The years had been good to Beryl Hutchinson—-or at least as good as the years ever were to a long-term costumed vigilante. When Steph had first met her, they had been Batgirl and Squire, a former-Robin and Europe’s basic equivalent to Robin. She’d known very little about the girl, the meeting having been all-business and in the name of the Bat (and also Justice), but the British spitfire had clicked with her in a way that was rare for them both. They’d kept in contact after their hey, look, the space-time continuum has gone all timey-wimey adventure, mostly through brief emails and a few instances of their paths intersecting at the right place at the right time. They were cut from similar cloth, girls who’d grown up with little and gone through too much, but who’d ultimately found their calling doling out criminal punishment in thematic costumes. Beryl wore magic armor nowadays, the first Knightress in the line, but she was still her loud, explosively cheery self.
Steph wasn’t sure who had told her about The Fight—-because she refused to believe that the relationship issues between Batman and Batwoman were interesting enough to hop over the pond all on their own—-but she felt oddly obligated to send them a thank you note. Beryl was what she needed, she decided as soon as the redheaded woman caught sight of her among the other passengers wandering around like lost children. The Knightress gave a loud whoop of excitement and waved at her enthusiastically, like the sign blaring CONSTANCE ABERTHINE in bright purple marker wasn’t enough of a clue that she was there to pick her up.
Beryl was bright and obnoxious and commanding. She was everything that the normal Gothamite was not, and Steph needed that. She tossed the sign aside and loped up to her, wrapping her in a hug that squeezed just shy of collapsing her lungs.
“Hullo, Steph! It’s so good to see you!” Beryl crowed happily, pulling her up off her feet and swinging with her. It took sheer force of will to beat back her lingering airsickness. She had to swallow repeatedly to keep from hurling on her sneakers. That would have seriously affected Beryl’s level of enthusiasm, and Steph wanted to ride the curve of her good cheer and pretend that this was a pleasure visit, and that everything was fine.
“You look great, B,” Steph said, and meant it. Beryl had grown into herself, a powerful cut of a woman. Even without her armor on, her bearing screamed warrior—-or you don’t want to meet me in a dark alley, mate, at least. She was tall and toned, her tanned arms chased with faint, pale trails of scar tissue. She’d kept her very red hair in a chin-length bob, but her left eyebrow and nose had been pierced since the last time she’d seen her.
“And you look like a smear in a gutter, ducks,” she said, grinning. “But not every day can be a winning one, now can it? Take it from me—-a week or two here will make life in the States seem simple. You’ll be too busy to dwell on any pointy-eared bastards.”
Yeah, this was exactly what Steph needed.
Beryl lived in a mess of an apartment that was more closet than apartment, and more warzone than mess. If Beryl herself was an entire army of loud woman warriors distilled into one body, her apartment was the home decor equivalent. Newspaper clippings and a few pieces of drying lingerie hung from a line that stretched from the kitchenette to the living room—-a grand total of about eight feet. Her bookshelf was made of stacked milk crates and cinder blocks, and her computer looked like it might actually be duct taped. Everything was everywhere and nothing made sense, but it still felt welcoming and homey.
Steph didn’t know where to set her things—-or where to sit, really, since the couch was covered in archaic weapons, a layer of cat hair, and the fat, dim cat that the hair belonged to. Beryl shooed the cat (Knickers, which was both a wonderful and terrible name for an overweight cat that had the IQ and disposition of an attractive paperweight) off the couch, moved the mace, and commanded her to drop her bag and make herself at home.
And it was a little bit like being at home. Not Wayne-home, but Mom-home. The house that she and her mother had shared had been a lot like this one, albeit a little bit more organized. Things were well-worn and well-loved, either hand-me-downs to begin with or items used until they fell apart, then taped together and used some more.
“It’s not much,” Beryl said, almost hesitantly. “But I don’t need much, y’know? It’s my own place, and that’s what’s important to me.”
It was like she was looking at her home with fresh eyes and picking out all the imagined faults; Steph waved her off immediately.
“I totally do,” she said, and gave her the brightest smile she could muster. “Having it be yours means a lot. And it’s a for-real flat. That’s cool. Consider the American very impressed.”
“A flat that’s home to the one and only Knightress,” she agreed, her hesitance warming into pride. “And the temporary headquarters of America’s darling, the Batwoman. That’s a winning two-fer if I ever did see one. I’d take you to the castle, but it’s drafty. Marvelous to tour and to take tea in, but give me an apartment with a heater any old day. He’d like to see you.” Beryl paused, then bubbled with laughter. “The, um, Earl of the castle, not the castle, that is.”
Steph forgot that Beryl’s former partner wasn’t just an average joe, sometimes. The American Batman was a trust fund orphan in every incarnation, but Britain’s Bat was of noble lineage. He had a castle and everything. It struck her as kind of odd that Beryl lived in a crappy studio apartment while her old friend and mentor had an entire castle for him and his (Texan!) butler, but she was no stranger to complicated situations.
“It’d be an honor. Do I have to curtsy? If I make a bad first impression, do I get exiled from Wordenshire? Inquiring minds, ‘cause I’m really good at bad first impressions.”
“Ha! No, no. Cyril’s a lamb. It’s the first Thursday of the month, and I’m expected at the Time in a Bottle in London,” Beryl explained, picking up pieces of very old armor. Knickers, who had resettled himself in the bowl of her helmet, gave a grumble of protest when she shooed him out of it. “Cyril wants you to come along. The local chapters of our crowd—-the capes and cowls, that is—-they gather at the Time in a Bottle to share a pint and a bit of camaraderie. It’s a tradition stretching back to the sixteenth century, so I thought you might be interested.”
“I’m here for the culture,” Steph said, putting on her best face. “Culturize me, cap’n.”
The Time in a Bottle was the single most British thing that Steph had ever experienced, and that was including the back-alley tours Beryl had inflicted on her at high speed the first time she’d visited. At face value, the pub was quaint—-more of a converted inn than anything, feeling faintly like it’d been someone’s home many, many years before. The Time in a Bottle was a place that could not possibly have existed in Gotham, for more reasons than she could list.
First off, everyone was in costume. If she hadn’t known better, she would have assumed that the pub was holding an early Halloween costume contest. First Thursday of the month was just for their crowd, and what a crowd it was. There were a ton of uniforms that she recognized, but they were tipped slightly—-the European versions of heroes that’d originated on American soil. She’d done a neck-wrenching double-take when she’d passed a framed picture on the wall that looked scarily like the Joker, if he’d put on fifty pounds and fifty years. The plaque underneath the picture read, “Jarvis Poker: the Funniest Among Us,” paired with his day of birth and his death.
That was the second thing that’d floored Steph: costumed heroes and known villains mingled freely and without conflict. She tried to imagine what this would look like in Gotham—-Batman and Joker enjoying frosty brews and shooting the shit, toasting their hero/villain bond with PBRs and civil discussion of politics.
It wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t happen, even if a bar blessed by Merlin existed in America. The pub had a tiny statue that prevented any use of powers, weapons, or aggressive force. But, Steph felt, if all the criminals and vigilantes of Gotham were piled into a pub that forbade physical fighting with truce magic, one of two things would happen. Either they would try to find a way around it, using the place as a trap, or they wouldn’t go there at all. They had no interest in meeting in gray zones, no desire to see each other as anything but enemies or obstacles.
So, it was surreal. Completely and utterly surreal. When Beryl had told her to suit up to go meet Cyril, she hadn’t expected anyone else to know who she was. But as soon as Batwoman and the Knightress had walked in the door, people flocked. Everyone wanted to shake her hand, to tell her what a dear she was, to ask how long she’d be staying and if she’d be interested in seeing the particular sights they watched over. It was a little bit overwhelming, and Beryl—-thankfully—-picked up on that. She shooed away the colorful bunch of spandex-clad admirers, telling them that they were chatty nags, and to give her some breathing room. Using her size to cut a path through the throng, she steered her toward a back corner table.
“Sorry about that,” Beryl said, her smile broad beneath her armored visor. “I let slip to the regulars that I’d be entertaining a Bat, and you’ve got a bit of a following here.”
“Holy crap,” Steph said with feeling, rearranging her cape as she took a seat. NOMEX wasn’t comfortable to sit on when it was all bunched up. “Pretty sure they like me more here than in my own town. I don’t think I could be more welcomed.”
