”
Careful to avoid the bar, Selina made her way over to the piano player. She pulled the wad of cash from the wallet out of her purse and shoved it into his fancy glass tip jar. The man glanced up at her, nodding in appreciation without missing a note.
He’d be in for a surprise later, when he counted his tips.
Selina looked over to the bar where the pretty boy was still waiting, nursing another scotch, glancing around. He’d give up, sooner or later, go to pay and notice his wallet was gone. Selina wasn’t sorry. He should've known better.
The world was full of untrustworthy types.
Go home and stay there, she’d written across the back of his kids’ picture.
It was decent advice.
When one had a home to go to, that is.
Once back in her room, Selina leaned against the door, taking a beat, feeling the cool metal through the fabric of her dress.
So much for old habits. She shook her head and slipped out of her shoes, stretching her throbbing feet against the carpet. It had been a while since she’d worn heels that high; her feet and legs ached in protest.
Selina may have fought battles and driven motorcycles in five-inch serrated heels, but nothing had made them more impractical than running around after three boys.
God, she couldn’t even go ten minutes without thinking of them. It was aggravating, bothersome.
Selina frowned as she slipped out of her dress, wandering into the bathroom, removing clothing as she went. The memory of the man’s fingertips lingered on her skin, making it crawl. She may have kept her skills, but she no longer had the stomach for this life.
It wasn’t the worst thing in the world to become unaccustomed to.
She ran a bath with water as hot as she could stand it.
Selina pulled her hair up into a tight bun before stepping into the tub. She sighed, sinking under, letting the hot water relax her muscles, soothe away her aches.
The physical ones, at least.
The night’s events replayed in her mind. Wandering hands aside, conning that pretty boy had been amusing, but lifting his wallet hadn’t felt nearly as good as she remembered. Where there was once a rush, now all she felt was unsatisfied, hollow.
Selina wasn’t even sure now why she’d done it.
It hadn’t been for the money; her ample retirement fund was still untouched and easily within reach. Bruce had insisted it stayed that way. Selina never asked why, but she’d figured it had something to do with it being tainted money.
But maybe Bruce had always known she'd need it. Maybe he’d assumed all along that she’d leave.
Selina frowned. It hadn’t been for the money, and it hadn’t been to prove anything. Her skills were never up for debate.
No, if she was being honest with herself, Selina had done it to feel normal again.
The trouble was, playing the thief wasn’t her normal anymore.
She didn’t have a normal anymore.
The air felt dead, the room silent. It reminded her of her apartment in Gotham during the occupation. Empty and hollow. The uneasy silence left too much room to think.
No matter what time of day it was, the townhouse was never completely quiet. Even in sleep, the boys made a ruckus. They’d mumble and kick off their sheets, they’d toss and turn and snore. Selina never thought she’d miss their noise, those particular sounds she learned to pick out and decipher. Bumps and knocks against the walls, thudding across the floorboards, pounding down the stairs. Loud chattering voices that echoed across the house.
Damn it, she thought. There she went again. She couldn’t get them out of her head. They haunted her like ghosts, ghosts with trusting eyes in shades of blue.
There were other eyes too, darker ones, but she wouldn’t let herself think of them at all.
Selina glanced at the clock on the wall. The boys would be in bed by now. Bruce was always good at that, rules and discipline.
Far better than she had ever been.
Still, even with the best discipline, they were a handful. Keeping them all in one piece was a full-time job.
And that job was now Bruce’s alone.
The word stuck, and as her fingers began to wrinkle, the beginnings of a plan took form in her mind.
Selina knew what she had to do next. And, once it was done, she’d move on, to someplace without messy-haired boys in red hoody sweatshirts. Without tickle fights and scribbles of Gotham City. Without dark, serious eyes.
She would move on. Start over.
As if the last two years had never happened.
From nowhere, Selina felt the sudden, sharp hint of tears behind her eyes. She closed them against the sting. A few escaped, mingling with the bathwater, but it didn’t matter.
No one was there to see them.
Two days later, Selina found herself in Cambridge. The sky was grey, cloudy and ominous; she tugged her long taupe trenchcoat closer against the wind.
It had only taken a couple of days to track him down, and of all the places he could have been, Selina never expected he’d be less than an hour from London by train.
Now she stood at the front door of his quaint little house, one of many in a row of quaint little houses. She didn’t knock but instead leaned over and, in one fluid motion, pushed a small, folded note under the door. She straightened, staring at the door for a moment, her fingers itching to touch the doorbell. She stopped herself.
Selina took a deep breath and turned, starting back down the path. She had taken two steps when she looked up to see Alfred Pennyworth heading up the walk, a bag of groceries in his arms.
So much for her clean break.
“Ah, Miss Kyle, what a surprise,” Alfred said as he approached, his voice notably lacking in surprise.
“Is it?” she asked, foregoing ceremony. They’d never been formally introduced—not outside the maid con she’d run at Wayne Manor all those years ago—but of course, he knew who she was. “Then why do you look less than surprised to see me?”
“Everything is well, I trust?” he asked, ignoring her question. His tone was even, but she could hear the anxiousness underneath. It took her a second to realize why. Of course. She could have slapped herself. Bruce.
“He’s fine,” Selina offered. “As of three days ago, at least.” She watched his eyebrow arch.
“You weren’t leaving?” Alfred asked, stepping around her to unlock the front door.
“I was, actually,” she replied, taking a small step back.
Alfred didn’t seem surprised by that either.
“Before you go, may I ask what you are doing at my doorstep?”
It was good question.
“I left a note.” Even to her ears it sounded weak.
“Which will be illuminating, no doubt.”
It was nice to know that Bruce’s dry, cutting wit was acquired, not genetic.
“It’s just an address,” Selina said, grimacing at how pathetic she sounded. Like one of the boys caught in a lie. Alfred looked back at her, his eyes properly chastising and stern. Selina kept a smirk on her lips, but underneath it, she felt all of ten. He made a short hmp noise before disappearing into the house.
“Please shut the door on your way in, Miss Kyle,” he called from inside. “It’s terribly damp out.”
Apparently, Bruce’s knack for passive aggression was learned as well.
Suppressing a sigh, Selina stepped inside the warm house, pulling the door closed behind her.
“Let me be sure that I understand this correctly,” Alfred said. “Since I last saw the both of you in Florence, you and Master Wayne have adopted three children?”
“When you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous,” Selina said. She sat across from Alfred on one of two small couches in an absolutely immaculate living room. There was an untouched cup of tea cooling on the coffee table in front of her, a perfectly thin round of lemon floating on top.
Because, of course, there was tea.
“Indeed,” Alfred replied. “Tell me, is there a way to put it that does not sound ridiculous?”
Touché, old man.
“I guess not,” Selina conceded with a shrug. He was right. It was ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. Ever since Selina backflipped out the window of Wayne Manor, her life had been one ridiculous occurrence after another.
Absurdity and Bruce Wayne went hand in hand.
“Well, thank you for the report, Miss Kyle,” Alfred said, setting his cup down on the table between them. “But you didn’t come all this way to update me.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Why are you here?”
Enough stalling, then.
“You need to help him.”
“With them,” she clarified. “He can’t do it alone.”
“Ah,” Alfred said, pausing a moment. “They aren’t monsters, are they?”
“No.” The conviction in her voice surprised her. “I mean, sure, they can be a handful, but no, most of the time they’re...” Selina trailed off, searching for the word. “Wonderful.”
There really wasn’t another way to put it.
“I see,” Alfred said. “Then why are you running away?” Selina jerked her head up at the question.
“I can’t,” she answered. “I’m not anyone’s parent.”
“No one is until they are.”
Damn him, speaking in riddles. Speaking the truth.
“I didn’t ask for any of this,” Selina replied, trying not to snap but failing miserably. “I’m not even sure how it happened.”
“Don’t you see what Bruce is doing?” Alfred asked.
“Almost never, Alfred,” Selina replied. The man across from her sighed, shaking his head.
“He’s an orphan—”
“Aren’t we all, eventually?” Selina interjected. Alfred gave her a hard stare before starting again.
“His mission to save Gotham consumed every aspect of his life,” he continued. “Now, he’s creating what was taken from him, what being Batman always denied him.”
“A family,” Selina finished for him, the pieces snapping together. Put that way, it made a painful amount of sense. Across from her, Alfred nodded. “But they’re not really his.”
Even as she said the words, they felt like a lie.
They were a lie.
“Blood ties are the least of the reasons you love a child,” Alfred said, watching her face. “But I have a feeling you already know that.”
Love. Selina hadn’t thought about it that way. Sure, the boys were amusing and clever and, if she was being honest, she’d smiled more in the past two years than she had in the lifetime before. They were also loud and rambunctious, rarely slept, ate their weight in food and tried every last ounce of her patience on a daily basis.
But, somehow, none of that mattered, and that ache she’d felt since she’d left them, the one she couldn’t shake, now had a name.
That was why this hurt so much.
She’d fallen totally in love with them.
