Archivist's Note: To those reading, there had been a summary but it has become null and void due to the way I divided the chapters of the story. Just letting you know.
Author's Note: This story idea came to me from several sources-- 1. A recent adventure in Hypertime with Superboy (One of the parallel worlds he visits has a Superboy who's been raised and trained by that world's Batman); 2. The Nightwing Secret Files in which the origin of his codename is finally revealed; 3. The Kandorian Nightwing, Van Zee (who was the pre-Crisis' Superman's first cousin and look-alike); 4. A recent "lost tale" of the Crisis which introduced a Batman and Robin from a parallel Earth who are also father and son; 5. And finally, the Elseworlds tale, Speeding Bullets in which Kal-El is raised by Martha and Thomas Wayne. While none of these sources is in fact directly related to my story, each in its own way somehow helped inspire it. Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright.
Feedback is welcome!
Copyright April 2000
"You are my last hope, Jor."
"Cousin, you heard the Council. No one may leave Krypton during these uncertain times."
"But little Van. He is all I have." The elder Van-Zee looked pleadingly at his cousin, Jor-El. "His mother, my wife, has been dead these past two weeks. She was too weak to withstand the stress of childbirth during Krypton's death throes."
"Death throes?" Jor-El scoffed. "Cousin, you exaggerate."
"Jor, you and I both studied the geological readings. Krypton's inner core, which we have exploited shamelessly for our power needs for untold generations, is nearing overload limits." Van-Zee studied his cousin. "The planet is going to explode."
"He's right, my husband." Both men turned at Lara's voice. She walked over to Van-Zee where he stood holding the baby. She held her arms out for the child, smiling with pain-filled eyes.
"He looks so much like Kal did at this age, Jor." Lara looked sadly upon her husband. "Our little Kal would've seen one complete sun cycle the day Van-too was born."
"Lara--" Jor-El began.
"No, Jor! Don't say it! The quakes killed our son. *Krypton* killed our son. I hate this planet, my husband. It is dying, and it is taking our people with it. *My* son is already dead. Little Van's poor mother is also dead." She leaned down and kissed the sleeping baby. "Don't let Krypton kill our godchild, too. Please, Jor...help our kinsman save his son."
Jor-El nodded. "Very well."
At that that moment, Jor-El's lab was rocked with a violent quake, lasting longer than any previous. The adults ran desperately for cover, Lara still holding the baby. She looked up in horror as a skylight and two support beams fell towards her and the baby. At the last moment, Van Zee pushed them under a lab table and out of harms way, as the heavy beams and shards of glass rained down on him. Huddling under the table, Lara managed to hold on to little Van.
Seeing her kinsman's lifeless body under the heavy rubble, she screamed. "*Van*!" Jor-El reached for her. "Jor! We must help him!"
"We can't!" Jor-El shouted. "We must take cover! The baby--hurry!"
When the nightmarish, planet-shaking quakes finally ended, there was little left of the proud, gleaming laboratory complex. Jor-El picked his way slowly through the unstable, debris-laden floor.
Finally, Jor-El spotted him, under a pile of rubble and shards of glass: Van- Zee. Jor-El checked his cousin's pulse. There was none. Van-Zee was dead. Jor-El bowed his head momentarily in a silent prayer to Rao.
"I promise, cousin," he whispered fervently, "that your son and my godchild, the last scion of the Houses of Zee and El, will live to see his first sun cycle. This I swear."
"Lara! It's time! Bring little Van. The starship is ready for launch."
"I'm coming," Lara said. She was carrying the child, wrapped in bright red, blue, and yellow blankets. She hesitated when she saw the small starship. "Are we doing the right thing, my husband?" she asked tentatively.
Jor-El walked up to her and took her and the baby in his arms. They'd both grown extremely fond of the child in the weeks following the quakes as they prepared the ship for the long voyage. Van-too reminded them so much of their own Kal-- same hair and eye color, same happy disposition.
"Yes, my wife," Jor-El said softly. "The little one will have a chance to grow up, perhaps fall in love, and have children. More importantly, he will survive."
Lara nodded through her tears. Jor-El took the baby gently and tenderly placed him in the tiny vessel's cradle. Placing his hand on the child's forehead, he breathed a short prayer.
"May Rao keep you safe on your journey, little one. Our love and the love of your parents go with you." Jor-El and Lara looked down on the smiling baby boy, both in tears. Remembering what she was holding, Lara turned to her husband.
"Jor, I almost forgot," she said, "I found this amongst Van-Zee's effects. It was marked, 'For my son,' so I brought it." Jor-El nodded. He took the small, black sphere, an ordinary recording devise, which he noted was stamped with the midnight blue crest of the House of Zee, and placed it carefully in a recessed storage bin inside the ship's tiny cabin.
They looked down at the now sleeping baby once more, reluctant to let go of the moment.
Suddenly, Krypton began shaking again. This time, the quakes were even more powerful than before. Screams from outside, thunderous rumblings, and explosions warned Jor-El and Lara that perhaps this was it.
Lara leaned down hurriedly and kissed the baby one last time. Jor-El pressed a control panel to seal the hatch. Lara's eyes were streaming tears. The lab began to shake violently. Glass vials fell off their shelves. Various pieces of equipment vibrated off the tables. The windows rattled from the explosions and sonic booms.
