"Are you sleeping with him?"
Barbara's hand stopped in the middle of drying the last of the dishes. It wasn't that she was shocked at the question; it was more that she was convinced she must have misheard the question. She blinked, standing there in the kitchen, holding a glass in her hand, looking at Dick like he must have said anything—anything—other than what she had just heard come out of his mouth.
"Am I what?" She didn't even sound outraged, just confused.
"Are you sleeping with him." Dick's arms were crossed now, and he was giving her a level stare, across the gleaming counter-top. Gleaming because that was what Alfred did, before he had a day off. He made sure that every last surface in the kitchen was polished to a blinding glare, in what she could only imagine was some kind of guilt at actually taking twenty-four hours to do nothing but putter in his garden and toodle around the farmer's market in Gotham or whatever other sweet harmless pleasures he got up to on his days off, which were rare enough—especially now. The guilt-to-gleam ratio was probably higher than usual, and she found herself staring at the counter-top as a way of processing what Dick had just said to her.
"You're asking me if I'm sleeping with him."
"You heard me."
She nodded. She had, after all. She plucked at the towel slung over her shoulder and folded it. "I see," she said.
"It's a yes or no question, Babs."
"You want to know," she said slowly, "if I'm sleeping with Bruce."
"You're living here, aren't you? When was the last time you spent the night at your apartment? When was the last time you left this house, actually, or did any work that wasn't telecommuting? Because hey, if you want to turn your whole life purpose into being nurse, physical therapist, and cheerleader rolled into one, that's your choice, but I can think of better reasons to do it than because you decided to sleep with him. So are you?"
She spread her hands on the counter and considered him. "There's a trick I taught him in the hospital," she said. "He's mentioned it once or twice, so I know he uses it, when he has to. The trick is this. When you wake up in the morning, in those seconds when it all comes back to you and you just feel like you can't stand it, you come up with a list of reasons not to kill yourself."
Dick was frowning. "A list?"
"Yeah, you've never had to make a list, have you? You'd think family and friends, loved ones, would be the main things on the list. But that doesn't really work—at least, it didn't work for me, and I'm betting it doesn't for Bruce, either. Because after a while you start to think, yeah, but wouldn't their lives actually be better if they didn't have this dead weight to drag around, if they didn't have to care for me and look after me and worry about me? And so they actually become a reason to kill yourself. You're much better off with small, simple things like, damn, I don't want to kill myself before I see the season finale of that show I've been watching, or damn, I didn't taste that new Ben and Jerry's flavor. So maybe I'll kill myself tomorrow, and do those things today. And each day, you think of a new list."
She tossed the towel she had been folding into the linens bin under the sink. "That's where he is," she said, to Dick's silence. "At the stage of making a list to get through the day, and you're wondering about his sex life. Not that you would know any of this, because you haven't asked him. But that's it, that's where he is. And sex? Jesus Christ, Dick. Do you have. . . any real grasp of what's happened to him? I can tell you this, I can tell you he is probably never going to have any sex life, of any sort, with anyone ever again. Even if that worked for him physically, he wouldn't be able to handle it, not like he is. Happy now? Is that what you want for him? He's forty-five, and he's shut the door on that part of his life forever. But that's what you want for him, right? That's what you were hoping to hear?"
Dick had the decency to drop his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.
"No, you're not. You're just secretly glad you got to hear what you were wanting to hear, which was personal information that was none of your damn business."
"But I'll tell you something else," she said. "If he ever wanted to, if there was any part of him that ever wanted me in that way, just the smallest part—which there isn't—but if he did? All he would have to do is crook his little finger, and I would be there for him, in whatever way he needed me to be, and if that meant being in his bed, then you better believe it. It would make your head spin, how fast I would say yes. So how about now—is that what you were hoping to hear?"
Dick's lips had gone thin and tight-pressed. "Babs," he said.
"Oh, shut your trap," she said wearily. That was always something Dick used to tease her about, her old-fashioned expressions. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. How do you like them apples.
He looked at her another minute, then gathered his keys from where he had tossed them on the counter and headed to the back door. "You're not even going to go up and see him," she said.
"I have patrol," he said, that same tight-lipped sound in his voice.
"Sooner or later you're going to have to try to forgive him."
Those dark angled brows rushed together. "You think I blame him for Damian getting hurt? I know that wasn't his fault. Damian's alive because of him, I know what he did to save Damian."
"It wasn't Damian I was thinking of."
"Then what the hell did you—"
"Himself. The fact of what happened to him. That's what you can't forgive him. He got hurt, and he's not going to get better."
The kitchen was still. The house was still, in fact—Alfred gone for the night, Damian long asleep upstairs. She could hear the faint whirr and click of the washing machine, down the corridor from the kitchen in the laundry room, but that was just because her hearing was especially good, and the house was especially quiet. Dick's clench of his keys was convulsive, like maybe he wanted to hit something. For a second she was sad that he wouldn't, because of what a joyful release it would be to lay the smackdown on him.
Lay the smackdown, he had teased her once. Who says that?
I say it. Because I am the queen of smackdown.
Queen of dork is more like it. We need to work on your vocabulary. Being good with words is an important part of this job, you know. Your superhero sass sounds like somebody's grandmother.
Ah, your ass sounds like somebody's grandmother.
He had given her an incredulous look before busting into a sputtering grin, throwing back his head and laughing. Well, they had been younger then, and more easily amused. It was hard to remember when anything had been funny. Back then it had all seemed like such a blast, like nothing could ever really go wrong. Turned out that was the actual joke.
She could see him weighing a response, and rejecting every one before he turned and walked away. Then he had slammed the side door and was gone. She waited until she heard the distant roar of his bike, and then finished putting away the dishes. She needed to go upstairs and check on Bruce one more time before bed, see if he needed anything.
It had taken her a solid ten days to get to Gotham, after it had happened.
It had been days of garbled messages on her cell, which hadn't really come through because she was in the middle of the Karakum desert with only intermittent reception between one range of salt flats and the next. By the time she had pieced together the urgency in Dick's scrambled voice mails, and made it to an airport—by the time of the six flights with multiple missed connections, by the time of the grounded planes in Frankfurt, it was day ten. She had missed the dreadful days when it was touch and go with Damian, and with Bruce as well. She had not stood in that waiting room with Dick, or with Jason, or with Tim, or with Alfred, when they had faced the possibility of losing both of them at once. By the time she had gotten there, Damian was making the recovery of youth and health, and his multiple surgeries were already fading from his memory.
Bruce had dragged himself on his elbows to his son's side in that warehouse, wrapped his son's bleeding body in the cape to protect him from the flames, and somehow, on the tattered bloody rope of his own will alone, had dragged the two of them together out of the hell of that burning building. The fire had spread to every warehouse on the docks by then, and the inferno of explosions was all around them, but inch by excruciating inch, his own spine shattered, Bruce had hauled them both out of there.
She couldn't imagine what the pain must have been like for Bruce, and he did not of course talk about it. Did not, in fact, talk about much.
When she had arrived in Gotham, she had gone straight to the hospital. By then she had read enough of the e-mails, talked to Dick enough, to know exactly what the score was with Bruce, exactly what the devastating toll of those familiar words—partial spinal cord injury—really was. In the first days and weeks of her own injury, she had held onto the elusive meaning of "partial" in "partial SCI." She had hoped it meant a possibility of recovery, sure, but also an indefinable line between her own situation and those poor sons of bitches who had a complete SCI—until she had had it explained to her that in fact, complete spinal cord injury would be someone whose lower half had been sliced clean off. Bifurcation, basically. So I'm supposed to be grateful I'm still connected by a couple of threads of meat and tissue, she had thought. I'm supposed to be grateful that other people can still wedge me into my pants.
She didn't say anything when she arrived at Gotham General; didn't really spend much time talking to Dick, even, beyond the quick hug and kiss on the cheek, beyond his desperate squeeze of the air out of her lungs—that shocking instant of recognition that he needed her far more than she had ever needed him, and that was fine. She had known where she was really needed, though. Still clutching her sour airport coffee, her coat thrown over her arm, she had gone straight to Bruce's room, where he lay propped at a twenty-five degree angle—and that was good, that they were allowing even that amount of pressure on his spinal column—and walked to the side of the bed where his face was turned, away from the door.
She had sat there, and his eyes had searched her face hungrily. Like he had been waiting for her. Waiting for her to say. . . what? Nothing, maybe. Waiting perhaps for the arrival of the one other person who would know the score, down in her bones. Would know what this meant. What this was. The one who would know.
So she did nothing but clasp his hand, and he had clasped back. Silent confederates.
"So," she said, after a while. "There's this list thing I used to do."
She had explained, and he had listened. And after she was finished, he had said, his voice hoarse and rusty-sounding, "Does this mean you are not going to help me get this over with?"
"You would never do that to Damian," she said. "Or to Dick. Or to Tim." And then, because she knew that score too: "Or to Jason. Especially to Jason. The Bruce I know would never do that."
He had turned his head the other direction. "Fuck the Bruce you know."
He hadn't let go of her hand, though. It was the first time she had ever heard anything stronger than a "damn" out of his mouth, and that only at the height of frustration. "All right," she had said. "Fuck him then."
"Tell me about where you were," he said.
"Turkmenistan. I started a company last year. I told Dick, but I don't know if he told you." He gave a brief nod, so she went on.
"It started off just me, and it's kind of grown by leaps and bounds over the last six months. I've got about seven people who work for me now, mainly on a contract basis, but still. Firms hire me to try to break their security in every way I can think of—hack into their systems, break into their facilities, you name it. Basically I'm hired to terrorize them, and then fix it. Only recently I've been doing almost as much work for governments as I've been doing for corporations."
He gave a grunt at that, which maybe signaled suspicion. "Only the good guys, I promise," she said. "It's not like I'm working for North Korea."
"No, just the country with the second worst conditions for press freedom in the world, and a human rights record that makes CIA black sites look like health spas."
"That was Azurov's government," she said. "Tipurmedov is working to change all that. Yes, there's a climate of corruption, and yes, his party's coalition is unstable, but he has to start somewhere. Trust me, Bruce, I can tell the bad guys from the good guys."
"Or you're so close to your own projects that you've lost sight of the larger picture."
"Like I said, you're just going to have to trust me that that's not the case."
"And are you keeping up with your training, or do you have employees for that now too?"
She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee. "Funny," she said. "New Bruce sounds a lot like the old Bruce."
He made a strange sound, just a small exhale of air, and she realized he was laughing—or maybe, as close as he had come to it in a while. He had released her hand, and his face was turned toward her again. "How the hell does this even work," he said. "Living like this. You tell me that."
She had a quick flash of her younger self, fifteen and perched on the edge of a rooftop, the skyline beneath her feet, the vertiginous rush of air in her face. You want me to do what now? And then the line had snapped into her hand, and she had been flying, soaring, weightless. A swoop of black on her left, and a steadying hand on her back. Don't let go don't let go oh my God don't let go! And a deeper voice, calm and steady as the hand: I promise.
"I'll show you," she said. "I won't let go. I promise."
She tried to put her conversation with Dick out of her mind as she went upstairs, not wanting Bruce to read her irritation on her face. He had enough on his plate without Dick's nonsense. She stopped off to check on Damian, who had fallen asleep curled up against Titus, of course. They were both stretched on the rug in front of the fireplace, so she banked the fire down while the dog watched her with silent eyes, and she fetched a blanket to put over Damian. Titus did not stir. "Good boy," she whispered.
The lights in the master wing were on, and Bruce was still awake. He was sleeping some better these days, though his hours were still wildly irregular—maybe always would be. Old habits died hard.
"All put away," she said cheerfully, as she entered. "Dishes cleaned up, too. Of course, Alfred will still tell me everything I did wrong when he gets back."
Bruce didn't say anything. He hadn't gotten ready for bed, which surprised her a little—normally by this time he had at least pulled on a T shirt for sleeping in, but he was just sitting by the window, fully clothed, in his wheelchair. His chin was propped on his hand like he was lost in thought.
"Well," she said. "If everything's okay, I'll head to bed then."
He was still silent, but she was used to his long abstractions by now. She filled the water carafe by the side of his bed, and tugged the sheets down—things she knew he could do by himself, but which made his life a little bit easier. He didn't object. "All right," she said. "If you need anything in the night, just buzz me. I think I've finally mastered the intercom system in this house. I can hack the world's most sophisticated computer systems in fifteen seconds or under, but apparently a basic intercom is beyond me. Anyway, I've finally got it figured out."
He swallowed, licked his lips. "No," he said. "You haven't. You have to hit the button twice to turn off the audio."
She froze by the side of the bed. The intercom in the kitchen. The one she had flicked off the minute Dick had come in, because she had known she was irritated at him, and had known there would be pointed words. She hadn't wanted Bruce to. . . hear.
He was still looking at the floor, brows furrowed, lost in whatever he was thinking. Her heart was pounding.
You're asking me if I'm sleeping with him.
All he would have to do is crook his little finger.
It would make your head spin, how fast I would say yes.
Oh God. She looked at the intercom on the wall beside him, and the little green light of on. Oh God.
"For future reference," he said, "you might want to make sure it's turned off the next time you decide to discuss the state of my psychological well-being, or the next time you decide you want to shock and horrify Dick, for that matter."
"Okay," she said, gathering herself. "But you might want to remember I'm an Irish cop's daughter, and if I want to shock and horrify somebody, I'm gonna punch him in the face, not play Wayne-games with his head. Just, you know, for future reference."
"Fair enough," he said, still not looking at her. "On the other hand, I can operate a two-button intercom."
"Not well enough to find the off button, I notice."
"That is also a fair point."
She stood there, unable somehow to move. He looked as lost in thought as he had when she came in. "You're mad that I'm mad at Dick," she said. "I get that. But I have plenty of reasons to be pissed at him that have nothing to do with you. And I didn't mean for you to hear. . . any of that. I'm. . . I wish you hadn't."
He made some strange shrugging gesture. He had been hard enough to read before, when he had the full range of his body; in the chair, and particularly slouched to the side like he currently was, he was almost impossible to read. But it was dismissal, that much was clear. A gesture reminiscent of the first time she had fucked up on patrol, and had had to face his wrath alone. Good luck, Dick had said, backing away, and she had telegraphed Gee thanks for the support with her eyes before turning to face Bruce. And the worst part had been his silence. He didn't appear angry. He had asked her to explain exactly what she did wrong, and she had complied, her face beneath the mask burning with shame. She would have opened a vein, in those days, before she would have disappointed Bruce. At the end of her litany of failure, he had nodded curtly, and dismissed her. He had raised an eyebrow when she had still been standing there. Go home, Batgirl, he had said.
"You'll let me know if you need anything," she managed, and walked across the vast room to the door. She closed it quietly, leaving him in peace. He still hadn't moved, and she wondered how many nights he just sat like that for hours, or fell asleep sitting in the chair.
She woke at two, as was her habit, to a sense of suffocation and guilt. Kicking back the duvet took care of the suffocation, but that left the guilt. She shouldn't have left Bruce like that; she shouldn't have basically walked out on him because she was embarrassed. She should have at least gone back to check on him.
She tugged on her robe and padded the dark, silent hall to Damian's room. He was still dozing on the rug, with Titus still curled protectively around his body. The dog raised his head and looked at her with accusatory eyes: Do you not trust me to do my job? So she closed the door quietly and slipped out, leaving the boy in more capable hands.
At Bruce's door she hesitated, but opened it as softly as she could. The lights were off—that was another thing, she had been so undone she had forgotten to help with the lights—and he was stretched in bed. He disdained almost all help for simple tasks like dressing and undressing, now, and of course he had unbelievable upper body strength. That had been a hilarious conversation with the physical therapist, a chipper young man named Luke.
"Wow," he had said, eyes wide in astonishment, the first time Bruce had effortlessly lifted the entire weight of his body on the bars above his bed. "You sure are fit, Mr. Wayne. How did you get in such good shape?"
Bruce had hesitated. "Ice climbing," he had said. Luke had looked surprised. Luke was a good therapist, but not what you would call a genius. "Ice climbing, really? Twelve months a year?"
"I alternate with wave jumping," Bruce had said, warming to his audience, "in summer months." Barbara had buried her smile in her coffee.
"You sure must travel a lot," Luke had said. "I'd love to travel like that. So you go to all those extreme sports competitions, like in Hawaii and stuff? My cousin, he went to the one in Australia, I forget the name of it. Took him fourteen hours to get there, though, I do remember that. But I guess long flights must not bother you, with all that traveling."
She stood just inside Bruce's bedroom door, remembering Luke and his feckless demeanor. Luke who had made Bruce relax a little bit, with his stories and his sweet smile. Luke was good at what he did, all right. Luke had asked her out, and she had hated to have to disappoint him, he was so kind.
Bruce was stretched on his back in bed, chest bare. Clearly he was all right now. And then he raised his head. "Barbara? Everything all right?"
She winced. "Fine," she whispered, which was stupid, he was obviously already awake. "Go back to sleep. I was just checking on you."
She half-expected a sharp reply to that—for God's sake, I'm fine or did you think I had rolled off the balcony or something like that. But he said nothing. She crossed the room so she wasn't shouting at him across it. It was hard to get used to the house's vast spaces, at times. "I can't sleep, now and again," she said. "So I get up and check on people. I used to do it to Dad all the time, and James. Used to scare Dad to death that he was gonna plug me one night. But go back to sleep, I'm sorry I woke you up."
"You didn't," he said.
A bare-chested Bruce was. . . an amazing sight. She kept her eyes very firmly on his face, or they would be as wide as Luke's. "I wanted to say I'm sorry," she said. "For earlier. For what I said, and for then taking your head off afterward. I'm just. . . really sorry."
He nodded, like she had said something profound. "Well," she said, clutching at her robe. For some reason the sight of his bare chest made her pull the edges of her own robe tighter. She was very much not looking elsewhere, even though he slept under only a thin sheet, whose outline did not seem to be revealing any pajama bottoms underneath there. Of course he would sleep naked, of freaking course. "I'll let you. . . get back to sleep. Or back to not-sleep."
He was just watching her, with eyes as somber as Titus'. She turned to go, but he held out a hand. Really did just hold it, stretched across the bed in her direction, palm up. He wasn't looking at her. She wasn't sure at all what he was doing. It was the strangest gesture, even from a man prone to them. And then he bent his little finger.
Pretty much all the blood rushed out of her brain in a flood.
She stood there looking at his outstretched hand, and then she slipped off her robe. She tugged at her nightgown and pulled it over her head, and then she was standing there naked, in the moonlight slatted from the window. He had dropped his hand, and he was definitely looking at her now. She followed every flick of his eyes up her body, and tried not to squirm under that exacting gaze. "So you were telling the truth," he said. "About not neglecting your training."
The smile tugged at her mouth, even though her chest was pounding. "I don't lie," she said. "I don't say things that aren't the truth."
His nod this time was more hesitant. His hand had fallen onto the bedcovers, and now it pulled back the corner of the sheet. He was looking at her. It was an unequivocal invitation, and she slipped under the covers next to him. He lay there, propped on an elbow, looking at her. It occurred to her the outstretched hand had maybe not meant take off all your clothes right now. That had been quite the assumption on her part.
