Chapter Eight

When the Batmobile finally pulled into its hangar, it was almost dawn. Batman had checked several of the leads and tips on Zucco's whereabouts, but none panned out. It was a solemn Bruce Wayne who stepped out of the showers and headed upstairs.

Officer Evans had been a single mom and left behind a four-year-old daughter.

Bruce felt exhausted. So much pain. So much hurt.

"Doesn't God care about us?" Dick's young voice echoed in his head. Bruce shook his head. The answer seemed farther out of his reach tonight than it had in a long time.

Thinking of Dick, Bruce stopped by his room to check on him before he went to bed. He found Alfred reclining on a straight chair pulled next to the bed, dozing fitfully. Walking up to him, Bruce gently laid his hand on the elderly butler's shoulder.

Startled, Alfred's eyes snapped open.

"Is something wrong?" Bruce whispered. Nodding Alfred stood, indicating that he wanted Bruce to follow him.

Outside in the hallway, he spoke in low tones and related Dick's sleepwalking episode. Finally, he arrived at the part where the boy sat mesmerized by the glowing object.

"Whatever is it, Master Bruce?" he asked. Bruce looked away before replying.

"Come on, Alfred," he said. "We need to talk." With that, he led them into the room where the two had shared so many discussions while he'd been growing up-- the kitchen.

Alfred stared at his employer and surrogate son. If Bruce had suddenly done a striptease and started dancing on the kitchen table, Alfred wouldn't have been more stunned.

"An extra-terrestrial?" he spluttered. "Master Dick? But surely, sir, that's preposterous!"

Bruce took a sip of his coffee. When he looked up, Alfred could see the tired lines around his eyes. Lately, he'd been looking much older than his twenty- seven years. Bruce shrugged.

"There are no absolutes in this world Alfred." He smiled briefly. "*You* taught me that."

Alfred returned the smile warmly.

Shaking his head, Bruce continued.

"I wish that there were some other explanation, but fantastic as it seems, this is the only one that makes sense at the moment. Dick's amazing gifts aren't the result of some kind of mutation. These are abilities that are slowly being manifested in him. The older he gets, the more these--powers--seem to be growing."

"Yes, and practice seems to bring new discoveries." Alfred explained Dick's own surprised discovery of his 'microscopic vision.'

"Exactly," Bruce agreed. "And this 'gravity-defying' power. We don't really know what this capability entails. Remember that if you or I were to go the moon, the lesser gravity there could allow us to suddenly make incredible leaps as well."

"True," Alfred acknowledged.

"So, for the sake of argument," Bruce said, "let's assume that Dick came from a planet whose gravity is much greater than Earth's."

"Then why wouldn't he have shown this ability before? Surely, he or his parents would've made note of it."

"I'm not sure, Alfred," Bruce admitted. "However, because the Graysons were afraid that should someone find out about Dick they could lose him, they basically forbade him from exploring his powers. Dick loved his parents and didn't want to cause them undue pain. Therefore--"

"--Therefore, he honored their wishes. Yet--"

"--Yet, there were probably times when the gifts manifested themselves by accident," Bruce added. "I would wager that if and when this happened, Dick probably experienced deep feelings of guilt at his perceived 'disobedience,' and maybe--"

"--And maybe these feelings of guilt began to work as an unconscious suppression of any new powers that were developing within him."

Bruce looked at Alfred with open admiration.

"Exactly. Therefore, now that we're allowing Dick to openly explore his gifts, so-called 'new' abilities are suddenly appearing. I would guess that he's had these powers all along, but as you say, he suppressed them."

"Then, Master Bruce," Alfred said seriously, "I would also say that the next few months or so are going to be very interesting, indeed." He stood and made his way around to the kitchen area and began taking out the necessary materials for breakfast.

"And I'll have to agree with you," Bruce said, nodding. He took another sip from his coffee and stared pensively at nothing in particular. "He really is a great kid, isn't he?"

"Yes, Master Bruce. He most certainly is that."

Bruce produced a sheaf of papers and handed them to Alfred. Alfred took them and began reading them. Raising a single eyebrow, he handed them back.

"Are you sure, sir?" he asked.

Bruce nodded. "If *Dick* agrees to it. Child Protection Services may take him away from us otherwise."

Alfred gasped. "Surely *not*, sir!"

Bruce glanced down at the papers, and smiling sadly nodded. "I'm afraid so. Maybe it's too soon to ask him. He loves his parents. And misses them terribly. I don't want to--"

Bruce was interrupted at this moment, when the object of the conversation walked into the kitchen. Rather than a 'strange visitor from another planet,' what entered was a slightly bedraggled-looking, sleepy nine-year-old boy.

Bruce noted the pale cheeks and dark circles under the boy's usually bright blue eyes. Glancing worriedly at Alfred, he addressed Dick.

"Hey, sleepyhead. Glad you could join us."

Dick rubbed his tired eyes and walked up to Bruce. Unselfconsciously, Dick put his arms around Bruce's neck and his head on his shoulder. "My head hurts," he said in a small voice.

"C'mere," Bruce said, picking up the boy and placing him on his lap. "Alfred will take care of that in no time. I think he *invented* headache medicine."

Dick nodded tiredly and snuggled in Bruce's strong arms, his eyes closed. Alfred seemed to conjure two children's aspirins out of thin air. He carefully placed one on Dick's open palm.

"This one first, Master Dick," he said. "Be sure to chew it completely and swallow carefully."

Dick complied by placing it in his mouth and chewing the small tablet until there was nothing left of it. He swallowed as instructed. Alfred handed him the second tablet and Dick repeated the action. Smiling kindly, Alfred then handed the boy a glass of water.

"Now wash it down, young sir."

Taking a drink, Dick again did as told.

"It will take a few minutes before the aspirins take effect, Master Dick. Would you care to return to your room until you're feeling better?"

Dick shook his head. Bruce gave Alfred a half-smile over Dick's head. Leaning down, he spoke to his young ward.

"Would you care for anything? Orange juice maybe?"

Dick nodded. Alfred instantly placed a small glass of orange juice before them. Blinking sleepily, Dick sat up in Bruce's lap and rubbed his eyes.

The morning sun appeared on the horizon. Slowly, its brilliance crept across the white, wintry landscape, chasing away the last of the night. Nature's vista was lost to the occupants of Wayne Manor as her sunlight was caught by glistening icicles softly stirring in the morning breeze and refracted into thousands of miniscule rainbows.

At last, the sun's first rays streamed in through the wide bow windows in the kitchen's breakfast nook, and a bright sunbeam illumined Bruce and Dick. It was going to be a clear, crisp day.

Alfred watched them from his vantage point behind the kitchen island's countertop. Their identical dark heads, haloed by the early morning rays, were almost touching as Bruce leaned forward and picked up the glass of orange juice, handing it to Dick.

Dick took the glass and drank up its contents. The sun's rays backlighting Dick's raven head, Alfred noted that the boy looked much improved. His pale cheeks were now filled with rosy color, and the circles under his eyes were gone. Dick smiled brightly at both Bruce and Alfred.

"Thanks, Alfred," he said. "The headache's gone now. I feel much better." Alfred and Bruce exchanged startled looks. The children's aspirin couldn't have taken effect *this* quickly. Without pausing, Dick added, "I'm hungry. What's for breakfast?"

Bruce sat, chin in hand, staring at Dick's bottomless appetite for Alfred's pancakes.

"You keep eating like that," he said, "I may have to start going into work more often. At this rate, I don't think my net worth will be able to support that appetite of yours."

His mouth full, Dick's eyes laughed. Swallowing, he giggled. "You're funny."

"I think I'll call Lucius today and tell him to set up a special trust fund. We'll call it the 'Keep Dick in Pancakes, Milk, and Cookies' Monetary Fund. What do you think, Alfred?"

Alfred nodded thoughtfully and brought his hand up to his chin. He looked as if he were considering the seriousness of the matter.

