©December 2002
Rating: PG
Characters: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and related characters
Timeframe: This story follows my earlier story "Jealousy" in continuity.
Disclaimer: Characters herein are owned by DC Comics/Time Warner/AOL. No profit is realized from creation of stories based on these trademarked characters. Not to be archived without permission.
Comments and feedback are welcome to SKHwrite@cranky-dog.com

A Christmas of Beginnings


The Wayne Foundation's annual holiday office party was another bright success. Foundation employees and benefactors, members of the Board of Trustees, a select number of Wayne Enterprises employees, and several civic leaders were in attendance. Held in the Wayne Tower building — which housed the Foundation's offices as well as the Wayne Enterprises global headquarters — the party occupied the spacious conference facility on the 23rd floor.

There was another event added to the day's celebration — the launching of the Newtown Community Center project. Planned for construction on the eastern edge of the Newtown neighborhood, a few blocks from Crime Alley, the Center would offer free after-school care and day care for the neighborhood's less privileged citizens. With athletic and classroom facilities, the local Boys and Girls Club would have a home there as well. Nearly 150 Newtown children had been invited to the Wayne Foundation party, and they would go home with gifts of toys, books, clothing, and food certificates for their families.

Nine-year-old Dick Grayson edged away from the chattering throng of partygoers. For nearly three months, since the death of his parents — circus aerialists, the Flying Graysons — Dick had been living with Bruce Wayne, scion of the Wayne empire and fortune. Dick was no stranger to large crowds. He had regularly performed with his mother and father before enthusiastic audiences all across the country. But that had been from 60 feet up in the air, and Dick had always returned to the cozy comfort of the family's travel trailer home at the end of the show. But now, part of Dick's new responsibility as Bruce Wayne's legal ward was to meet the society people of Bruce's world. And he had met so many of them at the party he could not keep track.

Dick preferred Bruce's other world. Dick knew that Bruce was Gotham City's guardian as well, the terrifying crime fighter known as the Batman. One day, Dick hoped to work beside Batman as his partner, and, until that time, he trained hard every day.

Dick craned his neck, searching the crowd for his guardian, and wished that Alfred had come along with them. Dick had developed an affinity for the older man, his and Bruce's caretaker. When Dick had asked Alfred if he would be at the party, the gentleman's gentleman had merely smiled, saying, "Why would you want an old man to tag along when there will be so many boys and girls your own age to meet?"

"Looking for Santa Claus, chum?" Bruce Wayne asked from behind the boy. Dick spun around, a relieved smile spreading across his face.

"Only if Santa wears a three-piece suit and a necktie with BW stitched on it," the boy answered.

Bruce smiled at the boy's remark. "Dick, there's someone I'd like you to meet."

'Someone else to meet,' thought Dick. He looked at the man next to Bruce, a tall black man with eyeglasses.

"Dick, this is Lucius Fox. Mr. Fox has come to run things at Wayne Enterprises so that I can spend more time with you." Time that would be used in training the boy, Bruce mentally added.

Lucius Fox extended his hand to the small boy. "Dick, it's a pleasure to meet you. Bruce has told me a lot about you."

"Nice to meet you, sir," said Dick, with Alfred-coached manners. But the boy's eyes quickly moved to Bruce. "You mean that, Bruce? Even though I'm gonna be in school?"

Bruce lightly rested his large hand on Dick's shoulder. "Sure, chum. This means I'll be home when you get home from school." Turning to Fox, Bruce said, "Dick just passed his entrance exam for Gotham Academy. He scored a 96, which is quite an accomplishment for a home-schooled student."

A woman in a blue suit joined the trio. Dick recognized her as Bruce's assistant, Margaret, to whom he had been introduced earlier. "Excuse me, Mr. Wayne, Mr. Fox... it's time for announcements," she said.

"Thank you, Margaret," said Bruce. He looked at Dick and nodded toward the dais. "Care to join us, Dick?"

Dick shook his head resolutely. "No way. I ain't that kind of performer."

"I'm not," Bruce corrected.

"You're not what? Not gonna speak? Dint they just tell you you gotta speak now?" Dick gave his guardian a cheeky smirk. Bested, Bruce turned and strode across the room.

A few minutes later, Bruce introduced Santa Claus, who proceeded to hand out gifts to the visiting children. The commotion that followed was emphasized by holiday music from the hired DJ.

