Ten years of collecting miles under her feet and stamps in her many, many forged passports, but, Selina thought mildly, Gotham City was unfortunately still home. After months away, gently teasing a half dozen simply delicious antiquities away from their former owners, the smog and the semi-permanent smell of garbage on the streets was almost a comfort. Almost. She finished her climb up the side of the shabby, red brick apartment building, boosting herself easily and absolutely silently up over the lip of the roof before standing fluidly. The buildings were almost claustrophobically close here in the Narrows, but she could see down Emerald Avenue from here, which put a sliver of the city’s golden glory on display, glittering between the dark buildings. She pushed her cowl back and pulled off her respirator, taking her first free breath of clean air all night.
It was just her luck, really, that she had arrived back in Gotham on a night when Crane had decided to launch another one of his “experiments.” Her evening plans had been sneaking Harley and Ivy into her disgustingly expensive hotel suite—charged to Bruce’s old AmEx and, yes, maybe it was a bit childish to tweak his tail like that, but she’d never claimed to be mature—and working her way down the equally expensive room service menu. More importantly, let the other two Sirens bask in the kind of petty, human comforts that neither of them were ever able to indulge in. Before she’d known them, she’d spent significantly less time in half abandoned warehouses, and, sure, the fact that they were dripping with jasmine and covered in soft, cool moss made them much more hospitable. Still, sometimes a girl just wanted a bed and proper air conditioning. However, old habits did die hard, and she lived for the risk and release, the fall when you’re still not sure you’ll land on your feet. And now, here she was at the end of the whole long night, still in one piece, and she had seen just about every bat there was in Gotham except for the man himself. She wasn’t sure anymore if the sinking feeling in her stomach was falling, or if she had her paws firmly back on the ground.
Sighing, Selina blew out a breath and ruffled her short, sweat-slicked hair. At this point, it was probably sticking up in all directions, but it didn’t matter. Sure, Batwoman had been a decent consolation prize, and it had been nice to burn some nervous energy clearing the Narrows of goons and gas alike with her at Selina’s back. It wasn't like she disliked partnering with Batwoman. Batwoman was six feet and two inches worth of gorgeous, hypercompetent brawler, and Selina was well aware that she had a type, thank you very much. She was still the wrong bat, though. And she was gone now, back to her usual haunts in midtown, leaving Selina without anyone left to perform for. She didn’t want to call the feeling in her chest disappointment, precisely, because she didn’t want to give him that much credit. But. Some part of her, probably a larger percentage than she’d care to admit to, had hoped that Bruce—
There was a noise behind her, a sharp noise that had her whirling around, slinking low to the ground and pulling her whip off her belt in one smooth motion. Eyes scanned automatically for white skin, a bit of green hair, and she was suddenly horribly aware of the proximity of Arkham. He’d threatened her, actually, after Harley had finally left him for good. A whole career in the Gotham underworld carrying the open secret of her more bat-like proclivities, and only now did she have the Joker’s target on her back. Worth it, for Harley, but still not her favorite feeling.
All she could see was the expanse of the roof, perhaps forty feet wide or so, broken here and there by various vents, three of its four sides hemmed in with much taller buildings. Only one corner was obscured by a large air-conditioning unit, so that was the point she crept towards. She paused with her back against it, listening, and there it was again. Not, as she had originally thought, a laugh, but instead a quiet whimper. Quick as a thought, she spun around the corner, whip pulled back to strike... and then she froze, looking down at the pathetic shape curled into the corner in front of her.
The rogues had all spent years matching wits against one of the world's greatest detectives, but this was hardly a challenging puzzle. After all, there was only one little kid in Gotham who could possibly be wearing League blacks and carrying a katana. Honestly, there was probably only one in the world, and here he was, curled into a tiny, pathetic ball of black linen and leather, sword lying discarded a few feet away. His brown skin had gone ashy, and his face was coated with a thin film of sweat. And, perhaps most worryingly of all, his only reaction to her presence was to cower more firmly into the corner. Never taking her eyes off him, she carefully coiled her whip and hooked it back on her belt before taking another quiet step towards him.
“Kid,” she said gently, casting around for his name and coming up empty. He cringed at her voice. “Hey, kiddo, what’s wrong?”
