Stepping out of the shower, towel wrapped around her hair, her slim body lost inside a man-sized bathrobe, Selina noted that her clothes weren't where she'd left them. In their place was a small, folded note.
//Miss Kyle, forgive the intrusion, but I've taken the liberty of sending your clothes out to be cleaned. Also, I've made arrangements with the concierge at your hotel to have all of your clothes and personal belongings brought here. Before you protest, rest assured that we are merely following the doctor's orders. You must have rest for the next few days, and Mr. Wayne insists that you do so as his guest--Alfred//
Selina stared at the note for a moment. All her personal belongings! She wracked her brain trying to remember if she'd locked her cosmetic case. Shaking her head abruptly to put the thought aside inadvertently sent the room spinning around her. Selina instantly stopped the action while she backed onto the bed. She collapsed for a few minutes, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass.
At last, when it didn't look like she'd be thrown off the world through centrifugal force, she stood shakily.
There was no helping it. Even she couldn't physically recall whether she'd locked her cosmetic case, she knew that she would have done it automatically. It was as deeply ingrained in her to be security conscious, as--
"--As, I've trained myself to never become emotionally involved with one of my marks," she finished ruefully. Her mind flashed to yesterday in the park as Bruce and Dick laughed while they struggled to get the Millennium Falcon kite up in the air...
"The tree, Bruce! Look out for the tree!"
"I see it! No sweat--!"
Selina stood with her hands clamped across her mouth as the kite became tangled in the large elm. Bruce immediately ran towards the tree and began climbing.
"Don't worry, son!" Bruce leaped to a lower branch and pulled himself up with practiced ease. He began inching towards where the kite hung entwined.
"There! I've got iiiittt--!"
A branch Bruce had climbed onto as he reached for the kite broke suddenly under his weight. He fell in a jumbled heap of branches and leaves, with the Millennium Falcon gently fluttering to a safe landing on top of him.
"Bruce!" Dick yelled.
As Dick and Selina ran up to him, Bruce sat up slowly. He was wearing a coat of leafy twigs, the kite completely covering his face. As Dick knelt next to him, Bruce blew the kite's tail out of his mouth. He looked up at the others, chagrinned.
"See--? I got it," he smiled sheepishly, handing Dick the slightly twisted kite. "Told you not to worry." He grimaced as the kite bent suddenly in half.
Dick carefully took his treasured kite. It would never fly again. He fell back on his heels, disappointed. Bruce looked up at Selina, his face guilt-ridden.
"Dick, I'm really sorry about the Millennium Falcon."
"It's okay, Bruce." As if suddenly aware of his father's condition, Dick began to snicker. Finally, he collapsed on top of Bruce in helpless fits of laughter. Before long all three of them were laughing...
Selina smiled warmly at the memory. Abruptly, she grew still. The boy could fly, she thought awed. Dick could fly!
Fingering the robe she had on, she brought her mind back to the problem at hand: her cosmetic case.
Since she couldn't do anything about it, she decided that there was no sense in worrying. Shrugging, she found a pair of overly large slippers and walked out into the hallway. Looking both ways, she spotted a hidden staircase. Following it, she carefully made her way down the steps.
The too-large slippers made descending the stairs a bit treacherous; therefore, she took her time, placing her feet carefully on each step before proceeding to the next. As the she turned a corner to the bottom landing, she heard the sounds of a conversation. As she got closer, she recognized the smooth, cultured tones she'd heard earlier.
"--And with a guest in the house, no less. Master Dick, such behavior is unconscionable. What do you have to say for yourself? Well?"
"I'm sorry, Alfred," Dick's small voice replied. "I didn't mean to, honest! It's just that-that...gosh, Alfred, it was such a beautiful morning, and-and, before you know it, the sky was just *calling* me! And the geese were up there, and the clouds--!"
The boy's enthusiastic recitation came to an abrupt halt.
"I'm sorry," he repeated quietly. "I won't do it again. I promise."
"Very well, Master Dick. However, I'm afraid that you haven't heard the last of this. Master Bruce must be informed, and it is *you* who shall have to tell him."
"*Me*?" Dick squeaked.
"End of discussion. Now go upstairs and clean up." Selina heard a deep, heartfelt sigh. "Really, young sir, if you had to go flying with a flock of wild geese, why couldn't you have selected to fly *above* them, rather than below?"
Selina brought her hand up to her mouth in a desperate attempt to keep from laughing out loud. She heard the sound of small feet dragging on the floor and the soft sound of a door swinging open and shut.
Straightening her expression, Selina stepped into the kitchen from the back entrance.
"Hello?" she called. "Anybody here?"
"Miss Kyle!" Alfred said. "You should be in bed. Doctor's orders!" At her bemused expression, Alfred bit back whatever else he was going to say. "Forgive me, miss."
"That's all right," she replied a bit dazed.
Pulling out a chair for her, Alfred waited patiently until she sat down. "How *are* you feeling, Miss Kyle? Dr. Leslie said that that was a bad crease on your forehead. You're a very lucky young woman."
"I'm feeling fine, really," Selina reassured him. "A little dizzy at first, but I'm okay now, Mister--?"
"Please, call me Alfred. I'm Mr. Wayne's gentleman's gentleman. Although there are times I feel more of a general all-around nanny."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Alfred," Selina said, smiling. "Dick and Bruce spoke quite highly of you. And it's Selina, not Miss Kyle, please."
"As you wish," Alfred acknowledged, walking around the kitchen island to begin preparing the midday meal.
"This place looks a lot cleaner than I remember seeing it last," she said lightly.
Alfred heaved a deep sigh. "Don't tell me. Master Bruce was attempting to cook, I suppose?" At Selina's nod, he rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I'm afraid that Master Bruce's strengths lie in other areas."
Selina smiled at his tact. "Where's Dick," she asked innocently. "Is he in school?"
"The local schools are all on summer break at the moment," Alfred replied. "However, as a general rule, I've been home schooling the young master since he came to live with us."
"Home schooling?" Selina asked. "I'd have thought he'd be enrolled in one of the local exclusive private schools."
"At first, I began tutoring Master Dick as a bit of a necessity," Alfred said. "The local schools were all filled for the term. Also, Master Bruce and I felt that the boy needed a period of adjustment...you understand, to become acquainted with his new home and surroundings. Then, as time went by, I just sort of grew *used* to being his tutor." He smiled fondly. "I'm afraid he's growing much too advanced for my meager educational background. Soon, we'll have to enroll him in a proper school."
"Why do I get the feeling that your 'meager educational background' is probably more extensive than that of some of our so-called educators?"
Alfred beamed at her.
"Master Bruce said that I needed to watch myself around you."
At her look of incomprehension, Alfred added, "He said you're much too charming and would have me wound around your small finger in no time. I see he was right."
Selina blushed at the compliment, but felt secretly pleased. "Bruce said that?"
"Indeed, he did," Alfred replied. The kitchen door burst open at this moment.
"Alfred!" Dick said without preamble. "Selina's gone--!" He stopped. Grinning, Selina gave him a small wave. Dick sheepishly ducked his head.
"Hi," he said, shyly approaching her and tentatively giving her a hug.
"Of course, when it comes to being 'much too charming' and having people 'wound round one's finger'--here's the absolute champion," Alfred said drolly.
"Huh?" Dick asked.
"Don't you listen to him, Dick. I think you're wonderful just as you are."
Smiling, Dick turned to Alfred. "See, didn't I tell you she was awfully pretty? And she sure smells nice, too."
"Master Dick!" Alfred said, his tone horrified. "A young gentleman simply *does not* comment on how a young lady *smells*!" Realizing what he'd just said, and worse, how it sounded, Alfred stood, his eyes closed in self-recrimination.
Selina and Dick burst into amused snickers. Selina pulled Dick onto her lap and hugged him close to her.
"You just keep on telling me how nice I smell, munchkin," she said, pressing her cheek next to his.
The whup-whup-whup of the Wayne Enterprises' helicopter could be heard as it came in for its final landing.
