Preordained

Title: Preordained

Authors: Christina A & DebC

Rating: NC-17

Fandom: AU/RPG Batman

Summary: Bruce & Grace reunite after a painful 4-month separation and everyone’s lives are affected.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Gotham was dark and cold.  Moonlight reflected off the snow on the street below.  The view from the rooftop was pristine and deceiving.  The beauty of the new snowfall hid the filth of the city, even from itself.  The crime.  The corruption.  The anger. The need.  The lust. The greed. Gotham might look pure right now, but it wasn’t.

Wrapping his night-colored cape around him, the silent watcher turned away from the rooftop and disappeared into the shadows.  The hour was late, but his night was just beginning.

A few blocks away, he interrupted a mugging.  The mugger ran, and he gave chase.  There was little struggle, and he disposed of the mugger by binding his wrists and ankles and leaving him on the steps of the nearest police precinct.

The victim was nowhere to be found when he returned.

*-*-*

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Morning sunlight cut into Bruce’s sleep, blinding him when he opened his eyes.  He couldn’t remember leaving the curtains open before he’d gone to bed, though.  In fact, he could have sworn he’d purposefully drawn and closed them.

“Wake up, lazy bones!”  The voice was cheerfully mocking.

Bruce groaned and rolled over, burying his face in a pillow.  “Go ‘way, Nee!”  He was still tired and it came out as a whine.

“Not on your life.  You’re just lucky I haven’t got a camera handy.”

It wasn’t an idle threat.  She had worse pictures of him, if truth be known.  “Wha’ time is it?” he asked, voice slurred by the pillow and the sleep which threatened to lure him back.

“Almost one.  I told Dad you’d forget, but I never thought I’d find you still in bed!”

Dad?  Miles.  Damn.  Bruce rolled over and sat up in one quick movement, eyes squinting as he forced them open.  His long-time best friend laughed at the grimace on his face.

“Damn,” he repeated aloud.  “I didn’t forget.  I just…”

“Forgot?” she supplied, snickering a little.

“Thought it was tomorrow,” he countered miserably, and threw off the blanket with little modesty.  Not, of course, that she was going to see much.  He was wearing sleep pants and an old t-shirt.

“Technically…” she admitted slowly, as if it pained her to say he was right.  “It is, but today was the private family luncheon.”

“Right.  Tomorrow night’s the fancy black tie version at the mayoral mansion.”  He was expected to be at both, though for different reasons.  He’d known that, really he had.  He shot her a guilty look and padded to the bathroom.  He doubted he’d missed it, or else she wouldn’t have come to get him in person.  “Well, I’ll just…” he hesitated, looking awkwardly between her and the shower, “be right out.”  He paused and added, “Can you ask Alfred to make coffee?”

“Sure, Bruce.”  Courtney shook her head, wondering what was going on in his head, and then asked, “Do you want me to wait for you, or do you think you can remember how to get there?”

“I can…” he started to protest, then chuckled ruefully.  He knew then that she wasn’t going to let him live it down… not for a while anyway.  He shook his head.  “You can go on back.  Tell Miles I’m on my way.”

*-*-*

True to his word, he didn’t forget how to get to the Blaire home.   Though, if he was being honest with himself, a few times on the way, he’d almost turned the Jag around and went home.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go.  He felt honored that Miles Blaire considered him family, even after leaving Courtney in the lurch while she suffered from cancer.  He knew Constance harbored some ill feelings about that, even though she said nothing to his face.

But it wasn’t even that.

He wondered if she would be there: Grace.  He’d almost asked Courtney before she left, but couldn’t bring himself to utter her name for fear his voice would crack and Courtney would know.

So, he hadn’t asked and now his heart was somewhere in his throat.  They hadn’t seen each other since the day she moved out of the Manor, and although it had been his fault, he knew for a certainty he wasn’t ready to see her.  Not if thinking about her was like pulling his heart from his chest and crushing it until it beat no more.

Turning the Jag into the Blaire’s driveway, he tried to push the thought from his mind.  Today, or tomorrow for that matter, wasn’t about him.  It was about Miles and Constance, and he wasn’t going to spoil that by shifting the focus to him or Grace.

He parked next to Seth’s Jeep, noticing the absence of the familiar Hummer.  He’d always disliked Hummers, but during the course of their long relationship –his longest lasting romance to date– he’d grown to love seeing Grace’s parked in its space in the Manor garage.  His sports cars and motorcycles always seemed to gather around it, as if for some illusion of protection and safety.

It had made Bruce feel safe, too, because every time he returned home and saw that yellow beast, he knew his beauty was there waiting for him.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he pulled the key from the ignition and slid from the black Jaguar.  As the door closed, he seemed to go through a transformation as he forced the treacherous thoughts back to the recesses of his mind.  The nerves and lovesickness became replaced with a warm smile, and he approached the front door of the house with all the confidence in the world.

Until the door opened, and he was ushered inside by Courtney.  He hesitated as she led him towards the family dining room, where she said *everyone* was.  His feet slowed, dragging on the carpeted floor, and when his friend stopped chattering about Alex’s latest hijinx to look at him, he knew she saw the terror in his eyes.

“She not here, Bruce,” Courtney whispered, stopping them both just outside the double doors.  Beyond them, laughter spoke of people having fun.  Her eyes softened, and she put a hand on his arm.  But at her words, his bravado returned.  He smiled, and tried to pretend he didn’t need her support.

He didn’t get the chance, however, to say anything in response.  Before either of them did anything else, the brass handles on the doors turned and the doors pushed open.  “I’ll just go see what’s take–” Seth stopped short when he saw Courtney and Bruce.   “Never mind.  Here they are,” he called back into the room.

“Bruce!”  Miles Blaire called out.  He was seated on a plush loveseat with his wife at his side, surrounded by a small crowd of family and friends.   “Come join us!”

*-*-*

Grace looked up at the clock.  The luncheon had just started.  She’d called and told Constance that she was ‘sick’ and didn’t think she was going to be able to make it.  The elder Blaire woman had softly said it was okay and she hoped Grace would feel better soon.  Constance, for all her bitchiness, was actually very understanding.  Grace was now lying on her couch, Dizzy resting happily in her lap.  He’d gotten back into the swing of living in the apartment.  Grace… well she was a different story.

It may have had something to do with the fact that the woman who used to be outgoing, friendly, flirtaceous, and happy, now felt broken-hearted, beaten, and dying inside.  Try as she might, she just couldn’t figure out where it had gone wrong.  Her fairy tale had turned from ‘Happily Ever After’ to Brother’s Grimm in the manner of a few words.  ‘Grace, I think you should consider moving back to your apartment.’  It was like a dagger in her heart.  It wasn’t really something she had to ‘consider’; it was his way of saying it was over.  It wasn’t going to work for him.

And she saw it in his eyes.  She knew it was killing him.  She’d wanted to cry, hit him, and run away… anything to make the pain less.  But in the end, she’d done as he asked, and not made a scene.  He’d hired movers and as easily as her belongings had moved into the manor, they’d moved out again.

She’d never harbored any malice toward him.  To this very second, she still loved him with everything she was.  Their first night apart, Courtney had gone to see Bruce and Seth had come to her.  She had spent the entire night sobbing in his arms.  Of course, Seth had resentment toward Bruce anyway because of the way Bruce ran off to Europe when Courtney had cancer.  No amount of explaining could make Seth understand.  He never said a negative word about Bruce that night, though.  He simply held her and let her cry.  She woke up the next morning in her bed, tired and aching.  Courtney had replaced Seth, sitting by the bed.

Grace spent the next month crying.  The hardest was Christmas… then his birthday… She slipped further and further into depression.  Alex would try to cheer her up.  He’d stop by every afternoon, as it was his duty to make sure she ate lunch.  Her high school boyfriend, Chad, would make sure she had dinner.  She was rarely left alone.  That was by Courtney’s rule.  She knew Grace… knew how she could slip into a state that scared her more than Bruce’s disappearing acts.  Cause Grace’s… well… Grace’s could be an act that one never returned from.

Hope had moved in after the fall semester, and only went back to college because Courtney swore Grace would be taken care of.  George and Janet called every day.  The lawyer’s anger toward the billionaire was abated only because his daughter begged him not to act out the role of ‘protective father’.  Her parents had both come to love Bruce like they would have their own son.  They were going through their own grief at the separation.

Grace sighed and pulled the blanket over her head.  Lying on this couch, living in the past… she knew it wasn’t what was best, but it was all she could do.  Miles and Constance had invited her to their anniversary luncheon, as well as the gala party tomorrow night.  Grace wasn’t going to either one.

Her excuse of being ‘sick’ was one *everyone* could surely see through.  She couldn’t be where he was and not breakdown… not want to touch him, hold him, be near him.  And he *would* be there.  He would feel obligated and no matter if he were still hurting, he would go.  Alex had invited her to go to the party tomorrow as his ‘date’.  Chad had offered the same.  But she’d politely turned them both down.  Worse than seeing Bruce at an informal gathering would be to see him at a formal one with another woman on his arm.  He’d told her once that, before she came into his life, he’d made Courtney go along as his ‘date’.  He felt it was expected of him to have one.

To see another woman where she was supposed to be, where she felt she still belonged, she couldn’t have taken that.  So she’d told Alex and Chad no.  She’d called Constance and said she was ‘sick’ and wouldn’t be at either event.  She simply wasn’t strong enough to do it.

*-*-*

A loud banging at her door caused her to jump up; dropping Dizzy on the floor, he meowed in disgust before running into the bedroom.

“Grace Victoria O’Neil, open the door.”

It was Seth.

She sighed.  The supermodel, who at one time took great pains in her appearance, merely rubbed her now short hair against her head.  Cutting it had been her one action of anger.  Bruce loved her long hair.  She couldn’t look at it long anymore.  “I’m coming, damn!”

She’d barely turned the knob before he was marching into the room.  “Do you realize it’s after 4?”

“So?”  She padded back to the couch.  “How the hell did you get in here anyway?”

“My wife has a key, remember?”

“Your wife, not you.”  She sighed and pulled the blanket onto her lap.

Sighing, he sat beside her, reaching out to place a comforting hand on the back of her neck.  Grace craved physical closeness.  She absorbed it like a sponge.  “Gracie, you need to get out.”

She wiped at the traitorous tears.  “I don’t want to.”  Looking down at the blanket, she picked at a piece of lint and softly asked, “How did it go?  The luncheon.”

“Bruce was late,” he said, getting right to the heart of what she was really wanting to know.  “He forgot about the luncheon, overslept, and Courtney went to get him.  She was going to come get you too, but her mother said you were sick.”  He gave her neck a soft squeeze.  “Gracie, hon, this isn’t healthy.  You leave the house only to work.”

She shrugged.  “I’m still the most demanded models in the business, Seth.  I still meet all my commitments.  I smile when I’m told; I look pretty when I have to.”

“We spent a week in the French Riviera, and the only time you left your hotel was when you had to be on set.”  He, of course, was referring to the ad she’d done for L’Oreal Paris.  He’d hoped that the week there would help her… bring her out of her shell.  But the first thing she’d said was Bruce had a home on the Riviera.  He’d taken her there for one of their trips.  The crying after that had caused her eyes to swell to the point where it took the makeup artist hours to get it to go down.  But she was right, when she had to smile for the camera, she did.  When she had to act for the commercial, she shined.  But as soon as the cameras were turned off, the pain showed through.

It was something Seth couldn’t understand, no matter how much he tried.  He had his own issues with Wayne, though he could see the man was in pain too.  So why?  Why intentionally break up with the woman who completed you?  Why push her away?  Why break her heart?  And she still loved him.  It was obvious to Seth that if Wayne showed up at her door today and said he was sorry… said he wanted her back… she’d go.  There would be no thought.

“Did he… was he…”

“He was alone,” Seth answered.

She only nodded as the tears came again.  He drew her into his arms and held her tightly.

It was this scene that Courtney Meyers walked in on.  She ran her hand through her now shoulder length hair.  The shortness of it was the only sign that she’d just won a huge war to save her life.  She didn’t move to Grace though, merely watched.  What she wanted to do was smack sense into both of her friends.  She knew Bruce felt like he had his reasons for sending Grace away.  But was it really worth it?  They were both miserable.

Turning on a heel, she walked into Grace’s bathroom and ran a bath.  She added lavender scented bath salts and tons of bubbles.  As the tub filled, she returned to the living room.  “Grace, bathroom now.”

She sniffled and shook her head.  “I don’t want to take a bath.”

Courtney looked at her husband who promptly dropped his arms from Grace.  “What you want isn’t a concern of mine right now.  You need a bath.  So you can go in there, undress, and get in the tub on your own or I can do it for you.”

Grace looked at her lifelong friend.  She didn’t doubt that the shorter, lighter woman could do it.  What Courtney lacked in height and weight, she make up for in tenacity and spirit.  “Fine.  But I don’t know what the point is.”

“The point is, you’re going out to dinner with Seth, Mom, Dad, and I.”  Before Grace could protest, she said, “I won’t take no for an answer.  I can accept why you didn’t show up at the luncheon.  I can understand why you aren’t going to show up at the party tomorrow.  But you aren’t backing out of this, Grace.  You’re going to dinner with us if I have to drag you there by what’s left of your hair.”  The words were harsh, but spoken in pure ‘Hurricane Courtney’ fashion.

“I love you too,” Grace said as she walked passed her friend.  The words had been meant to sound sarcastic.  But they came out in a sob.  It was a sob that earned her a hug from her friend.

“I love you too… dearly.  Now, go get a bath.  I’ll pick out a cute dress and we’ll do your hair.”  As Grace walked into the bathroom, Courtney looked at her husband who was folding the blanket and placing it on the back of the couch.  She thanked God every day for that man, for the ease that their relationship had been.  Oh, her cancer had made life difficult, but he’d been there.  And though it had almost killed her, the disease had also drawn them closer than she’d ever dreamed possible.  “What do you think?  Red or green?”

He smiled.  “Purple.  It’s her favorite color.”

With that, his wife nodded and headed off into Grace’s bedroom to pick out her friend’s clothes.  Something had to happen here soon.  Bruce was being eaten up by his broken heart and so was Grace.  They were made for each other.  Their hearts needed the other to continue beating with a purpose.  Why were they apart?  It just didn’t make any damn sense.

*-*-*

Bruce left the Blaire’s not long after Seth had excused himself, claiming he had business to tend to.  Business, which Bruce had no doubt, meant Grace.   But that put a halt to the false good mood he’d been in, leaving him visibly broody.

Alex, ever the well intentioned clown, tried to draw the conversation away from Seth’s business by bringing up tomorrow’s gala.  “You’re going, right Bruce?”  He asked when everyone started chattering about what to wear or the prospective menu.  “Or should we send Courtney after you again?”  He was teasing, and Bruce knew it.

He gave a small grin.  “Wouldn’t miss it,” Bruce promised, mostly to Miles and Constance.  He felt badly enough about being late today.

“And you’re bringing a date, right?” Alex pushed, and next to him, Courtney’s face palmed, shaking her head.  And Alex had been doing so well.

Bruce felt much like he did the first time he’d been called upon to give a public speech.  Nervous and like the whole world was watching him.   And really, they were, even if no acknowledged it.  How he answered –if he had a date or not– would more than likely get back to Grace.  They were all friends.  No, more like family.

“How about you, Alex?” he asked with feigned sincerity.  “Would you be my date?”  He’d chosen the road no one expected.  Humor and misdirection.  Alex spluttered on his drink, Constance looked properly shocked, and most everyone else turned back to his or her own conversation.

Not long after, Bruce rose to leave.  He was surprised when Miles opted to walk out with him.

“It was good to see you, Bruce,” the older man admitted once they were outside.  He might not say it, but Bruce knew the tone of voice.  Miles was worried about him.  It touched his heart.  “You’ve been so distant recently.”  Recently meant since Grace…and possibly even before.

“I’ve been busy.”  It wasn’t a lie, though he knew the way Miles might take it was.

Gotham’s best mayor yet shook his head.  “With what?  Rumor has it you’ve handed the reins of Wayne Industries back to your advisors.  And you haven’t made a public appearance in months.  You’re becoming a hermit.”

Bruce sighed.  He knew he couldn’t explain what he was so wrapped up in.  Not to Miles, not to anyone.  No one would understand it.  That was why he’d forced himself to turn Grace away.  Lex had been right; eventually, he’d have to tell her.  Bruce had decided it would be better to lose Grace now, on his own terms, than to revisit what had happened between Lex and himself with Grace.

“It’s Grace, isn’t it?”  Miles asked.  Like his daughter, the man was too perceptive for his own good.

Bruce shook his head slightly.  “I’m sorry, Miles.  I can’t go into it right now.”  His voice was apologetic.  He couldn’t.  There would never be a right time to say ‘I’ve been spending my nights patrolling the streets of Gotham in a Halloween costume’ to anyone.  They’d lock him up in Arkham for sure, although there were times when Bruce wasn’t sure he didn’t truly belong there.

Miles frowned, but accepted the words.  “You know where to find me, Bruce,” he offered.

Bruce smiled, and nodded.  Miles’ friendship had come to mean a lot to him over the years.  He was almost like a father to him, every bit as much as Alfred had been after his own father died.  “I know.”

*-*-*

Wayne Manor was a labyrinth of secret doors and passages.  They’d been meant as a means for servants to pass undetected from one part of the house to another back in the days when it had been built and the family was large and the serving staff even larger.  Then, it had been a custom that servants were necessary, but it was unnecessary to see them.

As a child, Bruce had played in those same passages, wandering them freely until he came to know each like the back of his hand.  He’d gotten lost a few times along the way, and had once been missing for nearly a day before anyone found him.  The passage had led into the Manor’s extensive basement, and it was there he’d been found, huddled in a gloomy corner.

It was this passage that Bruce took the instant he returned home from the anniversary luncheon.  Through his vision and Alfred’s guidance, the basement had been transformed into something altogether different.  A private fortress.  It was crude, but taking shape.  He had a conference table, computers linking the entire house and his offices at Wayne Manor, and the training facility.

It was to the training facility that he headed.

Yes, he had a home gym upstairs, but he spent less and less time there now.  It reminded him too much of Grace.  They’d made it a custom to rise every morning before the sun, exercising together until they were both flushed and glistening with sweat and Grace’s endorphins kicked in.  Then, they’d shower, conversely washing each other and making love with the steaming water pounding on their skin.  And then they would make love again in Bruce’s bed, and hold each other after, until the sun rose and Alfred roused them to announce breakfast was ready.  The gym echoed of those days, and Bruce had moved his daily routine into the basement along with the rest of his life.

He began tonight’s training by sitting on a mat on the floor, intent upon meditation.  His emotions were high and too near the surface.  If he went out on patrol like this, he would be sloppy.  He couldn’t be sloppy.  But as his eyes closed, thoughts of Grace filled his mind.  Her face as it looked just waking up in the mornings, her smile, her laughter… the way he could see her world crumbling through her eyes when he told he thought she should consider moving out.  He’d seen it only once, because the day the movers came to take her back to the apartment, he’d made himself scarce.

Still, the image was stored in his memory and it often replayed without mercy –reminding him that he’d purposefully thrown away the best thing to ever happen to him.  Opening his eyes, he shook his head to clear it. Meditation would be no use.  His mind was too wrapped up in the enjoyment of torturing himself.

He walked further into the training facility, where it resembled more a prison than anything else.  A chair sat against the wall, and he sat, pressing a button on the floor with his foot.  Instantly, manacles snapped down on his arms and legs and around his chest, strapping him into the chair.  His only means of unlocking them –a single key– lay on the table several feet away.   The object of this exercise was to find a way to either get out or get the key.  Survival.

He had just begun to ponder the dilemma when a door to one of the secret passages opened and Alfred approached.  If the older man was surprised to see that Bruce had locked himself into such a device, he didn’t say it.  He merely asked how the party had been.

“It was… fine,” he replied, sounding as relaxed as if he always did this sort of thing.

Alfred took in the tone of his voice and nodded.  “Your social secretary called while you were out.  He wanted to remind you about tomorrow night.”  Bruce nodded.  He figured as much.  “And he also inquired if you were going to ring for a companion.  They need to know whether or not to leave a seat empty for someone.  To that end, sir, I took the liberty of compiling a list of suitable dates whom might actually be available on such short notice.”  Alfred held the list out for him to see.

Scanning it, Bruce shook his head, indicating that he wasn’t interested in any of them.

“Then perhaps a more selective list, sir?”  He produced another paper, and Bruce blinked twice when he read what was written on it.  The only name there was ‘Grace O’Neil’.

“Alfred…” he began to protest, lowering his eyes.

“You should call her, Master Bruce.”  He knew that Alfred wasn’t talking about just for tomorrow, either.

‘But I can’t,’ Bruce thought, but did not answer.   How could he?  What would he say to her to make things right them?  How could he explain the inevitable ‘why?’ that would come?

Alfred moved away from him, putting both lists on the table next to the key.  “I trust I will be seeing you at dinner when it’s ready, sir?” he asked, rerouting the conversation to Bruce’s training.  He’d planted the seeds and knew Bruce enough to know not to push the issue too hard.

“If I’m not, you might want to send a search party,” Bruce joked, though the words were hollow in light of their previous exchange.

“As you wish, sir.”  Alfred left him then, without another word on the subject.  Bruce’s eyes drifted to the table, though it was no longer the key that his gaze sought.

*-*-*

The night was uncommonly quiet, and his patrol bordered on boring.  Not so much as a mugger tonight.

He found himself atop the rooftop opposite a familiar apartment building, watching an equally familiar window.  The drawn curtains only dimmed the light in the widow, and he knew Grace wasn’t sleeping.

A Jeep was parked in the parking lot below, and he knew without getting closer that she wasn’t alone.  Rising, he started to move off, intent upon making his way to the other side of the city.  He didn’t know what had brought him there tonight in the first place.  Seth was there, and possibly Courtney as well.  Grace didn’t need him.

*-*-*

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Alex looked at the French fries and cheeseburger that sat untouched on Grace’s plate.  He’d scarfed his down and wasn’t surprised to be still hungry.  “Grace, eat,” he sighed.

“You can have it, Alex.”  She pushed the food away as if it were covered in arsenic.  The woman who used to love eating, who Bruce had always teased about always being hungry, barely ate one meal a day now.  She’d gone from a size eight to a size four.  With her height, she looked ungodly thin.

Taking the cheeseburger, he left her the fries.  “So, you’re positive you won’t trip the night fantastic with me at this gala tonight?”  In his haste to consume the food, a smear of ketchup had landed on his cheek.

Grace smiled lightly and handed him a napkin.  “I’m sorry, Alex.”

“I promise I won’t leave ketchup on my face,” he offered.

She shook her head.  “I can’t.  I can’t go and see him there.  See him there with another woman on his arm… That’s supposed to be *me*!!”  She stood suddenly and wiped angrily at the tears.  “I couldn’t take it.”

Alex decided to finish off her fries.  “Well, since you won’t go with me, I guess I’ll just have to go with my backup date.”

Grace turned and folded her arms over her chest.  “Who’s that?  What’s her name?  Shelley?”

Alex shook his head.  “Nope.  But you know who it is though.”  He grinned and gave her a wink.  It was always his intention never to let her give in to the grief, so he tempered it with his own special brand of humor.  “Tall, dark haired… young.”  He waggled his brows.

“Who is it?”

“Chap by the name of Bruce Wayne.  Seems he doesn’t exactly want another woman on his arm, so we’re going stag… together.  Think he’ll bring the limo?”

Grace was shocked.  She leaned against the wall, slowly sliding down it, her head resting on her knees as they were pulled to her chest.  He wasn’t taking anyone else, but he didn’t want her.  She was more than confused.  “What did I do wrong, Alex?  What’s wrong with me?”  She let the tears come, a part of her relieved that perhaps Bruce hadn’t moved on.  But still…  A hand rested on her head, fingers lightly massaging her scalp.

“Sometimes, kiddo, it’s not about what’s wrong with you.  It’s not about what was done wrong.  Sometimes people do things that seem right at the time but turn out to be things they’d rather not have done.  I don’t know why he did it…  But I’m sure it wasn’t because of you.”

She was about to answer when someone knocked at her door.  The knob turned and her long time friend Naomi entered.  She looked at the clock and then to Alex.  “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for a party?  Taking Grace with you?”

Alex bent down and kissed Grace’s head before moving toward the door.  Taking Naomi’s hand, he softly said, “She’s not going.  I couldn’t convince her that I would behave myself tonight.”  He shrugged.  “Take care of her?”

“Always.”

A sudden panic swept over Grace and she stood.  “Alex,” she called, rapidly closing the distance between them.  “Could you…?  Would you…?  Bruce…” She wasn’t sure what she was asking him to do or say.  “I just miss him, so much.”

“I know.  And yeah, I will.”  The latter, of course, meant that if Bruce inquired, Alex would, in his own way, let the younger man know that she missed him.  Alex wasn’t like the others.  If Bruce honestly wanted to know, he was going to tell him that Grace was miserable… that she asked about him constantly… that it was obvious to all of them that she was holding out for the hope that Bruce would want her back… that there would be a way for them to be together again.

No, Alex wasn’t like the others.  If Bruce asked, Alex would tell him.

*-*-*

Bruce exited the limo, reaching back into the seat at the last minute to grab his gag gift.  It *was* a date after all, and one was expected to bring your date a gift.  He thanked the limo driver and entered the building.  He stopped to let the man at the desk know he was here to see Alex Norton, and was directed to use the penthouse elevator.

A few minutes later, he rang the doorbell.  Alex answered, still fighting with his tie.  Not that it mattered, as his tuxedo shirt was now rumpled and untucked from the effort.  He grinned when he saw Bruce standing there.

“C’mon in!” he said, cheerfully motioning Bruce into the penthouse.  “These things are impossible!”

Bruce rolled his eyes, and looking around the spacious living room, found an end table on which to deposit his gift.  “Here.  Let me help,” he said, and reached for Alex’s collar.  “They tie like this.”  He walked Alex through the steps, talking them out as he tied it, and then straightened the bow a little.  “See?”

“Easy for you to say.  I’ve been trying to tie the idiotic thing since I got back from Grace’s.”  The words slipped out, and although Alex hadn’t counted on the way Bruce’s face fell at the sound of her name, he didn’t take them back.  Maybe if he didn’t, Bruce would feel compelled to ask about her.

“They take practice,” Bruce said after an awkward pause.  He didn’t ask about Grace, although he wanted to.  He missed her so much.

“Riiiight. Practice.  I’ll just get my coat.”

Bruce chuckled, and waited, looking around at the penthouse.  The ad agency was doing well, and Alex right along with it, though you’d never know it.  He didn’t seem to let the new affluence go to his head.  Bruce sat down on the arm of the sofa and waited.  He didn’t care if they were late, because he wasn’t looking forward to what was essentially his first social appearance without Grace.

“Okay, here we go.”  Alex came back, shrugging his overcoat over his hastily buttoned tuxedo jacket.

“Oh, hey!”  Bruce suddenly remembered his gift.  He crossed to the end table and retrieved the brown paper bag.  “I almost forgot.  This being our first date and all, I got you something.”

Alex eyed the bag with mock wariness.  “It’s not flowers, is it?  Because I’ve already got a boutonniere.”

Laughing, Bruce shook his head.  “I only bring flowers when my dates wear dresses,” he shot back.

“Guess I’m out of luck.  I don’t own any dresses.”

Bruce snorted, and shoved the bag into Alex’s hand who reached inside and pulled out a bouquet of lollipops.  And then promptly began to howl with laughter.  He looked at the candy again and howled some more.  “Oh, man!  And Seth says you don’t have a sense of humor!”

Seth might have been right, because at the moment, Bruce couldn’t see what was so damned funny.  Then, looking at his gift, it dawned on him, and heat rushed to his face. Blow Pops.  “I, ah…” he stammered “…didn’t mean anything by… uh…”

“Don’t sweat it, Bruce.  It’s good.  I like these anyway.”  Alex winked at him.  ‘C’mon, we’re gonna be late.  After yesterday, Courtney will call out the National Guard looking for you.”

Bruce groaned.  “Don’t remind me.”

*_*_*

Alex grinned when he saw Bruce’s limo in front of his building.  “Oh man!”  He slid in across the leather seats, bouncing to test them out.  Bruce watched, amused.  Grace had always loved the limo, too, though her reaction had hardly been the same.

Grace…

Bruce decided he needed a drink.  “You want anything?” he asked, opening the mini bar.

“A beer, if you’ve got.”  Alex peered into the mini fridge and pulled out a Coors.  Bruce opted for a Guinness, and took a long pull of the bitter foreign beer.  It was actually his second of the night, as he’d had one on the ride over.

For a few minutes, Bruce drank steadily and let Alex chatter about the limo and everything else he could think of, gesturing with his hands as he spoke.  Alex’s enthusiasm amused him greatly and made him laugh.

“Thanks,” he said at last, when his beer was gone.

Alex stopped talking and blinked.  “You’re welcome, man.  For what?”

Bruce laughed.  “For… tonight.  Coming with me.”

Alex shrugged.  “Nothing to it.  Grace wouldn’t go with me, and it would be have been a disgrace to go alone.”  He winked, clearly teasing.

Bruce tried to return Alex’s smile, but he was too stunned.  Alex had invited Grace to go as his date, and she’d said no.   “How…?” he started to ask, but stopped himself after the first word.

But Alex thought he knew what the rest of the unspoken question would have been.  “Same as you, man.  Miserable.  She misses you a lot.”

Bruce stared at the dark glass of his beer bottle and did not look at Alex.  “I miss her, too,” he said in a low voice.

“You should be telling her that, not me.”  It wasn’t a lecture, just friendly advice that Bruce knew in his heart to be true.

He shook his head, just as the limo was pulling up in front of the mayoral mansion.  Glancing out the tinted windows at the crowds outside, he put on his “game face” and smiled.  Alex’s words, however, echoed in his mind all night.

*-*-*

Courtney crossed and uncrossed her legs before fidgeting with her napkin again.

“Would you stop?” Seth asked.

“They’re late.”  She reached for her purse to grab her cell phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling Bruce,” she replied as if it was obvious.

“Let it be, Courtney.  He brought all this on himself… tossing out the best thing that ever happened to him.”

“Don’t,” she said softly.  “You don’t know why he did what he did.”

He turned determined eyes toward her.  “You’re right.  I don’t.  But I do know the consequences of his actions.  And I can’t say I’m too damn happy about them.”  He sighed, watching as her face fell the way it always did when he spoke too harshly of her friend.  “Court, baby, I’m sorry.”  And the words were genuine.  “I just know that nothing in the world would make me let go of the best thing that has happened to me.  Nothing.”

She nodded, knowing he’d proved it more than once in their relationship.  “It’s just… well… he needs me, Seth.  He may not admit it, but he does.  And I know him.  I know that he’s regretting the decision.  If there’s any way I can help the two of them find one another again, I’m going to.”  She looked up as she saw Alex and Bruce walk in.  “They’re here.”

Seth shook his head, stifling a smile as Alex jokingly tried to thread his arm through Bruce’s… obviously enjoying being the ‘date’.

*-*-*

The anniversary party turned out to be almost a second wedding reception.  As her husband was the mayor of Gotham, Constance had extended her invitation list to include several state politicians.  Society ‘elite’ from all over New Jersey had been invited.  In lieu of gifts, they asked that cash donations be made to the American Cancer Society.  The charity was very near and dear to them.

Several toasts were made to the very happy couple.  They ate dinner that consisted of prime rib, chicken, and Alaskan salmon, several kinds of potatoes and rice, and a wide variety of vegetables.  Of course, everything had been served buffet style.  It was as Miles was filling his plate for the second time that Courtney joined him.

“How’re you doin’, Dad?”

“Just fine, Peaches.”  He smiled at her, leaning over to kiss her cheek.

“Bruce hardly touched anything.  He’s done nothing tonight but sit at the table.  Oh, his ‘outer’ face is congenial.  He’s even laughed at Alex’s jokes, but this is killing him, Daddy, and I don’t know what to do.”

Miles looked past her to where Bruce, Seth, and Alex were in deep conversation about basketball.  He could tell it was basketball because Alex was making dribbling motions with his hands.  “He’ll find his way.  He knows where he belongs.  In his heart, he knows whom he belongs with.  He’ll figure it out.”  The microphone was turned on and the DJ motioned toward the mayor.  Handing his daughter his plate, he said, “Try not to worry so much.”  He laughed lightly, as if he had room to talk.  He was every bit as worried as his daughter was.

Watching her father walk to the podium, she sighed.  They had to get Bruce and Grace back together.  Seeing her two best friends suffering was just too much to bear.

*-*-*

For the first time in two weeks, Grace tried to run on her treadmill.  Not only had she lost weight, but she’d lost muscle tone.  She was nowhere near as in shape as she had been… before.

No one showed up tonight.  Naomi went home around midnight.  Courtney called shortly after to find out if Grace needed anything.  The party was over and Courtney had confirmed that Bruce had attended the function, not with another woman, but with Alex.  Grace had denied the offer for company.  Now, she wished she’d said yes.  Courtney and Seth deserved time to be together, but the apartment felt so big… empty.  Loneliness echoed all around and it was driving her insane.  She turned on all the lights, thinking it might drive away the shadows.  She made coffee, then made it Irish, and sat on her couch.  Turning on the TV, she flipped the channels.  At 1 a.m., there was little on except old movies.  That’s when she found it.  ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’.  Tears started anew for her and she cried.  This had been one of their favorite movies to watch together.

They would crash on the big leather sofa, Grace teasing that though the couch was cushiony, she still needed her ‘Bruce pillow’.  He’d hold her tightly and they’d watch old black and white movies until they passed out on the sofa.  Alfred would wake them early the next morning and send them to bed.

She’d never have moments like that again.  Never.

Sleep was *not* going to come for her tonight.

*-*-*

An hour and a half later, she was actually pacing the apartment.  It was driving her crazy tonight.  The space, the silence.  Grabbing up her keys, she put on her coat and gloves.  The apartment felt big, but maybe the Hummer wouldn’t.  She had the perfect vehicle for winter, and she needed to go for a drive…

Her boots crunched on the snow as she walked across the parking lot.  It was cold… very cold and it felt good.  She stopped at the driver’s side door and leaned her head against the window.  Bruce hated this vehicle.  He hadn’t wanted her to get it, but she’d wanted one so badly and for so long.  When Courtney offered her the money to buy it, Bruce had witnessed the signature for the loan against her trust fund.  He hadn’t wanted Grace to have it, but he wasn’t going to stand in the way of her getting it.

She stood there for several long moments, head against the window.  She was crying again… shoulders shaking she was sobbing so hard.  Finally, she pulled away, opened the door, and got inside.  Where would she go?  At 2:30 in the morning, where could she go?

Nowhere.

Instead, she got out, frustrated with herself because she couldn’t make up her mind what she wanted to do… she couldn’t sleep.  She couldn’t call Bruce.  She wiped at the tears that were flowing again as she headed back into the apartment building, angry when it took her three tries to get the key in the keyhole so she could let herself into the building.

*-*-*

The light was on in her window again, despite the late hour, and this time, the parking lot was deserted save for the vehicles owned by other tenants.  Which meant only one thing to Bruce as he watched from the shadows: none of their friends was with her.  Granted, most of them had been at the gala, and he imagined she’d told them all she would be fine.  Fine, however, had a lot of meanings, and according to Alex, one of those meanings was misery.

He ached at the thought of it –Grace hurting as much as he was, perhaps more.  He wasn’t hiding from the people who loved him.  Just her.  At least, not all the time. But from what he managed to garner from Alex, she was secluding herself from everyone.

All because of him.

He wanted to take it back, take back the words he’d spoken and the months of pain.  He wanted to relive them, holding her to him each and every day.  Or if not that, then go to her now and beg to be taken back, to be forgiven for the fool that he was.

Then the light in her window went out, and he decided she must be going to bed.  He watched for a while longer, even though he should have left and continued patrolling.  It was, however, as if something rooted him to that spot, willing him to wait for something to happen.  A few minutes later, the door to her building opened and someone stepped out wrapped in a winter coat.  He knew without seeing her face that it was Grace.

He watched as she trudged to her Hummer and climbed up into it… and then sat there.  He watched as she climbed out and trudged back to the building.  He wondered where she’d been about to go and why she didn’t.  More, he ached to call out her name.

That, however, was something he just couldn’t do, and he started to turn away.  The scream that pierced the darkness called him back.  He saw Grace being pulled away from the building by a dark figure that looked twice –no, three times– her size.

*-*-*

Grace screamed again and tried in vain to struggle against her captor.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

The voice was dark and seemed to come out of nowhere.  At first, she couldn’t see anything except a dark shadow moving around the man who held her, but he pushed her away suddenly, and she fell.  However, for a brief glimmer of a second before her head struck the hard, icy pavement, she thought saw a dark, caped figure advancing on her attacker.

Then she saw nothing.

*-*-*

Alfred held the door open for Bruce as he carried Grace –still very unconscious– into the Manor.  He’d called ahead, letting Alfred know he was coming.  They laid her down on the bed in her former bedroom, and then Alfred pushed him out the door to go change out of the Suit.

Obediently, he changed out of the costume and returned to her side.  Alfred was checking her pulse when he came in.  “Alfred… will she…?”

“Her heart rate is normal and so is her breathing, Master Bruce.”  He was informed.  “We’ll know more when she awakens.”

Bruce nodded, and pulled a chair as close to the bed as he could get.  She looked so thin and frail, not the strong, healthy woman he had known.  Oh, Grace… He closed his eyes, and reached out, covering her hand with his own.

“Please be okay,” he whispered.  “I need you so much.”

Hours later, when his eyes were drooping and his body threatened to shut down from exhaustion; Alfred finally pulled him away from her bedside.  “I shall sit with her, Master Bruce.  You rest.”

“But…”

“No buts about it,” Alfred countered.  “You aren’t doing yourself or her any good like this.  Go, now.”

*-*-*
Friday, January 14, 2005

Her head hurt.

That was the first thing that went through her mind when consciousness slowly crept up on her.  Her head hurt badly.  She instinctively moaned and put her hand to her forehead.  Then she heard movement… felt silk surrounding her… remembered the stranger grabbing her… and briefly panicked.

“Here, Miss Grace,” Alfred’s quiet voice filtered to her.  “These will help the pain.”

She opened one eye and saw the very familiar figure standing beside her.  He was holding out some aspirins in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

“What…?  How…?  Why…?”  She took the offerings and swallowed the pills with complete trust in the man who gave them to her.  Resting her head back on the pillow, she tried again.  “What happened?”

“You were set upon by a mugger is the story I was told.”  He sat down in the chair that Bruce had occupied the night before.  “A most unsavory character.  I have never been particularly fond of your late night excursions.  This is why.”  He knew she responded to the ‘fatherly’ corrections favorably.  He knew she would take it as concern, and perhaps the next time, she would think more clearly.

“I wasn’t thinking about anything, Alfred.”  She rubbed at her eyes, willing herself not to cry.  “I remember the man grabbing me.  I was trying to go back inside, but was crying and couldn’t…” Here she fumbled as her voice hitched.  “I couldn’t get the key in the damn door.  He grabbed me from behind.  And then… and then…”

Alfred sat, listening patiently as she spoke.  He and Bruce had already discussed the ‘story’, so he was prepared for this.

“I thought I saw a man in a cape.  But he wasn’t really a man…” She groaned.  “It’s all a blur.”

“What you saw ma’am was simply a Good Samaritan in his winter coat.  He heard your scream and stopped to help you.”

“He was just out and about at three in the morning?”

“You were.”

She nodded, clearly getting his point, but the action made her head hurt again.  There were more questions racing through her mind… so much to ask.  She must have remained silent and still for too long because Alfred started to get up.  Reaching out, she took his hand before he could move too far away.  “Please, don’t leave me alone.  I’ve missed you.  I’ve missed…” She choked back a sob.  “Please stay.”

There was no way on this earth he could deny her.  She was a shell compared to what she had been before.  If his presence helped her, he’d stay as long as he was needed.  “I shall stay, Miss Grace, if that is what you wish.”

“Thank you,” she said, more than extremely relieved.  “How did I end up here?” she asked after he sat back down.

“I received a call from the man who saved you.  He recognized who you were, knew of your…” he paused “… relationship with Master Bruce.  Master Bruce picked you up and brought you here.”

Her heart skipped far more than one beat.  Bruce had come for her.  He had held her in his arms, and for a moment she was enraged that she’d been unconscious and not known it.  How long had she waited to have his arms around her?  Far too long.  And the first time it happened, she was passed out cold.  “He came for me?”

“He did,” Alfred replied.  “He spent the night in this very chair, watching over you.  He’s sleeping now only because I made him do so.”

She let her eyes slip closed for a moment, remembering how he worried over people he loved.  How he hated being separated from Courtney and Lex when they needed him most!  How the guilt of it ate at him!  She remembered how terrified he was that he could lose them both.  She knew that he’d lost Lex, but it was only the relationship that was over.  Lex was still alive… so was Courtney.  But Bruce didn’t handle well those he loved being hurt.  So she could easily understand him running out in the middle of the night and staying up until he couldn’t stay awake any longer.

She could see him blaming himself for all of it too.  “I still love him, Alfred,” she admitted.  She hadn’t said that to anyone, but somehow, she knew the elderly man would understand.  “I tried to be angry with him, but I couldn’t.  I wanted to believe he was a monster, but I knew it was a lie.  I love him.  And even if he doesn’t want me, I know I’ll love him forever.  And it hurts.”  She rolled away so he couldn’t see her face.  She felt ugly when she cried.

Alfred felt for the girl.  He felt for Bruce too.  If only the young man weren’t so obstinate.  Oh, it helped in the business world, but in his personal life…  Well, this was the result.  Two hearts breaking.  Two souls in pain.  “Miss Grace…” He hadn’t actually been prepared to hear this.  There were no practiced responses for this admission.  He would have loved to ease her pain by telling her that Bruce still loved her.  He would have liked to tell her that her actions resembled Bruce’s in many ways.  Instead, he stood and said, “Let me get you something to eat.  I won’t be gone long.  I promise.”  He waited for her to nod before heading for the door.  His hand was on the knob when he paused to say, “Search your heart, Miss Grace.  You know him.  You know him far better than he’s allowed anyone to know him.  Use that knowledge.  It should tell your heart all you need to know.”

It wasn’t until she heard the door close behind him that she looked over at where he had been.  Bruce had sat up with her all night, worried over her.  She looked up at the ceiling.  This had been her room.  Her belongings were gone, and she vividly remembered the day they were all packed up.  She remembered every second of that day.  She remembered that Bruce hadn’t been around.

Had he not wanted this breakup?  If he hadn’t, why had he done it?  Why had he deliberately caused himself pain, and her more pain than she’d felt in her entire life?  The physical beatings Bill had given her never hurt as badly as this did.  Physical pain went away.  The emotional ache within her never seemed to ebb.  And Bruce knew he had hurt her, but he hadn’t said he was wrong, he hadn’t told her he changed his mind.  Why?

Bruce freaked when those he loved were hurt.  Lex’s car accident had left him numb.  Courtney’s cancer diagnosis had left him bereft.  He’d told Grace repeatedly that she was the only light through that entire time of darkness.  Yet a short year later, he’d looked at her and told her he thought she should go back to her apartment.  She’d thought the light extinguished.

Yet, one call from a Good Samaritan, and Bruce had come rushing to her side.  He’d sat up with her, worrying over her, no doubt, much as he had when he was worrying over Lex or Courtney.  ‘You know him far better than he’s allowed anyone to know him.  Use that knowledge.’

Bruce still loved her.  That thought should have caused her bliss, if she didn’t honestly believe he had never stopped.  He’d loved her when he asked her to leave.  So loving wasn’t the problem.  ‘I’m leaving for Europe,’ he had told her just before he left when Courtney had cancer.  ‘I can’t tell you where… I can’t tell you for how long.  But I have to go… alone.  It’s dangerous, and I can’t risk taking you with me.  I love you too much.’

He loved her, but kept her separated from the danger.  Once it had passed, he’d sent for her.  She’d stayed with him for the remainder of his business.  No matter how much he’d wanted her with him, he wouldn’t let her come until he was sure she would be safe.  “What are you doing, Bruce?”  She sat up slowly, pressing her fingers to her temples to help with the throbbing.  “Do you honestly believe you’re protecting me?”  Looking toward the end of the bed, she wasn’t surprised to see that Alfred had left her a robe.  She didn’t ask where the change of clothes came from.  Alfred had his ways and she’d learned not to question them.

Ever so slowly, she got out of the mahogany sleigh bed.  She’d loved this bed.  She’d loved this space.  Mostly, she’d loved knowing she was sharing it with him.  Bruce… who for whatever reason had let her go, not because he didn’t want to be with her, but because he felt she’d be safer… better off… without him.  Why?  She picked up the robe and stood on wobbly legs, looking at the door.  He was across the hall, sleeping.  How many steps did it take to get there?  They’d jokingly counted that he could get from his room to hers in five long strides… if he were properly motivated.

She looked down at the robe again.  She should take a bath.  ‘You know him.’  She wanted to tell Alfred to shut up, that he wasn’t helping any.  Alfred, who wouldn’t push Bruce if he looked even the slightest bit annoyed, would push her without a second thought.  Why had Bruce asked her to leave?  Why had he rushed out in the middle of the night to help her?  Why did he bring her here instead of calling Courtney or Seth and having one of them sit with her at her apartment?  Why?

The robe was not going to give her any answers.  The only one who could was sleeping in the room across the hall.  Five long strides equaled about fifteen steps.

She didn’t knock before entering the room.  She knew he preferred to sleep in the nude, and although he wasn’t hers to touch freely, it wasn’t as if she’d never seen him in the flesh before.  And right now, her need for answers outweighed wondering how she’d react to seeing that beautiful nude form… to seeing him and knowing she couldn’t touch him.

Opening the door, her resolve melted completely as she saw him lying on the bed.  Fully clothed, hair a beautifully rumpled mess, he looked spent.  He was curled into a tight ball, arms wrapped around his legs.  The comforter had been tossed off the bed, she assumed while he was sleeping.  And his sheet was hanging half on the floor.

Her heart broke all over again.  She hadn’t seen him since that day.  Timidly, she moved into the room and got a better look at his face.  Dark circles were under his eyes.  His face, though he was still very young, had creases… worry lines she called them.  She stopped beside the bed bending down so she was more on level with him.  She couldn’t help it; she couldn’t resist the urge to reach out to him.

So she gave in to it.  Very lightly, she reached out and brushed a stray hair from his face.  “I love you,” she said softly, a silent tear slipping down her cheek.  “Do what you must, Bruce?  But I can’t let you push me away.”  And she couldn’t, not after having proof that he still loved her that he still cared.

She stood just as silently as she had knelt down and headed back for the door.  He was as exhausted as she had been.  She’d take a bath, eat, and wait for him.  She’d wait for him forever.  As she reached the door, she heard him rustling on the bed.  Turning back, she stood completely still.  “Grace,” he cried out.  He moaned, rolled onto his other side and kicked at the sheet.  “Grace,” he called out again.

She leaned back against the door and it slid silently closed.  She shouldn’t be seeing this.  She shouldn’t be watching him wrestle with the dream.  She shouldn’t hear him calling out for her.  And she sure as hell shouldn’t go over there and offer him comfort.  But she loved him.  How could she walk out now?  ‘I think you should consider moving back into your apartment.’  She should walk out.

“Grace, no,” he called out again.  It was like a beckoning cry.  The light through the darkness lighting her way to the shore.  As quickly as it started though, his thrashing and calling out ended.  She watched for a few more moments before finally getting up the courage to leave the room.  She shouldn’t have witnessed that, and she’d take it to the grave that she had.

Of course, she couldn’t keep it a secret that she was in there as Alfred was standing outside her door when she stepped into the hall.  Looking guilty, she tried to explain, “I… uh… I was going to…”

Alfred shook his head.  “No need to explain to me, Miss Grace.”  Lifting the tray slightly, he said, “I brought you something to eat.  If I remember correctly, this is your favorite sandwich.  And I put plenty of vegetables on the tray as well.”

She rushed across the hall and opened the door for him.  “You put enough on that tray to feed an army, Alfred.”

He looked at her pointedly.  “And you need to eat enough for an army.  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’ve lost way too much weight.”  He paused.  “If you don’t mind my saying so.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t mind.  Everyone says so.  But I can’t eat if I’m not hungry.  I haven’t been hungry in months.”

“You should eat.”  And that was all he said as he placed the overflowing tray on the table and said, “I took the liberty of calling Mistress Courtney to let her know where you were and that you were safe.  She said to tell you to call her if you need her.”

“Thank you.”  She started to head for the bathroom but stopped.  “Alfred?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Should I stay?  I mean, until he wakes.”

Inwardly, he smiled.  Outwardly, he said, “I think you should do whatever you need to do.  You, of course, are welcome to stay.  You need to eat and a good rest wouldn’t do you any harm.”

She nodded, and watched as he left.  She’d stay.  If for no other reason, then to thank Bruce for rescuing her.  It would be awkward, but she had to do it.  Her father had always said she was stronger than she realized.  Talking to Bruce again would be hard, but she had to do it.  So she took her bath, ate more food than she had in weeks, and ended up back on the bed, getting the rest Alfred said she so desperately needed.

*-*-*

Bruce awoke with Grace’s name on his lips, though this wouldn’t have been the first time for that.  He’d dreamt about her as well though that, too, had not been a new experience.  He had not been lying to Alex when he said he’d missed her.

What was new, however, was the nature of the dream.  In it, he’d informed her that he thought she should leave the Manor, much as he had in real life, and the moment she exited the front gate, a hulking figure –the mugger from last night, only grossly overblown by his frantic mind– grabbed her, killing her before his eyes.  He’d been helpless to stop it, and she’d died in his arms.

“Grace…” he whispered again.  Had he not been there last night… who only knew what might have befallen her?  “My sweet Grace.”

He eased from the bed, nearly tripping over the comforter than he’d cast off in his fitful sleep.  Stripping out of his rumpled clothes, he padded to the bathroom and turned on the hot water for the shower.  When the water was steaming, he stepped into it and closed the glass door.

It felt good… like the steam was carrying away the fog in his head.  He stood there forever, letting the water pound his body.   After a while, he reached for the soap, and washed thoroughly.  Then the shampoo.  Pouring a large dollop in his hand, he inhaled and smiled softly.  Grace had always loved his herbal shampoo.  She’d loved to smell his hair after he shampooed, loved running her fingers through it.  He’d loved letting her.

God, he’d missed her so much.  He loved her and, after last night, he knew he couldn’t go on like this.  He couldn’t let her walk out of his life again.

Although that, he admitted with a groan, implied he could even get her back.  He’d been so stupid.  She’d loved him and how did he repay her love?  Her trust?  He’d failed her, yet again.  Like the only time he’d failed to meet her eyes, the one time she’d needed him to.  He’d failed her, and turned aside her love.  Why would she even consider coming back to him, forgive him even, after what he’d done to her?

Hot water washed his tears away from his face as swiftly as they fell from his eyes.

*-*-*

Alfred was exiting Grace’s bedroom –it was still hers in his mind, would always be hers– when he finally left the bedroom.  He was clean and casually dressed in jeans and a Gotham University sweatshirt.  He hadn’t actually attended the school, but several charitable donations had earned him an honorary doctorate and a lifetime supply of sweatshirts.

“Good afternoon, Master Bruce,” greeted Alfred.  The older man was happier than Bruce had seen him in a while, and given Alfred’s ability to keep his true emotions hidden, that was huge.

Bruce knew it was because of their houseguest.  He cast a glance at the door Alfred had just closed behind him.  “Is she…?  How…?”

“She’s doing fine, Master Bruce.”  Alfred assured him.  “A bit of a headache, but that’s to be expected.  She’s got a nasty looking bump on her forehead.”

He nodded, wondering if he should go in and see her; and if he did, what would he say.

“She’s resting presently,” the other man informed him, as if reading his mind.  “And you…” Here Alfred fixed him with an authoritative look.  “Haven’t eaten anything all day.”  Bruce started to protest.  He wanted to be with her, at least until she awoke.  “Off with you, Master Bruce.  Go and eat.  Miss Grace won’t have gone anywhere while you have a sandwich.”

*-*-*

The morning and afternoon editions of the newspaper lay on the table in the kitchen.  Bruce sat his plate down next to them, flipping to the police reports.  They said only “mugger apprehended” without giving details. Alfred entered the room with a tray, which Bruce presumed must have come from Grace’s room.  He wondered if she were awake now, or had Alfred retrieved the tray without waking her?

“Page 12-A of the afternoon edition might be of interest, Master Bruce,” he commented as he set to cleaning the tray.

Bruce nodded and turned to the page in question.  There was a small blurb about his two recent –including Grace’s attacker, who was now resting in the Gotham Hospital under police guard until he was ready to be moved to a jail cell– apprehensions.  The mugger from the other night, and a small time car thief.  Both of them had spoken to the police of a “costumed freak” who had foiled them without the use of weapons.  The snippet of an article speculated about it being the start of an urban legend.

“Rumors,” he commented to Alfred, who was now pouring them both steaming cups of tea.  “Nothing but rumors.”  He paused, and then looked up from the newspaper.  “Did Grace… say anything about it?”

Alfred nodded gently.  “She believes she saw a caped figure.  I suggested that perhaps she’d confused the Samaritan’s winter coat for something other than what it was.”

Bruce sighed.  He wished there was another way.  Miles was a good man, and under his term as mayor he’d passed two strong crime bills, but as a politician, he could only do some much.  As a special interest lobby, Bruce also could only do so much; and more often now, he seemed to lose those spoken battles.  The people of Gotham had grown used to their orphan prince, his story too familiar and less tragic as years passed.  Now they looked to him to fill his late father’s shoes and it mattered not what had come to pass that he even had to.

“I know, Master Bruce.  I know.”  Alfred placed a hand on his shoulder as he set a cup of tea in front of him.  Bruce hadn’t said a word, but he knew that Alfred had understood anyway.

*-*-*

Bruce stood in the doorway, watching over Grace’s sleeping form.  In the daylight, she seemed even smaller and more emaciated than he had thought the night before.  It scared him to think that their break up had caused this.  It *hurt* him to think that he had caused this.

But he had, and now he was at a loss when it came to how to fix what he had broken.  It wasn’t just their relationship, or even her heart, that he’d rendered damaged.  It had been her… all of her.  He saw that now.

Looking at her like this, Bruce thought he knew why Seth always seemed to bite his tongue when he was present and why he regarded Bruce with such disdain.  Courtney, a complete converse of her husband, had never ceased to give support or comfort, but in reality, it was Seth who had the right of it.  He did not deserve her concern nor her comfort.  His heart ached to see what he’d done to the woman he loved more than life itself.  That pain –sharp as a knife to his chest– was all he deserved from anyone.

“I’m so sorry, Grace,” he softly told her, although she couldn’t hear it.  Sorry, however, would never change what he’d done to her.    Moving into the room as stealthily as his nighttime persona navigated the streets, he came to stand by her bedside.  His hand was shaking as he reached out and smoothed her hair away from forehead.  The bump Alfred referred was clearly visible and darkening into an ugly bruise.

If that were worst she suffered from her attack, he would be grateful.

*-*-*

Courtney set down the receiver and crossed the hall from her office to her husband’s.  He was on a conference call with two clients, discussing the latest fast food chain account.  This one wouldn’t just be national; it would be international.  By the look on his face, he’d not only secured the account, but was going to head the campaign himself.  It was something he rarely did now, except for Grace’s accounts, running the entire branch simply took too much time.  He waved for her to come in, offering her a loving smile.

When he was finished, he used the intercom to tell his secretary to hold his calls.  “You don’t look so good, Court.  You feeling okay?”

She nodded.  This could open up a whole can of worms she wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with.  Inhaling deeply, she decided to just jump in.  It was her way after all.  “Alfred just called.”

Seth’s voice went a bit flat.  “Yeah?”

“Grace was attacked by a mugger last night.”  She watched as his eyes went wide and he stood.  When Seth was concerned or agitated, he tended to pace.

“Why would Alfred call you and tell you that?  Why wouldn’t we have gotten a call from the police?”

“Alfred called because she’s at the manor.”  She didn’t let him respond, just kept talking.  “Apparently someone was passing by when the attack occurred.  He stopped it and recognized her.  For whatever reason, he found the listed number to the manor and called Bruce.  She wasn’t hurt too badly just a nasty bump on the head.  He picked her up and took her back to the manor.  She was sleeping when Alfred called.”

“Why did he take her to the manor, Courtney?  Why continue to put her through this?  He ended it.  He kicked her out.  And now he runs to her side to be her savior only to send her packing again.”

“You don’t know that,” she said softly.  “I think he got the call and got scared that she was seriously hurt.  I think he brought her back to the manor so he could help her.  He’s not a monster.  And you know as well as I do, he still loves her.”

“He should have called us.  You or I.”  He bit his lower lip, not saying anymore.  Instead, he went behind his desk and picked up his car keys.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to go get her.”

It was then that Courtney stood.  She loved her husband and understood his protectiveness toward Grace.  But she wasn’t going to let him interfere.  If there was a chance that this trauma could bring about reconciliation, then she wasn’t going to let him prevent it.  “No, you’re not.”  He was perhaps the one person she never disagreed with.  In all reality, they got along surprisingly well.  They rarely argued.  But if he became determined, this might be one of those rare moments.

“I’m not?” he questioned.  His voice was soft, but it spoke volumes.

“No.  Seth, I know how you feel about her.  I know you’re concerned.  But this may be pivotal… for both of them.  And if you go charging in there…”  She sighed.  “You could cause more damage than do good.  Please, trust me on this one.  Trust in the faith I have in him.”

He closed the drawer that held his keys and leveled her with a stern look.  “It’s not you I don’t trust.  And Courtney, as a businessman, I think there are few better and trustworthier men in this world than Bruce Wayne.  I respect him… as a businessman.”  He sat back down in his seat.  “I understand the trauma of witnessing his parents’ murders affected him.  I understand that he has issues with people getting close to him, or getting close to people.”  He looked at her pointedly.  “You get that?  I understand.”

She nodded.  “But you don’t care?”

He shook his head.  “No, that’s not it.  I do care.  I care because you love him.  But, and I know everyone deserves a second chance, but his history isn’t the best.  He ran out on you not once, but twice when you needed him…”

“But that was…”

He shook his head.  “Doesn’t matter to me, and you know it.  He ran out on you twice.  He knew how vulnerable Grace’s heart was.  He knew her past history with at least one of her lovers, and he still chose to hurt her.  I care about him.  I care about what happens to him.  But I care more about you and Grace.  And when it comes to the relationship aspect of Bruce Wayne, I don’t trust him.  Plain and simple.  Whether he means it or not.”

Courtney simply nodded, and whether she was trying to contain anger or hurt, she wasn’t sure.  “But you aren’t going over there?”  It was all she could think to ask.

“No,” he said simply.  “I’m going to go with you on this because you’re right.  If there is even the smallest chance that they can reconcile, then they deserve to have it.  Regardless of me, the two of you love him.  I won’t do anything to intentionally sabotage either of your relationships.  I love the two of you that much.”

And there it was.  Seth could be harsh.  His feelings about the younger man were so complicated.  He wanted to like him.  And it was obvious that there was respect there.  He would set aside his feelings about Bruce personally and let Grace have a chance… let them both have a chance.  And maybe, just maybe, if it worked out how Courtney hoped, Seth would give him another chance as well.

“Thank you,” she smiled, crossing the room to hug him closely to her.  “If I don’t hear from either of them by tomorrow morning, I’ll find out what’s going on.”

“Thank you.”

*-*-*

Grace woke with a start.  She was a bit disoriented once again, and the dream she’d been having wasn’t necessarily a good one.  In the dream, a Good Samaritan didn’t stop the mugger.  And what the mugger was going to do to her…

She shivered and brushed a short curl from her eyes.  It only took her a moment to get reacclimated.  It took even less time after that to realize she wasn’t alone.  The scent of his soap and shampoo hit her before her eyes focused in on his chest.  The word ‘Gotham’ blared at her before her eyes slowly moved up and found his.

Everything rushed at her at once.  Love, anger, need, hope, fear, and a myriad of other emotions plagued her.  She wanted to jump out of the bed and into his arms.  She wanted to kiss the worry lines that were prominently sticking out from his forehead.  She wanted to ask him why?  She wanted to forget that he wasn’t hers anymore.

She remembered going into his bedroom earlier.  She remembered he called out her name.  Alfred’s words were still in her mind and her deductions from earlier didn’t fade as she looked at him.

He looked scared to death.  He looked like he was riddled with guilt.  He looked relieved that she seemed to not be too physically injured from her attack last night.

But it was the scared look that hit her hardest.  She didn’t say anything at first.  Not only had her father placed great pride in her intelligence, he’d also always commented on her ability to forgive.  Ever so slowly, she ran her hand along the bed toward him.  It was a simple gesture, but one designed to perhaps take the first step that maybe he could not.  “Bruce,” she said softly.  His name had passed her lips so many times during their separation.  But saying it now, with him looking at her, it was like a balm to her soul instead of heartache.  “I’m so glad you came for me.”

*-*-*

Bruce watched as Grace eased into wakening, the expressions on her face moving from fear and confusion to recognition and something else… something so unreadable to him because of the vast jumble of emotions it conveyed.  He himself was torn between his own warring emotions.  He’d thought of nothing but seeing her wake up, but now that she was, he was unsure and afraid of how she would react to seeing him or what he would say to her.

Then their eyes met, and his name escaped her lips in a sigh that fell on his ears like rain after a drought, and all words failed him.  He wanted to speak, to cry, to kiss her, to hold her, to beg forgiveness, but when his lips parted nothing came out but a huge sigh of relief that she was alright.  So he did the only thing that made sense: he followed her example and took her small hand in his own, holding it in a gentle caress.

When she spoke again, his heart somersaulted not once but thrice, catching in his throat as he heard her say she was glad he’d been there.  Glad he’d come for her.  His eyes brimmed with new tears, as if the ones in the shower weren’t enough.  He wanted to tell her he hadn’t just come to her… he’d been her savior.  Those words also caught on the lump in his throat and his eyes dropped to their clasped hands.

He knew he should say something, let her know he felt the same way.  But what could he say?  I love you?  I’m sorry?  No, they would sound too hollow in light of what he’d put her through, no matter how much he meant them.  “I’m glad you’re alright,” he decided upon, and raised his eyes back to hers, though he feared what her face would reveal.

It wasn’t what she’d actually expected him to say.  But then again, what was he to say.  ‘I love you… Stay… Forgive me…’ If he said any of those things, she knew what her response would be.  ‘I love you too… I’ll stay forever… I forgave you the moment I left the manor.’  Her hand turned under his and she squeezed it tightly.  She wanted to cry, but not from heartache, from relief.  In five minutes, he could offer to take her home or run out of the room and send Alfred in to tell her the car was waiting.  But right now, he wasn’t saying any of it.  Right now, he was glad she was all right.

Oh God help her there was so much she wanted to say so much her heart needed to tell him.  “Bruce, I know…” she paused, Alfred’s words coming to her again.  ‘You know him better than anyone.’  She did.  And the way he was looking at her, the way he was holding her hand.  “Do you think… could you just…” She swallowed hard.  It was a gamble, but she had always been the outright type.  “I mean, I know…” She closed her eyes for a moment, willing herself not to cry.  When she opened them, she looked directly at him.  “Hold me… please.  If only for a while.”

Her words tore at his heart, making him bleed.  She knew… what?  That she shouldn’t ask for him to hold her?  That she shouldn’t want it?  That… he didn’t love her?  God, if she thought that… it would kill him if she thought that.  He squeezed her hand instinctively, cherishing the comfort in the oneness their entwined fingers allowed.  If she only knew how much he’d missed holding her, how much he wanted to still.

“Grace…” he whispered, intending to tell her but again, the words clogged up before they could get out.  Unable to make anything else issue forth from his mouth, he complied and climbed into bed with her, spooning her thin body with own more muscled one.

Her entire body relaxed against him and everything within her melted. This is where she belonged.  She would never be able to allow anyone else to hold her like this.  Of course, there was no way she was going to leave here without a fight.  In an impulsive action, she managed to turn in his tight embrace so she could bury her head in his chest.  She needed to feel his strong chest, hear his heart beating, and take in his scent.  Her arm slipped around his waist and she simply held him as tightly as her diminished muscles would allow.

She hadn’t realized until this moment how much she’d let herself go.  She hadn’t had the will to live.  He had always been the air she breathed.  And she hadn’t breathed from the moment she left the manor… until now.  She had to mentally remind herself that this didn’t mean they were back together.  But this felt so right.  She needed this.  She wasn’t sure if she should speak, for fear of chasing him away.  So she said nothing, merely held onto him as if life depended on it, and pressed into the embrace as much as she could.

He held her to him, his arms tightening protectively around her when she turned in and rested her cheek against his chest.  She belonged in his arms, and no amount of months spent apart could erase the memory of how to hold her.  It was the one thing –she was the one person– his life would never be the same without.  And he could have lost her last night.  So easily, and the thought of what her fate might have been sent a shiver through his body and brought fresh tears to his eyes.  Without thinking, he pressed his lips to the top of her head, burying them in her now curly –and very short– hair.

She felt him shiver, heard his breath catch in a way that could only indicate tears.  She was prepared to hold him even more closely when she felt his lips on her head.  The one who shivered next was she.  It was instinctive, lifting her head to look onto his face.  The wetness on his cheeks matched her own, and her hand moved from his waist up to wipe the tears away.  She hadn’t intended to let the caress linger, or to let her thumb trail along the side of his mouth.  It was what she was supposed to do.  This was where she belonged.

She let her hand linger there, unwilling to move from this spot.  She wished he’d say something, do something.  There was so much she wanted to say, but he’d been the one to push her away.  She couldn’t come back until he wanted it.  The tears, the kiss, the knowledge… it all led her to believe he wanted it.  The next thing was natural as well.  Ever so softly, she whispered his name, “Bruce…”

“Grace…” He breathed her name like it was air –necessary for life– and nuzzled his cheek against her palm.  His treacherous body trembled with the force of all the emotions he couldn’t yet voice, and his lips pressed against the pad of her thumb.  It was a small taste of skin, but once taken he knew he was lost.  If he kissed her again, it would be her lips.

Not that he didn’t want it –to hold her, to kiss her, to let her know she’d never lost his devotion… his love– but his mind argued that it would be wrong.  Wrong to take from her now what was no longer his.  He hadn’t earned it, yet here she was tempting him even if she didn’t realize.  God, how he wanted her!  Just one kiss… His eyes fell to her lips, which he knew to be sweet as honey and oh-so-soft. One kiss… and he’d never ask for anything else out of life again.

Just one…

When his lips touched her skin for the second time, everything within her melted.  All she knew was now. Months ago he may have sent her away.  She knew, now, that he’d done it because he’d felt there was a necessity for it.  It wasn’t because he didn’t still love her.  She hadn’t doubted his love… just why.

She was well beyond thinking about what was right here and what was wrong.  He was here.  She was in his arms.  And the look in his eyes…  Her hand slipped of its own accord to allow her fingers to lightly run across his ear and to lightly touch his hair.  Her eyes held his as she unconsciously licked at her lips.  It was perhaps in response to the memory of how good his lips felt on her skin… and how good they would feel again on her lips.

His kiss never failed to excite her.  They were both very tactile people, and the pressing of his lips on hers, the feel of his smooth tongue running along the inside of her mouth…  Oh God, there wasn’t anything she wanted more than to feel that again.  What she wouldn’t give?!  ‘Kiss me, please,’ her mind begged.

She wanted him to kiss her.  He could see it in her eyes and felt it in the way she touched him –the way her body pressed into his more sensually as her fingers buried themselves in his hair.  ‘Kiss me…’ her eyes pleaded.  ‘Now,’ her lips demanded as she licked them and he found himself unable to do anything but watch her tongue as it wet the skin he was now burning to devour.

Again his brain shouted out that it wasn’t right, it wasn’t the time for this now, not when so much was left unspoken between them, but his body argued that sometimes, non-verbal communication worked just as well.  His brain countered that such a course would make verbal communication harder when the time came reopen past wounds in order to heal them.  His body moved closer to hers, ignoring the protests of his brain.

His brain lost the battle, and his lips descended to hers, pressing into them because she’d begged, because he needed to.

She gasped at that first press of his lips on hers.  Of course, it was immediately swallowed by the contact.  How many nights had she fallen asleep wishing for just this?  How many times had she dreamed of this?  He tasted every bit as good as she remembered.  And her body remembered how to respond.  In all honesty, her reaction was more immediate, more needy because she’d believed that this would never happen again.  She’d never be in his arms, never feel his body against hers, and never would his lips be upon her.

She wasn’t a fool though.  She knew that this kiss didn’t mean that everything was fixed.  She knew it didn’t mean that the movers would be called.  At least, not until they talked.  And the talking would come because this kiss… the heat… the intensity… the need… It all told her that his heart was aching as much as hers had been.  Though it didn’t fix their problems, it did help her.

She pressed into the kiss, not having forgotten just how to caress his lips with hers in the way he liked.  She hadn’t forgotten the little nuances that were unique to kissing him.  When they parted, they would talk.  But right now, she needed to kiss… she needed this moment.

Bruce’s eyes drifted closed when he felt her respond to his kisses.  She had wanted it, wanted him, and this knowledge filled him like wine, leaving him giddy and inebriated in the wake of her return kisses.  And still he drank of her lips, greedily, as if each sip of their sweetness would be his last.

This alone he feared: that the kiss would end and she would be gone.  A dream born of too many nights alone.  Without her.  He couldn’t go back to that, not again.

He cupped her cheeks with his hands, gently caressing her cheekbones, as each kiss grew more desperate and needy.  He could taste their tears, mingled together on their lips, and he could feel more tears gathering in his eyes as he gave her a long final, deep kiss and pulled gently away.

She let her eyes stay closed for a long moment, not wanting to open them if it meant that he wasn’t really here.  Her hands reached up to take his, partly, she believed, to keep him from running away.  He was quite capable of that.  When his brain took over control of his body, he could very well bolt on her.  But with her hands grasping his, he would have to physically rip himself away, and she just couldn’t believe him capable of that.

Her eyes opened and she wasn’t surprised by the look on his face.  Oh, she hadn’t seen this exact look, but she’d seen one very close to it once or twice.  It was the ‘Bruce is very close to losing it’ look.  And as much as she needed him to be the one to do it, she was half afraid that if she waited for him to speak first, it would be words that were spoken from that state.  And she couldn’t have handled that.  She couldn’t deal with him thinking that what had just happened between them was wrong.

Because it wasn’t wrong.

It was beautiful.  It was right.  They belonged together.  She’d never loved anyone like she loved him.  Still looking at him, she sighed lightly.  And for the first time in several minutes, words were spoken between them.  “You’ve never…” She swallowed hard, her hands still on his as she squeezed them… drawing strength from his presence.  “Alfred said you stayed up all night watching me.”  Her eyes held his.  “That means so much.  You saved me.  And even as that man grabbed me, I knew.  I knew that you would be the one to be there for me.  I never doubted.”  She had to admit that waking up at the manor was a surprise, but not that he was the one who’d come for her.

She said nothing else.  Hopefully, he would understand that it wasn’t his love for her that she doubted.  She didn’t doubt the love.  Circumstances were another thing entirely.  But first, they had to get beyond the emotions.

When at first Grace didn’t speak, Bruce’s thought had been to flee.  He’d messed up –again.  Kissing her… it had felt so good, had been all he’d wanted, all he’d thought about, but in the silence came doubt and all the other emotions he’d been trying to ignore so he could just be with her.

Then she opened her eyes, and looked through his soul as if she could see where his mind was determined to take him.  Her words surprised him.  He’d expected… well, he wasn’t quite sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t that.  Maybe he thought she’d cry or hit him.  Push him away, or run from the room, from the Manor… from him.  It was certainly what he deserved.  Instead, what he sensed behind her words  –and the kisses that preceded them– was her love for him.

He’d never understood what he’d done right in life that Fate had sent her to him.  He couldn’t pretend to understand it now.

There was a huge mountain of ‘whys’ looming ahead of them, but his heart was telling him that what he needed to say first was something that didn’t begin with the words ‘because I thought I was right.’  There was something else that he needed to say first, because the chance might never come again if the ‘whys’ got in the way.

Taking a deep, unsteady breath, he extracted a hand from her grasp and brought it to her cheek softly.  “Oh, Grace…” he whispered softly.  “Don’t you know that I will always come for you?”

When her hand rested on his again, it wasn’t to hold him there.  She knew he didn’t like to see her cry.  At times, he could very easily misinterpret tears.  So she held them back, gaining control from months of practicing. Her heart however, could easily be seen from her eyes.  And she knew it.  “I do know.”  She took his hand, and as she had several times in their past, she placed their joined hands on her heart.  It had always been their way of letting the other know from where they were speaking.  It was an extremely intimate gesture for them.  “I know it here,” she said, in reference to her heart.  “I’ve always felt you here.”

Her words were simple, but the gesture… not so.  It spoke volumes, and left him overwhelmed with joy.  And yet, conversely swamped with guilt.  How to let her know… what to say?

“You have always been here,” he said at last, moving their hands to his own chest and pressing them hard enough that he knew she felt the beat of his heart through the sweatshirt.  “No…” he decided too late.  “You *are* my heart, and I have been lost every day since…” Since he ripped her willfully from his own chest.

Shamed, he let go of her hand, lowering his eyes to the mattress.  Sorry didn’t even begin to cover it, couldn’t make up for what he’d put her through, and he found he couldn’t bring himself to say such hollow words.  They would never do justice to the depths of his regret.

With those last seven words, he said everything she was feeling.  Her first instinct was to ask him why.  Why had he done it to them?  Why had he put the distance between them?  Why had they spent months miserably apart?  But she didn’t ask those questions.  Because she knew… just as Alfred had said she knew Bruce best… she knew that he believed his reasons valid.  That in doing it, he’d protected her somehow.

Would he do it again?  As she looked at him studying the mattress, she got her answer.  There was regret.  Regret, pain, and maybe some anger aimed toward himself over this.  Reaching out, she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him to her… holding him.  “I was lost too.  And though it may not be easy, do you think we could be found again?
Whatever it was…” She paused.  She didn’t need to know what it was.  “I need you, Bruce.  More than I’ve ever needed anyone or anything.  Can we be found again?”  She tried not to sound like she was begging.  “Or at least on our way to being found?”

His arms wrapped around her, and he clung to her as if for his very life.  A part of him still feared that if he let go, she wouldn’t be there at all.  And a bigger part of him was afraid that he would leave if *she* let go.  Even now his heart thundered in his chest, and his mind raced with too many thoughts.  Was she forgiving him?  He hadn’t asked for it.  Or was she asking to be taken back herself?  Whichever it was, the need to see this through made him hold her that much tighter.

“Last night, when I saw that ma–” in his desperate need to find a path back to her, his guard slipped a little.  His only hope was that the emotions running high between them would be enough to mask the misstep. “When I saw what had happened to you, I panicked. Grace, if I’d lost you last night, I would never have forgiven myself.  I want us to be found, too… if we aren’t already far too lost.  My life is nothing without you, Grace.  Worse than nothing: an empty void.”

*-*-*

The emotional events of the afternoon had taken their toll on both of them, and Bruce was again holding her in his arms, cradling her gently as she dozed with her cheek resting over his heart.  He couldn’t sleep, himself, but there no place he wanted to be than here holding her.  So that’s what he did: held her, his fingers idly tying themselves up in the ringlets of her hair.

Those were new… the curls, the short hair.  He’d grown used to Courtney’s short hair, but he’d yet to accustom himself to seeing Grace without her long tresses.  Not that he was blind to the fact that she’d done it. He’d seen the ads in magazines shortly after their break up.  She’d cut it dangerously short, and his first reaction had been to cry.  Now he thought maybe it was possible to like the new look.  After all, it wasn’t her looks but the person Grace was that he loved.

And he did love her, with all that he was.  The depth of it had scared him at first; but the longer they were together, the easier it got to accept it.  To let himself just love her, without fearing his feelings for her.  He’d destroyed that trust by sending her away, and now, they needed to rebuild it.  He had no intention of losing her again, not to his own foolish stubbornness or to anything else.  Nothing hurt worse than living without her.

It was Alfred coming to check on her that broke into his thoughts.  The older man opened the door, took in the sight of them on the bed together, nodded once and left without saying a word.  Not that he had to.  The small, knowing smile on Alfred’s face said all there needed to be said.  He’d known all along that Grace belonged here, with them.

When Alfred came again later in the evening, Grace was still asleep, for which Bruce was grateful. He knew her; he knew she didn’t sleep much as a rule and her body needed rest.  Needed to heal itself with peaceful sleep.

“I am sorry to interrupt, Master Bruce, but there are *matters* you need attend to.”  The emphasized word brought Bruce back to reality.  He had things to do in preparation for tonight’s patrol.  Training, surveillance, more training.  He’d be kidding himself if he thought he could stop now, just because Grace was here.

Grudgingly, he extracted himself from her embrace and rose from the bed.  Leaning down, he brushed his lips to her forehead, smiling as he did so.  Straightening, he said, “Take care of her, Alfred.”

“I shall cater to her every whim, sir,” the other man promised, then cleared his throat.  “Dinner in two hours, Master Bruce.  You were late the last time.”

He hadn’t been able to get out of the manacles or retrieve the key from the table.  Alfred had come looking for him when dinner had grown cold on the table.  He would not repeat the failure tonight, he vowed.  He wouldn’t be late to dinner while Grace was there.

*-*-*

The light had faded to dusk when she finally awoke, but it wasn’t the change in the view outside the window that caused her anxiety.  It was the fact that she was alone.  Immediately she sat up, panic racing through her.  He’d left.  The emotional trauma of this afternoon had been too much for him.  She knew she shouldn’t have fallen asleep, but it had felt so good being in his arms again.  “Please God, no,” she whispered softly.  “I can’t do this again.”

She wasn’t sure where she got the courage, but she moved from the bed and headed quickly out into the hall.  The first place she checked was his bedroom.  He wasn’t there.  In her mental state, she called out his name.  No answer.

She took off down the hall, determined that if she couldn’t find Bruce, she’d find Alfred and make him tell her where he had gone.  Maybe he couldn’t handle the trauma, but for her, this was more traumatic.  In her confused state, she made a wrong turn, and then another.  Before she knew it, she was lost.

‘Great,’ she thought.  ‘Just fucking great.’

She inhaled deeply to try to calm herself and took off walking in a direction that looked vaguely familiar.  Going down a flight of stairs she made it to the main floor.  The corridor looked strange only for the moment it took to get her bearings.  She passed the door to the basement and rounded another corner, almost running directly into Alfred.

His look was momentarily grave but he quickly covered it.

“I… I got lost,” she explained.  “I woke up… Bruce must have run off or something… I don’t know…” She was trying not to cry.

Calm washed over the elderly man.  She had been dangerously close to the basement, although he had no doubt that she would never go in there.  It was the one place Bruce had asked her not to explore.  And she was a completely trustworthy woman.  If she said she would never go down there, she wouldn’t.  Still…

A reassuring hand was placed on her shoulder, guiding her back toward the dining room.  “Master Bruce had a couple of ‘engagements’ he could not get out of, Miss.  Trust me, leaving your side was the last thing he wanted to do, but as I reminded him, these commitments…  well… he cannot break them.  No matter how much he might wish to.”

“So he didn’t run out on me?” she asked, hearing the words but still worried that it had to do with her.

His hand still softly holding her elbow, he continued to guide her.
“No, Miss Grace, it has nothing to do with you.  He will be joining you for dinner shortly.  I had the cook prepare all of your favorites for this evening.”

She smiled.  “Pastas, I take it.  Get the carbs in me, put some meat on my bones.”  At his soft chuckle, she said, “I don’t have anything to wear to dinner.”  She looked down at the oversized sweats she’d put on last night before leaving her apartment.  “I doubt this is suitable.”

He glanced at her clothing and offered her a soft smile.  “Your attire does not matter.  What matters most is that you are here.”  They entered the dining room, and he held her chair for her while she sat.  “Master Bruce will be here shortly.  I promise you that.”

She nodded, reaching for her glass of iced tea while she waited.  Maybe she shouldn’t have panicked like she did.  But then again, it could hardly be held against her.  She always understood the great demands that were put upon him… because of who he was.  She never tried to come between him and them.  She wouldn’t.  But waking up like that, without him by her side… it had scared her more than she realized.  There were still things they had to talk about, she assumed.  Things that she was going to have to adjust to again.

The first and foremost matter they needed to discuss was how long she was going to stay.  If he asked, she’d stay forever.  Sure, she’d accepted before and he’d turned her out.  But this time… this time was different.  They’d learned from the experience.  She doubted he would ask her to leave again, but if he did, she wouldn’t go away without a fight.  She’d given in far too easily the last time.  She’d done so because no matter how much it hurt her, she’d give in to his wishes.  But not now.  Now, she wouldn’t leave without making sure it was what he wanted instead of what he believed was best.

In the matter of the success of their relationship, she was going to fight for it now with everything in her arsenal.  He was worth the fight; they were worth the fight.  And as she finished her first glass of tea, she wondered what commitments would keep him past dinner.

A few moments later, Alfred wandered in and noticed that she was still sitting alone.  She seemed lost in thought and didn’t acknowledge that he had entered.  Obviously, Master Bruce had been detained again, however, this time, he was not going to let two hours pass or dinner grow cold or Miss Grace to sit alone in the dining room and worry.  Turning quietly on his heel, he left and walked the corridors to the basement.

Going down into the massive underground structure, he made his way to the room, finding the young man still shackled in the chair.  “Dinner is served,” he said emotionlessly, “and Miss Grace is up and waiting.  Shall I release you or explain to her that you will be detained a while longer?”

*-*-*

Bruce groaned as Alfred informed him of how he’d found Grace, panicked and lost.  He took the shirt Alfred held out to him, pulling it over his head as he hurriedly dressed for dinner.  “She really thought I’d left her?”  He frowned at Alfred’s confirming nod.  He was a horrible person.  “When I do stupid things like that, Alfred, why don’t you tell me how stupid they are?”  Of course, he meant turning her away in the first place.

“I have, Master Bruce.  You only listen when it suits you.”

Bruce groaned again at the polite-yet-too-accurate reply.  He’d have to work on that.  He couldn’t keep hurting Grace. Not if he hoped to earn her renewed trust.  Her trust…

“Do you think I can trust her, Alfred?”  It would have been an odd question, unless someone factored in what Bruce had spent the last four months doing in his spare time.  “I want her to stay, but I don’t want to put the project –or her– at risk.”  Especially her, he silently amended.

The older man seemed to consider his words.  “Miss Grace has never given you reason not to trust her,” he pointed out, holding the bedroom door open so Bruce could exit.  “However, this is hardly a hobby which can be easily shared, like hiking or poetry.”

Bruce nodded grimly.  The rules had changed since Grace lived here last.  The wrong turn could land her in the middle of his closest secrets, or worse, in more danger than she’d been in at the hands of her mugger.  He was at a loss to know what to do, but he knew one thing: he couldn’t let her walk out of his life again.

They’d figure something out.  They had to.

His brooding frown vanished as soon as he entered the dining room, replaced by a smile he could hardly contain at seeing her there.  All his heart was telling him she belonged in his life.  “I’m sorry, Grace,” he said as he closed the distance between them.  She’d risen from her seat when he’d arrived, now he slipped his arms around her waist, giving her a polite kiss on the cheek.  “I’m terribly late; my business kept me detained longer than expected.”  In truth, had Alfred not released him, he might still be there.  Tomorrow, he would do better.

As if to further make up for his tardiness, he leaned in again, placing a soft, sensual kiss on her lips.  “Shall we eat?”

She didn’t inquire as to what his business had been.  She never did. They only discussed business when he offered up the conversation.  She didn’t mind it either.  Some people preferred to keep business and personal life separate.  Bruce was one of those people.  The two only mingled when he needed a date for a business function.  Then, she was only too happy to comply, though that hadn’t been her place in months.  She sincerely hoped she could slip back into that role.  She felt completely comfortable at his side, being hostess to his host.  She simply felt she belonged beside him.

She took the seat as he held it for her.  Her tea glass had been filled for the third time.  With a small smile, she didn’t wait for the food to be placed in front of her before she said, “Alfred now believes that he has to fatten me up as well.”  Everyone had noticed her weight loss, a few had even commented on it.  Courtney was the only person, other than Alfred, who had actually come out and said anything about it.  In all honesty, she looked gaunt, but she was still an acceptable weight.  “I believe the object of tonight’s dinner is carbohydrating us into oblivion.”  She offered him a smile.

It was small talk, and she knew it.  But to jump right in and discuss the bigger things seemed awkward to her.  Besides, she knew him.  The initial discussion, she’d had to start.  But if they were to have another, he would have to do it.  She wasn’t going to push.  She didn’t want the panic of earlier to become a reality.

Bruce smiled at her small talk, and nodded politely to the servant who placed a steaming plate of pasta and vegetables in front of him.  “It does look good, though,” he offered.  “We always did eat better when you–” Were here, he had been about to say, and bitter regret flashed across his face.  Smooth move, Bruce, he inwardly chided himself.
Let’s twist the knife in a little further while the wound’s still fresh.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked after an awkward silence in which he wished he could simply sink through the floor.  She looked like she had, at least.  Her cheeks weren’t as pale as they had been earlier, as if merely being there with him was bringing her back to herself.

She nodded, chewing on a piece of broccoli before swallowing.  “I’m sure Alfred told you.  I mean.  I slept like I haven’t in ages.  But… you know… I forgot that business for you is at all hours and well…” She sighed, not wanting to make him feel guilty.  “So I went to find you or Alfred and got all turned around.  I ended up at the back of the manor somehow.  I think I freaked out Alfred a bit.”  She offered him a smile.  “But it’s all better now.” And she meant that.  It was all better the minute he walked into the dining room and smiled at her.  She was sure she’d stop panicking after a while, but right now, she scared easily.

Bruce nodded.  “It’s okay,” he told her.  “I still get turned around sometimes, and I’ve lived here all my life.”  He risked a small, hopefully reassuring grin.  “You were sleeping so soundly when Alfred came to remind me I had prior commitments.  I didn’t want to disturb you.”  After a heavy pause, he added, “Though, honestly, business has gotten… busier… in the last few months.”  He meant it as ‘and it’s taken more and more of my time than you’ll be used to’ but as they had yet to discuss how today redefined their relationship, he did not say this aloud.