No answer. She was just a few paces away from him now, but, as she moved to close the distance, he suddenly scrabbled backwards. Or tried to, at any rate. It didn’t make much difference since he was already pressed up as tight against the wall as he possibly could be.
“Hey,” she murmured, freezing in place. Slowly, carefully, she knelt. “Got a lungful of Crane’s gas, didn’t you?” No response aside from a ragged breath. His face was fully hidden now, as he had pressed it against his drawn-up legs. “Kid, it’s ok, I can help.”
Still nothing, so she carefully reached out towards him. Then there was a blur of movement—what little kid could move that fucking fast?—and she barely managed to extract her baton from her boot in time to catch the knife he slashed out at her. She shifted her stance to something steadier, expecting a second strike, but none came. The kid just cowered back into his corner, knife now held up in a shaky guard, eyes darting around the empty rooftop. Selina let out a long sigh and then sat cross-legged where she was. Typical of a Wayne to force her to play the long game.
This was the first time she’d ever actually seen the kid. She’d heard rumors, of course, first the ones that found their way into Catwoman’s ear, saying that Talia al Ghul had a son, and she was bringing that son to Gotham. It had seemed strange, but only in the way those things usually did. Selina couldn't imagine living the kind of life she did—they all did—and getting pregnant, let along keeping the kid. Then the rumors had started coming to Selina from much more reliable sources in much greater detail. At least Barbara had seemed to understand her reluctance and recognize that to her this was perhaps more than just an idle piece of gossip or the complaints of irritated siblings, a nuance that had seemed to evade just about everyone else.
He was small, almost upsettingly so, but she thought she could see a bit of Bruce in his face, in the line of his nose or the shape of his jaw, even rounded off with baby fat. She had known Bruce before he had any Robins, and she still remembered the shock of seeing Dick Grayson for the first time, bright yellow and red and small in his mentor’s shadow. But Dick had been fourteen, and this boy was clearly so much younger. She felt an unexpected swell of anger in her chest.
What was he thinking, letting a little kid out here when Crane is running around spraying out fear gas like a damn sprinkler. The hand not holding the baton curled into a fist. He left him out here all alone. Cuts me completely out of his life over this kid and then just abandons him on a rooftop in the fucking Narrows.
Which, well, wasn’t precisely the emotion she’d been expecting from herself. She forced herself to set it aside for the moment. There were bigger fish to fry just now, like figuring out how to get close enough to him to jab him with an antidote.
“Kid,” she tried again. “Mijo, I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help.”
His eyes were still tracking something behind her. She glanced to the side, then checked the rest of the roof. Nothing. Well, he was seeing something, and it certainly wasn’t her and the dull black bulk of the air-conditioner, but it had the creeping closeness of Arkham breathing down her neck again. She wanted to get gone. Reaching into a pouch on her belt, she kept talking, just a stream of nonsense reassurance to distract from the caltrops she was pulling out. She threw those left, letting them land with a metallic clatter that seemed to draw his notice as she whipped around to his right. This time he didn’t react fast enough, and she was able to disarm him with a quick jab to his wrist. He was really cowering now, that pained whimper from before leaking out of him again, but she got the needle into his arm, and the antidote dispensed with a quiet hiss.
“It’s ok,” she said quietly, even though he probably couldn’t hear her, and his brain was twisting her into something else entirely. “It’s ok, mijo, everything’s gonna be fine.”
She waited for a little while until the analgesic kicked in and he began to go limp. And then she scooped his little body up in her arms before she turned her nose east and made for the relative safety of the East End. It was, at least, completely Joker free.
She hopped the subway for most of the trip back to her apartment, betting on it being mostly empty. It was. There wasn't even a guard to snap at her for jumping the turnstile, just a single older woman in slightly shabby work clothes waiting for the train. There were certain rogues who were pretty much guaranteed to clear out the subway. Crane, who loved tunnels with limited exits that were conveniently prefilled with people, was definitely one of them. Fortunately, tonight’s toxin had been confined strictly above ground, and there were already a few trains running. Gotham was resilient like that. Long practice. Well, that and the conductors got paid time and a half to get the transit system going again after a crisis.
