©October 2000
Rating: ADULT-ORIENTED. Entire story is rated R
Warning: Consensual and nonconsensual sexual contact with a minor (under 18). Don't read this if you'll be upset by it.
Characters: Dick/Babs/Bat Family; a couple of original characters appear.
Thanks go out to Syl Francis who sort of beta read this and for reverently borrowed details from her universe of Batfamily fanfiction, and to the readers at Nightwing and Bludhaven YahooGroups for helping to shape story this chapter by chapter through their feedback.
Disclaimer: All characters owned by DC Comics. No profit is realized from creation of stories based on these characters.
Timeframe: Dick's sixteenth birthday
Summary: A serious young hero's coming of age
"Do you know what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wished for? He lived happily ever after." — Willy Wonka
Comments and feedback are welcome to [email protected]

Chapter One

Dick Grayson held his body suspended motionlessly above the floor of the Batcave. His taut muscles rippled their cut definition as he held an inverted position on the gymnastic rings, his legs perfectly perpendicular to his outstretched arms. His breathing was deep and slow and his eyes were closed. Dick had held the punishing posture for seventeen minutes, yet his body displayed no visible signs of strain, other than the occasional bead of perspiration that gathered and dripped to the Cave's floor. His concentration was close to unbreakable at this point. Although he held his physical body in tight control, his mind was relaxed and open. His thoughts flowed smoothly and lucidly in meditation, moving methodically through a predetermined mental obstacle course designed to enhance his awareness, observation, and retention.

Dick became vaguely aware of a beeping noise that intruded upon his trance-like state of mind. Instantaneously, he snapped his conscious mind to attention, took a deep, cleansing breath, then executed a double flip dismount from the rings, landing flawlessly. He strode to a computer console, whisking a hand towel off a chair as he passed it, and touched a button on the console.

"Yes, Alfred, I'm here." He announced to the intercom while wiping the towel over his flushed face and damp hair.

"Master Dick, you are bordering on late, young man. I have left your tuxedo and dress shoes 'downstairs' for you. Please shower and change, and return to the house via the garage access, rather than through the den. Guests are already here at the Manor, milling about. Master Bruce has inquired as to your whereabouts."

"He KNOWS my whereabouts, Alfred, because he *knows* everything -- like the fact that I *hate* these snooty events he's so fond of dragging me to. The people are so obnoxious and pretentious. If they're not out-and-out rude, they're condescending at the least. Or worse, they're...too attentive."

Dick blushed at this last revelation, recalling an embarrassing moment when one of Bruce's vapid model-girlfriends cornered the teenager while he worked on a term paper in the Wayne Manor library. In Bruce's momentary absence, the young woman had amused herself by interrupting and teasing the boy as he sat trying to study, actually daring to reach her hand over his shoulder, across his chest and down to cup between his legs. Dick had gasped, then immediately had slid out of his chair and underneath the big table, emerging red-faced and flustered on the opposite side of the table from his laughing violator. Thereafter, he worked on his homework in his room or in the Cave whenever Bruce had "company."

It hadn't been the first time, nor was it likely to be the last, that Richard John Grayson had attracted unsolicited attention from either Bruce Wayne's social contacts, *or* the Batman's professional ones. Dick had been an exceptionally beautiful child, and had grown to become a striking young man, with his raven-black hair, piercing blue eyes, and superb athletic physique. Both as Dick Grayson and as Robin — the Batman's junior partner — he had endured looks, leers, comments, solicitations, propositions, touches, and gropes.

Dick had fought his own battles when necessary, and had chosen to keep this information largely to himself, concerned that Alfred, Bruce — and the Batman — would go ballistic, and might actually take measures to prevent Robin from accompanying Batman on their nocturnal crusade. Dick did occasionally vent his feelings of anger, confusion, and frustration quietly to his close friend, Donna Troy — Wonder Girl of the Teen Titans, the assembly of teen heroes that Dick led.

"Besides, Alfred," Dick whined, " *know* how much I hate that stupid monkey-suit!"

"Nonetheless, Master Dick, your presence is required this evening. The mayor and his new wife have already arrived, as well as several other city and state officials. Master Bruce needs you to mingle and make a good impression. One's social position oft times dictates one's responsibilities. Hence, the necessity for charitable functions such as tonight's."

"Okay, okay, Alfred, I guess I can't squirm out of this," Dick sighed with condemned resignation, "but you'll have to tie the necktie. I'll give it one try, but will probably just end up wadding it up and shoving it into my pocket."

"As you wish, young sir. Front and center in the kitchen in ten minutes, or I shall be forced to send a search party to retrieve you." The intercom connection terminated, and Dick hastened to the showers.

Minutes later, the formally transformed teen emerged into the long garage. He glided soundlessly past the collection of classic and current-model luxury automobiles on his way to the door that lead to the access hallway to Wayne Manor's kitchen. Dick absentmindedly pursed his lips to whistle a tune when he stopped suddenly. He caught the sound of someone in the garage — footsteps and hushed voices.

Dick instinctively stepped back into the shadow of a large tool cabinet to unobtrusively observe those he considered to be intruders. The door from the back hallway that led into the garage was always kept locked whenever social functions were held at Wayne Manor. Someone had obviously ignored not only the locked door, but a velvet rope posted across the hallway entrance near the kitchen door, as well. With two less-than-subtle barriers breached, whoever had sought to gain access to the garage had accomplished their objective.

Dick had grown up in this house, educated to be made aware of the potential for conspiracy and violence directed at the wealthy and powerful CEO of the global corporation, Wayne Enterprises, and members of his family. Dick had also received his share of kidnap attempts or actual abductions, whether in his civilian identity or his crime-fighting guise, making the "Boy Hostage" the target of some irritating-but-good-natured ribbing by his fellow Teen Titans.

An occasion like tonight's — a well-publicized charity benefit sponsored by the Wayne Foundation, and attended by Gotham's moneyed elite and political crème — would be choice pickings for an opportunistic terrorist organization or a revenge-obsessed lunatic, despite Bruce Wayne's personally hand-picked cadre of security guards. "Robin" mentally ticked down a status list of known felons, incarcerated or committed. To his recollection, the "usual suspects" were all securely behind bars and under guard. So who were these intruders?

At that moment, the answer presented itself, to Dick Grayson's surprise and dawning horror.

Chapter Two

The man and woman who surreptitiously snuck into the Wayne Manor garage spoke low, laughing at times, or just kissed. Dick Grayson recognized the man as City Councilman Flynn, whom he'd met before. Dick did not recognize the woman, a tall blonde in a tight black dress. Flynn spoke into the woman's ear, and she looked at him and nodded in apparent agreement. Then they embraced. Caresses became more urgent, the talking stopped in lieu of more impassioned kissing. Councilman Flynn slid the woman's dress up and over her hips, revealing long, suntanned legs. Little sighs and gasps issued from the woman's lips, as the handsome politician lifted her up to a seated position on the hood of Bruce Wayne's Bentley. As he bent over her, she reclined, crossing her legs over his back.

Holding his breath in total disbelief, Dick was unable to move.

'Omigod, omigod...NOW what am I...if I were Kid Flash I'd super-speed myself into the house right now. If I were Speedy, I'd...I'd...' Dick's anxious discomfort took pause as he contemplated what his older, cheekier, and more daring fellow Titan might do in his situation. Still, Dick Grayson felt extremely uncomfortable, pinned where he stood, unable to advance or retreat without being noticed, without interrupting...

Councilman Flynn grunted audibly now as he hastened his clandestine coupling. The Blonde breathed more loudly now, her voice keening her pleasure. With a final rush and a low moan, the man completed his act, rested for a moment, kissing and murmuring to the woman, then stepped back to quickly put himself in order.

The hidden teen pushed himself flat against the wall in the shadows, praying he would not be discovered. He fought for control over his rapidly beating heart and accelerated respiration. Dick knew he *had* to be radiating light because his face felt so hot. He felt both uncomfortable and fascinated at the same time, at having witnessed the quick and secretive union. Dick's own sexual experience, at the age of barely sixteen, was limited to some experimental kisses with girl "friends," or solitary self-pleasure.

He watched as Councilman Flynn left the garage first. Obviously, the two had agreed to return to the party separately. Dick waited a few moments — until he thought he'd heard the door close a second time — and he stepped out of his hiding place to make his way back into the house, where Alfred was probably ready to kill him for being so late.

As Dick approached the Bentley, he made a concerted effort to deflect his thoughts from what he had just seen. Then the woman called out to him from the opposite end of the car.

"Did you enjoy that, Sweetie?" she asked, lit a cigarette, and sauntered the length of the Bentley to stop between the young Titan and the doorway to his escape from embarrassment.

Dick blushed violently and looked at his feet. "Um, you shouldn't smoke in here...there's gasoline and could be a hazard..." He wanted to just push past this woman and bolt for the door. 'Feet, MOVE! Anytime would be nice, feet, just move-it!!' he ordered himself, striving to will his body from where he appeared to be rooted.

"Everything's a hazard, 'baby-boy', it just depends on the" she stroked a single finger across his blushing cheek, then drew it down his jawline, and down his throat, to the top button of his formal shirt. She dropped the cigarette on the floor, crushed it out with her shoe, and began to unbutton Dick's shirt as she moved closer, pushing him back against the bumper of the automobile she'd just had sex upon.

"You. Are just the cutest thing, and where did you get muscles like *these*, 'baby-boy'?" The Blonde raked the manicured nails of both hands down the teen's well-formed chest, stopping to take a tender nipple in each thumb-and-forefinger.

Dick gasped audibly. His mouth opened, desperate for the oxygen that his brain demanded, he'd held his breath so long. "...I...uh...really should go into now...uh, ma'am..." Dick stammered, flustered. To his mortification, he felt acutely aroused by her nearness, and her violating touches.

The woman moved her hand between the tormented teen's legs, grasping his youthful and urgent manhood. "Ahh, what is *this*? Ohhh, *you* must be the Billionaire's little Gypsy-boy I've heard so much gossip about. No *wonder* Brucie ditches out on all those dates, when he's got a tasty, tender little morsel like *you* at home. You like this, Precious? He let you out of your room to talk to girls once in a while?" She had both hands busy now — one stroked him from outside his trousers, and the other deftly unzipped them and slid inside.

"P-please don't do that...c'mon, Ma'am, please...n-no..." the junior half of the Dynamic Duo protested with a soft but sincere entreaty.

"Shhh, baby, you'll be all right, I'll make you feel realllleee gooood..." as her mouth closed over his words, hushing him.

The door to the garage SLAMMED with a loud report.

"Well, HERE you are, Dicky! ...Alfred's about to rupture an intestine because you haven't checked in yet, so he sent me to find you!"

Twenty-one year old Barbara Gordon walked assertively up to the boy and the Blonde, nudging the latter aside with an evil glare of accusation. Placing her arm protectively around Dick's neck and shoulders, she addressed the woman who had just been molesting her young friend.

"Say 'Happy Birthday' to my buddy here, lady. He's sixteen today! *Six*-teen. That's 'S' as in *statutory*, 'I' as in '*I* think *I* should tell my dad, the Police Commissioner...."

The Blonde's expression changed from shocked to haughty. "I was just looking for the restroom..." she huffed.

Releasing the teen, Barbara stepped toward the woman and stood hands-on-hips and nose-to-nose with her. "I've got a 'News Flash' for you, sister — you *won't* find it down the front of his pants." Barbara intoned with poisoned courtesy. "Dicky, zip-up, 'chum'," Barbara ordered her former charge.

Dick turned around and reassembled himself, grinning broadly in relief. He was one "Boy Hostage" who was happy to be rescued. When he turned back again, Barbara hooked her arm in his, and escorted him from the garage.

When they were safely on the other side of the door, Barbara risked a glance at her friend. 'Still beet-red.' She thought. One of them would have to say something. Alfred could divine trouble-he'd know immediately that something was up. Barbara laughed out loud, in spite of her better judgment, at her inadvertent double-entendre.

"I'd say THAT was a 'Hallmark Moment,' Boy Wonder! C'mon, before we reach the kitchen — what's the skinny with that witch?" She stopped the teen and backed him up to the corridor wall. She paused in her interrogation for a moment while a well-dressed, very large man wearing an earpiece and a lapel microphone walked by — Bruce's security.

"Excuse me, sir...officer...uh, dude. I think one of the guests took a wrong turn and accidentally ended up in the garage. She may have been looking for a place to have a smoke." Barbara was cool, cute, and helpful. It didn't hurt that she emphasized her earnestness with a 500-megawatt smile and a toss of her fiery tresses. The security guard gave a curt nod and proceeded swiftly toward the door to the garage.

"Babs, let's get out of this hallway, I'll tell you about it later. Hey, can you tie this noose for me? I don't think I want to stand real close to Alfred just yet." Dick blushed again at his innuendo, not really having meant for his words to sound like that.

Barbara smiled at his plight, and once again shepherded her lost lamb down the hall, stopping to poke her head through the kitchen door to report to the preoccupied Major Domo. "I found him, Alfred! He was lollygagging, just as you suspected. I'll make sure he's presentable before throwing him to the society wolves!"

"Oh, thank you, Miss Gordon. Richard, not too many sweets, and *please* refrain from spilling anything on your new tuxedo!"

Chapter Three

By the time the Boy Wonder and the Dynamo Dare-Doll entered the Wayne Manor ballroom, Dick's bow tie was perfect and crisp, and his coloring was almost back to normal.

"Something to drink, Babs?" He offered graciously, his smile fighting back from shy to outgoing.

"I'd love that, Munchkin." She teased, now that it felt safe to do so.

Dick winced at the nickname his one-time babysitter had bestowed upon him. "Munchkin...hmmmph!" he muttered under his breath, as he approached one of the bartenders working for Alfred's favorite caterer. "Two colas, please." The teen scanned the room as his drinks were prepared, idly cataloguing the guests. He spotted Bruce across the room, talking with Barbara's father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, and another man. Dick accepted the soft drinks, thanking the bartender. As he stepped away from the bar, he raised one glass briefly at Bruce, and smiled. Bruce acknowledged the gesture, but did not smile in return. Dick gulped air and return to his only oasis in this unbearable desert.

"Thanks, Munchk..."

"Babs-no 'Munchkin' stuff tonight, please. Just for tonight, okay? I don't really feel like it." His expression was vague, almost guarded. The mask was on. Batman had just tacitly reprimanded Robin.

'And he'll find out what happened, too,' Dick agonized, 'once he sees the video playback from the security camera in the garage. He'll probably let me know how disappointed he is that I didn't object more, or break up the "happy couple".' Dick's chest and expression tightened at the thought. It seemed to him that the older he became, the colder Bruce behaved toward his "youthful ward." Quick to criticize or correct, slow to praise or recognize achievement.

Today — tonight — had been no different. Today was the first day of Spring, and Dick's sixteenth birthday. He had yet to hear a word about it from either Bruce or Alfred. Barbara had been the only one to say anything about it tonight. Yesterday he'd received a funny birthday card from the Titans, and this afternoon while Dick had been working out in the Cave, he'd gotten a recorded video-message from Superman. Clark Kent said that his mother had sent word to Dick that there was an apple pie waiting for him in the Kent's kitchen whenever he could pay a visit to the farm, and Pa Kent had said to tell Dick that "Barnum" missed him.

Dick had laughed at that. Barnum was a Border Collie who lived at the Kent farm — a puppy from their best dog, Belle — that the Kents had given to Dick when he visited them three years ago during a summer vacation. Alfred had tried to accept the rambunctious pup, but when Barnum dug up some of Alfred's prized Queen Elizabeth roses, the young dog was returned to the Kent's farm. Clark's parents assured the disappointed youth that the pup would always be his, and would never leave the farm, except to rejoin "his boy."

"...was talking to you! Dick! Where are you, Krypton or something?" Barbara had finally succeeded in getting her friend's attention. "Let's go, Bruce is motioning us over. Jeez, Dicky, for a guy on his milestone birthday, you are one-glum-chum!" Barbara poked him in the back, urging him in the direction of his mentor, who was once again immersed in the vacuous playboy persona.

"Babs..." Dick looked back over his shoulder at his insistent shepherdess, "...ix-nay on the birthday stuff, okay? I'm serious, don't mention it if nobody else does."

"Darned right you're serious, Circus-Star. *Too* serious. After the obligatory parental obeisance, you and I are getting out of here — outside for some air. Your coloring still doesn't look quite right, although your 'other' symptoms seem to have subsided." Babs gave the stunned Boy Wonder a teasing sidelong glance as she passed him to greet her father and Bruce first.

"Hi, Dad, hi, Bruce..." she gave them each a proper peck on the cheek in greeting. "Found your lost child, Bruce, and I totally monopolized his time. *Mea culpa*, 'Money-bags'!" Barbara smiled her sweetest at Bruce. Bruce couldn't help but smile back. Genuinely.

"Good evening folks. Commissioner, it's nice to see you again, sir. Thanks for bringing my 'best girl' to the party." Dick approached the assembly and shook Gordon's hand. He then turned to Bruce, slightly more subdued. "Bruce..." Dick gave his guardian a quick nod.

"Nice of you to join us, son." Bruce Wayne smiled at Dick. Not really Bruce. Not really a smile, either. Batman was wearing the "Bruce" mask. Dick's throat tightened. He began to wish the night would just be over. Barbara gripped his arm, and he looked up from what appeared to be serious contemplation of the parquet pattern of the ballroom floor.

A woman joined their group, stopping to stand beside the other man, giving him a quick kiss before turning to her host. "Jennifer! You look fabulous, as usual. The Commissioner, 'Hizzoner' and I were beginning to wonder if Jim should put out an APB for you." Bruce Wayne greeted the woman with what Dick knew to be counterfeit enthusiasm. And Dick merely stared. He felt the blush creep into his face once more. Mrs. Hill, Gotham City's "First Lady," was the Blonde from the garage!

"Brucie, you home is *only* slightly larger than the Smithsonian, you know — it can take a girl practically a *week* to find the powder room."

Bruce laughed with ingenuous amusement discernable only by those who knew the man behind the mask. "Let's see, know Jim, here, and his daughter Barbara. So, allow me to introduce my ward, Richard Grayson... ...Dick, are you going to say 'hello'?" Bruce prompted his ward.

"...Uh, yessir, very nice...uh, to meet you both." Dick shook hands with the Mayor, then with his wife, who squeezed the teen's hand as she had squeezed another part of his anatomy earlier in the evening.

