Bruce Wayne tapped his pen against his desk in effort to concentrate on something other than the cries rattling the walls of his office. The sobs were relentless though he'd been offered a brief reprise at the elevator and coffee perk. The silence had lasted to his office. Upon opening the door the cries returned, their piercing shrieks in fine form as they cracked picture frames and vibrated his teeth.
Bruce's blue eyes were distant as he gazed out the window of his office. The sun cast its rays across Gotham, polishing the skyscrapers so they shone. It was a beautiful day. A fresh, new day. A day that reminded him of Timothy.
Sighing, he set his pen down. Clasping his hands together, he rested his chin on top, pondering the past night's events. The mysterious incidents were connected to Tim. Of this there was no doubt. Not anymore. The problem was that he didn't know what to do about it. The phantoms, the drawings, the break-in at Jack's... they were all connected to Demarti. Jack Drake had been a backer of Demarti, a clueless backer, but a backer nonetheless.
Closing his mind, he attempted to meditate. After several unsuccessful minutes he gave up. Unbidden, his mind wondered back to his strange encounter at the elevator. His conversation with Laurie and her friend still bothered him. The woman's testimony of a batman sighting had done little but reinforce what he couldn't yet acknowledge.
Only it was getting difficult to do so. Timothy never did skirt issues. In his own, quiet way, the boy effectively spoke his mind and argued his case with all the precision of a chess player maneuvering across a game board.
Was that what was happening now? Bruce wondered about it. If he submitted and admitted his folly, would he be granted the luxury of silence? Would tired souls be laid to rest?
Dare to take the road less travelled.
The sentence repeated itself through his head, a continual whisper that was becoming more tiresome than the keening wails plaguing him. His fatigued brain argued the merits of the idea. He had to admit, it was appealing. Besides, what harm was there in speaking to the wind? It would carry the message safely to the ears of those who should know his secret. Once done, nothing more would be said. So few could hear the wind.
"All right." he said aloud. "You win. I'll take the path less travelled." Immediately the crying ceased. An uncanny silence descended over the room. Bruce had the impression the phantom was holding his breath. "I failed you." There he'd said it. "I'm sorry: for everything." He let the statement hang there, holding his breath. "Well?"
As if in answer his phone rang. He stabbed the talk button with his finger. "Yes?"
"You have visitors, Mister Wayne. Mr. and Mrs. Drake wish to speak with you."
Damn. "Send them in."
Steeping his fingers, he scowled. "You never make things easy do you?" As if on cue, the door to his office flew open and in stormed Jack Drake with Dana in tow.
"I want to talk to you, Wayne." Jack began. "There are things we need to--"
"Save it." Bruce cut him off. "I know what you're here for. You're right, of course. Not about everything, but enough that it warrants a proper explanation."
"So you're finally admitting your involvement are you? You bastard, you used the halo on my son didn't you?" Jack leaned over Bruce's desk, lips curled into a snarl. "I've got your number Wayne. You can't fool me. All those subtle inquiries and innocent questions. You're involved!"
"I think a police officer and lawyer should be present." Dana closed the door of the office, ignoring her husband. "I don't want a legal mess. I've witnessed too many criminals granted freedom due to legal loopholes. If you're going to confess, Mr. Wayne, I want my lawyer here. You do have a lawyer, don't you?"
"What do you know about the halo?" Bruce ignored her. If he had his way there would be no lawyers.
Jack held up a brown envelope. "Enough to see why the government was involved. Mark mailed me his notes. It doesn't name you specifically, but with how adamant the feds were about keeping Mark's research under wraps there's no way you could have learned about it from the "country club boys."
"You have his prototypes?" Bruce regarded the two from behind his desk. His heart beat wildly. "Did he explain how he was syphoning the psi energy?"
"Not so fast Wayne." Jack waved the envelope tauntingly. "First, I want my son back." He gazed meaningfully at Bruce. "The way he was. You make him normal and then we'll talk."
