Copyright March 2001
The week had been a quiet one. Last night's party — a promotional event for the opening of a new exhibit at the Gotham Museum of Modern Art — had placed him on a social collision course with an old flame — nothing serious then or now, more like a mutual enjoyment of each other's "company." Didi Van der Biehn, bright and vivacious, beautiful and wealthy, had caught and kept his attention for the evening. Evening became night, then early morning, and the two of them had ended up at Wayne Manor for a nightcap that led to the master bedroom.
Embracing just outside his bedroom door, Bruce tore his lips from Didi's, ran his hands down her arms and brushed a kiss across her cheek. "You go in, Didi. I'll be right back, I just have to check on something first."
Bruce's beautiful guest pouted and scolded him. "You'd better," she crooned. "No disappearing acts tonight, Brucie, now that we've gotten this far." She turned, and after a glance over her shoulder at her host-and-lover, she slipped into the bedroom.
Bruce quickly and quietly walked down the hall to one of the Manor's bedrooms and peeked inside. He stood at the door for a moment, studying the small form that lay under the covers, faintly illuminated by the nightlight. He listened to the steady breathing and watched the slight rise and fall of the sleeping child's chest. Assured that all was well with the boy, Bruce retreated to his own room, and to the pleasure that awaited him.
"Mommy! — Daddy!"
The boy woke from the strangling nightmare — the same dream that had plagued his fretful sleep almost nightly for nearly a month since witnessing the horrifying death of his mother and father. Always the same dream, the same sequence of events: the face of the man who had threatened Pop Haly, the snap of the wires, the screams from the audience, the sickening sound of impact, and the blood in the sawdust under the spotlights — the blood that got on his shoes as he stood over the fallen, broken bodies. His parents. Gone. His friends, the only other "family" he knew, moved on to the next town, and the next, and the next after that.
Nine-year-old Dick Grayson sat up in bed, gasping and crying softly as he looked wide-eyed around the room in the confusion of semi-wakefulness. A small night-light dimly illuminated the large bedroom — the former nursery in Wayne Manor — casting inky shadows in the far reaches of the room. This was not the home he remembered. His home was the small trailer with his parents — traveling circus aerialists. This was the big house of the man who had offered him a home and friendship —the man who had helped to calm him each night when the bad dreams came for him. Bruce.
But Bruce wasn't here tonight. Only the big, dark room and the tiny light. Dick wiped his eyes and nose with the edge of the bed sheet and struggled to catch his breath. Maybe Bruce was asleep, Dick wondered. Maybe he would let Dick climb up into the big bed and under the warm covers to seek out the strong arms that could banish the bad dreams for the rest of the night.
Dick scrambled out of his bed and walked barefoot and pajama-clad across the room and out the door into the hallway. At the end of the hall was Bruce's room, its door closed. Dick walked down the hall, shivering slightly in the cool air. As he neared the door, noises from behind it caught Dick's ear. Muffled voices, soft laughter, and other sounds... Standing in front of the door, his small hand on the doorknob, Dick paused, listening carefully to the sounds on the other side. His eyes widened in recognition of the kinds of soft sounds he heard, his hand dropped to his side, and he stepped back from the door.
"Master Dick, please come away from there." Alfred Pennyworth's whispered voice startled the boy, who looked back at him, his face stormy with emotion. The grandfatherly valet approached Dick to gently steer him back to his own room, guessing what had driven the lad from his bed at that hour.
As the older man's hand landed on his shoulder, Dick suddenly wrenched away and ran down the hall to his own room, shutting and locking the door. He ran to the bed and grabbed one of the few meager possessions he had brought into this house from his life in the circus, a stuffed toy elephant that had been his since birth. Dick walked to the big picture window with the sitting ledge, climbed up, and perched there, clutching the toy to his chest. He looked out the window, fighting sleep, until daylight.
"God, that coffee smells marvelous! Alfred, it's nice to see you're still spoiling Brucie, here." Didi Van der Biehn smiled at the major domo as she and Bruce entered the breakfast room together. She was still wearing the black cocktail dress from the previous evening, but with one of Bruce's white dress shirts over it, buttoned demurely and tied at the waist. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail. Face scrubbed free of makeup, she looked fresh and sunny. Bruce looked relaxed and cheerful as he pulled a chair out for Didi at the table.
"I endeavor to be useful, Miss Van der Biehn. How nice to see you at Wayne Manor again." Alfred responded politely, filling her cup with coffee. Turning to Bruce, Alfred gave the man a look of thinly veiled reproach as he poured his coffee, asking, "Would you and Miss Van der Biehn care for fresh cranberry scones this morning, Master Bruce?"
Before the puzzled Bruce Wayne could reply, Didi answered, "None for me, thank you. After coffee I've got to scoot, Brucie. Mother and I have a Cancer Society committee luncheon at the Argyll Room."
Bruce's eyes locked for an instant with Alfred's, then returned to his lovely companion. "And I suppose I'll be writing out an enormous check soon, Didi. Once again you've managed to twist me around your finger." Bruce smiled and placed a hand over Didi's.
Appearing in the doorway of the breakfast room, Dick watched silently as Bruce put his hand over the hand of the very pretty blonde woman. The woman looked up at Dick and smiled warmly.
"Brucie, who is this little fellow? Are you keeping secrets from an old friend?" she asked lightly.
Bruce turned to see Dick standing at the entrance to the room. The boy was dressed to go outside, in blue jeans, jacket, sneakers, and cap. He was holding a soccer ball in his hands. Bruce's eyes fell on the boy's face. The dark circles under his eyes stood out in contrast to his pale complexion. His expression was solemn, eyes untelling.
