Summary: Dick goes home for Christmas, but doesn't make it.
Author's Note: I wrote this in answer to A.j.'s Christmas Story Challenge, so blame her. Furthermore, Hazel, Terri, Chicago, and reccea were kind enough to beta and offer comments--so if you see any mistakes, blame me.
Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome!
Copyright November 2000
Home for Christmas
By Syl Francis
The strained sounds of an off-key brass band playing 'O Come, All Ye Faithful!' rose and fell with the biting wind blowing in off the Atlantic. The weather forecast called for more snow--near blizzard conditions--later tonight.
The rotating Bludhaven Savings and Loan sign caught his attention. It read two degrees Fahrenheit. His exposed skin said the wind chill was closer to minus twenty.
"Yeah, Grayson," he muttered, his teeth chattering. "It's not the heat, it's the humidity."
"What's the matter, Boy Wonder," Oracle teased. "Forget the Bat-thermal underwear again?"
"Very funny," Nightwing growled. "Ho-ho-ho!"
"I bet Batman isn't whining over a little cold," she continued unperturbed.
"Batman has a cape and a cowl," Nightwing shot back.
"Awww...is your fashion sense not Nordic-ready?" she tsked. "Well, if you're a real good boy, maybe Santa will bring you a nice pair of Bat-earmuffs."
"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?" he snapped. "Let's pick on poor, hardworking Nightwing tonight. Just remember that Santa is watching and listening. Mean little Oracles who aren't nice to good little Nightwings will end up with a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings."
"Ooh...I'm so scared, Dicky. Pwease, don't tell Santa on me...Pwease!?"
Nightwing laughed softly. "Okay, Babs. I pwomise I won't tell on you. But you'd better be careful. Remember, he knows everything."
"What do I know?"
The deep growl that broke into their light, bantering conversation made both young people jump. After his initial surprise, Nightwing snickered.
"Sorry, Batman, but believe it or not, we weren't talking about you. We were talking about Santa. I was warning Babs not to pick on me or else Santa would leave her a lump of coal."
"Not the Bat-thermal underwear joke again?" Batman asked.
"You got it," Nightwing said.
"It's still funny," Oracle interrupted. "And how did you patch into this secured transmission anyway?" she complained.
"That old joke was never funny," Batman returned, ignoring her question.
"See!? Told you!" Nightwing sneered triumphantly.
"It's a matter of opinion," Oracle said testily. "And you never answered my question, Batman."
"Nightwing, have you looked at the weather forecast?" Batman asked, changing the subject.
Oracle sighed. She'd have to reprogram her security program, obviously. Grumbling to herself, she listened to Nightwing giving the weather report.
"Yeah, I heard," he said, casually. "Snow. Cold. Blizzard. More cold. More snow. 'Sucky' pretty much sums it up."
"Blizzard," Batman repeated. "The front's moving in pretty fast. It'll hit Gotham before it hits Bludhaven. If--"
"I know, Bruce," Nightwing interrupted. "I'm planning on leaving way before it's due to hit. I should be home a little after midnight."
"Home?" Oracle interrupted. "You're driving home in this? Dick, you're crazy! The meteorologists are predicting a winter storm with hurricane gale-force winds. Bruce, you tell him!"
"That's why I'm calling. I don't want you driving home in this--especially now that you've lost the car. It's too dangerous for a motorcycle--"
"It's too dangerous for my Hummer!" Oracle interrupted. "You'd have to be crazy to try it on a motorcycle!"
"I can rent a car, guys!" Nightwing said a bit impatiently. "I'm not a complete moron, you know." Okay, so he had planned on riding his motorcycle. So what?
"Oh, and just where did you plan to rent a car on Christmas Eve?" Oracle snorted. "The North Pole?" Nightwing was about to retort when Batman interrupted.
Nightwing went still. Batman had just addressed him with 'the Voice,' that special cold, harsh inflection that generally reduced most Gotham criminals into blubbering idiots. And even though he'd heard it most of his life, even Dick wasn't immune to its effects.
"Yes, sir?" he asked a bit resentfully. He felt a lecture coming.
"Listen to me. The storm should be clearing out by four. Wait until first light when driving conditions should be improved. We'll celebrate Christmas then."
"But, Bruce! Tonight's Christmas Eve! If I leave right now, I can be home before midnight. Come on, I'm not even a half-hour's drive from Gotham. The front hasn't moved in yet. I'll be perfectly safe."
Without waiting for an answer, Nightwing leaped from the rooftop where he'd been staking out the Moro gang's illegal gambling operation. So far, none of the usual suspects had turned up. Probably too smart to be out in this frigid weather, he thought ruefully. Landing in the alleyway where he'd parked his bike, he mounted his 'Wing cycle and started it.
"Dick." The Voice again. Nightwing jammed his helmet on his head in childish pique. About to rev the motor and take off, he was stopped by Bruce's quiet voice--not Batman's--speaking over the comlink.
"I don't want you driving home in this, son. I'd rather we celebrate Christmas with you tomorrow morning, than--" He paused awkwardly. "Than without you. Please. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
Nightwing smiled, feeling warmed by his mentor's concern, but he was still unhappy that Bruce didn't want him to come home tonight. That meant that he wouldn't be home for their family Christmas Eve tradition.
"What about the tree?" he asked, his voice unconsciously becoming very young.
"No one's touching the tree before you get home." Batman's quiet relief was evident. "And that's a promise."
"Okay, Bruce," Nightwing agreed reluctantly. "But I'm holding you to that."
Bruce stared out the front windows, his eyes restlessly searching the long, winding drive that led up to the manor's front portico. An early morning dense fog was just beginning to lift. The winter sun struggling weakly to break through the gloom dimly illumined the distant security gates. He glanced at the hall clock. It was almost nine and still no sign of Dick.
He turned as Alfred walked noiselessly into the expansive family room, and watched as the loyal British gentleman wordlessly set a tray laden with what looked like a light brunch on the cocktail table.
"Dick should've been home by now," Bruce said worriedly.
"Do you know what time he left his apartment?" Alfred asked. Bruce shook his head.
"I called him first thing this morning, but got no answer. I figured he'd already left and was on the road."
"Perhaps he stopped by Miss Barbara's prior to coming here," Alfred suggested. Bruce nodded.
"You're probably right." He paused, and then gave a slight half-grin. "Those two have been dancing around each other almost since they were kids. Think they'll ever realize how they actually feel about each other?"
Alfred looked at Bruce, single eyebrow raised. "Considering Master Dick's upbringing, sir, I'm afraid that nothing short of a miracle will make him realize what's before his eyes."
Bruce just stared at the older man. Finally he cleared his throat, and mumbled an excuse. "I, uh, guess I'll call her apartment. Excuse me."
"Commissioner Gordon speaking."
"Jim?" Bruce asked. "I, uh, I'm sorry to disturb you on Christmas Day, but I was wondering if Dick might have stopped over there before he--?"
"Stop over here?" Jim asked curiously. "Why would Dick stop by at my place?"
"Your place? Oh, I'm sorry. I must've misdialed. I thought I was calling Barbara's number."
"Oh, you probably did. I think she's having her calls forwarded," Jim explained. "Hold on. Let me get her for you."
Bruce could hear the sounds of Christmas carols in the background. Over the music, Jim's voice carried.
"Barbara? Barbara, honey! Bruce Wayne's on the line for you. Wants to know if young Grayson stopped by your apartment this morning?"
Barbara was instantly on the line, her voice breathless.
"Bruce? Isn't he home yet?"
Bruce felt suddenly cold. "No. He hasn't made it home yet. Did he stop by your place this morning?"
"No. I haven't seen Dick in over two weeks. And I haven't spoken to him since last night."
Neither spoke momentarily.
"Bruce? You don't suppose he changed his mind and tried driving in that storm last night, after all, do you?"