“Wouldn’t a pint or two make you feel properly welcomed?” Cyril asked, sliding into the booth next to Beryl. He looked weirdly out of place in a light wool blazer and slacks, but he didn’t have a masked identity anymore.
“Particularly if it’s a pint bought by Lord Cyril Sheldrake, Earl of Wordenshire, eh?”
“As awesome as a drink purchased by nobility would be, I’m gonna pass,” Steph said. Her stomach turned over unpleasantly at the mere thought.
“Not on my account, I hope,” said Cyril, folding his big hands together neatly on the table. “It wouldn’t bother me. I’ve been sober for fifteen years, now.”
Steph suffered a hot, brief flash of embarrassment. She hadn’t known that Cyril was a recovering alcoholic. It wasn’t the type of thing that came up easily in conversation, and even as friendly as she’d been with Beryl, they hadn’t delved into the nitty-gritty details of their personal lives. Capes and cowls were notoriously close-mouthed about their secret identities, even to allies. Keeping some things safe was what kept some of them alive to fight another day. It was just a reality of their dual lives.
“Oh, no, no,” Steph said, waving her hands. “I don’t think my stomach could handle any booze right now. I spent half the flight over tossing my cookies.” She paused for a beat. “Biscuits. Is that even a saying here? Anyway, I was puking my guts out, ‘cause I’m apparently the only Bat that can’t fly.”
Beryl reached across the table and patted her hand.
“You should’ve said something. They serve a nice ginger ale here. How’s about I get us a round? I haven’t got much of a taste for alcohol, anyhow.” Beryl jerked a thumb at Cyril with a cheeky grin. “Been hanging around this bloody pain in the A for too many years.”
“And you only complain when we’ve got company,” he groused, though the corners of his eyes crinkled with mirth. “Go fetch the drinks, you. Tell George to put it on my tab.”
“Right, right,” Beryl said, an eye-roll in her voice. “I live to serve, m’lord.”
“No earl could hope for a better knight,” he said warmly. Beryl disappeared into the rainbow of costumes, the pointed metal ears of her helmet bobbing above the crowd.
“She’s a hell of a knight, too,” Steph said, eying Cyril thoughtfully. He was just edging toward his mid-forties, his age only belied by the creases in his kind, calm face, and the fingers of gray working away from his temples. He was in fine physical condition, still able to hold his own in any fight, if he chose to. He didn’t, though. He’d passed on his mantle, his armor, by choice.
“She wears it well,” he agreed, smiling absently. It brought out dimples that cut a good ten years off him. “She, erm. Was ready for it years ago, I suppose, but I wanted to be certain before I passed the torch. She couldn’t stay my Squire forever, and she’s always had the heart for it. Hutchinsons are known to have lion hearts, and my knight’s the bravest of the breed.”
“Soon as I get my ginger ale, I’m toasting to that,” she said, her eyes still wandering around the pub. Soaking it all in was a process. It might as well have been full of lions and lambs grooming each other, for the way the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ carried on. “Do you miss it? The punching and the kicking and the crimefighting, I mean.”
Cyril contemplated that for a long minute, rubbing his thumb over his knuckles.
“Yes and no,” he said. “It’s a curious affliction, this need to take to the streets. I was the Squire before her, so I’ve been in this business for most of my life. I was the Squire ‘cos my father needed me, then the Knight because I needed it. It filled an emptiness, taking up his armor after he died. She,” and those calm, deep brown eyes of his rested on Beryl, who was chatting merrily with the bartender. “Became my Squire ‘cos I needed her. Drink nearly ruined me—-the fight wasn’t enough to keep the emptiness at bay. I lost the castle, lost my head—-damn near lost it all. The Hutchinsons took me in, cleaned me up, and set me back on my feet. Bringing order to the streets helped sort me out on the inside, so I needed to be the Knight.”
Cyril didn’t look away from her.
“Now, I don’t need that. She does. She fights for me, and she does it admirably. I miss it, and I worry that she gets in over her head at times, but I don’t regret making her my Knight. Seemed like the natural progression of things, really.”
Steph hummed thoughtfully, chin in her hand.
“The Bats could learn a thing or two from you,” she murmured, then sighed. “They all hold onto their titles with white knuckles until they have to give ‘em up, or they pretend that they’re going to live forever.”
Or the made sure that they would live forever. But that wasn’t a thought that Steph could share. She stamped it down before it could ruin her mood.
“Yes, well,” Cyril twirled one wrist airily, evasive. “Things are, erm. Different in the colonies, as I’m sure you’re well aware.”
“You don’t even know,” Stephanie said with a laugh. “Seriously. Nooooo idea.”
“And I’m back with drinks and merriment,” Beryl said, expertly juggling three mugs. She slid back into the booth, passing out drinks. “What’d I miss? Been talking about me? I’ll be disappointed if you weren’t, y’know.”
“We’ve been brainstorming stories and slander to circulate,” she smirked over the top of her mug. It was the gingeriest ginger ale that she’d ever had, but the bite was unexpectedly nice. “Gotta keep the rumor mill going.”
“You damned Yank,” she laughed. “And I opened my heart and home to you, too.”
“And I’m grateful for that,” Steph said, with all the feeling she could muster. Offering to put her up for as long as she needed was no small thing, but Beryl wasn’t halfway about anything. She didn’t put limits on anything, so she knew if she ended up crashing on her couch for ten years, she’d be perfectly happy with the arrangement. Beryl and Cyril were good people. “Still working through my culturization shock, but I’m glad I’m here.”
“It’s, ah, odd for you, I imagine,” Cyril said, big hands wrapped around his stein. “The speed here’s a bit different, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of crazy,” she agreed, that framed picture of the not-Joker catching her eye again. “There’s a lot of similarities, but the heroes and the villains are more…”
“Moderate?” Beryl prompted, following her gaze. The portrait brought out faint creases of displeasure at the corners of her mouth. “The crowd runs more on the golden mean here. That’s not to say our villains aren’t bad people, but they ain’t monsters. I’ve never figured out if Gotham makes ‘em that way, or if it’s simply something in the water. We had a Joker, y’know—-Jarvis Poker, British Joker.”
“A good man,” Cyril murmured, then drank to it.
“You wouldn’t call our Joker a good man,” Steph said, the name alone calling up fractured bits of what the Joker was: blood and shrieking laughter, crowbars and dead kittens drowned in marzipan, children laughing themselves to death. “I mean, most people wouldn’t even call him a man. He’s a thing. A bad, awful, why can’t you just stay down and-or in jail thing.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, nodding briefly. “But Brits don’t have the same sense of humor. See, our Joker ripped his style ‘cos he thought it was inspiring, but his jokes were actually funny. He was a hero in his own right, though he didn’t want that spread around.”
“Is that…I dunno, common around here?” Steph asked, surveying the crowd with new interest.
“Fairly. We’ve had heroes of our own, but you Yanks have done it with a certain flair. Lotsa people have taken up similar names, inspired by what they’ve seen from afar. I knew a Shrike once, too. Heard that yours is a foul man, but ours was.” Beryl stopped, taking a quick drink—-like she had to wash a bad taste out of her mouth. “He was a good boy, too. The only thing that made him a recovering villain was the fact that he signed up for a villainy weblisting ‘cos he didn’t know where else to start in the business. Joker killed him. Yours, not ours. He killed ours, too.”
Steph seriously regarded the bubbles in her soda, willing her stomach to calm down again. Sometimes, she wondered exactly how many lives the Arkham lot had torn apart with graceless fingers—-how much they’d ruined, if that was something that could even be tallied up. The next line of thought was the one where she—-and all the other people in her ‘clan’—-had to stop: would this particular life be different, or better, if we’d taken the Joker out of the picture decades ago?
It was the question that split Jason from Bruce. It defined their methodology. Though she followed Bruce’s laws still, it wasn’t a question that Steph had ever fully answered for herself. When she brought herself up short, it wasn’t always her own instincts she was following.
“Why?” she heard herself ask. “Why would people here want to be anything like what we have in Gotham?”
Beryl and Cyril exchanged a look between them; it was a glance that held an entire conversation and ended in Cyril nodding slightly.