“I’ve gotten busy too,” was her immediate response.  “Several new accounts… a couple actually international.”  She had heard his words… and the tone with which he said them.  There was a lot more going on under the surface here than he was saying.  She knew he’d relinquished all his shares in LexCorp after his breakup with the company’s CEO.  And hadn’t Miles mentioned that he’d actually given control of Wayne Industries back to his advisors.  So, she was puzzled, but didn’t ask.  “Everything’s okay, isn’t it?” she asked softly, “Business-wise.  You’re okay?”

Bruce knew that look on her face –that thoughtful look that said she was putting the pieces together.  He hadn’t made a secret of bowing of the day-to-day running of his family business.  “It’s fine,” he said, and it was.  Wayne Industries was thriving.  “I’ve been indulging in my inner science geek lately… I have a few privately funded research projects going on, and I’m spokesman for a couple of local special interest groups.  They actually see a lot more of me at city hall than anywhere else.  Miles and I’ve had lunch a few times.”  Fewer times than the mayor had wanted, if Bruce was honest with himself.  Nor did he go into the nature of his various projects.

Instead, he paused to regard her closely, and then gave a uniquely shy smile.  “I’ve seen your ads,” admitted the man who usually paid no attention to most forms of advertising media.  He hesitated, then blushed as he asked, genuinely not knowing the answer, “What *is* Old Navy, anyway?”

She paused, her glass of tea halfway to her mouth.  The question didn’t strike her as odd, but it was funny.  Setting her glass down, she laughed.  It was nice too, as she hadn’t laughed in quite a long time.  “A little bit of everything… mostly clothing.  As far as I’m concerned though, I showed up at the studio, they put me in some clothes, blew fake snow all around.  And I had to say ‘Cargo pants are great for winter sports’ and then wink.  But I got some nice clothes out of the deal.”  She let the laughter fade and looked at him.  “You saw my commercials?” she asked, knowing he wasn’t fond of the TV medium.

He blushed again, because whether she knew it or not, she’d caught him.  “A couple of them.”  All of them, and if she ever got lost in the ‘basement’ she’d be at risk of discovering his scrapbook of her recent print ads, as well.  He’d missed her, and though it now seemed like obsession, he’d eagerly grasped at anything he found that reminded him of her.  “You know,” he risked.  “You should do that more often… laugh, I mean.  You have a magical laugh.”

When silence followed, he decided he’d overstepped a boundary and stabbed at a steamed carrot with his fork.  If he couldn’t say the right things, he might as well eat.

The silence was because her heart had just about burst with emotion. Reaching out, she placed her hand on his arm, running her fingers along it softly before resting her hand on his.  “I missed you too.  There wasn’t a second of the day when you weren’t on my mind.”  She wanted so badly to lean across the table and kiss him again.  She wanted, at least for a while, to be in his arms again… to be doing things that would make the awkwardness disappear for a while.  But then, they’d never had problems with the physical, so it was only natural that that’s how she’d feel most comfortable.  She didn’t look down or away as she said, “Your smile… the one you have first thing in the morning…” She didn’t finish, merely trailed off, hoping he knew it was okay.

He merely nodded, his throat dry from too much emotion and his voice misplaced while he looked into her eyes.  This was quite possibly the weirdest night they’d spent together since the night they’d first met.  Like then, he was torn, and also like then, it was because he was afraid to go too far too soon.  He didn’t want to hurt her again, and no matter what she said, it wasn’t entirely okay.  Yes, she’d missed him too, but she hadn’t been the one to do the hurting.

Reaching for his water glass, he took a drink to wet his throat then set it back down.  “Speaking of… mornings. Will you…” he took a deep breath, “still be here in the morning?”

‘In the morning,’ she repeated mentally.  She also noticed he didn’t return the touch.  Was he thinking of just one morning?  Would they spend tonight together and then tomorrow he expect her to go back home?  She chastised herself mentally.  After what had happened, he wouldn’t do that to her.  But he also wasn’t the kind of man to do it before.  There were things to work though yet.  It would take time before questions like that didn’t pop into her head immediately.  She waited for him to set his glass down so that she was sure he was fully focused on her.  It was a pivotal question; her answer was even more so.  She pushed all of the doubt aside and took a leap of faith.  Faith in him.  Her hand moved down and took his.  “Yes.  I’ll be here in the morning.”

He wanted to ask about the next morning, and the one after that, and the one after that, but all he found himself capable of was a silly grin.  His heart beat rapidly in his chest.  She’d be there.  She said she would.  It was a pledge that went a long way towards fixing what lay broken between them.  “Grace…” he said softly, moving his hand overtop of her own.  “I’m so glad.  I couldn’t bring myself to hope that you would… ” He trailed off, shaking his head in clear frustration.  “There’s much…” so much that had changed, so many new rules to the game of his life.  “We’ll figure it out, though, you and I.  We need to.”

*-*-*

Bruce sat on his bed, still fully clothed when the bedroom door creaked open behind him.  He turned, expecting Alfred come with preliminaries about tonight’s patrol, but instead found Grace wearing a shirt that was a couple sizes too large on her.  It fell off her shoulder in a way that shouldn’t have been appealing because of how much weight she’d lost, but still sent a slight thrill running through him.  Too thin or not, the sight of her in naught but a t-shirt had always been one of his favorites.

“Want me to have my tailor take that in for you?” he asked, feigning sincerity, and he rose from the bed and walked over to her.  He didn’t question how Alfred just happened to have some of Grace’s things.  Alfred had always been a bit of a miracle worker.  Instead, he took in the sight of her, unable to keep the happiness of having her back home out of his eyes.

Coming to stand next to her, he slid his arms around her waist and pulled her to him in a hug that should have been gentler.  “Coming to say good-night?” he murmured against her lips before kissing them tenderly.

Her hands threaded into his hair.  His question hadn’t fully registered because the mere fact that he was kissing her drove everything else away.  When their lips finally parted, she remembered the question.  Had he assumed she wouldn’t be sleeping with him?  Her immediate response was to say yes… to give him what he wanted because he asked for it.  But she couldn’t do it.  And she couldn’t believe that’s what he wanted.  There was no way she could sleep and not be in his arms.  “Actually,” she said, her lips lightly brushing his as she spoke, “I was wondering if you’d changed which side of the bed you preferred.” She moved her head just enough to place a soft kiss on his cheek before resting her head on his shoulder.  “Just hold me.  I always sleep better when you’re with me.  I feel so safe.”

“And we do want you to be safe,” he acquiesced, kissing her again to let her know he was more than happy with this arrangement.  She could sleep wherever her heart desired so long as she was happy.  Drawing her further into his embrace, he scooped her up as easily as he had the night of her attack and, taking long easy strides towards the bed, laid her down in the center.  Looking down at her, he was mesmerized by what he saw in her eyes.

To her, he’d always been beautiful.  And she wasn’t one of those women who thought of beautiful as strictly feminine.  Males could be beautiful as well.  It was as he carried her to the bed that it crossed her mind… How many times had he done this in the past?  He’d carry her off to bed and they’d make love slowly.  When he would carry her, it was like a signal that he was in a passionate, yet romantic mood.  And she couldn’t help it.  Those memories did something to her.  Not that making love was a priority right now.  The priority was being with him.  But it still crossed her mind.  “You should put some pajamas on, Bruce.  Sleeping in jeans can’t be comfortable.”

He chuckled ruefully.  In truth, before she came to him, he had little thought of sleeping.  The failure of this afternoon’s training was still fresh in his mind and soon it would be time to patrol.  But those things could wait until Grace was settled and sleeping.  He was getting good at stealthy movement, and he doubted that even she would notice if he slipped out while she slumbered.

“Tell me about it,” he laughed again, recalling to both their minds that he’d slept in his clothes the previous night.  Complying, he reached for his sleep pants and the over-sized t-shirt he’d been intending to use when he got in after patrol.  He pulled off his shirt and his pants followed suite.

Talk about slow torture.  She smiled as she watched him undress, baring first his torso then his well-muscled legs. Actually, he’d added quite a bit of muscle tone.  She rolled over on her side barely noticing that the shirt that fit her so well four months ago was now falling off of her. She drank him in, and then noticed the bruises.  They were on his upper arms and around his wrist area.  She hadn’t noticed them before because of the sweatshirt he wore.  Concern etched her forehead as she reached out, gesturing to the areas.  “What happened here?”

“What happened where?” He echoed, making a show of examining his arms where she’d indicated to allow him time to think of the best answer.  As it turned out, the truth –or most of it– worked best.  “Oh, these.”  He shrugged.  “I’ve been working out a lot more lately.  New physical training routine.  I’m not really used to it yet.”  He gave her a lopsided grin and pulled the shirt over his head, sufficiently hiding most of the bruises from her sight.  Pulling on the sleep pants, he eased onto the foot of the bed and then crawled up the length of it to her. Then he lay down beside her, pulling her into his arms like he’d been doing it every day of their lives.

She swallowed the lump of desire that was in her throat. Did he have any idea what he radiated when he crawled up that big bed?  He was predator; she was prey.  She was his. And the thought of that spread liquid heat through her body.  To be the object of such focus, whether it be desire or need… or lust.  He exuded all of that as he crawled toward her on the bed. And there was no question –since she was prey– she was a willing prey.  As his arms enveloped her and he drew her to him, she shivered, not expecting the physical response.  She’d believed this was all about emotions.  But the picture of him ‘hunting’ her… it touched her in places that hadn’t been touched in months.  Trying to distract her traitorous body, she laughed lightly as she snuggled in.  “My Brucie pillow,” she teased.  She always called him her pillow.  “I could sleep anywhere so long as I have my Brucie pillow.”

“Mmm…” he murmured against her forehead as she rested her head against his chest.  “I’ve held you like this in my dreams a thousand times.”  His voice was sleepy, and his arms tightened around her as he scooted closer, letting their bodies fit together as they both started to drifted between sleep and waking.

*-*-*

When he’d been certain Grace was asleep, Bruce gave up the pretense of slumber and eased from the bed.  Silently, he dressed in his clothes from the night before and walked in to the adjoining bedroom that had once been Lex’s.  He made his way to the back of the room, and placing his hand on the inlaid bookshelf, he pushed it open noiselessly.  It closed behind him without a sound.

*-*-*

It wasn’t so much the stretching that woke her up.  It was the stretching and not feeling him that did it.  Maybe he got up and went to the bathroom, surely after her panic attack earlier today he wouldn’t get up without letting her know something.  She waited for several moments and when she heard no noises issuing from the bathroom, she got up and knocked on the door.

“Bruce?”  She didn’t wait as she opened the door and found the room empty.  No way!  No way in hell was this happening again!

With no regard to the fact that it was four in the morning, she exited the room and started searching the house.  She turned on lights and left them on.  Though she was much more calm in her search this time, so she didn’t get lost.  She checked all the rooms that he used the most.  The gym, the kitchen, the library, his favorite arbor room.  She even went outside to check the pool, though the fact that it was snow-covered and freezing outside should have told her he wouldn’t be swimming in that pool.  She even checked the sauna.

She didn’t, however, wake up Alfred.  It was obvious that Bruce was not in the manor.  So why would he leave at four in the morning?  Why would he get out of bed, get dressed (she remembered now seeing his sleepwear on the chair), and leave?  Had something happened that needed his immediate attention?

It hit her then.  That had to be it.  And the only thing she could think of that would need his immediate attention was Courtney.  She stopped in the main room of the house.  From here, one had access to just about everywhere.  If he came in from the front or the back, she should eventually see him.  Picking up the phone, she dialed the Meyers’ house.

“Someone better be dying,” the deep male voice answered.  “I’m not kidding, Alex.  If you’re pranking me, you’re fired.”

Grace held her breath.  This was so not the person she wanted to answer the phone.  She loved Seth deeply, but calling now, asking if Courtney’d seen Bruce… this wasn’t going to go over well.

“It’s Grace, Seth.”

He sat up immediately, unwittingly disturbing the sleeping woman beside him.  “What’s wrong?  Do you need me to come get you?”  He just knew that Bruce had crushed her again.  She was home and miserable.  Lord, help that man if it were true.

She shook her head, though he couldn’t see it.  “Nothing is the matter, Seth.  I mean, I’m fine.”

“Where are you?”

She swallowed thickly.  This hour was no time to get into long discussions about the choices she was making.  And though he’d stood beside her every second these past four months, she just wasn’t ready to answer all his questions.  She barely had any answers herself.  “I’m at the manor.”

He let his eyes drift closed.  “Gracie…”

“Please don’t, Seth.  Please not right now.”

“It’s just…” It’s just that Bruce ripped her heart out and she went into a seclusion and the man shows up one day, takes her to his house when he should have taken her to a hospital, and she’s staying the night with him.  He believed in second chances, but he also believed that they should be earned.  And one couldn’t make up for four months of agony in one day.  But he wouldn’t tell her all that.  In all honesty, it wasn’t his place.  “I’m sorry.  Are you ok?”

“I’m fine.  Overall, I’m fine.  I’m a bit worried though.  Is everything okay over there?”

That question puzzled him.  He felt Courtney move again beside him and sit up to join him.  “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Grace sighed heavily.  Well, that answer just brought on even more questions.  “I woke up, and Bruce was gone.  I thought maybe something happened with Courtney because it’s not like him to just up and leave in the middle of the night.”

His sigh mirrored hers.  Maybe she didn’t know him as well as she thought she did.  “He’s not here, hon. We haven’t heard from him.”

“What’s wrong?” Courtney asked.

“Hold on, Grace.”  To his wife, he said, “She’s still there.  She woke up, Bruce was gone, and she thought maybe he was here.”

“Does she want me to come over?”

He shrugged.  “Courtney wants to know if you want *us* to come over?”  If she did, he would be having one nice long talk with Bruce when he returned.  He didn’t give a fig who ‘Bruce Wayne’ was.  There were things that needed to be said and he was going to say them.

She looked around the manor.  “No, I think I’ll just wait up for him to come back.  It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“If you need anything…” He wasn’t happy with her answer, but he tabled everything else he wanted to say for now.  Bruce wasn’t the only one he’d be talking to.

“You will be the first person I call.  Sorry to wake you.”

“Don’t ever be sorry about that.  Understand?  You call anytime.”

“I understand.  Thanks Seth and goodnight,” she said softly, hanging up after he replied in kind.

She did exactly what she said she was going to do to.  She walked to the bar and fixed herself a scotch and sat on the leather couch to wait for Bruce to return.

*-*-*
Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bruce slipped into the underground headquarters just as the sky began to lighten from pitch black to the inky shades of impending morning.  Sunrise was in two hours, and he was exhausted.  Not too mention sore.  He’d tangled with something other than muggers tonight –two bank robbers hoping to crack the safe in Gotham National Bank.  He’d taken a metal pole to the back of the head for his efforts, but he’d managed to apprehend them and leave them where the cops could find them.

Thankfully, his father had been right all those years ago when he’d attempted to assuage his mother’s fears about letting him slide down the banister of the main staircase.  ‘The boy won’t get hurt, Martha,’ Thomas Wayne had insisted.  ‘He’s got a hard head.’   Bruce rubbed his head absently, knowing there would be a bump by later that day, and scowled. Hard or not, he still had a pounding headache now.

Stripping from the suit, he was dressing when Alfred entered.  “Busy night, Master Bruce?” he inquired.  Bruce gave him an abbreviated version of what happened and Alfred disappeared, returning with a steamed towel, some antiseptic for the minor cuts and scratches and aspirin for his headache. Bruce gritted his teeth and said nothing. When Alfred was sure he wasn’t bleeding too badly or in need of further medical attention, he added, tirelessly, “You should know that Miss Grace is awake, sir. She’s waiting for you in the downstairs foyer.”

Bruce nodded and accepted the overcoat Alfred had also, conveniently, brought with him.  Back out into the night he went, this time to let himself in by the front door.

*-*-*

She spun at the sound of the door opening.  She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to have been feeling at seeing him come in.  The myriad of questions flowed from her mind all at once and pretty much came out of her mouth that way.  “Where have you been?  I’ve been worried absolutely out of my mind.  I woke up; you were gone.  I mean, maybe…” She sighed, trying to find her center.  “I thought maybe something happened to Courtney, so I called them.  You weren’t there.  I would have called the hospitals… the police… the morgue… but Alfred finally woke up and heard me rustling around.  He told me to be patient, so I was.  But then you still didn’t come home…”

Maybe she didn’t have a right to be like this.  It was all coming from being afraid, worried, and panicked.  She’d been back in his life not even 24 hours and she was nagging at him.  It wasn’t her place, she knew it, but still… she had been scared and more than a little worried.

Then she stopped and looked at him.  Really looked at him.  “You’re hurt?”  She moved quickly to him.  “Bruce,” her voice more concern now than fear or anger.  “Bruce, what’s going on?”

With his headache still pounding worse than 10 am at a construction site, Bruce thought it best not to say anything and let Grace have her say.  He’d garnered all he’d needed to know from Alfred’s pitying expression and the wild spark in her eyes when she got somewhere around ‘so I called Courtney’ and figured she had every right to be feeling what she was feeling.

So he listened patiently, his body swaying from exhaustion. It was the slight side-to-side motion that made her stop and look at him.  Really look at him.  The anger –fear?– in her eyes melted away into a look of open concern when she realized he was hurt, and for the first time, she asked the question he’d been hoping to avoid –what’s going on?

“It’s nothing; I’m fine,” he began and she opened her mouth to protest.

“You’re not fine!  Look at yo–”

Listing a little as he leaned closer, he placed a gloved finger to her lips, shushing her.  “Listen to me, Grace.  I’m. Fine.” The words were chopped for emphasize, but not in anger.   He couldn’t be mad that she was worried; it meant she loved him.  Where there was love, there was hope. “I know you have questions, and believe me when I tell you this is killing me to say, but I can’t tell you.  You’re just going to have to trust me.”

It was, perhaps, the most important thing he’d ever say to her after ‘I love you.’  If Grace could not accept this one thing on faith, then their relationship could not continue.  He was not lying when he told her it hurt him to be so divided.

She said nothing for several moments.  She heard his words, but most importantly she heard the ‘words’ behind them.  He was serious.  She knew he wasn’t necessarily fine as it was all he could do to stand, but the other part… the not being able to tell her… the asking her to go on blind faith.  He couldn’t tell her… she had to trust him.  She couldn’t ask questions.  Then, it dawned on her like the sun burning off the early morning fog.  *THIS* is why he’d asked her to leave all those months ago.  This was why.  Whatever it was, it was enough that he felt it best to put distance between them.

She reached out to help him steady himself.  It wasn’t a hard decision for her.  She knew the alternative… had lived the alternative for the past four months.  She wasn’t going back to that again.  She’d rather live here with him and be in his life… accepting that there were things he couldn’t share… than to live without him and be miserable.  If that’s how it had to be, that’s the way it would be.

She still said nothing, merely moved more into his space and wrapped her arms around his waist.  Her head rested on his shoulder and she let her sturdiness hold him up.  “I love you.  If you say you can’t tell me, I can live with that.  I trust you, Bruce, with everything I am.  But if I may, is this something you have to do often?  Just so I know and will understand waking up and finding you gone.”

“It will be a very common occurrence,” he admitted after watching the thought process play out across her lovely features.  Though she did not say so, he knew in his heart that she understood now why they had been separated for so long.  “You mustn’t worry, though, Grace.  I will always come back to you,” restating what he’d told her when she woke up earlier that day.  “Nothing this side of death could keep me from your love.”

*-*-*

Grace was sitting in the high-backed leather chair in Bruce’s bedroom. He was still sleeping.  Whatever the events from last night, they had left him physically exhausted. Alfred had come in and inquired about lunch.

Her reply had been to let him sleep, and if he weren’t awake by late afternoon, she’d wake him.

She, however, ate lunch.  But she ate in the room.  She seemed unwilling to stray too far from him.  It was as if by watching him sleep, hearing him breathing, and knowing she was close to him, it was enough for her.  She had found a peace and contentment that she hadn’t known in months.

Around one, Alfred came in again, but this time it wasn’t to inquire about Bruce’s lunch.  “Master Seth and Mistress Courtney are downstairs and wish to see you,” he announced.

‘Oh shit,’ she thought, offering him a smile and getting up from the chair.  Moving over to Bruce’s sleeping form, she lightly touched his hair and placed a soft kiss on his forehead.  It was sweet as he smiled in his sleep, but didn’t stir otherwise.

*-*-*

“Can you just be civil about this, Seth?  That’s all I ask.”

They were waiting in the living room that was just off the library. Alfred must have led them in there because he knew it was one of Grace’s favorite rooms.

“I am always civil, love.”  It was those words Grace heard from Seth as she entered the room.

“Hey,” she said, not exactly sure what else she could say to them. They were just the first two of many she was going to have to face. Everyone was going to want explanations.  A part of her wanted to tell them all to back off, it was her own life and she could do with it what she wished.  But these people… they’d all been there for her during the darkest times, and they deserved much better than that.

Seth didn’t miss the fact that there was a flush of color in her cheeks.  He didn’t miss that there was a sparkle in her eyes.  He didn’t understand what it was about Bruce Wayne that drew these two women in like it did.  But Grace definitely seemed 100% better.

“We brought you some clothes,” Courtney offered as Seth continued to look at her.  “We also fed Dizzy and made sure he had his medication.  Actually, we took him over to Naomi.  She says to call her, by the way.”  Courtney nodded toward the two oversized suitcases.  “We weren’t sure how long you’d be staying.”

“Are you sure about all this, Grace?”  Seth bit his tongue, trying his best not to sound as frustrated as he felt.  “I just need to know what’s going on here… as your agent if not as your friend.  There are a lot of prospects for you at the agency right now.  Alex will need to know where to get a hold of you.”

Grace took the vacant seat beside Courtney, figuring the female Meyers would be much more sympathetic.  “I’m not sure, no.  I get the feeling that I’m staying indefinitely.  But there’s so much…” She paused and sighed.  “We’re working on things,” was all she said upon finishing.

“Where is he, by the way?”  Courtney asked, looking around as if he should be here.

“He’s sleeping.”  When her friend stood as if to go get him, Grace reached out and grabbed her arm.  “Let him sleep.  He didn’t get in until dawn, and he has a headache.”

Seth let the appointment book he was holding in his hands fall loudly onto the table.  “And that doesn’t strike you as odd?  That doesn’t strike you as something that’s atypical?  Gracie, I know you’ve done nothing these past four months but want to be back in his life, but think about it.  Did he even offer an explanation?”

Oh, he wasn’t going to take this well.  Seth didn’t deal in secrets, especially in relationships.  He believed the best kind of relationships were those that held no secrets at all.  He wasn’t going to understand her answer.  “I asked.  He said he couldn’t tell me.  I just have to trust him.”

“Trust him?!  Trust him?!”  He stood and paced around the room.  Courtney and Grace shared a look, and both knew what was coming next.  “Why?  Why should you trust him?  What in your immediate past says you should take anything on blind faith from him?”  He ran a frustrated hand through his hair.  When he gave himself a minute to get himself in order, he moved back to his chair and sat down.  “I’m sorry.  It’s none of my business what goes on between the two of you.  But, damnit, I don’t want to see you hurt again.  That’s not overstepping any boundaries, Grace.”

She looked at him for several long moments and smiled softly.  “No, it isn’t overstepping.  But Seth, I’ve figured out a lot of things these past couple days.  And they all lead me to believe that things are different now.  I’ll be careful.  But really, I can’t live without him… and I do trust him…  I belong with him.  And maybe our road isn’t paved smoothly.  But all the bumps and ruts… they’re worth it.  If in the end, we’ve learned and we can have a happy life together, it’s worth it.”  She paused for a moment and got a hardy ‘Here, here’ from Courtney.  Smiling, she nodded at the appointment book.  “Now, you brought that along for a reason.  I take it there are appointments I’m going to have to keep.  What’s on the slate, boss?”

He smiled.  He wouldn’t lecture her anymore about the choices she was making.  But he wasn’t done with Bruce Wayne.  Oh no!  When he got up, and if they were still here, he and the younger man were going to have a talk… just to clear some things up.  But to Grace, he smiled. “Yes, you have appointments.  But, fortunately, only one is out of town.  Feel like taking a trip to Manhattan?”

New York City.  She had actually gone back a few times since Bruce came into her life.  It wasn’t as intimidating as it had once been.  So her answer was more natural now than what it would have been a couple years ago.  “You bet.  If I got Prada, that is.”

He winked at her.  “You got Prada.  Spring line, sweetie.”

Courtney shook her head.  “One of the most expensive clothing manufacturers in the entire world… and you’re getting paid to wear their stuff.  I bought a suit from their store… sucker cost over $2000.”

Grace nodded vigorously.  “I know!!  Isn’t it great?  What’s the offer?”  The last question was aimed at Seth.

“$200,000 for the initial photo shoot.  A complete line of spring and summer apparel.  $180,000 each for ads run in Cosmo, Glamour, and Elle, with the option for three other magazines as yet to be named.  $375,000 for billboards in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, with the option for two more major cities.  And if you do a runway at the fashion show in Manhattan, they’ll give you an additional $250,000.  Think you can live with that?”

She did a quick tally in her head.  “That’s… what… over $2 million not counting the clothing.”

“Yep.”  He replied, knowing she realized that this made her the highest paid model that Prada was signing.

“What about signs in the stores?”

He scanned over the contract.  “You will get an addition $15,000 per store advertisement.  So about an additional $225,000.  Oh yeah… and Alex negotiated that Prada will pay the agency’s percentage.”  He smiled.  “So basically, darling, we’re not taking our percentage out of what Prada is paying you.”

Courtney sighed audibly.  “They want you.”

Grace nodded.  “By the time they’re done, they’ll end up paying me well over 2 million dollars, Courtney.  All I have to do is pose for some pictures and walk down a runway.”  She looked back at Seth.  “What else?”

He smiled.  “L’Oreal wants another sitting.  They’re willing to do the shots here in Gotham.  They had a photographer come and look at those trails that Courtney loves so much.  They want outdoor shots this time.  Apparently they have a new face powder that is resistant to cold or something.  We’ve got an aggressive campaign we’re going to start and we need new photos.  The deal is the same as before… only they’re willing to up the photo shoot fee to $75,000, since it’s over and above the original contract.  And if you sign for an addition campaign, they’ll double the signing bonus.  What was it last time?”

“$30,000,” she offered.

Courtney interrupted once again.  “Hold on.  You mean to tell me they paid you THAT much money just to sign your name on a piece of paper?”  This was the first time she’d actually heard the details of the work Grace did and what she got paid for it.

Her friend shook her head.  “No, they pay me that to make sure I sign the paper for them and NOT for someone else.  I sign for them I can’t sign for Cover Girl or Revlon or any competitor.  I sign for Prada who gives a signing bonus of about $75,000 then I can’t sign with Ralph
Lauren… You see how this works.  I can still work for Old Navy because the markets are completely different.  Most people who shop Old Navy can’t afford Prada.  Most people who shop Prada don’t give a fig about Old Navy.”

Seth cleared his throat.  “Um… Grace… Prada’s signing bonus isn’t 75… it’s an additional $250,000.”

Grace laughed.  “I take that back, Court.  They’re going to end up paying me over 2.5 million dollars.  Not bad, huh?”

Courtney shook her head.  “Unbelievable.”

“See why I say it’s a good gig?”

She looked back at Seth.  “What size do they want me?”  Most wanted their models to be a certain size, so it wasn’t an unusual question.

“Can you get up to a size six in a month?”

She did a quick calculation.  “That’s about fourteen pounds.”  She thought of Alfred and smiled.  “I have a feeling I’ll be able to do that easily.  A certain someone I know will have no problem with making sure I put on the weight.  What’s the bottom line, Seth?”

He ran some numbers on his calculator.  “2.8 million between the two offers.  Alex is going to negotiate that L’Oreal pay the agency your percentage as well.”

“2.8 million,” Courtney repeated.  She seemed to be in awe.  “2.8 million to let some guy take pictures of you.  And that’s just two accounts.  How many do you have?”

Grace shrugged.  “About six I think.  And yeah, hon, that’s a lot of money.  But it’s just money.”  She looked up toward the ceiling for a moment.  “Money doesn’t really matter, you know.”

Courtney’s mouth was still agape.  She had no idea Grace earned that much.  She wondered if anyone did… except Alex and Seth.  What did she do with it all?  She didn’t travel; she didn’t buy things.  She lived in that small apartment that she leased for next to nothing.  The
Hummer was paid off a year ago.  What did she do with all of it?

Seth looked back at the door, looking down at his watch.

“2.8 million for two jobs,” Courtney repeated. “Incredible.”

“And the only thing she has to do is be her usual beautiful self,” a voice said from entryway that adjoined the living room to the library.  Their heads turned as Bruce came in, silent in sock feet.  He was dressed similarly to yesterday, in jeans and another sweatshirt.  He went straight to Grace, bending down to give her a polite kiss on the lips.  “‘Mornin’,” he mumbled against her lips as the brief kiss ended.

“Good afternoon,” she corrected softly.  “I thought you were sleeping.”

“So did I, but apparently Lee had other ideas.”  He turned smiles to the Meyers’: a polite smile to Seth and a wide grin directed at Courtney.

“Lee’s your new personal secretary, right?”  Courtney asked, more to clarify for Grace’s sake.  She’d already been privileged to hear her father’s complaints about the man whenever he couldn’t get so much as a simple lunch date with Bruce.

Bruce nodded, but with a good-natured scowl.  “He came highly recommended, but has utterly no respect for my personal time.”  He sat down in the only available chair in the circle –the one between Grace and Seth– and took Grace’s hand in his instinctively.

Or perhaps not so much out of instinct than out of some need to be territorial.  Seth was watching him like he expected Bruce to do something to hurt Grace right there in front of them.  Bruce merely smiled back as if he had no clue what that look meant.  Seth had every reason to mistrust him when it came to Grace, but that didn’t mean
Bruce had to give him the satisfaction.

“Maybe…” Courtney suggested to Grace, as if sensing some kind of male dominance thing happening, “you and I should take your suitcases upstairs?”

Bruce ended the staring contest to look at Grace.  “You have suitcases?”  He couldn’t keep the overjoyed smile off his face.  Suitcases meant she wasn’t going to change her mind and leave.  After this morning, he’d considered that a possibility.

She nodded.  “I do.  Two of them, though God only knows what Courtney put in them.  I’m half afraid to look.”  She laid a hand softly on Bruce’s cheek before moving to her suitcase and picking one up.  Damn, it was heavy.

Courtney laughed.  “I let Seth decide what came out of the closet.
He’s a much better dresser than I am.”  The laugh, of course, was a nervous one.  The redhead picked up the suitcase Grace hadn’t and followed her friend out the door.  Unlike Grace, she looked back five or six times, nearly running into the door in her worry over what was going to happen when they exited the room.  Still, she let the door close behind her and looked at her friend.  “This could have been a good idea or a bad idea.  I don’t like the thought of those two at each other.”

“Seth can handle his own, Court, even against someone like Bruce.”

Courtney shook her head.  “Honey, I wasn’t necessarily worried about
Seth.”  She passed Grace on the stairwell.  “When we were in New York,
I learned a lot about that man.  I learned a lot about his contacts.  I learned a lot about how he got them.  And though he may ‘just run’ an advertising agency, he has a reputation.  And it isn’t one that’s been garnered from a name.”  She paused and turned around.  “Remember that guy… what was his name… the one who got fired and tried to pull that ‘office tragedy’ thing.  What was his name?”

“Nelson,” Grace offered softly.  She did remember that.  “Seth fired him the week before Christmas because he lost that account and then turned around and threatened the CEO’s wife.  Yeah, I remember.”

“Remember how Seth handled it when that guy came back?”  She paused.
“I think Seth has ideas… you know… ideas about how a woman should be treated.  His dad is horrible to his mother, and Seth hates it.  So, he really hates it when he sees other women being mistreated.  And agree or not, in Seth’s mind, Bruce mistreated you.”  She sighed.  “And since we’re being honest, it wasn’t me who picked up most of your pieces.  It was Seth.  He’s mentally invested in this now.”

For the first time since she walked out of the living room, Grace looked back.  “Let’s unpack quickly… ok?”

*-*-*

Seth waited a heartbeat after the girls left before picking up his appointment book.  He made a point of closing it and then taking his briefcase from beside the chair.  The briefcase replaced the appointment book on the table, and Seth slid the book inside the larger object, putting it precisely in its place.  He hadn’t missed the little ‘display’ Bruce had put on when he came in.  Seth also knew it was done for his benefit.  “Look,” he broached, more in ‘business’ mode than he’d ever been around Bruce.  “I can appreciate that there’s a ‘second chance’ happening here.  I don’t begrudge it.”  He set the briefcase aside and turned to face him.  “But you weren’t there to pick up the pieces.  Courtney wasn’t there to pick up the pieces as she was here with you.  I was there, and I do *not* want to see it again.”

Truth was, he’d seen it far too many times.  To be fair, Bruce and his father had nothing in common.  His father hurt his mother on purpose.
He had intentionally said and done things to hurt her.  But the reactions had been the same.  The way his mother cried… that was how
Grace had cried.  It rubbed him.  He inhaled deeply.  “I just hope that this time you’re sure.  Don’t hurt her again.”

He surprised himself.  It wasn’t said in a nasty or threatening tone.
That wouldn’t have done either of them any good.  It was just a fact.
“I’m not sure she’d recover.”

When Seth had had his say, Bruce just nodded his head in silent agreement.  He rose from his chair and crossed the room to stand in front of the stone fireplace, putting both hands on the mantel.

He wasn’t surprised by this reaction from Seth.  The older man had always held Bruce to a higher level of expectations than everyone else –as if the mere fact that Courtney and Grace loved him meant he needed to be better than he was.  More perfect and less fallible.  Less prone to human error and stupidity.  Some might consider that too high an expectation, but if anything, Bruce understood Seth’s reasons.  Like himself, Seth valued their two women above all else.

“You’re right,” Bruce said at last.  “I wasn’t there.  I messed up.  I was wrong, and I hurt Grace terribly.”  Guilt tinged his words.  “I won’t even pretend to assume I deserve the second chance Fate has seen fit to grant me.  The suffering I caused her–” A lump formed in his throat, choking him.  “I can’t even begin to express how horrible I feel.”

He waited through an incredibly awkward silence for Seth to respond, but the only reaction was the narrowing of Seth’s eyes.  He pushed forward.  “I can’t even ask for her forgiveness, because, in truth, I know I don’t deserve it.  The best I can do –the *only* thing I can do– is attempt to make her happy again.”  He couldn’t erase what he’d done, but her happiness was important to him.  This had been why he’d done what he’d done –to ensure her safety and happiness.  Except it hadn’t gone as he’d thought.  Not that he could actually explain any of that to Seth. “If you want to know the truth, I’m still waiting for Grace to tell me to go to Hell and leave.  That she hasn’t… amazes me.”

He turned back to face Seth, his voice truly sincere as he said, “Thank you for being there for her… for taking care of her.”  Thank you for doing what I could not, he added mentally.

*-*-*

Grace took the underwear out of her suitcase and put them in the drawer.  She was a bit nervous about actually unpacking clothing.  What if Bruce didn’t want her to stay?  Mentally, she told herself she was doing this so she’d have it when she stayed the night.  Thing was, she wanted to stay every night… even after the conversation she and Bruce had last night.

Courtney was hanging up Grace’s sweaters.  She had been wondering about this since last night and it finally got the better of her.  “I know Bruce said you can’t ask about where he went last night, but doesn’t it bug you?”  She reached for another hanger.  “If it were me, I’d have a thousand and one questions.”

Grace shrugged.  “You didn’t just get back together with someone you’ve been separated from for months either Courtney.  And I got the distinct impression that if I couldn’t go on blind faith with this, what relationship we are rebuilding would have been in jeopardy.  I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t necessarily like that I’m not going to know, but I’m going to accept it.  I love him, and I trust him.”

Courtney nodded.  “Yeah.  You know it’s not anything illegal and there’s definitely not another woman.”

“Those are the two things I don’t have to worry about.  But I have to worry about him going out and getting hurt doing whatever it is he’s doing.  Courtney, he could barely stand when he got home this morning.  I’m chewing him out for making me worry, and he can barely stand.”  She sat on the chair next to her chest of drawers and sighed.  She still felt hugely guilty about that.  “I was so focused on what he had put me through that I didn’t even notice something was wrong.”

Courtney walked over and took the underwear from Grace’s arms.  “Go over there and hang up the pants.  I’m not sure if you drape them over the hanger or use the clamps.”  She put the underwear in the drawer and continued talking, “First off, don’t you dare feel fucking guilty about worrying about him.  I’m sure that’s how he took it.  And if he didn’t, I’ll make sure he does.  Secondly, it’s okay to worry about him.  It’s okay to be afraid when you wake up in the middle of the night to find him gone.  And it’s okay for a number of reasons.  Shall I go into them?”

Grace shook her head.  “No, Mom,” she teased.  “I get it.  I’m just not sure about my footing here.  And I don’t know that I can say that to Seth.”

“You can say anything to Seth.”

“And him not go all ‘protective’ on me?”

Courtney laughed.  “Well, I make no promises in that area.  He was protective of you before, but he is much more so now.  And that isn’t going to change just because you’re back together with Bruce.  If this talk they’re having doesn’t go to Seth’s liking, he’s going to be extremely protective.  You know how he was with me… when I was at the clinic.  He wouldn’t let Bruce talk to me.”

Grace nodded, remembering what that had done to Bruce.  Though he’d said he understood, it had still hurt.  “It tore Bruce up, but he understood.  Though he talked to your dad every day.  Miles never held anything against Bruce over that.”

“Bruce is the son Dad never had.  Seth is his son-in-law, and he loves Seth very much.  But Seth seems closer to Mom.  They get along so well, but you know that.  Dad just seems to gravitate more toward Bruce.  It’s like each one has a ‘son’.”  She smiled as she put the last of Grace’s bras in the drawer.  “So,” she turned an evil look to her best girlfriend.  “Had make-up sex yet?”

“COURTNEY!!!”  Grace’s face flushed immediately.  Though she’d never had a problem discussing sex before, she was completely shocked by the woman’s question.

“I’ll take that as a no,” she said, shaking her head.  “Still in the hugging and cuddling stage, huh?  Sometimes, I think it would be nice if Seth pissed me off once in a while so we could have make-up sex.”  She winked.  “Cause can you imagine…”

Grace laughed.  Leave it to Courtney.  She just always seemed to know what to do or say.  She was perceptive enough to know how to get the reaction that was needed.  “I can imagine.  And don’t think I haven’t thought about it.  But Courtney, I just can’t get beyond the fact that he’s back in my life… that I’m back with him.”

The unpacking finished, Courtney went to her friend and put her arm around her shoulders.  “Then get beyond it already and get busy.  One of us needs to have make-up sex.”

That said, both women laughed all the way down the hall.

*-*-*

Seth stood, instinctively unbuttoning his suit coat as he walked over to the younger man.  Bruce was a few inches taller than he, but it didn’t seem so at the moment.  He slid his hands into his pockets, though he stood close enough to offer physical support with the touch of one of those hands.  Maybe that was why he did it.  Bruce didn’t feel he needed support.  And though Seth understood things a bit more clearly, he merely used verbal support for the moment.

“It’s nothing you wouldn’t have done had situations been reversed.”  His voice was soft, understanding as he spoke.  “We all make mistakes, Bruce.  We all do things that we wish with all our heart and soul we could take back, and can’t.  And it hurts like hell.  It eats at you.
I know.”  He sighed.  “No one is expected to be perfect here.  And you and I have one blaring thing in common.  We love both of those women… though in very different ways.”

He turned and leaned with his back against the mantel.  He’d had a talk with one of his brothers like this once.  The younger Meyers boy had broken a girl’s heart and wanted her back, he hadn’t been able to ask for forgiveness either.  So, the words he’d said then pretty much held true.  “And it’s not about asking for forgiveness.  Bruce, she forgave you the second you said the words to her.  They’re both like that,” he said, referring to the girls.  “When they love, it’s unconditional.  It’s something I’ve never understood.  How people can love like that?  But the girls, they do.”  He looked down at his feet, checking out the obviously genuine Persian rug.

When he looked up again, his features were a bit softer.  It seemed they understood one another a bit better now.  “We just have to learn from our mistakes.  And if we’re lucky enough, and we are, we get a chance to do things again and do them right this time.”

Bruce couldn’t believe what Seth had said.  Grace had forgiven him…. months ago.  How could she do something like that, when he’d hurt her so badly?  He didn’t think he could allow himself the same luxury.  He’d nearly destroyed her life, and if she’d let him, he’d spend forever making it up to her.

“They are amazing women,” he agreed with Seth.  Their girls were special beyond words. “And I do love them both more than anything.”  He turned his head to meet Seth’s eyes.  “I didn’t mean to hurt her… and I don’t intend to do it again.”

Seth reached out and touched Bruce’s arm.  It seemed he wasn’t going to deny the bit of physical comfort either.  It was a brief touch, but he hoped Bruce would understand what it meant.  “I believe that.”

He dropped his hand and was moving away from the fireplace when the girls returned.  Both were somewhat flushed, as if they’d been laughing or crying.  From the looks on their faces, it was the former.

Courtney didn’t even try to hide the fact that she was checking out both men, taking in the looks on their faces and deciding from there how it went.  She’d talked to Grace alone, and now that Seth had had his moments with Bruce, she wanted her own as well.  Just as Seth must have wanted to talk to Grace.  She grinned at the two of them.  “No rumpled clothing, no destroyed furniture, no detectible cuts,” she smiled at Grace, “See!  We CAN leave them alone for five minutes together.”

Seth closed his eyes and shook his head.  “That’s what I love about you.  You come in, open your mouth, and the first thing that pops in your head comes out of it.”  He couldn’t help but tease her.

She nodded.  “Why would anyone want to do anything different?”

Grace just shook her head as she walked past the married couple to go stand next to Bruce.  Courtney’s words still echoed in her ears and she was more aware of Bruce physically than she had been the past day or so.  Her hand slid into his and she said, “Everything’s unpacked, though I’m going to need more workout clothes.  I have an entire gym at my disposal, and fourteen pounds to gain, I need to take advantage of it.”  She was a bit unsure as to exactly how long Bruce intended her to stay.  Like she’d told Courtney earlier, she’d move back in and sublet her apartment in a heartbeat if Bruce asked her to.  She wanted to be here… 24/7.  But she couldn’t assume so until he asked her.

The thought of Grace wanting more of her things here at the manor made Bruce very happy indeed.  She wanted to stay for more than a few days; he wanted her to stay forever.  “We can go over to the apartment and pick up anything you want; just say the word.”  He’d call the movers, if that was what she wanted.

“Perhaps Master Dizzy, as well,” Alfred suggested, having entered the room while they were talking.  Bruce could have kissed Alfred then, if such an occurrence wouldn’t scandalize the butler.  He always knew just how to say something without saying it directly.  If Grace brought
Dizzy, it meant she considered this more than a brief visit.  She might actually stay.

“Dizzy, too.”  Bruce smiled and squeezed Grace’s hand, though his gaze was now turned inquisitively to Alfred.  He knew well that he should be training, though he was still sore from last night.  “Was there anything you needed, Alfred?” he asked.

The butler inclined his head in a slight nod.  “I had thought to remind you of your afternoon commitments, Master Bruce, and to inquire if we were to be having the pleasure of Master Seth and Mistress Courtney’s company for dinner later.”

Bruce nodded at the mention of his ‘commitments’.  He wasn’t likely to forget how important they were for his survival, now more than ever, as he now had a reason to return home every night in one piece.  “How ’bout it?” he asked, looking from Courtney to Seth.  “You guys want to stay for dinner?”  If they stayed, he wouldn’t feel so badly about excusing himself later to train, as he wouldn’t be leaving Grace alone.

Seth had moved to sit in the chair when the girls entered.  Courtney was now sitting on the arm of the chair.  Instinctively his hand was placed at the small of her back, massaging it gently.  “Being the boss of my own company, I think if I want to take the rest of the day off, I can do so.  I just had a discussion with the person responsible for most of my business,” here he paused and smiled at Grace, giving her a wink, “so yeah, I’m declaring the rest of my business day null and void.  Let me just call Alex.”

Grace returned Seth’s smile.  She had no idea what had passed between the two men, but Seth’s kindness and obvious caring for her never waned, no matter the mood he was in.  Her gaze then turned to Alfred who was about to walk out of the room.  “Um… Alfred.  Dizzy is staying with my friends Allen and Naomi Stewart.  Their number is in the book.  If you wouldn’t mind, please call them and tell them I’ll be picking him up and bringing him back here with me.”  She felt Bruce’s hand hold hers a bit more tightly at that request.  She wasn’t sure how he’d react, but he did say ‘Dizzy too’.  Bruce never said things he didn’t mean.

Alfred gave a short nod, though he couldn’t completely hide the smile on his face.  He knew as well as everyone else in the manor… with Dizzy here, Grace wasn’t going anywhere.  “As you wish Miss Grace.”

Courtney clapped her hands and while Seth was on the phone with Alex, she grabbed her cell.  “I’m calling the Habbibi’s.  Alfred, don’t worry about fixing dinner.  Grace has the Prada account.  We’re going out.  We have a bunch of things to celebrate.  A bunch.”

With that, Alfred nodded and exited the room, but not before casting another look at Bruce.  It spoke of ‘commitments’ and the sooner he saw to them, the sooner he could be with his friends.

“Alex,” Seth’s voice carried once everyone else stopped talking, “the only reason you still have a job with me is because I’ve known you since I was eight and you saved my life when I tried to kill myself falling out of that tree…”

Grace rolled her eyes and laughed.  “Ah oh!  Not the ‘you have a job because you saved my life’ speech again.”  She looked at Bruce.  “We all get a kick out of Alex, but sometimes he frustrates Seth because he doesn’t take things as seriously as he should.”  She leaned up and kissed him softly.  Her free hand went up to his cheek and she touched it tenderly.  “Go see to your ‘commitments’.  Just try to be back for dinner by…”

“Seven,” Courtney supplied.  “We have reservations for one of the private rooms at seven.”

“Seven then.”  She looked up at the clock.  That gave him a few hours for his ‘commitments’.

“Seven,” Bruce echoed, leaning in to kiss Grace gently.  He pulled away a little, nuzzling his nose to hers.  There had been a time in his life when such a public display of affection, even among close friends, would not have been an option.  Over a year with Grace had changed his mind a bit.  Now, however, he had other reasons.  He missed her, body and soul.  Touching her… kissing her, made being back with her seem more real.  Those little displays might let her know how much he felt for her, or so he hoped.  “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”  He kissed the tip of her nose and then excused himself with a promise to take no longer than necessary.

*-*-*

Taking his leave of them, he made his way first to his bedroom, where he changed clothes and then used the passage to get to the training facility.  He did several minutes of warm-up exercises and then started laps around the underground gym.  He ran at a steady pace.  Soon, he would be increasing both his speed and the distance he ran.  He needed to know his body’s limits and if he could push them.  Or rather, how much he could push them.

After his jog, he spent an hour in the weight room.  He was there when Alfred came to check on his progress.

“The designs for the simulation room are almost complete, Master Bruce,” he said without preamble.  Bruce nodded and added another ten pounds to the dumbbell he was lifting.

“How long before we can begin?” he asked and lifted the weight unsteadily.

“Soon, I would imagine.”  Alfred watched Bruce carefully for several minutes, concern appearing on his age-worn face.  “Perhaps you should tone down your regiment for today, Master Bruce.  Last night took quite a toll on you.”

Bruce shook his head as if to say this wasn’t an option and lowered the bar to his chest, raising it this time with more ease.  “I shall be fine, Alfred.  After all, that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Alfred stayed for several more repetitions, and they discussed arrangements for Dizzy, the simulator, and last night’s patrol.  It hadn’t been the same as the previous nights.  The bank robbers had been both more determined and more resourceful.  It had been his toughest challenge to date, and though he’d succeeded in foiling them, he had done so at greater risk.  Hindsight pointed out his many sloppy mistakes and the bump on his head throbbed as proof of his need to improve.

This simulation room would help with that, he felt certain. He’d specified a complete virtual reality combat simulator using state of the art graphic technology to recreate every street and rooftop of Gotham.  Though, it wouldn’t be the same as a regular virtual reality game.  There would be no headgear or gloves with wires attached to computers.  The room was the computer, or would be, once the work was completed.

After they’d discussed the preparations in more depth, Alfred left and Bruce abandoned the weights for meditation.

*-*-*

Once Bruce left the room, Seth finally hung up the phone and placed it on the table.  “There anything to drink in here?  Alex is in complete asshole mode.”

Grace nodded and walked to the small bar.  She poured him a scotch and carried it over to him.  She moved the phone aside and sat on the table.  “You didn’t kill him, I take it?”

Seth sipped at the liquor and shrugged.  “Alex?  Why would I?  He pisses me off, but the models all seem to love him and so do the clients.”

She reached out and took his hand.  “I wasn’t talking about Alex and you know it.”

Courtney’s phone rang and the other two turned as she let out a string of curses.  She took the phone from her ear and said, “Listen guys, I’m going to go into the library and use the computer in there.  The damn caterer I hired for the Urban’s wedding is trying to double his price on the salmon.”  She didn’t wait for them to reply, merely left the room and headed for the library.

“I feel sorry for that man,” Seth said.  “He’s about to have his reputation ruined.”  Courtney now ran the highest demanded party planning company in Gotham.  She had a fairly large staff and organized parties, weddings, social functions, charity dinners, and company picnics.  “He ticks her off too much and she’ll never use him again.”

Grace was still looking at him.  Courtney’s rushed exit didn’t have a whole lot of affect on her.  The redhead often became quickly enraged, but got over it just as quickly.  “I meant what I said, Seth.”

Reaching out, he took her hand in his.  “I know.  We have an… understanding…”

“You put the law down?” she asked as a tease though it was really her way of trying to pry into what was said between them.

“I said my piece.  He listened.  Then we discussed.  Like I said, we have an understanding.  And I think we have a new appreciation for one another.”  He shook his head, as she was about to probe for more information.  “The specifics, my dear, are between Bruce and I.”  He smiled to let her know he wasn’t speaking harshly.  “Bottom line is I’m still concerned about you, but not nearly as much as I was when I first arrived here.”

He slid over in the chair and Grace easily slid into the space beside him.  There was really no way to explain how close they had become in the past several months.  It equaled the closeness Bruce and Courtney shared.  During Courtney’s battle with cancer, Seth had confided in her in a way he had confided in no one else.  They’d shared long phone calls and emails while she was in Italy with Bruce.  When they returned, she’d gone to New York and spent time, not with just Courtney, but with him as well.  When Bruce and she split, he’d been the first one there for her and had stayed by her side for the worst of it.  So the fact that there was a deep bond between them shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

Her head rested naturally on his shoulder.  “I’d move back in here right now if he asked me to.  It might not be the smartest thing in the world, but I really don’t care what my head is saying.  My heart wants him.  I feel like… for the first time since we split up… I feel whole again.  I feel complete.”

He nodded and put an arm around her shoulders.  “I know you do.  And there’s nothing wrong with following your heart, Gracie.  But you need to listen to your head too.  Move back in if he asks… it’s what you want and you won’t be happy any other way.  But just be careful.”

“Too late,” she laughed lightly.

He shook his head.  Grace and Courtney were two very special women.
Seth knew how lucky and blessed he was to have them in his life.  Grace was the younger sister he’d been denied.  She filled that spot left vacant by the loss of his siblings.  Alex had always been like his brother… and God help him, but Bruce was starting to fill a hole.
The young man reminded him so much of Jack, his brother.  “Then I guess it’s up to me to be the sensible one.”  He sighed.  “Such is the responsibility of my life.”

“You are such a drama queen,” Courtney replied, returning and looking much more calm than she was when she left.

“I am not,” Seth protested.

Grace didn’t move, didn’t speak.  She loved listening to the two of them banter.

“Oh woe is the responsibility of being Seth Alan Meyers,” she mocked his voice.

Grace couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Laugh it up, you two.  I’m glad I’m amusing.”

“You are,” Courtney sat again on the arm of the chair.  Leaning over, she kissed him soundly.  “And you’re a martyr too.  Qualities I love and admire.”

“Get off the chair,” he pushed on her thigh in a mock attempt to dislodge her.  “You drive me as insane as Alex does.”

*-*-*

Hanging up the phone after talking to Seth, Alex looked up from his desk as his secretary entered.  There was a slight smile on her face.  Given Alex’s personality, he needed a secretary who was just as vivacious as he was.  He had it in Molly Levowitz.  “You look almost chipper today, Mols.  What’s up?”

“See the paper today?  You’re front page on the society section.
Honestly, Mr. Norton, I had no idea.  And I thought it was the Grace part of the Bruce and Grace that you were interested in.”  She dropped the paper and exited the office.  Oh, he’d pay her back for that quip.
More than likely there’d be a plastic bug or snake put in one of her drawers or her sack lunch.  He may exchange her salt and sugar containers… something would happen and she’d get paid back.  But for this moment, she was one up on him.

Alex opened the paper to the society section and there in bold type was the headline “Wayne Has New Consort?”.  Below the title was a picture of Bruce already out of the limo and Alex stepping out.  It was a clear photo too.  His first reaction was shock.  “Fucking consort?”  Then he looked again at the picture.  Using the intercom, he said to Molly.
“Nice picture of me, isn’t it?  I rather like that they got my good side.”  He waited to hear her laughter before closing the link.

He set the paper down and laughed.  Oh this was good.  Everyone knew that Bruce had no real preference about the sex of his partners.
Everyone knew Alex did.  He quickly read the article laughing harder and harder at the reporters attempt to stir up scandal.  “Oh this is first class.  I needed a good laugh.”

Seth had told him that Bruce and Grace were working toward reconciliation.  He was truly happy for them.  He couldn’t help but remember when he’d met her a couple years ago.  He and Seth had both heard of Grace O’Neil.  Seth had actually met her once, though it didn’t seem that she remembered.  Alex remembered meeting her though.  He’d nearly fallen in the pool; he’d been more mesmerized by her beauty than he had been in watching where he was going.  Seth and Courtney had hit it off immediately.  He and Grace didn’t have that chemistry.  It was as if she were waiting for that one special person to come along.  Alex had hoped at one time that he would be that person, but it was so easy to see that the person for her was Bruce.

Alex had let go of his romantic attraction to Grace shortly after he moved to Gotham and happily settled for friendship.  Not even when Bruce had broken up with her had he thought of her as anything other than a friend.  And now, he was ecstatic that his two friends were finding their way back to one another.  He glanced down at the newspaper article that tried to proclaim that Alex was the new love in Bruce’s heart.  He had to laugh again.  Any stupid idiot knew Bruce’s heart belonged to one person and only one person.  It may have been shared with another in the past, but that wasn’t the case anymore.  It never would be again.  Bruce knew where he belonged; Grace knew where she belonged.

It was Saturday night, and Alex needed a date.  Folding up the paper, he chuckled again as he set it aside.  Grace’s modeling friend AnnaBeth had recently joined the agency.  He and the gorgeous brunette had already been to lunch several times.  Now, it was time to test the waters and see what dinner would lead to.  Thumbing through his Rolodex, he found her number, gave her a call, and a few short minutes later he had a date for dinner and dancing.

*-*-*

Bruce twisted his wrist in an attempt to loosen the manacle, the restraint biting into his flesh.  The little nip of pain didn’t hurt by now, not after two hours in the chair.  He simply ignored it and moved his wrist some more.  He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not, but he thought he had accomplished the small task of giving his wrist more room to play.

It was a start.  After two months of trying with no visible results, it was a triumphant start.

Alfred –when he arrived to remind Bruce of his guests and plans for the night– merely gave a small, distanced smile.  “Well done, sir,” he said as he unlocked the manacles and set about to look at Bruce’s wrist.  It hadn’t bled much, and Alfred swabbed it with antiseptic, covering it with a bandage the color of Bruce’s skin.

“You really should be more careful, Master Bruce,” he admonished for the first time since Bruce had begun to train in earnest.   It wasn’t that Alfred hadn’t worried before now.  He had –a great deal, in fact.  However, it wasn’t until Gracie left the Manor that Bruce’s attitude towards his training changed drastically.  The young master was more reckless with his health and safety –punishing his body daily in training and nightly on patrol.  Alfred had been unable to caution him, however, and had given up trying in favor of finding ways to ease the pain and help Bruce mask his hobby from others.  Still, he worried and hoped that with Grace’s return, his long-time ward would curb his more destructive activities.

*-*-*

They were all sitting in the library now, sharing the newspaper.  Seth was reading the sports section, Grace had the business section as she was checking on how her stocks were doing, and Courtney chose the society section.  “Holy shit, guys.”  She almost burst out laughing.  “Look at this.”  She turned the paper around so they could see the picture and the headline.

Grace shook her head.  “Alex told me he was going to the party as Bruce’s date.  I had no idea it was a serious relationship.”

Seth sighed.  “I would have never pictured Alex as Bruce’s type.”

“I hear Bruce prefers blondes,” Courtney quipped.  “Think Bruce will flip?”

Grace shrugged.  “I would hope not.  Not like any of us put any stock in what those clowns think.  And we all know Alex is going to have a ball with this, so Bruce better see the humor in it.”

“Bruce and Alex,” Seth teasing tested.  He smiled.  “Nah.  I like Bruce and Grace better.”

Both women gazed at him with pleasingly shocked looks on their faces.
“So do I,” Courtney said.

“Me too,” Grace affirmed.  “Me too.”

“I think it’s unanimous, then,” Bruce chimed in from the doorway.  He was freshly showered and looked very casual in navy blue sweats.  A towel was draped over his shoulder. “Besides,” he gave a quirky grin.  “Alex is a good friend, but he isn’t my type.”

“You know about the article?” Courtney asked.

Bruce shrugged and made his way across the room to join them.  “I haven’t read it, but when Lee called this afternoon, it was to ask me if I wanted to make a formal statement or demand a retraction.”   He took the newspaper when Courtney held it out to him, skimming it until he came to something that made him frown.  Quoting aloud, he said, “One cannot help notice the similarity between Alexander Michael Norton and Bruce’s last companion, Alexander Joseph Luthor.  The question is, is it the name itself that is the attraction or is Gotham’s favorite son still pining for the Metropolis playboy?”

His eyes darkened, frown deepening.  He hadn’t discussed his split with Lex with anyone since the night it had happened and he let Grace hold him until the empty feeling had vanished.  No matter what had happened to cause their schism, he had still loved Lex, and a part of him always would.  That, however, did not mean he was pining over him anymore.

“I think retraction,” he said stiffly, folding the paper and handing it back to Courtney.

Grace leaned forward in an attempt to look at the paper herself.  “You have got to be joking?”

Courtney, who hadn’t finished reading the article when she handed it to Bruce, merely set the paper down.  “Why give them the satisfaction?  You go in there brazenly demanding a retraction and you give them what they want… more fuel for the fire.  It’s like when we were going out and then stopped.  They said all kinds of things, we ignored them, and they found something else.  You show up in public tonight with Grace and I guarantee you that Alex will be forgotten.”

She handed the paper to Seth who didn’t give it much notice.  He knew it was bullshit, but whatever Bruce chose to do was his choice.  Courtney was never one to withhold her opinion though.

“It’s up to you, Bruce.  But if you… well whether or not you want my two cents worth… that’s it.”

*-*-*

Not too long after their discussion in the library, Grace excused herself to go get ready for dinner.  Shortly, thereafter, Bruce went to his room to change his clothes.  Courtney had teased that navy sweats weren’t acceptable for Habbibi’s, so Bruce had gone to change.

When Bruce reentered the library after changing his clothes, he found it empty save for Courtney.  Grace was still in the shower.  He’d been tempted to join her, except that would leave Courtney and Seth alone, which although Courtney always had had carte blanche around the Manor, would make him a bad host.  Besides, Nee’d been shooting him looks all day that clearly said ‘we need to have a chat, mister.’

“Seth isn’t lost, is he?” he joked as he joined Courtney on the leather couch.

She shook her head.  “Nope.  But I sent him out of the room.  He and Alex are being punchy today.  Brotherly love arguments.”  She waved her hand as if it was something that happened often, which it did.  “So, I had myself a nice long talk with Grace this afternoon.  A long discussion while unpacking underwear, nightgowns…” She looked at him to see his reaction.  Deciding it was the one she wanted, she continued, “First off… I think there’s a reason why you ended up with her and not me.  This accepting things on blind faith… not asking questions… That’s not me.  No matter how much I love someone… I worry, I ask questions.  She called us in a near panic, Bruce.  She waited up all night, and then berated herself because in her ‘tirade’ she missed that you somehow had gotten hurt.”  Oh she knew he wasn’t going to answer her… or what she would get was evasive.

Shaking her head, she lifted a hand.  “Let me just tell you this one thing… anything happens to you and it will destroy Grace.  Anything happens to you, and I doubt that I’ll fair well either.”  She sighed.  “Keep your secrets if you must, but please, keep that in mind.”

The ‘lecture’ bit of her mentally prepared conversation over, she dove headfirst into her other bit.  The smile on her face turned a bit devilish.  “Secondly… Grace is upstairs showering.  Bare skin, hot water, soap, and shampoo.  Why are you sitting down here with me?”

If the first part of Courtney’s speech had been what Bruce had expected to hear, the second part was not.  “NEE!” he exclaimed, laughing until his face turned an unflattering shade of red.  Shaking his head, and with one last chuckle, he slipped an arm around her in a friendly hug.  “Thanks, I needed that,” he said, meaning the laugh.  Then he turned serious, slightly.   “I need a reason to spend time with my best friend?  Especially when it doesn’t involve lots of tears and consolations?”  He shrugged.  “I don’t want to push it… push Grace…” he admitted.  “And… maybe I want the first time we… you know, to be special.”  Special… romantic, memorable… and he wasn’t sure if she was ready for that yet.  Sure, Grace was looking better today than yesterday, but she seemed fragile to him.  Physically, and he knew emotionally.  He’d seen the panic that rose in her eyes every so often, as if she feared he would walk out of the room and never come back.

As for the rest of Courtney’s concerns… he sighed a little in frustration.  “I was more tired last night than hurt,” he said.  It wasn’t a lie, not technically anyway.  “Just a bump on the head and a headache to show for it.”  He waved it off.  “Besides, Grace had a right to be worried.  She woke up and I was gone.  Although, to be fair, I’d intended to be back before she woke up.”  He had, but last night nothing much had gone according to plan.  “And I know you worry, too.  I won’t ask you not to, but you don’t have to.  I’ll be okay.”  He gave a smile meant to reassure.  Whether it did or not, remained to be seen.  Things in his life had changed drastically in the last four months, and he couldn’t tell Courtney any more than he could Grace.

She sighed, stood, and led him over to the same oversized chair that Seth and Grace had shared earlier.  Together, they sat down and she let herself collect her thoughts before speaking.  Seth was right, most times she just opened her mouth and the first thing that came into her head popped out of it.  But there were times when she thought things through more thoroughly.  This was one of those times.  “The day I stop worrying, Bruce Wayne, is the day I stop caring about you… loving you.  And I’m sorry, but that just isn’t going to happen.  Unlike Grace, it’s harder for me to just accept because that’s what’s expected of me.  Something’s going on here, and you’re being far more secretive than you ever have.”  She sighed again and this time her head went onto his shoulder.  “And I could sit here and pry all day and all night for years and not get a word out of you.  Because as much as I ask questions, you avoid answering them.”

It that respect, they had been that way since they first met.  How long had it taken him to open up to her about anything… his parents… his past… Lex.  Oh, she wanted to go there too.  She wanted so badly to ask him if the newspaper article had any truth to it.  But was that any of her business?  Did that ever stop her?  She looked up at him, noticing that though there were lines of concern etched on his forehead, he was happier than he’d been in months.  Happier than he’d been since he’d asked Grace to leave.  The split with Lex had hurt, and anyone who he knew him could tell.  But tearing Grace from his life had devastated him.  Was he pining for Lex?  Courtney highly doubted it.
There would always be emotions there.  Once Bruce committed his heart, it never fully stopped caring.

But Lex was his past, and though it hurt, it didn’t seem to her that it hurt nearly as much as losing Grace.  So, for the first time in her life, she tabled a discussion.  Later, she would sing her own accolades to Seth.  Something that would start with ‘Ha!’.  But that was for later.  Now, there was something else she needed to say.  “And you know, I can understand wanting the first time to be special.  When I was sick,” she felt him tense, but still she pressed on, “Seth and I chose to abstain, but later, it was more because *he* was worried about me.  Worried that I couldn’t handle it physically.  But you know, there were times when it would have helped beyond words or holding or cuddling.  And he figured it out.”  She sighed.  “We all have noticed the change in her.  But she’s still healthy.  She only looks like she isn’t because she was carrying so much more muscle than she is now.”
She shrugged.  “As for special, it will be no matter what because it’s you.”

She looked up at him and smiled.  “A couple years ago, I mentioned a topic somewhat similar to this while we were sitting in your kitchen.  I thought you were going to die of embarrassment.  How you holding up now?”  She’d actually gotten across what she wanted to say, so if he chose not to continue this conversation and talk about something else, then she’d happily do so.

The memory, however bittersweet, actually made Bruce smile.  He’d been worried about taking Lex on a real date.  The kind people went on when they were in love.  Courtney had pointed out then that no matter what Bruce planned, Lex would love it because they were doing it together.  He’d settled on taking Lex flying to New York, dinner in an out of the way restaurant, and then they spent the rest of the weekend at the Plaza, wrapped in each other’s arms.

And, as Courtney ironically pointed out, he’d been embarrassed to death by talking to her about it.  He shook his head with a mirthful laugh.  “Doing a lot better than that first time,” he told her.  “You know, you were right about that, too,” he added in a thoughtful tone that meant he planned on keeping her wisdom in mind.

Getting serious for a moment, he reached out to touch first her cheek and then her short red hair.  “I’m glad I have you to worry about me, Nee,” he admitted thoughtfully.  “And I’m sorry for the secrets.  Someday… maybe… ” But they both knew that day would be a long time in coming, if it ever did, which Bruce doubted even as he spoke the words.

She shook her head lightly, a smile covering her face.  There was a time that having her hair short had been horrific for her.  Getting it cut was a tragedy.  She soon came to realize that what was so horrible about it was knowing that it was all going to be gone soon.  And it was.  She lost all the hair on her entire body.  Seth, in his ever-vigilant attempt to keep her smiling throughout the ordeal, went out and purchased wigs for her.  He bought seven… one for each day of the week.  She had red hair, brown hair, blonde hair, purple hair, orange hair, a Mohawk, and one that highly resembled the big hair bands of the ’80’s.  It had worked.  They’d spent hours standing in front of the mirror trying on the wigs and laughing at themselves.  Seth had particularly liked wearing the Mohawk wig.  She’d enjoyed having purple hair.  They even ventured out in public like that once.  She’d been confined to a wheelchair then because the therapies left her too weak to walk.  It did her good to know people were staring at them, not because of the chair, but because of the wigs.

That was why she loved Seth so much.

The man who was now touching her short hair, she loved very much, and for very different reasons.  One of the biggest reasons was this one.  She knew darn good and well he wasn’t going to ever tell her these secrets.  He coveted them enough to push Grace away.  Grace fully believed that was the reasoning behind the breakup, and the more Courtney thought about it, the more she agreed.  If these secrets were enough to push Grace away, he wasn’t ever going to disclose them to her.  But his heart was in the right place when he said it.  Bruce always led with his heart.  And *that* was what she loved most about him.  Sure, he made mistakes.  Who among them didn’t?  She made them on a daily basis, so she wasn’t one to hold anyone’s against them… especially Bruce.

Finally, she gave him a smile.  “You probably won’t tell me anything.  Doesn’t mean I won’t continue asking questions.  Doesn’t mean I won’t worry when Grace says you’ve come home injured.”  She paused.  “I’ll always be here to worry about you.  I think we’ve proven that nothing’s going to keep me away.  In some ways, I’m even more stubborn than you are.  Not many, but there are a few,” she teased.

Bruce chuckled ruefully.  She knew him too well.  “One of the things I love about you, Nee.”  And it was, really.  In all the years he’d known her, there’d never been a time when she hadn’t pushed, poked or prodded her way into his life… and he’d loved every minute of it, even when they had stopped dating.  She urged him to do things he might not normally do.   Teased mercilessly at times.  But would he have changed that if he could?  Asked for peace and quiet?  If it meant life without Courtney?  Not a chance.

She smiled.  “You love that I’m one of the few whose stubbornness matches yours.”  She placed her finger on his chest and poked teasingly.  “I find stubbornness endearing.”  She looked back up at him and studied him for several long moments.  “You know, speaking of stubborn, it’s safe to talk to me… about the newspaper article and the implications of it.”  She shrugged.  “You never did come out and say why it ended.  Not that it’s any of my business.  But if you ever want to talk about it…” She didn’t finish with ‘I’m here’ because he already knew it.  Of course, Grace would probably be the one he turned to, but then again, with things on edge right now, he may not.  And keeping things bottled in were never good.  So she offered.  It was up to him whether or not he accepted.

Bruce had wondered how long it would take for her to ask.  At first, she’d probably assumed he’d say something when he was ready, as he usually did.  But then he’d sent Grace back to her apartment and Lex was seemingly forgotten. Well, not really forgotten.  Just set aside for later examination.  Her daily spiel of ‘if you miss Grace so much, why not call her?’ had taken precedence.

“The article was wrong, Nee.  I’m not pining for Lex.  Sure, I miss him, but I was missing Lex –the Lex I knew– long before we broke up.  The accident changed him, Nee, and it wasn’t a change for the good.”  Lex’s memory had come back while Bruce was in Europe fighting to keep his company’s foothold in the new economy.  Something of the man Lex had been had not survived.  He’d been more suspicious, doubting and manipulative.  More like Lionel.  And possessive.  At one point, he demanded that Bruce dump Grace outright, to be only his.  Bruce refused, and Lex had outwardly shrugged it off.  But later, he started hounding Bruce about things he’d rather not discuss, and growing more and more angry and distrusting when Bruce denied him the answers he sought.

The night they called it quits, Bruce had gone home to Grace and cried as if the world had ended.  She held him and never asked why.   More importantly, she helped him move past the hurt.  Lex left that night for Metropolis and Bruce had been hearing disturbing things ever since… about his life and his business practices.  “I think he hates me, now.”  It wasn’t a huge jump in rationale.  Luthor’s hated very easily, and the Lex who emerged from his amnesia was all Luthor.

She sighed, wishing she could deny that.  But she’d heard stories about Lex Luthor… about things he was doing… decisions he had been making.  She had never quite been able to decide where she stood where he was concerned.  She mostly accepted him because Bruce loved him.  Still loved him… or at least the man he had been.  It was on the tip of her tongue to say something, and she fought against it.  But in the end, she just couldn’t help herself.  “I know you love him.  And I know you… you’ll always love the man he was.  But if he’s changed… completely changed… then it’s probably best that you let him go.”

She looked up at him again and offered him a smile.  “And whether you think you deserve it or not, unconditional love is upstairs showering.  She’s getting ready to go out on a date with the one person she loves more than life itself.”  She winked, hoping he wouldn’t bog down in the past.  “And if you don’t mind my saying, I well and truly hope that the current arrangement, meaning Grace being here, is a permanent one.  If two hearts and souls were ever created for each other…” She winked.  “Besides Seth and I, of course.”  She turned a bit more serious though as she said, “You two need each other.  And there’s nothing I would love more than to see the two of you happy again.”

Bruce smiled a little, taking the unspoken hint and dropping the subject of Lex.  They’d said all that was necessary: Lex had changed, and though Bruce would always love the man he’d fallen in love with, that person was lost to him.  No sense in dwelling on it.

“I want Grace to stay.”  It was the first Bruce had said the words outside his own brain, though it was likely an obvious statement.  “But only if she wants to.”  His words were not so confident, as if he feared that what he told Seth –that she’d tell him where to go and then leave him– would still come true.

Courtney’s eyes slid closed and a smile spread across her face.  “If you only take my advice one more time in your life, take it now.  Tell her that!  Please!!!!!”  The smile on her face grew even wider.  She sat up and turned to face him.  “Tell her that.”

Seth popped into the room, sliding his cell phone into his pocket.  He noticed Bruce and his wife sitting in the same chair he and Grace had occupied earlier and merely smiled.  It was good that they were able to have close relationships outside of their marriage, and hopefully, Bruce would not be doomed to repeat certain mistakes of his past.  “Ok, Alex says he’ll be ready by seven but insists that he gets to ride in the limo.”

Grace followed Seth into the room, she was dressed in a purple dress that hit her mid-thigh.  It was sleeveless but had a matching jacket.  It wasn’t leather, but crushed velvet, so she’d be thankful later that she could take the jacket off.  Her curls bounced lightly as her high heels clicked on the floor.  “Alex is coming along too?” she asked, smiling warmly at Bruce and Courtney.

Courtney stood, smoothing her dress, watching Bruce as he watched Grace.  She really hoped he took her advice.  “Alex found a date then?”

Seth nodded.  “AnnaBeth.”

Grace smiled broadly.  “Bethie’s coming?  Oh that’s fantastic.”  She slipped her hand into Bruce’s when he joined her at her side.  “AnnaBeth is a friend of mine from my modeling days in New York City.  We worked with the same agency.  She left them after her contract ended and now she works with us.”

“Second highest paid model around,” Seth added, winking at Grace.

Courtney looked down at her watch.  “Well, if we’re picking them up, we best get going, guys.  Reservations are at seven.”

As Seth and Courtney made their way out, Grace lingered for just a moment.  She couldn’t take her eyes off of her date and had to say what she was thinking before the moment was lost.  “Bruce, this might be the last moment we have alone for a while.”  Her hand squeezed his.  “Just found myself craving it… a moment alone.”  How could she tell him she’d dreamt of being back at his side more times than she could count?  But she had to.  “I mean, I’ve dreamt of this… going out with our friends so many times… life feels right again.  But I needed just a moment before…” She smiled brightly at him.

“I’ve dreamt of it, too,” he said softly, squeezing her hand.  “Though, mostly, I dreamt of being anywhere… where you were with me.”

Taking advantage of their moment alone, he drew her to him, bringing their bodies close together as he bent his head to kiss her.  His lips caressed hers gently, but insistently, and he pulled away only when they were both quite breathless.  Grace’s perfect, smooth skin was flushed and her lips trembled from the sudden kiss.  He pressed his lips to hers once again, briefly, to steady them.  “I love you,” he breathed, pulling away from the second kiss.  “With all I am, I love you.”

The words caressed her and like a balm they soothed her soul.  She softly mouthed the words ‘love you’ back to him.  And as he led her out of the library and toward the limo, she knew he wasn’t going to ask her to go anywhere.  He wasn’t going to ask her to go back to her apartment.  The shaky ground just got a bit steadier, and she was happier than she’d been in months.

*-*-*

Bruce had loved Habbibi’s ever since the first time he’d gone with Grace.  The owners, an Indian family whose every member spoke varying degrees of English loved Grace and had come to adore him, as well.  The feeling was mutual, as Bruce always felt at home among them.

Tonight, however, he found himself being set upon by the usually happy-to-see-him Mrs. Habbibi, who immediately began to chirp at him in her native tongue, every once in a while gesturing to Grace before launching into another tirade.  Her son, Ahmed, shot him a sympathetic look when he passed by their group.

Several times, Bruce attempted to interrupt her.  At this, the motherly woman would stand on tiptoe to shake her finger in his face, shushing him before gesturing to Grace and going off on him again.  It must have been an amusing spectacle, as Alex was laughing.  Or had been until a glare from Seth stopped him.

Finally, Bruce grabbed the accusing finger, calming the woman by taking her hands between his as he spoke back to her in the same language as her tirade.  Her mouth dropped open and she repeated his words.  “You mean it?” she asked in English.  Bruce nodded, and the woman beamed, standing on tiptoe again, this time to pat his cheek affectionately.  “Still a good boy,” she told Grace before calling to her son to show them to a table.

“What was that all about?”  Alex asked as they were being led away.

Bruce considered how to condense the lecture into as few words as possible.  “Essentially… it all boils down to ‘how could you hurt our Gracie like that?’.”

“Yeah,” Alex pushed.  “But what’d you say to change her tune?”

Bruce shook his head, slipping off his shoes as they entered the dining area.  “I told her she was right and that I’d never do it again.”   He slipped an arm around Grace’s waist, guiding her descent to the pillows at their table.  Then he took his place next to her –a place he knew he’d been blessed to regain.

Courtney gave him a mock-glare.  “Mrs. Habbibi would have to stand in line.”  She smiled and winked.  “But that’s not going to happen so we don’t have to worry about it.”

Seth nodded in agreement and picked up his menu.  He hadn’t eaten here as often as the others.  Although he enjoyed spicy food, most times he found Indian food to be too bitter to his liking.  He perused the menu, scrutinizing his choices.

AnnaBeth, who wasn’t too sure about her opinion of Bruce, as this was the first time she met him, pushed her menu away.  The beautiful brunette flashed Grace a wide smile.  “It is number six, right?”

Grace lowered her head and laughed hard, her shoulders shaking as if she were crying.  Her hand rested on Bruce’s leg.  When she calmed, she said, “Number eight.  You do that every time.  Number six has peas in it.”

AnnaBeth shivered in disgust.  “Right.  Peas are the one proof that there is a devil.”

Everyone but Grace looked up at her in surprise.  No one really knew her but the other supermodel.  So, it was Grace, who smiling widely, explained, “Some jerk wrote an article about Bethie once that said she was afraid of eating.  He said, like most supermodels, she wouldn’t eat a pea if it were put in front of her.”

“You’re right,” Courtney interjected, “he is a jerk.”

“Well, the thing is,” AnnaBeth added, her Greek accent coloring her English, “I really dislike peas.  And somehow it got around to the fact that I wouldn’t even eat a pea.  Someone asked me about it… I said peas were disgusting…”

“And the next thing you know it’s the vegetarian’s version of Oprah and beef,” Alex added with a laugh.  “I remember hearing about that.”

Seth nodded, setting down his menu.  “The pea growers contacted our office and wanted to do some kind of spin-control advertising.  If you can believe it?  They envisioned models sitting at tables eating bowls of peas.”  He rolled his eyes as if remembering how ridiculous the whole thing had gotten.  “I spent four hours in a meeting with them and finally convinced them that they didn’t need television ads.”

Alex snapped his fingers.  “That’s where the ‘Eat A Pea’ campaign came from!”

Courtney looked at Seth.  “You did the ‘Eat A Pea’ campaign.  Holy shit!”

Alex, who loved telling the story, decided to tell it just in case anyone in the room didn’t already know.  “He did!  He had photographers go all over New York City taking pictures of people eating one pea.  Construction workers, store clerks, business men and women, Donald Trump, some of the New York Yankees…”

“But not the Mets,” Seth smiled.  “Back then, New York hated the Mets.”

“So anyway,” Alex went on, more enthusiastic than he was before, “He had all these pictures done up and plastered all over New York City.  The article was local so he focused on just a local boost.  Before we knew what was what, everyone was walking around saying ‘Eat a pea’.  I think that got Seth his first promotion.”

He nodded in response.

Grace moved a bit closer Bruce, wanting to be in his space.  From the smile on his face, she was fairly certain he had no idea about the joke that ‘Eat A Pea’ had become.  So she was thankful that Alex had explained in his enthusiasm.

While the “Eat a Pea” thing was utterly lost on Bruce, the smile on Grace’s face was not.  It had been a rare sight the last two days and seeing it now made him feel giddy. He smiled wider when she moved in closer to him and slipped his free arm around her waist.  He hadn’t lied to her when he’d said he’d dreamt of them being together like this… happy again.    Maybe it would be awkward for a few days –especially when mutual friends, like Mrs. Habbibi jumped to reprimand him or newcomers, like Alex’s date, eyed him uncertainly– but that would change.  It would get better.  Never back to normal, but better.  Of this he was certain.

“So, recommending the Alu Mutter Sabji would be very faux paux,” he commented, grinning, as he studied his menu.  It was his favorite dish, and had been since the first time he and Grace had eaten there: their first date.  He wondered if Grace remembered.  He’d been so nervous, and the press had almost ruined the night, but the dinner had been magical in its simplicity: two people learning about each other for the first time.  Learning to love one another.

Gira, who almost always waited on them when they came in, appeared by his elbow, and one by one, they all ordered. Bruce, nostalgic feelings aside, ordered Alu Bangan Sabji –eggplant curry with potatoes– rice, and ginger tea.

Grace ordered her usual by simply nodding her head.  Gira gave her a smile, wrote and moved on to Courtney.  After Courtney’s order came
Seth… he ordered his entire dinner a la carte and then went into great detail about how he wanted the meat prepared.  It was as Gira was looking especially confused that Alex chimed in,  “No curry powder, darling,” he said to her.  “The man doesn’t like curry.”

Grace put her napkin up to her face, trying to use it as a shield for her smile.  Courtney, however, didn’t even bother.  “He’s right.  You don’t like curry.”

Seth shrugged.  “So sue me.  We go Mexican next time and I’ll eat you all under the table with the habanera sauce.”

Alex shuddered before giving his order to Gira… AnnaBeth easily followed.  “He’s right about that.”  To Bruce he said, “Seth makes this chili… I swear, they call it three alarm chili but the stuff he puts in it… what’s it called?”

“Dave’s Insanity Sauce,” Grace supplied.

Alex snapped his fingers at her.  “That’s it!  Read the label on that stuff.  It removes oil stains from your driveway.  He puts that in his food, but won’t eat curry.”

“It’s bitter,” Seth shrugged.  “It’s a completely different type of spicy.  I took Grace a bowl of it after our party on Superbowl Sunday.
It didn’t even faze her.  Alex bawled his eyes out.  Courtney can’t have it for obvious reasons.”

“I loved it,” AnnaBeth supplied.  But she looked at Alex and whispered,
“Oil stains off driveways?”

He laughed and wrapped his arm lightly around her shoulders.  “I’ll show you the label.”  To Grace, he asked, “You ate that stuff?”

Grace gave Bruce’s leg a small squeeze.  She wasn’t sure how talking about things while they were apart was going to affect them, but there was no way she couldn’t answer the question, it was directed solely at her.  “I did.  I think I followed it with about five beers though before realizing that in all reality I had no taste buds left and switched to eating soda crackers.  My tongue felt raw for three days after that.  But it was good.”  She enjoyed the feel of Bruce’s hand at her waist and while the others continued talking about Seth’s tastes in cuisine, she situated her pillows so that she could relax a bit more comfortably and have as little room as possible between them.

At one particular point, Alex and Seth turned the conversation over to basketball and Courtney, who was sitting between AnnaBeth and Seth, turned to the other model and asked her about how she was settling into
Gotham.  It was then that Grace could fully turn her attention to
Bruce.  “Our first time here,” she smiled up at him, “that first date… You sat across the table from me.”  She sighed happily.  “It’s so fitting, our first date back together would be the place where we had our first date ever.”  She leaned in impulsively and kissed his cheek lightly.  “I’m glad though, that this time, you’re sitting beside me.”

She also realized that no matter how happy she was to have her friends with her… and everyone in this room was a dear friend to her… she was starting to crave more and more time with just Bruce.  Whether it was getting her footing back underneath her, or merely craving the desire to be able to kiss or cuddle however she wanted whenever she wanted, she wasn’t sure which.  She sighed happily, her head again on his shoulder.  “This is why I like you sitting beside me,” she said softly.

Bruce smiled and turned his body a little so Grace fit snuggly against him while still being able to look her in the eye.  She must have been reading his mind, for that night had been fresh in his, as well.  So much so that his next words weren’t so much a response to her comments, but an echo of things past.  His voice was soft and meant for just her.  The words were Italian, taking the form of poetic stanzas –the poem he’d recited to her that night nearly two years ago.  She didn’t understand the language any more now than she did then, but Bruce knew from the expression on her face that she understood the meaning with which he spoke them.  He could see the same feelings reflected back at him in her eyes, and as their eyes locked for the moment, he was overcome by the urge to kiss her.

God above how she had missed hearing his voice speak to her of poems and love!  It had filled her dreams at night.  It had been what made her hold on to hope for as long as she did.  And here they were… here he was… reciting to her again.  She knew that look in his eyes and knew it was reflected in hers.

“Hey!  How come you never recited poetry like that to me?”  Courtney’s laughing protest broke into the little tableau they’d created.

Bruce chuckled and threw the redhead an impish grin.  “You don’t speak Italian, Nee,” he pointed out.

“Neither does Grace,” she shot back, undaunted in her teasing.

He responded by whipping off another verse, this time to the tune of a limerick.  The mischievous twinkle in his eye told them clearly that the translation wouldn’t be fit for “proper” society.

“Oh, you!”  She glared at him, but laughed.  “Tell me again why I dated you in the first place?”

“You two dated?”  AnnaBeth asked, stopping Bruce’s next reply.  She looked confusedly from Grace to Courtney to Bruce, as if the concept of him having dated both of them and yet them all still being friends was amazing to her.

Bruce nodded, grinning.  “A loooonnnng time ago.”  He stretched out the word, making it sound like ancient history.  “It was… what, Nee?  We met at that soup kitchen of your mother’s, right?”  Constance Blaire had helped spur an S.O.S. campaign to save the Gotham Soup Kitchen, and a part of that meant a grand re-opening with local celebrities serving hot soup and homemade sandwiches to Gotham’s homeless.

Courtney nodded.  “You were standing next to me in the serving line.  Frowning, as I recall.”  She recalled correctly.  Courtney had taken it upon herself to torture the frown off his face, though it had been a fun kind of torture.

“You should have been frowning, too!  That soup reeked!”  Bruce laughed as Courtney shook her head at him.

“It did not!  I helped cook it myself!” she protested.

“Well, in that case,” Bruce teased back, “it’s a wonder those poor people didn’t keel over after the first bite.”

Courtney threw her napkin at him from across the table.  Bruce stuck his tongue out at her.  Alex howled with laughter, simply because it was rare to see Bruce in such a mood.

“So you met at the soup kitchen and…?” Grace urged gently.  Even she hadn’t heard this story, and if Bruce was going to share she wanted to hear every word.