Bruce shook his head, although that was exactly what he was thinking. "No, Barbara, of course not. Dick gave his word. He wouldn't go back on it. I'm sure that he's just been delayed. Look, why don't you go back to celebrating with your dad. I'm sorry to have disturbed you--"
"Bruce Wayne, don't you dare talk to me like that. You're worried sick! Don't lie to me--!"
"Barbara!" Jim interrupted in the background.
"Well, he's worried that something's wrong and he's trying to pretend--!"
"That's enough, young lady!" Jim said sharply. His quiet voice was suddenly on the phone. "Bruce, do you think that something might've happened to your boy?"
"Jim, I honestly don't know. He should've been home by now, but he could've easily been delayed. I'm sorry to have disturbed you--"
"Nonsense, Bruce! This is Dick you're talking about! Of course, you're worried. If it were Barbara, I'd have the entire GCPD on alert. Look, there are certain perks with being Commissioner. Let me make some calls and I'll get right back to you."
"No, Jim. You don't have to--"
"It's too late, Bruce. I'm already involved. So you might as well just get yourself a cup of eggnog and settle back. I'll get back to you in a few minutes."
Before Bruce could protest further, Jim hung up.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred stood at the door. Bruce looked up, his eyes hooded. "Sir, I suggest you turn on the television. There's something you should see."
Bruce grabbed the remote and turned on the television in the family room.
"...reports just coming in of a massive fifty-vehicle pile-up on Hwy 61 about midway between Gotham City and Bludhaven," the grave news anchor reported. "The Sheriff's Departments of both Gotham County and Haven County are coordinating rescue efforts. Emergency response teams from both cities have been mobilized. Hospitals in both cities are preparing to accept mass casualties..."
Bruce listened, mesmerized, to the news anchor. "Police on the scene report that the combination of icy conditions and a heavy morning fog has proven fatal. A Mercedes traveling at high speeds lost control and careened into an eighteen-wheeler. The behemoth, in turn, slammed into a second tractor-trailer."
The attractive, grave features of the GNN anchor solemnly looked into the camera, as if directly addressing Bruce.
"The resulting chain-reaction pileup ended in a Jeep on the Westbound lane spinning into a loaded fuel truck traveling on the Eastbound lane."
Bruce turned away, glancing out the windows towards the closed security gates at the foot of the drive. He could imagine the rest without being told.
The resulting explosion would have registered as a sharp blip at Gotham City Star Labs and heard all the way back to Bludhaven. The fireball, obscured by the heavy fog, nevertheless would have been detected as a sudden beacon in the middle of the darkened highway.
And Dick was somewhere in the middle of it.
Bruce didn't wait for the end of the report. He grabbed his jacket and gloves and pulled on a pair of heavy boots. At the same moment, the phone rang. Bruce paused, waiting for Alfred to answer it.
"Wayne residence. Yes, Commissioner, we just heard it on the news. We're on our way--" Alfred stopped and listened. "But, sir--!" He listened further, and then deflated handed the receiver to Bruce. "Master Bruce, Commissioner Gordon wishes to speak to you."
Bruce shook his head. "I'm not here!" he said, and hurried out the front door.
Alfred watched him worriedly, and then spoke again into the phone. "Commissioner, I'm afraid that Master Bruce already left. Yes, sir, I realize that but I'm afraid that it's irrelevant that the roads are closed to traffic. Master Bruce has already left and he's determined to find Master Dick."
Bruce didn't care about the icy conditions. Dick was in trouble.
"I should've taken the Batwing," he muttered. "And to Hell with the 'Urban Legend' nonsense!" Thinking about the Wayne Enterprises company helicopter he dialed Lucius Fox's home number.
"Lucius! This is Bruce. Sorry to disturb you on Christmas Day, but I need your help!"
"Bruce, Merry Christmas to you, too," Lucius said sardonically. "What can I do for you?"
"The company helicopter. Do you know if it's currently parked on the helipad or back in the hangar at the airport?"
"Not sure, but I can find out. Where are you right now?"
"I'm on the road heading towards town. Look, never mind, Lucius! I shouldn't have bothered you. Have a Merry Christmas!"
"Bruce! Wait! What is it--?"
But Bruce pressed the 'End' button on his cell phone and tossed it aside.
"I've always wanted to run a roadblock as a civilian."
Bruce looked out at the endless Highway to Hell.
He'd been pulled over at the roadblocks set up by the Gotham State Highway Patrol. Several GSHP squad cars and motorcycles were lined haphazardly along the road in front of him, lights flashing, radios squawking.
"I'm sorry, sir, no one's allowed beyond this point."
"Look, I think my son might be--"
"I'm sorry, sir. The rescue workers have their hands full. You'd only be in the way and you could get hurt. There's a lot of fuel on the ground. It could go up at any time."
Bruce tried one last tactic. "Look, I'm trained in emergency first aid. And I know CPR. I could be of help--!"
But the patrolman was called away at that moment by another motorist who was trying to run the roadblock. The patrolman's partner immediately joined him and they managed to pull a hysterical female from her car.
"My husband and children! They were driving back from Bludhaven! Please! My little girl's only four!"
Bruce took advantage of this brief distraction to climb out of his car and slip across the roadblocks. Keeping low among the line of GSHP vehicles, he made it over the short rise that lay just before the accident scene.
What lay on the other side of the rise, gave even Bruce momentary pause.
The fifty-vehicle pileup was spread before him for over a quarter of a mile. Black smoke from several small fires rose in the crisp morning. Firemen worked diligently to put out the many hotspots that could easily turn the accident scene into an inferno, because of the fuel leaking from dozens of vehicles.
The still, icy air carried the pungent smell of burning diesel fuel and--Bruce grimaced. Burnt flesh. He could hear the sharp, staccato orders from emergency workers and the screams and groans of the injured. It was as if he'd stepped into the aftermath of a war zone.
"Hey! I could use some help here!" Bruce turned towards and emergency medical technician who was waving at him. Before Bruce could react, the EMT was joined by another medtech.
At that moment, a helicopter with a Red Cross prominently displayed on its sides took off in the direction of Gotham City.
A cold feeling that had nothing to do with the temperature gripped Bruce.
"Can it, Wayne, you don't even know if Dick's in this mess," he growled. "And I don't know if he isn't," he answered himself. Abruptly, he started making his way quickly through the seemingly endless line of carnage.
As he walked, Bruce became aware of the frigid conditions and the fact that his leather jacket wasn't meant for continued exposure to sub-zero temperatures.
"Too bad you weren't smart enough to pack a pair of those wonderful Bat-thermal underwear." He hunched down into his jacket, glad that he'd at least remembered to wear his gloves and boots.
"Can it, you big whiner," he muttered. "Alfred isn't here to make you feel 'all better.'" Sometimes the so-called helpless playboy mask seemed less of an act and more of who he actually was without the cowl. Disgusted with himself, he put the cold out of his mind. Dick might be out here, and it was up to Bruce to find him.
Hours later Bruce stood at the end of the line of vehicles, his eyes haunted by the human carnage he'd witnessed, yet relieved that there'd been no sign of the young man he thought of as his son.
As he'd searched, Bruce was put to use a couple of times by the emergency workers and police officers. He'd lent a hand here and there, helping bandage wounds and carry a victim onto a stretcher. One time, he'd added his considerable strength and opened a jammed door on a crushed compact vehicle. To his dismay, the driver, identified by her high heels as a woman, was dead.
Discouraged, the emergency workers turned away, ready to free another victim. About to follow, Bruce heard a faint sound from underneath the driver's seat. Eyes widening in surprise, Bruce called the EMTs and hurriedly struggled to move the seat forward.
"What is it?" a fireman asked.
