Summary: Earth's greatest heroes wish to form a new superhero alliance…Batman has more pressing matters.

Warning: Fluff factor a bit high and is a leading cause of cavities. (Note: Dick is based on YJ; in the animated series he's somewhat of a child genius.)

Disclaimer: All characters belong to DC and Time Warner; this is an original story that doesn't intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome.

Copyright: September 2012

~ / ~ / ~

Pressing Matters

By Syl Francis

The two heroes—one bright, one dark—stood shoulder-to-shoulder, gazing down at the blue and white planet. It had been over a week since they had successfully stopped the alien invasion, and its memory was already beginning to dim in the jaundiced eye of the public.

The reporter in Clark Kent was saddened by the jaded nature of his chosen profession. Perry White, senior editor of the Daily Planet, had already told him the invasion was yesterday's news and assigned him a new story.

He sighed. Yes, the world was safe again for now, but what of next time? What of the next global disaster?

Seven heroes had barely banded together in time to form an unprecedented alliance to thwart the aliens' plans. But now that the emergency was over, they were each anxious to return home. They had their own personal missions to fulfill, and this emergency had cut deeply into that.

However, Superman was determined to prevent their returning to the status quo. Which is why he'd called this impromptu meeting.

Prior to the invasion, Batman had approached him with the idea of forming a "league" of some kind, much like the old Justice Society. It would be an alliance of heroes that stood for truth and justice and would serve as the first line of defense against the next planet-wide threat.

As an added incentive, the billionaire superhero had even tossed in a shiny, new satellite for their headquarters. The satellite technology was years ahead of anything that Earth science had as yet produced, being a combination of Earth, Kryptonian, Thanagarian, and Martian technology. The floor-to-ceiling viewing windows were a prime example of the esoteric heights they were capable of achieving with the hybrid tech. Superman didn't want to know how Batman had managed to develop it. Still, he couldn't resist some gentle teasing.

"So…just how did you get this by your stockholders?" Keeping his amused eyes on Batman, Superman gestured, indicating the half-finished, aesthetically pleasing space station that was even now in high Earth orbit.

The Dark Knight shrugged. "Hidden line item numbers in the Wayne Tech R and D budget…creative requisitions. It's taken me this past month alone to get the necessary materials sent into orbit along with the regular Shuttle payload. At this rate, the satellite should be fully functional in another few weeks."

It also helped that Lucius Fox, his close friend and head of research and development, was not only a trusted member of Batman's inner circle but also instrumental in producing the necessary hybrid materials.

Superman shook his head. "You're scary, you know that, right?"

Batman didn't bother to respond. At that moment, the other heroes that had banded together to fight off the invasion showed up. Green Lantern Hal Jordan was at the head.

"Okay…we're all here," GL stated. "What did you want to see us about?"

"Yeah, Supes," the Flash spoke up happily. "This won't take long, will it? I'm meeting Iris for dinner and don't want to be late. She's still pretty steamed over the last time. We missed the first 30 minutes of her nephew's school play." He smiled fondly, recalling the redheaded, 10-year-old thespian. "Wally played an ear of corn." At the others' looks, he added quickly, "Hey…it's elementary school! What do you expect?" Spotting Batman in the shadows, he zipped over to him and gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder. "Hey, Bats…whassup?"

Batman simply glared.

The Flash gulped and zipped back to the group, surreptitiously hiding behind Hawkgirl's wings.

"Let's adjourn to the conference room," Superman suggested politely.

"We have a conference room?" the Flash muttered to himself.

"You meet with them," Batman rasped, addressing Superman. "Tell them the plans. Contact me if you have any further questions."

"But this was your idea!" Superman protested. "You're even footing the bill," he added under his breath.

"I've done what I can. I have more pressing matters to attend to." His dark cape swept dramatically behind him, as Batman strode toward the newly installed Zeta transporter tubes.

"And that's it?" Wonder Woman demanded.

Not turning around, Batman paused as he was about to enter the transporter platform. "I've input emergency contact protocols for everyone into the satellite's computer. So…when the next worldwide disaster happens—and not before—IM me."

As the Dark Knight disappeared into the bright shimmer of the Zeta beam, Wonder Woman shook her head in exasperation. She and the others headed toward the conference room.

"We are organizing a quick reaction force from the ground up to handle emergencies on a global scale," she said with a wave of her arms. "And he has 'more pressing matters to attend to.' What in Hade's name could be more pressing than this?"

"He's Batman," GL said with a shrug. "It could be anything. But let not your heart be troubled, Wonder Babe," he added with a leer. "I'm here for ya!"

