Batman saw Zucco throw Dick over the edge and take off down a narrow path. Racing to the cliff's edge, Batman took a running leap and dove into the dizzying blackness below. He had mere moments to act.
As he plummeted, Batman coolly took out a grappling gun, while he adjusted his night vision goggles. He spotted the wildly tumbling boy several feet below him. Taking aim, Batman fired a grappling hook.
"One thousand one...one thousand two..." he muttered, counting the seconds. "Dick! Look up, son!"
With growing apprehension, Batman watched tensely as the boy attempted to right himself and grab the safety line. Batman felt an instant's panic when it *appeared* that the line was going to overshoot the boy by a good ten feet.
At the last moment, Dick twisted, turned and somehow flipped himself in midair in the direction of the grapple. As the boy moved towards the safety-line, Batman saw a small hand reach out and successfully grasp it.
Trusting Dick's training to ensure that he was all right, Batman fired off a second grappling hook. It wrapped itself round a solid rock outcropping on the cliff's edge. Relieved, Batman looked down at Dick.
Dick was looking up and waving weakly. From his vantage point above him, Batman could see the boy's broad grin. He nodded back...
They were back home, seated at the kitchen table. Alfred was puttering around the kitchen island, preparing cold sandwiches and his special tomato basil soup.
"So talk," Bruce said, taking a sip of his hot cocoa.
"Master Bruce," Alfred quietly chastised, "this isn't an interrogation, sir." Bruce looked slightly abashed.
"Sorry, Dick," he apologized. "Are you ready to tell me what happened?"
Dick glanced furtively at Alfred, and then stared at Bruce. A look of fear flitted across his blue eyes. Looking down, he shook his head, 'no.'
"I'm not supposed to tell," he whispered.
"Dick, I want to help," Bruce encouraged. "I promise you that nothing you say will leave this room. You have my word."
Dick hesitated, looking askance at Alfred. Noticing, Bruce reassured him. "Dick, whatever you have to say, you can say in front of both me *and* Alfred."
Averting his eyes, Dick put his mug down and looked intently into its rapidly cooling contents. Slowly raising his dark head, he gazed solemnly at Bruce.
"I can see through things." Dick's voice was so low that Bruce had to lean forward to hear him.
"See through things?"
Dick nodded, eyes cast down.
"What do you mean?" Bruce asked. "*Literally* see through objects?"
Keeping their faces free of expression, Bruce and Alfred exchanged neutral looks. "Can you control this ability at will?"
Dick shook his head. "Uh-uh." Then, shrugging, he amended cautiously, "Sometimes..."
He remembered how he somehow *made* it work with the grandfather clock. Feeling an automatic stab of guilt for breaking his promise to his parents, he determinedly squashed the memory, refusing to acknowledge it either to himself or Bruce. Instead, he shrugged again.
Bruce raised a single eyebrow. "Explain."
Dick hunched over in his chair and stared intently at the floor, studying the kitchen tile. "I don't know. It just happens..."
"And sometimes--?" Bruce asked leadingly.
Dick sighed, not answering for a while. Finally, in a soft whisper, he tentatively replied.
"Sometimes, when I *really* need it--I don't know--it *turns* on." He wasn't *really* telling a lie, he said to himself. After all, he didn't really know how he'd made it work with the clock.
"How long have you had this ability?" Bruce asked.
Again Dick shrugged.
"I'm not sure. I remember when I was just a little kid, Mom lost one of her earrings. I told her it was underneath the motor home, stuck behind one of the tires." Dick took a sip from his now-cold cocoa.
"When she found it, she..." Dick turned away as if in shame and then added in a low voice, "She got kinda mad at me. Told me I shouldn't get into her jewelry without permission."
When he looked up again, Bruce could see the distress in Dick's face over the accusation. The boy's voice broke.
"I told her I hadn't touched it, but when she asked me how I knew where it was..." Dick swallowed, wiping a tear that had started to fall. "She didn't believe me." He paused, upset. "Even Dad didn't believe me."
By now Dick was scrunched on his chair, his knees up to his chin. He spoke this last into his knees; his eyes squeezed shut. He sniffed softly and looked up, blue eyes bright with unshed tears.
"I got scared. I thought that maybe I was crazy or something."
"What did you do then?" Bruce asked.
"At first, I told myself that it was all my imagination, that normal people couldn't see through walls, that if I told anybody else about it that they'd put away or something."
"What convinced you differently?"
"One day, between matinees, a little girl got separated from her family. Her mom was real upset and panicking. Pop organized a search party right away. I told Mom that they were looking in the wrong place, that the little girl wasn't even on the fairgrounds. That she'd wandered over to the surrounding woods and was picking flowers. Mom didn't believe me at first, but I made her listen and go with me."
"We found the little girl just like I said. I thought Mom would be proud of me-- Bruce, I *saw* her all the way over to where she was picking flowers!--but instead, Mom took me aside and made me promise that I'd never tell anyone *how* I'd known where to look. She was scared, Bruce. Really scared. I'd never seen my mom like that."
"Did you ever talk to your parents about it afterwards?" Bruce asked.
Dick shook his head. "I tried, but Mom was really upset. I overheard her and Dad talking in their room. I could hear her crying." Dick recalled that night...
When his parents stepped out into the tiny family room, Dick jumped up and hugged his mother.
"I'm sorry, Mom," he cried. "I promise I won't do it again. I promise." His mother softly stroked him and crooned that everything was going to be all right. Both she and his father knelt before him, holding him close.
"Son, you haven't done anything wrong," his dad reassured him. "Your mom and I both want you to know that we're not mad at you. We've never been mad at you."
"We love you, Dicky," his mom said. "More than you'll ever know...more than anything in the whole world!"
"And because we love you, son," his dad added, "we have to ask that you promise never to--"
"Dad, I promise!" Dick interrupted. "I promise I'll never do it again. Not *ever*!"
John Grayson reached a hand up and gently cupped his son's face with it. "Dicky, your mom and I love you so much," he whispered fiercely. "You're the best kid in the world! We don't want to lose you. If anyone ever found out about this, they could come and take you from us."
By now Dick was hugging both of his parents and sobbing raggedly.
"I promise, Dad! Cross my heart! I love you, too..."
Dick stopped reciting what happened. He sat for a long moment recalling his parents' tearful embrace.
"We never talked about it again," he said. "If I ever had one of my *episodes*, Mom and Dad would pretend that they hadn't noticed it. I tried not to do it, honest! But sometimes it just happens...I don't know why or how!"
"I see. So basically you have no explanation for this strange ability of yours, nor do you have any idea of how to control it," Bruce concluded.
"No," Dick said in a small voice. Turning pain-filled eyes to Bruce, he asked, "What am I, Bruce? Am I some kind of freak? Is that why Mom and Dad were scared? I don't understand."
"Dick, you're *not* a freak!" Bruce said sharply. "You're a little boy with a strange gift, a gift which makes you very unusual and special. Whatever this remarkable enhanced vision power of yours is, I'm sure that we'll find a reasonable and logical explanation for it."
Dick shook his head. "You don't know. You didn't see." Remembering the strange, burning sensations in his eyes when Gino held the shotgun pointed at his head, Dick's fear rose from the pit of his stomach.
"Didn't see what?" Bruce asked.
"The gun...his hands--" Dick's face grew pinched with apprehension. Bruce waited for him to continue. "I-I just l-looked at the sh-shotgun, and it t-turned red, and started to glow," Dick said. "H-h-his h-h-hands...th-th-they were b-burned. Real bad."
Bruce didn't say anything. He recalled the gunman's badly burned hands. A cold feeling seemed to take hold of his insides. He studied his ward's anguished features. The boy was clearly hurting inside. Bruce had sudden desire to hit something.
Whatever these strange abilities of Dick's, frightening or not, his parents should *never* have allowed them to develop without some kind of proper training.
"And at the cliff, before he threw me over," Dick was saying, "Zucco said th- that mom and dad weren't my real parents. That h-he'd forged my birth certificate. I didn't want to believe him, but..." He paused, swallowing, blinking rapidly.
"When I saw him and Pop arguing, Pop threatened he'd call the police. Zucco just laughed and said something about 'What was Pop gonna do? Tell the cops that he'd paid him to forge a paper nine years ago'?"