Bruce shrugged good-naturedly.  “Really, I’m still not sure.  I think Nee decided my frown had to go and then chased it away.  Next day I was meeting with Councilman Blaire to discuss funding to some scholarships that had been set up in my parents’ name…” he trailed off a little, as he always did when faced with the memory of his parents’ death.  Grace’s hand found his under the table and squeezed.  Bruce squeezed back, and then let their fingers twine together as the comfort of her touch brought him back to the story at hand.  “We ran into each other in the lobby of his office–”

“Literally,” Courtney supplied.  “I was carrying this stack of books Dad was donating to the library and couldn’t see where I was going.  Next thing I know, I’m walking into something solid and the books and I wind up on the floor on top of poor Bruce.”

“By the time we picked ourselves up and then the books, I realized it was the lunatic from the soup kitchen I was helping and decided that if Fate was going to keep throwing us at each other, I might as well ask her out.”  Bruce winked at her, smiling at both the memory and because now something she’d said earlier suddenly made sense.  He’d long considered their friendship to have been an obstacle keeping Courtney from finding someone to love her as much as he thought she deserved.  Now, he thought she was right.  There’d been a good reason they hadn’t wound up together, but had still remained friends.  Had it not been for their strong friendship, neither one of them would have found the people they were with tonight.  The people neither of them could live without.

“Why–?”  AnnaBeth and Alex both spoke at the same time, which made Alex laugh some more when he realized what they’d done.

“Why’d we break up?”  Bruce asked, knowing somehow this would be the right question.  Alex nodded, still snickering over the over-lapping question.

Bruce looked over at Courtney and her husband, happy that Seth was there to love her.  “Nee and I had a lot of fun together.  We still do, and goodness knows I love her dearly, but it wasn’t meant to be more than friendship.”  From across the table, Courtney nodded in a silent agreement.  They’d both known that the first time Bruce had tried to kiss her, it had felt like they were each kissing someone to whom they were related.  Closely enough to make kissing feel wrong.  They’d decided that first reaction must have been a fluke and tried it again one other time.  When the fluke recreated itself, they settled, mutually, for friendship.  “Besides,” Bruce grinned in Seth’s direction, “it takes a better man than I could ever be to have Constance as mother-in-law.”  But he winked, knowing that Seth got along all too well with Courtney’s mother.

Seth nodded.  If the mood had been any different, he would have taken offense to that comment, as he knew Bruce and Constance did not get along well at all.  But tonight, he easily understood that good moods were prevailing, so why not join in?  His hand going to the small of his wife’s back, he looked at her and smiled.  “I love my mother-in-law.”  At Alex’s snort, Seth very uncharacteristically flipped his friend off, but laughed just the same.  “I do though.”  Again, he looked at Courtney.  “Constance Blaire had a lot to do with how her daughter turned out.  She’s got a good heart, and if you cut through the pushiness…”

“There’s a lot of that to cut through, Seth,” Alex teased.

Seth laughed.  “True.  But I seem to like my women lively, spirited, pushy…”

Courtney shot him a teasing look.  “Pushy?  First Bruce calls me a lunatic, now my husband calls me pushy.”  She pointed directly at
Bruce.  “You Mister, I can’t do anything about.”  Back to Seth, she admonished, “But you can sleep in the guest bedroom.”

Placing a soft kiss on her ear, he teased, “I highly doubt that will happen tonight.”  He waggled his brows.

AnnaBeth, who honestly only knew the ‘business’ side of Seth Meyers was shocked almost beyond words at seeing this side of him.  So, the confused yet joking glint in her eyes was to be expected.  “Who are you and where did you put Terminator Meyers?”

Grace couldn’t help it.  She’d tried so desperately to keep from laughing while Courtney loving berated first Bruce and then Seth.  But when AnnaBeth commented, calling Seth the Terminator, she couldn’t stop it anymore.  She laughed and laughed hard.

Alex joined her.

Seth and Courtney merely watched, both glad to see her laugh like that.  It was something she hadn’t done in a very long time.  Courtney’s look turned up to Bruce, knowing full well that he was the one responsible for this.

Bruce rubbed his hand along her back, softly reminding her to breathe.
His smile touched his eyes, again, something that hadn’t happened for him in a long time.

Waving her hand in front of her face, Grace breathed in deeply to calm herself.  “Sorry.  I just got this mental picture.  Seth in the lobby of the office saying ‘I’ll be back’.”  She laughed again as the others joined her.

“I’m not that bad,” Seth happily defended himself.

Alex shook his head.  “Oh no!”  His eyes were wide as he over-exaggerated shaking his head.

AnnaBeth quickly jumped in.  “It’s just you’re so serious.  I like seeing you loosen up a bit.”  She turned her powers of flirtation on to
Alex, brushing her long dark hair over her shoulder, letting it flow down her back.  “I enjoy a man with a good sense of humor.”

Grace watched the display, knowing AnnaBeth was doing the moves instinctively.  She also knew what they were doing to Alex.

The dark-haired model watched Alex for several more seconds before leveling her gaze on Bruce.  Deciding she liked him if for no other reason than Grace loved him, she said, “You know, my Gracie,” here her Mediterranean accent flowed a bit thicker, “My beautiful Gracie has not smiled or laughed like this ever.  I’ve never known her to.”  She winked at her friend before turning back to Bruce.  “I like you.”

*-*-*

Alex and AnnaBeth had already disappeared into the throng of dancers, and Seth was escorting Courtney away from their booth as well.  Bruce wanted to dance with Grace, but for a moment, all he could do was stare at her, and think how beautiful she was and how stupid he’d been to want to throw what they had away.  The sentiment must have shown in his eyes, because Grace squeezed his hand.

“You okay?” she asked, looking worried, and Bruce knew by the look in her eyes that a glimmer of panic had beset her. Did she think perhaps he was having second thoughts?

He shook his head, hoping to dispel the thought that he was anything other than fine.  “Just waxing nostalgic.”  He reached out, touching her cheek in a gentle caress.  “I was thinking about the night we met, and how beautiful you were and how much I just wanted to…” Rather than say what he’d wanted to do, he leaned in, kissing her suddenly and soundly.  “I like doing that,” he whispered against her lips before kissing her again, more deeply this time.

He wasn’t sure when she moved, but suddenly she was sitting in his lap, arms winding around his neck to keep the kiss going.  Not that he had immediate intensions of stopping.  Their booth was happily secluded and the waitress wouldn’t be back to bother them for a while yet.  So, the kiss continued until Bruce needed to breathe and he finally pulled his mouth from hers.

The sight before his eyes made him forget why he even needed to breathe in the first place.  Grace’s skin was flushed from the heat between them, her lips slightly swollen and redder than usual from his kisses.  It was a vision he could look upon for hours, worshipping.

It took her a few moments to get her breathing under control.  It wasn’t so much the time she had spent out of his arms, more the fact that she was back where she thought she’d never be, that made her react so physically.  She’d taken off the matching jacket when they’d entered the club, and for that she was grateful.  Sitting on his lap, like she was made to be there, she was suddenly VERY warm.

She let her thumb trail along his bottom lip, his lips both full from the initiative she had taken.  She was a sensualist, after all.  It was as his name passed softly across her own lips that she gave in to temptation and pressed hers to his again.  Though this kiss was more gentle and slow, more caressing and savoring, it was no less meaningful.

When she finally pulled away, she kept her forehead to his. Emotions were coursing through her veins.  Everything from the ends of her hair to the tips of her toes was crying out its love for him.  The need to be close, to cuddle, to hold, to kiss, it was all from a desire to not only reacquaint, but to express love… happiness.

Still, she said nothing.  Her hands ran through his silky soft hair, seemingly unable to get enough of the feel of him.  The moments slipped away where more meaning passed between them than words could express.  How long had they sat there looking at one another and feeling no discomfort from it? She didn’t know.  But when Faith Hill’s voice came over the speakers… It was the words from ‘Breathe’ that finally moved her to words.

She had listened to this song repeatedly when they first split.  It had always reminded her of their relationship.  Of all the songs she loved, this was the one that she’d needed the most to grieve with.  Now, all she wanted to do was to have him hold her and dance with her while it played.  Funny how a song could help so much to heal.  “Dance with me?” she asked softly.

How could he refuse her anything when she was looking at him like that?

Taking her hand and watching as their fingers twined together, he nodded and let her lead him slowly to dance floor.  The song, he knew, had been one of Grace’s favorites.  He’d honestly missed hearing the twang of country music –something he only used to like on occasion, depending on the song and artist in each occasion– around the manor.  Mostly, though, he’d missed the woman who’d brought meaning to that genre for him.  Made it special by virtue of her enjoyment of it, and the things she associated with each syllable.

But there was something to this one song with all its talk of being swept away, lost in the feeling of being in love with someone.  Bruce remembered being on this dance floor once before, wrapped up in her arms and similarly swept away by the rush of emotion her mere touch had created in him.  He was feeling it now, too.

“Cause I can feel you breathe
It’s washing over me
Suddenly I’m melting into you
There’s nothing left to prove
Baby all we need is just to be
Caught up in the touch
The slow and steady rush
Baby, isn’t that the way that love’s supposed to be”

Even the words were jumbled, tumbling headlong over top one another in an accurate imitation of how he felt at this very moment.  Caught up in love.

His arms tightened around her waist, pulling her body closer, and his forehead dropped to touch hers.  “Grace…” he whispered softly, unsure if he’d actually meant to say anything or had said her name just to hear it on his lips.

“In a way I know my heart is waking up
As all the walls come tumbling down
I’m closer than I’ve ever felt before
And I know
And you know
There’s no need for words right now”

She was fairly certain he didn’t even know he’d said her name.  Their foreheads were touching, eyes open so they could look into one another’s souls.  It was always a thing with Grace… looking directly into someone’s eyes.  Some people, it unnerved, but Bruce had never balked from it.  He seemed to know that she derived comfort from it.
And if it had bothered him at first, it definitely didn’t now.

“’Cause I can feel you breathe
It’s washing over me
Suddenly I’m melting into you
There’s nothing left to prove
Baby all we need is just to be
Caught up in the touch
The slow and steady rush
Baby, isn’t that the way that love’s supposed to be
I can feel you breathe
Just breathe”

It was, after all, the chorus of this song that had always struck her most.  The mere act of being able to simply *be*.  No pretenses, no walls.  They both were continually judged by the outside world.  Bruce because of his money and background… Grace because of her looks and model status.  But with one another, there was nothing.  Both were figuratively stripped bare and all they were was each other.

She no longer distrusted that any of this was real.  She knew it was.
He was with her, holding her, literally all around her.  Every sense was filled with him.  Somewhere along the line, it had become necessary to her.  She felt his muscles move under his clothing, his breath warm on her skin.  The scent of his shampoo and soap filled her nostrils, and the sight of him… the sight of his eyes holding hers and telling her just how much he loved her… needed her.  His eyes… They told her all the things she knew he couldn’t say for so many reasons.

Mostly, they told her just how loved she was, how missed she was, and how glad he was to have her back in his arms.  No, there was no need for words.  No need to say the things that most people would expect. She didn’t need an ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Forgive me’ or ‘I want you back’.
She knew he had no way of asking for the first two.  There was no need for any of them.  The first two had happened long ago, and the third was understood.

She moved forward.  It was a miniscule movement, just enough to touch her nose to his, let her eyes slowly drift closed, and reach out with her lips to brush them lightly against his.  She pulled away just a bit after that and sang the last two lines of the song to him… “I can feel the magic floating in the air.  Being with you gets me… that way.”

When she was finished singing, she pulled away just a bit more.  It was enough this time to not only see his eyes, but his entire face.  A face she’d held close to her heart for so long.  “I got my forever back,” she said softly, no doubt in her mind that he would understand.

Her forever?  No, their forever.

Bruce knew his life would never be the traditional family life everyone expected from him.  A huge, fancy wedding to someone with the same social standing as his, the birth of little Wayne heirs to keep the family line thriving… taking up where his parents had left off so abruptly.  This was expected of him, but it wasn’t what would ever be.  And yet, he also knew that if anything in his life came close to that kind of commitment… that kind of forever… it was his love for Grace.  He’d known that from the moment their relationship out-lasted any other relationship he’d ever had.  Each day beyond the deadline he’d come to accept as fated was one to cherish.

She was different than the rest; he needed her in his life.

That had been emphasized by the growing ache he’d endured each day they were apart.  It was the pain of his soul dying piece by piece every day that she wasn’t with him.

In the dark of night, he’d started watching her apartment, hoping for a glimpse of her, needing one like a drug addict needed a fix.  The nightly vigils, however, had always been doubled edged.  One side soothed the ache for her; the other cut deep because he couldn’t reach out to her.  But he’d continued them because, like the drug addict, he needed her.

And now, he had her back.  They had each other.

“Now, forever… always,” he whispered, closing the space between them to kiss her.  The next song was something a bit more upbeat, but they barely seemed to notice as their eyes met.  “For as long as you want it.”

She continued to look at him, her hands running through his hair of their own accord.  She honestly hadn’t realized she was doing it.  His last comment struck her though… as long as she wanted it.  She had wanted it all along.  She’d never wanted it to end.  As their bodies swayed slowly to the beating of their hearts, and not the music at the club, she wondered if he honestly knew just what she really did want.
A slow smile spread across her face.

Knowing Bruce, probably not.  Knowing Bruce, he was still waiting for the axe to fall.  He was still waiting for her to figuratively spit in his eye and tell him to drop dead. He tended to look at things that way.  But the ironic thing was she was waiting for it too, only she was waiting for it from him not to do it to him.

One hand moved to his cheek, her finger lightly tracing his jaw line.
Given how well she knew him, and given that her own sense of security was shaky, she opened her mouth and said exactly what she was thinking.  “I’ll take forever, thank you very much.  I’ll take falling asleep beside you every night and waking up in your arms every morning.  I’ll give up showering by myself.  I never want to do that again.  I’ll take the job of being the one to make sure you eat three meals a day no matter how much you complain about not being hungry.”  She smiled brightly.  “Oh yeah, and I’ll take all the little quirks and nuances that makes being with you the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life… every moment… every heartbeat.”

In the past, she may have wondered if she’d gone too far… crossed an unseen boundary that Bruce set up for his personal comfort.  But for some reason, she honestly didn’t believe there were any right now.  Well, there was the one, but she wasn’t even tempted to cross that.  He’d asked her not to ask about it, and she wouldn’t.  But the others, the ones that had been there before, she believed them gone; and she didn’t want to leave any room for doubt.  She wanted her life back the way it was… or as close as she could get it.  He’d said for as long as she wanted… she wanted forever.  So she put it out there in the open.  Best to deal with it all now.  Cause in all honesty, she’d take all he was willing to give.  The only thing that scared her anymore was that she’d lose him again.  And though she believed in her heart that wasn’t possible, her head still wanted proof.  “I want all the little things I’ve come to treasure.  Mostly, I want to be with you.”  She smiled.  Her eyes locked onto his and held, letting him know just how deeply she was feeling things at this moment.

Her words sent the already frantic beat of his heart into overdrive, though for a moment, he’d believed it had stopped altogether when he heard her say she’d take forever.  There had been a time in the beginning of their relationship when something like this would have scared him so as to send him running.  It still scared him, but he wasn’t running this time.  Not ever again, not from Grace. It wasn’t the depth of feeling that scared him; it was the fact that he’d been holding his breath after he’d told her he was there as long as she wanted, afraid she wouldn’t want him.  Even after all that had happened today, he had still been unsure of his place in her life.

“I want that, too,” he said at last.  In his mind, Courtney’s words echoed, urging him to tell her the only thing he hadn’t yet said in plain words.  “I want you to stay, Grace.  At the Manor, with me.  I won’t ever ask you to leave again.”   He pressed his forehead to hers, bringing their faces close together.  “I love you, and I can’t live like that again… can’t live without you to light the darkness… without you to make me whole.”

“I love you too,” she said softly, “so much…” There was no music; there were no other people on the dance floor.  Hell, there were no other people who existed in the universe right now than the two of them.  He had just offered her the brass ring that she had so desperately wanted… needed.  She’d been holding her breath for two days, waiting for the inevitable moment when it would come up about her going back to her apartment.  That place wasn’t home to her.  It hadn’t been since she first moved into the Manor.  Home, to Grace, was wherever Bruce was.

She inhaled deeply, knowing that he had difficulty sometimes discerning tears of happiness from tears of sadness.  So she inhaled to get that under control and then smiled widely at him.  Had she ever been this happy?  The answer was yes.  If asked last week if she’d ever be happy again?  The answer would have been no.  But one little incident and her entire life was back on track.  Their life was back on track.

“There is absolutely no place in Heaven or on Earth that I would rather be than where you are.  At the Manor… in a hut in the Artic…” She laughed lightly more out of euphoria than anything.  “Though the Manor is warmer.”  She sighed.  “There’s no place I’d rather be.”  She wasn’t going to be asked about when she was going back to her apartment.  Suddenly, just the thought of that place caused loathing inside of her.  “When do we call the movers?”  ‘For the last time,’ she added in her own mind.  The happiness inside caused her to impulsively hug him, and hug him tightly.  Giddy was an understatement for how she felt!

He laughed, the sound bubbling up and pushing away the last of the insane fear he’d carried about losing her still. Calling the movers had been the only thing he’d wanted for two days now.  Hell, he’d have packed all her belongings himself even if it might take him the rest of his life, if that’s what it took to get her back where she belonged.  “You mean, we haven’t done that yet?” he joked before planting hundreds of kisses on her upturned face.  He didn’t think about patrolling tonight.  He wouldn’t.  He’d stay with Grace tonight and in the morning they’ll call the movers.

His lips found hers in a soft kiss and her mouth parted, letting the kiss deepen.  If it bothered him that they were in the middle of a crowded nightclub or that the music had again changed tempo, it didn’t show.  Likewise, when a camera flashed from somewhere in that crowd, it didn’t even register in Bruce’s mind.  They were alone, just themselves, in a world outside the rest of the creation. Bruce… and Grace… and nothing else but how it felt to hold her in his arms once again.

*-*-*

Seth had handed his wife over to Alex and was dancing with AnnaBeth.
The ‘terminator’ comment from earlier had stuck in his head and he seemed determined to prove to her that he was more than the reputation he’d earned at the office.  Of course, the beautiful Greek woman already knew he was more than his office persona, but still, he felt the need.

When the first flash went off, he didn’t even think about it.  It was subconsciously dismissed as a strobe light or some other dance floor effect.  The second didn’t even truly faze him.  The third, however, caught his attention.  Keeping a hold of AnnaBeth’s hand, Seth scoped out the room.  First he saw Bruce and Grace, happily oblivious to anyone and everything.  From the looks of it, whatever mending they’d needed to do, they were definitely coming to terms with it.  The very public display of affection was more than an indicator.

“AnnaBeth,” he said softly.  “Help me look… someone’s taking…”

Another flash went off and she finished for him, “Pictures.  So?
Someone’s having a party or something.  Nothing wrong with pictures.”
Given her profession, she saw absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Seth shook his head, turning his full attention to her for a moment.
“The paper this morning had a full scale article about Bruce… Bruce and Alex going to the anniversary dinner together.  Now, tonight, Bruce is out in public with the woman he’d split from four months ago.”
Gently, he touched her chin and guided her gaze toward the kissing couple.  “And there is little doubt as to their status.”

She nodded.  “Journalistic bastards.”  She muttered something in Greek and continued, “I will help you find him.”  They split and went their separate ways in search of the photographer.  Of course, it didn’t take
AnnaBeth long.  She was drawn to the flash like a moth to a flame.  She placed her body in front of the camera and smiled widely at the man.
Reaching out, she traced her finger along his lower arm.  “You like to take pictures?” she asked sweetly.

His eyes went wide.  She was gorgeous.  And he knew her… Then it dawned on him.  “You’re… you’re…”

She nodded.  “You can say my name.  AnnaBeth.  I am AnnaBeth.”  She’d work her magic.  He had plenty of pictures for his article.  Now was about putting an end to the photography… at least of Bruce and Grace.  “I couldn’t help but notice you.  You like taking pictures?”

He was torn between his assignment and the woman who was obviously flirting with him.  Wait… this was no mere woman.  This was one of the highest paid supermodels in the world and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women ever.  She was sexy as hell. And she was talking with him!!

AnnaBeth laughed.  Typical male.  He forgot everything when given the option of a beautiful face and the prospect of sex.

Seth noticed the absence of flashing and looking around, found AnnaBeth flirting with the photographer.  Alex and Courtney had stopped dancing and both were laughing as the man crumbled easily under the model’s attentions.  Hating to do it, but knowing he had to, he approached the former object of the photographer’s attention.  Lightly, he tapped Bruce on the back.

“Sorry, guys,” he apologized as they both jumped.  They seemed to have completely forgotten where they were.  He pointed over toward AnnaBeth and the photographer, the man getting more smitten by the minute.  “It seems the Alex rumors are going to be quickly dispelled.”  He offered
Bruce a supportive look, knowing the newspapers bothered him more than they did Grace.  “Looks like you won’t need to demand a retraction after all.”

*-*-*

Bruce held Grace’s hand tightly as he watched Seth and Courtney climb into Seth’s Jeep, which had sat waiting for them all night with Bruce’s fleet of cars, and pull out of the garage.  He was smiling again, despite having been very unhappy about the incident with the photographer.  Nothing, however, seemed able to dampen his spirits for long, not when there was no longer any doubt that Grace was his.  He squeezed her hand, and led her into the house only when their friends were almost to the end of the driveway and very out of sight.

They held hands all the way through the main hall and up the stairs, neither of them really saying anything, as it all had been said earlier.

In the hallway outside their two bedrooms, they paused to kiss and Bruce pulled her tightly into his arms.  All the kissing and touching tonight had served to fuel his desire for her.  Tonight, he thought, deepening the kiss, they would do more than just sleep in his big, comfortable bed.  The way she was kissing him back, he thought maybe she might be of the same mind.

When the kiss ended, Grace extracted herself from his arms.  Placing her hand on his chest lightly, she excused herself, saying, “I’ll just go get a nightgown and be right back.”

“Don’t get lost,” he told her.  He waited until the door closed behind her to go into his own room.  He sat down on the bed, and began to take off his shoes, when knock on the door and a polite clearing of a man’s throat announced Alfred’s arrival.

“Come in, Alfred,” he said, motioning for the older man to shut the door behind him.

“Pleasant evening, Master Bruce?” Alfred inquired, having seen Bruce’s generally happy demeanor when they’d first arrived back at the Manor.

“Yes, it was.  Grace is going to be staying with us, Alfred,” he informed, turning around to face the butler as he began to unbutton his shirt.

The older man couldn’t help but be pleased at the news, and he smiled warmly.  “Excellent, sir,” was all he said, however.  “Did you happen to see the afternoon newspaper?”

“The Alex thing?”

“No, sir.  Not the ‘Alex thing.'”  Alfred handed him a section of the newspaper, folded over to a specific page.  It was the front section, and the article spoke of a quandary the police had gotten themselves into.  Two days prior, the police had acted on an anonymous tip and arrested a man who had reportedly made an attack on famous supermodel Grace O’Neil.  The man, however, had sustained injuries during a ‘citizen’s arrest’ and was being treated at Gotham General Hospital.  The police had him under surveillance.  The man, however, refused to admit to any guilt and Ms O’Neil had been strangely unavailable for comment.  Bruce sighed.  He’d been hoping to stay with Grace tonight.

“They can’t hold him if he doesn’t confess.”  It wasn’t a question; Bruce knew his plans for the evening had just been changed.

*-*-*

Grace stood staring at the selection of nightgowns Courtney and Seth had packed for her.  She was thankful to her two friends. Although the shirt she slept in the night before was comfortable, it hadn’t fit correctly.  Reaching out, she pulled out her lilac silk nightgown.  It was sleeveless with only small spaghetti straps to hold it on.  There was a matching robe that hung on the hanger as well.

Walking out of the closet, she laid the garments on the bed… and paused.

That’s when it hit her.  It well and truly hit her.  She wasn’t spending a few days here; she was spending the rest of her days here.  She walked over to the mahogany dresser and ran her hand along the top.  When she lived here before, Alfred had always made sure there were fresh flowers on it for her.  He knew she loved the smell of fresh cut flowers and although she spent more time in Bruce’s room than her own, it didn’t deter him from making sure there were fresh flowers all over the room.

She inhaled.  Her eyes drifted closed and she turned around.  When she opened them again, it was to see that the room was once again filled with fresh flowers.  Her smile widened.  Alfred knew.  Somehow, and she never questioned how, he knew that she was going to be staying.  She hadn’t noticed them when she first came in because she’d been so focused on getting her nightgown and getting back to Bruce.

Bruce…

Another happy sigh escaped her lips and she crossed the room back to the bed.  Taking off her dress, she left it on the bed, knowing that the maid would see that it was properly cleaned and pressed.  At first, she’d had a hard time adjusting to that… having people take care of her.  But as her hand ran along the crushed velvet, she was glad she wouldn’t have to think about it.

All of her focus was on the man in the other room.  The man who was waiting for her.  Her bra and panties found their way into the hamper and the silkiness of the nightgown caressed her skin as she slipped it on.

Purple was her signature color.

She placed the robe on next and moved to the big mirror just inside her bathroom door.  She checked her hair… cleared her face of any make-up that would smear during the night… then checked herself in the mirror again.  The bruise on her forehead was barely visible, and for that she was thankful.  The thinner form that appeared in the mirror… well that wouldn’t change overnight.

“Stop worrying so much, Grace,” she admonished herself.  That said, she purposely headed out of the bathroom, crossed the room to the door, and exited out into the hallway.  Only one door now stood between her and the one person she loved with everything she was.  Making her way across the hall, she wasn’t going to let it stand in the way any longer.

*-*-*

Bruce held Grace in his arms as he had the night before, waiting until her breathing deepened with sleep and he knew he couldn’t wake her with his departure.  He slipped from the bed and changed his clothes, then made his way down the passage to the basement.

The suit he and Alfred had spent over a year designing and testing hung waiting for him in an alcove just behind a secret panel that looked like bare wall.  The wall slid open at the press of a button, and he reached for the suit, changing silently while Alfred entered from a second passage.  Their eyes met just before the cowl went over Bruce’s face, and he became the man whom a few of the news reporters were now calling ‘the Batman.’

He wondered what Grace would say if she ever found out.  What she would think.  How she would react.  Would she still be willing to accept it?
Or would she be afraid of what he had become in his search for justice?
“I won’t be long,” he told Alfred, and thought his voice sounded darker, not his own.  If this surprised the butler, he didn’t show it and merely nodded.  It was left unsaid between them that if Grace awoke, she would be Alfred’s only priority.

*-*-*

While Grace –like most of Gotham slept– the Gotham General Hospital was suddenly thrown into dishevel when then power in an entire wing went out.  They were even more baffled when, less than ten minutes later, the power returned.

No harm came to any patients in the wing itself, though the distraction was enough to lure the police away for the door they guarded.  No one saw the silent figure clothed in darkness as it slipped from the shadows outside the room into those just inside the door.

“So, you’re going to get away with it,” the newcomer said a gravelly voice.  The patient in the bed started at the intrusion and his eyes widened like saucers when the shadow moved forward, cloak swirling around the silhouette of a man’s body.

“Do you think that you’ll be exempt from retribution just because the police can’t hold you?”

The dark figure stepped forward, revealing a masked face with dark, hard eyes.  The man on the bed shook his head repeatedly, unable to speak.  His predator gave a curt nod, as if accepting this as an answer.

“W-w-who are you?” the man stammered.

His visitor ignored the question and leaned in, placing a hand on either side of the hospital bed.  “That’s not important,” he spat out.  His eyes drilled into the other man, making him squirm.  “What is important is that you’re going to confess.  Tonight.”

“What if I don’t?”

The question, and the tone in which it was said, unleashed the masked man’s fury.  He reached out, grabbing the man’s hospital gown with lightening speed, then clamping a gloved hand down on his mouth when he made as if to scream.  “If you don’t, I’ll know.”  The words were softly spoken, but the menace behind them rolled off the easily stronger man in waves.

Then, as instantly as he came, he vanished.  Minutes later, the light returned to the wing.  The police guards came running in soon after, to check on their ward, and found him shaken, but in a much more cooperative mood than he had been before.

*-*-*

Grace was still sleeping when Bruce slipped back into the room.  Watching her, he felt a strange sense of pride in what he’d accomplished that night.  Unknown to either the police or the man he’d visited, he’d left a microscopic listening device in the room before he’d left.  It transmitted directly to the basement headquarters, and by the time he’d returned, there was a recorded confession waiting for him.

The bug he’d planted?  So small that the next time the hospital room was cleaned and sterilized, the water and chemicals would render it inoperable.  Likely it would be disposed of, as well. In the trash or flushed into the Gotham sewer system.  What became of it, though, was less important to him as the knowledge that he’d done what he’d set out to do.  Grace’s attacker had confessed.

Pushing all thoughts of the night’s business from his mind, he quickly shed his otherwise unused street clothes and reached for his sleep clothes.  Then he discarded them at the foot of the bed, his eyes on her the entire time.

There was one more thing he needed to do to get his night back on its original track.

Easing into the bed beside her, he pressed his lips to the back of her neck in a whisper of a kiss.  Grace’s response was to roll over in her sleep, softly murmuring his name.  It must have been a nice dream she was having, as her lips had barely formed a sleepy smile when he claimed them in another soft kiss.  The dreamy sigh that followed allowed him to deepen his kisses, drawing them out as he coaxed her body into awareness.

Her first thought was that the dream was perhaps the most vivid she’d ever had.  She felt the pressure on her lips and responded to it.  The ‘dream’ Bruce tilted his head and turned the kiss into a more deep and sensual expression.  When the smooth tongue brushed across her teeth, her subconscious began to give way to consciousness and she realized this was no dream.  The ‘real’ Bruce was kissing her.

What a delicious way to come out of a dream.  Though still somewhere between sleeping and waking, her arms ran around his bare back and up into his hair.  She hummed lightly into the kiss as her body began to react and ‘wake up’ as well.

Feeling her awaken beneath his kisses was a dream made real for Bruce.  Too often he’d dreamt of her in his arms only to wake to find himself holding a pillow instead.  The pillow didn’t kiss back, though.  Her every little wakening response was like dousing the flame of his desire with gasoline.  His lips moved slowly off hers, trailing moist kisses across her smooth cheek.  He paused, nuzzling the spot just below her earlobe, the one that always made her squirm in his arms.  He’d missed that spot so much.

Her eyes slowly fluttered open as his mouth left hers to place kisses along her cheek, but it was when he found *that* spot that her eyes came open and she squirmed in delight.  “Oh Bruce…” she sighed, finally coming fully awake.  She moved slowly loving the feel of the silk rubbing between their bodies, using it to stimulate other sensitive areas.  She’d actually stopped sleeping in her bed after dreaming about being in just this position with him.  But the dream was a reality.  He was here, loving her, and it was real.

She also knew that this wasn’t simply kissing and cuddling. She could feel his state of undress.  Oh… she had dreamed about this so many times.  Her arms wrapped around his neck and held him firmly to her. It was all she’d ever wanted… all she’d ever want to do for the rest of her life… love him.

Bruce squirmed a little on his own, moving his body so that he rested between her legs, the silk between them heightening very sensation to the point of sweet insanity.  He’d intended to be gentle, and so far he had been, but he was starting to doubt that he could continue.

“Grace…” he echoed her sigh, breathing the word against her skin as he continued to nuzzle her neck.  One hand moved to her breast, cupping it through the silk and thumbing the nipple into a taut bud. At the same time, his teeth scrapped against her skin, just enough to make her already flushed skin pinker.

She could feel what this was doing to him, and knew what it was doing to her.  The silk barrier between them… the one that just two seconds ago she was loving… was now a brick wall between her and the one thing that her body was crying for.  As his teeth scraped her skin, she gave out a soft cry and pressed into him even more closely.

She’d thought about sweet and romantic… slow and easy… warm and loving.  But this was four months of denial… four months of not having him.  “Bruce,” her voice was needy, telling him with her tone what she could not form into words.  Maybe round two could be nice and slow and warm.  Right now, waking up to this, there was just need.

The urgency in her voice hit him like a fist.  To Hell with gentle, it said, echoing the most irrational thoughts that were still clinging to his brain.  He needed her; she needed him.  Right now, the need was consuming him every bit as much as he knew it was her.  Silk brushed against his skin –taunting– and he tugged impatiently at the nightgown, pushing it up around her waist… leaving nothing between the relevant places but their need.

Her hands moved down to help push up the nightgown… to get it out of the way.  She was literally shaking now with need.  Her entire body was craving this… and when the barrier was down, her legs wrapped around his waist and locked.  Hands ran up his back, her nails scraping along the skin… the soft, smooth skin of his back.  They didn’t stop though until they were in his hair and she was bringing his mouth to hers in a kiss that was much more demanding and intense than any they’d shared these past couple days.  When he finally penetrated her, when he finally crashed the last barrier between them, she wanted his mouth on hers.  She wanted all of him.

Prompted by the fact that their mouths were suddenly crushed together, he kissed her as their bodies moved together in a frantic pace.  The kisses were just as frenzied –greedy with the hunger they’d both been denying.

This was all he knew –the hungry, chaotic need that raged around them like a storm.  His instinct was to ride the storm.

It was like they’d never been apart… except there was much more intensity than was the norm for them.  She could feel the changes in him though, he was stronger… his movements more fluid.  It could have been the months where she’d wanted nothing more than to feel him inside of her.  Months of wanting.  She matched him easily though, keeping pace with the heat building within her.

The kiss finally broke when they needed air, but she held him to her, their foreheads almost touching as they continued to move at the fevered pace.  There was no way she was going to last much longer, and she didn’t want her eyes closed when it happened.  Suddenly, seeing him… and what was going on in his eyes… was very important.

Their eyes locked, and it was as if Bruce had found the only solid, stabile foundation in the storm that tossed him.  He held her gaze, grounding himself in what he saw in her eyes.  Base need might feed the flames of this coupling, but love gave it meaning. A love neither of them could deny.

Love…

Love had made their hearts yearn for each other.  Love had led them back to where they belonged.  Love made their bodies come together like there hadn’t been four months keeping them apart.

Love filled his voice as he cried out when their simultaneous climaxes began as a shudder through her body.

His name passed through her lips, and she had no idea if she’d cried out or whispered.  All she knew was that her entire body seemed to explode.  Her insides set completely aflame by not only the physical release but also the emotional outpouring.  She literally felt as if she was being remade. And when she thought it was over, when she believed the height of the storm was over…

It hit her again.

She lost all thought as the tidal wave finally began to ebb.  Her arms wrapped around him and she held him to her.  There was no way she could avoid the tear that slipped down her cheek.  It was simply too emotional of a moment to hold anything back.  “I love you,” she whispered into his ear when she was finally able to breathe with some modicum of control.  “I love you so much.”

“Love you…” he whispered back when the last tremor receded, leaving his body physically spent yet deeply sated.  Kissing the tear from her cheek, he gathered her in his arms, gentle once again.  “My sweet, amazing Grace… with everything I am, I love you.”

*-*-*

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The phone rang once, twice.  On the third ring, George O’Neil’s face fell.  It wasn’t because of who was calling.  It was because of who it wasn’t.  “Hello, Pumpkin,” he said as his wife joined him in the kitchen.  “It’s Hope,” he informed her.

The young woman on the other end of the phone sighed in exasperation.  “I take it she hasn’t called.”

“No, no word.  I don’t understand.  It’s been three days.  She had to know we’d read about the attack in the newspaper.”

Hope sat down at the table, sipping at her coffee.  “I tried to call her cell phone, but there was no answer.”

“I couldn’t get a hold of Courtney either.”

“Did you try her dad?” she asked as she picked up the morning newspaper.

“I left a message,” he responded.  “I’m sure when he…”

“Holy shit!” Hope’s voice raised an octave and became tinged with a certain amount of disgust.

“Hope?” her father asked, unused to hearing his normally cheerful daughter speak that way.

Hope’s eyes were wide as she stared down at the photo.  The headline simple read ‘Together Again’.  The first sentence confirmed it.  ‘Billionaire Bruce Wayne and supermodel Grace O’Neil reunite after a four month separation’.  “I think I know why we haven’t heard from Grace,” she said, not even bothering to disguise her reaction.  The picture left no room for doubt as the pair was locked in an embrace… kissing as if they were completely alone.

“What do you mean?  Has she contacted you?”

“No, Dad.  She’s with Bruce.”  She tossed the newspaper aside and it skidded off the table onto the floor where Hope left it sitting.  “I bet if you call the Manor, she’ll be there.”

George didn’t say anything at first.  His daughter was attacked, and he’d been worried for days only to find that she was with the man who ripped her heart out, and then neglected to let her family know that she was okay.  “Hope, Pumpkin, I’ll talk to you later.”  He waited a heartbeat for her to say goodbye, hung up, and looked at his wife.  “She’s with Bruce.  Hope says there’s an article in the paper.”

Janet, who had the newspaper in her hand, merely nodded.  “It would seem so.  Just saw the article myself.”  She handed the newspaper to her husband.  “Now, George, don’t be too upset.  She loves him.”  Janet hadn’t been happy with Bruce for breaking Grace’s heart either.  They’d gone to see her at Christmas and the pain Grace was in caused the mother’s heart to break as well.  George… well, his daughters were his world.  There were no words to describe his reaction.  But Janet also understood a woman’s heart.  She understood Grace.

“He snaps his fingers, and she goes running.  Running to him and neglects to call us to let us know that she’s okay.  Damnit Janet, I should at least rank enough for a phone call.”  He dropped the paper on the table.

“George, please don’t call her while you’re angry.”

“I’m not!” he gritted through his teeth before sighing.  “I just want to talk to her.”  He grabbed his Rolodex from the desk.  “I just want to talk to my daughter.”

*-*-*

They’d slept in.  The sweet awakening Bruce gave Grace had unleashed months of pent up need and desire.  Once the immediate need had been satisfied, they’d made love again and again.  Each moment more meaningful than the last because they both knew they were where they belonged.

Grace could have stayed in bed all day, making up for lost time, but her stomach demanded food.  So the pair had showered, another ‘normalcy’ returning as the hot water sensitized skin and they made love again.

Now, they were sitting at the table in the bedroom, eating breakfast.  They’d started out sitting across from one another, but the distance seemed too great and they ended up sitting next to each other, holding hands or using their fingers to lightly caress each other’s arms.

“I’ll have Alfred contact the movers,” Bruce said.  Now that the decision was made, there was really no sense in wasting time.

Grace laughed lightly.  “Knowing Alfred, he’s already called them and they are there packing my things now.”

Bruce laughed with her.  “No doubt he has.”  His fingers entwined with hers and their eyes locked.

She had thought about this off and on during the night.  She wasn’t sure how he was going to react, but she had to tell him.  For her own peace of mind, she had to let her apartment go.  What had once been a comfort was now a curse.  She never wanted to live there again.  “Bruce,” she started softly, unsure of how he’d react but needing to tell him anyway, “I need to talk to you…”

A knock on the door interrupted her sentence.  Clearing his throat, Alfred entered and said, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but Miss Grace has a phone call.”  He crossed the room and handed her the phone.

Grace smiled.  “Thank you, Alfred.”  To Bruce, she teased, “It’s probably Court wanting a full report.”  As he smiled in return, she pushed the ‘hold’ button and said into the phone, “Hello.”

“Grace.”

All it took was that voice and Grace’s face fell.  She hadn’t called her father in days.  No doubt he’d heard about the attack, and she hadn’t been home nor had her cell phone.  And worse, she hadn’t called.  Since he had tracked her down here, he knew about Bruce as well.  She sighed and softly said, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”  She always called him that when she felt especially vulnerable.  “I should have called.”

“You’re damn right, you should have.”

He was angry that was obvious.  George O’Neil never raised his voice to his girls, but normally, they were more considerate of him.  “Things have been a bit…”

His voice cut her off.  “No excuses.”  He inhaled, managing to calm.  She was safe that was most important.  “I know that reuniting with Bruce is all you’ve wanted, and I understand you being focused on that.  But I’m your father.  Would a phone call have been too much?”

She shook her head and then realized he couldn’t see it.  “No.  I should have called,” she repeated, not knowing what else to say.  “I just… I just…”

“Got swept up in the moment,” he finished for her, his anger melting away at the guilt in her voice.  He could never stay angry with either of his girls, no matter how much he may have wanted to.  “I love you, Pumpkin,” he said, using the same term of endearment for her that he had used for Hope.

Grace’s eyes slid closed and she exhaled visibly.  “I love you too, Daddy.  And I’m fine… really.  I’m okay.”

“I’m glad,” he said.  He paused for a moment, thinking.  There was more that needed to be said here, but the main thing was he’d gotten in touch with her and she was indeed okay.  His voice grew a tad bit more stern as he said, “Now, let me talk to Bruce.”

Grace opened her eyes and looked at the man sitting next to her.  “Daddy…”

He sighed audibly.  “Gracie, don’t argue with me.  Just trust me, okay?  Give Bruce the phone.”  He’d grown to love this man as if he were his own son.  The love Bruce had for Grace had been obvious.  And George O’Neil had overlooked a lot of things about Bruce Wayne that normally would have sent him over the edge.  He found out from a colleague that Bruce was carrying on a relationship with Lex Luthor at the same time he was living with Grace.  He knew that Grace knew it.  He’d been enraged at first, but Janet had been on the receiving end of that tirade.  In the end, he’d come to overlook it because Grace knew and Grace loved Bruce despite it.  When the relationship with Luthor ended, George had allowed himself to hope that the man had come to his senses.  Then, he broke Grace’s heart.  It was a lot for a father to bear.  He loved Grace.  In some ways, he was more attached because unlike Hope, Grace *needed* to be openly loved and cherished.  Hope went with the flow… Grace… well, Grace didn’t always have the strength to do that.

As he waited for Bruce to take the phone, something else occurred to him.  It wasn’t his business if Grace were giving Bruce another chance.  But as her father, there were things he felt he had the right to say… man to man.  And he wanted to say them.

Pulling the phone away from her ear, Grace handed it to Bruce.  “He wants to talk to you,” she informed him.

Bruce hesitated before taking the phone.  Judging from the emotions he’d seen on her face and the tone of her voice as she spoke to her father, he knew the man on the other end of the phone line had not just called to chat.  While Grace was apologizing, it had dawned on him why.  The attack.  It had been in the newspapers twice, both times the media had made note that Grace had not yet come forward to file charges against her attacker.  The first day, she’d been sleeping off the results of the attack and fatigue caused by her unhealthy condition and emotional trauma.  Trauma he’d caused, he didn’t fail to remind himself.  Not that he’d ever forget.  Then yesterday… yesterday had been so jumbled they’d simply forgotten everything but themselves and what was happening between them.

On neither of those days had they stopped to let Grace’s family know she was okay, that the attacker hadn’t hurt her badly.  That she was safe.

And yet, George had known where to find her anyway, which told Bruce that Seth had been right last night when he said that he need not demand a retraction of yesterday’s article about him and Alex.  There was a new article, no doubt.  Photographs, too.  They hadn’t been modest last night at the club; everyone had seen them kissing.

Bruce thought he knew what George O’Neil might want to say to him.  More, he knew he deserved it, much as he’d deserved the talking-to Seth had given him and the tongue-lashing he’d received from Mrs. Habbibi.

He sighed and took the phone from Grace, meeting her eyes to let her know it’d be okay.  Whatever her father said would be okay.  “Hello, George,” he then said into the phone.  It was an even, neutral voice.  Not scared or hesitant, not tense or filled with animosity.  Just a clear, even tone of voice that did nothing to indicate what thoughts might be in his head.  As an afterthought, he added, “How’ve you been?”

Grace pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin upon them. No matter what Bruce’s look said, she knew her father.  And though she trusted him… she sighed, watching Bruce’s expression closely.  Asking her father how he’d been… well, that left her father open to so many things… almost like Bruce was asking for the tirade… as what?  Punishment?  Because he felt he deserved it?  More than likely yes, but she wished he hadn’t asked anyway.  In her mind, he didn’t deserve the tirades.  It was her life, her decisions.  But she couldn’t argue with her father.  She never could.

“Are you asking how I’ve been over the past several months or the past couple days?  Because honestly, I could give you a dissertation on either one.”

Janet reached out and placed her hand on her husband’s shaking arm.  Then stood behind him, her arms wrapped around him in support.  They’d been through so much with Grace… the broken engagement to Chad, the abuse from Bill, and the break-up with Bruce.  It was understandable that George would want to protect her.

His wife’s support comforting him, he continued, “If I ask her, all she’s going to say to me is… ‘I’m okay.’  But you tell me, how is she?  Why hasn’t she filed charges?  And are *you* taking care of things or do I need to come there?”  He appreciated the other man’s tone… that he wasn’t immediately defensive.  To George it meant that
Bruce respected him.  So he did his level best to show some respect in return and didn’t shout or raise his voice past the initial snarky answer.  He surprised himself by how calm, yet stern, he was.

Bruce chose to ignore George’s response to his question.  The look on Grace’s face was enough to tell him it had been a stupid way to approach this phone call.  The rest of the questions he’d asked though… “You don’t need to come down here, George,” he started off.  “Unless you want to.  Grace is fine.”  He looked over at her, examining her closely with his eyes.  Her bruise was looking much better today, though it was yellowing slightly.  By tomorrow, he knew the yellow would begin to fade and that soon, there would be no sign that she’d been attacked.  “The, ah, Good Samaritan who saved her called the Manor.  He must have known about our… history…” he trailed off, hating to repeat the lie because he’d love for at least Grace to know that he’d been her savior all along.

He met her eyes, seeking permission to speak of her injuries, and receiving it in a nod, continued, “She took a knock to the head and was out cold for a while.  She’s been here, resting, ever since.  We’re taking good care of her.”  Bruce let his concern for Grace seep into his words, hoping George would hear and know he wasn’t letting her suffer.

His next words were dangerous.  “Someone should have contacted you, let you know she was here, and for that, I’m truly sorry.”  He hadn’t thought about it.  All his thoughts had been on Grace, getting her well and getting them back where they belonged.

Listening to his responses, Grace knew exactly what her father had asked.  In a way, it pleased her to know that George had turned to Bruce for the answers instead of her. Whether Bruce realized it or not, it meant that her father trusted the answers he would receive.  It meant that although her dad was angry over events, both recent and past, when it came down to the wire, he was going to trust Bruce’s assessment.  Reaching out, she took his hand with hers, offering him a smile.

Of course, that meant that her dad trusted Bruce’s responses more than her own, but she let that slide.  No way would she have been as thorough as Bruce was.

George listened as Bruce told him that Grace was okay.  He understood why the man who helped her would call Bruce to come for her.  Of course, he didn’t ask why the man didn’t just contact someone in the building or simply call the police.  It was puzzling, but he let it go.  Bruce’s last comment though…  he was right.  As her father, he should have been the first person contacted.  And that, more than anything, bothered him.  “A phone call would have been nice.  That’s all I’m saying.  I…” He paused because saying it to his daughter was one thing, saying it to Bruce was another.  “I can understand how you would get caught up in the moment, Bruce.  It doesn’t excuse it.  With everything that’s happened lately…” he paused again, “to be truthful,
I was one step away from flying to Gotham.  My daughters mean the world to me.”

It was here that he wanted to expound on things… do all the fatherly threats to the man who’d hurt his little girl, but a soft kiss on his bald head helped to check that need.  Instead, his tone sifted only mildly from stern to what Janet liked to call ‘fatherly’ as he said, “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for either one of them.  Grace especially is precious… she,” he sighed again, contemplating how to put it.  “She takes things to heart, Bruce.  And that heart is easily broken.  I don’t like it when she’s hurt.”  He let it sit there… knowing the man on the other end was extremely intelligent and would understand what George meant.

Bruce understood.  George wasn’t talking about just her attack.  He was also talking about their break up, and how it had affected his daughter.  He’d come to know Grace’s parents well enough during their relationship to know that George would give or do anything to see Grace happy, and he also knew that Bruce had broken some unspoken promise between them –to always keep her that way.  He knew he’d failed George every bit as much as he’d failed Grace.

“I know,” he said softly, letting the other man know that he understood every possible meaning of the words.  He wasn’t sure what else to say.  He couldn’t just tell the man he wouldn’t let Grace get hurt again. He’d already broken that vow.  Looking at Grace, he suddenly felt a wave of resentment rise up in him.  Not for George, but for himself.  He didn’t deserve this second chance.  He’d done nothing to earn it.  Nothing.  “Believe me, George… I know.”

Grace had thought that all urges to panic were gone.  She’d believed that their feet were firmly on the right path now.  But the look in Bruce’s eyes, the tone he was using… she couldn’t help but panic again.  If her father said anything to cause Bruce to change his mind, she’d never forgive him.  Never.  It was okay to be protective.  She was his daughter, and he’d seen her through a lot of things in her life.  He’d made sacrifices, but he’d done so because he was her father.  She was a grown woman, and although mistakes had been made, everyone deserved second chances.

Her father tended to see her with rose-colored glasses and neglected to see that though Grace had been hurt… there were times in her past when she’d caused some hurt as well.  And she’d been given a second chance.  Everyone deserved it.  And if her father had forgotten that, then she’d have to be the one to remind him.

Her eyes were beseeching Bruce… begging him to understand that she believed everything to be fine between them… that she’d let the water flow under the bridge.

While Bruce was speaking to George on the phone, Janet had turned her husband to face her.  He was dancing on a dangerous line… a line that could very easily cause Grace’s next hurt to be his own fault.  Neither Grace nor George would be able to forgive him for that.  So she gave her husband a look, and smiled softly when he nodded.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he sighed.  “Bruce…” he started, paused, made sure his tone was no longer accusatory, and continued,
“Bottom line… my daughter loves you.”  At his words, Janet smiled encouragingly.  “Maybe there’s nothing anyone can ‘say’ to make it right again.  I’m not saying it can never be right again.  I raised my girls to believe that people deserve second chances.  They should be given to others as well as given to yourself.  I’ve also taught them that actions speak louder than words.  You were there for her that night.  And I believe you when you say you’re going to see her through the rest of this.  You’ll help her when she has to press charges…” Here he paused again, “She hates police stations.  If she has to appear in court, I’ll trust your judgment on whether or not additional attorneys are needed for personal claims.”

It really wasn’t a leap of faith.  Like he’d thought earlier, Bruce was a smart man.  “It’s difficult for me, having them so far away and all I can do is be a voice on the phone.”  He waved his hand.  “Anyway, back to second chances and deserving them.  The key is, not to make the same mistake.  And like I said, she loves you.  Just take care of her.”

And having said all that, he let out a long sigh.  Inwardly, he swore to himself that though everyone did deserve a second chance… if Bruce hurt Grace again, George Howard O’Neil would more than likely end up being disbarred and thrown in jail.  But it was a pledge he kept to himself and didn’t let show in his voice at all.  It was going to take time to completely trust again.  But trusting Bruce with the situation at hand was a small step.  “One step at a time, okay?”

Bruce was nodding as George spoke about pressing charges and how Grace reacted to police stations.  He knew from Courtney that this had been a problem when she was with Bill: she wouldn’t go to the police for help.

“One step at a time,” he echoed, neutrally, but his jaw had tightened.  Fate and Grace, it would seem, had deemed him worthy of a second chance, but he couldn’t do as George suggested and give himself the same courtesy.  He would never forgive himself for hurting her, nor would he forget it.  It was another screw up on his part.  Another brick in his own road to Hell: all good intentions that had turned to disaster.

But he loved Grace, and no matter what he felt about his own mistakes, he wouldn’t let her suffer for them anymore.

“I’ll see to it Grace does what needs to be done, George,” he said, meaning about her attack.  “If things go to court…” he hoped they wouldn’t.  He didn’t want to see her have to be put on display for some three-ring circus of a trial.  “…I’ll be right there with her.”  It was the least he could do, considering how much he had to make up for and never really could in one man’s lifetime.

“Thank you,” George said.  Not being able to think of anything else to say, or anything that needed to be said, he nodded at Janet.  “I’ll let you guys go.  No need to put Gracie back on, just give her my love.  And um… tell her to expect a call from her sister.  I have no doubts that Hopeful will be calling her soon.”  That done, he gave his goodbyes and waited for Bruce to do the same before hanging up.

When Bruce clicked off the phone, Grace resisted the urge to pounce on him with all the questions running through her mind.  But she knew that look on his face, and she was honestly trying not to worry or panic.
“He’s mostly upset with me,” she started by way of explanation.  “I didn’t call and should have.”  She rubbed at the spot on her head.
“The press has gotten a hold of everything else, it was naive of me not to think that they wouldn’t report the attack.”  She shrugged.  “He just worries and when he gets upset, he reacts.  Funny, isn’t it?  He’s the best corporate contract lawyer around, and his daughters turn him into an emotional puddle.”

Bruce smiled, though it was a little weak and not one of the unguarded ones of the night before.  “It’s okay, Grace,” he said, setting the phone down on the table.  He moved his hand out from under hers, only to take her hand in it, squeezing lightly.  “He loves you, and he was worried.  I understand that.”

He reached out to touch her, caressing her face before letting his fingers drift to her yellowing bruise.  His expression was thoughtful as he traced the color patterns of the injury.  For a moment, he saw her falling to the ice again in his mind.  When he’d first gone back for her, after unleashing more fury than he’d thought himself capable of on her attacker, he’d seen her motionless and thought the worst.

Had she…

No, he never wanted to think about that again.

“George said to expect phone calls,” he said, moving his hand to smooth back her hair from her face.  He was leaning in to kiss her when two phones rang: the house phone and his cell phone.

He reached for his cell, noting that display had pulled up Lee’s phone number.  Sighing, he nodded to Grace to take the other call.

*-*-*

Grace sighed, rather displeased at the timing of the phone call and looked at the caller ID.  Her reaction was a bit different than Bruce’s though.  With a slight curse, she stood and walked across the room.
Clicking on the phone, she said, “Hello.”

“I knew it!” her sister’s voice came across the line.  “I KNEW it!!  What the hell are you doing there?  Tell me; please tell me that the mugging has caused temporary insanity.  Because I’d hate to think that you were this insane without a good cause.”

“Hope, now is not the time.”

“Talked to Dad, did ya?” the girl’s voice sing-songed.

*-*-*

Bruce watched as Grace crossed the room to sit on the bed before turning his attention to his own call.  “Bruce,” he said by way of greeting.

Lee Merryweather’s voice filled his ears instantly, giving Bruce the scolding he’d been expecting.  “Just when were you going to tell me about Grace?” he demanded.  “How do expect me to work for you if I’m constantly in the dark?  My phone’s been ringing off the hook all morning, and as you can imagine, I didn’t have answers for any one of them!”

Bruce glanced over at Grace, noticing the tension in her stature as she spoke –albeit softly– to her sister.

*-*-*

“I said,” Grace’s voice dropped to a near whisper, “now is NOT the time.”  Bruce’s voice had gone soft too.  She could only wonder what his conversation was about.  But the one thing that Grace did know, she did NOT want to have this conversation with her sister.  Not now, not ever really.

“Too bad.  I called, you answered.  And if you hadn’t, I could have had myself a nice little talk with *him*.”

It was the disdain with which she said the last word that upset Grace the most.  Sitting on the bed, she sighed.  “I’m not getting into this with you.  I’m not.  I love you, Hopeful.  But I’m not doing this.”

“It’s insanity… complete insanity,” she continued, like a bulldog with a bone.  She just couldn’t let it go.  “I think I have a right to get into this with you.  I was there for you when he dumped you like yesterday’s garbage.  Was he?  No!”

“Let it go,” Grace’s tone more warning that what it had been before.  “I’m sorry I didn’t call you and let you know that I was okay.  Honestly, it didn’t dawn on me that the press would reach Kansas.  I should have called and I didn’t.  But, Hope, that’s all I’m apologizing for.  Everything else, it’s my life.  And you know, everyone deserves a second chance.”

“My ass.  Has he said he’s sorry?”

*-*-*

It obviously wasn’t going well with Hope.  Grace looked less and less happy as the phone call continued.  Bruce wanted nothing more than to hang up on Lee and then Hope and kiss the frown off Grace’s face.

“Lee, this really isn’t the time,” he said, softly, into the phone.

“You know what?  You say that every day.  It’s *never* the time!”

“Lee.”  Bruce’s voice held a note of warning to it, as if the other’s man job was at risk.  It very well might be.  “I’ve asked you to respect that I keep different hours than most people.  You *always* call during what I consider my *personal* time.”  He emphasized ‘personal’ in the hopes that Lee would assume he’d called in the middle of something intimate and excuse himself.

*-*-*

Grace sighed.  “Wasn’t necessary.”

“Bullshit!”  Hope’s voice grew louder.  “Complete bullshit.  Sis, I love you, but if he can’t even say he’s sorry…”

“I said it wasn’t necessary.  Remember… actions speak louder than words and there are a lot of things that have happened that you don’t know about, so before you go casting stones, Baby Sister, you better make sure you aren’t in your glass house.”

“You aren’t thinking clearly.  Or at least you aren’t thinking with your head.  Out of the blue, this man asks you to move out of his house.  Admit it, you had no idea it was coming.  One day you were happy, sure you thought he was moping over leaving Lex, but you were happy.  The next day, your shit’s being packed and you’re back in the apartment.  What makes this time different?  What do you possibly know now that you didn’t know before?”

She looked over at Bruce.  Hope had one point.  The split had come out of nowhere for her.  Her glance then turned to the door… the one that led to the room that had been Lex’s while he was here.  “You’re wrong,” she said softly, realizing.  “You’re wrong.  There were clues… there are always clues.  It’s just whether or not you choose to see them.”
She looked back to Bruce, her eyes softening.  “I know everything’s going to be fine.”

“You knew before, so forgive me if I don’t buy into it.  I sure as hell know Dad didn’t.”

“Are you sure?” Grace asked rather smugly.  “I think Dad realizes that I’m a grown woman and can make my own decisions.  I know he believes in second chances.  And if you would get over yourself, you’d know that too.”  She sighed, knowing Hope wouldn’t let it go.  Hope rarely let anything go.

“You were suicidal.  I know that.  Seth probably does.  Courtney was too oblivious to anyone else but Bruce to see it.  But I knew it, and so does Seth… so again, sorry, Big Sister, but I’m not going to be that forgiving.”

“Drop it, Hope,” she fairly hissed, not liking having *that* thrown into her face.

“What, the truth?”

*-*-*

“At least give me something to tell the vultures, Bruce,” Lee asked after a groveling apology for ‘disturbing the happy couple.’  “How ‘back together’ are you?”

Bruce’s brows furrowed.  Grace was moving back in, but he didn’t necessarily want that public knowledge just yet.  Haste on their part would create a bigger stir than last night’s public display of affection.

“We’re working things out,” he supplied instead.  They were, really.  Even with Grace moving in, it would take a while for their broken fences to be mended.  Especially with all the new rules to play by.

“And the attack?  Did that play a factor?”

“Lee,” Bruce warned.

“Okay, o-kay!”  Lee sounded exasperated.  “What about lover boy Norton?”

Alex?  Bruce rubbed a hand over his brow.  “That answer should be obvious, don’t you think?” he all but growled.

*-*-*

She pulled the phone away from her ear and was tempted just to hang up.   Of everyone she had to deal with, Hope was the last person she wanted to talk to.  Why?  Because Hope would say the things that no one else would.  Hope wasn’t her friend… wasn’t her mother… Hope was her sister.  “It may have been the truth, but it’s not so now.”

“And when he does it again?”

“He isn’t going to,” she said just as softly, trying not to give off any indication of just how angry with her sister she was.  “Like I said, I make my own decisions.  I decide what goes on in my life.  And
I want to be with Bruce.  And bottom line, you’ll accept it.”

“I will not!” Hope fairly shouted.

Grace remained calm.  “You will.  You will because I’m asking you to.
You will because he makes me happier than anyone in this world ever has.  You will because you have seen what it’s like for me when I don’t have him.  And I can tell you he won’t do it again because he felt it to.  There were reasons… everything happened for reasons that honestly,
Hope, you can’t fathom.”  And that was the truth.  Hope was a good person, but she saw things differently than Grace did.

When Hope had first found out that Grace was dating Bruce, she’d been excited because he was rich… and he was a story. Hope never really got beyond seeing Bruce as anything other than ‘larger than life’.  She constantly teased, asking if he had any rich friends he could introduce her to.  And yes, it was teasing, but Grace often wondered if there was some level of truth to it.  She stopped the teasing though, when Grace had asked her to.  She’d not asked for interviews… not used her ‘connection’ to Bruce Wayne to try to further her career.  So on some level, Hope understood.  But on others, she didn’t.

There was silence for a long moment on the other end of the line.
Finally, a much calmer Hope said, “I still don’t like it. You say he has his reasons… and I’m sure you believe they’re important ones.  And maybe Seth can let him back in… hell; I’m sure Dad did the same.  But
I’m sorry, Gracie, I can’t.  Not right now.”

“Fair enough,” Grace responded.  “But, and I’ll ask you only once.  If we’re all together, you keep your opinions to yourself… unless he asks.”  She knew he wouldn’t, so it was a safe codicil.  “Don’t go causing any more problems than necessary.  Okay?  For me?”

Hope had been all ready to jump on the fact that she had every right to speak her own mind when Grace hit her with the ‘For me’.  There wasn’t anything they wouldn’t do for each other.  And she knew there was only one answer she could give.  “Fine.  I don’t have to like it, but fine.”

“Thanks, Hopeful.  I love you.”  She noticed Bruce was wrapping up his phone conversation and felt the sudden need to just have his arms around her.  “I need to go, okay.”

“Anything for you, Gracie.  Love you too.”  With that, she hung up.

Grace clicked off the phone and sat on the bed, waiting patiently for Bruce’s call to end.  It was behind her now.  She’d dealt with her friends and her family.  It was behind her and she could completely move on.  Though she hadn’t wanted to deal with Hope right now, at least it was over.

Bruce heaved a sigh of frustration as he ended the call and then turned off his cell phone entirely.  But not before informing Lee that if he mentioned Lex Luthor to him again, he really would be out of a job.  Rising from his chair, he crossed the room and sat down on the bed next to Grace.  He didn’t say anything, just slid his arms around her.  Their bodies sagged together, as if they were supporting each other.

“Lee says hi,” he said, speaking at last.  “You’ll like him.  He’s neurotic, consumes way too much caffeine and I swear he’s even pushier than Nee.”  While he spoke, he was stroking her hair, his fingers losing themselves in her curls.  He sensed her need for comfort, and was more than willing to give it.

She sighed against him and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, holding him to her.  “I didn’t think it was humanly possible for anyone to be pushier than Courtney.”  She was reasonably pleased that he didn’t ask about her phone call.  Her head rested on his shoulder, burying her face in his neck.  “And there’s nothing wrong with being a bit neurotic.  Seems like he’s just looking out for you.”

She hadn’t realized just how much his physical closeness was draining away the tension until just then.  Cause as she sat and thought about it… Bruce was looking out for her… and it was fantastic. Necessary… as Hope had made her extremely tense.

Bruce chuckled softly, the first semi-happy sound to come out of his mouth since Grace’s father had called.  “Neither did I, until Constance recommended him to me!”  He continued to stroke her hair, sensing the change in her as she snuggled closer to him.  “I can’t complain, though, he’s been good for my public image.”  Lee had been.  Between Lex, two break ups, and his recent near-seclusion, Bruce’s public image had been battered.  Rumors flew and Lee had sorted them out.  He kept Bruce out in the open when all he wanted was to disappear behind both his grief and his new hobby.  Lee, though pushy and having no sense of timing, had been a godsend.

His hand left her hair, trailing down the back of her neck to her back.  He rubbed her back in a circular motion, and he felt her relax some more.

“They’re just trying to look out for you, too, you know,” he said, meaning George and Hope.

She sighed audibly.  Okay, so he was going to bring it up.  Her eyes slid closed as she let her sense of smell and touch take control.  It relaxed her even more and she responded, even though it wasn’t something she really wanted to get into.  “Dad is.  I believe that.
Hope… she just pushes and pushes and pushes.  Dad… he’ll rationally come around because he thinks things through.  Hope gets something in her head and she’s right.  She’s like a dog with a bone and it’s exhausting sometimes.  Like I can’t make my own decisions.  Like I’m an idiot or something.  Actually, she thinks I’m insane.”

“Grace…” he said softly, leaning in to kiss the bruise on her forehead.  “I… hurt you.”  He couldn’t even voice what he knew he’d put her through.  “Why would someone go back the person who’d done so much damage to them?”  He didn’t want to argue with her, but he knew this is what Hope must be thinking.  “She’ll come around.  It’s like your dad said, he taught his girls how to forgive.  I just… have a lot of making up to do.”

She moved her head from his shoulder so she could look at him.  Her hand went to his cheek and her eyes held his.  “He did teach us that. And he taught us that people deserve second chances.  He taught us that love can truly pull you through anything.”  She swallowed hard, knowing that he mentally tortured himself over what happened between them.  “We both hurt, but Bruce, it’s in the past.  And like I told Hope, I have a pretty good idea as to why it happened.”  She caressed his cheek.

The memory of her first day back here filtered into her mind and she chuckled lightly.  “That first day… after the attack… I asked Alfred why you did it.  And he wouldn’t answer me.  All he said was that I already knew.  That I knew you better than almost anyone.  And I mulled on it.  Really thought things through and put them in perspective.  Yes, it hurt.  But there were reasons.  Like the questions I’m not supposed to ask.”  And she’d just voiced the link that she’d been considering the longest.  The breakup and the secrecy were connected.  “I look at you now and see my future.  I look at you and know that I’m safer, more protected, here than I am anywhere else.  And if there has to be questions that go unanswered, I can live with that.  I can because I love you.  You!  The entire package.”  She ran her finger along his jaw line.  “Why would someone take someone back?” she repeated his question.  “Love… knowing that the bumps in the road make reaching the end destination that much sweeter.  It’s not the easiest road, but we’re here.  End destination.”

She hoped the rambling made sense.  It was a lot to say, and the meanings were deeper than mere words could express.  But she had to say them.  Now more then ever, he needed to know, without a doubt, where her heart stood and what her thoughts were.

It took a while for the full extent of her words to sink in, and when they did, Bruce swore loudly, pulling away from her to pace the room in frustration.  “I’m an idiot,” he added after moments of berating himself in his mind while she watched, confused, from the bed.  “Lex said… and I believed… damn it, I should have known better!”

“What?  Bruce?”

Her query halted his pacing, and he turned to look at her, his anger for himself showing in his eyes.  She didn’t know what he was talking about.  He’d never told her about that night, partially because he’d believed Lex’s prediction. “Those questions you can’t ask? Lex wanted the answers.  He doesn’t differentiate between secrets and lies… thinks they’re the same animal and that if anyone is keeping anything from him, they must be out to hurt or undermine him. He knows I’d never do that, but he still wanted to know.  He wouldn’t accept that there was something about myself I couldn’t reveal to him… to anyone.”

They’d fought about it all the time.  Every visit Bruce made to Metropolis and every one Lex made to Gotham ended in a vicious argument and sex.  The sex was a result of the high tensions between them, enflaming the pent up need to be with one another after any amount of absence.  It was like make-up sex, and the first few times, this is what Bruce had thought it was.  Until he realized that, unlike a make up, Lex had no intention of forgiving Bruce and never again asking about his secrets.  It was anger-sex, if anything.  Desire fuelled by frustration on both their parts.

They’d broken up because Lex could no longer accept Bruce’s secrets and because Bruce could no longer see the man he’d fallen in love with through the hate.

“He said that someday you would want the same answers and then I’d lose you because…. because of my lies.”  He hadn’t wanted to relive all that pain, all the mistrust and the arguing.  He’d broken up with her rather than risk repeating it.

“I wasn’t lying, Grace.  Not to you, not to Lex.  I just couldn’t –I can’t– reveal this secret.  It’s too dangerous.”  Both for him and for the people he couldn’t tell.  He knew that.  Muggers and bank robbers weren’t the only criminal element in Gotham, and while those were starting to fear the rumors on the streets, there were bigger predators who might not.  He couldn’t risk letting the people he loved fall into harm over knowing his secret.

So, he’d broken up with her, sent her back to her apartment, and ruined both their lives.  But Lex had been wrong.  Grace hadn’t asked.  She wasn’t making the same demands on him that Lex had.  She was willing to accept him, secrets and all.

Lex and been wrong… and he had been a fool.

Standing there in the middle of the room, he hung his head ashamedly.  “I’m sorry, Grace.  I didn’t trust you, and I should have.  I thought Lex was right, but he wasn’t even close, and I should have known better.  I should have known you better.”

She sat listening quietly through his outburst.  He was angry, and in all honesty, she’d never seen him quite like this.  It didn’t frighten her, as she knew he was directing it all toward himself.

She was also a bit stunned; as he was revealing things he never had before… about his breakup with Lex and why he’d asked her to leave. She shouldn’t have been surprised, in all reality, that Lex was behind it.  The last few times she’d seen him, his looks toward her had been cold and calculating… even a bit smug.  He was a master manipulator who had made sure he won.  Oh, he lost Bruce, but he’d deliberately planted seeds of doubt in his mind about her before he left.

But Bruce was right about something else as well.  He should have trusted her.  He should have come to her and talked to her.  After a year and a half of living with her, he should have known her well enough to understand that she would have worked with him.  He should have known she wasn’t like Lex.  She wouldn’t push and demand.  She didn’t have to know everything.

He’d let Lex manipulate him.  He was angry with himself because of it. He’d pushed her away, and it had nearly killed her… him as well.

Truth be known, she was a bit upset with him herself.  Though, that had seeped away the moment he said he was sorry.  Because he was.  And she’d honestly forgiven him a long time ago, even in light of his admission.

She stood, knowing he was waiting for a response from her and knowing that every second she didn’t reply was a second he loathed himself even more.

Her hands slid into the pockets of her jeans and she sighed heavily.
“You should have trusted me, known that I’m not like the other people in your life.  I’m not like Lex.”  Even saying his name now caused a bitter taste in her mouth.  “You did let him push us apart.  Hell,
Bruce, that’s probably what he wanted all along!  If he couldn’t keep you, he’d make sure no one else did either.”

Her hands came out of her pockets, and she closed the space between them.  He tried to back off at first, seeming to want her disdain because he felt he deserved it.  But she was persistent, and in the end, she managed to grasp his hand.  “You should have talked to me, but we can’t go back in time and do it all over again.  We can’t get back the time we lost.  So let’s not beat ourselves up about it anymore.”
She squeezed his hand.  Her demeanor became a bit more determined as she continued, “I’ll be damned before I lose one more minute with you. I should have fought then, and I didn’t.  You better believe I’m going to fight now.  I’m going to.”  She made him look at her as he’d barely lifted his head while she spoke.  “I don’t need to know every detail about your life.  We’re a couple, yes.”

His eyes went a bit wide as she said that.

“We *are* a couple,” she repeated, this time stressing the word ‘are’.
“We share a home and our lives, but I don’t need to know everything in order to know that you love me.  I don’t need to know all your secrets.”  She paused again, more this time to collect her thoughts than anything.  “You asked me to trust you, and I do.  But you have to trust me too.  You have to trust me enough to talk to me about things and not to let them fester.  Trust me enough to know that I’m not going to press when you ask me not to.  There’s nothing we can’t work through… so long as we do it together.  That’s all I’m asking.”

The pain of his revelation would subside in time.  What was most important to her now was that they were presented with this second chance… and he had finally opened up to her.  She hadn’t liked what she’d heard, but it was out there now… and they would deal with it.
She gave him another sigh, figuring he might not understand this next part.  “As for forgiveness… that’s something that happened a long time ago for me.  You may not believe you deserve it, but you have it nonetheless.  I love you and because of that love, I forgave you long ago.”

Seth and George had said pretty much the same, but that did not prepare Bruce for hearing her say it.  A part of him, to be fair, didn’t want to hear it.  A part of him wanted to hear her scream, yell, and berate him for not having enough faith in her.  As he should have.  A part of him wanted her to lash out for four months of emotional pain and suffering, all caused because he hadn’t been smart enough to know he’d been played for a fool.

And a part of him remembered how it felt last night to hold her, to feel her come alive beneath him.  To feel her love for him as it washed over him.  A part of him wanted to believe he could truly be worthy of that love again.

“Grace…” he began, raising his eyes to meet hers more fully.  He believed her; he believed they could work through this.  They had to, because he wasn’t losing her again.  Nor did he have to, since she’d forgiven him. ‘But how do I forgive myself?’ he thought, the doubt showing on his face.

Caressing his cheek softly, she fully understood the look in his eyes.  He blamed himself for what he had allowed to happen, for what he had allowed Lex to make him believe.  She wished with all her heart that she could help him with that part of it.  They were a couple, and she could hold him, forgive him, and love him; but she couldn’t make him get beyond his own self-castigation.

Her finger traced along his jaw to his bottom lip where it lingered for a long moment.  Her free hand took his again and she brought it up to her chest.  “I know it’s easier said than done, I know you blame yourself… but don’t.  Hindsight is 20/20, but it can’t change things.  We have a future, you and I.”  She smiled lightly.  “Like I said, I’m not letting you go this time.  It’s not happening.  So, for me, forgive yourself.  Put it behind you… don’t dwell on it.  At least try… for me,” she said the last for emphasis.  “I’m sure you want me angry and resentful, but I can’t be.  I know you feel that way toward yourself. But I love you, Bruce Wayne.  So, please, just try… for us.” It *was* easier said than done, as she said.

He’d hurt her, and while it’d been done for what he still believed to be the right reasons, the decision had been made from faulty information.  He’d believed the wrong person.  Oh, his heart had known the truth.  Every day without her had been painful, because his heart had known there was a better way.  Alfred had known.  Courtney, Seth, and Miles had known.  Constance had known, too… but her response had been a sharp “I knew you would hurt her” and nothing more on the subject.

Everyone had known, and still he’d tried to deny it because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Her heart beat beneath his fingertips, and he knew without question that it beat for him.  If Grace could forgive him… maybe… maybe he could forgive himself.  Or try, as she asked.  How hard could it be?

He nodded slowly, still thinking it through.  “I can try,” he said at last.  “I love you, Grace.  I can’t excuse not trusting you, because I should have.  But I’ll do whatever you want… whatever it takes to make it right between us.”

*-*-*

Grace and Bruce met the movers at the front door.  The truck contained all her belongings, but it was the mover who got out of the passenger’s side that held the most valuable ‘package’ from her entire apartment.
Handing her the cat carrier, she asked him, “How was he?”

“Just fine, Ma’am,” the man said before heading back out to the truck and helping the others unload.

Setting the carrier on the table, she opened it up and pulled the cat out from it.  In the past, Dizzy had earned his name because he was rather insane.  However, Grace’s financial status had allowed her to have some specialized tests run on him and they were actually able to pinpoint that he’d had a chemical imbalance.  He’d been on his daily medications for over a year now.  He was a calm cat… a happy, well-adjusted cat.  He didn’t tear things up, although sometimes he would get annoyed, it wasn’t anywhere near the extreme of what it was before.

Grace held Dizzy to her, hugging him closely.  “Remember this place baby boy,” she said softly to the cat as he purred.  “You’re home again.”  Her eyes moved from the feline to Bruce, and she smiled.  “His motor’s running a mile a minute.  I think he remembers this place.”

“You both are,” Bruce said, moving closer and reaching out to stroke Dizzy’s back.  Between the medication, and months of living together, he and the animal had come to understand each other.  Dizzy purred louder in response to the petting.  Then Bruce withdrew his hand, knowing that like all cats, Dizzy was fickle and that he might not appreciate the attention in a few minutes.

Bruce kissed her cheek before turning his attention to the movers.  The man who’d brought in Dizzy approached.

“Where do you want the boxes?” he asked.

Bruce gave them directions to Grace and Dizzy’s rooms and reminded them to be careful going up and down the stairs.  There were, he realized, too many antiques that could conceivably be broken.

Dizzy squirmed in her arms, letting her know that the cuddling was becoming a bit suffocating.  She looked at the open door and the influx of movers and then sighed, deciding that for right now, the carrier was the safest place for him.  She slipped him into it and watched as the movers continued to bring in boxes.  The last time she’d moved, she and Bruce had spent hours packing all her clothing.  She remembered the way he blushed when she’d teased him about packing her underwear.  She highly doubted he would have blushed over it now.  But still, it was easier this way.

Moving back over to Bruce, she stood behind him, her arms wrapping around his waist and her cheek resting on his shoulder blade.  “It will take days to get everything unpacked,” she said softly.  She actually did emphasize the word ‘everything’ because in all reality, it was everything.  The furniture, although Bruce didn’t know this yet, and everything else was gone.  “Days and days,” she said softly.

“Alfred will help,” he assured her, not seeing her thoughtful expression from behind him. He could understand being bothered by the prospect of unpacking it all.

He was glad to see her things being returned, although, he could have sworn there was less of it when she’d moved out four months earlier.  It was a thought he quickly dispelled, however, as he turned in her arms.  Placing a finger underneath her chin, he tilted her face up towards his and kissed her softly.  When another load of boxes passed through the front door, however, his expression turned into a puzzling frown.

She inhaled deeply and exhaled a sigh.  She’d gotten up the nerve to talk to him about this earlier but the phone calls had come in and things became a bit intense, and the fact of her apartment had been forgotten until the movers called requesting permission to bring the truck onto the property. Giving him another quick kiss, she pulled away and took his hand, leading him into the library.  Some conversations just didn’t need to be heard by strangers who were moving in and out of the Manor.

His expression, though puzzled before, was downright confused now.
“Grace?” he questioned when she closed the door behind them.

“I meant to bring this up earlier, but we sort of got interrupted.”
She paused again.  It was her own advice, and only her own advice that gave her the strength to press on with what she was going to say.  She trusted him, and there wasn’t anything they couldn’t discuss.  “I… well… Nothing’s been signed yet or anything…” She inhaled and as she released the breath, she quickly said, “I don’t want to keep the apartment anymore.”  There, it was out.  Now all she could do was fidget and hope he didn’t flip.

At first, Bruce didn’t understand what she was saying.  She was moving in again.  He wasn’t forcing her to leave.  He wanted her to stay.

“Grace, you don’t have to go back to the apartment if you–” He met her eyes and stopped short, finally catching the meaning of her words.  “Oh,” was all he could say.

If she had talked quickly when she first said she didn’t want to keep it, she spoke even more quickly now.  “I know when we discussed it before we both wanted me to keep it so we could have a cushion but the more I think about it the more the ‘cushion’ feels like an albatross and I really don’t want to have that damn thing hanging around my neck
If you really want me to keep it I will but I just well it I just.”  She finally took a breath.  “I just don’t want to keep it anymore is all.”  She shifted her weight from foot to foot, put her hands in her pockets and took them out again.  Man, sometimes taking one’s own advice really was difficult.

It wasn’t something he’d thought about.  Actually, Bruce hadn’t thought about the apartment at all.  They’d almost never used it after Grace moved in the first time.  She had gone to stay there the first couple of times Lex had ever come to visit.  Before things got weird.  But then Alfred had told her what they’d both felt –that it was her home, and Lex was a guest.  She didn’t have to leave her home to make a guest comfortable.  After that, she’d always stayed. It was a big enough house that they hadn’t needed to run into each other if they hadn’t wanted to.

Alfred, of course, had been right.  The Manor was her home, then and now.  It wasn’t a matter of what Bruce wanted her to do.  What mattered was what Grace wanted.

“Okay,” he said.  “If that’s what you want.”  He said it so simply, as if he didn’t have to do more than give it a passing thought.  Which, he didn’t.  Before, when he’d first asked her to live with him, maybe he had.  But not now, not after living with her for the best year of his life.  He knew it in his heart… she belonged here, not in any apartment.

Relief washed over her in a wave and all the visible tension vanished with it.  Okay, so the advice was hard to take, but at least he didn’t seem too freaked out about it.  “I just don’t ever, ever, ever want to go back there again,” she said simply, not knowing what she would have done if he’d said or done anything other that what he did.  She took her hands out of her pockets… again.  Somehow they kept on ending up in there today.  Striding across the room, she didn’t stop until she filled his space with hers and suddenly she was hugging him.  Holding him as if he was the gravity that held her down to the Earth.

“Home is where the heart is, and my heart is here… with you.”  And that was the absolute truth.  It’s exactly why when she’d gone back to it before, she hadn’t felt like she was home.  Even after all those long months, that apartment hadn’t felt like home.  She was a stranger living in a strange area.  She was displaced.  But not anymore.  And she’d never have to go back to that place again.

He held her tightly to him.  In the last few days, they’d run the emotional gauntlet –going from fear and uncertainty one minute to blissful happiness to confusion, to anger… too many emotions.  Bruce felt drained, and he knew that Grace must feel the same.  So he held her, his right hand moving up to stroke her hair.  The curls still tangled around his fingers, but he was getting used to it. Pressing his lips to her forehead, he kissed her bruise softly.  Things would get better soon.  They just needed time to find normal again.  Time to adjust and work through the hurt.  “Our home is together,” he told her softly.  He knew that now.  He’d never doubt it again.  “You won’t ever have to leave, again, Grace.  I promise.”

She sighed again, turning her head so she could rest it in his neck. Standing across the room, she’d been uncertain as to how he would react to the news that she didn’t want the apartment.  How silly had that been?  Because right here, with his strong arms holding her securely, she knew there was no place else she’d have to be.  She was home. “Thanks goodness,” she said lightly, “cause I already sold my furniture. Or actually, Alfred saw to it that the furniture was sold,” she admitted.  “I plan on going to the landlord tomorrow and closing out the lease… whatever I have to do to break it… I’m going to do.”

“If your landlord won’t let you break, we’ll” –meaning himself, mostly– “pay off the rest of the months on the contract and just not renew.  It won’t be a problem.”  He turned his head to kiss the top of her head.  “Whatever you want… need… Grace, we’ll do it.”  He wanted her –no, needed her– to know that he wouldn’t let her down again.

He released her just long enough to take her hand and lead her to the overstuffed leather chair.  Sitting, he pulled her down in his lap.  She leaned into his embrace, resting her head on his shoulder and they simply held one another. No words, just comfort touches.  Bruce rubbed her back, kissed her hair and forehead.  She snuggled closer, rubbing his arm, absently.

This was how Courtney found them when she pushed open the adjoining door from the living room.  “Ha!” she called back to her husband.  “I told you Bruce wouldn’t be helping her unpack!”

Seth, appearing to mimic Miles’ patience, rolled his eyes teasingly.
“Of course you did, dear, I can’t imagine why I ever doubted you.”  He smiled at Bruce and Grace, noticing that neither was in a big hurry to get up from the chair.  It had to be the chair, he decided.  People just seemed to love cuddling in it.

Grace rested her forehead on Bruce’s for another long moment before turning her eyes to the redhead.  “You know, there’s a reason why you have the nickname Hurricane Courtney,” she teased.

“And here I come over out of concern for the both of you, and I get branded.”  She sat dramatically on the couch.

Seth, sitting beside her, winked at Bruce and Grace.  “You are a pushy, lunatic Hurricane… and we love you… very much.”  He wrapped his arm around her, pulling her to him.

Bruce gave a small laugh and winked back.  “Of course we do.  Even when she is steamrolling her way through our lives.”  He winked again, his tone light enough to let even a total stranger –which none of them were– know he was teasing.  Though her words had set him to wondering.
Courtney had said she came over out of concern.  She did that a lot, as if she knew somehow that something was wrong in his life.  And today had been very… tumultuous.

“Listen… boys…” she stressed that last word, earning a giggle from Grace, “if I wanted to be insulted…” She rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “It’s a good thing I love you or heads would roll.”

Grace turned ever so slightly on Bruce’s lap and addressed her friend.  “And if anyone could make heads roll with a single glare…”

“It’s Courtney Evelyn Blaire-Meyers,” Seth’s brows furrowed as he said, “That doesn’t rhyme with glare anymore.”

“It could,” Courtney mock threatened before turning her attention to Bruce and Grace.  “Okay, so the movers are moving you in.  I take it unpacking is put on hold.  So, what gives?  What’s up?”  She didn’t normally come after both of them at once, but she figured shock might work in her favor.

Behind her, Seth said nothing.  Another action that was very reminiscent of Miles Blaire.

“We’re taking a break,” Bruce offered lightly, though he knew Courtney would see right through it.  She always did.  Although, in a way, he hadn’t lied.  They had been taking a break –from the talking and the painful memories, and that weird look Grace got in her eyes sometimes.  He’d seen it twice now.  Once in the bedroom and once when she told him about the apartment.  Instinctively, the arm behind Grace’s back circled a little tighter, as if by just thinking about that look, Grace would get up and leave him alone in the chair.

Courtney was leaning forward a bit, watching the two of them with an intensity that was uniquely her.  Bruce was somewhat behind Grace so she didn’t see the concerned look, and her reaction to the tightened embrace was almost… needy.  Sure, they were bound to have intense days ahead of them, but there was more going on.  Abruptly, she stood.
Touching Grace’s shoulder, she said, “I’m stealing Bruce.”  That said, she winked.  “So hop off his lap and keep my husband company.  Seth cannot be trusted.  He’s like a bull in a china shop.”  She turned and started to walk out of the room.  Turning back, she looked at them.
“Are you moving yet?”

Grace sighed…  “Steamroller… definitely a steamroller.”  Still, she stood and waited for Bruce to stand.  Kissing him softly, she whispered, “Good luck.”

“But a well-intentioned one,” he replied with a small smile.  “I’ll be fine.”  He kissed her cheek softly and started to follow Courtney out of the room.  At the door between the library and the living room, he paused to look back at her, and then Seth.  The look he gave Seth clearly said ‘take care of her for me.’

*-*-*

The solarium was warm, despite the late-January chill, and this was where Courtney led Bruce.  The light scent of winter flowers hung in the air, and the only sound was that of the water in the fountain at the room’s center.

Bruce came here often in the winter.  It was the closest thing to being outdoors –being close to nature– that he could get sometimes.  And it was pleasant.

More importantly, this room was all his.  It hadn’t existed until one year, just after his parents died, when Alfred had asked for it to be commissioned.  Bruce had gotten sick and had been very ill.  The doctors said he needed sun and fresh air, but the manor was musty and old and Bruce was too sick to pack up and fly halfway around the world to someplace that wasn’t.  The contractors worked round the clock to refurbish the abandoned solarium, and their usual summer-time gardener had been called in to help bring in plants that would thrive in the room after being transplanted.  The result?  His own private paradise.

And Courtney knew that he loved it, that it relaxed him.  Without asking, he knew that this was why she’d brought him there now.