“It doesn’t matter,” Selina said as heavier thoughts came on the heels of revelation. “Bruce needs you,” she continued, getting back on track. “I’m pretty sure that he always has, but he’ll definitely need you now.”
“If I may say so, it’s not me Bruce needs.”
“No one needs me,” Selina said.
“All evidence to the contrary.”
“Trust me,” she said. “They’re better off without me.”
“You sell yourself short, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t know me.”
“You’re right,” Alfred said. “I don’t. But what I do I know is that I spent the better part of eight years trying to convince him to live, but it wasn’t until the night you stole his mother’s pearls that he began to do so.” Selina rolled her eyes.
“Coincidence,” she countered.
“I also know that, after everything, it was you he came to in person,” Alfred continued. “It was you he chose to start over with, if rather unconventionally.”
“And what does any of that prove?” Selina asked. Alfred’s face softened. There was something like pity in his eyes.
“He’s in love with you, Miss Kyle.”
It was a simple statement said with an appalling degree of certainty. The words stuck in her brain and held there, even as she scoffed at them.
“Yeah, right,” Selina said, letting out a hollow chuckle. “And I thought I was the con.” Alfred didn’t respond, looking at her in an unnerving way, as if he could get her to agree by sheer force of will. “You got it all wrong, Jeeves.”
“Yes,” Selina said, because there couldn’t be another answer. “Look, I know what men in love look like, and Bruce is not...” she trailed off, a flood of memories filling her mind. All the times she’d caught Bruce studying her, eyes intense, never sure what he was looking for. The way his face would soften for no apparent reason. The little gestures she’d never understood. A kiss on the cheek, him reaching for her hand, their fingers intertwined in that terribly casual way. The continued trust she’d never deserved in the first place. Those kisses that were not passionate or fevered, but something else. Something more.
“Oh,” Selina said. “Oh.”
“I believe they call this ‘a moment of clarity’,” Alfred said. “Would you like more tea?”
Selina just stared at him.
“It doesn’t matter,” she repeated, filing this new information away for later. When she could process it. When she could think straight. “He’d never forgive me for leaving.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Has he forgiven you?” Selina didn’t mean to say it, not like that, but the words came out anyway.
“One day, he will.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Selina said. “The man knows how to hold a grudge.”
“You’d be surprised,” Alfred said. “I won’t presume to know your feelings on the matter, Miss Kyle, but might I suggest you examine them more closely before making a final decision?”
“You’re saying I should go back?”
“I’m saying you should think long and hard before you don’t.”
Selina nodded. He was right. If the last three days had taught her anything, it was that regardless of who she was—or who she had been—Selina didn’t want to be without the three boys who had so unceremoniously and unexpectedly entered her life.
With them was the only place she wanted to be.
“You may have a point, Pennyworth.”
“Yes, I often do.”
“Humility. How refreshing.” Selina rolled her eyes. “Must be where Bruce gets it.”
“Wait until yours start picking up your habits before you judge,” Alfred warned.
Yours, the word echoed in her brain. They are mine, aren’t they? In spite of herself, Selina smiled. After a moment, she glanced back at Alfred.
“Why did you leave?”
If Alfred was startled by her question, he didn’t show it.
“It was the only thing I had left to do,” he answered. Selina raised an eyebrow. He continued. “I thought that if I left, maybe he’d come to his senses, start building his life instead of destroying it.” Alfred sighed. “I’m afraid it didn’t work; I ended up burying him anyway.”
“But that was a sham,” Selina said.
“A fact I was unaware of until that day in the café.”
“You didn’t know he was alive until Florence?” Selina asked, eyes narrowing. “That bastard,” she added, spitting out the word. She wasn’t surprised. It sounded like something Bruce would do, and even through her indignation, there was something about the familiarity of it Selina found comforting. Alfred smiled at her outburst.
“Master Wayne and I have a...complicated relationship,” Alfred explained. Selina huffed.
“Is there anything about that man that isn’t complicated?”
“No. But you have no idea how refreshing it is to hear someone else say so.” If Selina had known there was someone to commiserate with on the trials of life with Bruce Wayne, she’d have looked up Alfred two years ago.
It would’ve saved a lot of headaches.
A ringing from the vicinity of her purse interrupted their conversation. It was the first time her phone had rung since she’d left. She fished it out, glancing at it. The wide grin and messy black hair that popped up on the screen brought a smile to her lips even as it made her ache. She motioned for Alfred to excuse her as she stood and answered.
“Jason,” Selina said, smile turning into a smirk as she switched the phone to her other ear. “Does Dick know you have his phone?”
“Not yet.” She could all but see his smug little face. “I wouldn't have to steal his if I had one of my own, you know.” Selina sighed, waiting for the kid to focus. “But whatever. Not important right now.”
He seemed more agitated than usual. Something was up.
“What is it, kid?”
“Look, I don’t know where you are and I don’t really care. But Bruce is being an idiot and he won’t just call you so I had to. You need to get back here.” There was some static and she could hear grumbling in the background. “Hey—no—stop it—give it back—Dick—”
“Selina?” She heard Dick’s voice on the other end.
“Dick, what’s going on?” Selina wanted to believe that it was nothing, some fight with Jason or disagreement with Bruce for her to mediate, but there was a gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach. She let her eyes meet Alfred’s, who had noticed that something was amiss.
“It’s Tim,” Dick answered. “He’s gone.”
Chapter 14: Unfinished Business
For those who are interested, I’ve posted a corresponding one-shot, Three Days, which focuses on Bruce and the boys after the events of Chapter 12.
“What do you mean, Tim’s gone?” Selina repeated.
“I mean we can’t find him,” Dick replied over the phone. “Anywhere.”
“I’m sure he just hid someplace and fell asleep,” she said, shaking her head. She paced the length of Alfred’s immaculate living room. “Did you check under all the couches, the closets, up in the attic—”
“We’ve torn the place apart, Selina,” Dick interrupted. “He’s not here and we don’t—”
The line got quiet.
“Dick?” she asked.
“Selina.” The single word burned low across the line; she could feel the heat of it.
“I’m on my way,” she said.
Bruce’s reply was a dial tone.
Twenty minutes later, she was back on the train, her foot tapping against the floor in a tireless rhythm. Her hands were clenched in her lap, fingernails digging crescents into her palms. She watched the countryside blur past with unfocused eyes, the dead dial tone still ringing in her ears.
Selina climbed out of the taxi before it came to a full stop. Her eyes scanned the familiar white and brown facade of the townhouse, looking for something out of place, for something different. Everything looked the same.
But it wasn’t the same.
Selina heard them before she saw them; she heard her name, their footfalls against the concrete walk. Dick, with those long legs of his, reached her first. He threw his arms around her, nearly knocking her over. He squeezed tight, almost lifting her off the ground.
When did he get so strong? Her arms wrapped around him in return, like second nature.
“I knew you’d come back,” she heard Dick say, the words muffled against her shoulder.
“I didn’t,” a voice muttered beside them. She glanced down over Dick’s shoulder at Jason, his blue-green eyes hard. Guarded, cautious.
Selina freed one of her arms, reaching over to pull Jason in by the fabric of his sweatshirt. The boy huffed but didn’t resist, leaning into it. She felt him sigh.
“Never said I was perfect, kiddo.” Selina closed her eyes, breathing in deep, taking in the now-familiar smells of shampoo and sweat and boy. Their warmth sharply contrasted the bitter spring chill. The ache in her chest began to ebb, but it wasn’t gone, not completely.
There were only two boys, not three.
“Where's Bruce?” she asked, untangling from them.
“Out looking with the police,” Dick said as they walked back up to the house. “We’re supposed to stay here in case Tim comes back.”
“Tim didn’t say anything about leaving?”
“Not a word,” Jason answered as they climbed the front steps. “But he has been kinda mopey, you know, since you left.” Selina could hear accusation in his voice; she didn’t begrudge him for it. “By the way, why did you—” Dick elbowed Jason in the ribs before he could finish. For once, Selina was glad.
She didn’t have an answer to give him.
“I don’t know where he’d go,” Dick said, frowning as he shook away the hair that was forever falling in his eyes.
“Where would he even want to go?” Jason asked. “That kid hates leaving home.”
“That’s true,” Dick agreed. “The only place Tim really likes to be is here.”
They had a point.
A damn good point.
Selina froze on the top step. Both boys turned to look at her. She felt their sharp eyes, watching, waiting, but she didn't see them. Her mind was far away, the pieces snapping in place.
“Call Bruce,” she told them. “I know where he is.”
Out of breath, Selina made it down the last set of steps leading to the subway station. She paused at the bottom, brushing wild strands of hair away from her face. She surveyed the moving crowd, eyes desperate, scanning the station for a little boy with dark hair.
For her little boy with dark hair.
Hers. The thought lingered. Selina shook her head, chasing it away. Refocusing.
The station was flooded with commuters getting on and getting off the newly arrived train. They filtered around turnstiles and each other, a thick, moving wall of people. Selina strained, scanning the faces of strangers.