~ / ~ / ~

Batman materialized within the dark confines of the Batcave, the bats' agitated leathery fluttering high overhead. The dazzling light from the Zeta beam had disturbed the cave's nocturnal inhabitants. Making his way through the gloom toward the cave's main work area, Batman considered how best to shield the cave from the Zeta beam's unwelcomed brightness.

Perhaps enclosing it within an opaque platform? As he mulled over the practicalities of yet another project, he checked the time. Damn! Past midnight. He sighed. It can't be helped.

He'd really wanted to be here for the next chapter…

Shoulders slumping, he entered the uniform vault and slowly removed his uniform. The unsuccessful alien invasion had taken almost five days to suppress. Since then he'd been on the go, organizing cleanup crews, emergency evacuations, rescues, and anything else that needed to be done.

He hadn't had a decent night's sleep, nor a real meal or shower in more days than he cared to count. His uniform was definitely ripe by now. He hung it in the decontamination chamber for a thorough cleansing. I'll check it later for damage, he promised himself, knowing that Alfred would beat him to it as usual.

Bruce walked into the shower and tiredly washed off several days' worth of sweat, blood, and grime—not to mention dried-on alien slime. A few minutes later, he was climbing the stairs that led from the cave to the manor above. Although exhausted, he hurried through the manor's lower level and took the stairs two at the time to the second floor.

Bruce walked down the main wing that had housed the Wayne family's sleeping quarters for several generations, and stopped outside the door to his old nursery. Quietly, with Bat-worthy stealth, he slipped into the bedroom, which was dimly lit by a recessed nightlight. The nursery's new occupant was prone to nightmares and waking suddenly in the middle of the night. The low-level lighting provided him with some measure of comfort.

Bruce crossed over to the child-sized bed and stood, simply watching the dark haired boy in Superman pajamas as he slept. He felt a touch of jealousy at the sight, but it passed almost as soon as it came. Instead, Bruce's normally stoic features softened. The child—8-year-old Richard "Dick" Grayson—had only been at Wayne Manor a few days before the invasion, but in that brief time, he'd managed to break through the thick walls that Bruce had carefully built around his heart. Even now, he couldn't help running a gentle hand through the boy's messy hair.

As he looked down on the sleeping child, Bruce knew he needed to get to bed. He had a long day tomorrow with lawyers and bureaucrats from Child Welfare Services. The last time he'd met with the director of CWS, she'd been adamant that Richard's current placement at the manor was strictly temporary—a situation that Bruce intended to change.

They're nothing but a bunch of grandstanding, posturing idiots—what do they know about what a boy, who witnessed his parents' murders, needs? They hadn't had a clue 25 years ago…they sure as hell have no clue today.

But Bruce knew what the boy needed. He had learned it the hard way through years of trial and error, traveling all around the world on a journey to hell and back, acquiring the battle scars—real and figurative—to prove it.

Yes…he knew what Dick Grayson needed in order to get through the sharp pain of tragic loss and to fight through the darkness that threatened to consume him. Bruce knew because 25 years ago, he had lived through the same pain, fought off the same darkness. And no one, not even Alfred, had succeeded in helping 8-year-old Bruce through this terrible period. To this day, he still struggled with the age-old pain and lingering darkness, never having quite successfully conquered either.

But he was determined that Dick wouldn't suffer a similar fate and end up like him. He'd make sure that Dick was given every opportunity to choose his own path and to be given the freedom to embark on his own journey. And come what may, Bruce would be there for him.

Tomorrow, Bruce would throw the considerable weight of the Wayne name against the soulless idiots that comprised the CWS—the same organization that had remanded the traumatized child to the "gentle" care of Gotham County's juvenile detention center.

Bruce unconsciously made a fist, his rock-hard muscles tensing furiously at the memory of the frightened, grieving boy being housed under the same roof as some of Gotham's most vicious gang bangers. When he'd found out just where CWS had placed the boy, Bruce immediately had Dick released into his temporary custody. At the same time, his legal team had started the process to make the placement permanent.

The Director of CWS had made no secret of her personal disapproval to grant custody of a minor child to a "notorious playboy bachelor" such as Bruce Wayne. Of course, she'd also yanked Dick from his circus family because she felt that an "itinerant" circus was unsuitable for a child's welfare.

"Look at what happened to Richard's parents!" she'd exclaimed. "Allowing a child to perform from such dangerous heights without a net is simply disgraceful!"