She led him over to one of the benches.  It just so happened that this one was in the direct sunlight.  And as they sat down, the warmth spread over their skin.  Courtney knew Bruce craved sunlight.  He may not openly admit it, pretending to like being holed up in an office or a dark room.  But she knew, when he truly wanted to relax, that this was where he would come.  So here is where she led him.  Seth and Grace would do their own talking.  Hell, they’d probably find them in that chair!  But she was doing her talking to Bruce here.

When he settled in beside her, she said, “Noticed a lot of things when
I walked in today.”  Courtney was never one for dancing around a point.  “I saw movers bringing *all* of Grace’s belongings.  I saw Dizzy, happily sleeping in his crate.  I saw two people sitting in a chair holding on to one another like any moment it was all going to be ripped apart.”  She sighed.  “I saw *less* of those looks yesterday than I saw in five minutes of watching you two in that room.  Yet today, it looks like Grace is moving in for good.”

She looked at him, her face the epitome of concern.  Why couldn’t they just let themselves be happy?  “What’s going on, Bruce?”

“Grace *is* moving in for good,” he started off by saying. That, possibly, was the only good thing about this day.  He sighed.  “It hasn’t been a good day, Nee.”  He wasn’t sure where to start.  The marathon of phone calls from this morning… Lex’s manipulation… his own idiotic stupidity… or that heart wrenching look in Grace’s eyes.  It bothered him most of all.

So he just started talking, an uncharacteristic move for him, but he needed to explain it all.  He just barreled through it without waiting for her reactions.  George’s phone call, Hope’s… even Lee’s, though he skipped over the comments about Lex.  Then he told her an abbreviated version of the revelation regarding Lex, and both their break ups.  “Why didn’t I trust her, Nee?” he asked, sounding tortured.  “We never would have broken up if I had!”

He sighed again, because talking about that brought to mind the look in Grace’s eyes when he’d said he was sorry.  That look he couldn’t explain.  “Nee…” he said after a heavy pause.  “What happened to Grace after we… after I…?” he still couldn’t bring himself to say it outright.  “There’s something wrong with her.  I can see it in her eyes.  One minute we’re fine… she’s fine… and the next it’s like… the world is collapsing in on itself.”

She was literally seething when Bruce told her about Lex. She had been about to give him a piece of her mind over that man when Bruce moved on to the next bit.  And perhaps this was the bit that he needed to hear more than anything. But, Lord help Lex Luthor if he ever ran into her.  They joked and teased about Courtney being pushy… a Hurricane… a steamroller.  But, when it came to her friends… to the people she loved most in the world.  No one, but no one fucked with them.  And Lex Luthor had fucked with Bruce AND Grace.  The manipulative bastard… Her normally bright green eyes flashed with an instance of hatred before focusing on Bruce.

Now was about answering his questions.

So for the second time that day, Bruce heard the words… “Grace is special, Bruce.”

She paused, looking upwards.  If Bruce had asked Grace, she more than likely would either gloss over it, or tell him.  The former was the most likely. “I don’t know how she was right at first.  Seth took care of her.  You were my priority.”  She sighed.  “But Grace… remember when you first met her.  You came back from Smallville because Whitney had upset me…” She sighed.  “Over the pictures.  And we talked about Grace and what it was that drew you to her.  I mentioned her light… her vibrancy… her love of life.”  She looked over at him.  “That’s the way she is.  But Bruce…” She didn’t want to cause him any more pain, but she had never been dishonest with him either.  “She hurts easily.  She’s never really been able to just give a little bit of herself… not when it really matters.”

Running her hand through her hair, she sat back on the bench.  “Her mother abandoned her and Hope shortly after the divorce.  Grace… she just shut down.  As close as she was to her father, she was equally close to her mother. And the woman just left them… no goodbye’s… nothing.” The memory of what George O’Neil had been left to deal with floated back to her like it was yesterday.  “Grace’s way of dealing with pain is to shut down.  By the time I got to her, she was functioning… somewhat.  But Seth said she was all but catatonic when he got to her.  I don’t know what he said to her… what he did… but whatever it was, it got her moving enough so she was functioning minimally when I got there.”

He bowed his head, eyes closing as a lump rose in his throat.  He understood shutting down.  He’d been there himself twice in his life.  Once when his parents died… and once when faced with the thought of losing both Lex and Courtney –his lover and his best friend– to Atropos’ whim.  He hadn’t been able to bear the pain.

Grace…

Had he done *that* to her?  Brought her such pain that it caused her to close herself in?  He knew the feeling.  The way your mind goes numb and your body feels like a shell because you’re not there anymore.  You’re so far inside yourself that nothing can hurt you.  Or so you think.  You’re really hurting yourself.

Had Grace done that?  Had Grace gone down that path because of him?

He recalled the look on her face when she awoke in her bedroom the first day and saw him.  Heard again the tone in her voice when she asked him to hold her one more time.  The same voice she’d used to ask if she could get rid of her apartment.  And that look… the way her eyes lost all their luster and echoed with despair, as if she were afraid he’d reject her all over again.

He’d promised Grace he’d forgive himself, but right now, he didn’t think he ever could.  Not now.

“Nee…” he began, but stopped himself.  What would he say? What could possibly leave his mouth that might begin to express the level of hatred he felt for himself at this moment.  So instead, he stood and walked the few steps away from Courtney to the fountain.  “Then what happened?” he asked, his voice tense with the need to know.

Courtney could see what he was going through.  And damn him, why did he keep asking her?  Why couldn’t she just lie?  Because she knew him.  He wasn’t taking this truth well.

Standing, she walked over to some of the blooming flowers and toyed with the petals.  “She clung to Seth for the longest time.  Went probably a week, maybe ten days, where he was the only one she’d respond to.”  She swallowed hard.  “When Bill…” She shook her head and tried again, “When we brought her home from New York, I was the only one she’d respond to.  But this time, she responded to him. It’s why they’re so close now.”  She turned to him.  “She loves you.  I’ve known her a very long time, Bruce.  She loves you, needs you, more than
I’ve ever known her to love or need anyone.”  Crossing to the fountain, she touched his hand with hers.  “She did tell me something though… one day while we were talking…  She said if you came to her door and asked her to come back, she would.”

She gave his hand a squeeze.  “And I know you want to know all of this, but you can’t let it tear you up inside. She’ll know.  To be honest, I didn’t want to tell you.  But you asked, and I won’t lie to you… not ever.  It’s okay to be upset with yourself over this.  You made a mistake.  But it’s in the past.  Bruce, let it go.  The two of you have a chance.  It’s difficult at first.  I know.  Everyone wants to put in his or her two cents worth.  The first few days are going to be difficult emotionally.  You need time… just the two of you.  But you have a real chance.  She’s moving back in.  Ready to give her life back to you.  She trusts you with things that even I would question.  Don’t blow it all because you’re feeling guilty about what happened months ago.  Understand that it’s going to be rough.  When she gets worried or ‘that look in her eyes’ hold her, reassure her.  She’ll do the same for you.  It’s how it works.”

A part of him knew that Courtney was right.  They did need time to find themselves.  Not that he believed the world would let them be, that is.  But he seriously doubted his ability to just ‘let it go.’  He’d known he’d hurt her, but to that extent?  To the extent that sometimes when she looked at him, she truly believed he would do it again?  How could he let that go?  How could he forgive himself when one haunted look brought it all back?  He’d crushed her, as sure as he been Bill or Chad… any of the other ones who’d hurt her.

No, he hadn’t meant to; he hadn’t deliberately set out to break her spirit.  In that respect, he was quite different from the others.  But, just maybe, that made it worse?  She’d been happy; she’d trusted him.  Trusted his love.  And he’d broken that trust –broken her– in just a few simple words.

Could he forgive that?  Grace said that she had, but she still had moments of mistrust.  Doubt.  Courtney was right; she needed time.  He shouldn’t expect all that hurt to just dissolve.  And Courtney was also right that Grace would know if he didn’t forgive himself for making her need that extra time.  For making her hurt.

He sighed, but it wasn’t the same tortured sighs of before.  It was resignation.  He had no other choice, it seemed. Grace wanted him to forgive himself, and if Nee was right, she *needed* him to do it. They both did, because if he couldn’t let it go, neither of them would heal.
Personally, Bruce could care less if he healed.   But Grace?  She was all he cared about, all he ever would.  “I love her so much, Nee,” he said last.  It was the most obvious, unneeded thing he’d ever said.  Courtney knew he loved Grace.  But he needed to say it.  “I just want her to be happy again.”  The way he said it let her know he was willing to try… for Grace, because she needed him to be strong where she couldn’t.  Because, in all reality, he needed to be strong for her too.

*-*-*

Seth watched as Courtney ushered Bruce out of the room, leaving no pretense that she knew something wasn’t right and was working on her end to get to the bottom of it.  But he never worked that way with Grace.  She just wasn’t one that needed prodded.  Grace talked, but she did it in her own time.  And knowing his wife, he’d have time.

He was dressed in blue jeans, a New York Giants sweatshirt, and tennis shoes.  Plopping on the chair that Bruce had just vacated, he winked at her, patting the space beside him.  When she sat down, he laughed.  “I walked in here and saw you and Bruce sitting in this chair, and it struck me… this is a cuddle chair.”

She laughed lightly.  “It calls to you from across the Manor.  ‘Sit in me… cuddle in me’.”  They simultaneously tried to cross their legs and laughed when their feet kicked one another.  “You first,” she said, draping her leg over his and relaxing.  “See, the chair finds a way.”

He mimicked her tone.  “Sit in me…”

As she was smiling, she looked at him.  “I’m getting rid of the apartment.  I got up the nerve… hung my head… and told Bruce I didn’t want to keep it anymore.”

He looked at her for a long moment.  “And why did you do that?”

Her gaze turned completely serious.  “This is the last place I’m ever going to live, Seth.”

Leaning toward her, he made sure his eyes were on hers.  There was no way she could mistake his intensity.  “I don’t like the sound of that, Grace.  I don’t like the sound of that at all.”

She tried for light.  “What?  Are you being pessimistic?”

“No, I’m being the man who stopped you…” He sighed.

She nodded, getting his meaning, and her face flushed hot.  “I wasn’t thinking clearly, Seth.  I was…”

“I know what you were, Gracie.”  He reached out and touched her cheek.  She had started to cry and obviously didn’t realize it.  “And like I told you then… you have so much to give… so much love inside of you.  And it’s okay that you gave up the apartment.  I always thought keeping the damn thing was a stupid idea anyway.  And maybe you didn’t mean it the way it come out, but it’s me you’re talking to.”  He held her to him as her head rested on his shoulder.

“I’m p…  panicking,” she explained.  “Never… I’ve never loved or needed someone so much.  He’s my entire world.  He’s the man I dreamed of having since I was old enough to realize that women loved men.  When I look at him, I know I’m loved.  Yet, I know there have been times today when I’ve panicked.  I love him, so much.  And I *know* he means it… that this time is permanent.  Mistakes made and learned from.”  She sighed again.  “And we had a long talk today.  About the break up and why it happened.”  It was here that she went into a bit more detail, leaving out some things that she felt Bruce might want to keep private.

Seth’s first thought was ‘Lord help Lex if Courtney ever found out’. His second was how he personally could make sure that Lex Luthor learned his lesson.  He had connections no one knew he had.  Connections more powerful than anyone, except Courtney, knew about.  Connections that had saved her life when the doctors told them nothing else would.  But to Grace, he said, “You know, that doesn’t surprise me.  He’s a Luthor.  Sometimes a man can’t be more than his DNA.”

“Neither can a woman,” she added.

“You are… if two people were ever the exception to the rules, Gracie, it’s you and I.”  He brushed her short curls back from her face.  “It’s like I told you that night.  This world is better because you’re in it… the people whose lives you touch are better because you’re in them.  And you’re right, Bruce screwed up, but he figured it out.  And there’s no way that he’s going to make the same mistake twice.  So let it go.”  He couldn’t believe he was saying it.  He had been so angry that night.  If Grace hadn’t needed constant vigil, he would have gone over to the Manor that night and handed Bruce his balls on a platter.  And yet now, now he was telling Grace to believe and to trust.

Bruce wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

No way.

They didn’t say anything more for several long moments, merely sat in that big chair, Seth’s arms holding her.  “He’s not going to abandon you.  He’s not going to hurt you… not again.  He’s not like the people in your past.  He learns from his mistakes.  And hurting you again is not an option for him.”

“You believe that?”

“Yes, I do,” he said without hesitation.

“So quit with the panicking and enjoy my life?”

He smiled.  “Basically.”

She nodded, and as was the way he had with her, all the panic, vulnerability, and concern slipped away.  He was right.  Seth was always right.  So, she let her head continue to rest on his shoulder, their conversation turned more toward neutral topics.  Specifically, sports.  Seth knew Grace was a fanatic.  And she was actually a Jets fan.  So conversation about the rivalry got heated but friendly at times.  They’d cuss, discuss, and laugh.  It was this way that Bruce and Courtney found them.  It was the chair.  It was definitely the chair.

The first thing that Bruce noticed was the smile on Grace’s face as they joked about sports.  He didn’t remember seeing her smile like that all day.  Except maybe for a brief moment at breakfast, before the rest of the world had caught up with them.  Whatever Seth had said to her, it had brought the smile back to her face and the twinkle to her eyes.  Bruce felt a momentary twinge of jealousy.  He was supposed to be the one to make her smile.  Not Seth.

Someday, he vowed, moving into the room and perching on the arm of the couch.  Someday soon.

Grace turned her smile onto Bruce as he sat on the couch.  Quickly she disengaged herself from Seth’s side.  He, of course, made a play of pushing her out of ‘his’ chair, winking at Bruce as he did so.  Moving forward, Grace placed a quick, yet soft kiss, on Bruce’s cheek.  Her hand rested at the side of his thigh for a minute before she pulled away and gazed into his eyes for a long, lingering moment.  The conversation he and Courtney had must have been intense as well.  His look was still a bit ‘haunted’, but time would help them.  Pulling away slightly, she said, “I need Courtney for just a moment.”

Courtney, who had been about to sit in the chair, stood up again.  “I am at your service,” she said as Grace grabbed her by the elbow, and they stepped just outside the room.

“I need you to do something for me,” she said softly… conspiratorially.  And quickly she laid out her plan, knowing that what she wanted done was Courtney’s specialty.  When she was finished, she was almost giddy with happiness as she asked, “When can you get it done?”

Courtney’s eyes glimmered.  “Give me a week.”

Grace nodded.  “Just let me know…”

“I will.”  She was about to follow Grace back inside when she saw Alfred coming down the hall.  Walking determinedly toward the faithful servant, she stopped when she reached him.

“Mistress Courtney,” he greeted with a small smile.

“Alfred,” she returned, “I have a question for you.  How hard would it be for the phones in this place to stop ringing?  For the door to go unanswered?  For Bruce and Grace to be completely alone…” she paused and looked at her watch, “for the next oh 15 hours or so.”

Alfred looked at the young woman for a long moment.  Bruce had responsibilities.  He had certain commitments that should not be ignored for anything.

“It’s important… you know?  For them.”

He nodded.  She was right.  “I think it could be arranged, Madam.”
The response earned him a quick hug and the hurricane changed directions, heading for the library again.  She found Grace now nestled firmly at Bruce’s side.  “So Seth, how about we go home?” she asked upon entering.  “Football game’s coming on.”

He looked at her quizzically.  Courtney… he loved her, but subtle, she wasn’t.  “Sure,” he said, looking to Bruce and Grace.  He felt better, seeing the look on Grace’s face had changed.  “After all, can’t miss a football game.”

Grace moved from Bruce’s side long enough to give first Courtney a hug, thanking her, and then Seth a hug.  His was a bit tighter, and a bit longer.  “Enjoy the game,” she said.

Courtney, after getting Grace’s hug, moved to her best friend.  She couldn’t begin to say how much she felt for this man.  And she had complete faith in him.  He’d find a way.  Reaching out, she drew him in for a nice, long hug of her own.  “Take care of each other,” she said softly.

*-*-*

Shortly after Courtney and Seth left, so did the movers.  Bruce had just offered to help Grace start unpacking –he would have been about as much help with that as he had been packing the stuff almost a year and a half ago, but had offered so he could simply be with her– when Alfred interrupted them to remind Bruce of his daily responsibilities.

“You go, Bruce,” Grace told him, looking around her at the messy bedroom.  Dizzy was circling her legs, purring happily after having inspected every inch of their adjoining rooms.  Nothing had changed drastically, and the cat seemed to be giving them a seal of approval.  “I can manage.”  She smiled gently and then kissed him to stop his protest.  “You’re not going to be any help anyway, and you know it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, affecting a scolded child. He winked and she laughed.  “I won’t be long,” he promised before leaving the room.

“If I may be of assistance, Miss Grace?”  Alfred arched an inquiring eyebrow at her, and she couldn’t help but smile. He’d helped her unpack the last time, too.  Some things never changed, and Alfred was definitely one of them.

*-*-*

Bruce ran.  It wasn’t quite the easy jog of the last few days.  His speed picked up to keep pace with the thoughts racing through his brain.  Most –no, all– of those thoughts had to do with Grace and that morning.

He’d been prepared to try, as Grace had asked, to forgive himself for what he’d done.  To let it go and get on with the task of loving her.  But talking to Courtney had set him back to wondering how this was going to be possible.

A part of him knew –how could he miss that gleam in Courtney’s eyes?– that Courtney stopped blaming him, if she ever had, the moment he mentioned Lex.  But try as he might, Bruce couldn’t bring himself to blame Lex.  Not fully.  Lex had only voiced what had actually been a concern for Bruce all along.  He hadn’t forced Bruce to send Grace away.

He’d done that all on his own.

When he couldn’t outrun that fact, he stopped, and making no attempt at mediation, threw himself into his martial arts routine.  He didn’t do this routine everyday, but today it felt good to practice kicks and punches.  He attacked his stuffed and padded opponents with a fury he hadn’t had in years… not since he’d gone through that stereotypical angry teenager phase.  Only his had been compounded by the memory of losing his parents.  He’d been angry for losing them, angry with Alfred for not being them, and angry at the world for having the nerve to go on spinning without them.

This time, he wasn’t angry with anyone but himself. As he fought the training dummies, kicking and punching them as he would an adversary of the Batman, it wasn’t any criminal’s face he saw.  Not even the vague memory of the ones who’d killed his parents, a vision which had long haunted his dreams even now that he was adult.  It was his own face he saw, himself who he fought with such a vengeance.  He lashed out because Grace couldn’t… or wouldn’t.  He’d hurt her, wronged her, and left her adrift in a sea of despair he himself knew so well.

It was a dark place that no one deserved to be in, especially not someone as wonderful, as special as Grace. And he’d caused it.  He’d sent her there.

A sudden rush of anger surged through his body and Bruce lashed out, throwing a punch so fierce that it separated his dummy’s head from its body.  The sudden give where once there was tension sent him tumbling to the floor.

*-*-*

Bruce forewent the chair and the manacles that day.  The martial arts on top of his regular routine and the extended run had left him sore and with little patience for unlocking that particular puzzle.

As it was, he’d been training for over three hours and he’d promised Grace he wouldn’t be gone long.

Instead he went back to his room through the secret passages, stripped out of his sweaty clothes, and was just getting ready to step into the shower when he heard a low, appreciative whistle behind him.

“Such a nice, tight butt,” Grace smiled, admiring.  “Has anyone told you recently just how sexy you are?”  She was leaning against the door jam, not missing the fact that he jumped slightly.  She’d noticed the change in his physique.  But standing there, there was no way to miss the change that had happened over his entire body.  “We finished unpacking,” she explained.  “Just brought in the last of what I’m stashing in your closet and heard you in here.  Want some company?” she asked, waggling her brows and smiling brightly at him.

Bruce felt her eyes on him even before he turned to look at her.  “Sexy?  Me?” he joked, pretending not to know what she was talking about.  His body was half obscured by the glass door of the shower.  Not that she’d missed much of it, he knew by the twinkle of playful desire in her eyes.

Courtney’d once told him, in the beginning of his relationship with Grace, that it made sense for them to be as physical as they had been. Because the relationship was new.  She made it sound like that would fade in time, but it hadn’t… not really.  Even after months of living together, their bodies had still responded to each other as if each time was the first taste of hidden pleasure.  Four months without her had done nothing to change that, save to emphasize the need all the more.

“Showers *are* more fun when you have company,” he commented, a wicked grin appearing on his face in an instant.  Her eyes were still on him, traveling over his entire body in a way that stirred his own cravings for her.

Reaching for the hem of her sweatshirt, her eyes didn’t leave his as she pulled the garment over her head.  The only period her eyes left his was when she pulled it over her head.  She’d decided again not to wear a bra.  This morning, she wasn’t certain exactly how long she would be wearing the clothing anyway.  Moving with a purpose, she quickly relieved herself of her jeans, panties, socks and shoes.

This morning and everything that went with it seemed a million miles away to her now.  The visit from Courtney and Seth had gone a long way for her.  Seth had reminded her of some things that she seemed to forget, and Courtney was busy taking care of some business that was a high priority for her.

“Company is good,” she said softly, seductively.  “Also conserves water.  I could use a shower myself.”  Of course, that was a joke.
When they showered together it took twice as long because there was simply something about seeing him wet, having the hot water rush across their bodies.  It was exhilarating. Then, of course, there was also the physical attraction that never seemed to ebb between them.  “Unpacking made me sweat.”  She moved into his space, offering him a smile.

“Well, then, by all means…” he should have stepped back to allow her into the walk-in shower, but instead, he slid his arms around her waist and drew her to him.  “We should definitely conserve water.”  His voice had dropped an octave in response to the seductive tone in hers.  Bending his head, he teased her lips with soft kisses.  His hands moved lower on her hips, and he stepped back, guiding them both under the stream of hot water.

Conserving water had very definite advantages.

*-*-*

When she’d lived here before, their routine had been to shower together early in the morning, after working out in the gym.  They’d then make love in the shower and a vague attempt at dressing before winding up on the bed for another round of lovemaking.

That’s what had happened today as well.  Now, resting comfortably and sated underneath the covers, Grace couldn’t help but smile as she traced light patterns across his chest.  Routine… it was funny how one could take things for granted.  They were the things that were missed the most when they were taken away.  She’d not take anything for granted ever again.  She was home, and she was staying.  “I’m not kidding, Bruce.  These pectorals of yours… perfect definition and tone.”  She lifted slightly so she could look at him.  Winking, she said, “And I should know.  I used to get paid to help people sculpt their bodies.”

She smiled brightly.  “And let’s not talk about your deltoids.”  She fanned herself.  “Oh my.”

Bruce chuckled lightly, loving both the feel of her soft touches and her teasing compliments.  He’d missed her, and while the physique she was commenting on was the direct result of the rigorous exercise routine he’d adopted in part to keep his mind off her, he was certainly glad she was here to enjoy it.  “That’s a good thing, right?” he asked, teasing.

She leaned down and placed a light, feathering kiss on said muscle. “Oh that’s good.”  She then leaned into kiss his pectorals.  “Very good.” Continuing the tease, she said, “Now the lower abs,” she paused to let her fingers trace the muscles, “they’re always the hardest to define. Takes some *very* specialized exercises.”  She ran her finger up his chest.  “I can show you,” she waggled her brows, “how to define them.
Could be fun.”

This was just as healing to her soul as their lovemaking… as his reassurances… as every smile he gave her warmed her heart and touched her soul.  Her cheek rested on his chest and she sighed happily, “I need to add some bulk anyway.  And properly motivated,” she chuckled, “I could get it done *very* quickly.”  She sighed, her finger once again tracing the lines of his body.

“It certainly couldn’t… hurt…” His voice broke a little as her touches moved lower down his abdomen.  “…to have a good physical trainer.”  His breathing had sped up a little.  “I’ve certainly missed working out with you.”

He had.  Their morning routine had been his favorite way to awaken in the mornings.  Intense exercise and then one, sometimes two rounds of even more intense lovemaking. Slumbering until breakfast, or just holding each other like they were now.  He’d missed these moments most of all.

But there other things he’d missed just as much that had little to do with the physical aspects of their relationship.  Reading poetry to each other in the solarium or watching the sunset from the second floor balcony. Seeing the way her eyes would light up when he brought her flowers from the garden.  Watching her fuss over the tiny drops of blood from the thorn pricks he’d sustain. Those… and so many other things.  How he’d lived before he’d met her, he did not know.  And he hadn’t lived after letting her go.

His arms around her tightened a little in response to his thoughts, as if they refused to let her go ever again.

Her arms slid across his abdomen, and she cuddled closely to him.  Her eyes closed and she knew he would be able to feel the smile that was on her face.  She firmly believed that being in his arms was the best place in the world to be.  Before they’d met, Courtney had told her he was reserved.  It was precisely because of that that she’d hugged him when she met him.  She loved touching, cuddling, holding.  She soon learned that Bruce’s propensity for being reserved was really limited to those outside his ‘circle’.  And given how most everyone perceived him, his ‘circle’ was very small.

He touched Courtney.  He would even touch Seth’s shoulder on occasion.
The same went for Alex.  Though in truth, Bruce was closer to Alex than
Seth.  So he wasn’t necessarily reserved, just cautious.  But with her… they held hands.  She’d take his arm and rest her head on his shoulder while he read poetry to her. They’d go on picnics and he’d rest his head in her lap while she sang to him.

And just like now, her cheek had moved over his heart so she could hear it beating.  She smiled.  Poetry.  It was the one thing that she actually turned to for comfort in their time apart. She would trudge through line after line and commit poems to memory so she could recall them later.  And she thought of him constantly as she did it.

Her voice came out soft at first as one of her newly memorized poems came to mind.  A new poet… to her anyway… A poem written almost 180 years ago.  But when she’d read it…  “How many times do I love thee, dear?” she quoted softly.  “Tell me how many thoughts there be in the atmosphere, of a new-fall’n year, whose white and sable hours appear the latest flake of Eternity:  So many times do I love thee, dear.”
She lifted her head to look at him, her eyes locked with his.  When they did, she forgot the other stanza, so she merely repeated, “So many times do I love thee, dear.”  She smiled.  “Thomas Lovell Beddoes…” she said, her voice trailing off as she continued to hold his eyes with hers and letting them express all the love she felt for him.

“Beautiful,” he whispered, caught up in the moment.  When they’d first met, Bruce had felt strangely compelled to learn something about the woman he was slowly falling madly in love with.  Courtney had once accused him of choosing his romances based on the physical.  Attraction over substance.  In the past, it’d certainly been true enough.  He’d had plenty of failed relationships with beautiful people to show for it.  But with Grace… something made him want more than just a night or two of mindless, fleeting passion.  Their initial relationship, even before their first date, was a delicious flirtation with poetry and personal facts.  What he’d learned was that their souls shared a great deal.  Music, poetry.  When simple words failed them, they would turn to those things, and magic would be the result.

Slowly, he shifted, rolling over onto his side so that Grace’s back was to the mattress.  Propping himself up on one arm he looked down at her thoughtfully.  He hadn’t broken eye contact, nor would he.  Her eyes conveyed too much, and what he saw now, he hoped he’d never stop seeing.  “Have you come across this one yet?  ‘Her kisses are,'” here he touched her lips with his fingertips, rubbing her lower lip until it reddened. “‘soft as a snow-tuft in the dewless cup’“ His touches slowed, softly teasing.  “‘Of a redoubled rose, noiselessly falling…’“ He leaned in now, eyes holding hers even as he came closer.  “‘When heaven is brimful of starry night.'”  And then their lips met, and his hand moved to her cheek, caressing as it held her to allow him more control over the kiss.  “Thomas Lovell Beddoes…” he breathed, pulling away from the kiss only briefly and then he pressed his lips to hers again in another slow, soft kiss.

When he pulled away from the kiss, her eyes found his.  No matter how hard the day had begun, it was now on a high note.  They’d had a quiet afternoon, safe in one another’s arms.  She found that this was what she needed.  Having Seth and Courtney worry over them was nice, but in the end, what helped her most was having Bruce with her.  Having her life back on the right track.  Their hearts and souls joined in something that was familiar to them.  Poetry… it was their failsafe.
This moment, more than any words, more than the sex, settled things for her.

Her smile widened.  “Read it,” she finally said softly, but only speaking when she trusted her voice.  “But it didn’t mean anything to me until just now.”  His hand was softly caressing her cheek, and hers reached up to take it.  She gazed upon him with all the love and happiness she was feeling at the moment.  “Bruce,” she swallowed hard and brought her hand into his hair, massaging his scalp, slowly bringing him in for another kiss.  It was slow, meaningful, and passionate.  When she let him pull away, her eyes fairly shined.  “It touches my heart…” she said, referring to the poem, “you touch my heart… my very soul.”

The look in her eyes –happier than he’d seen her in days– made his heart leap into his throat.  “Grace… ” he whispered softly, unable to say more as he looked at her.  But his eyes held hers and what he was feeling couldn’t be denied.

*-*-*

They were late for dinner, having made love yet again in soft slow motion and then fell asleep in each other’s arms.  Alfred roused Bruce only to let him know that dinner would be in one of the smaller, more private rooms rather than in the main dining hall, and retreated from the room.

Bruce, in turn, let Grace awake to soft kisses and his fingers brushing her hair away from her face.  Then, they both dressed, and Bruce slid an arm around her as they walked down the hall and to the stairs.

The dining room in question was, in reality, a little nook off one of the main rooms.  It was dimly lit with candles, and one table was set for two.  Soft sounds of classical music played in the background, so low it was almost part of the room itself.  Bruce looked at the woman next to him and smiled.  Her eyes were shining, and the candlelight cast a soft glow about her skin.  He’d never seen anything that beautiful before, and knew he wasn’t like to again.

Leading her to the table, he pulled out the chair for her, pausing to kiss her before sitting in the chair next to her.  The cozier atmosphere was different… intimate.  It made Bruce feel like the whole world was reduced to just them.

Once he sat beside her, she reached out and lightly rested her hand on his arm.  She wasn’t surprised to see that the table had been set so they were sitting next to one another.  They could touch and still look into one another’s eyes.  It was a place where she could very happily get lost.  To be honest, she already was.  The beauty of the room had taken her aback when they first entered. She’d lived in this house for well over a year and never knew this room existed.  But this house was like that.  Like the man sitting beside her, she found new things to love about it every day.

She honestly wouldn’t have come out of their bed if it hadn’t been necessary.  She was hungry.  They hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast this morning and that had been fairly ruined.  But this morning had been an age ago.  “I used to think,” she gazed into his eyes, “Let me rephrase this… When I was a little girl, I dreamed of what I wanted to be… the man I wanted to be with.”  Her eyes didn’t falter from his, and she let them say everything her words couldn’t.  “When I met you, I knew you were that man I dreamed of.  A man who shared my interests, who loved me even though he knew my faults, who looked at me and with just his eyes could cause me to tremble all over.”

Her hand stopped moving on his and rested lightly on his forearm.  “I’m happy, Bruce.  Happier than I can tell you.” She hoped, prayed he was happy too.

“Grace…” he began, only to be interrupted by Alfred, pushing a small cart with a chilled bottle of champagne.

“I thought, perhaps,” the butler said after a small apology for the obvious interruption, “that something more celebratory was in order for this evening.”  Bruce smiled, thanking him as he poured out the first two glasses and then disappeared silently.

When they were alone again, Bruce placed his hand over hers.  “I’ve never known anyone who completed me the way you do, Grace.  Not–” Not even Lex, he thought but did not say as much.  “Not ever… in all my life… have I felt this closely connected to anyone.”  She made him feel like a whole human being.  A complete soul, and not the shell he’d been for most of his life.  It was an amazing thing.

Giving her hand a squeeze, he said, “You make me… more than happy… there haven’t been words invented to describe how you make me feel.”

Reaching up, she ran a finger along his eyebrows, tracing his beautiful eyes.  “You don’t need words.”  She offered him a smile.  “Your eyes… they tell me everything I need to know.”  She fairly glowed and it wasn’t because of the candlelight.  “I think the eyes are the most expressive part of a person.  They aren’t just the window to the soul… they’re the key to what a person’s thinking.  When we were little, Hope and I, Dad used to be able to tell we were lying just by looking in our eyes.  He could tell if we were happy… or just pretending to be.  He could tell when we needed to talk, but acted like everything was fine. I asked him once how he knew, and that’s what he told me. Everything is in the eyes.  So I started watching.  But it wasn’t until I saw your eyes… that first night at the club when we were sitting in the booth.  I looked into your eyes and I saw myself reflected in them.  It took my breath away.  From then on, I was hopelessly… and very happily… lost in you.”

She smiled again as her hand rested on his cheek.  It seemed ‘chatty’
Grace had once again taken over.  All in all, that was a good sign, she thought.

“As I have been lost in you,” Bruce replied, meaning it.  That night had changed his life profoundly.  He smiled and turned his head slightly, kissing the palm of her hand. “Your father is a wise man,” he said respectfully.  Her mention of George reminded him that he had a duty to perform in the man’s absence, and he knew Grace wouldn’t much like it.  After dinner, he told himself, as right now, he just wanted to enjoy being with her in this intimate setting.

He reached for his champagne glass and paused, nodding for her to join him in a toast.  “Here’s to getting lost –together,” he toasted.

She raised her glass and touched it to his.  “To getting lost,” she said.  Her eyes soft and showing nothing but love as she added, “And to being found again.”  She sipped at the bubbly laughing lightly as it tickled her nose.  She set her glass down and turned to the plates sitting in front of them.  Another one of her favorite dishes.  Roast.

Of course, she knew it was a specially prepared roast, probably a brisket.  The smell wafted up to her and she smiled.  “I knew Alfred was intent upon making sure I gained weight, and if he keeps this up…
I’m definitely going to.”

Picking up her fork, she used it to pick up a baby carrot.  “Of course, all that physical exercise has left me pretty hungry.”  She winked at him.

“If that’s what it takes to keep you eating like you should…” Bruce quipped with a chuckle.  He let the rest of the thought trail off, although the joking implication was clear.  His heart felt lighter now than it had all day.  Grace was happy, and looking into her eyes, he knew it was more stable and less fleeting happiness than before.

*-*-*

After dinner, they moved to the other side of the candlelit room, where a cozy fire had been lit in the fireplace.  Sitting in the chair opposite the flames, Bruce drew her down into his arms and held her.  They did and said nothing for several minutes, merely allowing themselves the pleasure of communing without words.

As the fire slowly died into a warm, smoldering bed of embers, Bruce turned so he could look at her more fully.  Her bruise was fading more.  By tomorrow, maybe the next day, no one would know that she had been attacked; save for the confession her attacker had left with the police.

“Bruce?” she asked him suddenly, and he became aware that he’d been tracing the bruise on her forehead.  He hadn’t realized he’d been doing it.  “I’m okay, Bruce.  You know that, right?” she told him, continuing to study him closely.

He nodded, but was remembering his promise to George.  “I was just thinking,” he began, also remembering what both George and Courtney had said about her disliking the police.  “The newspaper said that the man who attacked you confessed last night.  Told the police how he’d been watching your building… watching you, in particular.”  Which had meant he was more than just a common mugger.  It had been planned, most likely because he knew who she was.  “You are going to press charges, right?”  At the question, he felt a hitch in her breath and her body tensed a little.  Instinctively, his hand went to the small of her back, rubbing in comforting circles, trying to let her know it was okay and no matter what, she was safe in his arms.

The first thing she did was try to rationalize everything.  It was a common defense mechanism for her.  If it was something she didn’t want to do, she always tried to find a logical reason for getting out of it.
So first she said, “He confessed.  You said he confessed. The DA will do all the pressing of the charges, won’t he?  Why would I have to go down to the…” She paused, knowing that even though Bill had confessed, she’d still had to press charges against him.  She clearly remembered the way everyone had looked at her when she went down there.  Most had been sympathetic, but there had been some…  She couldn’t help but shiver.

Her arms wrapped more tightly around him.  “Can’t it just go away?  Go away on its own and leave us alone?”  She wasn’t stupid either.  “The second I go down there… the press… and the hounding… and the police… they ask all kinds of questions.  Personal questions.  Normally, I don’t care, but this…” She buried her head in his neck, drawing comfort from the fact that the more she rationalized and the more the rationalizations turned into scared excuses, the tighter he held her.

Her reasons, weak though they were, touched a place that had remained hidden in Bruce Wayne for many years.  He remembered watching his parents die, and then peering out the back of the police cruiser to watch the legitimate press and the paparazzi follow them to the station.  He remembered two armed police officers ushering him from the cruiser, up the stairs and into the building –lights flashing and people calling out his name the whole way.  While he waited for Alfred in the police commissioner’s office, legs swinging off the edge of the leather sofa, he slowly turned inward to try and tune it all out.  By the time the faithful butler arrived, he was lost inside himself.

But he remembered the questions that came in the weeks and months to follow.  He remembered how much he hated the people doing the asking.  It pained him to be put in this position –having to ask Grace to go through it now.  His arms tightened around her, and he could feel how her heart fluttered in her chest.  She was truly scared, as if even the answer she suspected was coming from him would hurt her.

He knew he should push it, yet he also could not bring himself to purposely hurt Grace by forcing her to do something she did not want to do.  He’d done that once already, to disastrous ends.  “Grace…” he said softly, and his compliance sounded clear in his voice.  Cuddling her closer to him, he caved completely.  “Whatever you want, love.”

As soon as he said the words however, he felt two things very strongly:  her instant relief and a twinge of guilt at knowing he’d failed her father.  Maybe, however, now was not the time.  She might come around.  He hoped.

She did relax completely against him.  Just knowing that she didn’t have to go down there… that she didn’t have to do that… If she were being honest, she hadn’t thought about it, not once.  She hadn’t given a second thought to that night… to that man.  In all honesty, she hadn’t even given thought to the man who’d not only saved her from the mugger, but also had indirectly given her back this life.  Lifting up slightly, she smiled up at him.  “Thank you.”  The relief in her eyes was palpable.  “How about this?  I promise I’ll think about it.  I still have time, don’t I?”

“Some,” Bruce admitted, thankful for the offer to think about it.  “But not very much.”  Silently, he prayed she wouldn’t think too long.  He snuggled in closer to her, happy to go back to comforting silence.

*-*-*

Monday, January 17, 2005

Grace chewed thoughtfully on a piece of bacon while she waited for Bruce to get off the phone.  The couple hadn’t even wondered why it hadn’t ringed at all last night.  But, this morning, actually it was late morning because routine being routine… She smiled at the memory.
Returning to the present, they both realized that Alfred had given them a break and turned off the phones.  They were both very thankful.

However, Bruce was paying for it this morning.

He hung up the cell, setting it down and offering her a small smile.
“It’s almost like Lee can’t survive without talking to me once an hour,” he said by way of explanation.

She smiled.  “He’s your press secretary, guess he thinks it’s his job to know your business,” she teased.  She was about to say something else when the cell AND the house phone rang again.  Bruce answered the cell, and shortly thereafter, Alfred appeared with the house phone.

With an empathetic look on his face, he handed the phone to Grace.  “If you would, Miss Grace, please tell Master Bruce he has a phone call.  Mr. Merryweather again.  He forgot an important detail and says the cell phone was busy when he tried to call.”

Grace sighed and nodded.  When Bruce hung up the cell, she handed him the cordless.  “Lee again,” she said softly.

“Make that once a minute,” was his sarcastic comment before pressing the phone to his ear.  “You missed the sound of my voice all ready, Lee?” he asked in lieu of a real greeting. Soon, it became clear the Lee’s ‘one little detail’ was a whole book of little details.  Bruce finally pushed away from the table and walked to the nightstand that often doubled as a desk and pulled out his day planner.  “I’ve got it right here… yes… two o’clock… tomorrow.”  He paused, and then added a confused, “what do you mean… today?  When did that happen?”  Another pause, and then his eyes narrowed.  “Lee…” There was a warning in his voice.  “We don’t reschedule appointments without confirming them with me.”

At this time, the cell phone rang yet again.  Still listening to Lee’s excuse, which based on the rolling of his eyes was a doozy; Bruce nodded for Grace to answer it.

Grace picked it up off the table where Bruce had abandoned it and flipped up the cover.  The display read ‘Meyers, Nee’ and Courtney’s home phone number.

Pushing the ‘talk’ button, Grace did her best impression of Bruce’s voice.  “It’s your quarter,” she said.

A startled laugh was her response.  “Very funny, O’Neil.”

“I thought so,” she said, looking over at Bruce and giving him a wink even as he looked more and more exasperated. “What’s up?”

“Not much.  Seth seems to think that he needs to work on Mondays.  I wanted to stay at home in bed like *some* people I know, but not my husband.  Look, two things…” she said getting right to business, “first off, I did actually call to talk to Bruce… me being the nosey friend and all.  But since you answered the phone…”

Grace mock-sighed.  “I’ll have to do, I’m sorry.  Lee is being VERY demanding this morning.”

“Good thing Lee knows his stuff.”

Grace nodded and then teased, “If he doesn’t honk Bruce off so much he loses his job, that is.  But anyway… I answered the phone.  How may I help you Mistress Courtney?”

She laughed in response.  “We do have a bit of business to discuss, you know?”  She thought for a moment.  “Wanna meet me downtown?  We can pop in on Dad, say hi, and then head out to lunch.  He’s been wondering how you were.”

Bruce had just hung up the phone and was wandering back to the table.  Eyeing him appreciatively, she said, “And tear myself away from this
Adonis who is approaching me?  I don’t know that I can.  My boyfriend is a bit different than your husband,” she teased.  “Hold on.”  Handing the phone to Bruce, she said, “Talk to this lunatic, please.”

Bruce took the phone, a wicked look crossing over his features.  He’d caught enough of the phone call to know it was Courtney.  “When did they start allowing phone calls in Arkham?”  Instantly, the connection severed.  He eyed the cell, then closed it and waited.   Seconds later it rang again.  Again, it was Courtney.

“Hello, Mrs. Meyers,” he sing-songed into the phone when he answered it.  “What can I do for you on this beautiful mid-winter morning?”

“Take a flying leap into that outdoor pool of yours.  Or…” she paused, actually enjoying the way he sounded.  Happy.  “Or just keep being a smartass, I expect nothing less.  But just remember, you’ll get yours.”

Grace was trying hard not to burst out laughing.  By the look on
Bruce’s face, she could only deduce that the lunatic was actually being either pushy or a steamroller.  Probably both.  What would this world be like without her in it?  Grace was thankful she didn’t have to find that out.  She waggled her brows at Bruce teasingly.

“I was going to ask, but you know, I may just demand now,” she teased.
“I want to steal your girlfriend… couple hours only.  If you can tear yourself away that is?”

The house phone rang again and Grace answered it this time. “You do like taking your life into your own hands,” she said softly into the phone.  Before Bruce could answer Courtney, Grace said, “Lee again.  Seems he missed your gorgeous baritone.”  She patted his rear affectionately.

“Hello?” Courtney asked, jokingly.  “I’m not stealing her forever.
Just two hours.  I may be an escaped lunatic from Arkham, but I promise, insanity isn’t contagious, just hereditary… on my mother’s side.”

“Sorry, Nee,” Bruce said.  “I may just need her here today. Someone has to answer all these phones!”

“Lee again?”  Courtney asked.

“Isn’t it always?  Why don’t you talk to Grace until I get off the phone with him?”  With that, he and Grace swapped phones.

“Lee… the next time you call here today, it better be to propose marriage,” he said as he pressed the house phone to his ear.

“Too good at what he does, huh?” Courtney asked when Bruce walked away.

“I swear, the man is more possessive than I am,” Grace teased.  “So anyway, where are you stealing me away to?”

“Girl stuff… stuff you asked me to do for you.  Turns out I didn’t need a week, just a morning.  And now I need you and your checkbook,” she laughed.

Grace nodded, popping a grape into her mouth.  Her eyes wandered over to Bruce who had once again hung up the phone and was looking at her.
“But I don’t know, Court.  To tear myself away from Bruce…” She shook her head.  “It’s something I just don’t know that I can do, not even for two hours.”  She gave him a smile.  “I leave… and he’ll have to answer both phones by himself.”  She thought for a long moment. “Besides, the Hummer is still at the apartment building.  No vehicle.”
Ah ha!  The perfect excuse.

At this, Bruce walked over to the nightstand again and pulled out a familiar key ring.  It was Grace’s.  She’d dropped it while fumbling with her door lock when the attacker grabbed her.  Bruce had picked them up, though until she’d said something just now, he’d forgotten all about them.  The key to her Hummer was on it, as well.

Before he could give an explanation as to where they came from, however, the house phone rang again.  Walking back to the table, he scooped up the phone in one hand and dropped her keys in front of her.  “Is it tomorrow already, Lee?” he asked without preamble.  After a brief silence, he said, “Give me a minute.  I have the mayor’s daughter on the other line.”

When that shut Lee up, Bruce placed his hand over the receiver and said, “You may as well go with Nee, Grace.  You can pick up your Hummer on the way home or something.  Besides… it may be the only way you get any peace and quiet today.”  He gave her a small, apologetic smile as he turned his attention back to this secretary.

She looked down at the key ring, not asking how he ended up with them.
More than likely the Good Samaritan made sure they were where he could find them.  And she reminded herself again that she should at least do something to thank that man.  “But Bruce…”

A finger was placed softly on her lips.  “Have Alfred get the limo… drop you off to meet Courtney.”  Pulling the phone away from his ear, he kissed her softly. “But only for a couple hours,” he said with a wink.

Grace closed her eyes.  Into the phone, she said, “Well, Mr. Problem
Solver has just made sure that I have no excuses to tell you no, so I suppose I can meet you.  Besides, I have a couple other errands I need to run anyway.  I’ll get everything taken care of while I’m out.”

“Perfect,” Courtney said, “See you in a few?”

“I’ll be there,” she said, hanging up the phone.  She waited for Bruce to hang up and quickly, before the phone rang again, she hugged him tightly to her.  “Quick, kiss me before the phone rings again,” she teased.

*-*-*

Bruce walked Grace out to the awaiting limo, holding her left hand with his right while the other held his cell phone firmly to his ear.  He’d finally given up having a productive conversation with Lee and was reduced to nodding and saying ‘Yes, Lee.  I understand. We can discuss it then.’

As the chauffeur held open the door for her, he pulled the phone away from his ear, holding it out away from them as he stole a quick kiss good-bye.  ‘I love you,’ he mouthed just before the door closed.  He watched the car pull away down the circular drive and then turned his attention back to his personal secretary.

Upon reentry, Alfred awaited him with a silver tray in hand.  A glass of water and a bottle of Tylenol sat on top of the try.  Bruce chuckled, which apparently confused Lee.

“Mr. Wayne?” he asked.  “Is something funny, sir?”

Bruce was so tempted to tell him the ironic truth, but instead bit his tongue.  “No, just mildly amusing,” he replied.  “I’m going to hang up now, Lee,” he told the man.  I need a half hour or so to myself so I can finish my breakfast–” Here Lee launched into an extreme apology. “–and then I’m heading to City Hall to see if I can salvage some of these meetings.”

“Very good, sir,” was Lee’s response.  Bruce smiled.

“And Lee…” he added after deliberation.  “Tomorrow. I’ll call you.”  At Lee’s protest, he stressed, “Ms. O’Neil and I need time to–” And then broke off as a thought dawned on him.  “Listen, Lee… I need you to look into something for me, and I’d be very grateful if you did.”

“Well, sure Bruce.  That’s what I’m here for.”  Lee sounded surprised by the change in Bruce’s tone.

“Ms. O’Neil is having trouble deciding if she wants to press charges again the man who attacked her.”  Bruce’s voice dripped with disgust for that man.  “She doesn’t particularly like police stations, nor does she relish the prospect of being confronted by the media.”

“That’s all a part of–”

“Her life.  Our lives.  I know that, Lee.  But I understand it, too.  Between her attack, and our reunion… it would be a feeding frenzy.”  He sighed, the truth of his words weighing on his mind. “I want you to find how possible it would be to get them –the police, the DA– to come to us if I can convince her to press charges.  No media, just the police.  Someone to take her statement and start the necessary proceedings.  Can you do that for me, Lee?”

“Of course, Bruce.  For you, I’m sure they’ll be most willing to cooperate.”

Hanging up the phone, Bruce took the Tylenol and downed the water.  Alfred still stood beside him, patiently waiting.  He gave the butler a small, drained smile.  Alfred patted his shoulder gently.

“Shall I instruct the limo driver to keep the car running after he gets back from dropping Miss Grace off, sir?” he asked tirelessly.

“No, Alfred.  I think I’ll take the Jag.”  He felt like driving — feeling the thrill of the car against the road, the hum of the tires against the blacktop.  It was good to escape for a few minutes while getting from one place to another. Good to be in control or your destination.

“Shall I expect you for lunch, sir?”

Bruce shook his head.  “I have some meetings at City Hall, and I think I’m going to drop in on Miles.  He’s always complaining that I don’t.  I should be back around two… two-thirty…” he said, knowing Alfred would tell Grace, if she returned before he did.

“And tonight, sir?”  It was a simple, yet loaded question.

“Routine as usual, Alfred,” Bruce replied, meaning he’d patrol as soon as he was sure Grace was asleep.  He hadn’t gone out last night, having felt that after the afternoon they’d had, his day was better spent with Grace.  Alfred had understood this, and had not pushed him, but they both knew it couldn’t become habit.

*-*-*

The limo dropped Grace off in front of City Hall and she saw Courtney there waiting for her.  The idea of this was to pop in and say a quick hello to Courtney’s father… to let him see for himself that Grace was doing better.  Then, the pair was going to run some errands for the little ‘surprise’ she was planning for Bruce on Sunday night. Courtney had asked for a week, but given Grace’s relationship with the ones Courtney was hiring for this venture, it surprised neither one that the largest part of the planning was already done.

Stepping out of the limo, Grace smiled at her friend.  “You have two hours.”  She mock-shook.  “I’m going through withdrawals already.”

Courtney smiled in return.  Given Bruce’s comments and the way Grace was joking, there was little doubt as to the fact that they were both doing better today.  Walking side-by-side, they entered City Hall and without preamble, walked directly to the Mayor’s office.  The secretary, though generally very nice, started to comment that they couldn’t just enter the mayor’s office without being announced when she was stopped by a look from the redhead.  “Really, by now, you’d think she’d know better,” Courtney said to Grace though her eyes never left Eugenia’s.

Walking down the corridor, Grace grabbed Courtney’s arm.  “I think he’s in a meeting or something,” she said, straining to hear the voices.

Courtney did the same.  “Ooooo, you know who they’re talking about, right?”  She paused, smiling.  “Batman,” she mouthed.

“Bat-who?” Grace asked, mimicking her friend.

“Batman… caped guy… goes around at night fighting crime,” Courtney explained.

“Caped guy?” Grace’s mind flashed back to her attack.  “Caped guy,” she said again, softly.

Courtney rolled her eyes.  “Yes, caped guy… you know… flowing fabric that is generally clasped around the neck?”

“I know what a cape is, Court,” Grace stuck out her tongue.

The girls paused just outside the door.  “It’s Commissioner Gordon,”
Courtney whispered.

“And they’re talking about Rupert Thorne,” Grace couldn’t help but say, mouth agape.  They had done this quite a bit as kids, standing outside Miles’ door… eavesdropping.

When they heard the sound of feet moving across the floor, Courtney moved away quickly and knocked on the door.  “Daddy, it’s Court.”

Both girls backed up when the door opened and the commissioner exited.
“Thanks again, James,” the mayor said, eyeing first his daughter and then her friend.  Oh, he knew what they’d been up to.  It was the same old stuff they pulled when they were kids.  He couldn’t help but smile at them, even as his eyes told them he knew what they had done.

Standing aside, he let them both come in.  He hugged first his daughter and then Grace.  Her hug was followed by two hands cupping her face as his eyes checked out her nearly-gone bruise.  He’d had a message waiting for him to call George O’Neil, which of course he was going to do.  But he was waiting to see Grace himself.  This way, he could give her father a full, accurate report.  “So, what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, girls?”

Courtney sat in one of the chairs across from his desk as Grace took the other.  “Nothing special.  We’re running around town, thought we’d pester you for a bit.”

He smiled as he sat behind his desk.  “And Gracie, how are you?”  He didn’t specifically bring up the attack or her reunion with the world’s most eligible bachelor, though from the looks of things… Bruce was no longer available.

She lightly touched her forehead as she replied, “I’m fine. Got a bump is all. It’s almost gone.”

“Good thing too,” Courtney added.  “You have a photo shoot coming up.”

“You do?” the mayor asked.  This girl, who less than a week ago had been lifeless, seemed so vibrant now.

Grace nodded in response.  “L’Oreal.  Some photos for a winter campaign. They’ll more than likely stick a hat on my head if the bruise is still there anyway.”  She shrugged softly.

Miles looked at her for a long moment before sitting back in his chair.
“And Bruce?” he questioned.

She fidgeted only a little.  Of course, everyone was going to ask.

“The movers brought all her stuff to the Manor yesterday,” Courtney informed when Grace didn’t answer quickly enough for her.

“Peaches,” Miles said, “I was asking Gracie.”  His tone wasn’t reprimanding.  He honestly believed his daughter didn’t realize just how much like her mother she could be.

“I moved back into the Manor,” Grace repeated.

“So I heard,” the mayor teased with a laugh.

“I’m breaking the lease on my apartment,” she offered, grateful that at last someone –an adult she looked up to– met her choice with something other than distrustful curiosity.  “No more ‘keeping my own place’.”

Miles raised a brow at that.  A little over a year and a half ago, he’d given counsel to the young man she was now living with.  If two people ever belonged together, it was Bruce and Grace.  He understood the young man’s concern about commitment.  Bruce’s life was complicated at best.  So he’d offered him the option of keeping separate
residences.  It seemed to give Bruce the comfort he needed to take the step he was supposed to take.  But now, now keeping the apartment wasn’t necessarily a good idea.  Too much water under that bridge.  “Good for you, honey,” he finally said, “You’ll have no need for it anymore anyway.”

“Precisely,” Courtney agreed.  Although now that the couple had reunited, Courtney wondered how long it would take for them to make the next step.  No matter how Grace had reacted to the thought of marrying
Chad.  No matter that it was Grace who had run out on that relationship, Bruce was different.  Bruce was the one Grace was supposed to be with for the rest of her life.  A girl could hope anyway… hope for her two best friends to be more than just housemates… right?

Grace smiled brightly.  “There’s definitely no need for it,” she affirmed.

Miles winked at her.  “Tell you what, I’ll have my secretary contact
Bruce’s and we’ll all get together for dinner here in the next couple weeks.  Have a family celebration.”  He still had a report to give to
George… and it looked like it was going to be a very good one.  Grace was happier than he’d seen her in a very long time.

“Um… that’s great,” Grace said, an evil glint in her eyes.  “Just maybe not today.  Lee’s already driving Bruce insane.”

Miles nodded.  He was about to respond when his phone rang. He answered it and then looked at his girls.  “I should take this call, kiddoes.”

Both girls stood and said quick but friendly goodbyes.  If they had eavesdropped like they normally did, they would have heard him say,
“Good afternoon, Bruce.”

*-*-*

Bruce walked out of his meeting with several of the city councilmen feeling drained.  He’d been meeting with them to drum up support for yet another of Mayor Blaire’s crime bills and to push for a motion to reconsider police salaries in the city.  Of the four people he’d met with today, he thought he might have won the support of three of them.  The fourth he wasn’t too sure about.  He seemed of the opinion that Gotham didn’t need a “heavier, well-fed” police force and likened Miles’ crime bills to turning Gotham into a police state.

The man’s family was grown, but his daughter had just had twins.  His son-in-law worked down on the docks.  Bruce politely asked what he would do when –not if, part of persuading someone was to make your argument seem more likely than not– his daughter called to say she and the twins were stranded in Crime Alley, car broken down, babies crying in the background.  Would he feel safe?  Would he go to her himself?  Or would he want Gotham’s finest there to bring her safely home?

His response had been an arrogant ‘well, that won’t happen to *my* daughter’ but Bruce had seen his eyes and knew that his faith had been shaken.  Everyone thought that it wouldn’t happen to them.  Not everyone was so lucky.

Pulling his cell phone out of his coat pocket, he dialed the Mayor’s office and got Miles’ secretary, Eugenia.  “Hey, Genie,” he greeted, smiling.  She was an older woman, very friendly.  “It’s Bruce Wayne here.  Can you patch me through to Miles, please?”

He listened to background music while he waited and then Miles voice came on the line.  “Hello, Miles!” he said in response to the mayor’s greeting.  “Listen, I was wondering, I’m heading to a meeting upstairs and I’ll be done in an hour.  Would it be presumptuous of me to stop by after?”

When Miles expressed pleasure at the prospect of a visit, Bruce smiled.  Walking down the hall to the elevator, he said, “Great!  I’ll see you then.”

*-*-*

“Sunshine,” the husky voice called out as Grace and Courtney entered Bernie’s.  He crossed the club and hugged the tall blonde before turning to her friend.  “And the ever beautiful, Courtney.”  The redhead was hugged as well.  “Now, I hear you want to rent my entire club… Sunday night?”

Grace smiled brightly.  “Yep.”

He led them over to a table.  “You want the gang to play?”

“Please.  Eldridge on the sax?” she asked, as he was perhaps her favorite musician of all time.

“If you want,” the blue’s man smiled at her.  “It’s anything you want,
Sunshine, you should know that by now.”

She grinned widely.  “I want.  This is important to me.”  She and Bruce had missed Christmas and his birthday, and though she knew he didn’t care for celebrating either one before they’d gotten together, he had celebrated afterwards because it was important to her.  And they’d missed this year.  Though material gifts meant nothing to either one, he would understand and appreciate the meaning of this gift.

Courtney pulled out her planner and crossed her legs under the table.
“I have a caterer who is going to prepare dinner for them.  He’ll have the meals delivered here, but you’ll need to keep them warm in the oven.”

“No problem,” Bernie said with a smile.

“Good.”

Grace sat back and listened, letting Courtney do her job and finalize the rest of the plans for the evening.  Once everything was spelled out, Grace did what she was actually needed for the most and then the tandem left the club.

“You know,” Courtney said as they headed for her BMW, “I booked a birthday party there a week ago, and he charged them twice as much… and they rented the club on a Tuesday.  You got a prime day for half the price.”

Grace smiled.  “He loves me.”

Courtney winked.  It was Grace’s way.

*-*-*

The apartment manager wasn’t nearly as friendly.  Grace had gotten the extra keys from Bruce, Courtney, and Naomi.  Handing him the keys, she said, “This is it, Roger.  Tell me what I have to do to get out of my lease.”

“Pay the seven months rent you owe me,” he said bluntly.

Courtney was about to say something, but Grace raised a hand and it seemed to silence her.  “Seven months, huh?” She dug out her contract.
Another advantage to your father being the best contract lawyer in New York was that she knew contracts.  “According to this, it says, and I quote, ‘A tenant shall be allowed to declare a lease null and void if said tenant’s safety is threatened while on the premise.’  I do believe
that I was attacked just outside the door of these premises just the other night.  I do believe that the porch lighting was inadequate as one of the bulbs was burned out.”  She flipped a page.  “And there’s this, ‘A tenant shall be allowed to hold responsible the organization if negligence is found on the part of the organization.’  Burned out light bulb, Roger.”

She smiled and could feel Courtney beaming with pride behind her.
Pulling out her checkbook, she said, “But here’s what I’m going to do.
I’m going to write you a check for $2000.  That should cover *three* months rent and an extra $50 for you to purchase some light bulbs.
How’s that sound to you?”

Roger heaved a sigh and took the check she offered him. “You always were a pain in the ass, Grace,” he said, though his voice wasn’t harsh as he knew she had him.  “Damn pain in the ass.”

Leaving the office, the girls headed up to the second floor to Allen and Naomi’s apartment.  She wasn’t surprised to see both of them at home.  The salon where Naomi worked was closed on Monday’s and Allen worked twelve-hour shifts three days a week.  Today must have been his day off.

They visited with the couple for a while, though both were cautious about extending complete blessings over the quick reunion.  They understood, and Allen promised that he would tell Chad.  What Allen didn’t say was that Chad had been hoping Grace would pull herself out of her funk and move on with her life without Bruce.  The police officer, though hurt when Grace left him, always held out hope that she’d come back.  Watching her today, though, Allen knew Grace had gone back… but back to the one she needed most in her life.  Like it or not, in the end, it’s what made her happiest that counted most.

*-*-*

Walking out to the parking lot, Grace pulled out her keys. Turning to
Courtney, she said, “I’m going to make an impulse buy, wanna tag along?”

Courtney, ever suspicious, simply nodded and reset the alarm on her BMW.  “Sure, but should I be worried?”

Grace laughed.  “Only if you’re afraid of the color purple.”  Taking out her cell, she called the Manor.  Alfred informed her that Bruce had gone into town and wouldn’t return until later that afternoon.
Checking her watch, she did some mental calculations.  “I should be home around three… four at the latest.  There’s something I want to do.”  After saying goodbye, she got in her vehicle and looked at Courtney.  “I’ve soooooo wanted to do this for a while now.

Two hours later, Grace was dropping Courtney off at the apartment building.  She was driving a new Hummer, paid for completely with a check.  Only this one… well, this one was purple.  The dealer had explained to her that Hummers didn’t come in purple, to which Grace had asked if General Motors made Hummers.  He said they did.  Her next question had been if GM painted any vehicle purple.  He said yes.
She then walked over to a car and pointed to it.  “I want *this* purple on *that* Hummer,” she said, pointing to one on the lot… all the ‘bells and whistles’, but it was just white.  And she wanted purple.

Courtney had to agree, the purple was gorgeous.  It was one of those metallic colors that if you looked at it one way, it could be black… some ways it looked blue or purple… and if the light hit it just right, it could have been a deep red.  She laughed as the dealer caved and had the Hummer pulled into the body shop and repainted.  This was new for Grace.  The apartment thing wasn’t, as Courtney knew the woman always argued the lease.  She believed she had done that because of her personal dislike of Roger.  But demanding the Hummer be repainted purple… that was new.  What was also new was that she just wrote the check.  Wrote the check and very, very happily, drove the new vehicle
home.

As Courtney drove her own car back to the office, she had to admit.
She liked the new Grace.  She liked her a lot!  Grace was throwing herself back into life, doing things that made her happy.  And whether
Bruce wanted to believe it or not, it was he who gave Grace life.  He’d figure that out… if he lived through the shock of seeing the purple monster parked in his garage that was!

*-*-*

“Good afternoon, Eugenia!”  Bruce greeted as he entered the office.  He had a single daisy in his hand, her favorite flower, as he’d learned from countless visits to City Hall.  “For you,” he said, holding the flower out to her with a flourish.

Eugenia beamed up at him, and she took the flower, bringing it to her nose. “You’re not going to barge in there too are you, young man?” She asked him, reaching a hand out towards the intercom.

“Hadn’t planned on it,” came his reply.  “But if you want me too…”

Eugenia laughed at his joking offer and pressed the button. “Mr. Wayne is here to see you, sir,” she said, informing her boss.

“Great!  Send him on in!  I’m just finishing a phone call!” Miles’ voice sounded tinny through the intercom, but cheerful.

“*Now* you may barge in there,” Eugenia told him, waving him off with a smile.

Miles was standing at the door when Bruce made his way back to the office.  He was waiting with a smile and an extended hand.  “Good afternoon,” he said, as Bruce accepted the hand and the two men shook enthusiastically.  “Today is my lucky day.”  He motioned Bruce toward one of the chairs, sitting behind his desk.

He took a long look at the young man.  There was still a bit of ‘haunting’ in his eyes, but overall, the improvement in him was phenomenal.  No way was this the same man who’d barely made it to the luncheon on Thursday and had moped through most of the official party on Friday.  It was good to see him feeling better.

“The girls were just here.  Actually, they just left when you called.  I believe they are out terrorizing Gotham.”  He mock-shuddered.

Bruce chuckled as he took the seat opposite Miles.  “Well that explains why Eugenia thought I was going to go barging into your office.  Nee must have just breezed through, dragging Grace with her.”  It was something Bruce could easily see, as he *had* seen it before.  Miles may be the mayor, but he was Courtney’s father and she saw no distinction sometimes.  He shook his head, still laughing.  It was good to know that Grace was having fun with Courtney today.  She hadn’t wanted to go; he knew that.  But the Manor had an isolating influence and Grace was always a person who craved a certain amount of attention and interaction. And she’d just been hurt –twice.  He didn’t want her to mistake the Manor’s solitude for perfect security against an uncertain world.

Miles sat back in his chair, letting his arms rest on the arms of the seat.  “My daughter and Eugenia don’t always see eye-to-eye.  I was in a meeting, yes.  And poor Eugenia was simply doing her job.”  He smiled.  “But it’s interesting.  When they were little girls, they would sit outside my office at the house… their little ears plastered to the door.  I can’t tell you how many times Constance caught them, or I’d open the door and two little bodies would fall at my feet.”  He actually laughed at the memory.  “Courtney thinks she’s smarter now.  She knocks just before I open the door.  She’s learned to equate hearing footsteps with someone approaching.  So I let her think she’s getting by with it.  Besides, Eugenia buzzed me so I knew they were coming.”

He gave a wave of his hand.  “But you know how they are.”  He loved talking about the girls, and in this, he knew Bruce agreed.  “So, what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?  I feel like today is my lucky day,” he reiterated, smiling widely.  Inwardly, he thought, ‘All my kids visiting in one day.’  Outwardly, he was simply genuinely pleased.

“I have to have a reason now?”  Bruce asked, but he was smiling and his tone was easy.  He shrugged.  “I just thought I’d stop in, seeing as I had to cancel our last two lunches.  You know, since I was here and all.”  But they both knew Bruce didn’t do anything without a reason.  “I was going to tell you myself, but I suppose the girls already told you the good news?”

Of course, they would have.  Courtney had been thrilled to think he and Grace were back together, all the messed up badness aside.  She would have told the world if she didn’t respect Bruce’s need for privacy.  Miles, however, wasn’t the whole world.  He was her father, and also the closest thing to a real father Bruce had known, aside from Alfred.
Miles and had his father had been very close.  His father had even helped get Miles’ political career started.  Bruce had forgotten about the connection until he was in college and had started thinking about what he would do with his family business.  Alfred had suggested speaking to Councilman Blaire.  Alfred, of course, had not forgotten the old connection.   Then Courtney had breezed into his life, and like it or not, Miles was stuck with him now.

“They did… well,” Miles laughed, “Courtney did.  Blurted it out like there’s just no filter between her mind and her mouth.”  He winked.  “And no, you never have to have a reason to stop by and see me.  There are few people my door is always open to, and you are one of them.”  He felt the need to stress that point before going on.  “The girls actually told me a lot of things.  Grace is all settled in, I take it.  As well as getting rid of her apartment.”  He paused, his look a bit more serious though no less affectionate.  “If I must say, I think that’s a good idea now.  I’ve not seen her this happy, Bruce… not ever.”

That made Bruce’s smile widen.  Grace was happy.  Other people were noticing it.

“She asked… she doesn’t want the apartment… and I don’t want her to leave ever again,” he said matter-of-factly.  He didn’t acknowledge the fact that he’d been the reason Grace left in the first place.  What mattered was that she was there and happy.

For a moment, Bruce let the shield that was his public face down.  He shook his head, meeting Miles’ eyes slowly, determined.  “I made a mistake letting her go the first time,” he said, fully knowing that Miles knew this.  He’d tried to tell him.  As had Alfred and Courtney.  Hell, he’d known it himself, but hadn’t realized how much of a mistake it was.  But he had been given a second chance, and he wasn’t going to mess it up.

“We all make mistakes, Bruce,” Miles said sympathetically.  “But you’ve rectified this one.  And she is happy.  That woman loves you,” he said as if he hadn’t said that same exact thing a hundred times to Bruce.  “And she makes you happy.”  He pushed his chair back a bit so that he could rest his ankle on his knee.  “Now, I told the girls I would have my secretary get in touch with yours but Gracie said something about Lee being a pain in your rear today.  I’d like for us all to get together for dinner.  A ‘family’,” here he used his fingers to make quotation marks, “celebration.  My place.  We’ll give you and Grace a couple weeks to get settled back in, but then one evening… I want one evening.”  He removed his ankle so he could sit forward again.  “Because, you know, you still owe me several lunches,” he teased.

“Oh, I don’t think I have to worry about Lee for a couple of days, at least,” Bruce said, thinking of the special errands he’d sent the other man on.  “But dinner with the… family… sounds nice.  I’ll look at my schedule and let you know what’s good.”  He didn’t say ‘dinner with your family.’ Just the family.  His family in so many ways.  That’s why, when he’d begun this new phase in his life, he’d had a will drawn up with provisions for those most important to him.  Courtney.  Grace.  No one knew about it except himself, Alfred and the lawyer who’d drawn it up.

“It does.  It’s been too long since the six of us have actually had dinner together.  And I can promise you, Constance will behave.”  He laughed lightly.  “Just a moment, Bruce.”  Using his intercom, he paged his secretary.  “Eugenia, could you do me a big favor?  Compile a list of dates for Mr. Wayne.  Evenings that I have free starting… oh… a couple weeks from now.  Could you do that for me?”

The voice over the other end of the comm was extremely friendly.  “I
sure will, Mayor.”

“Thanks.”  His attention turned back to Bruce.  He studied him for a long moment.  To those who knew the family, Courtney looked and acted like her mother in a lot of ways, but there was a lot of her father about her too.  Her caring of people and her intuition were two of the most obvious.  “So, what’s on your mind?  Earlier I asked you something similar and got the standard ‘Do I have to have a reason?’ Socratian answer.”  His gazed turned knowing.  “So, we’ll try a second take… what’s on your mind?”  And that was something Courtney got from her father too.  Miles said what was on his mind.  The only difference was that age had taught him how to temper it.

Bruce chuckled softly.  It sometimes amazed him how much like Courtney Miles could be… no, how like him *she* was. Only, Nee would have bullied him into an answer.  That amendment curled his lips into a smirk.  Miles quirked an eyebrow and seemed to be waiting, as he knew the young man was coming to a decision.

Bruce nodded slowly, as if communicating with himself.  Then he held Miles’ eyes with a determined gaze.  “There is,” he said quietly.  “Something I’ve debated telling you for some months now, but it’s also something I’d rather no one” –By ‘no one’ he meant no one he hadn’t personally told– “discuss freely.”  In other words, this shouldn’t be
considered common knowledge.

That last bit had the man’s full attention.  Whatever this was, it was more than just ‘what do I do about Grace’?  Using the intercom again, he told Eugenia to hold all his calls.  As he thought earlier, Bruce didn’t do things like this lightly.  And for him to even bring it up to Miles that it wasn’t something to be discussed freely, it had to be very important to the young man.  Therefore, it was important to him.  “You have my word, Bruce,” he managed once again to keep himself from calling him ‘son’, “What is said in this office, stays here.”

He sat back in his chair again so that his presence wouldn’t be intimidating.  Not that he could intimidate Bruce, but Courtney loved to point out that sometimes being ‘too interested’ could be frightening.  And when it came to his ‘family’, Miles was interested.

“Thank you,” Bruce said when Miles settled into his chair.  Sometimes, when they were alone, speaking in private, there was softness to Miles’ voice when he said Bruce’s name.  He might not think Bruce ever heard it but he did.  It was the same tone of voice he used for his daughter.  “Recently…” he began, hoping the right words would come.  “I met with
my lawyer and had a will drawn up.”  He swallowed a little, wishing for water.  “I named Courtney as a beneficiary.”

Miles was watching the young man so closely he noticed the swallowing action and instinctively stood to get him a glass of water.  It gave him a moment to think.  Bruce had named Courtney as a beneficiary in his will.  He always knew his emotions for the woman he affectionately called Nee ran deep, but he hadn’t really believed they ran to that level.  It wasn’t so much that Bruce had decided to leave Courtney money or possessions, but that he loved and cared enough for her to want to take care of her… even if the day would come that he couldn’t… physically.

Returning to his desk, he handed Bruce the glass of water.  “Having a will, especially for someone in your position, is a very smart and responsible thing to do.”  He paused, thinking he should have gotten some water for himself.  “I understand the need to keep that within these walls.”  As a father, there was just no way he could express how touched he was by what he’d just heard.  “I think my daughter is blessed to have a friend like you.  Not because of the fact that she’s in the will, please understand.  But because you love her enough to want to take care of her.”  It was a very familial thing to do.  And for that, Miles was very proud of him.  Of course, he’d always been proud of him, but he’d never had to fight the urge to tell him that so much as he did right now.  Bruce was the son Miles always wished he’d had. Oh, he loved Courtney more than words could say.  And he wouldn’t trade her for anything.  But to have a son as well… one like Bruce… He felt the bond, but was always wary of expressing it.  Never wanting to cross those invisible lines he knew Bruce drew.  He knew they were there, and he respected them.

Bruce brought the water glass to his lips, drinking slowly. He knew –felt– what Miles did not say.  They understood each other in some ways.  He ventured a smile.  “There are other provisions,” he said, not going into them at all.  “Alfred knows what I want done, in the event that I–” he trailed off.  Someone might think it impossible that a man of his youth would worry about his own death but Bruce knew better. The trip to Italy when Courtney was sick had been but one example.  There’d been a hit on him, should he not relinquish control of his European offices. No one knew about that, and if he had anything to say about it, no one would.  And now there was the Batman element.  “Though, I hope that never happens before I’m old and gray.”  The death his father had deserved, he thought, though his tone was lighter, almost joking.

“All I’ve ever wanted for Courtney is her happiness and well-being.  I know she has that in Seth.  And I know there is little I can give her that she couldn’t get on her own.” He took another sip of his water.  “I just thought you ought to know, as her father.”  He concluded, giving another small smile.  He knew he was asking him not to tell
Constance.  He knew Miles loved his wife, but she was too closely bound to Gotham society not to let the cat out of the bag.  Her daughter –Bruce Wayne’s heir.  No, it wouldn’t do.  Miles… he trusted implicitly, and there were other things he wished he could tell the man.

Miles gazed at him intently.  “We want the same things then, you and
I.”  He smiled softly.  Constance still would make comments about Bruce abandoning Courtney during the times she seemed to need him most, but Miles knew better.  Miles knew that Bruce would never leave Courtney or Grace without having a damn good reason.  He also knew, without asking, that the young man had more than likely included Gracie in the will as well.  “All I’ve ever wanted in my life,” he paused and laughed lightly, “Let me rephrase… all I’ve ever wanted since she was born was to see her happy, that and to have her outlive me.”  He swallowed, as he knew exactly how close they had come to not having that.  He also knew that neither Seth nor Courtney had told Bruce that the doctors had misdiagnosed her at first… that that was why Seth had taken her to New York City.

“And it looks like I get both.  And through my daughter, I’ve been blessed.  So you have my word as a gentleman, I will say nothing to no one, but,” he paused and softly said, “Bruce, thank you.  Thank you for caring about her… for loving her that much.”

Bruce smiled, but also shook his head.  “No need to thank me, Miles.”  Though, in truth, the man’s words meant more to Bruce than anything.  “I couldn’t help but love Nee, from that first day even.”  He paused, making eye contact. “Your daughter is very precious to me, and I know I haven’t always been there –physically– when she needed me to be, but she’s always in my heart.”

*-*-*

Miles waited for several long moments after Bruce left before he even moved.  Overall, seeing all his ‘kids’ today had gone a long way towards making the bad moments disappear.  But also, seeing Grace, knowing that she had been a victim of a crime… crime that he so desperately wanted to decrease in his city… It had touched home with him.  Standing, he walked over to the window and looked down at the city.  People were going about their daily lives… mothers, fathers, children, friends, lovers… All they wanted to do was live their lives and do so safely.  That’s all Miles wanted to give them.  And it enraged him that there were those who could so easily compromise their values.  He couldn’t reach them.  His newest crime bill was losing support.  Neither he nor Bruce could sway certain members of the council… certain members who had very few values and ethics.

That enraged him even more.

And then to have Bruce come in here and tell him he’d named Courtney as a beneficiary should anything unfortunate happen to him.  It made Miles all the more determined.  Good people did exist.  People cared about one another… they loved, laughed, and cried… together.

The girls had overheard his discussion with Commissioner Gordon.  They’d heard them discussing Batman and Rupert Thorne.  Thorne.  Everyone knew he was crooked.  Everyone knew he ordered executions and ran the equivalent of a Gotham ‘mafia’.  Thorne was virtually untouchable.  By everyone but this Batman.  Miles knew he was no myth or rumor… so did Gordon.  If they couldn’t drum up support for the crime bill, it could very well take a vigilante to take care of what he couldn’t.

But now more than ever, he was determined to see that this crime bill passed.  He was determined to make this city safer for everyone.  It wasn’t a desire of his… it was something he had to do.

Moving away from the window, he cleared his head and picked up the phone.  From memory, he dialed the number to George O’Neil’s law office.

“O’Neil and Beckham Contract Law,” the receptionist’s voice answered.

“George O’Neil please.”

“Whom may I ask is calling?”

“Mayor Miles Blaire.”

The receptionist’s voice spoke more than her words.  “I’ll put you through right away, sir.  One moment please.”

Miles couldn’t help but smile.  Obviously she had been informed to put his call through no matter what George was doing.

“Miles?” the lawyer’s voice filtered through the phone.

“George,” the mayor responded.  “How are you?”

“It’s a Monday,” George said as if that explained everything.  “Everyone wants to sue everyone over something on a Monday.”

Miles sat back down in his chair.  “And here in Gotham, everyone wants to play the ‘game’ of politics on a Monday.”

“Frustrating, isn’t it?”

“Very much so.”  Miles paused and then quickly changed the topic.  “I have, however, had a very nice break.  I had a few visitors today.”

“You saw Grace?” came the father’s question.

“I did.”  He didn’t wait for George to ask the next question, as a father, he knew what the man wanted to know.  “She’s fine.  She’s healthy and truly doing well.  You can hardly see the bruise.”

“Emotional scarring?” George asked curtly.

“She was smiling, George.  A glow in her eyes that I’ve never seen.  Not even before she and Bruce split.”

“You mean before Bruce broke her?”

Miles sighed.  He understood the protective nature.  If Courtney had been crushed like that, he would be enraged too.  But Miles had an insight George didn’t… he KNEW Bruce.  At least he knew him on a level that most others didn’t.  Bruce had taken him into confidences that he didn’t take anyone else into.  “You know, George, I’m not defending what happened.  Breaking Grace’s heart was a huge mistake on Bruce’s part.  And no one knows that more than he does.  And he’s doing everything he can to make sure she’s happy.  It’s working too.”

“Until he does it again.”  George sighed.  “I care about him too, Miles.  I trusted that Grace had finally found the one who would stand by her… never break her heart.  It’s all any father wants for his daughter.  You have that in Seth.  I thought I had that in Bruce.”

And there it was.  Not only was it the breaking of Grace’s heart, but the breaking of trust.  That was something that wasn’t easily repaired.  George had come to see Bruce as a son.  He’d taken Bruce into the family.  They’d gone on family vacations… Bruce and Grace had spent holidays at the O’Neil home.  George and Janet had well and truly believed their family had grown by one member.

And in one fell swoop, one wrongly uttered sentence, it had all been stolen from them.  Grace’s life had been crushed.  If Seth had hurt Courtney like that…  But once again, Miles had an insight.  “It’s not going to happen again, George.  I can promise you that.  And as much as you are berating him… he’s berating himself even more.  Believe me.”

“He should,” was George’s immediate response before chuckling almost ruefully.  “I go back and forth,” he admitted to his long-time friend.  “I want to believe, but I also could happily wring his neck.  I talked to them this weekend.”

“Both of them?” Miles asked, wondering how it went between the father and the boyfriend.

“Yes, both of them.  It was very upsetting to learn everything about my daughter from the newspapers.  Sometimes I feel like I live too far away.”  He sighed before continuing, “But yeah, I talked to them both.  I’m willing to do the ‘second chance’ thing because Grace is so determined.  And I want her happy.”

“I understand.  I had myself a small talk with Seth the week before they got married.”

“Threatening to break his kneecaps?” George teased.

Laughing, he replied, “Actually it was the long, slow process of bamboo shoots under the fingernails.”

“Ouch,” George laughed in response.  “I was all ready to threaten Bruce.  I don’t give a fig what his name is or how much money he has… not when it comes to my daughter.  But,” he paused, “everyone deserves a second chance.”

“And trust can be rebuilt.”

“Slowly, but yes.  I asked him to do a couple things for me.  It’s a step.  And it’s one step at a time.”

“That it is, old friend.”

George pinched his nose.  “You know the hell of all this is, we were supposed to be in Gotham on Friday, for your party.  And this damn lawsuit was dropped in my lap on Thursday morning.  If we had been in Gotham…”

Miles eyes went wide.  “Oh yeah… seems almost…”

“Like Fate, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, and how can you argue with Fate?”

“You can’t.  But I can tell you this… it happens again and I’ll kick Fate in the ass and then come down there for Wayne.”  The last sentence was said with a light tone, one that Grace often used.

Miles chuckled.  Hope was her father… in her determination, her spirit, and her drive.  She was her father made over.  But Grace… Grace was her mother.  She looked exactly like her mother… acted like her… reacted like her.  Miles remembered Judy O’Neil.  She was always very forgiving and vibrant.  She pulled you in and made you feel special.  He wasn’t sure where things had gone wrong for Judy.  What had caused her to turn her back on her two daughters and her husband?

One day, the blonde vixen was pal-ing around Gotham helping Constance plan a charity banquet, and the next; she was gone.  And in leaving, she left devastation in her wake.  She left a very confused and hurt man and two destroyed daughters.  Though, Hope had recovered first and rather easily.  Hope stuck her emotional baggage in the closet and went on with life.  Grace carried hers around with her for a very long time.  Even when George met and fell in love with the much younger Janet, it had been Grace who’d had the hardest time adjusting.  But it was also Grace who loved the most completely.  If you asked the woman, who looked so much like Judy O’Neil, who her mother was, she’d tell you Janet O’Neil.

Some second chances never happened.  It was a real shame.

Finally, Miles joked, “I think if it happened again, he’d take care of himself long before you got here.”  He paused for a moment.  On his desk, he had a picture of Constance… beautiful red hair artfully sculpted, eyes shining as she was laughing over something he’d said as he took the picture.  Beside that, he had a picture of Courtney and Seth.  His daughter looked beautiful in her long, white wedding gown.  Her hair was short but beautifully styled.  Seth was in his black tux with tails.  They were looking at one another, not at the camera.  But the picture said it all… the love there was deep and it was lasting.  It spoke of hard times that had been shared and conquered.  On the other side of his desk, there was a picture of Courtney and Bruce.  This one was before the cancer.  Courtney’s hair was blowing wildly in the wind and Grace had taken the picture just as Courtney tackled the younger, stronger man.  Both were smiling and laughing.  The last picture was of Grace and Bruce.  Bruce normally didn’t enjoy press photos, but the story behind this one was that he’d showed up during one of her photo shoots.  Obviously swept away by how beautiful Grace looked, she’d managed to convince him to pose for a few pictures.  They weren’t used for any advertising, but they’d given some of them to their close friends.  They were looking at the camera, but resting comfortably with one another.  This picture also spoke of deep love, but love that had yet to be truly tested by fire.  Miles imagined if they were to take another picture of them now, Grace and Bruce’s looks would more closely match Courtney and Seth’s.  That’s how love worked.  The harder things were; the more enjoyable the good times.  “You know, George,” he said after his contemplation.  “Maybe, just maybe, the split was needed… necessary.  It’s easy, and we both understand this, it’s easy to say ‘forever’ when times are good.  But to go through the bad times… to survive them… and then come back and say ‘forever’…” He didn’t finish; just let the rest hang between them.

Miles couldn’t see it, but George was also looking at his own photo of Grace and Bruce.  It was very similar to the one Miles had on his desk.  He’d meant to take it off so many times during the separation, wanting to hate Bruce Wayne but never quite being able to make the emotion complete.  So he’d kept the picture on his desk.  As he looked at it and heard Miles’ words, he softly said, “Yeah, you’re right.  To fully appreciate the light, you have to experience the dark.”

“He’s learned, George.  He’s learned how empty that dark is without her light.”

Thinking of Judy and the light she’d always given, George had to agree.  His thoughts then turned to Janet and all the light, life, and love she’d given, and he had to verbalize his agreement.  “You’re right.  She’s not an easy woman to live without.  None of our girls are.”

Miles nodded.  “Exactly, George.”

The other man’s voice was soft as he said, “Thanks, pal.  I needed that.”

“Anytime.”  The two traded goodbyes and Miles hung up the phone.  On a shelf just by his desk sat a picture of Constance, Seth, Courtney, Bruce, Grace, Alex, Hope and himself.  It was the charity fundraiser just before Courtney had been diagnosed.  The photographer had managed to grab a candid shot of all of them as they were laughing and enjoying themselves.  It was the centerpiece of his office… the one picture that was set out so everyone could see.  His family.  The reason he worked so hard to make sure Gotham was the safest place it could be.

Pushing the button on the intercom, he said, “Eugenia, get me Arnold Fitzgerald on the phone as soon as possible, please.”  At her acknowledgement, he grabbed a stack of papers that detailed his new crime legislation.  If Fitzgerald wanted to punch holes in the crime bill, Miles was going to make damn sure they were valid.  He was done playing with these people.  It was time to get to work.

*-*-*

Bruce was busy again.  For the past couple days, he’d been extremely busy in the afternoons.  Grace had thought when he handed over the running of his company to his advisors; he’d have more free time.  But no!  He was even busier than usual.

While she waited for Bruce to return from another afternoon of meetings, Grace found herself in the library with the newspaper.  Most of the articles were of little interest, until she saw her name in one.  She scanned it, then read it more carefully.  Finally, she got up and went in search of Alfred.

“Alfred,” Grace approached the butler, newspaper in hand.  “Have you looked at the paper today?”

He nodded.  “I read the paper every day, Miss Grace.  I do so and point out articles of interest to Master Bruce.”

She inhaled deeply.  “I haven’t looked at the paper much since I got here.”

“You’ve been preoccupied, Ma’am.  It’s understandable.”  He was a bit curious as to why she would be speaking with him about the newspaper, but something had obviously grabbed her attention, and since Bruce was in another ‘meeting’, she must be turning to him to talk about it.

“Well, there’s another article about a thwarted mugging.  And they bring up my attack.”  She held out the paper to him, wondering if he’d seen it.

“I did read that,” he nodded.

“Did you notice the victim’s description?  He appeared to be wearing a cape.  His face was shadowed as if he were wearing a mask or something. Sound familiar?”

