Disclaimer: DC owns them. Not mine, never will be. No money is being made by this piece of fiction.

Another Year Wiser

By Arlene

Bruce Wayne quite firmly believed his birthday was cursed.

In his many years as both an observer of and participant in nocturnal activities, he had witnessed many so-called "supernatural" events, enough to consider himself a disbeliever and debunker of such things. However, as the Fatal Natal Day drew nearer, he found himself doubting his own doubtfulness. He commented upon it once to his then-ward, Dick.

After stating his thesis and laying out the evidence in a clear, concise manner, he concluded, " . . . and that's why I think this is the real thing. I'm cursed." The well-structured discourse would have made an English professor proud.

"Uh, ookaay." Seeing how serious Bruce was about the matter, Dick wisely bit back a comment about "a superstitious and cowardly lot." He liked breathing just fine, thank you very much. "I'm just gonna . . . do my Algebra now, 'kay, Bruce?" He had then skittered off to his bedroom, taking steps two at a time.

As the years passed, nothing occurred to dissuade Bruce from his theory, which had turned into a belief.

And as each year passed, Alfred was determined to prove his charge wrong. This year would be different.

Unfortunately, each birthday that passed was indeed different: a hostage situation at a party thrown in Bruce's honor; a group of thieves masquerading as caterers; the Joker dropping in at the same restaurant . . .

But *this* year would be different, Alfred swore to himself. In a good way, he quickly amended.

As he puttered around in his kitchen, he mentally checked off his To Do list. It was to be a small, intimate affair, close family only.

Miss Barbara, her father, Cassandra and the boys were coming. Each had confirmed.

The food was prepared, and the cake was ready. As it was Alfred, and only he, who personally oversaw the kitchen, this was a given.

Decorations were kept simple. Freshly cut flowers and a few candles. Elegance lay in simplicity, after all.

All that remained undone was the guest of honor. Hoo boy.

In his study, the man himself sat behind his desk and prepared for the upcoming evening. He checked and doubled-checked the security, made sure the backup generators and the generators to back up *those* generators were operational, the grounds cameras were on-line and other myriad details that made Wayne Manor a virtual fortress. He even considered carrying concealed weapons, but even he knew that would be taking his paranoia too far. Besides, this was family.

As dinnertime approached, he knew that despite all his preparations, something would happen to make the event even more memorable than he wished it to be. The best laid plans of mice and men, after all. When the doorbell rang, he concentrated on relaxing. All he had to do was make it through the evening. How hard could it be? Just that thought alone made his shoulders tense up again.

***

The last guests to arrive were the Gordons. Alfred escorted them to the sitting room and left to prepare the first course. By then, Bruce had relaxed enough to smirk at the boy's antics while Cassandra avidly watched on.

"Dude, you are like so full of it!"

"Yeah? Well, we'll see who's full of it. Noogie time!"

"Argh!"

"Boys silly."

"They sure are, Cass. And we love'em that way, don't we?" Barbara rolled in, her father a few steps behind.

"Hey, Babs! Hi, Commissioner."

"It's just Jim now, Dick."

"Oh, uh, okay, sir."

Tim could only mumble a greeting, as his head was caught in the crook of Dick's arm.

"Happy birthday, Bruce." Bruce lowered himself to accept a peck on the cheek from Barbara and shook hands with Gordon.

"I'm glad you both could make it Barbara, Jim."

"Thanks for having us over, Bruce."

"Ahem." All horseplay stopped at the quiet cue. Dick released his victim, and Tim straightened himself up. "Ladies, gentlemen, dinner is served," Alfred announced. He led the small dinner party to the dining room and drew back the doors.

As they seated themselves around the table, Bruce let himself fully relax and enjoy the company of his family. Perhaps this year *would* be different.

***

Alfred was in the middle of serving the main course when the lights flickered. A chorus of groans rose into the air, along with a healthy dose of cursing. The seated people gaped at the elderly gentleman.

"My apologizes, ladies, sirs. Please excuse me whilst I check the security monitors." Everyone stood up.

Cassandra watched him go. "Alfred very mad." Testing the weight of the saltcellar and approving, she palmed it. She took Alfred's serving tray, cleared the contents and experimentally swung it by one handle. Barbara pulled a couple of escrima sticks from a side pouch. She also grabbed the carving knife and her bread plate before rolling away from the table.

