Oswald Cobblepott the Third unbuttoned a second vest button before reclining in the leather overstuffed chair. The traditional German Christmas dinner had been a resplendent repast. The chef kept the feast focused around fish and pork, and earned his Christmas bonus.
A brief decompression so his digestion system prepared itself for another serving of Christstollen. He sighed as he relaxed and thought about his profit margin for the year, the fluffy profit margin like soft down lining his bank accounts. A metaphor better appreciated with closed eyes.
Sudden shrieking saturated all three floors of the villa. He sat up with a snort and his monocle dropped to his chest. Did one of the other occupants turn on a plebeian horror film? No, the shriek moved. Oswald lumbered to his feet, seized his rapier umbrella from the stand next to the door, and charged out of his office.
He flung the weapon aside as Jen shrieked and ran straight to him. She squeezed him with nary a sprig of mistletoe in sight, and proceeded to jump with her arms embracing him. Her screechy words reached his ears. "She's alive! She's alive! They're both alive!"
Talon and Raptor thundered up the stairs and Jen renewed her shriek for the new audience. "Selina's alive! She and Bruce are both okay!" She let go of Oswald, but continued to bounce.
Now Oswald saw the cell phone clutched in her hand. "Selina contacted you?"
Her grin stretched wider. "Bruce's panic room had no signal and there were too busy helping the police to call before now. But they're both fine!"
"Of course, the affluent oaf had Selina watching out for him." If Jen wanted to ignore the woman dubbed Catwoman, who matched Selina's description, and her exploits against Bane, he would not puncture her disavowal. He fixed the monocle in front of his eye. "So that was Selina in the City Hall footage with Mr. Wayne."
"Be nice, boss man. He kept Selina safe just like I asked him to."
Oswald harrumphed under his breath. A handsome face will still garner any excuse. "Does Selina need an extraction?"
"She didn't ask for one. She just wanted me to know they're okay. It's a Christmas miracle!" While their ears rang from that shout, Jen's eyes bulged and her and hands and cell phone pressed against her cheeks. "I have to go to church!" She dashed down the hall.
"Talon, take her to Heiliggeistkirche. It's the closest."
"But I'm not Catholic."
"You sit there and talk to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for all I care," Oswald snapped. "You speak German and will keep Magpie's exuberant American ass from getting thrown out before she has a chance to pray or whatever. Understand?" The rapier umbrella slashed through the air.
"Yes sir, Penguin." Talon hurried down the stairs and Raptor followed after him. Oswald huffed. Yes, he finally had an appetite for a slice of Christstollen. He returned his umbrella rapier to the stand and waddled down the hall to the kitchen stairs.
Bruce led the way down the second-story hallway and opened the first door on the right. The lights flickered on in the windowless, bookcase-lined room. He had only uncovered the desk and the computer last night and still needed to give Selina her security code. He didn't let that thought distract him as he headed to the sitting area in the corner. He lifted the dust-cloths off the chairs and side tables. Alfred took them from him and folded them. Bruce eased into the seat and ignored the throb and itch in his side. "Why did you come back? You gave up on me."
Alfred sank into the catty-corner chair. "I never gave up on you. You gave up on life."
"Not like that," Bruce grimaced. Selina had accused him of the same thing, after all. "I had to... punish myself."
"And I couldn't watch you do that to yourself any longer." Alfred's voice cracked.
"You should have told me about Rachel."
"I didn't know what you would do."
Bruce rubbed his face. "It wouldn't have been pretty. I probably would have given Miranda Tate the time of day when she first showed up and Gotham would be destroyed by now." He looked at Alfred's confused frown. "That's right, you don't know." He took a deep breath. "After you left, Fox woke me up with the news of what the computer code from the Stock Exchange attack did: sold off my shares of Wayne Enterprises and emptied my checking account on futures options. We showed Miranda the reactor, asked her to take over Wayne Enterprises to keep Daggett out, and that all went according to everyone's plans. Then I went to Selina to see if she'd lead Batman to Bane since Daggett didn't pay her for my fingerprints. She refused. Bane's men told her they'd kill her and her sister, but she wouldn't help them kill Batman. So I hired her to help me steal my money back."
"Not the most auspicious beginning of a relationship."
Alfred still knew how to bring a smile to Bruce's face without even trying. "And you will tell our kid how Mommy swiped Grandmother's pearls and Daddy got her attention by shooting an arrow past her head."
"The poor child should know that style of flirting isn't liable to work on anyone else."
Bruce's smiled widened. "She's incredible, Alfred. She's not afraid of me, and she followed me into hell." Remembering that erased the smile from Bruce's face and he continued with his tale. Describing how the first fight with Bane went drained the blood from Alfred's face, so he skipped Selina's rape and glossed over how Barsad had treated them during captivity. He doubted he fooled the man who had raised him, but he had given Alfred enough pain.
"My word," Alfred breathed out when Bruce wrapped up the second battle yesterday. "Miss Kyle, you do plan on marrying her, I hope."
"After Gotham recovers enough to issue marriage licenses again. Selina and I haven't talked about that yet."