Shrugging off the unpleasant memories, Bruce pulled an upholstered chair next to the bed and sat, his eyes never leaving the small form. As he watched, the boy stirred in his sleep and reached out for his stuffed elephant. "Elinore" was just out of his reach. Instantly, Dick stiffened in his sleep, his search becoming frantic, his breath quickening. Having seen the boy's attachment to the stuffed elephant, Bruce wasn't surprised by the sudden change in the child's demeanor. He quickly moved Elinore next to Dick.

As soon as the boy's small fingers closed around the stuffed elephant, Dick visibly began to relax. He snuggled against the plushy toy, comforted by the elephant's trunk around his neck. A small smile formed in the corner of Bruce's usually taciturn features. The boy sure did love to hug and be hugged.

Bruce was smitten and he knew it. From the first moment the tearful boy's sapphire eyes held his own, Bruce had felt an instant's recognition. He saw the same pain and heartbreak that greeted him each morning in his own mirror. The feeling of familiarity was accompanied with the sudden need to do everything in his power to help the boy, which grew stronger with each day that passed.

He remembered how hard Dick had clung to him on the ride home from the funeral. Bruce had been taken aback at first over the boy's need to seek him out for comfort. He had assumed that Dick would prefer Alfred or Leslie. However, by the third time he'd awoken to find Dick in bed with him after suffering from another nightmare, Bruce knew that he had to take a more active "parental" role with his ward.

This included being there for the boy's bedtime—listening to his prayers, reading aloud from the same books he remembered his own dad had read to him, checking the room for monsters. And, unless there was an Arkham breakout, he no longer went out on patrol until Dick was safely asleep. This whole guardianship was proving to be much harder than he'd thought.

Bruce glared sternly at the stuffed elephant. Try not to stray too far from him in the future…He needs us both to get him through this.

Leaning in, he lightly touched his forehead to the boy's. "Good night, buddy," he whispered. The boy's answering smile warmed the Dark Knight's heart and was enough to fortify him against the next day's battle in Family Court.

~ / ~ / ~

Three Months Later…

The boy's high-pitched giggles echoed happily along the high, concave walls of the Batcave. The stalactites and stalagmites seemed to catch and bounce the childish laughter in a continuous loop. As soon as the echoes died down, the boy let out another loud, exuberant laugh. A few leathery wings flapped in mild annoyance at the disturbance.

Alfred smiled, feeling satisfied as he descended the stairs from the manor to the cave. Young Master Richard has brought an entirely new, lightened mood to this previously dark, brooding chamber, he thought.

In the three months following Dick's being remanded into Bruce's permanent custody, Alfred had witnessed a change for the better, not only in the atmosphere within Wayne Manor but also in Bruce himself. To one who knew him, the subtle change in Bruce's demeanor was as obvious as the Bat-signal. Whereas previously, he'd tended to lock himself in the cave before and following his nightly ventures into the city, after Dick joined their small family, Bruce began spending time upstairs.

Saturdays were spent doing normal father/son outings, such as kite flying on the manor grounds or playing a "friendly" game of one-on-one on the newly installed half-court. Also, Bruce and Dick had enjoyed some more extreme sports together, such as rock climbing, dirt biking, and skate boarding. The young acrobat was proving to be as much of an adrenaline junkie as his guardian.

In addition to adjusting his nocturnal activities, Bruce also made some real changes to his work hours to allow more time with Dick. His secretary rearranged his morning and afternoon schedules so that twice a week he could arrive late and leave early in order to drive Dick to and from school. Also, at least once a week, when Alfred was helping out at the Wayne-Thompson Clinic, the school van dropped Dick off at Wayne Corp.

On those days, he and Bruce usually spent the afternoon playing hooky in and around the corporate offices. Dick happily explored the nooks and crannies of the modern glass tower, finding all sorts of hidden places after hacking the building security specs.

Some of his discoveries were corporate secrets: new technologies under development, future financial projections, classified contract negotiations. Except for the new tech, Dick found most of the company secrets to be really boring.

And then, he unlocked the "X-Tech/Plans Department." This particular area was so deeply hidden and elusive that he surprised himself when he finally cracked its firewall. The next thing he knew, he was standing before Bruce and Lucius, their expressions solemn. Unable to meet his mentor's eyes, Dick nervously explained that while Bruce was in meetings, instead of doing his homework, he had spent his time breaking into the company's secure network.

"Dick, hacking company secrets is a very serious offence," Bruce reprimanded quietly. "It's even illegal."

Dick's blue eyes widened as Bruce spoke, his chin wavering slightly. Would he be arrested and sent back to the juvenile detention center? He was really scared and ashamed that he'd disappointed Bruce.