"I heard something," Bruce rasped. "Not sure, but it sounded like a--"
At that moment the eerie silence that lay like a shroud along Rt. 61 was shattered by a baby's cry. The firemen excitedly freed the tiny bundle, somehow safe and unhurt, still strapped into his car seat.
The EMTs quickly carried him into the back of an ambulance, mindful of possible injuries, and tenderly laid him down on the stretcher inside. Bruce watched for a few precious moments, and then continued his own fruitless search.
He stopped by a railing overlooking a steep ravine, going over the search in his mind. Nowhere had any sign of Dick been apparent.
"Of course, it could mean that he's not caught in this," he mused. "So, World's Greatest Detective, where do you logically deduce your own son might be on Christmas Day?"
Bruce sighed. "I suppose it would be too much of a reach to say, Titans' Tower, or perhaps the Bludhaven PD called him in to fill in for another officer." He shook his head. Dick would've called, he knew. Or left a message. Holidays--especially Christmas--were too important to the younger man. If something had come up suddenly, Dick would've called.
Bruce clenched his fist, going over the possibilities. "Okay, he could've been forced to leave without being able to call. He was on the trail of the Moro gang last night. He could've gotten a lead and forgotten to report in." He sighed. Not likely. Dick was fiercely independent, at times reckless, and stubborn to a 'T.' But he wasn't stupid. If he'd gotten a new lead, he would've called it in.
Back to the Titans.
Bruce thought of the countless times that Dick had deployed without prior warning to solve some kind of world crisis. As Nightwing, he'd also been called more times into space than even Batman had with the JLA. Could this be another one of those times?
Could Dick, even now, be on his way to 'Who Knows Where?' to fight some new off-world menace? Bruce hated it when Dick went off-planet. The idea that his son could be in trouble so far from home and that he wouldn't be able to come to his aid gave Bruce many sleepless nights.
But Dick was no longer a small boy who needed him to hover protectively never more than an arms' length away. Dick was a well-trained soldier--a leader in his own right, a hero through and through. Bruce's lips played with a small half-smile.
"And Bat-Dad's still pacing the Batcave waiting for little Robin to come back to the fold."
Bruce knew that Dick would probably go ballistic if he were to find out that his mentor was out here, doubting his abilities--again!
"I should've called the Tower before I rushed out here. The kids are probably on a mission right now," Bruce mused, nodding as the idea took hold.
That was probably it, he decided, a half-smile softening his hard features. Dick was currently off-planet with the Titans, fighting some 'big, one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people-eater' from Zortron, the Land of the Purple People.
Abruptly, his smile disappeared. Bruce swallowed, looking out at the frozen, snow-covered landscape before him. The dark line of trees running along the highway's shoulders looked menacing, secretive.
"And maybe he went off the road," Bruce said, a sudden chill settling in his stomach. "He would've been on his motorcycle. He could've been easily missed if he'd gone off road."
To his surprise, Bruce heard his name being called.
"Bruce! Bruce Wayne!"
Bruce looked up. A military-style Hummer was slowly making its way towards him. A familiar gray-haired, bespectacled figure jumped out--Jim Gordon. He looked angry.
Bruce sighed and shrugged. He didn't care, nor did he have the time for it. About to turn away, he felt someone grab his arm. Instinctively, he clamped down on the offending wrist, forcing the grip on his arm to loosen.
Easy does it, Wayne, Bruce's conscience warned. I believe Jim's your friend, isn't he?
Jim looked thunderous. "Bruce, are you out of your mind? Don't you know that the best thing you can do to help that boy is to be home, waiting for a phone call?"
"And what if that phone call never comes? What then, Jim?" Bruce shot back. The morning's events were beginning to wear on him. So much pain and suffering. And all on the one day of the year when families gathered in the name of peace of goodwill. Bruce needed someone to blame, and Jim had conveniently made himself available.
"I've just walked this entire line of destruction and haven't seen any sign of Dick! What if he's missed? No one else knows what to look for! Most of the victims have already been evacuated, but Dick's still missing!"
"Maybe he's not here, Bruce," Jim said quietly. "Have you thought of that? Dick's a nice looking young man, who happens to be single and likes girls. Maybe he found someone with whom he'd rather spend Christmas."
A small intake of breath made both men turn. Barbara was staring at her father in disbelief.
"You don't really believe that? Do you, Dad?"
Jim gave Barbara a look fraught with guilt. He shook his head. "No, sweetheart. Of course not--"
"--Besides, it's ridiculous," Bruce interrupted dismissively. "I think that the two of you and I all know with whom Dick would like to spend his free time." He was looking pointedly at Barbara as he spoke.
Barbara returned his stare momentarily. And then her cheeks hotly flushing, she dropped her eyes. "I-I don't know what you mean, Bruce."
Bruce gave a small snort. "Please, Barbara, I don't have time for games! I haven't been able to find Dick among this carnage. I thank God for that, but I still can't find my son! Are you going to just sit there and suggest that he may not even be here because he could be with a girl he's just met? Do you really believe that?"
Bruce had walked up to her by then and was crouching in front of her. He took her hand in his.
"Barbara, Dick loves you. I know it. He knows it. And I think that you know it, too. But neither of you are willing to talk about it for fear that one or the other will run off. I know Dick's somewhere out here, hurt, maybe dying. I can feel it!" He pinned her with his dark glare.
"Barbara, if you agree with your father that Dick's not here--if you really believe that in your heart--then please tell me. Because if that's the case, then I'll leave now and head back home to wait for him--late and embarrassed, maybe, with some silly excuse that none of us will believe--but I won't care, because I'll be thankful that he's home and safe."
Bruce paused, holding her eyes long and hard.
"What should I do, Barbara? I respect your opinion. You know that."
Barbara sat in her wheelchair feeling its heavy weight on her shoulders. Tears began flowing of their own accord. She wanted to say that she agreed with her father, but couldn't. Dick wasn't with another girl. She knew it in her heart. Wiping her eyes, she shook her head.
"No," she whispered. "Please, don't go home, yet. I'm sorry, Bruce. But if his bike isn't on the road, where is it?"
"I'm not sure, but I think I can find out." Bruce turned to Jim. "Dogs. Jim, can we get a team of bloodhounds out here?"
"Dogs? In this? Bruce, even if I could get some out here, what good would it do? They wouldn't be able to track in this!"
"Dad, the Gotham Sheriff's Office has a champion team of trackers. Maybe--?"
Jim sighed in annoyance, but agreed and left to find one of the Sheriff's Deputies he'd spotted.
Meanwhile, Bruce looked as if he were casually surveying the surrounding wooded area. He suddenly stiffened.
"What is it?" Barbara asked instantly next to him. Bruce didn't answer. Instead, he made his way over to the guardrail over the embankment. Barbara followed close behind.
"What do you see?" she asked.
"There are no vehicles anywhere near this area," Bruce explained, "yet here--" He pointed to a long line of skid marks and gouges on the roadway. "--you can see where something very large and very heavy spun out of control." He turned and pointed further down towards the still smoldering fuel truck. A team of fire fighters was still hosing it down with foam.
"That thing must traveled this way before ending up over there. Whatever was traveling on the Westbound lane heading towards Gotham at the time was either crushed or pushed out of its way."
Barbara nodded, following his line of reasoning, but then her green eyes recorded her own doubt.
"Bruce, I don't see any skid marks coming from this direction. If there were another vehicle, then why didn't it try to stop or swerve out of the way?"
"Good question." Bruce inspected each skid mark on the road, trying to discern a single track that would've been left by a motorcycle. Not finding any, he backtracked along the gouges obviously left by the giant tractor-trailer.
When he arrived in the middle of what essentially was a short span of bridge over a steep ravine, which dropped down into one of the Gotham River's many tributaries, Bruce paused again. A single, raised eyebrow was the only indication that he'd found something.
"What is it, Bruce? What did you find?"