Bruce could see that he was valiantly fighting the tears that were again threatening.
"Who am I, Bruce?" he asked softly. "What am I?"
Bruce studied his young vulnerable ward for a few moments before replying. Standing up, he moved over to the despondent boy and knelt before him. Bruce lightly placed his forefinger on Dick's chin and gently raised it until they were at eye level with each other.
"Dick, I can't explain these enhanced vision powers of yours, not without further investigation. But as for *who* you are you are... We'll find out. I promise."
"G'night, Alfred," Dick said softly, yawning. He was tucked away safely in bed and exhausted from the day's activities.
"Good night, young sir," Alfred said. "Pleasant dreams."
Bruce reached over and ruffled Dick's hair. "That was quite a spectacular save you did tonight," he said, sounding suitably impressed. "I'm not sure that *I* would've been able to reach the line from ten feet away."
Dick shrugged as if aerial acrobatics were no big deal.
Still aching from the pain of his parents' tragic and sudden loss, Dick asked the question uppermost on his mind.
"Why do people have to suffer so much, Bruce? Why is there so much hurt in the world? Doesn't God care about us?"
Bruce swallowed, feeling his chest tighten.
"I wish I knew how to answer you, Dick. I simply don't know."
"Is that why you became the Batman?" Dick asked. "To help people who are suffering? Like you did when you were a little boy?"
Bruce nodded mutely, unable to answer. The boy's keen insight just had a way of stabbing at his heart and conscience.
"I want to help, too, Bruce," Dick said. "Please? Will you let me be your partner?"
Bruce was about to say 'no' when perversely he nodded 'yes.' Not fully understanding why he agreed to this dangerous scheme, Bruce nevertheless felt that he'd made the right decision.
"Okay, Dick, I'll train you, but understand from the outset that there are rules--*my* rules--that you'll follow. Without question or hesitation. And you don't go out until *I* say you're ready, not before." He held his ward's eyes steadily. "Do I make myself clear?"
Dick nodded, his eyes serious, yet lit with an inner elation.
"And these strange powers and abilities of yours," Bruce added. "For now, you are *not* to use them in public--under *any* circumstances, not until I find out some more information about you. Meanwhile, as part of your training, we'll explore your abilities under controlled conditions in the Batcave."
At the prospect of actually being allowed to explore his strange gifts, Dick's eyes widened and his mouth formed a small 'O.'
"Are you sure it's okay?" he asked hesitantly. Looking away, he added, "I promised Mom and Dad..."
"Dick, I believe that every individual has a right to reach his or her fullest potential," Bruce explained quietly. "I also believe that if left untrained, these powers of yours might prove more dangerous than otherwise."
Dick thought about this and finally nodded at the wisdom behind the words.
"So, are we agreed?" Bruce asked.
Dick nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Then put 'er there, partner," Bruce said, holding out his hand. Dick took it and they shook solemnly, sealing their agreement.
Bruce followed the colorful signs along the dusty back roads. He'd found the Haly Circus' itinerary changed somewhat. Without the 'Flying Graysons' as its star act, most of the venues in which they'd been scheduled to perform had cancelled.
Bruce finally found them playing in a backwater town about 100 miles west of Okalahoma City. "And about a hundred miles east of nowhere," Bruce muttered.
As he made a final left turn, Bruce could make out the large tents and lines of motor homes. Parking the rented Ford Explorer in the visitors' area, Bruce got out of the car, and looking around, spotted a sign directing visitors to the manager's office.
Walking through the early morning circus grounds, Bruce watched and listened as humans and animals called, roared or trumpeted their morning greetings to each other. Roustabouts and performers rushed from here to there, taking care of their morning chores. Despite the hustle and bustle, Bruce detected subtle differences in the Haly fairgrounds from the previous time. The atmosphere felt muted, as opposed to the laughter and gaiety he remembered from before. Small clumps of people in various stages of dress (and, in some cases, *undress*) gathered in twos and threes, speaking in low tones among themselves.
Finding a motor home clearly labeled 'Manager's Office,' Bruce climbed the steps to the outer stoop and knocked.
There was no answer. He looked around impatiently to see if he could find anyone who could help him. About to turn away, he was stopped by a voice from behind and below him.
"What do you need, mister?"
Bruce turned to the new voice. A rather rotund woman with what looked like 100% percent of her body covered in tattoos was glaring up at him. Bruce managed to hide his startled reaction at her appearance. He knew her instantly, of course. Dick had talked about her enough times, Maggie, the Tattooed Lady.
Bruce noted that despite her rather freakish exterior Maggie nevertheless carried herself with an almost regal air. About to ask for help, he saw her sudden look of recognition.
"You're Bruce Wayne," she said. It sounded like an accusation.
Bruce nodded, climbing down to where she was. "I'm here to see Mr. Haly," he said.
"Why?" she asked sharply. "You've already taken the man's heart. Are you here to take his soul, too?"
Bruce must have looked surprised at the verbal attack, because she immediately relented. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wayne," she apologized. "But we all miss Johnny and Mary so much. And the court's refusal to let us keep Dicky...it hurt us. It hurt Pop most of all. He loved that boy like a grandson." She looked away, her eyes bright with tears.
"He hasn't been able to get over the double loss. He won't eat, doesn't make his daily rounds...he's missed two performances. One time he showed up so drunk, he almost couldn't stand up."
Maggie waved an arm, taking in the sadly dilapidated circus grounds.
"We were never in the same league as Barnum and Baily, but we gave 'em a run for their money. Now..." she shook her head sadly. "The Haly Circus has always been a family operation. Many of us are second and third generation Haly performers. Johnny's parents and grandparents were 'Flying Graysons' before him." She paused, smiling at the memory. "He and Mary were so excited to have a son who would carry on the family tradition."
She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "Now, we've been losing performers almost on a weekly basis. The Donner Family--our horse trainers--left yesterday. The Great Carlo, the escape artist, received a contract offer from Circus Circus in Vegas. He hasn't signed it yet, but I'm afraid that we'll be losing him soon."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Maggie," Bruce said sincerely. She nodded, wiping tears and blowing her nose.
"This isn't your problem, Mr. Wayne," she apologized. "I'm sorry. You said you wanted to see Pop. Let me go inside and tell him." About to turn away, she looked up at Bruce and added pointedly, "This may take a while. Maybe you'd better walk around and come back in about a half hour."
Nodding, Bruce walked away.
It was almost an hour before a colorfully bedecked clown with a perennially sad face came up to him.
"Mr. Wayne?" he spoke with a slight Texas drawl. "Maggie sent me to get ya'll. Pop'll see yuh now." Bruce thanked him and made his way back to the Manager's Office.
He'd already seen more than he'd planned to. The Haly Circus was Dick's extended family, whether or not they were blood relations. Dick loved these people, and from what he'd seen and heard before and after the custody hearings, Bruce knew that the feelings were mutual.
What he saw now would've broken Dick's heart. As he approached Haly's trailer, Bruce resolved that Dick would never see the circus under these conditions...
Knocking at the trailer door, Bruce heard a faint, "Come in." Opening the door, Bruce stepped through. He blinked in the sudden gloom of the interior. When his eyes adjusted, he saw that the motor home was rather modest, but showed homey touches that had been added for comfort.
A cross-stitched wall hanging said "Home Sweet Home." Several photographs lined the wall of the living area. Bruce saw one of the Flying Graysons standing in the middle of center ring, saluting the crowds. A child's crayon drawing of a circus ringmaster, wearing a red coat, and holding a whip in one hand and a megaphone in the other, caught his eye. The legend "Pop" was scrawled in purple crayon on the side.
Bruce sniffed involuntarily, narrowing his eyes slightly. The distinct smell of cheap liquor permeated the small space. It was slightly overlaid by the smell of freshly made coffee, but it wasn't quite eradicated.
Bruce looked over to where the imposing figure of Harriman H. "Pop" Haly, owner and ringmaster of Haly Circus, sat behind a tiny cluttered desk. Bruce noted the cup of black coffee on the desk. It was still steaming.
Maggie walked in carrying a fresh pot of coffee, another cup, and cream and sugar.
"How do you take your coffee, Mr. Wayne?" she asked. Bruce was staring at Haly through narrowed eyes. The man had the distinct look of someone who'd been on a binge--reddened eyes, with nose and cheeks slightly splotched. His still-wet hair showed he'd just showered.