His hand was on hers, just looking at her hand, examining it. "So after my injury," she said, because she couldn't bear that he might be lying there worrying about this. "When I felt like having sex again. It was weird, because I could watch all the porn in the world, and my brain could be aroused as hell, but the signals couldn't travel down my spine. It took touch, to get me. . . physically aroused. I could respond to touch. But everyone is different, after an injury."
He was still just looking at her. "An injury," he murmured. "Makes it sound like I was wind-surfing."
"I just meant, you can tell me what you need. I'm naked in your bed. That's pretty much the universal symbol for not going to say no."
"Is it now." The corner of his lip quirked in his odd half-smile.
He was just inches away. She had never had the time to examine him from this close up before—the blue of those eyes, the lines around the shockingly beautiful mouth. The familiar, and yet deeply unfamiliar mouth. She put a hand on the side of his face, and he closed his eyes. They were millimeters apart, and she realized he would never close that distance. Not in a million years would he do it, though she was naked in bed beside him. So she leaned forward and brushed her lips against his, and the small sound that escaped him made her groan and curl her hand around his neck and press her long body against his even longer one.
"God," he whispered, and then his arms were around her, tugging her closer, stronger and more powerful than she had reckoned, and his mouth was crushing hers. He pulled off and looked at her. He was twining a piece of her hair in his fingers.
"God forgive me," he said, even more softly, and she kissed him fierce and hard.
Chapter 2: Picking Up The Pieces
Sex with Bruce is more complicated than she had imagined.
For those who wanted to know exactly what happened next, but especially Vittoria, Meg, and Griff.
The morning sun was hot on her back, which meant two things: one, she had actually fallen asleep in Bruce's bed, in a most un-cool and probably uninvited way, and two, the curtain had been pulled back. And if the curtain had been pulled back, then Bruce had been the one to do it, which meant he had actually gotten himself up and moved around without waking her up, which brought her back to her first point about un-cool, since that meant she had to have been sleeping hard. Really hard. And unattractively. And probably drooling.
"Oh no," she groaned.
"Not, I will admit, the first words I was hoping for."
She squinted in the direction of the voice, which was hard to see through a tangled red mass of hair. He looked as groggy and sleep-blurred as she, which raised a terrifying and previously un-thought-of possibility: that Bruce had not been the one to pull back the curtain.
"Oh God," she said, her eyes widening. "Alfred."
"Oh God," she said again, sitting bolt upright, terror pounding in her veins. This was worse than high school, and definitely worse than the time her dad had found her with Travis in the car. And then she realized that in sitting up she had not pulled the sheet up with her, and Bruce was. . . looking. Appreciatively. "Alfred was in this room," she said.
"You didn't stop him?"
"I was asleep. Am I allowed to point out why I might have been a little tired this morning?"
"Oh God," she said, falling back against the pillow and shutting her eyes. "This is like some nightmare." There was silence, and then her eyes flew open. "The Alfred part," she amended. "Not the waking up next to you part. Wow, I suck at this."
"I'm fairly thick-skinned," he said. "But after oh no, oh God, and this is a nightmare, I am beginning to get the message."
She pressed her hands to her face and started laughing. "That's not really better," he said, which made her laugh even more.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Can we please rewind. Let's pretend I just rolled over and said something suave and sexy." She put her hands down to find him looking at her, propped on his elbow, his eyes grave. He was so goddamn beautiful. How old had she been when she had first noticed that? How old had she been when she had not only noticed it, but felt it in her body, felt her body's quick stir in response to his beauty, and just as quickly quashed it?
The wheelchair was in a slightly different position from where it had been last night, which meant he had indeed gotten up at some point, and she had not noticed. He had picked up her wrist and was examining it, turning it over. He brushed his lips against the inside of her wrist. There was a soft rush of heat to her groin, and his eyes flicked up to hers, like he could feel the motion of blood in her body.
He was tugging at her wrist now, pulling her over on top of him, and she stretched out on him willingly. His hands were questing underneath the sheets, stroking her sides, cupping her ass. "Right," she said with a smile. "In bed with a guy. I forget, about the morning sex thing."
"That long of a dry spell?"
"I didn't say I hadn't been having sex."
She felt his soft chuckle against her neck. Lying on top of Bruce felt like nothing else. The sheer size of him, for one thing: his hands on her ass, cupping it, pushing her into him, were enormous. She could feel their heat, and the answering heat of his cock. In the morning, male physiology was working for him, and his erection was effortless. Their eyes rested on each other for a while, as he settled them into a slow rubbing rhythm. His hands pressed her down into him, and she undulated against him in a slow imitation of fucking.
"You're beautiful," she breathed, and she caught the startled motion of his eyes. They were so unguarded, up close like this.
"I want my body back," he said hoarsely. "God I want to fuck you."
"You did. You are. You have been."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah," she said. "I do." She stretched her arms out, lacing her hands in his, increasing her leverage a little bit.
"Will you do something for me."
"I want my mouth on you again. Please."
She gave him a cock-eyed grin. "Well twist my arm, mister," she said, and sat up.
This confident Bruce was not who she had gone to bed with last night. Last night, they had kissed for a long time before they had talked logistics—or rather, she had talked, and he had been quiet. "Can I touch you," she had finally whispered in his ear.
"Yes," he had whispered back.
"Is there anywhere you'd rather I not touch you?"
He shook his head, just a small gesture. "Okay," she said, and had tugged down the sheets a bit to see him. She caught the instinctive flinch. She knew what that was like too—that feeling of disconnect from your body so profound that it felt like it was someone else's. She had kept a hand on him, stroking his chest.
"Is this okay?"
"Anything—" he had swallowed. "Anything you want to do is all right. I'm just—Barbara, I don't know what my body is going to do. I can't promise—"
"Shh," she had said, leaning up for another kiss. "I want you to let me, okay? Just trust me."
"Can I," and he had reached for her. She scooted closer, within easy reach of his hands, and he ran his hands over her body, exploring some more. A thick knuckle nudged at her cunt, just brushing her hair. She was already so wet just from making out with him. He dipped a finger just inside her folds, just the smallest bit, and she had to bite back a groan. His eyes were watching her. His finger dipped deeper, and she bit her lip.
She was fifteen and lying in her bed at home, her body aching. She slipped a hand between her legs, rubbing, then a finger. She was shocked at all the wet, the slickness. In her head, the finger wore a gauntlet. Good girl, whispered a voice in her head. Now come for me. Even then, she had known the voice wasn't Dick's.
"Bruce," she gasped. It was still just a finger, still just exploring. But his thumb had joined the finger, rubbing just maddeningly south of her clit, which she suspected he knew. His hand was so large, his fingers so thick, that it was almost like having a cock in her. She could hear the slick obscene noises his hand was making as she got wetter. "Fuck," she ground out, and he shifted closer. Then that thumb found her clit, rubbed her hard and in earnest.
"I'm gonna come," she said. He was breathing hard. "God, Bruce, stop."
He stilled instantly. She seized his wrist, pulled his hand away from her. It was shiny with her juices in the moonlight from the window. He pulled at the hand and sucked on it, keeping his eyes on her. It made her throat clench to see it. "Trust me," she said again, and scooted down his body.
He was easily the largest man she had ever been in bed with, in every sense of that word. He was flaccid, but even so his cock was enormous—solid, thick, gorgeous. She ran a finger down his length, kissing him. He made a quiet, desperate sound. Then she started suckling, just softly. She watched his fists ball the sheet, white-knuckled. He began to get hard, faster than she had thought. She raised her head.
"Can I ask a question?"
He looked like he was having trouble focusing. "Yes?"
"Have you jacked off at all?"
If he was embarrassed by the question, he didn't show it. "A couple of times. Not very successfully. I haven't come. I don't know if I can."
"Okay," she said, with a kiss to his inner thigh. "Well, let's just see." She didn't know the words for what she wanted to say. She wanted this bed, this time, this space with her to be a safe place of exploration, of play, of discovery, but she didn't know how to say any of that without sounding like Luke, like some goofy sex therapist. So she said it with her mouth, as she caressed his cock. It nudged against her tongue, her cheek, the back of her throat. And then she took a long slow breath and tried for deep-throating him, and his fists in the sheets shook, and he made a choking sound. So did she, actually, though she tried to mask it.
"Sorry," she whispered. "A little off my game." He was fully erect now—or at least, she hoped so, because he was gigantic, and she was quickly rethinking how this was going to go. Obviously on his back was going to be the only possible position, which meant she would be riding him, but she was seriously doubting whether she would slide all the way down on that. Theoretically, it should be possible, but he was large enough to make her question it.
"Can I get on top," she whispered, keeping her voice low. He seemed to do better with quiet voices, and dark, and she wondered if that had been true before his injury, too.
"Please," he said, and she straddled him in one effortless motion. He was frowning.
"Do you—should we—"
"I'm clean," she said. "We both know we're clean. And. . . it's safe. Doesn't get any safer, actually."
She hadn't expected to feel a twinge, at this distance. Fact was fact; this body would not be having children. She had accepted that. His eyes were intent on her, but she looked only down at his beautiful body, the intricate pattern of scars lacing his torso, the swell of his biceps. His thumb was stroking the inside of her wrist. He was saying things with his body too.
She lowered her cunt onto the tip of his cock, just rubbing the swollen head against the wetness of her folds. His grip on her wrist tightened. Inch by inch, a little at a time, she took him in. She could feel the quiver all down his arms, when she had sheathed him completely. His neck was arching back, his jaw tight.
"Is that good," she asked.
"Fuck," he panted.
"Made you swear."
"Okay," she said, and rode up, just a little bit, and down again. Probably a bit too soon, and she bit her lip at it, because damn, his cock felt like it was pushing at her goddamn kidneys, he was so big, so deep in her.
"We can do—something else," he said. "You don't—have to—"
"You're kind of a talker," she said, riding him more gracefully now, and wrenching a groan from him. The friction against her clit as she pushed down, rode into him, was delicious. She rolled and rubbed against his groin. The strange pressure of his size was slowly moving into pleasure, and a sort of deep ache. His hands gripped her ass, wide fingers digging in, raising her up, pulling her back down on his cock, fucking her.
"Barbara," he said hoarsely. "I can't—I don't—have any—control."
"'S okay," she slurred. "You come when you need to. Just let go." She was riding him faster now, gripping his shoulders.
"I don't," he panted. His fingers were kneading her ass. "God," he sobbed, turning his head to the side. "Fuck."
She felt him coming, felt the pulse inside her. "Fuck yes," she groaned, riding faster, riding it with him. Her own body's clench of pleasure choked off further sound and thought. She came hard, and when she needed more she rode him for it. She curled down onto his chest, and they lay there gasping for breath.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. His eyes were shut. She rested her head against his.
"Why," she said. "For giving us what we've both wanted for ten years?"
He gave a short, gasping laugh. "For lasting. . . about. . . three minutes, I was going to say." His arms wrapped tight around her. Her eyes stung at how good it felt, how right to be folded in his arms. This was supposed to be about him, about helping Bruce, not about her own treacherous feelings.
"Can you come again," he whispered in her ear.
"Oh yeah," she said.
"It's unwise," he said, "to challenge me." There was just enough throaty Batman in his voice to make her smile.
"Mm. I'll keep it in mind. Can we just lie here a while?"
Something like a shudder went through his body—a small quiver of electricity, and she caught it and shuddered too. "As long as you want," he finally said.
And now this morning, there was none of the quiet hesitancy there had been the night before. Maybe it was the confidence of his body actually responding when he needed it to; maybe it was the daylight. She gripped the headboard and groaned as his tongue flicked at her clit, fucked into her cunt. "Jesus Christ," she said.
"Bruce will do," he murmured.
His face was wet with her juices, slick with them. His hand—somehow his hands seemed unable to get enough of her ass—was slipping into her asscrack, and there was a finger pressing at her hole.
"Oh God," she moaned, and he licked and sucked as his finger pushed just inside, pressed. His finger was fucking her now, and she had a moment of wondering what that cock would feel like, fucking her ass, how impossibly huge it would be, and then she wondered exactly whose ass he had fucked, or who had fucked his, and the image was enough to make her grind on that strong jaw. She came in a wet wave over his jaw and tongue that lapped eagerly at her.
She spiraled down and into his arms. It took a while for her brain to come back online, and he stroked her back while she drifted. "Thank you," she heard him whisper. She was on the verge of falling back to sleep when her eyes snapped open.
"Bruce," she said.
"Mm." He was still stroking her back.
"Bruce." She raised her head all the way. "Alfred left a breakfast tray."
"That is usually what Alfred does."
"With a rose on it?"
Bruce twisted his head in the direction she was looking. He considered the tray. "Well that bastard."
"I'm scared. What does it mean?"
He rolled over her direction. It was a more difficult maneuver than it looked, as well she knew. "I think it is Alfred's way of expressing approval."
"So this means he's not going to kick me out of the house?"
He frowned. "Why would he do that?"
"For taking advantage of you."
He was stroking her arm now. "Is that what you did."
"Well. . . there is a decent argument to be made that yes, it is."
"I see. Because you picked a man who can't run away?"
She laughed, and he smiled too, and something in her chest tightened to see that smile. Danger, Barbara Gordon, she thought. Watch yourself. This was just about some mutual need, so keep your head here, girl. But at some level deeper than thought, she knew it was about ten years too late for that.
She tugged at the sheet, baring him to the warm morning sun. His body by sunlight was an entirely other thing from his body by moonlight, and she ran her hands up him, exploring. His cock was not only hard, but wet, slicked already at the tip. She rubbed a finger up its side. He had gone very still. "You're not going to stop me, this morning," she said, and took him in her mouth, as much as she could manage.
He was extraordinarily still while she sucked him, much as he had been last night. This time, he let himself touch her—a hand on her shoulder, knitted in her hair. After a minute she stopped and rested her head on his thigh, looking up at him. "This bothers you," she said, and he swallowed.
"It. . ." He was blinking rapidly. "I can't move. It feels. . ." She watched him pause and re-order his words. "Before, getting sucked felt wonderful, to have a partner focusing all that attention. Now, it just reminds me of what I can't do. It feels like. . ."
"Pity," she finished for him. "I know. But. . . this is kind of a fantasy of mine, if you know what I mean. In the category of 'fantasies I am not going to acknowledge that I have,' if that makes sense."
"I am familiar with the category," he said softly.
"You still want me to stop?"
He shook his head. She closed her eyes and swallowed him down again. She knew her technique was jerky at best—she was indeed out of practice, but maybe the stopping and starting would feel good to him, who knew. She felt the jolt in his upper body, and the tightening of the hand in her hair, and knew he was about to come. He came on a long soft groan, and she swallowed as much as she could, not able to stop herself from grinding against his leg. At the last second she had almost wanted to climb up and ride him, but then was glad she hadn't—seeing and hearing his quiet pleasure in an act that was just for him was better than another orgasm. Okay, maybe not better, but just as good as. Almost.
She climbed up and into the curl of his arm. "No offense," she whispered. "Your bicep is almost too hard to be comfortable."
He shifted her so she was resting on his chest. "Wow," she said. "Is there any soft place on your entire body?"
"You are not exactly made of cotton balls either."
She laughed. "Unchivalrous."
"May I ask you a question?"
"Mm." She was toying with his chest hair, wondering if maybe they could go back to sleep, wondering how long before the spell of the morning, of this bed, would be over.
"Did Dick ask you to marry him last year, before you left?"
She froze, which of course he felt. "Yes," she said. "But you wouldn't have asked if you didn't already know. I'm. . . kind of surprised he mentioned it."
"He didn't. But it didn't require any great detective work. Dick never touches his trust, at all, but for this particular purchase he did. It must have been quite some ring."
She shut her eyes. Shit shit shit. There had been a ring. She had never seen a ring. They had never even made it that far in the conversation; she had shut it down long before then. He had actually bought a ring. She didn't know if that wrung her heart, or enraged her, or some combination of the two that was uniquely Dick.
"Why did you say no?"
"A million reasons. Are we really talking about this?"
"Just curious. What were some of them? I will admit I was surprised, when it was obvious you had said no. Part of me had always thought. . . it was inevitable."
"So did he. Look, can we not talk about this while I can taste your come in my mouth? Do you think that would be okay?"
"Yes," he said. She noticed he didn't apologize. Naked and just-had-sex-with-you Bruce was still Bruce, apparently. He was silent a while, and so was she, and she had just started thinking about slipping out of the bed and putting her clothes back on when he spoke again.
"Have I just destroyed any possibility of that ever happening?" he asked. "You and Dick, I mean."
"No," she said carefully. "That's not on you. Or. . . I don't know, maybe it is in a way. But if you destroyed it, it happened a long time ago, and not last night."
"I thought it was my problem," he said, and his voice was so soft she had to strain to hear it. "I thought it was my issue, and no one would ever have to know."
She raised her head all the way and looked at him, incredulous. She found nothing to say to that; it was an oddly unsettling feeling, like ground crumbling under her feet, or not so much crumbling as shifting, solid rock sliding into dirt. And the danger sirens sounded again, because here she had thought it was just her own repressed feelings she had to deal with, and those could always be repressed again, shoved under a rug. But if it was not just her. . .
"Disappointed in me?" he said.
"Not the word I would choose."
"Then let's not," he had said. "Choose words, that is."
She settled back on his chest, but her eyes were wide and awake, her mind calculating. "Holy fuck we're screwed," she whispered after a while.
"Mm hm," he said, and kept stroking her hair.
"Why are you so certain you're infertile?"
If she hadn't had long experience with Wayne men, she would have spit out her cereal. As it was, she calmly flipped the page of her newspaper and crunched some more Rice Krispies. "Because I don't have ovaries," she said, with a glance at the sanitized 'Police Blotter' section. "That tends to do the trick."
Bruce was frowning at her over the breakfast table. "South Africa," he said. "My medical files on you are complete through your injury, but I have nothing after that."
She nodded. Horrifying as it might be to sit eating cereal with someone who made a habit of studying your recent PAP smear results, she knew it was no more than standard Batfamily practice. As Oracle, she had maintained those files herself, and she knew them possibly better than Bruce did. "It was the radiation," she said. "There's a reason that clinic could only operate in a country with what you might call relaxed regulations. At the radiation level they were using, reproductive organ cancers were almost a probability. So they preferred to remove them."
"Interesting," he said.
"At the time, it seemed like a reasonable trade."
"And it doesn't now?"
There were a thousand responses to that one. I don't know, how would you feel about chopping off your balls to get your legs back, was what she wanted to say. At the time, of course, it had been easy enough to tell herself that she was not the sort of person who should be anybody's mother. Mostly, of course, her need to have her body back had been so overwhelming, her hunger for it so profound, that she would have laid a lot more than that on the table, if she had been asked.
So she just shrugged in answer. "Saves me a hell of a lot of money in tampons," she said, getting up for more orange juice. When she came back to the table, he was gone. His maneuvering in the chair was exceptional, but with his upper body strength that was unsurprising.