"Bruce!" Dick cried, jumping up from the game table where he and Selina had been playing Scrabble. Without a backward glance, Dick ran out into the back portico. He wasn't allowed to approach the landing zone until the helicopter had safely lifted off again.
"Bruce!" he cried, waving madly. Bruce saw him, and giving him a half-smile, waved back. Reaching into the helicopter, he removed his briefcase. Nodding at the pilot, Bruce started walking up the short, winding path to where Dick was impatiently waiting.
As soon as the helicopter lifted off and was safely above the trees, Dick ran out to meet his dad.
"Hey, partner! How's it going?" Bruce asked. "What'd you do all day?"
"I showed Selina around the place," Dick said. "We went horseback riding--she can ride really well, Bruce--and for a swim over by Carson's Creek--she can *swim*, too--and we worked on a puzzle--she's real good at puzzles--and we played Scrabble."
"I hope you didn't tire her out too much, son. Doc Leslie said that Selina's supposed to *rest*!"
"Awww...she's okay, Bruce. In fact, she's *wonderful*!"
Bruce smiled down at Dick. "You think so, huh?"
"Sure do! Are you gonna ask her to marry you?" Dick asked in the next breath.
:"Marry--?" Bruce halted, spinning around to face Dick. "Hey, now slow down there a bit, kiddo! Selina and I just met! I mean, you've known her a whole lot longer than I have--at least eight hours longer."
"Yeah, but I'm just a kid," Dick protested. "I can't get married yet."
Bruce chuckled. "No, I suppose you can't." Gazing down at Dick's solemn eyes, Bruce spoke gently. "Tell you what, Dick. Why don't you let Selina and me get to know each other a little better, and then ask me?"
"But how long should I wait before I ask again?" Dick asked. "A week?"
Bruce grinned and shook his head. "Son, some people don't know if they want to get married after a few years." At Dick's look of shock, Bruce bent down until he was eye level with him.
"Dick, I'm afraid that one week isn't enough. And besides, you have to be fair to Selina. I mean she just met us and look at what happened to her. She got shot--some girls would consider that a big turn-off. Next, we invite her to be our guest for a single day, and before she knows what's happening you're making plans to marry her off to me. And don't forget, Selina may already have met someone else. She could even be engaged--"
"She's not!" Dick said with authority. "I *asked* her!"
"You *asked* her--?" Bruce looked stunned. "Why would you--?"
"How else could I find out?" Dick asked curiously.
Shaking his head, Bruce closed his eyes. He'd been mildly taken aback by Dick's ingenuousness, yet he felt slightly pleased to find out that Selina was currently unattached.
She *was* pretty wonderful, he admitted to himself.
Bruce placed his hand behind Dick's neck and pulled the boy in to him until they were touching foreheads.
"Now, no more talk about 'marriage,' okay? If and when I ever decide to marry someone, it'll be on my own good time. But I promise you that you'll be the first to know. Fair enough?" Ruffling Dick's hair, Bruce straightened to his full height.
"Wel-ll," Dick said disappointedly, "I guess...but she sure does smell nice. Just like Mom used to."
At this last comment, Bruce lightly touched Dick's cheek. "Come on, munchkin. Let's see what Alfred's fixed for dinner."
"Good night, Master Dick," Alfred said, quietly shutting the door behind him.
"G'night, Alfred." Dick turned to Bruce who was still sitting on the side of the bed. "I have to tell you something, Bruce. Something I did. Something bad."
Bruce sat, waiting patiently.
"I broke one of the rules today. I know I shouldn't have. That I should be more careful, but--"
"Hey, now. No need to beat yourself, Dick. Just say it straight. It's a lot easier that way."
Dick nodded. Then a small voice, he confessed to having flown outside in the middle of the day, where anyone might have seen him.
"Are you *real* mad at me, Bruce?" he asked.
Bruce shook his head. "No, son, I'm not mad, just disappointed." At Dick's stricken look, Bruce gently combed a lock of hair back on the boy's head.
"We've spoken before about rules, Dick. I know that sometimes you feel like you'll just...I don't know, explode if you can't shout your secret to the whole world."
Dick nodded. "Do *you* ever feel that way?" he asked.
Bruce nodded. "Yeah, sometimes...but I don't, because I know that what I'm doing is important. And necessary."
"I know, Bruce," Dick said. "It's just that sometimes...inside me. I don't know. It's like there's something inside that just needs to *fly*--like the Nightwing and Flamebird that I told you about. I don't know why. Am I really bad, Bruce? Are you gonna ground me?"
"No, Dick, you're not bad. And I'm not going to ground you," Bruce said quietly. "I know that the rules are hard on you, son. But they're necessary at this stage in your life. Maybe when you're older..." Bruce looked away momentarily. "Until then, try to be more discreet. No flying with the local flocks of geese, okay?"
Dick smiled. "Okay." He reached up and hugged his dad. Then, for the very first time since he'd come to live in Wayne Manor, Dick kissed Bruce on the cheek. Lying back on the pillows, Dick smiled and held his hand out in the 'L' sign.
Bruce did likewise.
"Good night, son," Bruce said, turning off the bedside lamp.
"Good night, Dad."
"Is he asleep?" Selina asked. She was sitting in the family room, a framed photo on her lap.
"Yes," Bruce said.
"He's a wonderful boy, Bruce," she said, looking down at the framed photo she was holding. The picture, which had been taken during a community picnic the previous summer, was of father and son running a race with Bruce carrying Dick piggyback. The picture was snapped as laughing they fell across the finish line.
Bruce smiled at the memory.
Looking carefully away, he said casually, "Dick thinks you're pretty wonderful, too." He crossed over to a tray laden with an expensive bottle of champagne chilling in ice. He gave her a questioning look.
Nodding, he expertly opened the bottle and poured them each a glass. Walking over to where she sat, Bruce handed her the glass. As she reached for it, her hand lightly touched his.
"And what about you?" she asked huskily. "What do *you* think?"
An electric charged seemed to pass between them. Bruce's dark blue eyes held hers for a long time. Putting both glasses down, Bruce took her hand and slowly brought her up to a standing position. For a seeming eternity they stared into each other's eyes.
"I'm inclined to agree with him," he said finally, pulling her willingly into his arms.
The kiss was sweet, gently exploring, barely touching. Soon, it grew deeper, their hunger intensifying.
As one, they broke apart, each breathing heavily, staring at each other in mutual shock. To cover her confusion, Selina reached for her glass and gulped down most of the contents.
Bruce, meanwhile, had moved to the other side of room, placing as much distance between them as was physically possible. At last, once his heart had stopped hammering in his chest, he spoke.
"I-I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--I mean, you're my guest, and--"
"--No, don't apologize," Selina interrupted, fighting tears. "It's *my* fault. I don't know what happened. You must think me--I don't know what you must think of me." She looked at him, an almost desperate expression on her face. "You must believe me. This has *never* happened before." She shook her head, knowing that she was explaining it badly. "What I mean is--"
"--No, you don't need to explain," Bruce interrupted, crossing back to where she stood, her back to him. He placed his hands gently on her shoulders. "You don't ever have to explain anything to me, Selina." His breath softly caressed her neck. Selina turned abruptly, and once again they faced each other, less than a handsbreadth apart.
Instantly, she was in his arms once more, and Bruce held her as if he'd never let go. Their kiss lingered for infinity, each lost in emotions that neither had allowed themselves to feel for a long time.
"Bruce, I don't understand what's happening," she whispered, barely getting the words out as his mouth fought to find hers. Unable to continue, and not caring anymore, Selina allowed herself to be carried along into new uncharted waters...
Much later, as she lay in his arms, watching his chest slowly rise and fall in quiet sleep, Selina smiled to herself.
"I'm a fool," she whispered. "But I don't care." Laying her head on his strong shoulder, Selina closed her eyes...
Three days later Dick woke up feeling excited. He'd become aware of a noticeable difference in Bruce and Selina's relationship in the past couple of days. He'd seen Bruce watching Selina when his dad thought no one was looking and vice versa. One night while on patrol, Batman missed a really easy throw with the Batarang, something Robin had *never* seen him do before.