“At first glance, you’d think it’s ‘cos you Americans beat us to the naming game,” Cyril said, his tone the slow, even cadence of a storyteller. “And I’d wondered that myself, when I was a much younger man. My father, Lord Percival Sheldrake, was the first Squire—-but to the Shining Knight, who is a different hero altogether. The Shining Knight title goes back to the days of Arthur, so you could say he’s uniquely ours. When my father grew into himself and struck out on his own, he decided against following tradition. This pointy-eared gentleman across the pond inspired him, so he married his love of England’s history with everything that the Batman stood for: championing the weak, upholding law and order, never using guns, and never killing. He’s not the only one, either—-years before Mr. Wayne fully funded Batman Incorporated, Batmen were popping up globally. What his actions said carried further than his voice ever could. That is how the Knight, the British Batman, was born.”
“But it’s more than that,” Beryl cut in when Cyril paused for thought. “He—-the Batman, that is—-is bigger than just what he did, or how he did it. He’s a hero.”
“We’re all heroes,” Steph said, not quite understanding where the Knightress was going with that.
“Erm, yes, in a broad sense, but,” Cyril gestured around them, at the Time in a Bottle as a whole. “We’ve got an interesting view of things, here. America is a young country, in the grand scheme of things. Britain is an archaeological site of sorts: the various peoples and conquerors have left layer after layer atop each other, which informs both our culture and our imaginations. If you start digging, you’ll find modern England and the whole chain of kings and queens that led us here, then the Norman conquest, then the Anglo-Saxons, then the Roman empire’s fingertips, then the prehistoric peoples, then all the immortal things that were here before mankind was even thought of. It’s a lumpy layer cake, and sometimes things from the bottom poke up through. Nothing is ever fully erased, so we have this very rich, very old history to pull our stories from. There’s no finer example of it than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think. Fairies and Romanized Greeks played and penned by Brits. America doesn’t have this, not to such a degree.”
“You’re too young for it, and your native stories aren’t held up with the same veneration,” Beryl added. “Those old so-called magics exist, but they’re not as strong in the consciousness. So, being Americans, you’ve gone and made your own heroes.”
“There’s a difference between heroes like, erm,” Cyril looked around for a victim. “Rush Hours one through three, and King Arthur. You’ve probably never heard of the Rush Hours, but everyone can name at least three or four knights of the Round Table. Our true heroes are hundreds of years old, because our memory for history goes back far further than even that. But you, you marvelous mad Yanks, you’re still writing your stories. Your King Arthurs and Lady Guineveres are still alive, and the world reacts to them. The Batman and his knights will live forever.” He drank his ginger ale, smiling. “You can mark my words on that one. Children will be telling your tales for many, many years.”
Stephanie had never thought about it in those terms. Why would she have? The cape and the cowl had always had meaning, the Bat Symbol inciting a visceral reaction in the people of Gotham, but her view of what it all meant was super-nearsighted. Being a Bat had felt like being a part of something big, but this was huge and humbling—-and it felt right. When Bruce had started putting together the Batman Inc network, he hadn’t had to make heroes in his own image. They’d been there already, peppered around the globe and fighting for what made Batman Batman without ever having been in his presence. In a weird way, the candle vow could have been considered some kind of knighting, too.
She must have been staring blankly as her brain tried to process this—-and all the meaning attached to it—-because Cyril chuckled warmly.
“Bit of an eye-opener, eh?”
“Yeah, it. I. The fanboy welcome makes more sense now,” she said.
“What you do is magnificent,” Beryl said, reaching over and squeezing both her hands. “And that’s why you’ll always be welcome in my home, Batwoman. Even if you’re a bloody gossip.”
Later that night, curled up on the squeaky pull-out spare bed in Beryl’s apartment, Steph kept herself awake trying to commit everything that had been said to memory. She wished that Damian had been able to hear it from the Knight and Knightress themselves. Since he was thousands of miles and several bad decisions removed, she made herself remember it all.
As the Batman, he was that hero. If he gave her the chance, she’d convince him of it.
Patrolling with the Knightress reminded her of the goodl ol’ days. Not the good ol’ days with Damian—-the old good ol’ days, when she’d worn a hand-sewn purple cape and done everything at her own speed. In those ol’ days, she’d been as self-made as her costume, scooting around on an ancient Kawasaki she’d conned a former boyfriend into fixing up for her. She hadn’t had real patterns or routines, just zooming around the dark streets armed only with enthusiasm and the idea that she was doing The Right Thing, beating down everything that got in her way.
With Beryl, it was like that. There was a freedom to it, because they were constantly roaming to new places. Damian had been a stickler about following crime patterns and planning ahead, but the Knightress was more reactionary. Nothing much happened in Wordenshire, so she went wherever she was needed. She rode Knight’s old motorcycle, the horse-headed Anastasia, and Steph followed on the Squire’s retired “steed”.
The Knightress was the Bat of England, which meant she covered a lot more ground than Batwoman, the Bat of Gotham, was used to. The change was good, though; good for her head, good for her heart, and ostensibly good for her health.
Worden was a tiny town, full of family-owned shops that’d stood for hundreds of years. The air was clean and fresh, and she couldn’t have found a friendlier bunch of civilians. Everyone was on first name basis with everyone else, and the identities of the line of Knights of Wordenshire was the single worst-kept secret in all of England. The grapevine was a surprisingly good source of information, and nobody ever had to be shaken down for what they knew. News was floated to Beryl through the sweet old man who owned the convenience store where Beryl picked up Cyril’s favorite magazines—-he actively kept ‘those masked hooligans’ out of Worden by yelling them out of his shop and giving them directions to London, where they’d have an easier time rabble-rousing—-and from the milkman every morning—-who was an honest to God milkman who delivered honest to God milk, but who was also a vigilante (named The Milkman)—-and from the sharp-eared woman who ran the bakery—-who would always tell Beryl to pass the info along to that dashing Knightress friend of hers, then give her a wink.
The people of Worden were very aware of who watched over them, and they were proud of her. Beryl and Cyril’s secret identities were as unsecretive as secret identities got, but there was this implied trust, this respect, that kept them safe from the world outside of their rural village. Steph figured that most of the people who saw her with Beryl as her stay went from ‘days’ to ‘weeks’ had puzzled out who Batwoman was by proxy. It should have bothered her—-and if Damian had known, he would’ve had eighteen kinds of fits—-but it seemed like such a non-issue in Worden. The locals treated her like she’d been one of theirs since childhood, more of a part of the community than a visitor whose stay was looking more and more permanent daily.
All of that open air and kindness should have been therapeutic. And mentally, it was. Steph had space to think, to analyze her life in Gotham without the claustrophobic skyscrapers boxing her in. But she couldn’t shake her problems, and the weight of what she’d left behind in Gotham wore her down. In the two months since she’d packed up and pushed off, she’d lost almost ten pounds. The Stress About What Damian Might Be Doing to Himself Diet was a killer, and all she had to do to slim down was hug the toilet until she wondered what she’d done to piss off God, anyway.
This didn’t go unnoticed by Beryl—-or any of the graying women who frequented the bakery or the deli where they ate most of their meals. It’d been a mixed blessing to learn that Beryl was as terrible at cooking as Steph was, because while solidarity was great, they had to eat. The bakery and deli were warm and friendly enough that the staff might as well have been family, so whenever Steph had to hurriedly excuse herself and make a beeline for the loo, she returned to worried clucking and an array of home remedies to ease stress.
She tried to push it all from her mind—-to cut herself off. She tried, because she knew that for her sake—-as well as Damian’s—-she had to. Trying didn’t earn her gold stars in the real world, though, and she couldn’t control her wandering thoughts. Little things reminded her of him, but those prompts weren’t anywhere as bad as the dreams.
More often than not, she dreamt of him. That scared her, more than she wanted to admit even to herself. Ever since her teens, her nightmares had been predictable: sharp edges and needles, Black Mask and the tremor in Bruce’s voice when he’d promised that she’d really been something. Now, her dreams were fresh and full of dark avenues she’d never explored before. There was a new tableau of horror waiting for her at every dead end.
Sometimes, they’d be good dreams. She’d dream about his hands, how his palm felt when it curved to follow the arch of her hip. The exact shapes of the calluses on his fingertips, the edge of his nails when they bit skin. His wide knuckles, and the multicolored pattern their fingers made when laced together. She’d dream about his eyes, how they warmed and cooled like liquid with his moods. Always blue, always clear, but they could be warm depths or ice. She dreamt about him in pieces, fragments and details she’d memorized over the years.