He has to be here, she thought.
She couldn’t have been wrong.
As the seconds ticked by, panic began to seep in, taking hold. It gripped her chest, choking her, threatened to drown. The incoherent noise of the station became unbearable, filling her head. Selina closed her eyes tight, taking a moment—a breath—before opening them again. The crowd had begun to thin, packed onto the departing train or rushing up the stairs. She scanned the clearing station.
Then she saw him. Alone on a bench across the station, his feet swinging just off the ground, watching the trains with wide eyes.
Selina could have cried right there on the spot; she settled for shouting his name across the station. Tim looked up, wide eyes growing wider at the sight of her.
In an instant, Selina was pulling Tim off the bench and to his feet. She fell to her knees in front of him, eyes scanning every inch from head to toe with frantic precision, looking for any sign of injury, for anything out of place.
There wasn’t a scratch on him.
Selina breathed a sigh of relief as she rocked back on her knees.
He was fine.
He was perfect.
It was only once she looked back at Tim’s face that Selina noticed he was crying.
“Don’t cry, kid.” She tilted his chin up. He met her eyes and cried harder. “It’s fine,” Selina tried again. “You’re fine.”
At that, Tim threw himself into her arms with such force it almost knocked her off balance. His little arms drew tight around her neck; her own wrapped around him on instinct.
“I’m sorry,” she heard him say between gaspy, hiccupping little breaths. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” Selina asked, his tears hot against her skin.
“For making you leave,” he mumbled, his head buried in the curve of her neck.
Oh, God. The weight of his words pressed hard on her lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
Of course, Tim would blame himself. He was too good to place blame where it belonged, too little to know better.
All Tim knew was he came and she left.
Selina’s hold on him tightened.
“No, baby,” she told him, shaking her head. “That wasn’t your fault,” she murmured into his hair. “That wasn’t your fault at all. You’re perfect.” She pulled him away to look him in the eyes—his impossibly blue eyes. She reached up, brushing the stray hair from his face.
“You found me,” Tim said, his tears beginning to dry.
“Of course, she did,” a voice from behind her replied. Selina froze at the sound, a chill running from her spine to her fingertips. Tim looked over her shoulder, his whole face lighting up.
Tim wiggled in her grasp. Selina let him go, eyes fixed on the spot where he’d stood. After a moment, she rose to her feet, turning in time to see Tim lifted into Bruce’s arms.
Once she saw him, Selina couldn’t take her eyes away. She studied every inch, looking for something different, something changed. He appeared casual, but that was deceptive. There was nothing casual about Bruce now; he was all tense lines and angles. His eyes were closed, brow furrowed, his chin resting down against Tim’s shoulder, holding him close, a fierceness radiating from him so strong Selina almost took a step back. Everything about him was fierce.
Fierce and protective.
The realization hit Selina so hard she skipped a breath. She knew Bruce cared about the boys, but it wasn’t until that moment Selina realized how much.
He loved them. Like she did.
Hell, maybe more.
Bruce looked up, finally meeting her eyes. The intensity in his nearly knocked the wind out of her—a bitter coldness she could feel, piercing to the bone.
Selina had seen that look once before, right after the bars had come crashing down between them, before Bane had emerged from the shadows. Before she even knew his name.
You made a serious mistake.
The words echoed so loudly in her mind he might as well have said them again.
She held his gaze, unwilling to look away. Words sat on the tip of her tongue, but they wouldn’t come. He was only a few feet away, but the space between them was vast, uncrossable. Every second stretched out longer than the last.
Bruce broke away first, focusing back on Tim.
“Are you OK?” Bruce asked, looking him over with sharp eyes. Tim nodded as Bruce set him back down on the ground. It was then Selina noticed the pair of police officers lingering nearby. After a moment, they approached. She only half listened as Bruce spoke with them, her attention staying with Tim. Tim with his bright blue eyes and serious expression. Tim, who watched the exchange above his head with such great interest, his wonderful little face scrunched, concentrating. Bruce’s hand rested, protective, on his head.
“Can we go home?” Tim asked once the officers walked away. Bruce nodded, taking his hand. He started to move toward the stairs, but the boy resisted, looking back at her.
The concern in his eyes warmed the chill left in Bruce’s wake.
“Aren’t you coming, Selina?” She didn’t answer, glancing back at Bruce. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. At her hesitation, Tim wriggled free, running back to her. He tugged at her hand, making her lean down to his level, his face serious. “He’s mad now,” Tim whispered in her ear, “but he missed you, too.”
“You sure about that, kid?” Selina asked, wiping a drying tear streak on his cheek as she let her eyes travel back up to Bruce. He remained focused on Tim, avoiding her eyes, his face hard and unreadable.
Selina glanced back down to Tim, who nodded at her question. His little fingers gripped hers as he tugged her back to where Bruce stood. Tim reached out to take Bruce’s hand again, linking them all together. Only once he was sure they were both coming with him did Tim let them head for the stairs.
Tim spent the walk home making a game of hopping over cracks and sidestepping uneven bits of pavement. He jerked Bruce and Selina from side to side with him as he jumped, never letting go of their hands. Occasionally, he’d babble about this or that, never really needing a response.
Neither Bruce nor Selina spoke.
They’d just made it up the front steps when the door swung open. The next instant, Dick was pulling Tim up off the ground in a bear hug.
The kid was getting more hugs today than he’d probably had in his entire life.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she heard Dick mutter as he set Tim down, moving away from the door to let the three of them in. Jason stood behind him, shaking his head.
“Yeah, for such a smart kid, that was real stupid,” Jason said, nudging Tim’s shoulder with his knuckles. Tim swayed with the nudge, smiling.
Selina heard Bruce step inside behind her and shut the door, but she didn't glance back, keeping her attention on the boys.
“Besides, who am I supposed to tickle if you’re not here?” Dick said. He bent down, reaching for Tim with curved fingers, ready to attack. Tim shrieked softly and hid behind Jason, who played the hero, batting Dick’s hands away.
Selina watched the three of them together, their step-ladder heights and dark hair. Their smirks and smiles and clear blue eyes. Incredibly different yet a matching set. One, two, three. Dick, Jason, Tim. They locked in place in her mind like pieces of a puzzle. Pieces that had been missing. Suddenly she found herself longing for the heat of Tim’s little hand in hers, her arms aching with the strangest urge to pull them all close, to not let them go.
She wasn’t used to this feeling—this pull. It wasn’t the same heartbreaking ache she’d felt while she was gone, but something more permanent. More tangible and real.
But something was off. The boys were here and she was with them. It should have been enough.
There was a piece missing still.
“Why don’t you three take this outside,” Bruce said, distracting the boys from their escalating play fight. They knew that tone. Without another word, Dick chased Tim out into the front yard. Jason stayed back a second, his gaze bouncing from Bruce to Selina. He made a face and shot her a quick commiserating glance before following after his brothers, slamming the door shut behind him. The sound echoed throughout the house.
The boys had taken their brightness and noise with them, leaving everything hollow.
Leaving her alone with Bruce.
For a moment they stood unmoving at the foot of the stairs, the tension between them a wire pulled taut, ready to snap.
“You should go too,” Bruce said. “I’m sure you have better places to be.”
“Guess I deserve that,” Selina replied, forcing a smirk. She let her voice fall back into its old cadence. “Would it help if I said ‘I’m sorry?’”
“Wouldn’t suit you,” Bruce replied. Her smirk faded. A heaviness settled in the middle of her chest. Her gaze drifted past him, out the window by the door, catching sight of the boys playing tag in the front yard.
“You should have called,” she said, breaking the silence. She shook her head, focusing back on Bruce. She felt the heat, quickening in her veins. “The second he went missing, you should have called.”
“Didn’t have time,” Bruce replied, his voice cold. “Besides, you made it clear we weren’t your problem anymore.”
Selina’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re angry. I get that. But—”
“This isn’t about me, Selina.”
The words he didn’t say hung in the air.
“They didn’t need me.”
“You can’t honestly think that,” Bruce replied. Selina just stared back. She watched his lips part, wordless, watched the hardness fade from his face. A flash of realization. He tilted his head, a question lingering in his eyes. She looked away. The tension between them began to ebb.
“They were fine,” she said, her voice echoing hollow in her ears. “They had you.”
“I’m not enough,” Bruce replied. She met his eyes. The anger she’d seen behind them at the subway station was gone, replaced by something else, something different.
“Why are you here?” His voice was even, detached. Unnerving.
“—is why you came back, yes,” Bruce interrupted. “That doesn’t answer my question. Why are you here?”
“I...” Selina searched for an answer.
“Because if this isn’t want you want, maybe you should leave.” There was no malice in his words, only honesty.
Flat, painful honesty.
It wasn’t what Selina had expected.
Nothing about Bruce was ever what she expected.
Avoiding his gaze, she looked back out the window. Outside, Dick was scaling up the tall wrought iron fence. Selina watched him balance on top of it, arms outstretched, walking along the thin metal with all the grace of a cat.