Smiling happily as he slipped out of bed and hurriedly washed up, Dick quickly got dressed and ran down the hallway to the stairs.
Checking to make sure no one was around, he climbed on the banister and 'flew' down. Without using his powers, he somersaulted as he came off the bottom end and came to a solid, satisfying landing.
"Still got it," he said smugly.
Pushing through the kitchen door, Dick stopped immediately. He could almost *feel* the electricity in the air. Bruce and Selina were already dressed and seated at the table on opposite ends. Each was sipping a cup of coffee.
Dick automatically went to Bruce and hugged him good morning. Bruce held him just little bit longer than usual.
"'Morning, munchkin," he whispered. "Sleep okay?"
Dick nodded bemusedly. "Uh-huh," he said. He turned to Selina. If it were possible, she looked even more beautiful today than yesterday.
"'Morning," he said.
"Good morning, Dick," she replied. Her eyes moved over to Bruce. He was gazing intently at her.
Dick cocked his head to the side. They sure were acting weird, he thought. He was about to shrug it off as grown-up stuff, when Bruce held his hand out to Selina.
"Should we tell him now?" he asked. Smiling at Dick, Selina nodded, yes. "Dick, after you went to bed last night, Selina and I...well, we sort of stayed up and talked, and, well, we've decided--that is, I asked her if she would--"
Dick's eyes and mouth snapped open. He *knew* it. Bruce *did* it!
"You *asked* her!" he cried, jumping up from his chair. He reached over for Bruce and almost sent him toppling. Turning to Selina, Dick demanded excitedly, "Did he? Selina, did he ask you?"
Laughing Selina replied, "Asked me what?"
"If you'll marry us?"
"Us?" Bruce asked. "You mean, marry *me*--?"
"I know exactly what he means, Bruce," Selina said quietly, holding Dick's eyes. "Yes, munchkin. He did."
"And--?" Dick said.
"And--yes!" she cried, holding her arms out to him. "I *will* marry you!"
"All right!" Dick answered. He hugged Bruce once again, and then hurried over to Selina. She grabbed him and pulled him onto her lap.
"Didn't I *tell* you, Bruce? She's *wonderful*!"
"And you were right. Selina *is* pretty wonderful."
Selina looked over at him from above Dick's dark head. Bruce winked at her, toasting her with his morning coffee.
Alfred, not skipping a beat, began serving breakfast. "In honor of this festive occasion, I believe that strawberry French toast is in order. Master Dick, I must insist that you dislodge yourself from poor Miss Selina's lap and take a seat like a proper gentleman."
Dick rose reluctantly. Then turning quickly, he hugged Selina and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "I *love* you, Selina," he said fiercely. About to take his seat, he turned to Bruce and gave him the 'L' sign. Smiling, Bruce returned it.
Curious, Selina watched them.
"Can I show her, Bruce?" Dick asked.
Bruce nodded. "Go ahead."
Dick held up his small hand and made an 'L' sign. Bruce followed suit. "No one in the whole world, except us three--me, Bruce, and Alfred--know what this means," Dick said. "Go on. Try it," he urged. Selina did as bidden.
"What does it mean?" she asked curiously.
"It's an 'L,'" Dick explained. "'L' for--"
"--'L' for 'I love you,'" Bruce finished.
Selina felt the tears sting the backs of her eyes. Slowly, she held her hand up across the table, 'L'-sign out. Dick's small hand joined hers. And finally, Bruce. They each touched, as if in a silent toast to their new family.
'L' for 'I love you,' Selina wondered. So simple, yet so profound.
"Best man?" Gordon asked shocked. "Who's the lucky girl? Where've you been hiding her?"
"Her name's Selina Kyle, and I assure you, my friend, that *I'm* the lucky one. As for where I've been hiding her...where else except at home?"
"Selina Kyle?" Gordon mused. "Isn't she the young lady who was injured in the park?"
"The same," Bruce said.
"Selina Kyle," Gordon repeated, his tone ironic. "I might have known."
"I don't understand," Bruce said.
"Aren't you the same man who once dated and very nearly became engaged to Vicki Vale and later Silver St. Cloud? What's the matter, Bruce? Can't you find ordinary women named 'Jane' or 'Mary'? Must you always meet beautiful, glamour dolls with little or nothing upstairs?"
"Jim, you barely met Selina. Hardly spoke to her. I assure you that she's much more than just another pretty face. And what's your point anyway?" Bruce asked, offended.
"Bruce, even covered in blood, this Selina is a real looker. Listen, m'boy, you've just *met* her. You don't know anything about her. How can you be rushing into marriage? Have you thought about Dick?"
Not daring to speak for a couple of minutes, Bruce bit back the angry retort he was about to utter. Jim was his friend, and rightly or wrongly, he only had his best interests in mind.
"Dick's crazy about her. In fact, he wanted me to ask her to marry 'us'--as *he* puts it--almost from the start. Jim, I've taken a few missteps in my life. I won't deny that. But believe me, if Dick didn't approve, I wouldn't even consider it. I *love* her, Jim. So does Dick."
Bruce turned his dark, brooding eyes on his friend.
"So, will you do me the honor of being my best man?"
Gordon held the younger man's eyes for a long time. He'd known Thomas and Martha Wayne and had been a friend of the family even before Bruce was born. Gordon worried about the boy. He'd observed his young friend's tortured childhood and his endless string of meaningless relationships.
Most of the women who tried to hook their claws into Bruce were little more than gold diggers, with dollar signs in their eyes. Thankfully, Bruce had rarely developed anything serious with them. Gordon admitted that it was probably due to the young man's astuteness. Bruce was no fool. He undoubtedly knew the score.
Therefore, this whirlwind romance had taken Gordon by surprise.
Holding Bruce's eyes a moment longer, Gordon finally nodded. "All right, Bruce. I'd be honored to be your best man. Thank you for asking me."
Bruce gave his friend a beaming smile. Gordon noted privately that since Dick had come into his life, Bruce seemed to smile more often. Gordon had even heard him laugh a few times. Until today, Gordon thought that Dick was the best thing that had ever happened to Bruce. Maybe Bruce was finally on the road to true happiness.
The two friends shook hands warmly.
"In that case, I'll see you in church," Bruce quipped. "The 'Four Apostles' were literally drawing lots to see who'd do the honors."
"The *who*?" Gordon asked.
"Bishop Mark, Monsignors Matthew and Luke, and Father John," Bruce replied, grinning. "Alfred rather irreverently calls them the 'Four Apostles'--after the Gospels. When I spoke to Bishop Mark yesterday, he called the others over to the office." Bruce smiled ruefully. "They said something about the Cathedral being shaken from its foundations due to one of its more wayward Prodigal sons returning."
Gordon smirked. Bruce had been baptized by Bishop Mark when the bishop had only been a young parish priest. Gordon also remembered Bruce's First Eucharist as well. The Waynes had had a big celebration that day. The following week, they were dead. Sadly, Bruce lost his faith at the same time.
Yes, maybe Bruce was truly on the road to full recovery.
"Just give me the date and time, Bruce," Gordon said with a smile. "I'll be there."
"Saturday at two o'clock," Bruce said. "At Gotham Cathedral. Bishop Mark won--or lost, depending on your point of view--the draw, so he'll be the Presider..."
Long after Bruce had left, Gordon buzzed the intercom.
"Sergeant, will you come into my office? I have a little job for you."
"On my way, Commish."
Gordon thoughtfully leaned back in his desk chair. "Selina Kyle, I may not know who you are, but once I'm done, I'll know what kind of *lipstick* you prefer *and* the brand of doll you played with when you were a kid..."
The stunningly attractive young woman sat in an outdoor terrace café located on the busy Gotham City wharf. The place, once rundown and seedy, had been renovated recently with government and private funds. Now, it was a bright and cheery major tourist attraction with unique shops, restaurants, and entertainment centers.
It was also a good place to meet anonymously while out in the open.
She was wearing over-sized tinted glasses and a large, wide-brimmed summer hat that obscured her face. She wore a striking, white sundress with spaghetti straps and matching sandals. Her outfit set off her tan to perfection.
