by Dannell Lites
Something was rotten in the state of Batdom.
And I didn't even need my nose to tell me that. If my sources were right Bruce hadn't been seen in Gotham for almost two weeks. See what I mean? Something was deadly wrong to keep Bruce out of the suit for that long. Bruce wasn't talking. Okay, there's nothing all that unusual about that, I guess. And if that had been the end of it, I might have just shrugged it off and gone on my merry way. But my gut was burning, telling me something had happened. Something bad.
Babs wasn't talking either. Tim was most notable by his absence. What the Hell was happening here? What was I being shut out of this time?
Alfred was fast running out of excuses to explain why Bruce couldn't talk to me or see me.
"I'm sorry, young sir, but Master Bruce is terribly busy at the moment. May I give him your message?"
"Master Dick? I'm afraid Master Bruce is . in-indisposed "
That one scared the crap right out of me. Indisposed? Bruce is never "indisposed". Never. And Alfred never stumbles over his words like that. Something cold and potentially lethal settled into my stomach and threatened to take up permanent residence.
And then I finally found out from Tim and Babs that Bruce had been hurt
When I chipped the ice out of my blood, I went storming to the Manor in a black rage. I refused to let myself think about how frightened I was. Neither of them, Babs nor Tim, would tell me how badly Bruce was hurt. All I could let myself dwell on was how angry I was. Those feelings were safe, familiar ones, weren't they? Damn him! Didn't he trust me enough even for that? Why did I have to learn about this from somebody else?
Why was I never good enough for him?
I didn't understand, then. No, I didn't understand until later. Until I actually saw Bruce.
Oh, God help me, I was just so angry.
I wouldn't even listen to Alfred. He tried to stop me. He met me at the front door and paled. "Master Dick!" he gasped. Christ, he looked so old. Ancient and defeated, like a man who'd seen too much in a long life filled with pain. My heart stuttered within me and, momentarily, threatened to stop. I think that was when I got my first inkling of just how bad things might be. The pain in Alfred's usually smiling eyes. Like a living thing it reached out and grabbed me in its frigid embrace. I think I shivered.
But, like an idiot, I pushed right past Alfred without so much as a single word for the only grandfather I'd ever known. I'm not proud of it, but there it was. Fear does strange things to a man.
"Master Dick, wait!" he pleaded, calling out to me in a rapidly dwindling voice at my back. "Please wait, Young Sir! Please! Let me explain "
God forgive me, I ignored him.
My feet were like lead and my heart was a massive stone trying to pound it's way free of my chest. I almost wish it had succeeded. Anything but what was unknowingly awaiting me at the bottom of that endless staircase. I stumbled down the stone steps into the 'Cave panting so hard that I could barely breathe. Tripping over my own feet, I fell down the last half dozen steep steps. Imagine that. Me. The former aerial Boy Wonder, swinging on a trapeze almost before I could walk Dick Grayson, acrobat and gymnast
I picked myself slowly up off the hard stone, my ego a lot more bruised than my body. I tried to keep my eyes focused downward, on the floor. Honest to God, I did. My churning gut told me clearly that I didn't want to see the sight my eyes would bring me when I glanced up. I was so scared my teeth were chattering, but I couldn't not look up, you know?
And there he was.
Sitting tall and erect, stiffly and uncomfortably, as if he'd been caught doing something naughty and meant to brazen it out. The muscles of his jaw worked silently but no words escaped him. His face was smooth and expressionless like the tempered, wrought steel reflected from out of his blue eyes.
There he was. Bruce Wayne, The Batman, the Dark Knight Detective, the Avenger of the Night.
Sitting in a wheelchair.
I couldn't seem to take my eyes off the damned thing. In the soft florescent illumination of the Cave its polished gleam was so bright it almost hurt my eyes. I closed my eyes against the glare. Suddenly, I couldn't breathe. My head swam dizzily and my stomach rebelled. I almost lost those awful cranberry muffins Donna foisted on me for breakfast all over the Batcave floor. I couldn't feel my feet.
My face crumpled like a falling building before a wrecking ball and, much too late to stop myself , I reached out a shaky, trembling hand to him.
I watched as his arctic blue eyes darkened and, deep within him, something shattered like the most fragile glass. Seething and bubbling like lava just beneath the surface of his now pale skin something primal and dangerous screamed for release, threatening to erupt through the pores of his body. I stepped back involuntarily, blanching at the sight of so much naked rage and despair.