"Dick, come in, chum. I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, Miss Van der Biehn. Didi, this is Dick Grayson, my ward. He came to live with Alfred and me a few weeks ago — while you were in Europe, I believe." Bruce motioned for Dick to come closer.
Didi held out her hand to the boy. "It's nice to meet you, Dick. Come sit with us and have some breakfast."
Dick walked up to the woman and politely shook her hand, but his expression did not change. "No thank you, I'm not hungry." Turning to Bruce he asked flatly, "Can I go outside now?" His usually bright, blue eyes were dark and cool.
"Have you had breakfast, yet, chum?" Bruce asked, feeling slightly uncomfortable under the boy's dark gaze.
"I'm not hungry." Dick repeated. "Can I go now?"
"That's 'May I," Master Dick. Why don't you bring your ball and come with me, please?" Alfred beckoned the child away. "Master Dick is not fond of cranberries, Master Bruce," he explained, "I have chocolate chip muffins for him in the kitchen. Come along now, Richard."
At the sound of his full first name, Dick walked quickly after the older man, glad for the official summons out of the room.
Bruce Wayne watched with some concern as Alfred and Dick left the room. Catching Bruce's expression, Didi flashed a smile of tender amusement at her friend's apparent soft spot. "Brucie, I never took you for the kind of man who adopted strays. Dick is a sweet little boy, but what in the world is he doing with the likes of you, you rake," she ribbed good-naturedly.
Bruce looked back at his guest, saw the warm humor in her face, and offered a self-conscious half-smile in return. "I didn't adopt Dick, I'm his legal guardian. His parents were killed and he witnessed it. He had no other family...I guess I saw some of myself in him. Didi, he was remanded to the Juvenile Detention Center the night his parents were killed, I couldn't leave him there. He's really a great kid, although not usually so subdued." Bruce's voice held genuine emotion as he spoke about the boy.
"I've seen *you* as subdued — after a rough night on the town, Brucie," the young woman smiled. "And I might add, that's a tidy way to ensure an heir for yourself. Mother's getting to be annoying, with her little reminders of how much she'd like to be a grandmother," chagrin plainly showing in Didi's expression.
"Didi, I didn't seek custody of the boy to..." Bruce began to protest.
Didi stood and kissed Bruce on the forehead. "I know, I know, Brucie, don't get all serious on me. Now walk me to my car like a good boy, I've got to be going."
Bruce rose with a relieved smile on his face. He put his arm around Didi's slim shoulders as they walked through the house to the front door. Outside at her car, they shared a brief kiss before Didi got in and drove away from Wayne Manor. Bruce watched her for a minute before reentering the house, and then headed toward the kitchen to find Alfred and the boy.
Bruce found Dick sitting alone at the kitchen table, his muffin picked apart but largely uneaten. Bruce poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and sat across from his ward, studying the youngster intently. "Where's Alfred, chum?" he asked.
"Laundry," came the short reply. Dick pushed the muffin's crumbled leavings around with his finger without looking in Bruce's direction.
Bruce leaned his elbows on the table and sipped his coffee, then asked, "Something wrong, Dick? You usually eat two or three of those things. Aren't you feeling well?"
Dick traced a path on his plate through the muffin crumbs and chips. "Are you going to marry her?" he inquired abruptly.
Bruce paused in mid-sip at Dick's pointed question.
"Marry?... Dick, what makes you ask that? No, I'm not going to marry Miss Van der Biehn." He sat back in his chair, put his coffee cup down on the table in front of him and looked at the boy with curiosity.
Dick stopped playing with his food and looked up at Bruce, his blue eyes dark and accusing. "You and that lady were... she was in your bedroom all night, and you were... mommies and daddies do that lovey stuff when it's quiet at night. Married people do that when the kids are supposed to be asleep."
Bruce felt himself on the defensive — to a nine-year-old. To his dismay, he felt his face become warm. "Weren't *you* supposed to be asleep, chum?" Bruce countered.
Dick scowled at Bruce's words. "I had a... I woke up. You're almost always there when I wake up because of a.... You weren't there. I was going to look for you, but I heard *her*. I know what those noises are, Bruce. Sometimes I would wake up and hear Mommy and Daddy. But they loved each other and were married."
Bruce was at a complete loss of what to say to the boy. He'd never had to deal with a morning-after interrogation, let alone from a child.
"Dick, chum, unmarried people sometimes... uh, you don't have to be in love, but... well, it's better if you *are*, chum, but..." Bruce felt like he was digging a huge hole for himself, and still the boy stared him down hotly.
"Mommy told me you were supposed to be married to do that," the boy protested. "People love each other and get married to have families. Animals do that stuff too, but it's because God tells them it's time to have little babies. I seen the animals at the circus do stuff!"
"Saw. You *saw* it..." Bruce corrected.
Dick's face went hotly red. He slid out of his chair and picked up the soccer ball from the chair next to him and dashed out of the kitchen.
Dick ran through the breakfast room to the French doors that led to the terrace at the rear of the mansion. Out the doors and across the marble terrace, Dick ran down the steps, holding the ball tightly. He looked back over his shoulder to see if he was being pursued. No one was there — yet. He threw the ball out in front of him and slammed it hard with his foot, sending it flying dozens of yards away. He changed his direction to follow the ball, and when he reached it, he kicked it hard again.
"Alfred? — ALFRED!"
Bruce rushed through the door of the laundry room, once he remembered where it was.
"Good heavens, Master Bruce! Must you shout?"
Alfred picked up a basket of clean laundry and proceeded to push past Bruce through the doorway. Bruce took the basket out of Alfred's arms and followed him.