"You might consider the wisdom of including chocolate chips," Alfred mused. "Or might I venture, anything chocolate?"

Bruce nodded. "You're right. Think we should buy out Hershey's?" Before Alfred could reply, Bruce turned to Dick. "What do you say, partner? Think Wayne Enterprises needs to go into the chocolate industry?"

"You're both silly," Dick declared, laughing. Growing serious, he turned to Bruce. "Have you ever seen a firebird?"

"A Firebird?" Bruce asked. "Sure. I wanted one when I first got my driver's license, but Alfred insisted young gentlemen who had a perfectly good chauffeur didn't need a muscle car."

"As I recall, sir," Alfred said, "I said that young gentlemen didn't drive crass motorcars that were little more than, as you eloquently put it, 'chick magnets.'"

Dick looked slightly confused and shook his head.

"I don't mean a car. I'm talking about a bird--like fire. You know, all reddish and orange-y and yellowish--a firebird., a Flamebird. That's it. That's what it's called, a Flamebird! Have you ever seen one?"

Bruce shook his head. "No, Dick, I can't seem to recall ever seeing one. Do you know its native habitat? Where one could be found?"

"Sounds rather exotic, sir," Alfred said. "Perhaps in the Amazon rain forest?"

Dick shook his head. "No, not there. It lived in a really *cold* place. It was surrounded by glaciers, everything was frozen."

"Tell me more about this place, Dick," Bruce said quietly. "It sounds interesting."

Dick thought momentarily. His eyes taking on a faraway look, and he began to recite.

"The Flamebird lives in a very cold place with a red sky. It's always following a black and blue bird--the Nightwing. I think they're friends, 'cause they're always together. And you can see mountains made of diamonds and cities with buildings taller than anything here."

"Mountains made of diamonds," Bruce murmured. "That's something I'd like to see. Anything else?"

Dick nodded thoughtfully. "It has a red sun and three moons..." Dick looked confused. "Is this from a story? I don't understand. Three moons--?"

"Could it be from a dream?" Bruce asked casually. He glanced quickly over at Alfred. Alfred raised a single eyebrow and nodded slightly.

Dick shook his head and then shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I can't remember."

Bruce gave him a half-smile. "Whatever a 'Flamebird' is, Dick--real or imaginary--I'm sure that it'll come to you in good time. Look, have you finally finished eating us out of house and home?"

Dick grinned, nodding.

"Good! What do you say to an early morning workout down in the Cave? You can show me these new abilities of yours. I can't remember the *last* time I saw someone leap all the way up to the trapeze swings in a single bound...!"

Bruce sat in his study, leaning back on his desk chair, thoughtfully staring out the wide French doors. He could see Dick laughing happily outside. He and Alfred were building a snowman in the fresh-fallen snow.

At one point, Alfred leaned down to pack some more snow onto the base of the snowman. Dick suddenly threw a snowball at the unsuspecting butler. Bruce smiled to himself as he heard Alfred cry out in surprise.

Soon, the elderly gentleman and young boy were having a one-on-one battle. Dick's acrobatics kept him from being hit too often; however, Alfred had closely observed Dick's fighting tactics in the simulator, therefore he was able to anticipate several of the boy's moves.

As Bruce watched, his half-smile disappeared. What was he going to do? How was he going to broach the subject to Dick, not just about being an extra-terrestrial, but about Bruce's wish to adopt him? At first, Bruce wanted to adopt the boy because of his growing fondness for him, and also as a stopgap to keep Child Welfare Services from ever taking Dick away from him.

But now? If Dick *were* an extra-terrestrial, then it became imperative that *no one* else ever be allowed to get their hands on him. Dick's unusual abilities were proving to be formidable.

Bruce thought about the possibility of unscrupulous people ever gaining control of the boy. Imagine what his X-ray vision could do in the wrong hands. Or any of his vision powers for that matter. As well as this 'flying' ability of his.

Bruce thought back to Dick's proud demonstration of his 'jumping' ability. He'd known instantly that Dick was capable of much more than just jumping...

Bruce watched, his expression carefully neutral as Dick *leaped* from floor to cave ceiling in a single hop. On the outside, he appeared calm, almost clinical. On the inside, his guts were churning.

"The kid's *flying*!" he said to himself. No, not possible, he denied. Okay, then, smart guy, he continued. How about a test? Come on. Let's put that sharp intellect of yours to work. *Prove* to yourself that the kid's *not* flying!

"Okay," he murmured. "I'll *prove* it!"

Dick was smiling and waving from the trapeze swing where he'd settled on the 'down turn.'

"Dick, I have a few exercises that I want you to try, but it's going to take a while to set them up. Why don't go upstairs with Alfred and begin your morning lessons? When I'm ready, I'll get you."

Dick nodded. "Okay, Bruce," he said. Then, standing on the trapeze swing, he called out, "Look!"

Bruce felt a warning cry catch in his throat. Dick executed a series of back somersaults off the trapeze and slowly *floated* back to the floor.

His heart hammering, Bruce didn't know whether to applaud or chew the boy out. He opted for a butt chewing.

"Dick! Did you *know* that you could do that?" he asked sharply.

Eyes wide, Dick shook his head, 'no.' Bruce was about to lambaste into the boy, when he saw the tears threatening to spill. Relenting quickly, Bruce placed his hand on Dick's shoulder. After all, *he* was the one who'd encouraged the boy to spread his wings.

"I'm sorry I yelled, Dick," Bruce apologized. "It's just that this new ability of yours is still a bit of an unknown. We don't really know the top and bottom limits. If something happened to you, I don't think I could forgive myself."

Two huge tears streamed suddenly down Dick's cheeks. His small chin quivered slightly, and then jutted out bravely.

"I-I'm sorry, Bruce. It's just that-that, well, I just wanted to show you. I hadn't done it before, but I just *knew* that I could. I guess I got excited. It was a stupid thing to do. Dad always said we shouldn't try new stunts without a net 'cause we never know what can happen."

Head down, Dick shrugged despondently.

Placing his finger under Dick's chin, Bruce raised it. Man and boy held each other's eyes steadily.

"Hey, none of that," Bruce said quietly, gently wiping Dick's wet cheeks. "We're partners, remember? My job is to watch out for you. And you have to watch out for me. That's what partners do. We take care of each other. I shouldn't have yelled at you. That was wrong. Just like I shouldn't have allowed you to jump up in the first place without a net." Bruce shook his head, giving Dick a small half-grin.

"I guess that we were both wrong. Next time, we'll do better. I promise."

Dick nodded, his eyes smiling up at his guardian. "I promise, too, Bruce..."

That had been a few hours ago. As Bruce sat and watched Alfred and Dick roll around in the snow, wrestling and laughing helplessly--each trying to put snow down the other's parka--Bruce again went back in his mind's eye.

"Ready, partner?" Bruce smiled inwardly as Dick's head whirled around, his eyes eager with anticipation.

"You *bet*!" he cried, throwing his pencil on the desk.

Bruce held his hand out in a stop motion.

"Uh-uh!" he said. "Nothing doing. Not until you finish whatever homework Alfred gave you. He told me that you have quite a bit to do."

Dick sat back down glumly. "Aw, geez!" he groaned.

"As soon as you're done," Bruce said, from the doorway, "show Alfred your work. When he gives the go-ahead, then we'll continue in the Cave."

"'Kay," Dick said reluctantly.

About a half hour later, Bruce heard Dick bounding down the steps leading from the Manor.

"Bruce!" he called. "I'm finished! Alfred said so!"

"That's great, kid," Bruce answered. He was near the ceiling on one of the numerous catwalks that were strategically placed through out the Batcave. He had several surveillance devices set up there as well as other pieces of instrumentation, which were going to be used while he tested Dick's flying powers.

When Bruce was at floor level with Dick, he and the boy returned to the practice mat. Dick noticed several new apparatuses, some of whose functions he could only guess at.