Bruce took a small step toward her. She could feel his eyes on her, waiting, intense.
“What do you want, Selina?”
This, the answer came, automatic. Realization hit her square in the chest. Her vision blurred, unfocused as she continued to watch the boys playing outside.
She wanted this. She wanted to be here. She wanted a lifetime of dark, messy hair, of sticky hands and tickle fights. She wanted to referee their wrestling matches and listen to the soft sounds of their breathing as they slept. She wanted everything she’d had, everything she’d missed. She wanted this ache to go away.
She looked back, meeting Bruce’s eyes.
She wanted his skin against hers, she wanted tangled limbs and lazy mornings in bed. She wanted that half-smile and the arms that wrapped around her at night. She wanted the challenge that lingered behind his eyes, daring her to be more. Believing she could be more.
She wanted him.
Selina’s lips parted, but before she could answer, the long silence between them was broken by the sound of their names, by a pair of voices shouting. Frightened voices. Every panicked thought racing through her mind was mirrored in Bruce’s eyes.
The voices were Dick and Tim’s.
She didn’t hear Jason at all.
Chapter 15: 5 hours, 23 minutes
Selina sat on a hard waiting-room chair with a clipboard in her lap, filling out paperwork she only had half the answers to. Her fingers were numb; she tugged her sweater tighter. Even wearing double layers, the room felt damn-near freezing.
Hospitals were always freezing.
The room was a carbon copy of all the waiting rooms Selina had ever been in, except it was clean and empty.
Dick and Tim sat together a few chairs over. Bruce paced slowly back and forth across the floor like something caged.
And Jason was lying unconscious somewhere past those large double doors.
Selina had known what had happened before Dick told them. She’d known before they’d made it outside.
Jason had tried to climb the fence and fell.
This wasn’t new. The boys were always falling, bumping heads, getting hurt. Hurting each other. It came with the territory and Selina had long gotten used to it. But the second she’d heard Dick and Tim yell she’d known this time was different. It hadn’t been a high fall, but it’d been enough and Jason had been out cold since.
They couldn’t judge the severity of his injuries until they ran some tests, the admitting doctor had said. Or until he woke up.
If he woke up, she’d added to herself.
“We have to wait and see,” the doctor had said.
Bullshit. Selina shook her head, focusing back on the task at hand.
Name. Age. Birth date. Blood type.
A real parent would know that.
She didn’t even know hers.
“AB Positive.” Selina almost jumped at the sound of Bruce’s voice, not realizing he’d stopped pacing to linger by her chair. She glanced at him; he nodded toward the half-filled form.
Of course, Bruce knew Jason’s blood type. He probably knew hers, too. And Dick’s and Tim’s. In all likelihood, he had whole files someplace, detailing every important fact and figure on all of them, in case of emergency. Then he’d no doubt committed it all to memory like an obsessive-compulsive boy scout.
Selina frowned, nodding absently. She went to write it down, but her hands shook. She glared at them. This was ridiculous; her hands never shook. Stupid, useless things. She pursed her lips together as she gripped the pen harder, focusing on the next line.
Damn. Selina didn’t know that one either.
“What the hell is he allergic to?” she muttered under her breath. The words in front of her began to swim, blurry and jumbled together. After a moment, she felt the clipboard lifted from her hands. She let it go without a fight, vaguely aware of Bruce settling into the chair next to hers, taking the paperwork and continuing where she’d let off. She turned her attention to the front desk and found herself glaring at the woman in scrubs behind it.
This is taking too damn long.
As the minutes ticked by, her gaze flicked between the front desk, the clock on the wall and the two boys a few chairs over. Dick was leaned back in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him. In the seat next to his, Tim sat up on his knees, leaning over the armrest to look at the old kid’s magazine Dick flipped through. Every so often, Dick would point to a picture or puzzle, making a comment or telling a story, keeping Tim interested. Keeping him occupied.
Her nails clicked incessantly against the metal armrest, the noise echoing loud throughout the otherwise quiet room. She looked to the clock again. Then the doors. Then the Admit desk. Back to the clock. Something warm pressed against her hand, stilling it. The clicking stopped; the room went quiet again.
Selina looked over to see Bruce’s hand on top of hers. She froze, glancing over at him. Bruce didn’t look up, still filling out the forms. He must have felt her eyes on him because after a second, he stop writing, glancing at their hands. He frowned, puzzled, before pulling away.
Her fidgeting hands relocated to her lap.
The double doors opened, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. Selina found herself standing before she realized it. Bruce did the same.
“Are you the parents?”
“Yes.” Bruce’s voice echoed hers.
“We’re taking him for an MRI, if you’d like to observe.” Bruce glanced over at Dick and Tim.
“We’ll be fine,” Dick answered Bruce’s unspoken question, his face serious. Bruce nodded at him once before heading after the nurse. After a quick glance back at Dick and Tim, Selina followed.
They were led through a maze of bright white halls and shiny linoleum floors, all scrubbed and antiseptic. The muffled sounds of patients and staff echoed behind doors and down the long corridors they passed. The nurse showed them into a room, small and dimly lit, a large glass window separating it from the larger, brighter room beyond, one that held the large, rounded MRI machine.
“You can watch from here,” the nurse said before turning to leave. They watched in silence through the glass as Jason was wheeled into the room and lifted onto the machine bed by a pair of orderlies. The machine hummed to life as Jason half-disappeared inside it.
“I hate this,” Selina said, breaking the stillness of the room. Bruce nodded but didn’t comment. In the adjoining room, the machine hummed and buzzed, audible through the glass; it filled her head, made it hard to think. The minutes stretched.
“I was on my way back.” Her eyes never left the white MRI machine. Bruce didn’t make a sound. “Before they called,” Selina continued. “I was coming back.”
“I wouldn’t have blamed you, if you didn’t.”
Selina snickered softly.
“Now that I don’t believe.”
“You didn’t want this,” Bruce replied. There was no edge to his voice, only realization.
And maybe a touch of remorse.
“No,” she replied. “I didn’t.”
But I do now. Selina looked back into the other room, back at the big white machine Jason was inside, his smirking lips unmoving, those gleaming, mischievous eyes closed.
Her breath caught in her throat. There was an ache in the center of her chest she couldn’t shake. Suddenly, there was not enough air in the room.
There wasn’t enough air on the planet.
Without another word, she turned and left.
Selina closed her eyes, letting the cool wind soothe her burning face. The sounds of the city were muffled from the roof, muffled and far away. She opened her eyes again, staring up at the dark, endless sky. She breathed in deep, taking in the fresh air.
Then again, because she needed it.
By the third breath, Selina realized this had nothing to do with air.
An unbearable weight sat heavy on her chest. She turned her back on the hazy skyline and let herself slide down the short outer wall to the roof floor. Her breath became ragged and uneven; she held it a moment, trying to keep it steady.
Pull it together, Selina.
But she couldn't. Jason was lying unconscious downstairs and she couldn’t do anything about it.
Selina pulled her knees close to her chest, resting her arms across them. Tension kept the muscles in her shoulders tight; a steady pressure built behind her eyes, spreading across her forehead. She grit her teeth against it, trying to will it away, but she couldn’t. The last three hours had worn her to the breaking point.
Correction, the last three days.
Longer still. The last three years.
This was never supposed to happen. This was what her walls were for. Protection from crippling feelings and useless emotions. And they’d worked.
Until they brought her walls down.
It had happened so gradually Selina never saw it coming. She’d spent years pretending—insisting—she was the same as she’d always been. But she wasn’t. Not since leaving Gotham. Not since that night in the sewers. Not since she’d taken the Daggett job.
Selina rested her forehead against her folded arms, closed her eyes and gave up. She didn’t make a sound as the tears she couldn’t fight anymore ran hot, erratic. Selina just let them come.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed before she heard the roof door creak open, the sound of approaching footsteps.
Hastily rubbing her eyes with the sleeve of her sweater, Selina sat up again, straightening her back against the low wall. She stretched her legs out in front of her and forced her breathing back to normal. She didn’t have to look up to know who it was.
She wasn’t the only one with a thing for rooftops.
“Needed air,” she said as she heard Bruce approach, shaking her head clear and rubbing the last traces of her breakdown from her cheeks with her fingertips. “Jason?”
“The nurse said it’d be another half hour,” Bruce replied, his voice steady, even. “Then they’ll move him to a room for observation.”
“Observation,” Selina repeated. Horrible word. The unbearable thought that’d been plaguing her for hours came bubbling to the surface. She looked at him at last. “Bruce, what if he doesn’t—”
“What makes you so sure?” Selina asked, climbing to her feet. She brushed the dirt and grit from her clothes. The tension behind her eyes lingered; she fought against it, looking over at Bruce again, waiting for his answer. A sad smile graced his lips.
“Do you really think he’d let Dick win?”
Selina stared at him, feeling her face go slack. A chuckle she couldn’t stop escaped her lips. Then another. Before she knew it, she was leaning over, laughing, soft at first, then harder, her hand covering half her face.