"Alfred, the boy...he *heard* last night! Heard Didi and me.... He told me, and Alfred...he asked if I was going to marry her!"
"It's a reasonable question for one so young to ask, Master Bruce."
"He was upset, Alfred. He looked angry. He ran out of the kitchen."
Alfred stopped and abruptly turned around. "Where did he go? Did he go to his room?"
Bruce set the basket down and looked at Alfred, puzzlement on his face. "I don't know. I didn't follow him, I came looking for you. Alfred, the boy was judgmental about it. He told me...that what Didi and I did was for married people. How do I tell a child that I'm allowed to have... relationships and not have to be married?"
"Master Bruce, discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to having an active social life around youngsters." Alfred quickly ascended the stairs and walked to Dick's room, with Bruce on his heels. The room was empty.
"I found Master Dick outside your room last night. No doubt another nightmare sent the lad there. He had his hand on the doorknob," Alfred explained, reversing his direction and going back down the stairs. "If he is upset at what he heard, I would imagine he would have been much more upset had he witnessed your actions."
"So should I lock my door when I... have company?" Bruce asked helplessly.
Alfred halted in the middle of the staircase. "Bruce. This is a discussion we can have at greater length once Master Dick's location is determined. You shouldn't have come running to me, you should have gone running* after* him. He could be anywhere on the estate."
"He took his ball with him. I thought he would just go outside and play with it." Bruce passed Alfred, taking the stairs two at a time. Bruce jogged back to the breakfast room to find the French doors ajar.
Bruce stepped out onto the veranda and looked across the grounds for any sight of Dick. Visibility was limited, however. The morning fog had yet to clear, and the heavy, low clouds threatened rain. Alfred appeared and handed Bruce a jacket.
"Shall I accompany you, sir?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, stay here in case he comes back to the house," Bruce said, scanning the immediate area for signs of which direction Dick might have gone. He located small footprints in the dewy grass and followed them.
Acres away on the vast estate, Dick's speed diminished, but not his anger.
"I *wish* they would have let me go with Pop!" he cried, kicking the soccer ball hard in emphasis. He trotted after it, continuing his lament. "Then I wouldn't have to stay here where they don't *need* me. Pop needs me...."
Dick slammed the ball hard again, sending it skimming toward the edge of the sea cliff. The ball slowed near the edge, then rolled down a slight incline — a groove eroded by running water — until it disappeared from view.
Dick stopped, rooted for a moment. "Oh...rats." He looked back in the direction he had come. It was quite a ways back to the house — he had come all the way to the back of the property, to the cliff that stood high above the rocky shoreline of the ocean. The old man, Alfred, had told him this area was off-limits. "Too dangerous for adventurous young lads," he had said.
Dick hadn't deliberately come here, he was just chasing after his ball. "Dangerous—huh! I did dangerous stuff when I was four. Walking next to some stupid cliff is *nothin'!*"
Dick walked slowly to where the ball had disappeared. He looked down — and down. The waves below smashed against enormous rocks at the base of the cliff. Through the mist Dick watched the swirling water, with its white foam. It was beautiful — so free. Looking closer to him, he saw his ball. The white and black ball rested on a short ledge, prevented from going over the edge by a scrubby tuft of long grass. Dick studied the incline the ball had rolled down — not too steep. His trained eye located hand- and footholds, notches that strong, small hands could easily grab for support. Not far above the ball Dick saw a large, exposed root that looked strong enough for him to hang from.
Dick took another long look back toward the house, and then removed his cap — laying it on the ground so it wouldn't blow off his head in the gusty ocean breeze. He carefully walked down the incline, and began climbing down when it became too steep for footsteps.
In no time his small, nimble hands and feet brought him to the root. Hooking his knees over the root, Dick dropped backward, swinging freely. His fingertips brushed the grasses near his ball. It lay just out of reach.
'Easy enough for a Flying Grayson,' Dick reasoned. He removed his jacket, held it by one sleeve, and swung it out to drape over the ball. Pulling back on the jacket carefully, Dick rolled the ball close enough to scoop up with his hands. Jacket sleeve clenched between his teeth, Dick curled and pulled himself up to grasp the root with one hand. He looked above him, judging the distance to the top of the cliff. Dick knew the wind's direction was from the ocean, blowing onshore. He palmed the ball in his hand, stretched back, and hurled the ball to the top of the cliff. He waited a few seconds, grasping the root with one hand and both legs. The ball didn't fall back.
Dick took his jacket from his mouth with his free hand. "Woo-hoo! The crowd goes wild!" he cheered. Dick tied the jacket around his waist by the sleeves and carefully moved from the root to the hand- and footholds he'd used in his descent. A light, misting rain began to fall as Dick started back for the top.
Bruce Wayne followed the small footprints through the grass, then through sand, mud, or leaves as they led away from the meticulously landscaped part of the estate. His concern rose as he realized that Dick had been running in the general direction of the high, seaside cliff.
Bruce picked up his pace, accelerating to an easy jog. As he neared the cliff, he caught sight of a small, red baseball cap — *Dick's*! Running now, Bruce approached the ragged edge of land just as a white and black soccer ball pitched up and over the lip. The ball bounced twice and rolled to a stop at his feet. Over the dull roar of the wind and waves, Bruce thought he heard a shout. His own words halted in his throat.
His heart beating rapidly, Bruce rushed to, and peered over the edge of the cliff, expecting the worst. What he saw was Dick Grayson picking his way up the perilous face. Bruce's breath caught as he realized Dick was ably and calmly ascending toward him. Worry warred with pride...Bruce was simultaneously concerned for Dick's safety and impressed with the boy's natural agility and seeming lack of fear at his task. Bruce forced himself to step back out of the line of sight, and wait.
