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The Things You Learn from Your Mother

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Four years old. Mama is a collection of body parts and images and smells more than a person, still. Bryce toddles through the department store in her mother's wake, fascinated by the elegant click of her mother's heels. Mama is calves in smooth beige hose and the hem of a skirt, a purse with lipstick and a mirror inside. Mama is the smell of Chanel No. 5, and a warm soft mountain when Bryce sneaks into her parents' bed in the middle of the night, even though she's supposed to hug her stuffed animals and stay in bed.

Five years old. Mama's on the phone and Bryce is under her desk, with a coloring book of dragons and knights. Bryce likes to color inside the lines and make the pictures look like the ones in her real books. She told Alfred yesterday that she's going to be a drawer when she grows up.

"I'm sure his heart's in the right place," Mama is saying, "but he's so inefficient. It's dragging the whole organization down. He spent two weeks of his time and our money arranging that photo op with the mayor at that school! And did you see this campaign he's got running in the Post? It's the worst kind of fear-mongering -- all right, but they're all donating expressly to the enforcement fund because they think someone's going to snatch their baby girl. I can't be the only person in Gotham funding survivor resources, Judy, I can't."

The frustration in Mama's voice makes Bryce look up. She puts a small hand on Mama's knee, and is rewarded with her mother's face appearing below the edge of the desk. Mama gives her a smile and holds up her pinky finger -- one short minute, a solemn promise -- and Bryce holds up her pinky in return.

"We'll give him one more chance," Mama says with a sigh, straightening up. "I guess everyone deserves one more chance."

When she hangs up, Bryce clambers into her lap and lays her coloring book on top of the desk. Mama hugs her around the middle and makes admiring noises at the pictures.

"Are you the knight or the dragon?" Mama asks, and makes scary dragon noises in Bryce's ear.

Bryce shrieks with laughter. "I'm the princess, Mama! I can't be the dragon!"

"You're a pretty good dragon when it's past your bedtime." Mama leans over to look at her face, smile fading. "You can be the knight, if you want."

"I'm a girl, Mom," Bryce says, rolling her eyes. Mom is a word for when she wants to sound grown-up, like when Mom is being obviously silly.

"If you want to be the princess, that's okay," Mama says. "But you don't ever need a knight to save you." She taps the princess in the tower on the page, with the ice cream cone hat and the hair Bryce has colored brown, like her own. "She can fight her own dragons. Sometimes princesses have to."

"But that's not how the story goes," Bryce says, astonished.

"How about we write our own, then?"

Making a new book out of crayons and printer paper takes the rest of the afternoon. When Daddy comes home from the hospital Bryce runs to sit in his lap and show him her handiwork. The drawing of the princess in armor doesn't look very much like the pictures in Bryce's real books, she supposes. Maybe she'll be a vet when she grows up instead of a drawer. Mama and Daddy kiss while Bryce tells herself again the story of the princess with her laser sword defeating the dragon and hitching a ride on the knight's winged horse.

EIght years old. Mom lets Bryce try on the pearls Dad gave her. The string is too long for Bryce, and the biggest pearl bumps onto her breastbone. When Mom puts them on they rest in the hollow of her throat and she is so, so beautiful.

"Pearls are timeless," Mom tells Bryce. "And you can wear a good set with almost anything. If you're ever not sure what to wear to something, try pearls and a black dress. Got it?"

"Got it," Bryce says, pleased with this advice, already imagining herself as tall and pretty as her mom, in elegant black with pearls at her throat.

Eight years old. Bryce's first black dress.

She does not wear pearls to the funeral. Neither does her mother's body -- still smelling of Chanel No. 5, over the sour embalming fluid and the tang of gunpowder Bryce can still taste in her sinuses. Her body looks soft but no longer warm.

Twelve years old. Alfred bought books for his charge to explain about -- well, about -- what he just couldn't explain. Although he did awkwardly offer to answer any questions Bryce might have after reading them. Thankfully, Bryce gets her period at boarding school, and the nurse there takes care of making the uncomfortable phone call home to tell Alfred what Bryce will need when she next returns to Wayne Manor.

When she comes home for spring break, there are pads tucked under the sink in her bathroom. Bryce looks at them for a moment, then closes the cupboard and goes to her parents' room.

In the medicine cabinet in the master bath, she finds a tube of red lipstick, still soft and waxy. She draws it onto her lips, remembering the way her mother did it, making her mouth an O and then blotting the color on a tissue.

She looks at her reflection for a long time, fascinated by the girl in the mirror. Eventually, though, she can't decide if she looks like a clown or a grown-up, and she wipes it all away.

She is a grown-up now, though. Or closer to one. She thinks her mother would agree she's old enough to wear makeup now.

She wishes she could ask.

Eighteen years old. Graduation. Alfred attends, as do some of her parents' friends -- the people she has in lieu of family. Mr. Earle finds her after the ceremony.

"Congratulations, Roberta," he says, with a warm smile and a peck on her cheek. She smiles in spite of how little she likes her first name. "We're so proud of you."

"Thank you, Mr. Earle."

"Here." He holds out a gift-wrapped box, and Bryce juggles her diploma and her sparkling cider to take it. "As executor of the estate, I was saving this for a special occasion. I think now's the right time."

Bryce's stomach goes tight, but she manages to smile again. "Thank you, Mr. Earle, that's so thoughtful. I'll open it later. I don't want to lose anything."

"Of course, of course." He waves to one of the several roaming photographers. "Now, how about a picture?"

As soon as the picture's taken, Bryce escapes and finds Alfred, shoves the box into his hands.

"Put this in the safe as soon as you get home," she mumbles in his ear.

"All right," Alfred says, surprised. "What is it?"

"It's Mom's pearls." She feels sick. "I don't want them, Alfred. I don't want them," she bites, when he starts to open his mouth. "Please."

Her smile is back on when the photographers come around again. She escapes soon after, though, and she goes to the third-floor bathroom of the auditorium and washes off her make-up and her smile and, eventually, her tears.

Twenty-two years old. The gun has warmed to the temperature of her hands. The spray off the docks is cold, diesel-smelling. Bryce's mascara is running. Her heart is a machine gun, her throat a misfire.

You don't have to work, Mom, Bryce told her mother when she was seven. We have enough money.

Do you think I shouldn't work? Mom had asked.

Bryce hesitated then. It makes you so tired.

It's hard work sometimes, Mom said. But it needs to be done.

So if nobody else is doing it, you do it.

No, that's not it, Mom said. I don't do it just because nobody else is doing it. I do it because it needs to be done.

Bryce hurls the gun at the water so hard that something twinges in her shoulder.

Then she wipes off her mascara, turns, and walks into the Narrows. Her heels click like pearls falling to the pavement.

Thirty years old.

The fortune is her father's; the armor is Fox's. A girl at school taught her to French-braid her hair so it'll lie flat under any helmet; Henri Ducard taught her to keep so still she becomes invisible.

Black is timeless, said her mother. And you do things not just because nobody else will, but because they have to be done.

And you write your own stories.

Gotham's princess stands in her armor at the top of her tower, spreads her wings, and jumps.