She stood there laughing until she wasn’t.
What’s the matter with me? Selina thought, feeling her face tighten as the tears she couldn’t stop flooded back and peals of laughter gave way to ragged sobs. She hated herself for this, for crying in front of him. For laughing like a crazy person. For breaking down into tears, damn-near hysterical.
This is ridiculous.
Selina swallowed hard, pushing it all back down again. The delicate skin around her eyes burned from being rubbed too hard, too much. Bruce took a step toward her.
“Don’t,” Selina warned, her voice unsteady as she took her own step back.
Of course, Bruce didn’t listen.
The man needed his damn hearing checked.
“I don’t need you to comfort me, damn it,” Selina mumbled even as she let herself lean against his chest.
“Don’t be selfish,” Bruce teased. She felt the words, could hear the smirk. “Maybe I need you to comfort me.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Selina huffed, frustrated and acutely aware of the strong arms that wrapped around her, of the steady warmth of his body and the familiar way he smelled.
It was comforting.
Damn it. She could feel herself glaring. Not that he could see it.
With a sigh, Selina gave up. Closing her eyes, she listened to the far-away sounds of the city traffic and his much closer heartbeat. Both were steady, endless.
After a moment, Selina untangled herself from his arms. She stepped back, putting distance between them again. His gaze traveled over her face. She turned away from it, eyes settling back on the hazy skyline. There was a steady breeze this high up; she pulled her arms to her chest against the chill. The pressure behind her eyes had dissipated. Her head felt clear. She felt in control again.
As in control as she could feel tonight.
Bruce came over to the edge next to her, almost close enough to touch but not quite. He leaned against the short wall beside her and looked out. They spent an endless minute in silence, sharing the view.
“I’m not any good at this,” she said. “This whole...parenting thing.”
“Better than I am.”
She jerked her head, looking back over at him.
“You’re joking,” Selina blurted before she could stop herself. Bruce shook his head.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with them either, Selina,” he said, his eyes dark and serious.
“You had me fooled.”
“I can’t keep them from running away or getting lost,” Bruce continued. “Or getting hurt.” He looked down to the street below, his voice far away. “I never know if I’m saying the right things or doing the right things, it’s...”
“Terrifying,” Selina finished, watching his face.
“Terrifying,” Bruce repeated, nodding.
“Then why?” she asked, shaking her head. “Why sign up for this?” Bruce shrugged. He looked back at her.
“Because it’s also worth it.”
She turned his words over in her head. There was clarity in them. In that moment, Selina realized all the changes she’d made, all the messy, complicated, conflicting emotions, every headache and doubt and crippling insecurity, had been worth it.
They were worth it.
“We should head back,” she said, taking a final steadying breath. Bruce nodded. Selina turned, heading toward the door, the solid sound of Bruce’s footsteps keeping pace behind her.
On the way back, she and Bruce stopped at the nurse’s desk to check on Jason. With no new information, they continued down the hall to the waiting room. Before turning the final corner, Selina paused, putting up a hand. Bruce stopped. Selina brought a finger to her lips, listening to the voices from beyond the hall.
“Don’t worry, Tim,” she heard Dick say.
“But are you sure she’ll stay?” Tim asked, his voice small.
“Yes,” Dick replied.
“Because she loves us.”
Selina smiled, staring unfocused down the hall.
“How do you know?” Tim asked.
“Same way I know Bruce does,” Dick said. Selina glanced over at Bruce, seeing the slightest upturn at the corner of his lips. “I just know.”
“But they never say it.”
“They’re not good at saying things, buddy,” Dick said.
“That’s silly,” Tim said.
“You’re telling me,” Dick replied. Selina rolled her eyes, watching Bruce silently chuckle in response. “But trust me, they do. If you look hard enough, you can tell.”
“Really?” She could hear the hope in Tim’s voice. It ached bittersweet.
Selina shook her head and turned the corner, Bruce following close behind. Both boys looked up as they entered, their eyes wide and waiting. Selina fell into the chair beside Dick’s, nudging him with her shoulder.
“Any news?” he asked, his gaze jumping from Selina to Bruce. Bruce shook his head as he took a seat across from them.
“Not yet,” Selina answered, watching Dick’s face fall. He sighed as he leaned over, his weight warm against her arm. On his other side, Tim crawled down from his seat without a word, coming to stand in front of Selina. He didn’t say anything, he just stared at her, his little face intent, eyes squinting. Looking for something. Selina had to work to keep a straight face.
This kid is too damn literal, she thought, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. They were going to have to do something about that; it didn’t mesh with her sarcasm at all.
On impulse, Selina leaned over and pulled Tim to her, planting a quick kiss on his cheek before letting him go again. Tim scrunched his shoulders, smiling, his eyes bright. Selina noticed Bruce’s watching her, eyebrows slightly raised, a hint of amusement on his face. She shrugged, a smirk tugging at the corners of her lips.
Apparently satisfied, Tim turned to Bruce. Selina couldn’t see the boy’s face, but she watched Bruce’s, which held a mix of amusement and fake seriousness. Bruce leaned over, staring back at Tim with the same intensity Tim had given her. After a long moment, Bruce’s steady gaze cracked and he smiled softly. Leaning back again, Bruce patted the chair next to his. Tim scrambled up beside him, a content little smile on his face. Selina shook her head.
One kid down. She glanced back over at Dick, who was all serious lines and frowns. He let out a heavy sigh.
“What is it?” Selina asked.
“This is all my fault,” Dick muttered. His head was down, but Selina could still see the guilt etched across his face. “If I hadn’t dared Jason to climb the fence—”
“He would have done it anyway,” Selina interrupted, “just to prove he could.”
“Yeah, but I—”
“Dick,” Selina said, waiting for him tilt his head toward her. She stared straight into those sky-blue eyes. “Hush.” Reaching over, she pushed some of his messy hair out of his face, watching him smile softly. She could still see the guilt, weighing that smile down.
A loud creak pulled her attention to the double doors; all four heads turned. At the sight of Jason’s doctor, they stood. Tim climbed on top of his chair for a better view.
“He’s settled in the ICU for observation. You can see him now.” Selina watched Tim tug on Bruce’s sleeve. Without hesitation, Bruce picked him up and started for the door. The doctor held up a hand. “I’m sorry, no children in the ICU.”
Bruce walked past him. Selina suppressed a smirk as she and Dick passed by as well; she didn’t bother glancing back.
“Is Jason sleeping?” Tim asked, his head resting against Bruce’s shoulder. Selina glanced over at him. The kid was barely keeping his eyes open.
“Kind of,” Bruce told him. The hum of the monitoring machines and dimmed fluorescents filled the room with white noise and dull light. On the other side of Jason’s bed, Dick stood, looking at the younger boy, his brow furrowed. Selina wasn’t used to seeing Dick this serious.
“When’s he gonna wake up?” Tim asked as Bruce set him on the empty hospital bed next to Jason’s.
“We don’t know,” Bruce replied, sharing a look with Selina. There was some minor swelling, the doctor had explained to them, but no threat of a bleed or an increase in intracranial pressure. Whatever that meant, Selina had gotten the gist; Jason was out of immediate danger. He remained unconscious, most likely due to the swelling, but, of course, they couldn't be sure.
It didn’t seem like the doctors were sure of anything.
Modern medicine, my ass.
“Is he gonna wake up?” Tim asked, settling his head against the pillow.
“Of course he will,” Dick answered before Selina or Bruce had a chance. He climbed onto the spare bed next to Tim, scooting the half-asleep little boy over to stretch out himself. “Jason’s tough.” Dick stifled a yawn.
“Yeah,” Tim repeated. “Jason’s tough.”
You heard ‘em, kid, Selina thought, inching closer to Jason’s bed, her eyes focused on his still face. You’re tough. Wake up.
Of course, he didn’t.
Stubborn brat. Selina pursed her lips together and sighed, settling into the chair next to Jason’s bed, watching as Bruce grabbed an empty chair and brought it over to Jason’s side of the room. He set it against the wall across from the bed and sat.
And they waited.
It didn’t take long for Dick and Tim to fall asleep. They were exhausted.
So was she.
But sleep was the furthest thing from her mind. Her body wouldn’t let her, even if she’d wanted to. She glanced at Bruce; he didn’t look tired but tense. On edge. She could tell by the way he sat, by the harsh lines of his face. He was everything steady and vigilant.
Every hour or so Jason’s nurse came in to check on him. The first time, she’d eyed the pair of sleeping boys on the other bed but said nothing. The second, she’d come in with an extra blanket.
Another hour passed. Selina grew restless. She stood. She paced. She sat. She stood again. She paced more. At one point, she wandered over to Dick and Tim and threw the extra blanket over them, letting her eyes linger over their sleep-smoothed features for a moment before glancing back at Jason.
She still wasn’t sure when that had happened, but somewhere between Alfred’s living room and now, she’d accepted it as fact. That’s what they were, hers. As naturally as her block of the East End had been hers. Hers to look out for. Hers to protect.