"Mr. Wayne…Dick." Lucius had been flipping through some of Dick's textbooks. Shaking his head in mild disbelief at the simplistic math standards, he set them aside. "From what I have seen, I think that Dick needs something more challenging than third grade homework to occupy his time. He seems to be far more advanced than your usual 8 year old."

"We already have an appointment set up with an education specialist to have him tested next week," Bruce said. "Alfred and I—and his teacher—all agree that Dick's exceptionally bright. He's certainly gifted in some areas. Because he was home schooled while in the circus, his school records are a bit sketchy. Anyway…what do you propose, Lucius? I'll agree to just about anything that'll keep this kid from becoming a delinquent."

Bruce spoke the last with a smile, reaching across and tousling Dick's hair. Realizing that Bruce wasn't mad at him for hacking Wayne Corp's systems, Dick finally relaxed.

Lucius smiled enigmatically. "Let me get back to you on that, Mr. Wayne. I have a few ideas…"

Which is how Dick ended up receiving some very specialized computer/electronics stealth skills during his homework/playtime while visiting Bruce at work. And, with every secret he discovered, every firewall he breached, Bruce rewarded him with a proud smile and a new Bat-skill (back in the cave).

One day, Lucius gave Dick a new puzzle to solve that required he hack the CEO's personal laptop. Bruce was not amused when he returned from an interminable meeting with the Board of Directors only to find that his laptop's opening screen had been changed. The utilitarian logo "Wayne Corp" was now replaced with "Grayson Tech."

He could hear Margaret, his personal assistant, laughing outside. Curious, he stuck his head out the door and raised his eyebrows at her questioningly. Smirking, she turned her laptop so that he could see the opening screen. It also read "Grayson Tech." A quick phone call confirmed that all Wayne Corp network computers had suffered the same fate.

Further investigation revealed that it wasn't just the local area network affected. Dick had also changed the Wayne Corp website. When confronted with his latest stunt, Dick (and Lucius) admitted that it would revert at midnight. So…no harm, no foul. And, it had exposed some serious weaknesses in their corporate security.

"Apparently, Mr. Wayne, your 8-year-old kid is a tech wizard," Margaret teased.

Bruce felt his chest swell with pride. Nodding, he said, "I may have to hire him to strengthen our firewalls."

Dick also chatted with all he came across while wandering through the building. He seemed to have a special knack for making each new acquaintance feel as if he or she were the most important person he'd met that day. His exuberance helped to establish a rapport with everyone, from senior management to mailroom clerks. The Wayne employees were quite taken by the beautiful, bright-eyed child. A few commented that while Wayne Corp had always been a great place in which to work, with the addition of the new heir apparent, the entire corporate atmosphere had suddenly become much more family oriented.

Before long, the company had added a free daycare center for its employees. New parents could enroll their pre-school children for full-time care, while parents of older children could opt for afterschool care and homework help. If asked, Lucius Fox stated that the concept of an onsite daycare center had been in the backburner for quite some time.

Of course, Alfred knew that if it weren't for Dick, the idea would have never reached fruition…

Setting the tray of refreshments down on a convenient table, Alfred watched his younger charge as he executed a series of complicated maneuvers on the floor mat, which culminated in several high, fast kicks that took out a practice dummy.

"How was that? Was it more like what you wanted?" Dick turned expectantly to his guardian and mentor.

Batman looked up from where he'd been surreptitiously watching his ward, a small smile threatening to break through at the boy's contagious excitement. Standing up, he pulled off his cowl as he crossed over to the boy.

Alfred marveled at how far Dick had come since the fateful night Bruce had brought him home. Then, the small, traumatized child had cried himself to sleep, only to be awakened throughout the night by terrible nightmares. Within a few days, Dick had run away to track down Tony Zucco, the man responsible for his parents' murder. Batman followed the boy and found him just as Zucco threw him into the fast flowing Gotham River. Batman was forced to allow Zucco to escape in order to save Dick's life.

"That was much better, Dick. You jumped high enough to strike your opponent along these critical points." As he spoke, Bruce pointed at the dummy's temple area and jugular. "Good job."

Dick beamed at his guardian's words, his small chest puffing with pride.

Alfred cleared his throat. "Gentlemen, a light refreshment," he said, indicating the tray. As two pairs of matching sapphire eyes turned to meet his, Alfred's heart seemed to skip a beat. The physical resemblance between his two charges was so strong it was difficult for Alfred to recall that Dick and Bruce weren't biologically related.

It didn't help that Dick—consciously or unconsciously—had taken to adopting several of his guardian's mannerisms. Facing him, they were mirror images of each other, poised for action. It took all of Alfred's willpower not to smirk at what he privately considered a cute Kodak moment. He would make it a point to review the security tapes later that evening and capture a screen shot.