"Take a seat," Bruce instructed. Dick did as ordered. Bruce joined him, cross- legged. Dick followed suit, crossing his legs. "We're going to begin with a few meditation exercises," Bruce said.

Dick groaned, slapping his forehead. Bruce quirked a single eyebrow and waited patiently. Dick eventually looked up, and seeing Bruce's grim expression, swallowed and sat up straight.

"Let's begin with the first level..." Bruce intoned softly. When he was certain that Dick had achieved the necessary level of receptiveness, Bruce began his quiet instructions.

"Dick, I want you to visualize a bright, sunny, blue sky with white fluffy clouds..."

Dick's young face was completely relaxed and trusting. He smiled, eyes closed as he saw what Bruce suggested.

"Dick, you want to be a part of those clouds, but you're stuck here on the ground. That makes you feel very sad..."

Dick's face scrunched up a bit, hit by the enormity of never being able to break the bonds that tied him to the Earth.

"But Dick, you're a special boy. Maybe the most special boy in the whole world. You *want* to be part of those clouds, Dick. But more importantly, you *know* that you can *be* part of those clouds..."

Dick nodded fervently.

"Dick, the clouds are so close to you. They're only three feet off the ground." Dick looked around eagerly, and tentatively reached his hand out to touch the nearby clouds.

"And the ground around you is hard and rocky. It's uncomfortable." Dick's expression turned unhappy, again. He moved around as if he were sitting on a rocky surface.

"Dick, you're sleepy." [Dick yawned, sleepily.] "And the clouds look so soft." [Dick looked yearningly in the direction of where Bruce assumed he saw the clouds.] "You want to lie down on them, don't you?" [Dick nodded, sleepily.] "What can you do, Dick?" [Dick shook his head, pouting.]

"I'm tired," he whimpered.

"Son, you can go to sleep as soon as you lie down," Bruce promised. "Look at the clouds. Dick I want you let go of the Earth. Let go of your restraints. Float up to the clouds and lie down, son. Let go, Dick...float up to the clouds."

Dick shook his head, confused. "I can't...I promised, I wouldn't. I promised..."

"Son, I know you gave your word. But your Mom and Dad would approve of this."

Dick looked confused. "But they said not to."

"I know that's what they said, Dick. But things are different now. You need to know what you can do. It's for your own good. And your Mom and Dad only wanted what was best for you."

Dick shook his head emphatically. "No! They made me promise. They wouldn't want me to!"

"Dick, I promise you, son. I would never make you do anything that your parents wouldn't have approved of. I *know* that they'd want you to know how to do this."

"How do you know?" Dick asked suspiciously.

"Because I know that they loved you. And they only wanted the best for you."

"How do you know *that*?" Dick asked uncertainly.

"Because..." Bruce paused, his throat catching. "Because, *I* love you, son. And I only want what's best for you." He had to struggle to get the words out before his natural reticence prevented him from openly admitting his feelings.

Dick's suspicious expression relaxed and was replaced by his natural openness and trust.

Then, before anything more could be said, and still sitting cross-legged, Dick began floating. At about three feet from the ground, he stopped his upward ascent, and just hovered in place. Yawning widely, Dick lay down and went to sleep--three feet above the floor of the Batcave...

The rest of the test was almost a denouement. Once Bruce woke Dick up, he had him 'turn' his power on and off.

Once Dick's fears of disappointing his parents had been removed, he was able to float at will; he no longer had to mask his flying ability as merely "jumping." He could move vertically and horizontally. He could ascend and descend at any angle that Bruce asked him to try.

Bruce had Dick fly through several hoops he'd set up at different heights and angles around the Batcave, first slowly to get a feel for the course, and then faster. As Dick's speed increased, Bruce noted that the boy hadn't yet begun to tap his speed potential...

Watching as Dick and Alfred, finally exhausted from their afternoon activities, began returning to the manor through the kitchen entrance, still laughing and trying to sneak snow down one another's parkas, Bruce decided that an outdoor test would be necessary.

"Probably night time," he murmured. He sighed. Alfred said that the next few months were going to prove interesting. "More like the next few days," Bruce amended.

Chapter Nine

Bruce parked the convertible Porsche on the high bluffs overlooking Gotham City. The locals knew this area as "Lovers' Leap." Legend had it that years ago a young couple, whose families' on-going feud prevented them from ever getting married, ended their lives by leaping together to their deaths on the jagged rocks below.

But Bruce wasn't thinking about star-crossed lovers at the moment. To him this area simply offered the best lighting possible for his purposes.

Although the temperature outside was in the low twenties, he lowered the convertible top. The night sky, like the day, was clear, the air crisp and cold. He kept the motor running, the heater on. Turning to Dick, he smiled down at the shivering boy.

"I promise it won't take long, son," he said. "Here." He pulled a small woolen blanket that he'd asked Alfred to put in the car.

"Thanks," Dick said, taking it gratefully. Even though he was dressed in his heaviest and warmest overcoat, he was still cold. Finally settling down, he looked around. He admired how the lights of Gotham City twinkled in the distance. He'd never known the city was so large.

Somewhere inside himself, however, he knew that he'd seen one larger. And more beautiful. Cleaner. And colder. He felt a momentary stab and yearning for that place.

"The city lights look like stars twinkling," he murmured.

"Yes, they do," Bruce agreed. "But it isn't because of the city that I brought us up here."

Dick turned to him, curious. Seeing Dick's gaze on him, Bruce turned away, suddenly nervous.

How to continue?

Taking a deep breath, Bruce tentatively began. "I brought us up here so that we could talk in private. Just you'n me."

"Not Alfred?" Dick asked, hurt that their faithful friend was excluded.

"Not this time, son," Bruce began, and then seeing Dick's protest begin to form, hurriedly added, "but soon. I promise. Everything we discuss, we'll tell him. Is that fair?"

Reluctantly, Dick nodded.

"Good," Bruce sighed. "Come on, I've got something to show you." Pressing the automatic trunk opener, Bruce got out of the car, with Dick close behind. Bruce quickly unloaded the contents of the trunk and began setting it up on level ground.

"A telescope?" Dick asked.

Bruce nodded. "I wanted to be able to test some of your vision powers unencumbered by the limitations of the Batcave. Furthermore, I wanted you to be able to see for yourself what certain magnifications are. If you can see the star at say the greatest magnification that this small telescope can offer, then I can have you try to increase your own magnification accordingly."

As Bruce finished setting up the telescope, he added under his breath, "I hope."

"Okay, Dick, first off, we're going to look up at the stars without any kind of aid. Just the naked eye...and *no* telescopic vision!" he added.

Dick grinned good-naturedly and nodded in agreement.

Bruce brought out a detailed map of the North American December night sky. To Dick's delight, the map glowed in the dark. Pointing out the marker star he wanted Dick to focus on, Bruce made sure that Dick felt comfortable with the star's neighbors.

Within seconds, they were both searching the night sky. Bruce found it right away, but didn't say anything, preferring Dick to make his own discoveries.

"There it is, Bruce!" he cried. "I *see* it!"

"Terrific, Dick," Bruce said, kn

eeling next to the boy. "Show me where."

Proudly, Dick immediately complied. "Great job, kid," Bruce said admiringly. "Okay, now for phase two." Bruce reached inside his jacket and took out a pair of binoculars.

"Keep your eyes on the star, Dick. Don't lose it. Now try it with these. They're already focused to your unaided vision."

Dick nodded, and not taking his eyes off the star, he carefully brought the binoculars up to his eyes. Suddenly, he could see the star even clearer. Plus, he was able to see some fainter pinpricks of light that he hadn't been able to see with the naked eye.

He reported this excitedly to Bruce.

"...And there's a couple of other stars real close to it that I couldn't see before!"