Outwardly, he was the epitome of calm.  Inwardly, he was formulating a plan to her next question.  “Yes.  You believe the man who saved you was wearing a cape as well.”

“And I couldn’t see his face.”

“You were tossed onto the pavement, Miss Grace.”

She sighed.  “I know.  I know.  It’s just that,” she sighed again.  “I should thank this man.  I should do *something* to repay him for saving me, and he’s just disappeared.  No one knows anything.  The police say he was just an anonymous voice on the phone.  Bruce says he was gone by the time he arrived.  But I saw a cape, Alfred.  I don’t care what you think; it wasn’t a trench coat.  It was a cape.  And if this victim was saved by the same man…”

“I highly doubt that,” he responded.  “Gotham is a big city, and there is bound to be more than one Good Samaritan out there.”

“But wearing a cape?”  She shook her head.  “This lady says she thinks it was that Batman.”  She pointed to the article.  “They’re calling him the ‘caped crusader’.  It goes on to say that some of the criminals have said he wears a cape and a mask.  A mask that resembles a bat.  Hence, the nickname of course.  Do you think…”

Completely calm, he said, “Follow me, Ma’am.”  As they walked down the corridor, he spoke, “I believe that this ‘Batman’, as the press is calling him… I believe he is a myth, an urban legend created by the press.  The man who saved the woman in that article was just a man. The man who saved you was just a man.  It is the job of the press to over-sensationalize everything in order to draw the readers in.”

“But I saw…”

“What you believed to be a cape?  But, Miss Grace, I think that when that criminal grabbed you, you were frightened.  I think you put up a fight.  You do know kickboxing, and from my understanding you’ve taken self-defense classes.  So more than likely you were being tossed about.  The Good Samaritan approached and your blurred vision made you believe you saw a cape, when in fact it was just a long coat.”  He looked back at her as she followed him.  “I believe the same thing happened to the young lady in the article.  The mind will fill in blanks for itself in order to make sense out of things that are confusing.  She was saved by a man, as were you.”

“I just want to thank him.  I want to let him know how grateful I am.”
She stopped following Alfred and sat in a chair.  Setting the newspaper on the end table, she shrugged.  “I know being mugged, or potentially being mugged, is a horrible thing.  But look what came out of it.”  She looked up at him and smiled.  “I wouldn’t be here if that man hadn’t called Bruce.  Is it so much to want to thank him for it?”

Alfred, knowing the truth and knowing that there were moments when
Bruce wanted to tell her that he had been the one to save her, nodded slowly.  “I can understand that.”  A small smile spread across his face.  “May I suggest that once Master Bruce gets finished with his ‘meeting’, you speak with him about the subject.  Maybe there is a way that you can get a message to the man who saved you.  It may not be a direct communication, but perhaps Master Bruce can help you work something out.”  Of course, he knew that in going to Bruce and talking to him about it, in a way, she would be thanking the man who saved her.

“You don’t believe the Batman stuff, then, do you?”

He shook his head in response.

She stood and began following him again.  Where they were heading, she had no idea.  “I like the idea of him.  The idea that there’s someone out there watching over us.  Someone selfless enough to take care of others and not want fame or money.”  She shrugged.  “And if you think about it… a costume would be necessary.”

“Why is that?”  He continued on his journey, his voice not giving any indication of emotion.

“Anonymity,” she said simply.  She flipped to another article.  “See here, this criminal went to one of those professional sketch artists.  Did you see this?”

“I did.”

“Come on, Alfred.  If he’d actually seen the man’s face, then all anonymity would be gone.  But he wears this mask… and a cape,” she pointed out again, “and his true identity is protected.  And you know what else?”

“What’s that, Ma’am?”

“Mayor Blaire said that the press coverage of this ‘Batman’ has done more to cut down small crime than both of his crime bills.  He says that whether this man is real or not, the ‘idea’ of him is causing thugs to think twice about committing small crime.  And Commissioner Gordon says…”  She stopped there, as she actually wasn’t supposed to have heard what Commissioner Gordon said.  She’d heard him accidentally when she and Courtney went to visit the Mayor this morning.

“What did Commissioner Gordon say, Miss Grace?”  The question was asked as if to placate her, but he was now paying very close attention, preparing a mental report for Bruce.

“I sort of overheard it actually.  But Commissioner Gordon says that
Rupert Thorne…” she paused and asked, “You know who he is, right?  The guy that is ‘rumored’,” here she used her fingers to form quotation marks, suggesting that the word ‘rumored’ was purely baloney, “to be one of the biggest crime bosses in Gotham.  Anyway, Commissioner Gordon says that Thorne’s people are getting ‘very’ tense.  Now, why would that be?”

“I surely do not know.”

“I do.  Because whether he’s an urban legend or not, this ‘Batman’ is causing waves with the crime element.  Both the Mayor *and* the
Commissioner have noticed it.”  She paused, inhaling deeply.  “So yeah,
I’ll talk to Bruce about finding a way to thank the man who saved me.”
She walked a bit faster, passing Alfred up and striding a bit farther ahead before turning around and looking directly at him.  “But I’m telling you… I believe in this ‘Batman’.  I believe the legend.  Because the world needs a hero.  And I believe that it was this hero who saved me.”

When she turned back around, Alfred smiled faintly.  Master Bruce would have a nice report from him.  He immediately quit smiling though as
Grace abruptly turned back around.  “Miss Grace?” he questioned.

“Um…” Her look was one of confusion.  “Um… Alfred… where am I?”

*-*-*

Bruce returned from his meetings tense and frustrated.  Another councilman had refused to support him and the mayor.  Bruce found it odd that the man voiced the same accusations against Miles as the other one.  It suddenly felt too scripted, as if someone with a vested interest in having a lax police force had been feeding them their responses.

He was frowning over it when Alfred found him in the training facility.

“I thought you already…. had your work out this morning, sir,” Alfred commented upon seeing Bruce running on a treadmill, as opposed to around the gym.  The treadmill was currently set at a very high speed.

“Just running off some frustrations before I go upstairs and see Grace, Alfred,” came the reply.

The butler nodded silently.  “A bad day in City Hall, sir?”

“Not the best.”

Again, Alfred nodded, as if he suspected as much.  “Speaking of Miss Grace, sir…” This got Bruce’s attention and he stopped running, switching off the treadmill.

“What about Grace?  Is something wrong?”  Panic and concern edged his voice as the part of him that still hadn’t forgiven himself took over.

“Nothing of the sort,” Alfred assured.  “We did have nice chat, however, while you were out.  I thought it might be of interest to you, sir.”

“How so?”  It was then that Bruce noticed the newspaper tucked under Alfred’s arm.  The butler held it out to him and instructed him to turn to an article.  Bruce read; it was about Batman and mentioned Grace’s attack in passing, because things about her attacker’s description of Batman matched that of the victim’s description of her savior.

As Bruce read, Alfred said calmly, “Miss Grace believes it is the Batman who saved her that night, sir.  She…” He paused, and Bruce looked up to find the older man smiling warmly at him.  “…wants to thank him, sir.”

Thank him?  Grace had already done more than enough to thank ‘Batman.’   She was here, living with him, loving him.  It was all the thanks he really needed.  But Grace didn’t know that, now did she?  Being the person that she was, she would want to express gratitude if she thought there was a way.  He nodded, sensing Alfred had more to say.

“There is one more thing, Master Bruce,” Alfred added as if responding to the silent prompt from Bruce to continue.  “Miss Grace seems to have overhead the Mayor speaking with Police Commissioner Gordon…” In spite of himself, Bruce smiled.  Miles had said he knew the girls had been eaves dropping.  Courtney was an incurable snoop sometimes.

“…about Batman.”

Bruce listened as Alfred filled him in on what Grace had told him. Suddenly a lot about his ‘not the best’ day made sense. Why his lobbies might be making little headway against certain councilmen.  Why his support was dwindling. Thorne.

Thorne, feeling the pressure from the mythical Batman, was putting pressure on the people he owned at City Hall.  How nice to know.

*-*-*

Grace snuggled into her Brucie pillow.  It was early evening and she’d caught up with him after he’d returned from his meetings.  She’d actually been intent upon talking with him about the subject she and
Alfred had discussed earlier, but she got swept away in watching him change… then swept away in another way.  And by then it was time for dinner.

Dinner was spent in the main dining room that night, though candlelight had once again been the only light source.  She’d been here four days now and had already started putting back on the weight she’d needed to gain.  During dinner, they discussed her new training regimen and she even managed to talk him into training with her.  She never once asked him where he’d gone the night before.  He thought she was asleep, but she knew the minute he left and the minute he came back.  But she didn’t ask.

Now, they were lying on the leather couch watching one of Bruce’s favorite movies ‘The Maltese Falcon’.  Grace loved Bogart, but right now what she loved most was lying in Bruce’s arms.  She wasn’t sure why it crossed her mind when it did, but she turned slightly so she was no longer looking at the screen but looking at his face.

“What?” he laughed lightly, unsure what he’d done to suddenly have her undivided attention.

“Well, I sort of got swept up in today and forgot there was something
I wanted to talk to you about.”  Picking up the remote, she asked, “Do you mind?”  At his response, she turned off the DVD and smiled at him.  “I think you should reprimand Alfred,” she tried for serious but the glint in her eye was unmistakable.  “He deliberately got me lost in the house today.  Of course, he may have just been trying to outrun my chatter… though he did say ‘Follow me’.  Anyway,” she waved her hand, “I had something come up and he said I should talk to you about it.  That you could help me.”

Bruce smiled at her description of Alfred leading her around in circles.  He knew it hadn’t quite been the case, as Alfred had already informed him of the situation.  “I live to serve you, my sweet Grace,” he told her softly, smoothing a lock of hair away from her face as she continued to watch him.  “What is it that Alfred thinks I can help you with?”

“Well,” she began, “I was reading the newspaper today and came across a whole slew of articles that got me to thinking.  There was another attempted mugging last night.  Again, thwarted by a Good Samaritan.  Now, me being the person I am, I read that victim’s description and compared it to my hazy memory and came up with a few ideas.  Mostly, rectifying something that I should have done days ago.”  She paused, looking at him for a moment, so very proud of herself.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I want to thank the ‘mysterious’ hero who saved me life.  He didn’t just stop me from being mugged… he saved me in so many other ways.
And I want to thank him.  But it’s like he’s vanished off the face of the earth.  And I know why!”  She was on a roll now, and attacked telling Bruce with as much enthusiasm as she had when she told Alfred.  “I saw a cape.  Last night’s victim saw a cape.  Now, I couldn’t see a face because of the shadow on the sidewalk.  But she remembers seeing a mask.  My savior’s face could have been masked.  She said it was Batman.  The ‘Caped Crusader’ as Court calls him.  I mean, how else do you explain it?”  She inhaled deeply.  “Alfred says he’s a myth, a rumor… the cape I saw was a trench coat.  He thinks I’m suffering from some fear induced memory plug… but I don’t think so.  I just can’t get the image out of my head.  He saved me… and I need to know if you can help me thank him… thank him for my life… for calling you… for bringing us back together again.  For so many things.”  She finally stopped and waited for his comment.

For a moment, Bruce was rendered speechless.  Alfred had warned him of her theory, but he’d failed –in true Alfredesque form– to convey the sheer extent of her enthusiasm for the subject.  “Let me see if I understand this…” he began slowly, stalling to collect his thoughts.  When she nodded, he said,” you think that this guy in a cape saved you, and all these other people, and you want to… thank him for it?”  There was, naturally, no malice or incredulity to the question.  He was simply clarifying her intent.  Or so it would seem to her, he hoped.  “And you want me to help do that… somehow?”

“No one knows who he is… and honestly, like I told Alfred, I think it’s darn smart that he doesn’t let everyone know who he is.  From what I heard at the mayor’s office today…” She bit her lip, reminding herself that she didn’t actually have to tell him everything.  “Anyway, I don’t want to thank Batman for saving everyone.  I mean, it’s awesome that he does and all.  But mostly, I want to thank him for saving *me*.  You know?  And I don’t know how to do that.  I called the police station and they have NO idea about anyone coming forward and taking credit.  There was nothing left at the scene but an unconscious and very injured assailant.  Nothing.”  She paused again, more to get her breath than anything.  “It’s just important to me, you know?  And Alfred, though placating me over the Batman part of it, said you might know how I could go about making sure he knew I was grateful.  He risked his life for me.  There aren’t many people who would do something like that for a total stranger.  And I just want to thank him.”

Except it wasn’t a total stranger.  He’d saved her: him, Bruce Wayne.  Well, him Batman, anyway.  He’d saved her.  He wanted so badly to tell her.  Yet she was right, he shouldn’t reveal that secret.  Not to anyone.

“I’m not sure I believe in this Batman person,” he said, echoing the sentiment Alfred had expressed to Grace.  “But I’ve seen enough in the papers to know that a lot of people are starting to.  Rumors, mostly, but… If he is a real man, and not a myth, he probably isn’t looking for thanks or fame.”  Claiming credit for being Batman could go either way: a nice comfy cell in Arkham or the public’s approval.  However, not to damper Grace’s spirits any, as he loved seeing her so animated and determined, he added quickly, “But I think, Grace… now please don’t take this the wrong way, love.  You know how much you mean to me.  I think that the best way you could thank him would be to press charges against that slim who attacked you.”  He felt her tense at the suggestion and barreled on so she had to listen to his voice and not have time to think of a new rationalization.  “Like you said, he *did* risk his life for you –a total stranger– and I’m certain it wasn’t so the low life who hurt you could walk free.”  Free to try again, Bruce added to himself.  He fell silent then, waiting to see how Grace would respond.

She didn’t say anything for several long moments.  She didn’t really care whether Alfred and Bruce believed or not.  She believed.  Courtney believed.  That woman whose life was saved last night believed.  And though Bruce was saying things she didn’t want to hear… hadn’t they already discussed her reasons behind not wanting to go and press charges… what he said made sense.  If she didn’t go down there and press charges, then her attacker would more than likely go free… confession or not.

Her head rested back on Bruce’s chest as she thought about what he said.  He was right.  What better way to show her gratitude than to make sure that the criminal was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law?  It was something that Chad had always complained about… arresting the lawbreakers only to have them set free again.  Her father expressed the same concerns.  And if this stranger… Batman… continually risked his life for people, the least she could do was reward his efforts.  She looked back up at Bruce and nodded.  “You’re right.  I should do it.  But…” She sighed at the thought of the media, and the frenzy, and the questions.  “You’ll go with me, won’t you?  I mean, I know it will only be fuel for the circus; but if you’re there, it will be easier to handle.”

Bruce felt an immediate rush of relief at her words.  She’d prosecute the man.  He wouldn’t go free.  He wouldn’t hurt her or any anyone else ever again.  The weight that had hung over his heart from the minute Grace had been attacked suddenly lifted.  Every day since, a small part of him relived losing his parents to the muggers attack on them.  When he learned that her attack hadn’t been a mugging but the act of a something worse, his fears had been doubled.  If set free, would he not try again?

He smiled a very relieved smile, bringing his hand up to caress her cheek.  He knew what this meant for her… how brave she had to be to do it.  And he knew that her bravery stemmed, in a large part, from her belief in Batman.  It warmed his heart, and he suddenly felt compelled to say something… take back part of his earlier statement in some way.  “Grace, I… I know what this means for you to do.  I hope, for your sake, that he’s real.  This Batman.  You put so much faith in him…  If he’s real, then maybe he deserves it.”

“Bruce,” she whispered softly and pressed a soft kiss into his chest. “Will you go with me, then?”

She still sounded a little worried, though, at the thought of going to press charges.  He hadn’t heard back from Lee yet, but he wanted to ease her fears in that area, as well.  “I will, if we have to, but you know… I was thinking… what if I could persuade the police to come to us?”  He felt her breath catch.

“What do you mean?  Come to us?” she asked, looking up at him again.

“Come here. I know you’re not overly crazy about the idea of going down to the station and facing the crowds, but what if I could convince the DA and Commissioner Gordon to send someone here to take your statement and start the paperwork –here, at home?  The media wouldn’t be here.  They know I don’t allow reporters or photographers here and seem to at least grudgingly respect it.”  He was rambling; he realized and stopped, letting her think about it without his voice in the background.

Here… he would let them come here.  Would they come here?  She closed her eyes.  Of course they would.  If for no other reason than to them he was ‘Bruce Wayne’, and what he wanted… for the most part… he got.  She’d never wanted him to use his ‘power’ to help her.  She’d never wanted him to use his influence or his name.  Because he wasn’t any of those things to her.  He was simply the man she loved.

Looking at him, she smiled.  And that was how he was acting… he was acting as the man who loved her… the man who would do anything to make sure she was okay.  She nodded finally.  “If they would come here, that would be perfect.  I can do that easily.  I really do want to make sure he pays for his crime… that he doesn’t hurt anyone else.  I just get a bit tense… with my history… the press will eat this up, dredge it up, ask me questions I don’t want to answer.”

She moved just enough so that her head could rest in his neck.  It seemed to be her comfort spot, where she drew the most strength.  “But if they won’t come here, I’ll go there.  I promise.”  She smiled.  “You think he’ll know?” she asked, once again referring to Batman.  “You think he’ll understand?  It’s important to me.”

He couldn’t help but smile.  She was worried that he wouldn’t know what she was going to do… that maybe he wouldn’t understand the message she was trying to send.  Tilting his head so he could kiss the top of hers, Bruce murmured his answer softly against her hair.  “He’ll know, love.  I’m sure of it.”   Then his arms tightened around her, holding her close to him.  Tomorrow, he would ask Lee what he’d found out, and go from there.

*-*-*

That night when Bruce left Grace, he paused to watch her sleep.  He loved her so very much.  This –what he was doing– had almost torn them part.  Oddly, it was also that which brought them together again.  A few times since she’d been back in his life, Bruce had thought about just not doing it.  Not patrolling.  Lying in bed with her all night instead.  His talks with her and Alfred earlier that night, however, had changed his mind.  Grace may not know what he was doing, but she was aware of the results.  What was more, she believed in the good they could do.

It was enough for Bruce to continue, even though it took him away from her.

“I love you, Grace,” he whispered before slipping out of the room.  Had he stayed, he would have seen her smile before burying her face into his pillow.

Tonight, instead of patrolling right away, he went straight to the basement cavern.  The ‘Batcave’ he supposed, if he was seriously going to adopt the moniker he’d received from the press.  It wasn’t the training facility, however, that he went to.  When Alfred arrived not long after, Bruce was seated in front of the supercomputer, accessing various information databases.

“A bit of light reading tonight, Master Bruce,” Alfred asked quietly.

He turned his eyes away from the computer screen’s glow.  “I need to know about Arnold Fitzgerald and Talbot Kirkland, Alfred.”

“The councilmen, sir?”  Alfred sounded surprised.  Bruce nodded.

“They’re stone-walling my efforts for the mayor’s crime and police bills.  I have reason to suspect that one or both of them may be on Rupert Thorne’s payroll.”

If this surprised Alfred, he didn’t say anything.  “Would you like me to see what I can find, sir?  While you… go out?”

He nodded.  “If you would,” he said, leaving an unspoken ‘it would be nice’ on the end of the sentence.  He let Alfred take over the computer and changed in to the Suit.  Not long after, he was across town apprehending a car thief.

*-*-*

Stirring in her sleep, she reached out for the warmth that was supposed to be beside her and found his part of the bed empty.  She didn’t move really, just looked at the vacant pillow.  No questions, she reminded herself.  So she sighed and accepted that.  Grabbing his pillow, she rolled onto her other side.  No way was she going to be able to sleep, but then again, she didn’t want to get out of this bed either.

She could go to the gym and run on the treadmill.  She’d been doing that a lot the past couple days.  When Bruce was at his meetings today and after she talked to Alfred, she’d been able to run several miles and actually run at an incline.  Afterwards, she felt better than she had in months.  It wasn’t going to be as hard to get back into shape as she thought.  But still… running right now wasn’t a priority for her.

Her next thought was reading, but she’d just finished her latest novel and wasn’t sure she wanted to go down to the library and hunt down another book.  In her mind that left two things… eating or watching TV.  Bruce didn’t keep a television in his room because he wasn’t as enraptured with it as she was.  He watched movies, she believed, mostly because it meant they could spend time together.  And the movies they watched together were more selective than what she watched on her own.

Rolling back over, she found a tablet and pen on his nightstand and hastily scribbled out a note: ‘Have kidnapped your pillow.  In exchange for captive pillow, you must meet these demands: 1) Meet me in my room as soon as you return and 2) Wake me up if I am sleeping. Love you, G’. She didn’t bother to grab her robe, merely took his pillow and walked across the hall to her room.

Dizzy was slumbering quietly at the end of the bed.  She had set throw pillows along the foot of the sleigh bed, and he seemed more content curled up on one of them than sleeping in his own bed.  She left the connecting doors open all the time now, as he gave up his destructive tendencies once his chemical imbalance was controlled.  She barely disturbed Dizzy when she dropped Bruce’s pillow on the bed.  The deep burgundy of his pillowcase clashed horribly with the soft lilac of her bedding.  She smiled.  It was perhaps one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen.

Moving to the armoire, she opened it to reveal a television set.  Bruce may not want one in his room, but she liked having one in hers.
Scanning her selection of DVDs, she glanced at her clock.  11:45.  From what she could deduce, when Bruce left, he returned sometime around
2:00.  And when he came to pay his ransom for the pillow, she smiled devilishly, there would be no movie on that would distract him from what she was obviously requesting in payment.

Grabbing up one of her favorite cult horror flicks, she put it in the
DVD player and turned the television set on.  They’d equipped her room with surround sound and the speakers were actually built into the walls.  Climbing into bed, she picked up Bruce’s pillow, covered herself with her lilac bedding, and settled in to watch ‘House on Haunted Hill’.  The new version, not the old one.  What could she say, she was a sucker for these types of flicks, and it would be over long before Bruce got home… so like she thought… he could pay his ransom.

Hugging his pillow tightly to her, she inhaled the scent of him that emanated from it.  Oh yeah… ransom good… ransom very good.

*-*-*

After the car thief, he’d intercepted the perpetrator of a breaking-and-entering.  He’d hand cuffed the burglar and left him sitting on the curb where he’d found him, two blocks from the house.  The people’s stuff sat beside him.  He was another block away when he saw the familiar flash of blue and red lights.  It had been the first time he’d been that close when the cops showed up.  It’d piqued his curiosity and he’d waited.  Peering through the shadows, he’d seen the police cruiser stop, and Chad Harris get out with his rookie partner.

*-*-*

The first thing Bruce noticed when he stepped out of the shadows and into the bedroom, was that Grace wasn’t there.  The second thing?  Neither was his pillow.  A cursory inspection of the room and the bed later, and he’d located Grace’s ransom note.  He chuckled as he read it, and then shook his head.

She didn’t ask.  She hadn’t asked once since that first morning when the realization that he’d been hurt had outweighed her desire to yell at him for causing her grief. Yet, Bruce did not kid himself.  She knew he was out almost every night.  The note proved it.  But she still didn’t ask.

It was earlier than he’d expected, so he decided to shower first.  He smelled like the streets, and it was a smell he was slowly starting to hate.  He washed his body and his hair with all the herbal products Grace loved and then wrapped a big fluffy towel around his waist.

There were five long, shivering strides across the hall, where his pillow awaited with its beautiful captor.

Grace was asleep when he pushed open the door.  Dizzy was curled up on the end of her bed, his furry body pressed against her leg.  Her head was on her own pillow, but her arms were wrapped around his, as if she were hugging him instead of it.  For a moment, he all he could do was stand there and watch.

She took his breath away, with just the simplest, most innocent look.

He eased the door closed, but the click of the latch roused Dizzy.  The cat stood, stretching.  He kneaded his paws on Grace’s leg and then jumped down off the bed.  Bruce watched him amble into his own room, and then turned back to the bed.

Grace was stirring, slowly coming around, and the bed covers rustled as she rolled over.

She hummed softly as she roused from sleeping to awake; the DVD player was playing the thunder soundtrack from the main menu of the movie she’d been watching when she fell asleep. Her eyes opened and her vision began to focus and that’s when she saw him standing in her room.

A smile spread across her face.  Hair wet and towel secured around his waist, he was indeed a vision.  “Come to pay the ransom for your pillow?” she teased, her voice still quiet with sleep.  “I see you met the first demand,” she yawned, “but the second, I’m not quite awake.”
She held his pillow more tightly.  “It smells like your shampoo.”  Picking up the remote control, she turned the DVD player off… silencing the noise.

Geez, did he have any idea how good he looked in that towel?  Did he know what he was doing to her just standing there, looking like he
REALLY wanted his pillow?  Her smile grew even wider. “Nice towel.”

He’d started to smile when she woke up and looked at him, but now the smile bloomed into a huge grin.  “This old thing?” he asked, his hands moving along the place where the towel end tucked in to hold it in place.  His fingers ghosted across that spot, as if he couldn’t decide if he should drop the towel now or tease her with it.  Tease, he thought as he let his eyes travel over her.  She was so gorgeous lying there: her lilac comforter and the matching sheets came just above her waist, her head rested on his burgundy pillow as she hugged it, and the movement of the hug had stretched her yellow nightgown across the curve of her breast in the most deliciously obscene way possible.  He let his eyes focus there for a moment before slowly trailing upwards.  His gaze lingered on her lips; at which point, he purposely licked his.

“Tell me more about this ransom,” he asked in a voice which was darkening with need.

Ooooo, teasing.  She enjoyed a good tease.  Slowly, she ran her leg up under the sheets until her bare knee rested protectively on the pillow.  “Well,” her voice still husky but not with sleep, “the first thing I think you should do is lose that towel. I should really get a good look at what I’m exchanging this wonderful pillow for.”  She bit her bottom lip thoughtfully.  “Then I think it’s all up to you.”  She smiled widely, moving from hugging the pillow to lying on her back and making a point of stretching to put the pillow under her head.  The silk of her nightgown brushed against her sensitive breasts, teasing her nipples.  There was a reason why she loved silk… this was it.  “How badly do you want it?” she asked softly.

“Looks like I’ve met demand number two,” he commented in a growl of voice.  “You’re…” His eyes rested on her breast where the silk did little to hide tightening nipples.  “Very awake.”

His fingers slid underneath the towel and it dropped to the floor, pooling at his feet. He’d have joined her then, but she said she wanted to see what she was getting, so he waited until the feel of her eyes devouring him became too hot to bear, and he eased slowly on to the foot of the bed on his hands and knees.

He bent his head for a moment, but raised it, and the eyes that met hers were filled with a hunger only she could satisfy.  But still, he waited, intensely watching.

Oh damn!  Now why did he have to go and look at her like THAT?!  He knew, without a doubt, what looking at her like that did to her.  Her entire body flushed with heat.  Still, she kept her hands between her head and the pillow.  She often likened him to a tiger… the sleek, beautiful hunter that expertly stalked its prey.  And when he looked at her like that, she knew she was being hunted.  It thrilled her on a level that she’d only experienced with him.

Her hips moved suggestively, though it was actually of their own accord and not because it was a planned seduction.  She’d simply wanted to get him in here… making him VERY happy to be home again.  And as her eyes drank him in greedily, she knew she’d succeeded.  But unlike Nature’s conclusion of predator catching prey, when he caught her it was going to be nothing but ecstasy.  Her eyes held his, drinking in everything he was expressing in them.  Good Lord was it possible to have an orgasm just from the way someone was looking at you?!

Continuing to watch her, never breaking the contact between their eyes, he slowly moved forward on the bed.  As he went, his fingers buried in the bedspread, pulling it down.  Each movement revealed more of her exquisite body.  She was utterly wanton: body trembling beneath the weight of his gaze.  Wanting him as much as he wanted her.  It was a sight he could look at forever and still want more of.

He moved closer, kicking the bedspread to the foot of the bed.  He didn’t look back to see if fell off or stayed there.  His eyes were on her, and her alone, as he crawled up her body.  Skin eased over silk, pushing it up very deliberately.  His hands caught the fabric and pulled it up, forcing her to move her arms away from her head.

And then the nightgown joined the bedspread as he straddled her more fully. When his hips moved again, it was to scoot up, placing him in a good position to… Oh, yes, he knew what her body wanted.

“Is this the kind of ransom you had in mind?” he asked huskily, leaning in to whisper the words against the shell of her ear.  His tongue snaked out, wetting her where his words had kissed her skin.   When she shivered, the tremors ran through her and into him.

“Ran… rans…” She swallowed hard trying to force herself to think clearly.  “Oh yes.”  It was all she could manage to say as her hands reached out and grabbed his forearms, running slowly up to his shoulders where her nails dug into the flesh.  The heat of his body radiated to hers and all she could do was shiver in anticipation.

She turned her head and her lips attached on to whatever flesh of his she could find.  His ear, cheek, jaw, and finally she gained enough presence of mind to put her hands in his still damp hair and brought his lips to hers in a crushing kiss.  She was going completely on reaction here… reaction and need.  Ransom… what ransom?  She could easily devour him, wondering just how intense this kiss could become because of the mental picture of him stalking toward her.

She shivered again, angled her head and found it was possible to deepen the kiss.  When they finally had to break for air, and both were having difficulty breathing, she ran her thumb along his swollen bottom lip and managed to say, “Yeah, something along these lines will do.”  She shivered again for emphasis.

“Will… it… now?” he asked between little gasps of breath.  “Or something like this… perhaps?”  He rocked into her a little, causing sensitive places to rub together.  He claimed her mouth again before she could answer, greedily tasting her lips.  Her hands once again buried in his hair, and at the same time, she arched up against him, creating more friction between their bodies.

The way she felt against him was a paradox.  It was sweet and hot and wonderfully naughty and perfectly heavenly all at the same time.  It was also driving him crazy with desire.  Pulling away from another searing kiss, he looked down at her, needing to see her eyes.

She found it utterly amazing how the depth of their intimacy left them completely unabashed.  They rarely, if ever, broke eye contact.  Through foreplay, the actual act of making love, and then the climax, they would maintain eye contact.  There was hardly ever a moment when they closed their eyes, when they shut that part of themselves off.  It was always a joining of their souls as well as their bodies.

But of course, it was the body that was doing the driving right now.
Her arms dropped around his neck and one leg lifted to slowly wrap around his waist.  With the slight lifting of her hips, she was able to bring about the slightest brush of contact between the most sensitive parts of their bodies.  She gasped, meaning for it to drive him forward, to fire his need, instead she fired her own.  She pulled away to lift up again, repeating the sensation.  A small smile spread across her face and into her eyes.  Oh… so good, so delicious, and so desirable.  And it was all wrapped in a package that could get her extremely hot from just a look.  His eyes holding hers and telling her… ‘I want you.’  Lord help her, she wanted him too.

Grace was moving against him, rising so their bodies’ touches were rolling waves of pleasure.  He let the waves come –let her love wash over him, through him.  Then he met her arching movements with his own, sliding into the warmth she offered up to him…  At the same time, he kissed her, swallowing both their gasps of pleasure in a deep kiss.  He needed this, needed her.   Her fingernails slid down his back, and Bruce had little doubt there would be scratches in the morning.  He didn’t care.  All he cared about…  All he cared about was going deeper, feeling her around him, in his soul, in his heart… and giving her the same.

But, oh sweet god, it was so amazing!  He’d never understood it, but being with her never got old or familiar, no matter how long they’d been together.  Each joining was unique and fantastic.  It never ceased to blow him away completely.

Rocking into her, he pulled away from the kiss, again, to find her eyes.  He loved seeing her face.  It was so expressive, and the most beautiful sight in the world to Bruce was her face as her climax took her.  Like falling apart and coming together all at once.  Birth and rebirth.  He wanted to see it every time, for the rest of his life.

Love, in its purest and simplest form.  What drove her to completion was the love she felt for and from this man.  He was in her now, moving slowly, almost imperceptively except for the electrical shock waves that were crashing over her. The one place where their bodies could join and become one, and yet… He moved again and she let his name fall from her lips.  And yet it was as their eyes held and the slight movements gave way to ones a bit harder and minutely faster, that she gave her entire being over.  Let herself be engulfed by him.

The world narrowed down to just them.  Nothing existed to her but their bodies, hearts, and souls.  The special connection that melded them together and made them one person.  And it was like this every time for them.  It was never simply a physical act.  The lust would sometimes drive them to a hasty joining, but in the end it would always be about so much more.

As he levered himself up a bit so he could begin moving in earnest, her hands explored, touching all of him she could. Feeling that he was so focused, so intent, that he was using every muscle in his body to make love to her, and she responded in kind.  Her hands moved to his rear, grasping it with both hands, squeezing as she felt the muscles tighten and relax before he would thrust again.

Her eyes never left his, the contact never breaking as she met his need and love with her own.  She would love him with her dying breath; she knew that beyond a doubt.  She also knew that twenty years… forty years… from now, he would still be able to move her with a look… a smile… a simple caress.  He would move her, as he was moving within her now.  Love, bliss, and euphoria… It never ebbed for them… it never would.

His eyes darkened even more as he upped the tempo again… a slow progression borne of sheer will power.  She urged him on, her hips meeting his, her legs spreading just enough to allow him deeper penetration.  To fill her completely.  And still they watched one another… making the experience that much more intimate… that much more spiritual.

Wave after of wave of something so much more than mere pleasure washed over Bruce with each quickening thrust.  Her touches set fire to his skin, and her eyes mesmerized and held him. Bruce had never felt so alive as when they were in this place.  Not the physical place –the room they were in– but the space created by their two bodies joining.  It was like the great vaulted churches of ancient times, only not tangible.  A metaphysical cathedral where they were each both the priest and the worshipper.

Bruce wasn’t religious –he hadn’t been since his parents died– but if one religion existed for him right now, it was Grace.  The ritual dance of their love sanctified them, blessed them.  And yet, he knew the dance was ending soon.  He felt it growing steadily within him even as he felt her body tightening in similar preparation.

His movements sped up now to an almost frantic pace.  The thrusts were harder, his breath short and labored.  The world shook, and Bruce was no longer sure if the trembling was his or Grace’s.  They’d melted together in the heat of this precious moment.

She cried out; she was sure of it.  What she said or how loudly she said it was completely lost to her.  All she knew at that moment was him and the fulfillment of their most basic needs… the explosive conclusion to their lovemaking.  He cried out too, though in her pleasure fogged mind, she was sure it was her name that he said.  Just hearing it, hearing his voice at this moment… seeing the look on his face as he found the release he so desperately needed, her entire body shook with the joy of it.

When it finally subsided, he let himself all but collapse upon her.
Neither one breathing very steadily, but still, she managed to lightly caress his back, surprised she could even move.  She did smile.  She loved this moment as well, when he would lie on top of her, pressing his full weight upon her. She felt cocooned, treasured, enveloped by his heat.  It was precious to her.

She said nothing, not wanting to break the magical bubble that had formed around them; so instead, she turned her head slightly and placed a kiss on his cheek.  It was the first bit of his face she came in contact with, and she kissed it again because she could.

When Bruce’s breathing steadied, and only then, he rolled off her and pulled her gently into his embrace.  She snuggled in, her head resting against his sweat-sheened chest.  The air about them was cooling, but the blanket was still at the foot of the bed.  He didn’t think he could have the strength, but he used his foot to move the blanket up to where his fingers could reach it.   Pulling it up, he wrapped it around them, and then nestled back into the bed.

“I love you,” he whispered in the cozy darkness.  The words came easily to him, but Bruce remembered a time in his life when saying them aloud had been impossible.  He’d remembered how amazed he was that Lex could say it so freely.  Love, to Bruce, had never been that easy.  And though he said them freely now, he meant them more today than he did the first day, and would mean them more tomorrow, and the next day, than he did today.  It was something he knew with a certainty: his love for her would only continue to grow.

She smiled against his chest, snuggling next to him and under the very warm covers.  To have this… now… was more than she could have ever
hoped, dreamed or imagined.  To think that there was a time in her
life when giving herself completely to someone had scared her to her
very core.  It had frightened her to the point where she ended up
pushing the other person away because she didn’t know how else to cope
with it.  He’d understood, and though his heart… and hers… had
been broken, they’d found a way to remain friends.

But Bruce… he was a complete and total surrender.  He was everything
to her.  And with him, what would frighten her to the core was NOT
having forever.  She placed a small kiss on his chest before settling
happily back in, covering half his body with her own in her desire for
closeness.  “I love you, too,” she said in response, knowing she meant
it with her entire being, knowing that it was a feeling that would
never scare her… only lead her to feeling even more.

As if sensing his human was going back to sleep, Dizzy came back into
the room.  Grace had one leg bent so that it rested just between
Bruce’s.  The other… well there was just enough space between
Bruce’s and Grace’s for Dizzy to circle around several times and use
his paws to pool enough blanket so that he could happily go back to
sleep.  It was nice and warm in this particular spot, and soon the
sounds of the cat sleeping mingled with the soft and steady breathing
of the other occupants in the room.

*-*-*

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

They’d been eating breakfast secluded in his bedroom for the last few days, but today Bruce dragged her to the private nook they’d eaten dinner in the night before.  Now it was bathed in sunshine, warm and bright despite the chilly weather outside.

They ate side by side, Bruce feeding Grace cantaloupe wedges from his fruit bowl and letting her lick his fingers with each bite.  It might have led to something else had his cell phone not rang just as he was learning towards her, his eyes fixed on her soft, tempting lips.

Seeing the name that came up on the display, he turned to Grace, mouthing ‘it’s Lee; I have to take this’ and then stood, walking to the other side of the room.  In hushed tones, he inquired about the favor he’d asked of Lee the day before.

“Oh, they’ll do it, Bruce.  The cop who handled his case has been itching to get this guy.  Says he’s ‘too smug’ to be innocent.”

That’s because he wasn’t.  Bruce’s jaw tightened a little at the description.  “When can someone come?” he asked.

“Again… anytime.  Today, if you’d like.”  Bruce looked back, watching as Grace spread cream cheese on a bagel and brought it to her mouth.  All he wanted now was to close this chapter in their lives.  Let the heartache pass.  But that couldn’t happen until he finished what had been started the night he stopped her attack.  The sooner she pressed charges, the better.

“Then, call them, Lee,” he said, “I want it done as soon as possible.”  He paused, watching her some more.  He worried that the police presence would shake her already fragile confidence.  It would help if someone familiar were there as a buffer.  Bruce could think of one person on the Gotham police force who fit that bill.   “One more, thing, Lee…”

When he came back to the table, she set her bagel down and picked up her coffee.  Taking a sip of the warm liquid, there was a glint in her eye as she teased, “Do you need to keep that thing handy today?  After yesterday’s barrage…” She set her cup down and looked at him for a long moment.

She had crossed her legs when she sat back in her chair to drink her coffee, but uncrossed them and leaned forward so that her eyes held his.  “Everything ok?  He didn’t have bad news for you, did he?”

“Everything’s great,” he answered, placing a hand overtop one of hers.  “Lee and I just had some business discuss. And…” he paused, hoping she hadn’t changed her mind between last night and today.  “He’s going to be letting the police know that you’re ready to talk about that night.”  He gave her hand a supportive squeeze.

She swallowed hard and merely nodded at first.  Her hand turned so that it could hold his.  He hadn’t actually said whether or not they were coming to her or if she had to go to them.  She’d hoped it would be the former.  Pressing charges and giving a statement was actually what she had to do.  Bruce and Alfred were right; the one best way to thank her savior was to make sure the man was incarcerated.

But…

She really didn’t want to deal with the media circus.  She could just hear the story now… ‘Supermodel Grace O’Neil Attacked Once Again’.  They’d eat it up… dredge up the entire Bill situation, compare, analyze, and ask questions.  Talk to AnnaBeth… who didn’t mind telling everyone the full extent of the story.  She gave his hand a small squeeze and asked, “Do I… Do we have to go to the station or will they come here?”

“They’re willing to come here.”  Bruce let his fingers entwine with hers, then raised their hands to his lips.  He kissed her fingertips softly.  The truth was, if they’d been so willing, Bruce would have gone to them himself, sans Lee’s intervention.  He hated using his name, or the power it wielded, but for Grace, he would do anything.

Letting go of her fingers, he smoothed her cheek gently. “I also asked Lee to give the standard no-comments to the press if they ask.  It’s your story to tell, and as far I’m concerned, those vultures don’t deserve to hear it.”

She nodded rather quickly, though she drew strength from his physical touch and the love that was in his eyes.  “They don’t deserve to hear about it.  And Alex will tell them the same thing Lee will.  It’s not so much our press secretaries I’m worried about.  I do have a couple
friends who tend to talk.  Not that they mean anything by it, they
just do.”

She paused, her hand squeezing his again as she leaned toward him.
She never wanted him to use his ‘influence’ for her.  It was just like
she believed last night.  To her, he wasn’t a name.  But…  She had
to admit that it was his ‘influence’ that was bringing the police to
her instead of the other way around.  Reaching out, she lightly ran
her hand through his hair.  “Thank you for this.  I know…” She
swallowed hard, not exactly sure how to say it.  So instead, she
said, “Thank you.”

*-*-*

It was close to noon when Alfred came into the library to inform them that the police had arrived.  Bruce was seated at an antique desk in the corner, working on a proposal for his next meeting at City Hall and Grace was in the over-stuffed leather chair, wrapped in a blanket Bruce had fetched when she claimed the castle to be chilly today.  She was right, of course, it was; Bruce had just grown used to it.  The blanket was single-sided, cream colored mink.  Soft, decadent, and it looked like it was hugging her as she snuggled into it.  A dog-eared copy of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ captivated her attention.

It was on this that Alfred entered followed by two officers –one a plain clothes detective, the other uniformed.

Grace didn’t even have to wait for the introductions to at least know who the uniformed officer was.  Her face, which had been tense when she’d first heard footsteps, relaxed immediately upon seeing him.  Chad.  Standing, she set both the blanket and her book aside, moving forward to meet the officers.

“Master Bruce, Miss Grace,” Alfred said, “this is Detective Walker Vincent and Officer Chad Harris.”

“Thank you, Alfred,” Grace said, first shaking the detective’s hand and thanking him for coming before moving to Chad.  “I should have known you’d be the one to show up.”

“Well, they wouldn’t let me guard your assailant’s door,” Chad offered, referring to the man who’d attacked her, “so they ‘suggested’ that I come here.”   A smile was on his face but at the thought of the man who’d tried to physically hurt her, a hard edge came to his eyes.  He held her hand for a moment longer, offering her a supportive rub on her upper arm.  He finally took his eyes off of Grace and extended his hand to Bruce.  “It’s good to meet you, sir,” he said, “though the circumstances could have been better.”

Bruce didn’t hesitate to take Chad’s hand.  He’d had always been told that you could tell a lot about a man by the way he shook your hand.  It was one of the things they taught you when going into business or politics.  For a man like Bruce Wayne –with a foot in both those camps– it was an important skill to master.  Chad’s grip was firm and confident.

He nodded, returning the respectfully wary look the other man gave him.  “Indeed,” he agreed.  “The situation is…” Here he looked at Grace thoughtfully.  Her bruise was lighter today.  “Less than ideal.”

Bruce then shook hands with Detective Vincent in turn.  “Detective Vincent.  Welcome to my home.”  The greeting was meant for both of them.

“Ms. O’Neil,” the detective began.

“Grace, oh please, call me Grace,” she motioned for them to sit on the couch and then took one of the chairs next to it.  She waited for Bruce to sit beside her.

“Grace,” the detective tried again.

The leather on Chad’s belt creaked and because of the gun and nightstick he carried, he wasn’t actually able to sit back on the couch.  Instead, he sat on the edge, leaning forward… offering himself as a barrier between the detective and Grace should she need it.  Their relationship may have been in the past, but he still cared for her deeply and always would.  “We’re just going to ask a few questions… maybe see if you can recall some things you may have forgotten.”

She nodded and her hand extended, immediately reaching for Bruce’s.  “I just really don’t like this part,” she said softly.

“That’s understandable,” the detective interjected, taking out his notebook and a pocket tape recorder.  “But the more you can tell us, the more it will help.”

“I thought…” here she paused and inhaled deeply, “I thought he confessed.”

Chad exchanged looks with the detective who nodded for him to tell her.  “He did.  But in his confession, he talked about more than just the attack.  Gracie, he says he’d been watching you for months.”

“Stalking you,” Detective Vincent bluntly added.

Chad *and* Bruce gave the detective a stern look as Grace’s eyes filled with fear and she instinctively squeezed Bruce’s hand.  “Nnnn…. No.  That… that can’t be.  Ok.  That just doesn’t happen.  Not to me!”

Chad’s voice went soft and he drew Grace’s attention to him.  He knew how she dealt with things she didn’t want to hear or face.  And with the man who was in custody, he couldn’t afford to just let her pretend it wasn’t happening.  “We searched his apartment.  He had a wall plastered with pictures of you and not just the ones from magazines or ads.  But ones he took himself.  It seems that he attacked you on impulse when you went out Thursday night.”

“And if we aren’t careful, and if his lawyer is smart enough… he could plead guilty but try for temporary insanity.  He’s claiming that ‘yes’ he did it, but that he was overcome and doesn’t remember anything until he woke up in the hospital.”

Grace knew exactly what all this meant.  “I’m going to have to go to court, aren’t I?”

“Not if we can help it,” Detective Vincent reassured her.  “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.  But we need details.  Just start from the beginning.”

“Of what?” she asked, confused.

“You left your apartment and got in your vehicle, right?”  When she nodded, Chad continued, “Then what did you do?”

She shrugged.  “I sat there.  I couldn’t decide where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do so I sat there.  Then I got out and walked back to the building, but couldn’t see to put the key in the door.”  Her eyes went a bit vacant as she recalled what happened.  “The next thing I knew I was grabbed from behind.”  She focused back on the officers.
“He was stalking me?”

Bruce’s first thought at the news that it had months was that he should have given into the brief temptation he’d had to kill the man in his hospital bed.  Though, that would have made him no better than the slime himself.  His second reaction was guilt that for all the nights he’d watched Grace’s apartment, he hadn’t noticed this man lurking in some other set of shadows.  The reaction he *acted upon* however, was the instinct to comfort Grace, and his hand slid protectively behind her as he sat beside her.  She turned to him briefly and their eyes met.  His were shining with love for her and pride because, although she was frightened, she was doing it.

“It’s okay, love,” he told her softly, as if they were suddenly the only two in the room.  “The operative word is ‘was’.”  The tone in his voice left no doubt what he was thinking.  That if the man went free, he wouldn’t have time to pick up where he’d left off.

Then he turned his attention back to the police.

“Ms… Grace,” the detective continued.  “Is there anything else you remember about that night?”

Grace nodded, and repeated the story she’d told to both Bruce and Alfred… about the caped figure whom stopped the attack and called Bruce to her side.

The detective turned off his tape recorder and sighed audibly.  “Ms. O’Neil,” he started, uncomfortable now with calling her by her given name.  “You do know this Batman figure is a myth… more than likely a figure propagated by the media.”

“No he’s not,” she said firmly.  “And don’t look at me like that.  I wasn’t seeing things.  I know what I did see.  And I saw a cape… possibly a mask.”

And this is what Chad had feared.  He knew about Grace seeing the cape because Naomi had told him that Grace mentioned it when she surrendered her apartment.  He turned a harsh gaze to the detective before turning a much softer one to Grace.  “I believe you,” he said offering her a
smile.

Surprised eyes were turned to him.  “You do?” she asked, flabbergasted that someone other than Courtney would come out and say he believed.

“I do.  You know I work the night shift, and well, we’ve picked up a lot more perps in the past few months than we have the entire time I’ve been on the force.  And I’ve heard the ‘man in a cape’ story directly from them.  So yes, I believe it’s true.”

“Be that as it may,” the detective interrupted, “if this goes to court and she starts talking about ‘a man in a cape’ or if she just comes out and says ‘Batman saved me’… what will that do to her credibility?”

“But he did,” she insisted.  “If he hadn’t been there…” She let the rest trail off.  “I can’t say I didn’t see what I saw, Detective.  I can’t.”

“How,” Bruce began, pushing himself off the chair to stand. He walked around to the other side of the chairs to the mini bar –which, ironically was at the detective’s arm– and began to pour a glass of water. He was taller than the detective, and thanks to his strict training regiment, more muscular than both the officers.  But it wasn’t Chad he was looking at when he finished the question, “will anything she says about this… Batman… damage Grace’s credibility when her attacker claims to have seen him as well?”  Bruce had read the official newspaper account yesterday.  Grace’s stalker had also told the police, and then the media, about his encounter with the ‘mythical’ caped man.  “Seems to me their stories corroborate each other there.  Seems to me I
could find plenty of lawyers who’d argue that if the victim and the perpetrator of a crime have matching stories, then it’s likely the truth.  Unless, of course, you’re claiming that one of them is lying.”  He let the implication that the detective should know better than to
question Grace in this house slide off his voice and into the air.

Grace’s eyes were on Bruce so she didn’t see Chad look up at the younger man.  She also didn’t see him smile in approval.  It was true that he’d hoped to be able to win her back and that a part of him would always have deep emotions for her.  But it was extremely obvious that Bruce loved her.  Loved her more deeply than even Chad could.  And he could take care of her in ways that Chad couldn’t.

The detective set his eyes on Bruce Wayne and although the young man was over ten years his junior, he knew when he’d crossed a line.  And crossing one of *this* man’s lines was something that simply wasn’t done.  To Grace, he said, “I do apologize.  I’m extremely concerned about this temporary insanity plea,” he went on.  “I want to make sure there are no loopholes he can slip through.”

Chad reached out and lightly took Grace’s hand.  “Gracie, we have a photo of this man we want you to look at.  See if you’ve seen him around anywhere, noticed him following you… maybe you ran into him a couple of times and didn’t make a connection.  Like I said, he’s claiming he was following you for months.”

“I…” she looked up at Bruce, almost apologetically, “I haven’t gone out much the past few months, Chad, you know that.”

He nodded.  “I do.  But he would know when you did.  Please,” with his free hand he reached for the picture.  Once Vincent handed it to him, he slowly handed it to her.  “Just look at it.”

Her response was immediate.  The hand that Chad had been holding was almost ripped from his grasp as she brought it to her mouth and cried out softly, “Oh my God!”

That got the attention of both Bruce and Walker Vincent, though for very different reasons.  Bruce was beside her in a flash, sitting beside her and wrapping an arm securely around her shoulders.  “What is it?” he asked, concerned.

“I… I…” She looked up at Bruce, completely and totally shocked and more than a little afraid.  “Two years ago… when I… when I was working… at the gym.”

Chad stood and looked around, finding a box of tissues on the desk he grabbed a couple and brought them to her, then knelt on the other side of her.

Detective Vincent once again was taking notes and had turned on the recorder.

“He took a couple of my… my classes.  I just thought… lots of people took more than one of my classes.”  She looked at Chad.

He nodded toward the detective.  “They did.  Took more than one myself,” he said with a small smile.  “But there’s more, isn’t there?”

Wiping her eyes with the tissue, she nodded.  “When Hope… Hope was here over Christ… Christmas,” she inhaled deeply.  “We went shopping to get Dad a… a present.  And he… he came up to me…”

“He talked to you,” the detective was extremely interested now.  “What did he say?”

“I don’t… remember really.  Small talk mostly.”

“Your sister was with you?”

She nodded.

“She’s attending grad school, Walker.  I’ll give you her location later.  Ok?”  This came from Chad, who wanted to take as much off
Grace’s shoulders as he could.

She closed her eyes and rested her head on Bruce’s shoulder.  Right now, all she wanted to do was crawl onto his lap and let him cocoon her.  But as that couldn’t happen right now, she drew as much strength from him as she could.  “Then after Christmas…  I was with Naomi and Allen.  I just thought it was a coincidence.  I run into former students all the time.”

“A logical assumption,” Bruce said softly, reassuring her that in no way was this her fault.  “I’d have thought the same.”  He had, actually.  In college, a young woman had taken all of his classes with him –since freshman year.  He’d thought nothing of it at the time, chalking it up to them having the same major.  It wasn’t until she approached him after graduation and admitted that she’d been ‘fascinated by him’ and had gone to the trouble every year to change her schedule to match his that he realized what was going on with her.  She wasn’t even in his major, and now had to take an extra two years just to graduate.  Bruce had been shocked and partially amused.  He’d told her he was sorry, he’d always thought she was nice, and maybe she should have said something sooner.  Then he’d offered to pay for her last two years, so she could finish her true major and graduate.  His lover at the time had laughed his ass off when he’d recounted the tale.  But that had been a harmless, if expensive (on her part), obsession.

This was different; it wasn’t harmless.  And it begged a question:  How could the man claim temporary insanity if he’d been stalking her for months?

Grace shook her head.  “You’d think I would have known somehow.”  She sounded guilty for not having recognized the threat.

“But you couldn’t have, Gracie,” Chad said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder.  “And it’s all right if you didn’t. Sometimes there’s no way to tell the good guys from the bad ones.”

“It’s not all black hats and tin stars anymore,” Bruce added thoughtfully, but he was thankful for Chad’s presence.  Grace needed all the reaffirming she could get.  “He’s right, though, love.  There was no way you could have known what this guy was up to.  You shouldn’t blame yourself for that.”

She wiped at her nose with the tissue.  “I honestly just don’t understand.  Why would anyone be obsessed with me?”

“It’s a sad state of affairs today, Ms. O’Neil.  But being in the public eye like you are… It draws people in.  I’ve little doubt that you have thousands of fans; it’s just that this one crossed the line.  He went from fan to obsessed fan and was apparently content to watch you until he saw you Thursday night and something must have set him off.  You were alone… perhaps the vulnerability set him off.”

Chad rubbed her arm.  “The temporary insanity thing isn’t going to stick.  Not with all the pictures and everything we found in his apartment, and certainly not with the confession.”  He looked back at the detective.  “We’ll talk to Naomi and Allen and get in touch with her sister.  Get statements from them.  That should help with the premeditation aspect of the case.  If he was making contact, we can prove he was planning.”

Grace smiled softly.  She knew Chad had been offered promotions, but had turned them down because he felt he could do more good by ‘walking the beat’.  Still, she believed he should have been a detective.  He was a hell of a lot better than the one sitting across from them.  “What else do you need to know?” she asked, lifting her head from Bruce’s shoulder, gaining courage from the two men’s comfort and support.

“When he grabbed you, did you notice or feel any kind of a weapon?”
Detective Vincent asked.

“It may mean a difference in what charges are pressed, Gracie.”

She shook her head.  “I didn’t notice anything.  He grabbed me and I managed to scream before his hand clamped on my mouth.”  She looked at
Chad.  “I freaked and fought him.  I completely forgot all those self defense things you taught me,” she admitted to Chad.  “Forgot the stepping on the foot… the vulnerable thumb hold… using my head to bust his nose…”

Chad chuckled.  “You hated that one.”  Looking to Bruce, he explained, “She didn’t like the thought of getting blood in her hair.”  Back to Grace, he said, “Go on.”

“The next thing I knew, Batman,” and here she looked pointedly at
Vincent, “shows up and the man tossed me to the pavement where I hit my head and passed out.  But I’m sorry, I don’t remember a weapon.”

“We’ll probably only get assault then,” the detective announced.  “But
Ms. O’Neil, I’m sure the DA will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”  He pulled out some papers.  “I just need to fill out this report and have you sign in all the right places and then the DA can take it from there, okay?”

Chad teased.  “I don’t think she’ll have a problem with giving you an autograph, Walker.”

Grace looked from Chad to Bruce.  Her eyes rested on Bruce, and she smiled softly.  “An autograph as a ‘thank you’.  I can do that.”  She sighed, “I just can’t get over the stalking bit.  All those times I went out… I wasn’t safe.  He could have grabbed me at any time.  What if there are others like him out there?”

Bruce wanted to tell her that there weren’t, but in truth, he couldn’t ensure that.  One thing he did know, however, was they’d have a harder time getting to her now.  The Manor was much safer than her old apartment building.  “If there are, perhaps this one’s Fate will be a deterrent?” he suggested.  But he worried as he said it that she would try to seclude herself here at the Manor much as she had done in her apartment.  Here, the seclusion might be worse, as there were few reasons here to leave the grounds.  Groceries here were brought by delivery, and the servants did laundry and the cleaning.  Bruce didn’t want Grace to isolate herself out of fear.

*-*-*

After the police left and they were finally alone again, Bruce took Grace’s hand and led her back to the over-stuffed leather chair –the ‘cuddle chair’ as Courtney and Seth were now calling it.  Sitting, he pulled her down with him, and then covered them both in the soft mink blanket.  For a while, they said nothing and just sat there holding
one another close.

“Do you really think no one else will try to…?” she began after a fashion.  She didn’t complete the sentence, but Bruce knew.  She sounded afraid.

“I honestly don’t know, but Grace, love, I do know for certain that they’ll have a harder time attempting it now.  Between security here at the Manor… and your new friend Batman…” He forced his voice to be lighter and more joking.  “Why would they want to try?”

“Why did he want to try?” she countered, still sounding scared.  “But, you’re right,” she said, and his fears started to alleviate.  “I’m safe… here.”

Bruce frowned; this wasn’t what he wanted to hear her say.  Yes, she was safe here at the Manor, but she was also safe anywhere because her stalker was in prison.  “Grace, sweetheart… have I ever told you about… what it was like after my parents died?”

Grace shook her head uncertainly.  Bruce confided in her, yes, but it was always a few things here and there, usually accompanied by bittersweet angst.

“When they first died, I had a hard time sleeping at night.”  This, Grace knew.  He still did, sometimes although he’d always claimed her presence in his bed kept the bad dreams at bay.  “Sometimes, the nightmares would be too real and the fear of them would spill over into the daylight hours.  I was afraid to go school, afraid to leave my bedroom… because they” the muggers who killed his parents “might still come after me.”  In truth, he used hide under his blankets until Alfred came and threw the blankets aside, forcing him out of the room.  “One day, Alfred told me he wasn’t going to let me hide anymore.  ‘You
must face your fears head on, Master Bruce’ he said.”  Here Bruce gave an imitation of Alfred’s voice.  “Then he told me that I was going back to school the next day.”  Bruce remembered fighting it, throwing a huge temper tantrum, which Alfred ignored.  But in the end, Alfred had been right: he couldn’t spend the rest of his life hiding.  Neither could Grace.  “Grace… if he’d humored me, I might still be hiding under my bed.”  The last was meant jokingly, but he hoped she’d hear the meaning behind his smile: don’t let this attack force you into hiding.  Don’t let it beat you down now, when you have so much to live for.

“I isolate myself,” came her soft reply after a long few moments.  “Anytime I feel unsafe or insecure, I isolate myself… only letting a very precious few people in.”  She paused, her eyes screwed tightly shut as her head rested against his chest.  “When we were young, my mom…” She inhaled deeply and snuggled as close to him as she could
get.  “My mom abandoned us.  One day, she kissed me before I left for school, told me she loved me, and that night, she didn’t come home.  No explanations… nothing.  Just a note. ‘I can’t live this life anymore, George.  Take care of our girls’.”  She recited the words… the memory of them tearing at her heart.

“You know as well as I do… even more than I do… Moms don’t leave.  They don’t just send their kids to school and then run away.  They don’t love you one minute and stop the next.  Mine did.”  She cried softly.  “Moms… they’re always supposed to be there… they’re always supposed to love you.  It’s the one thing you should be able to depend upon, no matter what.  But mine just stopped.  Stopped loving us and ran away.”  She sighed heavily.  It was as if once she started talking about it, she couldn’t stop.  “Hope, she was always Daddy’s girl.  They share a deep bond.  But mine was with Mom.  And I tried to reconcile things… come to terms… years of therapy and I finally stopped blaming myself.  But I never got back the same sense of security I felt before she left.  I hate her and love her at the same time.  There have been times when, even now, I still wish she were here.  I want to tell her about my life and know what’s going on in hers.  I want to introduce people to MY mom.”  This was new territory for her.  She always kept these emotions… these thoughts… deeply hidden.  But something told her that Bruce, above all others, would understand.  “I love Janet.  I wasn’t always the best to her.  But she hung in there, and I know she loves me.  But there are times… I want my real mom back.  The security… my mom.”

She paused.  “And yes, I’m scared… terrified right now that one stalker equals a hundred.”  She turned sad eyes toward him, but as she looked at him, she felt nothing but love for him and from him.  “But I know… more than Batman… more than anyone… *YOU* are my security and my safety.  I KNOW that.”

“Grace…” Bruce whispered.  Instinct made him hold her tighter.  He was touched beyond words that she thought of him… Bruce Wayne and not the one he was becoming… as her security.  He wanted to be that for her always.  But he was also moved by her words about her parents.  It was something about her he’d never known.  Yes, he knew Janet wasn’t her real mother, but he’d never known the story behind it.  Nor could he believe that anyone would purposefully leave a family as loving as theirs.  They were close; although Bruce now understood that the closeness was born of a loss so great it had colored their entire lives.  And Grace was right; he knew that parents were supposed to be there for you.  And he, more than anyone, knew how it hurt when they weren’t there.

It was different when your parents died, though.  They couldn’t come back.  Grace’s mother had chosen to leave.  She’d chosen not to come back.  The very thought of it made his arms tighten a little more around her, and his whole body screamed out for wanting to let her know he’d never leave her like that.  Not again.  Ever.

“Where ever she is, she must be suffering,” he said as the thoughts tumbled from his brain.  “Because no one could know you, be touched by the spirit of who you are, and live happily without you.”  He paused, and then added in the softest whisper, “I know, because living without you all but killed me.”

She adjusted herself so her head was now resting comfortably in his neck.  Her arms moved from where they’d been hugging herself so that she could hug him.  “Bruce,” she started, a little choked up and more touched by his words than she could express.  Their time apart had been hell on Earth for her.  But it had been worse for him, and she knew that.  Worse because he was the one who had done the pushing and worse because he had, from what she could gather, wanted to rectify the situation long ago but felt the bridge had been too burned to repair.

Pressing a kiss to his neck, she snuggled in again and softly said, “Well, you aren’t going to have to live without me, not ever again.”  She sighed.  They hadn’t talked about what had happened while they were apart; somehow, she believed he knew what she’d done.  She squeezed him again.  “There were times in my life though, that I wasn’t that nice of a person.  God I made Janet pay for what my mother did.  I was fourteen.  I lashed out the only way I knew how… at Janet.  And she loved me anyway.  I’d scream at her that I hated her, and she’d counter that with ‘It’s okay, Grace.  But I still love you.’  And I never understood it.  I still don’t.  She *is* my mother.  But I still ache… and I don’t know why.”

“Because she isn’t your *real* mother,” Bruce said softly.  “She isn’t the person who sang you lullabies at night or held your hand on the first day of school.  She didn’t kiss your boo-boos or let you help her in the garden even though you were pulling flowers and not weeds.  Because no matter how much she has done for, no matter how much she has loved you and you love her, there isn’t a substitute for the real thing.  Even if they come really close, no one can replace your parents.”

It took them both a moment to realize Bruce wasn’t just talking about Janet, and neither of them said anything for a while.  “Alfred’s always been more than butler to me,” he admitted. “He’s all the family I’ve ever had until recently.” Until you, and Courtney, he silently amended.
“And I love him, for all he’s been to me.  I couldn’t imagine what life would have been like without him.  But to have my parents back…” he trailed off wistfully.

“Yeah,” she agreed softly.  “To hear your mom tell you everything is going to be alright and know it for a fact because *she* said it.”
She pulled away and looked up at him, understanding that, though the loss was vastly different, they both shared it.  Reaching up, she lightly touched his cheek.  “Maybe, what we have to do, you and I, is hold on to that aspect with each other.  If you tell me everything is going to be all right, then I’ll believe you.  Implicitly trust that you want what’s best for me.”

She caught his eyes with hers.  “And I promise to always be here for you.  I’ll never go anywhere.  We’re in this together… thick and thin.”

This was why Bruce loved her so much… because of all the women –and a few men– he’d dated in his life, none of them had cared what he was feeling.  They’d been in love with the name, the money, and the status.  Big house, fancy cars…  he was just a pretty face with money to them.  But Grace?  She wasn’t like that; she loved him.  He had no doubt of that, because it showed in everything she did.

“I think that’s more than feasible, love.  In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”  He kissed her forehead, then nose, leaning further in with each kiss until his lips met hers, tenderly expressing his devotion for her.  All his heart told him that they were connected in a way that nothing could sever.

*-*-*

When Bruce finally excused himself with claims of things he needed to get done in preparation for his next round of meetings at City Hall, he didn’t go straight into training. There was something he had to do first.

Heading into his den, he pulled out his cell phone and punched in the number for Grace’s father’s law office in upstate New York.  He’d promised George he’d take care of things, and he had.  Well, gotten the ball rolling, but it was a start.

When the receptionist answered and asked how she could direct his call, he told her to please tell Mr. O’Neil that Mr. Bruce Wayne was calling.  She politely said she would and then put him on hold.

When the phone rang, George set down the contract he was pouring over, brows furrowed in chagrin that the legal assistant he’d hired recently could write a contract with so many loopholes in it.  So if his voice was a little agitated when he picked up the phone, his receptionist didn’t seem to notice.

“Sorry to bother you, sir.  There’s a Bruce Wayne on the phone.  Should I forward the call or take a message?”

George pushed the contract aside, eyes immediately going to the photo on his desk.  His thoughts traveled back to the phone call he’d had with Miles yesterday.  And the discussion he’d had with Janet last night.  She seemed all for letting Bruce back in.  Bygones be bygones.  Living life while it was had to be lived.  And Miles trusted the young man implicitly.  And Grace… loved him.  So as George O’Neil slept last night, he came to a conclusion.  “Put the call through,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Yes, sir.”

When the phone rang again, he said, “Hello Bruce.”

Their last phone conversation was still on Bruce’s mind when the call was patched through. Through it had barely been a few days ago, it was fresh in his mind and he was all too aware that he needed to rebuild the man’s trust.

“Hello, George,” he replied.  “I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything pressing…”

He’d been sitting at his desk when he started, but now stood, moving to the window.  Outside, the late afternoon sun glistened of the snow in his spacious ‘back yard.’  A brief memory of building a snowman with his father as a child flickered through his mind.  His mom had been sick, and he and his father had built an entire snow family where she could see it from their bedroom window.  That was the last winter before they… “But I thought perhaps I should apprise you of how things are faring here.”

George leaned back in his chair, running a hand over his baldhead he thought back to the things he made Bruce promise him he would do.  That was Sunday… today was Tuesday.  If he’d come through on any of them…  Well, George knew anyway.  Bruce wanted desperately to rebuild that trust.  And that meant something.  “I appreciate that, Bruce.  I really do.”  His words were genuine as he spoke. “How is she?”

He glanced back over at the picture and then at a candid shot of the five of them having a cookout over the summer.  George and Bruce acting as chefs while trying NOT to burn the steaks.  Grace and Hope sunbathing… and Janet… relaxing on a raft in the pool.  It had been George’s first attempt at one of those remote controlled cameras.  That
day it had worked perfectly.  That day had been perfect. Perhaps perfection could come back.  He knew this phone call could go a long way toward that.

“She’s doing much better,” he told Grace’s father. “She’s been sleeping better… eating finally,” he paused, chuckling.  “Alfred’s been seeing to it every meal includes all of her favorite foods.  And she’s been smiling, George. Smiling.”  He said the word like it was some kind of miracle, because really, it was in his eyes.  The first couple of days after Grace woke up had been the hardest.  The fear in her eyes had scared him so badly, but it was gone now.  “And we’ve… worked through a lot of stuff.  She’s… um, staying at the Manor now.  She’s let the apartment go.”  He was rambling and felt so unsure.  It was weird, but he’d never felt this way around anyone’s parents before.  But with George and Janet?  The first time he’d met them was at Grace’s birthday party practically two years ago.  He’d been so nervous, he’d spent most of the night ‘hiding’ at the bar for fear of ruining her night somehow.  He felt like that now, because of how he knew he’d hurt her.

“Today was a little difficult for her, though,” he said, leading into the major reason for his call.  “We had a visit from the police, about her attack.”

George wanted to go back and comment… mostly on the fact that his daughter was smiling… another on the living situation.  He knew Grace would move back in as soon as she got the opportunity, but mostly what George wanted to say was that he was pleased.  Even if Bruce never hinted at marriage, keeping that apartment had never been something George liked.

But when Bruce brought up the police, he focused everything one that.
His voice showed his pleasure.  “You got her to press charges?”  Of course he wanted details, but the fact that she’d done it… it almost shocked him completely, pleasantly actually.  “Bruce… that’s great!”

Bruce smiled at the sound of the other man’s voice.  They had both wanted this, for Grace to press charges. For her attacker –stalker, he amended– to pay for what he’d done.  His smile faded a little.  George wouldn’t like that much.  “I got lucky, I think,” he told the lawyer.  “Grace has it in her head that the man who saved her is that… Batman
guy the media down here in Gotham keep telling stories about.  Have you heard of him?  Anyway, she came to me wanting to know how I thought she could thank this guy… and I convinced her that whoever did save her, he didn’t do it just to watch that piece of scum walk free.”  Here,
Bruce couldn’t hide his distaste of Grace’s stalker from his voice.  “And I pulled some strings and got the cops to come to us.  No reporters, no photographers.  Just Grace, me, and the cops who were working the case.”  That had helped a lot, he knew, as she wasn’t someplace public when the realization hit her that she’d been stalked.
“Ahh!!  Smart move, Bruce.  Very smart move.  Cause we both know
Gracie.  She won’t do half the things she should for herself, but tell her she’s doing them for someone else, and she’d move mountains if she could.  I’m so proud of her…” He was genuinely smiling when he said, “Of you both.  Thank you so much.  Going to the police station was the worst of it for her the last time.  And you had the right of it Bruce… the man is scum.  To attack an innocent woman…” He paused for a moment.  “She thinks Batman saved her?  I’ve heard tidbits… Miles mentioned something about him the other day, actually.  Grace thinks he saved her, huh?  Anything’s possible.  And if she believes strongly enough, nothing will deter her from it.”

“Don’t I know it,” he chuckled.  “And yeah, Batman. That’s what she told Detective Vincent today anyway.  He wasn’t as inclined to believe as Chad was, though.”  Bruce voice tightened.  Vincent may be working the case, but if he contradicted Grace again, he’d be a meter maid before he could even say the word.

Bruce sighed.  He wanted to bask in the glory of George’s words.  He was proud of him.  It lifted a weight off his heart to hear it.  But the rest of the news needed to be told, and Bruce worried about how it would be received.  “George,” he said after a hesitant pause.  “There’s something you need to know about her attack.  Vincent showed Grace a photo of the man who grabbed her that night. She knew him; he was a former student of hers from when she taught those classes.”  Bruce pressed his fingers to the window, feeling the chill through the glass. “Chad says he admitted to watching her for months, George.  It was a stalker, and not a random attack.”   The last words were voiced with such pain and anger.  Though he’d never voice it, he blamed himself more than anything.  If he hadn’t turned her away… it was a mistake he’d spend the rest of his life making up for.

“A stalker,” George said the word as if the information hadn’t fully soaked in.  “A stalker,” he said it again for emphasis.  “Oh Jesus, Bruce.”  His face went red with rage.  But it wasn’t directed toward anyone but the man who perpetuated the crime.  “No wonder she’s had it rough today.  Grace, though I love her dearly, doesn’t give herself much credit sometimes.  She and I had talked about stalkers the first time she modeled. Her response was no one would stalk her… there were much more beautiful women to stalk.  I tried to tell her that there were few women more beautiful than she, but she told me I was biased.  Then I explained to her that beauty had nothing to do with stalkers.  But it never sank it.”  He sighed.  “I guess it has now.”

All he wanted to do right now was get in his car, drive to the airport, fly to Gotham, and beat that scumbag to death. How dare he put his hands on Grace?!  “You know what I think… and I know you’ll agree… I think that scum should thank his lucky stars that he’s under police
protection.”  He paused for another long moment.  “How’s she dealing though?  Mentioned anything about secluding herself?  She’s done that… when she was a teenager…” he said, thinking of Judy and the damage she created.

Bruce nodded, the events of that night still so fresh in his mind.  He’d been so angry with that man for even daring to look at Grace, let alone touch her, that he hadn’t been able to contain himself.  Only his concern for her immediate well being had stopped him from doing worse than he did. He’d wanted to kill the man, if truth be known.

“I know… we… she told me about her mom,” he said, knowing that if George wasn’t open with it then Grace had never really told anyone before.  “She was pretty upset, George.  I won’t lie to you about that.  She kept asking if there could be others… like that man.”  His voice froze up as he recalled the look in her eyes.  She’d been terrified and clearly on the verge of hiding.  “I’m going to… try… to help her through it, though.  Maybe if she has someone to lean on, she won’t try hide herself away from the world she loves so much.”  Grace’s love of life had been one of the things that had solidified his attraction to her.  Or rather, hooked him like a fish. He’d hate to see her lose that over this… over that horrible man.  He’d do anything to make sure she didn’t.

“She told you about Judy?” George sighed and confided something himself.  “I didn’t get a chance to analyze the woman’s reasoning at first.  Hope… she cried and then became angry and went on with her life determined not to let it get her down.  But Gracie… Bruce, it’s harder for her.  Like I said, she’s special.  To hate her mother, in a lot of ways would be to hate herself… at least in Grace’s eyes.  They were so close.  You look at Grace now and that’s Judy when she was in her late 20’s.  Judy loved life… was the living definition of a perfect mother.  And then one day a switch was thrown and she was gone… Grace was devastated.”

He paused again.  “If anyone can get her out and living, I know you can do it.  I know she’s safe there with you.  But the hurt… over her mother… will always be fresh.  And to add on top of it this stalker.  She’ll want to isolate herself.  I know she’s in the best hands possible.”  George chuckled lightly… almost ironically.  “Hold her tight, but make her go out and live.  Bruce… make her go shopping,” George did laugh then.  “Goodness knows that girl loves clothing.”

That made Bruce laugh.  “Tell me about it? When she moved in –the first time– I couldn’t believe how much clothing she had.  Alfred had to open two of the other walk in closets just to fit it all.”  He smiled at the memory.  That day hadn’t been the best for him, but Grace being there had made all the difference in the world. “She already has been shopping a little… before today, anyway. Came home from her afternoon with Courtney with a brand new car.”  Well, car wasn’t the right word. It was a metallic purple Hummer.  “But we’ll shop… we’ll do whatever takes.  I’m not letting her down again, George. Your daughter… well, she means the world to me.”

“I know she does.  I knew it all along.”  George chuckled a bit though as he said, “A car?  Or some Monster on Wheels? The bigger, the better.  I mean… that bright yellow Hummer…” He paused.  “I don’t want to know what she bought this time, do I?”  He shook his head.  “No, I really don’t.  But yeah, take her out…”

He snapped her fingers.  “I have an idea, Bruce.  Oh she’ll love it!
Ice skating… We used to go all the time when the rink was open.  She’d be out there in her purple snow suit with the fuzzy purple collar… stuck out like a sore thumb… she loved it.”

Bruce smiled, and his eyes drifted back to the snow outside.  “I haven’t been skating in… forever.” It might not be a bad idea, really.  Something fun and light-hearted.  He’d call Nee and see what she thought.  “That could be fun.”  After a pause, he said something
potentially dangerous.  “Thanks, George.  I know I haven’t given you much reason to trust me lately… just thanks.”

George looked back at the picture of the picnic and smiled softly.  “Bruce, it takes a lot of guts and courage to do what you’ve done.  I mean, face me… talk to me.  My girls are my world, and since you’ve talked to Grace, I imagine you have a very good insight as to why.  Moreover, it takes a lot of love to go to the lengths you have for her.  And I believe actions speak louder than words.  It’s all water under the bridge.  Okay?”  And as he spoke those words, he knew them to be true.  Bruce had followed through and done so very quickly.  And George felt comfortable with Grace being in Bruce’s care.  “She’s safe with you and happy.  And that’s what I’ve wanted for her for so long.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said again, his voice more relieved than before.  He knew now that he’d been redeemed a little in the older man’s eyes.  And seeing as he never intended to repeat the action that had caused him to fall from grace, he doubted he’d lose that little bit of redemption.  “I’ll let you know how it goes from here… if it goes to trial… I’d rather you hear things from us that from the press anyway.”  Bruce knew George’s other daughter was a budding journalist, but he still did not trust the media.

They said good-bye, and Bruce let George get back to his work. Soon after, he was heading to the training room, but on impulse, deterred to the main gym instead, as he felt like playing with the gymnastics rings.

*-*-*

“You won’t believe what just happened,” Hope began after Grace’s initial hello.

Grace had been in the gym, running one of her old step-aerobics/ kickboxing routines.  She hadn’t done this one in over a year but it had all come back to her so easily.  She had the music turned up and was working up a good sweat when Alfred interrupted her for the phone call.  “Bruce still working?” she’d asked while grabbing her towel.  Alfred said he was and Grace merely nodded before taking the phone.

Now she listened to Hope’s enthusiastic voice as she rode the bicycle.  “What just happened to you?”

“I just got a phone call from Detective Walker Vincent.  Wants me to give a deposition.  Says you had a stalker and I was with you when he talked to you.  Man, how freaky is that?  My sister had a stalker!”

“I know, Hope,” Grace said, pushing her body harder as she rode.

“Well aren’t you the crabby one?” came her response even though her tone was teasing, the words were serious.

Stopping the bike abruptly, she said, “You tell me how I’m supposed to react.  The man tried to kill me… had been following me for months, so I’m sorry if that upsets me.  I don’t find it cool in the least.”

“I didn’t say it was cool.  I said it was freaky.  Listen, I’m gonna head to the station to give my deposition.  Are you okay?”

“I’m safe here,” Grace acknowledged.  “I more than likely won’t be going anywhere by myself for a while, but I’m fine.”  They exchanged goodbyes, and Grace set the phone aside.  Leaving the bike, she went straight to the bag.  As she ran an old kickboxing regimen, lots of thoughts ran through her mind.

Bruce, and Chad to the best he could, had both been very comforting in reassuring her that she was safe.  The look on Bruce’s face told her to what extent he would go to make sure that would be the case.  But safety and security had always been Grace’s biggest issues.  She’d trusted her biological mother to keep her safe, and Judy had abandoned her.  Grace landed a hard kick to the bag at the thought of Judy O’Neil.  She wanted to hate her, but a part of her still loved her.  She couldn’t help but think about her.  How could she not?  Every time she looked in the mirror, she saw Judy’s face reflected back at her.

Truth was, if Judy were to come back and asked to be forgiven, Grace would probably give her a chance.  But the abandonment had been the first thing that had rocked Grace’s world.  The first thing that made her believe it wasn’t a safe and secure place.  And even though her father had made sure that both girls had received counseling, Grace never fully recovered.

She’d found safety and security in Chad as well.  Her first love.  Seven years together, counting the three in high school.  He’d always been there for her, loved her, and took care of her.  She’d repaid him by breaking HIS heart.  Calling off their wedding two weeks before the date, running from the secure future she would have had with him because she was afraid.  Terrified.

When Bill started hitting her, she told herself it was what she deserved… her ‘punishment’ for turning away the one she should have been with.

She was running the kickboxing routine on automatic now.  It wasn’t a grueling or punishing workout, but it allowed her some free time to clear her thoughts.  It’s what she needed most right now.

AnnaBeth had called George when she feared for Grace’s life.  She’d also called the police, but by the time they arrived, Grace was unconscious.  She awoke in the hospital, feeling very frightened.  And although Courtney and George never left her side, she didn’t find security again anywhere until she found Bruce.

She paused at the thought of him before returning to her routine.

When she’d returned to Gotham, she had nothing.  The courts had taken everything, declaring her to be in breech of contract with her modeling agency.  But she couldn’t stay in New York City… her mental health wouldn’t allow it.  So she’d returned home.  Chad had offered to let her stay with him.  It had been very tempting… to go back to him.  But in the end, she decided to stay with Courtney instead.  Living with her was the safest she’d felt in a long time… again until Bruce.  She hadn’t stayed with Courtney long though, her friend more than determined that Grace actually live and not hide behind her.

The question now was… did she feel safe?  The answer was yes.  She knew beyond a doubt that Bruce would make sure no other ‘stalker’ got near her.  She understood that she was his priority.  There was no question that he would do anything to see her safe, secure, and happy.  And unlike how she was with Chad, she wasn’t scared by the thought of forever or commitment where Bruce was concerned.  He was her life, and she was where she belonged.

Finishing her workout, she sat on the floor and relaxed, leaning against the wall, she closed her eyes and smiled.  ‘Good workout,’ she thought.

When Bruce entered the gym, he saw Grace leaning against the wall.  She was sweaty and disheveled, as if she’d just been through a very rigorous work out, but right now, her eyes were closed and he hesitated to disturb her.

“Looks like we had the same idea,” he said after standing there watching her for a minute or two.  “You meditating?  Cuz if so, I could leave you alone?”  He risked a grin when she opened her eyes to look at him.  She’d once told him that she couldn’t meditate because she couldn’t focus on one thing that long.  Walking closer, he sat down next to her.  The wall was cool on his back.  It probably felt good to her after her routine.

“I actually think I was on the verge of falling asleep or something,” she laughed lightly, rubbing her face with the towel.  “I was multi-tasking.  Hope called.  Detective Vincent is a jerk, but he’s quick.
She’s going to the local police station to give a deposition.  And she didn’t seem to think I was bubbly enough for her so we swapped growling remarks.  She just doesn’t get me sometimes.  I know she tries, but she sees this stalking thing as freaky… but interesting because it means I’m *somebody*,” she used her fingers to create quotations in the air.

She paused.  “So I thought I’d blow off some steam and try to start getting back into shape.  One goes with the other. And then I just ended up sorting a lot of things out in my head.”  Her head was still resting on the wall as she turned it to smile at him.  “I still have some left in me if you wanted to work out together.  I was working on my kickboxing.”

“Of course you’re somebody,” Bruce replied matter-of-factly as he got up.  Holding out his hand to help her to her feet, he clarified, “You’re the sun, the moon and the stars… and everything else that makes up my entire universe.”  He pulled her to him smoothly, stealing a kiss before she could quite recover from the suddenness of it.  Then he pulled away, and said, “and you’re probably the person who’s going to put me to shame with her kickboxing techniques.”  He winked at her, letting her know he’d love to work out with her.

“Speaking of Hope…” Bruce began, linking Hope to family and family to George easily.  “I, uh, spoke to your dad just now.”

“You did?” She had taken a step toward the mat and stopped, turning back around to look at him.  He seemed okay, better than the last time he talked to her father.  “I’m so glad you thought to call him.  I should have done it, but my mind so isn’t where it should be.  You left for your office and I just thought… workout.”  She smiled lightly.

“So how is he?  What did you guys talk about?  He didn’t go all ‘protective Daddy’ on you again, did he?”  She was honestly concerned that though George believed in second chances, he might not be so willing to give one to Bruce.  And that concerned her, because they had seemed to have a bond.  She liked the thought of maybe, someday, her dad and Bruce having a close relationship.  They were both good men, with good hearts and souls.

“No ‘protective Daddy’ this time.”  Bruce smiled to ease her mind about that.  He’d expected it, but when it hadn’t come, he’d been relieved.  He loved Grace and couldn’t even begin to contemplate life without her ever again.  And for whatever reason, having her father’s approval meant something to him.   “I kind of figured you’d be too upset to talk about it again, so I filled him in about the stalking. He was concerned, but I think I helped ease his fears a bit about your safety and stuff.  Or at least, I hope so.”  He stepped onto the mat, and came to stand by her side again.  “Then we talked about ice skating, believe it or not.”

She laughed.  “Oh dear Lord, did he tell you about my purple snow pants?  It had a matching purple coat with a very furry collar.  I’d skate around and that stuff would fly off the collar.  Back then, I loved that thing, but now…” She smiled.  “And he LOVES telling people that story.”

She faced him on mat.  Her eyes holding his for a moment.  She was sure he was humoring her about the kickboxing comment.  He’d done a lot of honing during their separation.  And she’d done exactly the opposite.  But still, it meant a lot that they were even falling easily back into this routine.  Light contact matches were something they did quite often.  It was a sign of trust on Grace’s end, and they both knew why.  The epitome of trust in their relationship.  He let her go on the offensive, and it was more than easy to fall back into the routine.  It was very therapeutic as well.

“I thought the snow pants sounded cute,” Bruce said, teasing, as he faced her.  “Actually, the skating sounds like fun.  I was just thinking I’d been spending too much time indoors this winter.”  Of course, this was far from the truth where he was concerned, but she didn’t need to know that.  Besides, ice-skating did sound like fun.
“Maybe we should go sometime this week?”

And maybe he shouldn’t have asked so soon after the attack, but Bruce couldn’t think of a better time to go than now.  They were back together, and they weren’t hiding it.  Plus, if she went with him, it would show everyone that Grace wasn’t letting the attack bring her down.  As for the media… he’d handle whatever came up.

Taking a defensive stance, he waited for Grace’s first move.  His eyes let her know he was serious about their combat.  She needed the outlet, and he could take just about anything she dished out right now.  Besides, having someone to spar with would be better for his training anyway.

“We could go,” she said, getting into the spar slowly by leading off with a kick and following it with two punches that he blocked easily.  ‘He’s quicker,’ she thought, as she took a step back, waiting his counter.  “But no purple pants,” she teased.  She blocked his counter, thinking perhaps he was doing some gauging of her himself.

She didn’t realize it until this moment… She’d missed this too.  He would throw punches and kicks and she never gave it a second thought.
She trusted Bruce that much.  Her training was coming back to her though, and she was starting to really get into the exercise.  She could tell he was settling in too, as they both began to really get into it.  She really, really needed this.

“Right… no pants… er, purple ones, I mean,” he quipped, giving her a very salacious grin as he threw a punch, which she easily blocked.  He could feel them falling into their old routine like a familiar dance.  Four months hadn’t dulled the instinct of how to block or how to move.  He knew he was quicker now, but he could see her adapting to it with the ease born of someone who knew her stuff.  Grace wasn’t a novice when it came to kickboxing.

He blocked another punch, though this one came close to making real contact, as he’d been caught off guard while watching her body as she moved.  She was so heavenly, so gorgeous, and even now, it amazed him that George had actually said she’d doubted the extent of her beauty.

She spun and sat back waiting for his next offensive move, which she blocked and as she did, she moved in and pulled a punch that would have easily contacted with his ribs.  It cost her though as he made a touch as well, this one to her shoulder.  He was better at anticipating as well, but she recovered and pulled back, setting up for her next attack. “I’m wearing pants,” she teased, the words coming out in small bursts because she was a bit winded.  “Whether you want me to or not, I’m wearing pants.”