"Sirs, while you two wash up, I shall set the table." He set about to do just that, never once doubting that his two charges would obey. Unfortunately, as Bruce and Dick were sitting down to eat, an alarm suddenly sounded.

Bruce hurried to the cave's computer station, and rapidly typed in a command. As he hit the enter key, the alarm shut off, its shrill sound echoing down the cave's length. The virtual monitor identified an incoming message from the Justice League.

"Watchtower, this is Batman…identification code Alpha-zero-two. Come in."

"Batman, this is Watchtower…Martian Manhunter speaking, identification code Alpha-zero-seven. Go to DEFCON training level five. Repeat. Go to DEFCON training level five. Zeta beam activated. Over."

Dammit! Not now! Making a fist, he made a herculean effort not pound it into his workstation. Sighing, he knew there was little he could do. After all, I came up with the damn contact protocols myself.

Bruce looked over to where the Zeta platform suddenly indicated that someone was materializing inside. The computer-synthesized voice identified the persons who had transported in: "Recognized—Superman, Alpha-zero-one. Wonder Woman, Alpha-zero-three."

Catching sight of a blinking red warning light, Batman raised a single eyebrow. Then again…that doesn't mean I have to play nice.

"This is Batman. I copy DEFCON training level five. Batman, out." He turned to Alfred. "Alfred, please take Dick upstairs."

"But, it's Superman—!" Dick protested. Ever since Dick had found out that Bruce was Batman, he'd begged him to meet the Man of Steel. As his PJs indicated, the boy was a real fan. At Batman's no-nonsense glare, Dick reluctantly let Alfred lead him away. He looked back over his shoulder in time to see Bruce pull on his cowl and change from warm, caring guardian into the avenging Dark Knight. It was the last thing Dick saw before Alfred determinedly pushed him through the secret entrance and shut it firmly behind them.

As soon as Alfred and Dick were safely upstairs, Bruce released the locks to the transporter platform. The doors hissed as they slid open. He fumed at the invasion of his home turf...at the potential danger to his family.

He was suddenly glad that he'd enclosed the Zeta-beam platform after all. Apparently an open platform was not just an annoyance to the bats, it was a source of possible harm to the cave's human inhabitants, as well.

Perhaps he'd have to re-think on the efficacy of having a Zeta transporter in the cave, leaving his home and family vulnerable to attack. A remote location—well away from the cave and the manor—might be a better solution.

While these thoughts flitted through his head, Batman flicked a switch, and the cave's extensive lighting system shut off. The only illumination left was the eerie glow cast by the giant virtual monitor in the main work area. The stalactites and stalagmites threw distorted shadows, which added to the overall creepiness of the darkened chamber.

From the shadows Batman watched as two brightly attired heroes stepped out. He studied them as they looked around the cave, surprise registering on their faces.

"Batman?" Superman called. The two heroes waited a moment, then turned and shrugged at each other. "I don't understand…?"

"Who authorized this?"

The world's two mightiest heroes spun around, surprised by the sinister disembodied voice that greeted them. Annoyed, Wonder Woman crossed her arms, exuding attitude. Superman, on the other hand, stood with his arms out in a non-threatening gesture.

"We thought that it was a good idea to run through some of the training exercises you left us. I mean…if the Watchtower is ever compromised, we should at least practice our evacuation procedures. Y'know…like a fire drill."

Batman rolled his eyes at the Man of Steel's juvenile explanation.

"And you didn't think to give me at minimum a 24-hour notification of the training exercise?" The low, raspy voice had somehow moved. The cave's echoes made it difficult for the visitors to pinpoint the location even with their enhanced hearing.

"This is ridiculous," Wonder Woman scoffed. "If it were a real emergency, you wouldn't have had a 24-hour warning. And as we have already pointed out, the protocols for the training exercise were your idea."

"Perhaps…but that's why it's called 'training'…isn't it, Princess?"

Wonder Woman bristled at the last word. The way he'd uttered her title left little doubt he meant to be insulting. And again, the voice had come from a different location.

"Before one embarks on a new training exercise," Batman continued, his tone mocking, "it's wise to review all contingencies, so that everyone involved can plan their actions…" The raspy voice became darker. "…and re-actions!"

A sudden, piercing pain in their ears, accompanied by the fluttering of leather wings above them, was the only warning the two heroes received before hundreds of bats descended upon them from all directions. Although the bats could hurt neither Superman nor Wonder Woman, the heroes were so distracted that when the real attack came, it caught them flatfooted.