Dick watched from a distance. He knew he was more fortunate than a lot of the children at the party. His new home was a palace, and he knew there wasn't anything Bruce or Alfred wouldn't give him that was within their power. But there was nothing Dick wanted that anyone, not even a man as rich and powerful as Bruce Wayne, could give him. Dick wanted his mother and father back, and all the toys in the world couldn't make this first Christmas without them any easier.

Before Dick knew it, he was wiping away tears that wouldn't stop flowing. Swallowing back a hard lump in his throat, Dick moved against the wall, looking for a way out of the room. He didn't feel like being at a party anymore. Dick sniffled and started to wipe his nose on his shirt sleeve. He stopped, feeling Alfred's reprimand even though the old man wasn't here. Dick walked along the buffet tables, looking for a paper napkin to use to blow his nose with. There were only cloth napkins, and he knew Alfred wouldn't like him using one of those, either. Alfred insisted Dick use handkerchiefs, and the major-domo routinely placed one in the pocket of Dick's jacket or coat.

Sniffling again, Dick headed for the cloakroom to get his coat. The attendant wasn't in the room, so Dick just hopped over the counter and walked back among the garment racks to look for his coat. Finally, he located his coat and retrieved his hanky, blowing hard into it. Dick crammed his hanky into his pants pocket and started walking toward the front of the cloakroom.

Suddenly, Dick was shoved sideways into a wall, hitting it hard as someone burst from behind a rack of hanging coats. A boy ran for the counter at the front of the room. It was then that Dick saw the purses, overturned with their contents spilled around in their storage cubbyholes. That boy was a thief! And at Christmas!

Dick took two running strides and launched himself at the thief, catching the boy's legs as he tried to scramble away. The boy and Dick hit the floor behind the counter. A bandana filled with loot fell open on the ground, spilling cash, credit cards, and a gold watch across the floor. Dick blocked a punch thrown by the boy, using the new martial arts training he'd received from his guardian. The crime fighter-in-training flipped the thief on his stomach and straddled him, pulling the boy's arms behind his back.

"Lemme up! The guy's going to come back and catch us!" the boy growled.

"Catch us? You're the thief! Why are you stealing from people who are trying to be nice to you?" Dick held the struggling boy down.

"D--don't turn me in, man. P-please... they'll take me to Juvie lockup and Lash'll hurt my baby brother!" The boy stopped struggling and started to cry.

Dick got off the boy, who was only a little older than he was. "What are you talking about, and what's your name?" he asked.

The boy sat up and wiped his eyes. "I'm Julio. This guy in my neighborhood — his name is Lash — he makes kids steal for him or he beats them up or hurts their families. Lash beat up my friend Gato so bad he died! And Lash says if I don't bring back something from this rich-people's party, he'll steal my baby brother and sell him to the guys who train fighting dogs! Please don't rat me out, 'cause if I go to Juvie he'll kill my brother!"

'Shakedown! Just like Zucco did to Pop Haly!' The painful memory flooded Dick with anger. His parents had been killed by a thug named Zucco, who tried to strong-arm protection money from the owner of the circus the Flying Graysons performed with. Newly orphaned, Dick had been sent to Juvenile Hall until Bruce Wayne had been able to make arrangements to bring him to Wayne Manor. Dick didn't have a single good memory of Juvie lockup.

Dick looked at the spilled loot on the floor. Then, he grabbed a money clip full of cash and pulled a hundred-dollar bill from it, shoving it at Julio. "Get out of here, fast! Give this to Lash. Where do you live? Someone will come help you, I promise!"

Julio told Dick his address as he climbed over the counter. "Th-thanks. You'd better get out of here, too!" The boy disappeared around a corner, leaving Dick standing behind the coat-check counter. Dick squatted down and started raking the loot together so he could hand it back to the attendant. Then, he'd go get Bruce and tell him about Lash.

"Hey! What are you doing behind there? Jeez... you little sneak-thief! Caught your little chicken-ass, I did!"

Someone's hand snatched Dick up by the collar, pulling him roughly to his feet. Twisting in the man's grip, Dick saw it was the coat-check attendant and that the man believed Dick was stealing.

"Wait... I didn't take this, I was just picking it up— " he tried to explain.

"Shut up, you little stinkin' ingrate! Hold still while I get the security guys in here!"

