The ring box felt like it was made of lead in his pocket. Bruce left the turquoise necklace in the safe inside the equipment vault. This wasn't how he wanted to give the ring to Selina. He sighed. Keeping Stephanie was more important than a romantic memory. Everyone was downstairs: Jen and Stephanie trying to find something to watch on television while Selina and Alfred talked in the kitchen area. "Can I borrow Selina for a minute?"
"Certainly, sir." Alfred continued his supper preparations.
Selina changed her bemused expression for annoyed when Bruce opened the door out to the covered patio. "This is why people put doors in their apartments, so you can have some privacy without freezing." She stopped a few feet from the glass wall.
"Sorry." He moved closer to give her some of his body heat. "Nightwing thinks he'll raid the Evermonds tonight."
The pique narrowing her eyes vanished. "I don't care if her parents are alive; I want us to have custody."
"Lorry has started paperwork for that. And you need to wear this so people will stop questioning our relationship." He pulled the ring box out of his pocket.
Selina's lips curled up as she opened it. "A cat's eye chrysoberyl and diamonds, over a hundred-years-old, fourteen thousand."
"I paid fifteen."
"That's in the acceptable range. You didn't get rooked." She turned it over and looked at the setting.
"None of the looters recognized what it is worth. I thought that could be our private joke." Her eyes lifted from the ring to his face and triggered more words spilling from him. "But if you don't like it, we can find something else. I'll track down the rightful owners if you like something better that the police have confiscated."
She slipped the ring onto her left ring finger over the copper wire before cupping his face with both her hands. "I love you, love the ring, and love the joke." Her hands slid around his neck, resting her arms on his shoulders as they kissed.
Somehow the movement of their lips unleashed most of the tension Bruce hadn't realized his muscles held. "I love you and I don't care who knows it, despite what our audience thinks." He turned them to look through the glass wall.
Alfred spun around and opened the off and empty oven. Jen plopped herself onto a stool and looked up at the decorative items on the bookshelves closest to the kitchen. Stephanie pulled her face off the glass and waved at them.
Selina leaned against him with a chuckle. "What are we going to do with them?"
"We have to keep them; no one else will take them." He nudged her to the door.
Stephanie latched onto Selina's left hand and pulled it to her face. "Is that the gage-mint ring?"
"Engagement ring, yes," Selina corrected.
Jen jumped off the stool and ran to Selina's side. "That's what you consider an engagement ring?" She ducked under the swat from Selina's right hand.
"Hush you, I love it. It has personality."
"It's green. And it's not a solitaire diamond the size of your head."
"Diamonds are traveling money," Bruce said.
"Oh God, you taught him that."
"It's also bigger and nicer than the one-carat diamond he could've bought for the same price. Is supper ready, Alfred? I'm starving."
"Indeed, it is, Miss Selina." They sat down at the dining bar and Selina let Alfred see the ring as he handed out the salads. "It is an exquisite cat's eye."
"Yes, it is," Selina said. "So Jen, what are you planning for a career? Because jewelry appraisal is out."
Jen swallowed her bite of lettuce. "Being a secretary put me in a headspace I didn't like. Oswald said I answered the phone like Talon punched."
Bruce glanced at Stephanie. She ignored the grown-ups and popped a crouton in her mouth with her hand.
"He took me off phone duty and had me go over his books--paranoid about his accountant or something. I liked that."
"You won awards in math in elementary school," Selina said.
"Really? I don't remember that."
"There's always a need for accountants in Gotham," Bruce said. "And you had talked about wanting to go to college."
Jen's face fell. "That will have to wait till the next open semester."
"Actually, it was on the news that Hudson University, Gotham State, and the community colleges were delaying the beginning of term until February fourth," Alfred said, "to give students time to enroll."
"I can enroll just like that?"
"Jennifer Kyle has a high school diploma," Selina said. "And I'll pay for it, but you better make straight A's." Jen snorted at Selina's pronouncement.
Stephanie patted Bruce's arm. "What's college?" He smiled as he explained.
Didn't matter which uniform he wore, stakeouts were the most boring part of crime fighting. Nightwing stared at the monitors recording the activity on the docks. Customs needs to get some security, he thought as the men moved the boxes out of the warehouse without any obstacles. He looked at the monitor to the far right on the Tumbler's dashboard. The Evermonds and three men who looked like muscle sat around their living room watching television.
