©January 2003
Rating: PG
Characters: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson
Timeframe: This story follows my earlier stories "Jealousy" and "A Christmas of Beginnings" 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. Many thanks to editor Jill.

Parenthood

By SKH



Part Three

The Joker discovered too late that his hiding place had been bugged by the Bat. He was far from concerned, though. After his most recent stretch in Arkham, he was more than ready to do a little dance with ol' Pointy-Ears.

With his satchel stuffed with cash, the Joker now armed himself with some of his favorite toys, which he had squirreled away with the loot.

"Come to Daddy!" he cackled, loading every pocket with "party favors" and firearms.

The Joker dashed up the flight of steps leading from the utility loft of an old gaming company warehouse to its roof. The moment he burst through the door, the Joker suddenly went flying across the gritty rooftop, his money satchel tumbling ahead of him. Skidding to a stop, he saw his henchman sitting a few feet away, rubbing his jaw.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat..." the Joker cackled. Lightning-fast, he flipped over, pulling a semi-automatic handgun from his jacket pocket. He fired until the clip was spent, strafing the direction from which he had fallen. He got a glimpse of a fluttering black cape before the gun was torn from his hand by one of those irritating batarangs.

"No cheating... come out into the open and fight like a Bat!" The Joker got to his feet, palming toys and squinting through the moonlight for his favorite playmate.

"Give it up, Joker," Batman's voice boomed from the shadows. "Your stale jokes are beginning to bore me."

"I've missed you, too, Batsy," the clown grinned. "Here!" He tossed a handful of marbles at the shadows, while behind his back he released a small, mechanical wind-up bird.

Batman sidestepped the marbles, leaping out of the shadow and into the silvery light. The marbles were... just marbles. Not weapons. However, the little mechanical bird flew over the Batman's head and exploded, sending strangling strings of confetti snaking around the caped crusader.

Before the Batman could free his arms and legs of the constricting paper bindings, the Joker skipped up to him and held out a hand-puppet shaped like a nun with boxing gloves on.

"You've been a very bad Bat. Say two Hail Mary's. One... Two!"

On "Two," the little nun punched Batman in the cheek, sending a jolt of electricity through his body.

Before the Joker could deliver another punishing jolt, he spun around at the sound of footsteps running across the rooftop.

"Bob?" the Joker called out. "Bob, are you LEAVING me?"

Indeed, "Bob," the henchman, had scooped up the satchel of money and was now running away as fast as he could. Bob leaped the narrow alley to the next building. The Joker stalked after him, pulling a long-barreled blunderbuss out of his trousers and aiming it at the fleeing Bob.

"I can see I went swimming in the wrong labor pool," the Joker deadpanned, sighting up his target. He fired once, striking Bob dead in the back. Both Bob and the satchel went flying over the edge of the roof at the far end of the building.

The Joker returned to the stunned Batman, bending down to leer in his face. "Wish I could stay longer, but I have to dash. Taa!" With another jolting punch from the nun-puppet, the Joker vanished, leaving Batman writhing in pain.


Oblivious to the cold and menacing darkness that defined Gotham City, Dick slept deeply, nestled warmly inside the armor-covered Batmobile.

A tremendous crash and jarring shudder jolted Dick out of his sleep. Confused and alarmed, he looked at the windshield. Through the louvers covering it, he saw a face. Peering closer, Dick saw that it was a man and that his eyes were wide open. Blood flowed from the man's nose and forehead, oozing between the armored louvers. The man looked dead.

Dick threw himself back into his seat and screamed. In his fevered panic, he scrabbled for the door latch, opened it, and shot out of the car, slamming the door behind him. Dick ran until he reached an alcove several yards down the alley from the Batmobile. Panting little white puffs of vapor, Dick peered around the edge of the alcove. The cold stung his hands and ears. His gloves and knit cap were locked in the car. Where the dead guy was. Dick pulled his parka hood up over his head and then pushed his hands into his pockets.

Batman was gonna be mad. Really mad. Dick knew he wasn't supposed to get out of the car, but he wasn't thinking about that when he saw that dead guy. Dick shuddered from the cold and general weakness caused by the flu. His legs were suddenly very tired and shaky, and his stomach was all churny again. As long as he was in trouble anyway, Dick decided he would just sit down, stay out of the wind, and wait for Batman to get back. He hoped it wouldn't be long. It was awfully cold, and he felt so bad, and that dead guy was on the car.


