CATEGORY: Fluff, to be honest. Maybe a bit of schmangst.
DISCLAIMER: These characters belong to DC Comics. I just fantasize and worry about them.
NOTES: Yet another story that's entirely the husband's fault. The title is from a Kurt Vonnegut quote that is otherwise completely unrelated to this story, so I shall not give it in full. Thanks to my LJ flist for assistance, especially Meret and Cheetahmaster for suggesting one character's name. Thanks also to Avi for providing a company name, my mother for offering her first name, and my mother-in-law for unknowingly providing a last name. And lastly, thanks to Illmantrim and Sage for the beta.
"Before you beat a dog, find out who its master is"
Bruce hated celebrating his birthday. Everybody knew that if he could forget the day entirely, he'd be a happy man. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line he'd acquired a family that loved birthdays. Really loved them-parties, cake, presents, and all. He only escaped balloons by the skin of his teeth and a few well-timed threats.
It was enough to drive a grown vigilante to drink.
Especially since he strongly suspected Barbara and Tim only did it to annoy him.
Standing in the echoing entryway to Wayne Manor, Bruce frowned at Alfred as the butler took his coat. "Ready to tell me about the surprise yet?"
"I have told you, sir. Master Dick wishes it to remain a secret and I would not care to disappoint him." The 'unlike you' was unspoken. Alfred stalked back to the kitchen, stiff back showing his disapproval of Bruce's insistence.
Sighing, Bruce ran a hand through his hair. He looked longingly toward the entrance to the Cave, but knew if he went down, the others would be annoyed when they arrived.
Feeling at loose ends, Bruce strode down the hall to the drawing room. At the very least, he could take this time to read the newspapers he'd not had time to examine in the morning.
When Tim strolled in, silver-wrapped box in hand and a tightly-suppressed grin on his face, Bruce raised an eyebrow over the top of the New York Times. "Et tu, Tim?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Tim put a hand to his heart, looking so earnest and angelic, Bruce half-expected a halo to appear.
"Hmm." Bruce sniffed and folded the newspaper.
Tim put the present down on a table by the door. "Be a sport. Dick's really excited."
"I'm beginning to worry."
"Worry?" Cass asked as she slid into the room behind Tim.
"Nothing serious," Tim said, turning around. "Just Bruce not liking surprises."
Face serious, Cass looked at Bruce, then back at Tim. "I understand." She turned back to Bruce and nodded once.
"Yes," he said, "I think you do." She smiled at him, ducking her head and going to her favorite chair, in a corner where she could observe everyone.
Tim eyed them both, but before he could comment, Barbara rolled in, her grin not hidden at all. "Dick's not here yet? Oh good, I was afraid I was late."
Bruce stared at the ceiling and wondered where precisely he'd gone wrong. Surely it was possible to pinpoint the moment he lost control?
Alfred came in, bearing a tea tray. "Master Dick will be here momentarily," he said.
Conspiratorial grins flashed and Bruce gritted his teeth. Taking a teacup from Alfred, Cass shot a brief look across the room-sympathy, he translated.
Bruce drank his tea while the others chatted. A typical domestic scene, he supposed, although surely most such conversations, even in Gotham, didn't revolve around the latest security system at Arkham Asylum?
"What do you think, Bruce?" Barbara said, obviously certain he hadn't been listening.
"Poison Ivy," he replied, setting down his cup. "She'll find her way around this one first because the easiest flaw to exploit is the human element. I've already placed extra sensors in her cell."
Tim grinned into his tea and everyone looked up at the sound of footsteps. To Bruce's surprise, Tim, Barbara, and Alfred all burst into speech. He ignored their babbling to focus on the strange sound in the hall; he held his breath as the door opened to reveal Dick.
Holding a dog.
A small brown and white dog.
With floppy ears.
Which yipped in excitement and tried to leap out of Dick's arms.
"Happy birthday, Bruce." The grin nearly split Dick's face and in Bruce's peripheral vision he saw the others looking the same way. Except Cass, whose expression was just as confused as his own undoubtedly was.
"What," he asked with great deliberation, "is that?"
"It's a dog, Bruce. Surely you've seen them before."
The dog licked Dick's chin and he chuckled. "More specifically, it's a beagle. Smartest dogs you'll find."
