Standard disclaimers apply. I don't own the characters. DC owns them, I just like to play with them, and return them worse for the wear when I'm done. Please don't sue me.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

By Tammy (batty.beyond@verizon.net)

**

Standing at the dark wood door to Wayne Manor, Dick Grayson ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know about this, Babs. He was too damned cheerful on the phone. Like. 'aliens have been playing with my mind' cheerful.

From her wheel chair at his side, Barbara Gordon smacked him. "He's trying really hard, RICHARD. Now just cut Bruce some slack."

"Ok, aliens are playing with YOUR mind too. You're defending him."

The door opened and Alfred greeted them, an amused expression barely kept hidden on his normally stoic features. "Merry Christmas," he offered, showing them in.

'Well,' Dick thought to himself, 'THAT is the way it should be.' Since the age of eight, Alfred had been a constant in his life. He had ups and downs with Bruce, but Alfred was always the same.

Dick did the gentlemanly thing and let Barbara enter before him, then waited until Alfred closed the door. He really wanted to give the old man a hug and warmly wish him a happy holiday, but he knew Alfred would frown upon him doing it in 'public.' Making a resolution, Dick decided this would be the year that he tied Alfred to a chair and made him eat dinner with the family.

"So, where's Grim and Grumpy?" Dick asked.

Barbara hit him again.

"He is in the study, with Master Timothy."

He felt his stomach drop down to his knees. The last time Tim and Bruce had tried to have a conversation; Tim had stormed out in a display strangely mimicking his own adolescence with Bruce. It had been MONTHS since Bruce had told Spoiler Tim's identity and broken the boy's trust.

He tried not to be rude about it, but Dick dashed off to the study as soon as was socially acceptable. He stood outside, listening for signs of struggle. There wasn't anything, just the twittering of the TV set, and low voices. Quietly, so as not to make his presence known, Dick pressed his ear against the thick door and concentrated hard.

The first thing that he heard clearly was the television. "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" a chorus of children cried. Ok, that was weird. Tim wasn't usually about the cartoons. Maybe the kid was reverting or something.

"What I mean to say." came Bruce's voice. "Is. that I'm sorry." Freaky-ass shit, Dick thought to himself. "And I do cherish you as a partner, and as a friend."

Quickly, Dick backed away from the door, leaned against the wall and pressed both hands over his mouth, trying not to laugh. That was NOT Bruce. It COULDN'T have been, right? That was like. messed up. Seriously.

"WHAT are you doing, Former Boy Wonder?" Barbara asked, rolling up beside him.

"Listen," he whispered, his red cheeks stained with tears of barely controlled laughter.

Annoyed, Barbara came closer to the door and listened. "I don't hear anything, you idiot." She backed up from the door. "Dick, you've had a bad attitude since Bruce called. Just drop it. We're going to have a good Christmas, if it KILLS us." Just to emphasize her point, she smacked him once again.

"That's 'cause Bruce doesn't call. Alfred calls."

"And all this time we thought it was BRUCE who had a hard time dealing with change."

The door to the study opened, and Dick quickly wiped the tears from his eyes. "Barbara! Dick!" Bruce spread his arms and there was some strange light in his eyes. "Alfred didn't say you'd arrived!"

"I sorta. snuck off before he could," Dick said sheepishly.

"Well, I'm glad to see you!" Spontaniously, he grabbed both of Dick's arms and gave him a friendly shake.

Dick risked a glance at Barb to see if she thought this was insanely weird, but she just had this hopeful grin on her face. Seeing that he wasn't going to get any help from the peanut gallery, he just grinned back at Bruce. "Glad to see you too."

"Barbara," Bruce said, letting go of Dick and embracing her. "You're looking well." He looked down at her mischievously. "I heard a rumor your father will be here shortly."

Barbara actually played into his madness-she slapped his arm. "You invited him, of course he'll be here. He already told me you called." She smiled warmly. or perhaps it was indulgently at her boss.

Dick looked both ways carefully and started edging his way to the door Bruce had just exited.

"And where do you think you're going, young man?" Bruce asked good- naturedly, not even turning around.

"Uhh. gonna say hi to Tim. Totally innocent." Well, it wasn't totally innocent, but he didn't want anyone to know that. "Be right back." Before anyone could protest, he slid into the library and closed the door. Leaning against it, Dick sighed with relief. "Tim. tell me what's going on," Dick asked desperately.

"Dunno," Tim said blankly. Dick noticed the boy was white. "He just got all. apologizing." Tim shivered.

"Ok, something is up. We need a plan."

Tim nodded. "Totally. A plan."

Dick grabbed his brother's shoulders in a less than friendly duplication of Bruce's earlier gesture. "Come on, Tim. Don't get all freaked out on me. I need you."

The boy seemed to come out of his haze a bit.

"Now listen. Whatever's going on, Babs is in on it. We have to accept all possibilities. Mind control, head injury. pay back for filling the Car with jello last April Fools."

"Dude, he wouldn't do this to get back would he?"

"We gotta be prepared for anything, bro."

