Air of December, part 1

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

The meeting area felt too bright against sandpaper raw eyes. Gypsy blinked a little as she emerged from the customs holding area, not quite able to process the rush of people, the squeals of greeting, the sudden stops and turns of people finding their loved ones and wearily committing themselves to their care. Christmas music blared over, under, around this human cacophony, making the whole experience more disorienting. She hitched her carry-on more securely on her shoulder and tightened her hold on the rolling bag she dragged behind her, pressing into the crowd with head down and shoulders half-lowered defensively.

A hand touched her elbow - not an inadvertent gesture, but almost steering. "Ms. Smith? Ms. Rose Smith?"

Gypsy looked up to stare into the eyes of a proper looking older man, taking a moment to remember the alias she was traveling under. She felt like she stared at him stupidly for a long time before she said, "Yes?"

The man's attentive expression relaxed into something less anxious, although still attentive. "I am Alfred Pennyworth; I work for Mr. Wayne. Mr. Wayne has asked me to apologize that he could not be here to meet you himself, but if you come with me?"

She nodded, and before she could object, he had lifted her suitcase and began a sure path through the crowded terminal. His quiet English accent was reassuring to her in the clash of too-loud American voices, a balm on nerves frayed from 40 hours of travel. She was more than happy to follow his lead, to not think for a moment.

Her daze was interrupted by an icy blast of air as they crossed through a pair of automatic sliding doors to the outside world. She gasped a little at the sudden cold, and Alfred glanced back at her. "Only across the walkway. I had hoped to be able to have the car waiting right there, but security concerns just keep increasing."

She nodded, her teeth already beginning to chatter. She was dressed for Cairo, not winter in Gotham. The light jacket she had did nothing against the wind, and even the relatively few feet to the parking area seemed to take an eternity to cross. But then they were at a limousine and Alfred had set down her suitcase to open the rear passenger door for her, tending to her before the luggage. She darted gratefully inside the car, residually warm from an earlier trip and at the very least, a place of shelter from the wind. She curled in her seat and shivered, drawing her feet up onto the seat to hug her knees, barely noticing the sound of the trunk opening and closing.

There was a faint gust of cold as Alfred got into the driver's seat, and she self-consciously uncoiled herself as she realized he was regarding her in the rearview mirror. "There are some sweaters in the compartment to your right," he told her kindly, "and there is fruit and water and other refreshments in the mini-fridge. Is there anything you would like to stop for on the way back to the Manor?"

Gypsy looked around the back of limousine, finally taking in what was around her. She was aware that the air around her was steadily warming; Alfred had turned on the engine, but she could barely feel the thrum of the car running, and then only if she thought to listen for it. She slid her arm free of her bag and settled it on the seat beside her, stretching a little and tired enough to cry for the sudden luxury. Five hours in the air, only to be diverted back to Frankfurt to wait out a blizzard that had closed down airports all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. Then the long seven hour flight after all that time listening to wheeled luggage rattle over the raised discs of the Frankfurt terminal floor, trying not to sleep to save the jet lag on the other end...

Alfred was waiting patiently, and Gypsy felt a hint of guilt. "Umm, no. I mean, I don't need to go anywhere. I just - um - I really just want to crash." She smiled apologetically toward the eyes in the mirror.

Alfred gave a faint smile. "I would imagine so. Very well, then, Ms. Smith."

The car began to slide slowly forward, to begin the winding path from the parking garage and out of the maze that was any airport. Gypsy leaned over to investigate the mini-fridge, her hand closing on a bottle of water as her eyes gazed hungrily on the oranges. They were precisely what she craved, but they'd be so sticky, and she already felt travel gummed enough.

Then her eyes fell on a collection of napkins and wetnaps. She almost laughed - what fantasy had she fallen into, that every wish seemed to be answered almost before she could think of it?

She took one of the oranges and grabbed a few napkins as she closed the door of the mini-fridge. Her parched throat welcomed almost a third of the bottle of water before she set to work on the orange peel.

Her nails pierced the heavy skin of the fruit, and the sweet scent of orange filled the air, making her mouth water. A hint of cold breeze stirred through the back of the limousine as Alfred paused to pay the parking attendant, and Gypsy felt every sense sharpened. Real food, real air, real water - and real heated leather, she appreciated, settling back in the seat with the first section of orange on her tongue.

A weird morbid streak prompted her to wonder if in fact her plane had crashed, and she was not in Gotham, but in heaven. She could easily imagine Alfred with a halo. The more sensible part of her mind wondered why she had resisted so many invitations to Gotham in the past year, even though she knew that soon the luxury would begin to chafe, and that she would awkwardly be trying to fit in with Bruce Wayne's family.

She pushed that worry from her mind, washing down another piece of orange with more water. She wasn't here to impress Bruce Wayne or anyone in his family. She was here for J'onn, and J'onn wouldn't let her be uncomfortable if he could help it.

The limousine wound finally onto the expressway, and Gypsy gazed out the window. Then she straightened, staring intently at the landscape.