"Why, Bruce, he's just *darling* — don't you go keeping this charming young fellow to yourself. Maybe he'd like a summer job as a Mayoral page...honey, don't you think that would be a nice idea?"

"Oh, of course, great idea, dear. How about it, Bruce?" Mayor Hill would contort himself into a pretzel if it meant garnering the backing of Gotham's wealthiest citizen. Dick made a passable effort at masking his horror at the prospect. He simply smiled.

"Ha-ha, I guess he'll have to see. Never know, Ham, we might just go abroad this year. We'll re-address this when summer rolls around. Sound okay to you, chum?" Bruce put a hand on his ward's shoulder and felt the lad stiffen immediately, despite Dick's pleasant expression aimed at the Hills. His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly at the boy. He changed the subject quickly. "You folks should definitely mingle. Don't let *me* hog all your time! Looks like there's lots of 'flesh to press' here tonight."

Dick went red again his guardian's unknowing double-entendre, then blanched when he glanced over to see his mentor's sharp, appraising gaze aimed at him. Something was going to happen, and Dick wished that *something* would be the floor opening up and swallowing him whole.

After the Hills moved off to another part of the ballroom, Bruce offered, "Say, Jim, guard your beautiful daughter for a moment while Dick and I get some fresh drinks." He stepped away, giving Dick a quick look that the boy felt like a hard pinch on the cheek. 'Here it comes,' thought Dick, as he dutifully followed Bruce Wayne to the bar.

"Dick, are you alright, son? You don't look well."

The young man wondered, 'Did Bruce really care?' Parental concern hadn't exactly seemed characteristic of Bruce's for a long time, now.

"I'm fine, Bruce. You know me, I just can't stand these big, snooty bashes. They make me... uncomfortable."

Dick would be damned if he'd tell Bruce not only about Mrs. Hill's "antics," but also her cutting homosexual innuendos about the two of them. He really wouldn't be surprised, though, if Bruce knew about the gossip already, and *that* was one reason he'd become more distant as Dick matured.

Dick wasn't exactly going to self-destruct over Mrs. Hill's remarks about their 'orientation,' either. Dick had known scores of show-business folks his entire life, and some of them had been gay. None of them had ever touched him inappropriately, the way Mrs. Hill had. Dick had known one or two boys in school who were gay, but it had been his married-with-children seventh grade gym coach who had propositioned him after school one day. Dick had calmly reminded the man who his "father" was, and how many buildings — including the new gym where they stood — that Bruce Wayne had donated. Dick had suggested that the coach actively seek to relocate to another part of the country, as well as pursue another profession. Dick had never pulled social rank or used Bruce's position to benefit himself, but he drew that very association like a switchblade to get the coach to leave the school. Dick later followed up and found that the man had divorced and gone into the video rental business with his brother in Anchorage.

Bruce looked around the room as they carried the drinks back to the Gordons. The fundraising event was proceeding smoothly, and there had been no indication of any difficulties or disruptions. He looked back at Dick briefly. Maybe the boy didn't really need to spend that much time here tonight. He truly looked ill at ease to be here, despite Barbara's welcome presence. Handing the Gordons their drinks, he casually suggested, "Say, why don't you two 'kids' go grab a plate of something and head outside. It is rather stuffy in here."

For what seemed to be the umpteenth time that night, Dick Grayson was stunned. He'd anticipated a stern reprimand from the Batman for being late for crowd surveillance, but instead, Bruce appeared to be letting him off the hook. Barbara Gordon noticed her young friend's expression and didn't wait for anyone to answer.

"We're sprung, Dicky! Let's exit, stage-left, before these two dinosaurs have a chance to change their minds!" She gave her father another affectionate peck, winked at her amused host, and once again led her lamb away.

Jim Gordon laughed as the two men watched their "children" make their way to the ballroom's exit. "God, Wayne, they make me feel like a fossil. When did Dick get so tall, and when did my baby get so...?" He buried the rest of his lamentation in his cocktail glass. He shot a look at his friend, who seemed preoccupied with something. "What's up, Wayne? Another one of Dick's birthdays take the starch out of your shorts? Find a gray hair, or something? So what sort of little hot foreign car did you get the boy for his birthday? How many speeding tickets am I going to have to lecture him about?"

Bruce turned to the Police Commissioner, seemingly shocked by his remark. 'Birthday? Oh, no! Birthday! And the Big-One, too!' Bruce grimaced and held his fist to his forehead. "Christ, Jim, I'm an absolute jerk! You won't believe this, but I forgot today was Dick's sixteenth birthday. Apparently so did Alfred, or he would have reminded me. I guess we've been so busy preparing for this soiree that it just slipped by us."

Bruce figured that the boy's curiously subdued behavior was because of his disappointment at having a milestone birthday totally ignored by the two people closest to him. And Dick wasn't the kind of young man to complain about it.

"Wayne, you goofed up, my friend," Gordon chided. "Badly. I've known you to do some air-headed things in the past, but this? As a fellow father, one with a few more years of experience, let me warn you: you don't forget the sixteenth birthday. You just don't. Let my daughter have a chance to cheer the boy up, then you and the old Brit have some serious groveling to do!"

Masks dropped, Bruce Wayne gave his friend a miserably wan half-smile and sipped his cocktail.

On their way out the back door, Barbara appropriated a bottle of champagne and two champagne flutes, then skipped after her companion for the evening. She wrinkled her nose in a smarty-pants grin at Dick's surprised and disapproving expression at the alcohol.

"Will you lighten up, Teen Tight-ass? It's your birthday, *I'm* twenty-one and legal, *and* I'm still your babysitter. So instead of sneaking you bedtime Oreos, tonight, it's champagne!" Barbara twirled, laden arms extended, at her last remark.

Dick couldn't help but laugh at his twice-rescuer that night. Barbara handed him the two crystal glasses to carry, freeing one hand to take his in hers. The two friends walked, swinging their clasped hands like children, down the marble steps to the Manor gardens. The moon hung pale and full, like a honeydew melon in the sky, on that first night of Spring. The fragrance from the early blooming ornamental plants drifted in the light, cool breeze.

"Here, why don't you wear my jacket, Babs, it's a little chilly out here." Dick removed his tux jacket and draped it around Barbara's shoulders, looking up to catch a sort of a glint in her eyes. It wasn't anything he was used to seeing there, like humor or mischief, but he decided he liked it just the same.

Babs handed Dick the bottle and leaned over to give him a kiss on the forehead, and half-missed, half falling on his dark hair. "Thank you. You're very gallant, not to mention breathtakingly handsome in this tuxedo. You ought to wear tuxes more often. Although, there's a lot to be said for the short pants!"

*Now* that glint was one of mischievous mirth. Dick felt his face go warm again, and tried not to look as shy as he suddenly felt.

"Pop your cork, Dick." he almost heard, filtered through the moonlight and scented air.

"Eh?" he scrunched his nose in confusion. What had she said?

"The champagne. Open the bottle, Dicky." Babs smiled at her boy. God, he could be so *cute* when he was being 'boy-dense'. But then, he was an eyeful when he was in full, razor-sharp, warrior-mode, too. And when he flew, he moved like a dolphin cuts through water. Perfect.


"Oh!" Babs' exclamation escaped.

"Sorry, Babs. That *did* sound like a gunshot. Let's keep walking, in case someone comes out to check." The orchestra in the ballroom played loudly enough to mask the echoing sound of the opening bottle for most anyone, but Dick was sure *which* someone would hear and investigate, if anyone would. He didn't feel all that off the hook.

Barbara poured the sparkling wine as they continued on their walk across the Wayne Estate, in the direction of the boathouse. There was a small lake on the property. Years before, Babs had water-skied with Bruce and Dick on this lake, before she'd gone off to college. Before she'd left the Wayne men behind. "Do you ski here anymore, Dick?" Babs asked, sipping the bubbly wine.

"Nah. Not in a while — at least not for the past couple of summers. Can't ski alone, and Bruce was busy a lot. I got in my share with the Titans, though, I guess. We've had a couple of water parties — you know, Aqualad and all. But, Bruce just bought a new boat — it's kind of old, but he said it really moves. He said we'd take her out some time...." Dick's voice trailed from animated when he spoke about his group of heroic friends, to quiet when he mentioned Bruce. Feeling awkward, he took a drink of the champagne.

Babs saw — and felt — Dick's discomfort in speaking about his guardian. She'd sensed this tension between them for some time, on and off "the job," and here in their home. Fathers and sons. Teenagers and parents. It was bad enough suffering through normal growing pains with a normal parent, but when your "father" was the Batman, even a young man as nearly perfect as her friend was growing up to be, would find it difficult at best, to measure up to the Gotham Dark Knight's standards. Barbara had felt his sledgehammer judgment when she wedged her way into the Caped Crusaders' crime fighting boy's club. Batgirl wasn't the kind of person to stand down from any threat. But Batgirl didn't have to face that kind of judgment, day-in and day-out, in every aspect of her life.

Dick did.

And Barbara thought he was nothing short of amazing for it. Her boy wasn't a cookie-cutter cutout of the Bat, though. Where Bruce's fight for justice was driven by near-obsession, Dick's was driven by his heart: foremost by his love for, and devotion to Bruce, and then by his incredible compassion. It also didn't hurt that the boy was a total thrill-junkie, either. Babs smiled at this. Robin was well trained and absolutely intrepid. Years earlier, he had been beaten nearly to death by a revenge-minded, professional boxer — the brother of a man whom Robin had helped send to prison. But Dick came right back — Robin flew right back into the face of danger at Batman's side.

And now he flew beside Batgirl, as well. Babs smiled again, and took Dick's hand in hers as they approached the boathouse on the lake.

"You're smiling, Babs." Dick noticed with curiosity.

"Yeah, I was thinking that it won't be too long before I won't have to wear flats around you so you won't be self-conscious about my being taller than you," she grinned wickedly. They reached the boathouse, and sat down on the two-seater glider-rocker on the porch that faced the water.

"I'm not self-conscious." Dick contradicted.

"You *have* to be — in my Batgirl boots, I'm almost as tall as Batman." she teased.

"Get used to it, Babs, you'll probably *always* be taller than me," Dick was resigned. "My Dad wasn't a very tall guy, and my Mom was a peanut compared to him! But it didn't stop them from being the best at what they did." Dick smiled wistfully, gazing out over the moon-dappled water. He sighed quietly, and unconsciously tightened his hand in Barbara's.

With her free hand, Barbara reached into her little beaded purse and pulled out a small, festively wrapped box. She held it out for Dick to see. "Happy Birthday, Dicky." Her smile made his stomach do a fluttering triple-somersault. That surprised him. On second thought, it didn't.

"Babs — you didn't have to..." he started.

"Shut up, Dick, and just *open* it. Jeez!" Babs fussed.

He released her hand — wished he didn't have to — and accepted the gift box. He carefully unwrapped the ribbon and paper, folded it and slid it into his back pocket.

"Oh, for crying out loud, Dick, it's just paper!" She just wanted him to open the box!

"Scrapbook, Babs." Dick said quietly.

Dick Grayson kept a scrapbook that put the young librarian to shame. He removed the lid of the small box, nesting it under the base. He then lifted the downy blanket of cotton, revealing the sparkle of gold under the full Equinox moon. He inhaled audibly, and pulled out a gold chain — not too heavy, not delicate, either — with an orthodox cross pendant. The cross was almost exactly like the one that had belonged to his father's mother, that Dick used to wear constantly until he had accidentally broken the chain and lost it somewhere over the Gotham rooftops while on a case. He held it up so the cross was eye-level, and it twisted slightly on the chain.

"Oh. ... Oh. Babs. This... this is just like..."

"The one you lost. Yep. Am I a cracker-jack researcher, or what? It came from a jeweler in Sarajevo." Babs was triumphant.

"But it had to cost a lot, Babs — not just the money, but your time...." Dick looked from the cross to Barbara's beaming face. He caught, and then wore her smile.

"Here, give it to me, I'll put it on for you, okay?"

She carefully took the chain from him, their fingers lingering in a touch for just a moment. Dick sat obediently still, chin lifted, as he had when Babs had tied his bow tie earlier in the evening. Barbara now pulled that bow tie loose and away from his neck. She undid the top two buttons of his formal shirt and moved the two ends of the chain around behind his neck and leaned closer, her nose almost to his ear as she linked the two ends together. Her fingers followed the chain around his neck as she sat back to appreciate her accomplishment with happy satisfaction.

Babs looked up from where the small cross lay below the hollow of his throat, at Dick's face. His eyes were closed, and his expression was — beatific. Just then, he reminded her of the paintings of saints she'd seen in Europe, when she'd traveled there on college break. Barbara's heart caught in her throat. She watched him exhale, then inhale again and slowly open his eyes — and smile at her.

- - - - - - -

Dick couldn't believe his eyes when he opened Barbara's gift and saw what a near-perfect match the pendant was to the one he'd lost, and had on that night, cried himself to sleep over — the first time he'd done *that* in years. It was the only possession of his grandmother's that he had. It had not been off his body since the day after his parents were killed. Much more than a keepsake or heirloom, it had represented his heritage to him.

Babs, with her characteristically keen eye for detail, had noticed he wasn't wearing it the next time she had seen him in their civilian identities. When she had casually asked about it, his face clouded up like a summer afternoon storm, and he'd become very quiet, then told her about the chain and cross, and what it had meant to him. That was months ago. And here, dangling from his trembling fingers was an almost exact duplicate. His astonishment obvious, he voiced his concern for the price it had cost her in both time and money.

Babs' reassurance was plucky and quick, and before he knew it, she had taken her gift from his hand, but not before their fingertips met in a momentary caress. He was unable to move or breathe as she leaned in close, to secure the clasp of the chain — so close he could feel the heat of her, smell the fragrance of her hair and skin. He closed his eyes and drew his breath, drinking in that fragrance. His lungs refused to let it go as he held his breath while Babs moved away, her task accomplished. After what felt like an eternity, Dick exhaled. He was hesitant to open his eyes, certain she would poke fun at him for acting so moony, but when he slowly opened his eyes to look at her, she was so beautiful that all he could do was smile.

- - - - - - -

Babs spoke. "Maybe we should make a toast...before this forbidden champagne goes flat." She retrieved the bottle and crystal glasses from where they had set them when they'd first sat down on the rocker. Babs handed one glass to Dick and poured their champagne, then put the bottle back down on the floor. "Happy first day of Spring, Happy Birthday, 'Little Robin', and happy friendship!" Babs toasted her boy.

Dick pondered for a second, then issued his toast. "Cheers!" He moved his glass forward to touch hers, but Babs put a hand against his chest, arm locked in extension, and wrinkled her nose in a mock-scowl.

"Cheers? Your landmark birthday, champagne, moonlight on the water, and *all* you can think of is "Cheers?"

Dick looked a bit sheepish. He explained, "The only other toast I know is a really obscene one that I learned from Speedy. I didn't think this was the occasion for that."

"Oh. Then 'Cheers' it is!" Babs and Dick both laughed, touched glasses, linked arms together, and drank in celebration.

Babs and Dick sat rocking silently for a few minutes on the boathouse porch. His right leg tucked beneath him, Dick gently moved the rocker with his left foot. Babs curled up against Dick's right side, with her left arm around his shoulder and neck, idly twisting a lock of his hair in her fingers. He shivered slightly when her fingers grazed his ear. Unconsciously, he fingered the cross around his neck, and felt as if he could sit there forever with her.

Barbara noticed the shiver. "Are you cold? Would you like your jacket back?" she asked.

"No. No, I'm fine. You just tickled my ear, is all. Keep the jacket on, if you'd like."

"I've got an idea — why don't you put your feet up and lean back against me, then I can wrap me *and* the jacket around you. It is a little chilly out here, but I really don't feel like going back up to the house just yet." Barbara pushed Dick's shoulders around until his back was to her, then pulled him up against her, enveloping his slim muscular torso in her arms. She rested her cheek against Dick's right shoulder, her hair softly brushing against his right cheek. Dick reclined into the comfort of Barbara's arms, his left leg resting on the chair and his right leg dropped now to keep the rocker moving gently. As they sat, enjoying the slow motion and the moonlight on the lake, Babs quietly asked Dick about the incident in the garage.

Tensing slightly, Dick took her hand in his, as her arms tightened protectively around his chest. He issued a small sigh. "There's not a lot to tell. Alfred ordered me up from the cave — told me to come through the garage 'cause guests might see me coming through the passage in the den. When I heard someone come into the garage, my first instinct was to step out of sight and assess the situation. I mean, how many of these kinds of big events have we seen get busted up by gun-toting maniacs? By the time I realized what was going down... um, what was happening, I was pretty much stuck."

Dick's face warmed at his unfortunate wording. "After they, uh, finished, I thought I'd heard them both leave, and figured it was safe to go into the house." he continued. "I suppose I should have interrupted them at the onset, but they sort of got down to business pretty quick."

Barbara tightened her hug, reassuring her friend as he confessed his embarrassment. "What about Mrs. Hill, Dick? What happened with her?" Babs queried softly into his shoulder.

"She hadn't left, after all — I was mistaken. She hung back to smoke a cigarette. What you saw... was all there was — she just... okay, she intimidated me, happy now? I've gone toe-to-toe with Two-Face, yet I let some woman get one up on me!" He complained, clearly unhappy with what he felt had been an unsatisfactory way of dealing with an adversarial situation. And more than that, it had all been captured on videotape.

"Shhh. It's not worth getting upset about, Dicky. I don't doubt that you're destined for a lot more 'combat situations' like that one, and I have a hunch that's an area of your training that Batman hasn't ventured into yet." Babs punctuated her consolation with a quick kiss behind Dick's ear. She dared to playfully bait her young, handsome friend. "You know, you could have 'gone for it,' Dick. You could have let her give you an 'interesting birthday gift' —one that would have earned you some significant bragging rights with at least one of your Titans buddies!" Babs failed to suppress her giggle.

Dick felt indignant, yet he didn't move from his comfortable position. "First, Barbara, Mrs. Hill didn't know me — I didn't know *her* and she didn't know it was my stupid birthday! Second, that kind of setting isn't exactly... I mean, someone like her isn't who I'd ... isn't who I've imagined sharing ... oh, crap! She's not who I'd want to 'do it' with for the first time! *I'm* not the kind of person who'd do it with someone like *her* for my first time! I think my first time ought to mean a lot *more* than that!"