Dick, of all people, knew that tone in Bruce's voice, but he chose to ignore it. "Yes, Bruce, a beagle. This house gets empty and quiet, and I thought you could use some company."
Bruce closed his eyes, but when he opened them, the scene was the same. "I like empty and quiet," he said, repressing the whine through sheer force of will.
But nobody was listening to him. Dick held out the squirming puppy and Bruce, still in shock, took it automatically, cradling it to his chest like a baby he'd rescued from a fire.
The dog shivered once all over, silky fur rubbing against Bruce's hands, then gazed adoringly up at him out of liquid brown eyes.
Bruce stared down. What was he supposed to do with a dog, for heaven's sake?
"I had a beagle when I was a kid," Dick said, eyes distant. "Well, she wasn't really mine, she was part of a dog act at the circus, but she would always come and play with me when I had free time. I drove my mom crazy by feeding her off the table."
Oh god, he couldn't...
Bruce looked down at the puppy, which chose that moment to scrub Bruce's cheek with its scratchy, slimy tongue. Bruce glared at Dick.
"You've got to train him," Dick said, smothering a grin as he settled on the couch next to Barbara's wheelchair. "I think you have some experience in that."
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Not unless you want it trained to retrieve batarangs."
"Well, not the explosive ones, certainly." Dick's grin emerged, positively beatific.
Bruce transferred his glare to Tim, wiping up the tea he'd spit all over his pants, and Barbara, doubled over, wheezing with laughter.
Alfred simply bestowed an approving smile on Dick. So much for support from that quarter.
With exaggerated care, Bruce put the wriggling puppy on the floor and watched as it dashed around the room, sniffing at people's legs, unable to sit still for an instant. It reminded him of Dick as a young boy.
"Really?" Barbara said, still snickering.
Bruce blinked. He'd said that aloud? Obviously this surprise had thrown him off more than he thought.
"Dick..." Bruce began his last-ditch effort, "I really don't have the time to take care of a dog."
Dick waved a hand. "Oh, he won't take much time. I mean with the grounds of Wayne Manor, it's not as if he'll need to be walked."
"I don't want to burden Alfred with yet another task," Bruce said, hoping guilt would work if nothing else did.
"It's no bother, sir," Alfred said, smiling slightly as the dog sniffed at his shoe, then galloped over to jump on Tim's legs, whining with excitement.
Traitor, Bruce thought at Alfred. You'll get yours later.
The puppy wriggled ecstatically as Tim scratched him behind the ears, then bounced over to Cass, who froze as the puppy frisked around her feet and nosed at her legs.
Cass looked at Bruce. "What do I do?" she asked.
"He wants to be petted," Tim said. He crossed the room to pick up the puppy, evading the wagging tongue and perching on the edge of Cass' chair. She wrinkled her nose, giving Tim a dubious look.
"Just pet his head," Tim said.
Her hand moved slowly toward the puppy's head-slowly enough that it got soundly licked. Cass jumped...then to everyone's surprise, she laughed. More confident, she managed to rub the dog's head and he tilted so she would get the sides. The puppy whined and wriggled, and Cass smiled. "Soft," she pronounced with the kind of glee usually reserved for new martial arts moves.
Bruce saw Barbara and Dick exchange triumphant looks. Interesting, he thought.
Finally tiring of Cass, the puppy squirmed until Tim put him down, scampering over to sit in front of Bruce. The puppy's tongue hung out as he panted, the beseeching look in his eyes obvious.
"Pick him up," Dick said.
Bruce looked at him, then down when the puppy whimpered. Good grief, how could he ignore it when it did that?
Slowly, knowing this was a definitive loss, he bent over and picked up the puppy, who snuggled happily into his lap. Nose tucked on top of his paws, the puppy settled down almost immediately.
"So," Dick said, "what are you going to name him?"
The puppy lifted his head and barked.
Bruce sighed. Now he had to name the thing? Let Dick pick the name since he thought this was such a good idea. He was about to tell him so, when the puppy twisted around and gazed up at him with innocent and trusting eyes, ready to jump off a building for him if he asked nicely.
"Clark," Bruce said.
Everyone looked for Superman, then stared at Bruce, who found himself-inexplicably-blushing.