"They'll try to talk you into an electric one," she had counseled. "Don't do it. Those things are never as maneuverable, for one thing. For another, they make you feel even more disconnected from your body. Or at least, it did for me. Had one for a week, never used it again."
"This one, then?" He had been scrolling through a selection of chairs, on the website Luke had recommended.
"Nope. You only like that one because you're a leaner. You'll get over that."
"I'm a what?"
"When you sit, you lean to one side and prop your elbow on your chair. Super comfy, sure, but now try maneuvering that bad boy in the bathroom when you have really really got to pee. You need something you can slide easily in and out of. Get both," she had said, leaning over his shoulder to flick to the next screen. "One with arms, one without. Check out that one. See? A bit lower to the ground than the one with arms, slightly wider wheel splay, much greater maneuverability. Plus, I like that company, they use this super squishy material on the handholds that feels great."
"Super squishy," he said skeptically.
"The chair's an extension of your body," she said. "The little things matter."
He had snorted, but she noticed he had taken her advice. And now he was so proficient at the chair that he could glide in and out of rooms almost without her notice, moving much like he had before his injury. Titus, who had shown only cursory interest in Bruce before, now shadowed him everywhere he went—the enormous dog's head level almost with Bruce's shoulder. They had a tendency to glance at each other as though communicating, grave black eyes on grave blue ones, that made her smile. Titus seemed to have a gift for wounded things—his young master, and his older one.
"Lost in thought, Miss Gordon?" Bruce wasn't the only one who moved in unnerving silence; Alfred was the original master of the technique, and for the first time it occurred to her that maybe Bruce hadn't learned movement like that in a Tibetan dojo, but from the English butler he had trailed around after as a little boy.
"Sorry," she said. "Lost in lack of coffee. I need to wake up this morning."
"Have you not been sleeping well?" He was clearing the breakfast things, putting them on a tray, tidying without looking at her.
She hesitated on her answer. "It's. . . I'm fine," she said.
"Perhaps you would rest better were you sleeping with a companion," he said, with a lift of his eyebrows.
"Alfred," she said, in embarrassment. "We're not. . . that was a one-time deal, all right? It isn't. . . like that."
"Of course it isn't," he said.
She felt a quick blush on her cheeks. It didn't seem to bother Bruce or any of the boys, the relative lack of privacy in Wayne Manor, but to Barbara it was difficult to get used to. Nine hundred rooms in this place, and somehow everyone seemed to know what everyone else was doing. Hard for a middle-class girl to get used to. "Alfred," she tried again. "The last thing he needs right now, is. . . thinking about anything other than his. . . than what he needs to be. . ."
"Yes," Alfred replied drily. "I see your point. How terrible it would be, if someone were to take him outside the shell of his own misery and self-loathing. What he ought to be doing is concentrating more on what he has lost. Add to that the horror of being loved by a beautiful, intelligent woman who shares his interests and understands his life experience, and you're right, I can't imagine anything worse."
"I don't," she said. "Love him in that way. In the way you want me to. I'm sorry."
"No apologies necessary. And you're right, of course. Much healthier this way."
"It is, in fact, but thanks for the sarcasm."
"I assure you I'm not being sarcastic when I say that I'm sure you feel about him exactly as he does about you."
That silenced her. It was too close to things she preferred not to think about: Bruce's mouth on hers, Bruce's arms around her, Bruce's gasp of pleasure. "I can't be his fixer, Alfred," she said, more quietly. "I'm not here to put him back together again."
"No," Alfred said, contemplating a coffee spoon. "You're not. But did it occur to you that he might be here to fix you?"
There's nothing wrong with me, it was on the tip of her tongue to reply. But somehow the words would not make it out her mouth. She took a last swallow of orange juice instead. "So out of curiosity," she said, "when was the last time someone won an argument with you?"
"Hard to say," he said. "But the Nixon administration, if I had to estimate. Would you like me to put on more coffee?"
"No," she sighed. "I mean yes, but no. I was thinking I might actually get some work done this morning. And then maybe training down in the Cave. It's been a long time since I've worked out down there."
"I shall have some kale shakes prepared, then. And if you were looking for a quiet place to work, the second-floor morning room in the south wing has the best light, and is very secluded at this time of day."
"Oh. Okay, I'll check it out. Thanks, Alfred."
He was gone as silently as he had come, threading his way back to the kitchen with his tray of breakfast things. After a while she trudged up to the second floor with her laptop, in search of something that might reasonably be called a morning room. Most of the second floor was taken up with bedrooms—Dick's suite, Tim's, Jason's, Damian's. Damian was actually installed in Jason's old set of rooms, because it was closest to Bruce's. She paused at the door of Dick's room; the door was ajar, like Alfred had been in here recently to clean. She caught sight of a Gotham Academy pennant on the wall, and the gleam of a trophy.
Mathletes. What the what even is a mathlete?
Only the coolest kids on campus, I'll have you know. What, your high school doesn't have a Math Squad?
No, you private school dweeb, we have actual sports. What do you guys do for homecoming, all go cheer the squash team?
Har har. Says the girl who lettered in gymnastics.
Oh, shut your piehole, freshman.
She shut the door and pushed down the memories. Every door in this house was treacherous; you never knew what room full of memories you were going to walk into. She could only imagine what it must be like for Bruce. At the end of the corridor she took a left, and found herself in what must be the south wing, if she had her directions right. There was an arched doorway to her left, and an open door: a pretty, octagonal room with butter yellow walls and cream-colored trim. Rose chintz curtains framed the view of the iris garden below, and the lower ceiling here made for a cozy feeling.
It was early fall, and the slight chill was dispelled by the fire crackling in the little fireplace: a merry, cheering blaze. She wandered the room, looking at the photographs—all of them old, none of them people she recognized. There was a desk near the window, and on its corner a rose in a vase—the twin of the rose he had left on Bruce's breakfast tray last week. His favorite rosebush, evidently, but nothing she had seen anywhere else, a sort of fat, old-fashioned looking blossom, like something from a painting. It had a strong scent, and she tipped it forward to sniff at it. There was an inviting electrical socket to the side of the desk, so she plugged in there and got to work.
Her inbox was piled to an alarming degree with mail she had ignored for weeks, and she tried to keep her concentration on the strategy failsafe plans she was supposed to have submitted ten days ago, but it was like she had lost the ability to think in a straight line. After a bit she got up and moved around, thinking it might help. Fall was coming early this year, so she was grateful for the fire. There was an extra log resting to the side of the hearth, so she put that one on too. Of course, all the cozy warmth was just making her drowsier. She leaned her head on the mantel and studied the photographs, trying to figure out who they were, or to puzzle out a family resemblance to Bruce, but she saw none. They were all black and white, so it was hard to tell anyway. There was one fat old woman with a beady-eyed, menacing glare that put her in mind of Damian, but maybe that was her imagination.
One small picture, not in a frame, but tucked into a larger one, caught her eye. It might have been the same old woman, only her glare was softened to a wide smile in this one, and there was a little boy on her lap. He had evidently been caught mid-squirm, with flailing legs and toothy grin, but one glance at his eyes told her who she was looking at.
She went to the little desk she had been sitting at and pulled open the delicate inlaid drawer. Two neat piles of cream linen paper, and a small stack of calling cards: Mrs. Thomas Sutterforth Wayne, read the curlicued script. Martha's desk. She was sitting at Martha Wayne's desk. In Martha Wayne's siting room. "Alfred," she whispered. "What did you do."
And then she saw the door, just to the side of the fireplace: a low door with the same sort of peaked archway the entrance to the morning room had. She put her hand on the door, knowing what was on the other side. And then she pushed it open.
This room was as vast and dark as the morning room had been warm and cheerful. The heavy curtains were drawn, but enough sunlight peeked around them that she could make things out. She had thought Bruce's set of rooms grand, but in comparison she could see that he was living in a nice set of guest rooms. There were tall windows on three sides of this apartment, and a canopied bed that took up half the room. In the corner, by another doorway that probably led to a bathroom or closet, was an ornate dressing table.
She hesitated, then ran her hand over the little table. It was smooth and dusted. This room was cared for, as regularly as the rest of the house. She didn't have to walk through to the dressing rooms to know the clothes would still be in there, neatly hanging and pressed. On Martha's dressing table, her jewelry was still set out, and a drawer of her jewelry chest pulled partly open. She wondered if that was exactly how it had been left. And the little bench, had it been exactly as she had left it? Dare she touch anything in here?
Gently, like she might break something with a wrong move, she sat at the table. The jewelry tray that was partially open sparkled at her, even in the dim light. One ring in particular caught her eye—emerald, maybe? She looked at her reflection in the mirror, and tried to imagine the woman whose table this had been—someone more elegant by far than she, though—God, what a punch in the gut to realize it—not more than a year or two older than she. Martha had married young, and died young.
There was another photograph stuck in the frame of the mirror, half-hidden behind the jewelry case. This one was in color, though faded. Barbara tugged at it. It was hard to see in the dim light, but she could make out enough. A little boy, and it couldn't have been taken that long before Martha's death, because Bruce looked at least eight in this picture. Tall, long-legged, a wickedly mischievous grin, and the same wild motion as the other picture, though he was older in this one. She got the impression of a little boy who had never been still for more than two seconds at a time, and whose family had despaired of a decent photograph, until finally his mother had laughed and stuck this one on her dressing table: her wild rambunctious boy, open-mouthed and probably in the midst of yelling something, running away from the camera and toward his next adventure, dark curls flying.
She knew she started. She couldn't look any guiltier if she'd been rifling through his mother's jewelry, which admittedly she had been on the point of doing. "Sorry," she said. "Alfred sent me to the—and then the door. . . I was snooping, I'm sorry."
He was looking around the room, still just in the doorway from the morning room—or Martha's room, more accurately. The carpets had not been taken up here as they had in most of the rest of the house, and the thick pile of the Aubusson rug would make it hard for him to maneuver. But he rolled into the room, hesitantly. She didn't get the impression he came here much, if at all. It would be Alfred who maintained it. Suddenly she was angry that Bruce lived in a mausoleum, not a house, and that he occupied the guest suite, not the master rooms. Eternally a guest in his own house.
He was looking at something on a table, a little carved object of some sort. "Always used to get yelled at for fiddling with this," he said lightly. "As much as my father ever yelled, which is to say what other people would call a mildly firm tone. It's a bit of antelope horn he got in Africa, when he did some medical work there. He always said he wanted to go back some day."
He set the horn down. She had never wanted so much to take someone in her arms and just hold him there. But that would violate their unspoken agreement. And she wouldn't be able to put her arms around him without wanting to touch him, to press against him, to feel those hands gripping her.
He wheeled to the dressing table, looking at the things on it. "I used to like to watch her get ready," he said. "I suppose. . . you must think it's strange, keeping all this here."
"No. Well. A little. Do you come in here a lot?"
"Never," he said. "Which is possibly even stranger. Uncomfortable as it might have been before, it's worse now, after I've failed."
That took the wind out of her, and she sat back down on the little bench. "Failed," she repeated. "You can't possibly—is that really what you think? That you failed in what you set out to do?"
"Didn't I?" And she saw that his question wasn't rhetorical, not in the least. On instinct she knelt in front of him and clasped his hands.
"How can you say that," she said, her heart in her throat. "Look at what you built. You and you alone, you built all this. Dick, and me, and Jason, and Tim, and Damian, and—and all the Birds of Prey, all of us, and together you and Clark built the Justice League, and Bruce, what you started, the vision you had, it's larger than just you alone, and it will keep going whether you're in a wheelchair or in your grave, it doesn't stop with you. You built the most powerful thing in the world, you built an idea, you built an inspiration, you built. . ." Her words failed her, and she gripped his knees.
"You built a family," she said. "And they would be so proud of you."
He was just watching her. "Interesting," was all he said. "A matter of perspective, I guess. Anyway, I came looking for you because there's something I need to show you, down in the Cave."
"Oh." She rose quickly, suddenly self-conscious about kneeling in front of him like the over-earnest prelude to a musical. "Um. All right."
She followed him out, shutting the door to the bedroom behind her. They were quiet on the way to the Cave. She wondered if she should apologize for being in the morning room, but he didn't seem bothered by her presence there, and she didn't want to throw Alfred under the bus by saying it had been his idea, whatever his little game had been. She was surprised to see Bruce so offhandedly headed down to the Cave, because as far as she knew he hadn't been down there since his injury. It was one of the things that had Dick in knots, she knew. She watched him out the corner of her eye as they took the elevator down, but his face was impassive as ever.
In the Cave, he rolled to the front of the largest bank of monitors and flipped a few tabs open. A map of South Africa appeared, and pinpointed in red, the clinic. Her clinic. That clinic. Something in her stomach lurched.
"Bruce," she breathed. "That's not. . . my injury was very different from yours, and I don't think there's any way—"
"I'm not an idiot," he snapped. "Despite your consistent attempts to treat me as though my brain stem was severed, not my spine. Take a look at this."
She chewed her lip in silence, because if she didn't bite to the blood, she would snap back at him, hard. And that would go nowhere good. It stung, because she could count on the fingers of one hand—or less—how many times Bruce had been short with her. She'd seen him say cutting things to Dick, to Jason, to just about everyone around him at one time or another, but almost never to her. Of course, that had been before he'd fucked her. Now that that was out of his system, maybe he had no further reason to need anything from her.
He was calling up a list of images, place names, financial records. "Do you recognize this man?"
"Yeah," she said. "That was my surgeon. Curtis Kevenzie."
"He's under investigation by the South African authorities, for medical and financial fraud. He hasn't been charged yet, but Interpol's got the records of the investigation, if you'd like to take a look."
"Not really," she said. The odd feeling in her stomach was not going away.
"Kevenzie's made a great deal of money from his revolutionary spinal treatments, as his bank records here can attest. That in itself is surprising. The clinic takes only a handful of patients each year, and is supposed to be run as a non-profit, with patient payments going back into research. So that's when the South African police got interested. Probably about the same time he got greedy and stopped paying them protection money, but that's another story."
"Why are you showing me this," she said.
"Because I think Kevenzie made his money selling things he shouldn't have, on the black market."
"Selling what," she said, through numb lips, because she knew the answer, she knew it before he said it, in some part of her she had to have always known.
"Eggs," he said. "Human eggs. Eggs harvested from his patients. Yes, I think it's likely the reproductive organ removal began as a precaution, but it quickly occurred to him what a lucrative business opportunity he had, ready to hand. It's difficult to piece together from these spotty records, but I believe he's been selling harvested eggs to the European market for years."
She clutched the back of the chair next to her, just a small tight-knuckled grip. "I thought it was strange," he said, "your mention of your ovaries. The ovaries are actually enormously resistant to radiation cancers; in the event of any danger, normally the uterus and cervix are removed, and the ovaries left intact. So it aroused my suspicions, and I did a little digging."
"Excuse me," she said, and walked quickly to the Cave's bathroom, just around the corner. She secured the door, then fell to her knees and retched up the contents of her breakfast into the toilet. She splashed water on her face, grey in the dim mirror, and re-emerged grim and tight-jawed. He had turned to face her.
"There was a better way to tell you that, I'm sure," he said. "But I've never known you to want anything but the truth."
She nodded, not yet trusting herself to speak. "Is there," she said, and cleared her throat. "Is there any way to know. . ."
He shook his head. "No. Kevenzie was smart about sales, which is why it's taken so long to figure it out. There's no lump sum pay-out received shortly after your time at the clinic. It's likely he harvests eggs and freezes them, waiting for years, maybe, for a prospective buyer."
She hated the leap inside her at that, at the possibility. . . "So it's conceivable he hasn't sold yet," she said. She couldn't bear to use any nouns in that sentence, couldn't stand to say sold my eggs.
"It's conceivable," he said, cocking his head at her curiously. "However, I will say I don't think he would have hung onto your eggs for very long. You had to have been the hottest commodity to walk through his door in years—beautiful, highly educated, under thirty. Plenty of buyers would be willing to overlook the hair. He could have gotten about forty thousand per egg. With a pay-off like that, Kevenzie would probably have seized the day. It's likely he found a buyer as soon as possible."
She nodded. She could go there, to South Africa. She could bust down his door, throw the little wormy snake against a glass wall, crack his head open, demand that he give her back what he had stolen from her.
"I wouldn't," he was saying, like he knew exactly what she was thinking, which of course he did. "Leave this one to the authorities. They're close to closing this case, and if there's anything to be recovered from his clinic, they'll see to it. Interpol has an agent on the ground there right now. Kevenzie's just weeks away from custody, if not days."
She nodded again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I thought you would want to know this."
"You had no right," she said quietly. "You did not have the right."
"It's information, and I had every right to collect it."
"It's information that hurts, and you shared it with me because you wanted to hurt me. So tell me, what is it you couldn't forgive—that I won't sleep with you again, or that I can walk and you can't?"
She had seen him take a six-inch blade to his middle without showing any tell, or slowing by even a fraction. He didn't flinch at this, either. He did take the time to shut down the windows he had open on the screen, before he turned back to her.
"You once reminded me you were an Irish cop's daughter," he said. "So I thought that if you wanted to kick me in the balls, you would at least do it with your foot."
He wheeled past her, to the elevator, leaving her standing alone in the Cave. She had been standing there staring at the wide blank screens for some time before she realized she was still holding the faded picture from Martha Wayne's dressing table.
"Hah!" Dick shouted. "Too slow, Batgirl!"
She laughed and countered with a swinging slice to his middle. It hit home, temporarily shoving him back onto the ropes. "Now who's too slow," she panted.
When they had started sparring half an hour ago, there had been a lot more talk; now, they had settled into a steady, exhausting rhythm. Fighting Dick had always been her greatest challenge—their styles were so similar, so balletic, that it was impossible for either of them to pin the other. It felt good to know she could still hold her own with Dick, even after having set aside the Batgirl suit last year. She had thought she could never pick it up again, but after just a few minutes back in the ring with Dick, she had realized it would take her maybe a week of constant conditioning to be in peak form again. As it was, Dick could only get in a few blows; when she was at her best, she would only ever feel the wind from his escrima sticks.
Not bad, was the first thing Bruce had ever said about her fighting, back when she was still largely untrained. No two words had ever made her glow with praise more.
"Concentrate," Dick called out as a stick glanced off her shoulder. But he was a fraction too slow, or he underestimated her. She had him by the wrist and on his back with an effortless flip. He laughed and rolled out of it.
"Cheater," she said.
"You'll have to do better than that, BG," he said with another piratical grin. "Some of us have spent the last eighteen months training, instead of sitting behind a desk with our feet up."
"And some of us talk too much," she said, landing the death blow. Flat on his back, and almost got the wind out of him, too. She kicked at a stick with her heel, spun it into her hand, and jammed it a millimeter from his throat. "Game, set, match, motherfucker."
"Language," he said, still smiling. She extended a hand to help him up, and that was when she saw Bruce. He was in a darkened corner, and had obviously been watching for some time. And that was where her lack of training made the difference, because in a real fight, with her focus narrowed to Dick like that, she could have been dead. That had been one of the amazing things about seeing Bruce fight, was how electrically aware he had been of every single thing in his environment—like another sense, inaccessible to normal people, or like a kind of magical vision. He had known not only the next five moves his opponent was going to make, but the next five moves of everyone surrounding him, in a 500-foot radius.