"I need those notes, Jack." Bruce fought to keep his voice calm. Had Alfred already given away the secret? "I can't explain right now, but it's pertinent I see them." He paused. "For Timothy's sake."
"Ha! So you finally admit your involvement." Dana glowered at him. "You used him as a lab rat! How the hell did you de-age him?"
Bruce's brow knit in confusion. De-age? Crayola kittens and puppies flashed in his mind. "I didn't harm him. I give you my word." He knew he'd have to do more to convince them, but did he dare? In that split second, Bruce Wayne decided he would. "I'll explain everything, but not here." Rising he gathered up his coat and with a quick call to his secretary, ordered his limo to be brought around. He gestured to the door. "After you."
"Forgive me if I decline." Dana announced. "You've already made my son disappear." She flushed slightly as Bruce cocked a brow. "How do I know you haven't made similar arrangements for Jack and I?"
"I admit I've been harboring Timothy, but I assure you, it's not what you think."
"Maybe it's exactly what I think?"
The woman had spunk. Bruce couldn't help but feel amused. Jack was a lucky man. Women like Dana were in short supply.
"It's not." Bruce assured her. "Timothy is alive. He's been well taken of."
"So the child we saw at the manor wasn't Timothy?"
"It sure as hell looked like him."
"It is Timothy." Bruce amended, wondering how to explain it. "But at the same time, it isn't."
"What the hell are you talking about Wayne?" Jack was quickly losing patience. "I think I should call the police."
"Don't. Come with me first." Bruce flashed his most charming smile. "Everything shall be explained. At the end, if you're not satisfied, then you can call the authorities. I won't interfere."
"Damn straight you won't." Jack griped as he followed Bruce out of the office. Dana watched them for a moment, then reluctantly followed.
"I'll make it worth your while." Bruce ushered them into a waiting elevator. "I promise."
Alfred was just starting to doze when Toby climbed into his lap. Barbara had retired to her computer to salvage what was left of her laptop while he watched over Timothy. Lord only knew where Batgirl was. He yawned as the small boy cuddled against him. "Why are you not sleeping, young sir?"
"Alfred, you take care of me?"
"Whatever do you mean, young sir? I... yes, I do my best to care for you even though you do not always make it easy for me to do so. It's hard to care for a child who is continuously elusive."
"You take care of me for ever and ever?"
"For as long as I am able to." Alfred put his arms around the shivering form and drew him closer. "You should never doubt me, young sir."
"But you leave me."
"Sometimes, young sir, my actions may seem callous and uncaring, but I have my reasons."
Alfred rocked the child gently as he decided how best to convey his thoughts. "My priorities have always stayed the same. Once, long ago, I was the protector of a little boy who was devastated by the loss of his parents. I cared for that little boy. I nurtured and guided him to the best of my abilities. I stood by him even when he did things that made it difficult to do so. That little boy grew up and one day, he brought me another little boy. This little boy had lost his parents too. And so I was charged with raising another little boy and soon that little boy grew into a man. One day he went to live off on his own and I no longer had any little boys to care for."
"That's sad." Toby murmured, resting his head on Alfred's shoulder. "What did you do?"
"Well, a few years went by. Then one day, the little boy who grew up and moved away came back. Can you guess who he brought with him?"
"Another little boy?"
"Yes. Only this little boy wasn't so little. This little boy came with a purpose. A purpose to reunite a family."
"He did that!" Toby smiled happily. Tiny hands found Alfred's large one and squeezed it. "He made everything all better."
"He did." Alfred murmured. His eyes grew distant as the memories flowed. "But then the family began to fight again. We splintered, each going his own way. I went with the little boy to his new school."
The sharpness of the words startled him from his reverie. "Pardon?"
"You left," Toby said again. His blue eyes flashed. "You were supposed to care about him but you didn't. You left."
"Circumstances forbade me to stay. My oldest child was in trouble. He needed me."
"Timothy needed you."
"Master Bruce needed me more." Alfred whispered. "He is my oldest."
"He more important than me."