"Mr. Wayne?" Maggie prompted.
"Black, please," Bruce replied.
"Bruce Wayne," Pop said sardonically. "To what, may I ask, do we owe this visit?"
Ignoring Haly's belligerent tone, Bruce accepted the cup of coffee. Walking up to the child's drawing of Haly, he noted that it was signed in red crayon, "Love, Dicky (6 years old)."
Turning around, he addressed Pop. "I came to talk to you, Mr. Haly. About Dick." Looking at Maggie, he added, "In private."
"Whatever you have to say to me, Wayne," Pop said, "you can say in front of Maggie."
Bruce's dark features instantly hardened, becoming dangerously cold. Maggie looked nervously at Pop.
"That's okay, Pop," she said, "I'll step outside. Just holler if you need me." Turning to Bruce, she raised her head and walked out, her carriage regally dignified.
After Maggie left, both men sat and stared without speaking, each sizing up the other. Finally, Pop spoke.
"It's *your* dime, Wayne," he said.
Bruce took a sip of the piping hot coffee, still studying the older man over the rim of the cup. Carefully setting the cup down, he leaned forward.
"I want to know about Dick, Haly," he said without preamble. "I want to know how the Graysons got him and who his *real* parents are."
Pop's stared in mute shock at Bruce, his eyes as wide as saucers. This was obviously the *last* thing he'd expected Bruce to bring up. Attempting to cover up his reaction, he tried to bluster his way out of it.
"I've no idea what you're talking about, Wayne. How *dare* you badmouth Johnny and Mary Grayson. Those kids were the finest...why, they loved Dicky more than anything--!"
"I'm not here to speak ill of the Graysons, Haly. I know they loved Dick, and that Dick returns that love. Just as I know that *you* also loved the Graysons. *And* Dick." Bruce pinned Pop with a sharp look.
"And because of your 'love' for them, you made a deal with the devil...Zucco. He was only a small-time hood back then, your personal bookie, I believe. You had him forge a birth certificate in order to explain the baby, didn't you?"
Pop shook his head in denial. "No! That's not true! Mary was expecting their first baby when she took ill. The Graysons pulled out of the rest of the season so that she could get needed bed rest. But everything turned out all right! Dicky was born exactly on the day he was due, March twenty-first!" He looked beseechingly at Bruce.
"Dicky was Johnny and Mary's baby. Just ask anyone. I mean, *look* at him...he's spitting image of Mary. Everyone says so!"
"Haly, I've only had Dick a few weeks, and in that time, people have come up to us in restaurants and on other family outings, and commented on how much like father and son *we* look." Bruce glared at the circus owner. He didn't want to hurt the man; he only wanted information.
"What happened with Zucco? He became greedy, didn't he? He heard about how much money the circus raised for the charity event, didn't he?"
Pop looked helplessly at Bruce. He covered his eyes suddenly, overcome with the guilt that had been eating away at him. Unable to speak, he nodded.
Bruce didn't say anything, allowing the man to get himself under control. He sat quietly drinking his still-hot coffee. At last, Pop sniffed loudly, cleared his throat, and began to talk...
Bruce drove through the dismal, seemingly endless Kansas landscape. A hard winter had hit the local area. Fields blanketed in snow and ice dominated the countryside. Occasionally, he'd spot a lonely wisp of smoke announcing an isolated farmhouse. Weather forecasters warned of another impending storm.
As he drove, last night's phone call home came back to him. He'd given Alfred instructions regarding the Haly Circus, and Alfred had spoken of how well Dick's studies were coming along...
"I want this done discreetly, Alfred," Bruce said. "Tell Lucius that I want the trust fund set up immediately, with the first certified check in the amount of two hundred fifty thousand personally hand delivered to Haly. And Haly is *not* to know who the money's from. I may not personally like or approve of the man, but he's Dick's godfather, and the circus is the boy's extended family. I can't stand by and allow them to go under."
"Of course, sir," Alfred said. "I'll speak with Mr. Fox first thing tomorrow morning."
"Thanks, Alfred," Bruce said, and then changing the subject, asked the question uppermost on his mind. "How're Dick's 'studies' coming along?"
"He's remarkably astute, sir," Alfred said. "He's able to grasp new and difficult concepts almost from the start. Plus, he's quick to make almost instantaneous leaps to newer and higher levels." He paused. "I do believe, Master Bruce, that the young master will prove an exceptionally brilliant student."
Bruce sat back on the hotel's double bed. He felt an instant's flash of pride at the report. Allowing himself a half-smile, he said, "Put 'im on, Alfred."
Less than a second later, Dick was on the other end. It was obvious from his excited voice that he'd been waiting eagerly to speak to his guardian.
"Bruce!" Dick cried. "Guess what? Those meditation exercises you showed me *really* helped. I'm getting better each day...Alfred said so."
"That's great to hear, Dick," Bruce said quietly.
"But we found out something kinda weird," Dick added. "Lead seems to block it. For some reason, I can't do anything if there's something made up of lead in the way."
Bruce knew what Dick meant by 'it.' The boy was referring to his vision powers. Alfred must have cautioned him on not referring directly to his gifts over an unsecured phone line. The boy was certainly a quick learner.
"Hmmmm...That's interesting," Bruce said. "We'll have to investigate that further when I get home. But in the meanwhile, how are *you* doing? Are you getting more comfortable with it?"
"Well..." Dick said uncertainly. "Sometimes, when I think about my promise...I don't know, I feel a little guilty. But I s'pose it's okay, 'cause I promised to not do it where outsiders could see me. I guess it's okay to practice in a cave with only family."
Bruce felt a moment's pause at Dick's use of the word 'family' in reference to Alfred and himself. He felt his throat tighten momentarily.
"That's right, son," Bruce reassured him. "It's okay, as long as it's only in front of family. For now, at least."
There was a slight pause at the other end. Finally, Dick spoke in a small voice. "Bruce?"
"When are you coming home?"
Bruce swallowed, feeling himself fill with new and unbidden emotions. How could this one small boy affect him so, he wondered?
"I have a few more things to care of, Dick," he heard himself saying. Bruce hadn't told Dick that he was investigating his origins. "The executives that I'm dealing with can be unreasonable at times. But I should be done within another couple of days."
"Oh," Dick said, disappointed. "Alfred misses you an awful lot..."
Bruce sat up in bed and ran his hand through his hair. Almost not trusting himself to speak, he said, "Tell him I miss him, too."
"I will," Dick said. "Bruce?"
"I miss you, too," Dick said hurriedly. "G'bye."
Before Bruce could reply, the line went dead. Staring at the phone in his hand for a moment longer, Bruce hung up and slowly sank back into his pillows...
At last, Bruce came up to a sign announcing the town of Smallville. Pop told him that this was about *where* the Graysons said they'd found Dick.
Bruce remembered the sick feeling at the pit of his stomach when Pop told him *how* the Graysons said they'd gotten the boy...
Pop stared at the photo on the wall of the Flying Graysons. His voice took on a dreamy faraway quality.
"He was going to be the best 'flyer' in the world, Wayne," he said. "Did you know that? Only three other aerialists in the world could do what he did--the quadruple somersault. And he was getting ready to outdo them all." He looked directly at Bruce.
"Dicky was *this* close," he said, holding his thumb and forefinger almost together. "*This* close to perfecting the quintuple somersault." At Bruce's look of disbelief, Pop nodded proudly.
"I see you understand the significance of such a feat. No one, Wayne...*no one* in the entire world has ever successfully performed a quintuple somersault. People say it can't be done. But Dicky...Wayne the boy is the most naturally gifted aerialist in the world. He's brilliant in the air. Sometimes...sometimes it almost seems as if he really *is* flying."
He looked away bitterly. "But now? Now, he's going to grow up and be just like everybody else. A spectator and not a performer." He spat the words out as if they were a condemnation of the human race and glared at Bruce.
"What the court did--'in the best interests of the child'--it arbitrarily took away the boy's heritage...his legacy! They said that an 'iterant' circus was not a fit place to raise a child! Well, *I* grew up in the circus. So did my father, and my father's father. And Johnny Grayson was a third generation member of the Haly Circus family."