Without a word Bruce turned his chair away from me, wheeled himself to the newly installed elevator and was gone. My knees gave way and I crashed to the cold, bare floor of the 'Cave. Alfred was in a quandary, unsure of which one of us to help first.
So I made the decision for him.
"Al-Alfred? Go " I choked. " help help him "
Alfred Pennyworth glanced at the departing elevator and closed his weary eyes. "I wish that I could, Master Dick," he whispered. "I wish to Heaven that I could."
I was still sitting there still as a marble statue, staring off into nothingness when Alfred returned. I have no idea how long he was gone. Maybe a long time. It didn't matter really, did it?
The first thing I knew of his renewed presence was when surprisingly strong arms tucked themselves into my arm pits and lifted me to my feet, brushing the dust from my battered jeans. I've no idea where he found the strength. But he's Alfred. He always does. Somewhere. Somehow. But he looked so drained. Drained and exhausted. I could scarcely imagine how hard it must be for him to see Bruce like this. Bruce was his son in all but name. Look at what the sight of that chair had done to me for pity's sake.
'My God!' I realized with a suddenly queasy stomach, 'this must be one of Alfred's worst nightmares come to life.'
Alfred took my cold hand in his and led me as silent as the void of space up the stairs and into the kitchen.
'In space,' I thought apropos of exactly nothing, 'no one can hear you scream '
"Here," instructed Alfred, "drink this, Young Master." He carefully wrapped my hand around a cup of something warm and steaming making sure that I didn't drop it. And I might have. My hands weren't exactly steady. My nose brought me the welcome, intoxicating odor of hot chocolate. When I saw the slowly melting miniature marshmallows floating atop the mouth watering drink, I smiled.
"Cow slobbers?" I asked, innocently.
Alfred managed a wan smile. "Indeed," he agreed.
The first time I ever saw a cup of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows, I wrinkled my nose in blatant, finicky disgust as only an opinionated nine year old can. "Yuck!" I cried. "What's that stuff, anyway? It looks like cow slobbers!"
I've called them cow slobbers ever since. Today, no cup of hot chocolate is complete without them. Trust Alfred to forever remember a thing like that. As always Alfred was right. The world does go down better with chocolate.
Most of the time, anyway.
For a long time, I simply sat, warming my hands at the source of all that caring and savory welcome warmth. Finally, I sipped. The ice freezing my belly and slowly spreading outward began to laboriously melt like the waning passage of an Ice Age. I clutched the cup tightly with both hands to still their trembling.
It didn't work.
Like a collapsing great oak tree, succumbing at last to inner rot and decay, I lowered my head slowly to the small kitchen table's cool polished wooden surface. Alfred's kitchen is my very favorite room in the whole Manor, bar none. I always felt so safe there. More than any other room in this rambling old barn it felt like home. It was here that Bruce and Alfred and I ate most of our meals when we had no guests. It was here that I scarfed down numberless post-patrol chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before sleepily retiring to my upstairs bed. I lost count an eternity ago of how many times Bruce or Alfred carried me up those steps to my second floor bedroom and tucked me in. Even with the flow of all the years, I could still remember the safe and comforting feel of Bruce's arms holding me, sheltering me.
Bruce was never going to do anything like that again.
Bruce was never again going to teach me the latest moves he'd worked out, smile, ruffle my hair and exclaim, "Good boy, Dick!" when I mastered them.
Bruce was never going to fly over the rooftops of Gotham again
Bruce was never going to walk again.
I lifted my head. "Alfred," I pleaded, my voice gaining a bit of strength for which I was more grateful than I can tell you, "wha-what happened. What the Hell happened? Who did this?"
Alfred studied his hands, laying so calmly in his lap for long moments. "Bane happened. Bane did this," he finally admitted. The reluctance that echoed in his cultured English voice was shameful to me at first. It hurt my pride to realize that Alfred didn't want me to face Bane. To do something foolish in my grief for Bruce. Stung, I lapsed into an accusing silence.
"Bane made a frontal assault on Arkham Asylum and released all the inmates. Master Bruce didn't eat or sleep for days while he rounded them up; caught them one by one. He - he was exhausted." Alfred's voice began to rise in great agitation. "I tried to get him to slow down! To stop. To rest. But he wouldn't listen to me! He wouldn't listen! I'm such a useless old fool!"