His face was burning hot now, having risked exposing just how inexperienced he was to the one girl in the entire world he cared the most about.

Barbara wove the fingers of her hand that he'd been holding into his, clasping his hand tightly in affirmation. She made a humorous attempt to smooth his discomfort. "Hey, Boy Wonder, correct me if I'm wrong, but there's no crime on the books about still being a virgin at sixteen, or else we'd be arresting teenagers on a daily basis!"

Then more seriously, Barbara told him, "It's good that you have higher expectations and standards for yourself, Dicky — don't be ashamed of that. I really hope that when that time comes, it will be with someone you really care about, someone who cares as much for you, too, and that it will be everything you've ever wished it would be."

Babs closed her eyes tightly and bit her bottom lip. Oh, she wanted her boy to have all the sweetness he deserved, and for it not to be some stolen act perpetrated by one of Bruce's predatory cast-offs. But Dick was so beautiful, he had become so noticeably desirable almost overnight, it seemed. And Barbara herself felt a sharp stab of jealousy over whoever would pluck this precious rose from the bed of thorns in which he grew.

Dick listened to Barbara's attempts to sooth his ruffled young ego, and relaxed into the balm of her words and embrace. He closed his eyes, the fingers of one hand locked into hers. His other hand still touched the cross — her gift — at his throat. Wondering if maybe changing the subject might not be a bad idea, he spoke up. "So, um, do you want to see the new boat?"

"Sure! But ... I don't suppose there are any security cameras in the boathouse, are there, Teen Wonder?" Babs snickered as Dick turned to her, his eyes gone wide at her inquiry. He winced, then. Ouch. Busted again. He laughed a little. "No. No, there's not, not yet anyway." He stood up from the chair, steadying it with his legs as he helped Barbara to her feet. She picked up her discarded shoes and proceeded to the boathouse door. "You have a key, or something?" she asked.

"Or something. It's a digital lock, here's the keypad." He lifted a small panel next to the door, revealing the keypad, which he fingered deftly. The door unlocked with a muffled click. "I bypassed the security alarm signal — it won't show up on the main boards that the door's even been opened."

Dick smirked with self-satisfaction at pulling one over on the Bat. No way did he want Bruce to intrude on his rare time alone with Babs. If he could have just one wish for his birthday this would be it — just to have this little respite from the pressure of the Bat and the rest of the world, and to relax and just be himself with his best girl. He knew it wouldn't be for long, but he'd take what he could get. "Wait just a sec', Babs, I'll get a light." Dick used a small key chain penlight to guide him through the boathouse to a cabinet where he fished out a battery-operated hurricane lantern. Switching it on, he kept the light low, reducing the chance of discovery.

Barbara followed him in, once there was some light in the building, closing the door behind her. "Nice ambiance, Heartthrob, you setting a mood?" she teased.

"That wasn't my intention. Why would I go to the trouble of bypassing security if I'm just going to broadcast our presence to half of Bristol with a gigawatt of light? This is enough to see the boat, and hopefully not be bothered by anyone." Dick's bristling reply left no question as to which person he'd like to stay clear of.

"Okay, fine. Richard. We're going to have to have a long talk about this — distance — that's been growing between you and Bruce. It's not exactly good for 'business'." Babs ventured onto the subject she had a feeling would bring out whatever emotions Dick was trying unsuccessfully to keep buried.

It worked.

Dick spun to face Barbara and spat out his frustration. "Maybe the problem is that it's *ALL* becoming 'business', Babs, and not much else! 'Think smarter, Robin, move more quietly, Robin, don't leave your left side open, Robin, be faster, be better, be smarter, be ... be ... *PERFECT* like I am!' And that business in the garage is on videotape, Babs — videotape — and he *WILL* see it, see all of it! You think he'll be upset that some strange woman had her hand down my pants? Or don't you think he's going to just hand me my butt on a silver platter because she *could* have been a terrorist, and she *could* have been 'distracting' me while her cohorts moved in to accomplish their objectives? It *could* have been that way, Babs, and I *could* have blown it, seriously — with an estate full of innocent people as potential pawns. *THAT'S* what he'll see on the videotape, Babs, not that some bimbo felt me up, but that I let a potential adversary get close enough to take me out!"

And in a much smaller, much younger voice, "I screwed up, Babs. That's all he'll see, is that I screwed up."

Dick's words pushed painfully past the vice grip his chest had become. He stalked to the rear of the boathouse, to it's darkest corner, placed his palms against the wall, and tried to just breathe. He hadn't meant to go off on an emotional rant, not now, not tonight, and not with Babs, of all people.

'Breathe, Dicky, breathe.' He fought to regain his composure. In all reality, he thought, who else, except for maybe Alfred, could he "go off" to other than Babs? She probably knew him better than anyone else, knew what it was like trying to grow in the shadow of this dark legacy.

Dick turned around to apologize to her for his outburst, but she was already right there, taking his hands in hers, and pulling him out of the darkness into the soft glow of the lantern.

"You stay out of the dark, Robin. That's his place," Barbara counseled. "Batman's not perfect, and he'd be the first person to tell you that. Maybe he pushes you hard because he needs you to keep up, to be there so that he doesn't have to be alone in the fight. But then, he'd also be the *last* person to tell you that."

Babs drew Dick into a comforting hug and spoke softly into his ear. "We all have to be better than our best if we want to stay alive in this business, Dick. Gotham's getting weirder by the minute, or hadn't you noticed? But if you ever, ever felt like you wanted or needed to pack it in and just become a regular guy, I don't think he'd give you your walking papers, kiddo."

Dick pulled back, his ruffled feathers soothed somewhat, and managed a small, wry smile. "Me? A regular guy? When have I ever remotely resembled anything like that, Babs?" His smile grew larger. "Even before I ever knew Batman existed, my best friend was an elephant!"

"Well-put, Circus Boy! Hey, are you going to show me this tub now, or did you lure me down here to the boathouse for some ulterior motive?" Babs teased.

In a gesture of affection, Dick reached out and lightly drew a lock of her auburn hair through the fingers of one hand, and smiled for things he wished could be. "Oh, yeah, I knew there was a reason we came in here." He turned to the boat and pulled the canvas cover off of the dry-dock-suspended craft. "Here she is — she's really pretty, but like I said, she's an older model."

In the soft, low lantern light, the mahogany wood of the vintage speedboat glowed with a warm luster. Barbara's eyes grew large in amazement. "Oh my God, Dick, do you know what this *is*?" she gushed over the beautiful classic wooden speedboat.

"Um. Yeah. It's a speedboat, Babs. For water-skiing. It's old. Like I said, Bruce picked it up a month or so ago. He says we'll take her out for a run when the weather's a bit warmer." Dick was amused at Barbara's reaction to the boat. It was a pretty boat, for an old fashioned one, but he'd rather drive the Batboat — Batman's super-charged hydrofoil. Now THAT was a boat!

Barbara strolled alongside the sleek craft, petting it gently, as if it were a skittish thoroughbred. "Dick Grayson, don't you know anything about boats? This is a Chris Craft V8 Capri Runabout! There were less than fifty produced between 1957 and 1959!"

"Oh. Trust a librarian to know those kinds of facts, I guess." Dick muttered, less enthused now that he was no longer the center of Barbara's attention. Then his face brightened. "Would you like to sit in it?" He gestured grandly with his arms. "Voila, your aquatic chariot awaits, Your Highness!" He stepped up to Barbara, lightly putting his hands on her waist. "Just give a little hop, Babs." In a flash, she was settling into the soft leather rear bench seat, as Dick kicked off his shoes and vaulted into the Runabout. He sat beside her, watching her rapt appreciation of the rare watercraft.

"Should I have brought the champagne, too? So we can sit in this extremely rare boat and sip champagne like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly?" he mirthfully proposed, remembering his father's love for old movies and their stars.

"Sorry, Cary, dear, but your birthday toast is all the bubbly you get tonight, at least on *my* watch. I didn't see you eat anything earlier this evening, Short-Pants, so I don't want to be the one to have to explain to Bruce and Alfred if you wind up hurling your guts from drinking wine on an empty stomach, even if it was a special birthday treat." Barbara gave a mock shudder and cringe.

Dick's smile vanished, and he looked away, absently fingering a cleat on his side of the boat. "Yeah. That. Well, I suppose puking champagne might tick them off. The birthday thing probably wouldn't faze them, though, considering they completely forgot about it. That's why I didn't want you to say anything about it when we met up with everyone in the ballroom earlier. It's no big deal, really."

Dick's interest in the boat's cleat increased as he avoided Barbara's face. "Bruce has been really busy lately. Alfred's been preoccupied with organizing tonight's event, and as — strained — as things have been with Bruce, I wouldn't have wanted for him to feel like a jerk in front of your Dad and everyone. It's probably better that nobody made a big deal about it, anyway."

"You've got to be kidding!" Barbara gasped. "What do you mean they *forgot* your birthday, Dick? They wouldn't — couldn't — forget your sixteenth birthday! It's a landmark occasion! My Dad remembered it, but I threatened him not to embarrass you in front of all those snotty snobs you can't stand!" Barbara was genuinely horrified at the thought that Dick's closest "family" could forget his birthday.

"Sure. Yeah, Bruce's social peers. The ones who've always thought of me as his 'charity-case,' and who *now* evidently consider me to be his personal *bed-warmer*. You'd think they'd have something more constructive to do than to go to parties and spread malicious gossip!" Dick scowled in his disgust.

"You mean like wear tights, jump off buildings, and beat up criminals?" Babs offered slyly.

Dick whipped his head around to see Barbara's ear-to-ear smile beaming at him. Backlit by the lantern on the floor, its light cast a soft aura around the auburn waves of her hair. His anger and tension fell away under the influence of her ready humor, her genuine concern, and her angelic beauty. Dick had to laugh a little at himself. While he had found it so difficult to breathe during his burst of anger, he now found himself losing his breath over Babs.

"All that doesn't matter, really, Babs," he confided. "What does matter to me is that you remembered. It means a lot to me that you're here with me, right now." He hesitated a couple of seconds, then scooted closer to Barbara on the seat. "Um, since you won't let me have any more champagne, I, uh, don't suppose, like, a ... hug ... would be out of the question?" If his words were hesitant, his eyes were hopeful.

"A hug sounds do-able, Birthday Boy." Barbara inched closer and pulled his right arm up and around her shoulders, slipping her left arm behind him. She embraced him, resting her head against the right side of his chest, as he brought his left arm around to hold her there.

It was a tranquil embrace. Quiet. Comfortable. Easy. So easy that before he realized it, Dick's thoughts escaped his lips.

"You're my best girl, Babs... and I love you so much. You probably know that, but I ... I just wanted to say it out loud."

Out loud? It was barely a whisper. Had he really said it?

"Dicky ..." Babs began, but his hand stroking her hair, and his gentle shush hushed her words.

"Shhh protesting allowed here," he said softly. "I know you're going to say that I'm too young to be certain about something like this, and that the difference in our ages is an issue... and if I were speaking about any two other people, then that would be a good argument. But it's my birthday, and all I want is my say about it."

Dick drew a breath, gathering his thoughts. "Yeah, I'm young, in years, maybe, but sometimes I feel *so* old. I've lived my whole life by careful rules and more careful training. I've risked my life on a regular basis since I was four years old. One of the world's greatest heroes trusts me — *me*, Babs — to be his partner, and he has since I was nine. Gotham's criminal underworld has put a price on my head, and somewhere, someday, some mook might just cash that in. I can accept all that, and I do."

Dick moved back some so he could look his girl in the face, but kept his arms around her.

"I work pretty damned hard to stay on top of it all, Babs, to stay worthy of Batman's trust and confidence in me. It's *not* easy. The work *is* hard, the toll is pretty heavy sometimes, and the sacrifices of a 'normal' life are huge. If I've earned the right to fight at Batman's side— and yours — then I also think I've earned the right to be taken seriously about something that means everything to me. And *that* is *you*."

Dick licked his suddenly dry lips, at the same time thrilled and disbelieving that he was saying what was in his heart.

"I *do* love you, Babs. I don't want some high school pom-pom girl or homecoming queen, or some girl who can only talk about school gossip, the latest movies, or pop singers. That's not *my* normal. My normal is someone who is brilliant, who challenges me to use my brain in both my worlds, someone who can take my hand and fly with me for the love of the flying. And it doesn't hurt that she looks great in tights, boots, and a cape, either."

Dick's hands moved from around Barbara to cup her face gently between them as he searched her soft green eyes. Unlike Batman, who would always fire his jumpline and then leap after it, Robin had always flown first, launching his line at the critical point of his freefall. Always in time. And in true form, Dick had just propelled himself through the air in the emotional leap of his life. He freefell, waiting for the make-it-or-break-it point of no return.

Barbara held her hands atop his, then slid them along his arms to mirror the facial embrace as she returned the soulful gaze into eyes that burned with a steady blue flame. She knew everything he'd said was true. In so many ways she wanted to keep him her small boy, the laughing daredevil child who had stolen her heart when she was a nerdy, bookish teen and he wore Superman pajamas.

But here before her was that same keeper of her heart — but in the embodiment of a serious, studious, intrepid, and compassionate young man so much older than his chronological age allowed. She knew that he would die for her, would die for his partner-mentor-father, without hesitation. Richard John Grayson was a noble young man of incredible courage, unwavering honor, and unquestionable conviction.

Dicky Grayson *was* her best guy. And she loved him for it. Loved him for all that he had been, was now, and was destined to be. Five and a half years was a significant age difference if you were talking about two ordinary people, but neither Dick nor Babs was ordinary. They were vigilantes who circumvented ordinary rules for the greater good of Gotham City. And now it seemed that their hearts had become vigilantes, too.

'Throw your line or become pavement-pizza, Batgirl,' Babs warned herself.

She pulled his face close to her own, their lips scant millimeters apart. Breathless, and with eyes closed, she whispered her reply. "We'll catch all kinds of hell for it Dicky, but right now, I don't care about that. I love you, Dick, you are my best boy, my best guy, and you have been for a long, long time. It hasn't been easy waiting for you to grow up. There's still a big age gap that some people aren't going to be able to get past, at least not right now. If we're going to love each other, Dick, it'll be like dancing around bullets. One wrong move and one or both of us could take a killing shot. You have to understand that. We both have to keep our heads, on the job and off! I do love you so, and I everything I am says that can't be wrong. I don't want to be forced to give you up. You and I are the two wings of a single bird, Boy Wonder."

Dick heard every syllable, felt every breath that carried every word Babs said to him, and tucked them carefully away into his heart's scrapbook. His line fired and caught, pulling his heart out of its perilous freefall. Still holding her face in his hands, he very carefully, very tenderly pressed his lips to hers, and felt her press back, returning his kiss.

Oh, how he soared. How they soared, this single pair of wings. Friends, partners, their hearts' lovers, flying in tandem.

When they broke their long kiss, they were both breathless and laughing. They held each other, eyes searching and finding and loving. Then they kissed again, longer this time, and needful. Until their kiss was broken by a muffled ringing noise.

"That's my cell phone, where's my purse?" Babs quickly found her small purse and pulled out the small phone, answering it. She listened for a few seconds, then spoke. "Hi, Daddy — yes, we're still on the property — we're just hanging out and talking. Hey! Did you know that bonehead Bruce forgot it's Dick's birthday? I could *kill* him!"

Barbara paused when Dick punched her in the arm, not very hard, but enough to express his displeasure at her telling her father about Bruce's omission. Barbara stuck her tongue out at him as she listened to her father's side of the conversation.

"Okay. We'll come right back, then. At least I hope I can get him to, you know how he hates these big social galas. Okay, Daddy. Yes, sir! We're on our way. Yes, now! Love you, see you in a few, Dad," Babs concluded the call.

"Bad news, Teen Wonder, we're wanted front and center again. We have to get it in gear, now!" Barbara didn't wait to be helped out of the boat, she hopped down quickly, slipping into her shoes, and checking her makeup briefly in her compact's mirror. Dick reluctantly followed her out of the boat, unhappy about the interruption. They secured the canvas cover over the boat, turned off the light, and exited the boathouse. Dick reset the alarm on the keypad. They pitched the nearly full bottle of champagne into a trashcan on the boathouse porch, but retrieved the crystal glasses they'd brought with them. Babs then gave Dick a quick check for signs of her makeup on his face or shirt.

They said little, but held hands all the way back up to Wayne Manor.

Both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon stepped through the back patio door as Dick and Babs walked up the marble steps to the Manor. Jim Gordon appropriated the glasses from Dick's hand with a raised eyebrow as the two fathers ushered their errant children into the house.

Bruce said nothing to Dick. He didn't even give him a second look, but turned and walked into the house, fully expecting his ward to be obediently in step behind him. Dick felt his jacket being placed on his shoulders. He turned and looked at Babs as he hurried after Bruce, slipping his arms into the sleeves. He had no idea what had happened to the tie. It was probably back at the boathouse. He turned back again to follow Bruce through the ballroom, his throat once again experiencing that tightening feeling, as if it were in a noose.

And if Bruce's silent treatment was any indication, then it probably was!

Something hadn't been quite right about the boy from the moment he'd made his appearance this evening. Although Bruce Wayne had been unable to put his finger on it, he had conceded, for once, that there'd be no harm in dismissing Dick from attending the Wayne Foundation-sponsored Children's Burn Unit charity gala being held in their home. And the Police Commissioner's daughter, Barbara Gordon, had been quick to sweep Dick away from the uncomfortable presence of his elders.

Then Jim Gordon had uttered the revelation that had made sense of it all — and had made Bruce feel like six kinds of a fool.

No easy feat.

He stood stunned as he watched his ward being ushered —gratefully, he supposed — out of the room on Barbara's arm. Jim was saying something to him, but it no longer completely registered, for Bruce's thoughts were suddenly far from the ballroom event and the surrounding crowd of attendees.

Dick's birthday! Damn! How the hell could he have let that slip his mind?

His work — the day job *and* the 'night job' *had* kept him extraordinarily busy in recent weeks. He and Lucius Fox had closed a deal that had been long in the making, to acquire a pharmaceutical company in Asia, with the expectation of achieving some groundbreaking medical development for Wayne Enterprise's Med-Tech division.

And as for the "night job," an involved case with the Justice League — and another critical encounter with Batman's former friend and now lethal adversary, Harvey Dent/Two-Face — had only just been resolved.