Jor-El brought the starship's systems on line. He checked life support, command and control, and navigation. Jor-El double-checked the coordinates for the astro-nav course. Satisfied, he brought the star drive on line.
As his wife joined him, Jor-El punched the 'Activate' button, and the tiny starship, carrying its precious bundle slowly rose. The two doomed Kryptonians watched as the ship cleared the broken skylights and disappeared into the night sky.
When the ship cleared Krypton's star system, its sensors recorded a spatial anomaly caused by one of the planets disintegrating in a multi-megaton explosion...
The large motor home, pulling a smaller trailer, drove past the miles of newly planted wheat and cornfields. To Mary's delight they passed a field of sunflowers with faces turned west towards the low, setting sun. The western sky was ablaze with russets, lavenders, and deep purples.
It was a beautiful, clear March day, the first day of spring, and Mother Nature was in her full panoramic glory of bright, rainbow colors.
"Oh, Johnny, I never knew Kansas could be so beautiful. So many wildflowers. It's like driving through a garden."
"Hey, can I show a girl a good time or what?" Johnny teased. "Didn't I promise you travel to exotic places, fancy clothes, and meeting interesting people."
Mary laughed. "I never thought of Kansas as exotic, but I have to admit that before I met you, I'd never had such fancy clothes as my costumes, and as for interesting people..."
As Johnny and Mary drove past the solitary farmhouses, green wheat fields sparkling with evening dew, and lengthening shadows. Anyone who happened to look up as they passed, saw the painted, 'Flying Graysons' banner, with the picture of a trapeze and two circus aerialists in mid-flight.
Laughing happily, John and Mary Grayson traveled west. They were going to meet up with the Haly Circus in Wichita, Kansas. A sign reading 'Welcome to Smallville, Home of the Fighting Farmers! 15 miles ahead!' greeted them.
"Now, that's what I call an exotic locale," Mary said. "'Smallville, Home of the Fighting Farmers." They shared a companionable laugh.
It was nice to laugh again. They'd wanted children so badly and had been so excited when Mary first discovered that she was pregnant. She was due March 21st. A momentary stab of pain pierced her heart. The baby would've been born today. She felt the darkness begin to descend again, but determinedly pushed it aside.
Johnny had been so loving, so understanding. It had been his baby, too. The loss had devastated the both of them. The doctor's additional news almost destroyed her. Mary would never have children. She looked over at her husband of two years and felt her heart fill with tenderness.
"I love you, Johnny Grayson," she whispered. John smiled sideways, his gray eyes gentle.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world, Mary," he said. "The most beautiful girl I know is sitting next to me right now and wearing my ring. What more could I ever ask for?"
He held his hand out to her. Smiling through tears that just seemed to come of their own accord, Mary reached hers out to him.
A sudden piercing whistle, accompanied by a loud ~*Ka-boo-ooo-oo-mmmm*!~ exploded over their heads. Startled, John lost control of the wheel and the motor home began careening crazily back and forth across the road.
Hanging on for dear life, Mary screamed. A small pinprick of light appeared above them among the fluffy, plum-pink clouds. The light grew brighter, hotter, leaving a burning trail behind it; the whistle increased to an eardrum- shattering roar. John finally brought the motor home under control and brought it to complete stop on the side of the road.
Both gasped in momentary relief.
The hot trail of burning light rocketed past them and crashed into the adjoining field in a shower of molten rock and burning debris. At last, the early Kansas evening grew still.
"What was *that*?" John whispered, awed. They jumped out of the motor home's cab and ran towards the field. In the deepening gloom, they could see a large trail of scorched earth left by 'whatever' that fell from the sky. At the far end of the black scar, they could see a fire burning raggedly.
John started running towards it. "Johnny! What are you doing?" Mary cried.
"It could be a plane or something," he called back. "There could be people trapped inside."
Mary ran after him, stumbling on the newly torn earth. She heard John cry out up ahead. Frightened, she began to run harder, falling every few steps on the uneven ground.
"Mary! You won't believe this!" John called. Mary ran to what appeared to be the lip of a crater formed by the force of the impact. She stopped, her breath caught in her throat.
Inside the crater was a small craft of some type, possibly military. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen, except in science fiction magazines. John was walking around down there, avoiding the hot spots.
"Johnny, be careful," she called. In the quiet of the early evening, Mary heard a small sound, almost like that of a cat meowing. She looked around uncertainly. Where was it coming from? Finally, she turned back to the small craft. Johnny was touching it gingerly.
He took off his jacket, and wrapping it around his hands, he began feeling around the craft's sides.
"Oh, Johnny, please--"
Suddenly, a small hatch began to open.
"Johnny...!" Mary gasped. A half-formulated scream died in her throat. Both stood in mute silence for several seconds. A baby, little more than a newborn, lay inside crying heartbrokenly.
John reached tentatively inside. As soon as he held the small, wet and hungry bundle, the cries ceased. The baby looked up at John with bright blue eyes. Suddenly, the baby yawned widely and fell promptly asleep...
Later, they were sitting in the living quarters of the motor home, overcome with wonderment as they bathed and changed the baby boy.
