Title: Home for the Holidays

Author: DC Luder

Summary: Bruce is out of contact on Christmas Eve and Dick fears the worst.

Rating: T

Infringements: All recognizable characters belong to DC Comics, not DC Luder.

Author's Note: I know it starts out on the serious side, but I promise it's not what you think.

^V^

"At Christmas, all roads lead home."

Marjorie Holmes

^V^

The Batmobile roaring into the Cave was music to my ears.

Three days earlier on the twenty-second of December, industrialist Mark Campbell had gone to pick his twin thirteen year old daughters up from their boarding school in upstate New York. It was the start of their three week winter vacation and he intended on them spending it at home in Gotham. When he had arrived at the school, he had been horrified to learn that they had already been signed out by his assistant, Derek. Before Campbell had been able to explain that he had no assistant by that name, his cell phone had started ringing, the caller ID listed as "Derek".

A man had been on the other end, telling Campbell to remain calm and collected and not to alarm the staff members of the school that anything was amiss. He assured Campbell that his daughters, Emily and Renee, were both fine and even allowed them to briefly speak with their father. The man had then informed him that he was holding them each for ten million dollars in ransom and that Campbell had until Christmas morning to deposit the funds into his offshore accounts.

Without giving specific instructions as to where the money was going exactly, the man had explained that he had kidnapped dozens of other children and had returned them all to their homes without so much as a scratch on them. However, if Campbell brought the police or federal agencies into play, the kidnapper assured him that he would not hesitate killing the girls and dumping their bodies.

The man had not specified about the involvement of another brand of law enforcement…

On the twenty third, Campbell had met with Commissioner Jim Gordon, asking to have a meeting set up with the Batman. Given that Campbell refused to give a reason why, Gordon had tried to brush the man off, claiming that Batman wasn't for hire and certainly didn't have time for autographs for Christmas gifts. It was then that the billionaire broke into tears, begging for help to save his daughters. Having once had a little girl to worry about himself, Gordon had quickly presented the case to Batman, who naturally accepted.

With the clock ticking, Bruce and Barbara had pushed everything aside in order to not only deduce the location of the girls but also to reveal the identity of the kidnapper. Barbara had worked her magic, tracing the sporadic and brief calls made by "Derek" to Campbell, narrowing down the search to northwest New England. Bruce had driven up immediately, stopping only to investigate the grounds of the school and to question the staff on duty the day the girls had been kidnapped. Where police officers would have raised suspicion, Batman had been scary enough to encourage witnesses to keep quiet.

As the stroke of midnight brought about the official start of Christmas Eve, I had given Barbara a call in order to see what her plans were for the holiday, completely unaware as to what was going on. With Cassandra and Tim covering the city in Bruce's absence, Barbara had given me a few minutes of her time, although I had no doubt she was multitasking to the tenth degree.

"Well, I can come to the city tonight if they need me," I had offered after she had explained the last few days.

"No, things have been pretty manageable…"

Although pointless, I had then asked, "What about Bruce? I could steal the Wing, fly up and meet him there."

"At your own risk, he's pretty grumpy seeing how this is day four without sleep. And the New England weather certainly isn't helping."

As I had been freezing on a Bludhaven rooftop, I had quipped, "Wouldn't be Christmas up there if there wasn't a nor'easter."

There had been a pause before I heard her growl, "I've got you now…"

"Babs?"

"He called the Campbells with specific instructions this afternoon, so I've been trying to make sense of all of the pseudonyms on the accounts to try and link it back to an actual person."

"And?"

"Ten accounts, all different names. I've plugged them into a number of encryption programs but I forgot about the simplest route… The first letter of all of the first names and the last names doesn't spell anything… not the second, or third… The last works, if only it matches with VICAP… Sorry, Dick, I have to go."

Another thirty minutes passed before she had called back, conveniently after I had interrupted some less than jolly burglars, "Sorry. Had to relay to the big guy. It was Jason Wells… Pittsfield, Massachusetts… numerous arrests but no convictions, his rap sheet screams con man. He has a ton of housing developments, most of which are too pricy for the area. He doesn't come from money, doesn't have any actual investors, all of them link back to his Swiss accounts… and yet he's spending millions and gets as much as he wants from the banks… I flagged him for the IRS to torture after Bruce is done with him."

"He found him?"

"Not yet, he's searching the empty buildings right now, said he saw some lights in the basement of one."

My foolish response had been, "Well, as long as he is home by tomorrow…"

Barbara had laughed, "Why, don't want to wait to open your Christmas gifts?"

"Maybe… Maybe I want to make sure those little girls get to open theirs first… or preferably we would open them at the same time."

