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The Best There Ever Was

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Dick hadn’t thought there could be anything else to discover in the mansion. What could be bigger, after all, than finding out that Bruce wasn’t just his guardian but the guardian over all of Gotham? Awesome didn’t even start to cover it! Still, as the door to the attic creaked open and he played the beam of his flashlight around the room, he had to admit this place had possibilities.

He left the door open a crack and crept inside, the beam of his flashlight too feeble to pick out many details beyond mutant dustbunnies and cobwebs. There was a bare light bulb overhead, with a beaded metal chain that dangled out of reach no matter how far he stretched up on tip toe. Frustrated, he looked around and spotted a couple of wooden crates that looked just about right. After he had dragged them over and stacked them, it was a piece of cake to scramble up on them and reach the chain. A quick tug—and they had illumination! He bowed to an imaginary roar of applause.

Although on second thought, as he hopped down from the crates and saw the room fill up with shadows, Dick wasn’t entirely sure the light was an improvement. Would spooky shadows stop Batman? he asked himself. Would they keep Indiana Jones from searching out the treasure hidden deep in a lost tomb? They most certainly would not, and thus resolved, Dick ventured forth to explore. And if weighing Bruce against Indy—Bruce coming out on top every time—kept him too occupied to worry about the goblins and spooks that might lurk beneath dusty sheets or behind stacks of boxes, that was all to the good.

Most of the stuff stored up here, he quickly discovered, was just boring old pieces of furniture. After a few minutes of finds like that he might have welcomed some snaggle-toothed goblin leaping out at him. A pair of big steamer trunks over in a corner sparked his curiosity, however. That they were securely padlocked against him was a huge part of the appeal. One of the very first skills Bruce had made sure he mastered, after all, was how to pick locks. His fingers inched toward his back pocket, itching for the lock picking kit stashed there and yet hesitating. The thing was, just because he could pop these old trunks open like that!, didn’t mean he had the right to, no matter how much they intrigued him.

He waged a furious little debate with himself, pictured Bruce giving him a disappointed look, or worse, an all-out Bat glare, heaved a deep sigh and ventured further into the cobweb-draped attic to see what else it had to offer. He soon found another trunk, this one unlocked—but he closed it again gently when he saw it only contained a bunch of swanky, old-fashioned clothes. He had a feeling they might have belonged to Bruce’s mom and dad.

A box of books caught his attention, especially when he realized they must have belonged to Bruce. He sat cross-legged on the grubby floor as he took out book after book, Bruce’s name written on each inside cover. Sometimes, like with Where the Wild Things Are, it was a clumsy, childish scrawl. By the time Bruce had been reading The Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes, his signature was more confident and assured. Some books, it hadn’t been Bruce writing in them at all, Dick saw as he examined an inscription on a tattered old copy of Peter Pan:


To Bruce,
Second star on the right and straight on till morning.
Love,
Mom & Dad

He read that inscription a couple of times, and traced the words with his fingers as he thought about how his parents used to put him to bed with tales of Gypsy caravans and traveling medicine shows, magic and adventure around every corner.

He sniffed and had to cough and scrub at his eyes because all of the dust was starting to bother him.

The stack of books started to collapse and Dick scrambled to grab them. In the process, he knocked his elbow against another piece of sheet-draped furniture and sat back, hard, and furiously rubbed his stinging crazy bone. After a few seconds, curious to see what he’d smacked up against, he stood up and dragged off the sheet, sneezing at the cloud of dust that came with it.

“Oh wow…”

It was a toy chest, a big one. The top of the lid was padded, with a back rest, perfect for curling up with some of those books on a rainy day like today. It had to have belonged to Bruce, and he bit his lip as debated the rights and wrongs of opening it. Maybe just a quick peek to satisfy his curiosity? Decision made, Dick carefully lifted the lid, pushing until it locked into place on its hinges. One glimpse of the contents, though, and he knew a peek would never be enough.

The first thing that caught his eye was a drum, decorated with bright and colorful scenes from a circus. How could he help but lift that out, along with the drumsticks that went with it? Equally impossible to resist giving it a few whaps to try it out, although he dropped it fast as the acoustics of the attic amplified the noise pretty badly. He had to smile at the idea that Bruce, silent as a shadow, would have ever banged away on this toy. His smile dimmed a bit as he put the drum aside and took out a snow globe that showed two gaily costumed aerialists about to launch out into space. The dust was bothering him again and he had to knuckle his eyes pretty fiercely as he set down the snow globe and continued to search through the chest.

There was a toy elephant bank that reminded him of Zitka. Some colorful tops that he sent spinning across the floor. Matchbox cars. A batch of Gray Ghost comics. Coloring books—a quick skim revealed Bruce hadn’t been very good at coloring inside the lines, and Dick laughed at that as much as the image he had now of Bruce working away on these pages.