The strange craft was stored in their equipment trailer. After John dug it out of the rich Kansas soil, he discovered that it was surprisingly light. It proved relatively easy to drag back to the trailer.
Mary rummaged for the baby items that she hadn't had the heart to dispose of so shortly after her miscarriage. Among the miniature doll-sized t-shirts, socks, and booties, she found a baby bottle. John took it from her, and in lieu of baby formula, warmed a bottle of whole milk in the small microwave.
When the milk was ready, John brought her the warmed bottle. With a nervous smile, Mary took it, and hesitantly, brought the nipple to the baby's mouth.
Happily, the baby knew what to do and within minutes, he was gurgling away as if he hadn't eaten in weeks. John observed the proceedings, his heart filling.
"I guess we'll have to stop in Smallville and buy some formula," he suggested. Mary glanced at him, her eyes shining.
"Oh, Johnny...he's so beautiful!" she breathed in awe. "So perfect."
"Mary," John whispered, "I don't understand. Who would put a baby in a--a-- whatever that thing is? Risk his life like that?"
"I don't know, Johnny," she whispered back, her eyes never leaving the small miracle that she held in her arms.
John sat down next to her on their tiny pull-down couch. He held Mary and the baby close to him.
"Mary, this baby belongs to somebody. What if whoever he belongs to lost him and is even now looking for him?"
As her husband's words sunk in, Mary turned frightened eyes first to John and then to the baby.
"If he belonged to me," John added cautiously, "and *I'd* lost him, I know that I'd be doing everything in my power to--"
"--To make him *un*-lost?" Mary finished, her voice catching. John nodded. They both looked down at the now contentedly sleeping baby, and then at each other. Without another word, they both knew that they would never give the baby up, nor would they ever tell anyone how they'd found him.
God might have closed a door on their lives when He took their unborn child, but in His wisdom, he'd just opened a window. This was their child, delivered to them by a great cosmic stork on the first day of spring, just as promised.
The Flying Graysons had just become a family...
In the end, it proved easier than even they'd imagined. Pop Haly was the only one in whom John confided about Mary's miscarriage, and because Pop respected the Graysons' privacy, he hadn't informed any of the other performers.
When they arrived in Wichita, everyone greeted the new baby as member of the family.
"What will you call him?" the Great Marko asked.
"Oh, he's so beautiful!" Bobo, the clown, exclaimed.
"Why, he's the spitting image of Mary!" Maggie, the Tattooed Lady, proclaimed. "Look at those blue eyes!"
"Hey, Johnny, you lucky son of a gun!" one of the roustabouts called. "A son to carry on the Flying Graysons tradition!"
John and Mary smiled at the welcoming throng of their fellow circus performers and friends. This was their family and little Dicky--Richard John Grayson, named for John's father--was even now being embraced into the fold...
Later that evening, Pop looked down at the tiny sleeping bundle in his arms. He emphatically shook his head, 'no.'
"Johnny, you know that'd I give my right arm for you, but this--?" He shrugged helplessly. The baby yawned in his sleep and slowly opened his eyes. Pop stood mesmerized by the amazing blue eyes that gazed calmly up at him. A little hand reached up and formed a tiny fist next to a damask cheek.
John and Mary held their breaths. At last, Mary spoke tentatively. "Look, Dicky, your godfather is holding you for the first time."
Pop looked at them, eyes wide. "Godfather?" he asked. At their nods, he quickly glanced down at the small form again. Dicky gurgled happily, waving his arms and kicking slightly in his godfather's arms. It almost seemed as if he were happy at the news.
Pop smiled down at the baby, gently touching his diminutive nose. A baby hand grabbed Pop's finger and refused to let go.
"You've sure got a strong grip there, youngster. You're a Grayson, all right. Yep, like Maggie said, you're the spitting image of your mother." This last was addressed at John and Mary. Excitedly, the young couple hugged and kissed. Pop Haly would keep their secret.
"You'll need papers, proof that Dicky's really yours," he said. He noted the Graysons' surprised looks. Obviously, neither had given the matter much thought. Smiling, he added with a reassurance that he didn't feel, "Don't worry. I know someone who might help." He looked down once more at the happy, gurgling baby.
"I'll take of everything. You're family now, Dicky, and the Haly Circus always takes care of its own..."
"*No*!" Pop screamed, livid. "No money, you leech! No more!" The door to his motor home was suddenly yanked open. Dick ducked underneath the back stoop. He'd come to Pop's trailer to ask if he could ride Elinore in the matinee parade today.
A man was literally thrown out of the trailer. "Get out, Zucco! I told you a month ago that you'd get no more money from me. We're through! If you don't leave the circus grounds right now, I'll call the cops."
"Oh, yeah? And then what?" Zucco sneered. "*You* gonna tell 'em about a little piece of paper I had forged for you almost nine years ago? No, Haly. I'm warning *you*--either pay up, or someone's gonna get hurt."
Haly made a threatening move, and Zucco broke into a stumbling run. "And don't come back, you bloodsucker!" Pop yelled, waving his fist. Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Dick. His eyes widened. How much had the boy heard?
"Dicky, what are *you* doing here, son? It's almost time for the opening parade." Dick looked up wordlessly at his godfather. He'd almost forgotten why he'd come. Unable to speak, he was relieved when Pop smiled suddenly, his eyes taking on their normal twinkle. "And aren't you supposed to ride Elinore today?"