Tired of pacing, she settled into her chair again, stifling a yawn. A few minutes later, Bruce, who’d remained still as a statue most of the night, rose from his seat and disappeared from room. He came back with two cups of coffee in hand, handing her one of them without a word. She tilted her head, watching his face as he took a sip.
“You hate coffee.”
“It has its uses,” he replied.
The coffee was horrendous, but the jolt of caffeine was welcomed. She held the warm cup in both hands, caffeine humming to her fingertips.
Selina stopped paying attention to the clock.
After a while, she found herself leaning over to rest her head against the edge of the bed. She watched the slow, constant up and down of Jason’s chest with tired eyes. For a moment, she let her eyes rest. Selina didn’t realize she’d started to fall asleep until a stirring in the room caught her attention. Lifting her head, she saw that Bruce had risen from his seat and had wandered over to the other side of Jason’s bed.
Selina sat up, fully awake now, watching Bruce as he studied the beeping screens with sharp eyes. He didn’t seem to notice her, too preoccupied, his critical gaze traveling from the IV attached to the back of Jason’s hand to the emptying bag on its metal stand. He reached over to brush a few stray strands of hair away from the boy’s forehead, briefly placing his hand against it. After a moment, his fingers came to rest against side of Jason’s neck. Selina watched Bruce close his eyes. His brow furrowed and he took in a slow, steadying breath. It took her a moment to realize what he was doing.
He was checking Jason’s pulse.
Not trusting the machines or the doctors, Bruce needed to feel the rhythm of Jason’s heart with his own hands.
Selina felt her own pulse hammer harder, echoing loud in her ears as the last piece clicked.
She was in love with him.
Why are you here?
Bruce’s question from that afternoon echoed in her mind. Even then, she’d understood why he’d asked it. There’d always been a million reasons for her to leave.
This was the reason she’d stayed.
She was in love with Bruce Wayne.
When the hell did that happen?
Bruce looked up, realizing she was watching. The worried lines on his face softened as their eyes met. He held her gaze a second before looking away, leaning over to pull the blanket a little higher across Jason’s chest before heading back to his chair. Her eyes followed him a moment before focusing back on Jason.
One thing at a time.
Come on, kid, she thought, as if thinking could make it so. Wake up.
Jason didn’t stir. Selina sighed and bent her head down, running fingers through her hair before resting her head in her hands. Her eyes had just begun to close again when she heard a soft groan coming from the bed.
Followed by a string of obscenities.
“Ow, ow, fuckity ow.” Selina raised her head to see Jason’s face scrunched, his eyes narrow but open. “Shit, this hurts.”
Selina let out the breath that had been trapped in her lungs for hours.
“Hey,” Selina said, her voice less steady than she’d have liked. She reached for his hand, rubbing it out of reflex, warming his icy fingers. “About time you woke up.” Jason tilted his head to look at her, recognition shining in his eyes.
“Ow,” he muttered, frowning.
“I know,” Selina said, glancing over at Bruce. He stood at the end of the bed, watching, all the relief she felt evident in his face. Nodding once, Bruce turned and left the room. Selina looked back at Jason. He was groggy and disoriented.
And absolutely wonderful.
“You scared the shit out of me, kid.” She sighed, the tension that had been carved into her muscles beginning to evaporate, leaving her shaky, weak.
“You swore.” Beyond the pain, a mischievous glimmer sparkled in Jason’s eyes. “I’m telling.”
“Go ahead,” Selina countered. “So did you.” She caught a flash of that trademark smirk before pain clouded Jason’s features again.
“This hurts, S,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “This really, really hurts.”
“I know it does.” And it did hurt. Selina didn’t have a scratch on her, but at this moment, she hurt worse than she’d ever hurt in her life.
Bruce reentered the room, the nurse in tow. There was a cautious smile on his face, barely visible. Selina went to move, to give the nurse room to work, but Jason’s hand held fast to hers.
“Don’t,” he said, his eyes wider now. His grip on her hand tightened. Selina looked straight into those blue-green eyes. She leaned over, brushing the stray hair away with her free hand.
“Don’t worry, baby,” Selina said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“How long was I out?” Jason asked an hour or so later, after the painkillers started to kick in and he was, more or less, himself again.
“Five hours, twenty-three minutes,” Bruce replied. Jason let out a low whistle before turning to Selina.
“You were right, you know,” Jason told her, his voice groggy and dry.
“Dick is an acrobatic freak of nature and I should never, ever try to be like him.”
Across the room, Bruce snorted.
“I am rather amazing, aren’t I?” said Dick, who was wide awake and sitting, scrunched up and cross-legged in the empty space at the foot of Jason’s bed.
“Yeah, the way a two-headed dog is amazing,” Jason replied. Selina could tell the pain meds were making him drowsy, but he was still coherent enough for sarcasm. “You’re freakish and unnatural.”
“Those are fightin’ words, brother,” Dick said, grinning. “Just wait until you’re better.”
“Please, I could take you.”
“Is that right?”
“Any day of the week, oh golden one,” Jason said. Selina rubbed her tired face, suppressing a smile.
“Are there really two-headed dogs?” Tim asked, his voice sleepy. Selina looked over where he sat with Bruce. He’d woken up not long after Dick and was now rubbing his eyes, trying his best to stay awake in the midst of all the excitement.
“Not to my knowledge, Tim,” Bruce answered. “And you two,” he said louder. “No roughhousing until Jason’s healed. No exceptions.”
“But, B, I could totally take him,” Jason said. Bruce leveled at look at him. “OK, OK. Dial it back. I got it.” Bruce smirked, shaking his head as he shared the briefest of glances with Selina.
Dick and Jason continued their banter. Selina watched Jason’s eyes grow heavier with each passing second. She rubbed at her own eyes, stifling a yawn. It had to be well past midnight, but Selina couldn’t bring herself to look at the clock. It felt like she hadn’t slept in weeks. Every single muscle in her body ached. Between this and Tim and Bruce, and, well, everything, Selina was exhausted.
Two crises in one day were just about more than she could handle.
“No one move,” she muttered, almost to herself. “Especially you, Dick.”
“What’d I do?” Dick asked. She could hear the smile in his voice.
Selina smirked but didn't answer. She folded her arms down on the side of Jason’s bed, leaning over to rest her head against them. After a moment, she felt Jason’s fingers playing idly with her hair. He’d grown quiet, but Selina could still hear Dick rambling on, telling Jason about the ambulance and the doctors and everything that had happened while he was out, making it all sound so much more exciting and so much less terrifying than it actually had been.
The kid had a gift.
Selina sighed, glancing over with half-closed eyes at Tim, safe in Bruce’s arms, his head heavy as he drifted back to sleep. She looked at Bruce, meeting his eyes. He stared back, calm but alert. Focused. Watchful.
Watching over people. Protecting them. This was what Bruce was best at.
Selina let her eyes close, listening to the hum of machines, to their steady breathing and mumbling voices. She could still feel Bruce’s eyes on her, but the feeling wasn’t heavy or intrusive anymore.
He could have gone anywhere, Selina thought, her own words coming back to her as she began to drift. Been anyone.
But here he was, watching over them.
She felt herself smirk.
I should be so lucky.
“But I’m going to be so bored, all alone in my room,” Jason said.
That didn’t take long. Selina never thought she’d be so happy to hear the kid complain; he almost sounded like himself again.
Jason had been released from the hospital the following night with a lingering headache, a sprained wrist and the strict instructions to be kept on bed rest for several days to avoid a secondary concussion. He was taking all the aches and pains like a champ; it was the mandatory bed rest part Jason wasn’t a fan of.
A fact he’d been pretty vocal about. The entire way home.
Bruce’s solution to Jason’s problem was simple. Elegant, really.
He gave all three boys their bed.
Selina stood in the doorway of the master bedroom, watching Dick and Tim climb into bed on either side of Jason. The lamp on the nightstand gave the room a yellow, hazy glow.
“You’ll have plenty of company now,” Bruce said.
“This is the best you can do, boss?” Jason asked with a smirk, tilting his head toward Dick. With a grin, Dick reached over and pinched Jason’s arm. “Ow, hey, I’m trying to recover here.”
Bruce leveled Dick a warning look, but it wasn’t needed. Ever since Jason woke up in the hospital, an unspoken truce had been called between him and Dick. Stray pinches and nudges aside, they’d been alarmingly sweet with each other.
It was touching. It was off-putting. Selina didn’t expect it to last.
Bruce turned to leave; he’d only taken a couple of steps before Tim called out to him.
“Can you tell us a story?”
It was an unusual request; Tim had never asked either of them for a story before. None of the boys had. Bruce glanced over at Selina. She shrugged, enjoying the bewildered look on his face. He turned around again.
“I...” Bruce said, trailing off; she could hear traces of bemusement in his voice. Then he shrugged. “I don’t know any.”
“That’s not true,” Dick said, shaking his head. “What about the time you climbed a mountain? They haven’t heard that one.”
“A mountain?” Jason asked. “Where?”
“When?” Tim asked.