He leafed through a book devoted to carousel horses and paused about halfway through, on a half-finished page. It was like Bruce had been working on this page but had been called away by something and never came back to finish it. There were five pages after it, too, all untouched.

Thoughtful, he put the coloring book down and knelt up to sneak one last look inside the toy chest. He hadn’t noticed it before, but half-hidden behind a catcher’s mitt was a teddy bear with an eye patch. He hauled it out and shut the lid, propping the bear on the padded seat. After he’d grabbed a couple of books from the stack, Dick climbed up on the seat and scootched back comfortably. He picked up the bear for a closer examination and took note that one of its ears had needed to be sewn back on at some point. Also, he was pretty sure the eye patch had been a later addition as he could make out a spot where an eye used to be.

With the bear tucked up beside him as the rain came down harder and the wind rattled the windows, Dick propped Peter Pan against his knees and leafed through the book to check out the illustrations first, pausing to make sure the bear could see them too, and then turned back to the front. He read aloud, for the bear’s benefit--“Chapter One: Peter Breaks Through. All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this...”--and wondered if it would be really cool or kind of creepy to have to chase your own shadow around. The way things were in Gotham, you just never knew when something like that might come up.

~*~

“Beastly weather, sir,” Alfred said as he took Bruce’s umbrella.

Bruce caught hold of the front door and dragged it shut against a powerful gust of wind. “They’re forecasting a nor’easter.”

“Ah, excellent news.”

Bruce cocked an eyebrow at him. “You like hurricane-force storms?”

“If they keep you and Master Dick off the streets and safe at home, I like them very much indeed.”

Well, Bruce couldn’t argue with that sentiment too strenuously. “Speaking of Dick,” he glanced up the stairs, “where is he?” Any other time the boy would be doing handsprings down those stairs right about now, or alternatively, sliding down the banister. Bruce was waiting for the day the he managed to combine the two. The Manor had been considerably less quiet in the months since Dick had come to live there. Bruce was often surprised to discover he didn’t really mind this development.

“When last observed, Master Dick was investigating the attic.”

“The attic?” Head tilted back, Bruce briefly wished he possessed x-ray vision. “There’s nothing interesting up there.”

“To you and I, perhaps not, sir, but I believe an eight-year-old may view things differently. I seem to recall another young boy endlessly fascinated with exploring the secrets of this house.”

Bruce aimed a pensive look up the staircase. “I’m not sure I remember what it’s like to be that age, Alfred.”

Alfred’s smile was full of gentle understanding. “Perhaps he’ll help you remember, Master Bruce.”

Bruce glanced at him, not sure he could endorse that hope. “What are we having for dinner?”

“One of Master Dick’s favorites.”

Bruce tried not to make a face. The last time Dick had chosen the menu, the selection had included corn dogs, funnel cake, and popcorn balls. “Circus food?”

Alfred’s mustache twitched; for him that was falling down laughter. “Indeed not, sir. Although Master Dick has regaled me with tales of all the items that can be vastly improved by deep-frying. No, tonight’s menu is meat loaf and mashed potatoes, with bread pudding for dessert.”

“Mrs. Kent’s recipes?” Bruce couldn’t recall that meat loaf had ever been served under this roof until he had visited Smallville for the first time and been sent home with leftovers.

“Indeed, sir. Shall we expect Master Clark this evening?” Alfred asked, a note of speculation in his voice.

“Not tonight; he has monitor duty. He did say something about another movie night this weekend.”

“Ah, very good. I shall be sure to add popcorn and—Twizzlers, was it?—to the shopping list.”

Bruce smiled. “Twizzlers, Reese’s Pieces, and Kit-Kats. He said he’d bring the pizzas.”

“It is fortunate all of you lead such active lives,” Alfred said. “If you’ll excuse me, sir, the bread pudding requires my attention. I am not at all certain of Mrs. Kent’s vanilla sauce.”

On that cryptic note, he took his leave and Bruce cast another thoughtful look up the stairs.

He shouldn’t have taken the boy in, not to stay. For someone whom his Justice League colleagues believed had backup plans for his backup plans, Bruce had been remarkably careless in thinking it would be perfectly safe to leave the boy free to roam around the mansion. It should have been billion to one odds that the kid would ever find his way to the Cave. He hadn’t thought an eight-year-old could be that resourceful. He hadn’t been. He hadn’t had a clue what to do with himself in the wake of his parents’ murder except to withdraw deep inside himself. He had expected Dick to do the same. He couldn’t have been more wrong about that, either.

The cheerful brightness Dick brought with him was a constant source of amazement to Bruce—and yes, on occasion a source of irritation. Clark annoyed him for the same reason, that unflagging insistence that you had to look on the bright side of things; that there was a bright side. Was it any wonder Clark and Dick had hit it off like gangbusters?