The snow stood in huge banks on either side of the road, clumpy but still almost pristine white even at road's edge. Past the plowed area, a cemetery stretched for acres, only identifiable for the few tombs and tall monuments that jutted out from the thick blanket of snow. Conifers mixed among the graves were heavily weighed down, the snow heaping over a foot high on the barely visible green branches. "It really did snow a lot," Gypsy breathed.

"Yes," Alfred agreed, reminding her suddenly of his presence. "They only opened the roads this morning. It was the second storm of the season already - three and a half feet and not even Christmas yet."

"Wow. I haven't seen snow in years. Well, on mountains, but..."

"I quite understand, Ms. Smith," Alfred assured her.

Gypsy popped the last bit of orange into her mouth, dropped the peel into a trash receptacle, and switched over to the facing seats - the ones where she could lean her chin on the back and talk to Alfred more comfortably. She wiped her fingers and mouth with a wet nap before she settled onto her knees to do just that. "You don't have to call me Ms. Smith," she said. "You can call me Gypsy."

"As you wish, Miss Gypsy."

Gypsy laughed. "No no no - just Gypsy."

There was a meeting of eyes in the rearview mirror, with a hint of reproach from Alfred. He considered her in snatches as she sat there. "I will take it under advisement," he finally conceded.

"So does J'onn know I'm coming yet?"

"No," Alfred replied. "Mr. Wayne - Master Bruce has managed to keep it a surprise as far as I am aware. He had hoped to meet you and have you waiting when Master J'onn returned from duty last night, but then your flight was delayed and there was some issue that needed tending on the moon-"

"They're on a mission, huh?" She managed to keep the question casual, although a part of her missed being in the know.

"I suspect so, Miss Gypsy," Alfred acknowledged, and for a moment she wanted to kiss his cheek for his circumspection, for not lording his knowledge over her.

She lapsed into silence, staring forward through the windshield, taking in the winter wonderland aspect of the Gotham landscape. They were skirting the city, and she glanced across the river at the buildings surging into the sky, icing capped by snow with puffy streams of steam and smoke curling away from their roofs against the winter blue sky. Beautiful, she thought. Hard to remember that this was the city that was such a festering pit that the country had almost completely abandoned it at one point. That here was where Bats lurked and psychotic villains came to play.

She turned her head to rest her cheek on her folded arms and regard the man driving the car. "Alfred?"

"Yes, Miss Gypsy?"

"What do you think of them?"

He glanced at the mirror. "Who, Miss Gypsy?"

"Them. J'onn and -" She hesitated, not sure what to call Bruce Wayne. He'd invited her to call him Bruce before, but it still didn't seem quite right - like trying to call one of her old high school teachers by his or her first name as an adult.

There was a mild expression on Alfred's face. "Why, Miss Gypsy? What do you think of them?"

She sighed and stared back out the windshield. "I'm happy for them, I guess. J'onn seems happy - happier than he's been in a long time. And I don't really know Mr. Wa - Bruce - well enough to know what he's like, really. I mean, I've met more when he's - well, the scarier side -"

She bit her lip, wondering if she'd fumbled badly here. But J'onn had told her about Alfred, that he knew about Bruce, and everyone knew Batman was scary, and-

Alfred was smiling. "Yes, Master Bruce does have a way with his... persona. Although I can speak from my own knowledge of him that he is also happier than he has been."

Gypsy nodded. "I figured."

Alfred signaled a turn onto an off-ramp marked "Bristol." "You sound uncertain about that, Miss Gypsy."

Gypsy sighed. "I guess I kinda wished - well -" She trailed off, feeling embarrassed and wondering why she was sharing so much with this relative stranger, even if he was technically, weirdly family.

Alfred nodded his head sympathetically. "You wonder why you couldn't make him happy."

Gypsy glanced up sharply. "Wha-"

"It is natural enough," Alfred continued. "I know you think of Master J'onn as a father, and you share a bond closer than almost anyone else with him. I would imagine that Master Bruce seems to you sometimes like an interloper."

"Yes - I mean, no, not like -" She paused. "It's not that I don't want him to be happy-"

"I know. And I am certain he does, too. But it is hard, relinquishing some part of the affection that you felt was your sole privilege. We talk about the fact that love is infinite, and yet it is hard not to feel the rivalry."

"Have you ever felt that way?" She hadn't meant to ask it - jet lag, adrenaline energy was ruling her tongue.

The limousine pulled smoothly up to a set of wrought iron gates which slowly opened. "Yes," Alfred admitted. "Years ago."

"About Bruce?"

"Yes."

Gypsy studied the gentleman for a moment. "So when J'onn and Mr. - Bruce -?"

Another faint smile crossed his face. "When Master Bruce revealed his feelings for Master J'onn, I had already learned to share - and resigned myself to the truth that children will grow up and seek companionship and friendship in worlds and ways that their elders can watch but not replace."

"Oh." Gypsy thought about this for a moment, then gradually realized what she was seeing through the windshield. "That's where we're going?" she squeaked.

"Wayne Manor. I've prepared a room for you, or if you prefer to eat something-"

"I think I'm just going stare at it awhile," Gypsy declared as the limousine pulled in front of the main entrance way.

Alfred obligingly set the parking brake and busied himself bringing her luggage into the Manor before he finally came to fetch her and lead her wonderingly home.

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