Rebuilding Gotham City: Day 20
Jen woke to a high-pitched, "No! Stay with you!" right outside her bedroom door. A more subdued male voice answered, but whatever he said set off a chorus of no's. She blinked at the alarm clock. Earlier than she had planned to get up, but the grown-up sounded like he needed reinforcement.
Stephanie sat on John Blake's sock-clad feet and hugged his pajama-covered shins. "Stay with you. Stay with you. Stay with you."
John sagged against the doorframe. "Steph, I have to sleep. Alfred won't hurt you."
"I'll be quiet!"
"Yeah, but you've flunked that already," Jen said.
John blinked at her with bleary eyes that needed to shut for hours at least. "Bruce and Selina had business, emergency business. Can you?" His hand not gripping the doorjamb waved at Stephanie before he looked down. "Will you go with Jen?"
Stephanie let him go, trotted down the hall, and regarded Jen.
He yawned wide enough to swallow a Big Mac whole. "Sorry to dump this on you."
"Go to bed, we'll be fine." He didn't fall over as he shut his door. Jen looked down at the little girl. "He had a late night."
"Beating up bad guys."
"The security job, right. Come on, let's get dressed." They headed to Jen's room first. Her blue jeans and a sweater didn't take long to pull on and she ignored make-up since she was going out as innocent Jennifer Kyle to tour university campuses and churches.
They found Alfred laying out clothes on Stephanie's bed. "There you are, Miss Stephanie. You were not supposed to wake up Miss Jen."
"Uncle John did." Stephanie picked up the sweater on her bed.
"You shouldn't have woken Master Blake either." Alfred closed the wardrobe.
"I don't think I did."
"I'll get her dressed, Alfred," Jen said. Selina had told her how she found the kid, and Jen was all for not setting Stephanie off again this morning.
The older man let his relief show. "Very well, waffles for breakfast."
"Not Cocoa Puffs?" Stephanie's lower lip trembled.
"And Cocoa Puffs for you," he promised with a smile. Boy, that promise got clothes on the kid faster than anything Jen had ever seen. Luckily, she got the toothpaste tube before Stephanie squeezed it all out in her excitement.
The waffles were still warm on the counter. Jen ate half of it before she asked, "So what emergency did Bruce and Selina have this morning?"
"They had to meet with Mr. Lorry, Master Wayne's lawyer, and CPS." Alfred refilled Jen's juice glass.
Jen nodded. "Well, Stephanie agreed to help me pick out a college, so we'll make a day of it. You can call us if we need to come back early."
"Miss Selina was most insistent that you are not the live-in nanny, Miss Jen."
That was nice of her, but Jen was certain this was covered by aunt privileges. "Special circumstances today so I'm volunteering. You can call us back if we're needed."
Alfred conceded that Stephanie was going with Jen, especially after Stephanie finished her cereal and put on her coat without saying anything to either grown-up. They rode the elevated train to Hudson University's campus on South Channel Island first. Stephanie bounced in her seat to look out the window. "Bruce's daddy built this train. Did you know that?"
"I heard it was Wayne Enterprises. I didn't know it was Bruce's father." Jen bit her lip, but plunged ahead. "We need to have a serious talk, Stephanie."
She stopped bouncing and looked at her. "About the lawyer?"
"Nope, about Alfred. You aren't scared of him. I know what it's like to be scared of all men."
"Alfred won't hurt me. I know that."
"So why won't you stay with him?"
Stephanie watched her feet as she kicked. "Bruce says he's not mad, but him and Alfred," she kicked harder. "Maybe they should scream about it already."
Jen remembered Bruce's reaction yesterday and everything she and Selina had talked about. "Alfred and Bruce are fighting over the wedding? But it's not a real fight, just everybody tense and annoyed."
"It's time for them to get over that. I think we need to be sneaky."
Jen nodded. "You want to help me find a church for the wedding?"
"Will that make Bruce and Selina mad?"
"I don't think so. They've got so many decisions to make; it's making them grumpy to make more. Does that make sense?"