"Clark," Tim said slowly, in a tone he usually reserved for Arkham escapees.
Getting his autonomic functions back under control, Bruce looked them in the eyes, one by one. "Clark." His voice was firm, implying there was no point in asking, because he wasn't going to answer.
The puppy licked Bruce's hand and settled back down on his lap with a gigantic sigh.
Several hours later, Bruce finally reached the end of his interminable birthday celebration-Cass departing to patrol, Babs to check in on Black Canary's mission in Tierra del Fuego, and Dick and Tim heading to Blüdhaven, where Robin was to assist Nightwing in cleaning up a murder-for-hire ring.
Alfred, who'd been prepared in advance, showed Bruce where Clark was to sleep and put the puppy into the bed. It blinked sleepily up at them, for all the world like a small child.
Bruce shook his head and turned to leave, stopped in his tracks by a bark. Clark jumped out of his bed and trotted after him, collar jingling.
"Stay," Bruce said.
Clark stood still, but as soon as Bruce tried to leave, he followed again.
"Lie down," Bruce said, using the voice that stopped police officers in their tracks and made villains quake in fear.
Clark yipped and trotted up to nose against his ankle.
"Whatever you want, I have to go," Bruce said, giving up with a sigh.
Clark followed him to the Cave, and as the clock entrance slid closed behind him, Bruce could hear the puppy's whines. Sighing, he went to patrol.
Dragging himself up the stairs from the Cave not long before dawn, Bruce felt every one of the years he'd just celebrated, as well as a few more. By the time he was out on the streets, it was like all hell had broken loose, and for no good reason.
He couldn't even remember how many robberies he'd stopped or how many gang fights he'd broken up, and all he wanted was a few hours of sleep before Bruce Wayne had to yawn his way through a very important merger meeting.
As he opened the door behind the grandfather clock, a whining sound brought him to full alert before he realized what it was.
"Quiet," he said as he opened the door the rest of the way. Clark sat exactly where he'd left him, ears hanging nearly to the ground as the puppy keened.
The moment the door was fully open, his posture changed and he leaped into the air, barking and running in circles. "Quiet," Bruce tried again, and Clark ran over, dashing around his feet in ecstasy.
Clark wouldn't stop yipping until Bruce bent down and rubbed his back. "Have you been sitting here all this time?"
"I believe he was waiting for you," Alfred said from the doorway.
Bruce shook his head, unable to handle dog psychology without some sleep. "I'm back and everyone can sleep now," he said, shooting Alfred a meaningful look.
"Of course, sir."
Bruce walked Clark to the dog bed, watched him get in, and said "Stay" firmly. That lasted precisely as long as it took Bruce to get to the door, then Clark jumped up.
Five minutes later, after repeated attempts to get the puppy to stay put, Bruce sighed, bone-tired and sore. "Fine. If you want to follow me, you can. I'm going to bed this time."
Clark trotted behind him up the stairs and down the hall, stopping to sniff at various spots, then running to catch up. Reaching the bedroom, Bruce ducked in and closed the door before the puppy could get in.
It was mere moments before the piteous whining began.
"Why me?" Bruce asked the universe. "I need to get some sleep." He stared fixedly at the door, hoping the sounds would stop. When they didn't he took a deep breath and opened the door, allowing Clark in.
The dog yipped once and sniffed his way around the room while Bruce got ready for bed. As he sank onto the firm mattress, Bruce heard Clark settle down at the foot of the bed.
Sleep came swiftly.
It was a familiar sight: darkness, slowly pierced by a spotlight. Faces appeared and disappeared, sad, in pain, accusing, dead. People Batman had failed.
He tried to escape, but couldn't turn his head or close his eyes; he had to watch each passing face, relive each failure-his parents, Jason, Harvey, so many others.
But he was interrupted by a strange sound, a wet...tongue?
A curse dying on his lips, Bruce opened his eyes to see the puppy licking his cheek and whining softly. Groaning, Bruce pushed Clark away.
Wiping off his cheek, he looked at the puppy. "I suppose I should thank you."
Clark wagged his tail and nosed at Bruce's arm.
"Yes, I'm fine. Not the first nightmare. Not the last." Bruce patted Clark's head gingerly. "Go to sleep."