Regardless of Bruce's level of business activity, he should have been aware of this approaching date! And if not himself, then certainly Alfred! Why hadn't the old fellow reminded him that today was Dick's sixteenth birthday?

Having forgotten it, of course, Bruce had not said a word to the boy about it. Not that Dick was the type of kid to need coddling or much emotional reassurance. Dick knew his place in the "family" was secure.

The boy — well, not that much of a boy any longer, was he? — was self-reliant and well disciplined. He worked well with the Batman — it was an easy, almost unconscious fit — a good partnership that had been beneficial for both of them. Dick trained hard, studied hard, and worked hard. Harder than Bruce had at that age. His detective skills were sharp and intuitive, and seemed to improve with each case. As Robin, Dick led the Teen Titans with a natural level of maturity, confidence, and proficiency that his fellow young heroes found difficult to match.

Bruce knew he demanded a lot from his ward. His student. His —son—who, a scant six and a half years earlier had been delivered into his care. Batman demanded a lot from his partner Robin, chiefly for the sake of the lad's own safety in the field. And Robin gave back as much as Batman had ever asked for — exceeded it, actually.

Yet still... at barely sixteen there had seemed to be very little time for him to be just — a boy. A young man, now. Bruce could not honestly remember Dick's having asked for time off for school functions, or dates.

Dates! Oh, Christ. Where the hell was Alfred?

"Jim, please excuse me, I need to speak with Alfred about this," he apologized.

Gordon gave a snorting laugh. "Damned right you do, Wayne! You'd better warn him there'll be 'incoming,' especially if my girl finds out you've both forgotten Dick's big day!"

Bruce Wayne made his way across the busy room as hastily as his hosting responsibilities would allow, headed for Alfred's "war-room," the Manor's restaurant-sized kitchen. He found his major domo there, barking orders like David Niven in a British WWII movie.

"We shall need two more cases of champagne distributed among the bartenders and servers..."

"Alfred, I need to —" Bruce tried to interrupt. He received a sharp visual reprimand for his 'faux pas.'

"... then change out the canapés at tables two through five. Restock the seafood tables, six and seven, and put all new condiment dishes out at every table. And replace the flower arrangement on table three." Alfred summarily dismissed his catering troops and turned his attention on this evening's host.

"That should hold them for the next thirty or forty minutes. Now, what is it you require, Master Bruce? As you can see, my hands are quite full at the moment." Alfred spoke with calm authority.


Bruce was actually hesitant to confess his blatant sin of omission. He stepped closer to his surrogate parent and spoke in a low tone.

"Alfred, today is Dick's birthday — his sixteenth birthday. I completely forgot it, Alfred. He was just out in the ballroom with me and never said a word, but then, he hasn't seemed very... well at ease...this evening. I wasn't sure why, until Jim Gordon — of all people — made a comment about it after his daughter 'rescued' Dick from all this blue-blooded *bullshit* that he hates being around. I thought it was just that, Alfred, but oh, damn — I cannot believe I let this get by me! Have you said anything to Dick about it today? Please tell me you have."

Bruce hoped the boy had had *some* sort of affirmation from his family.

Alfred regarded his lifelong charge with an inscrutable gaze. "Master Bruce, one would hope that you refrain from using such coarse language in the company of your guests. As for your concerns, I have been working since dawn on the arrangements for this evening's event. I have not seen Master Dick this entire day, nor have I had a spare moment to speak with him, with the exception of passing along your orders for him to join you in the ballroom."

Alfred stepped back and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His gaze became less inscrutable and more searingly direct.

"This is quite regrettable. I had truly believed you had made some effort to congratulate the lad — you *are* his 'father.' No, Master Bruce, I have *not* forgotten, I have merely been extremely busy with today's tasks at hand. Given your present confession, I must assume you have also forgotten the matter you and I had discussed several weeks ago." Alfred's eyes narrowed imperially at his "eldest."

"The matter we discussed?" Bruce asked, somewhat confused. "Alfred I don't recall..."

A look of growing recognition came over Bruce's face, followed by one of uncharacteristic guilt. "Damn! *Damn*, Alfred what the hell do I do now?" Bruce passed a large hand over his reddened face.

"Where is Richard, now, Bruce?" Alfred's voice took on the "David Niven-as-commando" tone as he prepared to issue his orders.

"I'm not sure, he and Barbara left the ballroom — I told them they should get something to eat and head outside, away from all the stuffed shirts." Bruce murmured.

"Then that should afford you some time to strategize a solution to this unfortunate situation," Alfred pronounced. "I would suggest you leave the two youngsters to themselves for a bit, while you take action. I believe Mr. Dallas is in attendance tonight. I suggest you find him and hasten to implement the plans we discussed weeks ago."

Alfred turned away from Bruce, dismissing him in gesture as he returned to lead his troops.

Bruce exited the kitchen, headed in the direction of the ballroom to search out Bobby Dallas.

"Excuse me, Mr. Wayne, may I have a moment?"

Bruce stopped at the touch on his shoulder and turned around to see Chuck LeGrange, Wayne Enterprise's director of corporate security, and chief security officer for Wayne Enterprise/Wayne Foundation functions — including acting as Bruce's personal bodyguard for appearances where it was warranted. LeGrange was a tall, sinewy man of about fifty years of age, a former special-forces officer, and one of Bruce's most trusted employees.

"Is there a problem, Chuck? I need to see one of the guests about an urgent situation that's come up. What have you got?" he asked, not entirely patient.

"It's not a critical breach, Mr. Wayne, nothing that endangers guests or property. If you're in a rush, it can hold, but I do feel that you need to be made aware of a certain — incident — that occurred earlier, in a non-guest area of the house." The serious security chief was respectfully yet firmly insistent.

Bruce paused to scrutinize LeGrange carefully. The man had an outstanding record while working for Wayne Enterprises, and was one person for whom Bruce played down the airhead playboy act.

"Of course, Chuck. Give me a little time to handle a personal situation and I'll catch up with you about this. Thanks." Bruce gave the man a tap on the bicep and hurried into the crowd of guests.

Scanning the crowd, Bruce easily targeted the object of his search: the man was about forty years old, of less than medium height, proportionate weight, wore an Armani tuxedo with a striking black Stetson cowboy hat and Gucci western boots.

As Bruce neared the man, making his way casually through he crowd, he caught the glint of diamonds on the man's pinky ring finger, and a diamond-ruby-sapphire pin of the American Flag on his tux lapel.

Bobby Dallas, a boisterous native Texan-transplant to Gotham City, owned the most successful string of automobile dealerships in the tri-state area surrounding Gotham, ranging from affordable family cars and trucks to luxury imports and rare collectibles.

Years earlier, Bruce had purchased a classic Porsche from Bobby, back in Dallas' "salad days," when he was first starting up in the area. Bruce had immediately liked the man's fair sense of horse-trading, and had been impressed with his business plan. So had Lucius Fox, whom Bruce had steered to Dallas for a prospective venture capital "look-see." An initial, relatively small W.E. investment had resulted in a highly successful business venture that had more than returned the value of that investment.

Plus, Bobby Dallas was a hell of a nice guy, had employed every candidate Bruce had sent his way, and contributed generously to his adopted community. Bobby was full of bullshit when spinning a good yarn, but completely devoid of it when it came down to the brass tacks of the business deal. And Dallas' company, unknowingly, acquired and provided many components for the Batmobile.

When he saw Bruce Wayne approach, Bobby lit up like a Broadway marquee.

"Bruce! Damn, son, I've been here almost an hour, sucking down champagne and shrimp, and haven't seen hide nor hair of you! Good to see you, Bubba — hey, watch out shaking that hand, now. I've got a great big cramp from writing out a Texas-sized check for your shindig's charity, here!"

Bruce laughed genuinely at the man's refreshing difference from the rest of the Gotham social elite.

"So what's shaking your tree these days, Bubba?" Dallas inquired.

"Bobby, sorry it took me so long to get over here to you. Thank you for coming. Melinda, it's wonderful to see you again, I'm glad you could make it." Bruce greeted the Texan's wife, a petite brunette in a tasteful Donna Karan gown, with tasteful jewelry to match.

"Hello, Bruce, we're so happy to be here," Mrs. Dallas replied graciously. "Listen, hon, I was hoping to be able to speak with Mr. Pennyworth tonight, to ask his advice on throwing Kimmie and Kelli's graduation party later this year. Can you believe my girls are graduating from high school already?"

"Hell, if y'all don't, I sure do!" Bobby piped up. "The college tuition alone's going to give me a heart attack! And, what are *we* gonna do, Momma, when our babies have left the nest?" Dallas grinned and winked at his wife, then gave her a playful slap on the rear end.

Mrs. Dallas reddened, her eyes twinkling. "Lord, Bruce, you'll have to take Bobby golfing or something so I'll have some time to myself!"

Bruce chuckled at the two Texans, and politely directed Mrs. Dallas where she could find Alfred in his "war-room." She excused herself to the two men, then Bruce turned to Dallas with a look of quiet desperation.

"Bobby, I've got a problem on my hands, one I've created for myself, and I need a fast resolution. You're the only man who can help me."

"Wa'al, shoot, Bubba, step into my office here..."

Dallas gestured them to the bar, where he ordered them both a drink.

"...and tell me all about it. It wouldn't have anything to do with a phone call I got this morning from a certain old English gentleman about somebody's sixteenth birthday, now would it?" Dallas grinned over the lip of his scotch and soda.

Bruce was momentarily speechless. Did everyone know but him? He mentally shook off the confusion and listened to the man he trusted for nearly every set of wheels he drove.

"Bruce, you got three choices. Just depends on what kind of boy you've got, what you want him doing with a car, and how he's gonna want to look to his peers. When I was his age, all I wanted was a pickup truck. That ain't likely to fly at that toney prep school you've stuck that poor kid in. I'd say you could go with a Bronco — he can haul a lot of crap and a whole bunch of his buddies in it...."

'What buddies?' Bruce thought. Dick didn't have the time to develop a conventional social life with his schoolmates.

Bobby continued dispensing his advice, "...or you can get him a nice little Porsche. I've got a sweet little 911 that'll get that boy all the tail he could hope for!" Dallas grinned to his molars as Bruce's expression went from shocked to almost scowling.

"Bobby, Dick is a responsible young man, but he's still just sixteen..." Bruce was interrupted by the Texan's whooping laughter.

"HA-HA! I'm just funnin' you, Bubba, don't go loco on me!" He gave Bruce a bone jarring slap on the back.

'All the tail he could hope for...Alfred would absolutely kill me!' Bruce mused. "Bobby, I think a 911 would be a bit too...indulgent...for Dick. What's your third suggestion?"

"Here's what I see, Bruce," the dealer prepared to dig in his Gucci heels for the sales pitch.

"First car. Nice boy. Something peppy but not too snotty...Mustang! Great American muscle car. One phone call, Bubba, and I'll have a cherry-red Mustang convertible, black leather interior, tricked out with all the gidgets and gadgets kids can't live without, in say, thirty minutes. Will that do ya?" Dallas had his cell phone in his hand, dialing as he smiled at Bruce.

Bruce gave an affirmative nod, then narrowed his eyes at the shrewd dealer.

"One question, Bobby, did Alfred already...."

Dallas held up his finger, interrupting Bruce's question for his phone call.

"Jerry? Yeah, time to bring that Mustang down. You got the address. It's already been cleared at the security gate at Wayne Manor. Thirty minutes, Jerry. C-ya!" The Texan holstered his cell phone and winked at Bruce.

"In answer to your question, Bubba," Dallas grinned broadly, "damned-straight he did! I don't know where you'd be without that ol' boy, Bruce. Probably in the crapper! Look, I gotta go talk to the Police Commissioner about some suggestions I've got on that fleet contract — let's play a little golf, how 'bout it! Deal?"

Bruce Wayne and Bobby Dallas shook hands and went their separate ways. Bruce took a glass of ice water from a polite bartender and waded back across the Wayne Manor ballroom to find his chief of security. His disaster averted, thanks once again to Alfred, Bruce could now turn his attention to the security "incident" that Chuck had informed him of earlier.

LeGrange was waiting for his employer, having tracked the man's progress across the room. He greeted him curtly and professionally, and led Bruce down a hallway to the security video surveillance room. Bruce had personally disengaged the series of cameras that monitored the Batcave before event security personnel arrived at Wayne Manor.

Ordering the two other security staffers who were sitting at monitor stations within the room to take a break, leaving the chief and his employer alone, LeGrange closed the door, placed a video cassette tape into a player, and gestured wordlessly for Bruce to watch.

After a few minutes, Bruce growled to his chief of security, "Get Jim Gordon in here. *NOW!* "

"Alfred. I need you. Immediately."

The Wayne Family major domo whipped his head instinctively in the direction of the Voice. A Voice *not* heard "upstairs," ever. He looked into the face of the man who wore the cowl, although the cowl was not physically on the man at that moment. Alfred Pennyworth turned back to the several members of the catering staff he'd been giving instructions to.

"The cake and other celebratory preparations are to be set up in the family dining room, if you would please attend to that. Thank you."

His staff dismissed to carry out their duties, Alfred quickly followed Bruce Wayne out of the kitchen, praying that the drastic change in Bruce's demeanor was not an indication of a massive invasion of the property.

Bruce returned to the security station with Alfred in tow, as Chuck LeGrange arrived with Gotham City's Police Commissioner. Again the door was closed, sealing the four men inside. Again the videotape was played, this time for the two new viewers. Bruce stood back against the door, arms crossed. His face bore none of the light-hearted affectations that accompanied the "billionaire-playboy" façade.

Alfred was the first to respond.

"Good God, the Bentley!! I shall have it detailed in the morning, Master Bru... oh my word... no. Richard. My boy..."

Alfred was silent until a moment later, "— but bravo, Miss Gordon! What a champion she is!" Alfred cheered Barbara's righteous rescue of his boy. Then he turned to Bruce, the only one to recognize the faint veil of anguish on his surrogate son's face.

"You saw what she did, Alfred. You heard what she said to him — what she alluded to. That can't go unacknowledged. Not to mention that she molested a minor child — *MY* minor child — against his wishes and protests! I want her *OUT* of this house."

Bruce turned to Commissioner Gordon and he angrily insisted, "Jim, I want her in custody *tonight!* "

Bruce was icily livid. He had heard the malicious rumors before, of course, and had chosen to ignore them. He had thought that Dick was relatively insulated from that sort of cruel, idle gossip. Dick would someday inherit the Wayne fortune and Wayne Enterprises, and that necessitated occasional association with the social class that such a responsibility required of him, but his attendance at these social functions had always been under Bruce or Alfred's careful supervision.

Alfred cautioned against Bruce's harsh, yet understandable reaction. "Sir, you must handle this crisis with the utmost sensitivity to the lad's feelings — and reputation. To expose this incident publicly may cause him no end of humiliation and ridicule from his classmates."

"Pennyworth's right, Bruce," Commissioner Gordon agreed. "There's a lot of press covering this event. The kickoff for the new children's burn unit at GRMC should be the showcase story tonight, not our hauling the Mayor's wife out in handcuffs."

Jim Gordon reasoned with his host. "Bruce, Barbara caught the situation early enough; she did a good job intervening and getting the kid the hell out of a difficult situation. The two of them are probably talking it out right now — you know they've always had a good relationship."

Jim Gordon placed his hands on his friend's shoulders. "I'm not going to be cavalier and say 'no harm, no foul' about this, Bruce, but handle it privately. Speak to Flynn and Jennifer Hill, by all means, but do it in private."

"Jim. If some man had done *that* to your sixteen year old daughter, how would you have reacted?" Bruce's eyes clashed with Gordon's like steel swords.

James Gordon stepped back, never averting his eyes from Bruce's, and opened his tuxedo jacket, exposing his holstered sidearm as his answer.

"Mr. Wayne," the security chief interrupted, "...the car is here. The dealership delivery vehicle just cleared the front gate, and ..." he listened through his earpiece receiver for a moment, "... you're about to be introduced by the hospital's master of ceremonies. You're on, sir, you need to proceed to the ballroom dais."

Bruce Wayne led the way out of the security room. He ran his palms across his hair in an effort to prepare for his transition from outraged parent to society host.

"Thank you, Chuck. Jim, could you make sure that Flynn and Mrs. Hill don't leave before I get a chance to speak with them, and can you locate the kids?"

The men all walked down the hallway as Bruce made his requests. Bruce turned to Alfred with questioning eyes. "Alfred?"

"The car should be in the front driveway now, Master Bruce. The cake will be served in the dining room for family and close friends only; everyone has been notified of the arrangements, with the exception of Master Dick and Miss Gordon, of course. Our temporary absence from the gala shouldn't be overly significant." Alfred brushed non-existent lint from Bruce's tuxedo as they neared the ballroom.

Chuck LeGrange met with Bobby Dallas in the Manor's foyer, and both men walked out to receive the delivery of Dick's birthday gift. Jim Gordon stepped outside the far ballroom door, to the patio landing, and dialed Barbara's cell phone with his own. Bruce Wayne stepped up to the dais to make his obligatory speech as host of the evening's event. Alfred noted the position of all of them, breathed deeply twice, and walked calmly to the family dining room, observing the placement of every table, every glass, every bottle, and every server along the way.

Dick followed closely behind Bruce, with Barbara and her father bringing up the rear. Dick glanced ahead, taking his eyes from the floor for just a moment, and saw Wayne Enterprise's Director of Security Operations, Mr. LeGrange, approaching Bruce. Dick knew Mr. LeGrange was also Bruce's security chief for tonight's event. The man looked at Dick with a serious expression on his face before taking Bruce aside to quietly tell him something.

Dick blanched the color of his tuxedo shirt. It would all be coming down now. Surely he'd seen the videotape from the garage. Surely he'd already informed Bruce — why else was Bruce being so cool and silent to him? He hadn't said a word to him when he and Babs had returned to the house. Even Babs' father, Commissioner Gordon, looked stonily serious.

Dick just wanted the night to be over at that point. God, where was the stupid Bat-Signal when he needed it most? Dick swore under his breath in Romany, a curse he'd heard his father utter when rehearsals went poorly. 'Man, I just want to go to my room and shut the door on everything!' he fretted.

"Master Dick, did you hear me?"

Dick's focus instantly fell on Alfred, who had his hand on Dick's arm and had apparently said something to him. Commissioner Gordon and Barbara passed them, following Bruce and the security chief around the corner to another hallway in the house. Dick glanced after them for just a second before answering the older man.