The Red Line was one of the oldest lines in Gotham, and the inside of the cars were a deeply 60s shade of orange, paired with brown upholstery that was, at this point, barely hanging together. And then there was the smell, a different one for every car, but every car had something. This one stank of dank, rotting cardboard badly enough that she didn't close the open windows, even with the rattle of the car on the track and the deafening screech of the brakes when they hit a curve. The woman from the platform was sitting towards the other end of the car, on the bank of seats opposite Selina. She looked at the kid, then up at Selina, who had her goggles around her neck and her cowl loosely stuffed under the collar of her jacket, but who also had all her usual gear on her belt. The woman blinked slowly.
“Long night?” There was a rasp to the woman’s voice that spoke to a long acquaintance with cigarettes, and a Bowery accent pulled at the vowels. It was very familiar. After all, Selina had learned how to hide her own. She nodded. “Who was it?”
“Crane,” Selina replied after a moment. “Scarecrow.”
“He’s a right bastard.”
That was true. It was also, apparently, the end of the conversation as the woman pulled out yesterday’s Gotham Times and started in on the crossword. God bless the East End. At least she knew they would always protect their own, especially if all that required was pretending not to see a wanted criminal and sometime vigilante sitting on the train.
The woman got off two stops later, giving Selina a respectful sort of nod, but Selina barely noticed. Something, maybe the metallic scream of the brakes, seemed to be needling at the kid, and he got progressively more restless as time went on. Eventually, she shifted him from where she'd had him lying down with his head cushioned on her thigh—nothing good could come from touching that upholstery with bare skin—to curled up in her lap.
He was crying, she realized belatedly. Not heavily, but there were a few tears dripping down his face. It was actually almost reassuring, since thus far he'd been frighteningly quiet for a kid who couldn’t be older than ten and who had recently been dosed up on fear toxin. Somehow, it also reached into her chest, tugging at something she hadn't thought existed.
"Hush, mijo," she found herself murmuring, carding her fingers through his hair. "It's gonna be fine. You're gonna be fine."
He quieted a little, pressing his face into her shoulder, so she cast about for something else she could say before settling on something she could sing instead. Her last job had found her in Mongolia, and a misstep or two on her part had found her a tiny bit stranded on the steppe. She'd gotten lucky and found a little village pretty quickly, and she’d happily settled into their one tavern like she was an old fixture herself. It was a long week, waiting on the next car to come through, but not an unpleasant one. She’d talked her way through it, buying drinks for the locals and listening to the old men's stories once she’d found out that one of them could speak Russian. It had been funny, watching all the grey heads clustered together, having a lively argument over what to tell their friend to tell her. And the nights? The nights were full of song and firelight.
Here, sitting under the flickering fluorescents of the humid subway car and swaying with its movement, she sang what she could remember. She got most of the way through a drinking song, one probably a bit bawdier than should be sung for a ten-year-old, then transitioned into a ballad full of something about wind and dark skies and horses. Then a pattern in the melody reminded her of a lullaby she'd first heard in Saudi Arabia, so she switched over to that. The kid almost immediately began to quiet, which, she supposed, actually did make sense. She was perfectly well aware that Talia's native language was Arabic. It would follow that her son's was the same.
Even as she was thinking it, his eyes drifted open and he blinked slowly, seemingly having trouble focusing. He made no effort to move away from her, a crease forming between his brows. Another blink, eyes barely opening to half-mast. And then, in a quiet voice filled with an almost desperate longing:
Oh, God. Oh, fuck, she didn't want to touch that. Not with a ten-foot pole, not when she hadn't so much as spoken to Bruce Wayne in months. A startled, "Mijo," was all she managed to get out, but he'd already slipped back into sleep, apparently not registering the change to Spanish. She let her head thunk back against the window.
Years ago, back when they were just Bat and Cat, and she'd had no idea what was under the cowl, Bruce had spoken to her with that kind of desperate longing in a situation not so dissimilar to this. Her arms tightened unconsciously around the child in her lap. Somewhere in those hours, sitting in a half empty cargo container with his hand clutched in hers and his head in her lap while a toxin that neither of them had understood coursed through him, the mask had slipped—shattered really—even though the cowl had stayed firmly in place. Bruce had trusted her, somehow, even lying there completely vulnerable with no way to stop her if she'd decided to pull off the cowl or slit his throat. Hadn't just trusted her, had begged her not to leave, although the only word he'd ever actually said was "please." Some part of her was always going to be in that container, she thought, promising him that he wasn’t alone.