The man held Dick in an iron grip while he picked up a phone on the counter and rang for security. In seconds, two uniformed security guards arrived at the cloakroom, and the attendant shoved Dick at them.

"This little creep snuck in here while Santa was doling out the goodies at the party. Guess he wanted more than his share!" the attendant snarled.

One of the guards looked at Dick and turned to his companion. "Go get Mr. Wayne, and be discreet about it. This is his kid." The guard sat Dick down in a chair next to the cloakroom's entrance. He turned a shrewd eye on the attendant. "Where were you when all this was going on?"

"I get a break, don't I?" the attendant replied. "I was out on the balcony having a smoke. Who'd a thought there'd be thieves at a Christmas party for these folks?"

The guard bent down to speak to the boy. "Were you stealing back there, kid?"

Dick's blue eyes widened. He knew he should tell the truth, and he would, to Bruce. But for now, he had to stall for time so Julio could get away. "I— I, uh... no. I wasn't stealing. I had to get my hanky from my coat pocket, but there was nobody here so I climbed over and got it. But I didn't take anything." Except the hundred dollars he gave to Julio. Bruce would understand, though. Bruce would give the money back to the person with the money clip, and Dick would pay Bruce back out of his allowance, or do chores....

"What's going on here? Dick? Are you alright, chum?"

Dick looked up at Bruce with eyes full of fear and guilt. Then, he thought about Lash and Julio's baby brother. Anger replaced fear, and Dick scrambled out of the chair to stand up to his guardian.

"Bruce, I gotta talk to you... alone."

"The kid's a thief, Mr. Wayne," the attendant interrupted loudly. "He broke into the cloakroom and was helping himself to the ladies' purses. Here's the stuff he lifted."

Bruce looked at the bandana filled with money and credit cards. He glanced around at the small crowd that was drawing closer to the commotion. He trained his keen eyes on the small boy before him.

"Richard... were you in the cloakroom?" Bruce asked, his voice lowering to a stern tone.

"Yes, sir, to get my hanky from my coat," Dick explained.

"Do you know anything about this?" Bruce pointed at the pile of stolen goods.

Dick's eyes grew wide as he glanced at the stolen loot. "I—" Dick tried to calculate how fast Julio could go down the elevator to get out of the building. "That's what I want to talk to you about... alone."

The din around them grew louder. Bruce caught words here and there from the crowd, "thief," "gypsy," and "carnie trash."

Bruce flashed a glare around the crowd, silencing the harsh words of accusation. Turning back to the boy, he asked, "Richard, did you take this money?"

"I caught the kid with the money in his hands!" the attendant repeated.

Dick looked down at his feet. He couldn't lie to Bruce. To Batman. Batman had demanded two things from his young partner-to-be: absolute obedience and absolute honesty. Dick had taken some of the money, but for a good reason he didn't want to talk about here, in front of all these people. Dick's explanation was for Bruce alone, or rather, for the Batman.

His eyes filling with tears, Dick looked up at Bruce.

"Y—yes, sir. I— I took some money."

The boy's words hit Bruce in the gut, harder than any street thug or assassin he'd ever encountered. Clenching his jaw tightly, Bruce dug his coat-check claim tickets from his pocket and handed them to the gloating attendant. "Get these now," he said tightly. Bruce turned to the security guards. "See to it that people's possessions are returned to them. I'll handle the boy."

Bruce grabbed their coats in one hand and Dick's arm in the other, and they left the party.

Bruce had been unable to say anything to Dick on their way out of the building, cutting off the boy's attempts to explain with a slicing gesture of his hand, indicating silence. He was furious, and beyond disbelief that the boy would commit such a foolish offense, at such a public venue. Bruce didn't care what people thought of him, but he had wanted Dick to be accepted by the members of Gotham society who were at the party today, especially when the boy would be sharing classes at the Academy soon with the sons of so many of them. If he would be allowed to attend now. Bruce only hoped that Child Protective Services would not investigate the matter and deem "Wayne the playboy" unfit to raise the boy.

Once they were in the car and on the way home, Dick tried again to tell his story, but Bruce didn't want to hear it. Dick gave up and sat back in his seat. He stared out the window, trying desperately not to cry again. Maybe Alfred would listen to him. Maybe Alfred wouldn't be so mad at him. Someone had to listen — Julio's family depended on it.