"That may be so, Haly," Bruce said quietly. "And maybe I agree with you in many ways. However, it doesn't take away from the fact that *you* got Tony Zucco, a known racketeer, to falsify an official document for you over nine years ago. More specifically, you had him forge Dick's birth certificate. And because you wouldn't pay extortion money, Zucco murdered the Graysons."
Pop's face had gone sheet-white.
"I don't have anything personal against you or your reasons for what you did, Haly. You obviously did it because you wanted to help the Graysons, two people whom you cared about. But it backfired! John and Mary Grayson are dead. And they've left behind a scared and confused little boy who suddenly doesn't know who he really is. The Graysons are gone, Haly. Nothing you say can hurt them anymore. However, there's still a little boy who loves you very much and who needs your help." Bruce paused gauging the effect of his words.
"Will you help me, help him?"
Reluctantly, Pop nodded.
Bruce parked the Explorer on the side of the road. He was pulling the Graysons' small equipment trailer.
Funny, there was still a 'For Sale' sign on the sagging fence. Pop told him that the Graysons remembered a sign reading "Schuster's Field, For Sale by owner." Depending on what he discovered here, Bruce Wayne might just become the proud owner of a Kansas farm field, he decided.
As Bruce picked his way through the snow-covered field, he thought back on his final moments with the Haly Circus. He'd made arrangements to ship all of the Graysons' personal effects to Wayne Manor, and gave instructions to Pop to either sell the motor home, or donate it to another circus family that needed one.
Before leaving the circus campgrounds, Bruce went through the Graysons' motor home...
Maggie let him in.
"I've been taking care of it," she explained. "You know, in case Dicky might return one day..." She looked away, unable to finish her thought. They both knew of the unlikelihood of this occurring.
Nodding his thanks, Bruce waited for her to leave before he began searching through the Graysons' personal effects. John and Mary Grayson had been very neat and organized people. Their financial books were largely up-to-date, showing that they'd wisely invested in Dick's future.
Since they were circus aerialists, the young parents were largely uninsurable. To prevent their son growing up destitute should anything happen to them, they'd started an investment portfolio in the baby's name shortly after they got him. Bruce reluctantly nodded in approval. He'd turn it over to Lucius Fox.
As he rifled through the desk, he found a baby book tucked away in a bottom drawer. Pulling it out, he started flipping through it.
Bruce's throat caught as he literally saw Dick grow up before his eyes. Since finding out that the Graysons weren't really Dick's parents and that they'd kept him from exploring his special gifts, he'd been struggling with inner feelings of anger directed at the couple.
Seeing them through the camera's eye, Bruce's initial assessment of the Graysons began to change. Mary's love for Dick seemed to leap out of every photograph with the boy, and John's pride in his son was obvious on his face.
About to close the photo album, Bruce was surprised by something falling out. He heard it ping as it bounced underneath the desk. Bending down, he felt around for a few moments. At last, his fingers touched something small, a key.
Raising a single eyebrow, he again flipped through the baby book, looking for the place from where the key might've fallen out. At last, he came to a page faded with time on which the distinct, darker image of a key had imprinted itself. Underneath the image a caption read, "Smallville Self-Storage..."
"The Graysons insisted that they *found* the baby in the field," Bruce muttered. "Something about a plane crash, but Haly says that they were never clear about it. And they never changed their story." He looked around the frozen, snow- covered grounds. "If it *was* a plane crash, then Dick *might* have living relatives somewhere. And if he *does*..."
If Dick did have living relatives, then it would be Bruce's responsibility to hand him over. He felt a momentary pang at the thought. Standing still, he stared pensively at the frozen field.
"I guess I know how Haly felt when he had to give up the boy," he said, chagrinned.
He remembered Dick's heartfelt question, "Why is there so much hurt in world...?" Bruce sighed.
"I wish I knew, son," he said softly. Easily vaulting over the fence, Bruce began to walk around, his experienced eyes searching for anything unusual. He didn't really expect to find anything after all these years, especially under snow cover, but he'd investigated enough so-called "hopeless" cases to know that there was always a chance that something could turn up.
Bruce stopped. There was something unusual about the landscape that wasn't quite registering. Something not quite right.
Bruce stood, his head cocked to one side, letting his eyes *see* what he knew he instinctively *felt* to be wrong.
Suddenly, he saw it. The northernmost part of the field was oddly misshapen. It looked like a part of it had been gouged out. While the snow cover camouflaged most of it, once Bruce knew what to look for, he saw it.
He trudged up to it, the hardened snow making walking difficult. His cold weather boots made a distinct crunching/sucking sound as he walked. Each step broke through the ice and left an imprint about five inches deep.
"Guess we're not in Gotham anymore," he muttered.
Arriving at the scarred ground, he noted that it was a straight line, ending at the furthest point with what looked like an impact crater, as if an object had hit there with tremendous force.
"They claimed that it was a plane crash," he muttered and just as quickly shook his head. A plane crash would've been seen. It would've been investigated. "Then what?"
A glowing object caught his eye. Curious, he dug around it. As he cleared the snow, the glow grew brighter in its intensity. Whatever it was, it was glowing green.
When he finally cleared it, he saw that it was a small, quarter-sized rock, radiating a strange, green glow. He'd never seen anything like it before. Mentally going through every type of rock and mineral that he recognized on sight, Bruce finally gave up.
Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a plastic baggie and carefully placed it inside. He'd have to check it back in the SUV for radiation. Setting it down where he'd easily find it, he climbed down into the crater...
Thirty minutes later he was pulling into Smallville. The field hadn't produced anything, except the strange green rock. Analysis showed that while it was emitting some type of radiation, it wasn't dangerous to carbon life forms.
"Of course," Bruce thought sardonically, "the readings weren't exactly conclusive. It's hard to analyze something that barely registers on the scale." To Bruce's surprise, the spectro-analyzer almost couldn't read the rock. "Like as if it doesn't exist," he murmured.
Whatever the rock was made of, it was material that a normal spectro-analyzer wasn't calibrated to read properly.
"The way to fix the problem," he said, "is to somehow find a way *to* properly calibrate it." But he'd have to wait until he got it back to the Batcave.
Bruce spotted a general store on Main Street. Parking, he walked in to ask for directions. A friendly looking gentleman stood behind the store counter. As Bruce walked in, the man looked up and smiled.
"Well, hello there, sir," he said pleasantly. "Just passing through?"
At Bruce's nod, he smiled again and added, "How may I help you?"
Bruce walked up to the snack counter and picked out a few bags of chips. Noticing a refrigerator, he pulled out a soft drink. He walked up to the counter with his selections, and spoke while the store clerk rang up his purchases.
"I actually need some information," Bruce began. "I'm looking for a place called 'Smallville Self-Storage'--is that still around?"
"Why it sure *is*!" another voice spoke up. Both men turned.
"Martha!" the man behind the counter called pleasantly. "I didn't think you were coming in today. Hear from Clark?"
Martha walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. "Now, Jonathan, just because I was baking and doing the wash today is no reason to count me out. And, yes, Clark called. He and Lois will be over this weekend. I think it's serious," she added excitedly. Turning to Bruce, she addressed him directly.
"Clark's our son. He's a--"
"He's a hotshot reporter in some big city newspaper," Jonathan interrupted.
"The Daily Planet," Martha said proudly. "Maybe you've heard of him, Clark Kent? He won the Pulitzer Prize last year."
Bruce had indeed heard of Clark Kent. He was one of Metropolis' topnotch investigative reporters. In fact, Bruce had tried to entice him to over to *his* paper, the Gotham Gazette, a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises.
Kent had thanked him politely, but refused the offer, saying he liked it where he was. Of course, Bruce also met Lois Lane at the time, and personally felt that Kent had other reasons for staying at the Planet.
"Kids," Jonathan was saying. "You raise 'em, teach 'em the family business, and what do they do? They grow up and leave home to become reporters, instead of self-respecting farmers!"
"Oh, Jonathan!" Martha chastised, laughing. "He doesn't mean that. Jonathan's pleased as punch that our boy is so talented." Smiling she asked, "Do *you* have children, Mr...?"
"Wayne, Thomas Wayne," Bruce replied, using his father's name. Looking at her steadily, he added, "Yes, Mrs. Kent. I have a child. A boy."