Damn him. Damn him, and damn the instincts she shouldn't even have, the instincts that were telling her to hold the kid close and make him promises she'd never be able to keep because they lived in a world designed to hurt children, to hurt them all the way into being adults. There was another shriek of metal as old, much abused brakes struggled to bring them to a stop in the station nearest her apartment. She scooped the kid up and stormed off the train, long, angry strides eating up the blocks between her and home.
She thought Oracle had been glad to hear her voice, although it was always a bit hard to tell with the voice changer. Sometimes anger and relief sounded the same. It was a bat thing. But also, Barbara had specifically given her the Oracle keyed communicator when it became clear that her leaving Gotham was going to be something long term. Or maybe when Barbara realized that Bruce wasn't going to be coming off his bullshit anytime soon. She'd never asked which one it was.
Maybe it was overly sentimental, but she traveled with that one, too, rather than leaving it in some drawer. Their comms bounced off satellites not local radio towers, so sometimes she’d flip it on while she sat in some European café eating her breakfast. Listen to Steph and Barbara banter back and forth, and Cassie’s bright, infectious laughter. She felt a cold, wet nose shove against her hand as one of her strays, a little slip of a calico, jumped up on her lap and nudged at her hand, not stopping until she had stroked down its back. Everything was a tight, tired knot inside her, and she should be used to it by now because nothing about Gotham, not the city and certainly not the people, was ever easy. But that, of course, was much easier said than done.
“I feel like you don’t appreciate how good you have it,” she told the kitten. “Your life is very simple.” It butted its head up against her hand again.
The window behind her slid up, and there was instantly a chorus of miaus as the rest of her strays perked up. The calico scrambled up her and then over the back of the couch to see what was going on. Selina stayed with her back to the window and the kid lying down beside her and taking up the rest of the couch, covered in one of the blankets she owned specifically so it could be bled on. The huge tortoiseshell that had become a fixture in her household years ago remained curled on top of him.
“Took you lot long enough,” she said, standing and stretching. She’d felt too on edge to change out of her work clothes, and one of the armored panels had put a weird crick in her back. She turned, expecting to see Cassie, or maybe Tim, and whatever else she had planned on saying died on her lips.
He was still by the window, only barely inside her apartment and standing straight in the way he did when his body wanted to do something else. Five o’clock shadow and a split lip. Caked in mud from the knees down, and the rest of him was splattered with it too. She looked up, met his gaze even though it was hidden behind the whited out lenses of his cowl. The cats milled around both their feet.
“Bruce,” she said conversationally, shocked into politeness. “You’ve tracked shit into my house.”
“It isn’t.” His voice was hoarse, as if he’d been yelling all night or else hadn’t talked at all. “It’s just mud. I wasn’t in the sewer.”
“Ah, but all Gotham mud is at least 4% human feces. It’s in the city charter, actually.” The joke was instinctive, and she could’ve smacked herself for it.
“They were going to change that,” he said, the barest hint of a wry smile beginning to curve the corner of his mouth. “But no one could decide where the extra shit was gonna come from, so now the resolution is stuck in committee.”
That pulled a reluctant snort of laughter out of her. And… this was idiotic. This was just so, so dumb. What was she doing, and why was it so easy to fall back into this. She smoothed her face back out with practiced ease—he’d know it was her work face, the one she showed to her marks, and you know what? Good. Let him see it—and gestured towards the couch. He was already drawing back at her change in tone and manner. Withdrawing inside, even though he was still as a statue.
“I seem to have found something of yours.” She looked back down at the tiny body curled in on itself on her couch, which was more than enough to jumpstart her anger again. Anyway, where Bruce was concerned, it had been simmering pretty close to surface since approximately when he’d changed his normal patrol route, adjusted the standard band on his comms, and hadn’t stopped her from stealing an entire Ming dynasty vase out of the Gotham Museum of Art, even though she knew that he knew she was planning on taking it. “Strange, because I didn’t see you all night, just your kid.”
He swept around the couch—the long way around, she noticed, so that he didn’t walk past her—and knelt beside the kid, pulling one of his gloves off with his teeth so he could check pulse and temperature. The tortoiseshell watched him intently with huge green eyes as the kid stirred slightly, but didn’t wake.