Turning three times in a tight circle, Clark settled next to Bruce on top of the comforter. Bruce thought about evicting him back onto the floor, but couldn't be bothered.
He fell asleep again to the sound of soft snores.
Alfred said not a word when he brought breakfast, but his muted look of amusement was almost as galling as any snide remark. Bruce narrowed his eyes and ate, not responding even when Alfred produced a bowl of dog food for Clark.
Bruce read the Wall Street Journal to the accompaniment of crunching and chewing.
He ignored Clark trotting down the stairs behind him, turning only when he reached the entrance to the Cave. Clark sat immediately, head low and tail no longer wagging.
"Good lord," Bruce said, "don't look at me as if I'm going to hit you."
Clark barked once, then tucked his head between his paws facing the grandfather clock, the very picture of dejection and sorrow.
"Alfred?" Bruce looked up as the other man entered the room.
"If I may be so bold, sir, I believe he thinks he's being abandoned."
"Well, I'm going to have to leave the house at some point!"
"But he knows you're not leaving the house." Alfred smiled as if this actually made sense.
For a long moment, Bruce stared at his butler and the dog that had been foisted upon him by his sentimentally-inclined adopted son. This was truly the end of the world as he knew it. "Fine. The dog can come downstairs with me. But I swear, he doesn't get his own costume. That's where I draw the line."
"Very good, sir." With his usual excellent instincts, Alfred managed to not smile in triumph.
Ten minutes of chasing Clark around the Cave and dragging him away from the edge of various chasms left Bruce as exhausted as if he'd gone five rounds with Two Face's goons.
Finally he convinced Clark to sit by his feet, panting with excitement, while he checked the computer for anything he needed to know before he left for Wayne Enterprises. He became absorbed in a police report about unusual gang activity on the south side of Gotham.
Just as he started to see the connections he was looking for, Bruce heard a sound.
Freezing in place, he held his breath until the sound was repeated. He turned slowly, staring in the direction of the Batmobile.
Where the dog crouched, one leg raised in the direction of the tires.
"Clark!" Bruce roared, leaping from his seat.
The dog jumped, then dropped to the floor, head down and whining.
Bruce stalked forward, at the limit of his patience. "You!" He pointed at the dog, who pushed himself flat against the rocky floor. "Get. Away. From. The. Car."
Clark whimpered and Bruce stopped. "My god. I'm yelling at a puppy." Rubbing his forehead, he stared at the pathetic furry bundle on the ground, finally kneeling down a few feet away. After a moment, Clark raised his head and looked at him with a small inquiring whine.
"It's okay." Bruce sighed and held out a hand. "I know you're young. I didn't mean to yell at you."
Clark's head and ears came up and he got off the floor to slink the last few feet to where Bruce knelt, rubbing his head against Bruce's outstretched hand with enthusiasm.
Scratching Clark behind the ears, Bruce sighed. "If this is going to work, we're obviously going to have to set a few rules."
Head and ears perked, Clark sat in front of him, tail wagging hard enough to sweep the floor. "Hmm," Bruce said as he considered the dog. "Let's see what the computer has to say about obedience training..."
Ruth, his executive secretary, gave him an odd look over her vase of roses when he reached the office that morning, but he assumed she'd read some new tabloid description of Bruce Wayne that he'd overlooked. Perhaps the National Star had revived the story about him being Elvis' love child. By the time the office door had closed, the look was forgotten.
Bruce deliberately stayed in his office until moments before the beginning of his 9:00 meeting, forcing Lucius to come find him.
He grinned at his ever-so-patient CEO. "Oh, hullo, Lucius. What can I...oh, we had a meeting, didn't we?"
Lucius smiled. "Indeed we did. And they'll be waiting."
Bruce was never sure how much of his stupid act Lucius actually believed, but since the man seemed content to not call him on it, the question was presumably moot.
As they walked down the hallway past offices filled only with soft music and clicking keyboards, Lucius gave Bruce an odd look, reminding him of Ruth's reaction.
"Something wrong? Did I forget to put on pants this morning? Not comb my hair?"
"No, that's not it." The other man hesitated.
"Then what is wrong?"
"This may sound crazy, but do you have a dog?"
Bruce nearly tripped over his feet coming to a halt, which would have been in-character if he'd intended to do it. "Did Dick call you?"