In the good dreams, she never saw all of him, and sometimes his presence was nothing but that familiar hand on her hip and his warm breath on the back of her neck as he slept—-implications of the rest of him. When she woke up in the lumpy hide-a-bed in Beryl’s flat, alone and three thousand miles away from all the places she’d called home, she usually curled up on her side and tried not to cry. Even if she succeeded, suppressing it made her sick.
Most of the time, they were nightmares shot through with memories. She’d dream about all the ways she’d seen him die: shot in the head, shot in the heart, strangled, snapped, and burned. She’d dream about all the wrong, broken angles his body had taken. The exact shapes of the puddles of blood around him when he bled out, how the chugging flow from the bullet wounds would slow and stop with his heartbeat.
The nightmares were never content with working with real life material, the things she’d seen and could never forget, so sometimes it was Black Mask holding the knife, palming the gun, or holding his body. Sometimes, it was her. And nightmares being nightmares, he never opened his eyes again, never healed and got back up with a sneer.
Steph woke up shaking every time, and it was a race to get untangled from her bedding and make it to the sink or toilet before she started heaving. That nausea was a lasting one, because she saw ghastly afterimages whenever she closed her eyes. She knew that she couldn’t keep losing sleep and weight at the rate that she was, but what was she supposed to do? She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t change things. Her hands were tied, and the only person she could beat up over it was her own body.
Beryl noticed—-had to have noticed; throwing up had become as much a part of Steph’s morning routine as brushing her teeth—-but she said nothing. She was brash and bold, but even she knew better than to stomp through certain delicate situations. So, she tried to distract her with patrolling at night and a whole host of activities during the day. Beryl was a great hostess and a better friend, so Steph felt guilty for letting her internal turmoil leak out at all. The more she repressed and stuffed it all down, the sicker she got.
By the sixth week of her extended stay, Beryl was kicking out all the stops when it came to constructive distractions. Nobody knew they lay of the land like the Knightress did, and nobody had as many friends in unexpected places. One warm, damp night in mid-July, she announced that they would be taking the night off and painting the town red in a different way. Beryl locked her in the bathroom and promised that she’d keep her alive with crackers poked under the door until she agreed to hang up the cape for the night and go out to meet people. Steph hadn’t had any choice but to sigh and say yes.
She wondered when she’d become the un-fun one. Not too long ago, she was Steph Brown: International Woman of Fun-Having. She would’ve punched a whole line of criminals in the face for the chance to go to a punk rock show. It wasn’t age that’d calmed her down, it was exhaustion and inescapable misery. She’d get over it—-everyone from the sweet Worden housewives to Beryl to Kara to Cass and back again had promised that—-but Steph was stubborn, even when she didn’t want to be. She hadn’t let go of Damian. Not yet.
But soaking up some reality wouldn’t hurt in the meantime, so she threw on jeans and a t-shirt—-she’d pondered long and hard over whether it would be more appropriate to wear her best shirt, or her rattiest—-and braced herself for Beryl’s most dogged attempt at making her enjoy herself.
And it worked. Kind of.
Beryl’s favorite club was a hole in the wall that didn’t warrant a sign, much less a blurb on travel websites. It was one of those places where you had to know someone who knew someone to know it existed, and then you had to know someone who really knew someone in order to get in. It was dirty, lit by neon and a motley assortment of lights that illuminated the curlicues of cigarette smoke snaking toward the ceiling. The floor was packed and rowdy enough that only the strung out, the smashed, the die-hard, the jaded, and the foolhardy would willingly risk going out into it, and at the moment Steph wasn’t any of the above. She couldn’t hear her own thoughts around the shrill, breakneck speed of the guitar riffs and the thumping of the the bass, but that was what she wanted. No booze, nothing to make her emotional and maudlin—-just something loud enough to jar her out of the sick loop she’d fallen into.
“Love adventure death and glory; The short goodbye the whispered story,” the frontman yowling on stage had his thin shoulders bunched up near his ears, his entire body wrapped protectively around the microphone. He sang-screamed in rapid-fire. “One last glance at the chameleon dance, and into the dark across the park. I ain’t no mark for the venus of the hardsell! SAY IT!” He pulled the mic away, shouting so hard that the muscles in his long neck stood out in hard lines and spittle sprayed out of his mouth. The crowd knew the song—-loved the song, by the way they were writhing in the choppy spaces between each word—-so they shrieked with him, "I AIN’T NO MARK FOR THE VENUS OF THE HARDSELL!"
“An oldie but goodie,” Beryl shouted in her ear. She had to fight to be heard over the music, even with a hand on her shoulder and leaning in close. “Mucous Membrane! They were just brilliant, back in the day!”
“Saints and sinners raw beginners; Lipstick traces and TV dinners!”
“Punk rock songs have lyrics?” Steph shouted back, her grin wide. Beryl laughed hard, slapping her shoulder.
“Empty graves and shallow heads; Shallow smiles and empty beds!”
“Don’t let anyone hear you say that!” She said, the whirling lights making her smile almost garish. “This lot’ll be out for your blood!”
“Betta get a room without a view; Sail out of sight of land!”
Steph had listened to her fair share of punk rock—-she was kind of a punk at heart, in her own way. When she’d been thirteen and at her angriest, she’d thrived on the slamming regurgitation of lyrics and chords. It had been less about the lyrics and more about the feel—-venting, the toxic release of everything kept pent up by God, propriety, and The Man. Her thirteen-year-old self’s version of The Man had had hands large enough to swallow her up and choke out all of her nos, his voice a deceptively gentle murmur that’d been an alibi: nothing’s wrong, we’re fine, we were just talking about your gymnastics, weren’t we? You were just showing me your walk-overs. I was only helping. Nothing’s wrong.
Punk rock had given her an outlet to scream it all out under the guise of appreciating music. To her, that was what punk rock music was.
“Momma won’t like it but you should—-Travel with a rough-neck crew!”
She was actively listening for the lyrics this time, though. They were surprisingly good. Steph squinted out across the mosh pit, eyes and ears sharp. The singer stomped and swung his long, skinny limbs, and the crowd followed, fists punching the air in violent ecstasy.
“Listen out for all that’s said!”
That’s when she saw him. She recognized him immediately—-would have known him anywhere, even if she’d only caught a brief glimpse of him.
Damian didn’t blend well when he wasn’t wearing the suit that made him the Batman, or the suit that made him the son of billionaire Bruce Wayne. There was something about him that stood out, that was so singular that it denied him any place where he completely fit in. She’d always thought that maybe that was due to Gotham being Gotham, but it turned out to be more of Damian just being Damian.
He was wearing loose black slacks and a green shirt, hands in his pockets. Unsurprisingly, he was looking at her.
He’d followed her all the way to England. She wasn’t sure if that was something that made her happy or not, but the relief of just seeing him again swelled up before she could crush it.
“Just worry when the hounds ain’t fed! Gotta worry when the hounds ain’t fed!”
“Have to pee,” Steph quickly told Beryl, launching herself into the mess of bodies on the floor before she could offer to go with her. As she worked her way toward him—-leading with her elbows, because she figured that regulars at punk rock shows expected to come home with bruises or worse—-she tried to decide if she wanted to punch him for stalking her when she’d made it abundantly clear that she didn’t want to be around him, or if she wanted to grab onto him and not let go for at least five minutes.
She hadn’t come to a decision by the time she resurfaced where she’d seen him, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t there. She’d imagined it. She’d missed him so much, she’d imagined he’d go all the way to England just to see her.
Steph was just gearing up for some real self-disgust when a hand closed around her wrist. And she knew that hand, knew whose it was without even having to turn around.
Damian smirked. She was too busy wrestling with her emotions to smack it off his face.
“You’ve missed me,” he said. Not a question, not even I missed you, which would have been a much better opener.
“Maybe,” she said, because she couldn’t say no.
“C’mon,” he said, and jerked his chin toward the half-lit exit sign. Only the first two letters glowed: EX. How stupidly appropriate.
Again, it wasn’t a question, and she was too engrossed in not-feeling/being overwhelmed by feelings/hating how much she missed him to put up a fight when he led her through the door by her wrist.