Before she was aware of what was happening, Wonder Woman found herself losing focus and quickly succumbing to an overwhelming lethargy. Superman, on the other hand, looked confused by the strange sensation of numbness that spread throughout his body. As he fell over, the last thing he saw was a large, bat-like shape materialize before him. A feeling of betrayal washed over him as he lost his battle to remain conscious.

"And that's why you warn someone ahead of time before you invade his home with a training exercise."

As he approached his fallen comrades, Batman pressed a button on his belt, turning off the sub-sonic frequency that could be heard by only dogs, bats, and meta-humans with enhanced hearing. He shook his head at how easily he had taken down his two powerful fellow Leaguers. One day they'd have to take into account the countermeasures needed to prevent an enemy (or friend) from using the heroes' own weaknesses against them.

Until then, Batman would have to keep demonstrating the results of their short-sided thinking.

~ / ~ / ~

Batman checked the time. Thirty minutes since the cave had been infiltrated. As soon as he'd seen the red warning light from the transporter platform, Batman knew he had a foothold situation in the cave. The light had indicated the presence of two non-sentient life forms in addition to Superman and Wonder Woman. After he was sure of Alfred and Dick's safety, he proceeded to activate the cave's meta-countermeasures.

He doused the cave with blue kryptonite and a non-lethal, odorless/colorless knockout gas. The blue-Kr temporarily suppressed Superman's powers; the gas rendered both him and Wonder Woman unconscious. Batman quickly donned a decontamination suit and hauled both superheroes into the decon chamber.

He'd had to move quickly to ensure that neither hero regained consciousness before the decon procedures were complete. His two guests were still unconscious, cooling their heels in the decon chamber.

After close to 20 minutes of trial and error, the computer had finally analyzed the life form's susceptibility to a high concentration of white light. The security monitors showed that whatever had hitched a ride on them was finally gone.

Apparently, if exposed to a highly focused beam of unfiltered white light (luminous intensity 500x1012 candela), the life form was rendered inert and its host body released. From what Batman had observed, neither hero seemed to have been under any kind of mind control, but he wasn't taking any chances.

His suspicious meter was reading off the scale at the moment. The Justice League's unilateral decision to implement a training exercise that had been sitting untouched in its computer databanks for the better of a month wasn't suspicious in and of itself. Neither was the fact that the program required a member of the League to transport into his home.

However, when coupled with the coincidence of the League's two most powerful metas seeking refuge in the home of the League's only non-meta—while they happened to be playing host to an unknown life form—Batman was taking no chances.

Besides, he didn't believe in coincidences. If he were proven right, then the Watchtower was also compromised. But, should he be proven wrong, it was always easier to apologize to his colleagues after the fact.

Double-checking the readings, Batman began shutting down the decontamination chamber. Satisfied that the danger had passed, he unlocked it.

Not bothering to see to his guests' comfort, Batman made his way back to his computer console. He ignored the sounds of moaning and confusion coming from the decon chamber, instead concentrating on the readings from his virtual monitor.

He did not like what he saw.

Sensing danger behind him, Batman dropped down into a defensive crouch and easily threw his attacker—Wonder Woman—over his shoulder.

"Diana!" Superman cried out. "Stop!"

"This—This…man—!" Wonder Woman spat the word out. "—had the nerve to gas us and render us unconscious—! I demand an explanation!" Arms crossed imperiously, she stood to her full height, the awe-inspiring picture of the Amazon warrior princess. "Now!"

Superman stood between her and Batman, his arms held out in a staying manner, ever the peacemaker. When it was clear that she wouldn't attack again, he turned to Batman.

"She does have a point." His raised eyebrow and slight shrug showed that he too would appreciate an explanation.

Batman wondered how two such powerful, relatively intelligent individuals could be such idiots. Did they really think that he had attacked them on a whim? Mentally sighing, he indicated they follow him to the computer station.

As he did so, he briefly recalled the past few nights with Dick eagerly leaning on the computer console. Because the boy was somewhat small for his age, he stood barely chest high to the computer console. Before long, Dick was sitting cross-legged on the work station, his expressive blue eyes taking in everything the Dark Knight was doing as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Dick had spent several evenings with his mentor, observing closely and asking surprisingly insightful questions, following him around the cave like a loyal puppy. Of course, Dick didn't just follow along on two legs as he shadowed Batman around the cave. That was much too mundane for the junior acrobat. No, the mini-bat-in-training did cartwheels, handsprings, and even climbed and balanced himself on any available surface—all while engaging his amused guardian with endless chatter.