Dick broke into a wide grin. "Oh, boy! D'you mean it, Pop? Honest?"
"Why, you and Elinore are the stars of the show, Dicky! Of course, you'll lead the parade."
Dick jumped up in jubilation. He began running towards the Graysons' motor home, calling over his shoulder, "Oh, boy! Wait'll I tell Mom and Dad!"
Smiling, Haly waved at the exuberant boy. As Dick disappeared among the long line of performers' motor homes, a worried expression overtook his countenance. Doing business with Zucco all those years ago had been a mistake. A very bad mistake. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders.
"Oh well, the show must go on," he said philosophically.
Pop stepped back inside his trailer. Today's receipts were unbelievable. Gotham City's Wayne Foundation was sponsoring the special performance this evening. The Wayne Foundation was matching the gate receipts with a donation for the Gotham City Children's Hospital. They had a sold out house.
The nice thing was that the Haly Circus did not have to donate any of its earnings to the charity. The circus hadn't exactly operated in the black these past few years, even with Dick as the star performer, and Pop couldn't afford to give away any money that it made.
All Bruce Wayne had requested was that the show be touted for charity and he would personally foot the donation.
"Odd man," Pop mused. He began to dress in his Ring Master's togs. Tonight's performance was still several hours away, but they had an afternoon matinee in less than an hour. He smiled suddenly reflecting on the past few years...
Eleven-month-old Dick literally learning to walk on the high wire while the other performers gasped in fear 70 feet below. With John waiting, arms held out, Mary released the baby. Without hesitation, Dick walked out to his father...
Three-year-old Dick taking his first somersault on the trapeze, his father catching him...
Four-year-old Dick performing his first triple, wowing the crowds below...
Six-year-old Dick, one of only three aerialists in the world, performing the perilous "Death Drop!"--a quadruple somersault--without a net...
And now, nine-year-old Dick Grayson was working on perfecting what others said was the impossible, a quintuple somersault. And if Pop knew his godchild, Dick was just the aerialist who'd defy the laws of gravity and accomplish this feat.
"I *love* my job!" Pop said proudly. Then remembering Zucco's threats, he sighed. There was little he could do at the moment. "I'll talk to John and Mary tomorrow," he promised himself. He'd have a better idea about what to do once he'd had a chance to sleep on it.
Unfortunately, tomorrow would prove too late.
"Mom! Dad!" Dick yelled, horrified. "*No-ooo-oo*...!"
"Does he have any relatives?"
"No, no one, poor kid."
"Pop's his godfather. He wants the boy to stay with him."
"I heard Child Welfare Services won't let him. Something about an iterant circus not being a fit place to raise a kid."
"Poor Dicky. What'll become of him? He's only nine..."
Dick sat quietly through the entire ordeal--the juvenile detention center, family court, the funeral, and now the long drive to his new home. The gray, misty day reflected his mood.
He was in the backseat, next to Bruce Wayne. They were dressed identically in dark suits, dark ties, and white Oxford shirts. Dick leaned his forehead on the window. He didn't see the dismal, wooded hills of Gotham Heights. The blazing fall colors were muted in mourning browns and grays today.
His parents' fall played over and over in his mind.
"Why?" he whispered.
"I don't know, Dick," Bruce said. Dick didn't know that he'd spoken out loud.
He wiped his face on his sleeve, ashamed that once again he was showing such weakness in front of his new guardian, a relative stranger. He still didn't understand why Bruce wanted him to come live at his house, but he didn't want to do anything that would make his parents ashamed of him.
He looked down at his lap, his hands clasping and unclasping. He sniffed, his nose runny, a tear trickling down his cheek.
"Here, chum," Bruce said, handing Dick a handkerchief. Dick nodded his thanks, unable to answer. His breath came faster in short gasps; his eyes wouldn't stop crying. He covered his face in the handkerchief.
At last Dick felt a pair of strong arms pulling him close. The kind gesture was too much for the brokenhearted boy. Overcome with grief, Dick buried his face in his new guardian's chest. He sobbed quietly, his body wracked by emotion.
Exhausted, Dick fell asleep on Bruce's lap.
A loud clap of thunder woke him. A momentary wave of panic swept through him. Where was he?
"Mom?" he called. Then he remembered. His mom would never answer him again. His dad would never catch him. He had no one left. No family. No circus. No one.
He thought about his mysterious benefactor, Bruce Wayne. Each time he looked into Bruce's eyes, a cold fist seemed to suddenly squeeze his stomach. And yet, there was *something* about Bruce that made Dick want to trust him openly and without hesitation.
As he sat up in the dark, he had a sudden yearning to find his guardian. But he'd only been inside Wayne Manor once before and he hadn't had a chance to learn his way around. Dick stared down at the floor while concentrating on the layout of the mansion below and the rooms he'd actually visited. He formed a mental picture of Bruce and tried to trace the route to these rooms from his bedroom.
As he concentrated, Dick could suddenly *see* Bruce, or rather, a dark, forbidding figure, sitting in a frightening place of deep shadows. He was surrounded by a lot of strange equipment that Dick couldn't recognize.
As he sat confused, Dick realized that his room seemed to disappear around him, while the room in which he thought he'd seen Bruce materialized.