"We should talk to Alfred. Alfred knows what's up. Or he should. I hope he does."

Dick smiled at his brother. "Tim, you're rambling."

Tim just nodded.

"But that is a good idea. We'll talk to Alfred." He squeezed the boy's shoulder. "It'll be OK. We'll figure out what's up."

"OK."

The door opened. "What're you boys doing in here?" Bruce asked.

Both of them froze. "Uhh. guy stuff. You know."

Bruce wrapped his arms around both of them and squeezed. "Well, don't hide from us! Barbara's father's here, and we're going to decorate the tree!"

So much for asking Alfred anything. Bruce had abducted them and directed them towards the tree, and wasn't letting them escape. Barbara was unloading and unwrapping ornaments from various boxes, Jim Gordon was making fidgety gestures as he equally distributed them among the boys, and Bruce generally made a merry nuisance of himself about even spacing, the joy of the season, how nice it would be if it snowed, and how great it was to have everyone together for Christmas Eve. Dick was sure he was going to vomit at any moment.

Dick leaned in to his little brother. "Hey, why don't you help me with these beads. On the other side of the tree."

The two made their way to the point furthest away from Bruce on the circumference of the tree. "We have to get out of here," Dick whispered.

"I know. I'll hit the Cave. You hit Alfred." Tim thought it seemed like a reasonable plan. He removed an ornament and replaced it, just to have something to do.

"What're you two talking about back there," Bruce asked cheerfully.

"About how we've entered the Twilight Zone," Dick muttered.

"You too?" Gordon had joined them. How many people could hide around the back side of a tree?

Like licks to get to the end of a tootsie pop, just three, because Barbara was soon beside them. "No hiding! Bruce! I think these guys still aren't in the Christmas cheer!"

Dick shuddered.

"Of course we are, honey," Jim said. "There's just this one. ornery branch back here."

"And it takes three of you to straighten it out?" she asked with humor.

"It's REALLY ornery," Tim affirmed.

Barbara stared over the rim of her glasses at the three men. "You get out from behind this tree," she whispered sternly, "and you show some spirit. I will NOT have you messing this up for Bruce. ANY of you," she threatened. "You get out there, and you show that man some togetherness and love, do you hear me?"

The three looked at each other, then slowly came out of hiding. "All fixed!" Jim confirmed with a smile plastered across his face.

Tim and Dick just stared at each other. Something truly evil was transpiring.

* * *

It was an hour before the tree was decorated to Bruce's satisfaction. There was enough decoration on that beast of a pine to decorate four trees, and Bruce probably wouldn't have stopped unless Tim had pointed out that the branches were starting to sag, they were bearing so much holiday cheer.

"We can have hot chocolate!" Bruce declared, rubbing his hands together. "Or apple cider. What do you think, Dick?"

"I think that I am seriously freaked out," Dick said calmly.

"Dick would like apple cider," Barbara said with a glare directed towards her Former Boy Wonder."

"Nothing at all to be worried over," Bruce said, his voice losing some of it's former zeal.

"Bruce. uh. this is kind of. out of character for you."

Suddenly Bruce's brow furrowed in an expression that Dick was more familiar with. Yes, Bruce was in there somewhere. But just as suddenly as it came, it passed. "Well, I'm doing things a little differently this year."

Barbara's big wheel on her chair rolled over Dick's foot. "Richard John Grayson," she whispered. "I swear to God, I'm going to kill you."

Dick made a face at her. "Barbara, I don't care," he whispered. "You tell me what's going on right now."

"You're a brute, an ingrate and a trouble maker. That's what's going on right now."

Dick rolled his eyes. "Hey, uh. isn't it about time we go bug Alfred or something?"

"I'll go bug Alfred!" Tim sped off before anyone could stop him. Damn. That little creep had escaped, Dick thought to himself. And he was stuck here with Bizzaro Bruce.

"Well, there's a boy who wants to lick a bowl," Jim said, trying to diffuse some of the tension. It was as thick and slimy and tasteless as vegetable shortening, and he personally couldn't take much more of it. "So. Barbara. Why don't you tell Bruce about what you got in the mail today from you friend? What's her name? Dinah?"

Barbara scowled at her father, then an instant later, turned and grinned at Bruce. "A hand -stitched stocking-pre stuffed! It's the most adorable thing. Its green velvet on the back, and the front is cross-stitched with a picture of three little kittens, sleeping in Santa's hat. Isn't that cute?"

"It sounds wonderful! You'll have to show me sometime."

Dick bit his tongue so hard he was sure he was going to bite it off. What had Bruce said at Christmas when Dick had turned nine? 'We don't NEED stockings. Dick, I don't even know what stockings are for. They're ugly, they're tacky, and they're not going on my fire place.' That had been what Bruce had said. Dick remembered word-for-word, because it had been burned into his mind. Why the sudden change into Enlightened Scrooge?

"Been visited by any ghosts, lately, Bruce?"

Bruce looked confused. "Um. no. But there were some carolers here last night. You missed it!"