Sometimes he wondered if what really troubled him was the possibility that, under the relentless bombardment of Dick and Clark’s sunny dispositions, his own darkness would be eroded. He was vengeance, he was the night. If he lost that, what would be left of him?

Although given his current train of thought, clearly any inroads either of them had made were purely negligible. Odd that he didn’t take a greater satisfaction in that knowledge.

Making an effort to shake off his gloomy thoughts as he reached the top floor of the Manor, Bruce glanced around. There was a fairly small open area, primarily occupied by taped up cardboard boxes, all of it dimly illuminated by sputtering strip lights that were clearly reaching the end of their life. He hadn’t been up here in years. To judge by the buildup of dust on the bare wood floor neither had Alfred. Clearly some home maintenance was in order.

On the other hand, that dust made it easy to locate his quarry. The tracks left by a pair of small, sneakered feet stood out clear and stark amid the dust. He followed the tracks to a door that stood slightly ajar, a faint gleam of yellow light spilling out.

The door creaked slightly as he pushed it further open. He ducked to avoid a cobweb, noted the two wooden crates stacked below the single light bulb and tracked the progress of Dick’s footprints from that point. That Dick had left the two padlocked steamer trunks alone was a surprise even though fingerprint smears showed he had fiddled around with them. He would have to have a talk with him about that; explain that while it was generally correct to respect privacy, you should always follow up on your gut instinct if it told you there might be something important inside.

Several bulky pieces of furniture had been arranged in a labyrinth-like pattern, he found, and he threaded his way through it, knocking more cobwebs out of the way. As he turned a corner and almost stumbled over a top that had spun underfoot, he found his charge at last. Toys and books scattered about, Dick had fallen sound asleep on an old padded bench, a book dangling from one tiny hand while the other clutched a scruffy, piratical-looking stuffed bear to him.

It was the bear that knocked up against a memory and shook it loose.

“Now, then, Master Bruce, good as new,” Alfred said, done with thread and needle as he handed the newly restored bear back.

“I don’t know,” Bruce said as he considered the repaired ear and newly added eye patch. “He was supposed to be a scientist. He looks like a pirate now.”

“Well, perhaps he’s a scientist-turned-pirate after the ordeal he’s been through.”

“That’s silly.”

“Well I shouldn’t tell him tell him that. Looks to me as if he’s got his heart rather set on it now.”

Bruce smiled and shook his head at the ridiculous memory. A rare sunny moment after…after.

He sighed and looked at the bear again. God, was that really Arcto, after all of these years? It was literally another lifetime ago when he had last seen any of these things. He couldn’t believe Alfred had preserved it all. Picking up one of the books, he leafed through the pages of a Hardy Boys adventure and remembered how he had regarded these books, along with the Sherlock Holmes stories, almost like textbooks on how to become a detective. He’d had to start somewhere; he suspected he could have done worse. Setting down the book, he reached for a snow globe, frowned at the scene it depicted and shot a concerned look at Dick, worried about the memories this toy must have brought back.

“Hey,” Bruce crouched by his old toy chest, he recognized it now, and touched Dick’s shoulder, “come on, sleepyhead, you can’t stay up here.”

“Hmm?” Dick blinked sleepily up at him and then smiled brightly enough to banish the attic’s gloom. “You’re back!” he cried and launched himself at Bruce for a hug, never letting go of the bear.

Bruce froze up, caught by surprise and not sure what to do. Just before Dick would have picked up on his discomfort, though, Bruce patted the boy’s back and ruffled his hair. It was awkward, and he suspected he would never really get used to it, but it wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever had to do. Still, it was a relief when Dick sat back and looked at him with something that was more amusement than disappointment.

“You don’t get a lot of hugs, do you?”

“Batman isn’t meant to be huggable,” Bruce said, gruff about it.

“I bet Superman’d hug you.”

“Not if he knows what’s good for him,” Bruce said, even more gruffly.

For some reason, that only made Dick giggle. Then he sighed and scooted back on the bench, a guilty cast to his features as he glanced around the attic. “I guess this stuff is yours, huh?”

Bruce sat beside him on the bench. “Yeah. I haven’t seen any of it in years.” He picked up the Peter Pan that had slipped from Dick’s grasp. Slowly leafing through it, he paused at the inscription on the flyleaf and ran his fingers over the words. “This was a gift for my sixth birthday.”

Dick watched him, too much understanding in his eyes. “Did you like it?”

He nodded. “I did. I liked it a lot.”

“Did you want to be the best there ever was?”

Bruce’s smile was tinged with a strange kind of sorrow mixed with pride as he looked at the boy. “I think that title might go to someone else, actually.”

Dick stared back at him and tried to puzzle that out. “Is that one of those things I’ll understand when I’m older?”

“Maybe.”