"No ... no, I didn't, I had ... my mind was on something else, Alfred. Sorry. What did you say?" Dick apologized, trying to mask his concern over Bruce and the security chief.

"I asked you where your necktie was, Master Dick. This is a formal event and one is not properly attired without one's tie."

Alfred regarded his young charge with kindness, noting the lad's thinly veiled worry, and guessed at the reason for it. After this evening's events concluded, Alfred hoped that Master Bruce would tactfully discuss the offense the lad had suffered at the hands of that horrible Mrs. Hill.

"Luckily for you, young sir, I have a spare. Hold still and I shall have you presentable momentarily." Alfred, of course, was using the absence of Dick's necktie as an excuse to detain him while everyone assembled in the dining room. Alfred took his time, meticulously arranging the accessory to perfection. He straightened the boy's lapels and brushed his jacket lightly with his hands.

Alfred mused about the passage of time and of how many ties he had tied, how many scrutinizing inspections of the suits, shoes, hair, fingernails, and ears of his two young men. 'Haven't these years gone by in a blink?' Alfred's face softened and his eyes grew a bit wistful as he looked at another little boy, grown up. Having delayed as long as he dared, Alfred stepped back from Dick and pronounced his approval.

Dick had stood still for the older gentleman, eyes averted, and had allowed him to slip the noose-like article of clothing around his neck once again, ironically finding little difference between the constriction of the tie and the emotion-driven tightness he was experiencing. Dick had a good idea that he was about to step, impeccably dressed, in front of Bruce's firing squad of judgment for his earlier inaction in the garage.

His attention returned to Alfred when he was pronounced ready to meet his executioner. Dick's eyes met Alfred's. There was a quiet there, almost sad, too. Oh, God. Alfred knew. And Alfred knew what Bruce would say to him, as well.

Dick breathed a sigh of resignation. Best to just get this over with as quickly as possible. Maybe then he could salvage the rest of the evening with Babs, maybe a dance. That is, if he survived what was in store from Bruce.

Well, let it come.

Nothing that Bruce could do or say could take away the magic that Dick had experienced tonight. His first and best girl, Babs — his best friend — had told him that she loved him. Dick's chin lifted and a small smile crept onto his face. He wouldn't need a mask to face the Batman tonight.

"Well, Alfred, I'm all dressed up and probably have someplace to go, right? 'What's it all about, Alfie?' " Dick smirked, his hands open and extended in a questioning pose.

Relieved to see a bit of cheek creep back into the lad, Alfred glided past him to lead the way to the dining room. Alfred paused in front of the closed double doors, stepped to one side, and gestured for Dick to enter before him. Dick took a breath and drew himself up straight and tall.

'Walk in like the fighter you are, Dicky-boy, he's just your partner. You can only die once, and if you die tonight, you die a happy man!' Dick opened both doors and resolutely strode through them.

The big dining room was dark; only the near end of the long table was illuminated. On it sat a silver candelabrum, and there were several smaller candles on — a cake? Dick pulled up sharply at the sight of the decorated confection. His face split with a huge grin.

" **SURPRISE!** "

Voices called out as the overhead lights snapped on. Dick lifted his eyes from the cake and looked around to see the people who belonged to the voices: Bruce, of course, Babs and her Dad, Doctor Leslie, Lucius Fox and his wife, Bruce's friend Mr. Dallas and his wife, and... geez—

"Wally!! Dude!! What're you doing here?" Dick laughed, astonished at the sight of his best buddy and fellow Teen Titan.

Wally West walked over and punched Dick in the shoulder. "I'm just here for the cake, Dickster, don't get all choked up or anything." And leaning in, he said quietly, "Donna's on Paradise Island with Diana, Roy's leading a D.A.R.E. retreat in the mountains, and Garth's, well, you know where he is." The teen speedster referred to their Atlantean teammate. "Happy Birthday, pal!" Wally smiled and punched Dick in the shoulder again.

Someone began the "Happy Birthday" song, and the others joined in, making a cheerful, if off-key, chorus. Dick blew out the candles on the cake and smiled, knowing that his birthday-wish had already been granted. Some of the guests came up and greeted him. Dr. Leslie gave Dick her customary birthday bear hug and pinch on the cheek. As the cake was cut and served among the guests, Dick glanced around for Bruce, and found him speaking with Lucius and Mr. Dallas. On cue, Bruce's eyes met Dick's, and his expression was — unreadable — in that brief moment. Then Bruce's appearance became more lighthearted as he returned to his conversation with his associates.

"I'll take a piece with a rose on it, birthday-boy." Babs spoke from behind Dick. He smiled and turned to her, handing her a plate and fork. Dick's eyes narrowed slightly, and he opened his mouth to speak, but was immediately interrupted.

"And, 'no,' I didn't have the first clue about — this." Barbara looked around at the small gathering of friends. "Some detectives we are, huh? But it's easier on the ego knowing we fell victim to Alfred Pennyworth, Mastermind-Supreme." She winked at Dick as she took a bite of cake. Dick blushed slightly at her wink, more like basking in the glow of her affection.

"Hey! Am I interrupting anything important?" The red-haired Teen Titan appeared next to them. "You two look like you have a secret." Wally arched his eyebrows cheekily and grinned.

"Yeah, Wally. The secret is that your fly is down, dude. X-Y-Z!" Dick quipped. Wally gave himself a glancing inspection, then looked back at his friend. "Made ya look, Wally!" They all laughed.

Then Wally pulled Dick aside, and apologized to Barbara. "Excuse me, Miss Gordon, I've got to steal the birthday-boy away from you for a minute."

"Just don't steal my piece of cake, Wally, I saw how fast you wolfed down three pieces already! See you later, Munchkin!" Barbara grinned, and walked away from the two friends toward Bat-family physician, Leslie Thompkins.

"Munchkin? Whoa, that's a good one, Dick. 'Munchkin' — it's so cuuuuuuuute!" Wally drawled out that last word. Dick winced. The next meeting of the Teen Titans was going to be murder. Munchkin. Oh, thank you, Babs.

Changing the subject quickly, Dick said, "Thanks, man, this is too cool, your coming here tonight, Wal."

"Yeah, well I've got to get right back, unfortunately. I'm supposed to be at a basketball game with Aunt Iris and Uncle Barry. They told me to be back before fourth quarter. That's..." Wally looked at his wristwatch, "...four minutes from now, barring time-outs. So, Happy Birthday again, pal, and thank the old dudes for the cake for me — gotta run now. Oh, and 'I know what your present is!' " Wally chanted to Dick as he slipped out the dining room door.

Before Dick could react to Wally's exiting remark, a blow between the shoulder blades struck him, as a voice exploded in his ear.

"Howdy, Lil' Bubba! Long time no see! How's life at that 'my-poop-don't-stink' school of yours, son?"

Dick recovered to return Bobby Dallas' outrageous greeting. "Fine, sir, great to see you, too. Hey, where's your Stetson, Mr. Dallas? You almost look anonymous with out it — nothing like your 'Big-D' commercials for the dealership."

Dallas sighed theatrically. "Appropriated by Pennyworth. I tried to avoid that ol' boy all night, but he finally got me, and I had to surrender my Stetson. Shoot!"

Dick grinned at the thought of Alfred wresting the big, black cowboy hat from the Texan. "How's Kimmie and Kelli these days? Breaking all the hearts at Gotham Heights?" Dick inquired of the Dallas twins.

"Damn right, they are! And every time a date comes to the door, I'm conveniently oiling my shotgun. Amazing how that brings out the manners in a boy!" Dallas roared.

Dick laughed at that, and was extremely glad that the Dallas twins were a year ahead of him in school, and preferred dating college-aged guys. And rumor was, they were going to have a combination graduation and debutante party that would be absolutely killer. Not a big fan of big parties, Dick was actually looking forward to that one. Maybe Babs would like to go with him.

Across the room, the sight of Chuck LeGrange joining Bruce caught Dick's eye. Both men looked back at Dick and started walking toward him and Bobby Dallas. Dick swallowed hard, but let the anxiety roll away.

Bruce reached them first, clapping a large hand firmly on Dick's shoulder. "Dick, a *situation* has come up. I need you to come with us. Excuse us, Bobby."

Dick could not recognize this mask of Bruce's — not the Bat, not the Billionaire. "Yes, sir." was all he could say, and immediately followed Bruce and the security chief out of the dining room. Dick was a bit perplexed when the two men walked to the front door instead of back to the Manor's security room. But wherever the grilling was going to take place, Dick was ready to bear the consequences.

LeGrange walked out the front door first, followed by Bruce. Dick was right behind him, eyes forward on his guardian's broad back. Bruce stepped to one side on the spacious portico, looked at Dick squarely, and gestured tightly toward the driveway with one hand.

Dick's eyes followed that hand, landing on the red convertible in the driveway, festooned with a large yellow ribbon and bow. He blinked. Then he blinked again.

"Dick? What do you think, chum? It's yours, if you want it." Bruce said quietly, watching his motionless ward, who stared dumbly at the car.

"Mine? Bruce. It's..." Dick swallowed hard again and looked at his guardian, to see if the strange mask had fallen. It had not. "'s beautiful. But I didn't expect you to get me a car, Bruce. I'm cool with my bike, you didn't have to do this."

Dick's motorcycle wasn't all that old; he'd had it for almost two years, and had ridden it legally off the estate for the past year. He was happy with it.

But a car — well, this *was* a nice car, and it would be perfect for ...dates, maybe.

Bruce put one hand on Dick's shoulder and held out his other hand. In it were the keys to the new car, on a Gotham Knights key chain. "Yours if you want it, Dick." Bruce looked at his ward, his... son, and waited patiently for the boy to make his decision. He saw a smile replace the serious expression on the boy's face. Saw that smile grow a little larger as the keys were lifted carefully from his hand.

"Come look at it with me, Bruce." Dick invited.

Bruce Wayne hesitated for only a moment. He did want to seek out and confront Jennifer Hill about the outrage she'd caused his family, in his home. But, he judged, that would have to take a back seat to this moment.

The two young masters of the Wayne household walked down the portico steps to the driveway together, to the new red Mustang. The car sparkled in the bright halogen outdoor lights of Wayne Manor. Alfred Pennyworth watched them stroll around the car — talking, pointing, touching, and finally sitting in it — as the other birthday celebrants emerged from the house to see the "big gift."

When Bruce got out of the car, Barbara Gordon fairly skipped down the steps, her father walking behind her, to approach and admire the shiny sports car. "Not a bad little ride, Munchkin," she teased, "you just might turn a head or two in this."

As long as it's not the head of one of my traffic cops!" Added Jim Gordon. Gotham City's Police Commissioner stood beside Bruce Wayne, arms crossed authoritatively. "And let me tell you about MY birthday gift, son. You get excused from school Monday. I'm personally escorting you to the DMV to take the exam for your operator's license. You drive there and back, and we can have a nice conversation about road safety and the responsibility of car ownership. Sound like a plan, son?" Gordon gruffed in a semi-intimidating tone.

Dick smiled immediately at what sounded like a parental conspiracy. "Oh, no pressure there, sir! Yessir, that sounds like a plan to me, I just hope I can drive while my knees are knocking!"

Dick hopped out of the car and walked around to the passenger side. He opened the door and invited Babs to get in. "Care to sit in my new car, Babs?" Barbara smiled and slid into the black bucket seat, and Dick closed the door. "Bruce, can I take a spin around the property?" he called back over his shoulder as he vaulted over the back of the car to the driver's side door and slipped behind the wheel.

Alfred spoke up before Bruce had a chance to answer. "Absolutely not, Master Dick. You may drive it into the garage — after all the guests have left tonight."

Alfred Pennyworth marched up to Dick, who had gotten back out of the car as the older man approached him. The two stood nose-to-nose — or rather, nose-to-Adam's Apple — as Alfred continued his admonition in a much quieter voice.

"Don't think I didn't notice the champagne flutes the Commissioner relieved you of when you and Ms. Gordon returned to the house, young man. Sit in this car for now. Move it to the garage later tonight. Tomorrow, you may drive *me* to the home improvement center." There was a merry twinkle in the old man's eyes when he added, "Happy Birthday, 'Sawdust'."

Dick's face split into a big grin as he gripped Alfred in a tight bear hug, which was at first stiffly received, but was quickly and happily returned.

Dick stepped out of the hug and looked back at Babs, who was still in the passenger seat, adjusting and touching every control within reach. "Babs! — I gotta get my camera! I need pictures of this! — Alfred, where'd I leave my Polaroid?" Dick whipped his head back to the major domo with his question.

"I believe you left it 'downstairs,' Master Dick, where you were loading it with a new film cartridge at your workstation. Please be cautious in your retrieval of it, young man." Alfred warned, his eyebrow arched.

"You bet, Alfie!" was what the older man heard as the excited youth vaulted over the hood of the car, landing to face Barbara with his arms extended, as if holding her in place. "Babs, don't move! I'm going to get my camera!" and he spun on his heels and sprinted up the steps, skidding to a stop before the Texas car dealer. "Big-D, this has your fingerprints all over it! Thanks!" He disappeared into the house, leaving Bobby Dallas laughing.

"Damn! You see that boy hopping over that car like some kind of bird? Where's an old man go to get that kind of energy when he needs it?"

Melinda Dallas slipped her arm around her husband, gave him a pinch on his love handle and whispered into his ear, "Bobby, I'm sure you'll find it as soon as the twins leave for college." Arm-in-arm, they walked down to the driveway to join the rest of the birthday party that stood around Dick's new car.

Bruce had stood aside, observing Dick's increasing excitement over the gift with some small measure of relief. 'Now,' he thought, 'would be a good time to take care of some other important business.'

Bruce motioned Jim Gordon and Chuck LeGrange over to him. "Gentlemen, I believe I need to attend to a rather unpleasant task. Jim, can you help me round up Jennifer Hill and Ryan Flynn? I think I'll speak with them in the den. Chuck, would you get that videotape and meet me outside my den, please?"

The three men entered the house. LeGrange split off for the video surveillance monitoring station, while Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon walked toward the ballroom and the gala's crowd, to seek out their targets.

Dick walked briskly through the house, barely refraining from breaking into a run. Eschewing the garage access to the Batcave for obvious reasons, he surreptitiously entered Bruce's den, and headed for the old Grandfather clock. Looking back at the closed door again, Dick swung the clock aside and slipped into the corridor behind it.

Securing the clock-doorway, he ran full-tilt down the long staircase to the Batcave, and to his workstation there. He paused to pull off his bowtie and unbutton the top button of his formal shirt, shoving the tie into his pants pocket, before reaching into one of the desk drawers for his Polaroid camera.

Dick's parents had always used one of the instant cameras because it was easier to take photos that didn't require the waiting period for processing that traveling circus folks didn't always have, and Dick had continued that tradition. He used his instant camera to snap memories of events as they happened, often giving away the pictures, like the one of Roy Harper playing in his rock band that he'd given to Donna Troy. Donna had liked it so much she decided to get her own camera, a single reflex model with a couple of different lenses, and had started taking photos herself.

Dick flew back up the stairs to the passageway behind the clock. He looked through the fish-eye lens peephole that offered a view of the entire den, just to make sure it was still unoccupied. It was, and the door was still closed. Deciding that it was safe to go in, Dick pushed on the entryway, moving the big clock enough for him to squeeze through the opening. He secured the clock again, and turned to leave the den, camera in hand.

He'd made it almost to the door when he heard, and recognized, voices just on the other side — Bruce's and Mrs. Hill's voices. To Dick's horror, the doorknob turned — they were coming into the den! He definitely didn't want to be caught in the den by Bruce, nor did he wish to face Mrs. Hill again, ever.

Dick Grayson did the first thing that came to mind. He dove behind the big leather sofa that stood in front of one of the bookcases against the wall. And in the tight space between the sofa and the wall, he lay hiding — and prayed not to be discovered.

The grand ballroom at Wayne Manor was a beautiful neo-Gothic wonder, with its flying buttresses and tall stained-glass windows, its cathedral ceiling with paintings, and gold-gilt plastering and beams. The furniture in the room — the settees and chairs that lined the walls, the tables and stands, the 'objects d'art' — all were rare and beautiful. There was more than enough room for the orchestra and dais-stage, and for the several wet bars and many splendidly decorated tables of food provided by the caterer. Room to spare for the more than two hundred guests for the occasion: a Wayne Foundation charity gala for the new Children's Burn Unit at Gotham Regional Medical Center. Those guests included the cream of Gotham City society: its moneyed elite, political representatives, and city officials.

According to the Master of Wayne Manor — owner and CEO of the global corporation, Wayne Enterprises (with its subsidiary charitable trust, the Wayne Foundation) — billionaire Bruce Wayne, one person in attendance was no longer welcome in his ballroom, in his home, or on his estate. Bruce Wayne searched this very minute for that unwelcome person.

"Jennifer! There you are, I've been looking for you." The playboy façade that Bruce Wayne wore to perfection thrilled the stunning blonde woman, as they leaned in to administer the faux cheek kisses that "people like us" give one another.

"Brucie! Tonight's gala has been just fabulous! You should open your home to these occasions more often. I've heard you used to throw a lot of parties, a few years back. What happened?" Jennifer Hill, the recently acquired second wife to Gotham City Mayor Hamilton Hill, gushed her insincere enthusiasm all over Bruce.

"Well, Jennifer, that's something you and I should really discuss, in private." Bruce took Mrs. Hill's arm and placed it in his, and gave her his best billion-dollar smile. "I'd love to show you some of the more — intimate — areas of my home, Jen."

Jennifer Hill was hooked. She smiled her acquiescence and squeezed her host's massive arm. Bruce Wayne led the attractive woman away from the gala, toward his den, and into his trap.

At the same time Jennifer Hill was making eyes at her host, Police Commissioner James Gordon approached his target, City Councilman Ryan Flynn.

"Hey, Jimbo, I haven't seen you this evening," the Councilman greeted Gordon. "Who was that beautiful redhead you came in with — was that Barbara? I can't believe it — she looks so... grown up! I haven't seen her since she started college."

Ryan Flynn was a confirmed bachelor, and every bit the genuine playboy that Bruce Wayne pretended to be. A handsome man in his late thirties, Flynn came from a wealthy Gotham family, majored in political science, opting out of the traditional family law degree, and immediately entered into Gotham City politics. He was an effective representative of his district — charismatic and dedicated.