Bruce Wayne brought his Jaguar to a screeching halt in the driveway and was in the house before Dick could unbuckle his seat belt.

Alfred appeared in the foyer, somewhat surprised at the early arrival of his employer. "Master Bruce, was the party over prematurely?"

Bruce strode by Alfred in a rush, shouting, "The boy goes to his room NOW, Alfred, and he STAYS there!"

The astonished major-domo watched as Bruce Wayne vanished around a corner, no doubt en route to his study. Surprise turned to concern when Master Dick did not immediately follow his guardian into the house. What had happened? His attention turned to the door as the lad crept inside and quietly closed it. He was struck by the wretched sadness on the boy's face.

Alfred helped Dick out of his coat and hung it up. Then, laying a hand on his shoulder, he said, "Master Bruce instructed me to send you to your room."

"He did?" Dick replied in a small voice, walking heavily up the stairs.

"Yes, and he didn't appear to be very happy, either," Alfred said as he walked alongside the boy.

"No, he's not. Bruce is really mad at me. He thinks I let him down."

Alfred scrutinized Dick, who only looked down at the steps as he walked. "How could you do that, lad?" he asked.

Dick shook his head. "Things just happened too fast! I was gonna go straight to him and tell him, but I got caught. Then, there were all these people around, and I couldn't say what I needed to tell Bruce 'cause it's Batman stuff."

The reached the top of the steps and turned to go down the hallway to Dick's room. Dick continued his story, only now his lower lip was trembling.

"I could only tell him part of the truth, and now he's so mad he wouldn't let me say anything to him on the way home."

Dick hopped up on his bed and took his good shoes off. Alfred took the shoes and placed them in Dick's closet.

"You could tell me, Master Dick, and I could relay the information to Master Bruce," Alfred suggested. "If it is indeed 'Batman stuff,' then perhaps the authorities should be notified."

"No, Alfred," Dick insisted. "I gotta tell Batman about it, and I gotta tell him before he goes on patrol tonight. He needs to help somebody fast, or a little baby will get hurt, or maybe killed!"

Alfred noted the boy's earnest expression. Whatever transgression Master Bruce believed the lad had committed, he had an obligation to let Master Dick present his defense.

"Very well, Master Dick. Stay here, and think very carefully about what you need to tell Master Bruce. I shall let him know that he must speak to you at once."

Alfred rapped quietly on the door to Bruce Wayne's study. Detecting a grunted "come in," he entered to find his employer slouched behind his large mahogany desk.

"I've only come for your topcoat, Master Bruce," said Alfred. "And here it is, haphazardly tossed onto the furniture." The major-domo retrieved the garment and began to brush it off.

Bruce watched Alfred's every move, then finally said, "I suppose you're going to lecture me."

Without looking at the younger man, Alfred replied, "I came for your coat, Master Bruce. Do you require a lecture?"

"Did the boy say anything to you?" Bruce inquired, slowly sitting up straight in his chair.

"I am not the one Master Dick needs to talk to. He mentioned he attempted to explain his actions to you, but you did not care to listen to him."

Bruce shot to his feet. "Alfred, he admitted — before witnesses — that he stole money from the cloakroom at the party! How can he explain that away?"

Alfred draped the coat over his arm and gave Bruce his full attention. "Master Dick said he could not tell you the entire truth in public because it involved, in his words, 'Batman stuff.'"

"Batman stuff?" Bruce repeated, stepping out from behind his desk.

"Yes. It seems the lad is already becoming burdened with the duplicity required of your crusade. That's quite a responsibility to hand over to one of such tender years."

His face darkening in a frown, Bruce shoved his hands guiltily into his pockets. "He did say he had to talk to me alone...."

"Really?" Alfred queried. "I suggest you hear the lad out, then, Bruce."

Bruce approached the doorway of the old Wayne Manor nursery, his room as a boy, which now served as his ward's bedroom. He looked just inside the door and didn't see the youngster immediately. The adjoining bathroom's door was open, the bed was empty. Bruce stepped inside and scanned the room, his eyes landing on a small figure on the floor, several feet away.