Casual observers would later be able to instantly recall a glamorous woman in white; however, their memories would be able to describe only what she'd allowed them to see. Nevertheless, their imaginations would be sparked for years afterward by what they hadn't seen.
A man dressed in black soon joined her. He, too, wore dark glasses, which effectively hid most of his features. Envious male strollers whose eyes were caught by his companion's enigmatic beauty could only sigh in discontent when they glanced over at their own wives or girlfriends.
Neither spoke in voices that carried beyond to the next table. Neither said much of anything, in fact. She quietly sipped a glass of imported water, while he opted for straight scotch.
Finally, he pushed a small piece of paper across the table to her. She caught his wrist, and--this a busboy later reported--the gentleman winced in what appeared to be pain. Smiling politely, she pushed the paper back and rose.
"You won't get away with this," he said in an undertone.
Smiling, she practically purred in reply, "But, darling, I already have." With that she left, feeling a heavy burden slipping off her shoulders.
As she turned the corner, her disgruntled companion watched as she was joined by a dignified older gentleman and a little boy who happily ran into her arms.
Another pair of eyes observed their interplay. As soon as both the man in black and woman in white left their outdoor table, the rumpled, overweight man lifted the glasses they'd left behind, careful not to smudge any possible prints.
He then followed the man in the black, trailing behind at a safe distance...
Three quarters of an hour later, Bullock let his breath out in a hiss.
"So *that's* it," he said. He was parked about 200 yards from the entrance gates to the Falcone estate. "The Commish is gonna love *this*!"
"I have to, Bruce," Selina said. Her eyes were sparkling emeralds in the moonlight. They were standing outside in the Wayne Manor sculptured gardens. "I mean, a girl's gotta have *some* privacy as her wedding day approaches. Bad luck for the groom to see her and all."
Bruce smiled down at her. He took her in his arms, marveling at how much he loved how she felt. He breathed in her scent, a subtle hint of expensive French perfume. Dick was right. She *did* smell nice.
The more time he spent with Selina, the more things Bruce discovered to love about her. So far, he decided that he loved everything he'd found. And each new day brought a new discovery. Bruce didn't know if he'd be able to stand being apart from her for five minutes, much less a few days.
Leaning down, he whispered huskily in her ear. "I don't believe in luck," he said, his breath hot behind her ear and sending shivers down her spine. He kissed her on the curve of her neck, then her cheeks, her eyes, and finally her mouth. They clung to each other for a long desperate moment as they had the first time.
Reluctantly breaking away, Selina looked up him, yearningly. She shook her head. "Oh, no, you don't. My mind's made up. I've already gotten a suite at the Gotham Regency," she said with a smile, holding out her room key. "My bags are packed and loaded in the car. Alfred has generously agreed to drive me."
She swallowed, and then gazed at him with new determination.
"It's better this way, Bruce. Especially because of Dick. I don't ever want him to think that--" she stopped, and looked down blushing.
Smiling, Bruce lifted her chin tenderly. "Okay, if that's what you really want." He smiled ruefully. "Saturday will seem years away, however."
Hugging him tightly, Selina buried her face in his chest. "Bruce, I've never been so happy in all my life. You and Dick and Alfred--you're the best thing that's ever happened to me!" Releasing him suddenly, she hurried towards the side entrance to the Manor. He was about to follow, when she waved him to stop.
"No, Bruce. Please, no goodbyes and no visits. Remember, I'm only a phone call away. And in just a few days, I'll be yours forever." With that she disappeared into the house. A few minutes later, Bruce heard the sounds of the Bentley's engines starting and within moments, he saw the headlights disappearing down the long winding drive.
As he listened to the faint sounds of the car slowly fade away, Bruce was suddenly struck with an unexpected chill in his soul. He had the oddest sensation that Selina was driving out of his life forever...
She'd waited until well after midnight, long past when the lights inside had gone out. The sharp snap of her whip was carried away by the soft summer breeze. She swung over to the targeted balcony and landed on silent cat feet. She looked down at her carryall and smiled ruefully.
"I can't believe that I'm actually going to do this."
She slinked to the door and tried it. Locked. Of course, she thought wryly. What was that saying about the barn door being locked *after* the horse had escaped?
The occupants had started thinking home security only *after* they no longer had any valuables worth taking. That is, until tonight. Because tonight, the Catwoman was committing a reverse burglary. Tonight, the Catwoman was starting a new job, that of returning the valuables that she'd stolen in the previous weeks.
Disengaging the silent alarm was ridiculously easy. "Honestly!" she muttered under her breath. "I should think about a new career as a security consultant." Stopping at the door, the experienced thief sprayed a powdery aerosol into the immediate entrance way.
Instantly, several lines of criss-crossing light beams appeared in front of her. She sighed. How cliché. Her quick eyes measured the distance between the light beams. No sweat.
The Catwoman simply leaped gracefully between, above, and below the beams. Within seconds she was safely on the other side. Taking out a handheld digital scanner, she checked for any more electronic tripwires. The rest of the place was clean.
Moving quickly through the shadows, the Catwoman found the safe, exactly where she'd left it. Checking it for booby-traps, she found none. Placing a magnetic keypad on the safe's door, she punched a series of numbers. It instantly scanned through multiple combinations and permutations until the safe cracked open.
"Meow," she purred. "Okay, my lovelies, in you go. All safe and sound," she whispered as she returned the jewelry back to its home. About to close the safe, she stopped. "No, let them find this first thing in the morning. Let the world know that the Catwoman has turned a new leaf."
Hesitating momentarily, the Catwoman smiled her Cheshire cat smile and placed her calling card--that of a purple cat's paw--in the safe along with the valuables.
Once outside, the Catwoman again cracked her whip and leaped between buildings. It was already after 2:00 a.m. and she had many more stops to make...
He caught sight of her lithe figure by the weak light of the quickly setting moon. Grinning ferally, Batman took off after her...
He'd gone out that night to think. Nothing cleared a dedicated crimefighter's mind like a good old-fashioned knockdown, drag-out with the underworld's lowly scum.
Still, even as the Dark Knight had stopped a bank robbery in progress, a couple of muggings, and an attempted home invasion, his mind was barely on what he was doing. At last, Batman climbed to the top of Gotham Cathedral.
"To regroup," he told himself.
Actually, he wanted to think. As he crouched on one of the myriad gargoyles that gave the massive gothic structure its unique look, Gordon's words came back to him. They'd stung deeply, and Bruce finally admitted that it was because his friend had spoken truthfully.
"I *don't* know anything about her," he said.
~Except the most important thing!~ a sharp voice retorted.
"I don't know who she is or where she comes from," Batman argued.
~You know you love her and that *Dick* loves her.~
"What has she told me about herself?" Batman asked. "That her mother died when she was five and that she was raised by her father?"
~So what's your point, World's Greatest Detective?~
"What if she's just like the others? What if all she's *really* after is the Wayne fortune? What would it do to Dick?"
~Is it really *Dick* you're worried about? Or is it your pride? Are you so afraid to love unconditionally that you're ready to start looking for skeletons where there are none?~
"No! That's not it at all. I *love* her!" Batman shouted, raising his clenched fist in sudden anger. Staring at his hand, he slowly opened it, releasing the rage that had taken hold momentarily. He gazed out upon his beloved city's skyline and added in a whisper, "I *do* love her. Almost to the point of desperation." He stood.
"But what if I'm letting my feelings blind me to reality? The first thing I learned when I put on this cowl is that I couldn't let myself become personally involved in my cases. If I don't maintain my professional detachment, I risk becoming--"
~Human?~ the voice sneered.
Batman waved his gauntleted hand as if swatting at a gnat.
"I risk becoming ineffective. And possibly dangerous."
~Oh, excuse me. I didn't know we were talking about one of your cases. I *thought* we were discussing Selina. I *thought* we were discussing your feelings.~
"So what's *your* point?" It was Batman's turn to sneer.
~Sometimes when we don't have all the facts, when we don't know all the answers, then all we have to rely on is faith--in ourselves and in each other. Trust your feelings, Bruce. Trust *her*.~
Batman stood on top of the Cathedral for a moment longer. After awhile, his grim features were softened by a slight half-smile. He looked around at the monstrous gargoyles, the twin gothic spires, and the exquisite rose window.