Bruce pointed carefully at the top rung on the guardrail.
"Look here, Barbara." Bruce pointed at a fresh scrape on the guardrail. "It could've been caused by any one of the vehicles spinning out of control, but--" He paused, inspecting it closely. "--Look where the scrape's located."
Barbara rolled her chair in nearer, her mind sifting through the facts. Finally, she understood. "It's on the third rail," she said excitedly, "as if whatever hit it was airborne."
"Exactly," Bruce said, nodding his agreement. He looked over the edge, and the steep, tree-covered, rock-strewn drop.
"I'm going down," he said. Barbara was busy scanning the embankment below. The small tributary lay frozen along its banks, but the waters along its center were still flowing sluggishly.
"Wait!" she called. "I think I see something...by that rock outcropping. Do you see it?"
Bruce stared in the direction she was pointing. Whatever was protruding was black and stood out starkly in the snow. Dick's motorcycle!
"That's it! I'm going," Bruce said.
Barbara didn't argue. She sat back and watched as he slowly disappeared into the steep ravine below. As the minutes passed, Barbara recalled another Christmas season when she'd been asked to baby-sit her favorite client, a small boy who was facing his first Christmas without his parents...
...She spotted nine-year-old Dick as he dodged around the mingling guests. She had to catch him. Honestly! She'd only turned her back on him for a split second. While she was searching the top shelf of his closet for his favorite board game, the little monster actually slammed the door shut behind her and jammed a chair against the doorknob.
Being a cop's daughter was probably the only reason she'd been able to escape his impromptu deathtrap.
When I get my hands on you, Munchkin, she thought dangerously. You're dead meat!
'Dick!' she called, sounding as exasperated as she felt. Almost on top of him, Barbara grabbed for his pajama top, and just missed as he ducked between a dancing couple, startling them.
'Master Dick!' Both Barbara and Dick skidded to a halt. 'Young man, I am shocked at your scandalous behavior. And--' Alfred's eyebrows disappeared into his receding hairline. 'Young sir, you are not even properly dressed! And barefoot? March upstairs this instant--'
'I'm sorry, Alfred,' Barbara apologized.
They both turned to her. Barbara gave Alfred an apologetic look, and then pinned Dick with an emerald glare. 'It's my fault, Alfred. I forgot I was babysitting Harry Houdini, Jr. But I promise, he won't bust out again.'
She held out a pair of handcuffs to emphasize her point. Alfred gazed at her with an amused light in his eyes. Dick was another matter.
'Traitor!' he declared, sticking his tongue out at her. Barbara's mouth dropped open.
'Why you little--!' she began, reaching for him again.
Dick quickly ducked behind Alfred, pulling on the dignified gentleman's coattails as he struggled to escape Barbara's irate clutches.
"Master Richard--!" Alfred protested just as he and the hors d'oeuvre laden tray he was carrying went tumbling onto the seasonally festive buffet table. The yells of surprise, coupled with gasps of horror and outrage immediately brought Bruce.
'My dress--!' one of Gotham's leading society matrons wailed. She was hastily running a napkin across her considerable bodice. 'It's ruined!'
Dick gaped at the mayhem he'd caused and guiltily turned to face his guardian. Bruce's expression was thunderous. Barbara noticed that Dick was nervously shuffling one tiny bare foot over the other while bravely trying to meet Bruce's stern look. Her heart went out to the little boy when she saw his lower lip traitorously begin to quiver.
Barbara knew that Dick had only wanted to see Bruce one last time before he went to bed. When she'd arrived that evening, Alfred had informed her that Dick was especially missing his parents as Christmas approached. The boy's behavior was therefore a bit erratic--moody one moment, clinging to Bruce the next. Barbara was immediately next to Dick, her hands protectively on his shoulders.
'It's all my fault, Mr. Wayne. Dick said he wanted to say goodnight to you before he went to sleep, so I, uh, said it was, um, okay--?" Barbara stumbled over her excuse, making it a question. Dick looked up her, shocked. Barbara had just told a whopper to protect him!
He was about to protest, but Barbara casually clapped her hand over his mouth. Bruce, meanwhile, was lending the wronged lady a helping hand to get her bulk off the floor.
'Gertie, my sincerest apologies," Bruce said smoothly, graciously kissing her hand. Barbara glanced around and spotted Alfred busily dusting himself off, wiping canapes from his tuxedo and champagne from his forehead.
'Lucius!' Bruce called. 'Over here, please!' Lucius hurried over.
'Lucius, could you please see to it that Gertie here is properly compensated for the loss of her lovely dress. Perhaps a special shopping spree in the store of her choice--say tomorrow--for any last minute Christmas Eve shopping?'
Gertie looked uncertain. Lucius joined in easily.
'I'll have the company limo pick you up tomorrow morning, say ten-ish?' Lucius raised a questioning eyebrow. By then Gertie's uncertainty had been replaced by a smiling acquiescence.
'Oh, very well! If you insist. Thank you so much, Brucie. You're a living doll, and I'm going to make sure everyone in Gotham City knows it. Ta! Good night, all!' She called out in a high falsetto, waving to everybody.
As soon as she left, Bruce turned to the guilty party. From his considerable height, he glared down at the diminutive boy who was dressed in Superman pajamas and clutching a stuffed elephant as if his life depended on it.
'Mr. Wayne, please--it really is my fault, sir!' Barbara insisted bravely.
'No, it's not, Bruce,' Dick admitted in a low voice. He was forced to throw his dark head almost all the way back in order to meet his guardian's dark gaze. 'Babs told me to stay in the room, but I slipped out and came here.'
By now, Gotham City's most eligible bachelor and his new ward were the center of attention. Alfred cleared his throat.
'Sir, perhaps it would be better to take this upstairs?' Alfred gave a pointed nod at the small crowd that had gathered around them. Bruce agreed and was about to march Dick to his room when he was surprised by the single tear that suddenly coursed down his ward's cheek.
Unmindful of his growing audience, Bruce immediately dropped to Dick's eye-level and tentatively reached for him. Without hesitation, Dick threw his arms around Bruce's neck, dropping his stuffed elephant in the process. Barbara immediately bent down and picked up the boy's much beloved friend.
'I'm sorry, Bruce. I didn't mean it.'
'Hey, that's okay, partner," Bruce said with quiet reassurance. "No harm, no foul. But whatever got into you, anyway? It's not like you not to mind Barbara. I thought you liked her.'
Dick nodded miserably.
'I do, but I wanted to say g'night to you. You've been gone an awful lot lately. I hardly ever see you. And you're here tonight, but I'm not 'llowed down here on account of it's only for grownups, and I wasn't gonna see you again 'til tomorrow. And I didn't want to wait.'
'He has missed you terribly this past week while you've been in Japan, sir,' Alfred said softly.
Ignoring the low whispers around him, Bruce picked Dick up and started carrying him upstairs.
'It's true, Mr. Wayne,' Barbara said. 'That's all he's talked about for the past hour. I barely got him to shower and get dressed for bed.'
Bruce looked at her over Dick's dark head. 'Well, what do you say we tuck this guy into bed, Barbara? That all right with you, Munchkin?' At his nickname for the boy, a few of the ladies in the party twittered in amusement.
'Bruce!' Dick protested. 'Everybody can hear you!'
Bruce looked around as if noticing the crowd of revelers for the first time. 'So what?' he asked. 'Let 'em get their own kid to torture. I've got dibs on you!' With that Bruce held Dick out, swung him up and over, and giggling, Dick easily settled on his guardian's shoulders. The crowd broke into applause and cheers of approval.
The new father and son turned at the top of the stairs and waved at the appreciative party guests.
Back in Dick's room, Bruce gave him a drink of water, read him 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' aloud, tucked him in, and ruffled his hair.
'Will you be all right?' he asked.