"Very good, Dick," Bruce said. "You're doing very well." Taking Dick by the shoulder, he led him to the telescope. "All right, you've seen the star with the naked eye and with the binoculars. Now, let's see what a top of the line backyard telescope can reveal."

Bruce pulled up a small step stool so that Dick would be able to see easily.

"The telescope is focused on the same star. Take a look."

Dick looked up disappointedly. "But it looks the same as if I didn't have anything."

"I know," Bruce said moving in and adjusting the magnification. "I wanted you to see again how the star looks without any optic aids." Dick nodded in understanding. "Now, I've doubled the magnification of the binoculars. Tell me what you see."

"Whoa!" Dick whispered. "I can see the pinpricks of light a lot clearer now!"

"All right, now let me double the magnification again," Bruce said. "Take a look."

Again, Dick reported a much clearer view. Bruce repeated the steps until they reached the telescope's maximum magnification.

"This is really cool, Bruce," Dick said. He'd completely forgotten that he'd been cold earlier. "Can we do it again tomorrow night?"

Bruce smiled and ruffled the boy's hair.

"We're not done yet. Or, should I say, *you're* not done yet."

Dick looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"I want you to picture in your mind the greatest magnification that you saw through the telescope."

Dick nodded.

"Now I want you to turn your telescopic vision on the same star, and see if you can magnify your vision to the same level as the telescope."

Dick's eyes widened, but he looked up eagerly.

"Oh wow..." he whispered. Bruce smiled inwardly. Apparently, this was working.

"Dick, do you remember how when I doubled the magnification, you could see things just that much clearer?" Dick nodded. "I want you double your current magnification."

Dick nodded, staring up as if mesmerized.

"Got it?" Bruce asked. Dick nodded. "Good. Dick, for the final test, I want to zoom in as close as you can to the same star, and see if you can spot any planets revolving around it."

Dick frowned in concentration. This was going to be farther than he had *ever* attempted to see. Focusing on the job at hand, he pictured the star and its placement in the heavens, and suddenly he was *there*.

It felt as if his eyes automatically put heat shields over themselves--a special type of sun block. He could clearly see the star burning in its infinite nuclear furnace, solar flares shooting out to what he instinctively knew were billions of miles.

In a small voice he tried to describe what he saw, but couldn't find adequate words.

"Whoa..." he whispered, awed beyond the ability to articulate what he felt.

"Do you see any planets, chum?" Bruce asked.

Realizing that he hadn't even looked, Dick began a systematic search of the nearby star system. Like Alfred had shown him earlier in his museum search, he divided the system into quadrants. Finally, his vision alighted on an object that was reflecting the star's light.

Zooming in, he cried out in triumph.

"I *see* one, Bruce!" he said, laughing delightedly. "It's all purple and orange-y with fluffy, pinkish clouds!"

Bruce remained outwardly calm. "I want you to use your X-ray vision and see if you can pierce the cloud cover. Can you describe the surface?"

Dick concentrated again. Using his powers in concert was still new enough that he had to take extra time to get them both working together. Finally, he began to zoom in through the atmosphere.

As his vision cut through, he was shocked by the violent storms that were buffeting across the alien sky. It seemed a very inhospitable place. Moving closer to the surface, he saw that it was rocked by massive volcanic action, clouds of noxious gases spewing upward several thousand miles into the planet's atmosphere.

"It's a real scary place, Bruce," he said, describing what he saw. "Can I leave now?"

"Of course, Dick," Bruce said reassuringly. "Do you think you're up to finding another planet? If not, we can go home now."

"I can try," Dick said gamely. Searching again for several minutes, Dick at long last found a second planet, currently revolving on the far side of the star. He'd had to pierce through the massive star in order to see the other side.

"I see one," he reported quietly. "It's prettier than the other one, blue and white."

Bruce stood still. This could be it.

"I'll take a closer look," Dick said. Cutting through the planet's atmosphere, Dick soon saw a great difference between this new planet and its sister. The atmosphere was much more temperate, with light winds and soft fluffy clouds. As he zoomed in he reported what he saw.

"I see oceans," he said, "and little bits of land, like islands."

"Can you see anything else?"

Dick nodded excitedly. "Bruce! I see a bird! It's flying across the island. Let me get closer."

As Dick zoomed in even closer, his excitement grew. Finally, he jumped up, unable to contain himself.

"Bruce! I see a house! No, more like a hut...or a teepee! Bruce! *People* live here! There's *people* living on the planet!"

"Have you seen one," Bruce asked. Dick shook his head, but he still couldn't remain still.

"No, but--" he began, then stopped. "Wait! There's one! Bruce, it's a human, like you'n me. He's not different or anything."

"Can you describe him?"

Dick nodded. "He looks like a guy in the movies." He shrugged. "You know. With a grass skirt and beads around his neck. Wait--!" Dick saw a little girl come running out of the hut, followed shortly by a woman. The little girl ran around the man. She seemed to be laughing as she ran. The woman looked slightly put out, but the man was guffawing openly. Dick described what he saw, laughing at the antics of the little girl and her mother's obvious frustration.

"Okay, chum," Bruce said quietly. "I think that that's enough for now. It's time to come back down to Earth again."

Dick nodded, blinked, closed his eyes, blinked again, and then looked up at Bruce.

"I never knew that there was life on other planets, Bruce," he said awed. "Dad told me once that he believed that there was life on other planets, but Mom told him that it was silly and not to say such silly things in front of me again. Dad never did."

He shook his head, confused by yet another mysterious, out-of-character behavior from his parents.

Bruce and Dick broke down the telescope and re-stowed it in the trunk of the car. Before they climbed inside for the ride back home, they stood by the driver's side and once more gazed up at the sky.

"Do you *really* not know why your mother said what she said?" Bruce asked.

Dick shook his head. "No, sir, I don't."

"Do you have any idea why your Mom and Dad didn't want you to use your powers openly?"

"Sure, they didn't want anyone to come and take me to the loony bin," he said readily.

"Is that the only reason you can think of?" Bruce asked. By now his eyes were boring into Dick's.

Dick began to nod 'yes' and then changed it to 'no.'

"The powers I have are weird. Different. They put 'different' people in carnival sideshows or in the hospitals or jail. They didn't want me to be hurt or taken away."

Bruce knelt down in front of Dick.

"Dick, that's only partially true. You're right. Your parents did not want you to be taken from them. They loved you more than anything in the world. But there's something they never told you. And I'm afraid that's it time that you learned the truth, the whole truth...and nothing but."

Bruce stood up, and gently placing his hand on Dick's shoulder, he drew the boy into him. As Dick automatically put his arm around his guardian's waist, Bruce began to talk.

As the story unfolded, Dick felt hot tears of denial spring forward. His small fists pummeled Bruce's waist, his broken-hearted sobs tore at his guardian. Finally, Bruce bent and picked the boy up, allowing him to come to terms with the truth in his own good time.

At last, Dick's sobs stopped, and sniffing he looked up at Bruce.

"Am I a monster, Bruce? Like in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Is that why Mom and Dad were ashamed of me? Am I gonna grow up and eat people?"

"With *your* appetite?" Bruce asked. "Who can tell?"

Dick blinked at him, and then broke into a grin. "You're teasing me again," he said.

"Remember the people you saw tonight?" Bruce asked seriously. "The family on the other planet?"

Dick nodded.

"They didn't seem like monsters, did they?"

Dick shook his head.

"They were just people, even though they were on another planet, right?"

Dick nodded reluctantly.

"Dick, I don't care how many powers you have. You're still just a little boy in my eyes. Your parents didn't know what to do about your powers, but rightly or wrongly, their only concern was to protect you. That's why they didn't want anyone to find out about you. They were never ashamed of you. They were scared, like *I* am, that if anyone else ever found out about you, you'd be taken away."

Dick's eyes widened in fear. Bruce sat him on the hood of the car, and ran his hand lightly across the boy's hair.