Sweater vest, shoes, and socks abandoned, Dick was walking around the far end of the nursery on his hands. Bruce watched unnoticed as the boy paused and balanced unwavering on one hand, then switched to the other. Then with both hands on the floor again, Dick lowered himself to the floor, his chest bearing his weight as he contorted his small body. His legs bent over his head, and his feet came to rest — first toes, balls of his feet, and finally heels on the floor on either side of his head, with his arms extended to the side.

Bruce stood and observed, silently amazed at the boy's flexibility and steadiness. Dick slowly unfolded from the posture, pressing up into a handstand again. He lowered his legs in a pike position until his feet touched the floor, and then, fluidly, he stood erect, arms and chin raised as if acknowledging his unseen audience.

"You're going to have to teach me that," Bruce quietly remarked, so as not to startle the lad.

"You might be too old now," Dick replied, brushing off his good trousers. His face was flushed from being inverted. "You shoulda started when you were a boy. All the best acrobats start almost as babies. I did." Dick's tone was without boast — he merely stated a known fact.

"Dick..." Bruce began, "I want you to tell me what happened at the party, in the cloakroom." The big man walked over to the padded window seat and sat down, waiting for the boy's answer.

"I didn't steal, Bruce," Dick said right away. "I took some money, but I didn't steal. I know it still doesn't sound right, but I had a good reason to."

"Then tell me everything. Don't spare any details," Bruce quietly ordered.

Dick explained as thoroughly as he could, leaving out only the part about his tears over having Christmas without his mother and father. Dick knew Bruce and Alfred were doing what they could to help him not feel so sad, and he didn't want them to feel bad.

"Bruce, this guy Lash isn't any different from the guy who killed my folks. He won't be happy that all Julio brought him is a hundred dollars. You gotta stop him from hurting Julio and his little brother, and all the rest of the people he's leaning on in Julio's neighborhood."

Bruce looked into the boy's blue eyes, wide and expressive with his zeal. Dick's account, though emotionally driven, had been full of facts — enough information to send the Batman into action. If this boy Julio was telling Dick the truth, then the bullying predator Lash was going down tonight.

"Bruce... I'm sorry I couldn't tell you everything in front of those people. I needed to tell Batman the whole truth." Dick lowered his eyes, unable to meet his guardian's gaze. "I heard the people's whispers, too, Bruce. I'm sorry everybody thinks you took in a thief. I don't care what they think of me, though, as long as Julio and his little brother don't get hurt."

Bruce reached out and rested a hand on Dick's shoulder. "I'll check out Julio's story tonight, Dick."

"I wish I could go with Batman... I wish I was ready to be your partner," Dick said, his chin set firm with determination. "I'd pound that guy Lash like I'd pound Zucco if I had the chance... pound him into the ground so he can't hurt anyone else... take anyone else's family away and ruin their life!" Dick's fierce declaration ended with tears rolling down his cheeks. As much as he tried not to, he began to cry.

Bruce drew Dick into his arms and held him as anger and grief took its toll on the lad. How well he knew the agony this small boy was going through. For all Bruce Wayne's wealth and power, and Batman's terrible crusade of retribution on Gotham City's criminal scourge, nothing would ease Dick's pain except time.

Edgar Laschowski sat in his dark apartment, feeling the sickening sweat and twisting of his guts that signaled his need for another fix. That little punk, Julio, had only scored a measly hundred bucks, and that had only bought him one hit. The kid was probably holding out on him. Those uptown do-gooders were loaded, and who knows what kind of jack Julio had been able to scam off that big party? It was time to lean on the kid some more.

He went out into the night, passing anonymously along the street until he came to the building where Julio lived. Lash always watched all his marks, and he knew the schedules of his victims' families. Julio's mother would be coming along in just a few minutes, headed home after her two-bit job in a garment factory. She'd stop and pick up her squalling brat from an old lady neighbor. And Julio would be inside their apartment with the door locked, like a good little latchkey kid. Lash flicked his cigarette butt out into the street and trotted up the stoop.

Julio heard the knock on the door, and his eyes grew wide. "Mami, is that you?" he called out, his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

"Open the door, kid," the boy heard from outside. It was Lash! He'd come for more money. Julio's stomach turned. There was no more money, and he'd already called out, so Lash knew he was inside. Mami would be here in a few minutes, and Lash might hurt her — or baby Mario. Julio froze with fear and indecision. What should he do?