"Oh, you must be so proud," she said. "We couldn't have children, so when a second cousin had a baby, and she couldn't care for him proper, well, we jumped at the chance. Clark's been such a blessing for us...He's about *your* age, in fact."
"Martha," Jonathan said gently, "Mr. Wayne doesn't need to hear our life story. You'll have to excuse my wife, Mr. Wayne. When it comes to our boy, she can just about gnaw your ear off."
"Oh, you!" Martha protested, chuckling. She slapped him playfully on the shoulder. Turning to Bruce she asked, "You wanted to know about the Smallville Self-storage?"
"It's located just a mile outside of town. If you drive straight down Main Street and keep on going for a bit, you shouldn't miss it."
"Thank you," Bruce replied. About to leave, he stopped and asked another question. "Excuse me, sir, ma'am, but I was wondering if you could help me with another question?"
Jonathan and Martha looked at each other and then back at him, nodding.
"Some friends of mine passed through here about nine years ago. On the first day of spring," he added. "They told me that while driving through this area, they saw something strange in the sky. Like a meteor or something." Studying their expressions, he asked, "Do you remember anything like that?"
Jonathan looked thoughtful. "Nine years ago? No...can't say I recall anything unusual. Martha? You remember?"
"Hmmm. Nine years? That's quite a while ago, young man. A lotta things've happened in nine years."
"Well, they mentioned that whatever it was crash-landed onto a place called Schuster's Field," Bruce said, hopefully. "They remembered that because there was a 'For Sale' on it at the time."
Jonathan slapped his knee with excitement at this added bit of information. "Tarnation! You know, I seem to recall something like that. And it *was* near Schuster's Field, in fact!" He gesticulated excitedly and added, "By gum, I remember now! Martha, you were with me! Remember, it was that time that you'n me was headed to Schuster's field to take a look at it 'cause I was thinking about expanding the farm."
"Why, yes, I remember." She looked at Bruce. "You're right, it *was* the first day of spring. A beautiful March day. It was towards evening when we set out. About halfway there, we saw this tremendous light up in the sky. It looked like a meteor or a comet."
"It sure did," Jonathan agreed. "And, by golly, after it sorta 'swooshed' over our heads, we heard a really loud noise, like an explosion, that rocked the countryside. I near lost control of the pickup we was in.
"That's right," Martha said, chiming in. "Why, by the time we got to Schuster's field, whatever had hit had probably disintegrated on impact."
"There was this big tear in the ground," Jonathan added. "The meteor gouged right through that field." He shook his head sadly. "Ruined a perfectly good field, too," he added. "Poor Schuster. He's never been able to sell it since."
"But you never actually saw what hit there?" Bruce asked.
"No," Martha mused. "Like I said, we assumed that it just disintegrated when it hit."
"Could it have been a plane?" Bruce asked.
Jonathan shook his head. "No, a plane would've left some type of debris," he said. "I served in the Army during the Korean conflict. Believe me, I've seen enough downed planes to recognize a crash sight."
Bruce nodded his thanks. As he climbed into his rented SUV, Bruce noted that the middle-aged couple were talking and laughing together inside the store.
"If they'd arrived in Schuster's Field just a few moments sooner..."
Bruce shook his head at the vagaries of fate.
Dick woke up that morning feeling excited. For the past week, each day had been one of new and spine-tingling surprises. It was amazing how quickly he was learning to control his unique gifts.
He grinned to himself. In order to 'catalogue' Dick's vision powers, Alfred assigned them 'names.' The boy's ability to see through objects was now called 'X-ray vision' and his remarkable talent for heating things up to the melting point, they called--duh!--'Heat vision'.
Dick chuckled at their lack of imagination.
Alfred also helped Dick realize that he could see things far away. He pointed out that by being able to *see* that little girl from a distance all those years ago, then quite possibly Dick also had what Alfred called 'Telescopic vision'.
To test it, Dick immediately ran outside to the front lawn and tried to spot the iron gates, which led to the estate, located almost a mile down the gravel drive.
"Whoa," he whispered, as he zoomed in on his objective. A black crow suddenly swooped into his line of vision and startled him. Crying out, Dick automatically ducked and covered his head in reflex. It seemed as if the bird was right on his face.
Realizing his mistake, Dick looked up at Alfred, slightly embarrassed. Alfred smiled down at him and gently squeezed his shoulder.
"That's quite all right, Master Dick," he said. "The point is, you *can* do it. With practice comes familiarity. You'll soon grow used to it."
Dick smiled back.
It wasn't until after he worked with Batman's electron microscope for the first time, that Dick realized he could also see things unaided at the microscopic level. This was a revelation that surprised them both. Furthermore, he discovered that if he concentrated sufficiently, he could also see all the way to the sub-atomic level.
Seeing a whole new universe open up to him, Dick stared in wonder. Finally, snapping out of it, he looked up at Alfred, dazed by this totally unexpected and newfound ability.
"It's *beautiful*, Alfred! I wish I could show you, so *you* could see it, too."
"This wonderful gift will prove quite useful during your investigations, young sir," Alfred told him. "A large part of detective work is done in the forensics lab, as you will soon see. Master Bruce is probably the world's greatest detective, but even he can't see everything at a crime scene without his special equipment."
Dick nodded, slightly overwhelmed by his new discoveries.
As the week passed, Alfred continuously devised new exercises for Dick requiring that he use his vision powers both alone and in combination. The big test came last night, shortly before Bruce called. Dick was required to find a microdot that Alfred had hidden in the Gotham City museum that afternoon.
Dick had to use his telescopic vision to locate the museum, his X-ray vision to see through its impressive facade, and because it was after hours, through the gloom, as well. Finally, Dick was required to use his microscopic vision to locate the microdot.
The first two steps proved relatively easy. The last part was a bit more difficult. Dick was forced to concentrate on not only finding the microdot, but also to remain at a certain magnification, without inadvertently sliding into the sub-atomic level.
He sat cross-legged in the middle of the Batcave, chin in hand, his concentration absolute. He used a meticulous search pattern that Alfred had taught him. Basically, he divided the museum into quadrants. He searched each quadrant before he moved to the next. It was tediously slow going, but it proved effective.
After about an hour of searching, Dick finally found it. He grinned as he read Alfred's message out loud, "Congratulations, Master Dick. You have just won the dinner of your choice and one extra hour of television."
"Oh, boy!" Dick cried. "MacDonald's here we come!"
Alfred rolled his eyes in mock consternation...
Bruce signaled a left and turned into the self-storage driveway. Finding the manager's office he walked in. A bored young girl not yet twenty sat at the front desk. She was busy filing her fingernails and chattering on the phone. When Bruce walked in, she didn't bother to look up. A nameplate identified her as 'Betty Lou.'
"...And he *pinned* me!" she said dreamily, admiring a varsity pin on her sweater's lapel. "Oh, Mary Anne, I could've *died*!" She spun her chair, facing away from Bruce.
Bruce waited "patiently" for about fifteen seconds. Finally, he interrupted her.
"Excuse me," he said.
Betty Lou continued talking and filing her nails.
Bruce reached over to the phone base and pulled the jack out, disconnecting the line. Betty Lou looked up, eyes blazing.
"Hey!" she protested. Taking a good look at her unexpected customer, the rest of her sentence died in her throat. Instead, her expression immediately changed, to one of dreamy admiration. "Hey..." she said throatily.
"I *did* say, 'excuse me,'" Bruce said. She nodded vaguely, bringing her chin to her hand. "Can you help me?" he asked.
Staring up at him, entranced, Betty Lou nodded without offering help.
"Miss, uh, Betty Lou," Bruce said trying again. "I could use some help."
She nodded abstractedly once more, and then, doing a double take, she realized that she had a customer. "Oh--! Of course I can help you...I mean, *how* may I help you?"
Bruce gave her a half-smile. She seemed to melt before him. Bruce handed her the key he'd found in Dick's baby book.
"I wonder if you can tell me what storage bin this goes to?" he asked. She smiled vacuously up at him. "Miss? The key?"
Betty Lou's eyes snapped back to the present. Taking the key from his hands, she looked at closely. Finally, she shook her head.
"I'm sorry, mister," she said. "But this isn't one of our keys." She rummaged in her desk drawer and pulled out another key. The one she held out had a double serrated edge, while the one Bruce had brought in, only had a single edge.