'Uh-huh,' Dick said nodding sadly, knowing that Bruce was about to return to the party.
'Will you promise not to lock Barbara up in any more closets tonight?' Bruce teased. Dick's eyes lit briefly in an answering smile but were quickly doused.
Bruce glanced at Barbara, with a slight apologetic look. Smiling, Barbara showed him her handcuffs.
'Just in case he tries anything again,' she said in mock threat. Bruce turned back to his unhappy ward.
'What if I check back in here as soon as the guests leave?' he asked. 'Just to be sure that you're okay--?' But he didn't finish because Dick suddenly sat up and threw his arms around his neck.
'You will?' Dick asked, happily. 'You promise? You won't just leave again tonight--?' He stopped suddenly, his eyes wide as he realized what he was about to say in front of Barbara. Instead of becoming angry, Bruce tightened his arms around Dick.
'Dicky, I promise I'll never leave you. As long as you need me, I'll always be here for you--and I'll be here for you even when you stop needing me.'
'You will?' Dick repeated uncertainly as Bruce gently laid him back down. Bruce nodded, gazing down at his new son with a soft expression.
'If someone had told me last year that I'd have you for Christmas, I wouldn't have believed them. But of all the presents in all the world, I think that you're the best one of all.' Bruce's dark blue eyes held Dick's steadily. He leaned down and ruffled Dick's hair affectionately.
'Now be nice to Barbara. Good babysitters are hard to find. Good night.'
'G'night, Bruce,' Dick answered happily. After Bruce quietly closed the door behind him, Dick looked over to where Barbara was quietly reading.
'I can't hear you, 'cause you're asleep. But if you're not, well, Santa's watching and knows you're not asleep, and he's gonna leave you a lump of coal in your stocking.'
Dick gave a short giggle. 'You're a flake,' he declared.
'Why thank you, Munchkin. But you're asleep, so I'm not having this conversation with you.'
'Aw, pweeease, Babs? I wanna tell you something.'
Barbara sighed. She loved to baby-sit the Munchkin, but bedtime never went smoothly. She walked over and sat at his bedside. 'Okay, what is it?'
'I just wanted to say thanks. You didn't have to try to take the fall for what I did, but you tried. And against Bruce. That took a lot of guts.' He said this last with open admiration.
Barbara smiled. 'Well, I was responsible 'cause I'm in charge. Anyway, like Mr. Wayne said, it's okay. You didn't mean it. It was an accident.'
'I know. But thanks anyway. You're the best, Babs!'
Barbara smiled. 'So are you, Munchkin.' She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead and tickled him on his tummy. 'Now go to sleep, or I may have to hurt you.'
Barbara waited by the guardrail, staring out at the white landscape, a sad smile on her face. She didn't notice when Jim returned almost a half-hour later. She jumped, startled when he gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
"Where's Bruce?" he asked, looking around. "The Sheriff's office says that the dogs' owner is out of the town for Christmas. They're going to try to locate his son." He shook his head. "Holidays are the worst time for these things," he added.
"He went down there," she said quietly, thinking about the little boy whom she'd loved so long ago, and the young man whose love she'd been afraid to return until now.
Neither spoke for a few minutes, waiting for any sign from Bruce. Barbara didn't want to think about what he might find. Dick had certainly been in worse situations. He'd been shot, brainwashed, and beaten half to death on more than one occasion. He'd been fired as Robin, replaced by another, heartbroken by a girl whom he'd loved, turned away by his best friends, and even rejected by Bruce.
And I haven't treated him any better, she thought bitterly. I promise, Dick, that whatever happens, I'll make it up to you. Just please come back to us. Come back to me.
Barbara stared at the sheer drop. What if--? No, she couldn't think like that.
Dick had faced otherworldly catastrophes, super-villains, human monsters, and Alfred's gentle chastisement. And all through that, he'd survived.
Dick was a survivor. No matter what happened to him, no matter if he was somewhere down there, he was going to be all right.
"Dick's going to be all right," she whispered fiercely.
Jim squeezed his daughter's shoulder. "Of course he is, sweetheart. You'll have all time in the world to let him know how you feel."
Barbara buried her face in her father's hand.
"What if I can't, Dad?" she sobbed. "I've let so many opportunities pass us by. He's tried to tell me so often, and I've pushed him away each time. I can't bear to lose him. Not on Christmas Day. Not ever. Not without having told him first."
Jim crouched in front of his little girl and took her gently into his arms. Barbara held onto her dad for a few moments. Then, taking a deep breath, she straightened up and sat back.
"I'll be okay, Dad," she said in a low voice. "I just wish I could be down there with Bruce looking for him."
Jim cupped her chin in his firm, strong hand. "Dick is going to be fine, sweetheart. You have to have faith. I'm going to round up some rope and see if I can offer Bruce a little more practical help than moral support."
Barbara gave her father a luminous smile and hugged him fiercely to her.
His black, leather jumpsuit was soaked through. Hypothermia would soon follow. The jumpsuit was torn in several places, but it was mostly intact, as was his helmet. These had prevented additional injuries as he tumbled head-over-heels, nonstop down the ravine, through several jagged outcroppings and other ground debris.
The snow cover had also helped to slow his descent. The bare trees that comprised the wild thickets along the Gotham-Bludhaven highway stood like stark sentinels over him, concealing him from probing eyes.
To include the rescue workers he suddenly realized. This brought to the fore the noises he'd been hearing for the past few minutes but which he hadn't been able to decipher--sirens! And what sounded like bullhorns, powerful V8 engines, and the faint crackling of radios.
The rescue squads had already arrived, he knew. Sifting. Digging out bodies. Performing lifesaving measures. And he was down here. Away from their line of sight.
Carefully turning his head as far as he could, Dick looked all around and below him. He was wedged about three quarters of the way down the ravine's steep incline. Another 50 yards below, the frozen waters of one of the Gotham River's countless tributaries flowed towards the Atlantic.
"Wonder how long I've been out?" he asked. He remembered the giant fuel truck appearing out of the low, dense fog as it swerved to avoid a Jeep that had crossed the median, and coming straight towards him.
He'd had only a tenth of a second to react. One instant the tractor-trailer was on the Eastbound lane towards Bludhaven, the next it was skidding on its side heading towards him. It had jackknifed and was spinning out of control, throwing up an impressive spray of sparks. Dick did the only thing he could.
He went airborne.
He revved the motorcycle, lifted the front end, and punched the thrusters. The bike jumped clear of the fuel truck at the last second, just as the sparks ignited the high-octane gasoline in its storage tank. The force of the ensuing explosion slammed into Dick, sending him flying over the guardrail and down the ravine.
Dick managed to maintain some semblance of control, until his rear wheel inadvertently struck the guardrail. The motorcycle cartwheeled in midair, and before he could again get the powerful machine under control, he struck a boulder, lost his grip on the handlebars, and fell into the darkness.
Dick's last conscious thought as he finally came to a sudden, bone-jarring halt was his regret that he'd lost Babs' Christmas gift, a pair of exquisite diamond earrings shaped like snowflakes.
'Cause you're a flake,' he'd written.
His lips played in a half-grin. Maybe it was for the best. She would've kicked his butt across the room for that 'sentimental' missive. Still, the earrings might have earned him at least one kiss.
Dick thought of her red hair, so like the warm russets of autumn, and the deep orange/crimson of the western sky at sunset. His smile was abruptly cut off as a sudden, agonizing spasm shook him through. It reminded him that he was probably injured.
"Another fine mess, Grayson," he muttered, eyes clenched shut. He did a mental assessment.
He hurt. All over. Dick concentrated--back, left leg, hip--these areas hurt more than the rest of him. The left leg hurt the most.