He blinked. His room reappeared.
"Whoa, you're losing it, Grayson," he muttered. He lay back down, thinking about what had just happened. Was his strange ability growing stronger? He'd never experienced 'it' quite so strongly before. As he stared up at the ceiling, he thought about the 'room' where he'd seen Bruce. "That wasn't a room. That was a *cave* or something."
He shook his head.
"You didn't see anything," he denied. "You promised Mom and Dad, remember?" As he dropped off to sleep, he kept repeating to himself, "You promised to stop..."
Dick sat at the kitchen table wordlessly watching Alfred as the dignified butler prepared breakfast. Dick felt uncomfortable. Everyone in his family had pitched in with household chores. He and Dad helped Mom in the motor home's tiny kitchen with chopping vegetables and setting the table. Afterwards, while Dad washed dishes, Dick rinsed and dried...
"The Flying Graysons are a team as well as a family, Dicky," Dad used to say. "Everything we do, we do together..."
Dick again felt the stinging in the back of his eyes. Blinking rapidly, he cleared his throat.
"Excuse me, sir," he said tentatively.
"You may address me as 'Alfred,' Master Dick." Alfred's eyes smiled gently. "How may I be of assistance?"
"Can I help?"
Alfred quirked an eyebrow. "*Help*, young sir?"
"Uh-huh," Dick said nodding.
Alfred's smile broadened. "Of course, Master Dick. Here, why don't you step around this way?" Alfred indicated that Dick come around the kitchen island where he was currently working, behind the stove.
Dick eagerly jumped up and joined the kindly gentleman. His eyes barely cleared the counter.
"Well, now, a chef trainee must be able to see what he's preparing," Alfred said, rummaging inside the large, built-in pantry. "This should do the trick!" he exclaimed.
He pulled out a small stepladder and set it front of Dick. Dick quickly stepped up.
"Now, young sir," Alfred began. "To prepare breakfast 'Ala Pennyworth,' one must become *one* with the egg."
Dick looked blank. "Huh?"
"Watch and learn!" Alfred said, smiling. With an elaborate wave of the hands, Alfred both charmed and delighted his newest charge on the secrets of culinary magic.
"Where's Mr. Wayne?" Dick asked, whisking the eggs as Alfred had shown him. Shaking his head, he amended, "Uhmm, I mean, Bruce?"
Dick was having difficulty remembering to call his guardian by his first name. His parents raised him to be respectful of his elders, so he couldn't bring himself to call either Bruce or Alfred by their first names, yet.
"I'm afraid that Master Bruce is still asleep. He had a rather long night of it, I believe."
Dick looked at Alfred with wide blue eyes.
"But it's almost eight o'clock in the morning!" he exclaimed in shock. At home, the Flying Graysons would've been up already for almost three hours and halfway through their morning training routine.
"You'll learn that Master Bruce keeps his own hours," Alfred explained.
Dick reflected on how different things were going to be. Is that what being wealthy meant, he wondered? Sleeping past eight and maybe even later?
"Breakfast is almost ready, Master Dick," Alfred said. "Please wash up and take a seat at the table."
Dick nodded, doing as told and sitting down. Everything smelled and looked delicious.
Alfred set a plate of chocolate chip pancakes with a side of bacon and eggs in front of Dick. To this feast, he added a tall glass of milk, orange juice, a small pitcher of syrup, softened butter, and other condiments.
"Here you go, young sir," Alfred proclaimed cheerily. "Just the breakfast to energize a growing boy." He smiled down at his young charge, and turned back to the kitchen area.
"Aren't *you* going to eat, too?" Dick asked.
"I ate hours ago, Master Dick," Alfred said. "If you'll excuse me, I must prepare Master Bruce's breakfast."
"Oh," Dick said, looking down disappointedly. Alfred gazed at the boy for a moment. Reaching a decision, he set down the whisk with which he was about to beat the eggs, walked around the island to the kitchen table, pulled out a chair and sat down.
"But I suppose since the Master is still abed, there's no need to hurry," he said. "Now, tell me a bit about yourself, Master Dick. What's it like for a boy growing up in the circus? It must be terribly wonderful."
Dick nodded excitedly and proceeded to fill Alfred in on the wonders of circus life...
"I thought I heard laughter."
Dick and Alfred looked up. Standing at the kitchen door was a freshly shaven and casually dressed Bruce Wayne. Dick noted the tired lines around his guardian's eyes, and narrowing his own eyes, saw what looked like a discoloration around one cheek, like a bruise.
How'd he get *that*? Dick wondered. Did he get into a fight last night? Again, he wondered what kind of man his new guardian would prove to be.
"Master Bruce!" Alfred cried out in mortification. He jumped up and hurried to the kitchen area, banging pots and pans. "My apologies, sir! The young master and I were chatting and I simply forgot the time!"
Bruce waved his hand in a staying motion. "That's okay, Alfred. I needed to get up anyway. So, what's for breakfast?" He looked at Dick's nearly empty plate and gave the boy a half-smile. "Chocolate chip pancakes? Hey, I'm in," he said, pulling out a chair.
"They're great, Bruce! I've already had a zillion of 'em," Dick said.