"In all the time I've known him, I've never heard him swear. That was rather . . . unnerving." Bruce repressed a shudder. Great, yet another "different" birthday. He removed his tie and grabbed two of the heavy silver napkin rings. After fashioning a bolo, he tossed it to Barbara, who deftly caught it. "Stupid curse," he muttered under his breath.

Gordon, figuring from their reactions that flickering lights meant something bad, unbuttoned his dinner coat so that he could easily reach his weapon. Sadly, he had learned to never leave home without it.

Bruce strode to the fireplace and grabbed the shovel and poker, offering the latter to Gordon. Jim accepted it, saving his gun as a last resort.

More rattled by Alfred's reaction than the situation at hand, Tim slipped his fork and steak knife into his shirt pockets. Using his own tie, he fashioned another bolo. "Did he just--?" He took a few boiled new potatoes for good measure.

"Yeah. Jeez. I remember I said the 'f' word in front of him once when I was a kid. I found out where Bruce got the Look from." Dick blew out the candles and grabbed two foot-long candlestick holders. After careful consideration, he removed the tapered candles, deeming them too weak.

Alfred reentered the dining room carrying a shotgun. "Two at the back entrance, one approaching the front door, two heading for the solarium, two for the study. Two vans by the front gate, only one man visible there. All are carrying guns. The authorities will be arriving in about thirty minutes." He passed a handful of plastic ties to each of them.

Bruce took charge. "By now, they're aware of the backup generators. Let them come in; there'll be less chance for them to escape. Cassandra, take the one by the gate, watch out for a partner. Jim and Timothy front, Alfred and Barbara kitchen, Dick side." He nodded grimly at them. "Good hunting."

***

A surprisingly short time later, they reassembled in the dining room with their subdued captives. The burglars were led, pushed and dragged onto the floor in the middle of the room. The weapons were laid carefully on the dining table so as not to smudge any possible fingerprints.

Bruce dumped his last load with a huff.

"That's it!" he roared. "I am sick and tired of total strangers just waltzing into my home and trying to steal my stuff! Alfred!"

"Sir?"

"Shoot'em and throw'em off the cliff!"

"Very good, Sir." Alfred cocked the shotgun. One of the men on the floor started whimpering.

"P-Please! I'm sorry! We didn't mean to! You can't do this!" he begged.

"Hey, pal! I'm rich. I can do whatever I want!"

"Al, wait! Bruce, he's right! You can't!" Dick turned imploringly to Bruce. The pleading man relaxed minutely. "Bruce, the last time you threw'em off the cliff, one of them caught on a ledge. His screaming kept me up all night!"

"Oh, yeah, sorry 'bout that, chum. Well, if you'll recall we moved you to another wing. And the screaming stopped after a couple days." Bruce waved his hand dismissively. "Anyway, the 'quake took care of that pesky ledge. They'll go straight down."

"I can't let you do this, Bruce," Gordon spoke up, completely ignoring the fact that Alfred was holding the gun. "As an officer of the law, I'm duty-bound to--"

"Daddy, you're retired, remember?" Barbara interrupted.

Gordon blinked. "Oh, right. Well then, carry on." He sat down and picked up his drink.

"Psst, dude!" Tim whispered loudly to Dick. "You're a cop. And you're still working."

"Yeah? Oh, yeah! Right, right." Dick addressed the men huddled on the floor. "Well, sorry y'all, I'm off-duty, and this ain't Bludhaven."

Alfred looked scandalized. "Master Dick!"

Dick winced. "Sorry, Alfred. I mean, this *isn't* Bludhaven." He smiled at Alfred's nod of approval.

Bruce waved his arms. "Hellooo! Let's get back to the matter at hand, people." He turned to his butler. "Shoot'em, drop'em and serve the cake. I've been waiting all day for this."

"Stop." All eyes turned to the petite Asian girl. "Deadweight harder to carry," Cassandra pointed out.

Bruce crossed his arms and started pouting. "Will you guys stop interrupting my fun? It's *my* birthday. And I said 'shoot,' not 'kill,' right, Alfred?"

"Indeed you did, Sir. You see Miss Cassandra, it is a matter of semantics."

"Some attics?" What did parts of the house have anything to do with this?