Staring at him, Lucius spoke slowly. "No, why would he? Is something wrong?"
"Then how did you know about the dog he gave me?"
Lucius blinked. "You do have a dog?" He shook his head, obviously astounded. "Well, that would explain the white and tan fur on the back of your legs."
It was irresistible even for the iron will of Batman. Craning his head, Bruce peered over his shoulder. "Alfred," he said with finality, "is a dead man. As is Dick."
Lucius struggled not to laugh, lips twitching and face contorted. "Why don't you clean up and I'll get the meeting started?"
"Good idea." Bruce sighed.
"Hmm? Oh, a beagle."
Lucius brightened, a nostalgic grin settling on his face. "Beagles are great dogs. Well, that'll be nice for you."
"Why does everybody think it's a good idea for me to have a dog?" Bruce asked the air.
Lucius just smiled and went to the meeting.
Arrival home was a rather more...boisterous experience than Bruce was accustomed to. He could hear the barking halfway up the walk and before his hand reached the door handle, Alfred had opened it.
Bruce had never properly appreciated the melodramatic phrase "Release the hounds!" until he was nearly bowled over by one over-enthusiastic beagle that weighed all of 5 pounds.
"Down, Clark," he said in the tone that worked on other people's dogs. It worked to an extent, as Clark stopped trying to lick his face and contented himself with gamboling around Bruce's legs, presumably trying to trip him.
Treading carefully, Bruce made it into the house, where he ignored Alfred's near-smirk and headed for the Cave. "Oh, by the way, Alfred?"
"Lucius was surprised to see that you let me leave the house covered in dog hair this morning."
Alfred's smirk disappeared, replaced with dismay. Satisfied, Bruce went on his way.
Two weeks later, Bruce paused on the threshold to the Cave and looked at Clark. How, he wondered with some annoyance, did a dog manage to look that hopeful?
Sighing, he waved. "Fine, go down."
Clark yipped and bounced past him, toenails clicking on the stone stairs. Bruce followed with a great deal less bounce in his step. Ahead of him, he heard Clark bark in apparent excitement.
Ah, there was Tim, back from Blüdhaven right on schedule. He sounded surprised and Bruce grinned for an instant before sobering his expression to something more suitable.
The puppy was bouncing around Tim's feet, pawing at his legs. Tim seemed to be trying to pet him, but Clark was too excited to sit still.
"Clark!" Bruce called. The puppy skidded to a halt and ran back to Bruce's side, pacing him as he strode across the floor.
Tim hadn't suited up yet and his expression was priceless as he stared at the now-serious puppy.
Bruce reached the cabinet that held the uniforms. "Sit," he said. Clark sat, chin up, the tip of his tail wagging ever so slightly. "Good dog." Bruce waved a hand. "Go play." Clark trotted off to sniff the various nooks of the Cave.
Concealing his grin, Bruce pulled out a uniform.
"How...how did you..."
He couldn't resist. "Training, Robin. Training."
Tim rolled his eyes and went back to his work on the computer. When Bruce was ready, Tim yielded his place at the console to suit up, watching in amusement as Clark galloped over to sit at Bruce's feet.
Bending to pet him, Tim was surprised by a low growl. "Whoa."
"Clark." The growling stopped. "He knows we're working."
Bruce decided he would cherish that moment forever-Tim staring between him and the dog, trying to decide if he was being kidded or not.
Over the ensuing months, Clark became, if not an integral part of Bruce's life, at least an accepted one. Bruce never managed to convince him to sleep in his dog bed, but a little surreptitious research found that very few dog owners ever managed that-even those who had more time to devote to the project. And Bruce would die before he'd admit it to anyone, but it was comforting in an odd way to have a dog in the bedroom.
Everyone became enamored of Clark, who loved to curl up next to visitors to the mansion, or romp around their feet in a most endearing fashion.
Not that Bruce would admit to finding it endearing, either.
But even he had to admit that Clark's presence had been good for Cass, who would drop by some afternoons to play with him. It wasn't long before it seemed that Clark had always been in their lives: chewing on very expensive dress shoes, tripping anyone carrying a delicate object, or lying at Batman's feet in the cave.
At a certain point, Bruce began to take his presence for granted, no longer getting annoyed at dog hair on his legs or being tackled whenever he entered the house.