"This is how our keys look," she explained.
Bruce studied it closely. He immediately recognized the make of the key. This type had only been on the market for about seven years.
"Miss, uh, I mean, Betty Lou," he began, "I wonder if there might be someone else here who could help me? It's possible that we rented this space way before your time."
She grimaced slightly, but nodded. "I'll get my mom," she said...
A few moments later, Bruce was in the back office with the manager who introduced herself as Betty Sue.
"We haven't used those keys for almost six years now," she said. "Let me look it up in our old books." Betty Sue led Bruce through a labyrinthine maze in the back.
"We went computerized about seven years ago," she said. "All of the old files were placed in storage. You're lucky, Mr. Wayne. You say that your cousin rented the space some nine years ago? We usually discard old records after ten years."
Betty Sue walked down an aisle, carefully checking a shelf filled with storage boxes. She leaned in close to one in particular and nodded, pulling it out.
"Here it is," she said, hefting the heavy box. The box was marked 'First Quarter,' nine years ago.
"Here, let me take that," Bruce offered. Betty Sue handed Bruce the box and they both made their way to a small break area with a table and chairs. Bruce placed the box on the table and Betty Sue began going through the files.
"Let's see...March...March nineteen, twenty...here we go!" Betty Sue sounded triumphant. She pulled out a manila folder labeled, March 21. "If the space was rented on the twenty-first, it would be here."
Betty Sue took out a pair of glasses and read through the file. "Ah-ha! Here we go. Grayson, John. Small storage bin. Monthly payments." She looked up. "According to this, John Grayson rented a small storage bin--it's about a five by five by six space--over nine years ago. He paid cash and signed a contract to make monthly payments. As far as this record goes, he paid on time." She paused and stood. "Come on. Let's check our computerized files."
She led Bruce to her office. As they crossed the reception area, Betty Sue rebuked her daughter. "Betty Lou, please get off the phone. This is a business office, not your bedroom." She didn't wait for an answer, but continued into her inner office.
Betty Lou grimaced and hung up reluctantly. She crossed her arms resentfully.
Betty Sue shook her head and smiled sourly. "Kids...carry 'em for nine months, nurse 'em, raise 'em, love 'em, and how do they pay you back? They become teenagers." Her eyes smiled merrily at her own quip.
"Do you have kids, Mr. Wayne?" she asked.
Bruce nodded. "Yes, one...a boy." Funny, less than a month ago the answer would've been 'no.' Now, he'd twice answered in the affirmative in a single day.
"A boy?" she said, enviously. "You're lucky. Less to worry about with a boy than a girl. Still..." she smiled. "You can't dress them in pink ribbons and bows when they're small."
Bruce's eyes lit in amusement while trying to imagine the heavily made up, bleached and blow-dried sullen teenager, who was currently slouching in the reception area, in pink ribbons.
After a few minutes of searching, Betty Sue was successful. "Here we go. Grayson, John. Small storage bin. Paid up till the end of the month." She looked up Bruce. "Mr. Wayne, we're pretty casual here and all but I need to see *something* that tells me you have the authority to get into John Grayson's bin...you know, kind of a formality."
Bruce nodded and pulled out a document authorizing him Power of Attorney over all of John and Mary Graysons personal effects.
Betty Sue took it, photocopied it, and placed it in Grayson's file.
"Will you be closing out his account today?" she asked.
"You say he paid up till the end of the month?" Bruce asked. She nodded. "I need to look at the contents first before I make my final decision."
"Of course," Betty Sue readily agreed. She reached into an expanding file and pulled a single sheet of paper. Bruce saw immediately that it was a map of the storage area. Betty Sue traced Grayson's bin number until she came to the appropriate place on the map. She marked it with orange highlighter and holding the paper out to Bruce gave him the necessary directions.
As Bruce turned to go, she stopped him. "Oh, wait!" she called. She pulled a small key from a key chain around her neck and walked up to a small metal box on the wall. When she opened the box, it revealed several rows of keys.
"Here!" she said, taking out one of the double serrated edged keys that Betty Lou had shown Bruce earlier.
"Almost forgot," she said, handing him the key. "Like I said earlier, we re- keyed the entire complex several years ago. We sent form letters to all of our long-distance clients informing them of the change and offering them the option of either sending them the key, or maintaining here in the office for them. Grayson never replied to the letter." She shrugged. "We've kept the key stored here as a result."
Bruce nodded his thanks and took the key from her. Stepping out into the biting Kansas air, he followed the map until he reached the one highlighted. Placing the key in the lock, he turned it. He heard the satisfying 'click' announcing that it had been successfully opened.
Bending down, he grabbed the garage-door style handle and pulled up. He expected it to be rusted after all of these years, but it opened easily and smoothly on well-maintained rollers.
Bruce looked inside the small enclosure, his eyes immediately going to the single object, almost shoulder high, kept on a pallet in the far corner. It was covered with a canvas tarpaulin. Walking up to it, he pulled the tarpaulin over to see what was underneath it.
Releasing a breath he hadn't known he was holding, he raised a single eyebrow. The tarpaulin was covering a large wooden crate. Completely uncovering the crate, he reached inside into his hidden jacket pocket and pulled out a special utility knife.
Quickly going through its myriad tools, he found the one he needed. Carefully, he placed the small chisel at two corners and lifted, breaking the seal. Forcing the corners up a few inches, he then pressed a switch on the knife and it became a penlight.
Holding one of the corners up on the crate, Bruce brought the penlight up to the small crack and looked inside.
What he saw made him feel as if he'd just been punched in the stomach...
His eyes lighting with inner excitement, Dick ran down the long, upstairs hallway. Making sure that Alfred wasn't around, he hurriedly executed three handsprings, two back flips, and capped it off with an aerial somersault. Looking guiltily around, he edged towards the corner and looked down the stairs.
Still no sign of Alfred. Not waiting for the opportunity to pass him by, Dick easily mounted the banister on his stomach, and slid down, his arms straight out on either side of him.
Landing with a flourish, Dick raised his arms in a mock victory salute.
"I would say, young sir," Alfred said drolly from behind him--Dick spun around in shock--"That I'd give that an 'eight' for form, and perhaps a 'seven' for artistic interpretation."
"What?" Dick asked, floored.
"Master Bruce had a much better form at your age, I'm afraid," Alfred told him, heading towards the kitchen. "I'm afraid that you'll have to do much better than that if you're to ever become his partner."
Dick stood staring after Alfred. "Did he just give me permission to do it again?" he wondered. Grinning suddenly, he ran back up the stairs taking them two at a time. For the next half-hour, Dick slid down the banister only to run back up and do it once again.
Alfred stuck his head out of the kitchen door once to observe his newest charge's boyish exuberance. Smiling he left Dick to his fun.
As he turned back to the kitchen, he heard Dick cry out, "Woo-hoo! I'm *flying*!" in exultation...
Waving at Betty Lou and Betty Sue, Bruce returned to the main highway leading back to Smallville. He determined that he couldn't trust the contents to a shipping company and decided to drive it back himself.
Settling down for the long drive back to Gotham City, Bruce went over in his mind how he'd ever be able to explain this unexpected development to Dick.
Thinking of Dick, Bruce felt his insides twist. The boy already thought that he was some kind of freak. What would this do to him?
More specifically, how would Bruce be able to tell the already vulnerable boy what he suspected?
That Dick was an extra-terrestrial?
"But he's been waiting all day for your arrival, sir!" Alfred protested. "He has something very important to say to you! You *can't* disappoint him!"
"Alfred, what I'm bringing home is dynamite! I can't let the kid *see* this. Not yet, at least. Not until I can think of what to say to him."
Bruce's voice was as close to desperate as Alfred had ever heard. A cold feeling at the pit of his stomach began to spread through his being. What had the Master discovered? Giving himself a mental headshake, Alfred determined that no matter how essential, the information was secondary to Master Dick's emotional well-being. Steeling himself for what he was about say, Alfred spoke calmly.
"Then you shall have to think of something, Master Bruce." Alfred sounded coldly distant. "Because if you hurt this boy, add more pain to what he's already suffered, then--" He paused, his voice catching. "--Then you're not the Bruce Wayne that *I* raised."