"No, miss, semantics. It means . . . oh, never mind." He did not want to go through this yet again.

Suddenly, one of the men managed to jump to his feet. "You'll never take me alive!" he screamed. He dove toward a window to freedom.

And bounced off the doubled-paned, bulletproofed glass, knocking himself out when his head hit the floor.

"A seven," Tim declared.

Gordon looked impressed. "Niiice windows, Bruce."

"Thanks, Jim. They're also real good insulation. Cut my heating bills way down this winter."

"In your dreams, kid," Dick shot back. "A definite six."

"You don't say? I was thinking about replacing my windows too, now that I've retired."

"Four," Cassandra stated decisively. "Bad position." She pointed to the unconscious man on the floor. "See? Used head, not shoulder."

"Guys," Barbara interjected, "she's right. I mean, what kind of an idiot tries to go through a window headfirst?" Both Dick and Tim looked up the ceiling and blushed. "Know what? I'd give him a three."

"That's harsh, Babs!"

"If you're interested, Jim, I can have my guy give you an estimate?"

Cassandra reconsidered. "Two. No style."

"Really? Thanks, Bruce, I'd appreciate it."

"Well, sheesh, give him a point for effort at least. Didja see how hard he whacked himself? The loser's still out cold."

Bruce stomped his foot this time, dangerously close to stepping on one of the bound men's hands. "Enough!" He waved his hand at the terrified would-be burglars. "Can't we just get rid of them?"

Ever practical, Timothy made an important point. "It's low tide, Bruce. If we drop them, their bodies'll hit the rocks and just, y'know, rot there. That's gonna be so gross! And the sharks are migrating. So if we even if we throw'em far enough to get into the water, their corpses'll get all bloated an' everything."

Barbara brightened a bit and sat up. "That's right! Daddy, didn't you tell me about that time a rookie touched a body that floated in from the Bay . . .?"

"Oh yeah! The kid tried to bring it in for a closer examination, so he reached out, grabbed the arm and boom! The arm exploded! All the built-up gasses made the floater burst. Ha! Poor kid lost his lunch on the spot!" Gordon was laughing so hard tears came out of his eyes. He was unaware of the stares coming from his captive, and non-captive, audience. Barbara laughed right along with him.

Dick eyed Barbara with a bit of trepidation and swallowed. "Um, thanks for the warning, sir. That was truly . . . enlightening."

Cassandra was getting bored with all the talking. "Cake now?"

"Oh God!" one of the men said in a small voice. "They're all nuts!"

Another man squeezed himself into a tight ball and rocked while chanting, "We're gonna die, we're gonna die . . . "

Yet another one very obviously lost control of his bladder.

Alfred glared daggers at the last one. "Good Lord, you bloody twit! I just waxed! Now, I simply *must* shoot you!" He lined up the sight and was about to squeeze the trigger when Tim made another point.

"Al, if you do, won't you mess up the floor even more?"

"Indeed, Master Timothy. However, it is no longer a matter of cleanliness, but one of satisfaction. 'Tis the principle, you see."

"Oh well, I tried," he shrugged.

"Thanks anyway, kid," muttered one of the men.

"Oh shut up!" Tim snapped back. "If he shoots you, the blood might splatter and get on my clothes. I just got this shirt!"

"Hold up, Alfred." Recovered from his laughter, Gordon looked a little more closely at the weapon. "That's got buckshot, right?"

"Indeed it does, sir."

"Well, it this close range, it'll rip right through him and into the tile. And a few stray bits might get those other guys 'round him. Tim's right, it'll be real messy. You might need a new floor."

"What?" squeaked Bruce. "New floor? I just rebuilt the place! What am I, made of money?"

Dick snorted. Bruce raised an eyebrow at that. "And who inherits, brat?"

Dick straightened up indignantly. "Yeah! What is he, made of money?!"

Barbara rolled her eyes. "My hero."

Cassandra stood up with excitement. "Don't shoot. Hunt!" She picked up Barbara's carving knife and admired the blade. "Pretty."

Just then, the doorbell rang. Alfred excused himself and handed Gordon the shotgun.

Bruce let out a disappointed sigh. "Darn, the police are here. Uh, no offense, Jim." He deliberately ignored Dick.

"None taken."