"No." Alfred stroked the child's face. "I love my boys equally." He gazed sternly into accusing blue eyes. "All my boys."
"You going to leave me again." Toby whispered. "You not even go to find me."
"How do I explain this so you can understand?" He gazed thoughtfully at a group photo of Dick, Barbara and Bruce. It had been taken before Barbara's accident. "Those were happy times."
"What happy times?" Toby asked, craning to see what had so enthralled Alfred. "Me see!"
"Sometimes," Alfred mused, still lost in his train of thought. "We have to let those we love most go. We need to let them leave. Sometimes, people get to a certain stage in their life and they become entangled. They find they can no longer go forward, nor can they go back."
"Yes, that is a good word. Stuck. Each of my boys went through this stage. Master Dick left home because he had become stuck. He was frustrated. He needed to establish himself as his own person. There have been several occasions when I left Master Bruce."
"And me. You left me."
"Only for a time."
"You still left."
"You needed time to think. I didn't leave you because I wanted to." Impulsively he pulled the child's face up and kissed his cheek. "And if you ever become lost again, I will certainly find you. I promise."
Toby was quiet. Suddenly, he cupped Alfred's face, and to the old man's surprise, planted a wet kiss on his lips. "I love you Alfred."
Alfred smiled. "I love you too."
Satisfied, the child curled into the crook of Alfred's arm and fell asleep. He watched Toby's chest rise and fall with even breaths. The ring of the doorbell caught his attention. Gently, he took Toby to Timothy's room. Laying him on the bed, Alfred drew the sheet to the child's chin.
"Bye Alfie." Toby murmured and rolled over. Alfred's breath caught as instead of rolling against Timothy, Toby rolled into him.
"My word." The doorbell rang again. Shaking his head, Alfred hurried to answer it.
"Where are we going?" Dana demanded. Against her better judgement she'd gone with Bruce and Jack. Sharing a car with a kidnapper and possible murderer was a judgement call she hoped she'd be able to live to regret. She tugged at her skirt self-consciously, ironing out imagined wrinkles with her fingers. "This isn't a good neighborhood."
"She's got a point." Less concerned with the intricacies of the situation, Jack was helping himself to a drink from the limo's bar. "You better not be lying about Tim's safety or I'll have to call my lawyer."
Dana rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe Jack, the way he was pouring brandy you'd think he was frolicking with a business associate rather than a kidnapper. "My husband's a flake." she muttered before thinking better of it. The amused glint in Wayne's eye let her know her comment had not gone unheard.
"Would you care for a drink?"
"No." Waving away the offered glass, she contented herself with memorizing the streets and landmarks they passed. If this proved to be a set up she wanted to at least be able to retrace her steps. "You still haven't answered my question."
"All in good time."
She watched Bruce sprawl out across the seat. She was amazed he could be so calm. He was about to lose everything and he didn't care. "You don't seem very concerned about bringing us to see Timothy."
"I'm concerned." The sharp tone took her by surprise. "This visit is going to affect more lives than just mine."
"It's a conspiracy." Jack grumbled, pouring himself another shot of brandy. "You and your CEO buddies are trying to blackmail me, aren't you? It won't work. Demarti and his work is gone. Kapoof! Au voir."
"The grapevine said the two of you were friends."
"Mark was a loon." Jack shrugged and tossed back his drink. "He claimed he'd found the cure for schizophrenia. I was funding his research in the hopes of expanding the medical branch of my company. You can't blame me, Wayne. A patented cure for schizophrenia would make me rich again." Jack's face hardened. "That dream died a month ago when someone blew up the lab and all its researchers. I spent the last of my money on high end attorneys to keep me out of jail. I even cashed in one of Janet's saving bonds to keep handy for bribes. Lucky for me, the feds decided my involvement was legitimate. Mark pulled the wool over my eyes, Wayne. Imagine my surprise when I discover he was actually creating energy weapons."
Jack stared into the bottom of his shot glass. "So you're one of the investors the government is trying to locate, huh? Maybe I should be trying to blackmail you instead."