She moved in again, this time leading with kicks instead of punches.
It seemed appropriate, as it was what she would be wearing on her legs that they were discussing.

“No…” His breath had picked up, though whether because of the exercise or the woman with him, he wasn’t sure at moment.  He easily evaded her kicks, his eyes remaining fixated on her legs for several seconds, “fair.  I’m sure I could come up with an alternate means of keeping them warm.” What were they talking about again?

Her next move –another kick to the midsection– made him step back as it connected.

She was thankful it was light contact or else that particular kick could have hurt.  She pulled back, giving him a moment.  “Are you ok?” she asked, wanting to make sure that she hadn’t hurt him.  She waited for him to recover and then had to tease, “I have no doubt that you can keep me warm.”  She winked.  “But I told you about those lower abs.”  She laughed.  Of course, it was only then that she realized she’d dropped her focus.

Trying to quickly recover before he took advantage, she led with a very weak punch.  Not her best, but she was having far too much fun at the moment.

Bruce’s counter move was nothing either of them was expecting.  With hands that moved quicker than hers, he grabbed her wrist, pulling her hard against his chest.  Only their clothes came between Grace and the abs she’d just chided him for.  “I’m fine,” breathed raggedly, his expression turning instantly to one of unveiled passion.  He dropped her wrist in favor of holding her closer.  “Perfect…” Then his lips were on hers and his arms were tightening around her waist.

*-*-*

Bruce awoke from a light doze, having been drifting between sleep and waking moments ever since their last round of lovemaking.  The rest of their day had been very relaxed.  They’d made love after their sparring session, ate lunch on a picnic blanket in the solarium and then simply held each other until Courtney called for an update.  At dinnertime, they seriously discussed the whole ice-skating idea, and Bruce resolved that he would clear his schedule for Friday. Lee wouldn’t like it much, but it wasn’t exactly Lee’s feelings with which Bruce was concerned.  After watching the sunset over the snow-covered horizon from the balcony, they’d retired to the bedroom for the night.

Bruce had felt the need to be with Grace as much as possible, to hold and to comfort her.  Now, however, the night pressed on and he knew he had to leave the sanctuary of their bed.  Slipping from beneath the covers, he eased out of bed and pulled on his clothes and then stole
from the room.

Tonight’s patrol was quiet and boring.  Nothing very much going on at all.  A few times, a familiar patrol car passed by, and Chad’s words from earlier that day came back to his mind.  He believed in the Batman, and he didn’t seem hostile, like Vincent had been.  He knew that opinions were varied.  The newspapers were full of them, especially since Grace’s attack.

Still, it had dawned on him earlier, when he’d been trying to link recent crimes to Thorne, that a contact within the police might be useful…. and his gut was telling him he could trust Chad Harris.

When Chad’s patrol car pulled into the back parking lot of a greasy spoon on the corner, he made a decision.  He waited, and the patrol officer got out.  His rookie partner must have been sick that day, as the car was empty.  Bruce approached, waiting in the shadows until Chad returned with a Styrofoam cup of coffee.  Bruce waited until he got into the car and started it up to act.

Batman darted out the shadows, grabbed the passenger side door handle and was inside the car in seconds.  Chad nearly jumped out of his skin, and the car swerved.  “Drive!”  Batman ordered, reminding the startled police officer to keep his eyes on the road.  Chad drove, but his eyes kept shifting to the dark figure in the car with him.  Batman gave another order, barking the street address of a park he’d once taken Grace to.  It was quiet, out of the way, and no one would be there this time of night.  He was surprised when the cop complied.

On any given day, Officer Chad Harris would have reflexively punched out anyone who dared to kidnap him.  This wasn’t any given day though, or even a typical kidnapping.  His first response upon seeing the masked, caped figure was that he had been right.  He had been right, and so had Grace.  His second was that this had been the man who saved
her.  The man had saved her life.  So he did as he was instructed and drove.  He was stunned, shocked, amazed, and a bit overwhelmed by the entire situation.  But here was the proof, sitting beside him.

The man who had single-handedly done in a short few months what Chad had wanted to do for years.  Of course, this Batman wasn’t exactly bound by the same laws that Chad was.  If Chad had beaten the perp and hospitalized him, it could have very well cost him his job.  Not that it wouldn’t have been worth it.  He still wanted a few moments alone with that scumbag.

He pulled into the park as he was instructed, unbuckled his seatbelt and then turned to face the man sitting beside him.  There was an air of dead seriousness about him, and something else as well that Chad couldn’t put his finger on… vengeance… whatever it was, it permeated from Batman’s entire being.  “Ok,” he finally said, “you have my attention.”

“Good,” Batman answered.  He held Chad’s eyes, searching them as if to see if he’d been mistaken about the man.  Grace had always said that the eyes told the most about a person. When he was certain he wasn’t wrong, he spoke again.  “We’re both busy people, so I’ll be brief.”  He paused and then said, “I need your help.”

That last bit had, admittedly, taken the officer by surprise.  What did Batman need with his help?  It seemed as of late, Chad was the one who was collecting the perps that Batman collared.  What more could he do?  He eyed the man for several moments.  A couple months ago, someone had approached him… offered him a great deal of money if he’d look the other way on some local extortion he’d witnessed.  Of course, there was no amount of money that could buy Chad off.  So, he’d arrested the man, and a week later, someone had unsuccessfully tried to kill him.  He’d didn’t care what the cost; he couldn’t be bought.

But sitting here, across from this man… this hero as Grace so openly called him.  Chad’s blue eyes locked with dark brown ones and he said, “What do you need?”

What did he need?  A contact in the police force, someone who was honest and couldn’t be bought.  Someone he could trust.  “Your eyes.  Your ears.”  The answer was cryptic at best. Batman elaborated.  “There’s more I could be doing than just stopping random acts of injustice.  I need someone inside the Gotham PD I can trust.  Information.  Locations.”  He wanted the man who made most of the ills in Gotham happen to suffer.  He wanted Thorne.

“Information,” Chad repeated, turning so he completely faced the other man, his arm resting casually on the steering wheel.  “Locations.”  He thought for a long moment, more questions running through his mind than he could put voice to.  The fact was, right now, he needed to focus on the most important bit of information.  “I take it you’re after someone in particular… someone that we,” and here he meant the police department, “can’t quite touch because of the laws we’re bound by.  But someone who deserves to be brought to justice nonetheless.  Who specifically would that be?”  He was tempted to remind the man that he was just a patrol officer, but everyone knew he was a lot more than that, so he didn’t even pretend.

“Among others, Thorne.”  The name dropped coldly from Batman’s mouth.  He wanted to cripple the so-called ‘businessman’s’ organization. His reasons were the obvious ones.  Thorne’s crime syndicate was the source of most of the small crime in Gotham, as well as the big stuff.   Where there was a mugging, there was a man in need of quick cash to pay off a dealer.  The dealer got his drugs through someone else, and the drugs made up a portion of Thorne’s profits.  Other crimes connected in similar ways.  Yes, some of it wasn’t connected, but those independents had their own set of problems.  Paying Thorne for the right to their own niche of the streets.  Gangs with guns?  Who made the guns available?  Everyone knew, and most people chose to ignore it.  “And you,” he said, fixing Chad with a pointed stare, “are in a position to see more than I can.”

“Thorne,” Chad fairly hissed.  “Yeah, I could think of a thing or two
I’d like to do to that man.”  He sighed.  He knew, as well as Detective Vincent, that Thorne was the one who’d hired the man who tried to kill Chad.  What had been most confusing was why there’d only been one attempt.  Maybe Thorne didn’t think a patrol officer was worth any extra time or effort.  And now maybe, just maybe, they’d have a chance to bring the crime boss down.  Thorne owned several of the officers and detectives in Gotham.  He didn’t own Gordon or the Mayor.  Like him, they couldn’t be bought.  He didn’t own Vincent either.  As much as the man rankled Chad, he was an honest detective.  It’s why Chad overlooked the detective’s attitude like he did.

“I’ll give you what I know,” Chad said, making the decision easily.  “He’s got a few toadies that hang out at this bar not far from where you picked me up tonight.  I’ve bagged them a couple times for assault… once for attempted rape. But, of course, nothing ever sticks.”  The last was almost a growl.  “I know they work for Thorne, but neither will talk.  Before we can lean on them too heavily, the lawyers rush in and they’re released.”  Chad looked up at him, eyes slightly enraged at the injustice of it.  “They know what will happen to them if they turn stoolie; but if leaned on properly, I’ve little doubt one of them will talk.”

He paused for a moment as if he was going to say more, and he knew
Batman was processing the information he’d just been given. “One question… why me?  Why not any other of the patrol officers?  Why not one of the detectives?  What made you decide to get in *my* squad car tonight?”

Batman filed the information away for future use.  He’d been pressuring Thorne’s people accidentally before, almost unwittingly, but now?  He was going to be seeking them out. “Call it hunch,” he said in reference to the expected ‘why me?’  “But I think we want the same things for this city.  A pact would be most beneficial.”

“Bringing down Thorne would go a long way toward crippling the crime element in this city.  We all ‘know’ how he earned his fortune, but again, we can’t prove a damn thing.”  He paused again.  “And yeah, I think we want the same things too.  If it’s in my power to help, I will.  Obviously,” and this was the first time his face softened since they’d parked the car, “you know how to find me.”

Batman nodded, and for an instant, Chad thought he was going to get out of the car without saying anything else.  He was a man who got right to the point, but Chad had a point he needed to make as well.  “Last week, you stopped a mugging.  A mugging that actually turned out to be a hell of a lot more than just that.  The woman you saved…” he paused, quickly thinking back to how settled and content she was with Bruce.  It settled something within him as well.  “She is a very special woman… to me and to a lot of other people.”  He smiled lightly.  “She knows you saved her.  She pressed charges today, which for her is a BIG thing.  She wanted to thank you.  I do too.  Like I said, she’s a special lady.  If you hadn’t been there, the world would have lost her, and that would have been a big shame.”

He had been looking beyond the cloaked figure, out to the snow covered trees of the dimly lit park as he spoke.  Turning his attention back to the man, he said, “So anything you need from me, you have.  Check out the toadies first.  Hammer and Deetz are their names.  I’ll see what else I can dig up for you tonight.  Find me tomorrow night. My partner goes off duty long before I do.  He seems to think this is just an eight hour job,” Chad’s voice reflected exactly what he thought of his partner and his work ethics.

Batman nodded, making it an overall response to all that Chad had said.  He didn’t trust himself speak after what Chad had said about Grace.  But he did know how to contact the cop, and he would be checking out Hammer and Deetz soon enough.  His mind was more at ease, as well. Chad would help, no questions asked, because he accepted what Batman was doing.  “I’ll be in touch soon,” he said when he finally did trust himself not to reveal anything through his voice.  And then, much as he’d entered the car, he was gone, disappearing into the night surrounding the park he knew so well.

Chad sat there for several moments.  Man wasn’t much for ‘thank you’s’, he thought with a slight chuckle.  But at least he’d gotten the point across.  And, though he wouldn’t exactly be telling Grace, or anyone else, about this meeting, he imagined she would feel better knowing the man directly responsible had been thanked… face-to-face.  He also felt a renewed sense of purpose.  Batman was going to make a far better ally in bringing down Thorne than his partner or any other officer or detective on the force.  He saw it in the man’s eyes.  Hammer and Deetz were going to be paid a visit tonight.

Starting his car, he drove off in the opposite direction of where he
assumed Batman would be heading.  Hammer and Deetz, though they were only a couple of toadies… they were the hardest ones to get talking.  He’d take a drive across town and lean on a couple more himself.  They wouldn’t give up Thorne, but maybe they could give up something else.  It was worth a try.  It definitely couldn’t hurt.

*-*-*

The building Chad pulled in front of, for all intents and purposes, looked abandoned.  Cautiously, he exited his squad car.  He knew appearances were deceiving.  The place looked abandoned, but in reality it was far from it.  As he made his way toward the entrance, someone yelled “PIG!”.  He heard the flurry of activity before squatters ran pell-mell out of the building.  Regardless of the swarm of humanity running in the opposite direction, Chad moved easily toward the alley, waiting for the one he was looking for.

When the man appeared, Chad caught him easily and pushed him hard up against the wall.  He pretty much detested playing the role of ‘hard ass’.  He didn’t like using brute force to get his point across.  But he’d dealt with this man many, many times.  Anything other than harsh just would not work.  The criminal only understood one way of doing things… the hard way.  “How’s it going tonight, Nicky?”

“Man, I ain’t done nothin’.”

“Oh no!  I just came to talk.  That’s all.  You, me, a little light conversation.”

“I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’!”

That comment found Nicky spun and slammed hard against the wall.  “You ain’t done nothin’ and you aren’t tellin’ me nothin’.  Then I guess that just means I get to take you downtown.”

“For what?”

“Well, there are ‘No Trespassing’ signs all over that building you just ran from.  If I made you take a breath test, my guess is you’d be publicly intoxicated.  And if I gave you a pat down, I bet you’d have drugs on you.”

“No dope, Officer Harris, I swear it.”

“Right.  I just want to talk.  That’s all.”  He let go of the criminal, knowing exactly what the man would do.

When Nicky ran, Chad caught him easily, giving him a little push to the pavement.  Nicky cried out as he was rolled over, blood was oozing from his nose.  Leaning down, Chad made as if to brush snow off his jacket and instead grabbed him by it.  “You make a drop tonight, Nicky?”  Nicky was a transport.  Working the streets, he’d transport drugs or money from the dealers to Thorne’s henchmen.  Everyone knew Nicky was a snitch, but they didn’t pay him much mind.  He worked for a fix and was easily disposable.  In truth, no one gave a shit.

“I didn’t drop any smack tonight.”

“Not talking about smack, now am I?  Was doing myself a bit of observing tonight… your pals Hammer and Deetz.  I got a bit distracted, so I figured I’d seek you out.  Now, you’re on this end of town, and they are on the other.  Still at the bar, I’d imagine.  So yeah, I know you didn’t drop smack tonight.  Who’d you give the wad to?”

“If I tell you, they’ll kill me!”

Chad lifted him up off the pavement, not far, but it definitely put pressure on the man’s head, causing him to cry out.  “I doubt they give a shit about you.  See, right now, Nicky, this is just between us… you and me.  You’re an anonymous source.  So, who’d you make the drop to?”

“I don’t know,” Nicky admitted.

“Fine,” Chad said, letting the jacket go suddenly and causing Nicky’s head to hit the pavement.  “I’ll tell you what.  Since you’re reluctant to talk here, I’ll take you downtown.  We’ll press some charges.  And when Thorne’s lawyers come to get you, I’ll make sure they know we had ourselves a long talk.  They’ll know you know more than the average transporter.  Think they’ll give a shit about you then?  I do.”

Nicky’s eyes went wide with fear.  Officer Chad Harris had a reputation around town.  He wasn’t too popular with the criminal element.  Thugs of all shapes and sizes knew that once Officer Harris had you pegged, he wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted.  That was either you in jail or information from you.

“It was dark, I didn’t see much,” he cried, rubbing the back of his head.

“What was your contact’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Give me his GOD DAMN name!”

“Sp… Spence.  That’s all I know!!!”

Chad’s face paled.  “What did he look like?”

“It was dark, man.  I didn’t see much.”

Chad reached for the jacket again.  “What did he look like?”  He’d brought his face close to the other man’s, his eyes red hot with rage.

“Dark hair.  Skinny, young guy.  He had a tattoo… some kind of fancy cross.”

Dropping him again, Chad hissed.  “Get out of here.”

It was all Nicky needed.  Torn between holding his bleeding nose and the bumps on the back of his head, he ran off into the night.

Slowly, Chad walked back to his squad car.  Getting in, he started it up and hit the steering wheel with enough force to shake it.  “MOTHER FUCKER!” he shouted.  “GOD DAMN IT!”  He was fairly shaking with rage.

Last week, his partner had been complaining that he’d just been reprimanded.  It had been explained to him that he was going to have to wear his long-sleeved uniform all year around because the new tattoo he’d gotten was below the elbow… on the outside of his forearm.  The chief had said that violated dress code.  Chad’s partner didn’t care though.  He was proud of the tattoo.  He raised his sleeve and showed it to Chad.  It was a beautifully ornate Celtic cross.

Officer Jeremy ‘Spence’ Spencer was Thorne’s new drop man.  He wasn’t working with Chad tonight because he was taking a wad from the transport to some henchmen.  Obviously, he was getting paid a pretty penny for it too.

As he pulled off into the night, he tried to contain his anger.  Right at this moment, Batman was probably having a nice little chat with Hammer and Deetz, working them for information about Thorne.  Chad had little doubt he’d be successful too.

Tomorrow… tomorrow Batman would find out about Officer Jeremy Spencer and maybe have a little chat with him as well.  Because if Chad had a talk with him, he’d more than likely beat the hell out of him.  Thugs… thugs he could deal with.  They were scum… and they were open about it.  But crooked cops?  He had no patience for crooked cops.  And to know that HIS partner was one of them.  He was enraged more than he could say.

The good news?  They had another link in the chain.  Nicky delivered smack to Hammer and Deetz.  He delivered the cash to Spence.  And hopefully, Batman could find out from all three of them who they made their deliveries too.

But it was going to be a long twenty-four hours for the patrolman.  It wasn’t every day one found out his partner was on the take.

*-*-*

When he left the park, Batman made his way back to the district where he’d encountered Chad.  He’d been working the streets long enough to know the bar the officer had mentioned.  He also knew of Hammer and Deetz, though he hadn’t yet connected them to Thorne’s organization.  Deetz was a wiry fellow who looked rather like a ferret in the face.  Hammer was the muscle and as far as Batman had seen, had earned his name by hammering people into the ground should they refuse to cooperate.  He was also, oddly, the brains of the operation.  Or so it often seemed. Deetz was like window dressing, only less pretty.

It was Deetz who came out first, staggering like he was drunk or high, though Batman knew it wasn’t high.  Neither of these two did the stuff they trafficked.  Hammer followed.  They must have been going to meet someone inside Thorne’s operation.  They went on foot for a few blocks;
Batman followed closely, though he tried to stay inconspicuous.  At one point, they stopped and he heard Deetz whisper, “I gotta feeling like we’re not alone, Hammer.”  Shortly after, they slipped into a very public club.

Batman waited, but as the night wore on, he realized they’d given him the slip.  Tomorrow would be different.  Tomorrow they wouldn’t be so lucky.

When Bruce arrived back at the Manor, Grace was still asleep in their bed, but he couldn’t sleep.  His mind was churning with thoughts.  He changed and showered and sat down in the leather chair in the corner of the bedroom and waited for her to wake up while he worked out in his mind what he needed to do about Hammer and Deetz.

*-*-*

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Grace woke up the next morning to find Bruce not in the bed but sitting in one of the leather chairs.  She wasn’t sure if he heard her wake or not, but when his eyes found hers, he smiled.

“I take it I’m going to have to kidnap the pillow more often to get you to actually stay in bed with me, aren’t I?”  She teased.  Tossing back the covers, she slowly licked her lips and asked, “Join me in the shower.”

His response was to give her a big smile.  He was out of the chair and beside her at the bed in a flash.  In one fell swoop, he picked her up, kissed her, and carried her into the bathroom.  Batman had a dilemma on his hands, but Bruce had some lost time to make up for.  Showering with Grace, and everything that went with that, was a very nice way to make up for that lost time.

*-*-*

When they emerged from the shower, it was to find that breakfast had been brought to them.  More than likely, Alfred had come to tell them it was ready, only to realize they were in the shower.  So breakfast was brought to them.  As they sat eating breakfast, something occurred to Grace.  It sort of embarrassed her at first.  Though they lived here together and their relationship was a healthy one, she’d had a ‘thing’ about knowing that the entire staff knew just how healthy their relationship was.  There was no way they could hide anything from Alfred.  He would enter the room and wake them, no matter whether they slept with clothes off or on.  He never interrupted anything, but at first, she’d been a bit self-conscious about being naked in the same room Alfred was in.

Then there was the maid.  The same one who washed their sheets day after day.  The one who made the beds and did their laundry.  There was no way of keeping it from her either.  And though Alfred said nothing, the rest of the staff talked.  It was awkward for her when she first moved in, knowing that they knew.  Now, it was just a matter of fact.  It’s how life was.  She had no problems with any of it anymore.

“So,” she began, feeding him a bite of her toast, “what’s on the schedule for today?”

He was just about to answer when the cell phone rang.  “Lee?” he offered.  However, his eyes met with hers and he took the phone from his ear and handed it to her.  “Or Seth perhaps?” he teased.

Taking the phone, she put on a false aggravated tone.  “Do you EVER just have lazy mornings with your wife?  You know, sleep in late?  Have sex instead of your morning coffee?”  She winked at Bruce, who didn’t color nearly as much as he would have in the past.

“We have sex quite often, Miss Nosey,” Seth quipped jokingly.  “How often and when though, I don’t think I should delve into when I’m acting as ‘your boss’.”

She laughed at that.  “Okay, okay, Boss.  No sex talks while we’re talking business.”

He shook his head, smiling.  And although she couldn’t see it, she heard his soft chuckle.  “The photographer from L’Oreal came by yesterday and scouted out a few places.  I know it was a bit rough for you yesterday, but he’s here in town and would really like to get some shots of you in a few places.  He told Alex the snow is perfect right now and is worried that if we don’t get the pictures now, we’ll miss the opportunity.”

Glancing up at the clock, she sighed.  “What time do I need to be there and where am I going?”

“He’d like to get started right away.  Your trailer is already being taken to the spot and I’ll drive by and pick you up.  No need for you to have to drive when I have to drive by the Manor to get there anyway.”

“Where is it?” she asked, getting up and going to the closet to grab her white jacket and white leather pants.

“There’s a wooded grove about two miles north of the Manor.  He says it’s perfect.  Have you ever been there?”

“Yeah,” she answered, moving to the other side of the closet to get out her white sweater with the high turtleneck collar.  She dropped it on the bed with the jacket and the pants before grabbing her white boots.  Something had told her to wear the white lace undergarment set today, this was why.  “Bruce and I went there this fall.  It has a nice little area for picnics.  People sometimes fish in the lake.”

“That’s the place.  The trailer will be there when we arrive.”

Resting the cell phone on her shoulder, she leaned her head against it and continued to talk to him as she dressed.  However, her eyes found Bruce’s and she smiled wickedly as she slowly changed clothes.  “I would actually feel better if you did come and pick me up.”  She had completely disrobed, except for her underwear, and put on her pants.  She sat down to put on her socks and boots.

She didn’t even flinch when she felt Bruce come to sit beside her, merely smiled.  “How long do you think he’ll need me for?  I really don’t want to be out in the cold for hours.”  She stood and pulled the phone away from her ear long enough to give Bruce a soft kiss.  Putting the phone back to her ear, she repeated, “Three hours.  That better include set up and take down time.”

“It’s a full spread they want, Gracie.”

“Fine,” she sighed.  “I may just play temperamental supermodel today though.  I don’t mind the cold, but being out in it for three hours, well, that’s not fun.  I’ll see you in a few.”

“I’m on my way.”

With that, she hung up the phone.

“Something come up?” Bruce asked, handing her the sweater.  For some reason, he enjoyed watching her dress almost as much as he did watching her undress.

“The photographer from L’Oreal showed up yesterday.”  She relayed to him the rest of the story.  “So, of course, I’m bound contractually to complete this spread when he deemed it most advantageous.  And that would be today, of course.”  She picked up the jacket and put it on, not surprised when Bruce stood and zipped it for her.

“Then you should go,” he said.  “I think I can occupy myself with something.”

Her arms went around his neck and she kissed him tenderly.  “He wants three hours of my time.  That’s in front of the camera.  It takes about an hour to get ready.  So I’ll be gone most of the day.”  Her tone was almost apologetic.

“It’s ok,” he said, placing a kiss on her nose.  “You smile pretty for them and then I’ll see you later.”

She kissed him again.

They walked together to the door and sure enough, Seth was there waiting for her.  Another kiss and a hug, and Grace was off to the races.  She really loathed short notice like this.  But at least it kept her from thinking that she might be followed.  That someone was out there watching her and waiting for her to be alone.

As they drove off the property, it was exactly this that Seth addressed.  “You gonna be okay, Gracie?  I know Courtney said you were pretty shaken up yesterday.”  He reached out and placed a reassuring hand on her upper arm.  “I’m not going to leave you.  I already told Alex I’d be with you all day today.”

She sighed, relieved beyond words.  “I’ll be fine now,” she said with a smile.  “It’s just creepy, you know?  Knowing he was out there, watching everything I did.”

“But not anymore.  This afternoon will go quickly, I promise.”

She nodded, thankful that he was going to be there with her.  It would make the afternoon go easily.

*-*-*

After Grace left, Bruce finished his breakfast –a piece of toast and coffee– on his way down to the basement.  He plopped down in front of the computer and was accessing the police database when Alfred showed up.  A split screen of Hammer and Deetz with their criminal histories glowed back at him as he hit the print button.

“More research, Master Bruce?”  Alfred asked.  They had been unable to dig up anything on the two councilmen as of yet.  Bruce still had hopes, though.

“I followed them last night.  I got a tip that they worked for Thorne.  I’m beginning to believe it’s a possibility.”

“A tip from whom, sir?”  Alfred reached for Bruce’s empty coffee cup, sounding politely concerned.

“Officer Harris.  Batman paid him a visit a last night,” Bruce countered, amazed at how easy it was to think of his alter ego as another person entirely.

“Indeed, sir.  The information is reliable then?”  It didn’t sound like Alfred doubted Bruce’s judgment, just trying to make him think about it on his own.

Bruce nodded and was about to answer aloud when his cell phone rang.  “Wayne,” he answered when the display pulled up a number he didn’t recognize.

“Bruce, old man!  This is Arnold Fitzgerald; we spoke Monday?”

They had spoken on Monday and it hadn’t been a very productive meeting.
“Of course, Arnold,” Bruce answered, though his tone turned wary. “What can I do for you?”

“I was considering what you said, and I was hoping we could meet today.”  Bruce frowned.  This is what he had Lee for.  Which he was about to tell the man when he added, “Do you think you could meet me for lunch at Decadence… say, around one?”

The reprimand died on Bruce’s lips.  Decadence was the club he’d followed Hammer and Deetz to last night.  “I think that can be arranged,” he told Fitzgerald before ending the transmission.

His next move was to call Lee and let him know he was going to be busy that afternoon.

*-*-*

Bruce arrived nearly forty-five minutes early for his lunch date.

Decadence was very upscale, which was why it had thrown him when Hammer and Deetz had gone there in the first place.  The restaurant on the ground level was the finest French cuisine.  Checking his coat at the door, he ordered a drink and waited at the bar for Fitzgerald to show up.  While he waited, he watched people arriving and leaving the
restaurant.  He recognized too many faces and hoped it didn’t mean anything more than they just liked the food.

He also noticed several people coming and going from a hallway just past the restrooms.  When the activity in that quarter slowed, he got up, asking the bartender for directions to the restrooms.  After a few minutes of watching that corridor, he decided it might be a good idea to check it out.

Flagging down a waiter, he again asked where the restrooms were and was promptly given directions he didn’t really need.  He wandered off in that general direction, but pointedly walked past the clearly marked doors while pretending to study various paintings on the walls.  They were cheap reprints, nothing special, but they provided an excuse, should it come down to that.  He turned the corner and followed the corridor.  It ended strangely in a service door.

He pushed it open, and found himself facing another hallway, this one bare and devoid of the club’s decorations.  Bruce followed it to an unmarked door.  Locked.  He should have expected as much.  Turning back, he went back up the corridor.  He was reaching out to open the door, however, when he heard voices from the other side.  He moved instantly to the side of the door, pressing his ear into the wall so he could listen.

“Harris was out and about last night,” he heard a voice say.  “He’s always sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“Don’t worry about Harris.  His time’s coming,” another voice added.  They sounded familiar, but Bruce couldn’t place them.  The voices went on to talk about a drop, but Bruce wasn’t sure what was being delivered.  Money, drugs… they mentioned times but no dates or places.  Then another voice, further off in the distance called out and
they withdrew from the vicinity of the door.  He waited until he was sure no one was out there and re-entered the main corridor.

He was just coming around the corner when he ran smack into the bartender, who eyed him warily.  “Did you find the restrooms, sir?” he asked.

“Sorry,” Bruce said.  “I was just looking at your paintings here –trying to figure out who painted them– and got a little turned around.”  He looked around and caught sight of the men’s room sign and managed to look properly embarrassed.  “There it is,” he said, laughing at himself.  He felt the bartender’s eyes on him as he stepped inside. By the time he came out of the men’s room, Fitzgerald was there waiting for him at the bar.

“Bruce, old man!” he greeted and Bruce had to squelch the urge to frown.  He hated being called ‘old man.’  Especially by this man.

“Arnold.”

“I hear you got lost just now,” Fitzgerald commented as the hostess showed them to a table.  He seemed interested.

Bruce shrugged, and affected a self-conscious air.  “I’m terrible with directions.  I, ah, actually get lost in my house all the time.  Still.”  He made it sound like he was sharing some deep secret.

“Well, Wayne Manor *is* quite vast,” Fitzgerald said, excusing Bruce a little.  “I’m sure no one could come to know it all in one lifetime.”

“No, of course not.”  Bruce reached for the menu and scanned it.  He hated this part of the game… the schmoozing and the being nice.  “You said something about reconsidering what we discussed on Monday?” he said after the waitress took their order.

Fitzgerald chuckled.  “Now, this is what I like about you, Bruce.  You’re to the point.”  He paused, and then said, “I’m not sure that reconsider is quite the right term.”

“Then, what exactly would be quite the right term?”  Bruce asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.

“Bruce…” the man began.  “You know, I have all the respect for you in the world.  Your father was a good man, a pillar of the community.  I know you’re trying to following in his footsteps, but you have to face facts.  You’re not him and Mayor Blaire is setting up to run the city as a police state.  You’d be foolish to consider allying yourself with such a man.”

The waitress was just bringing their drinks when Bruce stood up.  “Is everything alright, sir?” she asked.

“Yes, everything’s fine,” he told her.  “I wish to cancel my order, though.”  To Fitzgerald, he directed a cold gaze. “I don’t suppose I’d honor my father any more by allying myself with the man whose business it is to employ the types of people who made his death possible?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned and strode from the restaurant.  It wasn’t until he was in the limo that he realized he could have handled that better.  If he’d been wise enough to string Fitzgerald along, he might have gotten further information.  He sighed; Alfred was always calling him impulsive.

*-*-*

“Want to talk about it?” Seth asked as he pulled the Jeep back onto the road and headed toward the Manor.  The photographer L’Oreal had used had been a last minute replacement, and no one had informed Seth or Grace that this would be happening.

She’d frozen upon first seeing him.  Seth understood why.  Philip had been a friend of Bill’s.  When Seth had discussed the details with Alex, the man had made no mention of the replacement photographer.  To Seth, it seemed that was a detail that should have been mentioned, especially knowing it was Grace who was modeling.

Inwardly, Seth was seething.  Outwardly, he was the epitome of calm.  Calm was what she needed.  “It’s okay to be upset, you know?  It’s okay to be angry.  I take full responsibility for this, hon.”

“It’s over,” she said softly.  “But that man will never take another picture of me again.”

“He won’t,” Seth agreed.  “You have my word.”

“The only reason why I stayed today was because you were with me.  Otherwise, I would have left and they could have tried to sue me.  Philip is a scum.  I know how he treats models.  He was decent because you were there.”  She shivered.  “He just makes my skin crawl.”

Seth heard the quiver in her voice and knew if anyone other than Alex had made the error, they’d be looking for a new job.  Although ultimately it was his fault.  “I’m very sorry, Gracie Lou.”

“It’s okay,” she said, as she closed her eyes and rested her head against the seat of the car.  “And don’t be too hard on Alex, please.  He didn’t know Philip and Bill were friends.”

“Grace,” Seth’s voice grew quiet as he contemplated exactly how he wanted to broach this with her.  The lowering of his voice was the only indication he gave of his anger.  “I have made it very clear, on more than one occasion, that any changes in YOUR schedule are to be cleared through me.  I should be able to depend on Alex to follow through with that.  But right now, he’s so focused on other things that he didn’t do what he was supposed to.  When I say every change to your schedule, I mean every change.  And I will again make that very clear to him.”

“But he’s your friend, my friend, it wasn’t intentional on his part.”

“The only reason why he is getting to keep his job is because he’s my friend.”  He pulled the Jeep over and turned to face her.  “My standards are a bit higher than the ones at the agency you worked for in New York.  And given what you’ve gone through… with the last agency… just last week…” he paused for a long moment and sighed, “I promised you that I would take care of you.  When you came back to the business, I swore this would be stress free for you.  Today was not stress free.  And I failed to keep a promise to you.  Friend or not, there are consequences to his actions.  I apologize to you, Gracie.  And you can trust that this will NEVER happen again.”

She watched him for the longest time.  His jaw was set into a hard line, but his eyes spoke of how upset he was… upset that she had been stressed… upset that he felt he hadn’t followed through with a promise… and upset with Alex for letting his personal life affect the way he was doing his job.  But Grace understood what it was like to lose yourself in someone.  Seth… unlike her and Alex… had always been able to keep the two separate.  When Courtney became sick, he took a leave because separating the two would be impossible, and it was best for the agency if he took a Family leave.  So that’s what he’d done.  No, Seth kept business and personal life separate.  And when he got back to the agency, Alex was going to get a reminder that that’s how it should be done.  “It’s really fine, Seth.  I’m not angry or hurt or upset with anyone.  I’m just… tired, I suppose.  It’s been an emotional few days.  And what I really wanted to do was stay home with Bruce today and forget the outside world existed.”

“How are things going with Bruce?” he asked casually, pulling back onto the road.

His name caused her to smile.  “He’s the best part of all of this.  He’s been right by my side, supporting, comforting, loving.  He’s wonderful.  You know, I never want him to use his ‘name’ to pull strings or get special favors for me… but he had the police come to us so I could press charges.”

Seth smiled.  Seemed Bruce was genuine in what he’d said to him the other day.  “That’s good, Gracie.  You didn’t need the mess that would have accompanied you going to the police station.  And I’m very glad to see you smile when his name is mentioned.  I sure would have hated to add his name to the list of asses to chew.”

That statement caused her to laugh a little, the smile returning to her face.  “You don’t need to chew Bruce’s ass.  I’ll nibble on it later,” she joked.

Laughing at that, he looked at the road and shook his head.  “I have little doubt that you will.  You nasty girl, you.”

“Oh like you don’t like that kind of thing yourself.  Courtney and I talk, you know?”  He pulled up to the gate and leaned back so Grace could reach out his window and enter the code.  Sitting back in her seat, she confided, “I’m not going to tell Bruce about this.  At least, I’m not planning to.  It’s done and over.  I just want to move on.”

“And, like I said, it will never happen again.  I swear.”  And that was the truth because though Alex wasn’t going to lose his job, he’d just lost Grace.  There was no reason for that kind of mistake to happen.  Not only was Grace the agency’s biggest draw, she was also the one that had the most history.  And the models were the faces for the ads the agency created, and if Grace was uncomfortable… well… to Seth that was just unacceptable.  Stopping at the front door, he said, “You take care, hon. Have a good afternoon.”

She didn’t respond at first, merely looked at the Manor.  The huge building loomed over her and all she could think of was ‘Home’.  “I imagine Bruce is gone,” she said absentmindedly, “so I’m going to workout and take a nice long soak in the hot tub.  A very long soak actually.”

“Grace?” Seth broached with caution.  He knew Courtney had said Bruce had asked Grace not to question, but Seth had a hard time comprehending how she couldn’t.  “Up until a few months ago, Bruce was running one of the largest corporations in the world.  That took a lot of his time, but he still had days where he could do nothing but be with you.  Now…”

“I don’t know,” she interrupted, “I don’t know what he’s doing.”

“Aren’t you even curious?”

“Yes,” she answered honestly.  “But I promised him I wouldn’t ask, and I won’t.  For the most part, he’s lobbying.  I do know he’s taken an interest in making sure Miles’ crime bill gets passed.”

“But to be gone at two in the morning.  That’s not lobbying, hon.”

“He asked me to trust him,” she answered, trying to be calm about it.  She didn’t completely understand why Bruce felt he couldn’t share whatever it was with her, but she accepted it because she had to.  “And I do trust him, Seth.  When the time is right for him, he’ll tell me.  But now isn’t the time.  I think he believes I’m safer not knowing… for whatever reason.  And my safety is tantamount to him…” Here her voice got quiet, “So much so that I think it’s why he asked me to leave four months ago.  I’ve just gotten everything back that I lost.  And if he asks me not to ask about this one thing, I’m not going to.  Bottom line… I trust him.  He asked me not to ask on the basis of that trust.”

Seth nodded.  Sometimes it was difficult for him to understand.  He held Grace briefly but tightly as she impulsively hugged him.  He smiled at her when she asked again not to be so hard on Alex.  And after exchanging goodbyes, he watched as she walked into the Manor.

Driving home, it was still on his mind though.  He and Courtney shared everything.  Happiness, fear, anger, love.  They discussed things… even argued on occasion.  In their year of marriage, she’d even made him sleep on the couch once.  But they still shared everything.  Maybe it was the cancer and everything that went with it.  She’d almost died, but for the extremely radical, experimental therapy, she would have.

No one knew how close she’d come.  No one knew that during her second surgery, she’d flatlined twice.  No one knew about the side effects, especially the one that made Courtney cry some nights.  No one knew that she would have to return to New York about every six months for the next five years to have tests to make sure the cancer hadn’t returned.  No one knew the connections Seth had to use to make all this possible…  No one knew how much he’d hurt thinking he was going to lose her… thinking that they’d probably be denied the right to grow old together.  No one understood how he could have been so angry with Bruce for leaving like he did.

Except Courtney. She knew!

She knew everything about his friend and the research his corporation sponsored.  She knew why he and Seth had become so close.

No one else did…

Not even Alex.

But it had all come from his love for Courtney.  And he did love her… he needed her to know that he was the one person she could depend on completely.  His mother had never been able to depend on his father.  He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes that man did.  So yeah, he shared everything with her.

Then he paused… thinking about Grace… and that night. He hadn’t shared that.

Still…

It was difficult for him to understand why Bruce kept secrets from Grace.  The one he kept was something that Grace should have the responsibility of sharing should SHE decide it needed to be shared… but Bruce… leaving her alone at all hours of the night.  It didn’t make sense.  If he loved her so much and if she was truly the one for him, why didn’t he share?

Pulling into the parking lot of his office building, he got out of his Jeep and sighed.  Different couples did things differently, he supposed.

*-*-*

Bruce didn’t go back to the Manor right away.  Well, at least not the main living areas.  He did, however, go straight to the basement where he could listen to the tape he’d made when he realized what he’d stumbled across in that corridor.  He wanted to make a copy to take to Chad and then preceded to run tests on the original hoping to find anything that would indicate who was speaking.  It was well past the time when Grace should have been home when he finally came back upstairs.

He found Grace in her bedroom, lying on the bed in her robe.  Her hair was damp, which meant she’d obviously taken a shower and had probably worked out already as well.  She didn’t seem to notice him at first, as her mind was on the television and that interior decorating show she liked so much.  He couldn’t remember the name of it.

At the commercial, she looked up at the door to find him leaning against the doorframe.

She smiled widely at seeing him and was off the bed in a hot second.
Ty’s latest antics with the wood glue were completely forgotten at the sight of Bruce standing in her doorway.  “You’re home!” she beamed, closing the distance between them and hugging him tightly.  She hadn’t been willing to truly admit it to herself, but she missed him.  Sure, they had only been apart for a few hours, but she’d missed him anyway.  Her problematic afternoon and the stress that went with it seeped away with the sweat of her workout and the soak in the hot tub.  The rerun of Trading Spaces was a comfortable distraction until Bruce got home.  So the smile she gave him was a genuine one.  She was simply very happy
to see him.

She nestled her head in his neck and sighed happily.  “I missed you,” she said, giving him a squeeze for emphasis.

“I missed you, too,” he said, realizing as soon as he said it how true it was.  Only a few hours had passed since he’d last held her, but the contents of those hours had made him wish he’d stayed in bed.  He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her even closer to him, and felt the tension seep from his body.  He was going to love Friday… staying home with her and going skating.  Being utterly irresponsible, if only for a moment.

“Your day was good?” he asked, leaning in to claim a small kiss.  They were still standing in the doorway, but he didn’t care if anyone –were there anyone there to eavesdrop– saw their embrace.

She thought about that for a moment.  In retrospect, and given perspective, it wasn’t great but she’d gotten through it.  So she looked up at him and her smile was genuine when she said, “Yep, it was fine.  Cold… windy… But my lips aren’t chapped and neither are my cheeks, so it was fine.”  She pulled away just enough to take him by the hand and lead him into the room.  She did, however, feel up to a little cuddling.

Grabbing up her remote, she happily clicked off Hildi and her team arguing over the wall color and sat on the bed, pulling him with her.
When they were situated, and she hoped he was comfortable, she snuggled in again and asked, “How was your day?”

Bruce rested against the pillows on her bed, pulling her into his arms.  Holding her, feeling the warmth of her body seeping through her and into him.  At the mention of his day, however, he frowned and his arms tightened around her as he tensed more noticeably this time.  Which, of course, made the fact that his day had not gone at all well very obvious.  Which, of course, he hadn’t meant to make known to Grace.  It was a little thing, what Fitzgerald had said. Nothing to get worked up over at all, or even let grate on his mind for more than the minute it’d taken for him to walk out of the restaurant.  And yet, it did bother him, and it was grating on his nerves. What the man had said was
an insult, and it had hurt so badly.

She looked up at the feel of tension in his body.  He wasn’t necessarily looking at her as he was looking through her, at some unseen event that had happened in the few hours they were separated.
Moving up so her head was more even with his, she lightly touched his cheek and turned his face so that he had to look at her.

There was no doubt about it now, from that look in his eyes, she knew… he was hurting.  And just that fact brought out her urge to take care of him.  She shifted again so that he could relax against her… if he felt the need to be held instead of doing the holding.

“What happened?” she asked softly, hoping he’d talk to her.

“I had a lunch meeting with one of the councilmen,” he admitted, feeling certain that Alfred would have told her that much when she’d returned from her shoot.  He also knew that she knew he’d had lots of meetings with councilmen recently, and none of them had upset him as this one had.

He held her, aware of her holding him in return, and tried to relax into her warmth.  He couldn’t, however, as Fitzgerald’s words about his father came crashing back into his mind.  The words stung anew.  What if Fitzgerald was right?  What if, in some way, he was letting his father down?  At his age, his father was a successful businessman. He’d been unable to run the company on his own and had handed it back over to his advisors.  He told himself it was because it was bigger now, more complex, and he had so many obligations.  Fitzgerald’s implication was that he would sink the company.  Would he?  Was he already?

And then he felt anger at himself for even thinking such a thing.  It wasn’t true.  It couldn’t be.  It couldn’t.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts, and his eyes settled on Grace, the concern in her eyes very plainly seen.  How he’d lived the last few months without her was amazing to him.  He needed her love and the comfort it brought.

She rested her hand on his cheek, her eyes searching his.  Whatever had happened at this lunch meeting had not gone well.  And in her experiences with him, very few things hit him on this level.  So the question was, which button did the man push?  Courtney?  Her?  His choices with his past lifestyle?  His parents?

Leaning forward she placed a soft kiss on his forehead and then one on each eye before pulling away.  Her face was very close to his as she asked, “What did he say?”  Maybe she couldn’t say or do anything to make it better, but she could give it a try.  She would help him in any way she could.  “You can talk to me… anything… What did he say?”

“He said…” he held her eyes and knew from her reaction that she saw his pain and confusion.  “He… implied that I have been doing my parents –my father– a disservice by… in how I’m…” he choked up and stopped speaking.  His eyes screwed tightly shut and for a moment he saw his parents falling dead in alley.  It was an alley he saw much of during the long nights.  He thought he was doing the right thing.  The nightly excursions, his daily lobbying.  He knew he couldn’t bring them back, but he’d always felt as if he needed to do something to make up for being naught but a helpless child that night.  In his mind, he heard his mother’s screams and he buried his face in Grace’s robe out of instinct.

Her hands went into his hair and she held him to her breast for several long moments.  “Bruce…” she said his name softly.  “The last thing you could ever be is a disservice to your parents.”  She felt a sudden rush of rage toward this man who had said these things to him.  She had half a mind to call Courtney and send her over to have a few ‘words’ with the councilman… whoever he was.

She continued to hold him, softly comforting him, wishing there were magic words that could take away his anguish.  “Bruce, there is no way your parents would be anything other than proud of you.  Your parents ran Wayne Industries, but baby, your parents weren’t Wayne Industries.  Your parents were about family, life, and love.  And with the man you’ve grown up to be… they are proud of you.”  She paused for another long moment, to let her words sink in and to collect some other thoughts.

“And here’s something else… politics… it’s a cold, hard world.
And what that man said, he said to hurt you.  And it’s obvious he didn’t know your father at all.  And he doesn’t know you.  I do!  I think I know you better than just about anyone… and what you’re doing… all the people you’re protecting by helping Miles with the crime bill… Your father would be proud.  So would your mother.  I’m proud of you.”  She sat back, and merely held him… giving him time to absorb it all.

He didn’t saying anything for several minutes, just let himself get lost in the comfort offered by her arms.  Her hands were in his hair, stroking gently.  Her robe was soft on his cheek.  And there was comfort taking away a small part of the pain.

Her words were a comfort to him.  He knew she said them out of love and because she believed in him.  But the ache in his heart was still there.  Oh, god, how it was still there!  And would probably never ease, for as long he lived.  This, he knew, was how he understood Grace when she said she blamed herself for her mother leaving… the endless nights of ‘what could I have done?’ that turned into –at least for him– ‘what can I do to make up for living without them?’  She knew, every bit as much as he did, the pain and not knowing how to make it right.  And she knew there was no real way to that.

“Grace,” he said softly, and the word was muffled against her robe.  “Please, just hold me, Grace,” he begged her.  “Please, I just need you to hold me for a while.  I know…” He knew she was right; he knew he shouldn’t let the words of someone like Fitzgerald hurt him like this,
but they had.  “Please…”

“Okay,” she said softly, gathering him up even more closely to her.
She dropped one arm from his hair and moved in down to his back, her cheek resting lightly on the top of his head.  She simply held him as he asked, and soon he stopped asking her to just hold him.  What could she do?  What could she say to make it better?  Her eyes slipped closed. Nothing.  She had said all the clichés, told him everything her father had told her about Judy… ‘She’ll always love you,’ he’d said.  ‘It’s not your fault, Gracie.’  But the sting hadn’t gone away.  It had stayed and periodically it would rear its ugly head.

But for Bruce it was different.  His parents hadn’t just up and left him one day.  They’d been murdered, right in front of his eyes.  And for that traumatized boy to grow up into the man he was today… it was a miracle he knew how to love and feel at all.  Yet he did.  She thought to say just that to him, but instead, just sat and held him as he’d asked.  Somewhere out there within the realm of their friends and ‘family’, there was someone who could help alleviate his pain.  She didn’t think it was Courtney… her personal brand of consolation probably wasn’t what he needed.

She began to rock slowly; it was a barely perceptible movement.
Miles…  There were things Miles knew that could help.  And Bruce looked up to Miles in a way he looked up to no one else.  Maybe…

Without realizing it, she began to slowly hum.  Why she thought to sing, she wasn’t sure.  It was a comfort… at least to her she always found solace in music… poetry that was expressed in song:

“I can’t imagine, any greater fear
Then wakin’ up, without you near
And though the sun, would still shine on
My whole world, would all be gone
But not for long
If I had to run
If I had to crawl
If I had to swim a hundred rivers
Just to climb a thousand walls
Always know that I would find a way
To get to where you are
There’s no place that far
It wouldn’t matter, why we’re apart
The lonely miles or two stubborn hearts
And nothing short, of God above
Could turn me away, from your love
I need you that much
If I had to run
If I had to crawl
If I had to swim a hundred rivers
Just to climb a thousand walls
Always know that I would find a way
To get to where you are
There’s no place that far
Oh if I had to run
(if I had to run)
If I had to crawl
(If I had to crawl)
If I had to swim a hundred rivers
Just to climb a thousand walls
Always know that I would find a way
To get to where you are
There’s no place that far
Baby there’s no place that far”

She let her voice fade away and continued to hum.  She simply held him tightly to her and hummed.

Bruce clung to her as she sang, his mind focusing not so much on the words, but the way she sang them.  With Grace, music and poetry were a part of their lives, of how they communicated things that were too hard to say in mere words. Her voice held love, comfort, need… things Bruce needed right now more than anything else.  When she’d hummed through the tune a second time, all the while rubbing his back, he looked up at last.  His eyes were, as if he’d been crying, but his cheeks were dry… a sure sign that he had not.  At least not physically.

“Thank you,” he whispered as he let their eyes find each other.  His voice was shaky, as well.  Softly, he kissed her cheek. “I don’t know what my life was like without you, Grace.  I really don’t.”  He kissed her other cheek and then rested his head on her again, cuddling closer.
Grace let him, and soon he’d drifted off into a light sleep.  He was still dozing when Alfred cracked the door to check on them.  The butler caught Grace’s eye, and the vulnerable way that Bruce held her and knew all there was to know.

The butler made his way to the den and picked up the phone. He dialed, and listened as the phone rang, hoping to catch the person he was trying to reach and not the man’s wife.  Miles Blaire answered on the fifth ring of the phone.

“I am sorry to interrupt so close to meal time, Mr. Blaire,” Alfred said after a brief greeting.  “But it concerns Master Bruce.”  That was all he really needed to say, as Alfred knew that Gotham’s mayor loved Bruce every bit as much as he did.

*-*-*

After a very brief conversation with Alfred, Miles hung up the phone and stood at the table.  Inside the dining room, Seth was telling Connie and Courtney an office joke.  The women’s genuine laughter floated out to him.  Seth had a way with Constance… a way that few others did.

Looking up, he gazed at his reflection in the mirror.  He was a lucky man, very blessed.  His wife, daughter, and son-in-law were in the dining room… healthy and happy.  And Alfred had called him when his son needed him.  Inhaling deeply, he went into the dining room to make his excuses, saying that something came up at City Hall and demanded his immediate attention.

His driver was waiting by the door when he exited, but he didn’t give the driver instructions until he got in the car.  “Wayne Manor,” he said curtly.

*-*-*

The gate was open when he arrived and Alfred met him at the door.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mayor Blaire” Alfred said by way of greeting.  “Master Bruce…”

“Should I wait downstairs or just go on up?” Miles questioned… before Alfred could answer he added, “And I’m glad you called me Alfred.  I’m honored you did.”

“I’ll go get him for you, Mayor.”  With that, Alfred moved up the stairs and headed for Miss Grace’s room.  Opening the door slowly, he cleared his throat.  “I do beg your pardon, Miss Grace.  But Mayor Blaire is here to see Master Bruce.”

Smiling at the older man, she lightly shook Bruce to wake him.  “Bruce, love, Miles is here to see you.”

“Miles?”  Bruce sat up slowly, bringing himself to awareness.  He looked first from Grace to Alfred in an attempt to figure out why Miles would be here when he would otherwise be at home with his family.  He wondered briefly if he’d missed a meeting with the Mayor, but couldn’t recall having one scheduled.  “Did he say why he was here?” he asked Alfred, who merely shook his head and did not reveal a thing.

He tried to apologize to Grace for having to leave, but she merely shooed him out the door.  As he headed to his room to wash up his face a bit and make himself seemingly presentable, he missed the look that passed between Grace and Alfred.

A few minutes later, he found Miles in the den –his father’s old den– standing in front of the fireplace.  Over the mantel hung a portrait that Bruce was so used to, he barely noticed it on most days.  The fact that today Miles chose to be looking up at it as Bruce entered the room gave the simple family portrait an essence of importance.

“Miles,” Bruce greeted, or rather, interrupted, for the other man seemed lost in thought as he examined the picture of young Bruce with his parents.  The child in the portrait sat atop his father’s knee as if squirming to get down and run.

“I remember the day your mother unveiled this portrait,” he started, not looking back at the younger man.  Alfred had filled him in on all the details of the conversation with Arnold Fitzgerald.  So, Miles began not with that conversation, but another one.  “We were having dinner here… the six of us.  You and Courtney were sitting by the fireplace in the main living room reading Dr. Seuss books.  I think it was ‘Green Eggs and Ham’.  You were laughing at the thought of ham being green.  Courtney thought the eggs were disgusting.”  He smiled at the memory, though he wasn’t sure if Bruce was still standing behind him or had moved to the side so he could see his profile.

His face was on the portrait.  “This was sitting on a portrait stand… we were all drinking champagne.  Your mother stood and told us we were going to be the first to see it.  When she and your father lifted the cloth off the canvas, I remember thinking… now that’s a family full of love.  Thomas said you wanted to get at the artist’s paints and make your own picture.  I can’t remember what your mother said she told you exactly… but she smiled when she said you looked at her and grinned, then sat still for quite a while.”

He finally turned to look at the younger man.  “She always used to say, all you had to do was smile at her and her heart melted.”  His face was the picture of honesty… and more.  He let his emotions for Bruce show through.  “You were the world to them.  Not an heir… not the continuation of a family name.  There weren’t two parents more in love with their child than yours were with you.”  He turned back to the portrait.  “This portrait always epitomized that to me.”

While Miles had spoke, he’d come further into the room and was now standing just to the right and behind the mayor.  “I remember the paints,” he said.  He didn’t, however, remember what his mother had said to make him sit still for all that time or the night they unveiled it.  He didn’t remember ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ with Courtney.  Almost twenty years had passed since he’d sat with his parents for that
portrait.  It seemed so long ago now, although Miles seemed to remember it as if it were yesterday.

Sometimes, he felt guilty for that… guilty that the years were robbing him of memories he felt he should keep.  Like this one: he remembered the paints and being bored, but remembered nothing of what his parents had said or done to ease that boredom.  And he *always* felt guilty for not remembering having known Courtney as a child.  As close as they were now, and had always been, he couldn’t understand how he could forget having known her before.  Miles, he knew, had pictures of a young Courtney ‘holding’ Bruce as a baby.  He’d seen it once or twice when Courtney was in one of her ‘let’s embarrass Bruce a little’ moods.  He was in a blue one-piece sleeper with a yellow duck on the front, small and red-faced.  Courtney was in a frilly dress, her red hair in two pigtails tied in ribbons.  He’d been propped up against her legs and looked like he was making ready to scowl.  Knowing Nee, she’d pinched him.  She would’ve done something like that to a baby.

But pictures aside, Bruce didn’t remember those events.  Not that he’d have remembered from when he was a baby, but the other?  The story Miles had just told?  He should have, he thought.

But Miles hadn’t, he was sure, come here just to comment on a painting in a room Bruce only used on occasion.  “Is there something I can do for you, Miles?” He asked, although the look in the man’s eyes spoke only of a deep concern.  “Shouldn’t you be with your family?”  The question was gently asked, Bruce was curious as to what would bring Miles here during what Bruce knew were traditional family hours.

Miles turned so that the portrait was to his side now and he was looking directly at Bruce.  The mayor’s face was the picture of complete concern and full of the emotions he felt for the young man standing in front of him.  He knew Bruce didn’t remember much of the story he’d just shared… the trauma… Bruce’s young age had all conspired against the young man to rob him of such memories.  “Actually, Bruce,” again the word came out as an endearment, “I was hoping it was something I could do for you.”  His voice then took on a tone very similar to Courtney’s when she was in full comforting mode.  For all her brashness, when it came to taking care of Bruce, she was extremely sensitive.  She got that from her father.  “And I do believe, I’m with my family.”

It took a moment of weighty silence before the full extent of what the man had said hit Bruce.  Miles considered him family.  He’d come to feel much the same for the man before him.  Long talks in the past few years, mostly about his parents, had formed a bond between them that felt somehow fitting.  He was comfortable with Miles in the same way he was with Courtney, whom he considered a sister.  Those feelings, however, Bruce had always ‘known’ they were shared, had always remained unspoken between them, until now.

He smiled a weak but sincere smile.  “I take it Alfred spoke to you, then?”  Alfred cared for him, too, those his relationship was more like that of an uncle or some other elder relative who wasn’t a father, mostly because the butler had never tried to replace Bruce’s parents.  He merely made himself available to guide and comfort Bruce where he could.  When he could.  Earlier, Bruce had pushed aside what he’d felt about Fitzgerald’s comments in favor of trying to figure out the situation Batman had him in.  Alfred had accepted his refusal to talk about it, but apparently had known that the wound had cut deeper than
Bruce had let on.  He’d called Miles, hoping the other man could help where he could not.

Miles merely nodded.  “Yes, he called me, but I didn’t know the full extent of the conversation until I arrived and was waiting on you to join me.  How about we sit?” he said, gesturing toward the couch that was in the den.  Some things should be said standing; others should be said sitting.  “Let me tell you a few things I know,” he said as he sat, Bruce joining him.  “Fitzie is an amoral man.  When we were on the council together, he made ‘suggestions’ that I befriend the ‘right’ people.  Something I would never do.  When I refused, he tried other means to get me to see things his way.  It’s how he operates.”

He paused for a long moment.  “Something else… Arnold Fitzgerald and your father were NOT friends.  Your father detested everything that man stood for.  Your father was a good man, and being a good man is something that Fitzie never could and never will understand.”  He looked Bruce straight in the eyes.  “And I’ll tell you this too… just like the story of that portrait… you have far surpassed your parents dreams and expectations.  You do what you believe is right.  You’re sensitive.  Goodness knows Courtney isn’t always the easiest woman to love.”  He smiled lightly at that.  “All they ever wanted was for you to be happy and to be a good man.  And you are.  You have a woman who loves you more than anything in this world.  And you *do* have family.”

He reached out and touched Bruce’s shoulder, giving it a small squeeze.  “Fitz doesn’t know a damn thing about what he’s talking about.  Malicious words meant to strike at the heart of insecurities to get you to do things his way.  But I do know what I’m talking about.  They,” he said indicating his parents, “would have been proud of the man you’ve become.  And for what it’s worth, Bruce, I am too.”

“Miles…” Bruce began and emotion choked his next words.  He knew what Miles had said was meant out of friendship and out of the bond between them.  They weren’t words bandied about to gain favors, like some people Bruce could name.  Miles wasn’t a false man.  He was honest, and his honesty was what touched Bruce the most.  “Thank you,” he said quietly.  “I’ve always… thought of you as family, too… you and Nee,” he admitted with much emotional difficulty.  But even as he said the words, he felt better about it, as if his parents had sent some sign of approval.

More importantly, his heart knew Miles spoke with his parents’ tongues.  They would have been proud of him, as Miles was proud of him.  Although, Bruce had to admit that on more normal days, he knew that himself anyway.  His parents had always tried to instill in him how to be a good person, although in his youth he didn’t always take their teachings to heart.  He hadn’t realized –or even thought it a possibility– that they wouldn’t be around someday to listen to.  He missed them, and there were few doubts in his mind that he always would.  But his talks with Miles had always helped him to feel like he was connected to them still.

Miles gave his shoulder another squeeze before moving his arm to rest on the back of the couch.  He knew what it took for Bruce to say the words he’d just said.  He knew that Bruce oftentimes tried to hold ‘father’ figures at a distance because he, in some way, perceived it as a betrayal to his parents’ memory.  But there were a lot of things Miles knew, things he’d not told Bruce, nor would he.  Bruce would find them out, when and if the time was ever right.

Hearing the young man put voice to something he’d always felt, did more for him than just about anything he’d heard in a quite some time.  “You will always be family to us, Bruce.  That’s one thing in your life you should never doubt.  Courtney and I are always here for you.  Alfred will be here for you.  And Grace will always be here for you too.  Your parents will forever live on through you and the love you share with those around you.  You ever find yourself doubting… take a look at what you have.”  He paused not meaning material possessions, and not clarifying because he knew Bruce understood.  “You do them a great honor.”

“Not everyone thinks so, apparently,” commented Bruce, but waved away Miles’ protest with his hand.  “I know, I know,” he said instead.  “I should know better than to let it get to me.  I know how my father felt about fools like Fitzgerald.”  He stressed the word ‘fools’ very heavily.  “Sometimes, though, it feels like everyone has an opinion of how my parents would feel about me or my actions.”  His voice was bitter.  Sometimes, those opinions made him doubt himself.  And, though he didn’t say it aloud, he knew Miles knew anyway.  Like his daughter, Miles knew that sometimes fear seized Bruce and he worried he wasn’t living up to the potential his parents’ legacy had left him.    He always felt stupid afterwards, after throwing everyone’s life out of alignment with his fears, but they never seemed to complain no matter how many times one of them sat there comforting him.  Was it any wonder that of the people he counted as friends, Courtney and Miles, Grace and Alfred, were closest to his heart.  Yes, he liked and respected Seth and it was true that Alex could make him laugh at times when it likely wasn’t appropriate.  But it wasn’t the same closeness, nor would it ever be.

Miles nodded.  “Nope, you shouldn’t let their opinions bother you.
But they do… and they do because you’re human.  But you know, I’m always here if you need to talk.  Any time.”  He paused for a long moment and just watched Bruce, gauging him.  Deciding that he looked far better now than what he had when he first arrived, Miles gave him a small smile.  “Another thing I’m serious about… ‘family dinner’… I’m going to have Eugenia call Lee first thing tomorrow.  I want one evening… all six of you under one roof.”  He smiled.  “Got a new toy
I want to share with you.  Haven’t shown any of the others yet.  Figured you might appreciate it more than they would.  So it has to be soon, okay?”  He smiled, eyes delighted at the thought of sharing his ‘toy’ with Bruce.

The excited look in the man’s eye made Bruce smile.  “Toys are good,” he said with a merry wink.  “I’ll make sure Lee knows to expect Eugenia’s call.”  Which, of course, meant that he’d make sure Lee knew he wanted this call to be given top priority.  The funny thing was, he thought maybe Lee might actually do as he asked this time.  The man had taken it as some kind of honor to help Bruce and Grace out with the police and had been amazingly cooperative every since Bruce had asked.  Of course, that had only been a couple of days, but he hadn’t complained when he’d called to say he wanted to completely clear Friday.

“What night are you thinking, off the top of your head?” he asked.

“As soon as is convenient for you.  I try to keep my schedule clear past six.  My evenings are generally mine unless an emergency arises.”  He stood and waited for Bruce to stand as well.  “But I mean it, when I say I’m here, I’m here whenever.  It’s what we do for each other.  It’s what families do.  And don’t worry about Fitzie… he wouldn’t know the ‘right thing’ if it smacked him upside the head.”  Miles smiled.  “Which I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had done.  Give Gracie my love, okay?”

*-*-*

After Miles left, Bruce sat on the couch alone, lost in old thoughts and some new ones.  He wasn’t as alone as he used be, he knew that now.  Well, maybe he had always known it, but on a level that didn’t always connect with his brain.  But Miles was right; he had family.  Miles, Courtney, Grace… Seth, who was in all but truth his brother-in-law.  He wasn’t sure what that made Constance, whom was in no way a mother figure to him, despite being married to the man Bruce was coming to look upon as a ‘father.’

He felt a tug of conscience at the thought.  He did feel that way about Miles, and he felt certain his parents would understand, but he still missed them desperately.  Like he told Grace earlier yesterday, nothing ever replaced the real thing.

He looked up at the portrait, wishing as he had nearly everyday of his life since their death that they were more than images in photographs and paintings.  By now, he’d be learning the tricks of the family business with his father. Perhaps sitting here in this very room, discussing stocks and mergers over coffee while planning a trip to the golf course.  His mother would be discussing tomorrow’s dinner with Alfred and their cook, or talking to Constance about planning some fundraiser.  Or maybe she would be showing off old family albums to Grace, embarrassing him behind his back.

Not for the first time, he wondered if they would love Grace as much as he did.  Would they welcome her into their lives, as her family had welcomed him?  Would his father have smiled and said “she’s a good girl, Bruce” while his mother dropped hints about wedding bells and grandchildren? He didn’t doubt that they would –to know Grace was to love her.  They would love her.  Still, it would have been nice to hear it from them… to see them react to her.  Not to have to guess with words like ‘would have.’

It would have been nice for them all to be a family.

And, now, it was as if he had another family.  Not related, but every bit as important to him.  In some ways, more so because of knowing what the alternatives were.  He’d lived without anyone for so long.  No parents, no brothers or sisters.  Hardly any really close friends.  And now, there was Courtney and Miles, and through them Grace, Seth, Alex.  His family, his friends, the keepers of his heart.  He would do anything to keep them.

*-*-*

Alfred had come up and told her when Miles left, and that according to the mayor, Bruce seemed to be on more solid footing.  But when he didn’t come up right away, Grace went looking for him.  She’d looked
in the library and the kitchen before remembering that Alfred had said
Miles and Bruce had talked in his father’s old den.

She found him sitting there on the couch.  She had on her nightgown,
robe and slippers, so she doubted that he even heard her enter.  His
eyes were locked on the portrait, his breathing as regular as it was
when he meditated.  Slowly, and ever so quietly, she slipped onto the
couch beside him, her arms wrapping around his waist and her head
resting on his shoulder.  It was a moment that didn’t require words…
in fact, things were best left unsaid right now.

She wasn’t surprised, however, when his arms enveloped her and held
her closely to him, his head resting on hers.  She let him keep his
thoughts, her own running along the lines of just how much she loved
him, how blessed she was to have him back, and how wonderful it was to
be a ‘family’ again.

*-*-*

Chad dropped Spence of at the precinct and then headed back out on patrol.  He’d really done his best to pretend like everything was okay… like he didn’t know that Spence was on the take.  He was sure that news had filtered through Thorne’s people that Chad had ‘talked’ to Nicky.  But, from the way Spence acted, they didn’t know what Nicky had said.

He parked the patrol car down the street from Hammer and Deetz’s hangout.  He was going to talk to the Sergeant about perhaps taking on some plains clothes patrols after his shift.  The Sarge, he was fairly certain, was on the straight and narrow, as he’d never denied Chad’s requests in the past.  It was simply too hard to ‘watch’ in a marked squad car.

He took a sip of his lukewarm coffee and sat back in his seat.  He watched patrons enter and exit the club.  Finally, he saw Hammer and
Deetz go in.  Now all he had to do was wait for them to come out.  Nicky had given cash to Spence last night.  Perhaps tonight was a drop to Hammer and Deetz.

From the rooftop above the alley in which Chad’s patrol car now sat, Batman watched.  He’d been there long enough to see Officer Harris pull into the alley without lights, as well as the arrival of Hammer and Deetz at the bar.  Chad had, of course, been correct about their predictability.  Thorne obviously needed better henchmen.

Using a grappling line, he dropped down into the alley behind Chad’s car and approached through the shadows.  He knew he’d succeeded in going undetected when the police officer jumped, startled by his appearance at the passenger door of the car.  Inwardly, he smiled at this reaction.  He liked that someone so watchful could still be taken by surprise.

“Our friends went club hopping last night,” he said gruffly, without preamble, after Chad leaned over to unlock the passenger door and he was safely inside.

“They did, huh?”  He shook his head.  “Did they show you anything interesting?”  He relaxed back in his seat and picked up his coffee, thinking from now on he should actually buy two cups… one for when his trustworthy partner showed up.

“Did you see where they went?  I’ve tagged them at a few other clubs… but this is their favorite.”  He shook his head in disgust.  “Busted this place a couple times for illegal prostitution and cocaine.  Such a wonderful joint.”  He looked over at the caped figure.  “Thing is, there are other places in town that are just as bad, if not worse.  This place,” he pointed to the joint, “it doesn’t front as anything other than what it is.  Thorne has his hands in just about every sector of Gotham.”

Batman nodded his head once, either in agreement or acknowledgement.  Thorne was like a weed; roots go deep and no amount of surface gardening can kill it.  “Followed them up town, place called Decadence.  If I’d realized the dress code was only for paying customers…” It was a dry sort of joke.  Decadence did, in fact, have a very strict dress code, and it was one which Hammer and Deetz had not met last night when they were allowed inside.  By all rights, they should have been turned away.  “It’s fronting for something big,” he added, pulling the mini tape cassette from his utility belt. Holding it out, but not actually handing it to Chad, he said, “When you get the chance, see if you don’t recognize the voices.”  He paused and then added, “You should also know… you come up in conversation… there.”  He inclined his head to the tape.

Chad set his coffee on the dash and reached out for the tape.  “They put a hit out on me not too long ago.  Shot the hell out of my car.”  He paused, remembering that Spence had called in that night as well.
Odd, wasn’t it?  “I took a trip to the other side of town last night,” he started, taking the offered tape.  “Busted a trafficker named Nicky.  He transports either dope or cash.  The dope he delivers to Hammer and Deetz,” he said, looking back at the club.  The second part… as if saying it… made it all too real.  “He delivers the cash to a man named Spence.  A.K.A. Officer Spencer.  My partner.”

He stashed the tape in his shirt pocket.  “Took everything I had not to call him on it tonight.  But I don’t have enough on him.  And I CAN’T get it without calling suspicion.  We work too closely together.”  He looked back at Batman, the pain being covered by the need to do this the right way.  “Spence takes the cash to another henchman… higher up than he is… the man may even work closely to Thorne.  I can’t follow him.”  His eyes went back to the club.  “But he’s got a couple days off next week.  I’d bet my life he’ll be doing more transporting then.”

It was something Batman –well, Bruce, really– could understand.  Chad had trusted his partner, had no reason not to until last night.  When trust like that was broken… And yet, his hands were tied by protocol and the need for secrecy to keep what they were doing quiet.

“Leave the rookie to me,” he told Chad, as unemotionally as he’d just delivered the information regarding the tape, though it pained him that one so soon out of the police academy could be bought and sold so quickly.  Crooked cops made both his night and day jobs all that much harder.  Young Officer Spencer had a lot to learn about the streets –and the world– still.  He wouldn’t make it long at the rate he was going.  And when he slipped up, Batman would be there to see to that he was exposed for the traitor that he was.

“Just a suggestion,” he began, letting a hint of concern into his voice.  “You may want to exercise a little more caution after this.”  He nodded to the tape in Chad’s pocket.  He didn’t elaborate, but he wouldn’t have to.  Chad would hear it for himself, and unlike his untested partner, Officer Harris knew the stakes all too well.  He wouldn’t need to be told when to keep his head down, and judging
from the way he handled his partner today, when to keep his
thoughts to himself.

Like the previous night, Batman left without another word, leaving it understood that when the time came, he’d seek Chad out.  Knowing that Officer Harris had Hammer and Deetz under his watchful eye, he made his away across town to see who was giving Decadence their patronage that night.

*-*-*

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Eugenia was just settling into her seat with her morning coffee when the mayor all but burst out of his office.  Startled was an understatement as he rarely, if ever, acted in this manner.  “Two things.  One, call Lee Merryweather. I want Bruce and Grace’s first available evening, as soon as it can be arranged.  Second,” and he tried to keep his voice calm, “I want you to call Councilman Fitzgerald’s office.  I want a meeting with him within the hour.  I don’t care what excuse you give him; tell him I want to discuss changing my crime bill.”

“But sir…”

“Just do it, Eugenia, please.  I’ve already placed a bunch of calls myself and have several more to make BEFORE Councilman Fitzgerald gets here.”

*-*-*

Within the hour, Councilman Arnold Fitzgerald was sitting across from Miles’ desk.

“Changing your mind about the crime bill, Old Man,” Fitzgerald began, a smirk on his face.

Miles steepled his fingers under his chin and said nothing.  In all honesty, Miles was disgusted.  “Oh I wouldn’t say that,” he finally began, his voice low, the words coming out slowly.  “I wouldn’t say that at all.”  He didn’t move as he said his next words.  “What I am going to do is open up all the city offices to a probe by the District Attorney’s office.”

Fitz’s eyes narrowed into tight slits.  “You can’t do that!”

Miles shrugged.  “Why not?  I have nothing to hide.  I’ve been in contact with a few other members of the city government today.  So far, you’re the only on who’s protested.”

“Blaire, I’m warning you…”

Miles looked directly at him.  “Warn, suggest, threat… call it whatever you want.  But I cannot expect the citizens of this city to undergo stricter crime laws without expecting it from those who run the city as well.  If you have nothing to hide, what’s a little probe going to hurt?”

“Because I’m an American, I have rights!”

“And you are also an elected representative of the American government.”

“I won’t stand by and watch you turn Gotham into a police state!”

“A police state?  Funny that *you* continue to use that phrase.  Yet, according to the polls, over 80% of the citizens of Gotham support my legislation.”

Fitz leaned forward.  “I think you should check your figures again, Old
Man.”

Miles leaned forward as well.  “I think you’d better think a little more about how you try to sway the lobbyists.”

The two men stared at one another for the longest time.  “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.  Wayne and I had lunch… I made a suggestion.  There’s no law breaking in that,” Fitz finally said, standing up and abruptly striding for the door.  “Run your probe if you must.”

Miles inhaled deeply when Fitz left, the air seeming to clear with the man’s departure.  Picking up his phone, he called his secretary.  “Eugenia, call my wife and daughter… call Lee Merryweather… I want to know where they are going to be… constantly.  Call Seth as well… have him get Grace’s schedule to me, as well as his.”

“I can do that, sir.”

“Thanks, and Eugenia… I want yours too.  Oh yeah, and when you talk to Merryweather, I want him to have Bruce call me immediately.”  He wouldn’t put anything past Fitz or those he worked for.  If any of his family were even five minutes late for an appointment, he wanted to know about it.

*-*-*

During breakfast, Bruce told Grace that he was planning to visit his parents’ graves that day.  As he expected, she offered to go with him… should he want her there.  At first, he told her no, he wanted to be alone… needed time to think and say some things that needed said.

“That’s fine, Bruce,” Grace told him, setting her coffee cup down to touch his hand.  “Whatever you need to do is fine.  I understand.”

Later, however, as he was pulling on his overcoat, he was seized with the sudden need for company.  He didn’t want to ride out to the cemetery alone he decided.

He found Grace in her room, changing for a mid-morning work out.  “Um, Grace…” he began, looking sheepish.  “Would it be alright if you… rode out with me to the cemetery?”

She nodded.  “Of course, just let me change.”  She walked into the closet to grab some more appropriate clothing. She had a black, long-sleeved velvet Prada dress that fit her form and fell just below her knees.  She may just be going along for the ride, but for Grace, there was never such a thing as being overdressed.  She was comfortable in anything she wore, and she wanted to be respectful.

As she put it on, she couldn’t help but think about how big this was.
His parent’s gravesites were sacred to him, as they should be.  The past few times he’d gone to visit, she’d always offered, but he always preferred to go alone.  As she quickly put on some pantyhose and grabbed a pair of shoes, she had to wonder what made this time different.  She didn’t question him though, merely grabbed her long black leather coat on her way out of her closet.  “Ready,” she said tying her overcoat closed.

Bruce offered her his arm, his eyes traveling over her black-clad form in a moment of appreciation.  The occasion was somber enough, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the view before him right now.  Then Grace slipped her arm through his, and Bruce caught sight of them both in the mirror on the opposite wall.  For over a minute, all he could do was stand there, holding her arm, and staring at the image they made framed in her mirror.  Mesmerized by the ‘picture perfect’ quality of what he was seeing.  Finally, he broke his gaze with the mirror and turned to Grace, giving her an ambiguous smile.  “Shall we?” he asked, almost suavely, as he escorted her from the bedroom.

She rested her head on his shoulder as her hand moved down his arm to take his hand with hers.  She wondered what he’d been thinking as he looked at the two of them in the mirror.  It wasn’t the same look he’d given to the professional, impromptu pictures that had been taken of them on one of her photo shoots.  The pictures had come in and he’d looked at them, almost in awe!  They had been gorgeous pictures… his darker features contrasting gorgeously to her fairer ones.

But this look, it was different… deeper somehow.  Like he was seeing more than a couple people dressed in fine clothing.  Then it hit her, what Fitz had said, what Miles must have said.  Family.  Her voice was soft as she said, “I’m right beside you.”  The multiple meanings were evident in her voice.

Bruce could hear more in her voice than just the immediate meaning that she was ready to go.  She was with him… there for him… for as long as he wanted her there.  He had her support, in more ways than even she knew about, and that meant more to him than he had words to express.  She was literally, figuratively, and every other ‘ly’ he could think of, by his side, and all his heart told him this was how it meant to be.

He glanced at her, grinning, as they made it to the stairs and began to descend.  Alfred met them at the landing with a bouquet of roses that had been delivered at Bruce’s request.  During the summer and autumn months, Bruce usually picked them himself from his mother’s favorite garden, but in the winter, he used his standing account at a local florist shop.  They never failed to deliver for him on the spur of the moment; though, Bruce suspected that Alfred gave good tips.

If Alfred was surprised that Grace was going with Bruce he didn’t show it.  Although, he did nod knowingly at Grace and send a smile her way while Bruce took the roses from him.  “Will the two of you be gone long, Master Bruce?” he inquired politely.

“I’m not really sure, Alfred,” Bruce replied.  “As long it takes, I guess.  It’s been awhile.”

Alfred nodded again.  Bruce had last visited the cemetery right after his split with Lex.  And then he’d pushed Grace away, and the guilt of that outweighed any pain Bruce had ever known save losing them.  Maybe even including that, as Grace had been the one person whose presence in his life vanquished all shadows.

She gave Alfred a small smile.  Getting a whiff of the scent of the roses, she let Bruce walk on ahead of her for a moment.  “I’ll take care of him,” she whispered to Alfred.

“I’ve little doubt of that, Miss Grace,” he replied, knowing full well the import of Bruce asking Grace to go with him.

She walked quickly out of the Manor to join Bruce at the limo, slipping inside as he held the door open for her and moving closely to his side once he got in.  The physical closeness was a visible support of her earlier words.  Also a way to prove to him… he wasn’t alone.  She wouldn’t get out of the limo unless he asked her too, but at least for the ride there and the ride home, her physical closeness would be a comfort for him.  Just as she had last night… it was enough that he knew she was there should he need anything!

As the limousine pulled away from the Manor, Bruce set the bouquet down on the leather seat and took Grace’s hand, caressing it softly with his fingers.  They could have been on a date, for all the devotion he was showing her hand except that he’d yet to say much of anything as they drove.  Mostly, he just wanted to touch her, to feel the warmth that came from his skin in contact with hers.  He craved it –the connection to another person.  So many years spent isolating himself behind an emotional barrier had left him starved for it… for the kind of connection he had with Grace.  With her, the barriers didn’t exist.

They rode in a comfortable silence to one of the older cemeteries in Gotham city.  Bruce thought it might be the oldest, actually.  The tombstones were tall and ornate, speaking of many years and many generations.  The markers and crypts boasted the surnames of the founders of the city and the county in which it was located.  Like the names, the grounds were stately and pristinely kept year round, even in the worst of weather.  His family had a crypt and two family plots flanking it on a little hillock near the center of a particularly old section.

Bruce, though, barely knew the names beyond his parents, grandparents, and his uncle –his father’s brother who’d died of SIDS before they knew what SIDS was.  The rest were names written in the family Bible, a book he hadn’t seen since the day Alfred dutifully wrote in the date of his father’s death and his mother’s in the family tree on the front pages.  Bruce’s name was there, too, waiting vigilantly to be joined by the siblings who never came or the wife he might someday –or not– take.  Alone at the end of the page.

The limo pulled around the corner, taking it sharply because the cemetery path was narrow and not really meant for large vehicles.  Or any vehicles, really, although most people drove in anyway.  The groundskeepers never said anything.  The chauffeur stopped the limousine and parked it under the shadow of a huge marble marker that read ‘Wayne.’  There was no road up the hillock, although the cobblestone path had been cleared and salted recently.

When the chauffeur came around to Bruce’s door, Bruce finally released Grace’s hand and reached for the roses.  He hesitated, debating asking her to come up the hill with him.  She’d never met his parents before, and although a part of him thought it was about time, another part of him feared the ground would open up and swallow them both should he invite her without first ‘consulting’ them.

“Bruce,” her voice finally broke through the silence.  “It’s okay,” she offered encouragingly, reaching out and squeezing his hand.  “I’ll wait here.  Should you want me to join you, I’m just a motion away.”  Another soft squeeze of his hand, and this time her words were softer… somehow though carrying so much meaning.  “I love you.  And
I’m with you.”  She knew this was sacred for him, and that even having her in the limo was a big step.  The last thing she was going to do was push him.  She was here.  He could have the rest to himself.  It was true as well, all he had to do was motion for her, and she’d join him.
She wouldn’t be hurt if he didn’t ask her.  It was something she understood on some level.  They were his parents.  The pain of their deaths was something he still felt very intensely.  The hateful words from Fitzgerald, though tempered by more honest ones from Miles, had spawned the need for this visit.  She understood his need to be there alone physically.  But he would never be emotionally alone, not ever again.  And she knew, by the look in his eyes, that he understood that.

Bruce nodded a little and gave a weak smile.  There would be other visits, and maybe… He looked at her, finding her eyes and holding them with his own.  No, there would be no ‘maybe.’ Bruce felt it as tangibly as he felt the cold air on his cheeks; Grace had more than earned the right, and he wanted her to know them… them to know her.  “I won’t… be long,” he said softly, squeezing her hand once before exiting the car.  He instructed the driver to keep the car warm, as the air was nippy, and trudged up the path alone.

He stopped in front of the two most recently added headstones and stood there for a few minutes in reverent silence.  When he raised his head, he pulled a single rose from the bouquet, and knelt between the stones.  He placed the single rose by his father’s name, staring at the contrasts in the red and the fading grays of the stone.  His mind flashed on the first time he’d come to this cemetery, when his grandfather died years before his parents were murdered.  He remembered his father’s hand, but the rest of the memory was faded into oblivion.

“I, uh… I’m sorry I haven’t been around lately,” he said, focusing on the name before him as if his father might still hear his apology.  “I’ve been busy with that project I’ve been telling you about.  Alfred’s been an invaluable asset.”  He paused, knowing it wouldn’t be enough to bring them back, even if that were possible.

“Grace and I are back together,” he said, turning to place the rest of the roses on his mother’s grave.  His tone made it sound as if he were calling from college with a weekly update.  “I really…” his voice seized up a little.  “I love her… a lot.”  But they knew that already; he’d told them before about the amazing woman he’d been sharing his life and their home with.  “I know, the last time I said I thought we should end it, but something happened.”  He went on to tell them about Grace’s stalker and the attack… finding her and taking her home.  “It may sound odd, but I think she belongs with me.”  His voice was hopeful, as if waiting for one of them to tell him to ‘go for it.’  Though, for what exactly escaped him.

When no answer came, he told them about lobbying for Miles’ crime bill and his meetings with Fitzgerald.  “Miles says you know him, that he’s been that much of a jerk all his life.  I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but sometimes I wish… you…” He choked on whatever words were coming next and he stopped, reaching out to touch his father’s name.  “I wish you were here to guide me.  Alfred and Miles… they try really hard, but sometimes, Dad, I’m so afraid of failing you.  Sometimes I feel like I’m going backwards instead of forward.  I’m so lost…” he whispered, lapsing into silence.  He couldn’t run the company and concentrate on being Batman.  He couldn’t do everything alone.

‘Then why are you trying?’  The thought popped into his head as if someone had gently nudged it along.  Because alone was all he had been until recently.  Because it was all he knew?  But that was a lie.  He wasn’t alone anymore, except whenever he chose to be.  Miles, Grace…
Courtney… they were only as far away and he wanted them.  He didn’t want them to be so far away, and maybe… maybe his parents knew that.

He’d always said it was Fate… Fate that brought him to Courtney, Fate that broke them up but refused to them either of them let go.  Fate that made him spoil her with gifts and trips that ultimately led her to Seth… and him to Grace.  The same Fate who saw fit to make sure the girl in line next to him at the soup kitchen was Miles Blaire’s daughter.  Miles, who was his father’s closest friend, and now Bruce’s only link to certain memories of his childhood.

Fate acted like it cared sometimes, maybe.  Or maybe Fate had help?

He turned his head and looked towards the limo where she waited either for him, or for his signal to join him.  Rising to his feet, he turned a little and caught the chauffeur’s attention, motioning for him tap on Grace’s window.

“Mom, Dad…” he said as he saw the window roll down a bit. “There’s someone really special I want you to meet.”

She sat stunned for a moment when she saw Bruce signal to the driver. She’d wanted to be there with him.  But there was no way on Earth she was going to push her actual presence upon him during this moment.  She was there with him in spirit.  When the driver opened the door for her, she ran a quick hand through her hair.  Funny, she was actually a bit nervous about meeting his parents… but honored at the same time.

With the help of the driver’s offered hand, she got out of the limo and made her way up the same path Bruce had walked up minutes before.  Her eyes met his and the sheer import of the moment hit her full right then and there.  This was the only way he could communicate with his parents.  She hadn’t realized, until just now, how fortunate she’d been.  Her father was a phone call away.  And true, her biological mother was all but dead to her… but she had Janet.  And she loved Janet like she was her mother.

This was all Bruce had… at least by way of contact with his biological parents.  And he was sharing that with her.  Right this very moment.  He was sharing with her, and she knew he shared this with no one.  Moving to stand beside him, she took his hand and felt no cold, no wind, and no sting of chill on her cheeks.  She felt love.  Taking his hand, she stood closely to him but said nothing.  She simply looked at the headstones respectfully, waiting for Bruce to speak.

Most people didn’t believe as she did.  But to her, when a loved one passed, part of Heaven was being able to still be ‘with’ the ones you loved on Earth.  She believed there were times when she still felt her grandparents… and right here, right now, she knew (and so did Bruce) that his parents were here.  That was the love she felt all around them.

Bruce squeezed Grace’s hand, feeling as nervous as if he were bringing her home to the Manor for the first time, and they were waiting in the library to meet to her.  This hadn’t happened before.  There had been no one in his life that he’d ever “brought home to meet his parents.”  Maybe it was because most people he’d dated knew he was the famous Wayne orphan.  Or maybe it was because none of his previous relationships had been with people he truly loved.  Sure, he’d cared about all of them –Bruce was like that, he cared about people– but most of them hadn’t lasted longer than a couple dates.  Quite a few of them had been the same sort of mindless, consequence-less fling Grace had been expecting the night they first met. The night he surprised her by just taking her home, not making untoward advances.  He’d had those sorts of relationships… too many for his young age.  So had Grace: all that and worse, he’d learned later on.  And those relationships had left them both cynical.