A moment later Dick scrambled sure-footedly up the incline to the top of the cliff. He didn't look up, but bent to brush the dirt from the knees of his jeans. When he stood up, he discovered he was no longer alone. Bruce Wayne stood, arms folded authoritatively across his broad chest, with one foot resting on Dick's soccer ball. Dick's cap dangled from one of Bruce's fingers.
Two pairs of blue eyes locked as the duo faced each other.
"I thought you understood that this area of the estate is off-limits to you," Bruce reprimanded the boy.
Dick's eyes narrowed, his face flushed — from his exertion? Or from embarrassment ...or anger? Bruce wondered.
Dick said nothing and walked toward — then past — Bruce. He kept walking, without looking back. He untied his jacket from his waist and put it on, zipping it to his chin to ward off the cold, misting rain.
"Dick! Don't walk away, son. I'm talking to you," Bruce called.
"I'm not *your* son and you're not *my* father," Dick yelled back as he continued his retreat, lengthening his stride to go faster.
"I said *STOP*!"
Dick halted, wide-eyed, rooted to the spot by a deep, harsh voice he'd never heard Bruce use before. Bruce grasped Dick by the arms, spinning him around to face him, and gave the boy a quick shake.
"No, I'm not your father, I'm your *guardian*. It is my responsibility to ensure your safety, and that means imposing rules — which you knew and broke. Do you have any idea how dangerous that stunt you pulled is?"
"You're hurting my arms. Let me go." Dick's eyes were as icy as his small voice.
Bruce removed his hands from the boy's arms immediately, unaware of just how strongly he had gripped them.
"I'm sorry, Dick...I didn't realize..." he started.
"And *I* didn't realize I was out here 'til I was out here," Dick explained. "I was mad. I was kicking the ball and chasing it and just ended up here...and then the ball rolled down the hill...and I went to get it." Dick dropped his gaze, unable and unwilling to look at Bruce's face. The big man looked...like he cared. But that couldn't be the truth. Bruce didn't really want *him*, he wanted a son of hiso*own* — that was why he and that lady....
"So what's 'dangerous' anyway? I been doin' dangerous stuff since I was a baby. I wasn't scared. I wanted my ball back, so I got it."
Bruce fished Dick's cap out of the jacket pocket he'd shoved it into, and placed it on the boy's head. Dick flinched noticeably and stepped backwards, as if startled by Bruce's touch.
"Hey — easy chum. What did you think, that I was going to...hurt you?" Bruce asked, unsettled to think that he'd frightened the boy.
Dick nodded his head and rubbed his arms. "You *did*. Just now. I thought..." Dick's eyes narrowed at the man again. "...are you going to spank me?" He took another step backward.
"No. No, I wasn't going to spank you. I'll never hit you, chum, that's a promise," Bruce swore. Then he gave the boy a slight smirk. "I'll just have Alfred do it."
Dick gasped and his eyes went wide — until he realized Bruce was teasing.
The big man became serious again. "Dick — you could have been killed going after that damned ball. I would have gotten you another one, rather than you risking your neck for it."
Dick looked behind him through the lightly falling rain, at the ball, then walked back and picked it up. He returned to Bruce, who stood now, waiting for him.
"But I didn't get killed, Bruce. I knew I could get the ball."
Bruce ran his hand over his face in exasperation. He took Dick by the hand and walked the boy back to the edge of the cliff.
"Did you *see* how far down that is?" he asked, gesturing at the more than 300 foot drop.
Dick peeped over the edge, then looked back at Bruce and shrugged his small shoulders. "Sure. Pretty far — that's a good drop," he said matter-of-factly.
"And if you had fallen? There wouldn't be much of you to pick up, Dick!"
"That's 'cause I'd be fish-food," Dick smirked. Seeing that Bruce didn't return his smile, Dick's smile faded. "It's a *good* drop. Probably a ten-second fall. That's a lot of time to grab something — and there's a *lot* of somethings to grab on the way down there. I *looked* before I went after the ball. I'm not afraid of falling, Bruce. I'm a *pro*, remember? Even if I'm...retired now." Dick's voice broke on his last sentence. He looked down, then pushed past Bruce and started back to the house again.
Bruce watched the youngster leave for a moment, then caught up with him in a couple of strides.
"I know you're good at what you do, Dick. But it's my responsibility to look out for you, can you understand that?" he reasoned.
Dick answered without looking up at Bruce.
"Yeah, well I been thinkin' about that. You should send me back to Pop. He needs me, and I don't like bein' *retired*. Pop Haly's my godfather. He's the one my Mom and Dad wanted to take care of me if...." Dick was unable to complete his thought.
"But that's not what the judge thought, Dick," Bruce replied softly.
Dick stopped suddenly and looked up at Bruce, his eyes burning hotly.
"That same judge who sent me to kid-jail the night Mom and Dad died?" Dick spat on the ground and glared at Bruce. "*That's* what I think of your 'gage'-judge! I'm *not* a dummy, Bruce! The judge gave me to you instead of Pop because this is*your* city and you got lots of money. *You're* the 'Baro' here — the 'Big Man' — and all that judge sees when he looks at you is dollar-bills. He doesn't care about me or my family or what my Mom and Dad wanted for me! Pop *loves* me, and he *wants* me to be his kid. He's not gonna marry some Miss Van Snooty and have a new family, 'cause I'm *already* his family!" Dick choked back his sobs, threw the ball down and took off at a dead run for the house.
