Rating: PG for now.
Word count: 2694 for this part.
The invitation, Jim will think later, should have came as no surprise, considering everything. But at the moment it arrives, he is certainly taken aback. It's addressed to the kids, not him, and printed out on an elegant paper with heavy lettering. Babs picks it up from the mailbox, along with a pile of bills and adverts, and takes out the good letter opener, the one she got from her grandmother a while ago, to open it instead of just ripping up the envelope.
"Can we go?" she asks immediately after reading, and Jim rolls his eyes at her.
"Can I at least see what it is?" She hands him the envelope, and he skims the invitation, raising his eyebrows. Of all the things he had expected, a charity event on the Gotham's main ice rink was not it. It's for a good cause, of course, the rebuilding of Gotham General, and Jim is quite sure the tickets, of which three are attached, cost a fortune. And for that exact reason, he's not entirely sure it's such a good idea.
There's another piece of paper in the envelope, addressed to him, and he unfolds it with a frown. It's titled 'before you say no', and honestly, Bruce Wayne is starting to annoy him slightly. After this, the note goes: 'I'm sure Barbara and Jimmy would enjoy the outing. I'll make sure you don't have to suffer through tedious small talk,' and is signed 'Bruce Wayne.' Scratch the slightly, concentrate on annoyance.
"So, can we go?" Barbara repeats, and calls up the expression that more often than not gets her what she wants, the pouty, wide-eyed one. Jim gives her a mild glare, and glances at Jimmy.
"What do you think?"
"I dunno. Could be fun, I guess," Jimmy says with a shrug, but he seems interested enough for Jim to know he's outvoted. Probably for the better, too, as in case he did put his foot down and refused to budge, he's sure Wayne would come up with something new and most certainly more annoying. The man is constantly surprising Jim, defying all of the previous opinions of him and more. Maybe the entire thing is not the worst idea ever. Hopefully he'll keep his word about the small talk.
This is roughly how he ends up at the charity event of the season, watching Jimmy take tentative steps on the ice, under the tutelage of one of the instructors. Barbara is standing next to the table with hot chocolate, chatting animatedly with one of Garcia's daughters, Helena, if Jim's not mistaken. For his part, Jim has successfully dodged most of the people he had wished to avoid, and got roped into just one unfortunate conversation with Judge Phillips, which was cut short when Phillips' wife dragged him away to meet someone she had went to high school with. All in all, a great success so far.
"Just slightly boring," someone says to his side, and he doesn't even need to look to know it's Wayne.
"Less so than I expected," he admits, and gratefully accepts one of the coffee cups Wayne is holding. Thankfully, there's no 'I told you so' coming with it. They stand for a moment in silence, and Jim's eyes follow Jimmy, who had managed to circle the rink without holding on to anything for support. He's flushed from the exercise, and he had lost his hat somewhere, hair sticking every which way. He'll need a haircut soon, Jim thinks, the hair is beginning to get into his eyes. But he looks like he's enjoying himself, and maybe coming to this affair wasn't a mistake.
"They seem to be having fun," Wayne says, as if reading his thoughts. There's just a tolerable amount of smugness in his voice, and Jim nods.
"They are," he says, turning slightly to look at Wayne. "Thank you."
Wayne shrugs, but there is no facade that he seems so fond of this time, and Jim wonders if this is the real Bruce Wayne he's seeing, or just another part he plays. There seems to be so many of them, judging even only from the news reports, and there's a great deal more when you actually meet the man. Jim studies him for a moment, trying to look under the polite smile. "Why do you bother?" he asks finally, deciding on the direct approach. Sometimes it does work.
"I don't think the city would manage to build the new hospital quickly enough," Wayne says, in a practiced way, as if giving a cheerful press statement. "All the other hospitals are overflowing with patients, we need Gotham General."
Jim rolls his eyes. "Do me a favour, Mr Wayne, don't pretend you don't understand," he says dryly, and gets a quick glance in return, before Wayne becomes seemingly interested in his coffee cup, turning it around, as if he was warming up his hands. When he finally speaks, his voice is lowered, close enough to a whisper that Jim has to listen closely to make out the words, and no one else would be able to overhear.
"I told you, old debts. You have been there. The night my parents got killed."