Quickly, I grabbed this thin hand and held on as tightly as I could. He closed his eyes and slumped down into the hard confines of the wooden kitchen chair in defeat. Encircled by mine, his hand trembled and I held on tighter. And then it lay still like a dead weight as he opened his eyes again.
They were dead, too. Or dying.
I swallowed hard and tried not to think as my world threatened to crumble around my ears. The roar of its destruction filled my senses so that I barely heard Alfred's next words.
"Somehow, I've no idea how, he managed to make his way back to the Batcave. That's where I found him, laying on the stone floor still and quiet like a broken thing. So quiet I - I - I thought he might be dead. I called Les - Doctor Thompkins at once. I should have been able to do more! Damn me, I should have done more!"
I grabbed his shoulders and shook him slightly. He didn't protest. The silence was screaming at me. I had to fill it. But what to say? What to tell him that wouldn't sound hollow and stupid?
I had no idea.
So, in the end, I didn't say anything at all. I offered him the only thing I had left to give. It felt so good to hold him like this. To return all the love and care he'd lavished on me all these years. Eventually he stopped shaking and his eyes were calm again when he looked at me.
He was Alfred again.
And suddenly I knew, I knew that as horrible as this was we were all going to find our way out of this darkness; this horror. It was probably a mistake. I should have just left it alone. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. I had to know the answer. I had to.
"Alfred? Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he call me?"
He looked away. "You know the answer to that, Master Dick," he said in a quiet voice that seemed to echo forever in my head. Briefly, I nodded, swallowing hard.
"Right now he's hanging on by his teeth," Alfred continued in a hollow voice "He's convinced himself that this is all only temporary. That he'll recover and be as he was, as he must be once more. That he'll be The Batman again. He's determined to prove them all wrong, you see. All the 'experts' who tell him he'll never walk again."
Beneath the table's concealing security, my hands spasmed into fists. "Tha-that's what they say?" I stammered. I could barely get the words past my tight clenched teeth. It wasn't even a question. I already knew the answer. Known it since my first sickening sight of Bruce sitting so erect and cold in that damned chair.
Alfred rose from his chair and began to busy himself, puttering around the kitchen. To have something to do he brought me a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice because he knows I love it. He sort of fell back into his chair before he could answer me.
"And he's terrified that they're right," the butler of Wayne Manor whispered. "He'll never admit that, of course. But I've never seen him so frightened of anything before. Never. He - he can't face it. Can't deal with it just now. I'm not sure he'll ever be able to deal with it. He wouldn't let me tell you because that would be the same thing as admitting that it's real. That he's trapped in that chair for the rest of his life. If he goes to you, his son, someone he cares deeply for, with this then that's as good as admitting defeat."
He gathered himself for a moment. "And he's not the only one who's afraid; who's terrified of the future. So so am I." that fine English voice admitted. "I - I don't let myself think about what might happen when he finally does let that chair become a reality "
My eyes widened. "Where is he, Alfred?" With the habit of long years, Alfred Pennyworth gathered up my discarded now empty OJ glass and deposited it in the gleaming, pristine porcelain sink before he turned to me. "He's in his room, resting." he said. "He tires easily these days. I try to get him to rest as often I can. I've found the best way to do that is to pretend to be tired myself." Studying his exhausted eyes I wondered just how much of that was really pretense.
He didn't stop me when I moved off. He knew where I was going. I suppose it was his way of saying he trusted me. Trusted me not to do anything foolish or rash. Trusted me to think of Bruce. To put my own fright and pain aside for his sake. Alfred has always trusted me, hasn't he? His unwavering faith that I would manage to find the right thing to do has always sustained me when I needed it most.
And I never needed it more than now. At this moment.
I leaned my head against the door frame of Bruce's bedroom for a moment to catch my breath. To prepare myself. I closed the door softly behind me and just stood for a moment, watching him sleep. Watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, rhythmic and reassuring.
At least he was alive. Bane could have killed him. For a second I wondered why he hadn't. Bane's hatred for Bruce was deep and abiding, filling him, sustaining him, as surely as the venom that made him what he was. Why would he -
And then I knew.
Knew as surely as I knew the sun would rise with the coming dawn why Bane hadn't killed Bruce when he'd had the chance.
Because what he had done to him was a thousand times worse.
Because he wanted to see Bruce suffer. Because he wanted to watch Bruce die inch by slow inch, not cleanly all at once. He wanted to laugh while Bruce rotted in that chair, imprisoned and slowly strangling to death on his own fury and bile.
And he just might get his wish.