"..." Bruce stared at the phone in his hand. He was calling from a rest stop about two hours east of Gotham. He'd stopped to ask Alfred to take Dick on an outing so that he'd be able to arrive and hide his cargo without the boy catching sight of it.
He swallowed, stunned at Alfred's words. The older man had *never* spoken to him in that tone of voice. Even as a child.
Bruce felt an irrational rage suddenly flare at Alfred's disloyalty. In the next instant, he felt completely deflated by his own behavior. He realized that he'd always taken Alfred's instant acquiescence to any of his requests as a given.
He took Alfred's unquestioning loyalty for granted.
Since he'd seen the spacecraft, Bruce had been running on adrenaline. During the middle of the night, he'd inspected it carefully, discovering a hidden mechanism that opened a small hatch. The interior seemed designed specifically as an incubator. Whoever the space traveler that had been carried within, he had been no larger than a common house cat--or a human baby.
Bruce rubbed his eyes feeling more tired than he had in a long time. He leaned back in the cramped space within the phone booth. Taking a grip on his emotions, he spoke.
"Alfred, I-I'm sorry. Tell Dick that I'll be home in a couple of--"
"--You may tell him yourself, sir," Alfred interrupted. "Master Dick just stepped into the kitchen. Here he is..."
"Bruce!" Dick spoke excitedly. "You'll *never* guess! Not in a million years! Not in a hundred million! Bruce, I jumped from the floor mat all the way to the trapeze swing! Can you *b'lieve* that? I reached the swings with a single leap!"
Dick walked into the Batcave, his excitement having reached new peaks. Bruce would be home in less than an hour. That was plenty of time to get in a training session.
He recalled the very beginning of his training. Had it really been less than a month? Bruce had started him with meditation techniques. At first Dick thought it silly to sit quietly, legs crossed, without moving, while attempting to empty his mind, but in the following days he found that he could concentrate and focus better.
Nevertheless, while the meditation was interesting and challenging, the athletics, in addition to being allowed to explore his unique gifts, were the fun part. Already a world-class aerialist, Dick took to the training as if born to it. It was soon obvious that in many respects he was the better acrobat and could even teach Bruce a thing or two about it.
Nevertheless, Bruce's analytical mind kept inventing new ways of challenging the junior crimefighter.
On the mat, Bruce's superior skills as a martial artist kept Dick on his toes. Understanding that Dick's acrobatics would work to the boy's advantage, Bruce decided to modify his training in order to make optimum use of his talents.
Before long, Dick was working out in the Special Ops room. This was a remarkable training room that Bruce had built to keep his own skills honed. And Alfred, a former British Intelligence operative, had had a hand it in its initial design. The kindly gentleman developed the training programs and virtual reality scenarios to challenge the Dark Knight, and now, the Knight's squire...
Dick stepped into the Special Ops room, and outwardly confident, walked to the center of the room. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest.
"Welcome to Special Ops," the pleasant, computerized female voice said. "This training session is set for Level One. At anytime during this exercise, should you wish to stop the program, recite the following code, Level One Stop Alpha."
"Level One Stop Alpha," Dick repeated in a whisper.
"Level One training session begins in five seconds."
Dick assumed a defensive position. That's when the laser bombardment began.
Instantly, Dick back flipped, rolled, leaped, and cart-wheeled out of harms' way. The lasers were non-lethal and registered a "kill" by special sound effects.
As the session continued, Dick somehow avoided being hit. He dodged, rolled, somersaulted, ran, and jumped--the list was endless. The bombardment came in a relentless barrage of single, double, and triple beams striking at random.
After a nonstop attack, the beams suddenly stopped. Crouching in a defensive stance, at the far corner of the training room, his breath coming in ragged gasps, Dick mentally assessed his performance.
So far, so good. He was still 'alive.' Concentrating on the job at hand, Dick had a sudden idea. At the same instant, the laser salvo resumed. Not stopping to think, Dick leaped straight up, somersaulting almost twenty feet in the air, and safe from the ground level bombardment.
About to cry out in triumph, he was hit center mass by a single beam.
"Awww-www...*no*!" Dick cried.
"This ends your Level One training session," the computer said pleasantly. "Better luck next time." The room's lights came on. He blinked in the sudden brightness.
"If this is Level One," he muttered ruefully, "I'd hate to see Level Two."
"Master Dick," Alfred's calm voice spoke over the intercom, "well done. You were only killed twenty times, severely wounded a mere fifty times, and slightly wounded seventy-five times. Not bad for a first go."
"But I was only hit once!" Dick protested.
The door to the control room slid open. "I removed the 'kill' response," Alfred explained. "I didn't want you to grow discouraged on your first outing with this infernal machine. Don't worry, young sir. Master Bruce was killed twenty-*one* times on his first outing."
Dick's eyes lit. "Really? Cool!"
A few minutes later, as he stepped out of the showers, Dick asked, "What I don't understand, Alfred, is how you knew that I'd try the jump?"
"Let's say that I *anticipated* it, young sir," Alfred explained. "You've discovered a new skill. It's only natural that you'd try to use it. However--"
"--However, combat is the *last* place where you should try new abilities for the first time," Bruce finished.
Dick spun around, and cutting through the gloom in the Batcave with his X-ray vision, spotted his guardian.
"Bruce!" he cried, running happily towards him. Bruce bent and easily lifted the small boy to him. The two hugged unselfconsciously. Alfred watched, warmed by the father/son relation that was so quickly being forged between his two charges.
"Now *that's* the Bruce Wayne *I* raised," he said to himself.
"Bruce, I've got so much to show you...to tell you!" Dick said hurriedly. Then looking wistful, he asked, "Are you home for good now?"
Holding Dick up to eye level, Bruce gave him a half-smile.
"Sure am, kid," he said. "I did what I had to do, and learned what I needed to know."
"Were those business executives tough customers?" Dick asked seriously.
"The toughest," Bruce replied. "But they didn't know who they were dealing with." He put Dick down and with his hand on the boy's shoulder, they started upstairs to the manor. "I learned how to handle ruthless customers from the very best."
"Who?" Dick asked, wide-eyed.
"Alfred. Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from him."
Bruce checked in on Dick. The boy mumbled in his sleep--"Dad?"--and then tossed restlessly. Bruce walked over and sat at Dick's bedside, waiting. After a few moments it appeared that Dick was again settled back asleep. Bruce glanced at the bedside alarm. It was past eleven.
Time for the Batman to hunt.
Pausing at the bedroom door, Bruce looked back once more. Dick was sleeping soundly. Satisfied, Bruce made his way to the Batcave.
Moments later, Batman emerged from the uniform vault and moved purposefully towards the waiting Batmobile...
Observing from the rooftop across the street from the Kane Savings and Loan, Batman shook his head dismissively.
"Amateurs," he muttered. He thought about waiting for the Boys in Blue to come and break it up, but decided against it. Someone could get hurt or even killed. No, better he just end it now.
Not bothering to fire off a jump line, Batman spread his cape and swooped down on the would-be burglars. One looked up and spotting him, screamed.
"It's the Bat!" he yelled and started running. A well-placed Batarang tripped him before he'd taken five steps.
"Shut up, Frankie," the other said. He was busy working the alarm system. "How many time do I gotta tell ya? There ain't no such thing...the Bat's just a fairytale, like the boogeyman..."
"That's good to know," a gravelly voice said from behind him. "And since the clock just struck midnight, I guess that explains why you're about to turn into a jailbird!"
The thief spun around, and screamed at the nightmarish figure of the Dark Knight. It was the last sound he made...
Dick tossed and turned in troubled sleep.
Images of a cold world lit by a giant red sun and a night sky brightened by three moons disturbed his dreams. He saw birds, the orange and red of open flames, zooming across the crimson sky. Their opposites--birds the color of midnight--flew beside them in tandem in a perennial aerial ballet. Opposites, yet companions, he knew.
He saw mountain ranges made of glittering diamonds whose shimmering splendor were forged by eons of seismic disruptions that he knew were even now tearing the planet's core.
Spectacular cities of dizzying towers and ethereal beauty gleamed in the weak light of the giant star.
Dick felt a deep yearning, almost a summons to go--where? He felt himself being drawn to this world of vermilion skies. This cold, dying world. The need grew in intensity and finally, unable to resist, he sat up and threw off his covers. Cocking his head as if listening, Dick climbed out of bed.