Stunned, Bruce watched boy run away from him. "He thinks I'm...but I'm not...oh, damn." Bruce Wayne picked up the soccer ball and loped after Dick. The rain fell harder, soaking him and, he knew, the boy as well. There would be hell to pay with Alfred. Dick was worried, homesick, and angry. What the hell happened? The day had begun so pleasantly.
Bruce caught up with Dick halfway up the manicured lawn to the house. "Hey!" he called out. "You mean after risking your life to get this ball, you were just going to leave it out there?"
Dick slowed down and glanced over his shoulder at his guardian. "You keep it," he replied, his voice still shaking with emotion. "I won't need it back at the circus — no time or place to play with it." Dick turned and ran faster.
Alfred caught Dick by one arm, halting him. "Just one moment, Master Dick. Stop, please, and remove those shoes and socks. I won't have you tracking mud through this house."
Dick angrily yanked his arm away. "Let *go* of me! I'm goin' upstairs and pack my suitcase! I'm getting' *outa* this place!" He turned and ran.
The boy's forceful motion caused Alfred to drop the stack of towels on the floor. "My word!" Alfred exclaimed, as Bruce rushed past in pursuit of the escaping nine-year-old.
"Dick! Stop right now, young man!" Bruce shouted after the boy. Dick shouted something back at Bruce, but it was in a language Bruce was not familiar with. But he *was* familiar with the tone of voice that the boy was using, and was not amused. Bruce caught up with Dick and grabbed him by the jacket collar. Dick's feet slid out from under him and Bruce hoisted him up onto one hip. He carried the squirming boy back to Alfred and put him down.
"Apologize to Alfred — now — then pick up those towels!" he ordered.
"No!" Dick dove past Bruce, expertly tumbling out of the man's grasp, then he bolted for the hallway again.
Bruce grabbed Dick by the arm with an iron grip and hauled him back to the shocked major domo. "I said *apologize! NOW!*" Bruce ordered hotly, his voice taking on the deep rasp he had used earlier.
"Ow! You're *hurting* my arm — let *go*!" Dick snarled at Bruce. He kicked out hard, landing a painful blow to Bruce's left shin.
Bruce hissed at the sharp pain, but kept his grip on the boy. Fed up, he scooped the boy up, knelt, pulled Dick over his knee and gave him two hard swats to the behind.
"*Master Bruce*! Stop that this instant!" Alfred exclaimed in horror.
The emotion in his oldest friend's voice halted Bruce and he let go of the child, who had gone suddenly still.
Dick pushed away from Bruce and stared at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. Dick's mouth was open and he was breathing in hiccupping gasps.
"Liar," Dick whispered.
The word stabbed Bruce in the heart.
"Dick...I'm—I'm sorry, but you shouldn't have behaved so rudely to Alfred." Bruce tried to explain as he moved closer to Dick, still at the boy's eye-level. He reached out to place a hand on Dick's shoulder. "I know that I told you that I'd never..."
A small fist shot out — almost too fast to be seen — striking Bruce in the nose, sending the man backward to land hard on his rear-end.
Dick stood frozen for a second, amazed at what he'd done, then found his voice. "You lied to me and then you hit me. What will your 'gage'-judge think of that, 'Baro'?'"
The boy walked over to Alfred, trembling from emotion and the chill of his cold, soaked clothing. He picked up the towels and handed them to the older man. "I'm sorry Alfred," Dick apologized, barely louder than a whisper. "I shouldn't have yelled at you." The boy removed his shoes and peeled off his wet socks, and then turned and padded quickly out of the room.
The two men watched the boy leave. Bruce stood up and wiped the blood from his nose on the towel Alfred gave him. "I guess I didn't handle that too well," Bruce admitted sheepishly.
"Indeed." Alfred glared at Bruce. "Go clean up. I'll speak with Master Dick." Alfred promptly deposited the rest of the towels in Bruce's arms and vanished.
Upstairs, Dick pulled his small suitcase out of the bedroom closet, swung it up onto the bed, and opened it. Sniffling and choking back sobs, he opened drawers in the bureau and removed only the items of clothing he'd brought with him a few weeks earlier when he had first come to Wayne Manor, and placed them in the suitcase. Dick carefully packed the photograph of his parents with trembling hands.
Blinded by tears, Dick wiped at his eyes with his fists, and rubbed his nose on his wet jacket sleeve. He climbed up onto the bed to grab his toy elephant. Dick sat on the bed, holding the soft toy to his chest and began to cry harder. He threw himself face down into his pillow.
Alfred Pennyworth reached Dick's room to find the heartbroken child lying on his bed in tears. At the foot of the bed lay the small suitcase, partially packed. Alfred breathed a quiet sigh. His heart went out to the grieving boy, yet at the same time he was frustrated with Bruce's inability to relate to the child adequately.
"Richard? Up with you now, lad. Why don't we get you out of those wet clothes and into a hot bath? I always say that life takes on a new look after a bath and a cup of tea." Alfred spoke gently to Dick as he moved the suitcase to the cedar chest at the foot of the bed.
"I'm not stayin'." Dick's muffled reply came from within the pillows. "I'm gonna go back to Pop and the circus — where I *belong*," he sobbed.
Alfred sat on the edge of the bed placed a hand on the boy's shoulder. "I was hoping that you would come to feel that you belong *here*, at Wayne Manor. If you left us I would miss you terribly, as would Master Bruce."
Dick rolled over just enough to peek at Alfred with one eye. The older man's grandfatherly smile and soothing voice were convincing enough to gain his compliance. Dick sighed and sat up, wiping at his nose with the sleeve of his jacket. Alfred quickly plucked two tissues from the bedside dispenser and handed them to the boy. Dick blew hard, then wiped his reddened nose.