Stephanie slumped against the seat. "Being a grown-up is hard."
Jen nodded at that truth from a baby and hustled them off at the Hudson University station. The campus looked like it was never touched by the Occupation. The roads were clean and ice free, the buildings lacked any explosion marks, and the sidewalks were crowded with young adults heading into the same academic buildings Jen needed to go to. Stephanie clung to Jen's hand without much prompting.
They toured the campus as part of a larger group and got brochures outlining the next steps to enroll. Jen bought them both drinks at the student union. "I don't know if I'm smart enough for more school," she admitted as she scanned the glossy brochures and the printed-on-computer-paper ones.
"Don't you need school for a job?" Stephanie asked before pulling her drink down where she could use the straw.
"Yeah, I'm just freaking out about all the choices. Finding a church should be easy compared to all this." She dumped the brochures into her purse. "The church I want to check out is Uptown, so we'll go there next and then we'll head Downtown to see Gotham University before going home, okay?"
"And if they're through with their legal stuff, Bruce and Selina have to help me pick which one."
Stephanie sucked the last of her juice.
Jen took that as her cue not to trouble the little girl with her education woes and they headed back to the elevated train, getting off at the West Malcolm Street station. They walked down the street toward Liberty Queen Park where the Liberty River split into the Queen and North Rivers that flowed around Gotham. "Selina and I were kids in this neighborhood before our parents died."
"You used to live here?" Stephanie jumped over the crack in the sidewalk.
"When I was your age. Selina avoids the neighborhood, but hopefully she won't be as stubborn as Bruce about the past."
"She can be."
"Trust me, I know." They stopped on the sidewalk in front of a limestone Gothic tower. They craned their heads as the bells rang marking the hour. "Wow, I thought this place was in worse shape. Come on." Jen led the way around the corner to the multiple smaller arches around the wooden doors that looked like a whole story high covered with scrolling metal decorations.
"Is this a penthouse church?" Stephanie asked.
"No, all churches are supposed to be fancy." Jen tugged the door open and they stepped into the warm, stone interior that looked like a castle. She remembered this place and someone always taking her princess hat away from her before they got inside. The interior doors were open to the nave that extended to the end of the block. Jen gaped at the cathedral arched ceiling, the stained glass windows on the main floor and above the balcony that cast jewel tones over the neutral stonework and warm wooden pews, and the chandeliers hanging in mid-air. A few people sat scattered in the sea of pews, but they didn't turn to look behind them.
Stephanie tugged on her hand. "Look." The little girl pulled Jen to the brass plaque on the wall. "What does that say?"
Jen focused on the metal. "Liberty Church Restoration Project, Wayne Foundation, a bunch of people's names. What does Bruce have to do with this church?"
"The Wayne Foundation donated the largest amount to restore the Church a few years ago." An older man with salt and pepper hair said behind them. "I'm Reverend Manette, can I help you?"
"Hi, Jen Kyle." She shook the Reverend's hand. "My parents brought me and my sister to this church when I was a little girl." Which was the reason she started the search here that maybe a church from Selina's past would be acceptable to Bruce and Alfred, but she hadn't expected it to be so beautiful. She wanted a new princess hat. "And it's connected to the Waynes?"
"What in Gotham isn't connected to the Waynes? The family helped build the Church and a Wayne was one of the first reverends."
"Do you do weddings?"
Stephanie climbed on a chair next to the metal sign when the grown-up talking turned to wedding stuff. She traced her finger against the W. Bruce put W's on a lot of stuff. It was on the building where they watched the fireworks and on the floors and walls inside the building where he worked. It was on the paper he kept in the library that he gave her to color on when she finished her coloring book. It was on the dishes at the penthouse. It was even on some of his clothes. Aunt Jen was surprised to see it here on a church. Stephanie was surprised it was so small.
"W-A-Y-N-E can spell nay we, any we, ya new, and ay wen, but on that sign it spells Wayne. Is that your last name, little girl?"