The dot on the city map blinked as it moved from the dock. He glanced back at the dock camera. The vans were driving off. He put more cuffs on his belt, climbed out of the Tumbler, and fired the grapple gun. The line attached to his belt pulled him to the roof. He watched the low-rise apartment building across Colgate Avenue. It didn't take long for the two vans to pull up in front of it. Five men climbed out and four took small crates into the building, leaving one leaning against the second van's side.
His smile stretched across his face. Please make it easier for me and the police. He fired the grapple gun and swung. He landed on the street behind the vans. The metal on the van's side flexed with a pop in the cold, night air. Nightwing sprinted around the rear of the van.
The thug left with the vans walked straight into his fist. Nightwing flipped him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The vigilante turned to the vans and tugged two magnetic disks off his belt. He slapped them onto the hoods before hitting the remote control for them.
The vans emitted a whine as all the electronic door locks engaged. The whine died in a flat note. So far the car stoppers did what Fox had advertised. Nightwing shot the grapple gun and rose up to the window he had left unlocked when he set up the camera.
Voices drifted into this dark bedroom from the living room. "This is some high quality shit. It may be worth it to work with those turban heads again."
Nightwing eased into the hall, rolled three delayed smoke bombs into the larger room, and slid the sonar lenses into place over his eyes while he waited. The smoke bombs opened and filled the room. The yells bounced off the people and the walls, showing in the display as white, people-sized forms. One staggered to the hallway. Nightwing kicked him out of the way.
The next one to deal with was the one tugging on the apartment's front door, but he was out of reach with four men between them. He threw a Batarang. The thug yelled when it embedded into his arm.
Nightwing unleashed a round house kick on the thug closest to the wall next to the hallway. He bounced off the wall and hit another thug beside him. They both fell to the floor. Nightwing dropped down, punched the thugs on the floor, and leaped away from the swing the third thug made.
"There's somebody in here!" was yelled between coughing fits.
One of the standing thugs bent over and grabbed a crate. Nightwing knocked it out of his hands. It dropped on the thug's foot, but Nightwing's punch shut up his howl.
A blow hit Nightwing in his back and he sprawled over the thug on the floor. The lucky puncher flailed in the smoke to hit him again. Nightwing kicked his knee and then kicked his head when he lost balance.
The last two thugs were at the main door. One was trying to get the Batarang out of his arm and blocked the second trying to open the door. Nightwing bashed their heads together and stepped back as they crumpled to the floor.
Evermond dashed through the kitchen and threw a toaster through the window to the fire escape. The glass gave way, but Nightwing grabbed him before he made the hole bigger. He slammed the skinny Caucasian face-first on the kitchen table. Evermond groaned as Nightwing pulled his arms back and cuffed him. Smoke drifted out of the hole along with the heated air. A dark-skinned woman darted to the window and knocked out more glass. Nightwing turned to her. "You aren't getting out that way."
She spun at him. The shard clutched in her hand glittered. He ducked back away from the glass and kicked. His foot knocked her into the cabinets. She dropped the glass as she moaned. He managed to cuff her hands behind her back before she recovered to throw her head back.
He shifted away before she slammed against his nose. "Stop or I will knock you out, lady."
Evermond rolled his head to look at them. "That's my wife, you masked bastard," he said through the blood in his mouth.
"And I'm so happy for you both, but head butts won't get the cuffs off." Nightwing tugged Mrs. Evermond into the living room and sat her against the wall. He stepped around the second, open crate and bag of white powder to cuff the seven unconscious thugs on the floor. Then he headed to the bedrooms. They were clear, but he pressed the comm button on his collar. "Receiving me?"
"Loud and clear," Bruce's voice answered. "Any trouble?"
"They're a feisty bunch, but nothing overwhelming. We're going to have a chat now."
Nightwing clicked on the signal to the police band on his belt as he headed down the hall. He pulled Evermond off the table and set him next to Mrs. Evermond before unlocking the main door of the apartment and dragging the sleeping beauties out of the way. "Now we have time for a little chat before the police show up to haul you away for a very long time."
Evermond spit out his tooth and it almost hit Nightwing's boot. "We ain't talking to a masked cop." Blood-laced spittle ran down his chin.
"You really want to; I'm the nice one." Nightwing's lips curled back. "Because if you think Blackgate will keep Catwoman from giving you the same treatment she gave Roger Cly, tell me. I could use a good laugh."