But did you ever see him fight? someone might ask her, years from now. The first Batman, the real one? What was it like? And she would smile and say, like nothing you could ever imagine.
"Hey B," Dick said, vaulting over the sparring ring's ropes. "I was just about to head up and see you. You have a little time for me?"
"Of course," Bruce said. Dick was toweling at his hair while he rummaged in his bag.
"Great, because I've got a case that's driving me nuts. Probably should have asked your opinion a while ago, but what can I say, I have some pride issues. Feel like taking a look?"
"All right," Bruce said. Bruce wheeled to the low desk near the monitors, and Dick spread his file out. Bruce bent his head over the file, examining what Dick had, and Dick bent his head beside Bruce's. He glanced up at Barbara, and she smiled at him, gratefully. God bless Dick. She left them to it, heading to hit the showers. She took a long time, letting herself soak in the scalding water, trying to give them as much time to themselves as she could. When she came out, she quietly gathered her things, trying not to disturb them. They had evidently just finished, because Dick was nodding, gathering up the file. She saw him bend down and brush his lips against Bruce's cheek.
What? he had said, the first time she had seen him do that.
You just kissed Batman, she had said, eyes wide.
Um. . . yeah? Why wouldn't I?
Because. . . because. . . I don't know. Because who does that?!
Me, he had said. And that was the truth. Everyone else had always given Bruce his space, or rather, had respected the fifty-foot razor-topped wall of space that Bruce erected around himself. Dick was the one who cheerily vaulted over it like he'd never even seen it, like it wasn't even there. Only Dick.
She got some more work done upstairs, feeling a little more on top of that anyway, and then spent the rest of the afternoon helping Alfred with grocery shopping. It felt good to be out of the Manor, and good to be of practical use. She was of less and less use to Bruce, these days, and though he still accepted her help with his exercises and physical therapy, the truth was he was quickly becoming fully independent, and probably her presence was more irritating than helpful. Her phone buzzed while she was in the store, and she ducked into a secluded nook of produce to take it, when she saw it was Dick.
"Hey," she said. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah, everything's good. I just—listen, I didn't get a chance to say this today, and it needs saying, so don't interrupt."
"I'm not interrupting!"
"Well, you kind of just did, but whatever. Babs. I was so out of line, the other day. What I said to you, the way I was about Bruce. I mean, you were right, my head's just not on straight right now, but. . . my only point is, you were right, and I'm sorry."
"It's already forgotten," she said with a smile, moving aside for a harried mother of three who was side-eying the nectarines. "And listen, thanks for what you did today, for pulling Bruce into your case there. He needs something like that to occupy him, instead of my medical history."
"You medical history?"
"It's just—never mind, long story."
"Okay," he said skeptically. "But the truth is, that was actually about helping me, not him. And I was thinking. I mean, having Batgirl back would be great and all, but the truth is, we've missed having an Oracle, someone with their finger on all the buttons, a central information-gathering source. Any chance you could talk that up to Bruce, see if maybe that's something he'd be interested in?"
"Yeah," she said, thumbing some avocados. She could make some fresh guacamole tonight, with some of the cilantro Alfred had got from the market. "Sure, I can try. It's a great idea. But he's more likely to listen to you than to me."
He laughed on the other end. "The fact that you believe that is completely hilarious."
"Dick, come on. The two of you have come so far, don't be like that."
"I wasn't actually making a comment on my relationship with Bruce. Look, my point is, I was an asshole. Can we just forget every time I was ever an asshole to you, and move on?"
"Let's not do that," she said. "I'm going to need some memories of our friendship."
She could hear the grin in his voice. "This is an abusive relationship," he said. "I need help."
"No argument here, Boy Wonder."
She lay in bed that night thinking about that conversation, and Dick's idea of Bruce becoming a kind of Oracle. He would need a new code name, something of his own. Teiresias? No, that managed to be both terrifying and insulting at the same time. Bruce was neither old nor blind. What was the name of the prophet in the Iliad, was it Helenus? No, that was a no go. "Sphinx," she said aloud. That was it, that was the name he needed. Body of a lion, torso of a man—the ultimate myth of bodily disconnect, along with the impassive wisdom of the ages. . . it was perfect. She would talk to him about it in the morning.
And then there was the other conversation she needed to have with him. He no longer needed her around as much as he had, and there was no way of ignoring it any longer. It was not a conversation she was looking forward to, not least because he would probably brusquely agree and move on. And this way. . . this way, at least she could be around him, even if they both knew they would never touch each other in that way again. Too many pitfalls lay that way, and Dick's presence, and his improved relationship with Bruce, just pointed out how dangerous it would be. Dick would have to come first, for Bruce, and that was as it should be. He would never jeopardize his relationship with his son for her sake.
She drifted off to sleep and woke what felt like hours later, though a glance at the clock said it was just forty-five minutes. For a second she wasn't sure what had woken her, until she heard it again—a crystalline sound, strangely familiar and yet out of place. She raised her head and saw Bruce, sitting next to her bed, a glass in his hand.
He raised it to his lips and drank again, watching her. "Bruce?" Her voice was sleep-froggy. "What's going on?"
He took another swallow of his drink. The ice tinkled in his glass, and she could smell it now, a rich heady scotch-y smell. She'd never seen Bruce with a glass of anything stronger than champagne in his hand. "What's the matter?" She raised up all the way now, pulling the sheet closer.
"Did I wake you?"
"Um. . . yes? Seriously, Bruce, what are you doing in my room? How long have you been sitting there?"
"A while. You looked cold, so I covered you up. You have a tendency to kick the covers off."
"Okay, thanks for creeping me out. What on earth are you. . ." She squinted at him. It was something in the strangeness of his voice. "Bruce. Are you drunk?"
"Yes," he said. "I expect so. How did you and Dick get on today?"
"Ah. . . great, I guess. It was good. You were there."
"Yes," he said again. "That I was." There was a biting tone to his voice, as strange as the slight slurring.
"You're a piece of work," she said softly.
"That I am."
"So we could do one of two things. We could talk about why you're in my room at one in the morning, or we could sit here and I could watch you drink yourself stupid."
"The latter, I think."
"You're an idiot."
"Bruce. Dick and I are friends, forever and always. Closer than that, maybe. He's the brother I should have had, instead of the one I got. The brother I always wished I had. Whatever else there was, that's a long time in the rearview mirror."
"Maybe not for him," he observed.
"Maybe not. But I'm not going to live my life in deference to his feelings. Please stop drinking that."
"Make you uncomfortable?"
"Yes. I don't like it. Please stop."
He snorted. "What a prissy little schoolmarm you are. Your father can put away his liquor, I've seen him do it. You ought to drink with him someday, if you weren't too much of a self-righteous good girl to do it."
"Fuck you," she said steadily. "Get out of my room, you asshole."
"You should be with him," he said. "It's what ought to happen. He's your age—or close enough—he's got all his limbs, he's beautiful like you, and he loves you. He's what you need."
"Who are you trying to convince?"
"So I see. How's that going?"
"Okay," she said. She got up and locked her door. Then she pulled her nightgown over her head until she was standing there naked. She heard him breathe out, heard the breath catch in his throat.
"We're done," she said. "Enough of this bullshit. Enough of you punishing yourself and me for what we want. Get your clothes off, get in my bed, and fuck me until we both come our brains out. When did you last come?"
"This morning," he said. "Thinking about you. What the hell do you want with me in your bed, with some—I can't do anything in bed, I can't—I'm—" He put his head in his hands.
"Get in my bed," she repeated. "Let it just be that I need to come, then. Can you help me with that?"
She heard him swallow. He maneuvered his chair closer to the bed. She saw the hesitation in every line of his body. This was naked, for him: the humiliation of hoisting his body onto a bed, the awkwardness of trying to undress that body. It had always been her least favorite part of the day.
When he was on the bed, she crawled on top of him, stretched out, grinding against him. "Oh God," he whispered. "I want. . . in you."
She was unzipping him deftly. "Mouth or hand?"
"Hand. I'll come if you use your mouth."
"Maybe I want that. Maybe I like the feel of you coming in my mouth. Then maybe I can crawl up and grind on your face until I come too."
"God," he said again. She had not stopped working him with her hand. She knew how aroused he was, how frustrated at his body's slow response. Her own body had gone from zero to sixty in about three seconds flat, and she wanted only to grind on that magnificent cock. She unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled down his pants. She hesitated, then decided what the hell, and stripped him all the way—shoes, socks, everything. He let her do it. She crawled back up him, still working him with her hand.
"Can I just," she panted, and "Please," he said. She straddled him and started grinding, letting the wet slide of her cunt drag along his half-hard cock.
"Jesus Christ," he said, like he was in pain. His fingers were bruising her.
"God you feel so good, just like this. Can I come just like this," she managed. In answer his hands gripped her ass, pulled her in. He couldn't thrust, but his strong grip on her, moving her up and down, felt every bit as good. His cock nestled right in her folds, pushing at her clit with every rub.
His arm curled around her neck, holding her in place. "Come on," he whispered. "Come on me."
"Fuck," she groaned, rubbing hard to her climax. The soft fleshy ridge of his cock was slick, making wet obscene noises as she rode him. "Fuck," she moaned, even louder, flooding him with more wet.
"Yes," he breathed, those fingers crushing her ass. Hot light poured out her cunt, soaked him.
"Holy shit." She tried to bring her breathing down. She rested her forehead against his. "Holy fucking wow. Sorry."
"Please," he whispered. "Oh God please."
"I've got you, baby."
He was going to require tons of stimulation to get hard, tonight. She slicked her fingers in her own juices, lubing them as well as she could, and moved his legs apart. "Ahh," he moaned, as she pushed slowly at his hole. "Oh. . . fuck."
He could take two of her slender fingers, no problem. She found the gland and rubbed, and watched him practically peel apart—arms shaking, mouth open. "Bar—Barbara. . . I can't. . ."
He was full hard now, and dripping. He was curling up on the bed, spine lifting him half off. "Ah, fuck, I can't stop it," he sobbed, and come was dribbling out in thick dollops as she milked him. "Ah—fuck!" His torso writhed, spasmed. The clench around her fingers was brutal as his body rode the waves of his orgasm, slow and excruciating.
She eased her fingers out and crawled back on top of him, breathing hard. "Listen to me," she husked. "You listen good. That is the hottest thing that has ever happened to me in bed. You are the fucking hottest thing."
He moaned and crushed her to him. She couldn't tell if he was still shaking from what was obviously a blinding orgasm, or sobbing. "Kiss me," he whispered. "Why won't you kiss me."
"Oh baby," she said, half-laughing because she realized that she had, indeed, forgotten that part. "Why are you so sexy, tell me that." And then she lifted her head.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Wait just a goddamned minute. Overlook the hair? What the hell did that mean?"
He pulled back to look at her. "Took you a while, didn't it?"
"Overlook the hair?"
"Kevenzie's selling to a European market. Red hair is seen as unattractive there, is what I meant. Or at least, not a selling point. It was a comment on European culture."
"Oh was it now."
She felt the soft breath of his laughter, and then he had knotted a thick hand in her hair. "You don't need me to tell you you're beautiful."
"Hmph." She collapsed back onto his chest. "Ow," she sighed. "When will I learn not to do that. Please, please, please eat a pie or something."
He was kissing the side of her face, along her jaw. Her body did this thing where it insisted on melting into him, and she couldn't seem to stop it. Well, maybe their bodies were wiser than they. "Oh hey," she said sleepily. "Before I forget. Some number called the house phone, but didn't leave a message. I tried to call it back, but it was some pet store?"
He gave a short laugh. "Selina," he said. "I'll call her tomorrow."
She tried to hide the stiffening in her body, and the cold lick of unpleasantness that curled up her spine. To be fair, she had never cared for Selina; the woman had always given her the heebie-jeebies. It wasn't all because of Bruce. Or at least, she would prefer to think it wasn't. He was pulling her closer now, stroking her sides, kissing her neck. She wiped at his abdomen with the sheet so she wouldn't get rubbed in the wet spot. "Mmm," he murmured. "Jealousy's not so ridiculous when you're the one feeling it, is it?"
"I didn't say I was jealous."
"Mm hm. I'm willing to bet the list of your conquests is longer than mine."
"What? Are you even kidding me?" She propped her chin on her hands, peering down her nose at him. "You have like a twenty year head start on me, for one thing."
He winced. "Seventeen years, three weeks. Let's not make it worse."
"Mm." She was toying with his chest hair, wrapping bits of it around her finger. "Ever been fucked?"
"Male or female?"
"Really." She raised her head, all interest now. "Anyone I know?"
He was quiet, which was her answer. "Want me to stop asking questions?" she asked.
"No," he said softly.
"Was it Clark?"
"Yes." If he felt the quick flinch of excitement that ran through her body at that, he didn't show it. His eyes were studying her closely, though. "You like the thought of that?"
"Yes. What was it like?"
There was a small twist in the corner of his mouth. "Good," he said.
"What, just good? You went to bed with Superman, and 'good' is the best you can do?"
"All right, fine. It was unbelievable. Cathartic. Transcendent. Euphoric. Catastrophic."
"Now you're just making shit up."
He was stroking her ass, rubbing at the top of her thigh, then back up to the top of her ass. "It was a long time ago," he said. "After a mission that went disastrously wrong. We were. . . pretty devastated. Diana, Clark, and I. We were in need of some comfort."
"Hold up," she said, and now she sat all the way up. "Hold hold hold hold up the bus. You are not about to tell me you had a threesome with Clark and Diana, are you?"
"Ah. . . what is the right answer to that question?"
"Holy shit," she said, collapsing on him again. Only this time, she tightened her legs around him, pushing her groin against him. "Holy goddamn wow. Unnf."
"You like that," he said.
"Tell me," she whispered.
"Come here," he said. She scooted up closer to his mouth, and he poured the whole filthy story into her ear, his breath shuddering her. And as he spoke, his hand worked down, cupping her, rubbing at her, a finger now and again grazing her clit. She came twice that way—once when he was describing fucking Diana, and once when he was describing Clark fucking him. At the end he had what felt like his whole fist in her cunt, and he was doing something with his finger she wasn't sure she had ever felt before, but she rode his hand and cried out at the smut he was pouring in her ears: so good, it was so good, his cock in me did things I've never felt, he had my legs around his waist and I came so hard, without a hand on me, he came in me until I could feel it dripping out me—
"Fuck fuck God," she cried out and arched, fucking his hand, coming until the back of her eyelids stung and she was wracked for breath. She had to grip his arm to stop him from moving any more inside her, it was too much, too much.
He had gotten fully hard against her again. "Would it be all right," he whispered, and she slid down his length, so wet that she barely even felt the adjustment to his size this time. He shut his eyes and gripped the sheets.
"What I wouldn't give," he groaned, "for some control."
"But have you considered," she whispered, "not having control." And she rode him, slowly, just enough to drive him insane. She curled down closer to his ear.
"I don't think I've ever told you," she said, "about what happened with me and Dinah, when she and Ollie were separated. Is that a story you might like to hear?"
His groan at that was so loud she was certain Alfred was probably flinging back the covers in his third-floor bedroom and running to telephone the police. "Shhh," she said. "Be a good boy. Be quiet for me, and I'll tell you how Dinah made me come so hard I soaked through three layers of clothes. I'll tell you about the time we fucked on the training floor."
And though she knew her skills were nothing like his when it came to weaving fantasies, she was both inventive and articulate, and his every groan spurred her to new filth. "It feels so good," she whispered, "to have another clit rubbing against yours, to feel wet pussy underneath yours, to ride it. Would you like to feel that?"
"God—God yes," he whispered back.
"I like it almost better than getting fucked," she said. "Though she and I've done that, too." And she told him about the time with the strap-on, which in retrospect sounded much hotter than it had been—the reality was that it had been clumsy and messy and they had tossed it aside, laughing, after about five minutes, going back to mouths and hands and the delicious grinding that made her come so hard. But she made it sound good for him, filling in the details that her memory had elided, and speeding up her fucking as she went, until he gripped her shoulders to the point of pain and emptied himself in her, convulsing with pleasure.
She was well and truly tired by that time, so she curled up beside him, throwing a leg over him in case he tried to escape. She slept hard, and woke up some hours later to find him awake and still just watching her. A hand was stroking through her hair, which was maybe what had roused her.
"Sorry," he whispered.
"Go sleep," she mumbled.
"I can sleep later," he said, and she drifted back. When she woke next it was full blazing daylight. She sat bolt upright, knowing before she knew it that something was wrong. There was no sign that Bruce had ever been here, except for the scotch glass that had left a ring on her endtable. She pulled on clothes hastily and trotted downstairs, but breakfast was long over, and no one was around—no sounds of Damian's morning rambunctiousness or Alfred's morning bustle in the kitchen.
"Hello?" she called, and found Alfred emerging from the laundry room with a grim look on his face. "Alfred? Where is everybody?"
"Master Damian has started his lessons, but I set some breakfast aside for you," he said. Every line on his face confirmed the wrongness, and she fought the rising tide in her clenching stomach.
"What's happened," she managed.
Alfred pulled something out of his jacket and looked at it with distaste. "I begged him not to do this," he said. "But when he is determined, there is no stopping him, as well you know." And then he put the letter in her hand, the thin envelope with Barbara written on the outside of it in that inimitable scrawl.
"He didn't," she said.
"He left before dawn." Alfred looked like he had aged ten years—so tired, so sad. "I don't know when he will be back. I can't say that he will be back, the truth is. I'm sorry, Miss Gordon. I've done what I can for him, for as many years as I can, but in all sober sadness, that's little enough. He cannot be other than what he is. The truth is, he was broken long before what happened in that warehouse."
She looked at the letter in her hand. She didn't need to read it, had no desire to read it. She nodded. Part of her had known, the minute she had woken to an empty bed.
"Thank you, Alfred," she said, and she gave the old man a peck on the cheek, before wandering upstairs to pack. There weren't that many of her things at the Manor, and it took her maybe forty minutes. She took with her only one thing that wasn't hers, and she stood there debating it for a while.
In the end, she stuck the faded little photograph in the corner of her suitcase, and zipped it shut.
The Batfamily — and Barbara — deal with the aftermath of Bruce's disappearance.
There was a part of her that thought he might be back.
Not the rational part of her; not the part that knew Bruce. But the part of her from which optimism could not be eradicated, and you didn't go from wheelchair-bound to walking on your own two legs again without some serious optimism being injected into you along the way. Optimism was a necessary by-product of her life experience, much as she tried to suppress it. So yes, she hoped.
It wasn't as though she didn't know why. Bruce had run off for the same reason cats ran off to die. Bruce wasn't dying, but maybe in a way he was, too. The Bruce he had been, the Bruce he had made himself into: that Bruce was gone, and wouldn't be coming back, and finally, he had not had the fortitude to live his disability in public, in full sight of his family, of everyone he loved. Fortitude wasn't the right word. Fortitude made it sound like Bruce was lacking some essential quality that would have made normal life possible, and she knew it wasn't like that. There were things he could do, and things he couldn't, and this was just the thing he couldn't do.