Stephanie twisted her stiff body to face the unfamiliar male voice. He wore a green hat and a suit jacket like Bruce's only green to match the hat. He smiled but the Bad Man had smiled at her too.
Selina and Uncle John had told her what to do if a stranger separated her from everyone she knew. She screamed. The Green Hat Man raised his hands. She screamed again and jumped off the chair. Under the wooden benches, he couldn't crawl under there. She scrambled under three of them.
"Hey!" Aunt Jen yelled and it bounced off the stone walls. "What did you do to her?"
"Merely greeted her and asked her name. I apologize for upsetting your daughter."
Stephanie saw the green leather shoes leave the church before black pants blocked her view of the door. Aunt Jen dropped to her hands and knees and looked under the benches. "He's gone, sweetie. Can you come out for me?"
"Want Selina." She was willing to wait right where she was until Selina came. Just in case that Green Hat Man needed Catwoman to beat him up.
"She's at the meeting, remember? We can go straight home, but you have to come out."
Stephanie frowned. Home was safe and Alfred would use his scary voice and Uncle John would wake up and Green Hat Man and other scary men couldn't go up the elevator. She crawled out from under the benches.
Jen scooped Stephanie off the floor and turned to Reverend Manette. "I am so sorry."
"It's all right. I'm just glad the child is all right."
Stephanie tightened her legs around Jen's waist. Jen directed her comments to the nice man. "I'll bring my sister by, hopefully tomorrow. Sorry again." Jen carried her out of the church. She clung to Jen's neck as they rode the elevated train back to the penthouse. She let the woman carry her, even though she could walk. It felt better to know where the grown-up was. Jen shifted her arms to press the elevator talk button. "It's Jen and Stephanie, Alfred. Let us in. I don't remember how to work the elevator."
"Very good, Miss Jen." Alfred's voice came out through the speaker. Stephanie pressed her ear on Jen's shoulder.
Uncle John met them when the elevator doors opened. "Hey, what happened?"
"This jerk from a Lucky Charms box spooked her." Jen's voice vibrated with anger. Stephanie's body shook.
A third hand rubbed Stephanie's back between her shoulders before Uncle John's face moved in front of hers. "Did he hurt you?"
Stephanie lifted her head. "He got between me and Aunt Jen. I screamed and ran under the benches."
"That's what I told you to do. Did he chase you?"
"No, he left."
"Do I need to go beat him up? I'll go find him if you want me to."
Stephanie peered at Uncle John's face. His lips turned up in a smile, but his brown eyes were as serious as she had ever seen him. "That's okay. He left us alone. Can I go play now?"
"Sure, if you want to." Jen set her on her feet. Stephanie circled around the kitchen to the elevator and went up to her room. Her doll named Selina sat on the bed. Stephanie moved her to the table and chairs, and put out pretend tea while she told Selina-doll about her adventures today. Before she got to their finding the church, Alfred brought sandwiches and milk. Selina-doll heard about the Green Hat Man while they ate lunch at a pretend restaurant.
Selina-doll agreed that it was smart not to send Uncle John after Green Hat Man. Nightwing had to look after the whole city since Bruce and Selina couldn't be Batman and Catwoman right now. Green Hat Man probably got on his cereal box, and Nightwing would waste time in grocery stores.
Stephanie pulled out the crayons and blank paper. She finished drawing the bridge around the Tumbler when she heard the knock on her open door. She looked at Alfred standing there. "Sorry to disturb you, Miss Stephanie, but Master Wayne and Miss Selina have returned and brought someone who wants to talk to you."
"Talk to me? Okay." She left the crayons on the table and walked with Alfred to the elevator. He looked like he needed a hand holding, so she curled her hand around his finger. Alfred looked down, but she looked out as the elevator doors opened.
Selina and Bruce sat in the kitchen. Uncle John and Aunt Jen sat at the TV, but it was off. Everyone's faces kept turning to the old woman sitting next to the fireplace and writing on a tablet. Stephanie stopped walking and Alfred stopped too.