"Dick, I know it's too early for you to think about this, but it's something that I *have* to ask you. Would you be willing to let me adopt you, fully and legally, so that *no one*...*no one* would *ever* be able to take you away from me?"

Where Dick's eyes had been wide with fear before, they were now wide with shock.

"Adopt me?" he said in a small voice. Swallowing, Bruce nodded. "W-Would you be my new Dad? For always?" Again, Bruce nodded. Dick looked away momentarily, overcome by the unexpected request.

Bruce felt a huge hole in the pit of his stomach. He'd hardly considered that it would be possible that the boy wouldn't want him. Bruce finally admitted to himself that he'd grown to love the boy as his own in the short time they'd had together. But if Dick didn't want him, there was no way he'd force him into agreeing to--


Bruce stopped his ruminations. What had Dick just said? He turned to the boy.

"What did you say?"

Dick nodded. "That I really, really want you to be my new dad."

Bruce smiled. Not his usual half-smile, which more often than not seemed to be filled with his own unspoken pain. But an honest, open smile. One filled with true warmth and genuine emotion.

Feeling his own eyes suddenly fill, Bruce picked Dick up again and just held him. Putting him down, he finally spoke.

"Let's go home, son."

Chapter Ten

The next few months whirled by at a dizzying pace. Family Court granted Bruce not just full custody and legal guardianship of Dick, they approved his request for adoption.

Richard John Grayson Wayne walked out proudly from the courthouse flanked by Alfred on one side, and his new father on the other. Dick and Bruce had had a private father/son talk the previous night about the impending adoption. Bruce noticed that something was bothering the boy...

"Dick, what is it?" Bruce asked, looking up from the papers he was working on. Dick had walked into the study and sat down quietly on one of the reading chairs by the bookshelf. "Is something troubling you?"

Dick shook his head at first, but then nodded.

"Am I supposed to call you 'Dad' after tomorrow?" he asked. "It's not that I don't want to, honest, it's just that-that--"

"That there's only one man whom you'll ever be able to call by that name," Bruce finished quietly.

Dick looked mortified at Bruce.

Bruce walked over to where Dick was sitting and perched next to him on the chair's arm.

"Hey, it's okay, partner," he said. "I mean, look at me and Alfred. He's raised me since my parents died. He's been both mother and father to me, and best friend, and--"

"Cook and driver!" Dick piped in.

Bruce smiled slightly. "Yes, but so much more than cook and driver. Alfred loves me," Bruce said. "And you know what?"

Dick nodded solemnly. "You love him," he said simply.

"That's right. 'Sfunny...we've rarely used the 'L' word here while I was growing up, but now, in the short period of time that you've come to live with us, I seem to be saying it all the time." His eyes softened as he looked at Dick.

"It's not that there hasn't been any love here while I was growing up, it's just that--well--" Bruce shrugged, helplessly. "I don't know why. You'll have to help us here, son. Between the three of us, maybe we can try to keep the word from falling into any further disuse."

"I'll do my best," Dick said seriously. "Before we went up on the trapeze prior to a performance, Mom and Dad always said 'I love you' because we never knew if it could be our last--" he stopped, unable to continue.

Bruce brought him in close.

"You're a great kid, Dick. And I'm very proud that you're letting me be your new dad..."

As the days turned to weeks and weeks into months, father and son worked out relentlessly, with Bruce endlessly training Dick so that the boy could one day become his fulltime partner.

And as his training progressed, Dick's powers steadily improved. Within a few months he had almost absolute control of his vision powers. He could see through anything, analyze the molecular and atomic makeup of just about any substance, see farther and deeper into space than the worlds' most powerful telescopes, and heat anything up to the melting point. He could do all this with any substance imaginable, except plain, ordinary lead.

For some reason lead completed negated his vision powers. He couldn't see through it, analyze it, or melt it. Lead was impervious to him.

"Well, at least this makes you a little less of a 'Superboy,'" Bruce said. "Once criminals realize your weakness, we're going to run into safes and other containers that are lead-lined, not to mention whole warehouses. So, we'll just have to keep your vision powers a secret for as long as possible. No need to tell the bad guys about all your fire power."

"Gotcha!" Dick readily agreed.

Flying proved an exceptionally difficult power to control. The tenth time Dick slammed into a stalactite, Bruce forbade him from using his flying powers inside the cave any longer.

"Until you learn complete control," he warned.

"How will I learn to control it, if I can't use it?" Dick asked reasonably. "I'm the so-called Dark Knight and you're going to be my squire, right?" Bruce asked. Dick nodded uncertainly.

"Okay, you'll learn to fly under nighttime conditions, outside on the Manor grounds. And no speeding! Not until you can control your landings better," Bruce said, and then turning away, he muttered, "All I need is for you to fall and break your neck. Alfred will kill me then!"

Dick grinned at Bruce's retreating back. "But you know that I heal really fast."

"Yeah, but it's the unnecessary cuts and bruises that I want us to avoid."

Dick sighed.

Bruce was even more protective than his mom had ever been. And Alfred? Forget it! Sometimes he was little more than an old nanny. Dick the acrobat--who'd taken his first steps on the high wire and who was developing into one of the most powerful beings on the planet--was being treated like delicate China by his new family members.

Eventually, Bruce made Dick wear a motorcycle helmet for protection, and knee and elbow pads. Furthermore, Dick's 'ground zero' landing zone was a series of stacked air mattresses that could be inflated and deflated within seconds of each other.

"Hollywood stuntmen use this type of platform to perform all of their falls," Bruce explained...

Within a few weeks, Dick's control improved sufficiently so that Bruce reduced the number of air mattresses. However, he refused to allow Dick to remove the protective helmet and pads.

"Last I looked, you weren't invulnerable!" Bruce said.

"But I *look* like a dork!" Dick protested.

"Better a *safe* dork, than a comatose one," Bruce replied without looking up.

Dick crossed his arms and glared at the back of Bruce's neck. He stomped over to the trophy display case and stared unseeingly at the many artifacts that Batman had collected in his crime-fighting career.

One item in particular caught his eye, the tiny spacecraft that had transported him to Earth so long ago. Since the first time that he'd walked in his sleep, called by something within the craft, Dick had never again experienced the same kind of summons.

As the weeks passed, whatever the spacecraft had transmitted to him began to come to him in his dreams. His dreams soon became the source of most breakfast conversations with Bruce and Alfred. By talking about what he'd dreamt, Dick was remembering more about his home planet. And he'd finally been able to give it a name, Krypton.

Dick touched the glass case within which the spacecraft was kept hermetically sealed. One day, perhaps, Dick would also find the answer to the most important question.

"Why?" he whispered.

Why had he been sent here, alone? Had he been abandoned by his parents, much like he'd heard some newborn babies were left abandoned on doorsteps, or worse, in garbage cans? As always, the question pierced his heart.

As much love as he'd been surrounded with his entire life, sometimes he felt like the loneliest boy in the world. The only one of his kind.


Feeling the tears that always seemed to be threatening sting the back of his eyes, he felt a warm hand on his shoulders.

"Whatever the reason, Master Dick," Alfred's soothing voice said quietly, "I just thank God that he brought you to us. You've made us both very happy, young man."

Dick smiled up at Alfred. Much more than cook and driver, Bruce had said. Way more, Dick agreed.

Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious to the little drama being played behind him in the Batcave, but nevertheless quite aware of it, Bruce hunched over his computer and ran a search on a new criminal who was terrorizing the city of Gotham.

So far, he'd committed a string of jewelry store robberies, blown out the vaults of three of Gotham's banks, and stolen a 'Jack-in-the-Box' from a local drive-thru.

In addition to this rather bizarre act of vandalism, he'd also papered the staid edifice of the GCPD Headquarters building with toilet paper, painted Happy Faces on all of the GCPD squad cars, and somehow, he'd disassembled and reassembled Commissioner Gordon's official vehicle inside Gordon's own office.