The chant on the floor changed: "Thank God, thank God, thank God . . . "

***

After the statements (with the facts played down) were made and the police had cleared out with the uninvited guests, the small group sat down around the dinner table once again. Alfred served the cake with a bit of ceremony and sat down with his family, one of the rare times he would allow himself to do so.

"Cute trick with the potatoes, kid." Gordon took a bite of his cake.

"Thanks, sir," Tim replied. "I saw it in a cartoon once. Who knew it'd really work?"

"You people just can't do anything halfway, can you?"

Dick grinned. "Nope, not in our nature. Besides, this was better than playing Charades."

Cassandra looked up. "Like Charades."

"That's 'cuz you always win!" Tim whined.

"Next time on your team."

Tim was mollified. "Okay. Cool."

Dick turned Bruce. "You're cute when you pout. You must've been a holy terror when you were a kid."

Bruce ducked his head and concentrated on his slice. "Brat," he grunted good-naturedly.

"Mmm." Barbara savored her forkful. "Alfred, could I have the--" Alfred whipped out a folded sheet of paper before she could finish her sentence. She blinked and accepted it. "Wow, thanks!"

"You're quite welcome, miss."

Tim sat back in his chair. "It's a good thing they didn't came after dinner. I'm stuffed." He stifled a small belch.

Cassandra saw Alfred push back his chair and figured out his intent. "Stay." She got up and refilled everyone's drinks, serving herself last. As she sat down, Alfred caught her eye, nodded and graced her with a smile. She shrugged and returned the smile.

As the evening wound down, Bruce saw the Gordons to the door. "Jim, I was serious about the windows. But I'd like to take care of it for you. Considering how often you'll be at home now, you'll be able to enjoy them more." The thought that Gordon would be more of a sitting duck for his enemies remained unspoken between them.

"Bruce, that's mighty generous of you, and I appreciate the offer, but I really couldn't let you--"

"Please, I'm just being selfish here. I think of it as a birthday present to myself. Considering everything you've done for us," he paused meaningfully, "it's the least I can do."

Barbara put a hand on her father's elbow. "Daddy, I think it's a wonderful idea. And think of how much you'll save on the heating bill. You know, he really *is* made of money," she smiled. She was worried about him, too.

How could he refuse his baby? "Oh, all right, Bruce. But on the condition that you visit more often, day or night. Life gets kinda boring for an old geezer like me."

"I promise." The two men shook hands.

"Of course, if you keep inviting me over for dinner, I'll probably get all the excitement I need, and then some." Gordon parted with a wink and followed his daughter out the door.

Bruce watched them drive off before closing the door. Cassandra had already dashed off to the Cave. After checking in with Alfred, he made his way to the study to join his boys for some downtime before patrol.

Opening the door, he found the younger men in a corner of the room, speaking in low tones. When they noticed his entrance, they parted and smiled innocently. Or at least tried to. Dick looked smug.

"Hi, Bruce."

"Timothy."

"Hey, Bruce.

"Richard."

Dick looked at Bruce and flicked his gaze over to the overstuffed chair in front of the fireplace. Bruce warily went over and sat down. "Boys?"

"We actually got you something for your birthday."

Bruce bit back a groan and raised his eyebrows.

Dick waggled his. "And it's something you don't already have!"

Bruce winced. "It's not something I'd have to wear, is it?"

Dick smiled mischievously. "No, but I'll keep that in mind for Christmas. Mr. Drake, would you do the honors?"

With a flourish, Tim presented Bruce with a small object hastily wrapped in newspaper and scotch tape. "Happy birthday, Bruce." He looked pleased with himself.

From the size and feel of it, Bruce could immediately tell what it was, but he unwrapped it anyway. "A video tape?"

"Yup," Dick grinned. "This evening. Made a copy of the surveillance tapes before the cops took'em. Figured it'd be good for a laugh. Gordon was right. The potato thing *was* cute. Good job, Tim." He slapped his "little brother" on the back.

Tim beamed at the praise. "Aw, shucks, 'tweren't nuthin'. TV can be educational, y'know."

Bruce considered the tape. Did he really want a reminder of this birthday? In comparison, it hadn't been as bad as the others. And, although he would be the last to admit it out loud, he actually had fun. Realizing they were still waiting for a response, he looked up at their eager faces. "Thank you," he said simply.

For the first time that day, he smiled.

End