"You son of a bitch!" Mrs. Evermond kicked her husband's leg. "I told you not to do it."
"Shut up, bitch!"
"Cly has already told the police how he got Stephanie from you. So don't sweat the sale of a minor charge that's already waiting for you. Where did you get her? Where are her parents? Will the D.A. tack on a charge of abduction of a child under sixteen?"
"They're dead," Evermond said with a snarl. "We never kidnapped her. Crystal Brown brought her here when she took her last dose."
"We took her to the clinic," Mrs. Evermond said. "They couldn't do anything for her. So we kept the little brat for two years waiting for her father to get out of Blackgate. We ain't monsters."
"Really, you want to go there?" Nightwing crossed his arms. "After you sold her to a convicted child molester?"
"I told him not to!" Mrs. Evermond yelled. "But that damn fool Arthur got himself dead after his early release."
"Don't know no details about that," Evermond said. "Just heard he pissed off the wrong people."
"Found his record," Bruce said into Nightwing's ear. "Arthur Brown, serving a five-year sentence for robbery, married to a Crystal Brown, one child. His body has already been found and identified."
"And here we were stuck with a kid and owed for taking care of her for two years," Evermond continued. "We took Cly's money. We didn't know what he planned to do with her."
Nightwing surged forward and slid Evermond up the wall. "No idea, huh. Your wife had a pretty good idea what Cly wanted with her." Evermond thrashed as Nightwing shoved him against the plaster. "How much was a child's innocence worth, slime!"
The apartment door swung open behind him. "Police!" a deep bass voice yelled.
"Nightwing!" a woman yelled behind him.
"Do we need to take you in too, vigilante?" the male voice asked.
Nightwing dropped Evermond as he turned to Officers Montoya and Bullock. He ignored Bullock's eager face and focused on Montoya's concern. "They're all yours, officers." He stepped out of their way and back down the hall.
Montoya holstered her weapon and headed to the open crate. "It's not business as usual any more, Evermond."
Nightwing moved into the bedroom and through the window he had entered through. He climbed up to the roof, paused to breathe out his anger, and waited. "Are you clear?" Bruce asked.
"I'm on the roof."
"Are you all right?"
"I hate reminders that people suck."
"They're both off the streets. They can't hurt anyone else." Bruce's inhale sounded ragged. "And you got to hit him."
Nightwing chuckled. "If Catwoman wants a ride to Blackgate...."
"She's not going. She needs that energy to deal with the system tomorrow."
"Okay, I'm going to drive around the city before I come in."
"It's your patrol. Signing off." The slight buzz in his ear ended.
Nightwing turned off his microphone before traveling over the rooftops to where he left the Tumbler parked. Green paper was tucked under the windshield wiper on the driver's side front window. "What the hell?" he said as he landed in the empty alley.
The green paper turned out to be an envelope. The Tumbler was still locked and nothing else had been left on the vehicle. He climbed inside and turned on the interior lights. The only thing inscribed on the front of the envelope was a black question mark.
"Bruce neglected to mention love notes were part of the job." He unfolded the unsealed flap. The poem was printed on clean, white paper with green ink.
Some bluebirds told me,"What the hell?" he repeated. Then he shook his head and folded the note back into the envelope. Somebody on the force thought pulling Selina's tail was the way to confirm Catwoman rumors. He'd warn her to be more careful around them.
They saw a puddykat,
In a concrete cage,
Made by Bane.
She wasn't alone tee-he,
She never named the bat,
But what acts they did engage,
Before boom went the plane.
Did anyone foresee,
That I found the puddykat,
In a gilded cage,
Owned by Wayne.
How could she agree
To forget the bat?
No grief to assuage,
__________ shows no pain.
Bruce stood to his full height as the short door into the vault closed behind him. Stephanie didn't ask much about her parents, but now they had answers and an opportunity to make things right for her. Speaking of, he walked to the sitting area. Stephanie hugged her yarn-haired doll as she curled on the couch. He scooped her up and carried her to the bed.
Selina lifted her head from the pillow when he set Stephanie beside her. "On the couch again?"
"Maybe we should replace her bed with a daybed." Bruce shucked off his robe before crawling into the bed.
"You heard from Blake?"
He nodded against Selina's neck as his arm embraced both of them. "She's Stephanie Brown and both her parents are dead. After the sun rises, we have to make her Stephanie Wayne."
Selina's hand covered his on Stephanie's back.