"Broken, probably," he groaned. "I guess I won't get to dance with Babs at the Annual Wayne Foundation New Year's Eve Charity Ball." Then again--his and hers matching wheelchairs might be kinda cool. He smiled at the thought. "I can't believe I used to hate those society things when I was a kid." Another painful jolt brought him back to the immediate problem at hand.
"Okay, Grayson, take it by the numbers," he gasped. "Let's see what we can still move."
"Legs," he muttered. He had to see just how badly broken his leg might be. Focusing intently on his lower extremities, Dick steadied his breathing, and then ordered his right leg to move to the right. He was rewarded by the sound of a small pebble rolling away.
"Okay, one down," he said, and concentrating, attempted to repeat the action with his left leg. He moved his upper thigh the barest inch, when a white-hot poker seared through him. Dick bit down on the scream that almost tore from his throat. He fought valiantly against the blackness that threatened to engulf him.
"Guess it hurts when I do that," he managed through gritted teeth. "Okay, then--don't do that, stupid!" He swallowed, trying to slow down his ragged breathing. His entire left side was on fire, even though the ambient temperature was several degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
"Note to self--Don't move left leg. Hurts. A lot." As he spoke, his words became fuzzier, less coherent. Dick's breathing started slowing. He lay unmoving in the still, frigid air, feeling an odd sense of warmth begin to overtake him...
His eyes snapped open.
"You're lying in a snow bank, Grayson. Bruce and Alfred must've noticed you're late by now. Bruce will be coming for you. You don't want him to find a frozen Popsicle stick, do you? You've gotta stay awake." Despite his words, Dick felt his eyes fluttering closed of their own accord.
"Focus, former Teen Wonder!" he rasped. "A Flying Grayson does not go gently into the night..." He dropped off for a moment, instantly transported into the bright spotlight under the Big Top. He waved at the crowd below. His mother smiled at him. 'Wake up, little Robin!'
Dick jerked awake, his heart hammering in his chest. "Grayson, you've gotta concentrate...!" he sleepily chastised. "Bruce will be here soon...he'll find you...gotta stay awake..."
Dick dropped off momentarily, and then snapped awake again, the sudden movement shooting another spasm of agony through his left side. He clenched his jaw against the teeth-jarring pain.
"Oh, God!" he cried, biting down on his lip. "Gotta go to that 'happy place'!" he muttered, referring to one of the higher states of consciousness that he'd been trained to achieve in order to control pain or any other form of bodily need.
"Focus, Grayson," he mumbled. "Deep breaths...slow heart rate...center, Grayson..."
"...Please have snow and mistletoe..." Dick opened his eyes, confused. He became aware of the passage of time. Looking around, he noticed the lengthening shadows. Closing his eyes, Dick could see the family room before him. The full tree stood bare, undecorated, while a mouth-watering Christmas spread of cookies, breads and cakes waited, untouched, on the buffet table.
He saw Bruce standing in front of the fireplace. Bruce turned and held up his cup of Wassail in salute.
'You have to stay awake, son,' Bruce said. 'We're waiting for you at home. Look, even the tree is waiting for you like I promised. Come home, Dick. Come home for Christmas.'
"I'm coming home, Bruce. Like I promised. I'll be home...if only in my...dreams..."
After struggling through the uneven ground for several long minutes, Bruce spotted the motorcycle. It was lodged in a rock outcropping several feet below him. Bruce wondered how Dick had been able to achieve enough speed to get thrown this far.
"How fast was he traveling, anyway?" Bruce muttered.
Considering Dick's somewhat unhealthy addiction to high speeds, not to mention his love of freefall from incredible heights--and anything else that gave him an adrenaline rush--Bruce figured that his protege was probably traveling at a speed that was close to mach one.
That didn't worry him as much as wondering about Dick's reaction time. Would he have been able to save himself from serious injury? With his superior athletic skills, Dick had the ability to usually turn near-tragedy into just another day in the park.
He'd seen Dick escape time after time from one near-fatal accident to another without so much as a scratch--just a wide, pleased grin with himself. Although well aware of the boy's superior skills, Bruce had nevertheless traded sharp words with him on countless occasions over his unnecessary risk-taking.
To little avail apparently.
Dick had an independent streak that usually drove Bruce's natural obsession over the younger man's safety into maximum overdrive. And now? Bruce tried not to let himself fall into morbidity.
This was Christmas Day. Dammit! Dick was all right!
"He's all right!" Bruce growled. He felt a cold chill grip him. Abruptly, he shook off the feeling and made his way carefully to where Dick's Black Knight lay wedged.
"Okay, gentlemen," Jim said, addressing the three Sheriff's Deputies. "The victim's name is Dick Grayson. He's five feet, ten inches, weighs approximately one-eighty. He was last known to be traveling on the Westbound lane to Gotham. Our best guess is that he was somehow thrown from the span and down the ravine. Bob, if you'll train your glasses to that rock outcropping," Jim continued, tapping one of the Sheriff's Deputies on the shoulder, "my daughter believes that the black object wedged there could possibly be the victim's motorcycle."
Bob nodded and did as requested. After a few seconds, he confirmed Jim's speculation. "It's a motorcycle all right," he said. He adjusted the binoculars to a higher magnification and scanned the area around the bike. "The area's fairly steep, almost a seventy degree downgrade. Rocks. Trees. Roots. Snow and ice." He gave Jim a grim look.
"If your friend's kid is down there, it's going to take more than just a single rope to get him out. Furthermore, if your friend went down there without any equipment, then we may be looking for two victims now. I'd better get the Fire Chief. He's going to need to coordinate the rescue effort." As the Sheriff's Deputy spoke, Jim glanced at Barbara's pale, pinched features and nodded.
"My guys will stay here and try to see if they can spot anything else," Bob explained as he turned to go.
"Thanks, Bob." Jim stepped behind his daughter, his hands lightly squeezing her shoulders. "They'll be all right, sweetheart. You have to believe that."
Barbara placed her left hand over her father's. "I know, Dad," she whispered. "I know."
Without looking back, Bruce stumbled and slid down a steep incline that fell towards the frozen tributary below. Mindful of the treacherous surface, Bruce searched for handholds and solid toeholds as he made his way towards the Black Knight.
Unexpectedly, what he'd thought was a secure handhold broke off, and Bruce shot down as if on a roller coaster, his hands desperately searching for something to latch onto. His descent slammed to a sudden painful halt--as quickly as it had started.
He lay where he'd come to a stop, the same narrow, rocky ledge where Dick's bike was caught, and which unfortunately now held him wedged in tightly.
"Brilliant move," he muttered in self-disgust. Closing his eyes, Bruce centered himself, took several calming breaths, and automatically entered a deep state of relaxation. As he worked to achieve the desired mental stage, Bruce's memories of Christmases past came flooding back, signaled probably by the motorcycle that lay on the ledge just a few feet away.
As he attained a higher level of consciousness, Bruce's lips twitched slightly. Dick never knew that he'd monitored the whole thing from the cave below. After all, part of the fun of having a kid was trying to surprise him at Christmas. And when your kid was Robin, the Boy Wonder, you were forced to come up with unique methods of keeping your gifts a secret...
...Fifteen-year-old Dick Grayson slid down the banister, something he'd done almost every day since he'd arrived at Wayne Manor. Something that always got him an Alfred tongue-lashing. Except today because today was Christmas.
And Dick was allowed to slide down the banister without disapproval on Christmas Day.
And on his birthday. Not to mention Easter, Arbor Day, Groundhog Day. The first Saturday of the month! Dick smiled. Funny, how many holidays you could come up with in the course of a single year.
'Merry Christmas, Master Richard!' Alfred said warmly.
'Merry Christmas, Alfred! Where's Bruce?'
'I'm afraid Master Bruce is currently indisposed. He'll be joining us shortly.'
'Oh.' Dick's cheery demeanor instantly disappeared. 'Is he downstairs?' he asked.