“Was this before or after you went to prison?”
“Prison? ” Dick said, turning to Jason. Tim’s eyes went wide. From the doorway, Selina snickered.
“But why did you climb a mountain?” Tim asked Bruce.
“To get to the top,” Bruce replied.
Jason snorted. Tim crossed his arms. Dick rolled his eyes.
“You can do better than that, Bruce,” Dick said. “Tell them about the ninjas.”
“There were ninjas? ”
“On the mountain? ”
“There are mountain ninjas? ”
Bruce held up a hand. The boys quieted down as Bruce settled on the edge of the bed.
“It was a long time ago,” he began. Something had changed in his voice; it was steady but far away. The boys’ were hooked by it; they stared at him with captivated eyes. “I was lost, far from home.” Selina found herself leaning against the doorframe, watching their faces in the dim light. “Then a man came and offered me a path.”
Bruce was halfway up the mountain when Selina headed back downstairs. Tim had fallen asleep before she’d left, and if their tired faces were any indication, it wouldn’t be long before Dick and Jason joined him.
All three, home and safe and asleep in a room above her.
Everything as it should be.
Selina frowned, pushing the most complicated of her current problems to the back of her mind, turning her thoughts outward to the disaster area that was once her family room.
Gone three days and the place looked like a tornado hit.
With anxious hands and nothing else to do, Selina began straightening, gathering random bits of laundry flung over furniture, the scattered, broken crayons and matchbox cars that littered the floor. She collected old cereal bowls and half-full cups from the coffee table, refolded the throw blanket and nudged the askew couch back into place. She paced and straightened until it began to look like a livable room again.
If only everything was so easy.
“What is it?” Selina let out a gasp before she could stop herself, turning abruptly to the source of the sound. She was met with a half-smirk and dark, smiling eyes, less than a foot away.
Very few people could sneak up on her like that.
“Damn it,” she blurted. “Stop doing that.”
“Doing what?” Bruce asked as he sat down on the arm of the couch, the picture of innocence.
“Lurking,” Selina replied.
“I don’t lurk.” Selina shot him a look. “Fine, I lurk,” he conceded with shrug, a soft smile on his lips. He looked up at her. She held his eyes for a moment before looking away, focusing on arranging throw pillows.
Pillows made sense.
“Down for the count?” she asked. Bruce made a soft, affirmative sound in reply. “I hope you stopped your little story before the part with capes and clowns.” She reached for a stray sock, tossing it over with the rest of the collected laundry, piled high on a chair.
“They were asleep before I finished training,” he replied.
“Just so we’re clear, you’re not planning on telling them about your ‘powerful friend’ any time soon, right?” Selina asked.
“Hadn’t planned to, no.”
“Good,” she said. “Because if somewhere down the line they decided it was OK to play dress-up and fight crime, you and I would have a serious problem.”
“I imagine we would.”
“The kind where I kick your ass all the way back to Gotham.”
“Fully understood.” His face was serious, but the crinkle at the corner of his eyes gave him away.
“Good,” Selina repeated as she looked away. The light atmosphere brought on by their playful banter faded, leaving a lingering silence. Selina avoided his eyes, looking around the room.
There was nothing else to do.
“So,” she said.
“So,” he echoed.
“I figured I’d crash on one of their beds tonight,” Selina said. “But, if you’d rather I leave—”
“No,” Bruce cut her off. She jerked her head up at the abruptness. “Unless you want to,” he amended, softer.
Selina shook her head.
“Then we'll figure it out,” Bruce said. Selina raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue. “They need you,” he explained. “You and I...” he paused, searching for the words. “We don’t have to be together for you to stay.”
“God, you’re an idiot,” Selina muttered. She crossed the space between them before he had a chance to react, leaning in, pulling his face up to meet hers in a single, swift motion.
It was a long moment before she let him up for air.
“Shut up.” She leaned back, glaring at him. “You're an idiot,” she repeated, her eyes wandering over his face, the line of his jaw, the curve of his lips.
“OK,” he agreed.
“You are also a control freak, pain in the ass.”
“Yes, I am,” he replied, his eyes heavy. He moved closer, but she stopped him, hands flat against his shoulders.
“Don’t just agree with me to get back to the kissing.”
“I’m agreeing with you because you’re right,” he said, smirking. “Pray continue, Ms. Kyle.”
“You're a know-it-all.” Selina tried to keep her face stern, but it cracked in places, betraying her. “It’s obnoxious.”
“That’s very true.”
“You are almost impossible to live with.”
“Noted,” Bruce said. “Anything else?”
I’m in love with you.
“Did I mention the smug, arrogant bastard thing?” she asked. Bruce shook his head, amused. His fingers were soft against the skin of her neck.
“I’ll work on it,” he said. His lips pressed against hers, insistent. She weaved her fingers through his hair, pulling him closer.
She wasn’t drifting anymore.
“This is all your fault, you know,” she grumbled when they broke apart, her complaint halfhearted at best.
“I’m not sorry,” Bruce teased back. “Not for that, at least,” he added, softer, more serious. His smile had faded; he traced the curve of her face with his fingertip, lost in thought.
It was enough.
“You’re just going to have find a way to make it up to me,” she said, pulling him back to her. After a moment, Bruce responded, deepening the kiss. She let her hands wander up the back of his shirt, her fingernails trailing across his lower back. His breath hitched at the contact.
They broke away, breathing uneven. She rested her forehead against his before leaning back, meeting his eyes; they’d darkened, intensified. After an endless second, a smirk played on her lips. With one hard shove, Selina pushed him back onto the couch.
“Still rusty?” she asked as she straddled his waist, pinning him down. Bruce shook his head; she caught traces of a smirk on his lips. Steady hands skimmed her thighs, gripped her hips.
“I take it back,” he replied, his smirk softening to a smile. Selina hummed in approval as she traced the line of his jaw, day-old stubble rough against her fingertip.
“I like the sound of that,” she said, leaning closer; he met her halfway, reaching up to cup her face with one hand, running the pad of his thumb down her cheek, across her lips. It lingered there; she pressed a kiss against it, caught in the intensity of his eyes.
That look. Selina knew it, recognized it now.
She smiled, bringing her lips back down to his, her focus narrowing until there was only him.
The next morning, Selina woke uncomfortably warm with a small hand patting her cheek.
“Jason wants eggs.”
“Good morning to you too, Tim,” she mumbled, opening her eyes to see Tim’s very awake little face staring back at her.
“Morning!” Tim replied before repeating, “Jason wants eggs.”
“Yeah, you said that.” Selina yawned, squinting her eyes, her muscles stiffer than normal.
The couch, right.
This wasn’t the first time she’d fallen asleep on the couch, but this was different. The pillow under her head was rigid.
Wait, not a pillow, she realized, glancing down to see Bruce’s arm under her head. His body was wrapped heavy around hers, one arm flung over her waist, utterly still except for his breathing.
He was also naked.
Then again, so was she.
This is not exactly responsible, parent-like behavior, Selina.
At least Bruce had the forethought to pull the blanket over them.
“So what are you, his messenger boy?” she asked Tim, pulling the blanket a bit closer. Tim didn’t seem to notice anything amiss; he nodded happily. Selina shook her head. “Well, message received.” The boy grinned at her before running off. She listened for the sound of his footsteps on the stairs before sitting up.
Or, at least, trying to sit up.
The man had arms like a vice.
Selina wiggled, turning over to look up at Bruce, who was doing a rather poor job of pretending to be asleep. She freed one of her hands and shoved his shoulder.
“Ow,” he muttered.
“I take it you heard the breakfast order,” she said. Bruce nodded, never opening his eyes. His grip loosened as he shifted them both on the couch, keeping her from falling off as he stretched out the arm she’d been laying across and flexed his fingers. She sighed, her head coming down to rest on his chest. “Jason’s going to milk this, isn’t he?” she asked.
“For everything it’s worth, yes,” Bruce replied.
“How long is he on bed rest?”
“A week.” Selina groaned as she moved to get up again. Bruce’s arms held fast. She glanced back at him; his eyes were still closed, a ghost of a smile on his lips.
“They won’t starve,” he mumbled, his voice still heavy with sleep. He pulled her closer. “Five more minutes.”
“You’re awfully friendly this morning,” Selina said, feeling Bruce’s arms wrap around her waist. She smirked even as she kept her eyes on the half-cooked scrambled eggs and crisping bacon on the stove in front of her.
“Do you object?” he asked, his breath warm against her neck, body warm from the shower. She could smell the faintest traces of shaving cream on his skin. Selina found herself leaning back, breathing in deep.
“Now I didn’t say that,” she replied, setting down the spatula and turning in his arms. She caught a faint smile on his lips before his head dipped down to hers. This time, the kiss was slow, patient. There was none of the frantic need of the night before; he lingered, unhurried. As if there weren’t eggs burning on the stove and three hungry boys upstairs. As if this was the only thing he had to do for the rest of the day.
As if he could stand there and kiss her for the rest of his life.