Jim probably shouldn't have started asking. He remembers that night all too well, especially now that he had seen that haunted look on Wayne's face mirrored in Jimmy, in Babs. He had tried his best to comfort young Bruce Wayne on the night his parents died, and long time after thought about that moment, and wondered if he could have done something more.
"It's not something you forget," Bruce continues, still not looking up, the cup moving slightly faster in his hands, dark liquid swirling. "But worse than remembering is thinking you could have done something different, something to stop it all. You look back and think, this was my fault. Doesn't matter that it's unreasonable, in this there is no reason."
"It wasn't. And it wasn't Jimmy's or Babs'. They can't think that," Jim says vehemently, cold shiver running down his spine.
"Of course it wasn't. Does knowing that stops you from thinking the blame is yours?" Wayne turns to look at him, his eyes filled with cold intensity, and Jim can't hold the gaze, he looks away.
"You weren't there. You can't know that it wasn't," he whispers, voice breaking, and he should be embarrassed, but he's just angry.
"Do you know it was?" Wayne asks, matter-of-fact and dead serious, and Jim's hands curl into fists, tight enough for his nails to mark the skin of his palms.
"Yes. Is that what you want to hear? Yes, it was my fault. I should have..." he stops abruptly, finally catching a glimpse of Barbara, few feet away, her face frozen in shock, eyes wide with fear. "Babs..." Jim says, turning and reaching to her, but she shakes her head, taking a step back.
"I'll..." she says, stuttering slightly. "I'll wait in the car," she finishes finally, and turns on her heel, running towards the exit.
"She needed to hear that," Wayne says quietly, stepping to stand beside Jim. "You won't think so, but she needed to hear that."
Jim doesn't even realise he's moved until his fist collides with Wayne's jaw, hard enough to throw him a shaky step back. If he had fired out from his piece he wouldn't have made a greater commotion, everyone is turning to stare at them, and he slowly relaxes his fist, shocked and terrified by his own actions.
Wayne laughs, cheerfully, and only the utter shock in his eyes tells Jim it's forced. "I fully deserved that, Commissioner," he says, loud enough for it to carry through the hall. "I do apologise. And I certainly hope everyone had enjoyed the show, but I think it's over," he says, with a bow to Jim, who can only nod, and call up a forced smile of his own. Everyone goes back to their conversations, all voices a level louder than before.
"I'm..." Jim starts, and doesn't finish.
"You should go after her," Wayne says levelly, his voice softer than the situation would warrant. Jim nods, and after a moment, he and Jimmy join Babs in the car.
She's silent throughout the way home. Jimmy tries a few topics, and Jim offers absent responses when he thinks they're expected, but the conversation is shaky and tense, and after a few awkward minutes, they give up. He watches Babs in the rearview mirror; she's staring out at the buildings they're passing, her expression inscrutable. He would give everything to know what she's thinking of, but can't bring himself to ask. She runs upstairs the moment they enter the house, and Jim listens for the thud of the doors shut with force, but it doesn't come. At least there's that.
"Jimmy, I need to talk to your sister," he says softly, reaching to ruffle Jimmy's hair. "You can put on the cartoons if you like. Would you be okay?"
Jimmy nods, his expression puzzled. Jim knows he'll have to talk to him later, too, but one thing at a time. He's not looking forward to either. Babs is not in her bedroom, and for a moment he wonders if she had locked herself in the bathroom, but soon discovers her in his and Barbara's bedroom, curled on the bed, eyes firmly shut as if she was feigning sleep.
"Barbara," he starts, sitting down on the bed, stopping himself from reaching out. She shakes her head vehemently, and shuts her eyes even harder, her entire face scrunched up. "Babs, look at me," Jim pleads, and it's one of the longest moments of his life, waiting until she does. "What I said..." he starts, and stops the moment she shifts, rising slightly, looking at him all too seriously for a girl her age.
"Did you mean it? That it was your fault. Did you mean it?"
He doesn't know what to say to that. He did, he meant it completely, but how can he explain that to his daughter? The guilt of choices made that led to that exact point, to Barbara throwing herself at the man who held her son at gunpoint, to the complete helplessness Jim felt at that moment, frozen in shock and fear, unable to move at all. How do you explain that?