"There's a good lad. Now off with those wet things while I draw your bath." Alfred smiled, then rose and disappeared into the adjoining bathroom.
Dick unzipped and removed his jacket. He hopped down from the bed and peeled out of the wet blue jeans and soggy sweatshirt. A violent shiver shook his body. He walked, still sniffling, into the bathroom.
Alfred measured out liquid bubble bath into the tub. He looked over to see Dick enter the bathroom. Dick waited, hugging himself tightly, his teeth beginning to chatter past his bluish lips. Alfred quickly draped a towel over Dick's small form while the bathtub filled.
Dick watched the rising water of the tub, looking lost in thought. "I didn't have bubble baths much," Dick commented softly. "We had a shower in our trailer. I think this is gonna be my last bubble bath for a while, 'cause Pop doesn't have a bathtub, either."
Dick removed his underpants and stepped into the tub, handing Alfred the towel He sat surrounded by the fragrant froth, pinching it between his small fingers.
Alfred handed Dick a washcloth and a bar of soap. Dick accepted them and began to wash, soaping his arms first. Dark bruises had already begun to show against the pale skin of his upper arms where Bruce had roughly grabbed him.
"Richard, would you tell me why you want to leave here?" Alfred asked gently.
"Pop needs me. You guys don't. I don't think it was such a good idea to come here, after all," Dick answered, scrubbing his arms and chest.
"Why would you think that, lad?"
Dick stopped scrubbing and looked down at the water. "Because Bruce lied to me. He said he'd catch the guy who killed my Mom and Dad. He said he'd teach me stuff and we could work together. But he's always too busy, working all day and then all night, too. Bruce told that judge he wanted me, but I think he really wants to have his own kids. Him and that lady. They...well, I think he wants to be married to her and have his own family." Tears welled again and fell down the boy's cheeks. "Alfred, Bruce told me he'd never hit me...and then he did. It's all been lies. My Dad never lied to me. Not ever. I want to go home to Pop. I don't belong here."
Alfred spoke to the boy with grandfatherly concern. "There now, Master Dick, quiet those tears. We can reason this out like gentlemen."
"I-I'm not cryin'. I got soap in my eyes, that's all," Dick wailed.
"I think you are a very tired young man. I don't believe you slept much last night. I'll just bet that if you had a cup of hot chocolate and a bit of a nap that you'll look at all of this in a much different light. What do you say to that?" Alfred asked, a smile in his voice.
Reddened eyes turned to the older man. "Huh-huh-okay...wi-with a m-marshmallow?" Dick replied, his breath hitching.
"With two! Now you finish your bath and I'll be back in a few minutes with your chocolate." Alfred smiled and ruffled the dark, damp waves of hair on the boy's head.
Alfred exited the bathroom and promptly came face to face with Bruce. Showered and in dry clothing, Bruce had come to see if Dick was all right. The older man looked into the face of his oldest charge and saw the hurt there. Alfred gestured silently for Bruce to turn around and leave the room. Once they were in the hallway, Alfred reached back and pulled Dick's bedroom door closed.
"I heard what he said. He thinks I lied to him, Alfred. He...he really wants to leave here, doesn't he?" Bruce looked at his surrogate father, the pain of loss already evident in his expression. "What have I done? What happened?"
Alfred pushed the younger man toward the staircase. "Get a grip on yourself, Master Bruce. Richard is upset, yes. But he is also a very tired little boy who did not sleep well last night, did not eat this morning, and has had a bit of an upheaval today. That is a sure prescription for crankiness. Believe me, I've seen it often enough."
The two men descended the stairs and walked to the kitchen.
"Richard is still grieving, and misses his family, former life and friends. If you ask me, the lad has too much idle time on his hands to dwell on his loss, and not enough attention from you. He is insecure, he is angry, and he is jealous."
"Jealous? Of Didi? But Didi's not someone to be jealous of, Alfred, she's just...a good friend," Bruce protested.
Alfred and Bruce reached the kitchen, where the major domo immediately set about preparing the hot chocolate.
"Master Dick isn't so much jealous of Miss Van der Biehn as he is jealous of the time you spend away from this house, away from him and your promises to him. In the absence of his circus family, you are his only anchor, Bruce, the only tangible security he has in this world — except perhaps for that ragged little toy, that elephant. I suggest you give the lad something real to hold onto, or you may as well let him return to people who can."
Alfred's admonishment hit Bruce like a blow to the chest. He sank into the closest chair and took a deep breath. "Then you think Dick should go back to Haly? Leave here?" Bruce asked blankly.
Alfred set down the mug of hot chocolate he had just poured and slapped Bruce sharply across the back of the head. "Balderdash! Absolutely not! I think you should live up to your promises and begin to include that boy in your life! Commit yourself to him as firmly as you commit yourself to your...*crusade*."
Laying his hands on "his boy's" shoulders, Alfred continued. "Bruce, you and Master Dick have a common bond. I truly believe that you can be good for one another. It just takes communication and sharing. Not that you have traditionally *excelled* at those particular skills, mind you, but you *are* young enough to correct that." Alfred raised an imperious eyebrow at his surrogate son, then returned to the hot chocolate. He arranged the mug on a platter along with a small plate with two cookies on it. He dropped two marshmallows into the steaming mug and proceeded to Dick's room.
Bruce sat and rubbed the back of his head. He thought about the promises he had made to the boy, starting with the night Dick's parents were murdered. The investigation was still ongoing. Zucco had gone underground, but like all scum he'd eventually float to the surface. And when he did, Batman would be waiting for him.