Before the frightened boy could think of anything, he heard a clicking noise in the door. First the knob turned, and then seconds later, the deadbolt opened. Lash forced the door open, but it was stayed only by the chain. Another hard slam against the door, and it flew open.

Julio gasped as his scourge entered the tiny apartment. He turned and tried to make it to the only bedroom, but a wiry, strong hand seized him by the back of the neck.

He jerked Julio around and snatched him closer, holding him tightly by the arms. "Where's the rest of the take, kid?" Lash spat his stinking breath into the boy's face. "I told you to get money and credit cards from those rich charity stiffs! I know you took more than you gave me! Hand it over now, or I'll kill your mother and sell that baby brother of yours to the dog-fighters."

"I—I don't have anything!" Julio cried. "I gave you everything I could get! They— they had security and stuff. Puh—please don't kill my Mami. Leave us alone!" Sobbing, the boy struggled in his captor's grip.

Lash twisted Julio around, pulling him into his arms. He clapped a hand over the struggling boy's mouth. "She's on her way up now, Julio," he hissed. "We'll just wait for her, you and me, and when she comes in, I'm gonna—"

Lash's words were choked off by a large, unseen hand. The junkie-predator was yanked backwards, away from the boy, who slipped from his grasp. Julio's eyes grew huge, and his mouth dropped open as he looked at something, someone, behind and above Lash.

Panicking, Lash clawed at the hands, for now there were two around his neck. He tried to scream first, and then he just tried to draw breath as he was lifted into the air by his neck. Lash kicked and thrashed as he was pulled out of Julio's apartment through the window. He tried to grab hold of the fire escape railing, certain that whatever had him was going to hurl him over it. The hands left his throat, and one massive arm encircled his chest, and he — they — were dropping rapidly to the alleyway below, with Lash screaming all the way.

They touched down, didn't crash into the ground. Lash remembered his knife, and he drew it, slashing wildly at the giant, black creature. A massive shadow crackled out at him, and Lash was struck in the chest by a blow that sent him flying backwards several feet. He hit the ground and scrambled to his feet. Lash ran screaming for the opening of the alley, shoving pedestrians on the sidewalk aside in his terror. He dashed madly between two parked cars and into the street. Tires screeched in both directions, followed by a sickening thud and crunch, as Lash was struck and thrown under the wheels of a Gotham Metro bus.

Sonia Trejos reached her apartment, clutching her squirming toddler in her arms. She had just witnessed a terrible accident, and the one thing on her mind was reaching home, to be assured her son, Julio, was safe. She gasped when she saw the broken door chain as she entered. But it was the sight of Julio, on his knees on the floor, sobbing into his hands, that frightened her more. Sonia closed the door and put Mario down, then she rushed to her eldest.

"Julio, mío, que pasó?" Sonia asked as she drew her boy into her arms.

Julio looked into his Mami's eyes, his mother who worked so hard to take care of him and baby Mario, and he was overcome with sadness and shame. "Oh, Mami... I'm so sorry..." he sobbed.

The Batmobile screeched to a halt inside the massive cavern. Batman bolted from the car and ran up the rocky steps that led to the house above, sweeping the cowl from his face as he went.

Alfred Pennyworth turned with a start as the Batman, or rather, Bruce Wayne, strode through the downstairs hallway on his way to the Manor's grand staircase. Alfred felt a chill of alarm, for the Master seldom, if ever, appeared "upstairs" while still in the guise of the Dark Knight. Before he knew it, Alfred was following after his employer.

Clad in his pajamas and robe, a restless young Dick Grayson watched his bedroom clock ticking away the minutes. He couldn't sleep. His heavy heart and worried thoughts would not allow it. The youngster paced back and forth at the end of his room, alternately glancing out the window and at the clock. When his bedroom door burst open, Dick spun around breathlessly, his eyes wide open with anticipation.

Batman halted in the doorway, his cape still swirling around his legs. Dick looked up at his unmasked guardian, at the man's dark blue eyes and the serious expression on his face. Bruce stood there for a moment, his chest rising and falling. Dick took a small step forward.

"Bruce?" his small voice questioned.

The young man who was Batman rushed to the boy and picked him up into his arms. Bruce fought back his anguish over the events of that night. He could have saved the predator Lash with a toss of a batarang. Something had stayed his hand, although it had not been his intention to be the thug's ultimate judge. After the accident, Batman had taken to the air, passing the window through which he saw Julio in his mother's arms. Batman had traveled home swiftly, driven by a sense of urgency he couldn't immediately identify, except that he owed someone an apology.