He nods slowly. "I can't help it. Logic tells me I might not have been able to prevent it, but I feel I should have. I should have been able to save your mom."
Barbara's crying now, tears rolling down her face, everything she had held back finally getting out, and her next words come out between a series of sobs. "It wasn't," she says, words so distorted by her voice breaking he doesn't make them out at first. "Dad, it wasn't..." she moves, practically lunges forward, her arms thrown around his neck, holding tightly. She hides her face in Jim's shirt, the continuing tears almost soaking it through. "I miss mom," she says finally, her voice small and far away.
Jim tries to swallow the lump in his throat and doesn't succeed, and he knows he's crying now too, he can feel the hot tears spilling out, and he hides his face in Barbara's hair, holding her close as she slowly calms down into complete stillness. "I know," he mutters into her hair, and only the slow slump in her shoulders tells him she heard him. "I miss her too."
He holds her for a long while, completely losing the track of time. Finally, she pulls away, and dabs at her eyes with a slightly sheepish expression, but her look is a tad clearer and brighter now.
There's a soft knock on the open door, and Jim looks up to see Jimmy, giving them a rather disgusted look. "Are you guys done crying?" he asks, and Jim laughs, blinking quickly, taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "I made popcorn," Jimmy volunteers, and Babs is rolling her eyes now, but she perks up slightly.
"Bring the bowl here. Babs, choose a movie," he says, and looks around for the remote, finding it on the night table. In the past he vetoed the idea of a tv set in the bedroom, but Barbara had claimed the news helped her fall asleep. Now he was kind of glad he let himself be persuaded. Babs curls up at his side, head resting on his shoulder, hair all tangled up in a way that makes Jim wonder if she even sees the screen through the tresses falling onto her face. It probably doesn't matter anyway, the movie she had chosen is the one they had seen dozens of times already. Jimmy sits up, all but hugging a bowl of popcorn, holding it close and eating in the mechanical movie theater way.
Eventually, they fall asleep, the world outside the window darkening slowly.
In the morning, the kids are up before Jim is, and busy with some papers scattered on the coffee table. Babs has her reading glasses on, and Jimmy is fighting with some coloured pieces of paper they're trying to glue to the larger sheet and which keeps on sticking to his fingers instead. It's probably some school project he should be aware of, but before he can ask, the doorbell chimes, and he goes to answer it.
"Before you say anything," Bruce Wayne offers instead of a greeting, speaking a little bit faster than usual, as if trying to say his lines before Jim interrupts him. "I brought donuts."
Wordlessly, Jim takes a step back and opens the doors widely, letting the man in. If you can't beat them, he thinks, you might as well invite them in and ask if they want coffee.
"Actually, I brought my own," Wayne says, placing two boxes he's carrying onto the kitchen counter, unloading the cups first. "Wasn't sure you'd actually be very welcoming," he adds with a small smile. His jaw is just slightly discolored, very faint bruise disturbing the otherwise immaculate look, dark gray polo shirt and jeans, which is the most casual Jim had ever seen him.
"I'm sorry about that," Jim says, and finds out that he actually does mean it, a little.
"I've had worse." Jim finds it hard to believe, and it must show on his face, because Wayne smirks. "Polo. Vicious sport."
There is something in his tone that makes it into a private joke, one Jim seems to be invited into but doesn't really understand. "I'll take your word for it, Mr Wayne."
"Bruce. Please," he offers, and before Jim can protest, Babs and Jimmy march into the kitchen, guided by their incredible talents of detecting frosting from miles away. Barbara nods at Bruce with a half smile, and Jimmy just waves to him on his way to the box with donuts.
And for the life of him, Jim can't say how it really happens, but an hour later he finds himself not only working on Jimmy's school project alongside Bruce Wayne, sticking stripes of foil to a cartoon cut-out, making one very shiny zebra, but also agreeing to come by the Wayne Manor on the weekend, so the kids can check out the library. He's not sure how it all actually happens, but he looks at Barbara protesting laughingly against a blue giraffe, and Jimmy working out a way to reattach a trunk of an elephant that accidentally got cut off, and he doesn't mind not knowing.