Flynn was independently wealthy from a family trust, and it afforded him the opportunity to serve the people, an obligation his family had taken seriously since their immigration from Ireland in the late nineteenth century. Flynn's only serious flaw was his eye for other men's wives, including Mayor Hill's wife, Jennifer.

James Gordon liked Ryan Flynn a good deal, but took care to keep him away from his daughter, Barbara. Not that Barbara needed her father's protection from the wolfish Councilman. "Ry, gotta talk with you for a moment, friend. I've got a situation, and I was wondering if you'd give me a hand." Jim Gordon asked the City Councilman, earnestly enough.

"Sure thing, Jimbo. What can I do?" Flynn was sincere — he felt James Gordon was one of the best and most incorruptible public servants in Gotham's administrative structure, despite his rumored, strange relationship with the mysterious vigilante, the Batman, who most people believed was an urban legend, anyway.

"I think we can speak more privately in Bruce's den. He won't mind, it's this way, Ry." Gordon guided the Councilman out of the crowd. It was that easy.

Jim Gordon didn't want Bruce Wayne to crucify Ryan Flynn, but if Flynn hadn't been down in the Wayne garage, sticking it to the Mayor's wife, then that cheap bitch wouldn't have had the opportunity to mess with Bruce's kid. Dick Grayson was a good kid, in Gordon's estimation, and was fast becoming a fine young man. That poor boy had experienced enough pain in his life without having to put up with the likes of Jennifer Hill.

Gordon's opinion of the "First Lady of Gotham City" was a poor one. She'd targeted Ham Hill and had broken up his marriage to his first wife Sandi, the mother of his two children. Gordon was no saint in the marriage department, but he felt that Sandi Hill had been railroaded by the pushy Silicon-Blonde.

By the time Bruce Wayne and Jennifer Hill reached his den, she was already flirting outrageously with him, and was beginning to get touchy-freely. He tolerated it for the sake of his "mission."

"It's right in here, Jen, this is my 'Fortress of Solitude,' my sanctuary. Hopefully, we won't be dist..." Bruce paused as he began to open the door. His chief of security approached him and his "guest."

"Excuse me, Mr. Wayne. I believe you were looking for this." The tall man said crisply, as he handed his employer a videotape cassette.

"Yes, Chuck, thanks, old boy. Hey, Jen -- Chuck, Chuck -- Jen. Jennifer, Chuck, here, runs my security for, oh, just about everything — the company, the house, he's my bodyguard... except maybe he can have the night off in that respect, eh, Jen?" Bruce hinted suggestively, in full playboy-mode. "We'll just be in here, Chuck — and you didn't see us!" Bruce whispered conspiratorially to LeGrange.

Bruce Wayne opened the door of his den and ushered Jennifer Hill inside. She wandered around the room, admiring the masculine furniture and knick-knacks.

"Mmm, Bruce, this is a cozy little 'sanctuary' you have here. I'll bet you get a lot of work done on this big desk." She shimmied up onto the desk, sat and crossed her legs. The slit in her dress fell to one side, exposing a long, creamy leg.

"Actually, Jen, I get a lot more work done in my basement office, but Alfred won't let anyone but family into the basement." Bruce would have been amused at himself, if he didn't despise the woman before him so much.

Dick Grayson drew on every stealth skill the Batman had taught Robin, in an effort to remain motionless and soundless in his hiding place. Oh, god, he hated that he was stuck here, but it would be way too weird to pop up and make his presence known now. And what was Bruce doing in here with the Mayor's wife? 'She's flirting with him, for God's sake, and he's doing the playboy shtick on her. What is up with that? Please, please, pleeeeeeze go somewhere else to talk. Please don't stay here! Babs, please don't get mad and go home because I didn't come right back with the stupid camera. Stupid camera, stupid scrapbook, stupid car, stupid birthday, stupid, stupid Dick!'

Gordon and Flynn walked into the den to find Bruce and Mrs. Hill already there, as Bruce and Jim Gordon had planned. Gordon would remain as a witness to the proceedings, and to make sure his friend didn't lose his temper. Before tonight, James Gordon would have scoffed an anyone who would have told him that Bruce Wayne was capable of getting upset over anything more serious than getting bumped from a tee time. But he had seen his friend as a real person tonight, an irate father, as outraged and protective as Gordon considered himself capable of being.

"Heyyyy, didn't mean to interrupt anything here, we can go someplace else to talk, right, Jimbo?" Flynn recovered from his surprise quickly.

Bruce answered the Councilman's query with a less than amused expression now. "Actually, Ryan, this is where you and Jim and Jennifer and I are supposed to talk, and..." he held up the videotape, "...this is what we're going to talk about."

Jennifer Hill slid down from the desk and straightened her dress. She lost her flirtatious air and replaced it with the same haughty one she'd used on Barbara. "What's going on here? Is this some kind of ambush? I don't find this the least bit amusing!" She snorted.

Bruce came dangerously close to answering the woman with the Voice. He made a conscious effort to rein his ire, and merely pressed a remote control, revealing a media center in the wall to the right of his desk. He walked to the electronic equipment and inserted the videotape into a VCR.

"Bruce, what gives? Why am I here?" Flynn asked, somewhat confused, and near discomfort.

"You're here, Ryan, because you both were in my garage earlier. I've always liked you, Ry, and knew you were a skirt-chaser, but I never thought you were capable of being this stupid, or had such poor taste in women." Bruce replied, shooting a look of icy disgust at Jennifer Hill. The events played on the screen, then Bruce paused the tape before Dick appeared on camera.

"I'm sorry, Bruce." The Councilman apologized. "It was just kicks, though. I'll have your Bentley detailed tomorrow. Repainted if there are any scratches. But it's nothing to get pissed about."

Jennifer Hill said nothing, and refused to watch the videotape.

Jim Gordon listened without contribution, other than that of his warning presence. While the tape played, he walked to the small bar behind Bruce's desk and poured himself a cola over ice, and then moved to the far end of the room to stand next to the bookcase. He'd seen the tape once, knew what could legally be done about it, but he was in this room only to provide support to a family friend — and to make sure no undue threats were made in either direction.

James Gordon knew Bruce Wayne wasn't the total ditz most people believed him to be. Gordon himself would never look at the man in quite the same way again after tonight, that much was certain. Unfortunately, he might never look at the boy in the same way again either, thanks to Jennifer Hill.

Gordon took a swallow of the soft drink and turned to scan over some of the books in the case, noting some of Dr. Wayne's old medical texts among other books on various subjects. Glancing to his right, several books by James Michener caught his attention, and he stepped closer to read the different titles, straining because he wasn't wearing his reading glasses and refused to get bifocals. And then he saw — something that shot his eyebrows up into his hairline — and put a curl on his lips, hidden beneath his walrus mustache.

He didn't know what circumstances had put the boy there, but Dick Grayson was lying wedged between the sofa and the bookcase, his hands clapped over his mouth. Suddenly, two bright blue eyes locked on Gordon's, and widened in shock. Dick put his index finger to his pursed lips in a pantomime of secrecy, then clasped his hands in front of him, begging the Police Commissioner not to reveal his presence.

Gordon quickly turned his back on the boy, trying not to attract Bruce's attention, but good God, he wanted to burst out laughing at that absurd sight. Gordon coughed to disguise an escaping laugh. The voices on the other end of the room stopped.

Bruce Wayne called to his friend, "You alright, Jim?" Gordon looked at Wayne and nodded, then cleared his throat loudly. "Yeah. Cola went down the wrong way. I didn't mean to interrupt — I'm just going to get a little more ice, and sit down over here, if you don't mind, Bruce."

"Of course, Jim." Bruce Wayne was glad to have Jim there. For all his control, the Bat wanted nothing more than to ... protect his son.

"No, Ry, fucking the Mayor's wife on my car — in my garage, in my home — isn't the kind of thing to piss me off. This, however, is." Bruce resumed the videotape's play, and the ugly scene between his son and Jennifer Hill unfolded before Flynn's astonished eyes. Mrs. Hill still would not look at the tape. She looked at her expensively manicured fingernails instead.

The tape ended, Bruce ejected it, and turned the equipment off. Ryan Flynn tuned his unbelieving gaze on Jennifer Hill, his mouth agape. Finally, he found words.

"God, Jen, he's a kid. A kid I've known since he was a squirt and first came to live here. My *nephew* goes to school with him! That's more than just 'bad form,' Jen. That's ... *criminal*. Oh, shit. And you wouldn't have been there if I hadn't suggested we go to the garage."

Flynn turned back to his host, ashamed. "Oh, God, Bruce. I am *SO* sorry. Yes. You *DO* have every reason to be righteously furious with me. I am so sorry."

Targeting the seemingly oblivious Mrs. Hill, Flynn fumed. "God-damn it, Jen, the boy's only sixteen! And what the fuck was that crack about him and Bruce? I knew you were a bitch Jennifer, a hot one, but not a *cruel* one. Not a petty, cruel one."

Ryan Flynn literally bit down on his lip in an attempt to keep his temper in check. He was angry with her, and angrier with himself for letting the wrong head do his thinking tonight. And he'd led a cruel, sick bitch like Jen Hill to a decent, nice kid to victimize. He could barely look his friend Bruce Wayne in the face. How the hell was he going to apologize to the man's son?

Bruce felt a small measure of relief at Flynn's sincere apology, and he knew it to be genuine, because Flynn was basically a good man, he just had more libido than brains ... he always had. Only now it had affected someone completely innocent.

Dick Grayson, stuck in his cramped position, kept his hands clapped over his mouth for fear of sobbing, cheering, or screaming. He was deeply ashamed that these people had to watch that damned tape, let alone discuss it. He didn't want to be trapped behind the sofa, forced to eavesdrop on an encounter he was absolutely certain Bruce wouldn't want him to be a witness to. He should have just opened the door in the beginning and revealed himself. At least his embarrassment would have been temporary, and he could have escaped.

'God, this just *sucks*!' Dick's thoughts screamed at him.

Just then something wet and very cold hit him in the face, on his cheek. It slid down his neck into his open shirt collar. *Ice!* Dick flinched at the cold ice as it ran down the front of his chest. Another piece hit him between the eyes. He looked up to see the Commissioner's hand come over the back of the couch, his fingers opened and dropped another piece — this one got him in the eye good and proper.

Dick summoned every scrap of self-control not to move or utter a sound at this — torture? — being inflicted upon him by Barbara's father. Dick felt like he was on the luge-ride to hell. First the garage, then getting stuck here in the den and being discovered by the Commissioner, and now, tortured. Dick closed his eyes and recited his new mantra of the heart: 'Babs loves me, Babs loves me...'

Jennifer Hill glared daggers at her now-former lover. How dare he speak to her like that? He fucked around more than anyone she knew. "Just shut up, Ryan. You're a putz! You've got a conquest list ten miles long in this city alone!"

"Guilty as charged, Jen. But I've never *molested children*." Flynn turned to Bruce Wayne. "Bruce, are you going to show that to Ham?"

Bruce leaned against his desk with his arms crossed, his self-restraint thinned. "That tape's not leaving this house, and the incident is not going beyond this room, as far as you're concerned, Ry." he said, icy calm.

Jennifer Hill snorted her contempt. "You guys make me ill. I thought all the 'good old boys' lived down South. Ryan can fuck around all he wants and he escapes unscathed in your book, Bruce. I was just having fun with the kid — who, by the way, is NOT that much of a kid! He's got pecs and a set of abs that make you look like a sack of potatoes, Ryan. And a bigger, harder package, too!"

She was on a roll now. She strutted up to Bruce Wayne and got in his face with her filthy poison.

"He certainly must be used to *some* kind of regular attention, Bruce, to respond the way he did, as quickly as he did. And God knows I haven't heard of a single date you haven't ditched out on before the end of the evening. I'm thinking it's because you like to build up your appetite out on the town, but you prefer to come home to eat dinner.

"This 'playboy' thing is just a sham, Bruce, a façade. You and your billions went out and bought yourself a juicy little gypsy boy to fuck, because I *know* you pulled in a lot of markers to get custody of your gypsy. How else could a judge grant custody of a boy to a bachelor, unless you owned him, just like you own your boy."

Jennifer Hill continued to spew her venom at Bruce Wayne. "The boy's got to be good for you to keep him around so long. Soft in the right places, hard in the right places, and so pretty, too — beautiful, in fact. That mouth alone could make his fortune, if he didn't have yours already," she sneered. "So, are you waiting for him to turn eighteen before you both 'come out,' or will you just pack him off to college with a nice trust fund and a 'job well done' while you find yourself another convenient, younger orphaned boy to 'raise'?"

Jennifer Hill bared her teeth in a vicious smile at her last remark, knowing she was hitting some kind of weak spot in the elusive billionaire.

Bruce Wayne's eyes went black with fury. His arms uncrossed as he pulled himself to his full, intimidating height, his hands balling into fists of deadly force at his sides.

Lying on the floor behind the sofa, Dick Grayson had heard all he could take from this terrible woman. He had begun to push himself up when a big hand dropped behind the back of the sofa, finger pointing at him in a forceful command to stay put. The arm disappeared as Dick heard Commissioner Gordon rise from the sofa and quickly cross the room. Dick lay back down and brought his hands up to cover his eyes, unable to defend his partner, his parent, from the venomous verbal attack.

"Bruce!" Jim Gordon shouted sharply. The two other people whipped their heads in the direction of that bark of authority. Bruce Wayne's icy gaze never left Mrs. Hill, as Jim Gordon's eyes would not leave Bruce Wayne's.

"Back off, now!" Gordon placed himself between Bruce and the woman, staring closely at the big man before him. The severity of the man's expression seemed somehow familiar, yet his eyes, the set of his jaw, the thin line of his mouth was not like the Bruce Wayne he knew at all.

"Jesus, Jen, you're not just cruel, you're fucking *evil!* You just stay the fuck away from me from now on — stay the fuck away from all of us! Hamilton Hill made the biggest goddamned mistake of his life when he left Sandi for a bitch like you," Ryan Flynn angrily exclaimed.

"If I were you, Jen, I'd make definite plans to be divorced or annulled before summer's end, if you know what's good for you. I'll personally see that you get eighty-sixed from the entire Gotham social register if it takes shooting down my own career to do it," Flynn threatened. "That's the greatest public service I could give to the citizens of Gotham City!" Ryan Flynn was red-faced with Irish fury, spitting his ultimatum at the woman who stood before him.

A voice, much calmer than it should be, interrupted Flynn.

"Ryan. This doesn't leave the room," Bruce Wayne announced. "Eight people know what happened in the garage tonight — and six of them will never speak a word of it off of this estate. That leaves the two of you. If this spreads, if I hear *ANYthing* about it, if my son is ever confronted with it in school, I'll know where it started, and I'll break you both," Bruce stated matter-of-factly.

"Dick is my son — he has been since he was nine and came to live here. He's seen enough tragedy in his life, I won't permit any filthy, vicious lies to touch him, do you understand me? I'll go to war with you both, and neither of you has the arsenal I have at my disposal. I'll make it my life's obsession to make your lives miserable," the billionaire warned.

"Ryan, I can back a candidate tomorrow that will be more charismatic and more dedicated to public service; and Jennifer, you may as well go back to Nebraska to wait tables in a truck stop. You're finished if a word of this ever, *ever* reaches my ears. And my ears are pretty far-reaching. I don't want to pull my son out of his school to home-school him for the rest of his college-prep academic career, but I will if I have to, to protect him."

Bruce Wayne's eyes blazed at his two "guests." "Dick is NOT my toy, NOT my bed-warmer, NOT my cabin boy. Dick Grayson is my *son*. He was the first light to enter this house since my own parents were murdered. I won't let you take that light from my family. I *won't.* "

Bruce trained his iron gaze on the icy blonde. "And Jennifer — do Hamilton Hill a favor and be out of his life before September."

Bruce Wayne walked around his desk, sat in the high-backed leather chair, and reclined slightly, massaging his temples with his fingers. "Now, both of you go home. You've given me a headache."

Councilman Flynn nodded his adieu to his host and the Police Commissioner, and left the room without a word or look at Jennifer Hill.

"Mrs. Hill, why don't you and I go and find your husband. I'm sure he must be missing you terribly." Jim Gordon offered. Turning to Bruce, he added "Besides, I haven't danced with my baby girl tonight. This is one dad who could use a big hug right now."

James Gordon gave his friend a tired smile, and escorted the mayor's wife from the room, closing the door behind him.

Bruce rose from his chair and turned around to the wet bar behind his desk. He filled a glass with ice, then opened a bottle of sparkling water, pouring it over the ice. He stood for a moment, lost in his thoughts. That is, until he caught the sight of motion in the reflection of the silver ice bucket on the bar. He spun around in time to see his ward — his partner and son — scrambling over the back of the leather couch. The youth dropped a camera on the couch and stood facing him. Dick's face was flushed, his shirt damp from the melted ice Jim Gordon had dropped on him, his face damp from the tears that continued to spill from his reddened eyes. He said nothing, but simply stood, staring at Bruce Wayne, his chest rising and falling with ragged breaths.

Bruce stared back, his face reddened slightly, partly from having been surprised by Dick's sudden appearance, and partly from the discomforting realization that the boy had apparently heard his entire exchange with Councilman Flynn and Mrs. Hill.

"What are you doing in here? Did you hear all of that?" Bruce asked, straining to keep his voice even.

"Did you mean that? What you told those people, did you meant it — that's how you really feel?" Dick's words rushed out of him, quick and broken.

"Don't answer a question with a question, Dick." Bruce stepped out from behind the desk and approached the rooted boy.

"You do it all the time with me ..." Dick's voice broke on the last word. He turned his back on Bruce and swiped desperately at the tears with his jacket sleeve, furious that the tears would not stop. Who was he, a hero or a baby? Turning back around to face his guardian, he continued, fighting to speak past constricted throat muscles. "What you told them ... about ... about me — and — her — and ... Bruce, I thought you were ... I thought you'd be ..." He shut off the broken flow of words and slammed his eyes shut. 'Maybe that will keep theses stupid tears from leaking out!' he thought, as he ran his hand through his hair out of nervous habit.

Unsure how to proceed with the boy, Bruce stepped forward and gently put his hands on Dick's trembling shoulders. Frustrated with what he felt was his — inability — to deal with this incendiary emotional situation, he spoke carefully, blindly feeling his way.

"Dick, you thought I what? You don't think I'm angry with you over what happened, do you? What happened to you was not your fault. You acted... as appropriately as you could."