“—Since I found your ten-year-old dosed to the gills with fear toxin and hiding on a rooftop in the goddamned Narrows?” She snapped. He flinched, actually physically flinched, which in turn made her start in surprise. He was usually better about that sort of thing. Even so, she kept her voice sharp. “Probably about two hours.”
“He seems to be reacting well to the antidote,” he said, not looking up.
“He’s ten, Bruce.” It exploded out of her, louder than she’d meant it to be, but she didn’t bother to reign it back in, even when it sent the cats scattering, with the exception of the tortoiseshell, which remained curled almost protectively on the kid’s chest. “Why the fuck did you send a little kid into the Narrows alone!”
He whirled on her now, standing back up to his full height and shoving the cowl back. His hair was a mess of sweat and a bit of blood where a sutured cut on his forehead had reopened, and, well, he looked like hell. Dark shadows curved under eyes bloodshot enough to tell her that he hadn’t had more than a cat nap in the last 30 or so hours.
“I didn’t,” he said, voice immediately matching hers in tone and volume, even though his came out as more of a growl. “What, Selina, you think I get my kicks by throwing my son into life or death situations with no backup? I thought he was at home until you called Barbara.”
That shut her up. She wasn’t sure if it was the admission that he hadn’t known something or the “my son” that threw her. He'd always been so careful about that with Dick and Tim, hating to trespass or step where he wasn't wanted, and it settled uncomfortably on her ears. Then, “No, ok, wait. You’re saying your—and let’s just take a minute to really sit with this—ten-year-old kid got past your security system in under six months. You know, the one it took me two damn years to crack."
“He went out the cave not the manor, but yes, Selina. Welcome to my damn life.”
She gaped at him. “He’s ten. What, did you become completely incompetent while I was gone?”
He stared at her, jaw tight and mouth slightly open as if he were about to say something, and then, to her utter surprise, he pressed the heel of his ungloved hand against his eye and sat down heavily on the coffee table. She looked down at him. He still almost came up to her shoulder.
“I shouldn’t have yelled,” he said after almost a full minute of silence, directed mostly towards her tiled floor. And then, even more shockingly, he murmured, “I have no idea what to do with him.”
She looked at the top of his head, since he was still staring down at the floor with his elbows propped on his knees. Then she looked at the little kid on her couch. Then back at him.
“You’ve impulse adopted multiple traumatized children.”
“It wasn’t impulse,” he muttered, and then, louder, continued. “Damian’s… he’s worlds different from Jason or Tim. Even Dick or Cassandra. I….”
He trailed off, seeming to sag towards her, although he stopped himself before he would've been touching her. She looked back over at the little boy on her couch.
“Bruce,” she finally said quietly after it became clear he wasn't going to finish the sentence. “Why’s he wearing League blacks.” It was a question that had been nibbling at the back of her mind since she first saw the kid. There was only silence in response, and he hunched in on himself just slightly. “Bruce, please tell me that’s just Talia’s weird power fetish on display.”
There was a long pause, and she hated every single second of it.
“I don’t know if he’s finished all the tests.” It wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear.
“Dios mio.” It slipped out on a breath, and she sat down next to him. “She…?” Bruce slumped further beside her. And then, sharper, she added, “And you didn’t stop it?”
“I didn’t know.” His fingers were in his hair now, clenched white knuckled and pulling “Years of training and planning and trying to account for every possible anything, and I didn’t know, Selina.”
Bruce had almost socked her right in the windpipe once when she had tried to wake him up out of a nightmare spawned by one of the League tests, and that had just been an initiation, more evaluation than anything else. Bruce had sensed pretty quickly that the League of Shadows was nothing he wanted to connect himself to, and hadn’t that gone great. No connection, aside from the kid behind them on the couch who wore their uniform and had those poisonous green al Ghul eyes. Didn’t know. What did he mean he didn’t know? She’d presumed it had been one of the many secrets he kept, the ones she didn’t pry at because he didn’t pry at hers, and she’d have been happy to let it be, except he’d wielded it like a sword, using it to split her completely off from his life. The alternative he offered her now was much too big to contemplate. Selina sighed and put a hand on his leg just above his knee, squeezing gently. His grip on his hair loosened slightly, and he slanted a glance over at her. He’d leaned towards her, too, as soon as she’d touched him, although she doubted he even knew he was doing it.