"Indeed, Master Bruce," Alfred said drolly. "I don't believe I've ever come across anyone with such a voracious appetite. Young Master Dick has already had four servings!"
Bruce turned an amused glance at Dick. Sizing up the small boy, he teased, "Where do you put it?"
Dick grinned, slightly embarrassed. It was funny because he never felt hungry, but once he sat down to a meal, he couldn't seem to get enough to eat. It was a source of constant amusement for his mom.
"Mom always used to say that the Flying Graysons had to work extra hard 'cause otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford to feed me."
Bruce leaned in closely and spoke in mock conspiratorially low tones. "Between you'n me, kid, your appetite is going to make Alfred extremely happy."
Later that day, Dick wandered the vast manor. Bruce had long since left for an appointment with Lucius Fox, and Alfred was off somewhere, attending to household chores. Dick looked around the large study, a gloomy room lined with bookshelves. He walked up to the oversized windows and drew open the heavy drapes.
The mid-afternoon sun instantly flooded the room. A bright sunbeam fell on a giant wedding portrait of a young man and woman hanging over the fireplace. The man looked a lot like Bruce but with a mustache. The woman was breathtakingly beautiful in her long, white gown.
Dick looked away. Alfred told him that Bruce's parents died when he'd been a little boy, too.
"I guess we have a lot in common."
Spotting a grandfather clock along one wall, Dick noticed that it wasn't working. Studying it, a sudden idea came to him. Dick was unusually gifted with mechanical objects. Somehow he always just *knew* how things worked.
Truth be told, Dick knew that if he concentrated sufficiently on any given object, eventually he'd be able to *see* its internal mechanism and know instantly how to fix the problem.
Dick didn't know *how* he could. He just *knew* that he could. His mom and dad would look at each other worriedly and pretend they didn't notice. One time he overheard his parents talking about him. To this day, Dick didn't understand what Mom meant when she'd said, "Perhaps it's common with his kind?"
Or Dad's cryptic response, "We'll have to start taking it easy, Mary. Maybe not have Dicky master the quintuple loop. Most everyone takes his talent and amazing gifts in stride, but one day...I don't know. I just don't want a lot of publicity."
Mom had laughed suddenly. "A circus performer who *doesn't* want publicity? Now if *that* got out, people would *really* talk...!"
Dick smiled at the memory, but then thoughtfully reflected on his mother's words.
"What did she mean?'" he wondered for the umpteenth time. "What *about* 'my kind'? Isn't *my* kind, *Dad's* kind, or *Mom's* kind?"
He shook his head, not understanding. He'd never questioned his parents because Dad had told him that eavesdropping on other people's conversation was wrong. So, he'd been left to wonder...
Walking up to the clock, Dick tentatively opened the clock face. Checking his watch, he stood on tiptoe and reached up for the clock hands. He tried to move the big hand. Nothing happened. It wouldn't move clockwise.
"That's funny," he muttered. "It's stuck." Not wanting to risk breaking it, he tried moving it counter-clockwise. To his surprise, the clock hand began moving. However, as soon as the big hand passed the nine, it stopped, refusing to go further.
"Great! I broke it," he said in self-disgust. Placing both hands on his hips, he glared at the offending clock face. As he stared, he suddenly *saw* the problem. Inside the clock face there were two small devices set up as 'stops.' The big hand *couldn't* move beyond the 'two' and the 'nine.'
"That's weird," he said. Taking a chance, he moved the clock hand back to the 'two.' As soon as he did so, he heard a *click*. Startled, Dick glanced to the right. A narrow door stood open inside a dark recess along the wall.
"Whoa," Dick breathed. "A secret passage. How *cool*!" Taking a moment to assess whether this was a good idea or not, his sense of adventure won over. As soon as he stepped through, the door closed behind him. His heart leaped into his throat.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all," he muttered. Leaning against the dank wall, he allowed his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark. Concentrating with all his might, he tried to *see* through the gloom. As always, whenever he *wanted* his strange ability to work, it stubbornly refused.
Sighing, Dick took a tentative step forward. His foot touched empty space. Carefully feeling with his toes, he finally *felt* a solid step about five inches below him. A staircase! He was on a staircase. Satisfied that he wouldn't fall and break his neck, he began climbing down in the nearly impenetrable darkness.
"'Curiouser and curiouser,'" he said, quoting his mom. She'd read Alice in Wonderland to him innumerable times, and even though the story was about a *girl*, he'd enjoyed it as much as she.
Reaching the bottom, he was startled again, this time by muted lights coming suddenly to life. As he looked around, Dick realized that his half-forgotten 'dream' from last night had been real.
A large bat fluttered overhead, disappearing into the blackness above. Dick ducked momentarily frightened, his heart in his throat.
Straightening slowly, Dick looked around with open-mouthed awe. He was standing in the middle of a large cave, surrounded by vast amounts of strange electronic equipment and what looked like a scientific laboratory. As he walked around the vast underground cavern, his movement probably set off a motion detector. A spotlight came on abruptly.
Dick's jaw dropped: the Batmobile!
Tony Zucco's sneering countenance glared down at him from a half-dozen computer monitors. Bruce raised a single eyebrow.
"Bad enough the kid finds the cave so soon after arriving," he muttered, chagrinned, "but he obviously knows his way around computers as well. He's cracked every built-in security program in the system."