The London night was warm, the air slightly muggy from the earlier rain. He pinned up against her; her back scraped the brick wall and her hands immediately went to his face, making him stoop to kiss her.
She could sort out her feelings later, she rationalized. She’d be able to think more clearly if she got this out of her system, she decided. She wanted him to know she still loved him, and she wanted that to be reason enough for him to love himself, too.
He’d come after her. That meant something, didn’t it? That meant everything.
But Damian’s kiss felt wrong. He usually took his time, starting out as a highly self-controlled tease, and she had to take the initiative to make it deeper, tongue and the pressure of teeth. This time, he was the one doing all the pushing, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. Not with how long they’d been separated, and how they’d said goodbye. This wasn’t the hello that she’d expected or wanted.
Steph pushed back, not strong enough to shove him off but getting enough room to breathe.
“Not so fast, buster,” she said, frowning.
“Is this not what you sought tonight, my love?” Damian asked, his eyes frigid.
“No,” Steph said, her voice gaining strength and confidence even as something in her shriveled up from the ice in his stare. “Because the real Damian wouldn’t call me ‘my love’. He finds it demeaning. You should’ve studied harder before impersonating him, asshole.”
“Was it the kiss that showed me a fraud?” He laughed—-but it wasn’t really a laugh. It was a cackle, bubbling up black and hysterical and inhuman.
Steph shook, but not from fear. No, she was way, way too furious to be scared of whoever or whatever was wearing Damian’s skin.
Nobody played with her emotions like that.
“Let. Me. Go,” she growled, her voice low and dangerous. Each word held a separate threat, and she didn’t care what he was—-she’d make good on them.
“But pet, you all but cried for me to come,” he purred, and his smirk was too wide and too oily to be Damian’s. He traced the line of her clavicle with his thumb, and she grabbed his wrist and squeezed with everything in her. He didn’t even blink.
“I couldn’t tell which joke would be the best,” he continued, unfazed. “To use this face, or the one in your nest.”
“Oy! You let her be!”
Steph had never been happier to hear Beryl’s booming voice. She had her hands on her hips, shoulders squared.
“And so the shining knight arrives,” the not-Damian said with a put-upon sigh. “Knightress: nagging, noxious, needling Knightress.”
“Listen here, ya tosser,” she said raising one foot. The bottom of her laced-up combat boots glittered with studs. “I’ve got a pair of hobnailed boots with your name on them, goblin. You and I both know what cold iron does to your kind, so you best shove off before I make you taste leather.”
“Many paint me with words fouler than these,” he said, but took a step back. Steph’s skin crawled where his fingers still gripped her arm. “You ruin all of the Goodfellow’s fun.”
“She’s a visitor, and quite off the menu for tonight, fun or no fun,” Beryl said darkly, walking closer. Each step she took was heavy; he flinched reflexively.
“T’was jest, Knightress, you have my solemn word,” he said quickly, finally letting go. “Just one Robin greeting another bird.”
“Right, right, like you’ve never maimed for the sake of maiming before, you militant, ugly imp. Go on, find your jollies somewhere else. Your so-called magic doesn’t impress me much.”
He was looking at Beryl, so Steph took the opening. She swung hard, punching him square in the jaw. He—-it?—-hissed, and sort of melted. He shrank, coarse brown hair sprouting all over his body. Blue eyes turned into bulbous red ones, his pupils stretching into feline slits. His mouth held more vicious, needle-sharp teeth than any mouth should be able to fit inside it. With a displacement of air that sucked the air out of her lungs, he disappeared.
“Did I just punch a fairy?” Steph gasped, her heart jackhammering in her ears. Beryl steadied her with one strong hand, nodding. She seemed kind of stunned herself. “And I mean a fairy-fairy.”
“More than that. You just took a swing at Robin Goodfellow himself. The Puck.”
“Is that bad?”
She laughed suddenly and helplessly, wiping tears from the corner of her eyes. “Just funny, really. I don’t think a mortal’s gone through with the desire to beat his face in for a good couple of centuries. I can’t wait to tell Cyril about this. You’re mad, Steph. Mad, but wonderful.”
Mad, but wonderful. It felt like a good enough assessment of her Stephcialities.
Steph woke up the next morning to the smells of breakfast—-coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast—-and Beryl yelling “Come and get it while it’s still hot, fairy-slayer!”.
The greasy bacon and eggs sounded good right up until Steph rolled out of bed and walked into the kitchen; her stomach turned hard, soured, and she lost what little appetite she’d had. She managed to not double over the sink, but only just. This stress would be the death of her. Probably literally, at this rate.
“Morning!” Beryl said, moving the pan off the burner and giving her a one-armed hug. “Sleep well? I hope you did, after the night we had. I swear I won’t try pushing you out to socialize anymore. You can only piss off so many immortals before it comes back to bite you.”
“I’ve punched a fairy, a familiar, a witch-boy, and a pilgrim from Limbo Town,” Steph said with a yawn, hugging her back. “Odds aren’t in my favor, but what else is new?”
“Yeah. About that. I’ve got something for you.”
That’s when Beryl brought out the rest of the groceries: a bottle of off-brand sports drink and three pregnancy tests.
“Are you kidding me?” Steph demanded, her voice weirdly high. Her cheeks burned. Sure, she’d been moody and sick, but pregnant? Wasn’t that jumping to conclusions? That was leaping wildly over a canyon of common sense and into conclusions.
“It’s just—-” Beryl sighed, frustrated. She put the boxes on the table between them. “Something Puck said last night got under my skin. Tricksters lie when it pleases them, but he didn’t have much of a reason to. He was leading you on ‘cos of your old name. Names and wordplay fascinate his kind.” She rubbed her eyes with the balled-up heel of her hand. She didn’t look like she’d gotten much sleep. “When I found you, he said that he couldn’t decide if he should prank you by wearing a glamour of Damian’s face, or if he should’ve waited until you’d ‘nested’ to have his fun.”
“Birds build nests,” Steph said lamely. “And robins are birds. Stunning detective work.”
“That’s just it. Why do birds build nests?” She waited for her to supply an answer, but Steph’s voice had died in her throat. “To lay eggs in ‘em. They build ‘em for their babies. And see, fairies love babies. Sometimes, they take pretty, charming human babies and replace them with fae—-changelings, they call ‘em.”
“So he was saying that he was thinking of waiting until I’d—-I’d had a baby, then take it from me?”
The thought hit her at her deepest, where she kept old feelings she’d never been able to sort out. The loss of her baby had never gone away. It’d just been buried, because rationality said that she’d made the right decision.
“Fairies have a terrible sense of humor,” Beryl said, biting her lip. “And he might have been messing with your head just by planting the seed of that idea, y’know?”
“Yeah,” she said with a laugh that didn’t sound anywhere near the realm of right.
“So, I say you check. It’s the simplest ailment to check off the list,” she said gently, like the likelihood of her suspicions having any grounding at all was low. “Just piss on the sticks and be done with it, yeah? I’m half convinced that you’re making yourself sick with nerves alone. I know plenty of women who’ve worked themselves up like that.”
Steph inspected the boxes like they were bug poison, reading all the tiny text on the sides for warnings and instructions and whatever calming niceties they had printed about their accuracy.
“You’re right,” she said, pushing away the plain toast she’d been nibbling on. “I mean, we used protection every time. Hell, we doubled up on it, usually. We went without a condom once.”
“Right,” Beryl said with a firm nod, and started dishing up her plate. Steph retreated into the bathroom before the slippery-greasy smell of it coated the back of her throat and got to her.
Once in there, she took her time. She breathed. She relaxed. There was no way she’d be able to pee on command if she was bunched into a nervous knot of frantic what if what if what ifs and visions of babies replaced by monsters. This would tell her that she was being silly; ha ha, Puck had gotten one over on her and the joke was totally on her. This would tell her that even entertaining the idea was indulging in her biological clock’s ticking, her loneliness, and that selfish, stupid thought that maybe Damian had left her with something that she could keep and protect, no matter what happened to him.
She took the boxes apart systematically, carefully, reading and re-reading the directions one more time. Open stick, pee on stick, wait for results.
This was not rocket science. She could do this.
Steph poured herself a glass of water with shaking hands while she waited for the first test to develop.
It didn’t take as long as she’d predicted for the blue line to appear.