"How's about Sugar Plum Faeries or any children claiming to be Cindy Lou Who?"

Bruce let out a sincere, hearty belly laugh. It was some strange sound to be coming out of old Dark and Scary's mouth.

Tim came running back into the room, then stopped just beyond the sofa Dick and Gordon were sitting on, and slid the rest of the way to them. "Alfred said we can come and eat."

Bruce beamed from ear to ear. "Well, folks, this is it!"

"Yup," Dick whispered to himself. "The part where we find out ol' Jervis has been screwing with our minds."

"What was that?" Gordon asked, rising from the sofa.

"Nuttin," Dick grumbled.

Dick stayed where he was at, watching Barbara wheel out of the room, followed by Bruce, telling her all about the Charlie Brown Christmas special he'd seen for the first time that night.

"Give me some good news," Dick whispered to Tim.

"Alfred won't say a word." He looked to Jim Gordon. "Sorry I don't have anything better to report. What do we do?"

"We need to get Barbara out of the room, then grill him," Dick answered without any thought. "Sorry, sir. I just mean."

"It's alright. Whatever's happening, she's in on it."

All three nodded, their pact sealed. They would get to the bottom of this.

Entering the dining hall, the three lingered in the door way, considering the problem. Whatever was happening, this wasn't Bruce at all. At least, not the way Bruce was supposed to act. He seemed.. Kind of happy, in a kid- like way. It almost didn't seem right to be as upset or worried as they were-and yet-they knew they had to be.

"Well?" Bruce asked, waiting for them to sit down. "You three have been. preoccupied all night."

Tim rubbed the back of his neck. "Uh yeah. Sorry. Obsessing over that tree branch. You know? Nature just don't make trees all even like the trees that come outta boxes."

The other two conspirators grinned nervously then sat down.

"That's the beauty and the challenge of a natural tree, guys!"

Dick was sure he wouldn't be able to eat. He was too nauseous. Looking to his right, he noticed an extra place setting. "Are we expecting someone?" Dick asked tentatively. He didn't realize it, but he was holding his breath.

"Not exactly," Bruce responded in something akin to a normal tone of voice, as opposed to the sugary sounds that had been issuing from his lips since the onset.

Dick wondered if it would be possible to get Bruce alone and give him the interrogation of his life. It seemed possible if they were waiting for someone to arrive. If only he could think up a good enough excuse to get rid of Babs.

After placing the remainders of the food on the table, Alfred paused and then sat down next to Dick. Obviously Dick had entered an alternate reality. He'd be thinking this was his dream world, but Babs was still being mean to him.

"What's up?" Dick asked desperately. "Alfie, tell me what's going on."

Alfred calmly looked to Bruce, as if asking permission to talk.

"Come on, guys," Dick begged. "What's going on. You gotta tell me what's up. Bruce, what's with the Stepford Wife act? Come on. Alfie, I've been trying to get you to sit down at the table for years, and then you just do it? This isn't funny any more, guys! I'm sorry about the Jello. I'm sorry I replaced your silver polish with toothpaste, Alfie. And Bruce, I'm really really really sorry I gave Roy and Wally your cell phone number. And your work number. And your e-mail address. Now come on. what's going on?"

Alfred gave what amounted to a smile. "Nothing so sinister as what you're thinking, young man."

Alfred had NO IDEA what Dick was thinking, he thought. Aliens, drugs, mind control, alternate reality. "This better be good," Dick informed him.

"Well, Master Bruce and I came to an. arrangement."

"He tricked me into it," Bruce affirmed cheerfully.

"I would join the family, as it were, at the table for Christmas dinner. Just this once, mind you, if Master Bruce were to a. small favor for me."

"Like get a full frontal lobotomy?" Dick asked.

Barbara's arm slammed into his chest. "Dick Grayson, I warned you."

"It's alright, Barbara," Bruce assured her gently.

"In exchange for my complicity in the Christmas seating arrangement, Master Bruce was to spend time with a therapist and take any drug he or she should prescribe."

Dick and Tim's eyes grew wide and their jaws fell to the table. Jim Gordon let out a choking cough, and Barbara just sat at the table, grinning.

"And you KNEW about this?" Dick asked her, when he could finally close his mouth. "And you didn't TELL anyone?"

"Well, I was asked not to."

Dick rolled his eyes. Like that stopped her any other time. "I can't believe you. You're taking Prozac? This. this is evil, and it's weird, and it's wrong, and I won't--" Barbara smacked him upside the head. "OUCH! Hey!" Yup. Definitely NOT Dick's dream world.

"Well, uh, I think it's nice," Jim said, confidence lacking in his voice. He picked up his water glass and attempted to clear away what was periodically making him cough violently.

Tim had gone a little white, almost resembling his former haunted look when Bruce had apologized. "Um. Well, I guess it's a good thing, right? You're happy, right?"

Bruce shrugged, a smile still lighting his lips. Yup, Dick thought. Bruce was definitely on a truck load of drugs.

Tim drummed his fingers against the table. "Well. uh. congratulations. I guess all the therapy's paying off."

THE END

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