At this point, the frustrated Gordon called in Batman and asked for his assistance. It took most of Batman's iron self-discipline to keep from laughing, out loud. Instead, he'd listened with his usual grimness as Gordon explained the situation.

It wasn't until later, when Batman returned to where he'd parked the Batmobile, that he discovered that Gordon wasn't the only one who was the victim of someone's idea of a practical joke.

The Batmobile's tires had been slashed.

Bruce remembered the suspect waving jauntily and laughing as he'd made good his escape in a balloon with a Happy Face. The local news media even started calling him, "The Joker."

At first Batman wouldn't have gotten personally involved in this case, because he privately believed the GCPD could easily have handled it. But the Joker's last act of petty vandalism against the Batmobile was the final straw. Besides, the guy had a maniacal laugh that sent chills down Batman's spine.

"Slash *my* tires," Bruce muttered. "Nobody messes with my car and laughs about it." He heard Dick giggle behind him. Turning, he quirked a sheepish eyebrow at the boy. "Okay, okay, munchkin. Wait'll *you* get your first car. You'll understand."

Of course, now Batman realized that the Joker was anything but! So far his body count was rising. In a new string of robberies, he'd killed a jewelry storeowner, his wife, and a teenaged clerk who'd worked for them on weekends, as well as, two security guards at one of the banks he'd heisted.

It was almost as if now that he had everyone's attention, the Joker wanted everyone to realize that he wasn't just another clown.

Instead, he was proving to be the stuff of nightmares. And that maniacal laugh! Like fingernails scratching a blackboard. Bruce again felt a chill go up and down his spine.

Curiously, in his two final robberies, the Joker had introduced a new element to his crime spree. He'd apparently sprayed, or used some other method of delivery, a strange gaseous mixture that caused his victims to acquire the ghoulish rictus grin of a corpse. So far, the victims were unconscious and hospitalized at Gotham General, alive, but barely.

Bruce cringed a little guiltily. He'd only entered the case because of his tires, but now--? This "Joker" character was proving to be a formidable criminal. Possibly insane, certainly brilliant. Bruce knew that it would take more than the usual detective work to catch him.

Watching Bruce at work, Dick sighed. He understood his adoptive father's concerns, but really, Dick felt that he had almost complete control of his flying powers now. He didn't pause at the 'almost.' Instead, he took a deep breath, ready to plunge in and restart his argument.

"Nothing doing," Bruce said with finality before Dick could speak. He stood up suddenly, shutting the system down as he started for the uniform vault.

Dick caught a quick glimpse of what the file said, before the system shut. His photographic memory captured the image and information and processed it instantly. He knew where Batman would be going that night.

Batman emerged from the vault and made his way to the Batmobile purposefully. Pausing at the open driver's side door, he looked over at Dick momentarily. Alfred was standing behind the boy, both hands on Dick's shoulders.

Then, as he'd been doing almost every night for the past few months, Batman held his gloved hand up, forefinger and thumb forming an 'L.' Smiling, Dick held his own hand up in the same 'L' sign.

Briefly meeting Alfred's eyes, Batman nodded curtly, and climbed into the Batmobile. He slammed the door shut, powered up the super-turbocharged engines, and roared into the night.

Dick slowly brought his hand down. Looking at the 'L' shape, he murmured softly to himself, "'L' for 'I love you.'"

Dick took a bite from the last of the chocolate chip cookies that Alfred allowed him to have before bedtime. He followed it with a deep gulp from his milk. Slouching deeper into the large sofa in the family room, Dick found a more comfortable spot and settled down again.

Bedtime was in less than twenty minutes. He wanted to catch the sports news before he went upstairs to brush his teeth. Finally, the local news and weather report were over and Jack Ryder, GNN Sports Reporter, would be next.

Dick was dying to know about the Gotham Knights' game. The Knights were 4-0 so far, and it looked like they were going to be headed to the cellar this season.

As Jack Ryder's handsome face flashed on, he was suddenly interrupted by GNN's news anchor.

"Jack, I'm sorry," Summer Gleason broke in. "We've just received word of breaking news." Gleason turned to the camera, and looking very solemn, she added for the benefit of listeners, "We now go *live* to our reporter on the scene, Stuart McLeod, outside of Goldman and Goldman's Fine Jewelers at the corner of Nineteenth North West and Columbia. Stuart, what do you have for us?"

Dick sat up straighter when he heard the name of the jewelry store.

"Summer," McLeod's excitement was barely contained, "we are right now in the middle of what has turned into a hostage situation. The GCPD has deployed its SWAT team, and as you can see from what's happening--Kyle pan the camera in that direction--" The camera quickly panned and zoomed in on several police officers in riot gear, armed with automatic assault rifles, and in defensive positions around the store.

"--As you can see from what's happening, Summer," McLeod continued, "the SWAT team has completely surrounded the store at the moment. We're--"

He was suddenly interrupted by the sharp staccato of automatic fire. The camera panned crazily up and down. Dick could hear the sounds of grunts and yells. Suddenly, the audio and visual pickups were cut off.

The news returned to the studio where Gleason and Ryder were staring unbelievingly at the camera. Gleason blinked as if suddenly aware of where she was and began to speak, stumbling only slightly over her prompt cards. Within seconds, the station broke for a commercial.

Dick instantly changed channels. Finally, he found a local 24-hour news channel and waited. About to change channels again, the anchor looked up seriously and announced "Breaking News."

Dick watched intently as the camera cut to the on-the-scene reporter. The staccato of automatic weapons had stopped. The camera panned in several directions until it found a specific window on the third floor overlooking the street below.

"We believe that the gunman or gunmen is currently holed up in a room off of this window that you're seeing right now," the reporter said in a voiceover.

<[>"Steve," the news anchor back at the station, interrupted. "Do we have any idea of who the gunman might be?"

"No, Walt. There's some speculation being circulated, but it's mostly wild rumor. Some of the GCPD representatives here have said that the gunman could be one of their ten-most wanted, Tony Zucco, or maybe even this new guy, the Joker. But, like I said that's pure speculation." He spoke directly to his cameraman, "Jay, can you pan back to the third floor window?" The camera panned suddenly and refocused on a darkened window near the roof.

"We believe that the shots just fired came from this window," Steve reported. Then excitedly, he added, "We just received word that the GCPD is getting ready to make their move--"

At this moment, the camera caught sight of a dark figure with a black cape swooping across the rooftop.

"What was *that*? Jay, did you catch that? Quick, up there. On the roof!"

Dick had stopped listening. He ran towards his room, taking the stairs two at a time. Zucco? Was Zucco in cahoots with the Joker?

Dick didn't know, but he knew that he couldn't just sit home and wait. He rifled quickly through his chest of drawers and found what he wanted, black sweatpants and a black hooded sweatshirt that Bruce had bought him at Gotham Stadium. The sweatshirt had the Gotham Knights' logo across the chest in dark blue.

Dick dressed quickly, adding a pair of worn sneakers and black gloves to his disguise. He heard footsteps outside his door. Alfred!

Not waiting, the boy stepped outside onto his balcony, and jumping up on the railing, he held his arms straight out on either side of him, then with a soft prayer, he closed his eyes and leaped up into the moonlit night.

Chapter Eleven

Recalling his lessons in aerodynamics, Dick tried to keep his body as streamlined as possible. The cold night air felt invigorating. His heart was hammering in his chest and although the air was chill, he felt a slow trickle of sweat work its way down his back.

If Bruce found out about this, he'd clip Robin's wings before he *ever* got a chance to take flight. Dick smiled as he flew.


That was what his mom used to call him, because as she said, he was the best flyer in the business...

"And because you came into our lives on the first day of spring, little Robin," she'd say...

Dick selected the codename to honor his fallen parents, and Bruce readily approved.