The Joker rounded the corner of the building Bob had fallen off of. His satchel of loot was around here somewhere. So was Bob, but he was no good for a laugh anymore. But....

"Hold the phone... what DO we have here?" Joker chortled. He sauntered up to the Batmobile, beside which lay his satchel. "Bob, you make a great hood ornament!" the grim clown declared. Picking up his case of money, the Joker backed away from the Batman's armor-plated vehicle. Taking a pair of silvery, baseball-sized orbs from another pocket, the Joker rolled them toward the Batmobile. As they stopped beneath the car, the Joker spun on his heels and started walking away, cackling hysterically as he went.

The Batmobile exploded with a blinding flash and deafening roar, raining debris through the alley.

In the alcove some 20 yards away, Dick jumped and clapped his hands over his ears at the noise. Eyes wide and mouth agape, all he could do was stare in disbelief.

After Batman had freed himself from the Joker's confetti-bondage, he had taken off after the madman. Easily vaulting the narrow gap between buildings, he was in hot pursuit when a deafening explosion and massive fireball rose up out of the alley next to the building. With his heart in his throat, Batman ran to the edge of the building and looked over. A wordless horror gripped his chest milliseconds before white-hot rage erupted inside him.

The Joker froze at the guttural howl behind him. Turning quickly, every sight faded from view as the all-consuming shadow of the Bat swallowed the night. The Clown Prince of Crime saw only bits of the chest emblem, a snarl of white teeth, the massive fist, and then a red cloud of stars.

Again and again the Batman's fists pounded the white face bloody. The Joker never had a chance to defend himself after that first punch. The Dark Knight slammed the murderous clown against a brick wall. The Joker sank to the ground and was then hoisted high into the air. Batman stood poised to ram the clown against his knee, intending to break the killer in half.

Dick watched in amazement as the Batman swooped down from the roof. But when his guardian started beating the Joker mercilessly, Dick realized that Batman believed he was in the car, that he'd been blown up! Dick got to his feet and ran as fast as he could down the alley. He was afraid Batman would... might...

"Batman, NO! Stop it! Here I am! I'm okay!" Dick shouted as he tugged on the swirling black cape. "Put him down, Batman. I'm not dead! I got out of the car when the dead man fell on it!"

With the broken and bleeding psychopath raised over his head, Batman looked down at the pleading boy. Dick's words pierced the dark rage that enveloped him, and he slowly lowered the Joker to the ground.

"You got out of the car," Batman repeated, as if trying to grasp the concept.

"Yeah, I got out of the car. I know you said not to, but I got scared. I'd say I'm sorry, but..." Dick turned his head toward the smoking chassis of the Batmobile, "...but maybe that wasn't such a bad idea after all."

"You got out of the car." Batman's knees turned to jelly, and he sank to the ground. He gestured with a beckoning of his fingers for Dick to come closer. When the boy did, Batman carefully pulled Dick into a light hug.

"You okay, Batman?" Dick whispered, hugging back.

"I am now," the Dark Knight replied.

"Can we go home now?" Dick asked, his voice now betraying his fatigue.

"Yes."

"How? The car's blown to smithereens."

"We have other transportation. It'll be here very soon." Batman removed his cape and wrapped it around Dick's shoulders, giving the boy some additional warmth.

"Hey, my own cape," Dick smiled.

"I don't think that's your color, but it'll do for now." Batman returned the smile.


Commissioner James Gordon stood next to the unlit Bat-Signal on the roof of the Gotham City Police Department's main headquarters. He'd gotten a call from the vigilante, saying that the Joker had been neutralized and to meet him on the rooftop. Gordon pulled his overcoat tighter against the frigid wind that blew stiffly across the top of the building.

Gordon turned out of the wind, hunching his shoulders and cupping his hands to light a cigarette. When he straightened up, James Gordon jumped back with a shout. His cigarette dropped from his hand. Hanging upside down in front of him was the Joker, bloodied and bound, suspended by a slender rope. Gordon looked up to see a hovering shadow, that wing-shaped aircraft that Batman sometimes used. The line went suddenly slack, and the Joker dropped to the rooftop at Gordon's feet. When the Commissioner looked up again, the strange craft was gone.


As soon as Dick was in the seat of the Batwing, what was left of his energy melted away. He wanted to stay awake and look out the window of the Batman's plane, but his body had other ideas. Fever, the aftermath of the excitement, and overwhelming fatigue drew Dick down into an immediate slumber.