'I'm not at liberty to say, young sir. Now, how about some breakfast?'
Dick nodded, not feeling hungry any more. He sat unhappily at the breakfast table, alone.
'Why can't Batman take just this day off?' he muttered. Sighing, he pushed his pancakes around in his plate.
'Hey, partner! Are you going to play with those things or eat them?'
Dick looked up and met his guardian's quiet, smiling eyes. Bruce grimaced teasingly. "On second thought, they don't look very appetizing. Alfred! I'm stunned. Is this the best you can do for Christmas?'
Soon, the sound of laughter rang through the warm kitchen, echoing up and down the staid manor's paneled corridors. When Bruce dramatically opened the ornate front door, Dick's laughter ended in a gasp of surprise.
Sitting on the curved driveway, prettily gift-wrapped with a giant red and green bow, was Dick's gift, a motorcycle. And not just any motorcycle, but a Vincent Black Knight--a rare collector's item. Only one hundred had ever been manufactured.
'Merry Christmas, son.'
'That's what Master Bruce was doing this morning, young sir. Uncrating your gift and making some necessary adjustments for your personal use.'
Dick looked at Bruce with glowing eyes. "Thank you, Bruce. I don't know what to say.'
Tossing Dick a helmet and donning one himself, Bruce jerked his head around the grounds. 'Care to take her for a spin?'
Dick grinned, nodding. He climbed on and waited for Bruce to follow suit behind him. About to take off, Dick shouted over his shoulder, 'Too bad you don't look more like Babs!'
Bruce gave him a hard whack on the top of his helmet. 'Drive, Munchkin! And when you start dating, I expect you to begin with someone a little closer to your own age!'
Dick turned around and looked Bruce in the eye. 'How come? Don't you go out with younger women?' Before Bruce could reply, Dick spun around and quickly gunned the motor, roaring off on one wheel.
Later, they gathered round the tree in the family room and sang carols. 'I'll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me...'
Bruce's higher mental state allowed him absolute control of each of his individual muscles. Soon, he was standing safely removed from the tight spot in which he'd found himself.
About to snap himself back to normal awareness, Bruce caught the faintest sound coming from below him and to his left. Singing? It sounded like someone was singing.
Eyes snapping open, Bruce searched the area below him. It was no good. The ledge blocked any view immediately below, plus there was an additional rocky outcropping heavily covered with thickets just below and to his left.
But he'd heard Dick. 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' was one of Dick's favorite Christmas songs. With no further hesitation, Bruce again began his hurried downward climb, not bothering to check the handholds for fastness.
"And I call Dick reckless," he mumbled.
Jim and Barbara watched from the sidelines as the fire rescue squads from two cities prepared for the descent down the steep hill. All of the injured had already been evacuated to the waiting trauma hospitals. The dead had been mostly identified and their loved ones notified with the tragic news.
The shadows were lengthening with each passing moment. They'd been out here for the greater part of the day. The highway had still not been opened for traffic, with holiday travelers being diverted to alternate routes that took them several miles out of their way. Weather forecasters urged everyone to remain home, as yet another front was moving in.
Barbara held her father's hand tightly. They were running out of time.
Several fire fighters volunteered to be lowered down the treacherous embankment, but the Fire Chief selected only one. Jim discovered that the volunteer's name was George, that he had a six-year-old son, and that he'd gotten his little boy his first two-wheeler.
Jim and Barbara watched as George pulled off the firefighting suit and changed into a more practical jumpsuit.
"That boy must mean a whole lot to Wayne for a rich guy like to him to go down there alone." George spoke quietly as he carefully donned the safety harness. "I know how I'd react if that were my son." He gave Jim a look full of the wisdom gained from countless years of rescuing other people's children.
"In the end, I guess it all comes to me just being a father trying to lend a helping hand and reunite other dads--and moms-- with their own sons and daughters."
Jim nodded in understanding.
"Chief! Commissioner!" Jim turned to the shout. It was Bob, the Sheriff's Deputy in charge. Jim and the Fire Chief hurried over.
"I think I just saw something move down there!" Bob and his deputies scanned some more. "Yes! There! Below the motorcycle and moving towards another outcropping further down. Commissioner! I think it's Wayne. He's disappearing into a thicket of trees." Bob gravely lowered his glasses. "I lost him."
Barbara's gasp hung in the clear, frozen air between them.
Bruce heard him before he saw him.
Dick was almost completely covered in a blanket of soft snow. He was wedged firmly between a large boulder and a thick tree root. Bruce caught sight of something black and glossy not quite coated in white--Dick's helmet.
Picking his way carefully, still mindful of the dangerous drop that lay below him, Bruce finally reached his injured son. Flipping Dick's visor open, Bruce checked his breathing.
Shallow. "But alive," he said, relieved. Then to his surprise, Dick again started mumbling the words to the song.
"...If only...in my dreams..." Dick murmured, over and over.
As Bruce checked Dick's vital signs, he found himself joining the refrain, until finally, he started singing the song under his breath, pausing now and then to talk to his unconscious son.
"I promise, son, you will be home for Christmas. And not just in your dreams. I'm going to get you home safely, and then we're going to decorate the tree together. Like we always do. I promise, Dick. It'll be like always."
As he spoke, Bruce had brushed the powdery snow off Dick, exposing his obviously broken left leg.
"Okay, that could pose a slight problem," he admitted. Bruce looked around for material to construct a splint. The trees around them had several sturdy-looking branches, but they'd be difficult to get to. He also needed something sharp with which to cut.
Dick's leather jumpsuit gave him an idea. It had several buckles here and there. With a powerful yank, Bruce tore one completely from the jacket. Then for the next few minutes, he sharpened it on the huge boulder against which Dick was securely held.
Satisfied that the buckle was sufficiently sharpened, Bruce stuck it in his pants pocket and then started heading towards the large copse of trees.
"Ready to lower!" the fire fighters shouted. With that, someone threw a switch and the fire truck's massive winch started lowering the heroic father/fire fighter.
George smiled and waved at them, giving Jim and Barbara a thumbs up.
Bruce tied down the last of the leather strips he'd cut from his and Dick's belts. He surveyed his handiwork with some satisfaction.
"Okay, kid. It'll be just like old times. You unconscious and me hauling your rear back home." He was about to reach for Dick, when he was startled by a low chuckle coming from his patient.
"You sure know how to hurt a guy, don't you?"
Bruce instantly held Dick's head in his lap, and removing the helmet, gently stroked the young man's hair.
"Hey, if I don't keep you humble, then who?" Bruce's quip was laced with quiet affection.
Dick grinned slightly, his eyes still closed. He held up his hand and started counting down, "Alfred...Babs...Tim...the Titans..."
"Point taken," Bruce admitted, his lips twitching slightly. "But I've got dibs."
"'kay." Dick held his open palm out to him, and Bruce clasped it immediately. "Sorry, I didn't make it home in time to decorate the tree." Dick's weak voice sounded deeply regretful.
"I promised you that no one would touch that tree until you came home, remember? It'll wait for as long as it takes."
Dick smiled, feeling warm and protected. Bruce had rescued him. Again. All was right with the world. He had an inexplicable need to sing, feeling giddy for some reason. Probably exposure, he thought clinically, but didn't care.
"I'll be home for Christmas..." he began softly.
By then Bruce was sitting, slightly hunched over, with Dick's upper body comfortably ensconced in his arms. He had to get Dick to safety he knew, but for just a few moments, he wanted to hold his boy to him. He soon found himself joining in.
"You can plan on me..." they both crooned slightly off-key together.
The radio call was met with a sudden burst of cheers from the remaining rescue workers. Barbara hugged her father to her, her tears flowing unchecked now that her fears were finally laid to rest.