Looking up to the top of the twin, gothic spires, his eyes finally settled on the elaborately carved stone crucifix.
"Thank you," he whispered. Shooting out a jump-line, he flew into the night...
A half-hour later he saw her, swooping gracefully between the exclusive skyscraper condominiums.
"Gotcha," he murmured, with a grim satisfied half-smile. He'd been on the trail of the elusive 'Catwoman,' as she was being called now, for over two weeks. In the short time she'd been burglarizing the homes of Gotham's wealthiest citizens, she'd stolen jewelry and cash worth upwards in the high millions.
She'd even taken the time to feed the family cats a few times. In one case, she'd considerately left a recommended diet for a house cat. Its owner later admitted that the beloved pet was obese.
Batman shook his head. "Why does Gotham always get the nuts?"
Within minutes he was on her trail, following at a safe distance while keeping to the shadows. He watched her with grudging admiration. She was good. *Very* good.
At last, she came to a building without balconies. He moved in closer and watched with interest to see how she'd handle it. She landed easily on a narrow ledge, stowed her whip--a cat o' nine tails, Batman noted--in her left, thigh-high boot, and simply *walked* up to her targeted window, as if she were taking a stroll through the park.
Arriving at the window she wanted, she crouched momentarily, reached into a bag that she carried slung across her shoulders, took out an instrument and set to work.
Batman knew that the occupants of this particular apartment, which she'd hit only last week, had installed a new and complicated security system. He wondered if the Catwoman would manage to beat it.
In less than a minute, he had his answer. The Catwoman held her hand up and, instantly, a set of sharp claws flashed in the moonlight. Without preamble, she easily cut through the glass, reached inside with a set of wire cutters, and clipped the wires to the primary alarm system.
Unlocking the window, she opened it and climbed in. Batman swooped down to the open window. Donning his night vision goggles, he searched the interior for any signs of the burglar. He knew that there was a secondary system further inside the condominium and waited to see if she'd set it off.
After a few minutes, he took out his handheld scanner and quietly activated it. Holding it out, Batman turned it left then right, trying to pick up any readings from the system's unique signature.
The Catwoman had successfully disabled the secondary alarm. Batman shook his head in grim admiration. She was a thorough professional.
Bruce Wayne knew the occupants of this specific apartment, Lucius and Mattie Fox. Bruce had personally recommended the security company that set up the new system. The company was actually a subsidiary of WayneTech and had installed the vast security network in the Wayne Enterprises' tower.
Apparently, even the newer, high-tech, high-speed, electronic measures that WayneTech Security had installed were no match for this experienced thief.
"I oughtta hire her as a security consultant," Batman muttered ruefully.
As he moved silently through the well-known living area, Batman wondered why she would hit this place a second time? She must know that she'd already taken anything of real value that Lucius and Mattie might keep here. In fact, because of Bruce's urging, they'd rented a safety deposit box to store whatever valuables they had left until the Catwoman was finally caught.
Her actions tonight didn't make sense. In fact, she wasn't following her usual M.O. Curious, Batman finally found her. She had the Foxes' safe opened and she was removing whatever was left in it.
No! he corrected, stunned. She was *returning* what she'd previously taken. He watched in growing disbelief as the Catwoman steadily, if somewhat reluctantly, replaced each item in the safe. As a final measure, she placed a card inside, along with the valuables.
Kneeling back, she sighed quietly, and then in a single, smooth motion rose to her feet. Batman stood back, remaining hidden in the dark gloom. Unaware that she was being watched, the Catwoman slipped out the way she'd come in.
As soon as she was gone, Batman walked over to the open safe. Taking a quick inventory of the items, he saw that everything Lucius reported missing had been returned. Noticing the small card she'd left behind, Batman picked it up. A purple cat's paw was centered on it. About to return it, Batman saw writing in a flowing, feminine hand on the back.
//Forgive me. I hope my actions didn't cause you undue pain.//
Raising a single eyebrow, Batman placed the card in a hidden compartment within his utility belt and hurried out after the thief. He shot out a grappling line to the roof across the street. Landing in a crouch, he made his way quickly to the side.
He searched in a 360-degree radius. She was gone. Grimacing, Batman opened a hidden patch on his gauntlet and checked his chronometer. It was after 5:00 a.m. Dawn was less than an hour away. Time to return home.
He thought about the Catwoman's calling card.
"I've got you now, lady..."
The next morning, Dick literally flew into the Batcave. Bruce hadn't been at breakfast and he hadn't been to bed all night. Unable to eat, Dick left the table without waiting to be excused and hurried to the secret entrance.
He found his dad hunched over the lab table working diligently on a piece of evidence. He was still in his Batman costume, but the cowl was pulled back.
"Bruce?" Dick called. As long as Batman didn't have his mask on, it was all right to call him Bruce. Otherwise, Dick was *supposed* to address him *only* as Batman. So many rules to remember, Dick sighed.
He landed softly next to where Bruce was working.
"Bruce?" he repeated quietly. He wasn't allowed to interrupt *Batman* while he was working, but since he *did* have his cowl pulled back, it was really *Bruce*, Dick thought.
Bruce looked up. Seeing his boy's worried face, he reached over and gently caressed Dick's cheek.
"Why the scowl?" he asked affectionately.
Dick's face was immediately transformed into a bright smile. He shrugged. "You weren't at breakfast and you weren't in your room. I got worried. What are you working on?"
Bruce smiled at Dick's ability to go from one thought to another at lightning speed.
"I'm fine as you can see, and I'm checking on a small bit of evidence left behind by a certain lady tiger."
"The Catwoman?" Dick breathed excitedly.
"Um-hum," Bruce muttered distractedly, again looking through his spectroscope.
"What are you lookin' at?" Dick asked curiously.
Bruce sighed at the interruption. Gazing up at his son's eager blue eyes, he relented immediately.
"C'mere," Bruce said, picking Dick up and placing him on his lap. "Oof. You're getting big," he said. Dick giggled.
"Here," Bruce said, pointing at the screen. "Look at this." Taking a pen, Bruce indicated the several points of interest that he'd been exploring in the writing.
//Forgive me. I hope my actions didn't cause you undue pain.//
"Look at how she dots her *i's*," Bruce said. "Here and here and here." Bruce pointed at the words, 'Forgive,' 'didn't,' and 'pain.'
Dick looked up at him, confused. He shrugged. "I don't see nothing," he said.
Bruce grinned slightly at the boy's use of the double negative. It was a habit that was slowly driving Alfred crazy.
"That's all right. Now look at how she dot's *this* one." He pointed at the word, 'actions.' Dick studied the word carefully. "Do you see anything different?"
Dick nodded uncertainly. "It looks like she pressed down hard right over the letter, then she kinda moved the pen over to the left."
Bruce smiled at the boy's observation. "Excellent, Dick! Now, my dear Detective Grayson, what kind of conclusion would *you* draw from that tiny bit of evidence?"
Dick concentrated on what he'd just seen. Obviously it meant something to Bruce. Something important. But what? A light suddenly shone in his eyes.
"I know!" he cried. "The writer's left-handed. She started to dot the *i*, but her hand slipped, and because she's left-handed, the pen slid to the left. If she'd been right-handed, then it would've slipped to the right!"
"Go to the head of Handwriting Analysis 101!" Bruce said proudly. Dick turned thoughtful eyes to Bruce.
"But how come the *other* *i's* aren't dotted the same way?"
"That's a good question, son. Remember, that a person's handwriting is something personal. Within a single sentence--sometimes within a single word--the writer may actually write a letter differently. Sometimes even mixing cursive and printed letters. However, it's not just the consistencies in the person's handwriting that give us a clue as to who the writer is, but the *in*consistencies." Dick nodded at this information.
"The writer was very careful to dot her *i's* in a regular manner, possibly because she has a very neat hand. But *here* at the word 'actions' her hand slipped, and she left us an important clue."