He stood in the middle of his room, eyes open, but unseeing. Finally, as if receiving instructions, he walked out of his room. He passed an open door in the upstairs hallway. A light inside revealed that its occupant was still awake, despite the lateness of the hour. Dick walked on without acknowledgement.
As he passed by, his small figure caught Alfred's attention.
"Master Dick, is there something you need?" Alfred asked from inside. When no answer was forthcoming, he jumped out of his reading chair and stepped into the hallway. He was just in time to see the boy turn the corner to the back staircase. "Master Dick!"
There was no response. Suddenly worried, Alfred dropped his book and ran after the boy. By the time he got to the steps, Dick was already headed towards the study. Taking the steps two at a time, the elderly man reached the bottom of the stairs in time to see Dick enter Bruce's study.
Following closely at the boy's heels, Alfred paused when he entered the room. Dick was standing, unmoving, in front of the secret panel that led to the Batcave. He was just staring.
Again, there was no response from the boy. Alfred studied him for a few moments longer.
"Sleepwalking," he said to himself. Apparently whatever was causing the boy to walk in his sleep, he had to get into the Batcave to settle it. Alfred immediately walked to the grandfather clock and moved the hands to the appropriate positions.
The secret panel clicked open. Dick walked in, and wordlessly, Alfred followed...
The night was relatively quiet. In addition to the attempted break-in at the Savings and Loan, Batman stopped two attempted muggings, one car jacking, and three gang fights. About to call it a night, he caught the GCPD dispatcher calling an all points bulletin.
"All units in the vicinity of Robinson Park, officer down, officer needs help. Repeat. All units in the vicinity of Robinson Park..."
Incredibly, the Batmobile pulled a 180-degree turn, and turbos firing, roared in the direction of Gotham City's famous park...
Alfred worried about his youngest charge. The boy was barefoot and the floor of the Batcave was cold and uneven. Tamping his concerns, he followed behind from a safe distance.
Although asleep, Dick walked without breaking stride. Alfred was surprised when he walked through the main work area and continued down towards some of the darker more treacherous passages. Grabbing a flashlight that was lying in the open, Alfred brought it along, just in case.
After several minutes of walking, Dick came up to the lip of a deep chasm. Alfred had never seen this part of the cave before. Obviously, there were more caverns and side passages than he'd ever taken the time to explore. Standing next to Dick, Alfred risked a look down.
It seemed bottomless. Now what?
Before Alfred could react, Dick suddenly jumped...!
"What do you have?"
Gordon cringed at the gravelly voice. He'd *never* grow used to having Batman sneak up on him. Sighing, he answered without turning.
Gordon felt a moment's satisfaction. He'd actually surprised the World's Greatest Detective. At the next instant, he felt a stab of guilt at his pettiness. Batman was a selfless friend who nightly risked his life for the people of Gotham. This wasn't a contest.
"An informant reported seeing him tonight in the 'Combat Zone.' He was trying to fence some hot merchandise from an earlier robbery." Gordon took a drag from his cigarette. He kept promising Barbara that he'd quit, but so far, he hadn't made a real effort.
"We sent out an 'APB' and about twenty minutes ago, we got a possible confirmation near Gotham Park."
"I heard that you had an officer down."
Gordon nodded. "One of our bicycle units. They reported a suspect that fit his description running through the park's underbrush and said they were in pursuit. Next thing we know, he's got the two officers pinned down. Apparently one's been hit pretty badly and is lying out in the open. His partner says that he can't reach her from his location. The SWAT team hasn't arrived yet, but as soon as it does, I'm deploying them."
"Give me ten minutes," Batman said. "It sounds like Zucco might be getting desperate." Without another word, he was gone...
"Master Dick!" Alfred yelled, stunned. He thought his heart would stop. Mouth open, he stared as Dick literally defied gravity by leaping across the wide chasm in a single bound.
The junior acrobat landed softly on the other side and without a backward glance, continued on his sleepwalk...
Batman moved stealthily, keeping to the shadows afforded by the numerous trees in the large commons. He'd vowed that he would capture Zucco for Dick's sake. AT the Falcone Estate, he'd been too preoccupied with protecting Dick, so that he never had a chance to confront the killer. This time he didn't have any personal distractions to keep him from their inevitable confrontation.
Using the flashlight, Alfred desperately searched for a way to the other side. He couldn't let the young master go on alone. Not in his present state!
The light beam fell on something he'd never seen before. A recess along the cave wall caught his eye. Something different on how the shadows fell. Investigating, he saw what at first looked like another cave tunnel, but then realized it was actually a hidden passageway to the other side.
Following the narrow flashlight beam, Alfred raced to catch up with Dick.
"What could be making him sleepwalk," he wondered out loud. Dick had been troubled with nightmares several times a week since his arrival at the manor. Understandable, as the boy had witnessed his parents' brutal and senseless murder before his eyes.
But he hadn't done any sleepwalking. Alfred had been hoping against hope that because of the growing bond between Bruce and Dick that perhaps the boy was on the road to healing. These actions tonight showed otherwise.
And what about that leap...?
Batman heard the sirens in the distance of the approaching SWAT van. He wasn't worried. It would take them a few minutes to unload and set up. And Gordon would give him the ten minutes he requested.
He hoped it would be enough.
The familiar staccato of automatic gunfire up ahead galvanized him. Arriving at the scene, he took in the situation at a glance. One of the bicycle patrol officers, a female, was down. She was bleeding profusely from multiple chest wounds and appeared unconscious.
Whoever was firing was laying a blanket of hot lead around the downed officer. It was impossible for anyone to reach her. As Batman skirted the open area, he heard the wounded officer's partner trying to negotiate with the gunman.
"Look! Things will go easier on you if you let me get to my partner. If she dies, then there's nobody and nothing that will be able to help you. You have nowhere to run! The SWAT team will be here in another few minutes. This is suicide! Give up before you injure or kill someone else, or you *yourself* are killed!"
The gunshots were coming from inside a public men's room. It was a small cinder block building with only one way in or out. Batman noted the ventilation windows running along the upper reaches of the wall. Climbing to the roof, he quickly made his way across it.
When he was just above the location from where he'd just seen the shots being fired, Batman leaned over, and taking three pellets from his utility belt tossed them inside.
"One thousand one...one thousand two...one thousand three."
At 'one thousand three' Batman burst into the men's room, shattering the windows. The pellets he'd tossed in had released a quick-acting tear gas that while non-lethal, could incapacitate. Batman's re-breather and night vision goggles allowed him to move easily through the gas screen.
He heard weak coughing at the far corner.
"St-stay away fr-from m-me," the weakened gunman whimpered. Batman kicked the Uzi submachine gun out of the mook's reach. "I-I'm g-gonna be s-sick." At his declaration, he turned and threw up helplessly on the floor. Batman cuffed him and tossed him outside.
Hurrying to where wounded officer lay, Batman stopped. Her partner was holding her to himself, rocking her gently, his closed in grief. She was gone. Batman checked her nametag. Evans. He'd never met her. Never spoken to her. Didn't know what her favorite color was.
All he knew was that she'd been killed by a kid who was no older than fourteen.
Batman whirled towards the boy who still lay cowering where Batman had unceremoniously tossed him. Batman grabbed the blubbering, whimpering kid by the lapels feeling a black rage take hold of him.
"Please, don't hurt me," the boy said. "Please..."
Batman blinked rapidly. What was he doing? He felt the storm within slowly subside. The saw that the boy was wearing the gang colors and insignia of one of the new teen gangs that had recently cropped up within Gotham's blighted inner city.
The kid wasn't Zucco. But in many ways, he was a worse problem...
Alfred saw the eerie glow up ahead. Frightened for Dick he hurried. Arriving at an open cavern, he paused at the entrance, awed by what he saw before him.
Dick was sitting cross-legged on the floor, gazing at the most exquisite, jewel- like object that Alfred had ever laid eyes on. It seemed to shimmer and glow with an inner pulse in a delightful multitude of rainbow colors.
The strange marvel held Dick enthralled. Alfred wasn't sure if he should put an end to whatever it was doing with Dick, when the object stopped glowing. At the same time, Dick fell back on the floor, asleep...