Water sloshed over the side, a quivering maelstrom in a cup, and she ended up getting more on her shirt than in her mouth. She picked at the front of her wet nightshirt, swearing under her breath. Beryl was going to start wondering what was taking her so long, and she honestly did not put it past her to kick down the door if she wouldn’t answer. She had to—-had to think. Had to get herself together.
A part of her had known, deep down, that the test was going to be positive. She’d wondered, because she’d been through this whole mess before. She tried to rationalize it away—-her periods had never been super regular—-but a part of her had known.
And she’d wanted it. She’d wanted it so bad that it was frightening. It was the kind of desire that consumed, so she’d hoped that drowning it out with reason would make it go away before it could dig its claws into her. It was an old wish, a deep one, and one that she’d mostly given up on. Unfortunately, her gut feeling had turned out to be reality, so she had a little plastic stick with a blue positive line and a growing sensation of vertigo.
Think, Steph. Don’t panic. Think. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? You wanted to get pregnant again. You wanted a baby. Maybe not right now, but you wanted this. You could do worse than a Wayne baby, right?
Bile rose in the back of her throat, hot and bitter. A Wayne baby. Pregnant with a Wayne baby. Did that count as Brown Luck?
Her wet shirt was already getting cold and uncomfortable. She pulled up the hem of it, lip sucked between her teeth, and looked at herself. Steph still had scars that had yet to fade and heal. The faint slice of her c-section scar was old and faint. It’d been a long time, but here she was again.
She spread her shaking hands hand flat over her belly, closing her eyes.
“Stephanie?” Beryl’s pounding on the door made her jump reflexively and knock over her water. Christ, she was a mess. “You fall in?”
It took her a couple of seconds to find her voice again. It was small, too small for her usual cheerful exuberance.
The second and third test had developed and they all bore the same cheerfully positive results. One was a blue line, one was a plus, one just said positive, clear as day. Steph wrapped up the tests and threw them in the trash can. She washed her hands, then washed her face with cold water. She wasn’t sure when she’d started crying, but she had. Her face felt too hot as she dried it.
"I’m fine," she said. Steph opened the door, hanging up the towel. She mopped up the spilled water and tidied the bathroom counter like she didn’t know what to do with herself, with her hands. "I’m fine."
The look on Beryl’s face said, very clearly, that she could tell that she was anything but fine.
“Positive, innit?” She asked, brow split with a worry line.
She hesitated. Actually saying it aloud felt like jinxing it, like inviting in a boogeyman just by acknowledging its reality. Maybe it’d be safer just to ignore it, pretend that it wasn’t there so that no one else could know and target her because of it. Steph felt wobbly, like her limbs were noodles and her joints were made of jelly. When Beryl manhandled her into a half-hug, she let her.
"I’m pregnant." The words were too strong. "Probably pregnant. Most likely pregnant. Three tests are a good indication, even if they’re fallible.” She laughed, thin and shaky. “Brown Luck strikes again.”
“It’s early yet,” Beryl said, her tone carefully cautious. “If you can’t have it, y’know you—-”
“No!” Steph said sharply—-so sharply, it edged on hysterics. She made herself calm down, made herself breathe. Knightress didn’t know the full story, so getting all worked up would mean that she’d have to get into it. And Steph really, really didn’t want to get into it. She didn’t want to have to start with her once upon a time, when I was a teenager and only a little bit more reckless than I am now, I made a mistake. In retrospect, it might not be as big as this one. “No. I’m keeping it.”
If she thought that Steph was being irrationally rash, Beryl didn’t voice her opinion. Beryl just rubbed her back and nodded, playing the part of the supportive friend. Steph hugged her for that and that alone.
“The Bat’s the dad, then? No other gentlemen to rope into this?”
“Barring immaculate conception, yes.”
“A nasty bit of business, that.” Beryl paused, worrying a hank of her short ginger hair between her thumb and forefinger. “You going to tell him?”
“No,” Stephanie said, lacing her hands protectively over her stomach, and her heart broke just a little bit more. “He can’t know.”
“And it’s he can’t know, not I can’t tell him,” she said, the two options weighed with emphasis.
It was Metropolis all over again. People assumed the worst from Damian, and she couldn’t peel away that anti-bat bias for long enough to get her point across. Telling them who he was with her translated to others as the excuses of an abused woman. She wanted to just shake them, make them look at her, demand if they really thought that what her Daddy had done to her had made her weak to controlling men. She wanted them to trust her—-to trust him. He felt that almost everyone was against him, so he’d cut out the need for allies who would watch his back. It’d cost him everything, but he’d done it.
Steph pressed her hands against her eyes, hard. “It’s not what you think.”
“I’m not thinking what you think I am,” Beryl said, her gaze sharp and earnest. “Communications powers are what I do, right? I know what you’re trying to get across, even if I have to dodge between the lines a bit. Sounds to me like you’re protecting him or sommat, not the other way around.”
The warmth that rushed through her made Steph feel lifted off her feet, floating. Finally. Finally, someone who got it. Finally, someone who didn’t just assume that her situation was what it looked like at first glance.
“Yeah,” she said, her voice reduced to a dry whisper. “That’s pretty much it.”
Beryl gnawed on her lower lip.
“You need a cuppa,” she announced, putting a hand on her arm and squeezing. “More tea than I might have on hand, but it’ll be a start. I’ll ring up Hank and tell him to put the kettle on. If you don’t have any objections, I’d like to pull Cyril into this chat. He’s as trustworthy as they come, and if he can help I know that he will.”
Steph’s kneejerk reaction was a lot like how a middle school kid felt when a teacher kindly offered to talk to the principal or a counselor about the ‘worrying’ collection of bruises she had—-at least, that’s how her childhood had gone. Her reaction at that moment was the same when faced with the idea of seeking help from an authority figure: no, she was fine, she could handle it, she didn’t want anyone sticking their fingers in her private business. Daddy had given her such a warped view of what unsolicited help from upstanding people entailed.
“No,” she said, combing back her bed-tangled hair nervously. “It’s—-I’ll figure it out on my own. I’m okay. I don’t want to bother him with this.”
Beryl frowned deeply. “I don’t know what you’re going on about, ‘cos as far as I’m concerned, friends are never a bother. You’re a friend, and Hutchinsons don’t make light of friendship. Sheldrakes, neither. I don’t think now’s the time to cling to pride. And three heads are better than two, right?”
Most of Steph’s head was spinning, a looped train of panic that kept adding on speed and cars the longer she worried the issue. She was pregnant, she was technically homeless, it was Damian’s, it was Damian’s and hers, she couldn’t fight, she couldn’t do this without support, she couldn’t go back to Metropolis or Gotham and expect it not to get back to Damian that she was pregnant, and he’d know, he’d know that she hadn’t been with anyone else, and he’d—-what would he do? What would he say? Would he pressure her to abort, would he want to be the father, or would he ignore it and her? She didn’t know which one terrified her more.
This was different from the first time. Dean had been a washed-up nobody at twenty, so she’d been able to drop him like a bad habit and excise him from her life. She hadn’t loved him—-had barely even liked him. It’d been easy, comparably, and her choice had been made for her. She loved Damian, and she wanted this child, and there was a high possibility that putting a baby with half his genetics up for adoption would end badly further on down the road, so for once she truly had no idea what to do.
Her luck. Her awful, awful Brown Luck.
Beryl put her arm around her again, letting her lean her weight into her. Steph hadn’t realized she’d been trembling until Beryl started to rub her back soothingly.
“Listen. I know one of your secrets, so you can have one of mine. S’only fair. Cyril’s my—-” Her eyelashes fluttered as she closed her eyes, visibly trying to dredge up a word. “—-I don’t know if there’s a word for what he is to me, but he’s been trying to make me Countess of Wordenshire for a good five years now. I’ve turned him down more times than I can count, ‘cos I’m a Knight, not a Countess. It’d be a scandal, seeing as the people of Wordenshire have certain expectations of Hutchinsons and Sheldrakes, and class-climbing nonsense isn’t one of ‘em. I—-I s’pose what I mean, is that I get what it’s like to fill that empty spot in a man’s soul, even if it don’t look right to everyone else.”