The only problem, really, was that nobody ever seemed to have enough time for Clark in their very busy lives and the dog could often be found sitting mournfully by the door or by the Batmobile waiting for someone to return.
Which made it all the more surprising when Bruce opened the front door to his mansion and...nothing happened. Pausing with one foot in the air, it took a moment for him to realize what was wrong. He tilted his head, listening for the clicking sounds of claws on polished floors, but heard nothing.
Frowning, Bruce tried to remember if Alfred had, perhaps, said something about taking Clark to the vet, but there had been no such mention that he could recall.
"Alfred?" he called, standing in the hall.
"Master Bruce." Alfred walked quickly into the hallway, looking relieved. "I'm glad you've returned with such dispatch. I'm afraid Clark is missing."
"What do you mean, Clark's missing?" Bruce stared at Alfred.
"I mean, sir, that he went out for his usual run at 3:00 and did not return." Alfred looked ready to commit hari kiri, blinking and as distressed as the evenings Bruce came home with broken bones.
Bruce frowned, shedding his jacket and handing it to Alfred. "Two hours ago? Where could he have gone?"
"I don't know, sir. I was about to review the surveillance tapes, but you are far more skilled at that."
"Of course," Bruce said, already trying to figure out how to explain losing the dog to Dick. Even the disappointed expression in his imagination made Bruce wince. "Let's check those tapes."
Jogging down the steps, Bruce decided that this was truly the moment his life went from absurd to surreal. He was about to use the resources of Batman to track a beagle. Good grief.
Wayne Manor's security was second only to places like the JLA Watchtower and Superman's Fortress of Solitude, so unless a very talented supervillain had stolen his dog, it made sense to start with the farthest sensors. Bruce slid into his seat, already flipping on the recordings from cameras at various gates and trees throughout the perimeter, while Alfred hovered behind him in the unflappable butler's closest approximation of a tizzy.
Practiced at watching multiple feeds, Bruce moved the recordings back two hours and set six of them to quick review on the main screen. A few vehicles he recognized as regular tradesmen to the closest mansions drove by; he made a mental note of which ones just in case. A few deer crashed through the woods, along with the usual assortment of squirrels, raccoons, and birds.
Each screen marched on, a rapid-fire collage of woods and traffic, but nothing out of the ordinary and no small overeager beagle. Bruce switched to another corner of the property, one that abutted the far edge of the Simonds' land. Then, another stretch of road, which crossed both properties.
A white van with no visible markings crossed the camera's field of view, going faster than most of the traffic. It wasn't a vehicle he recognized, so what was it doing out this far? Bruce frowned and rewound that tape, starting a search on the license plate while he continued to watch the other tapes.
The license plate was registered to BioMedCo Industries. Bruce frowned harder-the name didn't sound familiar, which was unusual for any company working out of Gotham. He should at least have a vague idea what they produced, processed, or sold. The name was so generic it could mean anything.
But the question remained why a van belonging to this mysterious BioMedCo was driving down these roads, which didn't precisely lead to a manufacturing district. Keeping half an eye on the camera feeds, Bruce started an in-depth search on the company.
Turning to look at what turned out to be a deer running across the road, Bruce almost missed a vital piece of information. His eyes widened and he told the computer to scroll back.
BioMedCo's chief scientist had been arrested for conducting illegal animal experiments five years previously. He'd gotten off when the witnesses mysteriously disappeared or recanted their stories, but it was all very coincidental.
BioMedCo's Gotham facility was approximately 20 miles from Bruce Wayne's mansion, and there was a good chance they were conducting illegal animal experiments.
On his dog.
Alfred, reading over his shoulder, reached the same conclusion moments after him. "Good lord!"
Bruce raced for his uniform. If what he thought was correct, that facility was going to be looking for a new owner tomorrow morning. And somebody was going to deeply regret their stance on animal experimentation.
The workers who were in the laboratory that evening would always say-without any apparent irony-that their attacker descended upon them "like a bat outta hell." Or perhaps "an avenging angel," but most preferred the first phrase.
It was by no means an inaccurate description, and it was certainly understandable. When Batman arrived at the nondescript building, all he had in mind was retrieving his dog.