"I'm not an investor."
"Then how did you know Mark was creating weapons?" All eyes fell to Dana Winters. "If you're not involved, how did you come by your information?"
"I didn't say I wasn't involved." Bruce met her accusation evenly. "I said I wasn't an investor."
"Then what are you?"
He looked away. "Something else."
Dana bit her lip. She wanted to slap him. His arrogance was harder to swallow than his flakiness. "It was all for show, wasn't it?" A bitter laugh escaped her. "The women, the parties, the scandals..."
"Yes." Bruce straightened in his seat. Dana felt a shiver as his eyes stormed. "A great many things were necessary."
"You still haven't answered my first question." Dana fixed Bruce with an icy glare before he could grill Jack some more. "How are you involved with Mark?" She watched Bruce begin to clench and unclench his fists. "And what the hell does it have to do with Tim?"
"Everything." Bruce's voice was terse. "It has everything to do with Tim."
"I knew it!" Jack threw his glass on the floor "You are trying to blackmail me! Dammit Wayne, I told you, Demarti and his people are gone! Someone blew them up!"
"He was there." Bruce said flatly. He tapped on the window, signalling their driver to pull over. "This is our stop."
The door opened. Bruce exited the vehicle with Jack hot on his heels. Dana shook her head. Things were getting too complicated. She hoped she and Jack would be able to walk away when it was all over. Gathering her wits, she hurried to catch up.
Barbara was already at the door by the time Alfred reached it. The snarl upon her face spoke volumes.
"Is he alone?"
"No." She hissed, as the bell rang again. "He's brought company."
"What?" Alfred felt his heart stop. "My word."
"I think you mean, oh shit." Barbara turned from the monitor. "How do you want to play this?"
Alfred was at a loss. Never had he imagined this day would come. And certainly not under these circumstances. "I must confess Miss Gordon, that I have no idea."
"I need you to have an idea. How much do you think Bruce has told them? If I open that door, do I play dumb or do I introduce myself as Oracle, the super community's 9-1-1 dispatcher? What about Cassandra? She's still in her Batgirl suit for christ sakes!"
The doorbell rang again.
"Whatever we do, we must do so quickly."
"Then I guess we let them in." Barbara grumbled. "Lord knows he just won't leave."
"Not without kicking the door down." Alfred gave a small smile. "Ready when you are."
"Nice knowing you Alfred." Barbara grabbed the doorknob and swung open the door. "What do you want?"
Dana watched Bruce tilt his head. "Coffee." He smiled his most disarming smile. "I hear you make you a great cup."
"Very funny." The red-haired woman didn't look happy to see them. "I repeat my question: what do you want?"
"To see Timothy."
"He's not here."
She had spirit, Dana decided. She was also a liar. "Where is my son?"
The redhead turned in her direction. "Who the hell are you?"
"His mother is dead." She stated flatly. "And his father is a deadbeat."
Beside her, Jack winced. Dana tried to keep from smiling. "I've come to see my son."
"I already told you, he's not here."
Bruce patted his pocket. "S'funny. His tracer led me here."
"You can take that tracer and shove it up your ass for all I care."
"What the hell is all this?" Dana rolled her eyes as Jack joined the conversation. "You're the commissioner's daughter aren't you? What's your name? Barbara?"
"My father retired."
"Old commissioner then. How the hell did you get mixed up in all this?"
"Can we come inside?" Dana cut in. She was tired of all the games. All she wanted was Timothy. Beyond Barbara's shoulder she could see Alfred. The old man was standing to the right, doing a damn fine imitation of a lamppost. "I see Alfred's already here."
Barbara scowled but moved her wheelchair aside. "Don't go wandering around. I want you where I can see you."
"Gee Louise Barbara, you make it sound like we're criminals." Bruce winked and breezed past her into the living. "Ah, Alfred. How about some tea?"
Alfred gave Bruce a hard gaze. "As you wish."