Bruce saw her and nudged Selina. She swung off the stool and headed to them with Bruce following. "Stephanie, sweetie, come meet Miss Katherine Pross from Child Protection Services. She needs to ask you some questions."
Stephanie took Selina's hand and squeezed it. "I won't go. Don't send me away, please!"
Both Bruce and Selina flinched, but Bruce spoke first. "No one is sending you away."
Miss Pross walked over to them. "Hello, Stephanie. I'm just here to talk to you."
"Mrs. Young always yelled she was calling Child Protection to take her kids away." Stephanie didn't budge from Selina's side.
"That's not my job. My job is to make sure you're safe and healthy. So let's come over here and have a talk. Mr. Wayne and Ms. Kyle will be right here, if that makes you feel better."
She looked at Selina. Selina's smile was tight. "We'll be right here. It's okay."
Stephanie eased her hand from Selina's when Bruce touched Selina's back. She didn't take Miss Pross hand as they walked to the orange benches. Her black hair had grey lines running back to the bun and her eyes crinkled as she smiled. "All I want to do is ask you some questions. They may upset you, but it's important for you to answer them honestly, okay?" Stephanie nodded. "How long have you been staying with Ms. Kyle and Mr. Wayne?"
"Since Batman blew up the bomb." That was okay. Everybody but Alfred told her to use the special names for the masks.
"Do you like it here?" Stephanie nodded hard. "Do you want to stay with Ms. Kyle and Mr. Wayne?"
"I just told you that." Stephanie crossed her arms.
Miss Pross nodded. "I have to make sure. Are you scared of anyone?"
"Nobody scary here. They keep the scary men away from me." Aunt Jen was slower at it, but it was mean to say that after she carried her all the way from the church.
"Was somebody scary before they found you?"
Stephanie pulled her legs onto the bench and hugged them tight so she was a ball. "No talk about Bad Man."
"I'm sorry I have to ask this, but what did the bad man do to you?"
She dropped her voice. She didn't want Bruce punching walls in front of Miss Pross. "Sex."
"How long were you with the bad man?"
Her nose scrunched. "A night? The Evermonds said I had to go with him and it as almost dark. Catwoman beat him up when it was daylight."
"How long were you with the Evermonds?"
"Forever." A new worry slid around Stephanie's stomach. "I don't wanna go back to them. Bruce and Selina got me clothes and toys and a bedroom. And they read to me and take me to the playground and work. And Alfred can cook."
Miss Pross shook her head. "You won't go back to the Evermonds. What about your mother? Did she stay with the Evermonds too?"
"Everybody always said they weren't my mommy."
"The ladies who hung around for Mr. Evermonds' medicine."
"What did they say about your father?"
"Same thing." She pressed her heel into the seat cushion.
"Did you see the bad man give Mr. Evermond money?" Stephanie shook her head. "Catwoman rescued you from the bad man?" Miss Pross asked next.
The older woman nodded. "Did Mr. Wayne give Catwoman money?" Stephanie's eyes narrowed. Bruce had given Selina lots of things, but that wasn't what Miss Pross was asking. "What did Mr. Wayne and Ms. Kyle give Catwoman to keep you?" she asked.
The Bad Man paid Mr. Evermond money so he could have her. The worry caught on fire inside her. "You're lying! You think Bruce and Selina did bad to get me. They're good. Catwoman's good. No more questions!" She leaped off the bench and ran to the kitchen. Bruce was still hurt, so he could hold her while Selina punched the lying woman. She reached the counter, jumped and Bruce caught her before she landed on his knees. Her arms circled his neck. "No more questions," she said into his shirt.
"She got that from your press conference," Selina said.
Bruce's hand rubbed Stephanie's back. "Stephanie, you have to answer--"
"It's all right, Mr. Wayne," Miss Pross said. Why wasn't Selina punching her? Miss Pross' voice moved closer. "I'm sorry I upset you, Stephanie. We're finished with the questions, but I'd like to see your room."
Stephanie looked up. Miss Pross' wrinkles shifted up with her smile as she stood next to Bruce. "Bruce and Selina come too."