That lasted exactly as long as it took him to get a good look at what was going on inside the building. The scowl on his face would have sent Poison Ivy running for the green hills and might have even given the Joker some pause. It was the kind of look that countless Gotham criminals had as their last memory before waking up in police custody.
Within second, Batman smashed through the nearest window that wouldn't hurt any of the animals inside. Two startled lab techs stared at him in shock and he took the opportunity to smack their heads together and drop them on the floor. He stalked through the doors, rampaging through the building-leaving behind a trail of unconscious people who were going to wake up with particularly nasty headaches.
A man and a woman in red-spattered lab coats he found perpetrating a particularly nasty test on a row of whining dogs...well, the broken arms were simple fractures. They'd heal.
It wasn't until he reached the front of the building that he found Clark, crammed into a filthy cage with a dozen other dogs, all barking and yelping.
The room was empty of humans and Batman quickly opened the cage door, managing to maneuver Clark out without letting the others go free. Someone would be here to take care of them soon.
The beagle seemed to be unharmed, although it was difficult to tell with the way he squirmed and yipped, licking his jaw in excitement. Batman patted the dog, relieved that the proprietors of this dubious establishment hadn't had time to harm him. Tucking Clark under one arm, Batman called Oracle to have her alert the police.
"A what?" she asked.
"Illegal animal experiments. If what they were doing here was approved by any government agency, then I'm the Riddler."
"What were you-"
"Just call the GCPD while I check the rest of the building."
He clicked off his comm and held Clark in front of him. "Work now," he said in his sternest voice.
Brown eyes wide, Clark yipped one more time and settled down, happy to have found his master, even if they were working. Batman set him on the floor and stalked off to finish his sweep, Clark now sedately tapping his way behind him.
Out of the labs now and into the administrative sections, Batman went looking for someone in authority. It was a long shot at this time of the evening, but worth a try nonetheless.
For once, luck was with him. As he stalked down the corridor, he found a door conveniently marked "President" which showed light coming through the cracks. He felt an evil grin cross his face as he smashed through the door. The man sitting behind the computer had just enough time to look terrified before he was hauled out of his fancy leather chair and slammed against the wall.
"What do you-"
"Shut up, scum," Batman growled.
The man's jaw clicked shut.
"You. Stole. My. Dog."
His jaw dropped and his eyes widened even further. "Your dog?"
"You might have gotten away with this illegal and immoral activity if not for that. I might never have found you and shut you down." Batman ground the terrified man against the wall a little harder. "But you stole my dog."
Outside, sirens approached and Batman smiled even more grimly. "You're lucky I'm turning you over to the police."
Half an hour later, Batman stood outside, half-hidden behind a nearby oak, supervising the dismantling of the very unsavory facility. The police were-as was their practice-pretending he wasn't there unless they actually needed him. Clark watched with great interest, barking occasionally as another dog was carried by him, and growling furiously at a cage of cats.
A grubby hand tugged on his cape and Batman looked down at a young girl, her eyes red and face streaked with tears. "Excuse me, Mr. Batman?"
"Yes?" He looked for an adult who might be responsible for this child, but nobody seemed to have even noticed her.
"Did you see my dog? She's been gone for a week and I want her back."
He knelt in front of her, Clark scrabbling at his suit. "What's your name?" he asked, delaying what he suspected was inevitable.
"I'm Gail Neuhar," she said. "Can you help me find my dog?"
"Gail, how did you get here?"
"I rode my bike. My mom and dad were watching the news and they said that people's stolen dogs were here, so I decided to come and look for Amber."
"What does Amber look like?"
"She's big and orange with lots of soft fur. She's a golden retriever. She's only got one ear, so everybody recognizes her."
Perfect recall was not always a blessing in his line of work, Bruce thought, his mind immediately bringing him the sight of three golden retrievers, limbs torn, bodies contorted. In the middle, eyes open and staring, was a smaller dog missing one ear. There had been very few dogs alive and none was a golden retriever.
Clark licked at his cheek, sensing the way he'd tensed up. Bruce looked the girl straight in her big brown eyes, innocent and trusting that the big superhero would make everything okay. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, "but I don't think she made it."
Huge tears welled in the girl's eyes and she scrubbed at them. "But I want Amber back. She's my best friend."