Bruce checked the information that Dick had accessed. His jaw line hardened, the only indication that what he'd read disturbed him. He strode to the uniform vault.
"Sir?" Alfred spoke from behind him. "What are you going to do?"
"Go after him," Batman said, moving purposefully towards the Batmobile. "And pray I'm not too late." He uttered this last as he slammed the driver's side door and roared away.
Dick easily climbed over the high stonewall surrounding the vast estate, thankful for the growing shadows. The computer search showed that Zucco was related to a local crime lord, Mario Falcone. In the past, Falcone had kept Zucco from the reach of the law through his vast network of crooked lawyers.
It was possible that Falcone might be hiding Zucco until the heat wore off.
As he made his way stealthily, Dick thought about how *simple* it had been for him to access the computers he'd discovered in the giant cave. Funny, the only computer he'd ever seen before in his entire life was the one that Pop kept to do his books. Dick had watched him work on it a few times, but had never used it himself. Yet, when he came across all of the security measures on the computer banks in the cave, he'd just *known* what to do.
As for a means of getting to the Falcone estate, Dick simply looked up the bus and subway schedules. He then hitched a ride to town, took the subway all the way to the nearest suburb, and then caught the bus. It dropped him off less than a mile from the entrance to the estate.
Dick spotted a large tree a short distance away from the wall. Expertly sizing the span, he leaped from a crouching position and reached the topmost limb.
Swinging up and over, Dick hid among the darker gloom afforded by the branches and waited.
Batman drove like a maniac. The Falcone estate was clear on the other side of Gotham City, located along the steep banks of the Gotham River.
"The better to dispose of the remains," Batman growled sarcastically. He was referring to three unidentified nude bodies discovered along the sheer banks of the Gotham River in the past thirty years. None of the cases had ever been solved. None of the men had ever been identified.
Of course, when the body's fingertips have been cut off and most of the teeth pulled, identification becomes problematic. The FBI suspected the Falcone organization, but there was no direct evidence to link them.
Batman tore through the city streets at speeds that earned him shocked looks and pointed fingers.
"Gordon's not going to like this," he muttered. But there was no helping it. The long-planned for bypass around the city had been stalled for several months due to cost overruns and contract disputes. Falcone Construction, Inc. had low-bid Wayne Enterprises and won the contract for the major project.
"Just another fine example of Falcone's sense of civic duty," he said.
As soon as the guard disappeared around the outbuildings, Dick climbed down from his hiding place and hurried towards the main house. Night had settled on the vast estate, which was set on a high cliff overlooking the swiftly flowing river below.
Moving silently alongside the mansion, Dick found a corner window and listened intently. Satisfied that the room was empty, he took out an interesting device that he'd picked up in the cave: a glasscutter.
He recognized it because the Haly Circus' resident magician, Kabir Balin, used one as part of his act.
Grinning, Dick thought about all of the other 'interesting' devices that he'd found there, each kept under lock and key.
Slicing through the a single windowpane, Dick put his hand through and unlocked the window from the inside. Stealthily climbing in, he quickly made his way across the room and into the adjacent hallway.
Batman leaped up, catching a solid handhold over the edge of the stonewall. Effortlessly pulling himself over, he crouched momentarily on the narrow ledge. Light spilled from only two rooms in the house.
Taking out a small pair of night vision goggles with zoom lenses, Batman zeroed in on the room located on the bottom floor. Two men occupied it. They were sitting on the sofa, drinks on the cocktail table before them, a television on.
"Soldiers," Batman surmised. Raising his glasses to the second story window, Batman trained them on the glass doors that opened onto a balcony. They were ajar.
Batman allowed himself a small grin.
"Too easy," he growled.
"Well, lookit here," the ugly voice sneered.
Dick whirled in shock. Three of Falcone's men stood over him. The one who'd spoken held a pistol trained on him. The other two were also armed, one with a military-style rifle, the other one with a shotgun.
"What d'you got, Artie?"
Dick turned to the new voice. He recognized it instantly!
"Got us a 'burglar,' Mr. Zucco," Artie answered. He waved his handgun at Dick, indicating he wanted him to move.
"Hey, it's that circus kid," Zucco exclaimed. "The Grayson kid! Good work, boys. This little creep can ID me and send me up the river." He laughed, a sudden cold laugh. "I guess it's *you* who's gonna end up *up the river*, kid!" he guffawed. "Right, Artie?"
"Yeah, right, Mr. Zucco," Artie agreed, laughing easily. Looking at Dick, he said with mock regret, "Sorry 'bout this kid, but business *is* business."
Shaking his head in wide-eyed fear, Dick abruptly stumbled back against the wall behind him.
Grinning cruelly, Artie snapped his fingers and addressed the other two men. "Rico, Gino, take the kid for a midnight cruise. And make sure that he takes a nice, extra-long swim. Got it?"
The two men nodded, also grinning.
"Got it, Artie," they said together.
Falcone sat at his desk, working on a seemingly endless pile of paper.
"It would've been simpler to *build* the damned road on time and under cost," he growled. "That *stupido*, Tony, and his grand ideas. Now Dent and Gordon are *both* after me!"
"The problem with relatives is that you can't choose who they are."