Liquid blue eyes seized the older man's sharply. "You don't think I screwed up? Bruce, I let her get close enough to — kill me. I didn't know her, she could have been dangerous, she could have...."

The large hands tightened on the still unsteady shoulders. "She was dangerous. In a certain way, yes. But Dick — son — I don't believe you 'screwed up' in the garage. And, well, you heard me. I'm furious at what that woman did and said to you." The sudden recall of her venomous accusations washed over Bruce, and he quickly removed his hands from the boy's shoulders.

Dick gasped quietly at Bruce's sudden withdrawal; his wide eyes followed the big hands, then looked up to the man's face. Bruce looked uncomfortable. Uncomfortable from the emotions or uncomfortable from...?

"It *does* bother you, what she implied about us. It does make you feel weird, like you can't be — close — anymore."

Dick's voice had stopped its quavering, but had become smaller, and sad. He turned away from Bruce and sat on the leather couch. He raked both hands through his dark hair and, resting his elbows on his knees, he held his head in his hands.

Bruce watched his son sink to the couch, heard the lad's pained perception of his single, retreating gesture. Bruce's face tightened in confusion. Shouldn't Dick be the one to retreat, to run — questioning — from the one person who held all control over his life, his actions? How could Dick have listened to Jen Hill's filthy accusations and not view his 'guardian' with different eyes?

Not looking at Bruce, but not hearing any protest from him, either, Dick opened his heart and spilled his feelings, like dropping a box of marbles on the floor.

"You've been different, Bruce. You've behaved differently to me and I didn't know why. When Mrs. Hill said what she did I thought maybe *that* might be it, that you'd heard innuendos and decided you shouldn't... I don't know. But you've been... distant. And cool. For a while. And I know you push me hard for a good reason, Bruce, but it's been all push — and no pull, for so long now. And I started to think that it's my fault, somehow, that I'm not working hard enough for you."

Bruce's eyes narrowed in introspection. Behaved differently? Not because of the petty ponderings of idle, privileged Gothamites. Gotham City's criminal underworld was pushing back; for every advance Batman and Robin made, the swelling infection of evil shoved back — hard. Batman sometimes felt that perhaps those who had questioned his logic in taking on a young partner were right. It was no place for a boy — he had no right to expose the lad to such danger. But Robin had been a gifted child, an exemplary student. He excelled at everything the Batman threw at him. He was a good soldier. And, a worthy and trusted companion.

Unable to find words that were willing to escape, Bruce sat on the couch beside Dick, and let the boy continue.

"And, it's just felt like that all night tonight. In the ballroom, earlier, I was late — we know why now — and then she was there, again, and then later when Babs and I were called back from the boathouse you and her dad were so — serious — and I knew you'd probably seen the tape by then. And when Mr. LeGrange spoke to you in the hall, I was certain of it."

"Even at the birthday party you were, I don't know, not like I've seen you before, and I knew it was because of the tape and I was sure you were gonna rip me up about it. But. Then — the car. And. And it was better because you went down to look at it *with* me, we did it together. And then I had to get my stupid camera. And I came through *here* to get to the Cave, where I'd left it, and then you and... Mrs. Hill... were on the other side of the door and I panicked. Me. Robin. Your partner. I panicked and hid. Like a child. I was about to get up and scream at her when she said all that vicious crap to you, but Commissioner Gordon wouldn't let me." Dick sighed and sat up, wiping his face with his pulled-out shirttail. He took a deep breath and released it, then looked into Bruce's eyes.

"And then you said what you did. About me." Dick's eyes brimmed and spilled again. He wiped at them again. Bruce pulled Dick's handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his tuxedo jacket and handed it to him. Dick took it, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose.

"You always say you're bad with the warm-and-fuzzy stuff, that's why you leave that kind of thing to Alfred. But — I've never heard you talk about me like that before. And lately, because you've been so — cool — I didn't believe you *could* feel like that..." Dick's voice broke again and he stopped. He looked down at the handkerchief he was twisting in his hands.

"Bruce. The car... the car's cool and all, and I love it, but... what you told those people about me... how you felt about me... is the best birthday present I could ever want to have from you, because it didn't come from your wallet, it came from... you. Those words, and, God, your voice when you said them, that means so much more to me than a car or any other *thing*." Dick's hand went to his throat, to the cross on the chain, and he smiled. "Well, 'cept I kind of like *this* thing."

It was Bruce Wayne's throat that tightened now. He hadn't planned what he had said to the Mayor's wife about Dick. He hadn't really verbalized his feelings about him to anyone, least of all, to himself. No — least of all, to Dick. Had the boy really not known? Nonetheless, he did now, and by accident.

*By accident.*

Bruce's eyes fell on his son; he saw a look of calm replace one of anguish as the youth touched the meager family heirloom around his neck.

Bruce handed his son the glass of water. After Dick took a swallow and handed it back, Bruce finished off the glass and sat it on the floor beside him. Only then did he try to speak.

"I thought you'd lost that," he began, pointing to the chain and pendant around Dick's neck.

"I did. Babs found another one almost just like Granna's. She traced it to a jeweler in Sarajevo." Dick picked up the cross and peered at it.

"Barbara's a resourceful girl. A good researcher." Bruce affirmed, watching his son closely.

"Uh-huh. She is." Dick replied absently, still fingering and looking at the cross.

A moment passed as neither partner spoke. The silence wasn't exactly uncomfortable, it just — was.

"Dick, I forgot it was your birthday today." Bruce surprised himself at the spontaneous confession.

"Uh-huh, I know." Dick pulled the cross idly back and forth on the chain.

"Alfred bailed me out. Again. I mean, we'd talked about the car weeks ago, but I've been so caught up in work..."

"It's okay, Bruce." Dick leaned back against the soft leather, still fingering the chain and pendant.

"Dick, I don't feel *weird* about your being here in this house — you belong here, you're my family, you and Alfred. I just didn't know how you'd feel about the ugly things that woman said." Bruce matched his son's posture on the sofa, then reached out to put one hand on Dick's shoulder.

"Dick — why didn't you come to me when it happened? Why couldn't you tell me?"

The teen looked into the man's eyes, his own expression serious. "It got taken care of, Bruce. It would be pretty pathetic if I had to tell you about every time someone looked at me cross-eyed. Besides, you always find out everything, anyway."

Dick stopped fiddling with his gift from Babs and linked his hands across his lap. "I wasn't hurt, Bruce, not traumatized, either. Just — shocked. What bugged me out worse was worrying that I'd screwed up and that you'd rip me a new one for it."

"So that's why you looked so... uncomfortable all evening? I didn't know what was bothering you first, and then after I saw the tape, I thought it was because of what she had said and done to you."

"So there are creeps in the world, Bruce. Big deal. You don't have to know about every time some slime bucket oozes in my direction. You've got more important things to do. I can take care of certain aspects of my life without having to get you involved." Dick dropped his head back and closed his eyes, appreciating the ability to breath again.

"You mean like that coach at your school a couple of years ago?" Bruce looked at his son, and wondered where the time had gone. He felt old.

A corner of Dick's mouth lifted in a wry, half-smirk. "See what I mean, Bruce? You find out about everything. *That* got taken care of. 'News flash,' Bruce. I'm Robin, the Boy Wonder. My partner's the 'Worlds Greatest Bad-ass.' That should make me the 'Worlds Second-Greatest Bad-ass,' right?" Dick quipped, his smirk widening slightly.

Then more seriously, "Bruce, I thought I handled that situation okay. But I didn't handle tonight's as well as I thought I should have. Instead, I got flustered by what I saw, and by what she was doing to me. What if that had been Catwoman, or Poison Ivy, or some other 'beautiful-but-deadly' woman who would really have taken the opportunity to make it a fatal encounter. See what I'm getting at?"

Bruce's mouth curled into a half-smile, and he tapped Dick lightly on the shoulder. "True, but I've got a 'news flash' for you, 'World's Second-Greatest Bad-ass' — that's called growing up. It's called sexual awareness complicated by hormonal influence. You'll learn to handle it — hopefully — in time," Bruce advised his young partner, one eyebrow sagely arched. "In fact, I'm giving you ... five minutes to do just that." Bruce glanced at his wristwatch for effect, then looked back at his son, his half-smile grown to three-quarters. "Otherwise, you'll end up like Ryan Flynn, letting all your thinking be done by your ..."

"Johnson." The junior half of the Dynamic Duo interjected quickly, shooting a smirk at the senior half. "Or, 'unit,' or 'pecker,' or, *anything* but the 'D-word,' please!" Dick's smile grew as he looked at Bruce. "Sometimes I wonder what in the world my folks were thinking when they stuck me with that one!" Both men laughed quietly.

Bruce sighed almost audibly. "It seems we've really had our signals crossed lately, chum. We need to work on that." He ruffled Dick's dark hair affectionately.

"Yeah. Babs says guys suck in communications skills. Guess she's right." Dick's smile became wistful at the thought of—

"She's become pretty important to you, wouldn't you say, chum?" Bruce observed Dick carefully.

Dick's fingers went unconsciously to the chain at his throat again. "Sure. She's like, my best friend, Bruce. For a long time, now."

"But I thought that was Wally West."

"Nope. Wally's my best pal. Babs is my best friend, my best girl. My only girl, since I was nine." Dick grinned again, watching for Bruce's reaction to his revelation.

"Well, if she's your *best* friend, what does that make me?" the older man asked in mock petulance.

Dick stood up and retrieved his camera. He stretched, and looked back at Bruce, hands resting lightly on his hips. "That makes you my Dad. And my partner."

Dick held his hand out, offering Bruce a hoist off the couch. "C'mon, partner, let's get back to the party. I want to have at least one dance with my best girl."

Bruce groaned as he allowed his son to pull him to his feet. Automatically straightening his suit, and smoothing his hair, Bruce moved toward the door, placing one hand between Dick's shoulders. "Everyone wants to dance with Barbara. No one wants to dance with me." He complained.

Dick laughed and reached for the door. "That's because you always want to lead, Bruce."

Father and son walked down the hallway in the direction of the festivities. The orchestra still played, Glen Miller's "String of Pearls."

"Dick. What were you two doing in the boathouse, anyway?" Bruce quizzed his young counterpart.

Dick raked one hand through his hair. "Looking at the new boat."

"Uh-huh. With champagne? What, were you 'christening' it?" His eyes narrowed parentally.

Dick wheeled about to face Bruce, walking backwards as he replied.

"One 'birthday toast,' Bruce, that's all. And we talked about stuff. And she told me you needed me. And you're *leading* again and *that's* why nobody wants to dance with you!" Dick pointed his finger at Bruce, then swung the instant camera up and snapped a photo, flipped the undeveloped picture at Bruce and turned, disappearing quickly into the remaining crowd.

Bruce Wayne stood at the perimeter of the large, neo-Gothic ballroom, holding the photo in his hand, and watched the image of himself develop.

"Your tie is crooked, Master Bruce."

Bruce Wayne flinched at Alfred's sudden appearance. He turned to complain, but the proper British gentleman's gentleman had already disappeared, presumably to solve some other crisis.

"Head's up!"

James Gordon had been dancing with his daughter when a sudden flash of light blinded him. He heard a click and whirring sound as multicolored dots danced before his eyes. Someone pressed a piece of heavy paper into his hand as his daughter vanished from his arms.

"See you later, Dad!" Barbara's giggling punctuated her farewell. As the spots before his eyes faded, Gordon glimpsed his daughter being pulled from the room and out onto the terrace by a laughing Dick Grayson. Gordon shook his head slowly and went in search of a cup of coffee.

Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon approached his host of this eventful evening, Bruce Wayne, bearing two cups of steaming coffee in his hands. "Here, Wayne, you look like you need this." He held out one cup, which was accepted and gratefully acknowledged.

The men sipped the strong, black brew in a moment of silence. Gordon was the first to speak.

"My daughter was appropriated out of my arms by a camera-wielding young maniac." He illustrated his tale by partially pulling an instant photo from his jacket pocket.

"Where are they now, Jim?" Bruce inquired abruptly.

"Somewhere. Together." Came Gordon's cautious reply.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" one protective father asked another protective father.

"It's a careful thing, Bruce. I told Barbara what happened with Flynn and Mrs. Hill. She's aware of how you feel about Dick. I wouldn't worry about them. They're good kids." Gordon sipped his coffee, carefully eyeing his friend with new regard.

"It's a big age difference, Jim," Bruce noted flatly.

"Will you relax? We're not talking about a predator like Jennifer Hill, Bruce. We're talking about Barbara, who's known Dick since he was nine. She'd never hurt him. In fact, she'd take *you* apart if you hurt that boy. Barbara's a responsible girl, Bruce." Gordon warily defended his daughter.

"I should speak with her." Bruce's brow furrowed slightly as he drank the coffee.

"Bruce, I trust my daughter. Do you trust Dick? It might not be a bad idea to spend a little more time with the boy, yourself. That way, he might have less time to concentrate on my daughter. *If* that's what you're worried about." Gordon's words were a little more judgmental than he'd have preferred, but Barbara had said that the boy had been upset that Wayne seemed to be shutting him out for some time now.

Bruce Wayne was surprised by Jim Gordon's "advice." He looked squarely at the man and demanded, "What the hell do you mean by that, Jim?"

James Gordon gave the billionaire a sympathetic slap on the back. "Get a clue, Wayne," was all the Police Commissioner gave in reply as he walked away into the thinning crowd.

The full moon was almost directly overhead, casting its silver light over the stone and marble terrace, and bathing Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson in an almost otherworldly iridescence. The air was cooler now, and Dick's tux jacket was once again draped over Barbara's shoulders. The two friends shared a brief dance before the orchestra stopped playing for the night, and had now retreated to the far corner of the terrace, the corner overlooking the path to the boathouse where they had walked earlier in the evening.

Dick sat astride the marble railing with his back against the outer wall of the Manor, while Barbara sat between his legs, reclining into his chest and shoulder. Her long legs were outstretched before her, balanced on the railing and crossed at the ankles. Dick's arms were wrapped around her for warmth.

"Short-Pants, this position does nothing for keeping my butt warm against this chilly marble!" she complained. He laughed, and the vibration shook them both.

"You can sit on my lap, Babs!" Dick offered with exaggerated politeness, while silently praying, 'Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes...'

Babs sat up and swung her feet over the rail, then hopped down to the terrace deck. "Brrr, Boy Wonder, it's getting colder out here. Alone is nice, but freezing is definitely not!" She hugged herself and rubbed her arms, then faced Dick and rubbed her chilled behind.

Dick pouted for only an instant, then he gripped the railing with both hands and extended his straddled legs outward. He bent forward and pushed up with his arms, then scissored his outstretched legs together effortlessly above his head, assuming a perfect handstand. His chain fell out of his shirt, the cross striking him in the nose. He chuckled, but continued to play on the railing, removing first his left hand, and then switching to his right.

"If I didn't know you so well, Teen Wonder, I'd accuse you of showing off," Babs quipped, admiring Dick's grace, form, and strength. She walked over to him and slid the cross behind him, out of his face. Leaning her elbows on the railing just behind his head, she asked, "Don't you think Alfred might let you move the car now? Personally, I think sitting in a car is preferable to standing out in the chilled air like this." She picked up the Polaroid camera and snapped a picture of the young acrobat, eliciting a mile-wide, upside-down grin.

"Gahh, don't blind me, Babs, you'll mess up my dismount!" he fussed.

"Then just close your eyes, Dicky. You can do it better that way, anyway."

And he could. Dick executed a double forward walkover that continued into a simple, yet elegant, single forward somersault dismount, sticking his landing perfectly. His arms rose to salute a crowd that existed only in his imagination, then he pivoted to face Babs, and opened his eyes.

"Let's go play in my car, Babs."

The orchestra was packing up as Barbara and Dick walked, hand-in-hand, through the Wayne Manor ballroom. The last of the guests were retrieving their wraps and saying their goodbyes in the foyer. Dick and Babs slipped past the exiting visitors, out the big front door, and raced, laughing, down the steps to the awaiting convertible.

"Babs! Pose!" Dick prompted, bringing the camera's viewfinder to his eye. Barbara Gordon struck several silly, serious, and campy-sexy poses, on, in, and around Dick Grayson's birthday gift. They concluded their photo session standing together in front of the car, with Dick holding the camera at arm's length, pointed back at them, to snap a portrait of their mutual affection. Then Barbara once again slipped into the Mustang as Dick held the door open for her. She shuffled the developing photos in her hands as Dick moved around to the driver's side and got in.

Dick turned the ignition key — the car purred to life. He found the control for the convertible top and activated it; the "ragtop" closed smoothly over them. He locked the top into place and sat back, hands on the wheel, enjoying the feel of the new car. He pressed another control and adjusted first his seat's position, then the steering wheel. Finally, he adjusted the mirrors. Dick smiled, with both satisfaction and anticipation. He turned to Babs and saw that she'd been watching his every careful motion in the car with — amusement?

"What?" he questioned, curious at her expression.

Barbara Gordon looked at her Little Robin — not so little anymore — the young man who was flying as fast as he could through life, to catch up with her so they could take wing together. Her heart caught in her throat, and she wondered if she was right in wanting to go down this path that she'd chosen for them. That path would have to pass through an ominous, dark cave, past smothering shadows and dangerous drop-offs.

Barbara looked into the steady blue eyes before her, eyes she thought she could look into forever. Could they do this? Could *she* do this? Could they brave anything together, even Batman's awakened parental resolve? If they were careful, if they were patient, then the answer was yes. Dick hadn't caught up, not quite yet, but he was so close. For all that he looked and acted and fought and worked "grown up" enough, she knew that his tender emotions were still just sixteen.

Babs drew a breath and released it. "Let's take this thing forward, Dicky, nice and slow."

Dick's eyes searched Barbara's for a moment, contentedly lingering in their green gaze, then his attention returned to the new car. He released the brake and put it into gear. And as Babs had directed, he moved them slowly down the path. The far door of the garage was open — waiting for him. 'Alfred' he thought, with a mental snort of affection for the grandfatherly keeper of Wayne Manor and its men.

Dick cautiously pulled the car forward into an available space at the end of the long row of beautiful machines. His place. His machine. He put the car in park, set the brake, rolled the power windows up, turned off the lights and ignition, but kept the radio playing softly for the moment, anyway. Dick sat back and released the breath he'd been holding, and laughed a little at himself. He turned to see that Babs was still watching him with a sweet sort of expression on her face.