"Robin Hood is one of my childhood heroes," he'd said. "According to legend Robert of Loxley fought for justice against the tyranny of a King John. And because of Robin's leadership the barons eventually forced the king to sign the Magna Carta, which laid the foundation for our own Constitution."

"Indeed, Master Dick," Alfred added. "'Robin' is a fine name with a long and proud lineage. I believe that it means 'bright fame.'"

Dick's chest swelled. "Bright fame," he murmured.

He smiled up at Bruce and Alfred.

Robin. It fit...

As he flew, Dick began searching ahead with his telescopic/X-ray vision. He was almost there. He could see the lights from the emergency vehicles and media vans. Spotting Goldman's Jewelers, Dick did a long-distance recon.

He found the third-story window that the television reporter pointed out earlier. Piercing the brick and mortar with his formidable vision powers, he saw immediately that the hostages were tied up and lying unmoving on the floor.

Zooming in closer, what he saw almost caused him to lose control and go plummeting several hundred feet to the concrete jungle below. Almost slamming into the Prudential Tower, Dick veered to starboard at the last second and narrowly missed the Gotham landmark.

Seeing an empty balcony on the vast tower, Dick aimed for it, and landed in a tumble. Gasping for breath, the just-turned-ten-on-his-last-birthday junior superhero-in-training felt like he was going to lose the chocolate chip cookies he'd eaten a few minutes earlier.

"Not to mention breakfast, lunch, and dinner," he muttered. "What was *that*?" he asked himself, his eyes wide with shock. "The people...they're all dead." And even though they'd only been dead a few minutes, the horribly contorted expressions on their faces, the wide death grin associated with corpses, had almost sent him into a tailspin.

He knew the hostages were dead because his X-ray/microscopic vision allowed him to see that the hearts were no longer beating. Dick closed his frightened eyes, fighting off the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him.

"That was something I could've skipped," he added ironically. Taking several deep, gulping breaths, Dick shakily calmed himself down.

"Okay, Robin," he muttered. "Or should I call you, Chicken-boy?" he added. "Batman is going after two felons. One of them killed Mom and Dad. Are you going to fly there and give him a hand, or are you going to sit here and cower in fear?"

Dick wiped his brow. He gripped the balcony's iron railing, unconsciously squeezing hard. After a few moments, he felt his heart rate begin to slow down. The sick feeling in his stomach finally settled down, and he was no longer in danger of throwing up. Squaring his shoulders, he released the railing and with new determination, took off his sweatshirt.

Turning it inside out to hide the Gotham Knights' logo, he slipped it on backwards. Lifting the hood to his face, he then burned two eyeholes with his heat vision. Pulling tightly on the strings behind his neck, he tied it securely.

Ready, he took two steps back, placed his arms out on either side of himself, and boldly pushed off the balcony, continuing on his way to the sight of the hostage standoff.

If Dick had happened to look down for a moment, he would have noted the child- sized hand imprints, which unknown to him, he left behind on the balcony's iron railing.

Batman flitted through the shadows of the darkened corridors. He'd donned a full-face mask that was part night vision goggles, part re-breather. If the Joker was here, it was probable that he'd have the strange 'laughing gas' with him.

And Zucco. "You're mine, you sewer rat. Tonight, it ends."

As he moved through the building, he heard the muffled sounds of automatic assault weapons being fired. The distant sounds of panicked screams below told him that the gunman's target was the crowd outside.

Above the screams and weapons fire, Batman heard the high-pitched cackle that seemed to freeze the blood in his veins. The time for discretion was over. He had to move fast.

In an instant, Batman acquired and threw a handful of pellets at the Manager's Office door. The pellets exploded on contact, blowing the door in. Within an eye blink, he tossed in a second handful of pellets. This time, a quick-release gas began to spew into the room.

Following immediately behind the gas pellets, Batman swooped into the cramped office. He saw that several of the gunmen were staggering across the floor as the gas began taking effect. Batman almost did a double take as he noted that they were all wearing smiling clown faces, with big red noses, painted-on red cheeks, and red smiles.

The Uzi sub-machineguns they were brandishing weren't a laughing matter, however.

In a last-ditch effort to get away, two of the clowns came at him, guns blazing. Batman dived, rolled, and somersaulted in mid-air while simultaneously throwing a single Batarang at the clown nearest to him.

As expected, the Batarang struck the gunman on the temple, ricocheted and flew straight to the second clown. Both men went down. Meanwhile, the others had already safely succumbed to the gas pellets.

Checking each carefully, he saw that neither the Joker nor Zucco were amongst them. Hearing a new sound from outside, Batman rushed to the window. Looking up, he saw what looked like a giant-sized Fisher-Price toy helicopter. The cab was painted with a happy clown face and had a huge, three-dimensional red nose sticking out the front.

"How does it stay in the air?" he wondered aloud. Shaking his head, Batman shot a jump line to the roof and rose into the night. As soon as he appeared, fully illuminated in the moonlight, he felt the near-misses of bullets whizzing by him. Looking up, he spotted him--Zucco!

Zucco glared at him through hate-filled eyes, alight with grim laughter.

"You want me, Bats?" Zucco taunted as, quicker than the eye could follow, he ejected the spent magazine and replaced it with a new one. "Eat *this*, hero!"

Locking the bolt back, Zucco trained the sub-machinegun on Batman, and savoring the moment, laughed in triumph as he put his finger around the trigger.

Dick landed on the rooftop of an adjacent building. Batman would never let him be Robin if he allowed himself to be seen. Better to offer whatever help he could from afar, than face being grounded until he was thirty.

Using his X-ray vision, he observed what Batman did inside the Manager's Office. Wide-eyed with hero worship, Dick silently cheered Batman on.

"That's my Dad," he whispered proudly. As often as he'd trained with Bruce in the Batcave, it still came as somewhat of a surprise to see him in action. Even without the wonderful powers that Dick had, Batman took care of business quite efficiently and matter-of-factly.

Watching as his dad swooped up to the rooftop, Dick's heart almost got caught in his throat. Zucco! He was firing at Batman. He was trapped with no place to go. Looking at Zucco with smoldering anger, Dick felt his heat vision simmering just behind his corneas.

About to turn the full-brunt of his wrath on his parents' murderers, Dick blinked suddenly.

A black object flew across his line of vision and struck Zucco on the wrists. Crying out in the pain, the escaped killer dropped the weapon in surprise.

"Owww!" he cried, holding onto his wrist. "You broke it! You broke my wrist!"

"I feel real bad about that, Zucco," Batman growled. He'd reached the roof as soon as he'd disarmed Zucco. Holding the felon by the lapels, he added, "You should feel lucky. I was aiming for your head."

Batman punctuated his sentence by punching out the man who'd brought so much pain to the boy whom he'd grown to love. He quickly clapped a pair of Batcuffs on the killer feeling a sense of satisfaction.

The sound of maniacal laughter behind and above him caused Batman to whirl. The Joker! He'd completely forgotten about him.

"HAHAHAHAHAHHAHA! I *love* this town!! It's more exciting than New York or Metropolis combined." Pointing at Batman, he added, "And where else can I find someone who's even crazier than *I* am? You should be arrested for wearing your underwear on the outside, you pervert."

Caught in the spotlights of police helicopters, the bright silvery moon, and the glaring neon signs of downtown Gotham City, the purple and green clad Joker was hard to miss. His perpetually painted-on laughing face was beginning to grate on Batman's nerves.

"Who *is* this guy?" Batman muttered. He'd run continuous searches on any known felon who fit the description and modus operandi of the Joker, but had come out empty-handed. If he'd existed before his present incarnation as the "Clown Prince of Crime," there were no records.

Up until last night, Batman had considered Tony Zucco as the more dangerous of the two, because he'd killed before, coldly and with premeditation. But the Dark Knight quickly reassessed his initial evaluation once the Joker introduced his special laughing gas.

Batman analyzed it and discovered that with a sufficient dose, it was actually poisonous. The first few victims had apparently been guinea pigs, as the Joker found just the right dosage to inflict more than just a death-like mask. He could now *cause* death.