"Bruce?" Dick began. "What if she's not really left-handed? I mean, what if she *let* her hand slip on *purpose* so that we'd only *think* that she was left- handed."
Bruce looked at his son and student with open admiration. "Dick, that question shows the mark of a good investigator--someone who doesn't come to a conclusion until he has all the facts available."
Dick fairly glowed under his dad's praise. Growing serious he asked, "So, what *is* the truth, Bruce? *Is* she or *isn't* left-handed."
Bruce looked at his son with solemn eyes and held him close for a minute.
"The truth, Dick? The truth is that we have a very clever thief running loose in Gotham City. At this moment she *seems* to be left-handed. She *seems* to be returning the items that she stole. And--"
"--And she *seems* to be sorry for what she did," Dick concluded.
Bruce nodded. "Why don't you go on up to breakfast, son? I'll join you shortly..."
"What do you have?" Gordon asked.
"You won't believe *this*, Commish," Bullock said. He tossed a handful of black and white 8x10 glossies on Gordon's desk. "The doll on the left is the target, your boy billionaire's current chippy, Selina Kyle--or whatever she calls herself. We still haven't got a make on her prints."
As Gordon studied the shots, Bullock added casually, "The guy in the glasses is dead by the way."
"What?" Gordon looked up, startled. "When did it happen? Why wasn't I told?"
"According to the feds, the guy died twelve years ago," Bullock said ironically. "In a fire."
"Oh?" Gordon said, catching on. "Tell me more."
"Jake 'the Fake' McCabe," Bullock said succinctly. "The guy changes personalities like Wayne changes dames. He was wanted on weapons charges, drug-smuggling, extortion, murder--the usual gamut of boyish over-exuberance. The feds thought they had 'im a coupla times, but he always managed to make good his escape. Then twelve years ago, the DEA and the US Marshals cornered him in a secluded cabin up in the Ozarks. One thing led to another and--"
"--Don't tell me," Gordon said tiredly. He'd heard it all before about federal agents and their excessive use of force. "They brought in everything except an aircraft carrier--"
"Oh, they tried. But they couldn't get it to navigate up the Missouri River," Bullock quipped.
"--and razed the place to the ground," Gordon finished.
"That's about the size of it," Bullock said. "The feds found a body amidst all the rubble, which a dental ID'd as that of McCabe."
Gordon looked up at the detective, his eyes narrowed. "They were able to identify the remains through dental records?" Gordon asked. "Then how is it possible that McCabe's still alive?"
A look of cold rage flitted across Bullock's usually taciturn face. "Plastic surgery *and* oral surgery. Whoever the poor bum was, Commish, his mouth and jaw were *altered* to exactly match the perp's. Near's I can figure, sir, we're dealing with some *real* monsters here. And this Kyle dame, she's right in their pocket."
Bullock gave Gordon a hard glare.
"Whatever her game is, Commish, I wouldn't give two plugged nickels for Wayne's preppy hide. Your rich friend's life is in real danger, sir. Somebody oughtta warn 'im..."
Later, alone in his office, Gordon stared at the photos on his desk. Bullock's words rang clearly in his head.
"Somebody oughtta warn 'im..."
Gordon picked up the photos one by one, carefully studying each. A glossy he hadn't noticed before slipped out of the pile. It was a telephoto shot of the woman who called herself Selina Kyle bending down and hugging a happily smiling Dick Grayson.
Bringing a magnifying glass to the photo, Gordon closely studied the faces. Selina had removed the dark glasses she'd been wearing earlier. The boy's blissful smile sent a pang of regret through Gordon. Bruce *said* the boy loved her.
Moving the glass over to Selina's face, Gordon thought he saw something that he hadn't expected. Bending closer over the photo, he saw it.
There, he thought! The telephoto lens had caught it perfectly.
A single tear tracked down Selina's cheek as she hugged the boy closely to her. A cold feeling grew inside Gordon. Bullock was wrong. It wasn't Bruce's life that was in danger.
It was Dick's...!
She knew she wasn't alone.
Stirring softly, as if changing positions in bed, Selina reached surreptitiously underneath her pillow. Easing her fingers around the leather grip, she waited.
Eyes closed she listened with all of her senses, trying to place each intruder in her mind. There were three.
On three, Selina, she purred to herself. One...two...*three*!
Instantly, Selina leaped out of bed, slashing the intruder immediately on her left with the cat-o'-nine-tails. She snarled in satisfaction as he screamed in pain. Pulling with surprising strength, she threw her arm around his neck and held him in front of her as shield.
His companions held their fire giving her the split second she needed. Selina applied pressure to a point underneath his chin. At this, her hapless 'shield' lost consciousness and collapsed in a heap. As he went down, Selina vaulted over the bed and launched herself at another intruder.
The bedside alarm went off suddenly. She'd set it for 6:30 p.m. Selina realized that she'd slept the day through.
Kicking with the heel of her bare foot, Selina connected with the would-be killer's temple. As he stumbled forward, she followed through with a one-two kempo punch to the solar plexus. Seeing that he was struggling not to go down, Selina leaped, spun in mid-air, and kicking out, connected with her opponent's jaw.
He went down finally. Selina didn't take a break, however. As soon as she delivered the final kick, she executed three backsprings, recovered with a gymnast's grace and turned to face the last man. Cracking her deadly whip, she advanced on her opponent.
"Listen...please! Look, we were only followin' orders--" Selina lashed the whip around his neck and pulled the slack in less than an eyeblink. Within seconds, he was on his knees, gagging for air, his hands clawing at the leather snake.
"Please..." he gasped. He looked at her with bulging, pleading eyes. His face was turning a purplish shade of blue.
Abruptly, Selina loosened some of the slack. He immediately gulped in a lungful of air with deep heartfelt gasps. He huddled on the floor, gasping and wheezing.
Selina slinked in feline grace to where he lay, cowering in abject terror. She slowly lowered herself next to him, inch by sultry inch, her flimsy nightgown revealing more than it hid.
Toying with him, Selina brought her hand up to his hair and playfully walked her fingers from his ear up to the crown of his head.
She smiled, a feral feline smile that sent her prisoner's heart hammering in fear.
His hair was matted with perspiration. His forehead glistened from drops of sweat that slowly trickled down either temple. He held his breath in frozen terror and waited.
Leaning in close, almost cheek-to-cheek, she whispered in his ear. Her hot breath sent a shiver down his leg, perversely arousing him to her sensual presence.
"You have less than ten seconds before I kill you. If you want to live past that, you'd better start talking." She brought her hand up to his cheek and softly caressed it. Smiling gently, she added, "And, darling, you'd better sound convincing."
She left her unwelcome guests bound and gagged, hanging from the GNN television station transmission tower.
"Don't worry, boys. I'm sure a certain masked avenger will be by later and 'rescue' you," the Catwoman purred. "Ta!"
Her mocking smirk disappeared as soon as she turned her back to them. She had to move and move fast. Dick was in danger and it was her fault.
Leaping into the night, the Catwoman cracked her whip, sending it out towards a nearby flagpole. As soon as the whip was wound snugly round the protruding pole, the Catwoman swung out and up into the growing gloom.
"Bruce, why can't I go with you?" Dick asked. "How can I be Batman's partner if I have a little kid's bedtime?"
"You know the rules, Dick," Bruce said curtly. He was walking towards the uniform vault. "You have a *little kid's* bedtime--as you call it--because you're only ten. You need your sleep--just like all regular kids your age."
"But I don't *need* as much sleep," Dick protested. "I can stay up way past nine! I mean, when Alfred says lights out, I have a really hard time going to sleep!"
Bruce smiled to himself while he changed. He didn't mention the many times either he or Alfred had carried Dick, who'd nodded off, to bed. He grinned at the memory of Robin falling asleep in the Batmobile after a long night's patrol.
Ready to go, Batman put on his sternest demeanor and then stepped out to face his rebellious junior partner.
"Who's the boss?" he asked, without preamble.
Dick looked ready to protest, but then dropped his eyes and muttered, "You are."
"Who makes the rules?"
"What are the nights set aside for Robin's patrol?"