Although I enjoyed the company, I had kept it brief, assuring her I would be by to pick her and Cassandra up by eight the next morning before trekking to Bristol. I had asked if her father had decided what he was going to do and she had replied that he was coming whether he wanted to or not. Seeing how Jack and Dana were on a three-week cruise, Tim would be joining us for the festivities as well.

The Family all coming together.

I had wrapped up patrols by three, tempted to call Barbara once more to see how things were progressing in Massachusetts. Then, I had reasoned that if she had something to tell me that she would have. After showering, I had decided it was pointless to sleep at my place considering I would have to wake an hour and a half early to make the commute to Gotham. In my neglected carry-on suitcase, I packed a change of clothes, something nice to wear for dinner and my Nightwing suit. At the very least, I could con Alfred into sewing up the small hole that was on the left knee.

In a partial daze, I had made the hour long drive amidst other late night drivers frantically trying to reach their holiday destination by the morning. Bypassing the city, I had been unable to resist a long stare out the window as it still shone brightly in the pre-dawn darkness. Gotham was so pretty from a distance, but once you were inside of the city limits, you were able to see it for what it really was.

As stealthily as possible, I had traveled up the long drive to Wayne Manor, parking behind the garage. Grabbing my bag, I had opened and closed the car door softly, doing the same for the service entrance. Unexpected and at such a late hour, Alfred would have likely greeted me with his Winchester instead of a "Merry Christmas, Master Dick." I had kicked my shoes off and left them at the door before tiptoeing across the tiled floor. Making my way onto the cushioned carpet of the hallway, I had smirked thinking that I was in the clear.

Naturally, that had been when my cell phone rang, boisterously playing a South Park rendition of Carol of the Bells. I had answered on the third ring after fighting to retrieve it from my leather jacket. Without looking at the Caller ID, I growled quietly, "What?"

"Why aren't you answering your comm. link?" Barbara had demanded.

"Because I tucked my city in for the night so I could sneak into Wayne Manor… of which you just blew my cover… What's up?"

"Well, good news and bad news."

"I absolutely hate when you say that," I had replied, trying to stomach the urge to ask for the bad news first. Giving up on silence, I had proceeded to the study with my bag, thinking I could have at least attempt to hide from Alfred and his arsenal.

"Good news, girls are at the Pittsfield police station with hot cocoa and new toys waiting for their parents to pick them up."

"Are they okay?" I had been quick to ask, practically collapsing on the over stuffed leather couch cater-corner to Bruce's massive oak desk.

"In shock, although that's to be expected. Police responded to an anonymous tip and found the girls standing outside of one of the housing buildings, wrapped in what they described as a leather cloak."

"Bruce's cape," I had said for no reason.

"Right. One officer stayed with the girls while another three went inside the building. Lights were on in the basement but they didn't find anything except for a small manager's apartment that was barely furnished and a cell phone that matches the SIM number that's been calling the Campbells."

Subconsciously, I had found myself rising from the couch and approaching the grandfather clock, "So where's Wells?"

She had paused before answering, "He was found roughly a mile from that building, in the woods. Tied up and hanging upside down from a birch tree. They are still trying to get a vehicle out there to cut him down. Paramedics on the scene says he has numerous broken bones to the arms, chest and face. He's coherent but he's not saying anything aside from that he wants his lawyer."

As I had started taking the granite steps two at a time, "Well… Where's Bruce then?"

"That's the bad news. The Mobile is on its way home on auto-pilot… the computer registers that he is in the driver's seat and buckled in but he's not responding to any transmissions. I can't even get the visual to work, something is blocking the camera on the dash."

I had known it was a false hope, but I had replied, "Maybe he's finally getting some sleep."

"The sensors on the harness have his vitals all over the place, he's not sleeping, Dick... something is wrong."

Finally reaching the computer bay, I had instantly taken a seat, "What's his ETA?"

The second I had logged on, the monitor had come to life with Barbara's worried face as her equally concerned tone registered on the speakers, "Just merged onto 287-South… at least another hour. I could send Cass out to try and intercept it but with the auto-pilot on lockdown, it doesn't matter who she is, if she touches so much as a windshield wiper, it will fry her."

"Damnit, Bruce," I had growled.

Barbara had brought up a window depicting an overhead view of the route the Mobile was set to, showing its progress as it neared Gotham. Even traveling at license revoking speeds, any state trooper foolish enough to attempt to pull him over would literally be dust in the wind. I had her bring up the feed from the dashboard of the Mobile, also noting the obstruction.

After a moment of studying it, I had said, "I think… that's the brow of his cowl."

She had been quick to counter, "Yeah, question is whether or not he's wearing it."