But still, she hoped.
She hoped in the first week, and she hoped through the second week. She hoped when the first month had passed, and the second. She checked in with Alfred almost every day, though the old man's grief, the extent of his disappointment, was hard to look at. That was harder to forgive Bruce than anything. Damian was far more resilient, and his hope never wavered: his father would be coming back now, soon. Any day. He had important things to do, things too difficult for mere mortals to understand. She didn't doubt Damian had received a letter too, telling him those things — or maybe not, and Damian had filled in Bruce's reticences with convenient half-truths, with fabrications of his own making.
"He'll figure it out, sooner or later," Dick said to her, one evening over coffee. She made a point of connecting with him at least weekly, even if it was for nothing more than sitting in a coffee shop and sipping overpriced lattes.
"Figure what out?"
"That he's not coming back. That this is just what Bruce does. Sooner or later, the kid was bound to be disappointed by Bruce. Occupational hazard." The old bite was back in Dick's voice, when he talked about Bruce.
"Maybe," she said.
"Yeah, figured you'd say that."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, you were always the one who believed the best of him. For the rest of us, the ones around him on a daily basis, it was a little harder."
She stirred her coffee and weighed her words. "Maybe," she said, "I just never expected him to be anything other than human."
Dick was looking at her, curiously. "He abandoned his son," he said. "Left Damian to be raised by Alfred and me, basically. He abandoned all of us, walked away from his whole life because it got too difficult for him to deal with. And in your book, that's just being human?"
"I know something about walking away," she said. "My mom did the same thing. People make mistakes."
"People make choices. And Bruce's choices suck."
"You're going to have to find a way to forgive him, Dick."
"No, I really don't. Not this time, because he's not coming back. Or do you somehow still think he is?"
"I don't know," she said.
"Well, I do. Take it from the world's lifetime expert on Bruce Wayne. And you know what? It doesn't matter, it really doesn't. Because even if he did come back, even if he came through the door of this shitty coffee shop right now, I wouldn't give a fuck. I'm done, okay? This is me, being a thousand and fifty percent done with his manipulative bullshit."
She listened in silence, knowing he was saying the things he needed to say. What other safe place did he have, to spill his bitterness and anger and hurt? He couldn't bring it to Alfred, or to his brothers. She nodded, and made noises where he needed her to, and kept her thoughts to herself. Besides, it wasn't like Dick was wrong. He was the one who was the realist. He was probably right, about Bruce never coming back.
But hope was hard to kill.
By the fourth month, even her optimism was beginning to suffocate. And in the fifth month, she put on her suit and went patrolling. There was no one else to do it: Dick wouldn't leave Bludhaven, Tim preferred more and more to work with Dick, and Jason. . . well, Jason's work was not her work. Gotham needed a Bat, and there was no one else to do it.
Her first few nights back on patrol were exhilarating. She made miscalculation after miscalculation, but she recovered quickly enough. Mainly it felt incredible to be Batgirl again, to let herself be who she was. She took to sleeping most of the day and staying out all night, a lifestyle she hadn't been able to afford before, but with her stockpiled income from the last year's work, lots of things were suddenly possible that hadn't been before. She bought a condo with a basement that she could turn into a miniature Cave of sorts, or at least a place to store her computers and weapons. And with every night, she grew in strength and confidence; with every take-down, she became more dangerous to the criminal tide continually threatening to engulf her city.
"Isn't there something you can do for Master Damian," Alfred said to her quietly one evening. "I fear for him. He's been trying to obey his father's command, about not going on patrol alone, but the leash is. . . beginning to fray. I'm wondering, would you consider. . ."
"No," she said. "Just, no. Alfred, come on, no. You can't possibly—just no."
He lifted his eyebrows, and she groaned. She put her head on the table. They were sitting in the Manor's kitchen, late one night after Damian was in bed. "I can't believe you're making me do this," she said.
"I don't believe I am making you do anything, Miss Gordon."
She sighed and fixed him with a beady glare. "That's the way you want to play it, is it."
"That's the way."
"Fine. Tell him to be ready tomorrow night."
Damian was reconciled to the lack of Batmobile by her motorcycle, though he was unpersuaded by her explanation as to why a twelve-year-old couldn't drive it. She suspected it wouldn't last, but he was actually surprisingly docile—took orders well, didn't challenge her too much, more or less did as he was told. He was quietly watchful. Suspicious, of course, but probably it helped that she wasn't male, and didn't seem like a replacement for his father.
"Alfie's got you taking Simba for a little exercise now?" The voice behind her took her aback, because damn, once again she had failed to secure her perimeter. She covered, and was glad she had given no sign. Red Hood vaulted to the building cornice beside her, joining her as she watched Damian from above.
"If you're referring to your brother—"
"Don't be such a priss," Jason said. He settled heavily onto the ledge, swinging his legs, and he lifted his hood. "And I'm not complaining. Me, I've been glad of the company the last couple of weeks. Nice to see Batgirl kicking some ass again, which by the way not bad. So is this a permanent sort of gig, or are you just slumming? Oh no, let me guess—with his dying breath Bruce bequeathed his noble struggle to you, and now you carry on in his name, amirite?"
"Bruce isn't dead," she said. "Which you know."
"Might as well be, though." He flipped out a knife and began picking dirt from his fingernails with it, flicking it into the alley below. "Come on, don't be pissed at me. You and me, we've always gotten along okay. You're not half as insufferable as the rest of the Bats."
"Which you're one of," she pointed out. "Much as you might want people to think otherwise."
"Huh." He grunted and switched hands with his knife. "So what do you hear from the old man?" He kept his eyes on his hands, carefully casual.
"Nothing," she said. "And I won't."
"Now you sound like Dickie," he said.
"Since when do you talk to Dick?"
His glance at her was keen. "Dickiebird and I talk more than you know, Miss Captain of the Pep Squad. And sometimes we do more than talk."
"Then if you talk to Dick, you know neither one of us has heard from him, and you know that we won't."
"Okay, fine," he drawled, "so if the old man's not coming back, how come you're here? The way I understood it was, you were only in town to help him get back on his feet—in a metaphorical way, of course. And now, what, you're Batgirl again, taking names, kicking ass? And how's that work, anyway? How many more years before you get to be Batwoman, or do you and Kate have to fight to the death for that one?"
"Don't know," she said.
"It's just, you're getting to be a little long in the tooth to be Batgirl, aren't you?"
"I took your point the first time. You're kind of a talker." She leaned over the edge to track Damian's movements.
"Maybe. That's one thing Dickiebird wasn't wrong about, is how useful talking can be as a distraction, in a fight. Kind of gets to be a habit, though. And maybe being raised by someone who can barely squeeze a whole sentence out his a-hole once a month makes you anxious for the sound of your own voice, any voice."
She ignored him and shot out a line, swooping down to the alley where Damian was about to take a wrong turn that would land him in the tail end of the thugs' dragnet. Also, she was eager to get away from Jason, who had a way of being an overly keen observer. She was used to that, being raised around Batboys, but not all of them had quite the mouth Jason did, and the propensity for sharing those observations.
And in the sixth month, she stopped listening to every other voice around her, and heard only the one inside.
"Miss Gordon," Alfred said in pleasant surprise, one Thursday afternoon. She had visited him the night before, so he had no reason to expect her presence today. She strode past him and headed to the Cave's conservatory entrance.
"I'm going to need some help down in the Cave, Alfred," she said. "There are going to be some changes made."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, and she heard the pleased tone of his voice, as well as the underlayer of well about goddamn time.
In the Cave, she rolled back the heavy vaulted door that secured the Batsuit. She stood there, considering it. Alfred stood beside her, and in silence they looked at it. "Hard to do?" she said, because she didn't fool herself her thoughts were a mystery to Alfred, of all people.
"I think not," he said. "It will take a few days' work, of course."
"I have one day," she said. "We'll work around the clock."
"Yes ma'am," he said again.
She stood in front of the mirror, looking at her naked reflection. A lean, honed body that bulged with muscle in the quads and calves. There were a few scars and scrapes on the upper body; nothing like the fine network lacing Bruce's, that—
She pushed that thought aside, pushed aside every thought of him. Like meditating, when you opened your mind, and it would get flooded with thoughts that were irrelevant, unwelcome. The trick was to receive the thoughts, accept them, and send them on their way. Bruce had taught her that; he had—
No. Push it aside.
With a serene mind, she raised the scissors. She did not stop until the floor was carpeted with bright auburn locks. She kept going until there was only a cap of hair left, and she trimmed that, trying to make it look less shaggy, more finished. No sense looking less than her best. She would probably need a hairdresser to finish the edges, make it look more polished and less like someone with emotional problems had been hacking at herself in the bathroom—which, to be honest, was a pretty fair summary of events.
She leaned over the sink and shook out stray bits of hair, then used the water to smooth it back down. It felt amazing, to run her hands over the short ends of her hair, to feel her scalp beneath. Weirdly empowering.
Then she pulled on the bathrobe hanging nearby. It swallowed her, and she had a vertiginous moment of feeling like a child playing dress-up, but she pushed that thought aside too, as unworthy. She would buy a new robe, one that fit, and hang it in here. This one could go join the rest of the clothes mausoleum upstairs. Alfred was going to run out of empty rooms to maintain. Well, that could be fixed too.
She stepped out of the bathroom and into the Cave. "Ready?" Alfred said.
"Let's go," she said curtly, dropping the robe. He held out the suit, and began snapping the armor plating in place as she stood, limbs extended, letting him. It fit; it fit like a deadly glove. All their careful work and adjustment had paid off.
"Perfect, if I do say so myself, si—ma'am," and she heard the quick correction, but it made her smile.
"I think so too," she said. Last was the cowl, and it slipped into place over her newly-shorn head effortlessly. There was no more hair to get in her way. She flexed her fingers in the gauntlets as he tugged them on her.
"That will do," she said. She didn't need to stand in front of a mirror to know how she looked; she could see it in Alfred's face, feel it in every pore of her body. Right. That was how she looked. The way she had been born to look. She strode toward the bank of monitors, and the cape snapped behind her.
"We could adjust it," Alfred had said skeptically. "Turn it into a half-length, if you'd prefer."
"No," she had responded. "To the floor. The cape stays."
She felt its extra weight, though, dragging at her shoulders. That was going to be the hardest part, learning to compensate, learning to fight with the cape and not against it. Kevlar ballgown, Dick had called it once. Well, that was okay. She knew how to fucking dance.
She sat at the chair, and immediately sank down too far. "Um," she said.
"On it," Alfred said, and he hastily bent, adjusting it until she felt less like a little girl in daddy's chair.
"Thank you," she said, and clicked a few buttons on the keyboard. She took a deep breath.
"Allies of the Bat," she said. "I'm calling all those within the sound of my voice. Report in if you can hear me."
There was a pause, a silence that was the longest of her life. And then the line crackled, and Dick's voice amplified through the Cave. "Nightwing here," he said, his voice crisp and business-like. Something in her chest eased.
"Red Robin," said Tim's voice, and that one surprised her. In many ways, Bruce's disappearance had hit him the hardest. He was the one who had resisted every overture from her, who had shut down every time she had tried to call him, or talk to him. And some part of her said: because he was waiting for this.
"Hood here," came Jason's smirking drawl, and below the cowl, her own mouth quirked in answer.
"Robin checking in," said the voice right beside her, and she cocked her head to see Damian standing next to her chair, small bloodthirsty smile firmly in place.
"Black Canary," Dinah's voice said. "Katana's with me, and Huntress is on her way. What's going on?"
"And by the way," said Jason's voice. "Just so we're clear. Who the hell is this?"
She leaned back in the chair and rested her chin on her gauntlet, taking her time. She checked all her channels, making sure they were clear and secure. Then she leaned forward, and into her comm mike. She had never been so glad of her alto in all her life, but even so, she let her voice deepen and slow, relishing the drama of the moment. Well, that too went with the costume. She let the smile seep into her voice.
"I'm the goddamn Bat," she said.
"Hold your positions," she said softly. The stillness that hung over the docks tonight was palpable, the spring air wet with unshed moisture and heat. The yellow glow of the halogens cast unearthly shadows.
"I've got movement in my quadrant." Nightwing's voice was a steady whisper in her comm.
"Hold. This bust is no good to us or to the GPD until that entire shipment is unloaded. Take deeper cover if you need to, but don't let yourself be seen."
Red Hood, Nightwing, and Red Robin were deployed on her perimeter, and she had the alpha quadrant. She wasn't crouched behind a shipping container, but perched on the ledge of a warehouse roof, relying on her absolute stillness to conceal her. Below, the mercs and thugs unloading the weapons shipment were laughing and calling, secure in their late-night activity, and why wouldn't they be? They had a small army deployed throughout the east shore of the docks, all armed to the teeth. How could they know the Bat had swooped in twenty minutes ago and taken them out in deadly silence, one by one? And now they sat in her trap, awaiting only the final snap of its jaws.
She raised her binoculars to the river, and the bay beyond. That was where trouble would come. She had placed all her money on the helicopter gunships holding offshore, and so far it looked like her bet was paying off. Their own arrogance would be their undoing here, an arrogance bred of the months when no Bats had patrolled Gotham. Her team had been back in action for two months now, but these guys were slow to get the update, evidently. That would be their misfortune.
"Reserves in the northwest crate," Tim said, and "Fuck," Jason swore, under his breath.
"You sure?" said Jason.
"He's sure," said Dick.
"Hush," she said, and they did. "How many?"
"Ten to fifteen. Just waiting. AKs, from the look of it."
She swept her binoculars from the water to Red Robin's quadrant, and saw it. This would change things. "You'll have to close them in," she said. "It's a vertical slidebolt, you should be able to reach it from the top. You see it?"
"Yeah," he breathed.
"Get in, get out. Watch for strafing fire. Can you do it?"
"I could go," Robin said, at her elbow. She shook her head.
"I need you in my quadrant. Red Robin's got it." She let her lenses linger on that deadly shipping container packed with murderous thugs, and sent up a silent prayer for the slim red-clad figure making his careful way toward them.
"Hold for my signal," she said. "We are go in five. . . four. . . three—"
The crackle of machine gun fire ripped through the stillness, and as one they broke position and swooped in—anything to pull focus from that northwest quadrant, where some unlucky glance must have caught Tim's motion. Please be safe please be safe please be safe beat in her head, but her boots beat the pavement with a thud on her landing, and then all thought was gone but the glorious, brutal dance of hand-to-hand combat. Weeks of work on this bust, and it could all go to hell in thirty seconds.
Robin was a small whirlwind of rage at her side. He seemed to take it personally when anyone came for her flank. It flitted through her mind that that was something she was going to have to talk to Jason about, the possibility of his spending some time with Damian, teaching him how to school and control that rage. And then she pushed that thought down, as she worked her way through the thicket of angry foot soldiers—a whirling slice to the midsection here, the snap of boot against a neck there. She didn't stay still long enough to leave any of them a target; she was darkness and vengeance and the swift thin blade of justice.
"Red Robin, report!" The circle of thugs was thinning, retreating, their backs to the final shipping container, and right now everything depended on Tim keeping those reserves out of commission.
"Done," he said crisply. "Are you two—shit!"
"Red Robin!" There was no answer on her comm. "I'm on it," Nightwing said.
Her quadrant was cleared in under two minutes—or just as good as. "Robin, take Red Hood's six," she called, moving in to take out the final handful of mercs. If Tim had been successful, they should be able to secure this entire area and call in the GPD to take the prisoners (and the generally unconscious) to lockdown.
"Fucking Bat!" spat one of the thugs, but Robin took him down with a vicious leg sweep, and from the sound of the crack when his skull hit the pavement, he would be down for a while. That left only one, in her quadrant—a big one, slowly backing into the crate behind him. He had a wool cap pulled down low over his stubbled face, and eyes that flashed feral in the halogen light. He kept glancing to his left, which was (she quickly noted) the only viable avenue of escape. Nightwing had left a thin sliver of ground open there, and this snake was thinking about sliding right through it.
"Hang on there, buddy," she said, and let fly a kick to his jaw that should have sent him sprawling. Instead, he parried it. With ease.
"Oh, someone got himself a self-defense class at the Y, I see," she muttered. This one was beginning to piss her off. She had thrown about three take-down moves at him that should have disabled without permanent damage, but she needed to check in with Tim, and her patience was wearing thin. She moved in with a quick crippling move that would, indeed, cause some serious damage. He hunkered in the shadow, and parried. Nothing she was throwing at this creep was landing; it was like he was made of teflon.
Her focus narrowed to the circle of this fight, and she stopped thinking about anything else, anyone else. It wasn't really a fight, because he wasn't really fighting back—he just parried everything she tried on him without ever moving to counter. She watched his hands for weapons, but he didn't seem to be going for anything in his jacket; her guess was, he'd lost or dropped his weapon, and had been counting on escape. "Got somewhere to be, Ace?" she taunted him. "Bad news for you, I'm afraid. No one leaves here tonight, not without a few broken bones. Which ones you want me to take care of for you?"
But he kept sliding inexorably toward that tiny escape hatch, the one between the two shipping containers that none of the others had spotted. She ricocheted off a steel support beam and executed a double-flip, landing heavily right in his path. "Nuh uh," she said. "Not tonight, motherfucker."
And then something strange happened, as his whole body seemed to. . . loosen, somehow. His combat stance relaxed, and he tugged at his cap. Shaggy dark hair and blistering blue eyes, and a voice that liquefied her spine. "Barbara," he said softly, with a glance at the northwest quadrant where Tim had the reserves hemmed in. "You need to let me get out of here."
And then she dropped to her knees, sobbing and moaning his name, crawling forward to throw herself at his feet and clutch onto his mud-caked boots where alone she could feel whole.
HAHAHAHAHA no. Though in fairness there was a tiny part of her—like, maybe one-fiftieth of a percent of her—that would have liked to, but only because it would have been an excellent vantage from which to bite through his testicles. The other ninety-nine and forty-nine fiftieths of her landed the blow on his jaw she had been poised for, and felt it connect this time, because he had let his guard down, he had trusted.
"Barbara!" He shouted, louder this time, and her other boot connected, quite a bit lower than before. "I won't—fight you!"
"Then I'm going to win," she said. "Nightwing, Red Robin, Hood, close on my position and assist!"
Her blows went true now, and most of them were landing. She couldn't take him down alone—none of them could do that. Even at their best, they could only ever hope to hold their own against him. But all of them together? Well, that was a different matter. He couldn't face all of them. And then she felt her victory, because at last, at last he was fighting her too, and she wanted to throw her head back and laugh with the clean pure joy of it, of her rage and her fury and her hate, because finally, fucking finally, there was something to fight.
"Stop this!" Bruce yelled, and she grinned back at him, letting the brutal boot to his upper quad do the talking for her.
On the adjacent rooftop, Jason and Dick stood watching. "Holy shit," Dick said quietly. He felt Jason's presence at his shoulder, surveying the scene as well. "Holy. . . holy fucking shit."