"I've found them," George's voice said. "They're both alive, and people, you won't believe this--they're singing!" The listeners were then treated to George's surprisingly clear tenor. Abruptly, his cool, professional tone returned.
"I need a stretcher down here. One victim--twenty-two year old male--has a broken leg, possible internal injuries. Wayne is uninjured..."
One week after the accident, Dick looked up at the newly decorated Christmas tree. Just as promised, the tree had waited for his homecoming. However, there was one thing still missing--the treetop angel.
Bruce and Alfred walked into the family room looking exceptionally solemn. In his hands, Alfred held out the treetop angel with the utmost reverence. Dick smiled when he saw the angel. It was the same one they'd placed on the tree since his first Christmas at the manor. And it had always been Dick's job to place it on the highest bough.
His first few years, he'd stood on Bruce's broad shoulders. Then, as he grew older, he'd been able to reach the topmost branch, while only sitting on his guardian's shoulders. One year--when he turned fourteen--Dick suddenly discovered that he could reach the top bough by just standing on his tiptoes.
He'd felt very proud of his accomplishment, and had beamed at both Bruce and Alfred. Strangely, neither had seemed particularly pleased, Bruce especially. In fact, his guardian seemed almost disappointed. Looking at them both a little bemused, he was relieved when they both smiled and congratulated him.
'Guess our boy's growing up, eh, Alfred?' Bruce asked. Dick thought he sounded just a little too bright, almost forced.
'He is indeed, sir,' Alfred replied. Dick wasn't certain, but thought he detected a note of sadness in Alfred's voice. However, he didn't have time to mull over their restrained reactions, because Alfred immediately moved over to the piano and started playing the opening strains of 'Silent Night.'
From that Christmas, Dick never again required a boost up from Bruce to accomplish the solemn task. Funny, looking back on it, Dick felt the oddest twinge of regret for having been in such a hurry to grow up and no longer need to climb on Bruce's shoulders.
He looked up sadly at the bare, uppermost bough. This would be the first year that he didn't have the honor of topping off the tree. He smiled ruefully.
Okay, Grayson, he thought privately. There'll be other trees and other Christmases at home.
Dick turned at the welcome sound. Barbara and Jim had just entered. They were there to celebrate Dick's safe homecoming.
"Go on," she urged. "Time to get to work. You've gotta finish the job!" She wheeled quickly towards him, expertly maneuvering around decorations, accent tables, and the numerous gift-wrapped packages that overflowed from underneath the tree. She noticed that most of the gifts had Dick's name on the tag.
She pointed at the mound of gifts with her chin. "Someone in this house sure is spoiled."
"Who?" Dick asked innocently. And then grinning suggestively, he added, "Wanna race?" His good-natured leer was brought to an abrupt halt by Jim's pointed throat clearing. Barbara covered her mouth in amusement.
"Come on, Dick," Bruce said, holding out his hand. "It'll be just like old times."
"What?" Dick asked not understanding. Catching the slight twinkle in Bruce's eyes--the same look he'd always given him when it was time to do the honors--Dick suddenly realized what Bruce meant. Grinning broadly, he placed his right foot down on the floor, and holding up his left arm for assistance from Bruce, gingerly stood up.
"Are you sure about this, Bruce?" he asked. "I weigh one-eighty without the cast! Now, I'm closer to one-ninety. And, well, you're not as young as you used to be."
This last was met with a loud guffaw from Jim.
"Aren't we all?" Jim asked, laughing. "He's got you there, Bruce!" This time Barbara didn't quite succeed in smothering an involuntary snicker. Alfred merely raised a single eyebrow.
"Maybe not, Munchkin," Bruce growled, "but I can still take you over my knee and give you a good spanking."
Dick grimaced at the old nickname. "Bruce," he complained, "everybody can hear you!"
Bruce looked around as if seeing the others for the first time. He turned back to Dick. "So? Let 'em get their own kid to torture. I've got dibs on you, remember?"
Father and son eyed each other in mock challenge. Finally, breaking into a broad grin, Dick feigned a snooty tone of voice.
"Assume the position, my good man," he said, looking down his nose. Glaring dangerously, Bruce lowered himself enough so that Dick could climb onto his shoulders. Then with Alfred and Jim steadying Dick, Bruce carefully stood to his full height.
"Hey, the view from up here is great, Bruce! I think I might just want to stay up here for a while."
"Put the angel on the tree," Bruce said, through gritted teeth, "or I may just drop you accidentally."
"I'm working! I'm working!" Dick said hastily. "There! I did it!"
"You sure did, partner," Bruce said quietly.
Jim reached for Barbara's hand as he watched the interplay between Bruce and Dick. She looked up at him, her eyes smiling.
"I beg to differ, Master Bruce, Master Dick," Alfred interrupted. "You both did it. Like always."
Dick smiled down at Alfred from his perch. He looked down at Bruce who didn't appear the least bothered by carrying almost 200 pounds on his shoulders.
Looking up at Dick, Bruce rewarded him with a rare, warm smile.
"Welcome home, son."
He rolled his chair towards hers, never taking his eyes off her. He loved how the fireplace cast a burnished halo effect on her long, cascading copper mane from behind. He stopped, catching his breath as he watched. At this moment, she turned and caught his eye. Smiling, she held out her hand to him.
"Hi, Short Pants!" she teased. "Alfred said you wanted to see me."
Dick nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Was it possible for a woman to grow even more beautiful than the last time he'd seen her, he wondered? Or was she only beautiful in his eyes because of how he felt for her? It didn't matter.
As far as Dick was concerned, Barbara was the most beautiful woman he knew.
"Earth to Dick!"
Dick snapped out of his reverie, embarrassed. "Sorry," he said, grinning ruefully. "If I keep slipping in and out of consciousness, blame it on my recent exceptionally long exposure to sub-zero temperatures. I know that I'm gonna milk it for all its worth for a while yet."
"Does it get you an extra helping of Christmas dessert?" Barbara asked. Dick nodded vigorously. By then he'd reached her, and then, without another word, handed her a small package.
Barbara looked at him in surprise. "But, Dick! You've already given me a gift."
He shook his head. "That wasn't from me," he confessed. "Bruce must've picked it out while I was still in the hospital. A practical palm organizer makes a nice Oracle gift, but not a Babs' Christmas gift."
She turned the small package over in her hands, almost afraid of opening it, of what its contents implied.
"Go on. I promise it won't bite," he urged. Nodding, Barbara opened the small box and peered in. The snowflake diamond earrings shimmered in tiny rainbow hues by the light of the fireplace. Her gasp of delight was all the reward Dick needed.
"Oh, Dick, they're beautiful! But when? How?"
Dick smiled enigmatically. He didn't see a need to tell her how he'd practically begged Bruce to have the Black Knight recovered from its dangerous perch. How the recovery company had charged almost three times the cost of the earrings in order to do so. How Bruce had insisted that the cost was worth it, if it would make Dick happy.
"Well, put them on," he insisted. Barbara happily complied. As she did, she caught sight of a note written on the inside of the gift-wrap. Looking at him curiously, she read it. Dick watched a little nervously as she did so. He'd almost discarded the wrapping, but in the end decided not to.
Barbara's frown made him begin to regret his decision.
"'Cause you're a flake?'" she asked dangerously. Dick started to awkwardly back up slowly.
"Uh, Babs--heh-heh--" he began. "It's just a joke. You know...joke?" She grabbed his wrist, stopping him from backing any further. After all, she was a little more experienced than he with the tricky nuances of a wheelchair.
"Don't hurt me," he said in a small voice.
"Come here, Short Pants," she ordered. Hesitating, Dick rolled next to her, wheel to wheel. Holding his dark blue gaze in her cool green one, Barbara reached across the distance that had separated them through all those long years of pain and heartbreak.
Their lips about to touch, Barbara whispered, "I love you, Dick. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"