Bruce considered Alfred's comment about Dick having too much time on his hands to dwell on the loss of his parents. School was one part of the solution, but Dick wouldn't be able to enter Gotham Academy until the next term — after the beginning of the year — and it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. Dick had no public school documentation — his mother had home-schooled him, although she had kept detailed records on his progress and test results. Dick was scheduled to take entrance exams in mid-December. Until then, Alfred would be tutoring him.
And there was the matter of Dick's physical training. Bruce's thoughts returned to that morning's events, to the image of the boy dauntlessly and skillfully scaling the face of the cliff. And then Bruce gingerly touched his sore nose. For such a small kid, Dick packed a deceptively big punch.
Bruce considered the possibility of eventual partnership for the Batman — years away, he was sure, if he would allow it to happen at all. It was certainly of questionable wisdom. Bruce smiled to himself grimly. It wouldn't be the first time — or probably he last — that the Batman's decisions or methodology would be called into question. But it would require more than agility, speed, and confidence. It would take absolute obedience in addition to a grueling training regimen. Did the boy have it in him? The potential was there, without a doubt, and even at this tender age, Dick was a seasoned professional athlete who was no stranger to hard work. The boy certainly had a good measure of potentially self-destructive anger that needed to be channeled somewhere. But waging a war on crime was very different from show business, despite Dick's considerable athletic skill and gymnastic talent. All it took was one wrong move and....
Bruce got up from the kitchen chair and made his way to his study. He pulled on the grandfather clock, stepped through the opening and closed it behind him. He descended long, stone stairway and entered the massive subterranean cavern that was his second home. Here, he could weigh the options and formulate a strategy to include the talented and mercurial child in his life. Both lives.
Part Four, Conclusion
Dick walked to the end of the bed, to where his still-open suitcase lay on the cedar chest. He took his parent's photograph out of the suitcase and laid it on the bed, then climbed up next to it. He sat cross-legged on the bed, holding the photograph and looking into the faces of his mother and father. Dick looked up, looked around the room of this big house that was larger than some of the auditoriums the Haly Bros. Circus had played.
This wasn't right. It wasn't how things were supposed to be. He should have been working his way south with his parents and the circus. Richmond. That was where the circus would be this weekend. Then Memphis. Where Elvis was from. He was supposed to go to Graceland with his Dad, who really liked Elvis. They were supposed to spend Christmas down in Florida, at the RV park in Sarasota. His mother would have taken him to the Ringling Museum to see the big paintings, and the gardens where the giant banyan trees grew. He was supposed to get two more stunts in the act, now that he had mastered the quadruple somersault.
But everything was wrong. He was in this big, cold mansion, in a room that was bigger than his parents' trailer. Not his room. Not his home. Not his parents. Dick didn't even know what had happened to his parents' trailer, and all of their belongings. He had only his clothes and the toy elephant. Dick picked up the toy and held it along with the photograph. His world had grown so small, even in this big house.
"Here we go, Master Dick."
Alfred Pennyworth entered Dick's room and placed the tray he held on top of the dresser. "One mug of hot chocolate with two marshmallows," he addressed the boy. One mug of chocolate-flavored tryptophan that the understanding valet knew could be counted on to coax the physically and emotionally exhausted lad to sleep. "Where would you like to have this, in bed or at your table?"
Dick put the framed photograph and stuffed toy down beside him on the bed. "I guess here would be okay." He peered at the tray as Alfred took it from the dresser, eyeing the homemade chocolate chip cookies with interest.
Alfred placed the tray in front of Dick. "Now, hold this tray steady and I'll stack your pillows so that you may sit back." Pillows stacked and plumped, Alfred again took the tray while Dick scooted back against them. Alfred placed the tray over Dick's lap as the eager child took one of the cookies.
"This is a lotta sweet stuff before goin' t' sleep, y'know." Dick commented through the mouthful of cookie. He washed it down with a careful sip of chocolate, tasting the froth of melted marshmallow. "My Mom didn't let me have too many sweets 'cause she used to work for a dentist before she met my Dad," the boy volunteered. He sucked a fat blob of marshmallow into his mouth.
"If you prefer, Master Dick, you may brush your teeth when you are finished. In fact, I insist. And flossing at night will become mandatory, as well. We wouldn't want to neglect such an important part of your mother's instruction."
Dick swallowed the cookie hard and put the mug of chocolate down on the tray. As hard as he tried, he couldn't stop the tears from welling again in his eyes.
"I-I miss...I miss my Mom...I miss my Mom and Dad," he choked. "I *hate* that man...that guy Zucco! I *hate* him! Somebody should kill *him*!" Dick burst into sobs of anger and heartache.
Alfred quickly cleared the tray away and gathered Dick into his arms. He said nothing...what was there to say that the lad would listen to at this moment? This was a time for actions to speak louder than words, just as it had been many years before, with another heartbroken little boy. Alfred held Dick long after his sobbing quieted, until the boy's regular breathing indicated that sleep had, at last, conquered him. Alfred carefully laid the slumbering child down onto his bed and pulled a blanket up over him. He placed the lad's comfort toy in his arms, put the Grayson's photograph on the bedside table and quietly slipped from the room.
The rain had stopped hours earlier. Afternoon altered the angle of light that came through Dick Grayson's bedroom windows, bringing quiet, cool shadows into its corners. On the bed, Dick slowly came out of the soft arms of slumber, inhaling deeply and drawing the heel of one hand to rub across his sleep-filled eyes. The other hand clutched the soft, familiar stuffed elephant. Dick slowly opened his eyes and blinked, becoming aware of where he was. A yawn and a long stretch seized him, pulling a short, squeaky groan from his throat. Dick recovered from the stretch and rolled onto his side, tucking into a loose ball and pulling the plush toy close to his body. He sighed. And then his eyes grew a bit wider.