Yet, here they were… almost two years later, standing where two such jaded people should not have been.  Presenting themselves to his parents.  It overwhelmed him, left him speechless for several minutes.  Then he looked up from his thoughts and met Grace’s eyes, and all he could think was that it was right.  There would never be a better time to do this than now.  It was why he’d asked her to come, even if he hadn’t realized it until just this moment.

Giving her a loving, almost supporting smile, he turned back the graves.  “Dad, Mom… this is the one I’ve been telling you so much about… my sweet Amazing Grace.”  He smiled again, wistfully this time, when he spoke the pet name he’d given her soon after they’d begun to date.  His mother’s favorite song, something seemed to remind him.  He hadn’t realized it before, but in his heart, she equated most to that song.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

When he looked at her, he felt saved, no longer lost or adrift in the world.  Home.

She gave him a soft smile as her free hand reached up to lightly touch his cheek before turning to the headstones.  She’d always felt deeply about family, maybe because of what had happened with hers, maybe because of the determination of her father for them to *be* a family. She wasn’t exactly sure what it was.  But as she looked at the headstones she found herself drawn to them… wanting desperately to know these two people who’d created the man she loved with everything she was.  “Mr. and Mrs. Wayne,” she started, her voice barely above a whisper.  Her dad always said that volume wasn’t nearly as important as the words that were actually spoken.  “I’m honored more than I can express to be here… meeting you… I’m sure you know how wonderful your son is.  How much he cares for those he loves…”

She swallowed and blinked her eyes.  Her hand squeezed his again before she could continue.  “I love him very much… more than I dreamed I could ever love another soul.”  Her eyes finally left the tombstones and she turned them to gaze at him.  “And I will love him for the rest of my life.  I promise you that.”  The last was said not only to his parents, but to him as well.  Because this… without a doubt… was the single most important way he could express to her what she meant to him.  She fell silent then, her head moving to rest on his shoulder.

“I told you she was amazing,” Bruce said after a moment of silence.  His voice was light and cheerful, as if he felt them approving of what she said and of how it warmed his heart.  He slid his arm around her, though respectfully, as if they were watching.  “You are, you know,” he said softly, privately.  “Every day I love you more.  Amazing.  I never knew love was like this.”  His voice was so low now that they were little more than a rumble in his chest and his vocal chords.

“Me either,” she admitted, speaking just as softly though her voice lifted up to him.  “It’s like nothing I’ve ever known… I never dreamed I’d feel.  And everyday, I feel it more too.”  She stepped a bit closer to him, not necessarily out of the need for warmth, but just for closeness.

They stood there for several more long moments, his arm held her respectfully, both sets of eyes looking at the tombstones.  Both, perhaps, saying their own mental words.  Grace found herself truly wishing she could have known these people.  Because, though he was young when they were killed, they had a great influence on who he was today.  And she meant what she’d said earlier.  There wasn’t anyone she loved, needed, or treasured more than the man standing beside her.  And they were to thank for him.  So she did…

As if by silent agreement, they turned simultaneously and headed back to the limo.  The driver had the door opened for them and Grace slipped inside.  When Bruce got in she once again moved next to him, her head on his shoulder.  They said nothing, as words weren’t really needed between them. They didn’t need to say anything to communicate… not anymore.

It was just as his hand was reaching for hers, though, that the phone rang.  It was like a shock back into the real world, and she jumped slightly, her head lifting from his shoulder so he could reach into his pocket and get the phone.

“Wayne,” he answered as the chauffeur closed the door behind them.  He listened intently and then looked at Grace with a small smile.  “It’s Lee,” he told her before turning his attention to his secretary.  “Yes, of course. He said he’d be contacting you,” he said when Lee told him that the mayor had phoned about a private dinner at his residence.

“So I was looking over your schedule, Bruce,” Lee rambled, ignoring the way Bruce already knew the call had been coming.  “You have nothing on Monday… if you’d like me to call him back and…”

“Wait a minute, Lee.”  Bruce turned to Grace.  “Miles wants to have dinner at our earliest convenience,” he said.  “Monday night good for you?”

She did a quick mental rundown of her schedule.  Of course, she rarely did anything in the evenings, preferring to have that time to be with Bruce.  So she gave him a nod and a smile.  Dinner with the Blaire’s would be nice.  “Monday’s fine with me,” she agreed.

His eyes were on hers as he said into the phone.  “Monday’s good.”
With that, they exchanged brief farewells and hung up the phone.

That done, Grace moved back into her position, which she didn’t move from until they got back to the Manor.

*-*-*

Bruce sat on the couch, browsing the afternoon newspaper. Grace was stretched out, resting her head in his lap.  She was also reading a section, but mostly she was just there with him.  Bruce loved the companionship they shared, even in silence.  When Alfred entered the library with a silver tea tray, laden with the matching tea service and the phone, Bruce looked up from the article he was reading.

“Mayor Blaire is on line two, sir,” Alfred informed him.  “He says it has to do with his crime bill.”

“Thanks, Alfred.  I’ll, ah, take it in the den.  Could you transfer it to the phone there?”  Grace sat up instantly, moving away as Bruce stood.

“Of course, sir.”  Alfred set their tea down on the coffee table, leaving it for Grace to have if she still wanted it.

Excusing himself –though not without leaning in to kiss Grace– Bruce made his way to the den.  A red light on the desk phone was blinking, telling him that Alfred had transferred the call as he’d asked.  Reaching for the phone, he sat on the edge of the desk.  “Hello, Miles,” he said in greeting.  “How’s City Hall?”

Miles, who had literally been on the phone all day, sighed in exasperation.  “How’s hectic sound to you, Bruce?”  He shook his head, knowing full well he could confide in the man he was talking to on the phone.  “I need to tell you some things.  I’ve already talked to Constance… Seth… Courtney, though getting through to her was like pulling teeth.”  He sighed again.  Of everyone he’d spoken to today,
Courtney had been the one who’d given him the most difficulty.  Not because she didn’t want to share her schedule, but because she wanted a piece of Fitz herself and Miles had staunchly refused to let her set up a meeting with the Councilman.

“After I left the Manor last night, I did a lot of thinking.”  It was here that he went into his plans for the probe… his conversation with the other city officials… and then his talk with Arnold Fitzgerald. “He’s crooked, Bruce,” Miles confided finally.  “And I wouldn’t put it past him to go after my family to get to me.  I know I’m asking a lot, but please, could you just make sure Lee gives Eugenia your schedule?
Grace’s too if he has it?  I just need to know where you guys are; I need to know you’re safe.”

Bruce was silent for several long seconds while he digested the Mayor’s words.  He couldn’t say that he blamed Miles.  Fitzgerald wasn’t the only one who was on the take.  Bruce’s research into Fitzgerald and Kirkland had revealed at least two councilman and several police officers from various precincts around the city.  Bruce sighed.  “Tough spot to put yourself in, Miles, but I understand.  I’d like to think I’d do the same thing, if the situations were reversed.”  He told Miles he’d have Lee fax his entire schedule tomorrow.  Grace’s as well.  His mind, however, was already turning.  He’d talk to Alfred and the head of his security, Mr. Sloane.  He wasn’t concerned with himself, but Grace… no one would hurt her again.

“Nee gave you a hard time, huh?” he asked.  That sounded like Courtney.   Knowing her, she’d still be pissed about it on Monday night when they came for dinner.

“Thanks,” he said in reference to the schedules.  If only his daughter had been this easy to talk to.  “Hard time is actually a mild statement.  First she asked why.  And you know her.  She didn’t let up until I explained why.  Then she was enraged because first, I left last night without telling her why and second, because I wouldn’t let her have a little ‘chat’ with Fitzgerald.  However, a brief reminder of the fact that I’m her father and she’s my daughter… not vice versa… and she calmed down.”  Miles laughed lightly.  “I think it’s kinda funny actually.  I was expecting her to tell me she was old enough to take care of herself… to give me flack about sharing the schedule… and though I think her response was to snort before she agreed… at least she agreed.”  He paused.  “I’m doing what I feel has to be done, but I don’t want my family to pay.  And people like Fitzgerald… they don’t care how they get to you… so long as they do.”

Bruce understood; he’d played into Fitzgerald’s games on Wednesday, but no longer.  And like Miles, he didn’t want Courtney near Fitzgerald, even if she thought she was doing it in defense of him.   “I’m sure she understands on some level.  This is pretty big, after all.”  But he knew Courtney; she never let things go once she got them into her head.  Bruce had once joked that he could never win an argument with her.  It really wasn’t a joke.  “Keep her away from Fitz, Miles,” he said and it wasn’t a command, it was pleading.  “I don’t trust him, and Courtney will underestimate what he could do if properly motivated.”

The change in Bruce’s tone caught Miles’ attention immediately.  “It is pretty big.  And I have no intention of letting her anywhere near Fitzgerald.  If I have to have her confined to her house, I will.”  He paused, again evaluating the tone in Bruce’s voice.  There was more going on here than what Bruce was saying.  “Is there something on your mind, Bruce?” he asked.  “Something you’d maybe like to talk about?”

Bruce smiled a little, knowing Miles couldn’t see it.  He’d been wondering how to get this said without making it questionable how he knew.  “When I began my lobby for this crime bill, I started a little research project for my own information.  Background on the councilmen I’d be dealing with… that sort of thing.  I wanted to be prepared, to know my opposition.”  Or know enough to make sure they wouldn’t stay opposition long.  “Something came to my attention recently through that research.  Fitzgerald isn’t the only one with a questionable past.”  Miles knew about Kirkland, Fitzie’s partner in crime on most voting issues, but he gave a small gasp when Bruce named Edward Jackson and also said Jackson had questionable ties to several precincts in the Gotham PD.  “I hesitate to suggest this, Miles,” he concluded, “but extending the probe to the police force might not be a bad idea.  If Commissioner Gordon is willing, of course.”  He hesitated because it was added danger for their loved ones.  Courtney, Grace… Seth… Constance… Bruce knew Miles had weighed his options before he acted, but could he afford to add a new stone to the already overflowing bucket?

Miles sat for the longest time, looking at the pictures that decorated his office.  Jackson?  He couldn’t believe it!  How many times had he sat on that council with Eddie and they’d talked like they were friends… had agreed on so many issues.  True, Eddie had been opposed to the last couple crime bills, but his excuses had seemed more valid and logical than the other two.

There was no doubt that he believed Bruce.  If anything, Bruce was far more removed emotionally from all of this than Miles.  If Jackson were in on it with Fitzgerald and Kirkland… and he had the police in his pocket…  “There’s little choice, is there?” Miles finally spoke.  “I doubt that Gordon will have a problem with it.  I know without a doubt he’s clean.  But Bruce,” he confided, “they can have me… this is my decision.  It’s something I have to do.  But they won’t come at me directly.  My wife… my family… all of you are going to be the targets.”  The words pained him, but he couldn’t back down now… no matter how bad it got.

“Understood,” was Bruce’s response.  More so than Miles knew, perhaps.

Miles sounded weary, as if this newest revelation had knocked the wind out of him.  “I already plan to speak to Sloane when we’re through.”  Sloane was Bruce’s head of security, a former Navy Seal who looked like Mr. Clean only less personable.  He was also very efficient, and Bruce trusted him, and the other five men he’d hired on Sloane’s suggestion, implicitly.  Bruce, however, was less concerned with himself.  Grace and the others were where his priorities lie.  “If you’d like… I could send over a man or two for Nee and Constance.”

Miles’ eyes slid closed for a moment.  Security of the measures Bruce had was something Miles couldn’t extend to his family.  He simply didn’t have the means or the ability to justify it.  And the fact that Bruce had extended the offer to Constance.  He was touched.

Finding out that someone he’d thought was fairly honest was as crooked as Fitzgerald had struck him hard.  The tiredness showed through in his voice.  “For Constance, yes.  She would appreciate the protection.  She doesn’t always show it, but there are times when she… frets.”  That wasn’t actually the best word, but it was rather appropriate.  “I would like to say yes for Courtney… but she’s her own woman now, Bruce.  I’m not her guardian anymore nor am I her husband.”  He stressed the last word hoping Bruce would get the meaning behind it.  “I’ll leave that up to you.”

*-*-*

“Miss Grace,” Alfred reappeared shortly after Bruce went into the den to take the call from Miles.

She was sitting in the chair closest to the fireplace.  The Manor seemed especially cool now even though she’d changed into jeans and a heavy sweater.  “Yes?” she asked, setting aside the newspaper.

“Master Alex is on the phone for you.  He called earlier, however, you were out, and he said he would return his call.”

Taking the offered phone, she thanked him.  She wrapped the blanket more securely around her legs and said, “Hello, Alex.”

“Gracie, hon,” he began, voice more serious than she’d ever heard it.  “I’m truly sorry about yesterday.  I just… It shouldn’t have happened.”

From the sound of his voice, Seth had let him have it but good.  “It’s okay, Alex. Really, I’m fine.”  And she was.  After what happened today, the events of yesterday and the photo shoot seemed soooo… inconsequential.

“You sure?”

“Positive.  Believe me, there are worse things that could have happened.”  She thought about Bruce and how shaken he’d been over the words Fitz had said, and then she thought about today and how overwhelmingly important it had been.  “Seeing Philip was a shock, yes, but I survived.”

“I just should have said something… to you… to Seth.”

“Alex,” she started softly, “he didn’t come down too hard on you, did he?”

Alex laughed lightly.  “At first, yes.  Wasn’t much that was pretty about it.  But don’t worry, hon. Seth’s like that.  He gets angry, blows off steam, and then it’s over.  Water under the bridge.”

“You’re still in charge of my booking, aren’t you?”  It was a concern for her.  Alex was perhaps the best agent she’d ever worked with.  But she knew Seth too.  He’d felt he let her down, which wasn’t true.  In turn, Alex had let Seth down.  Seth didn’t handle things like that well.

“Yes, honey, I’m still in charge of your bookings.”  The happy lilt was back in his voice.  “Seth’s been my boy for over twenty years.  I’m used to how he works.  It’s cool, and I’m cool if we’re cool.”

“We’re cool,” she said with a smile.

“Great.”  He paused.  “Business over!” he pronounced.  “Personal now?”

Her smile grew bigger.  The relief she felt over the fact that he was okay made her excited to hear the personal news.  “Yes, personal now.”

They chatted for several more minutes.  AnnaBeth and Alex were getting along far better than even Grace could have imagined.  She wasn’t sure how serious it was… oh, from what she could gather, it was VERY physical… but Alex had yet to encounter AnnaBeth’s temper.  From both of her parents… she had inherited a nasty temper.  But knowing Alex, he’d be able to bring her out of it with a joke or a smile.  Either that or it would drive her insane.  They exchanged goodbyes… everything back to the way it had been before the Philip incident.

Clicking off the phone, she stared at it for several long minutes.  The events of today flashed through her mind.  She closed them and saw the headstones… Thomas Wayne… Martha Wayne.  Again, she was washed over with the emotion of how blessed she was.  Turning the phone on, she dialed.

One more VERY important call to make.

*-*-*

When Bruce got off the phone with Miles, he instantly hit the button that got him the kitchen, where Alfred was likely biding his time until someone needed him.  “Alfred, I need you to get Sloane in here ASAP, please.”

“Is something amiss, sir?” Alfred asked calmly after his obligatory ‘Yes, Master Bruce.’

“Yes, Alfred, there is… and if you don’t mind, I’d like you to be present for this meeting.”

“As you wish, sir,” came the tireless reply.

Within fifteen minutes, both men were in the den, awaiting Bruce to tell them why they’d been sent for, which Bruce did without much preamble.

“I just got off the phone with the mayor.” Here Alfred nodded.  Sloane showed no reaction either way.  “He’s opened City Hall to an administrative probe… several of the councilmen who’ve opposed his crime bill are… suspicious.”  He paused and then said, “I want to beef up security around the grounds, and around Grace.  Also…” He directed his gaze to the former Navy Seal.  “I want you to select someone to send over to Mayor Blaire’s residence.  His wife is an obvious target.”

Sloane nodded once.  No more.  Bruce continued to talk.  He outlined what he wanted from each of them and then asked Alfred to let Grace know he wanted to speak with her here in the den.  Sloane, he asked to stay.

*-*-*

The secretary answered the phone on the third ring.  After giving the appropriate announcement, she asked, “How may I help you?”

“George O’Neil, please,” Grace asked softly, the need to talk to her father was becoming tantamount.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am.  He’s in a meeting.”

She cleared her throat, trying not to cry.  Of course he was in a meeting.  It was Wednesday, and George O’Neil was a very busy man.  She hadn’t thought beyond her need to talk to him.  “Um… ok.  This is his daughter, Grace.  I just wanted… to… talk to him.”

Whether it was because it was his daughter or the tone of Grace’s voice, the secretary said, “One moment, I’ll put you through.”

George quickly cleared out the conference room, giving one particular young upstart a scowl when he dared to remind George that the case they were meeting over went to trial next week.  Frankly, George didn’t care.  His daughter was on the phone and he was going to talk to her.
After the last of his staff left, he picked up the phone.  “Hey Pumpkin,” he said, taking a seat.

“Daddy,” she said softly, his voice like a wash over her soul.

He furrowed his brows for a moment.  “What’s the matter, hon?”

She shook her head, even though he couldn’t see it.  “Nothing.  Really, nothing.  I just wanted to hear your voice.  It’s been a while since we talked and the last time…”

“Gracie… that last time… I was upset.”

“Oh no, Daddy.  It’s ok!  Really.  Everything is just fine.  It’s just…
Sometimes, people take things for granted.  And lately, I feel like
I’ve been doing that with you.  I’ve been so wrapped up in me… and Bruce… that I haven’t done right by you.  And I just needed to…  You know?  To call and let you know that I miss you… I love you.”

“I love you too,” he said softly.  “But really, what brought this on?
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the call and the verbalization of emotions, but normally if you do this, it’s on the weekend.  Talk to me.”

She closed her eyes, leaning her head back on the chair, and reached for the blanket, wrapping it around her.  “Bruce went to the cemetery today,” she said somberly.

“Ah,” he responded.  He knew from their past conversations that Bruce going to the cemetery was a very personal experience.  He also knew, from the words Grace didn’t say, that it was something he shared with no one.  Something that he kept separate from everyone in his life.  He also knew his daughter would have liked to have been a part of that life.

“He took me with him,” she said softly.

If anyone had been in the room with George, they would have thought he had just been given the biggest news of his life.  And it was true.  He was surprised… overwhelmingly so.  Grace had made it very clear that
Bruce did this alone.  They were his parents… going to see them was something very intimate for him.  And yet, he’d taken Grace.

Words from previous conversations with Bruce floated back to George.
The young man’s staunch reassurances that he would never hurt Grace again, that she was in his heart and soul completely, and that there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her.  And George had taken them merely as words.  Actions always spoke more loudly for him.  In one week, however, Bruce was bridging the gap that had developed over the past four months.  And he was bridging it quickly.  First, he’d followed through on the charges and had done so in a way that was fairly trauma-less for Grace.  Second, he’d done this.  “That’s really something, isn’t it?”

“It is, Daddy.  It’s…” She paused.  “It was perhaps the most…” She paused again, unsure as to how she wanted to say this.  “Of all the things he could have said or done to show me how much he loves me… to prove to me how important I am to him…”

“This was the biggest,” her father finished for her, thinking he had to once again reevaluate his thoughts towards Bruce.  Janet had gone to great lengths to explain how she perceived the entire situation.
George had to agree.  Bruce had been on his own for so long… alone.
Grace had, except for her mother’s abandonment, grew up in a home with family.  Bruce didn’t come from the same background and experiences, and George shouldn’t judge him by the standards he set forth for himself.  It hadn’t been fair to Bruce.  Yes, he’d hurt Grace, but
George had no idea from where Bruce was reacting.

Janet believed it was fear… fear of commitment… Or that perhaps he felt he was shielding her from something.  Or that the breakup with his other lover had been a part of it.  And through all her arguments, George had to admit that she was right.  He didn’t know.

But what he did know… Bruce was genuine.  He loved Grace.  He’d taken the berating from not only himself, but from Hope.  He’d followed through on George’s requests… and he’d done so without question.  And now this… taking Grace…

“He actually introduced me to them, Daddy.  And it was like they were there.  You know how I feel about stuff like that…”

“I do.”

“They were there, Daddy.  I know they were.  And it was…” She paused and smiled softly.  “It was absolutely one of the best moments in our relationship.  To date, it was by far the one with the most meaning.”

Leaning back in his chair, he let his head rest against the back of it.  “Gracie, for what it’s worth… I believe you.  I believe him.  If this past week has taught me anything, it’s that Bruce Wayne is a man of his word.  And that he loves you… beyond a doubt.  There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you.  And baby, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

She nodded, not trusting her voice at first.  “I know why he asked me to move out, and it wasn’t because he stopped loving me.”

“I believe that.  Your mother has said that on more than one occasion.”

“So, you aren’t angry at him anymore?”

George laughed lightly at that.  “No, I’m not.  You know me; I never stay angry for long.  I just needed to make sure that YOU were okay.  I care about Bruce, Gracie.  I know he’ll never accept me as a ‘father figure’, and I accept why.  But I still care about him.  It’s something that grew out of my love for you and watching the love you have for one another.  So, no, I’m not mad anymore.”

She smiled brightly.  “Dad,” her eyes bright.  It had been an emotional day, but a very good day.  “I love you.”

“I love you too, Gracie Lou.”

That caused her to chuckle.  “Tell Mom too… I love her.”

“I will.”  He was smiling now.  He could hear the happiness in her voice, and that was all that mattered.

“I’ll call this weekend.”

“You’d better,” he warned with a teasing tone.

They exchanged goodbyes and Grace hung up the phone, curling up in the blanket and turning so she could watch the fire.  Emotional was a good word for today… but it had also been very meaningful.  She told herself she’d just close her eyes for a moment while she waited for Bruce to join her.  And as she did, she smiled.

*-*-*

Alfred found Grace napping in the chair.  She was bundled comfortably in the mink blanket; the fire had warmed her cheeks to a rosy red.
Ever so gently, he said her name, watching as she stirred from whatever dream she’d been having.

“Alfred?” she questioned, sitting up slowly.  “I think I dosed off.”

“That you did, Miss Grace.  And I am truly sorry to wake you, but
Master Bruce would like to see you in the den.  It is of the utmost importance.”

She nodded setting aside the blanket, running a hand through her hair as it had flattened on one side.

She followed Alfred into the den, getting the sense that something had come of the phone call he’d had with Mayor Blaire.  The first thing she noticed when she entered the den was the extremely serious look on Bruce’s face.  The next thing she noticed was that his head of security was standing there with him.  Something was going on here.  “Bruce?” she questioned, wondering what exactly had led to all of this.  “Is something wrong?”

Bruce didn’t smile when she came into the room.  Normally, he would have, as her presence was one of the few lights in his life, but right now?  After Alfred had left, he and Sloane spoke in more detail about their current security status and what it would take to make the necessary upgrades.  His frown was a permanent fixture by the time Grace arrived.

“Grace, my sweet,” he said softly, crossing the room to take both her hands in his.  He needed to touch her, to know she was alright.  “Miles’ call…” He paused to collect his thoughts of what to say.  Upfront would be best, he thought.  “Miles has issued a probe of City Hall, and possibly the police department as well.  There are people who might not want that to happen, and…”  This next part was hard, and judging from the look he saw growing in Grace’s eyes, she was already trying to anticipate it.  “Miles thinks we should be cautious.”  He chose his words carefully, so as not to scare her.

She swallowed hard and looked around him to the man standing stoically beside the desk.  He tied into this somehow.  Her immediate reaction was fear.  “Why would we…” She’d stopped her question as the full reality of it hit her.  “He thinks that the bad guys will use his family against him, doesn’t he?  What about Courtney, Constance, Seth?”  She squeezed his hands as the look on his face didn’t soften.  “He thinks they could come after *us* too, doesn’t he?”  Her eyes fell to where their hands joined.

It had been a long week… her mugging, reuniting with Bruce, finding out the mugging was a stalking, and now learning about this potential threat.  His hands squeezed hers in support and that’s when her eyes lifted from their hands to lock on his.  He wouldn’t let anything happen to either one of them.  “What do you need me to do?” she asked softly.  “Just tell me and I’ll do it.”  And she meant that.  She trusted him implicitly.  Whatever he told her to do, she would do.

Bruce didn’t have to hesitate to say what he wanted, especially since part of it he knew Grace might balk at.  She would want to hide, like she’d wanted to with the stalking.  It couldn’t happen that way.

Giving her hands a gentle squeeze, he said, “Nothing you wouldn’t normally do, Grace.  I want you to go to work, come home, go shopping, visit friends, whatever you would normally do… It’s important, because letting them know you’re afraid gives them the advantage.”  This was true. “The only change in your daily routine is Sloane.  I want him with you every time you leave the grounds.  Every time, Grace.  You go to a shoot, he goes with you.  I don’t think Seth will mind, but if your clients don’t like it, they can talk to me.  I also want you to start giving Alfred and Sloane copies of your work schedule, and… just letting Alfred know if you’re going out and it’s not for work.
We’re not going to stop living our lives because of a perceived threat, love. We’re going to use the forewarning to our advantage.”

She shook her head at first.  “But going out…” She bit her bottom lip.  Of course, he was right.  And she had told him that whatever he wanted, she would do.  She looked around him to the imposing presence
Mr. Sloane projected.  Basically, he was going to be her personal bodyguard.  Bruce wanted her to go get manicures and pedicures… shop for lingerie with this formidable man watching her every movement.

She looked from Sloane to Bruce again and then back to Sloane.  The man’s face hadn’t changed expression, not once since she’d walked into the room.  She wondered what he was thinking.  She bet he knew what she was thinking… she was afraid.  Not the paralyzing kind of fear.  It was more of the concerned kind of fear.  Bruce would do everything he could to protect her… and quickly her mind flashed on another factor.   Somehow, she knew Batman would be out there watching.  It was what he did, wasn’t it?

Between the three of them, she knew without a doubt she was safe.  So she nodded and said, “Alex does all my bookings from the agency.  He has a schedule of everything I’m supposed to be doing for the next several weeks.  He’ll fax it to you, no problem.”  She looked into his eyes again. “But what about Constance, Courtney, Seth…” her voice grew softer, “you?”

“I offered to ‘loan’ Miles one of my personal bodyguards for Constance.  I’m thinking…” he paused and looked over at Sloane.  “Steele?”

“Former Secret Service,” Sloane answered right away.  Bruce nodded.

Constance would enjoy that added prestige, Bruce thought as he turned back to Grace.  “Nee’s gonna be a harder sell, I’m afraid.  She’s already given Miles a hard time and wanted to go harass Fitzgerald for hurting my feelings.”  Here he finally cracked a small half smile.  “But we’re going to work on her, because I’m not letting her put herself at risk, either.”

And then there was himself.  Bruce didn’t think any danger Fitzgerald or his cronies on the city council could place him in would ever equal the danger he could put himself in as Batman.  Therefore, his security wasn’t an issue as far as he was concerned.  “I’ll be fine.  I have four other bodyguards after Sloane and Steele, and they all do their jobs exceptionally well.”

“You’ll have one with you… all the time… just like I do… like Constance does?  What about Seth?”  She smiled lightly.  “You know,
Seth could sell an East Indian water during a monsoon… He can literally talk anyone into just about anything.  Sic him on Courtney.
And maybe if she knew there was someone watching him?”  She couldn’t help but worry about Seth too.  “All of us will have someone, right?”
She was still really trying to absorb all of this.  And she was nervous.  When she was nervous, she talked… a lot.  “And I mean, I know he’ll have my schedule but what if you’re not home and oh I decide I want a Quarter Pounder… how do I get a hold of Sloane?  What if he isn’t here?”

It was Sloane who answered, stepping forward towards them and coming to stand at their side in only a couple of strides.  “I am always here, Ms. O’Neil, but should we not be in the same room when your craving for fat drenched beef products hit…” Here he reached into his pocket and pulled out a digital pager, which he then held out to her.  “The red button will summon me.”

She stood there open mouthed for just a moment.  She wasn’t sure if she’d just been insulted or teased.  Her brows furrowed and then relaxed.  Taking the offered pager, she said, “So I’ll summon you, we’ll hop in the big purple Hummer, wander into town and get fat drenched beef products together.”  She smiled.  “My treat, of course.”

Sloane nodded at her smile.  He didn’t return it, though there was a hint of amusement in his voice when he replied, “Of course, but only if it involves milk shakes.”  Again, there was little emotion to the words and he was back at his post by the desk in seconds of saying it.

Bruce leaned in and whispered in Grace’s ear, “Mr. No Smile here likes strawberry, extra thick.”  He winked, and it was as if the mood shifted a little.

She laughed lightly, relaxing completely and accepting the situation as he felt it best handled.  So, Mr. Sloane looked imposing… was a trained killer… had no emotional reactions… was all about his business… But something told Grace she was going to have a bit of fun as well.  It was, after all, what she enjoyed doing… having fun.  And
Bruce was right; the bad guys weren’t going to take that from them.  “It’s a good thing McDonald’s have wider straws now… it’s really hard to suck those thick shakes up through those skinny straws.”  She returned the wink, smiling.

Bruce chuckled, his first real laugh all day.  If her sense of humor were back, Grace would be okay.  She would adapt to the changes he’d placed upon her.  That eased much of Bruce’s fears about the whole situation immensely.

Sloane, of course, made no visible reaction, save for an almost imperceptible twinkle in his eyes.  He merely waited until Bruce dismissed him and went back to whatever corner of the Manor Bruce hid his security team in.

*-*-*

With the departure of Mr. Sloane, Grace turned her full attention back to Bruce.  It wasn’t going to be so bad, having the security man with her all the time.  Given everything that had happened recently, she was actually thankful for him.

She made a pretense of looking completely around the room to make sure they were alone before moving more fully into his personal space.  Her hands were removed from his and her arms went around his neck.  “I think I was actually dreaming of this when Alfred woke me up to have me come in here.”  Her eyes locked with his and she saw the mixed emotions… the worry he had for all of them (which, she had to admit, was the most touching one) and the love he felt for her.

But what he’d said just a few minutes ago held even here.  She wasn’t about to let the bad guys have her put off expressing what she was feeling.  So they’d deal with the baddies in a minute.  But for this moment, she wanted to share some good stuff.  She pressed herself even more fully to him, her body molding perfectly to his.  She smiled.  “Yep, this is what I was dreaming about all right.”

It was hard to argue with that, as much as Bruce wanted to make sure she was safe first, and especially not with his arms aching to hold her.  So he didn’t argue; he moved into the embrace without hesitation.  He stroked her cheek, gently tracing the contours of her face.  Devotion and love shown clear in his eyes as he moved his hand to her chin, tilting her face up to his just slightly. He didn’t speak, so much as let his kiss speak for him.  His lips caressed hers softly as he poured out his devotion for her into the kiss.  Everything –Fitzgerald, the cemetery, the threat of the probe– all melted away as his free arm circled her waist and he held close to him.  There was nothing else that mattered right now but Grace in his arms, and the love he felt for her.  More than love, for what Bruce felt for Grace in his heart couldn’t be expressed in terms as simple as just love.

“Must have been a wonderful dream,” he murmured against her lips when he finally pulled away to allow oxygen into his system.

A hand had found its way into the silky softness of his hair, while the other dangled lightly on his shoulder.  With just the slightest move, the fingers that had been in his hair brushed along his jaw line and the thumb made its way to his lips, tracing along the bottom one lovingly.  “The dream was a good one,” she smiled as she used the closeness to easily place a small kiss on his lips.  She let her hand drop from his face to lightly rest on his chest.  “But the reality,” her eyes held his, “the reality is so much better.”

This time, she initiated a longer, more intimate kiss.  And as she felt his arms wrap more securely around her, her hand moved from his chest and around to hold him at his waist.  Their heads instinctively angled to allow the kiss to deepen and Grace was momentarily swept away.  It wasn’t so much the physical reaction that caused her to shiver, but all the emotion of the day and all the emotion she felt for him.  She needed him… she loved him… and she hadn’t been speaking lightly when she said he was her life.  Life without him would be meaningless…

They broke for air long enough to give one another a smile before lovingly rubbing noses and kissing again.  Each kiss leading them closer to the promise of something more.  A physical expression…

“They’re in the den, you said, Alfred,” Courtney called, opening the door as she did.  She saw the intimate embrace, the intensity of the kiss that she knew was actually leading to something else, and the closeness of their bodies… Oh yeah, she’d definitely interrupted something.  But Courtney, being who she was, felt no embarrassment at the intrusion.  However, her apology was genuine.  “Sorry guys,” she said.  “Alfred said you were in here, and since I walk much faster than he does…” She entered the room more fully.

Alfred made it into the room just in time to apologize himself.  “Master Bruce… Miss Grace… I do apologize.”

Grace, though mildly annoyed that they had been interrupted, took it all in stride.  It was Courtney, after all, and the woman had more than earned her nickname.  She kept her face close to Bruce’s through Courtney’s explanation and only moved away slightly when Alfred entered.  She wasn’t breathing too steadily yet and needed a moment to gather herself.  Bruce, more than likely, would have a very different reaction.  At times, he could embarrass much more easily at getting ‘caught’.  So she lingered closely for a moment.  A moment to give each of them a chance to recover.

“It’s alright, Alfred,” Bruce managed to say, but his voice relayed his frustration clearly.   Like Grace, he was breathless, and his face was flushed with the heat of their passion.  That, however, was the least of it.  Whether it was the high emotional toll of the last couple of days, the danger of threat bringing out a physical need, or merely the sweet taste of her lips, Bruce was already to the point where the desk behind them had begun to be very tempting.  Therefore, he was grateful that Grace had not moved completely away from him, allowing him to obscure the truth of the situation from both Alfred –not that Alfred would have been in the least bit shocked– and Courtney.  She did, however, turn to face them, and he snaked his arms around her waist to hold her there.

The butler nodded slightly, knowingly and said, “If there is nothing you require, I shall take my leave.  There is dinner to prepare, after all.”

“No, nothing, Alfred,” Bruce said before considering it.  Then he backtracked, asking Grace if she wanted anything.  She shook her head, though Bruce was sure a few more minutes of ‘alone time’ would have sufficed.  “No, we’re fine.  Thank you, Alfred.”

“Very well, sir.  Miss.” Alfred said to the couple.  He then inclined his head to Courtney, giving her a smile.  “Always a pleasure to see you again, Mistress Courtney.”

She smiled at Alfred before turning her attention to the other two people in the room.  She didn’t miss the way Bruce was holding Grace to him.  And she definitely did not miss what was going on when she entered the room.  So, she was determined to keep her visit brief.  Falling into the chair, she exhaled deeply.  “Okay… first off… why is it I’m the last person to find out about that asshole Fitzgerald?  I just spent a good portion of my morning discussing it with my father.”
She looked first to Bruce and then to Grace.  “Now, I know it was Alfred who summoned Dad here last night.  So that’s…” She shrugged.
“But…” And here she actually growled… “Pond scum has more worth than Arnold Fitzgerald.”

She stood and walked toward the window, needing to expend some energy.  “Then… then!!!!!  Dad wants to know my schedule, where I’m going to be… who I’m with.  I’d like to see Fitz try something with me.  I honestly believe I could…” She sighed again.  “Ooooo, I just loathe that man.  He’s so ignorant.”  She finally looked up at Bruce…  “You’re okay, aren’t you?”

Inwardly, Grace smiled.  Mentally he was better, but there were still a few physical things that didn’t need to be shared with the world.

“Well, I was working on it, at any rate,” Bruce quipped, surprising both the women with the comment.  Grace glanced sideways at him, mischievous approval sparkling in her eyes, and he winked.  “Yes, Nee, I’m fine,” he said without the flippant tone.  He didn’t say the next thing on his mind: that she need not worry.  They’d had this discussion before.  Courtney would always worry about him.  “And you’re right; Fitzgerald is lower than your average fungus.  But…” He trailed off, thinking about that day and what good had happened that wouldn’t have had he let the pond scum bother him.  “I’m over it, really.  So, please; don’t bother with Fitzgerald.  Like you said, he isn’t worth it.”  Bruce’s voice was edged with the worry he felt at the thought of Courtney barging into City Hall and confronting the man.

Taking her cue from Bruce, Grace felt the need to reiterate.  “He really is fine, Courtney.”

She looked at both of them for a long moment, her eyes narrowing slightly… scrutinizing.  She noticed Bruce’s face was still a bit flushed; she noticed he still held Grace very securely in front of him.  “I have no plans on bothering Fitzgerald.  Dad pulled rank and even though I argue with Mom, I can’t argue with him.  I promised I’d stay away from him, and I will.  I just…” And the look she gave them was genuine.  “I just worry about you guys.  Both of you.  I have far too much invested not to worry.”  She looked them both over again, as if making sure for herself they were both okay.

Bruce nodded; he knew.  Courtney had lobbied for their reunion every bit as much as he did for her father’s crime bills… and he loved her dearly for it, interruptions like these aside.  “They were just words,” he said, meaning what Fitzgerald had said to him.  “I shouldn’t have let it get to me and there won’t be a next time.”  Still, he knew Courtney.  She knew it had been serious enough for Alfred to call her father.  Already he could see the inherent doubt of his protests growing in her eyes.  It was a look she got every time he uttered the words ‘I’m fine.’   And he knew her enough to know that she felt slighted –even if only a little– that she hadn’t been the one here by his side.  Though, in truth, the ‘man-to-man’ with Miles was exactly what was called for last night.

She moved back to the chair and sat in it again.  “Well, if there is a next time… I’m not even talking to Dad before I speak my mind to
Fitzgerald.  Man needs to learn a few manners.”

Grace felt Bruce’s immediate ‘problem’ ease and moved away just enough so he could decide what he wanted to do as far as their positioning.
Personally, she was quite content where she was.  So when he moved to sit on the edge of the desk, she positioned herself so she was still standing in front of him, though between his legs so she could lean against his chest.  She’d just been having interesting thoughts about this desk before the storm hit.  So being next to it right now was causing all kinds of delicious thoughts to run through her head.
Deliciously naughty thoughts that shouldn’t be thought of in front of mixed company.

“Oh yeah,” Courtney continued, barely noticing the change.  “And not only does Father fail to tell me about Bruce’s encounter, then he hits me with the entire schedule thing.  And at first, I was too ticked to react the way I would have had the other not been going through my mind.  How many shades of idiot would Fitzgerald have to be to come after the MAYOR’S family?  Duh!  He’d be the first one the police investigated.”

Grace shrugged.  “People like Fitz don’t think like we do, Courtney.  Doesn’t make sense, but he’s thinking the way to get Miles off his back is to threaten his family.  A few precautions can’t hurt.  I have Mr.
Clean as my new best friend.  Man’s face never shows emotion.  But hey,
I actually think having him around is going to be a comfort.”

“Mr. Clean?” Courtney question… then the rest of it hit her.  “A bodyguard?  Mr. Clean?”

Bruce chuckled a little at the amusingly apt description of his chief security officer.  “She means Sloane… my head of security,” he added when Courtney’s face still registered confusion.  “About so tall…”  He gestured by raising his arm up above his head to about the right height.  “As bald as Lex?”  She still looked baffled.  “You really didn’t know I have bodyguards, did you?”  Bodyguards, plural, and judging from the look on her face, she hadn’t known.

“Does it look like I knew you had bodyguards?” she asked as if stating the obvious.  “You have bodyguards?”  She sat forward a bit in her chair.  “I have NEVER seen one single solitary bodyguard around here
Bruce…” And that’s when it hit her… obviously if he had bodyguards, he would have the best.  “You?  Bodyguards?  People who followed us around?”  She was about to say more when Grace interjected.

“It makes sense, in a way.  I’d never met any of them until today.  I mean, I knew they were around… occasionally.  But I just met Mr.
Clean today… when Bruce told me he was going to be watching over me.”  She shrugged.  “I really don’t mind, actually kinda like the idea of it.  He,” and here she patted Bruce’s leg encouragingly, “has even sent one of them over to you mother.”

“My mother?”  Her eyes moved to Bruce… still in a state of shock over the revelation.

“They didn’t follow us everywhere,” Bruce admitted, hoping honesty would make the news a little less traumatic. Their hiking trips and a few other places had been off-bounds, however Bruce had allowed Sloane to attach homing devices to all of his gear.  “And yes –your mother.  Miles is worried about a possible backlash because of the probe, and quite frankly, Nee, I agree with him that caution is warranted.  Your father has shaken things up in this city and some people” –Fitzgerald, and the crime boss he paid tribute to– “can’t handle the pressure.”  His arms wrapped around Grace’s waist out of the sudden instinct to ensure her safety.  “So, I lent him one of my guys to watch after Constance.  She’ll love him.  Former Secret Service, very dashing in a James Bond sort of way.”  He grinned slightly, trying to coax her out of her shock and outrage.  “I’d like to do the same for you, Nee.  I’d feel better if–“

“Oh no!!!!” She stood up, pacing the den.  “I mean, I appreciate the sentiment and the concern, Bruce, I really do.  But I can’t give up my life just because someone’s panties are in a bunch.”  She stopped pacing and looked at him.  “It’s like I’ve always told you… You have to live life.  And I can’t hide behind bodyguards.  I can’t function knowing someone’s tagging behind me.”

“But Court,” Grace interjected, “a bodyguard doesn’t stop you from living your life.  After everything I’ve gone through recently, I’m not stopping my life… but the bodyguard…”

“Grace,” Courtney interrupted, fully understanding where Grace was coming from, “I just… I’m not comfortable with the idea.  I gave Dad my schedule as ordered.  But a bodyguard… I just highly doubt that there’s a need to go to that extreme.”  She looked to Bruce, the look on her face absolutely genuine.  “I am grateful for the offer, but I just don’t want someone tagging around after me.”

Bruce sighed inwardly, though he tried not to let his disappointment over it show.  He’d hoped, however, that she would accept the offer.  But Courtney… Courtney wasn’t one to be confined by lots of other people’s rules and obviously a bodyguard would be too confining.

“I understand, Nee,” he told her.  “But the offer will stand indefinitely… if you change your mind.”  His expression was one of open and sincere concern, and he hoped she would reconsider.  “You’re not the only who worries about their friends, you know,” he added softly.

She sighed.  “I know you worry.  Bruce, I know.”  She closed the distance between herself and her friends and leaned up against the desk beside them.  “But to have a bodyguard is to change the way I live… to let them know that they have me frightened.  And I’m not afraid, Bruce.  Foolish or not, I’m not afraid.  And I’m not going to let *them* know it.”

“Courtney,” Grace started.  “How many times have you seen pictures of Bruce and I in the paper?  Remember the one from that night at the club last week?  Did you see any hovering secret agents?  No.  Was there any mention about bodyguards?  No.  But they were there.  Like Bruce says, they aren’t there all the time, but whether we like it or not, bad people can do bad things to good people.  There’s nothing wrong in taking a few precautions.”

Reaching out, Courtney lightly touched her hair.  “And I am taking precautions.  I’ll be careful.”  Looking to Bruce, she said, “I promise
I will be careful.”

Bruce had little doubt she would be as careful as she thought she was being, but careful… careful only went so far.  Grace’s stalking was a good example.  For months, he’d watched her apartment as Batman and never knew someone else was watching it, too.  It was so easy to miss that one key element, and then something bad would happen.  Of course, he couldn’t just say this to Courtney, even if it might make her understand where his concerns stemmed from.

“I know you will, Nee.  Just…” He gave her a look that clearly said everything he couldn’t in words.  “Humor me and keep it in mind?”

She nodded.  “For you, I will.”  She wrapped an arm around his shoulder and placed a kiss on his cheek.

Grace moved out of the way to let the two friends embrace.

“Keep it in mind, I mean,” she teased, pulling away and then moving to hug and kiss Grace as well.  “But for now, I have an appointment.  And if I’m late, Dad will freak.  I just wanted to blow off steam.”  She leaned in and hugged Bruce again.  “Talk to you later.”

Bruce returned the hug, a bit tighter than he usually would have, but he was holding on tighter to everyone right now.  “Just be extra careful.”

Grace’s arm got a squeeze as Courtney started for the door.  “Catch ya later…” She paused in the doorway, turning back to them as she grabbed the doorknob.  “Oh and guys… this time… lock the door.”
She winked, closing the door.  Her laughter at the look on Bruce’s face lingered long after she walked away from the door.

“Next time, knock!” Bruce called after her as the door closed.

He shook his head; Courtney was something else.  Naïve, somehow, if she thought her father’s name and position would stay someone’s hand should Thorne order his men to exact revenge.  Still, Bruce hoped that her faith in the ‘that can’t happen to me’ theology was founded.  He loved her, and if something did happen to her…

Heaven help the person responsible.

He shook his head again, and made eye contact with Grace, who was laughing over their final exchange with Courtney.  Lock the door, indeed!  “You know, it’s my house,” he said to Grace, laughing as he pulled her back into his arms, this time facing him.  “If I wanted to give into the naughty thoughts I’m having right now… here… I shouldn’t have to lock the doors.”

“Oh?”  Grace tilted her head slightly, regarding him with a sly look.  “What naughty thoughts might those be?” she asked, breathing the question against his lips.

He kissed her back, scooting back on the desk so he’d have to lean into her as the kiss deepened.  “Can’t you guess?” he asked when they parted for air.  He ran his hand along the surface of the desk suggestively.

*-*-*

“Court,” Seth called upon entering their home.  Keys were dropped on the table in the spacious foyer.  Looking to the left, he didn’t see her in the formal living room, but that wasn’t a surprise.  Courtney said that room was strictly for ‘entertaining’, though how they ‘entertained’ was something the pair didn’t always see eye-to-eye on.  “Court,” he called again, moving to the right through the dining room and into the kitchen, unable to remember whose night it was to fix dinner.  Since nothing was cooking, it was probably his.  Glancing down at his watch, he knew they’d be ordering out.  It was far too late to cook now.

He moved through the kitchen onto other parts of the house.  The home was large, but generally when he called, she heard him.  Her BMW was parked in the driveway, so he knew she was home.  Taking off his jacket, he dropped it on the back of the chair in the den.  He could already hear her scolding him over it, and then he’d teasingly remind her that she said the den was ‘his’.  He checked the room, though honestly he knew she hardly ever went in there.  Going over to the bar, he grabbed a Coors out of the mini-fridge and worked his way up the stairs.  Given the late hour, she could easily be soaking in the Jacuzzi.  That thought made him smile.  A nice soak with his wife would be fun.  “Court,” he called again.

“In here,” she finally responded from one of the bedrooms they’d turned into an office.  She was staring at the monitor of her computer, brows furrowed in concentration.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked, leaning against the doorjamb.

Quickly, she saved her work and spun in her chair to face him.  “I got three new parties today.  A wedding, a retirement bash, and a fundraiser.”

“Mom working on a new gig?”

She shook her head.  “Not Mom, no.  Mrs. Dorothy Fitzgerald.”

“The Councilman’s wife?”  He moved into the room, taking the chair at the other desk.  “You sure that working with a Fitzgerald at all is a good idea?”

“Don’t you start on me too,” she said, her voice elevating slightly with frustration.

He remained calm.  “Not starting anything, Courtney.  Just asking a question.”

She sighed.  “Sorry.  It’s been a long day.”

Standing, he reached for her hand.  A slow smile spread across his face.  “Well, I have the perfect solution.”

“You do,” she returned his smile and took his hand.

“Yep.  Thought about it when I came in.  You… me… the Jacuzzi… Chinese takeout.”  He waggled his brows.  “I may even let you give me a massage.”

“Oh a girl could be so fortunate,” came her response, a teasingly sarcastic lilt in her voice.

Slowly undoing the buttons on her blouse, he teased back, “And you are lucky.  I’ll even run the water for you as I’m ordering dinner.”

“It is your night to cook,” she replied as her blouse fell to the floor.  “I couldn’t ask for more.”

*-*-*

Several hours later, they were snuggled in bed.  Courtney was completely relaxed against Seth, as he hugged her to him.  She was spooned, her back against his front; his hand draped softly over her hips.  Placing a soft kiss in her hair, he broached quietly, “So, want to talk about what’s aggravating you?”

“Not aggravated now,” she said with a content smile.

“I would hope not,” he quipped with a teasing move of his hips.

“Play nice.”

“Never.”

She rolled her eyes at his response, which was followed by his laughter.  God help her, but she loved this man.  And they’d always said that here… their bed… was a safe haven.  The one place where they could talk about anything and always find understanding.  When he kissed her head again, she reached down and took his hand.  “You know about Dad’s probe… giving him our schedules?” she finally asked.

Sensing the shift in mood, he easily followed.  “Yep.  I gave him mine already.”

“I went to see Bruce today,” she said.

To Seth, the statement seemed completely out of place with what they were discussing.  He knew that because of the medicines she had to continue to take, sometimes her thoughts would jump quickly from one thing to the next… her ability to focus was something she had to work on sometimes.  But she didn’t generally jump around like this.  So his tone was a bit confused when he asked, “Why?”

“Because… last night Alfred called during dinner and it was Dad he wanted to talk to… Dad who went running.  And sometimes I think… I feel…”

Seth sighed.  “He needs you, Courtney.  Sometimes I don’t understand how you can be so confident about everything but him.  I talk to Mom about stuff all the time, and you don’t feel like I don’t need you.  I do need you.  He needs you.  But sometimes, people need certain people for certain things.  And Dad is the closest to a father that Bruce has.  If you think about it, how many times do you go to your dad for things?  A lot.  So I honestly don’t understand why you worry because he talked to your Dad last night instead of you.”

Turning over so she could face him, she attempted to explain, “Because when I found him… when we met, he was a recluse.  He rarely went anywhere… did anything.  Just what he had to do because of his place in society.  And now…” She shrugged.  “Like I said, it’s been a long day.”

“That I believe,” he said softly trailing a finger along her cheek.  She was an amazing woman.  So full of love for those in her life.  So protective and fierce when the moment called for it.  But there was a vulnerability about her too.  She was the kind of person who needed to be needed.  And he also knew that once she got beyond the ‘long day’, she’d realize Bruce did need her.  Her parents needed her.  Alex needed her because he loved getting her all worked up.  Most importantly, *he* needed her.  “So, what happened with your visit to Bruce today?”

She couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory of what happened.  “I walked in on Bruce and Grace… kissing.”  She began to laugh.  “And it was oh so obvious that it was rapidly moving to the ‘more than just kissing’ stage when I walked into the room.”

“There is something not quite right with you,” he joked.

“Well, you know, they make door locks for that… bedrooms as well,” she attempted to justify.

His immediate response was to tickle her before kissing her soundly.  “I’ll remind you of that the next time you want to have sex in the dining room… library… living room…”

“Oh be quiet,” she mock-scolded.

“Kitchen… office… bonus room over the garage… den… hot…”

He didn’t get to finish the last phrase as he was kissed soundly.  “You’re an ass,” she smiled as she said.

“And you love me,” he remarked with another kiss placed on her nose.

She pushed a stray hair from her face and nodded.  “I do… with all that I am.”  They weren’t exactly the most publicly demonstrative couple.  Courtney was generally too busy with everything around her for Seth to stop her for too long.  Oh, they held hands, and he loved touching her.  But she was the kind of person who was always the focus of the people around her, and he was always pleased to stand back and let her have that.  So it didn’t lead to a lot of kissing and petting in public.  But here… in the privacy of their home… they were openly demonstrative both verbally and physically.

“Bruce has bodyguards.”  Again, the statement seemed to come from nowhere to Seth.

“Yeah?” Seth asked.  “Probably has an entire team of them.”

“You knew?” the tone she used was incredulous, like she was the only one of the group who hadn’t known.

“Courtney, I think sometimes you forget that Bruce is a rich man… young… powerful… extremely influential.”

“Like your friend?”  And that’s when it hit her.  Seth was right.  She knew all those things he’d just said were true, and he was right in that she also overlooked them to the point that she did forget everything that went along with being Bruce Wayne.  To her, he was just Bruce… best friend.  “He’s assigned a bodyguard to Mom.  Former Secret Service agent.”

The room was darkened, but there was no way she could miss the smile that spread across his face.  “That was nice of him.  I was worried about Mom.  Her schedule changes so quickly, and she’s almost always late to meetings.”  He laughed lightly at the thought of how many times Constance had burst into his office late for a lunch date she had insisted on setting up with her son-in-law.  How could he not love Constance Blaire?  In a lot of ways, Courtney was like her.  “Having a specially trained pair of eyes watching her… especially right now… is a very good thing.  I’d hate for anything to happen to Mom.”  He made a mental note to thank Bruce.  He wasn’t a fool; he knew the reason why Bruce had offered the bodyguard to Constance was because of Miles and Courtney.  But he didn’t care about the reasoning, she was guarded and safe… *that* was what mattered.

“Grace has one too.  He goes wherever she does.  Work… everywhere.  From what Bruce said, he’s actually assigned his Chief of Security to protect her.”  She was revealing these facts to Seth as if they continued to surprise her.

Seth reacted as if it was everyday conversation.  “I have a feeling that she’ll have that bodyguard long after the mess at City Hall is over.  He’s going to want her watched over constantly.  In case we haven’t noticed,” his voice light with teasing, “she’s his world.  And given his past, he’ll go to extremes to protect her… keep her safe.  And the mugging and the stalker shook him up too.  He just reacts to it differently than Grace.  But Courtney, it’s more than obvious that he’s doing what he can to make sure you’re all taken care of.  He’d be distraught if anything happened to you.”

“He offered one to me too,” she said softly, “But I told him no.”

“Why’s that?” he asked, still doing his best to keep his tone level… not revealing any of his emotions because this conversation needed to be handled with a level head.  He listened as she ran through all the excuses she’d given Bruce, and when she was finished, he said, “This is a dangerous situation, Courtney.  Having a body…”

“I said no.”

Unlike everyone else, Seth didn’t back down from her.  His tone bespoke of a bit more emotion though as he said, “Hear me out.”  He drew her into his arms, hands lightly tracing her back.  “It wasn’t all too long ago that I thought I was going to lose you.”

“This isn’t…”

“And the thought of that,” he said, ignoring her interruption, “nearly drove me insane with grief, fear, and worry.  Maybe you don’t want to let the crooked politicians dictate your life to you… but there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do…” He paused for a moment, holding her a bit more tightly and trying not to sound as choked up was he was.  “If something ever happened to you… If I lost you… That would be it for me.  You understand that?  I didn’t marry you because I wanted a year or two of good memories with the high-spirited red-haired beauty who breezed into my life and was tragically taken from it.”  He swallowed hard, pressing his forehead to hers as he continued, “I married you because I wanted fifty or sixty years of life and love with the one person *I* can’t live without.  The person who gives me meaning… a reason to get out of bed in the morning.  I want to grow old with you… watch that gorgeous red hair turn to beautiful gray hair.  I want to laugh… cry… argue… makeup with you until the day that *I* die.  I want good times and bad times.  I want you safe.  I *need* you safe.  Because Courtney, you are my world… and if anything happens…”

She reached out and pressed a finger to his lips.  She heard everything he was saying and was touched beyond words.  They were true for her too.  Right here, right now, in this room, she had everything she needed.  So it almost broke her heart when she had to say, “I don’t need a bodyguard, Seth.  I’m going to be careful.”

He lay there for the longest time… lost in thought.  His fingers still moved lightly along her back.  Her stubborn tenacity was one of the things he loved most about her.  He hated using his trump card.  He knew without a doubt that if he played it… she’d give in.  “Do it for me then, Courtney.  Please?”  His arms wrapped around her again, holding her closely to him.  “I know you’ll be careful, but I’d just feel better…”

She sighed.  Her father had told her that marriage wasn’t solely about yourself, that there were times when you did things because it made your spouse happy.  Sacrifice.  She loathed the idea of a bodyguard more than she could express, but if it gave Seth peace of mind…  “Fine,” she relented, her tone not harsh, the words merely spoken softly.  “I’ll call Bruce tomorrow and tell him I’ll accept the offer of a bodyguard.”

Her reward was a tighter hug and a kiss to her forehead.  “Thank you.”

“Yeah,” she sighed again.  “But I’m only doing this for you.”

He didn’t say a word, merely smiled.  He didn’t care why she did it.  He was fairly sure Bruce and Miles wouldn’t care why she was doing it.  She was doing it and that’s all that mattered.

*-*-*

Officer Chad Harris pulled his patrol car into the alley.  He parked and turned the key to shut off the engine.  As the lights dimmed, a dark figure literally dropped out of the sky in front of him.  He flipped on the headlights just in time to see Batman’s pitch black cape flutter around him as gravity pulled it down.  Then Batman moved quickly, using each movement efficiently, to the side of the car.  This time, the door was opened and waiting for him to get in.

As soon as the door closed, Chad held out a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
“Chilly night,” he said in explanation for the coffee.  Taking the lid off his own cup, he took a sip of the hot liquid. His eyes on the club he was watching.  Spence had called in tonight.  Nicky was on the move… he wondered if they would both lead to Hammer and Deetz… or possibly to the men he heard on the tape.  “Nice entrance.”  He couldn’t help but let the corner of his mouth turn up in a smile of appreciation.

“Thanks, I’ve been working on it,” was Batman’s quick, stoic reply.

Chad let out a quick laugh in appreciation of the dry humor.  He was starting to really wonder just who the man behind the mask was, but then at the same time, it didn’t matter.  Whoever Batman truly was,
Chad was sure he was somewhat similar to the persona he portrayed when in costume.  Taking the tape out of his pocket, he handed it back to Batman.  “Starting tomorrow night, I’ll be in a black Chevy Cavalier.
Commissioner Gordon has assigned me to special duty… taken me off patrol and assigned me to this case.  Actually, I’ll be lead on it.”
It wasn’t said with any kind of pride… just as a matter of fact.
Word had gotten to the commissioner that Chad had taken interest in the case… and with the probe… Gordon wanted him on Thorne’s case.

Batman nodded and removed the lid on his coffee.  It was straight black and hot on his cold skin.  Still, it was a welcomed sensation after waiting for Chad above the alley for as long as he had.  As he drank, he digested what Chad had said about working directly for the commissioner on this case.  Good for Chad, he thought, inwardly smiling.

“Good coffee,” he said at last.

“Mom and Pop joint just down the street makes it,” he said, looking up to see someone enter the club.  When it wasn’t anyone he was looking for in particular he returned to the conversation at hand.  “Not too long ago,” he started, “I got too close to Thorne’s operation.  Brought in a toadie and interrogated him for quite a while.  The man squealed but didn’t give me much to go on.  Three days after he was released, they find his body in the river.  The next day, I broke up an attempted extortion collection.  The man warned me off, but I arrested him anyway.  The day after that… someone took a shot at me.  It doesn’t surprise me that they’re going to keep coming after me.  I’m a monkey wrench in their operation, and I’m not going to quit.”  He looked over at Batman, no fear in his eyes, just determination.  “So, we get to them first.  The voices on the tape… the one directly threatening me… his name is Randall Caine.  More than likely, he’s the one who did the hit on Ellis… the toadie I interrogated.  The other man… I can’t prove anything, but I believe he works directly for Thorne…  Jeremiah Hinkle.  Both are practically untouchable.”

“No one is untouchable,” Batman said, his voice darkening considerably as he processed the information.  “Take our friend, Deetz, for example.”  Chad’s head snapped up, diverting his attention from both the coffee and the club.  “Got into a bit of a jam down on the docks.  His buddy left him, took the stuff and split.”  Batman hadn’t seen who had made the drop with them; he’d been looking for Hammer and Deetz and caught up with them after the drop.  At Chad’s shocked expression, he added a non-committal, “He’s not dead.  Just a little waterlogged.  Seems he can’t swim.”  Batman informed him that the man in question was in Gotham General Hospital being treated for his near drowning and several injuries incurred in his rather flawed escape.

Chad took a few moments and let the information soak in.  “You know,” he finally said, “if Hammer split on him, Deetz is going to feel betrayed.  I’ve always thought Deetz was the weak link.  Hammer probably wouldn’t talk no matter how much you tried to intimidate him.  But Deetz…  I think he can be persuaded to talk.”  Another movement at the door and this time Chad looked a bit more closely.  “You were at the docks tonight, huh?”  He pointed at the man just slipping into the club.  “That’s Nicky.  If Hammer and Deetz were picking up tonight, Nicky’s involved somehow.  He’ll either be the one they give the dope to so he can pass it on to the distributors, or he’s giving them cash that he just picked up from Spence.”  He sighed.  “I’m not exactly sure how it all runs.  All I know for sure is that Hammer and Deetz run the drugs, and Spence runs the cash.”

He sighed.  “Either way, what you interrupted tonight was definitely a drug drop.  I’ll stop by the hospital and have a little chat with Deetz.  If he’s alone and feels betrayed, I’ll get information from him.”

Batman nodded once, a slow but curt gesture.  “Worth a try. They aren’t as tight as he thought they were, it would seem.”  Batman considered his next course of action and then inquired about Spence.  “Speaking of partners… how does this new assignment affect Spence’s day job?” It was a blanket question: was Spence along for the ride, or was he in the dark about Chad’s new assignment?  Hammer had gotten away, and although Batman intended to try and catch up with him tonight, he was likely long gone.  He’d also be more cautious now that he knew Batman was on to him.  However, Chad’s partner was a different story.  Maybe it was time for a little chat with Officer Spencer.

“He’ll be patrolling with someone else.  Same shift.  I’ve known the man for years.  He’s a good man… at least I think he is.”  Anymore, Chad wasn’t sure who was a good man and who wasn’t.  The corruption was so deep there was just no sure way of knowing.  “His new partner’s name is David Williamson.  Been on the force for about ten years.”  He looked back up to the building.  “You know, half of me wants to warn David about Spence.  Half of me knows if I do, it will alert Spence that I know.  But David has a family… wife… two little girls.  And Spence could get him into trouble, not back him up.  I’m just me.  David has a family.”  He sighed again, not for the second time questioning the Commissioner’s decision and being torn in what he should do.

Chad’s mixed emotions were very clear to read in both his expression and tones.  His concerns, of course, were good ones.  Men with families had more to lose than those without.  Families got hurt if you were injured or killed in the line of duty.  Families made easy targets. Spence was a liability for an honest police office.  It was a more than valid concern for Chad to have.

It was a concern he understood and felt very sharply right now.

Batman nodded.  “It’d be better to stay the course,” he said, he let enough emotion seep into his voice, letting Chad know he understood where he was coming from.  “I’ve got plans for our boy Spence.”  He didn’t elaborate though, instead occupying himself with the coffee.  When the cup was empty, so was the passenger seat.

*-*-*

Dawn came in two hours, and Bruce was just getting in.  He checked in with Alfred and then went to his room via the secret passages, careful not to wake Grace.  He smelled of the docks, Deetz’ blood, the alleys he’d been in that night, and generally just reeked of a bad night.  He stripped off his clothes in the adjoining bedroom and slipped into his own.

Grace was asleep in the center of the bed.  Moonlight shone in from the window and he had to stop on his way to the bathroom and stare at her illuminated beauty.  Love greater than words welled up in his heart, causing his eyes to sting, and he finally turned away and entered the bathroom.

He turned the water on hot, and stepped into the shower. Reaching for the soap, he began to scrub, trying desperately to wash the smell of Gotham out of his skin.  Tonight had been rough.  Chad’s concerns about Spence’s new partner had clawed at his mind from the moment he left the patrol car.  When Bruce had started on this course, he’d been too young to consider a family… all the plans and the years of preparation that had gone into becoming Batman hadn’t included a live-in lover, or an extended ‘family,’ none of whom he’d trade now for his very soul.  But now… the probe on City Hall, and his own nighttime activities were enough to make his concerns eat him alive.  And they were very hungry concerns, feeding on all his doubts, fears and worries and growing stronger with each meal.

Sighing, he leaned against the wall and let the hot water wash away the last of the soap bubbles.  He then turned, placing his hands against the wall, back to the spray of the water, letting it pound his tense back muscles.

Stirring slightly in bed, Grace made an instinctive stretch for Bruce and not finding him in bed beside her, she lifted her head to check for the time.  It was then that she heard the shower running.  She noticed he did that often… coming home from whatever his nightly activities were… he always showered.  She wasn’t sure what made her get up this time and cross the room toward the bathroom door.  She wasn’t sure why she even woke up.  The majority of the nights, she’d feel him climb in bed beside her; the only way she knew he’d had a shower was by the smell of fresh soap and shampoo.

But tonight, things were different.  Tonight, something drew her to get out of bed and head for the bathroom.  She knew the door wouldn’t be locked.  Modesty wasn’t something that either of them experienced… so the bathroom door was never locked.  She quietly opened the door and slipped inside.  He was in the shower, the sight through doors offering her a clear view of her lover within.  His back was to the shower, head bowed… at first glance she was overcome with the sheerly beautiful image he portrayed… dark skin flushed with the heat of the shower, water running down a well-muscled torso to even stronger legs.

But it was the profile of his face that caused the biggest response.
Those well-muscled shoulders carried such a big burden.  With whatever these activities were… the probe into City Hall causing a threat to everyone he loved… and the horrible things Fitz had said… It was a lot for the shoulders of a young man to carry.  Though she had to correct herself… he was young in biological years, but because of the responsibility… he was much older than his years in so many ways.

Ever so slowly, she crossed to the shower, trying not to frighten him by her appearance.  She carefully opened the door and gave him a smile.
“You look like you could use a hug,” she said softly, noticing it even more once the shower door was opened.

Bruce turned at the sound of her voice, so full of concern for something she knew not what, and gave her a small, if weak, smile.  “Hey, beautiful,” he said, weariness that wasn’t all born of little sleep showing in his voice.  “A hug would be nice.”

She didn’t need to know why he looked so haggard and worn.  She didn’t need to ask questions and find answers to problems that she was sure she couldn’t help solve.  What she did need to do was be here for him.
And there was little doubt in her mind that right now, what he needed most was a hug.  Without thought for the shirt she was wearing as a nightgown, she stepped into the shower.  The hot water hit her causing momentary goosebumps to pop up all over her arms and legs.  But it also didn’t take her long to adjust to the heat.

Stepping into his personal space, she ran one hand affectionately through his wet hair, the other wrapped around his shoulder and she leaned into him, hugging him tightly to her.  Her eyes drifted closed and she turned her face to rest against his.  She could do this… and he definitely needed it.

He wrapped his arms around her waist, the wet shirt clinging to both of them though he didn’t mind it if she didn’t.  Indeed, he barely noticed it once he had her in his arms.  Kissing the top of her already more than damp hair, he let himself melt into the hug and simply held her.  For a while, he said nothing, as words weren’t necessary, but as her love poured into him through the hug, words came to him anyway.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me…” he sang softly in to her hair.  “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see.”  His voice was soft, low, and yet he knew she heard as he continued into the second verse.  “T’was Grace that taught, my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved.”  His voice hitched a little here, before going on.  “How precious did that Grace appear… the hour I first believed.”

He trailed off, not singing the rest of the song, but holding her all the tighter.  It had been years since he’d put faith in the God this song spoke of, but it was his mother’s song, and in his heart, the first two verses were his… his amazing Grace, whose love had saved him so many times, like it was saving him now.

She was thankful for the warm running water as it washed away the tears that formed in her eyes as he sang to her.  It had been a week ago this very night that Batman had swooped into her world, saving her life, and giving this man back to her.  Seven days ago, that she had felt such emptiness only to have it erased by a moment much like this.  She’d asked him to hold her that next day.  She woke to find him watching her and asked him to hold her.  And he did.  As tightly as he was holding her now.

She held him even more tightly to her, letting him know without words that he was loved, that he was cherished, that he was the single most important person in the world to her.  And he was.  It had, in all honesty, taken less than a week for them to settle back into life together.  That said something.  And as she stood in the shower with him, the shirt she wore completely soaked and she didn’t care at all, she melted into him, holding him closely, not only with her body but also with her heart and soul.

They stood holding each other in the shower until the water began to cool and Grace’s goosebumps had started to return.  She shivered, and Bruce response was to first turn off the water and second to scoop her into his arms.  Two fluffy over-sized towels later, they were lying on the bed in his room, watching the fire crackle in the fireplace as it warmed their bodies.  Bruce’s arms were still around her, her head on his chest.  His desperation from earlier was gone, washed away in the shower as she held him, and now all Bruce felt was the comfortable warmth of their love for each other.

Falling in love, really falling in love, had not been in his plans.  He’d never really understood that love like this was possible, until Grace.  But it was possible and he had fallen.  The rest, Bruce decided lazily as the warmth of the moment brought sleepy thoughts, would figure itself out.  Plans could be altered, after all.  They’d have to be, as this woman was the only thing keeping him sane and happy, and he wasn’t giving her up a second time.

*-*-*

Friday, January 21, 2005

Tying up the laces on her skates, Grace moved out onto the ice.  It had been a couple years since she went ice-skating.  The last time was the winter before she met Bruce.  Courtney had dragged her out, and since Hope had been visiting, the three women had had a blast.  But Grace had little doubt that the excursion today was going to far surpass that one.

True to her word, she wasn’t wearing purple winter gear.  She had chosen a soft yellow this time.  As the rink was outside, in a nice little park, she chose to wear a down stuffed yellow winter coat, waist length.  She had a pair of matching yellow snow pants; and on top of her head, she wore a yellow hat and matching yellow gloves.  She wore gloves though and not mittens as she wanted to be able to hold Bruce’s hand.

Moving out onto the ice, she waited for him to join her.  School was back in session so the only other skaters on the ice were other grown ups… adults who either worked evenings or took the day off to spend it together.  The press contingent had been small today, a couple curious reporters eager to get a picture of the reunited couple. They were easy to ignore.  She was also able to easily ignore Mr. Sloane and his security men.  Although she’d teased that she would have loved to have seen him on the ice.

Looking at Bruce, who was still on the bench, she smiled brightly at him.  “Well…” She held out her hands for him.  “No time like the present.”

“Okay, but I warn you, I haven’t been skating in a very long time.”  His eyes were twinkling, the pain of the previous night seemingly forgotten.  Bruce took her offered hands, his black gloves contrasting with her yellow ones as he rose to his bladed feet.  They always contrasted, outwardly anyway, because of her bright, sunny looks and his dark tones.  So, that he wore all black with silver accents to her yellow, it came as no surprise.  Black was more of a ‘signature color’ for Bruce, whereas Grace shone vibrantly in any hue she donned.

He moved onto the ice with her, unsteadily at first, as if his legs were determined to illustrate his half-joking comment.  His legs grew more confident, however, as he fell in beside her and they moved further away from the bench.

She couldn’t help but smile brightly as she felt him grow more confident.  Spinning around she skated backwards, her eyes holding his as she let him set the pace. “It sure doesn’t look like you haven’t skated in a while.  Maybe it’s like riding a bike… something you never forget.  And with all the training you do, you have an excellent center of gravity.”  She winked.  “I remember when I first learned how to ice skate, Mom…” she paused and qualified, “Judy, not Janet, took me out on the center of the ice and I fell down so many times.  I was four or five.  I remember at one point I started to cry and Dad tried to come out and tell me I didn’t have to do it, but Mom was determined I learn.  I ended up with a few bruises, but by the end of the day, I was skating.  We celebrated with pizza.”  She let her voice drift off and the smile stayed on her face at the memory.  It was shortly after that when they found out her mom was pregnant with Hope.

She wasn’t sure why she told him that.  She hadn’t told anyone else the story of that day.  Like it was a precious and guarded memory about her mother.  But with Bruce, she felt like sharing.  Life with Judy wasn’t all bad; it just ended that way.  “After that, I loved ice skating.  Roller skating too.”  She winked.

Bruce smiled at the story.  Grace’s face was alight with the happy memory, and that made him happy, too.  He moved away, easily circling her once before reaching to take her hand, just to hold her.  “I was in England when I learned,” he told her, his voice thoughtful and distant.  “It was winter after my parents… and I was behind in studies because I hadn’t returned right away.”  He’d refused to go back, and at first Alfred had taken pity on him and allowed him to stay at the Manor instead of going back to his boarding school.  “Alfred flew out to bring me some things for the Holidays and he took me to his brother’s home in the country.”  Bruce smiled at the memory.  “We spent hours every day after I completed my studies… trying to perfect a figure eight because I wanted to be like the Olympic skaters.”

“I sprained an ankle trying to learn how to do those jumps,” she smiled.  She looked down at his feet before looking back up again at him.  She loved doing things like this.  Being at the Manor and cuddling was nice… fantastic even.  But going out, doing things… she felt so alive.  He was right; she could have so easily become a recluse, but she was glad she didn’t give in to it.  Letting go of one hand, she had to concentrate only a little before lifting their joined hands and spinning once before landing in her original position.  Her free hand took his again and she laughed lightly.  “That either could have gone very well or very badly.”  They came closer together, and she kissed him quickly before pulling back away.  “I’ll bet you mastered that figure eight thing too, didn’t you?”

“Eventually, yes,” he replied, chuckling warmly.  He was glad George had suggested it, and more than glad he’d relayed the suggestion to Grace.  She was so happy, she seemed to glow, and that, of course, was what he’d wanted all along.  “Would you like to try one with me?” He turned, facing her and took both her hands.  Together, they skated a large circle in the ice, Bruce guiding her into the turns of the eight while skating backwards and Grace echoing his movements.

It must have made quite an image, as most of the people on the ice stopped to watch, as well as their media shadows and the bodyguards.  Bruce didn’t care who watched, as his eyes were fixed only on the woman in front of him, locking him into this one moment.

She smiled as she flowed easily into the move with him.  She’d noticed their contrasting outfits and how she highlighted her light features with light colors while he did the accented his darker ones with black.  But when they moved together like this, there was no contrast.  She was fair; he was dark.  But when they did things like this, there was no doubt that they were one being… the connection so strong that they could move on instinct together.  When they finished, she smiled brightly at him.  “I think you have mastered the move,” she skated closer to him, not noticing the clapping from the people around them.  He drew her in like a moth to the flame… only this fire wasn’t lethal.  It was effervescent.  “I also think you didn’t forget anything about skating at all.”  She smiled brightly at him.  She spun so that her back was to his front and she leaned against him as they continued to skate.  “Nope, didn’t forget a thing.”  She sighed happily.

Bruce slid his arms around her waist, keeping her close to him as they now made a leisurely circle of the rink.  “So it would seem… although it could just be my skating partner,” he said softly.  “You make me feel like I could do anything in the world.”

They skated a few more laps around the rink –sometimes holding one another and sometimes breaking away to do turns and spins.  At one point, the rink owner decided to put their impromptu routine to music and they skated to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” letting it dictate the tempo and variety of their moves, although mostly it resembled something out of the musicals and black and white films both enjoyed, only recreated on ice.  Indeed, skating with Grace to his favorite piece of music of all times, Bruce felt very much like Fred Astaire.  Or at the very least, one of his compatriots.  And for once, he didn’t mind the cameras flashing from the sidelines.

When the song ended, they slowed to a stop near the edge of the ice.  “Think they’ve had enough?”  Bruce asked, laughing.  Of course, he meant their impromptu audience, some of whom were leaving as if they felt the show was over and others of whom were politely applauding.   The cold air was nipping at their faces, leaving cheeks and noses a rosy shade.  “I thought I heard Alfred say something about cocoa when we get back…” It wasn’t a subtle hint.  Alfred made the best cocoa –rich and creamy, with much finer chocolate than anything you could buy from a grocery store.  As a kid, Bruce would stand on tiptoe to peer over the top of the counter so he could watch the butler make it.  And right now, Bruce could think of no better way to celebrate a day this good than by sharing the delicious treat with Grace by a warm fire.

The last of the onlookers drifted away, and Grace placed her warm gloved hands on his cold cheeks.  She was smiling, had been all day long.  The entire afternoon had been like a beautiful dream.  After the trauma and heartache of the past couple days, they had deserved something like this.  She moved her hands from his cheeks to her cheeks and chuckled.  “Nice warm cocoa… a big roaring fire… blanket bundled around us.  Sounds absolutely fantastic.”  Her hands reached out for his again.  “Though we really should come back and do this again sometime.  An encore performance perhaps?”

“I think that could be arranged,” he told her, bringing his hands up to join hers for a moment.  He was smiling as well.  Today had been one of the best days in his memory; they could definitely do it again.  He led her over to their bench, where they sat and began to remove their skates.  “Like I said, I haven’t done this in a long time.  It’s definitely something we should do again before the season passes us by.”

He removed his skates one at a time, replacing them with his boots.  When he was finished, he stood and offered her his hand.  “Shall we adjoin to a warmer climate?” he asked, meaning home.  She took his hand, nodding in the affirmative, and they walked to the limousine.

The ride home was made in relative silence, holding one another.  Grace’s gaze moved periodically from their joined hands to his eyes.
Today had been, beyond words… indescribable… exhilarating… There was no way she could keep the happiness out of her eyes.  When they did talk, her tone of voice brightened and she exuded life and love.  She had come full circle back to herself.  She felt completely safe and happy, and it showed.

When the limo pulled into the Manor, she let Bruce help her out.  Her hand immediately sought out his as they approached the door and Alfred opened it.  It was almost instinctive to take his hand when they walked or rest her head on his shoulder.  It’s where she belonged, after all.

The door, unsurprisingly, opened as they approached, and Alfred smiled warmly at them.  “I take it you had a good afternoon,” he said to both of them.

They responded with identical nods and smiles.

As they entered the foyer, Grace removed her coat after Alfred took her skates.  It was as he was taking Bruce’s skates that he said, “Mistress
Courtney phoned and would like for someone to return her call.”

Grace laughed.  “That would be your job, Bruce,” she joked. “No way am I getting a lecture on household etiquette.”  Besides, more than likely it was Bruce she’d end up talking to anyway.  It was how things worked.  Though Courtney and Grace had been friends for about twenty years, the bond they shared wasn’t anywhere near the bond Courtney had with Bruce.  And Grace didn’t mind.  How could she?  They both had friends that they relied on especially.  Neither could fault the other in any way.  “I’m sure she’s thought up a good comeback to the ‘Knock next time’ comment you tossed at her,” she winked as she said.

Chuckling, Bruce worked his way out of his remaining snow clothes.  When he was down to his blue jeans and the Gotham University sweatshirt he’d thrown on haphazardly that morning, he took the phone from Alfred and dialed Courtney’s number.

Grace headed up the stairs preferring to remove the rest of her snow clothes in her room.  She was sure the cap had left her hair frizzed and wanted to fix it.  As she walked up the stairs, she heard Bruce’s voice say, “Courtney.”

*-*-*

Courtney picked up the phone on the second ring, resting back against
Seth as they watched the basketball game he’d TiVo’d the night before.
“You’ve had a busy day,” she said into the phone, her voice somewhat somber from the lack of general activity through the day.  “Alfred said you and Grace went ice skating?”

“Yeah, we did.  Just getting back, actually.”  He ambled into the living room just off the library and sat down in a chair.  “You should come join us next time,” he said, assuming there would be a next time.  “It was fun.”  ‘It was,’ he thought with a smile.  “So… what about you?  Have you decided calling was safer than just barging in unannounced?”  Here he grinned just a little.

She laughed lightly at that.  “Safer for you maybe.  I wasn’t the one with the red face, having to hide behind my girlfriend.”

Seth, who had no doubts as to what that comment pertained to, simply shook his head.  “Courtney Evelyn…”

She smiled at him.  “Well, he did.”  To Bruce, she said, “You give people carte blanche…” She smiled brightly.  “I make no promises about repeat incidents, though I promise to try to behave like a civilized person.”  That comment got a ‘Ha!’ from Seth who got an elbow in the ribs.

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”  Bruce laughed heartily, obviously having gotten over whatever embarrassment he had experienced over the incident.  “Anyway,” still chuckling “Alfred said you called while we were out?”  Curiosity tinged his voice.  “What’s up?”

The door opened behind him and he turned his head just in time to see Grace entering.  She’d stripped of her snow clothes and was now dressed in jeans and a yellow angora sweater.  It looked soft and touchable, and suddenly his hands itched to do just that.  Patting the seat next to him, he turned his attention back to Courtney, waiting on an answer.

Grace slipped off her shoes and cuddled into the chair with him.  That was the best thing about the big chairs in this place.  They were just the right size for two.  She sat beside him, her body pressed to his, now listening intently to his end of the conversation.

Courtney’s voice turned more serious as she looked at Seth. “Yeah, I did call earlier.”  She paused for the longest moment.  Why was it so hard to say the words?  It was like she was getting an abscessed tooth pulled without anything to numb it.  If she had taken her eyes off her husband, she probably would have changed her mind and made up an excuse about the phone call.  But she didn’t, and she couldn’t, so she inhaled deeply and said, “About the bodyguard.  I suppose I’ve changed my mind.”

“You have!?”  He sounded pleasantly amazed.  Turning his face away from the phone, he repeated the message to Grace. They shared surprised smiles.  “Nee, that’s great!” he told Courtney as he turned his attention back to her.  “You have to thank Seth for me, okay?”

“Yeah,” Courtney sighed, feeling Seth’s supportive arm come around her.  “I’ll let him know.  It’s just…” She closed her eyes for a moment.
“It’s just going to be strange, knowing someone’s watching my every move.  And if Seth hadn’t pulled the ‘do it for me’ card, I doubt I’d have changed my mind.”  She picked at some invisible lint on her jeans and this time, it was her mother’s words that entered her mind and her mother’s words that she repeated.  “It’s not just me I have to live for… And I lose sight of that sometimes.  Seth happily reminded me.”

Her husband spoke a bit loudly so Bruce could hear. “Sometimes we gotta make her do what’s best for her,” he teased.

She looked over and mock-glared at him.  “Do you see me laughing?”  At that she couldn’t help but crack a smile.

Leaning in, Seth said into the phone.  “No laughing, but definitely smiling.”

She pushed him away and said, “Be quiet and watch your ballgame.  I’m talking to my friend on the phone.”

Bruce’s smile had sobered a bit as he heard her reluctant admission of why, but he still smiled at the Meyers’ antics.  No matter what was happening, they always seemed to find something to be even a little cheerful about, a knack Bruce had never mastered.  With him, it was either all good, or all bad –highs or lows and never any middle plateaus.  Especially without Grace in his life.

“I understand… or at least I hope I do,” he told her.  “But you have to remember, I grew up with bodyguards.  They’re second nature to me.”  He hoped this explained why he didn’t really share her concerns over someone watching him, or them.  “I’m just… really glad you changed your mind.”  It didn’t matter to him why she’d done it, just that she had.

“It happens so rarely,” she didn’t mind stating the obvious.  She picked her beer up off the coffee table and took a swig before handing it to Seth so he could finish it off.  “At the end of the day, what really matters is peace of mind and everyone is pretty much in agreement that this is the best move, so I’ll listen.”  Her tone was genuine as she said, “And thanks, Bruce.  I mean, I know I’m giving you a hard time over it and all, but,” she shrugged, “if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be me.”  She started off serious but ended in a light laugh.  “Part of all the fun and all.”

She smiled even wider as she asked, “So, tell me about your day… this ice skating.  Did you fall?  If you did, did you take Grace with you?  Please tell me she didn’t wear that bright florescent pink snow outfit she has.  I love her dearly, but pink… soooooo not her color.”  She laughed.  “Ever notice, designers put her in every color BUT pink.”

Bruce shook his head.  He had noticed that, but truthfully? It didn’t matter to him what Grace wore; she was beautiful all the time.  “We were bees, today,” he told Courtney.  He smiled once again as he went over the events of the day in his mind.  “You’d think I would fall, huh?  I haven’t been skating in… You know, I don’t remember the last I was skating; it’s been that long.  But no, didn’t fall.  Though, Grace and I did put on a bit of a show.”  He told her about the reporters and other skaters who’d stopped to watch them skate, his voice lighter than Courtney had ever heard it.

She smiled widely, poking Seth lightly in the ribs to get his attention and give him a non-verbal signal that things were going well.  “It’s kinda like that, you know?” she spoke softly, happily.  “When you find the right one, they hold you up so you don’t fall.”  She furrowed her brows for a moment as something dawned on her.  Sitting up a bit straighter, she said, “Hold on a minute.  You,” she put emphasis on that word, “were out in public and *you* put on a show for the reporters?  You?  Mr. Private Person… put on a show!  As in not minding them taking pictures… not minding them asking questions… not minding that people were watching you?”  She smiled brightly.  “You got it bad.”  She all but beamed now.  “And I have to admit, I’m sooooo happy to see it happen.”

Bruce chuckled, but when he spoke, his voice held a small note of awe when he realized what she’d just said… what he’d done without knowing it.  “Really, Nee, I didn’t even notice them.  The whole world could have ended and it was just Grace and I on the ice, I swear.  Although… I’m pretty sure there’ll be pictures in the paper tomorrow or Sunday.”

“I am,” Courtney said to Bruce, “very proud of you.  And let them put photos in the paper.  You and Grace look fantastic together.”  She paused for a moment, curious about something.  She knew about the plans for Sunday, but wondered if he had any clue.  So rather stealthily, she asked, “So what do you guys have planned for this weekend?  Anything exciting or are you just going to re-initiate some of the rooms in the Manor?”

“Courtney, I swear,” Seth said with a laugh.  “The way you talk, you make it sound like you are perpetually horny.”

Of course, that remark earned him another pinch in the ribs.  “We’ve already discussed initiations.”  To Bruce, she asked again, “So?”

“Hadn’t really thought about it.”  Truthfully, aside from today, he and Grace had just been spending their days as they came.  He looked at Grace, asking her “Do we have plans for tomorrow?”

“None that I’m aware of,” she replied.

About this time, Alfred came into the room with their cocoa in two steaming cups on the silver tea tray.  A silver bowl with mini-marshmallows accompanied the cups.  He set the tray down on the coffee table.  Having heard the question, he politely interjected, “Tomorrow is cook’s day off, Master Bruce.”

“Oh… yeah.”  Bruce furrowed his brows and then said to Courtney.  “How ‘bout you and Seth come over for Chinese? My treat.”

“Seth loves Chinese,” Courtney said, remembering how good the Mandarin tasted the day Bruce made it for her.  “You are cooking, right?”

“Bruce cooks,” Seth commented with a raised brow.  “Interesting.  And me? Always up for Chinese.”

Courtney laughed.  “At least your up for something,” she quipped teasingly which earned her a growl from her husband.  “Seth grunted that we’d love to join you guys for dinner tomorrow night.”  She laughed as she said.