His heart sank as she started to sob, but he couldn't have told her anything but the truth, could he? Clark squirmed and Bruce automatically put him on the ground, trying to figure out how to extricate himself from this situation. Where was an annoyed cop when he needed one?
Clark, forgotten, trotted over to the girl and nudged at her knees. Lifting her head, she looked at him, still sniffling. Clark yipped and rubbed against her legs, so she sat down on the ground, letting him climb into her lap.
The girl threw her arms around Clark and buried her face in his back, as he licked her and whined with concern. Bruce blinked at the sight.
"Batman?" Ah, there was the annoyed cop.
Bruce glanced behind, then looked at his dog snuggling up against the girl. "Gail, this dog is named Clark. I think he's frightened from having spent the night here. Will you take care of him while I talk to the police?"
Gail looked up and nodded solemnly, her tears slowing now that she'd been given an important task.
"Thank you." Bruce stood. When Clark's head came up, Bruce spoke. "Clark, stay."
Clark whimpered once, but obeyed his master and went back to snuggling up against Gail.
Bruce strode off to deal with the confused police presence. Fortunately, they were used to his report style-short and to the point as he described what he'd seen and done to shut down this operation.
Several times someone tried to elicit an explanation of what had brought him to this unlikely crime site, but he ignored that for the irrelevancy it was. Out of the corner of his eye, Bruce watched Clark licking the tears off Gail's face and making her giggle, wagging his tail and wriggling against her.
The news cameras were trickling back and it was time for Batman to make a discreet exit. Of course, he'd never had to retrieve a dog before making that exit before.
Gail and Clark were romping around, squealing and yipping. Bruce was frozen for a moment, but he wasn't given to indecision, so in seconds he stood before them. Clark galloped up to run around his legs.
"Is Clark your dog, Mr. Batman?"
"Yes, he is." Bruce watched Clark run back to nose at Gail's hand until she automatically petted him. "But it's very difficult for me to take care of a dog."
She nodded. "You've got to spend your time catching bad guys."
"Exactly. Would you...like Clark to be your dog now?"
Gail's eyes widened and she looked down at Clark. "You'd give me your dog?"
"If Clark is willing to stay with you. I think he'd like someone who has time to take care of him."
Clark was leaning against her leg, nearly ecstatic as she petted him. She looked down. "I'd like him to be my dog. I can tell him all about Amber."
Bruce knelt and held out a hand to Clark, watching the minute pause before the dog left Gail's side to run up and try to lick his face. It was an automatic motion to push his jaw away and Bruce ran a gauntleted hand over Clark's head, looking seriously at him.
Bodily picking the puppy up, he turned him around to face Gail. Clark looked up at him in confusion. "Protect," Bruce said in the tone Clark knew meant business. Cocking his head, tail still, Clark radiated continuing confusion. Bruce pointed at the girl. "Protect and obey."
Clark yipped once and bounded over to circle around Gail, watching Bruce to make sure he was doing the right thing. Bruce nodded and Clark galloped back once to get his head scratched before returning to Gail's side.
Her eyes were shining. "Won't you miss him? I'm always gonna miss Amber."
"Yes, I will miss him." To his shock, he found he was telling the truth. "But he will be happier and safer with you." And that was also true.
"I'll take good care of him, I promise."
"I know you will." He paused. "Uh, don't be surprised if Batgirl drops by to see him."
She blinked, then nodded. "Okay. Thank you, Mr. Batman."
Tim, Cass, and Alfred were waiting in the Cave when he returned, anxiously pacing the floor. None of them was willing to interrogate the grim-faced Bruce, but Barbara had no such inhibitions, her face popping up on the main screen the minute he stepped out of the car.
"Well," she demanded, "what happened? Where's Clark? Did they-"
"Clark was unharmed," Bruce said.
Cass' alert posture relaxed, Tim sagged against the nearest console, and even Alfred was heard to utter a sigh of relief.
"Great!" Barbara said. "I'll let Dick know. He's been calling every ten minutes."
Tim looked around. "Where's Clark? Didn't you bring him back?"
Bruce paused, aware of four sets of eyes on him. "I...found someone who needed him more than we did."
Final author's note: I am not against all animal experiments, if you were wondering. But there are laws that regulate what kinds of tests can be conducted, and how animals must be treated.