I tried not to let myself think any further than that. Wouldn't allow myself to dwell on what I might do if if .. if Bruce decided to go
People are fundamentally selfish. I'm basically selfish, no different from the rest. I didn't want to face the thought of a world without Bruce in it. Could I face that? I wasn't at all sure. Would I be able to let Bruce go if he chose to leave?
I fell heavily into a chair and buried my face in my hands. And who knew better than I that he just might rather be dead than in that chair?
Rising to shaky feet, I watched him toss and turn in uneasy slumber. Carefully, I rearranged the rumpled blanket and tucked it underneath his chin. With gentle fingers I brushed aside a loose strand of night dark hair from off his forehead. Unbidden, under my breath, I began to hum.
Alfred has a wonderful voice. When he was young he trained for the stage and one of the many, many things he learned to do was sing. Echoing in the long halls of my memory I could almost hear those deep baritone tones now. It was one of Bruce's favorite songs and Alfred never failed to lend it glory.
To dream the Impossible dream
To right the unrightable wrong
This is my quest!
And the world will be better for this,
On the bed, as if even in his troubled sleep he recognized the song and the love blazing at the heart of it, Bruce relaxed and lay still and content. I slipped silently from the room feeling strangely like a mother abandoning her child.
I was halfway down the grand staircase when I met Jean-Paul Valley coming up from the sitting room. I blinked. What was Azrael doing here, I wondered? Then I thought that Alfred might have called him for help in tending to Bruce. It made sense, I suppose. I certainly didn't begrudge Alfred any help that he could scrounge, God knows. Bruce wouldn't let him call me. Babs wasn't in any position to assist him other than with sage advice. And Tim was too young. That didn't leave a lot of people that Bruce trusted or would accept help from, did it?
Still it left me uneasy and I barely resisted the urge to prod at it like a sore tooth. The whole sitch had a bad feeling about it. Jean-Paul wouldn't meet my eyes and that certainly didn't help matters one little bit. Like smoke or morning fog in the light of the burning sunrise, he disappeared up the stairs in a blink and I frowned involuntarily.
Unsmiling and even more grave than I left him, Alfred waited patiently at the bottom of the stairs. I was surprised that I even had to give voice to the question. But Alfred Pennyworth is a very wise man. He made me say the words.
"What's Azrael doing here, Alfred?" I demanded, pointing back up the stairs at the absent Jean-Paul Valley.
"Master Jean-Paul is here to study," Alfred explained, his voice firm and level.
"Study?" I was puzzled. "Study what?"
"How to be The Batman," said Alfred. "Master Bruce has chosen the young man to succeed him as The Batman. Until the crisis has passed."
God help me I didn't even notice how easily the major domo of Wayne Manor had fallen back into Bruce's self delusion.
With an audible "ooomph" of escaping air, I fell back onto the hardwood steps of the grand staircase. My ears rang but I still didn't miss the flash of concern in Alfred's brown eyes as I caught my breath. I suppressed the flood of guilt that threatened to overwhelm me in a dark tide of self revulsion. As if the poor man didn't have enough to worry about.
The white hot, blazing rush of anger that engulfed me in it's fiery grasp was familiar, comforting, almost welcome in its dark embrace. This I could deal with. In the wash of resentment it brought me I could forget my fear. Anger was an old buddy of mine. We've lived together for a long time, now. We understand one another.
How could Bruce do this to me? Damn him! To be so casually thrust aside for another. It bit and stung like a thousand furious insects, leaving me no peace. Why couldn't he have trusted me with just this one thing? Why? Was I nothing to him?
Didn't he -
Didn't he lo -
Why Bruce, why?
And I knew the answer, didn't I? I saw it flaming in Jean-Paul Valley's eyes there on the stairs. Bruce was in great pain; screaming his rage for all the world to hear. And Jean-Paul Valley was the demon he was about to release to personify that agony; to give his pain a killing voice.
And he didn't want that demon to be me.
I seized on my swiftly departing wrath before it could entirely escape me, clinging to it for my sanity. Like a blanket, I covered myself with its warm and soothing folds before I fled. I left Wayne Manor as I arrived, with the sound of Alfred's despairing voice ringing in my ears, echoing through the corridors of my mind.
"Wait! Please, Master Dick Wait!"
The voice was compelling, stabbing through me like a bolt of lightning; but it was soon lost in the eerie howling of the night wind at my back.
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This piece is © 2001 by Dannell Lites
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