Stephanie grabbed both their hands after Bruce set her down. The group went through the kitchen to the elevator.
"The fire pit and the staircase are not child safe," Miss Pross said once they were inside the elevator.
"We've had a fire burning since we moved in," Bruce said. "Stephanie has never gone near it."
"Fire bad," Stephanie said.
"This elevator is closest to our rooms, so she mostly uses it instead of the stairs," Selina said.
Miss Pross nodded and wrote on her computer again. Stephanie let go of Bruce and Selina when they reached her room and hugged Selina-doll to her chest. Miss Pross smiled at her before going into the bathroom. "Any problems with bath time?"
"I stopped splashing you," Stephanie said to Selina.
"Yes, you did. She doesn't fight taking them and I've been the one helping her. Jen might have to help once I get bigger."
"That's understandable." Miss Pross waved at the closets. "Her clothes are in here?" Bruce nodded as he opened them. "Thank you. Overall, you've both been doing a fine job with Stephanie." Bruce scooped Stephanie and Selina-doll as they left her bedroom and headed back down the elevator. "I only have two suggestions for you," Miss Pross continued, "put a screen around that fire pit and find a play group with children her age."
"John volunteers at St. Swithin's," Selina said. "There's a group Stephanie's age."
"That sounds like a place to start with supervision." They left the elevator and returned to the bottom floor. Miss Pross took her computer tablet to a flat, black purse.
"So what happens now?" Bruce asked. Stephanie clung to his shoulder, but he didn't want to put her down.
"The system never helped me or my sister," Selina said.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Ms. Kyle, but we have improved things in the years since. The final decision is up to the family court judge, but my report will show that you and Mr. Wayne have provided her first stable home in her life. Your application as foster parents has been approved, so there is no reason to relocate Stephanie." Miss Pross stepped into the elevator that went down to the ground. "Have a good night."
Jen twisted in her armchair in front of the TV and waited until the elevator doors closed. "Couldn't you have just bribed her?"
"She's the first child advocate back at work." Selina walked to the couch. "She practically reopened Child Protection Services. Do you really think she's bribable?"
"Guess not." Jen slumped and crossed her arms over her chest.
Bruce carried Stephanie to the couch. "Why did she come here?" she asked as Bruce set her next to Selina. "I don't want to go."
Uncle John shook his head when Bruce looked at him. "We didn't tell her. Nightwing put the Evermonds in jail last night."
Stephanie pressed her chin on Selina-doll's yellow yarn hair. "He didn't have to."
"Yeah, he did. Evermond's medicine is illegal and making people sick."
Bruce shifted beside her. "They said who your parents were, Arthur and Crystal Brown."
The names meant nothing to her. "Do they want money?"
"No, sweetie," Selina said as she brushed her hand over Stephanie's hair. "Your mother died years ago when you first lived with the Evermonds. Your father was killed during the Occupation."
"So I'm like the kids in the orphanage?"
"You're like everyone living here," Jen said.
Selina pushed off her shoes. "Bruce and I got on a fast track to adopt you. Miss Pross' job is to make sure we'd do a good job."
"Adopt? What's that?"
"Legally, we'd become your mother and father, and you'll be the big sister to the baby." Bruce looked at her. "Do you want that?"
Stephanie squeezed Selina-doll tighter. "Nobody will take me away?"
"Not without pissing all of us off," Selina said.
"We won't let anyone take you away," Bruce said.
The worry worming through her poofed away. Stephanie stood on the couch, left Selina-doll sitting, turned around, and hugged Selina and Bruce with one arm around their necks. "I want! I want!" Their arms reached around her and their faces pressed against hers.
"So we better get the wedding out of the way so you two look better for the judge," Jen said.
"Not you too," Selina answered.
Stephanie pulled back so she could see Selina and Bruce's faces. "We found a church with your name on it."
"We were supposed to ease into that, you little spoiler," Jen said.
Bruce's forehead wrinkled. "Why would my name be on a church?"