The worst part of it was that witnesses who'd seen the gas in action, reported that before succumbing to it, the victims began to laugh uncontrollably, until finally collapsing unmoving, their faces frozen in the macabre death mask.

As the helicopter began to rise higher, the Joker climbed a rope ladder to the cab.

Waving jauntily at the police helicopters hovering nearby, he took out what looked like a small cap pistol. Pointing it at the nearest GCPD chopper, he pulled the trigger.

A tiny flag emerged at the end. Laughing delightedly, the Joker shrugged his shoulders, and then pulled out a much, much bigger gun.

Batman's eyes widened as he saw the Joker pull the impossibly huge weapon from inside his purple jacket. Taking out a grappling gun, Batman aimed at the quickly retreating rope ladder. Simultaneously, as he fired off a jump line, the Joker fired his ridiculous gun.

The deafening explosion that followed seemed to rock the entire city block.

"Rocket launcher!" Batman realized to his shock. The police helicopter exploded in a fireball. As Batman was carried up to the clown-shaped helicopter, he saw *one* police officer fall from the open cargo hatch of the crippled helicopter, but his parachute failed to open.

The officer was probably unconscious from the force of the explosion, Batman thought.

The crowd below screamed and ran in a panic as it was pelted with burning debris from the destroyed chopper.

As Batman was jerked along with the Joker's helicopter, he pulled out a second grappler, but even he knew that he was too far away to assist the hapless officer who was even now plunging to his sure death...

Watching horrified from the sidelines, Dick was thrown head over heels by the shockwaves of the police helicopter blowing up directly overhead. Momentarily paralyzed, he lay face up on the rooftop as melted slag from above began speeding towards him.

At the same time, he spotted a lone figure that somehow managed to survive the conflagration in the sky.

No parachute! Dick didn't hesitate. Rolling to avoid getting burnt from falling debris, he saw a momentary opening in the descending fire, and flew into it. Instinctively, he used his heat vision to instantly disintegrate the burning metal into harmless sub-microscopic particles.

He did this without thinking, almost without realizing that he *knew* how to do it even seconds prior to doing it.

Without veering off course, Dick flew on an intercept course towards the falling officer. Pouring on the speed, faster than he thought possible, he easily caught the unconscious figure before the officer struck a nearby building.

Glancing down at the pandemonium of screaming, panic-stricken spectators, and police officers hopelessly trying to maintain order, Dick saw a likely spot where he could safely return the fallen officer with minimum risk of being seen.

Floating down to where the EMT vehicles were parked, Dick remained as close as possible to the shadows between the buildings. Landing in an alleyway, he carried the unconscious officer all the way to the nearby sidewalk. Then, taking a moment to right his sweatshirt and pull his hood low over his eyes, he ran to one of the EMTs who was waiting by his vehicle.

"Mister! Mister!" he called. When the medical technician looked up, Dick pointed towards the sidewalk. "Over there, mister! He looks hurt!"

The EMT ran towards the fallen officer and as he did so, Dick ducked into another alleyway, readjusted his sweatshirt again--this was getting old--and lifted off into the night sky.

Batman hung on to the rope ladder. He had to climb onboard the clown-copter and put and end to the Joker's terrorism. This man struck with no rhyme or reason. He just seemed to enjoy causing mayhem in the city. This alone made him one of the most dangerous men Batman had ever tangled with.

As he began climbing to the open hatch, Batman saw a pasty-face, topped with a head of green hair, suddenly peer out. The malevolence behind the laughing eyes chilled his blood.

"HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! We seem to have to a passenger. A flying night-rat." The Joker tsked in mock-consternation. "I *thought* I told that exterminator to check the ladder. Well, if I want the job done right, I suppose I'll have to do it myself."

With that, the Joker reached into the helicopter and pulled out a chainsaw. Yanking at the lanyard, he was rewarded with the heart-warming sound of a 50hp power saw. Calmly humming to himself, the Joker brought the saw down to where the ladder's ropes were connected to the helicopter's hatch and cut one.

Batman felt himself almost slip as he was suddenly buffeted, careening wildly out of control just below the helicopter.

"Say goodnight, Gracie!" the Joker said with a giggle, and bent to cut the next rope. However, before he could, Batman fired off the grappler that he still held in his fist. The line shot towards the Joker, quickly winding itself around his wrists. The Clown Prince instantly dropped the chainsaw, wailing in protest at losing his toy.

"Hey, no fair!" he cried. "That's my favorite power saw. How'm I s'posed to build the little stool that I'd planned for my dear, departed grandmother?"

Batman pulled with a powerful jerk and the Joker tumbled out of the helicopter. Screaming as he fell, the madman looked up with real fear as Batman held him aloft from the weakened rope ladder.

It was Batman's turn to grin. "What do you care? She's dead, isn't she?"

"*No* not dead, you moron!" The Joker shot back, guffawing delightedly at being given an unexpected opening to his punch line. "Just departed...BAWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! She never *could* take a joke!"

As he said this, the Joker surreptitiously pulled out a tiny pen-laser he kept hidden in his right glove, and before Batman could react, cut his bonds.

Suddenly free, the mad clown prince began plummeting to the ground below.

"*Help meeeeeeeee*!!" he screeched into the night. Horrified, Batman reached his hand out to try to grab the Joker as he fell. About to dive after him, Batman was startled by a billowing, fluffy Happy Face that appeared above the Joker. A parachute!

Laughing gleefully as he floated down, the Joker's taunting voice wafted upwardly in the night breeze. "Made ya loo-oo-ook!"

Closing his eyes, half in relief, half in disappointment, Batman turned to look up at the pilot. He held his thumb upside down, indicating that he wanted him to land. However, he received no acknowledgement from within. Looking out, Batman saw that they were now flying directly over Gotham Bay.

He began to climb up towards the open hatch. As he climbed onboard, Batman yelled at the pilot.

"Land this thing now!"

No reply.

Gritting his teeth, Batman made his way forward. He put his hand on the pilot's shoulder and instantly knew he'd been tricked. The 'pilot' started emitting a recording of the now-familiar, maniacal laughter.

"Sorry, Bats. I thought you'd find it touching to spend your last few moments on this Earth with someone of your own kind...another Dummy! HAHAHAHAHHA!!" The voice giggled for a few more seconds.

"Sometimes I crack myself up... Anyway, as you can see, the helicopter is on auto-pilot and it can't be changed. If you try to take control, it's rigged to blow up. Oh, and it won't be just you who goes up in smoke, but the whole lovely city of Gotham, because I just happened to have an itty-bitty nuclear bomb to play with."

At these last words, a panel opened at the rear end of the helicopter, and Batman saw the device, counting down steadily from the ten-minute mark. Batman immediately made his way to the rear and began inspecting the bomb.

The recording laughed again. "Of course, if you allow the helicopter to fly until it runs out of fuel, well it will *still* explode on impact, but it will blow up safely out at sea." Laughing suddenly, the Joker continued, almost unable to contain his merriment.

"But that wouldn't be any fun would it? And it wouldn't be all that funny, so... Ta-da!" The counter suddenly advanced to the two-minute mark. "You and the good, but boring, people of

Gotham now have only two minutes to live, Batman!" He broke into more giggles, snorts and snuffles.

"But, you ask, what about *you*, Joker? Surely you wouldn't place your own life in harms' way? So glad, so very touched, that you care enough to ask. I am, at this very moment, making my way out to the two hundred mile limit in my very own one-Joker sub." He giggled.

"Do you get it, Bats? That's the ultimate punch line! Nobody survives, and I get the last laugh! HAHAHAHAHA!!!!"

As Batman worked in quiet desperation, he heard the Joker break into song.

"Good-bye, cruel world, I'm off to join the circus...!"

Continue To Part Four

Back To The Main Story Page