If she were being honest, Steph had already known that there was something between them. The way Cyril looked at Beryl wasn’t the way a man looked at his pseudo-little sister; his love was quiet and real and deep. The difference between the way Beryl had saved Cyril and the way that Steph had saved Damian was small, but profound: instead of filling an empty spot in his soul, she’d filled the vacuous space where his soul had been.
That’s what she’d imagined, at least. Now, she wasn’t so sure.
“He’ll understand,” Beryl said, gently insistent. “We care about you, you batty girl. Let’s put our heads together and come up with a plan.”
Steph nodded numbly. She needed something stable to hold onto.
The Sheldrake castle was a real castle, older than any other building Steph had personally been in, and the narrow archer’s windows and hilltop perch spoke of it being built in much different times. On the inside, there was the requisite family heirlooms and tapestries, rich baubles of nobility, but it’d all been laced with modern creature comforts. Cyril’s study, his favorite room in the castle, was ancient and modern all at once. Trailing Beryl inside, Steph was half afraid to touch anything—-it felt too much like a museum exhibit, despite the television on the one wall not covered floor to ceiling by shelves bursting with leather-bound books.
“Ah!” Cyril said, a hand over his mouth as he discreetly finished chewing his bite of toast. “You’re just in time. Wayne’s on the telly. I think you might want to hear this.”
“What that bag of hot air’s got to say isn’t important right now,” Beryl said, then shot an apologetic look at Steph. “No offense to you or your taste, of course.”
“None taken,” she said magnanimously. “He is a jerk. I know this better than anyone.”
“Erm. Well.” Cyril floundered. “It’s about you, actually. Er. Batwoman, but. That’s you.”
Steph sat down a little bit quicker than she meant to, but not quickly enough to beat the dizzy spell that rushed up and over her.
“What. The hell. Is he doing?” She growled, somewhere between horrified and furious.
A press conference about Batwoman? He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t dare disavow supporting her as a member of what remained of Batman Incorporated. He could be petty, and vengeance was built into his job description, but he wouldn’t try to get back at her. He was better than that. Plus, the title of Batwoman wasn’t his to give and take. Batman had never appointed Batwoman, and Kate had given her blessing.
He couldn’t take that away from her. He knew how important it was to her, how much she needed to be a Bat. Damian wouldn’t shame her publicly for wronging him…would he?
Her stomach lurched, stress and morning sickness all rolled into one sticky, bitter bundle. Beryl sat down next to her, placing a wastebasket on the floor between them.
“If you need it, don’t hesitate,” she told her in an undertone.
To his credit, Cyril was doing a good job of keeping his questions to himself. He was far too polite to demand why Batwoman might be in danger of throwing up in his study, so he ate his toast and waited to be included in whatever it is that was happening.
Bless the man and his patience, Steph thought as her stomach did mad acrobatics under her ribs. She’d had morning sickness during her first pregnancy, but it hadn’t been anywhere near as vicious. The amount of worrying and running around England that she’d been doing hadn’t helped, probably.
It hit her then that she’d have to hang up the cape for at least the next… Steph did some quick mental math; if her last night with Damian had been the time of conception, she’d be somewhere around nine or ten weeks. That meant that she’d be out of commission as Batwoman for the better part of a year, so whatever Damian had to say about her would be null and void, anyway. That made her feel at least a little bit better, though disappearing for that long might mean he’d come looking for her.
Steph wasn’t sure if she wanted that or not. She was caught precariously between extremes, and weighing the pros and cons wasn’t helping dredge up an answer.
Seeing him on screen didn’t help, either. To anyone who knew him only as the trust fund son of the late Bruce Wayne, billionaire and industry giant, he radiated calm charisma. His suit was impeccable, and not one hair was out of place. He could’ve been a movie star, a stranger paid to present a perfect front. He was too glossily well-kept, which no one but her would have been able to guess. If he looked that put together, it was because he’d had to put real time, effort, and concentration to look that put together. Not even him, with his superior genetics, could look that flawless without trying.
She hated herself a little bit, right then. He was struggling, and even though she was, too, she had support. She had her own friends. He had the cat, and the cat wouldn’t turn into his namesake and give him advice and distractions and tea when he needed them. He had Colin, but she doubted he’d go to him for encouragement. When upset, he shut everyone out and shut down. Damian was alone, and she hated that he’d put her in the position that tormented them both.
But he was a prideful man, and he wouldn’t back down. That was what scared her.
A small throng of disorganized reporters were spread around him, cameras and boom poles and men and women in nice suits thrusting microphones at him. The closest one—-a man she recognized from the Gotham Evening News—-held a mic too close to him, making his lip curl automatically.
“Mr. Wayne, Chet Simms from Channel Six News. You’ve kept funding your father’s ‘Batman Incorporated’ project, footing the bill for costumed vigilantes worldwide. In the last month, Gotham’s own Batwoman has been repeatedly seen with the British heroine Knightress. Is this a move toward planting American heroes on foreign soil?”
Steph pressed a hand over her mouth. She hadn’t thought what it would look like, her staying in England for weeks. She just hadn’t thought. The politics involved in vigilante work went completely over her head; she was a puncher and a kicker, not a businesswoman or diplomat. When Bruce had made Batman Inc public, he’d changed the rules of the game. Batman left the realm of urban legends, confirming for the world that he was yet another man on a payroll. This had taken away the edge off his mystery—-though, the age of the cell phone camera and the internet had done that for him, mostly. It’d put them into the public eye, which opened them to public scrutiny. There was nothing that the media liked more than to put their two cents in, and it’d never even occurred to her.
“That operative is indeed working under direction of Batman Incorporated,” Damian lied smoothly. “But you must understand, Mr. Simms, that I seek to preserve my father’s best intentions in every way possible. Batman Inc’s goal is not—-as you imply—-to sow seeds of conquest globally. Presenting such an idea is not only completely uninformed, it insults the memory of this city’s most brilliant philanthropist. My father did not want to control others who followed in the footsteps of his Batman. He provided funding and aid to those who would take up the role of vigilantes of their own accord, and his criteria for inclusion were morally sound and kept as law. He did this at great personal cost, and to much criticism.”
“Yes,” said the polished reporter, obviously trying to guide him back to the juicy details and away from discussing the finer points of the late, great Bruce Wayne. “But England’s crime rate doesn’t warrant sending the Batwoman there, does it? Or do you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t know, Mr. Wayne?”
“I am a businessman, not a crimefighting mastermind,” Damian said frostily, though every word was carefully tamed. “That operative acts alone. If you bring this up because you believe that Gotham will be left unprotected, be assured that the Batman has no intention of leaving. Gotham is his to protect, and he would never shirk his duty.” His nostrils flared, and she knew—-she knew—-that he was suppressing a derisive little tt. “If I’ve answered your questions to your satisfaction, I believe we’re finished here.”
Hands shot up, paired with cries of “Mr. Wayne!”, but he waved them off with a barely-audible murmur of “No more questions, please,” and was escorted to his car. The anchorman cut to commercials, and Steph exhaled the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.
“Well,” Beryl said, the first to break the silence. Her head was cocked slightly to the left in thought. “He’s gone a bit mental, hasn’t he?”
“What?” Steph looked at her quizzically, surprised. She’d gathered that much, but she was an expert in deciphering what Damian was saying. “I mean, yeah, yeah he is, but I didn’t think it was obvious.”
“He looks cool as a cucumber, sure, but.” Beryl paused. Her brows knitted, her eyes softened with sympathy. “It’s what he wasn’t saying that’s telling. He couldn’t say your name. Not even once.”
“It’s good news though, isn’t it?” Cyril asked, searching them both for answers overtop is teacup. “He more or less said that Batwoman’s still under his protection, yeah?”
“More or less,” Beryl said, still frowning at the screen. “More less than more, I feel. He didn’t want to say it. Didn’t want to say anything on the matter at all. What a sad, sorry sap.”
“It’s not my place to pry, Stephanie,” said Cyril, hesitant and polite in a way only he could pull off believably. “But leaving Gotham was your choice, wasn’t it? I’d assumed that you’d been, erm, pushed out a bit for whatever reason, but this…”
Even to complete strangers and guarded by a sheet of forced indifference, Damian didn’t look or sound like a man who’d thrown his girlfriend and partner out into the cold.