"You and that way with words," Jason said, but Dick could hear it in his voice too, the stunned numbness. "Jesus Christ, look at her go."
"Yep," Dick said.
They stood there in silence, watching Bruce and Barbara dance and slice their way around the ring of yellow light and the slick puddles of oil and water and the piles of groaning bodies. On the opposite rooftop, Dick could see Tim, watching in equal astonishment. And below, Damian, eyes for once wider than his mouth, frozen in horror.
Jason cocked his head. "But weirdly arousing, I'm not alone in this, right?"
"Your arousal is always weird."
Jason's shoulder knocked his, and for just a moment, it was enough to feel that small moment of normalcy in the midst of a world turned suddenly upside down. Dick glanced at Jason and could almost see, as he always could, the smirk under that slick red mask. "Well," Jason said, and the grin was audible now. "Orders is orders."
Dick cocked his eyebrow and grinned, and together they swooped down from the ledge, battle-ready. Dick glimpsed Tim moving in as well, and then they were all of them ringing Bruce in perfect combat formation.
It still took the four of them six minutes to do it, which was an eternity in combat, and time they could ill afford, with those gunships potentially lurking offshore. Even then, she suspected it was less their skill and more whatever the last eight months had done to him that handed them their victory. His jacket was loose and over-large, but it didn't disguise the serious loss of weight, or the occasional hitch in his movement. It had been that hitch that had been his undoing, because she had caught him on the hip, and he had gone down with a grunt. She flipped him, and put a boot on his back.
"Definitely aroused," she heard Jason say.
It had taken all of them to hold him and get the zip tie on his wrists, and then she had hauled him to his feet and shoved him in the direction of the car. "You're kidding," he growled.
"Get in," she said.
He paused at the door of the Batmobile. "I guess driving is out of the question."
"Next smart remark gets you a Batarang to the head." She shoved him in. Damian climbed into the front seat. She could feel the confusion coming off the boy in waves, and he wouldn't look at Bruce or at her. The drive back to the Manor was a quiet one, though she did make sure the GPD was on their way to the scene, and she checked in with her team, but she didn't so much as glance into the back seat.
"Alfred," she said.
"We're bringing an extra home with us tonight."
"Shall I prepare a guest room?"
"No," she said. "But you might air out the north rooms."
There was a pause, and she listened to Alfred digest this. She wouldn't spring this on him, wouldn't give Bruce the satisfaction of seeing Alfred's pain and astonishment. "Very good, ma'am," he said at last, and she clicked the channel off.
She pulled into the bay and killed the engine. "You modified the thrusters," he murmured, and she said, "Yep," and climbed out. She reached to undo his zip ties so he could get out more easily—she wasn't being cruel on purpose, after all—but he held up his untied hands, wordlessly demonstrating his freedom. Well. He was Batman, after all.
She snorted and pulled off her cowl, tossing it on the bank of monitors. She pulled up the surveillance footage on the docks, checking to make sure all was well on the scene, before she turned back to the silent group in the Cave: Alfred, on the stairs; Bruce, leaning against the car; Damian, staring at his feet and sneaking surreptitious glances at his father. She saw Bruce intercept one of those glances.
"Damian," he said. "Go upstairs with Alfred."
The boy turned silent eyes to her. She nodded, and he went. Alfred slipped a hand on Damian's thin shoulders as they went up the stairs together, and for once he did not shrug it off. Bruce watched them go with smoldering eyes. He turned back to her, but whatever he was going to say, he clearly decided against it. No one ever said he wasn't a fast learner.
She sank into the chair and crossed her arms. "Talk," she said. "You're walking, so I'm guessing stop number one was South Africa. Where did you go after that? Safari, maybe a little southeast Asian riverboat cruise?"
"You cut your hair," he said.
"And modified my suit."
"Quite a bit."
"That was a four hundred thousand dollar suit."
"So buy a new one."
"Where is my chair?"
"It was uncomfortable. I replaced it with this one."
"So I see. Is there anything of mine you haven't taken over?"
She considered. "Your clothes are all in your closet upstairs. I didn't like your rooms, so I took a suite on the third floor. It gets better light. The Bat needed to be near the Cave," she said. "Moving in was Alfred's idea."
"I'll just bet it was," he growled. "Leaving was not an invitation for you to take over my life."
"Why? You didn't want it."
Even beneath the streaks of dirt and the dark, uneven shadows of stubble, she could see him blanch at that one. "I did not intend," he said, "to be gone as long as I was. There were. . . unforeseen circumstances. I acknowledge that I may have. . . made a mistake, in some respects."
"No," she said. "You made a choice."
He dropped his eyes. "I knew what the cost would be," he murmured.
They rested in silence for a minute, and then she tugged off her gauntlets. "Go take a shower," she said. "You reek. There's a razor in there. Switch out the blade, I don't want you ruining it for my legs. Leave the clothes for Alfred to burn."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, in a gravelly imitation of Alfred, and she heard every bit of the bite in that final syllable. She didn't go upstairs, though. There was too much left to be said down here, too much that was not for anyone else's ears. He emerged twenty minutes later, and he stood there scowling.
"Where is my robe," he said. She took in the sight of him, working hard at not smiling. At least it wasn't humiliatingly short on him; her height meant that Bruce was larger, sure, but he didn't tower over her the way he did over some people. When she wore heels, they were nearly eye-to-eye. He was looking down at the robe with ill-concealed distaste.
"We will be having a discussion," he said, "about lavender and rosemary body wash, in the Cave showers."
She snorted again, but took pity on him. "The locker to the left," she said. "Some of your things are in there." It was mainly the clothes he had worn when working on equipment in the Cave, or on the car — faded jeans and old T shirts, but cleaned and folded, all of it. She noticed he did not duck into the bathroom to change, but dropped her robe and pulled on the jeans, sans underwear. She didn't bother to look away. There was a long thin scar down his spine, still red and puckered at the edges. She knew that scar.
The jeans hung loosely on his hips. He didn't bother to pull on a shirt. He came and sat down in a chair. His hair was still wet, and stuck up in places after its hasty toweling. She wanted to smooth it down, to pet his silly hair, to wrap him in her arms, to rub her thumb over the too-lean cheekbones and inhale the deep, unmistakable scent of him. And to see him move, to see him walk around, to see him as he was, as he had always been, himself again—
She found him watching her. "Tell me again about the hair," he said. She didn't smile.
"I thought it would be six to eight weeks at the most," he said. He kept his eyes down. "I swear to you."
"You went to South Africa."
"Yes. My only thought at first was to assist in the investigation of Kevenzie."
"Because he had what did not belong to him."
That caught her in the gut, twisted there like a knife. "That wasn't your call to make," she said.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up, when we discussed it at first. But when I saw what it meant to you, and when I realized there was every possibility he would indeed have hung onto them and delayed sale—I had to try."
A line appeared between his brows. "Because he had taken what belonged to you, and he had no right. Because the Joker violated your body, in the profoundest way, and that was because of me. Because of your association with me. To have that violation followed by this one, at the hands of someone entrusted with your care and well-being. . . it was more than I could stand. I wanted you to have all of you back. Even if you never wanted to do anything with them, even if—" He shook his head. "What do you mean, why."
"So what happened?"
"By the time I arrived in South Africa, the investigation had soured. Kevenzie was too smart for them, or the local authorities too corrupt. So I decided to be a decoy."
"You had already decided that before you left."
"The idea had occurred, yes. But it took quite a bit longer than I had thought. For one thing Kevenzie had become wary. It took months before I could even persuade him to take me on as a patient. Once inside the clinic, I was able to find confirmation of everything I had suspected."
"Then you could have turned what you found over to Interpol, and been home in time for Christmas."
He was silent. "Instead," she continued, "you decided to have the surgery."
"Yes." Another silence, and she waited it out. "It did not. . . go well. In the end, it required three surgeries. Always with the possibility that Kevenzie would choose to bolt, or that the noose would close on him before I had gotten what I needed from him."
The knife in her gut was wrenched again. She knew what a world was in that "did not go well." Three excruciating surgeries. The nights of lonely agony, the hours Bruce must have spent staring at the ceiling, far from home, the pain unbearable, locked in his crucible of isolation.
"I would have come," she whispered. "One call. . ."
"Kevenzie would have smelled a trap at the first hint of any connection to you. I couldn't have risked that. And as it was, I got what I needed. The surgeries were eventually successful, as you see. And for what it's worth. . . I got what I came for. Kevenzie is in custody now, his clinic broken up, his assets seized. What he took from you has been restored. Safely in keeping. Not in Gotham."
"I. . . thank you. I didn't ask you to do that, but. . . I understand the part of you that felt it was necessary. So. . . thank you." It sounded stiff and ungracious, even to her ears.
He was looking at his hands. "I couldn't bear for it not to work," he said, so quietly she almost didn't catch it. "The surgery. I couldn't bear to try it, and have you see it not working. I thought if it didn't work, I could come back, and no one would have to know that I had tried and failed."
"I understand," she said again.
"But you don't forgive."
He nodded. She caught his eye studying the discarded cowl. "May I?"
She handed it over, and he examined it. "You had to sacrifice some structural integrity, to get it this light."
"We did. But there was no way my neck could support the weight of it, if we didn't. Some advantages of the suit I had to give up, but not all."
He was turning the cowl over in his hands, revolving it, running his thumb over the slickness. It had been so long for him, since he had worn it. She knew it must be like an ache, deep in his body. She rose and took it from him. "Sometimes," she said, "when things are pulled apart and remade, they come out better and stronger than before."
"I had almost forgotten your irritating fondness for metaphor."
"That's funny, because I had almost forgotten your irritating fondness for leaving other people to pick up the pieces of your emotional disasters."
He rose, kicking aside his chair. "Yes, poor Barbara, how she suffers, living in my house, wearing my clothes, assuming my identity. You've turned Damian against me, as well as Alfred, and from what I saw tonight, it appears you've managed to do the same with my other sons as well. Did you seal the deal by sleeping with all of them, or just—"
The crack of her slap echoed in the Cave. She caught the instinctive clench of his fist, but he didn't move. "How dare you," she said. She hated the shake in her voice.
"How dare I point out the obvious conclusions?"
The crack of her second slap, across the other side of his face, was even louder. This time he grabbed her wrist. "I block the next one," he said, through gritted teeth.
"What did you think would happen," she said. "Tell me what you thought would happen, after you left."
"I thought that maybe you would trust me. I thought that maybe you would believe I was acting only for the best. I thought that maybe you actually loved me."
"Idiot," she snapped.
"I never stopped loving you. I never stopped waiting for you to come back, I never stopped telling Dick, Damian, whoever would listen, that you would be back, that you did love them, even when it was hard for me to believe. I took over your life, as you put it, because there was no one else left to the do the job you abandoned, and you have the audacity to walk back in here and reproach me for it? Fuck you, Bruce Wayne!"
She raised her free hand to slap him again, with her left if need be, and he grabbed that one too. "Quite the welcome home you've arranged for me," he growled.
"Let go of my wrists," she said, "or I raise this knee, which you really don't want me to do."
He dropped her wrists, and his eyes at the same time. "Go ahead," he said, and she heard all the exhaustion in his voice, all the weariness.
"You idiot," she said softly.
"We've covered that."
"It bears repeating."
Being five-foot-ten meant she didn't have to stand on tip-toe to reach him. She curled a hand around his head, the dampness of his hair, and dug her fingers into his scalp. "Idiot," she said again, and brushed her mouth on his. "Idiot," she said, and kissed the small shadow of stubble he had missed below his cheekbone. "Idiot," she whispered, moving to kiss his jaw, but his mouth caught hers. The small noise his throat made didn't sound like anything she had ever heard from him.
"Barbara," he was whispering. "Barbara, Barbara. . ." Just her name, like it was enough, like it was the most erotic thing he could ever say or ever hear. His hands on her were shaking, his mouth almost painful, it crushed her so hard. "Can we, do you still. . ."
"Come on, let's go," she panted. "Oh God, yeah."
He lifted her whole body onto his, and turned them onto the table behind him. His hands found all the catches on the suit—they would, after all—and he couldn't stop touching her, kissing her, pressing into her. "Okay, no, ow," she said, as something sharp poked her in the back.
"There's the bedroom down here," he murmured into her neck. "Unless that's been converted to a nail salon and tanning parlor."
"Such an idiot," she sighed. "I'm a redhead, you think I use a tanning bed?"
He was laughing softly into her collarbone, then kissing it—devouring it, more like—then he was back to her mouth, and they couldn't get enough, couldn't touch enough, couldn't get their hips close enough. "Upstairs," she whispered. "Now."
"Think they're fucking?"
Dick was sprawled across the bed on his stomach, checking messages on his phone, and he snorted at Jay's question. "Hah," he said. "He may be getting a righteous ass-kicking right now, yeah."
"He's such a masochist, that probably does it for him," Jason observed. "Beat his ass with a stick, and I bet he gets hard as a rock. Probably has some BDSM dungeon in the back of his dressing room, I bet."
"Hmph." Dick continued to scroll through his phone, and Jason decided a little more direct action was called for. He tugged down the sheet that was hiding that luscious ass from view, and began licking a small path toward his crack. "What are you doing," Dick said, dropping his phone, so what do you know, plan successful.
"Getting your attention," Jason said. "Thinking I might get my tongue in you. What would you think about that?"
"I'm thinking you're a little too 'bend over and go' for that."
"Wow, ouch," Jason said, leaning on his elbow and caressing the ass that was, by any impartial judgment, truly a work of art.
"I'm just saying, I don't really associate artisanal sex with you."
"Artisanal sex," Jason snorted. "Welcome to the farmers' market of love, with your tour guide, Dickie Grayson. Spread 'em, I'm going in." He heard Dick's soft laugh, and then the breath where his laugh slid into something else. He took his time licking Dick's hole, flicking at it with his tongue, before he pushed inside and let himself go to town. Yeah, partly it was a pride thing—it had flicked him on the raw, Dick saying that thing about 'bend over and go,' not least because if it was true, it was true because that was what Dick had appeared to demand, back when they had first started doing this. Brusque, brutal, and business-like: the three Bs of fucking Dick Grayson.
He suspected that when he was in bed with anyone else, Dick was one of those douchenozzles who prided himself on how fabulous and giving and profound he was in bed, with scented lube and candles and intricate techniques he had learned in his junior year of college and never un-learned. Everybody had slept with someone like that, at some point. And for everyone else he slept with, Dick clearly thought he had to be that person. Here, with Jason, he could just get off. That was what Jason could give him: the world's most uncomplicated orgasm.
"Fuck, Jay," Dick moaned. He had a pillow wedged underneath him, and he was humping it while Jason rimmed him. "Oh Jesus. . . fuck."
He wanted to say whatsa matter Golden Boy, no one ever ate your ass before? but his mouth was a little busy. And Dick's noises were getting him off too. He dug his fingers into that magnificent ass, and pushed his tongue in harder. "Jesus Jay you're gonna make me—I'm gonna—"
Hell yes you're gonna Jay thought, and spared a moment of concern for his pillow. It was just, that was his actual pillow, the down one he stuffed in his duffel and took with him from crashpad to crashpad (hey, quality sleep was important) and the likelihood was that Dick was going to soak it through the pillowcase. Dick always came like a fifteen-year-old-boy who'd been edging for a week, which was to say in a huge-ass flood, which normally was not a problem.
Dick's hips were working that pillow like a fucking piston, and Jason decided he could buy a new one. He tongue-fucked his hole harder, and Dick cried out like he was in pain, and convulsed. Jason pulled back enough to watch the pretty clench of his pucker as he poured cum onto that pillow. "God God God fucking God," he moaned as he emptied himself.
"How are you so hot," Jason murmured, crawling up Dick's back, landing messy kisses up his spine. Dick was so out of it and loose-limbed he barely even flinched when the door crashed back, and Roy flopped on the bed beside him.
"You guys are fucking loud," he said. "Some of us got no sleep last night and were hoping for maybe a little sleep this morning. Also, fuck, you got me horny. What the hell were you just doing in here?"
"Hi Roy," Dick said, his voice still dreamy and orgasm-fuzzed. Jason was sprawled on top of him, instinctively covering him because he wasn't at all sure how Dick was going to react to Roy's complete lack of personal boundaries, but so far so good.
"I always knew you Batboys were fucking, in some combination or other," Roy said. "That is fucking hot. I want to play."
"Go away, Roy," Jason said. "Daddy's busy."
"Come on," he whined, stretching out on the rucked-up sheets. "God, this whole room smells like sex, how many times have you guys fucked since last night?"
"He always like this?" Dick had raised a bleary, amused head and was peering down at Roy.
"Kiss me," Roy murmured, a hand on the back of Dick's head, and Dick bent down and obliged.
"Roy," Jason said. "I know we've had this talk before. You're straight, remember? Roy plus pussy, BFFs five-ever. Roy, you are blatantly jacking yourself on my bed, man. That is so not cool. We are definitely going to be having a talk about this."
And he was. Roy had a hand down his boxers and was working himself, and Jason sighed and glanced at Dick, who just gave a wry grin and shrugged. If Dick wasn't freaked, it wasn't like Jason minded. He could be a team player. So he tugged down Roy's boxers and knocked away his hand, replacing it with his own.
Roy hadn't been kidding about the horny part; he was already hard and getting a little slicked at the tip. "Oh fuck man, come on, work it," he panted, and Dick's eyes met Jason's over top of him.
It's turning him on, Jason realized, and he leaned forward to graze a kiss against Dick's jaw.
"Oh yeah, do that again, oh fuck that is so wrong," Roy moaned. "Tell me this is what you guys did with Bruce, tell me he would tear your asses open in the Batcave every night."
Dick winced, and Jason laughed. "You really have the wrong idea about our family, man," he said. "There is a one-hundred-percent chance that mentioning Bruce's name in bed will cause any boner to immediately deflate, for any of us. Even Tim, who probably technically doesn't get boners yet. I think Bruce told him when he was thirty he could have one."
"Shut up," Dick said, with a nudge of his foot at Jason, but there was still a smile behind it.
"Kiss me again," Roy groaned, and Dick bent and gave him a sloppy one, then toyed with his nipples. Jason watched him out of the corner of his eye, because he was pretty sure this was new territory for Dick. All the signs told him he was the only guy Dick had ever slept with, and he had always thought of Dick as straight, with the occasional exception. He was quietly rearranging that opinion, when he saw Dick's comfort with Roy's arousal.
"Oh yeah," Roy panted. Jason's hand was working him, but he was keeping his eyes on Dick. "So gorgeous, so hot, touch me like you touch him—oh yeah, that's it, that's it—fucking hot little Gypsy cunt—"
With a vicious kick, Jason pushed Roy out of the bed and onto the floor, where he landed on his hipbone with a thud. He had started to come, and he was spasming, spitting and cursing as cum dribbled down his cock. "What the—Jesus fuck—"
"Get out," Jason said, in the voice that meant to be obeyed. "Get the fuck out of this room, right fucking now." His voice was steel.