Lounging in the easy chair that sat next to Dick's bed was the dozing form of Bruce Wayne, his feet propped on the chair's ottoman. It wasn't the first time Bruce had dozed in this chair, his usual post during nights of vigil over the boy's dream-filled and fretful attempts at sleep. Bruce's hands were clasped over his chest and his head dipped forward slightly.
Dick lay quietly and watched the man's chest expand as he breathed, then he realized that Bruce's eyes had opened and were looking at him.
"Guess we both needed a nap, huh, chum?" Bruce quietly commented.
Dick wordlessly nodded an affirmative.
"I know it's a little late in the afternoon...but I was wondering if maybe you and I should start today all over again — try to get it better the second time?"
"Bad rehearsal, good performance...that's what Pop says," Dick said, his voice small and even.
Bruce sighed softly. He'd rather leave Pop Haly out of this — he'd rather this moment be between himself and the boy. 'Make an effort, Wayne,' Bruce reminded himself. Then he gave the boy a warm half smile.
"Sounds good to me, chum," he agreed. Bruce looked down at his hands and unclasped them. He pulled himself up into a sitting position, with his feet on the floor.
"Dick, I'm sorry about the misunderstanding today. I didn't know about last night, or that you were...upset this morning about it. I didn't realize that you thought what you did about Miss Van der Biehn and me." Bruce leaned toward Dick's bed and laid his big hand on Dick's shoulder.
"She and I are NOT even thinking about marriage — not even real dating because we are both too busy with our own lives. I know that what we did isn't in line with what you've been taught by your parents, but sometimes that's the way it is between men and women. Sometimes they...enjoy each other's company...because they are attracted to each other and like being together every now and then."
Dick scrutinized Bruce with clear, blue eyes. "You're not gonna marry her? You're not gonna have a family with her?" Dick asked pointedly.
Bruce smiled and shook his head. "No, Dick. You and Alfred are my family now. That is, if you still want to stay here."
"But you don't need me — you're always busy and...and—" Dick started.
"I do need you here, Dick. I'm still learning how and why I do, and probably *will* be on a learning curve for a long time."
Dick sat up in the bed, his brow knitted in slight confusion. "Huh? What kind of curve?"
Bruce moved from the chair to the bed, and sat beside the boy. "It means that I'll be learning how to get along with you because I'm not used to having a...a roommate. Even when I was a kid I wasn't much of a kid. I've sort of forgotten what it's like — the kid thing, and all."
"But you have Alfred. It's not like you've been alone."
"That's true," Bruce amiably agreed. "But Alfred's really more like...my 'keeper,' he's always been like my substitute parent. And he's my oldest friend in the world."
"He takes care of you," Dick observed softly.
"He'll take care of you, too. We both will, chum." Bruce reached out his hand and ruffled Dick's dark, unruly curls. "I'd like you to stay. We both can learn from each other. I'll teach you things, and you can teach me things...like the trapeze. I can benefit from your experience in my...night job." Bruce looked hopefully into the child's face.
"But you're so busy. When will we have time together?" Dick asked.
"Well...I can't predict what will happen in Gotham City that will affect my work as Batman, but Bruce Wayne can start to adjust his work schedule to allow for more 'family time.' And you. You will be a very busy young man, Dick Grayson."
Dick looked up at Bruce, his eyes widening in anticipation.
"It's not going to be easy..." Bruce began, amused by the boy's instant interest.
"You'll be surprised, Bruce. I can work really hard!" Dick exclaimed.
"I don't doubt that, chum. I've seen you in action," Bruce agreed. "You're going to have workouts in the morning, then schooling with Alfred until you can be tested and enrolled at the Academy, and workouts with me in the afternoon. And class with *me* won't be just in the gym...you're going to learn how to use the computers, the electronics, how all of the Batman's utility devices work. You're going to learn about deductive reasoning and clues and criminal profiles."
"Can I drive the Batmobile?"
"No way. But you can wash it."
Dick grinned at Bruce. It had been worth a try. "So I'm gonna be like the guy who helps the knight on with his armor and with all his swords and lances and stuff, right? His right-hand man?"
"Squire. A knight has a squire — his faithful companion who takes care of his horse and his equipment... and who will someday become a knight himself." Bruce smiled at the not-inaccurate analogy.
"Yeah. A squire. Alfred's been reading me stories about King Arthur and Camelot and all the Knights of the Round Table."
'Wily old man,' Bruce thought to himself. 'Always one step ahead of me.'
Bruce put his hands on Dick's shoulders and looked the boy honestly and openly in the eyes. "So will you stay here with me and Alfred? Will you be my 'squire,' chum? I even have a oath you can swear."
Dick looked up at his new mentor. Not his father, not even a substitute father. His knight. A new feeling of importance washed over Dick as he considered his new role, his mission. And he began to feel needed...and wanted. His small hands firmly grasped the forearms of his mentor.
"Yes. I'll stay. I'll work hard, Bruce, you won't regret teaching me, I promise," the boy swore.
Bruce's heart warmed at Dick's earnest expression of devotion. "I know *I* won't regret anything, chum. I just don't want *you* to. Now, what do you say to getting some shoes on and going downstairs? We can start to look over some of the equipment and the workshop before dinner."
Dick scrambled off the bed in a flash and pulled on his sneakers. "I'm ready!" He grinned, his arms held open in invitation.
Bruce took Dick by the hand. "Let's go then, squire," he said, as they walked out of Dick's room together.
"Cool! Except, I really like 'partner' a whole lot better!"
As the duo descended the staircase, Bruce smiled.
"Actually, 'partner,' so do I."