In his eagerness the boy had managed to get underfoot a couple of times, but for the most part, he'd been a welcome companion. Dick's high spirits and childish antics seemed to leave a lightness of being in his wake wherever he went.

The corner of his mouth quirked fleetingly, as Batman felt a warm sensation at the memory.

But then he came back to the present. Dick at 9 years old had managed to ask more intelligent questions than his two fellow heroes.

Calling up the Watchtower's security monitors, he pointed at the intruder alert warning indicators. "The Watchtower has been compromised." A few more keystrokes showed that the sole League member onboard was Martian Manhunter, but he was accompanied by several hundred unknown life-forms.

"What are those?" Superman asked.

"These." Batman held up two clear, plastic zip-lock baggies. "I took them off you after I put you both in the decon chamber. They're apparently left over from our recent alien invasion. They appear to be non-sentient and parasitic in nature. Also, they're susceptible to a beam of high luminous intensity. It took almost 20 minutes in the decon chamber to get you two clear of them." Studying his friends closely, he asked, "What do you remember?"

Superman shrugged. "J'onn called me this evening at about 6:00, as I was getting ready to leave work. He said he needed to see me in the Watchtower."

Wonder Woman nodded. "I transported to HQ at 5:30 p.m., as always. I was making my way to the training room, when I ran into J'onn."

"It's almost midnight now. What happened between then and now?"

Superman shook his head. "I remember getting to the Watchtower, meeting with J'onn and Diana. I don't know why, but suddenly it seemed quite urgent that we initiate the training exercise."

Diana nodded in agreement. "Yes, I remember that transporting to the Batcave and meeting with Batman as required by the training protocols became my entire focus. I recall feeling vaguely irritated—even angry—that you didn't immediately show yourself when we first arrived."

As she spoke, Batman continued to work on the console, his fingers typing nonstop, overriding the Watchtower's security systems, and initiating the required decontamination procedures.

Batman locked down the satellite control room, which was Martian Manhunter's current location, and flooded it with knockout gas. The security feed showed J'onn as he collapsed in place.

"Do you feel that at anytime your perceptions or actions were being controlled by an outside influence?" Batman asked. As Superman and Wonder Woman each gave the question a moment's consideration, Batman next increased the luminous intensity of the JL satellite's interior lighting.

Superman gave Batman a helpless look. "When you put it that way…?" he shrugged. "I can't really be sure. I feel as if my sense of urgency to get here was a bit over-the-top. But I can recall making the decision to come here entirely on my own."

"I agree, Kal-El," Wonder Woman said. "Although for the life of me, I can't understand why it suddenly became so important."

"And J'onn was clearly involved in getting you both to agree to the training exercise," Batman pointed out. The others nodded. "It appears that the control of the host isn't done through overt mind control…more along the lines of empathic control. One that plays on an emotional level." He shook his head.

"Whatever it is, it's on board the Watchtower, and it's had J'onn under its influence for several hours now," Superman added. "With his telepathy, it's possible that he implanted the urgent need for the training exercise within Diana and me."

Batman nodded. "Because of the Watchtower's size, the decon procedures will take longer than it did with you two. I'm locking it down until further notice—no one in…no one out."

"What about J'onn?" Wonder Woman asked worriedly.

"We'll keep monitoring him," Batman said. "Right now, his vitals register as deeply unconscious, but otherwise well within normal range—"

A high-pitched cry coming from the staircase that led up to the manor interrupted them.


"Master Richard! Come back here, young sir!"

Startled, the three heroes turned as a small dynamo suddenly launched itself at Batman's torso.

"Bruce, I was so worried. Why didn't you report in? We waited and waited, but you never called us. I didn't know if you were okay or if you—!"

Surprised, Superman and Wonder Woman watched, as the distraught child buried his face in his mentor's embrace. They were further taken aback when the Dark Knight knelt down and very carefully engulfed the boy within the protection of his heavy cape.

"Hey, buddy…what's this? I'm all right, Dicky…I'm okay, see?" Bruce pulled off his cowl, all the while speaking quietly to the boy. He held Dick gently, allowing the agitated child to cry himself out. He listened to Dick's muffled voice, not quite able to make his out words, but understanding the frightened feelings behind them.

Dick had already lost one father. He was terrified of losing another. After a while Dick began to relax in his arms. His scrunched face was still buried in Bruce's neck, where his cape met the bat-cowl.

When Bruce felt Dick's tension begin to ease, he deemed it safe to carefully relax his hold on him. Leaning to touch his forehead to Dick's, he allowed himself a small smile as Dick's blue eyes met his. Reaching into a special pouch in his belt, he pulled out a dark piece of cloth with a black bat emblem on it. Carefully, if a bit clumsily, he first wiped away the boy's tears, and then held the handkerchief to Dick's nose.