"You're insane," Roy panted, grabbing at his boxers and stumbling up. He looked from one to the other of them. "You're as bipolar as your old man, Jesus H. Christ." And he stormed out, slamming the door behind him, naked ass in retreat.
Dick was propped up on the headboard. They were quiet for a minute, while Jason tried to master his rage and Dick looked thoughtful. "He didn't mean any harm," Dick said.
"I don't really give a fuck what he meant. He can park his bigoted ass somewhere else, but it's not gonna get off on my bed."
"He's your best friend," Dick pointed out.
"And you're my—" He stumbled over that one. It seemed like a spectacularly bad time to say brother, and lover would have been equally out of place. "Dick," he finished lamely.
Dick started laughing at that one—a big, open-mouthed laugh. He crawled to the foot of the bed, to Jason, and put a hand around his neck. He kissed him, full on the mouth, and Jason really needed to be reminding him that ass-to-mouth was the cardinal no-no of gay sex, but it was hard to remember to do that, when Dick was kissing him like this. When Dick was kissing him.
"We need to be doing this at my place instead," Dick whispered. "It's a little more private."
"It is, huh," Jason said, just to be saying something, because his belly gave a treacherous twist at what Dick was proposing, at the casual suggestion of a next time. This was dangerous ground. He knew they were only here because of what had happened last night, because seeing Bruce come back had flipped Dick out so hard. Dick had needed him, and to tell the truth he had needed Dick, and who did they have if not each other? Who else in the universe would understand the strange cocktail of anger and love and pain and joy it had been to see Bruce again?
"Only you," he murmured, in response to the thoughts in his own head, but Dick pulled off and looked at him, and Jason flushed, until Dick leaned in and kissed him even harder.
It wasn't that she wasn't still mad.
She was pissed as hell. She was pissed enough she still could have thrown down and gone another seven rounds with him, and the fantasy of her fist crashing into his face was a vivid one that was not going to go away anytime soon. She was pissed as hellfire and brimstone. She was Irish pissed, and if terminal WASP Bruce Wayne thought he had the market cornered on anger management issues, he really knew nothing about the Gordons.
So she was going to get back to being pissed at him, really soon. Really, really soon. Just as soon as she finished fucking that magnificent cock, because holy living Christ, could it fuck.
How they actually got upstairs, she was not entirely sure. She knew they had not made it out of the Cave, the first time, even though she had insisted. They had fucked on the metal stairs, actually, and you wouldn't think that would be at all comfortable, but it had been hard to think about anything else once she had felt that cock through his jeans, hard against her and hungry for her, so hungry for her.
"Take the edge off," he had murmured, and she had nodded her agreement, lacing her hands through the metal bannisters and wrapping her legs around his waist, and wow, she had thought eight months ago that she had had sex with Bruce Wayne, but nope, nuh uh, not even close. This was a whole other order of thing. This was his cock battering her insides, the grunt of his breath in her ear, the slam of his hips against hers, and he knew just how to roll those hips to rub at her clit while his cock pounded her, and she had yelled and come hard, and who did that? Who came in the missionary position, and on rickety metal stairs on top of that? Never her, that was for sure.
After that, they had been able to make it upstairs, but evidently he had been serious, about just taking the edge off, because he was go for launch again by the time they reached his room. "Can I," he had panted, and "Can you what?" she had asked.
"Everything," he said, crushing her to him, and he was not kidding around about everything. First had been the floor—thank God she had remembered to kick the door shut, Damian was disturbed enough—and Bruce had been the one on his back, which was still fair because none of the rugs in his room had been put back down, so he got the bare parquet while she rode him. She came twice like that, gripping his shoulders and just fucking him raw, while he swore under his breath and curled fingers in her ass and groaned his encouragement.
She collapsed on him and tried to recover her breath while he stroked her back, and then had cracked an eye at him. "You okay?" she said.
"Oh, I'm good," he said with a slow smile. He was still in her, still thick and ready for more.
After that was the couch, the edge of the bed, the shower (definitely a necessity by then), the couch again, the floor by the windows, and finally the bed again. "So this is what you meant, about that control?" she asked, barely able to wheeze out a complete sentence by this point.
"Yeah," he panted. "But not for much longer."
That was the point where she had let her head tip over the edge of the bed, and just went limp, curled around him like before. "Then just do it," she murmured. "Just let go." And before the sentence was out of her mouth, his thrusts were frantic and fast, his grunts low rumbles against her jaw, and he was spilling inside her, pulsing in waves she could actually feel.
He threw his head back and shook with it, and she stroked his back, trying to gentle him through it. "God," he whispered. She let him collapse on her, and then remembered why air was a good thing to have, and rolled him slightly to the side, still entangled in her legs. He growled and wrapped her legs tighter around him.
"You like legs, huh." She was toying with the sweat-damp edges of his over-long hair.
"I like your legs. How long are these things, exactly?"
He was studying her, those eyes as watchful as ever. "Was it because I was broken," he said.
She frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"Did you. . ." She watched him try to find the words. Or maybe it was just that orgasm had whited out most of his vocabulary, like it tended to do with her. "When you wanted me. . . before. Was that because of how I was?"
She kept playing with his hair, and tried to give him the most honest answer she could find. "Partly," she said, and he shut his eyes. "Partly," she said again, "and that part was because that was the only way you would ever have let me touch you. Bruce. You're asking if I liked you better when you were in the chair."
"Yes," he said hoarsely.
She took care with her words. "This was some amazing sex," she said, and she knit her fingers in his. "Probably the best sex of my life. But it wasn't better sex than it was with you, before. Because it was you, and any time I'm naked and next to you, it's going to be pretty goddamn amazing. Because it's you. And it's the same you, whether you're in a chair or walking. No, I wasn't attracted to you because you were disabled. But you let me touch you because you were, and because you needed me. So that's what I meant by partly."
His grave eyes regarded her. "Do you forgive me," he said.
"No," she said, because there was no part of her that was going to lie to him, ever. Whatever it was between them, it was born of brutal honesty, and no lie had any place in it. "There were a thousand opportunities to try to get in touch with me, with Dick, with Alfred, with anyone. You had time to come back and start working an undercover case on your own, but not time to place a phone call to let us know you were alive? Yeah, you better believe I'm pissed. But," she said, and sighed. "Just. . . give me time, all right? I will. . . probably get there. Eventually."
"How much time?"
"Well, longer than three hours?"
"How much longer?"
She rolled over and plucked a pillow from behind her, and pressed it to his face. "It was tragic," she said. "The return of Batman cut heartbreakingly short by an accidental smothering."
He pulled it off. "Grown, conscious adults can't smother accidentally."
"And people say Batman is humorless."
He tossed the pillow back at her face, and she tucked it under her head. "Good night," she said. "I'm passing out now. If you plan on leaving before I wake up, I've got a pile of laundry up in my room I need to take downstairs, you might at least start a load of whites for me."
"I'm not going anywhere," he whispered. His finger was wrapping around a tuft of cropped red hair, like it was still trying to find the rest of it.
"We'll see," she said, and drifted off, every limb wrung with exhaustion.
"I promise you," was a breath whispered over her, as she slipped into sleep, or maybe she imagined it, along with the long arms that stroked her, the chest that pillowed her.
Bruce and Barbara decide not to date, Jason decides not to wear clothes, and Alfred decides to make breakfast.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"The Commissioner will see you now," the assistant said, and Bruce nodded curtly. He hadn't had to wait all that long in the outer office, but long enough that a few curious heads had poked in, and there had been a few muted whispers from the hallway, a few check it out, it's Bruce Waynes floating his direction. Jim's assistant was all professionalism though, as she ushered him back to the Commissioner's office.
"Mr. Wayne," Jim said, rising from his desk to shake his hand, and the assistant smiled and left them. When the door closed, the handshake became firmer and warmer, Jim's smile a real one. "Bruce," he said. "It's so damn good to have you back. How are you feeling?"
"Well," he said, and Jim gestured at the empty chair.
"Well it must be something important for Bruce Wayne to drag himself down to Police Plaza," Jim said, politely puzzled, and that was understandable; there was as much air as possible between Bruce's public persona and the Commissioner's, for obvious reasons.
"Yes," Bruce said, aware he had just been on the point of fiddling with his tie. "It is."
"Sit down, take a load off, let's talk. What's going on?"
Bruce glanced at the chair. "I think. . . not," he said. "Jim. What I have to tell you, you're not going to particularly like."
That creased Jim's brow, and Bruce could almost monitor the sudden spike in blood pressure. Heart pills would be in the upper left drawer, because Jim was right-handed, and he would want them close but not embarrassingly close; also the angle of the room meant the left drawer was less visible from the opposite side of the desk, when opened. His piece would be in the right drawer, and Bruce had a fleeting moment of worry about that. "What's going on," Jim said, his frown deepening.
"I have recently married," he said, and Jim's frown was erased, the creases of his face relaxing into a smile.
"Bruce, you idiot," he said, and the cadence was so like his daughter's that Bruce almost smiled at it. "Why the hell do you think I wouldn't like to hear that? Dammit man, I'm thrilled to hear it. It's exactly what you've needed, for years. Is it—" and here he glanced at his office door, lowering his voice just a fraction—"is it someone you can share. . . all the parts of your life with, if you know what I mean? Someone you can trust?"
"Yes," Bruce said. "There's no one I trust more."
"Then I couldn't be happier for you," Jim said, and he came around the desk, holding out his arms, folding Bruce into an embrace that made him stiffen and draw back.
"Jim," he said. "It's Barbara."
"It's Barbara what?"
Bruce licked his lips. "It's Barbara that I married. Barbara who—we're married. Barbara and I. As of last week. It's. . . Barbara."
Jim's arms had fallen to his sides, and his face was wiped clean of any expression. He stepped back, and Bruce felt his friend search his face, and saw him find the truth there, saw him read all of it. Bruce did not flinch. And then Jim walked to the window and stood there, looking out, his hands on his hips. Bruce said nothing; he just waited. This was not a room in which he had the right to speak, either to explain or to justify. But this was his friend, his first and oldest friend, and he couldn't bear the silence much longer.
"Jim," he tried, but Jim held up his hand. He crossed back to face Bruce, and Bruce read exactly what was coming before it happened and refused to block it, but took it. Jim raised his leg and kicked him so hard in the balls it knocked the wind out of him, and he went down, holding onto the corner of the desk for support. His eyes stung with the pain of it; he gasped and dug his fingers into the polished wood of the desk. His knees had hit the floor.
"You bastard," Jim breathed. "You ever-living motherfucking son of a bitch. I said nothing—nothing all these years. Nothing when Barbara joined you, nothing when she decided to risk her life to throw her hand in with you and your godforsaken crusade, nothing when you crippled my daughter, when you almost got her killed."
That last hit Bruce harder than the white-hot pain in his testicles, but he slowly righted himself. What Jim could dish out, he could take. "And now," Jim said. "Now, when she had a chance at a life away from you and your life-destroying one-man mission from God—when she was finally getting clear, you just couldn't let that happen, you had to tie her to you forever, didn't you? Are you happy now?"
Bruce said nothing. He had known this would be the hardest one, and he had taken it on purpose. "He's my father," Barbara had pointed out. "It's for me to tell him."
"And he's my friend," Bruce had replied.
"He's going to yell. You are aware how potentially awful this could be."
"Yes. I won't ask for any of the others, but I'm asking for this one."
She had sighed, looking askance at him, but had penciled his name beside her father's on the list. "All right," she had sighed. "But if I go with you, he is much less likely to hit you."
"That's why I need to go alone."
"I worry about how much that statement makes perfect sense to me. What does that say about me?"
"That you made the right decision," he said, pulling her closer while she continued to puzzle over her list.
"All right, fine," she had said. "But if you're taking Dad, I'm taking Jason."
"He's my son, I should be the one to talk to him."
"I get along with him better than you do."
He had winced. "True."
"Jason and I, we don't do so bad together. And anything that reduces the incidence of yelling in this family is bound to be a good thing. Okay, now let's look at the remainder of this list. We've got—Bruce. You're not paying attention."
"I am," he said. "I am also paying attention to this spot on your neck. I am capable of multiple points of focus."
"Hmm," she said, the warmth of her smile softening her voice, and the list had fluttered to the floor, forgotten for the moment.
"I said, are you happy now," Jim yelled at him, and Bruce tried to find the answer to that, or at least, an answer Jim could stand to hear.
"Yes," he said finally. "And so is Barbara. I can't make you believe that. But for Barbara's sake, I'm asking you to try."
Jim was back at the window, still breathing hard. He narrowed his eyes at Bruce. "For her sake, then," he said. "But not for yours. You and me, we're done."
"I understand that," Bruce said. He wished he had let Jim embrace him, that one last time, wished he could remember Jim smiling on him. "I'll show myself out," he said, and clicked the door quietly behind him.
She was in the Cave when he came back, working at the monitors. One glance at him told her pretty much everything she needed to know about how it had gone with her father. "That bad, huh," she said.
"It could have been worse," he said lightly, and the lie was easy for her to spot, because of course he would lie, of course he would think he needed to hide from her how wretched it had been. She spun in the chair and propped her feet up.
"Well," she said, "keep in mind we're Irish. I'm sure he said things he didn't mean, and that he'll regret saying tomorrow. Just keep in mind his mad apology skills are right up there with yours, so."
He nodded, curtly. She let him be, knowing prodding at him wouldn't help anything. Damn you, Dad, she thought, fighting the tight knot of anger in her stomach. Damn Damn Damn. You hurt Bruce, you'll be going through me.
"Hey," she called, as he wandered to the med bay to tinker with his new equipment there. "No visible black eye, so at least he didn't hit you."
"There is that," he agreed, head bowed and intent on his latest project. She watched him with careful eyes that missed nothing, and turned back to her screen before he became aware of her gaze. We're going to be having a little talk of our own, Jim Gordon, she thought, biting her lip to the blood.
The morning after Bruce's return, she had woken to blinding light and a high-pitched squeaking noise that pierced her skull like tiny knives and drove her deeper under the pillow. The pillows on Bruce's bed were huge. She needed to look into that, see if she couldn't get some of these, because they were incredible.
"Mmmff," she groaned. "Make. . . stop." The large warm body next to her burrowed closer and whimpered.
"Good morning," Alfred said cheerily, pulling back more curtains and flooding the room with even more light.
Then he rolled the breakfast cart with its obnoxiously squeaky wheel closer to the bed. "For your dining pleasure this morning, we have Eggs Sardou, with a side of Belgian waffles and fresh fruit, and a light-sauce ambrosia of pears, nectarines, and white peaches. Needless to say, all with a generous side of coffee. Miss Barbara, I know you prefer cream in yours, so I took the liberty of procuring some hazelnut cream, which I think adds just the right balance to the fruit, which I'm sure you'll agree as soon as you are capable of forming a complete sentence."
"Does he keep the wheel like that on purpose," she mumbled.
"Since I was five," Bruce said into his pillow, beside her.
"Might I have neglected to mention the bacon, Miss Barbara?"
She raised her head, some of her fog lifting. "Bacon?"
"Applewood smoked. In the warming tray, next to the waffles."
"Wait," she said, struggling to peel apart her eyelids. "Waffles?" Alfred was steadily opening more curtains, but she had scented the bacon now, and she was impervious to light. She began to crawl toward the heavenly odors.
"I've left both the Gazette and the Post as well," Alfred said, as he was heading out the door. "There's quite a fine article on the impounding of the largest single illicit weapons shipment ever to attempt unloading in Gotham Bay. Very stirring stuff. Someone deserves some congratulations, I believe."
"Maybe the someone whose undercover work kept the helicopter gunships engaged elsewhere," Bruce muttered, but Alfred ignored it and shut the door. Barbara ignored him too, because she had sighted the bacon and was tipping the lid of the warming tray.
"Excuse you," Bruce groaned, underneath her. She had thought that final hill of blankets was unusually resistant. She peered down at what she could see of his face.
"I thought you were Mr. Morning Sex?"
"You and the bacon appear to be doing fine." He groaned again, apparently giving up on more sleep, or maybe because that elbow she was resting on was sharper than she thought. He tried to roll over. She clambered closer to the food.
"Oh my God he wasn't kidding, eggs and waffles and muffins and oh my gosh, you have to wake up and look at this. Well, someone's certainly glad you're home."
Bruce raised his head and squinted at her. "If you think I'm the intended recipient of this breakfast, you have a ways to go to figure Alfred out. Miss Barbara."
She paused mid-crunch to consider. In her sleep-fogged state, it had escaped her, but Bruce was right: for the first time she hadn't been Miss Gordon this morning, but Miss Barbara. "So this is his way of high-fiving you," she said. "Huh. It's that hard for you to get a date, really?"
"It has nothing to do with me," Bruce said, finally burrowing underneath her and emerging on the other side, flinging back the covers. "It's his way of saying you belong here, whether I'm back or not. And also, his not-so-subtle way of expressing his displeasure with me."
"Alfred shows he's mad at you. . . by cooking bacon for me?"
"Like I said," Bruce said behind a yawn, "you have a ways to go."
She watched him walk to the bathroom, and couldn't look away—not because his rear view was magnificent (which by the way it was) but because of the wonder of seeing him move. She was going to have a hard time not staring every time he walked into a room, just focusing on the beautiful magic of tendon and hipbone and muscle, all working together. Bruce, walking. She had a sharp moment of wondering if this was what it had been like for everyone else, when she had regained the use of her legs—if they had had to avert their eyes to keep from staring, if it had been just as transfixing to see. Strange to share this, too, with Bruce; even stranger, the continual overlap of their lives.
She went back to her breakfast, which was one of the wonders of the world. The eggs were like nothing she had ever tasted, the waffles melted in her mouth, the sweet cream was like a sugary cloud. She half-expected Bruce to crawl back into bed and begin tugging at her; she hadn't meant her remark about morning sex to sound necessarily discouraging, especially now that she had a little coffee in her. But he came back out with soft pants pulled on, and propped himself up on one of his enormous pillows, watching her eat.
"I was wondering," he said after a while, "if I get my suit back."
"Well," she said, spreading some of the cream on her fruit. "That depends. You think you can get down to a six?"
"Not if I eat like that."
"I eat my feelings," she said, licking her fingers and attacking the last waffle.
"Your feelings terrify me."
"Any feelings terrify you."
He snorted at that. "Point conceded," he said. "And lesson learned, about attempting to win a verbal spar with you. Barbara. I don't think we should date," he said.
He didn't say anything, so after another mouthful of waffle she looked up and found him watching her, and she set down her fork. "You're kidding me," she said inelegantly, around her over-large mouthful.
"I'm. . . not."
She swallowed, and stared at him. "What a completely unforeseen turn of events," she said. "I'm going to finish my bacon now."
"What I am trying to say is, I think that dating is. . . ill-suited to the realities of. . . our lives."
"Of all the boneheaded, pig-brained, dumb-ass—"
"Hear me out," he said. "My point is, I think we are considerably beyond dating. People date in order to learn more about each other. Can you honestly tell me there are things you still hope to learn about me, or I about you?"
"Where you bought those pillows, would be nice to know."
"Barbara. I am trying to suggest that dating is something other people do."