Selina felt a gentle tug on the back of her shirt. She glanced down to see Tim staring up at them, a wide grin on his face.
“Jason wants bacon too,” he said without preamble. “And Dick asked for an orange.” Selina sighed as a smile pulled at the corners of her lips.
“Tim,” Bruce said as they untangled. “You know you don’t have to run messages for them.”
“I know,” Tim replied. “I like it.” He raced back out of the kitchen.
“That kid,” Selina muttered, shaking her head as she turned back to the stove. She could picture Dick and Jason upstairs waiting for him, with disheveled hair and sleepy faces, the bed all but torn apart after a night of three boys kicking off sheets and drooling on pillows.
“We have three sons,” she said.
“Yes, we do.”
“When did that happen?”
“Florence, two years ago,” Bruce replied as he reached over to steal a piece of bacon. “Then Paris, seven months after that. And Cairo, about five months back.”
Upstairs, they found all three boys in bed, propped up on pillows against the headboard, Jason smack dab in the middle. They barely looked up as she and Bruce entered the room, eyes glued to the TV Dick had, at some point, dragged from his room into theirs. He’d even set up his game system.
At this rate, they would never get their bedroom back.
Selina looked over Jason with critical eyes as she gave him his pain medication. In spite of all the bruises and cuts from his fall, the wrap around his wrist and the complaints of a headache, Jason seemed perfectly fine. Out of danger. No reason to worry about him.
Selina worried about him anyway.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Jason told her as he reached for one of the plates on the tray in front them, balancing it on his lap. “I was getting tired of cereal.”
Selina snickered, glancing over to where Bruce stood in the doorway.
“I made those grilled cheese sandwiches,” Bruce said.
“Yeah,” Jason replied around a mouthful of eggs. “No offense, B, but those were pretty awful. I gave most of mine to Dick.” Bruce turned to Dick, who shrugged as he reached for his own plate.
“I eat fast,” Dick said, inhaling his orange slices.
“Tim?” Bruce asked. The boy scrunched his nose.
“I’m very glad Selina’s back,” Tim answered.
“Everyone’s a critic,” Bruce muttered, rolling his eyes.
“You are back, right?” Dick asked her, his forehead wrinkling. Selina looked over at him; his face was serious. She nodded, settling down on the edge of the bed next to Tim.
“For good?” Jason pressed, raising an eyebrow.
“For good,” she replied.
“And you’re sure?” Tim asked. Selina reached over, placing a hand on the top of Tim’s head, leaning in close enough for their foreheads to touch. She leveled her eyes with his wide ones, starting into deep, endless blue.
“You’re stuck with me,” Selina said, leaning back again. The smile on Tim’s face grew wider.
“I think we can live with that,” she heard Bruce say behind her. Jason nodded approvingly. Dick let out a long held sigh. Tim’s smile hadn’t faded.
But they weren’t just hers, Selina realized.
She was theirs.
“You know that paperwork we have?” Bruce asked. They stood just outside the master bedroom, kicked out for talking too loud by the three boys watching TV in their bed.
“Which paperwork?” Selina asked, leaning against the wall. “The doctored passports or falsified birth certificates?”
“Actually, I was referring to the marriage license.” Selina raised an eyebrow, watching Bruce rub the back of his neck before continuing. “You wouldn’t be interested in making that particular falsified document legitimate, would you?”
“Mr. Wayne, are you asking me to marry you?”
“Technically speaking, we're already married,” Bruce replied. She tilted her head, waiting for more. “That’s what I was asking, yes,” he admitted, speaking fast. Selina caught a rare, fleeting glimpse of anxiousness on Bruce’s face. She pressed her lips together, keeping the smirk that threatened to cross them at bay. She crossed her arms, narrowed eyes wandering over him, letting the moment linger.
“One condition,” she said at last, watching his lips part as he exhaled.
She did. Bruce’s smile reached his eyes.
“Alfred, are you watching?” Tim called out for the fifth time.
“Yes, Master Timothy.”
The backyard was bright and green with summer. Alfred sat at the patio table in his panama hat, looking both out of place and not as he watched the boys’ antics from under the shade of an umbrella.
Selina stood off to the side of the porch in a patch of sunlight. The boys had managed to drag both she and Alfred outside to watch them practice handstands. They were pretty persuasive when they wanted to be, with those wide eyes and well-rehearsed pleading looks. None of it fooled Selina, of course, but she’d given in nonetheless.
It was official; she’d gone soft.
“Can you do a handstand, Alfred?” she heard Dick ask.
“Never tried, Master Dick,” Alfred replied. “And I’m certainly not going to attempt one now.”
On Alfred’s first visit, it had taken Dick five seconds to go from shaking the man’s hand to throwing his arms around him in a bear hug. Between that, Jason’s mouth and the overall noise level of all three excited boys combined, Selina had been pretty sure Alfred’s first visit would also be his last.
But the following Sunday, he’d returned. That had been several months ago. Alfred had been back every Sunday since.
“I almost did it that time!” Selina heard Tim say after another unsuccessful attempt at a handstand.
“You leaned over too far,” Jason said, reclined in the grass nearby, the sunlight bringing out hints of red in his messy chestnut hair. “That’s why you keep falling.”
Tim frowned, furrowing his brow.
“Don’t listen to Jason,” Dick said, his voice cheerful. “He can’t even do a handstand.”
“Shut up, I can too.” Jason hopped to his feet to demonstrate, flipping up into a wobbly handstand where he stood. He held it for a few seconds before coming back down. “See?”
“Weak,” Dick said with a smirk. Jason rolled his eyes, huffing as he flopped back down to the ground. “Come on, Tim, try again.” Dick came up beside him. “I’ll spot you.”
Selina watched Tim scrunch his face in concentration as he tried again. This time, Dick was there to catch him before he fell over, keeping him balanced and level until he came back down again.
“I did it!” Tim said, his face sweaty and bright. “Did you see?” he called out louder, looking over at Selina. She nodded.
“One day, I’ll teach you to do walking handstands,” Dick said, flipping up onto his hands with practiced ease, his black hair hanging straight down from his head. He took a few fancy steps forward, bits of grass peeking between his fingers.
“And I’ll teach you not to be such an easy target,” Jason added as he tripped Dick with an outstretched foot. Knocked off balance, Dick tumbled to the ground, but caught himself, rolling to his feet in the same fluid motion. He came to a stop in a crouch a few feet from where he’d come down, his blue eyes narrow but a wide grin on his face.
“You’ll pay for that.”
“Come and get me, brother,” Jason replied, already on his feet.
“Who are we betting on this time?” Selina heard Bruce’s voice behind her as he came out from the house.
“Dick,” she answered, not turning around as she watched Dick and Jason chase each other around the yard. “Then again, Jason’s catching up to him quick.” Selina snickered. “I shudder to think of them evenly matched.”
“It will certainly be interesting,” Bruce replied. She glanced back, catching that familiar gleam in his eyes. Selina shook her head. Her gaze drifted from the boys running in circles to the patio table, where Tim had wandered over to Alfred and was engaging in some serious, six-year-old version of conversation. She glanced at Alfred, who was somehow managing to look both interested and sincere, listening to Tim prattle on.
The man was a saint.
Selina was about to say something to that effect when a sudden wave of uneasiness in her stomach had her pursing her lips together.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
“How are you feeling?” Bruce asked with a lowered voice as he stepped up behind her. His arms wrapped around her waist, as natural as breathing. Selina huffed.
“You mean besides the overwhelming nausea and irrational anxiety? Fantastic,” she quipped, shaking her head even as a smile she couldn’t entirely contain played at the corners of her lips. A new thought hit her; she made a face. “What if we don’t like this one?”
“I’m serious,” she said, even though she wasn’t. “No one gets lucky four times in a row.” Selina glanced back over the boys scattered across the backyard. “He could turn out to be a complete monster.”
“Could be a she,” Bruce replied, his breath soft against her ear.
“Oh, God, that’s even worse.” She could feel Bruce chuckle silently behind her.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. Selina let herself lean back; his head came to rest against her shoulder. “As I understand it, you are very adaptable.”
A smirk tugged at her lips.
“I’ve certainly had enough practice,” she replied, searching for his hand. She intertwined their fingers, felt him smile at the contact.
Out in the yard, Dick caught up to Jason, tackling him to the ground with a soft thud. She and Bruce watched as the two boys rolled around in a harmless flurry of arms and legs, fierce grins on their faces as they endlessly one-upped each other, getting filthy and grass-stained in the process.
“Don’t worry, Alfred,” she heard Tim’s voice from across the patio. “They’re just pretend fighting.”
Selina smiled. Her uneasiness ebbed, fading away.
“I never thanked you,” she said.
“Taking me to the circus.”
“It wasn’t a circus,” Bruce replied. Selina glanced back. His dark eyes gleamed mischievous. “It was performance art.”
Thank you everyone who left kudos and comments on this story! For those who are interested, future additions to The Longer You Stay universe (including pieces that take place after the main story’s end) will be collected under this series tag.