"Hey, look Babs, tinted windows." He announced, tapping the driver's side window. "Camera can't see us." He winked, cheeky and boy-charming.

She could have retorted with an equally cheeky comeback, but didn't. Instead, she returned his suggestion by running a hand through his hair, brushing the errant tendrils out of his eyes. That same hand brushed across his flushed and downy cheek, as she dove into the blue depths that gazed at her. Realizing she'd better breathe before drowning in them, she spoke, not completely sure of what words would fall from her lips.

"It's been a pretty eventful day for you, huh, Birthday-boy? You'll probably sleep the sleep of the dead, once everything quiets down here and returns to normal." Her hand remained open-palmed on his face; her thumb stroked his cheek softly.

Dick leaned, almost imperceptibly, into her hand, as if to absorb her love from that chaste contact. He blinked, and his open-eyed gaze returned again only half-lidded. His respiration slowed, his heartbeat slowed, and time slowed as the world fell away, leaving just the two of them. One of his hands crept up to hold her hand against his face, the other sought her free hand and linked their fingers together, completing the circuit of love's pulse that flowed through them.

He could dissolve into her, he knew. He could drift through a slow motion freefall, waiting to catch the warm updraft of her returned love for him. And through this pleasant mist of emotion, her words of caution from earlier that evening fired back to him — the sure, if momentarily unwanted, jumpline of reality: '...we both have to keep our heads...I don't want to have to give you up.' Dick blinked his eyes again, caught that jumpline, and pulled himself out of his freefalling reverie, and into a tenuous handhold of "someday."

He wasn't greedy. He didn't have to have everything, all at once. He was unbelievably grateful for the precious gifts he'd received tonight from the people he loved best. Love. Reassurance. Family. Besides, a careful and steady ascent could take both Babs and himself to wonderfully dizzying heights, with little stops and breathers along the way as safeguards. The payoff would be a flight beyond imagining! Dick's smile opened into a beaming reflection of the happiness he felt at that moment, at his place in the world.

"Babs, I may not sleep at all tonight. I don't think I could turn off my thinker if I tried." Dick leaned forward, to touch foreheads with Babs, their noses brushing in Eskimo kisses. "Thank you for tonight, Babs. Thank you for being here for me, thank you for Granna's cross, thank you for keeping me from going nuts, and thank you for telling me that you love me. That's such a treasured gift and I promise I'll do everything I can to keep it safe. I love you, Babs. Forever and always and into the next fifty lifetimes."

"Only fifty? That's a fickle Munchkin for you!" Babs' eyes twinkled, with mirth, with love, and with a glistening of unshed tears. In love, and happy that her Boy Wonder was soaring on what felt like the same current of understanding with her, Babs moved her hand from his cheek to cup the back of his head, and drew their mouths together, sealing their love in a tender kiss.

Dick relaxed into that kiss, his body remaining motionless except for their gently exploring mouths. He did tighten his grip on her hand a bit, if just to remind himself that this was all real. Their kiss broke momentarily as they drew warm breaths, but their lips remained close, each delivering tiny kisses to cheeks, chins, noses, and then sought lips again.


The loud, chirping burst of a police cruiser siren split the silence, causing Dick to flinch sharply. He knocked his funny bone on the parking brake handle, as flashing blue lights illuminated the car's interior, as well as the entire garage.

"Eeyowch! I hate it when that..." Dick started. Babs interrupted him quickly.

"Dick, we'd better get out of the car before he shines the spotlight on us!" She grumbled, wiping the traces of lipstick from his face, and from her own, with her hand.

The two vigilantes-in-love emerged from the Mustang, blinking into the headlights and flashing blues of Commissioner Gordon's cruiser. Babs held up the photos to Dick, then tossed them onto the passenger seat before closing the car door.

"Daughter! It's late, let's go home! You're driving, you up for that?" Gordon bellowed gruffly, glad that his smirk of amusement was safely hidden behind his mustache.

"Only if I can run the lights and sirens, Dad. Those are my terms!" Barbara shot back at her old man.

"Deal." James Gordon conceded, and was rewarded with the expected peck on the cheek. He walked around to the passenger side of the car, winking wickedly at Dick as the young man stood rocking back and forth on his heels, his hands shoved into his pants pockets. "That suit come with a jacket, boy?" Gordon barked as he climbed into the car.

"Oh, yeah. Yes, sir. Babs — jacket!" Dick called, half-afraid to walk any closer to Babs as she stood at the cruiser's open door. She removed his jacket and tossed it to him.

"Good luck on Monday, Munchkin. Let me know how it goes — maybe drive by the library for my lunch break and tell me how Dad tortured you!" She blew him a kiss and got into the big police cruiser. The door slammed, and a moment later, the car peeled out in reverse, turned, then peeled out a second time, screaming for the long Wayne Manor driveway and road off the estate. The siren shattered the night, and the lights flashed until they could no longer be seen after the car turned onto the main road that led toward Gotham City.

Dick stood in the driveway in front of the garage, watching the Commissioner's car until it disappeared from his sight. He heaved a sigh, his breath condensing into a burst of mist in the crisp, early-spring night air. Slipping on his jacket, Dick realized with amusement how disheveled he had become during the course of the night — shirttail out, a few buttons undone — and quickly reassembled himself. He considered the bow tie for only a second, then left it crushed in his pocket.

He started back to the front of the house, ignoring the garage entrance. Basking in the silver moonlight he smiled contentedly to himself. Picking up his pace, he cartwheeled into a series of three forward handsprings, finishing with a crisp round-off in front of the portico steps. Dick bounded up those steps, three at a time, and stopped briefly in front of the big door to tuck, straighten, and smooth again. He slipped silently inside.

The big house was quiet now, the guests, entertainers, and catering and security staff, gone.

Suddenly starving, Dick headed for the Manor's large kitchen, half expecting it to be a wreck from the event preparations. He entered the "war room" to find it sparkling and spotless. Of course. Alfred Pennyworth sat beside the kitchen table, jacketless and in his stocking feet. His feet were propped on another chair, and he sipped a cup of tea.

"Good Heavens, Alfie, Old Bean, how uncharacteristically undignified of you!" Dick mocked in his best British accent. A place setting was waiting for Dick, with a plate containing two sandwiches and some raw vegetable pieces. A container of milk stood next to the drinking glass by his plate, and a large tin of chocolate chip cookies sat in the middle of the table. Dick quickly removed his jacket, draping it over the back of his chair, then washed his hands at the sink. He returned to the table, sat down and filled his glass with milk.

Alfred eyed the young man with amused disbelief as the sandwiches disappeared, followed by the glass of milk. The exhausted major domo poured himself another cup of tea.

Dick poured another glass of milk, then reached out to the tin, scooping some cookies up to deposit them onto his plate. He crunched a carrot stick and looked cheerfully at his weary surrogate grandfather. "Where's Bruce?" he asked, between bites.

"Master Bruce has 'gone out,' Master Dick. He left thirty minutes ago." The older man replied, while unconsciously rubbing one sore foot with the other.

Dick sat up and swallowed his mouthful of carrot. "Without me?" he protested.

"Yes, Master Dick, without you. Master Bruce said he needed to work off the frustrations of the evening's events, and thought you might like the time to bid goodnight to Miss Gordon." Alfred reached over and selected a cookie from the tin and sat back in his chair. He broke the cookie in two, and dipped one end of one half in his tea, then ate it.

Dick grinned, and did the same thing with one of his cookies and the glass of milk, playing a mirror-game they'd played together, he and Alfred, when Dick was a child.

"So did you have a nice evening with Miss Gordon, Master Dick?" Alfred queried, following up his question by eating the other half of his cookie.

"Um-hmmm," Dick answered, through a mouthful of his own cookie. He washed it down with a swallow of milk. "A very nice evening, considering everything else that went down tonight. —Alfred? Thanks for salvaging my birthday. I should have known better than to doubt you." Dick confessed.

"Yes, you should have, 'Sawdust.' Did you really think that I would forget my boy's birthday?" Alfred play-acted the wounded man, one hand held over his heart, the other to his brow.

Dick laughed at his dear friend's antics, rarely exhibited. "I guess not, Alfie. But it's been a tough gig tonight. Lots of ups and downs. The ups have been great — Babs' gift..." Dick proudly held up his replaced heirloom, "...Wally's showing up, the *car* — a nice choice, by the way, Alfie!" Dick tapped one of Alfred's sore feet. The older man winced slightly.

Dick pulled his chair closer to Alfred's and pulled the man's outstretched feet into his own lap. Dick rubbed his friend's tired feet gently and continued his recount. "And Bruce and I talked, Alfred. I thought it was a good talk." Dick sighed heavily as he expertly massaged Alfred's weariness away.

"So I heard, 'Sawdust.' Master Bruce seemed somewhat — moved — by your conversation. You must remember he had a much different adolescence than you, not having had a father figure. The two of you are bound to experience some miscommunication. Fatherhood is a discovery process, even for heroes." Alfred cautioned gently.

"But Bruce had you, Alfred." Dick defended his grandfatherly friend.

"Ah, I raised Master Bruce, yes, and like to think of him as a son, but as I said, fatherhood is a discovery process, and I sometimes wonder if I was a sufficient enough parent for him. I still could not deter him from his nocturnal vocation, nor deter him from your inclusion in it." It was Alfred's turn to sigh; he was tired and felt his age.

Dick stopped his massage, gripped the older man's ankles, and leaned forward. "Alfred, you did the best you could. I know you did. I think Bruce is doing the best that he thinks he can, trying to raise me. And he does care for me. At least that's what it sounded like tonight. We're just different from other families. But we are a family and that's the most important thing, at least to me. It sounded like it was important to Bruce, too, even though it sounded like he hasn't realized that for very long," Dick now defended his mentor/father.

"I believe he realized it, but perhaps did not choose to recognize and admit it, Richard." Alfred conceded.

"Because...he doesn't want to admit he might need someone?" Dick suggested carefully.

"Perhaps so, my boy. You shall have to take it up with him. I cannot presume to speculate Master Bruce's feelings to you... it is not entirely my place. But I believe that the two of you have patched a bit of a gap that was growing between you. I fear that shall always be a challenge, so unique is your relationship to one another. It takes as much courage to love as it does to fight, Richard, if I may impart an old man's questionable wisdom to you."

Alfred smiled gently at the young man before him, so rich in feelings, so great in heart, and so dedicated to those he loved.

Dick nodded his agreement, and resumed the rejuvenating massage. He smiled back at Alfred. "You're not as old as you think you are, Alfie. You'll probably outlive us all." Dick quietly professed.

"Good Heavens, young man, perish the thought! Like any 'parent' I look forward to graduations, weddings, and my happy declining years surrounded by joyous little children to spoil. I am counting on you both not to disappoint me! And while you have brought us back to the subject of happy futures, your answer about Miss Gordon was disappointingly brief." Alfred banished Dick's unthinkable prediction with an inquiry as to the lad's relationship with the young woman whom Alfred believed — yet felt it was premature to strongly defend — was a good match in spirit, intellect, and heart for the younger of his two charges.

Dick beamed in tacit reply, yet he answered Alfred's query verbally. "I think she rescued me tonight as much as you did, Alfred. She's the best. I told her how I feel about her and she didn't punch me out. In fact, she told me she has ... similar feelings about me." Dick's face blushed as he confessed his affection for Barbara to his grandfather-at-heart. "But, Alfred, I'm not sure Bruce will understand about Babs and me. Like, maybe he won't be able or willing to see past the age thing.

"No, I'm not certain he will. And if you and Miss Gordon truly have strong feelings for one another, you must take great care to act responsibly. You are still a very young man, Richard, a high school student and a minor. Miss Gordon has graduated from college and has passed the age of legal majority." Alfred retracted his feet from Dick's hands and sat up in his chair, if only to emphasize the importance of his advice.

"You may feel, Richard, that because of your unique responsibilities and abilities, that you are more grown up than your physical age would represent. Yet I feel I would be remiss in not strongly cautioning you to take your time with this budding relationship. It must not — and have no doubt that Master Bruce can see to it that it *will* not — interfere with your education or your partnership with him. For your mutual safety, if the Batman cannot be absolutely certain that Robin's attention is one hundred percent on the job, then there will be no partnership, do you understand that? A lovesick, distracted boy would not be safe performing the dangerous duties that the Batman would require of him. I urge you not to provide him with a reason to make a decision that will be utterly painful for us all, Richard." Alfred issued his advice firmly, yet with consideration to Dick's feelings for both Barbara Gordon and for Bruce Wayne.

Dick sat back in his chair, silent. He listened to Alfred, even though the thought of losing either Bruce or Babs — or Batman — would be equally catastrophic to him.

In a smaller, younger voice than he would have wished to use at the moment, he asked for the older man's guidance. "Then what should I do, Alfred? How do I keep my job *and* my father *and* my girlfriend? If I can't be Robin, I'm pretty sure Bruce and Babs would still care for me, but would they respect me? I can't imagine my life not being Robin. It would kill me if he clipped my wings, Alfred! How could I live if I couldn't fly?"

Dick stood up quickly, almost knocking his chair over. He caught the chair and pushed it under the table, then began pacing the kitchen, frustrated. He reached the far side of the kitchen and turned to cross it again. When he reached the table again, Alfred was standing to face him. Dick looked up with large, imploring blue eyes at the tall, stately gentleman. Alfred placed his hands on Dick's shoulders, halting him.

Alfred spoke gently and reassuringly to his spirited charge. "My boy, I want you to take a look at yourself at this moment. Recognize how you feel, what your frustration does to you, and tell me honestly, do you feel like an adult? Do you think Master Bruce or Miss Gordon would view you as an adult at this moment? If you cannot emphatically answer yes, then...then give this old man a much needed hug, and we shall try to make sense of your unique world and your place in it, 'Sawdust'."

Dick looked into Alfred's kind blue-gray eyes and saw only love and understanding there. He stood for a moment, contemplating the older man's challenge, then quietly stepped into the embrace that had eased his fears from the first night he walked into this house, and this life. Held fast in that reassuring parental embrace, Dick blinked back the stinging threat of tears, and vowed to reach a conclusion without succumbing to them.

From the security of Alfred's arms, Dick asked again what to do. "Then do I have to give up Babs? I don't want to. But I can't give up Bruce, either. And I won't give up Robin. This is almost as bad as Two-Face's Gauntlet, Alfred. It's a choice I can't make without it resulting in disaster."

Alfred pulled back, yet kept his hands on Dick's shoulders. "First, Richard, be content that you have a choice at all. Next, recognize that your choice may not be as grave as you believe. You have expressed to me just now that, for all that you are and can do, you do not feel like an adult just yet. And although you routinely engage in activities and choices as Robin that only adults would usually attempt, adult activities and choices with Miss Gordon may be a premature addition to the exceedingly full load that you already bear." Alfred paused to choose his words carefully, not wishing to cause this spirited young man any more distress than he had already experienced this difficult evening.

"How shall I put this, lad? Gratifying physical need, and the emotional tidal wave that accompanies it, may... tip that load unfavorably and unbalance everything you have worked so hard for. You have seen evidence of action and consequence yourself, just this evening, although do not think for a moment that I would compare you with those two...unmannered people." Alfred huffed with disgust at the disruption that Councilman Flynn and Mrs. Hill had brought into their home, their lives.

Dick half-smiled at Alfred's disdain for the "unhappy couple." He sighed and stepped away from Alfred, and over to the table, where he gathered their dishes. He carried them to the sink and began to wash and rinse them. Alfred appeared next to him, towel in hand, to dry them.

"You're not going to go into the 'Birds and the Bees' speech, are you, Alfred? I've heard it already." Dick grinned, and handed Alfred a glass.

"But do you know about the 'Birds and the *Bat*,' Richard?" Alfred arched one eyebrow stiffly at the youth.

Dick affected a mock-shudder. "Ooh. Can I plead 'the Fifth' on that one, Alfie?"

"You *may*. If I may offer one more piece of advice, and then it's off to bed with you — *if* you are to drive me in your new car to carry out my errands, I want you to be rested and alert." The older man wiped his hands dry and turned to the teen. "Do not rush. I cannot tell you that love is eternal, but if your affections for each other are true, and you have respect for one another, then it will do no harm to let your relationship progress gradually."

Dick pulled the towel from Alfred's hands to dry his own. Smiling bashfully, he offered a tender confession. "We kind of feel that way, I guess, Alfie. Babs says we need to be careful, and I ...I'm just happy that she likes being around me. *I'm* not going to push the subject — Babs isn't the kind of girl to be pushed, anyway!"

"Then I shall bring our discussion to a close with this, Master Dick: it may serve you to remember that your 'father' carries a Batarang and her father carries a handgun. Now shoo! Off to bed with you!" Alfred's expression was inscrutable, with the exception of a devilish twinkle in his eyes.

Dick laughed in relief, and at the dry humor he had come to love in the old man. He crushed the gentleman's gentleman in a fierce bear hug, and then released him. "Thanks, Alfred. I hope I can sleep tonight — I only have about a million things to think about. Oh, and did you know that there's a wild rumor going around that I love you?"

The corner of Alfred's mouth lifted in a wry smile. He stepped into his waiting pair of slippers, retrieved both their jackets and ushered Dick out of the kitchen and down the corridor, headed toward the grand staircase. "Well, that's a rumor I long to be substantiated, Master Dick. Run along now, and sleep well."

Alfred watched Dick bound up the stairs. Dick stopped at the top landing, leaned over the railing, and called down to Alfred.

"Hey, Alfie, I forgot to close the garage."

"Consider it done," came the reply.

"And there are photographs on the front seat of my car..."

"They won't be touched.

"Thanks! G'night, Alfred!"

"To bed! *Now!* "

Alfred Pennyworth backtracked to the garage, and secured the doors. Passing the laundry room, he deposited Dick's jacket on a table reserved for the dry cleaning, then he donned his own jacket. A quick check of the security monitoring room and Alfred walked briskly to the Master's den. Quiet and wraithlike, he descended the stairs to the Batcave. Despite his long and fatiguing day, Alfred Pennyworth would not rest well until he was certain that everything was in its proper place. And among those things, he counted both his two young men.

Sitting in his "downstairs" chair, Alfred slipped on his reading glasses and picked up a volume of Shakespeare from the lamp table next to him. Opening the book, he took one more glance around the Cave.

"One down, one to go. Now, where did I leave off?"

- Fi