Another forty-eight minutes passed before the Mobile raced into the Cave. In the time we had waited, we had diligently tried to get a response from the sole passenger of the car but to no avail. Alfred had finally made an appearance, dressed for the day in dark slacks and a hunter green sweater over a white shirt. When I had appraised him of the situation, he hadn't seemed the least bit concerned. I had attested it to years of having Bruce return home half dead and the incalculable price he had paid for his war on crime.

The moment I heard the roar of an engine, I leapt to my feet, frantically running down the single flight of steel steps to the lower tier. Still on auto-pilot, the Mobile slowly turned around before parking itself dead center on the level formally known as the garage. I had once called it Malone's Body and Auto Parts, earning a vicious bat-glare from my mentor.

One I would do anything to see again...

As the locks disengaged and the door retracted, I prepared myself for the worst. It had been a mere con man, preying on helpless children. Then again, it was those we often thought were the least harmful that caused the most damage. All it took was one lucky shot to catch a crease in the body armor or a mishap with a grapple gun that led to a long fall to the frozen ground below. Pushing himself too hard for too long, opening the margin of error wide enough to-.

"Atchoo!"

From the computer bay, I heard Alfred offer loudly, "God bless you, Master Bruce."

It wasn't a lucky shot.

It wasn't a bad fall.

It was that he had opened the margin of error wide enough to succumb to the dreadful wintry weather of northwest Massachusetts.

Bruce looked up at me, his face red with fever, his nose raw from being wiped and his eyelids heavy with fatigue. There were a score of used gauze on the passenger side's seat and floor, not to mention empty packets of vitamin concentrates. Looking more closely, I spotted an acetaminophen bottle and cough drop wrappers. He had removed his boots, protective leg wear and the gloves and body armor off his chest, along with the cowl. Clad only in the insulated leggings and tunic, stained with sweat, Bruce looked like he was wearing grey, fitted, pajamas.

All that was missing was a cotton robe and fuzzy slippers.

I found myself laughing, not only at his current state of disarray, but out of pure relief.

After a weekend of braving sub-zero wind chills and endless snowfalls, Bruce had succumbed not to the criminal he had been pursuing, but to the common cold.

In a ragged voice he had growled, "Stop laughing or I'll sneeze on you."

Reducing it to a chortle, I said, "Bruce… do you have any idea what we were thinking?"

Coughing, Bruce rose from the driver's seat, "You weren't thinking, you were -hack- assuming."

"Your vitals were a wreck, you were unresponsive, hell, we couldn't even get a visual-," I shot back.

"I told Alfred, you could have ah-coff-coff…. asked him."

I glanced up to see Alfred had joined us on the garage floor with a flannel blanket. As he wrapped it around his charge's shoulders, he said, "Come Master Bruce. A warm bath and a hot bowl of soup await you."

Following them up the steps to the main tier, I continued, "Wait a minute… you called Alfred and not me? Not Barbara?"

Bruce sneezed twice viciously before responding, "Figured you'd be sleeping."

"Seriously? That's your excuse?"

Bruce paused when I reached them on the next level. He looked absolutely miserable, but I wasn't about to let him off the hook. Before I could say another word, he rasped, "Reasoning, not an excuse. Besides, it takes all of your focus to fall ah… ah… atchoo… asleep on Christmas Eve, why would I make it any more difficult for you?"

After a beat I said, "And you told Alfred not to tell us."

"On the contrary, Master Dick," Alfred stepped in to defend Bruce, "I was instructed to relay the message if you inquired about it."

"Like I was going to wake you up in the middle of the night?"

He offered me a curt look before saying, "I believe your less than stealthy entrance earlier this morning did the job for you, sir."

Barbara interrupted our debate, "Hate to break up the family feud, but I thought I'd let you know that the Campbells just arrived at the police station."

Realizing our squabble was pointless compared to the more important matters, I noted, "That's good to hear."

Alfred then added, "A family should be together, and at home, for the holidays… Now Master Bruce, upstairs with you, sir."

Before following orders, Bruce looked to me, "I didn't mean to make you worry."

"Well, too bad, because you did… you know what that means?"

Despite the plague riddling his body, Bruce managed to smirk, "What?"

"You don't get any candy from your stocking in the morning."

"Because I'm sick?" he responded.

"That… and because you put yourself on the naughty list."

"What? You're on the good list?" I heard Barbara chuckle.

Bruce opened his mouth to speak but Alfred cleared his throat from the stairway leading to the manor.

When he was safely out of striking range, I called out, "Cough drops and Chloraseptic for you, Bruce! Godiva and Andes mints for me!"

^V^