"Okay," she said. "I see that. But if this is you asking me to move in, I appreciate the gesture, but my clothes are already in the upstairs closet. And your rooms are nice, but I like the light better in the third-floor rooms."
He cocked his head. "Light is important to you," he said.
"Yeah." She fiddled with a triangle of toast. "In the hospital," she said. "The first one. Where you visited. There was. . . one window. It looked out on an airshaft. It got maybe forty-five minutes of daylight. Those were an important forty-five minutes for me, every day. And then afterward, in the rehab center. When you. . . when you don't always have control over where you are, when you can't just get up and move to a place with more sunlight, it becomes important."
"I know," he said, and that was the hell of it, that he did, and he always would. "Well," he continued. "I have an idea about that. Think you can tear yourself away from the carnage on that tray to come look at it?"
She licked her fingers, swiping a last strawberry through the cream. "Sure," she said warily. "Will I need clothes?"
"Might be advisable, yes. Damian is probably up and about."
"Okay," she said, looking about the floor where the discarded remnants of the Batsuit were scattered around. "Well. Kind of a problem. Hang on."
She crawled off the mountain of blankets and padded into his dressing room, emerging with his bathrobe. "See," she said. "I told you it was here somewhere."
He was just looking at her. "What?" she said.
"Nothing. I just. . . come here."
She moved closer to the bed, and he tugged at the tie on the robe. "Whoops," he said. He was running a hand up her thigh, just stroking it. "I'm trying to have a conversation with you," he said, "and you keep making that difficult."
"By doing what, exactly?"
"By turning me on."
She shrugged off the robe and climbed on top of him. He was running his hands down her torso, cupping her ass. "So," he said, "now that we have a variety of positions to choose from, how about you tell me your favorite?"
"How about you put that tongue to some good use before I tell you."
He slid further underneath her, and started kissing her thighs, teasing with the rasp of his stubble. "Oh God that feels good," she said.
"I haven't done anything yet."
"Stubble," she said. "I like it."
Then his mouth was around her, his huge wet hot mouth, and she groaned and ground into him. She braced on the headboard and let her eyes slide shut as he worked her. "Your. . . finger," she panted.
He remembered what she liked, and his hand—God, his hands were big, when would that ever stop being so fucking hot—slid to her ass, where his finger pressed at her hole. "God God yes," she managed. But then the finger stopped. He swiped the finger along her folds, dipping into her wetness, and for a second she was ready to pull his mouth off her and just ride that hand, but then his tongue flicked her clit hard and fast, and she remembered why this was best. He shifted his wet finger back to her hole, and pressed inside.
"Yes," she moaned, knowing she sounded like some ridiculous porn star but really not caring, because Bruce's massive finger was fucking her ass while his tongue fucked her cunt and his stubble rasped against her, and fuck fuck fuck. She did not mean to come that fast.
"You promised," he whispered, when her pulses had stopped, and he could pull his mouth off. His finger eased slowly out of her, which wow, it was kind of surprising how deep in he had been. "Your favorite."
"Jesus. Right now. . . I think. . . that was my favorite." She bent to kiss him, rubbing against the wet on his face, the muskiness on his tongue.
"Liar," he whispered.
"You're going to be unimpressed."
"Not really possible."
"Okay," she said. "But quiet."
"In the first place, I wasn't the one making all that noise, and in the second place, why, exactly?"
"Because someone will hear. They might find us," she whispered in his ear, "down here in the Cave. In this dark corner. Someone will know."
She felt his quick intake of breath, and scooted down under the covers with him. "We have to be fast," she said.
"Not going to be a problem," he whispered back.
She rolled them onto their sides, and then turned her back to him. She rubbed up against him, feeling the thick hot slide of his cock against her ass. "In me," she said softly. "Like this. But don't let anyone hear."
He hoisted her hip up a bit, bending it, and with one or two abortive thrusts, slid inside her. Her breath hitched. He pressed up against her until he was deep in, and she arched her back to help his angle. "Fuck," he moaned into her neck.
"Shh," she said, and his thrusting got faster. So that turned him on too. He brought his hand around to cup her, to thumb her clit. She had already come, so he could rub her hard and fast.
"Like that?" he whispered.
"Just like that."
"Good girl," he said, and that was it, she came in a clenching flood around his cock.
"Have to come," he panted. "Fuck. God—" He was slamming into her, then stiffening, spilling inside her. She spiraled down slowly. His arms tightened on her, and that was something she had noted about him before, but hadn't really thought about it until now—Bruce tended to curl closer after orgasm, to hold tighter. Like he was afraid whoever it was would leave him. The thought caught her in the chest, and she nestled tighter into him, too. There was a strange sharp pain in her shoulder.
"You asshole," she murmured.
"You bit me."
He raised his head fractionally. "Only a little. I don't know what you're complaining about, you're not exactly gentle with me."
"I'm complaining because I might want to wear a sundress at some point without looking like werewolf prey."
He chuckled, and reached over her for the robe on the floor. "Here," he said. "Put this on. Before I forget again."
He was pulling up his pants and getting out the other side of the bed. She slipped the robe back on—huge and soft and smelling of him—and grabbed another slice of bacon. "You coming?" he said from the door.
"Fine, fine. What are we doing again?"
"Solving your light problem."
"I don't have a light problem. I have a light preference. Hang on."
"More bacon." She grabbed the rest of it and slipped it in the robe's pocket, then followed him out the door and down the hall. They turned left at the main corridor and took the back hallway — quietly past Damian's rooms, past the more public guest rooms, all the way to the opposite wing of the Manor. He pushed back the door, and she followed him in.
"Bruce—" she said, but Bruce was pulling back all the curtains, flooding the vast room with light.
"Here," he said. "Light on three sides, the most light of any bedroom in the Manor. The most space, too. It needs some work, obviously. Modernization of the bathroom, that's a necessity. And then there's re-decoration to be done. This was nice enough forty years ago, but there's no denying it looks like somebody's grandmother's now. What do you think?"
"Ahh. . ." She stood there nonplussed. "Bruce. I. . . appreciate the thought, I really do. But I am not going to move into your parents' bedroom. That would be just. . . no."
"It isn't my parents' bedroom," he said. "This is my house. And this is the bedroom of the master and mistress of Wayne Manor."
She did nothing but blink at him.
"There are quite a few reasons you should say no," he said. "I am close to twenty years older than you, which granted is a negligible gap now, but will probably become irksome to you later on. It does place you in an uncomfortable position with a former lover, and. . . probably others as well. Not to mention the public side of Bruce Wayne, and the potential unpleasantness of having to play that particular part, being involved with that sort of life."
"I think. . . I may have missed something here."
"Barbara. When I said we shouldn't date, what I meant was, we should be married."
She sat heavily on the nearest available chair, which happened to be the dressing table bench. She looked at the crumbled bacon in her pocket.
"Of course," he continued, "there's also what you pointed out earlier, about the difficulty I have with expressing emotion. That will probably not get better. And there's a host of other—"
She took a deep breath. "You came back—last night—after having been gone for eight months. Last night was the first time I'd seen you in eight months, after you left with no warning. Before that, we slept together twice."
"Yes," he said impatiently.
"And you really think that marriage—that marrying me—is the rational choice here?"
"Yes," he said again. "Do you disagree?"
She considered that one. "Not particularly," she admitted.
"Is that. . ." He hesitated. "Is that a yes?"
"Yeah," she said. "God help me, that's a yes."
She watched him try to find a single facial expression, and fail. Shock, joy, confusion, delight, surprise, and back to shock—to someone who hadn't spent more than ten years learning to read that most unreadable of faces, it might have looked like mildly lifted eyebrows. She found herself in his arms, but not crushed there or squeezed enthusiastically. More like a quiet incredulous resting. He touched her arms, her back, her head, like he was unsure of her actual presence.
"Why," he whispered, and she heard the choke of his voice in her neck, "why would you say yes?"
"You really have no idea why, do you." And she kissed him, just gently, as they sat there together on the bench.
"You should know," he murmured. "You've created the happiest man in the world today. I can only hope to one day be as happy as Alfred will be, when I tell him."
"How come you get to tell him?"
"Because it might go a long way to helping him forgive me."
She reared back. "So this is an elaborate ploy to win Alfred back?"
"You've found me out." He returned her kisses, imitating her in their gentleness, and that was a new thing—every time before, they had been so hungry for each other, so eager, so desperate for it not to end, that their kisses had been just as hard and desperate. It seemed almost an impossible thing, here and now, standing on the limitless shore of will-not-end, and it seemed they needed a new way to kiss as well.
"Hang on a minute," he said. "There's something in here that belongs to you."
She thought guiltily of the picture, which she still hadn't returned. Had she left something behind, when she was snooping around before? "Turn around," he whispered, and he reached behind her to the jewelry case, and pulled all the way open the drawer that had been partially open, and whose glittering contents she had briefly glimpsed, on that long-ago day.
"This, I think, is yours," he said. "If it is something you would care to wear, it would. . . be nice to see it on your hand. You might not care for it. We could have it re-set, if you wanted, in something else.
"Oh," she said. "Um. Ah. Wow. That's. . . maybe a little more than I. . ." And then she shut her mouth, because this was his mother's ring, and he wasn't seeing its exorbitant value or even its stunning beauty, but something precious that had been his mother's, and that he wanted to share with her. He slipped it on her finger, and just held her hand, looking at it there. Then he kissed her hand, cupping the palm against his face.
"I know what you're thinking," he murmured. "That it's more extravagant than anything you would have chosen. But it's what Mrs. Wayne would wear, and unfortunately, that's part of marrying me—the public persona of the Waynes. There will be parties to attend, and trips to Gstaad and the islands, and all the rigmarole of that kind of life."
"Sounds like hell," she said.
He gave a thin smile. "It is its own kind of hell, particularly when you have a role like that to play alone. Having you beside me will make it. . . bearable."
"We can have that engraved on the inside of the ring. You make my life bearable."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "That would never fit."
She laughed and untied her robe, letting it fall to the floor as she walked across the room. That was maybe a more seductive move when the rob was a flowing cream-colored satin, and not an over-sized men's terry bathrobe with crumbled bacon in the pocket, but what the hell. She stretched out on the gigantic bed stark naked, and grinned. "So," she said. "You really think you're ready to be naughty in your parents' bedroom?"
"I do, in fact."
"Then I have something to tell you. I lied to you."
"Did you now," he said, stepping out of his pants.
"Yes. I might have lied about my favorite position, before. I'm not sure exactly what it is, though. I'm having a hard time remembering."
"Well," he said, clambering up beside her, "fortunately I am—" he landed a kiss on her backside—"well-versed in the art of criminal interrogation. I'm sure I can help—" another kiss, lingering this time, higher up her spine, right on the long scar that twinned the one on his own back—"jog your memory."
He flipped her and pinned her wrists, and she laughed, not at the ridiculousness of it, but from the sheer improbable joy of it all. "Don't be alarmed," he whispered. "I'm a trained investigator."
They were married two days later, at Gotham City Courthouse, in the private chambers of a judge friendly with Bruce. It had been an easy decision to arrive at; neither wanted to wait, and besides, in a life that would be filled with the very public persona of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne, it appealed to both of them to begin that life as privately as possible. It was for no one else's eyes but theirs.
Barbara was especially glad to avoid the panoply of a church wedding, once Bruce had mentioned St. Bartholomew's, and the Wayne family's long connection with that church. "It's. . . very beautiful," she said. "It's an Episcopal church, right?"
"Okay. Um. You know that when I throw around the word Irish about my family, I'm. . . really not kidding, right?"
He looked at her in some puzzlement, and she sighed. "Look. I'm not saying my father is going to be thrilled with the idea of our getting married in the first place. I'm not even saying he's particularly devout. I'm just saying, that if I have a church wedding and it's not a Catholic wedding, he is going to be. . . irritated. And my nine thousand aunts and uncles and cousins will be confused, and he will feel weird about it, and. . . maybe St. Bart's is not the way to go here."
"It makes no difference to me," he said. "But there will need to be some sort of public something. If you'd prefer a private ceremony, we can have a reception in a few weeks, after the announcement appears in the Gazette."
Her wince must have been visible, though she tried to suppress it. "It's part of the deal," he said softly. "I wish I could say that it wasn't."
"I know," she said. "I'm fine with it, I really am. It's just going to take some getting used to, the Mrs. Wayne part of it."
"Say no now if you need to," he said, his eyes watchful. They watched her a lot these days, like she was the one who would bolt, like this was a mistake she would realize soon, and there would be the end of it. She smiled, and nestled closer in his arms, nudging the tablet they were using to watch a movie.
"I could never disappoint Alfred like that," she sighed.
Dick they did together, by mutual agreement. She knew going into it that Dick would be the worst, the hardest. He did not, of course, disappoint.
They went to his apartment on his off day, the Tuesday after they were married. They stood awkwardly in his cluttered living room, and she told him, as directly as she knew how. He was quiet, and he listened to her whole story, which was not, after all, a long one, and he knew most of it anyway.
He sat down on his sofa, and stared at last night's pizza box. "Okay," he said.
"Please tell me you understand," she said. Bruce was silent, over by the door, giving them space.
"I understand," Dick said.
"This is not something either of us meant to have happen."
"What, you just accidentally got married? You tripped and fell over something?"
"No, that was something we decided on together. Something we both very much wanted. Dick. Please. . ." Please be angry with me and not with him, was what she wanted to say, but couldn't with Bruce listening. Damn, she wished Bruce could have just stayed in the car.
"You and I have been through a lot together," she said, "and shared a lot of each other's lives. I hope this won't change what we are to each other, and that eventually you can understand and maybe even be happy for us. I realize that's a lot to ask right now, but. . . maybe as a long-term goal sort of thing."
"Right," he said, getting up and pacing, scrubbing at his hair. It didn't help that he looked like they'd just woken him up—jeans hastily pulled on, hair a mess, face still sleep-bleared. "Well," he said, crossing his arms. "I guess I can see how it makes sense."
"Oh hell yeah. I mean. . . look, when I asked you last year—I'm sure Bruce knows about that, you two have got no secrets, I'm sure—but when I asked you, you had to be thinking, I can really do better, right? And from a financial point of view, there's no arguing he's the better deal than me by an order of magnitude, no question. So, smart thinking there."
If he hadn't just sucker-punched the wind out of her, she might have been able to stop the raging freight train that roared across the room and pushed Dick to the wall. Bruce's fist was balled in Dick's shirt, his face in Dick's, his other fist clenched and ready to let fly. "Bruce!" she shouted, and "Fuck you," Dick spat, and Bruce's voice rode over them both.
"Did you," he yelled, shaking Dick, banging him against the wall again, "did you just call my wife a whore?"
His jaw was clenched so tight he could barely get the words out, and it was like moving in slow-motion, trying to stop the unfolding horror in front of her, but then her brain sputtered back online. "Enough!" she yelled, in a voice of command, and Bruce's hand instantly released, though she could see the trembling in every line of his body.
"Bruce, get out of here," she said. "Go wait in the car. Now."
She saw him struggling to gain control, and her heart ached, but she kept her gaze on him level, and he licked his lips and turned away. Would have turned away, was starting to turn away and obey her, but then Jason appeared in the doorway to Dick's bedroom, leaning against the doorframe. Jason, wearing not a single stitch of clothing, naked as the day he was born, and looking from one to the other of them.
"Well," he said with a grin. "If this is your average Tuesday, I cannot goddamn wait for Thanksgiving."
Dick groaned and put his head in his hands. "Jason," he said. Smooth, Boy Wonder, way to cover, she thought, and if it hadn't all been so horrible she would have wanted to laugh.
"Jason," Bruce said.
"Your turn," Jason said, turning to her. She sighed and crossed her arms.
"You," Jason said, pointing to Dick. "Stop being such a little cuntwipe. Poor you, your ex-girlfriend went and got it on the regular somewhere else, why don't you jizz all over her picture at night and leave creepy messages on her phone like a normal person. Jesus Christ, grow a life. And you," he said, pointing at Bruce. "This is how we express our moral outrage at people, shoving them against a wall? I'm gonna write down every self-righteous load of steaming wet horseshit you ever served me about self-control and I'm gonna stuff it down your hypocritical throat. Knock it off, both of you."
Dick and Bruce were both looking at the floor like chastened children. He surveyed the room. "Hey Babs," he said. "He didn't brainwash you or anything? You actually consented to this?"
"I did," she said.
"Okay then, good for you. Congratulations. And hey," he said, turning to Bruce again. He broke into a leering grin. "Way to tap that, old man. Good for you, seriously, because she is some next-level shit. I see a serious possibility of you becoming human, in the not-too-distant future. You'll kick his ass when he needs it, right?" he asked, turning back to Barbara.
"I promise," she said.
"Good enough for me."
"Jason," Dick said quietly. "Please put some clothes on."
"Why, Dickie? You think, the minute I put my clothes back on, everyone's gonna forget they just saw me walk naked out of your bedroom? Oh wait, maybe if I tell them I was helping you change a lightbulb, that oughta do the trick. You're a motherfucking coward."
"I'm not," Dick said, and Barbara watched as he crossed the room to Jason. He looked down at Jason's hand, and then he laced his own in Jason's. "I'm not," he said again. "But I am asking you, please, if you would go back into the bedroom and put some clothes on. Please."
Oh my God, he's the Jason-whisperer, she thought, as she watched Jason blink, confounded. She was pretty sure she'd never seen anyone surprise Jason before. Dick was just looking steadily at him.
Slowly Jason nodded. "Okay," he said. He let go of Dick's hand and went back into the bedroom, and clicked the door behind him. And then it was back to the three of them, staring uncomfortably at the floor. Except for Dick, who somehow managed to look right at her.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It was the shittiest possible thing to say, which was why I said it. Can you forgive me?"
"Yes," she said. "That's what you do, in a family."
He nodded, like he understood, and she glanced at Bruce. "Well, listen," she said. "I think I'm going to go wait in the car." And she let her shoulder brush Bruce's on her way out, just the smallest touch. She went downstairs and sat in the car and waited, knowing that upstairs, Bruce and Dick were doing whatever it was they needed to do. Whatever it was they always did, and somehow came through on the other side. She pulled her phone out.
Thank you, she texted Jason. You did a good thing back there.
You'd be surprised how hard it is to ignore a naked person, he texted back. The things I do for this family.
She grinned. So, you and Dick, huh?
Apparently. Too weird?
Weirdly right. You guys gonna be okay?
Yeah. Bruce gonna survive the shock?
Yeah I'll talk him down. Just give him time.
Aw thanks Mom ur the best. It's cool if I call you Mom, right?
Bruce pulled open the passenger door and got in. He sat there for a minute, then rested his head on his hand. She tucked her phone away, and grabbed his other hand. He didn't look her direction, but he gripped it tight, and they sat there for a while, just saying nothing.
"Let me see that list," he said eventually.
She pulled it out and handed it to him. He unfolded it, and proceeded to tear it into tiny squares, which he then tossed out the window. "Everyone else gets a card," he said.
For those who like to see such things, here is my reference for Martha Wayne's ring.