Batman notified his "ground crew," the father-daughter automotive team that had built the Batmobile for him, requesting that they recover what was left of the vehicle. They had a prototype of a new machine for him, and he'd test it out... as soon as Alfred returned.

A short time later, Bruce Wayne tucked his young ward into the boy's bed. Dick had barely awakened long enough to take his medicine before dropping off again. Bruce left Dick's room just to shower and change, and then he returned to sit vigil beside his little partner. Deep in thought, Bruce watched over the boy. Were they wise, the plans he had? Tonight, Bruce had endangered Dick's life, regardless of the boy's selfless courage and loyalty. Leslie was right to question Bruce's — the Batman's — motives.

And yet... there was no mistaking the fact that Dick was no ordinary child — bright, a quick study, with a physical agility that most adults would never achieve. And tonight, Dick had refused to let Batman cross a line that had taunted the boy since his parents' deaths, tortured him nightly in his dreams... to kill out of revenge.

Tonight, Bruce had realized just how much Dick had come to mean to him. Like it or not, parenthood had snuck up on Bruce and grabbed him by the heartstrings. Bruce had a feeling he'd be wrestling with the concept for a long time.


Epilogue

Alfred Pennyworth returned to Wayne Manor on a Sunday afternoon, five days after he had left. He set his luggage down in the foyer, his ears attuned for the sounds of his charges. Curiously noting the absence of Masters Bruce and Dick, Alfred hung up his overcoat and garment bag, placing his suitcase in the closet for later retrieval.

Hearing a faint clatter coming from the direction of the kitchen, Alfred followed the sound to its source. Half-expecting to see Master Bruce muddling through unaccustomed domestic chores, Alfred was surprised to see young Dick ably navigating through the kitchen. Sporting a bib apron that came down to his shins, Dick stood on a small stool, attending to a pot on the stove. The major-domo cleared his throat, and the boy's head whipped around, a smile blossoming on his face.

"Alfred! You're home!"

Dick jumped down from the stool and nearly tackled the older man, who prudently removed the dripping spoon from the boy's hand.

"Yes, I've just arrived. My, my, I thought you were ill, Master Dick. You look quite recovered. I'm so sorry, lad, that I had to be away while you weren't feeling well."

Dick looked up at his friend. "That's okay, Alfred. Bruce took good care of me. I'm sorry about your cousin. Bruce told me." Dick gave Alfred another hug, this time out of condolence.

"Thank you, lad. It was a sad occasion, but a good visit with family. And speaking of family, where is Master Bruce?"

Dick's blue eyes widened. "Oh! The soup!" He ran back to the stove and turned off the burner. "I'm makin' him some lunch!"

Alfred raised an inquisitive eyebrow as Dick filled a bowl with what appeared to be chicken noodle soup. The boy dashed around the corner into the pantry and returned with a tea cart. He carefully transferred the bowl of soup to the cart, next to a folded paper towel with several saltine crackers on it. Dick added a spoon to his arrangement and looked up at Alfred.

"C'mon. Bruce'll be glad to see you."

Alfred followed the boy, his curiosity growing as they bypassed Master Bruce's study, where Alfred had expected his employer to be, and Dick steered the cart into the lift.

"Master Bruce is taking his meal upstairs?" Alfred asked, still arching his brow with intrigue.

"Yup, since yesterday. He's got the flu."

The lift stopped, and Dick pushed the little cart down the hall to the master bedroom. "Wake up, Bruce. Lunch is ready, and I got a surprise for you!"

A guttural moan emanated from the large, four-poster bed as a shock of black hair emerged from beneath the satin comforter. A bloodshot blue eye cracked open, then widened, and a haggard Bruce Wayne attempted to sit up.

"Alfred!" Bruce croaked. "You're home!" Bruce's voice, gravelly from illness, was nonetheless filled with relief.

"Just in time, too, I see," the older man smiled. Alfred helped Bruce sit up, then plumped and arranged the pillows before easing his eldest back into their softness. Bruce's unshaven face took on an expression of beatitude.

Alfred felt Bruce's forehead, then the back of his neck, and clucked his disapproval. Shaking the crackers off the paper towel, Alfred tucked the make-shift napkin into the top of Bruce's pajamas, then picked up the bowl of soup and the spoon.

"Alfred, you're not allowed to go away again," Bruce rasped, accepting the spoonful of hot chicken soup.

Dick carefully climbed up onto the massive bed and stretched out on his belly, casually bumping his slippers together as he watched Alfred do what he did best — take care of him and Bruce.

"Indeed, I shall not, my boy. My boys."

[ The End ]