"And the little girl, Stephanie, she knows you were Batman."
"I'm still not sure how that happened. We'll probably adopt her as soon as we can. It doesn't look like she has anyone else."
"All that depends on the government reopening. What are your plans for now?"
"Ask you to come back for starters."
Alfred pretended to consider it. "It would be a shame to ruin the goose because no else knows how to cook it. And it's in your best interest if I stay, to keep you from being outnumbered in a battle of the sexes."
"Right, like you won't side with the girls against me and Blake."
"Depends on the issue, sir. And I think I deserve a raise."
A smile tugged at Bruce's lips again. "What are we up to, three percent?"
"Make it four for my pain and suffering."
"Done." Bruce stood and offered Alfred his hand.
But Alfred wrapped his arms around him in a tight hug. "I still won't bury you. You and your missus will have to bury me first."
"Don't talk like that, Alfred." Bruce's arms tightened, but not at his full strength. "It's Christmas."
"Very well, Master Wayne." Alfred let him go. "And you better bloody well marry her. Before the baby gets here."
They left the study and headed down the staircase. Stephanie and Selina sat around the television. Stephanie's eyes were glued on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but Selina was listening to Lucius Fox who sat in the armchair facing the television. "It's the two children they brought with them that I think need the most help. She's a mechanical genius, even at such a young age. She improved one of my prototypes that hasn't made it off paper yet. I'm not sure if her brother's just as gifted, but you can't help one without the other."
"There's time to decide what to do for them, no hurries." Selina looked over her shoulder at Bruce and Alfred. "Negotiations successful?"
"Indeed there were, Miss. Would you like a refill, Lucius?"
"Yes, thank you." Fox passed a coffee mug to Alfred as he stood. His left forearm had a cast around it. "I'm glad to you're still in one piece, Mr. Wayne. We have a lot of work to do, your good publicity with the police notwithstanding."
Bruce shook Fox's hand. "Are you up to it?" He gestured to Fox's injury while Selina scooted down the couch so Bruce could sit next to Fox.
"This won't even slow me down." Fox waved the cast as he sat. "It fractured when I was climbing out of the reactor. It flooded and the core exploded."
Selina laid her head on his thigh and Bruce stroked her hair. "I know it cost us a fortune, but good riddance," he said.
"But it doesn't leave us much evidence to give the authorities."
"It's on the books that you built it?" Selina asked.
"The reactor was a R&D project, not Applied Sciences," Fox answered.
"We built it and I refused to activate it because of Dr. Pavel's paper. We can tell them that."
"And Miranda gave Bane the inside scoop about the reactor and when to take the Board hostage. But can we prove that?" Fox asked.
"Officer Montoya," Selina said. "She saw the female terrorist take the bomb truck."
"A nice impartial police officer," Alfred commented as he handed Fox the filled coffee mug. "Would you like a blanket, Miss Selina?"
"That would be nice, thank you."
Bruce tapped the arm rest with his other hand. "How many people did we lose?"
"I don't have a number. When Bane let Miranda, Douglas Fredericks, and me go, Miranda had the idea to empty the Building and everyone go into hiding." Bruce frowned but Fox continued. "Half the Board panicked over their families, left, and didn't regroup with us. We had the office employees and their families safe until Bane's Army captured us. Only half were taken to the Dungeon, and I still haven't heard from them."
"So we don't know if anyone was injured when Nightwing opened the Dungeon. Do you have any good news?"
"You're the majority shareholder of Wayne Enterprises again." Fox's eyes twinkled as he sipped his coffee.
Selina shifted as Alfred unfolded a fleecy blanket on top of her. Burl Ives narrated some part of Rudolph's biography. The view out the window didn't hint toward an explanation of what Fox just said. "How?" Bruce asked.
"Mr. Lorry sent off your complaint before all hell broke loose. It landed on the desk of a former Gothamite who took exception at the federal government's response to Bane."
"Nice to hear someone was angry on our behalf," Selina said.
Fox smiled. "Ms. Gabelle struck me as being upset she couldn't charge Bane with securities fraud. She acted as your advocate and reversed everything done during the Stock Exchange attack as soon as GCSE Euronet declared Metropolis Stock Exchange their official emergency site. Then she was nearly just as angry with you and me for falling off the grid."
"When did you talk to her?"
"Before you got plastered on GCN. I told her I'd try to find you, and she said wait until after Christmas to call back."
Bruce's fingers combed through Selina's hair. "I can't believe it was that easy to fix. Should I send her a thank you gift?"
"The government frowns on bribery," Selina said.
"Not a bribe, a thank you, forget it. We have to reconvene the Board, vote, and reopen. The sooner we can start normal routines, the better for everyone."
Fox set down his mug and leaned forward. "I say we plan it for this Friday. I can appear on GCN and ask for everyone to show up then or call when the phones work. Then we can outline how we are moving forward and give the employees assurances for January second."
"It's best to keep me off the air until the legalities are settled."
"You're not going back into hermitism, are you?"
Bruce felt Alfred's gaze on him, but didn't shift his eyes off Fox's face. "I'm done punishing myself, Lucius. I have to live for my family now."