Dick sighed. "Robin only comes out on weekends."
"And the reason is--?"
"Because I'm still in training and you don't have the time to always be watching out for me."
"When will Robin be considered as fully qualified to accompany me *every* night?"
Dick sighed again and looked up at Batman through lowered eyelashes. Exuding attitude, he crossed his arms and said darkly, "When *Batman* says I'm ready."
Batman looked down at the fuming boy, a smile struggling to break through his stern exterior.
"Very well," Batman said. About to whirl around and stride to the Batmobile, Batman hesitated. Unable to help himself, he softly caressed his son's cheek. To his surprise, Dick threw his arms around him and began to sob brokenheartedly.
Stunned Batman pulled back his cowl and knelt down, holding Dick close to him. There was more going on here than just Dick being disappointed that he couldn't accompany him.
"Dick, what is it, son? Talk to me," Bruce said. Dick had his face buried in the Bat-cowl. Sobbing for a few more moments, he finally gained some control.
"I don't want you to die," he whispered. Bruce felt a cold fist grab his insides.
"Dick, what brought *this* on? Of course, I'm not going to die," Bruce reassured him. Dick hugged his neck harder as if he didn't believe him. Bruce held his breath at the sudden pain. An emotionally upset super-strong kid could be a physical challenge to a non-super Dad.
"Every time you go out by yourself, I get scared," Dick said in a small voice. "I start thinking, what if this is the last time I'll see you? And I dream about Mom and Dad falling. And sometimes I dream about earthquakes and explosions and giant glaciers falling on top of me. I get so confused, Bruce. And scared. I think about the Joker and Zucco and the other bad men you fight. And I wonder if one day maybe--?" Dick paused and took a deep breath that was more of a sob.
"A-And I wake up all sweaty and scared." He wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve and blinked at Bruce through tearful eyes.
"How can I just stand by and watch you go out at night and face all those monsters by yourself? When I have all these powers? If something happened to you, and I wasn't there to help--" Dick threw himself at Bruce once more and continued his heartfelt confession of deep-seated guilt.
"Bruce, I couldn't save Mom and Dad 'cause I didn't know how. I could never forgive myself if--if--if I wasn't there to *save* you."
Bruce clutched Dick to him. He felt a stinging in the back of his own eyes. How long had Dick been feeling this way? Had he been carrying this burden of guilt over his parents' deaths without Bruce even being aware of it? And what of the possible future guilt Dick might suffer should something ever happen to him?
"I'm sorry, son. So sorry that you've been hurting inside like this and I didn't know it. That I didn't do anything to make you feel better."
"It's not your fault, Bruce," Dick sniffed. "*I'm* the one--"
"*No*!" Bruce interrupted. He gripped Dick by the arms, and held him out, forcing the boy to look at him. "*No*! It's *not* your fault! *Zucco* killed your parents! He--and *only* he--is responsible for their deaths. You're just a little boy. These *powers* of yours do *not* make you responsible for the actions of others. Nor the consequences of what others do."
"But, I should've *done* something!" Dick protested.
"What? What could you have done?" Bruce asked. "You didn't know how to use any of your powers. You're still learning how to control them right now. You didn't even *know* what most of your powers *were*!"
Bruce shook his head and stood to his full height. He turned his back on Dick for a few moments, struggling for the words that he needed to say. Taking a deep breath, he finally turned around and faced the stricken boy.
"Dick, why do you think I don't let you come with me *every* night?"
"'Cause I'm not trained yet," Dick said.
"Yes, but that's just part of the reason. Dick, it wasn't your job to protect your parents. It was *their* job to protect *you*--"
"No, let me finish," Bruce said. "It was your parents' job to protect you, and now it's *my* job. Not vice versa. *You're* the child. You're not the grownup. And powers or no powers, you are *not* responsible for my safety. But *I* am responsible for yours. So is Alfred. And Selina. By agreeing to marry me--" He paused, his eyes softening with affection. "I mean, marry *us*--she's saying that *she* wants to take responsibility for you, too."
Bruce walked up to Dick and gently raised his chin. He felt his heart ache at the hurt he saw in his son's eyes.
"Dick, there are a lot of people who love you and want to protect you. And that's how it *should* be. Ten year olds, no matter who they are, need to be loved and protected. *You* need to be loved and protected." Bruce gazed long and steadily at Dick.
"And I don't care if you're the most powerful kid in the whole universe. I am *not* going to let you take on that kind of responsibility on your shoulders. You're not ready. Not yet. Do you understand, son?"
Dick nodded uncertainly. "I think so."
Bruce gave him a half-smile.
"Good, 'cause I'm not sure I could ever explain it again."
Dick's solemn expression slowly relaxed and was replaced with a weak smile. Becoming serious again, he asked beseechingly, "Will you be careful?"
"I promise." Bruce placed his hand warmly on Dick's shoulder. "Don't forget to brush your teeth before you go to bed tonight."
"Uh-huh," Dick said.
Bruce replaced the Bat-cowl and started heading towards the Batmobile. "And don't forget your prayers!"
"Don't forget bedtime is nine o'clock sharp!" Batman said without looking back.
"Yes, sir," Dick said disappointedly.
Bruce paused at the driver's side of the Batmobile. "And Dick?" Dick looked up questioningly. "Don't forget--" He held out his hand in the 'L' sign.
Dick beamed, holding out his own hand. "I won't," he said. As the Batmobile roared out of the cave, he whispered, "I love you, too."
The sharp pressure on his throat woke him. A bewhiskered feline grin was less than an inch from his face. She was so close that her whiskers tickled his nose. Her Cheshire grin was completely devoid of humor, however. It was a cold grin. A dangerous grin.
"Wha-What's the meaning of this?" he croaked. Even this small bit of movement caused the sharp point to prick through the skin near his Adam's Apple. He gasped suddenly, the whites of his eyes bulging in fear.
The Catwoman's green eyes lit in amusement at his discomfiture.
"I'm here to warn you, Falcone. The boy's under *my* protection now. Any harm comes to him, and I'll skin you alive."
To prove her point, she carefully removed her sharp claw from where it'd embedded in his throat and brought her hand up to his face. She very gently, almost lovingly, ran her razor-sharp claws down the length of his cheek.
He lay completely still, not daring to breathe. The gleaming claws barely touched his cheek, but they sent a cold shiver down the length of his body.
"Do you get the *point*?" she purred.
Swallowing, he dared to speak.
"W-We had a deal. You took a contract!"
"I got a better deal," she purred almost pityingly. "Contract's been cancelled."
"B-But you've already been paid a third of the money. Over a million dollars!"
"Yes I have, haven't I?" she mocked. "So sorry, darling. I guess you lose."
"You'll never get away with this!" he growled, his eyes flashing. For a moment it seemed as if he was going to try something. The Catwoman none-too-gently dug her claws into his cheek.
"But, darling, I already have!" Mocking smile firmly in place, she rose, her dark silhouette outlining her perfect form. Without turning her back to him, she began a graceful retreat towards the open balcony doors.
"Call off your goons, Falcone!" the Catwoman hissed in warning. "If *any* harm comes to the boy, you'll pay--dearly."
"You haven't heard the last of this!" Falcone yelled. "You don't know who you're messing with!"
"On the contrary, Falcone, it's you who doesn't have a clue." Pausing at the French doors, she added, "You're playing my game now. And I make rules." With that she whirled and leaped over the balcony railing.
As soon as she left, Falcone jumped out of bed and ran out into the balcony. He caught sight of her lithe shadow disappearing into the wood line.
"That's what *you* think, Cat-lady," he muttered. "Before this night is over, my boys will have the Grayson brat on ice."
"The woman's a liability," a quiet voice said from behind him.
Falcone whirled around in shock. His visitor stood in the darker gloom just inside the French doors. The shadows hid her exotic beauty and amethyst eyes. Yet, not even the darkness could quite disguise the underlying menace she radiated.
He felt a sudden shiver. It seemed that tonight just happened to be his night to be humiliated by women, he thought sullenly.