Dick sighed again and looked around the attic. “It’s too bad all this stuff is up here, all forgotten.”

Bruce nodded. “I suppose it is.”

“Some of it’s pretty cool.”

“You think so?”

Dick looked at the bear, nodded quickly, and then became engrossed in retying a shoelace.

Bruce picked up the old bear and examined it closely. “Looks like he’s holding up pretty up well.”

“What happened to his eye and ear?”

“A cat got hold of him. Alfred rescued the ear but we never could find his eye.”

“What’s his name?” Dick asked and took the bear back as Bruce handed it to him.

“Arctodus Sim.”

Dick gave him a skeptical look. “That sounds like something you’d call a Transformer.”

“It’s Latin. Arctodus Simus. It means short-faced bear.”

Dick considered the bear with its brindle fur and decidedly short-faced countenance. “Still sounds like a Transformer.”

“Well he’s not a Transformer. Anyway, what would you name him?”

“I’d have to think about it.” Dick shrugged. “Arctodus Sim isn’t a bad name, I guess.”

“Not a lot of bears have a name like that.”

“I’ll bet.”

Bruce glowered at him.

Unimpressed, Dick just laughed again.

“We should get up here this weekend, clean the place up,” Bruce said as he stood up. “You could pick out anything you’d like to keep.”

“Yeah?” Dick’s face lit up at that. “It might take more than one weekend to straighten all this up.”

“Clark’s coming over with movies; he can pitch in.”

Dick brightened even more at that news. “Do you think he’d take me flying?”

“You can ask.”

Dick nodded and looked around the attic once more, gaze falling on the books. “Would it be okay if we took a couple of these down now?”

“Help yourself,” Bruce waved him forward and watched as the boy gathered up the Peter Pan, along with a couple of Hardy Boys adventures, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. “Maybe we can read a couple of them later.”

Surprised, Dick shot him another smile and nodded. “Okay.”

“Well,” Bruce took the books from him while Dick snagged Arcto, “we better get downstairs. Alfred said dinner would be ready soon.”

Alfred met them halfway down. “Ah, I was getting ready to send out a search party.” He took in the bear, a look of approval crossing his features. “Very good; he’s been cooped up far too long.” Something in his voice made Bruce suspect he didn’t only mean the bear.

“Bruce said I can pick out some stuff up there to keep when we clean it out this weekend.”

“Has he indeed? I am very pleased to hear that. Now then,” brisk once more, Alfred said, “I suggest you get cleaned up as dinner will be served soon.”

Dick nodded cheerfully and scampered down the hallway to his room, still hanging on to the bear.

“The young chap seems to be settling in quite nicely,” Alfred said.

Troubled again, Bruce asked, “Don’t you think he’d be better off in a normal family, though?”

“I daresay Master Dick would tell you that normal is highly overrated. Now,” Alfred reprimanded him with a look, “Master Dick isn’t the only one in need of fresh attire and a bath. I’ll just take these for a good dusting,” he said and reached for the books.

At the door to his bedroom, Bruce paused and turned back. “Alfred?”

“Sir?”

“Why did you keep all my old toys and things?”

“I suppose I thought they might be wanted again one day.”

“Even after I put on the cowl?”

“Perhaps especially then. Now then,” Alfred continued briskly, “dinner in ten minutes.” He nodded once and took his leave.

Bruce watched after him and hoped he would never betray that unshakeable trust.

~*~

His day nearly done, and at a much earlier hour than was customary, Alfred paused in the doorway to the library and took in the scene within as Bruce read aloud from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The young master, seated beside Bruce, was a rapt audience:

“’The least sound would be fatal to our plans.’

“I nodded to show that I had heard.

“’We must sit without light. He would see it through the ventilator.’

“I nodded again.

“’Do not go asleep; your very life may depend upon it. Have your pistol ready in case we should need it. I will sit on the side of the bed, and you in that chair.’

“I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table…”

“What’s going to happen?” Dick asked, a somewhat anxious note in his voice.

Bruce hushed him. “Shh. You’ll see,” he said. He looked up at Alfred then and smiled. “Oh, Alfred! Listen, I was going to straighten out my desk—would you mind?”

Alfred regarded his oldest charge and experienced one of those moments when he marveled that this young man could ever be considered crafty and disingenuous, as Alfred could see right through him. “Very good, sir,” he said and took a seat at the large and cluttered desk. Unusually cluttered, in fact, as Alfred had previously tidied it up just a couple of hours ago.

He had no cause to complain. His boys were home and safe on this stormy night, and he could think of nothing he would rather do just now than sort through correspondence and other items as Master Bruce resumed the story:

"How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil? I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath, and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed, within a few feet of me, in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness. From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock…"

For one rare and precious moment, at least, all was right in Alfred’s world.

 

Note: The story Bruce is reading is "The Speckled Band."