But when Bruce had looked into Dick's upturned face just now, expectant and questioning, he knew. This boy, this small, kindred spirit, though yet untrained, was indeed his partner. The boy had honored all Bruce's demands, given him all his trust. Dick had risked everything — his reputation, and even his security in Bruce Wayne's home — to help a stranger in need. Bruce held the boy tightly, remorseful over having questioned Dick's behavior.

"You were right, chum," Bruce said quietly. "Julio told you the truth. And Lash... he won't hurt anyone again."

Dick pulled back and looked at Bruce. "Did you put him in jail?" he asked, watching Bruce's face darken at his question.

"No, Dick. Lash is... dead. He ran into traffic trying to escape."

Dick's eyes narrowed, and his small mouth drew tight. "I'm glad he's dead!"

Bruce put Dick down in a chair and knelt beside him. "No, Dick. That's not how we work. I should have stopped Lash from running away. I could have...."

"Maybe you were tired of monsters like Lash and Zucco, and the guy who killed your mom and dad, who hurt people because they're mean and greedy," Dick replied.

"Maybe. But it's not our job to exact justice... only to bring the monsters to it," Bruce explained gently. "A judge and jury are supposed to decide guilt and punishment. I made a mistake tonight by not stopping Lash from trying to get away, and a man is dead, even if he was a very bad man."

Dick looked away, a frown of concentration on his face. "And if I ever catch Zucco...."

Bruce put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "You hand him over to the police, with enough evidence to convict him in a court of law. That's what we do... we find evidence that will put these monsters away, and then we catch them."

Dick turned back to his guardian. "I made a mistake too, Bruce. I should have brought Julio to you right away and let him tell you his story."

"We'll both know better next time, partner," said Bruce.

Dick slid off the chair and wrapped his arms around Bruce's neck again. "Okay, partner," he agreed.

The following day, December 23, Bruce was in a meeting in his office with his new Chief Operating Officer, Lucius Fox. The two men kept their conversation on business and stayed away from the events of the previous day. They were interrupted by Bruce's executive assistant.

"Excuse me, Mr. Wayne," Margaret buzzed him on the phone, "but Security Officer Philips is here, and he has one of the children from the party yesterday."

"Margaret, what's this about? Lucius and I are still—"

"Wait— you can't go in there—" Bruce overheard Margaret saying to someone.

His office door opened, and a boy with dark hair and eyes marched up to his desk.

"Mr. Wayne, I'm here to say I'm sorry about stealing at the party yesterday," the boy began. Margaret rushed in, followed by a Wayne Enterprises Security officer and a woman Bruce guessed must be the boy's mother.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Wayne," Margaret apologized. "He just ran in here...."

Bruce waved her off, rising to his feet. "It's alright, Margaret. I guess I'll take it from here." Bruce looked at the security officer, recognizing him as one of the men at the party the day before. "Officer Philips?"

The man stood at military at-ease and addressed his employer. "Mr. Wayne, Mrs. Trejos and her son came to the security station this morning. This young fellow claims he was the one who took money and valuables from the cloakroom at the party yesterday."

"Another kid caught me and was gonna turn me in," Julio interrupted. "He let me go when I told him a man in my neighborhood was gonna hurt my baby brother if I didn't steal for him. That kid — he had black hair and was wearing a red sweater — he told me to scram and gave me a hundred dollars to give to Lash — that's the man who made me steal — so Lash wouldn't hurt me or my brother."

The boy's tone became very excited as he told his story. "And last night, Lash came back, and he said I was holding out on him and he was gonna hurt me and my mom and my brother, and then this 'diablo-negro' came through the window and dragged Lash away. And then a bus ran over Lash... and he's dead!"

Mrs. Trejos pulled her son away from Bruce's desk, holding him close to her. "Mr. Wayne, I didn't see this 'diablo,' but Julio told me this bad man had been making children in the neighborhood steal for him and had beaten a boy to death for defying him. We will go to the police next and tell them about this, but I insisted Julio apologize to you right away. I don't want this kind of thing to make you lose faith in the good people in our neighborhood, and there are so many of them."