In an attempt to recover, he tried to dismiss the woman's fears. "The Catwoman's no problem. My boys'll take care of her--"
"Kill her," the woman said, abruptly turning to leave. "My father will not tolerate any interference with this mission. He wants the boy. And what my father wants, he gets."
The door slammed behind her. Falcone stood in the middle of his bedroom, staring at the closed door.
"What the hell have I gotten myself into?" he wondered. "Who *is* this 'Talia' woman? More importantly, *who* is her father?"
Dick sat cross-legged at the Batcomputer. He was running one of Batman's training exercises. Dick's proficiency with the computer had impressed Batman that time he'd found Zucco by breaking all of the security codes. Of course, since then, Batman had devised several much more advanced traps to challenge the boy.
Running his fingers through the keyboard at lightning speed, Dick was disappointed to hear an electronic voice say, "~Gotcha~!" He slapped his forehead.
"Not again!" That was the third time the computer had won. He looked at the clock. 8:45. It was almost bedtime. Dick sighed. It was time to shut down.
"~Good night, Dick~!" the computer intoned electronically.
Dick grimaced. "Good night," he muttered. Once the test program was offline, Dick stood and stretched, yawning. "I'm not tired," he denied. "And I'm not a little kid, neither."
Jamming his hands in his pockets, he started walking across the elevated metal grillwork that supported the computer station. As he hopped lightly down the steps, his eyes caught the gleaming brightness of the small spacecraft standing alongside other trophies from Batman's career. The craft was still sitting on its pedestal, enclosed in the transparent titanium/steel reinforced case.
Dick was struck by a sudden yearning to touch the spacecraft's outer skin. He couldn't remember ever touching it. He had vague memories of the night over a year ago when he'd sleepwalked through the Batcave.
Even now, his dreams were being haunted by images of a frozen world torn apart by fiery earthquakes.
Pressing the hidden control button on the side of the glass case, Dick stood still for a few minutes, mesmerized by the ethereal beauty of the alien craft. Slowly, he brought his hand up to it until his fingertips were touching it.
He ran his hand along its cool, even surface, marveling at its splendor. At last, his fingers lightly touched a bump on its otherwise smooth skin. Curious, he applied a light pressure to it. His small mouth formed a surprised 'O' as a hatch suddenly opened.
Dick stood, eyes wide as he looked with wonderment at the tiny incubator that protected him on the long journey from--what was the name of the planet again? Krypton?
"Krypton...!" he whispered. "And this is how I came. When I was just a baby. Mom and Dad found me. They didn't care about me being a--" He stopped. "--an alien. Mom and Dad never cared. They loved me. Just like Bruce does."
A warm wave of emotion swept through him. Smiling, he was about close the hatch again, when he noticed a metal box jammed to the side. Narrowing his eyes, Dick reached for it. It was just an ordinary metal box. Concentrating for moment, he tried to inspect its contents with his X-ray vision.
He was blocked.
"Lead? That's funny." Curiously, he turned the box over in his hands. "It's just a metal box. Like one of Bruce's specimen cases. What's it doing in here?" Shrugging, he opened it...
"Master Dick!" Alfred called. "Time for bed, young man."
He halted at the foot of the stairs.
"*Master Dick*!" Alfred ran towards where Dick lay, next to the open display case, unconscious. He felt for a pulse. Weak. His skin was clammy and deathly pale.
"*Master Dick*!" Alfred shouted, more frightened than he'd ever been in his life. Lifting the boy in his arms, Alfred carried him to the Batcave's infirmary. Quickly hooking him up to the life monitoring equipment, Alfred made him as comfortable as possible. Placing his hand gently on Dick's forehead, Alfred felt his throat catch. Blinking rapidly, he made his way to the communications console and placed the call he most dreaded.
"Sir, this is Alfred. Come in please..."
Batman had tracked them for the better part of the night. A regular terrible trio. Larry, Moe, and Curley. They'd been firebombing empty storefronts all week long. Tonight, they'd torched two abandoned warehouses, and one condemned apartment building.
Unfortunately, one of the 'abandoned' warehouses had been a flophouse for a group of homeless kids. Five of the kids were at Gotham General in critical condition, two hadn't made it. One of the victims was only ten.
That made it personal.
"Gentlemen, why don't we say you call it a night?" he said from the shadows.
"It's the Bat!" 'Larry' yelled.
"All right," 'Moe' laughed. "I've always wanted to try fried Bat!"
"Yeah, man," 'Curley' guffawed. "With catsup and fries on the side!"
"Swell," Batman muttered. "Okay, boys, it's getting late. Let's get this over with."
The three goons whipped their flamethrowers around.
"Ready--!" 'Larry' commanded. They each brought their flamethrower's metal hose to port arms.
"Power on--!" 'Moe' said. As one, they flipped the power button to 'green.'
"Let's rock and ro--!" Before Curley could finish, he was knocked unconscious by a Batarang.
"I'm more into the classics myself," Batman quipped, diving for cover behind a row of dumpsters. He was just in time. The two remaining fireflies both whipped their deadly infernos at him.
At this moment, his communicator beeped. Batman could feel the canisters heating up to white hot. Soon, they'd start melting around him.
"Sir, this is Alfred. Come in, please..."
Batman looked up. The fire escape. No time to climb. He fired off a jump line straight up to the roof. As he cleared the line of dumpsters, the weakened metal canisters slowly collapsed in on themselves. The heat being emitted from them was almost unbearable.
"Sir--! Come *in*, please!"
"Hold on a sec," Batman muttered. "I'm a little busy just now."
"Sir, it's Master Dick. I've already called Doctor Leslie."
As he rose, Batman spotted a water tower on the rooftop of the next building. Just what he needed. Looking down at the two fire starters, Batman swung over to the adjoining building.
"What is it?" he asked Alfred as he ran across the rooftop. "What's happened?"
Taking out a second grappling gun, he aimed at a weak point on the water tower's supporting structure.
"Alfred--!" he called. "What's happened to Dick?"
"Sir, I don't know. I found him unconscious in the Batcave."
Once the grappler wrapped itself around one of the water tower's legs, Batman pulled.
The leg began to give way.
"Yes, sir. He'd opened the spacecraft and must have been looking at it--"
The tower began to slowly topple over the side of the roof. Batman took out a thumb-sized cylinder from his utility belt...
"Has he said anything--?" he asked as he took out a six-inch long tube and quickly screwed it onto the other piece in his hand.
"No, sir. He hasn't regained consciousness since I found him. Master Bruce..." Alfred's voice became deathly calm. "Master Bruce, our boy's dying, sir. Please hurry." The transmission ended.
"Alfred? Alfred!?" A murderous rage overwhelming him, Batman popped a dime-sized pellet into the tube cylinder, held his arm straight out, took aim, and fired. The mini rocket launcher immediately sent a high-powered explosive towards the water tower.
It blew on impact, sending a ton of water cascading down on the arsonists below, dousing them and their flame-throwers.
Swooping down without benefit of safety line, Batman landed on the fire starters and dispatched them in less than a minute. Cuffing all three, he called in their location to the GCPD even as he roared home.
"What do you have, Charlie?"
"Looks like a car pulling in, Nick," Charlie reported. "Some dame's getting out." Nick looked up to where his partner was situated for lookout duty. Charlie was positioned on the higher branches of a tall oak tree, while Nick was lying prone on the ground among some tall hedges.
"Is it the Kyle woman?" Nick asked. His night vision zoom lenses were on the fritz.
"Nah. It's some old lady."
"Yeah?" Nick asked distractedly. He was trying to take the goggles apart to check the internal mechanisms.
Silence. That wasn't Charlie--?
"Nick, who was that--?" The sharp crack of a whip shattered the stillness of the night. Charlie suddenly came tumbling out of his perch in the tree. He landed hard, striking his head on an exposed root. He lay still.
"Charlie!" Nick yelled, making a move to go to his partner. The last thing he saw was the heel of a boot a split second before it connected with his chin.
"Sorry, boys. Lights out!" the Catwoman's amused voice purred softly. Securing their wrists and ankles, she straightened and disappeared back into the vast wood line that bounded Wayne Manor. Two down, an unknown number to go...