Steph could all but feel Beryl holding back on explaining the little that she knew, and she was grateful for that. But, she’d been right. Cyril honestly seemed to want to help, and they were far enough removed from the politics and tangles of the American heroes that she felt safe telling them.
“I left. It was my choice, because he—-he got himself into this friggin’ mess and he wouldn’t let me or anyone else help him out of it. He was killing himself over it, and I just. I couldn’t watch him do it, you know? He’s a good man, but he doesn’t believe that he is. He’s stubborn, and arrogant, and stupid, and—-and he’s going to be a father. Oh my god, he’s going to be a father,” Steph mumbled into her fingers. The thought kept coming back around, shocking her over and over in small ways.
She could actually watch the realization hit Cyril, the dawning knowledge rising as his eyebrows arched up toward his hairline.
“He’s—-? Oh. Erm. That’s—-it’s very…”
“What he means to say is congratulations,” Beryl said, rubbing her back. “And we’re both very happy for you.”
“Yes. Both?” When Beryl nodded at him, color crept up past his collar. “Both. Yes. Quite happy for you.”
“If you need to stay here through it, all you have to do is ask me, ducks. There’s not much room, but we can,” Beryl seemed to mentally map her flat for any room that could fit a baby, frowning. “Re-organize. I’d wager there’s plenty of space that can be freed up if we just tidied up a bit. I love babies, you know. Wouldn’t be a bother.”
“Nonsense,” Cyril said, setting his cup of tea back in its saucer with a faint tink of possible finality. “You’ll stay here. Erm. Both, that is.” He looked at Beryl, trying hard to interpret her reaction. “If you’d like.”
A single pregnant woman staying with the Earl of Wordenshire would spell scandal in big red letters, so that both held a lot of meaning. It was an invitation to Steph, of course, but even more of an invitation to Beryl. He looked so cautiously hopeful, Steph kind of wanted to walk over and hug him and thank him for being such a decent human being.
“Would you make me take out me piercings?” Beryl asked after giving it an eternally long moment’s thought.
“You know how I feel about you sticking bits of metal in your pretty face,” Cyril sighed. “But no, I would not.”
She paused again, her fingers skating a soothing pattern over Steph’s back.
“Would I have to cook?”
“I’d really rather if you didn’t,” he said, kind but very firm.
Beryl shrugged like it was no big deal—-like she hadn’t just agreed to make their libelous relationship public, like she had expected him to pop that question all along, like she hadn’t more or less said that she’d be his Countess if she wasn’t required to take out her piercings or cook. That was how Beryl was, though.
“Well, that settles it,” she said cheerfully, snagging and eating the rest of Cyril’s toast. “Both it is.”
Yeah, this was exactly what Steph had needed. For the first time in weeks, she felt like she’d gotten enough distance to breathe again. She had friends, and she had a sense of security, and she had a worst-case-scenario kind of plan. She could stay in Worden until she knew what to do with herself, and if that meant having a baby in England, that option was open for her. It was a relief, moving away from that free-fall limbo of what now?.
“Truly, I don’t mean to pry, but…if Wayne does come calling, I don’t know how to greet him,” Cyril said in the contemplative silence that followed. “If he’s got himself into a mess, helping him out of jam would be the least I could do for him, and for you, and for his father’s memory. I, ah. Drat.”
“What my Cyril means,” Beryl said, forever the interpreter for her earl. “Is that we’d be better prepared for this if we knew what made you pack your bags.”
Steph hadn’t been able to tell anyone. She’d held her tongue for three reasons: out of respect for Damian’s privacy, because she knew that half the heroing community would flip out if they knew what he’d done, and because she hadn’t been sure that they’d believe her. Belief in magic was one thing—-and most had to see it first-hand to believe in it—-but adding in demons and angels to the mix prompted many an eye-roll. Too many charlatans, human and otherwise, falsely advertised themselves as demons to make people believe in the existence of the real deal.
If she hadn’t seen Damian die and come back again and again, she would’ve had trouble believing it herself.
But England wasn’t America, and what was and wasn’t believable was different, here.
Steph took a deep breath, propping up her confidence.
“Ever heard of a Faustian deal?”
He was an eternally discordant creature, thriving on the contradictory. Shrinks and psychics had poked around the dim-lit corridors of his brain before, and they’d either lost hope in base truths or had been driven mad. They brought it on themselves, worming in where they didn’t belong.
Many had tried to put labels on them, but he’d worked most of them off. The simplest one—-the truest one—-was that he was a punk. He’d been born a punk, seeping anger like a poorly healed wound slowly oozing pus, and so when the movement came, he was there with bloody knuckles. Most of his kind had either sobered up or burnt out, but he was a slippery customer. If the fire demanded a sacrifice, he offered a breathing Guy in his stead. He didn’t particularly like himself—-or the rest of humanity, by extension—-but he didn’t particularly want to die, either.
He knew what was waiting down there. He’d taken the guided tour more than once—-had gulped down a slippery tongue that’d tasted like battery acid and the keening cries of every babe left to die of exposure in the hopes that it’d please a God who frankly didn’t give a fuck. His blood still sang darkly from the places he’d been, the deals he’d made. His heart chugged hell’s sewage, and another man might have begged imperfect contrition.
But he was a punk, even at age sixty-seven. He didn’t look a day over damned, though, so he was younger than his years. When asked, he attributed it to good drugs, better sex, and a vow never to let a bad habit be left untried. He didn’t want to be saved, and he didn’t want to die, and he didn’t want to have to drink anything but quality liquor.
So he didn’t.
His nights blended, but life was all about that blend, wasn’t it? Nothing was ever simple, and nothing had a pure form. Not good, and certainly not evil, and mankind was inherently neither. If anything, mankind was inherently stupid, but made up for this birth defect by being stubborn.
This night was still young, two fingers of salmon-colored sunset spread over the worn bartop. He was sober enough to breathe in his surroundings, interested enough in his fellow drinkers not to tune out their braying quite yet. They didn’t have anything new to offer him, but sometimes they surprised him. This wasn’t his usual bar, nor his usual town, but when he was in a fair mood—-and didn’t want Fate and Destiny to fuck each other raw—-he just put one foot in front of the other and saw where it led him. It expedited the process of being in the right place at the right time.
His entertainment for the night had come early, too. He knew the blond woman in the borrowed duster—-had to be borrowed; she was too short for it—-was what had brought him there, but he let her come to him, first. Letting them choose the first line made them less skittish, he’d found, and gave him room enough to decide if he gave a shit or not. She’d been staring at him intently for the better part of fifteen minutes, screwing up what was probably too much courage for her body and well-being. Then, she sat down next to him.
“Hi,” she said, her accent brassily American. “Can we talk?”
"You don’t get something for nothing, luv," he said, addressing his tepid beer more than the woman sitting next to him. He’d seen a hundred thousand girls like him in his time: pretty, but not too pretty, neatly dressed, but not too smooth, aggressive, but not to the point that someone would slap her with choice four letter words.
"I know. Believe me. That’s kind of my problem."
She put an unopened pack of Silk Cuts on the bar top, flicking it negligently toward him across the gummy wood.
Ah, lovely. She knew just who she was talking to, then. Nothing chance about this meeting.
Complicated, but interesting. He wasn’t a man who did things because the were right or wrong, or even because he did or didn’t want to do them. He did the things that interested him, rather than the things that kept humanity as a whole from fucking itself to death. He was a bastard of the highest order, but once in a while he mucked about with what he considered charity work. It was always more trouble than it was worth, but it kept him young.
That, or the remnants of Nergal’s blood that befouled his veins. Either-or.
"How’s that to start with? PS, the Earl of Wordenshire says hi, and that you still owe him one for that time with that thing and the hooker."
He smiled. Couldn’t help it, really.
"Mm. Bend my ear a bit, then. What has you here? Business? Pleasure?"
"Deals," she said, and smiled like a wolf instead of a girl. "Heard you knew your way around them. I’ve got this problem on my hands, and I want to cheat. I want to cheat the fuck out of it.”
Such fire, such determination. Women like her were the reason humanity hadn’t successfully wiped itself out—-not yet, anyway.
"The key isn’t cheating, luv,” John Constantine grinned, and stuck a cigarette in his mouth to light. “It’s knowing who it is you’re scamming, and knowing how much you’ll bleed for it.”
“I’ll do what I have to do,” the poor girl said, and he believed her.