Bruce nodded at the boy's mother. "I understand. Thank you, Mrs. Trejos. I know the police commissioner personally, and I'd like to speak to him on Julio's behalf." Bruce looked at the boy. "Young man, you're very brave to try to defend your family against a criminal like this Lash fellow. Don't be afraid to seek help from the authorities, though. Gotham City has a good police force. They're there to help you. And thank you for your apology." Bruce stepped around his desk and extended his hand to the boy.

As Julio shook Bruce's hand, Mrs. Trejos said, "We'd like to thank the boy from the party who helped Julio. Do you know who he was?"

Lucius Fox and the security officer looked at each other, then at Bruce.

"I do, Mrs. Trejos, and I'll convey your message to the boy," Bruce smiled.

The officer, Mrs. Trejos, and Julio left Bruce's office. Bruce picked up his phone and pressed a button. "Margaret? Do me a favor, and find out if there are any positions available that Mrs. Trejos might qualify for. She seems like our kind of people. And get Jim Gordon on the line, please."

Bruce sat down and turned back to Fox, who sat back in amazement over what had just transpired.

"Bruce..." Fox smiled, "your boy took the heat for a child he didn't even know. That's some kid you have!"

Bruce gave his new COO a half-smile. "I know, Lucius. And I'm looking forward to spending a lot more time with him."

On Christmas morning, Bruce Wayne sipped eggnog and watched his young ward open his presents. Alfred had restricted the amount of gifts for the boy, cautioning Bruce about excess. "The lad neither needs nor wants as many material possessions as you may think, Master Bruce," the older man had said. So Bruce had limited Dick's gifts to a couple of big-ticket items, like a bicycle and a pair of skis, and the rest of the gifts were practical and educational. Many were things he would be using in his 'apprenticeship,' such as a chemistry set and a pair of boxing gloves.

Still, despite Dick's polite enthusiasm, Bruce saw the shadow of sadness in the boy. Bruce knew exactly how Dick felt, experiencing his first Christmas without his mother and father. To compound things, Bruce felt a pang of guilt because, for him, this was the best Christmas he'd spent since his own parents' deaths so many years ago. And the reason was sitting in front of the Christmas tree, unwrapping his final gift, a book of collected stories of Sherlock Holmes.

"Look, Bruce," Dick exclaimed, bringing him the heavy volume. "Detective stories! Someday, some kid's going to get a book of stories about us!"

"You think so, chum?" Bruce chuckled. Then, placing his hand on the boy's arm, he said, "I hope today's not too rough on you, Dick."

Dick looked down at the book. "I'm okay. Pop Haly always said the show has to go on," he said soberly. "Mom and Dad wouldn't like it if I was a mopey crybaby."

"Dick, your mother and father would be very proud of you," said Bruce. "I am. You did everything I asked of you this week, even if I didn't recognize it right away. You helped save Julio's family from disaster." When the boy's blue eyes trained on him, Bruce nodded in confirmation.

Dick scanned the room, looking at all his gifts. He'd gotten more things today than he'd gotten the past three Christmases combined. He turned back to Bruce. "Thank you for all this, but it's so much. Are you sure I can't share it, like... with Julio?"

Bruce took Dick's book and set it aside, then held the boy's hands in his. "Don't you worry about Julio. His mother is going to come to work for the Wayne Foundation. Margaret found her just the right job, one she can advance at. She'll be eligible for housing assistance, childcare, and better schooling for Julio and his brother."

Dick's face brightened at the good news. "Wow, that's a pretty happy ending, Bruce," he said.

"Chum, it's a happy ending that wouldn't have happened without you," Bruce added. "You've helped make that family's Christmas a better one. And Alfred's and mine, too, Dick. Especially mine."

From the family room doorway, Alfred watched his two boys with a grateful heart. Fortune had put them together to heal one another. Partnership would become friendship, which in turn would bring them all together as a real family. Alfred gave his cuffs a quick tug and stepped into the room.

"Master Bruce, Master Dick, Christmas breakfast is served. Hurry along before it gets cold."

Dick looked up and grinned. "Yeah, and I'm hungry! Thanks Alfred!" The boy ran for the breakfast room. Bruce followed Dick, giving Alfred a pleased half-smile. "Yeah, thanks, Alfred."

Alfred glanced upward for a second before walking after his boys, whispering, "Yes. Thanks, indeed."

[ End ]