Startled, Falcone almost fell out of chair at the sound of the cold, gravelly voice.
A dark shadow descended on him. Falcone initially trembled in horror at the black specter.
"I want Zucco, Falcone."
Recognition flooded Falcone's face.
"You!" he exclaimed. "You've got no right--!" That was as far he got. His sentence ended in a choking sound as Batman literally picked him up by the neck and squeezed a little too long and too hard.
"You're choking me," Falcone pleaded, barely getting the words out.
Releasing his grip, Batman deliberately dropped him in a heap.
"Talk," Batman growled. "Before I get mad." Bending down, he grabbed Falcone by the lapels and, enunciating each word clearly, added, "You--don't--want--to-- make--me--mad!"
Falcone squeaked in fear. Finding his voice, he began to talk.
Grinning evilly, Rico and Gino advanced towards Dick.
"No!" Dick cried, scooting backwards, frightened. "Stay away from me!" As Rico reached for him, Dick desperately kicked out, connecting with the gangster's knee. Rico cried out in pain.
"Why you, little--" he howled, enraged. He was hopping on the floor clutching his hurt knee. "I think you broke it, you little creep! Now you're *really* gonna pay! Get him, Gino!"
Without batting an eyelid, Gino trained the double-barreled shotgun he was holding at Dick's head.
"Make one false move, kid, and I'll blow you away right here, right now."
Paralyzed with fear, Dick stared at the gun. He felt himself begin to hyperventilate, his heart hammering. The sounds around him began to recede into the far background. The room and all its occupants faded to an indiscernible gray.
The twin barrels loomed increasingly larger before his eyes.
Dick's fear and panic mounted. He broke out in a cold sweat. This was quickly followed by a hot flash. Suddenly, inexplicably, Dick started to feel as if his eyes were burning...
As the door exploded inwardly, Gino yelped in sudden pain and dropped the shotgun.
"ARGH!!!" he yelled. "My hands! My hands!"
Dick lay huddled on the floor as if transfixed. He'd just *looked* at the shotgun...just *looked* at it!
"What did you *do* to me, you little *freak*!? Gino screamed. He was thrashing on the floor, his hands held closely to his chest, whimpering at the overwhelming pain.
A vase flew past Dick and struck the wall behind him, shattering into pieces. The impact broke his trance, and he quickly rolled out of the way of the next thing that flew in his direction, Artie!
That's when Dick saw him--Batman! He was single-handedly taking care of the three gunmen. But where was Zucco? Dick looked around the room and spotted his parents' alleged killer slipping out the patio door.
Jumping to his feet, Dick ran after him.
He heard Batman call him.
Batman saw Dick run outside. He's after Zucco, the Dark Knight realized. Turning to the lone remaining felon, Batman reached back and punched his lights out.
Taking out batcuffs, he ensured that the three prisoners would be immobilized when they regained consciousness. As he did so, he noticed that one man's hands were badly burned.
"What the--?" he muttered.
Although Batman could feel Dick's time quickly running out, he couldn't in all good conscience leave a wounded man untreated. Taking out his first aid kit, Batman hastily did what he could for the injured gangster. Leaving him as comfortable as possible, Batman at last ran out after Dick.
Dick sprinted through the deep shadows. Zucco! He couldn't let him get away. He wouldn't! A bloated harvest moon had risen, casting its unearthly illumination on the manicured grounds. Dick squinted through the eerie landscape trying to catch sight of the fleeing killer.
As he ran into the wooded area that lined the shear cliffs, Dick was unexpectedly struck from behind and knocked forward. He temporarily saw stars, but he fought against the ensuing blackness.
He could hear the rushing waters of the Gotham River roaring far below as it made its relentless way to the Atlantic Ocean.
"You're the only who can ID me, punk," Zucco was saying. "*No one* who can finger me lives long, see?" He yanked Dick to his feet by the scruff of the neck and dragged the half-conscious boy to the cliff's edge.
"You loved your old man and old lady, kid?" Zucco taunted. He crouched low, face to face with Dick, holding him dangerously near the edge. "Then I'm gonna do you a favor. I'm gonna help you *join* them!"
Zucco laughed suddenly as if he'd just remembered a joke.
"But before I do that, I'm gonna tell you a little secret, circus boy. Your dear departed mother and father weren't your *real* parents." Dick blinked at him in clear incomprehension.
"That's right, kid. The Graysons weren't your parents. They *found* you, you hear me? Haly got me to forge a Kansas birth certificate for you." Seeing Dick's shocked look, he added, "Yeah, that's right, you little punk! You were never even their kid. So you see, you didn't lose anything when they died, 'cause they were never yours to lose!"
"No, you're a liar!" Dick denied hotly. "They were my *real* mom and dad. They *were*!"
"If I'm lying, kid," Zucco jeered, "then how would I know that you was 'born' on March twenty-first in some two-bit Kansas town called Smallville? How would I know *that*?"
"You could've asked anybody...Everybody in the circus knows where I was born," Dick replied.
Zucco grinned. "A wise kid, eh?" he asked. "Okay, have it your way. *Don't* believe me!" Holding the desperately struggling boy over the edge, he added, "You can *ask* them yourself! You call yourself a *Flying Grayson*?" Zucco mocked. "Then *fly*, little birdy...!"