Grace, who noticed that Bruce had raised an eyebrow at whatever comment
Courtney was making, reached forward and grabbed a steaming mug of cocoa, blowing into it and smiling as the steam tickled her nose.  “Dangle Chinese in front of Seth’s nose and he’ll do anything,” she smiled again as she blew into the cup before tasting carefully.  Her features softened and she sighed happily.  “Delicious.”  She sat back next to him, while he finished talking to Courtney.

“Of course I’m cooking.  Is there any other way to have it?” he asked, quipping.  “Unless you want to fly to China for the real thing?”  Courtney groaned and Bruce winked at Grace.  “Why don’t you guys call Alex and AnnaBeth?  Have them show up… anytime after two and we’ll make a day of it.  Mostly spontaneous fun.”

“Oooo, spontaneity!”  Courtney waggled her brows.  Apparently, she had said it rather loudly because she could hear Grace laugh in the background.  “I’ll have Seth call Alex when we get off the phone and set everything up.  I’m not sure he and AnnaBeth have spent a moment apart since last weekend.”

“Yeah, but she curses at him constantly in Greek,” Seth said with a shrug.  “Strange relationship.”

Grace’s cocoa had cooled to where she had sipped it down enough that she could add marshmallows without worrying about her cup running over.  Grabbing a spoon, she leaned back again, situating herself and quietly content now to dunk in the minis and watch them bob up again.  As Courtney and Bruce finalized plans, she became rather happily lost in her own thoughts… how comfortable this was… just being able to sit here with him and hear the deep timbre of his voice as he talked to
Courtney.

She honestly didn’t need to be a part of the conversation; she was happily content sitting here with him.  She’d look up when he chuckled and smiled before going back to her marshmallows, eating one when it looked adequately soaked and just before it completely melted.

Courtney continued, “But if we can drag them out of his penthouse, we’ll bring them along for sure.  Like I said, Seth will call and let them know.  Just remember, Alex eats more than Grace and I do combine.”

“I’ll make a list so we can stock up on provisions,” Bruce joked, but he knew Alex had a hollow leg… or two.  He’d seen the man eat enough times to know not to take him to an all-you-can-eat buffet ever again.  “Tomorrow, then?” he reconfirmed before saying good-bye to his friend.  Hanging up, he set the phone down and reached for his own, now much cooler cocoa.  Leaning back into the chair with it, he forced both himself and Grace to wiggle a little in order to get comfortable. Soon, though, they were curled together in the chair.

“So the gang is coming over tomorrow?” she asked softly, still playing with her marshmallows.  Her head rested near his as she started sipping at her cocoa again.  “Anything in particular I can help you with tomorrow?  Cutting vegetables?  Distracting you with tempting thoughts?”  She moved forward and set her cup down on the tray before curling completely into him.

“Distracting me with…” he echoed, pausing to sip more of his cocoa.  Setting his aside as well, he turned his head to hers.  “Distraction sounds like fun.  We could slip off… disappear for a while… I know plenty of places we could ‘get lost’ in for a while.”  He was kidding, only slightly though.  Tilting his head, he brought his lips to hers.  Her kiss tasted of the rich chocolate, sweetness, and Grace.  There was nothing else to describe it.  Just… Grace.

Pulling away from the kiss, he planted another on the top of her head.  “Whatever you want to help with,” he told her.  “Or just hang out and have fun with our friends.”

Her hand moved up his chest and touched his cheek, turning his face to hers.  “I want to be where you are,” she said with a smile.  “And since my mother is an excellent cook, she made sure Hopeful and I knew all the tricks of the trade.  I can slice and dice with the best of them, baby.”  She gave him a wink.  “So, how about we slice and dice… mingle… get things really hot in the kitchen,” she smiled as her face drew closer to his, “and then maybe get lost a few places between here and there while we’re at it.”  Her lips were ghosting against his as she said, “And since we know the hurricane is contained, maybe we can practice right now.”  She really didn’t wait for a response; she didn’t have to as her lips met his and everything was answered for her.

*-*-*

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Bruce was already in the kitchen when Grace got out of the shower after her workout.  Despite having been out on patrol for a good portion of the night, he was up early making sure they had all the provisions and groceries they needed for the day.  He and Alfred were going over the inventory as she walked into the kitchen.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said when he saw her.  “I was just going to come looking for you.”  He stood when she walked over to him and kissed her gently.  Of course, had he come looking for her, they might not have left the bedroom.

“All set?”

“Almost.  We need some music…” He nodded to the CD player on the counter.  “…and we’re all set.”

*-*-*

Courtney and Seth were leaning up against the counter flipping through CD’s.  It was a wide assortment, and the couple was discussing vigorously over which CD should be placed first into the player.  It was a rather heated discussion, colored by much teasing and playing. It was almost as if the ‘discussions’ were a form of foreplay for the two of them.

Bruce and Grace were standing at the island cutting vegetables for dinner.  Dropping her knife, she gave Bruce a peck on the cheek and headed toward the player.  It was as if she was drawn to the CD by sheer gravity.  Picking up Tim McGraw’s Greatest Hits CD, she popped it in the player, pushed the ‘shuffle’ button and smiled brightly at the open-mouthed pair as Tim’s voice filled the kitchen.  “Now, something to listen to while you guys ‘discuss’ whether Bon Jovi or The
Temptations rule the world.”

Courtney was the first to laugh.  “She’s hopeless… hopeless and predictable…”

“And you aren’t?” Seth teased.  “Who went right for the Oldies?”

“Who’s holding Bon Jovi?”

“Not me,” he said, holding up the Guns ‘N Roses CD.

“Oh you just put Bon Jovi down then,” she accused.  “That’s sooo cheating.”

“Courtney, how can it be cheating?  I didn’t know there were rules for looking through CD’s.”

“There are rules for everything,” she joked with him.  “Of all people,
Terminator Meyers should know that!”

“And Hurricane Courtney knows about rules…” Seth quipped back.
“Mrs. I-Don’t-Know-How-To-Knock.”

That caused Grace to finally bust out laughing.

“They aren’t so much rules for looking for CDs as they are rules for looking with Nee,” Bruce commented jovially, winking before turning back to the vegetables he was cutting. “Are Alex and AnnaBeth coming, or is it just us?”

“They’ll be here,” Seth supplied, putting the Guns ‘N Roses CD in the player and then adding the one Courtney was holding into it as well.  “Just not sure when.  Alex said something about moving not being something he particularly wanted to do,” he chuckled.

“Excuse me,” Courtney interrupted, having her own comment to make on the earlier conversation.  “I’ll have you know it’s not rules… it’s etiquette.”

Grace’s brows furrowed.  “Huh?”

“Etiquette… you know… selecting CD’s for large groups of people, you should be aware that everyone has different tastes…”

“And go right for your favorite,” Seth smiled, “which each of us did.”
Courtney had walked over to the counter as she spoke, and Seth moved up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on the top of her head.

“You guys just like picking on me,” she feigned offense.

It was then that Alfred entered.  “Please excuse me, but Master Alex and Miss AnnaBeth have arrived.”  He stepped aside and allowed the other couple to enter.

AnnaBeth, getting a look at Grace cutting vegetables, quickly walked over to her, shaking her head.  Her accented voice filled the room, “I should have known.  You put the music on, did you not?”

This time it was Seth who laughed.  “See what I mean?”  He shook his head before quickly explaining to the late arriving couple what had just transpired.

“If I might suggest,” Alfred interjected from the doorway, where he was just about to excuse himself.  Everyone turned to look, and Bruce gave him a nod to go ahead.  “Why not have everyone select a disk and play them all?”  He then excused himself to tend to other matters.

“Alright then!”  Alex proclaimed, rubbing his hands as he and AnnaBeth came further into the kitchen.  “Where’s the Def Leppard?”

“Probably with Seth’s Bon Jovi.  They didn’t make Nee’s criteria, I think,” Bruce joked, setting his knife down and reaching for a paper towel.  Walking over to the counter, he flipped through a small stack of CDs that had been set aside prior to anyone’s arrival and pulled one out.  “Here you go, Nee, an oldie but a goodie,” he commented, handing her ‘Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits’ before going back to the dinner preparations.

AnnaBeth followed Courtney over and finding the Norah Jones’ she loved so much, she asked the other woman to add it to the mix.  Once all the disks were loaded, Courtney pushed ‘shuffle’ and the CD player began playing the music at random.

Seth smiled as Courtney rejoined him.  “It is really the only fair way to go about it.  Given the diversity of this group, there’s no way to find one type of music to satisfy us all.”

AnnaBeth shook her head.  “He is very… nai… No, I mean, ambiguous, is he not?”

“He’s something…” Grace quipped, finishing one set of vegetables and moving the knife expertly over the next grouping.  “The man is an advertiser, Bethie, b.s-ing is his business.  You’re boyfriend is just as bad as Seth.”

AnnaBeth looked at Alex, her dark eyes seeming to glare at him and she let forth what could only be construed as a string of Greek curses toward the other man.

Grace’s knife stopped.  Courtney and Seth merely stared.  Alex whistled unknowingly as he was still standing by the CD player looking through the selection.

Bruce’s reaction was to make brief eye contact with AnnaBeth, look from her to Alex, and cough as he turned back to the chicken he’d begun to chop.  The cough however, hid a muttered response to what she’d said.  In Greek.

He didn’t think anyone heard him, however, as Alex suddenly shouted, “Eureka!” and held up a Whitesnake CD.

Grace rolled her eyes.  “Lord save us from big hair and the 80’s.”

As Seth and Alex both vehemently set out to give their opinions and
Courtney agreed with Grace in spades, AnnaBeth looked at Bruce.  She knew he felt her eyes on him and when he looked up at her, she smiled.
He was dead on right about what he said too.

“Just what is wrong with Whitesnake?” Seth asked.  “I’ll bet you don’t like Bon Jovi either.”

“Actually,” Grace gestured with her knife.  “I used to think Jon Bon
Jovi had the cutest butt.  Had pictures of him all over my wall when I was a teenager.”

“And I thought our generation was more the beginning of the boy bands,”
Courtney voiced.  “Like New Kids On The Block.”  She laughed.
“Remember Dad took us to that concert… and that other girl that went with us passed out because she got so excited.”

“NKOTB,” Seth and Grace said simultaneously.

“The beginning of the decline of ‘good’ music,” Seth laughed.

“New what?”  Bruce muttered, deciding to stay out of this conversation.  “Never mind… I probably don’t want to know.”  He shot AnnaBeth a conspiratory smile and explained, “It’s easier to let the rest of them go at it.  They’re so much more passionate about things than I am.”

“Now who’s b.s.ing?”  Alex quipped, having been flipping between both conversations as he reached for a handful of chips.  “Gracie, you gotta watch this one.  He’s over here putting the moves on my girl!”

“Your girl… Alex…” She shrugged popping a carrot in her mouth.
She looked at Bruce and smiled brightly, giving him a wink before turning back to Alex.  “He dated you, didn’t he?”  Her eyes went immediately back to Bruce.

Courtney tried to hold back her laugh… Seth was open-mouthed.  Alex merely shrugged and chewed thoughtfully on one of his potato chips.  “Sure did.  One night stand… though I did get a lovely bouquet of Blow Pops.”  He smiled widely and patted his stomach.

“Well, I couldn’t get you the flowers, Alex,” Bruce quipped, obviously not letting anything spoil his good mood.  He finished chopping the chicken breasts and set them in bowl with some sort of marinade, then reached for a paper towel to wipe his hands.  “You wouldn’t wear a dress.”

“Didn’t know you wanted me too, man,” Alex shot back, grinning.  “’Sides, the invitations said black tie.”

Seth laughed at that.  “Wouldn’t be the first time Alex wore a dress to impress a man,” he joined in the teasing.

Grace by now had finished chopping the vegetables.  The picture of Alex in a dress was almost too much for her.  “Seth, that is the stuff nightmares are made out of.  Please tell me he didn’t wear a wig and makeup.”

“Hold on there,” Alex pointed out.  “Seth wore one too.”

Courtney, who had still be nestled in Seth’s arms, turned to face her husband.  “I’m married to a cross-dresser,” she mock-grieved.

“I bet,” AnnaBeth interjected, though she was so good at playing serious it was hard to tell when she was teasing.  “I bet Seth would look good in say… Bill Blass… Spring line 1999.  When pink was the new ‘black’.”

Grace had been about to take a drink when AnnaBeth spoke and nearly choked before getting the beverage down.  “Oh God pink…” Her face was almost red with laughter.  “That was the year that I was the only model not to wear the ‘signature color’ for the Spring Line.”  She did her best impression of the designer.  “You make my clothes look *dis*Grace*ful*.  Here… you wear the black.”

“See?” Courtney looked at Bruce and waggled her brows.  “I told you about pink.”

“Well, I never said I liked the color.  Though I agree with Bethie, Seth would look good in it.”  She moved to lean back against the counter.  The smile on her face was huge.  She was surrounded by her friends… Bruce once again in her life… They were laughing, teasing, and carrying on… Everything was just like it was supposed to be.

Courtney reached for a potato chip.  “So Bruce, does that have to cure for days before you can cook it?  I’m starving.”

Bruce laughed.  “Honestly, Nee!  And here you were warning me about Alex’s appetite and it’s yours I needed to worry about!”

“Warned you about what?”  Alex asked, shocked, as he reached for another chip. “What’d I do?”

“Nothing,” Bruce assured him as he refilled the chip bowl and this time set out a homemade spinach dip.  He leveled a mock-glare on Courtney.  “No, my dear Ms. Impatient,” he teased.  “It’s not going to take days to cure.  More like a half hour.”  He seemed to consider, going over a mental checklist of what he needed to do yet before –and while– he cooked.  “I have a few minor things to take care of yet.”  The rice and noodles, for one thing.  Bruce hadn’t cooked for this many people before.

Reaching for a piece of celery, AnnaBeth took a long leisurely walk around the kitchen while Bruce was explaining about the meal.  She’d been in palatial estates before, but none of them had ever equaled this one.  She briefly wondered how Grace could feel comfortable in a place like this, but the question was never asked, as the answer was standing right beside her.

Grace instinctively placed a hand on Bruce’s back, like just having the touch was so important to her.  “Well, all the vegetables are chopped.
And given that he’s cooking for a small army, I think that was what took up the most time.”

Courtney’s eyes narrowed as she stuck out her tongue at Bruce.  “I’ve never made a pretense that I don’t like to eat.”  Her facial features softened and a smile spread across her face.  “We all can’t be dainty little eaters, you know.”  She laughed lightly.  Just about everyone in the room knew how Alfred got on Bruce for not eating like he should.
And Courtney being who she was, she couldn’t resist teasing him.

“Though Bruce is right,” Seth said to Courtney, “I think there are days when you could give Alex a run for his money in an eating contest, especially if it’s pizza.”

She sighed audibly.  “Oh yeah.  I love pizza.”  She grabbed another chip, added a little dip to it, and chewed thoughtfully.

“A dainty eater, huh?” Seth looked at Bruce as he asked.

“I eat!”  Bruce protested, glaring at Courtney.

“Bruce, please,” Courtney came back at him.  “There’s a very good reason Alfred announces every meal, too.”  To the others, she explained, “Once, he got so wrapped up in one of his top secret science geek projects that he forgot” forgot was in ‘finger quotes’ as she spoke the word “to eat for nearly three days.  Alfred’s kept tabs on his meals ever since.  And besides…” She said accusingly to Bruce.  “When you do eat, you pick at your food.”

Bruce opened his mouth to deny it when Alex patted him on the shoulder.  “You do, man.  You pick.”  At Bruce’s exasperated look, he grinned.  “But that’s just more for the rest of us, right?”

Grace looked around the room.  Everyone was smiling and having fun, but she couldn’t help but be the one to defend her lover.  “Ok, now I admit, even I like to fuss over him about his eating.  However,” and she put a great emphasis on the word ‘however’, “I feel I must speak up about one very important fact.  He’s not malnourished.”  She glanced over at him and gave him a wink.  “Seeing as to how I have an insight the rest of you don’t.  He may pick at his food… but the body…”
She fanned herself.  “Well, lemme just say this… It’s sheer perfection.”

At this, Bruce’s face turned several shades brighter than Courtney’s hair and his expression was thoroughly flummoxed.  He shook his head, and finally made eye contact with a grinning Courtney.  “Okay, you win,” he joked.  “I’ll cook the food now!”

At that, the entire room erupted with laughter.  Alex actually had to wipe away tears; he was laughing so hard.

When the laughter settled down and Courtney was content to see that
Bruce was indeed cooking, everyone set out to munching and mingling.
Grace, playing the hostess, served up drinks for everyone, stopping lastly at Bruce and setting his glass on the counter by the stove so it was available should he want it.  She rested her cheek momentarily on his back, just at the shoulder.

“Ok, you two,” Courtney interrupted.

Seth chuckled.  “Yeah, Gracie, get in the way of his cooking and
Courtney may blow a gasket.”

She lingered for another moment or two before placing a kiss on his shoulder and then moving away.  Leaning on the now cleared island, she smiled brightly up at Seth.  “She just wouldn’t be Courtney Meyers if she didn’t blow a gasket at least once, if not twice, a day.”

Alex smirked.  “She’s right there.”

“I do not blow gaskets,” the topic of conversation retorted, “I speak my opinion.  Just because there is no filter between my brain and my mouth does not necessarily mean I blow a gasket.  If I think it, I say it.”  She moved to stand by AnnaBeth.  “I mean really, you guys act like I’m pushy and over reactive or something.”

“Um…” AnnaBeth spoke softly, at first.  “Excuse me, not that you are pushy, but isn’t your nickname Hurricane Courtney?”

Grace’s head fell to the counter as she laughed.  “That’s one of them.”

Courtney shook her head.  “I have several.”  Pointing at Seth, she said, “He calls me a steamroller.”  Pointing to Grace, she said, “I’m sure she has more nicknames for me than even I know about.”

AnnaBeth smiled.  “And your friend Bruce thought you were a lunatic when you first met.  Ah, yes!  I remember that from the conversation at the restaurant.  I say, ‘Good for you’.  Nothing wrong with a woman who speaks her mind.”

Grace sighed and laughed.  “I think I’m going to add Incorrigible Courtney to my list of nicknames.”

Courtney, in reply, flipped Grace off before laughing as well.

Bruce grinned, and reached into one of the cupboards, pulling out a second wok, which he threw a portion of the meat and vegetables into.  None of his pots looked liked they’d be used in any restaurant in the city.  In fact, they were the originals he’d learned on during his trip to China and had been properly seasoned with age and use.

“You know,” he said as he reached for his glass.  He took a sip and then set the glass back on the counter.  “I’m gonna be a little while with all this food.  If you wanted, Nee… I could get Alfred in here and you and he could give AnnaBeth the official ‘fun land’ tour.”

“Fun land tour?” Alex butted in, stopping Courtney’s coming reply.  “You mean, like… an official tour of this place?” he asked, enthusiastic.  He’d been waiting two full years to get to see past the main foyer, the backyard and… basically everything not roped off for charity events.

Bruce shrugged.  “It’ll keep Nee from mutinying when the smell of the food starts getting to her, anyway.  How ‘bout it, Nee?”

She smiled and picked up her glass.  “Why not?”

Seth stood and wrapped an arm around her waist.  “Sounds like fun.
I’ve always wanted to get a real gander at this place.”

Nee’s look grew a bit devious.  “The ‘fun land’ tour with a few perks… like the den… Grace’s purple mahogany bedroom… the den…” She grinned.  “It’s not going to be in use, is it?”

“Courtney, you are evil personified,” Grace said.  “The den’s already been done.”

Alex slipped his arm around AnnaBeth who said, “Indeed, I would like to see this estate.  I was just thinking earlier that I have been in many palatial homes but none have been quite like this.”

“It’s unanimous, then,” Seth said.  “Let’s get Alfred and the tour can begin.”

“You coming, Gracie Lou?” Courtney asked, though she knew the answer already.

Shaking her head, she moved back to lean against the counter next to the stove.  “Nah!  I live here, after all.  And I *really* wouldn’t want to embarrass myself in front of everyone by getting lost.”  She laughed lightly.  “Besides, Bruce has two woks going here.  Someone should help him stir.”

Alex waggled his brows.  “Yeah… is that what you call it nowadays?
Stirring?”

“I don’t believe I know what you’re inferring there, Alex,” Bruce stated, laughing as he crossed the kitchen to reach for the phone mounted on the wall.  He grinned and winked at AnnaBeth, before picking up the receiver and pressing a button.  “Hello, Alfred,” he said when he got the butler on the line.  “Our guests would like the tour while they await their meal.  Think you could come down and give Nee a hand.  Keep her from showing them my bedroom, please?”

“Would I do that?”  Courtney responded as Bruce hung up the phone.

“I’m beginning to wonder,” Bruce shot back, laughing when she rolled her eyes.

Alex turned to AnnaBeth and Seth, shaking his head, he said, “You know, I don’t believe I’ve seen him in this good a mood in… well, as long as I’ve known the man.  Are we sure old Alfred isn’t drugging his food?”

“It’s a drug alright,” Courtney said.

“But I doubt it’s anything Alfred’s doing,” Seth added.

Grace swirled the wine in her glass and looked up at Seth. “If Alfred is… I’m getting it too.”

“Now that, I won’t argue about,” Courtney said as Alfred entered the kitchen.  She approached the butler, whom she completely adored and shook her head at him.  “I can’t believe he thinks I’d show them his bedroom.  I mean, it’s not like I’m going to take everyone in there and rifle through his underwear drawer.  Sheesh.”  She laughed, as Alfred led the group out, she turned back to Bruce. “Though if it makes you turn that pretty shade of red, I may *really* consider it.”

“I love you, too, Nee,” Bruce told her sarcastically, waving as Alfred motioned for the others to follow him.  He was still shaking his head when the door closed behind.

Once alone, he walked back over to the stove to check his woks, stirring and flipping each before lowering the heat on them.  When he was certain they were at the right temperature, he walked over to where Grace was now leaning, watching him, against the counter.  “Now… about all this stirring…” he began, a wicked smile spreading across his face.

Reaching out, she slipped her finger through one of the loopholes for his belt and pulled him toward her.  “There is some stirring going on… In here,” she said, using her other hand she motioned toward her chest.  “Courtney picking on me because I wanted a bit of physical contact.” She smiled.  “If she only knew that I was actually restraining myself…” She continued to pull him more closely to her.
“‘Cause I have to say, there is something entirely too sexy about watching you stand at that stove and cook.”

Her eyes didn’t break from his and when he was standing completely in her space, she lightly caressed his cheek.  “I thought I was being good.  Heck of a lot better than I wanted to be.”  Her voiced dropped slightly as she said the last.

“Who said you have to be good?”  Bruce said, his voice following hers lower than it had previously been.  He slid his fingers into her soft curls, caressing her cheeks with his thumbs as their faces drew closer with the inevitability of a kiss.  “Grace…” he breathed, enraptured by what he was seeing in her eyes.  He tasted her lips tentatively at first, his mind half on the food he was supposed to be cooking, but soon found that his mind wanted nothing to do with the responsibility.  All it wanted –all the ‘food’ he hungered for– was in his arms.

“Sexy, huh?’ he commented when the kissed ended.  “Maybe I should cook more often?”

“Or,” she tried, her voice husky with emotion, “or we could just come down here and you could stand at the stove holding a spatula.”  Her fingers moved to grab his waist, pulling his hips more flush against hers.  When they kissed this time, it was deeper, more intimate, and more passionate.  It was like they were able to go from a complete stop to full speed in less than a second.  As always though, it wasn’t the fulfillment of a physical need.  He was right; she shouldn’t have to be ‘good’ when the others were around.  If she wanted to touch, to feel, to kiss him, then she should be able to do so.

When they finally broke for air, she pressed her forehead to his and tried to catch her breath.  “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea to me.”

“S… sounds like a plan,” he agreed, breathless from the kisses.  He didn’t release her right away, and they stood there, foreheads pressed together until breathing became normal.  “I love you,” he whispered softly, his hands still in her hair, one of them stroking in a way that could only mean it would be mussed and out of place when he was done.

“I love you,” she responded, her voice level matching his.  Her heart was still beating wildly.  There was little doubt that her lips were swollen from the kisses.  The kisses themselves had created other aching needs within her, much as they had with him.  But as it always was with them, her heart swelled with emotion.  It was so much more than physical, and indescribable in many more ways.  He could just stand here forever, his forehead touching hers; and she would feel as ‘fulfilled’ as if he would spin her around, put her on the island, and have his way with her.  Though the last caused her to smile.  “You’re everything to me,” she said, her voice still soft, meaning it and feeling it throughout her entire being.

“Hold that thought,” he told her, and releasing her, he took her hands as he turned back to the stove.  Her hands he guided to his waist as he stirred the food, then picked up one wok, tossed the contents with a skilled hand and then repeated the process with the other wok.  When he was done, he checked the noodles.  Their bodies moved together as he flitted from one pot on the stove to the next.

“Where were we?” he asked when he was finished with this round of in between tasks.  He turned to face her, backing her up against the island as his arms sought to hold her.  He seemed to consider his own answer.  “Oh, yeah…” his voice darkened as he leaned into her, face close to hers.  “You’re the world to me… my whole world.”

She was reeling a bit from the situation that had just transpired.  The way they easily moved together; how easy it was for her to anticipate where he was going and how quickly he was going to get there.  Feeling the edge of the island press against her back, she let the hand that was on his waist pull him even more closely to her.  The other hand buried in his hair, bringing him in for a kiss.

It happened like this all the time for her… for them.  She’d told him he was everything to her, and he’d responded that she was his world.
And as they were standing there, pressed against the island kissing, the world did indeed shrink down to the two of them and this moment.
Even as the kiss drew to an end and they were both standing there breathless, lips still touching, the world was still just them… no one else but them.

All Bruce knew was Grace: his arms around her, her hand in his hair, the way their lips teased and played until neither of them could breathe.  He didn’t hear the door behind them open until Alex’s voice boomed out a cheery mid-sentence. “–fun!  Now, let’s just see what’s cookin’ in the kitch–“ the words broke off, and the following “–en” was accompanied by a soft, heavily accented gasp of surprise.  That was AnnaBeth, although Bruce didn’t quite realize it until he and Grace had sprung apart a little and had moved away from the island.

“God!  You two are worse than horny teenagers!” Courtney exclaimed over Seth’s laughing protests that they should just go into the dining room and let Bruce ‘handle the cooking.’

Grace ran an unapologetic hand through her hair.  A small smile spread across her face as her eyes fell on Bruce.  She watched him for a moment while everyone took up a place in the large kitchen.  It was on the tip of her tongue to give a retort to Courtney, but instead she chose diversion.  Just as Bruce turned to pay attention to the food, she glanced at the group.  She knew her hair was mussed, lips swollen, and face flushed.  But it was like he said; there was nothing they needed to keep hidden.  They weren’t horny (ok so she was a bit horny now) and they definitely weren’t teenagers.  But he was necessary to her, and she wasn’t going to deny herself anything where he was concerned.

Looking to AnnaBeth, she asked, “So, what did you think of the estate?”

“Wicked awesome!!” Alex interjected.

AnnaBeth patted his leg affectionately before getting up and moving toward her purse.  “It is indeed a most exquisite piece of property.”
Pulling a pick out of her bag, she moved to Grace, taking her a bit away from the stove and expertly arranged her friend’s hair as she continued, “There are pieces here… on display… that I studied about in my school.  Alfred assures me they are authentic.  Rooms that only see people or daylight when the staff cleans them.  Again, Alfred explained that many were opened just for tours.”  When Grace’s hair was done to her satisfaction, she put her pick back in her purse.  “It is almost overwhelmingly beautiful… a treasure of its own in many respects.”

Grace smiled at the way AnnaBeth’s actions felt so completely normal.
Mussed was simply not a statement AnnaBeth made often, so fixing Grace was second nature to them both.  But she was also struck by AnnaBeth’s words.  She was never really overwhelmed with much of anything by way of the Manor, except for the man who owned it.  But ‘seeing’ it through her friend’s eyes… through the eyes of a woman who more than appreciated the ‘finery’ of life, Grace was moved.

Bruce was nodding as AnnaBeth talked about the antiques.  While he busied himself setting everything in serving dishes, he added to the conversation.  “Most of them were purchased in my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ times.  My family has always had an appreciation for beautiful things.  Me?”  He paused long enough to turn his head to Grace, giving her a softer, slightly intimate smile.  “My greatest contribution to the collection is Grace.”  In his heart, she was… truly the most exquisite work of art in the entire world.

Courtney opened her mouth to shoot off a comment only to find Seth’s arm on hers.  A gentle reminder that sometimes, though she didn’t have a filter, she didn’t need to always say what she was thinking.

Grace had been watching AnnaBeth when Bruce first started speaking.  At his question of himself, she turned her gaze to him.  The last sentence was said with her eyes on him. And they were far more than words.  She’d had people tell her throughout her entire life that she was beautiful.  Her entire modeling career had been based on an agent being ‘swept away’ by it.  But she never put much stock into such compliments.  They were outward appraisals and didn’t mean much to her.

But when Bruce said it… when he compared her to the finer, beautiful, and priceless treasures that were within his home… it was more than a compliment to her physical appearance and she knew it.  And this was one of the reasons she loved him like she did.  He completed her; there was no doubt about that.  He loved her.  The one person who could see into her soul… and love her beyond reason.  Reaching out, she stopped him from dispensing food and wrapped her arms around him in a short but extremely tender and intimate embrace.

Seth watched the exchange and was immediately struck by the impact of it.  How Grace instinctively heard his words and reacted as if they touched the very core of her.  His eyes drifted over to his wife.  Softly, he brushed a hand through her hair and she shrugged in her way of apology for almost opening her mouth and possibly demeaning the moment.

AnnaBeth looked at Alex and smiled.  “In my country, we call that,” here she spouted off a couple words in Greek.

“What does that mean?” Alex asked, not understanding the words but knowing they were special.

“Soul mates…” Bruce answered instead of AnnaBeth, though his eyes never left Grace’s and his arms tightened around her as if letting her go at this moment was akin to tragedy.  He didn’t even seem to notice that he’d let it slip that he knew what she’d been saying earlier.  Nor did he catch the astonished look on Alex’s face when he *did* notice it.

“What a minute!  You speak Greek!?” Alex demanded to know.

Bruce shrugged.  “I spent the summer between my junior and senior year of boarding school in Greece for an archaeological dig.  I guess I picked it up.”

“Right,” Alex persisted.  “But that means you know what she’s been saying all this time?”

It finally dawned on Bruce what Alex was getting at.  “Well, yeah, but it’s really not my place to go repeating a lady’s secrets out of turn.”

Grace had her face to the group, but her eyes were closed as she not only heard Bruce’s words but felt them reverberating through his chest.  The simplest of things, but it touched her soul.  AnnaBeth was right… soul mates.

Alex let out an audible sigh.  He’d been dying to know what Bethie was saying about him.  It sounded so… so… offensive and yet her actions dictated the complete opposite.  He’d even spent hours on the Internet searching for websites that could give him a hint.  It was like the biggest secret of the world… and the key to unlock it was bound by chivalry.

Seth listened to the exchange and chuckled at Alex before something
Bruce said struck him.  “Hold on… archaeological dig?  Between junior and senior year in high school?”

“Boarding school,” Courtney corrected.  “Hello, I said earlier that he was a science geek.  Seventeen years old and voluntarily spending his summer digging in the dirt for ancient pottery or dinosaur bones.  Only a science geek would do that.”

“Or someone who has a deep appreciation for education,” AnnaBeth added.  “Though I must admit, that for a young man of that age to take such an interest that he would give up a summer…” Looking at Alex, she asked, “What is it you call it?  Skirt-chasing?”  At Alex’s laugh, she continued, “It is highly interesting.”

Grace lifted her head and looked up at Bruce.  Smiling, she said, “He has a love of knowledge.”

Courtney nodded in agreement.  “He really does.  I mean, I tease about the geek stuff… but,” and it was mostly thoughts about her illness that guided her next statement, “you always know that when he speaks about something, he’s researched enough sources to know all the angles and all the opinions and can therefore make his own.”  She did tease him about it, probably far more than she should.  But she just couldn’t help herself.  “We love that about you though, Bruce,” she said with a smile and a glint in her eyes.  Though it was really no tease, she meant it.

‘I love you, too, Nee,’ Bruce’s expression said as he stared at her, thoughtfully.  Her words had choked him up to the point where words would be impossible.  The research he knew without a doubt that she spoke of had been done for her, to help find doctors when she was ill.  He’d poured every ounce of energy he could into it, because at the time, it had been all he could do; and although he knew it had been Seth who’d helped her find the right treatment, he knew his research had helped narrow the list of what was and wasn’t the problem down.  Although, at the time, Bruce had wanted nothing more than to simply make his friend better by demanding that the cancer simply leave her body of it’s own volition.

“I’d love him even more if those serving dishes means the food is ready,” Alex quipped, trying to lighten a mood he felt was on the verge of getting deeper than it had been all day.

*-*-*

The food had been taken into the ‘staff’ dining room.  It was more intimate here than in the formal dining area.  And although it was designated for the staff, it was still a beautiful room in its own right.  Windows provided a view of the ‘back yard’, which was dusted with white from the light snow of the day.  A fire was lit in the fireplace and faint white light gave the room a soft glow.  The table they were sitting at was circular, allowing each person to sit next to his or her significant other and still look around and talk to everyone in the group.

All agreed that the Mandarin chicken stir-fry was indeed some of the best Chinese they’d ever tasted.  Seth even went so far as to compliment that he’d come here for his ‘take out’ from now on.

They were all using chopsticks, though Bruce had also offered them the use of forks should they want them.

True to his form, Alex was on his second helping while the others were still finishing their first.

Grace set down her chopsticks and looked around at the group, her eyes landing on Bruce’s.  Courtney was sitting on the other side of him, happily enjoying the dish.  Her gaze turned back to Bruce, and it was as if he knew he was the center of her attention.  When he looked at her, she smiled.  “Your dinner is a big hit.  Not much conversation means everyone is enjoying their food.”

“Either that, or we starved them long enough that anything tastes good,” he quipped back, but his voice and eyes bespoke a certain amount of pride that he’d pulled off a successful meal.  “Bite?” he inquired, dipping his chopsticks to his plate and bringing a piece of chicken up to Grace’s mouth.  She took a bite, then returned the action, feeding him from her plate as well.  Their eyes met, and for several minutes, they sat feeding each other –nourishing each other devotedly– as if they were completely alone.

Which, in a sense, they were.  When their eyes locked gazes, Bruce lost track over everything in the room –the whole world– but Grace. The background melted away and the only two people in the world were them.  It happened a lot, actually, but Bruce didn’t care if anyone noticed or thought it odd.  He loved her, more and more with each passing second he was with her.  And he needed her, like people need air.  He hadn’t lived until the day they first met; he’d only been surviving life while waiting to meet her.  From that moment, that first touch –he smiled absently, dreamily, as he remembered that electrifying hug she’d given him and the kisses that had followed– he’d been as a newly awakened soul, experiencing the world for the very first time.

The smile that spread across her face was actually only for him.  Or more, it was because of him.  One of her favorite songs contained the lyrics, ‘I was born the day you kissed me, and I died inside the night you left me.’  She hadn’t truly realized until that afternoon when she woke up and he was sitting, worrying by the bed… but that’s what had happened for her.  That first date, she’d been born.  Moving out had killed her.  This was the resurrection.  He was her life.  She looked into his eyes and saw herself in them.  Between them, there was no beginning, middle or end.  They were a concentric circle.  Today had been proof of that.

“See what I mean?” Courtney pointed out, using her chopsticks to gesture to the couple.

AnnaBeth shook her head.  “Actually, I see what I mean,” AnnaBeth corrected.  “Two souls find one another.  Two souls out of how many billions.  If you think about the events that led up to their meeting… it’s more kismet than chance that arranged it.”  She smiled as she took a bite of her food.  “We all love,” here she set her chopsticks down and took Alex’s hand.  “We all show it differently.  Some couples happily bicker.”  That caused Courtney to chuckle, as she knew AnnaBeth was referring to her and Seth. “Some ‘curse’ at their mate in a foreign language.  And then there are those,” she nodded toward Bruce and Grace, “who exist solely for each other.”

Three of the four people looked over at the hosts who still genuinely seemed oblivious to the others around them.  Eyes locked solely on the other person; identical smiles on their faces.

“Okay, I get it,” Courtney admitted, “but you have to admit… they do have a lot in common with rabbits as well.”

Seth was about to open his mouth and give his opinion when a loud voice interrupted him.  “Holy SHIT!” Alex exclaimed.  Looking at AnnaBeth, he said, “Did you just say you loved me?!”

AnnaBeth truly did curse in Greek this time, as she hadn’t realized that that’s exactly what she had admitted to.  With a shake of her head, she repeated an earlier phrase in Greek and explained, “That means I have great affection for you, yes.  But shall we discuss it later?”

“Oh we’re going to do a lot more than ‘discuss’,” Alex promised.

Everyone looked at Courtney and it took her a moment to figure out why.  Alex hadn’t just propositioned her… And then it dawned on her.  “He’s a horny teenager!” she said with a laugh.

Laughter invaded the bubble in which Bruce and Grace now existed, reminding them both of their guests.  Bruce blinked, realizing they’d missed something big, and hoping it wasn’t some joke at their expense.  A quick glance, however, told him Alex must have been the focus, as the other man was red-faced as he laughed, his fingers entwined with AnnaBeth’s.  Bruce had to admit, he was starting to like AnnaBeth a lot.   And Alex?  He hadn’t seen the group’s official ‘clown’ more serious about anyone in the whole two years he’d known him.  Not that anyone who didn’t know Alex would be able to tell that he was being serious.

Looking around the table at his friends, Bruce was certain no one was going to begrudge either of them their little zone-out.  Or was that a zone-in?  Bruce wasn’t sure, but from where he was sitting, it was more like tuning in to the center of his universe.  They were laughing and happy, with mostly clean plates and empty wine glasses.

It was the wine glasses, however, that reminded Bruce that he had host duties to perform, even in a smaller, personal group like this.  Reaching for the empty bottle in the center of the table, he cleared his throat a little as he asked, “Would anyone like more wine?  Food?  Anything?”

“There’s more food?” Alex questioned, earning him a swat from AnnaBeth.

“You’ve had three plates already and are 30 years old.”

“So?”

She shook her head as if it should have been obvious.  “I would like some wine, please Bruce.”

As the hostess of this gathering, Grace stood as well, “If anyone’s done, I’ll take your plates.  Bring out dessert.”  She smiled.  There was something about doing this… She and Bruce working as host and hostess to the small, intimate gathering.  She’d always loved doing things like this.  As she took up the empty plates, she couldn’t help but feel blessed.  This is where she belonged, performing ‘domestic’ tasks with the person she was connected to.

“What’s for dessert?” Alex questioned, unwillingly giving up his plate with the promise of something sweet and delightful to top off the dining experience.

“It’s a surprise,” she said, patting his shoulder.  “Trust me, you’ll love it.”

Grace had made the dessert herself yesterday, after they’d started talking about the prospect of having a completely homemade meal.  Bruce smiled as he left the table with the empty wine bottle. He wasn’t the most ‘domestic’ of people by any accounts, but with Grace, it was almost as natural to him as breathing.  He loved doing simple, normal things with her just as much, if not more so, than the special, not-so-normal things.

He went into the kitchen and dropped the bottle on the counter.  “Here,” he said to Grace, who’d followed behind him –arms laden with dirty dishes.  “Let me help with those,” he said, taking the plates from her hands and placing them in the sink.  Later, they would be put them in the dishwasher, but for now, they could sit until after the meal.

“Things are going well in there, don’t you think?” he asked, making his way to the walk-in pantry on the far end of the kitchen.  He didn’t actually look to see if she’d follow him, so much as he knew she would.

She leaned against the doorframe of the pantry watching as he looked over the large selection of imported wines.  “I think things are going wonderfully, even with Courtney’s teasing about us being randy teenagers.  I’m going to be 29 years old this year; I haven’t been a teenager in ten years.”  She laughed lightly and folded her arms across her abdomen as she continued to watch him appreciatively.  “Though I have to admit,” she leaned in as if sharing a big secret, “you do have this ability to make me feel like one.”  She gave him a big smile.  It was true.  He made her feel young, more alive than she felt when she was a teen.  And she knew it was him… she’d never felt more content and happy in her life.  And if being a bit ‘randy’ were a side effect, she’d gladly deal with it.

Bruce returned the smile with one of his own.  He had to admit, he thought as he stopped looking at the wines long enough to cross the pantry, that she had the same effect on him.  Holding her, kissing her, and all that usually stemmed from those actions created feelings in him like nothing else in the world.  When he called her amazing, it was the truth of his heart; he’d never known any love like this in his entire life.  The spark between them literally amazed him.

Pressing against her, he leaned in to claim her mouth in an eager kiss.

She quickly unfolded her arms and wrapped them around his waist, holding him tightly to her, as there really wasn’t much of a transition from soft kiss to needy kiss.  One moment he was standing inside the pantry searching for a bottle of wine; the next she was pressed against the doorframe and he was kissing her.  Chills were instantaneous as they started in her very core and spread out in shockwaves throughout her body.

She angled her head, opening up the kiss and allowing them to deepen it even more.  He tasted like the Mandarin chicken with a hint of Merlot.  The other flavor was uniquely him.  It was the one she’d been craving all day.  He’d missed their shower because of the dinner… they’d been interrupted by the end of the ‘fun land’ tour… and now all she could think about was how good it felt to kiss him and how her body was quickly reacting to the stimulation of the kiss.

He’d only meant to kiss her once, but once their lips met, there was no denying what either of them wanted.  Bruce pressed into her all the more as the kiss deepened and grew more urgent.  His hips ground into hers almost of their own accord.  But in the back of his mind, he knew if they started something, they’d be interrupted.

“We… need to…” he said, breaking off the kiss.  He was so without breath, though, that the only way to get his message across was take her hand and lead her into the pantry.  Going to the wine rack, he grasp the wooden frame with one hand and the whole wall moved, revealing another little chamber.

If her body hadn’t been shaking with desire, she may have found the revelation of the secret passage to be awe-inspiring.  And indeed, she found it intriguing that such a place even existed at all.  She’d been in the pantry on several occasions and had no idea this place was here.  Of course, what it meant most to her now was privacy.  If she didn’t know it was there, none of the others would as well.  She ran her hand appreciatively down his back, grasping his belt loop again as he led her into the passage.  Later, when she wasn’t being so driven by need, she’d pester him about it and how many more like it there were in this huge place.  Because where there was one, there was many.  “Nice little nook you have here,” she did manage to say as the opening was closed.   “No interruptions,” she said, gratefully, reaching for him again.

He grinned at her, as this was exactly the point of bringing her in here.  “Don’t you just love it?” he asked before his lips found hers and he pressed her back into the wall once again.  The renewed kiss was nearly feverish in its urgency, as Bruce knew they couldn’t stay here long.  But for now… his hands were on her hips, though moving.  One slid beneath her sweater, easing back across her smooth skin to rest against the small of her back.  The other moved up to cup her breast through the soft sweater.  The touches drew shivers from her, which in turn sent fiery need coursing through him.  His kisses grew greedier and more urgent.

She responded to his need with an urgency that was equal to his own.
One hand moved into his hair, holding his head tightly to hers, increasing the intensity of the kiss.  It was as if they were trying to devour one another, to lose themselves in the sensations that the connection was creating.  Her other hand was placed on top of his, on top of her sweater.  It echoed his caress, rubbing over the taut nipple.  But it was her hips that were doing the most ‘talking’ at the moment.  They pressed into his, as the hand at the small of her back pushed them together and her movements created friction… heat… an obviously growing need.

Both knew time was not on their side.  Both knew there were people waiting on them.  Neither one gave it much thought as was always the way with them, all that existed right at the moment was the two of them and the need for a physical expression of the emotions that had been building between them all day.

As Bruce’s body reacted to hers, clothes became a hindrance as much as the timing thing.  So little time, too many clothes.  “Grace…” he managed to say, breaking off the kiss.  He’d meant to say more… something about needing her, wanting her, but her name was all that came out, though the rest of the sentiment was evident in the tortured timbre to his voice.

“I know,” she echoed, just as tormented, and his hand moved from her breast to the snap of her jeans, her response being all the ‘permission’ he needed to undo them.  Then both hands moved to her hips, pushing the denim open and down her hips, caressing skin.

She shivered, little goosebumps of anticipation appeared as his hands caressed the flesh of her rear.  Shaky hands moved to the snap of his jeans, and only managed to get the snap undone before she felt her jeans pool at her ankles.  She abandoned her task only long enough to kick off her tennis shoes and then the hindering jeans.  “Bruce,” her husky voice said his name again as her desperation made trying to work on the zipper of his jeans nearly an impossibility.  She knew what she wanted, what they needed, but getting to that point, making her body function to get to the point, was almost an impracticality.

She was visibly grateful when his hands replaced hers on the zipper.
Though no less steady, he seemed to be able to better work the contraption and she quickly rid herself of the white lace thong she’d put on after her shower this morning.  Once the zipper was down, however, her hands moved back in, pushing the denim and the underwear he wore down, grasping at the flesh underneath.

No doubt about it, this was going to be fast, hard, and furious.  She shivered again with the anticipation of it.  Nothing between them now, no more barriers to keep them from what they wanted.  And when she said his name this time, desire filled eyes met his, leaving them both naked in more ways than one.

The air in the passage was cooler than that in any other unheated room in the Manor –which is to say it was cold– but Bruce no longer felt the chill.  When she touched him, his entire being lit up in flames.  Flames that only one thing –their immediate union– would put out.

His eyes smoldering, he bent his head for another kiss.  At the same time, one hand slid between her legs, rubbing her most sensitive skin.  She was warm and ready and god, but he couldn’t –they couldn’t– take the time for more foreplay.  Both hands grasped her hips, raising her up and instinctively, her long legs wrapped around him.

Her arms went around his neck, knowing that his sheer strength and the solidity of the wall were all that was going to keep them standing through this.  All the work he’d gone through in building up his muscles were going to be put into play now.  She locked her legs around him, pressing them more closely together.  Their lips were still joined, kissing greedily.  And when he finally entered her, she was thankful they were kissing.  Because if they hadn’t been, their guests would have heard her cry out with the sheer ecstasy of it.  The fire within her stoked to unbelievable proportions, as their bodies became one and all that was left now for her to do was to hold on and let him move… let him move and ease the delicious ache that was growing inside of her.

Flame joined with flame and ignited something within both of them at their joining.  Bruce deepened the kiss instinctively, swallowing her cry of pleasure.  But at least she’d gotten to cry out.  His body seething for the want of similar release, he began to move within her.  Each upward stroke was hard and even, absorbed by the body suspended between himself and the wall.  The urgency to finish drove each thrust, and soon he could feel Grace’s muscles tightening around him.  He groaned into their kisses, pushed into her all the harder.

What issued from her throat was somewhere between a high-pitched keening and a cry.  Her fingers clutched at him and as the slow build up moved into a volcanic explosion, she felt his hard, short thrusts press her more and more into the wall.  There was simply no way to describe exactly how good this felt.  How much this release was not only physical but emotional as well.  Her climax was wave after wave of ecstasy, and again, she couldn’t help but be vocal.  He’d never accused her of being a quiet lover.  This was all about pent up desire… need that had been set aside until it had to find release or burn her up.
And it wasn’t something that she could keep inside, she expressed it in every way she could.

The climax that pulsated through both of them was overwhelming in its intensity.  Bruce cried out, unsure of what he was saying –was it ‘God’ or ‘Grace?’ or both?– and slammed into her one last time.  His arms still around her, holding her, he turned so that his back was too the wall, and as the energy seeped out of him, he slid down onto the ground.  Grace settled in his lap, and he held her while they both struggled to regain control of their breath.

“That was…” he said between shallow breaths.  “Wow…” He rested his head against the wall, unmindful of the chill and closed his eyes.  He felt her breaths deepen and regulate along with his, but still, neither of them moved.  “Do you think they heard us?” he asked at last.

Her head was resting on his shoulder and she shook it slowly.  “I don’t…” She inhaled deeply.  “I don’t know.  Probably not.”  Of course, she was really just guessing.  In her mind, she had tried to be quiet, but she knew toward the end there was just no way for her to not be vocal about it.  “I just…” She finally picked her head up off his shoulder and looked at him.  Running her hand along his cheek and then up into his hair smoothing it, “I don’t know what came over us.  But wow,” she reiterated his words of earlier.  She continued to look at him for several moments.

Really, all she had intended to do was clear up the dishes and get the dessert.  She smiled, realizing she’d already had her dessert.  Her head went back to his shoulder and she wrapped her arms around his chest.  “I suppose we should move.  If they didn’t hear us, they’ll definitely know something’s up when we don’t come back.”  She gave him a small squeeze for emphasis.

Bruce hated her logic, but he also couldn’t deny she was right.  Still, a part of him was less inclined to actually follow her logic and get up.  “I suppose,” he said, and he opened his eyes, raising his head from the wall.   “We’d better.  Nee will never let us live it down otherwise.” He waited for her to get up out of his lap before getting up himself.  He pulled his underwear and jeans up while she dressed, doing it slowly as if reluctant to leave their quiet little nook.  Though, really, he was waiting for her to dress completely.

When she was, he opened the secret door slightly, peering out to see if anyone had come looking for them.  When he was satisfied that the kitchen and the pantry were both deserted, he turned to her, pulling her close for one last kiss.  Her hair was beyond repair and he knew they were both rumpled noticeably.  “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

She didn’t move out of the circle of his embrace.  In all honesty, she hadn’t really wanted to move.  She loved her friends, loved them dearly; but for now, she was just as content to spend every waking moment with just him.  No one else but him.  Now, reality dictated otherwise and that was why they’d dressed and were now back in the pantry.  They were very disheveled, and there was no way they were going to be able to hide what had happened.  She ran a hand through his soft, silky hair and smiled as her eyes held his.  “You have,” she replied, “but I don’t think it’s something I’ll ever tire of hearing.  I love you too, so very much.”

Leaning up, she kissed him lightly.  “I love everything about you.  Everything.”  And she meant that.  She couldn’t think of one thing about him she’d change.  Laughing lightly, she moved her hand into her own hair and tried to smooth it.  “What a pair we make!” she smiled brightly as she said.

He caught her hand, and moving it away from her hair, he kissed her fingertips.  “You’re beautiful just the way you are,” he told her.  She was.  Hair disheveled, lips swollen, cheeks still flushed a rosy color:  she was gorgeous and perfect.  Reaching for a bottle of merlot, he escorted her out of the pantry.

*-*-*

Dessert in hand, Grace led them back into the dining room.  Bruce followed closely behind her with a bottle of Merlot and bowls for the dessert.

“‘Bout time,” Alex clipped before getting a look at the couple and smiling.  “Or maybe I should say it was…”

“Quick,” Courtney finished, a smile on her face.  “You did lock the door this time, didn’t you?”

Setting the dessert on the table, Grace smiled.  “Hiding place.”  Bruce set the bowls beside her and poured everyone some wine.  “This is white chocolate tiramisu.  Made it myself last night.”

“Looks good, Gracie,” Seth said, taking the portion offered him.

As Grace was standing beside her, AnnaBeth stood up and tucked a very stray and wild piece of hair behind her friend’s ear.  There was no missing it.  Grace was happy and very much in love.  As she sat back down, AnnaBeth could only hope that some day she could feel like that.  She had very strong emotions for Alex, but they weren’t rapid in their growth.  AnnaBeth never did anything quickly.  Falling in love was no different.

“Really good,” Alex echoed Seth, though his words were mumbled around a mouthful of the rich dessert.

Bruce stood by Grace’s chair, and when she’d served everyone their dessert, he held it out for her, putting his arm around her as he guided her into the seat.  He smiled at Alex’s compliment, but leaned in before he sat, whispering close to her ear, “I can’t imagine anything sweeter than you.”

Grace smiled brightly, covering the shiver that his breath on her ear sent through her body by turning to kiss him quickly.  “I could think of one,” she replied, waggling her brows.

“Mmmm, it is good,” Courtney said, though she couldn’t help but tease a bit.  “Made it last night, huh?  Could have sworn that’s what was taking so long in the kitchen?  You sure this isn’t like one of those Jell-O No Bake Dessert commercials.”

Alex almost dropped his fork, although it did stop halfway to his mouth and he sat there for several moments unsure if he should eat the bite or put his fork down and laugh.

It was Seth’s chuckle that finally let Alex know that it was okay to laugh as well.  Of course, they all knew what had been the delay.
They’d even had a brief ‘discussion’ about it while Bruce and Grace were gone.  And Courtney being who she was, she just couldn’t help but tease them about it.  Though it was mostly Bruce she was teasing.
Grace merely continued to eat her dessert.

Smiling at her long time friend, Grace teased back.  “Well, in all honesty, I did make it last night.  No it’s not from a box.  And I wanted to make sure it was properly chilled before I brought it out.
Tiramisu is a complicated dish, my friend.”

“Which, of course, means we’ll never have it at home,” Seth teased.
“The extent of our dinners consist of which take out or delivery restaurant are we calling.”

That comment earned him a thwap from Courtney.  “Hey, once in a while you cook!”  She looked to the group in an effort to explain.  “It’s the hours we work.  Neither of us wants to come home after six and start to cook a big meal.  It’s just easier to grab something on the way home.”

“Then what exactly was your excuse when you weren’t married and had a normal job, Nee?  Because,” and here Bruce was speaking to everyone else, though the teasing all for Courtney.  “I can’t tell you how many nights I rescued her from a fast-food dinner. Or lunch.”

“I… I…” She looked around at everyone and shrugged.  “Like I was going to turn down an offer of a meal prepared by a professional cook!
I’d get calls at the library…”

“Library?” Alex asked, a bit confused.  “Why would you get calls at a library?”

“She was a librarian,” Seth explained.

“No way!!!  YOU?” he asked, nearly incredulous.

“Yes ME!!!  Books are my first love, but I wanted a change of pace.
And since I planned that successful fundraiser for Mother, I thought I could do it full time.”

“And now she has one of the most successful party planning businesses in Gotham,” Grace added, knowing the magic Courtney had to work to get her little ‘party’ planned as quickly as she did.

She looked at Bruce and stuck out her tongue.  “So yeah, you saved me from fast food.  I’d rather not cook if I don’t have to.  Besides, I was never really taught how to cook.  Anyone imagine *my* mother standing at a stove cooking ANYTHING?  We had a cook who did that for us.  I’m spoiled, what can I say?”  She ended her little monologue with a wink.  “Besides, I a) never pass up a free meal and b) enjoyed spending time with my best friend.  So there!”  She looked around, rather pleased with herself for her ‘explanation’.

Bruce laughed, shaking his head over the image of Constance Blaire in a kitchen… and actually cooking something.  “One,” he said, still chuckling and shaking his head.  “No I cannot see your mother cooking an entire meal by herself.  Two and three, your best friend loves offering you free meals just so we have the excuse to hang out.”  Here he met her eyes and his expression turned to genuine affection.  He did, really, which had been why he’d invited her to dinner today.  “However, Nee, I’d hate to burst your smug little bubble here, but your theory has holes in it.”

“It sounded pretty solid me, Bruce,” Alex commented, but now he looked doubtful.

“Tsk, Alex, holes.”  Bruce winked.  He knew he had everyone’s attention.  “How does she explain the fact that I can, as demonstrated by this fine meal, cook quite well with no one to teach me and no lack of servants at my beck and call?  I shouldn’t have to cook, no, but I can.”  In reality, he’d learned very much on his own, or by watching people in the various countries he’d been to.  In many of the places, there had been no one to cook for him, so it was either learn or starve.

“Oh, he’s got you there, Courtney,” Alex proclaimed.

She shook her head.  “But Bruce, you are the exception to just about every rule ever made.”  She looked at Alex.  “It’s more than just the science geek thing.  Remember, me telling you… he loves to learn.
Anything and everything he can pick up from people he will.”

Grace looked up at Seth and the two of them shared a smile. This was classic Bruce and Courtney.  The two of them loved to banter back and forth about things.  Actually, Grace was surprised they’d waited for dessert before they started in with each other.  It was such a ‘sibling’ thing.  They were truly brother and sister in spirit if not by blood.

“From what Dad says, he was like that as a kid.  Always asking what this or that was and how this or that worked.  He’s like that now.
Spent an entire day with me at the library so I could show him how everything is catalogued.  By the end of the day, he was doing it too.
Me?  I’m not that motivated to learn things.”

“But you are an excellent teacher,” Bruce told her, and his expression and tone left little doubt he was talking about more than just a card catalogue.  She’d taught him how to open up to people, how not to hide when that’s all he wanted to do.  In a lot of ways, this gathering of friends today would never have happened had Courtney not taught him that true friends were really out there.  “Still,” and the tease was back, “Doesn’t excuse not cooking my man Seth here a decent meal every once in a while.  Poor guy has to come home and order take-out instead.”  He shook his head.  “What a way to live.”  But again, he clearly was joking.

“You,” she said, reaching out and pushing him on the arm.  “Does he look like he’s malnourished to you in any way?  And we don’t always eat take out.  Sometimes he cooks.”

When Courtney pushed at Bruce, the motion sent him into Grace who had been just about to take a bite of her food.  The dessert fell off her spoon but luckily landed in the bowl.  “Children,” she said with a laugh.  “How many times do I have to say this?  No rough housing at the table.”

That caused Seth to laugh.  “At least they aren’t throwing things at one another.”

AnnaBeth, though not saying much, merely chuckled lightly at the moment.  She was truly honored to be a part of the group.  Sure, she was still mainly on the fringes… the new member… her true acceptance stemming not only from her friendship with Grace but also her relationship with Alex.  The first she was completely confident about.  The second was still too new to call.  “They carry on like brother and sister.”

Courtney sighed.  “He is just like a kid brother.  Though there are no frogs in my bed or those noogie things…”

“Noogies?” AnnaBeth asked.

“Yeah, noogies,” Seth explained.  “Rubbing your knuckles on someone’s head.  Used to do that to my brothers all the time.”  His voice trailed off a bit.

Courtney smiled and placed a reassuring hand on his arm.  To Bruce, she said, “Fine.  We’ll play this your way.  The next group dinner we have will be at our house.  And *I’M* cooking!  So there.”

“Right, so we should all put in requests for which restaurant we want you to order from, right?”  Bruce shot back, causing Alex to howl with laughter.

The words were barely out of his mouth before Courtney was at him.  Of course, she was laughing as she swatted at him. “You… are… abso…
lutely… incorrigible.”  She accented each word with a playful swat.

Again, Bruce was laughingly backing away from her, shielding himself from the wrath of Courtney.

Grace, now having Bruce halfway in her lap, gave up all pretense of trying to finish her dessert.  To AnnaBeth, she calmly said, “You see what I have to deal with.”

That, of course, caused AnnaBeth to let go of her usual calm reserve and laugh.  A noise that could equal Alex’s if she truly let go.

Seth didn’t try to pull his wife off from her attack upon Bruce, merely shook his head.  “You’d think he’d learn, you really would.”

When Bruce bumped into her, Grace gave him a light push putting him back into ‘play’.  “At least they’re carrying on at home now instead of in public.”

“Like you don’t love every minute of it,” Seth said.

“Oh I do,” Grace agreed.  “Every blissful, knocking into me, minute of it.”

During the conversation, Courtney had continued to playfully swat at her friend.  “Just… for… that… you… get… MY… fried… chicken…  Good… thing… I… love… you… so… much… you…
meanie…”

Unlike everyone else, Alex was almost on the floor; he was laughing so hard at the scene that unfolding.  He wasn’t sure how Grace or Seth could honestly be so calm about the whole thing.  One thing he was sure of, however, was that he hadn’t seen Bruce have this much fun since he installed that trampoline.

Bruce finally threw his hands up, laughing out an exasperated, “Okay, okay… I yield!”

Courtney paused, leery and not quite trusting his tone of voice.  “You give up?  You’re gonna quit being so darned mean?”  Bruce nodded, though he was still smiling, and she lowered her guard a little more.  “Why don’t I trus–?”

The last minute question was answered when Bruce dove into an attack, tickling his friend mercilessly until she was laughing harder than Alex.  Then he stopped, and put significant distance between them.  “Now, I yield.”

“Mean,” she hiccupped trying to catch her breath and wiping the tears of laughter from her face.  “Mean, mean, mean, mean, mean.  And then you have to go and hide by your girlfriend.”  She laughed and looked at her husband.  “And you… you LET him do that to me.”

Seth shrugged.  “Seems to me, you started it.”

“I did NOT,” she snorted, causing another quick fit of laughter from
Alex.

“You did,” Alex said.

“I did not!  He said that about my cooking.”

“But you swatted him.  He was only defending himself,” Seth explained.

“Don’t know if you noticed, peeps,” Grace interjected, “But he gave as good as he got.  I keep warning her about stuff like that… sneak attacks out of nowhere… But she knows… and yet she still fell for it.”

Seth agreed.  “It normally always ends in a draw… or a tickle war.”

AnnaBeth shook her head and smiled.  It was indeed a fun group to be with.

“Next time,” Courtney mock-warned.  “Next time, you’ll get yours, Bruce
Wayne,” she teased.  “And I’m serious about the fried chicken.  I’m
soooooooooooo making it now.”

Bruce grinned, making as if he was going to tickle-attack her again.  When she raised her hands to defend herself, however, he gathered her up into a hug.  “Good. I love fried chicken and you know it.”  He playfully kissed the top of her head before dumping her rather unceremoniously into Seth’s lap.  “Your wife, Mr. Meyers,” he said as if presenting her to him.

Alex was still laughing as he turned to his date and whispered confidentially, “He usually isn’t this…” He paused to think of the right words and then grinned at Bruce, who was now back in his seat, eating his tiramisu as if he hadn’t just been torturing his best friend.  As AnnaBeth followed his gaze, Bruce pulled Grace into his lap as well, and offered her a taste of his dessert.  “…goofy in love.  But it’s fun to watch.  More fun to join in…” He waggled his eyebrows.

AnnaBeth looked at the two other couples for several moments.  Of course, she knew what Alex was hinting at.  And it wasn’t beyond her to actually do it.  Goodness knows they had done far more than the simple displays that were going on now.  She had just never been one to be openly demonstrative… She realized, however, that she was like that because it was never good to let the press know too much.  It was okay to let them know you were in a relationship, but not how deeply you felt for your significant other.

But obviously, the press wasn’t here.  It was just a small gathering of good friends, and she had emotions for Alex.  So there should be nothing wrong with expressing them.  Gracefully, she set her napkin on the table and moved to sit in his lap.  She ran a finger lightly over his ear before offering him a smile.  “Better?”

Grace’s head turned just in time to see Alex plant a kiss on AnnaBeth that could have easily elevated the temperature in the room about ten degrees.  The normally non-demonstrative AnnaBeth was definitely relaxing.  Running her finger along the side of the dessert that was still left on the plate, she offered it to Bruce and when he took the finger into his mouth, she leaned in and whispered into his ear,
“Should we offer them the use of the wine pantry?”  The question was punctuated with a kiss.

“And reveal our little secret?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.  “We do that, and the next time we need to sneak off, someone will come looking for us.”  He winked and kissed her back.  He was smiling, and he couldn’t stop.  A week ago, things were so unstable and fragile.  They were back together, but so many things were still unspoken between them.  Today, those seven days felt eons away, in a whole other life.  He was happy… they were happy together.  Playfully, he spread kisses across her face, cheeks, nose… and over Grace’s shoulder, caught sight of Seth holding Courtney in a similar embrace and AnnaBeth looking down into Alex’s eyes.

Briefly he wondered how they must look to an outsider.  Probably terribly wanton and immoral, but then again, it didn’t matter.  Here there was love, and love was many things, but immoral was not one of them.

*-*-*

Not too long after their friends left the Manor, Bruce and
Grace were left to straighten up the kitchen and the dining room.  It was one of those ‘domestic’ tasks that Grace seemed to enjoy doing so much with Bruce.  Guaranteed, he didn’t do ‘domestic’ much, so when he did, she soaked up as much of it as she could.  Right now, he was bringing in the rest of the dishes from the dining room.  There was literally nothing left of the food he’d made… her dessert either.

Nodding toward the stack of dishes, she turned on the water and felt to make sure the temperature was just right.  Hot, but not too hot to touch.  She then added dishwashing soap.  “Just set them down with the others, please.”

“We can just put them in the dishwasher,” Bruce offered.

She shook her head.  “Nah.  There aren’t that many, and really you have to rinse them off anyway so by the time you do all that and then put everything in, I can have them all washed.”  She put the wine glasses in first, carefully starting to wash them.  “Besides, I don’t mind washing dishes.  Always hated folding laundry, but washing dishes is no biggie.”  She set a clean wine glass in the drainer and offered him a smile.

“Today was a good day,” she turned her attention back to the dishes in the sink.  “Everyone had a great time.  Even AnnaBeth relaxed there toward the end.  This was a great idea you had.”

Bruce beamed at her words.  “They’re adorable,” he commented, meaning Alex and AnnaBeth.  “Alex is very smitten with her.”  Bruce thought he could come to like Grace’s friend.  She reminded him a lot of himself in some ways, and watching her with Alex was like reliving his first few months with Grace.  All the uncertainty of what they could, couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do.  AnnaBeth was reserved, and often hid what she really felt in Greek words, so no one need know.  But Bruce knew, and hopefully she’d tell Alex someday.

Leaning against the island, he watched as Grace washed the wine glasses first.  It had been a fun evening, though.  He hoped there were more of those coming.  The pain of the last few months had been unbearable.

Having finished the wine glasses, Grace set the plates in the hot, soapy water and began washing them.  “You know, I’ve known Bethie for years.  She’s gone through the fire with me on a lot of things.  And though I’ve never seen her act that way around any man… I mean…”
It was difficult for her to put it into words, what she was thinking. But then, Bethie was a complicated person.  “There are unguarded moments when you can tell she has genuine affection for Alex.  But did you hear her swearing at him in Greek?”  She rinsed a plate and set it in the drainer then used her forearm to push some hair out of her face.

“Guaranteed, I don’t know for sure that she was swearing, but her tone and the look in her eyes when she said them.  And sure, Alex didn’t hear or see, but the rest of us did.  It’s a very confusing situation.”  She stuck her hands back in the water, feeling for another plate to wash.  “If she’s having doubts, she should talk to him in English.”

Bruce chuckled.  “Oh, I heard her, alright, but she wasn’t exactly swearing at him!” He walked over to Grace, sliding his arms around her waist, and rested his head on her shoulder.  His body seemed to cocoon hers from behind, fitting to it like a glove.  “She’s…” Granted whatever he said was pure conjecture, as he didn’t know AnnaBeth as well as Grace did.  “…where I was a long time ago, I think.  Overwhelmed by the whole thing.”

And she realized then what was going on.  “She’s falling in love with him, isn’t she?”  She smiled.  “Bethie is a fantastic person once you get to know her.  But she likes to keep her walls up around her.  If
Alex is breaking them down, it would explain a lot.”  Shaking the water off her hands, she turned to face him.  Wet hands grasped onto his belt loops, as she didn’t want to get his clothing wet.  “I’m happy for them.”  It was here that her eyes found his, as if they gravitated there naturally.  “I’m happy all the way around, actually.”

That was pretty much the bottom line for her too.  She was happy.  Happier and more content than she had been in a very long time.  It all stemmed from this man, the man who was holding her right now.  The man who had pushed her away because he felt it best for her, only to learn that in reality what kept her safest was the two of them being together.  There was no doubt about it now; they needed each other to be a complete person.  And if Bethie was finding that in Alex, then she was about to find happiness and love in a way that she’d never expected to.  It made Grace all the happier.

Though, again, what made her happiest was Bruce Wayne.  She smiled brightly, remembering his question from earlier.  “Have I told you lately just how much I love you?”

“Yes,” he answered, losing himself in her eyes.  “But you can say it as many times as you want… I love hearing it.  I love you.”  His head dipped closer, lips seeking hers tenderly.  He did love her, and it felt like he fell more in love with her every day.  Some people, he knew they fell hard and the romance faded over time.  But not so for Bruce.  His feelings for Grace grew stronger over the two years he’d known her.  Now… life without her had been impossible, and he knew it was because he loved her so much.

She responded to the kiss, returning it as tenderly as he gave it.
She’d been in love before.  But it had NEVER felt like this.  It had never grabbed a hold of her heart and soul and not let go.  This love she shared with Bruce had strengthened over time… had passed a very difficult test.  And through it all she knew she was where she belonged for the rest of her life.  When he finally pulled away from the kiss and rested his forehead on hers, she smiled at him and said, “How about we go somewhere more comfortable?  Grab a bottle of wine,” here she smiled a bit deviously, “just grab a bottle of wine, and head upstairs.  Start a fire.  What do you think?”

“A bottle of wine, flames flickering in the eyes of the most beautiful angel to fall from heaven?  Sounds like a dream come true,” he told her, lightly brushing a kiss against her lips before taking her hand and heading to the pantry.  When they both came to stand in front of the wine rack, he reached for a bottle, hands hesitating as if he were debating pulling her back into the passage.

She smiled as she watched him.  “Boy, this is deja vu,” she teased.
She looked up at the place where he’d pressed earlier to open the passage and thought for a moment.  “So, just how many secret passages are there around here anyway?”

“You know, I don’t really know… exactly,” Bruce told her, pulling a bottle from the rack.  “They were built when the manor was built, to make it easier for servants to go from room to room virtually unnoticed. Alfred still uses quite a few of them… like our little hide-out here.”  He grinned.  “But the rest…” He trailed off, shaking his head.  “I used to play in them as a kid, and I got lost once,” he told her as he led her back out of the pantry.  “Wound up somewhere in the dungeon level.  It took them almost a full day to find me.”  His expression was totally serious; it had really happened.  They left the kitchen, and were walking leisurely through the living quarters.  Bruce squeezed her hand as he continued speaking.  “I’m sure there’s a floor plan somewhere, but where I couldn’t tell you and I’d hate to lose the greatest treasure in the world…” he trailed off, and stopped walking at the foot of the stairs.

Reaching out, he ran his fingers through her hair.  Despite AnnaBeth’s best efforts to put it back into place, a few tendrils and curls still refused to conform.  Bruce smiled as he played with those rebels.

She smiled affectionately, touched by his words and mindful of the meaning behind them.  She placed a loving hand on his chest and softly said, “I promise I won’t go snooping around by myself.  If I decide I want to look around, I’ll ask Alfred to show me or maybe even you could do so.  That way, if we get lost, we get lost together.”

She let him continue to play with her hair.  Cutting it had been the one thing she’d done out of anger toward him.  He’d loved her long, straight hair.  A week after she moved back into her apartment, she’d gone to the salon and had it cut short and then permed.  It was as if in changing her appearance or taking away something he loved, she could exact some kind of retribution.

She’d hated it, and hated herself for doing it.  But as it grew out to the length it was now, she’d actually started to like it.  The light curls, though at times unruly, bounced; and, in a way, they reflected the happy person she had once been.  But now, now she was feeling the urge to let it grow out again.  Taking his hand, she held it to her chest and smiled.  “Think I’m going to let it grow out again,” she said, placing her free hand on his chest.  “I kinda prefer it long and straight.”  Of course, he would probably say he didn’t care, but she knew how he liked it.  And she liked it that way too.  “But like I said,” she repeated, going back to the topic of the passages, “I won’t explore them alone.  You have my word on that.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” he said, still fingering one of the stray tendrils.  “You’re so beautiful…” This time, his voice was an awed whisper, and he wasn’t talking about just her hair, or looks.  Everything about Grace was beautiful to him.

Then he backed up, and added to the ‘secret passages’ end of the conversation.  “You know, I don’t think I’d mind getting lost with you.  Has definite potential.”  He grinned, and swept her into his arms with a suddenness that surprised her.

“Bruce!  What are you–?”

But he cut her words off with a deep kiss, and carried her up the stairs and down the hall towards their bedroom.  The fireplace was already lit, as if someone –Alfred, of course– had known what they wanted and two empty glasses sat on the bedside table next to a full ice bucket.

Bruce lay Grace down on the bed and then nestled the bottle into the ice to chill.  Then he eased into the bed, his arms reaching for her.  They had time to kill until the wine chilled, after all.

*-*-*

Sunday, January 23, 2005

It had all started as a gesture.  Grace had wanted to do something nice for Bruce.  Material gifts didn’t mean much to him.  He wanted something; he bought it.  What he appreciated most were moments. Moments in time that expressed genuine emotions.  This was what Grace had wanted to give him.  When they’d reunited, she’d hooked up with Courtney, and the two had conspired to give Bruce a ‘moment’.  In all actuality, Grace had hired Courtney to create one.  Because of the timing of the breakup, they’d been unable to celebrate not only Christmas together, but his birthday as well.  This was something Grace wanted to rectify.

But it had taken a lot of work and involved a lot of people.  The latest conspirator had been Lee Merryweather.

Bruce had gone out on his nightly excursion, and though Grace was asleep when he returned, it must have been early because he had grumbled at Lee for calling first thing in the morning.  Grace had offered her sympathy, but the call had really been necessary.

When he got off the phone with the social secretary, Bruce asked Grace how she would like joining him for an informal business dinner at Bernie’s, knowing it was one of her favorite places in Gotham. The head of the local Boy’s Club wanted to meet with him to discuss the possibility of Bruce matching donations made during a charity fundraiser.

Grace, of course, happily agreed to go.

Now, the couple were dressed casually, Grace was in white slacks.  She was wearing a purple sweater with a sage leaf pattern woven in the fabric.  Her white short-heeled boots would be most comfortable for the true nature of this ‘meeting’.  Through Courtney’s planning magic, Grace had rented Bernie’s for the entire evening.  The house band would play, along with her favorite saxophone player.  Dinner had been catered.  Her ‘gift’ to Bruce would be a surprise evening… just the two of them… celebrating their reunion in a place that carried a lot of sentimental value for them.  They celebrated important things at Bernie’s.

“I haven’t been to Bernie’s in quite a long time,” she admitted as the limo stopped and the driver came around to open the door.  “I’m so glad you asked me to come along.”

“Neither have I,” Bruce told her just before he got out, holding a hand for her.  She took his and he guided her from the car.  The expression on his face, though, as she emerged from the limousine was one of rapt devotion.  He felt like he was watching a movie star on the night of a big premiere.  Only, strangely enough, without the flash of cameras. Bernie’s was a special place for them; it was where they’d done all their celebrating since Grace’s birthday, when he’d met her parents for the first time.

Vividly, he remembered the last time he’d been here.  It had been last August, and they were here celebrating their anniversary.  The memorial of the day she moved in with him.  Like that night, she’d been this gorgeous and this happy.  And almost a month later, he’d broken her heart.

Bruce pushed the dark away instantly, willing himself to do as he’d promised both Grace and Courtney –forgive himself.  He couldn’t do anything about it, and Grace, he knew, just wanted to move on.  She’d asked him, too, as well, and although it was Bruce’s nature to hold onto pain, he knew the only way to make it up to her was to do as she asked.

And he’d been trying; this week, he’d really been trying to just live in the now and not think about what had happened.  But there were still moments, like last night when he slipped out of bed to patrol, where he’d look at her and his heart would seize up in his chest.

“How could I go to Bernie’s tonight and not bring you?” he asked, leaning in to give her a brief kiss.  Then he checked his watched.  “We’d better get going.  Lee said something about being on time.”

“And if we’re late, I’m sure Lee will tell you about it.”  She slipped her arm in his and let him lead her inside.  It took everything she had to keep the look of expectation off of her face.  The culmination of all their work was about to come to fruition right now.  He was opening the door for her and when he entered behind her he would notice that no one else was in the club.

Bernie met them at the door and offered to take their coats.  “Good to see you kids,” he said.  “It’s been too long.  You’re table’s over there,” he said pointing to the table.  “Surprised a little, Bruce?  Sunshine here worked hard on this.”  Bernie chuckled as he walked away, leaving the two of them alone.

She turned to Bruce and looked into his eyes.  “I thought a celebration was in order.  Just you and me.  No press, no public… Our place.  Surprise.”  Her voice was soft, almost not wanting to disturb the import of the moment, but then again she wanted to see his complete reaction.  This was a first for her… surprising him like this.

When Bruce saw that the Blue’s club was completely empty, his first thought was that Lee had somehow mixed up the plans for the evening.  Bernie’s words, however, made it clear that Lee had not.  Bernie left with their coats, and Bruce still looked around at the empty room, with its lights dimmed and candles on the table they’d been directed to, and he was speechless.  He had no idea how she’d managed to keep him from knowing.  They’d hardly been apart all week long.  And yet, she’d somehow done all of this.

“Grace…” he whispered, searching her eyes.  Her words, so simple, touched him so deeply.  “Oh, my sweet, amazing Grace…”

The sweet sound of the saxophone filled the club.  It wasn’t overly loud like it could be on nights when there were other patrons here.
No.  Tonight the band was merely background music for the couple.  And it was acting as such at the moment.  His surprised expression caused her to smile.  She took his hand and led him toward the table.  Her arms wrapped around his waist and she smiled up into his face.  “I know,” she started, her voice full of emotion, “that there is nothing I could buy you that would fully express everything I feel for you.  But
I wanted to do something…” She paused and brought one hand to his face.  “I needed to do something to celebrate what you mean to me.  I love you… more than perhaps I could ever let you know.”

She paused for a long moment and simply looked at him.  He was still astonished.  “This is Christmas, New Year’s, Your Birthday, and our
Reunion all rolled up into one celebration…  A celebration of us… of just how much you are my world.  My everything.  My love.”  She let her voice trail off and let him absorb it even more.

“Grace…”

Christmas, New Years, and his birthday… they’d been more painful this year than any time he could remember since the first year after his parents died.  He’d spent them in one of the secret passages, sitting in the darkness while he waited for the cluster of special days to pass him by.  Alfred had found him once, telling him that Courtney had come to invite him to spend… whatever day that had been… with her at her parents’ house.  He sent Alfred away.  He didn’t know what Alfred had told Courtney.  His friend hadn’t mentioned it the next time he saw her, though he’d seen the sympathy in her eyes as clearly as he saw the love in Grace’s now.

Moved more than he had words to express, he held onto her, hugging her tightly to him.  “I don’t deserve you,” he whispered softly in her ear.

“Bruce,” she said softly, holding him as tightly as he was holding her.  She didn’t want him brooding about what he deserved and what he didn’t.  Of course, he was, more than likely, thinking there was no way he should be the focus of the celebration when he was the one who split them up in the first place.  But she didn’t agree.  “It’s not about deserving,” she finally said, though her voice was very soft as she spoke.  She was able to pull away just enough to look at him.  “There’s something…” She had been about to say there was something that wouldn’t let them stay apart.  Instead, she said, “We belong together.  You and I.”

She leaned up and placed a kiss on his cheek, then kissed each eye, before placing a soft kiss on his lips.  “I love you.  I need you.  And yes, we deserve to be together.  You make me happy.  You complete me.  And I know…” She kissed him again.  “I know you’re happy too.  And whether you believe it or not, you deserve that.”  She moved back in the circle of his embrace.

“I love you so much,” he said softly, holding her.  His lips pressed into the top of her head, and he kissed her softly.  He did, he loved her.  He once told Miles that it scared him the way he felt about her, and although it no longer scared him, it still amazed him exactly what she meant to him.  “You do… you make me so happy, Grace.”  He tilted her face up to his, meeting her eyes.  “I have never felt like I do when I’m with you.  I’ve always known that a part of me was missing.  My entire life, I’ve been damaged… broken.  You make me whole,” he told her before bringing his lips down on top of hers.

“And you are my reason for living,” she said softly when the kiss ended.  She hugged him tightly to her again before moving away and leading him to sit in the booth.  Moving in beside him, she pointed at the table and the dishes spread out on it.  “I had the caterer make a selection of your favorite foods.”

A guitar player joined in with the sax and the singer’s voice filled the room.  Blues music was soulful… the songs came from the soul of the singer and those who truly appreciated it felt it in their souls as well.  It’s why the music always touched Grace.  Filling a fork with some coleslaw, she offered it to him.  “I could have just about died yesterday when Courtney was carrying on about fried chicken.  She did all the planning for this, and for a while there, I was afraid she was going to slip and tell you what was going on.  And I so wanted this to be a surprise.”

Tasting the forkful she offered, Bruce found himself shaking his head.  “Is that how you did all this?  Courtney?”  He sounded utterly amazed.  He smiled, still shaking his head.  “This… dinner… the music… all of this is just so… there aren’t words, love.  But you didn’t need to…” He trailed off.  No, she didn’t need to, but she had, and that she had was what made it so special.  She was special.  “…I have been celebrating our reunion in my heart, every day… every minute… since you…” He closed his eyes, trying to focus.  “This…” he waved about them with his fork.  “This is amazing.”

“I didn’t need to,” she said with a smile.  “But I wanted to.”  She rested her head on his shoulder.  “I’ve been celebrating every day too.  Every night I fall asleep beside you… every morning I wake up in your arms…  Life with you is a celebration.”

*-*-*

They cuddled through most of dinner, feeding one another and stopping to share kisses and caresses.  Once they’d finished eating, she led him onto the dance floor; and they fell into one another’s arms, bodies swaying to the music as they held one another.  They could have done this at the Manor, sure.  But there was something about THIS place.  It was every bit as much their place as the Habbibi’s was.  And though what she had said at dinner was true… life with him was a celebration… He meant something to her.  He meant everything to her.  And as good as he felt in being able to do things for her, she felt just as good doing things for him.

Her face rested in his neck as her body conformed to his.  She placed a light kiss on it before lifting her head to look at him.   Her eyes locked with his and smiled.  “I love you,” she said softly.

Bruce looked down at her, and the smile that was already on his face widened even more.  When he’d gotten over the shock of being utterly surprised by this, he found he really enjoyed her celebration.  It meant a lot to him that her first thought was to do something like this for him.  No, he knew he didn’t deserve it, but it wasn’t about what he thought or what he deserved.

It was what the heart wanted… what her heart wanted.  She’d planned this –had enlisted Courtney, Lee… Bernie and others– so she could show him exactly what her heart wanted: him, them… happy.

Bruce could see it, too.  Grace telling Courtney she wanted to do something to make up for the lost months.  Not that she needed to.  He’d been the one to break it off; he’d been the one to push their love aside.  The emptiness he’s felt those months without her –those miserable months– had all been of his own design.  He’d done it all himself.  Grace didn’t need to make up for that.  But she had wanted to anyway… wanted to make up for what they’d missed.

And it wasn’t just the moments they’d missed… it was a celebration of the moments to come.  A welcoming of them.  The opening paragraph of a new chapter in their lives.  The pain, as unbearable as it had been, would go away.  Already in the one week they’d been reunited, they’d erased some of it just by coming to terms with why it had happened.  And by letting not just themselves, but the whole of everyone looking in from the world outside their fishbowl, know that it was real.  They were back in each other’s hearts and nothing was going to change that.

That was how it was meant to be: they were meant to be together.  That was why nothing had been able to keep them apart, from the very beginning.  Not his relationship with Lex, not their break up, not even the stalker who’d wanted Grace for himself.  Nothing.  That was why it was Grace, and Grace alone who had been able to break through the walls he’d built around himself.  Walls to keep out pain and hurt, walls to keep out love.  Yet, before her love, those walls had fallen like Jericho.

It was meant to happen that way.

“I love you, too,” he echoed.  His fingers traced the line of her cheekbone tenderly.  “You’re my greatest dream come true.”

She was.

Her eyes never left his as they continued dancing.  Dancing.  That first night they’d met had been at a club.  And they’d danced.  The electricity between them on the dancefloor had been like none she’d ever felt in her life.  He’d kissed her for the first time that night too.  The first kiss of a lifetime filled with so many more.  When she looked at him, she saw happiness.  There had been pain and heartache.  She had accepted things that many women wouldn’t have.

In the beginning, she’d shared him with someone else.  When he’d told her about Lex, her only question had been if there was enough room in his heart for both of them.  He’d told her there was, and she believed him.  Throughout their first year together, he’d never once failed to make sure she knew she meant every bit as much to him as Lex did.

Indeed, their relationship had weathered many things.  The biggest and hardest was their breakup.  It had nearly killed her.  The only other living soul who knew how close she’d come to killing herself that night was Seth.  She’d moved back into her apartment as Bruce had asked and the pain of not having him had been unbearable.  Horrific to the point where taking the entire bottle of sleeping pills sounded like a very good idea indeed.  If her throat muscles could have worked to swallow them, she wouldn’t be here now.  If Seth hadn’t charged in and promised her that in time she’d get Bruce back, she would have found another way to take them.  But Fate had conspired against her that night.

It had been a moment of weakness.  One told to no one but Seth… and the counseling she’d sought.

If she hadn’t found a way to hold on then, she wouldn’t be holding on now.

She hadn’t always been the strongest of people.  She freely admitted that.  She also knew that if she’d been thinking clearly, she never would have tried.  But holes that big in the soul left nothing but pits of despair.  Yet, she forgave.  She loved.  And in the end, her path did lead her back to where she belonged.  Everything happened for a reason.  Every decision directly affected where she was right now.  Every choice taking her to the destination that Fate had chosen for her… for them.

She leaned forward, her forehead now touching his.  The hug she gave him that first night told him to take a chance on her.  His passing up the ‘cup of coffee’ that first night told her to take a chance on him.  Meeting up with the press on their first date let him know they didn’t intimidate her.

Her father was fond of saying that you take the good and toss out the bad, knowing that the good would far outweigh the bad anyway.  He said all that bad existed for was to make sure you appreciated the good.  She and Bruce had had it VERY good… little bads here and there but nothing that truly tested them… until the breakup.  And that, it seemed, had been their big test.

Yet here they were.  Together again.  Happy and loving.  Knowing there was no place on Earth that either wanted to be except right where they were.  They’d tried living without… it hadn’t worked for either one of them.  But together… together they were stronger, happier, healthier than they could ever be apart.  They’d been tested and came through it… together.

Fate had gone to great strides to make sure their souls found one another.  And they’d fought Fate for a while, but she was persistent when she wanted something.  And in the end, she’d made sure they’d found their way back again.  This time, there’d be no questioning Fate.  Wherever she led them, Grace knew they would follow.  Fate wanted them together; they needed to be together.  With Fate on their side, nothing, ever again, would pull them apart; between the three of them, they’d make sure of it.

Of that, Grace had no doubt.

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