“You make it really hard to be mad at you when you’re this pathetic.”
She got a little scrap of a smile, but it was one of the ones that actually made the corners of his eyes crinkle. Selina liked those, especially since they were so few and far between. And then it was gone, replaced with a little worried grimace.
“Father.” The word was loud in the relative quiet and spoken in an unfamiliar but high pitched voice with a decided British accent. Selina startled, and, beside her, Bruce froze into stillness. “Is this your harlot.”
He rounded on his son, the full growl of Batman back in his voice. “Damian—”
He didn’t get to whatever the rest of the sentence would have been because Selina had doubled over in laughter and then swung around, pulling her legs up to sit cross-legged on the table. The kid—Damian, she reminded herself—was sitting up now, face creased into an angry frown. He was blinking a bit too much, overenunciating too, so there was definitely still a bit of the anti-toxin in his system. He also kept looking over at her and then glancing away again before she could meet his eye, probably remembering some of the past hour or so and embarrassed of it. Also the tortoiseshell was sitting in his lap now, purring loudly. He hadn’t pushed it off. As she watched, she realized he was actually petting it, subtly, as if he were trying to hide it.
“Oh, mijo, you’re gonna have to get more imaginative with your insults if we’re gonna be friends." She smiled, not a work smile but a Catwoman one, the kind that showed teeth. "Some of my very best friends are harlots.”
He sputtered, maybe at what she had said, maybe at the diminutive. Ah, but she recognized his eyes, though. Angry and defensive, the look of someone who attacked because it was better than the alternative. Better than staying still and letting someone get you. Or worse, letting someone in. She’d seen those eyes staring back at her in the mirror every day for the ten years it had taken her to go from street kid to thief to Catwoman, whoever Catwoman might be. It was still there, sometimes, because every so often she needed the tough little girl with the wind chapped lips who had learned to pick locks with bobby pins so she didn’t freeze to death on some dirty Bowery street.
“Where is my sword.”
Demanding little asshole, too, wasn’t he. “On the counter. I cleaned it for you.” He’d already walked away to pull it down, and the tortoiseshell was trailing after him. She rolled her eyes. “You’re welcome.”
Bruce’s eyes were fixed on the sword, and she knew that expression. That was the “You’re wrong, and I went to Yale so I will be telling you exactly how and why” expression. And no, definitely not. Not in her living room.
“Alright, you two, you’ve officially stepped on the boundary of my patience,” she said, not ill-naturedly. Bruce looked at her, confused and a bit wrongfooted, although she only knew it because it was the face he made any time she changed moods too quickly for him to follow. Damian was already moving towards the window. “Out.”
“Damian.” Bruce had stood but made no move to pull the cowl back on. “Selina saved you. You might try a little gratitude.”
The boy froze, and then slowly turned on his heel to glare at her. For such a small kid, he really was well on his way towards having what Dick would call a “Bat Glare.” His face twisted up like he’d tasted something sour.
“Your help was adequate,” he said, sounding as if he meant precisely the opposite. “But entirely unnecessary.” And then he was out the window.
Bruce had an expression on his face that was halfway between flabbergasted and furious, staring after his son. Selina stood and picked her way across the coffee table to stand next to him.
“Good luck,” she said, a wicked grin on her own face. And then she went to kiss him on the cheek, but he’d started turning towards her as soon as she’d spoken, so she ended up pressing a little kiss to the end of his nose instead. A much better choice, as it turned out, since he suddenly looked like he’d walked into a sliding glass door. They were eye to eye for once, and he was looking at her as if he’d never really seen her before, his mouth still somewhat open in surprise. No, not like he’d never seen her, more like he’d forgotten and was only now remembering. He blinked, then a little confused wrinkle appeared between his brows.
“Was that a joke about Harley?”
She laughed, loud and bright and long, feeling like it was taking months of tense exhaustion with it.
“Your child is escaping,” she said, pushing him towards the window. “Good night, Bruce.”
He stared at her a moment longer, mouth caught in a slightly wondering smile that, she was fairly certain, wasn’t due to a little scrap of wordplay. And then he pulled the cowl up, the mask of Batman falling easily back into place, and he leapt silently into the Gotham night after his wayward son.