"Blow," he ordered. Dick giggled at the incongruity of this particular command being uttered with the Batman's low, growly rasp. Nevertheless, he complied with the order.

"A bat handkerchief?" Dick rolled his eyes.

"A superhero, as you well know, Master Richard, is prepared for all eventualities." Alfred spoke fondly as he stepped up to his two charges, his eyes showing his amusement. "And it is also way past your bedtime, young sir."

"But I'm not sleepy. Honest!" Dick protested.

"That's what you said last night, and I ended up having to carry you upstairs," Bruce chided. At Dick's look of disappointment, Bruce relented. "But…since we have a couple of special visitors, I think that we could make an exception just this once. Right, Alfred?"

"Certainly, sir," Alfred agreed. "Just remember, it was your idea when you have to carry Master Richard upstairs again."

"I don't think that'll be too much of a problem…right, Superman? Wonder Woman?"

At their names, the two heroes finally stepped forward. Up until then they had stood back somewhat uncertainly, as Bruce—the Batman…Gotham City's freaking Dark Knight!—comforted the small, dark-haired boy.

Finally registering the presence of the two brightly clad heroes, Dick's blue eyes seemed ready to pop out of his eye sockets.

"Superman!" Gaping at the Man of Steel, Dick fell back onto his mentor for support. Bruce immediately placed his heavily gauntleted hands on the boy's shoulder to hold him up. As he watched his ward's gobsmacked expression, his own softened in fondness. The boy sure had a bad case of hero worship for Big Blue.

Bruce figured he should feel jealous, but he was enjoying the look in his boy's eyes way too much. It was a look of complete happiness, the kind of joy one expected to see on a child's face on Christmas morning or on his birthday. Apparently, meeting Superman was all that and more.

"Master Richard…what do you say?" Alfred prompted.


Alfred rolled his eyes in a long-suffering expression. "I meant…how does a well brought up gentleman greet his guests?"

Bruce bent down and whispered in Dick's ear. At his mentor's words, Dick's eyes suddenly lit up in comprehension.

"Oh! I mean…" Panicked, he looked toward Bruce and Alfred for help. Both nodded encouragingly at him. Swallowing nervously, Dick stepped forward and held his hand out.

Superman bent down until he was eye level with the boy. Taking Dick's hand, he shook it solemnly.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Superman," Dick managed a bit shakily. "I'm Richard, but you can call me Dick."

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Dick." Superman said in return. He indicated the warrior princess. "And this our very good friend, Wonder Woman."

Dick turned and smiled at the beautiful Amazon. Again, he proffered his hand in greeting. "I'm very happy to meet you too, m'am."

"As am I, Richard."

They were interrupted by the All Clear signal from the Watchtower. Batman hurried back to the main computer console, and after running a few systems checks, he finally nodded his relief.

"According to my readings, the Watchtower is clear of all contaminants and non-sentient life forms. We'll have to check it out in decon suits, though. Just to be on the safe side."

"Look, Bruce…Diana and I can take care of this part. Lend us a couple of your decon suits, and we'll be out of your hair." As he spoke, Superman's eyes slid over to where Dick had once again ensconced himself within the safe confines of his mentor's massive cape.

Diana smiled at the adorable picture of Gotham City's grim Dark Knight tenderly holding the small boy to himself.

"Yes, Bruce. We'll get to the bottom of this…whatever it is. And don't worry. We'll keep you apprised of everything."

About to protest, Bruce was forestalled by Wonder Woman's gentle hand on his ward's dark hair.

"I think, Bruce, that you have far more pressing matters to attend to at this moment. Wouldn't you agree?"

Looking down at Dick's happy, but sleepy face, Bruce's own expression softened. He tenderly ran a single finger down the boy's apricot cheek and nodded in agreement.

"Yes…I do believe you're correct, Princess." This time her title sounded more like a caress when he said it. "Thank you for the reminder."

~ / ~ / ~

Bruce read a chapter from The Three Musketeers and allowed Dick one drink of water. He patiently checked both the closet and under the bed for any possible monsters, space aliens, or the latest Arkham escapee. Only after he performed these critical nightly rituals was Bruce able to safely tuck Dick in bed for the night.

He even assured that Elinore was lying well within reach.

Seeing that Dick was finally asleep, Bruce bent down and lightly touched his forehead to the boy's. "Good night, son…sweet dreams."

Watching from the door, Alfred smiled his approval.

Yes, Bruce now had much more pressing matters to attend to.