Dana entered slowly, making a point of looking around. She hadn't expected a kidnapper to have such nice accommodations. Then again, child ransoms did pay handsomely. "Where is my son?"
"You've asked that question three times, now." Barbara wheeled over and handed her a cup. "I've already answered you."
"Bruce Wayne is good at letting people believe what they want to."
Dana set her cup down. She glared across the room at Bruce. "Is that true? Is this just another charade?"
"No." As if a veil had been lifted, his features hardened. Nonchalant shoulders straightened, jaw clenched and tense muscles rippled as Bruce Wayne drew himself to his full height. "I'm not who you think I am."
Dana stared into his darkened eyes. "Who are you?"
"I am the Batman."
Jack laughed. "Bruce Wayne is Batman? Gimme a break. There's no such thing as the Batman. You've been drinking too many martinis. They've all gone to your head."
"No." Dana whispered. "He's not lying." She stared at the cold creature before her. "You really are the Batman."
Dana felt as if her world had been turned upside down. Again. "That... that explains so much." An hysterical giggle erupted in her throat. "All those nights. When he... when Tim would come from the house." The laughter overtook her and she doubled over. "It makes perfect sense! All those disappearances. The far-fetched excuses. All this time." Tears spilled from her eyes. Her breath was coming in hitched gasps. She was vaguely aware someone was speaking to her. A worn hand handed her something. She pushed the hand away. "Batman. You're the Batman."
"Yes." Bruce Wayne, or should she say Batman, was staring at her as stoically. Darkness seemed to emanate from him. Had he always been this way? "I am the Batman."
"He is not!" Jack leapt to his feet. "That's impossible! He can't be Batman! There's no Batman."
Through tearing eyes, Dana watched him pace the length of the room. "He is, Jack."
"What does this have to do with my son?"
"Our son," she corrected. Dana brushed the tears from her eyes. "Isn't it obvious Jack? Surely you know the Batman keeps a partner? You know: Batman and his loyal sidekick Robin? Hello... Batman and Robin?"
"You're as insane as he is!" Jack threw his hands in the air. "Am I the only sane person in the room?"
"We're all sane." Barbara Gordon snapped. She pointed to Bruce. "He's the only headcase."
"How are you involved in all this?" Finally composed, Dana dared to delve deeper into the bizarre scenario she currently found herself imersed. "I can understand how your father might be involved but you?"
"Ever heard of Batgirl?" Barbara asked bluntly. "I was her. At least until I forgot to check who was standing on my doorstep one night."
"I'm sorry." Dana said and meant it. "And Alfred?"
"I have always been." The butler announced. "Someone who takes care of these scallywags."
"Figures." Jack grumped. "It takes a headcase to raise a headcase."
"For gods sakes Jack, shut up!" Shocked, Jack blubbered, opening and closing his mouth like a fish. Dana pointed to the couch. "Sit!" To her relief he did as instructed. "Don't say another word until I figure this mess out." She scowled at Barbara's amused expression. "What?"
Barbara grinned. "I like you. Ever considered being a vigilante?"
"Is that what Tim was? Truly?"
"Yes." Bruce rumbled. "He's been helping me patrol the streets for the past three years."
"Mrs. Drake, Tim was a truly exceptional individual. His intelligence and skill were second to none."
"You're speaking of him in the past tense." Dana sniffed. "I thought he was alive."
"Only in the barest sense of the word." Barbara growled. A warning look from the Bat had her excusing herself. "I have work to do."
"Yes Master Bruce?"
"Take Jack with you. He has some files that need looking at."
Alfred nodded and gestured for Jake to follow. "Of course sir. Mister Drake?"
Jake opened his mouth to protest but Dana cut him. "Honey, just go okay? And no funny business!"
"Fine." Looking sullen, Jake followed Alfred out.
Alone in the living room, Dana found herself armed with questions, but lacking the strength to fire one off. Across from her, the Bat was equally silent.
Finally, she dared speak. "How bad?"
"Bad." Bruce tilted his head down the hall. "Come with me."