Please consider this a disclaimer. I do not (nor have I ever, nor will I ever) own any rights to the Batman persona, franchise, characters, etc. This story is a work of (at best passably written) fiction based on characters owned by Bob Kane/DC Comics/Warner Bros./etc. etc. ad nauseam. I receive no compensation for this work of fiction (except for your attention and reviews! ^_^), nor do I ever hope to receive any. Hopefully this little blurb covers its intended purpose of making this whole sad act somewhat less illegal. On a lighter note, I hope you enjoy!

...

A pair of cold blue eyes peered vacantly into space, the owner's face a study in melancholy. He sat cross-legged in the basement of a family's house. In front of him lay a short stack of paper, the ink on it still fresh; a medium-length katana, and a 1911 .45-caliber automatic pistol, a magazine containing a single round next to it. He looked at each one in turn, letting his fingertips glide over each in turn. Is this to be the final legacy of the Waynes? No, I shouldn't ask the question in that way…. The legacy of the Waynes died years ago...was murdered. He blinked his eyes, and wasn't surprised that they were bone-dry. He'd long since given up shedding tears for the Wayne family. It was easy, when he'd realized he was no longer the son who had watched Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down. Easy, when he'd long ago let go of the name Bruce Wayne.

He reached around behind him and brought forward a bottle of whiskey. He yanked out the cork top and turned the bottom of the bottle upwards, letting the fiery liquid flow down into his waiting mouth. The burning wetness tickled his throat and felt heavy in his stomach, but he knew from experience that the heaviness would dissipate into a not unpleasant buzzing feeling from head to toe in fairly short order. He took two more healthy draws from the bottle, and flung it from him, closing his eyes and listening intently to the sound of the glass shattering against the stone wall of the basement.

He lifted his head, eyes still closed. He spoke aloud for the first time in over a year: "Father… Thomas Wayne…. No… yes, Father. In my final hour, I will allow myself that luxury. Father, you have not spoken to me in years. I know now, why that is. I have failed. Mother, forgive me. I failed you both. I know now that I do not have the fortitude, that I do not have the ability, to do what I promised you. I lost my way, I betrayed the path, and became a monster. I tried to give up my name, to become anonymous; I thought if I could just become a Shade, I could avenge the proper way, so that no one could call the integrity of the Wayne family into question. I thought that I-…." He realized he had finally started weeping again. He did not wipe the tears away; a boy doesn't wipe his tears before his parents.

"But I'm unfit to carry it on. I can't do anything here now. It's over…. Will you… will you let me come home… Father? Mother, please… I tried. I swear to God… I tried." He fell forward, lying prostrate on the cold floor, as if before the feet of a deity. He held back choked sobs, begging. "If I can't carry my Vow forward… I don't want to be apart from you any longer." He reached one grimy hand forward, shakily grabbed the gun and magazine. In a swift motion, he jammed the mag into the butt of the gun; the well-oiled parts easily locked into place. The gun made an impersonal, mechanical sound as he racked the slide back and released it, driving home the single round into the chamber. He double-checked the hammer back and the mechanical safety down, and put the muzzle to his right temple. His expression was eerily peaceful. "Father… Mother…. It's Bruce…. I'm… I'm coming home." He smiled, and his index finger on the trigger grew taut. Outside the house, the wind howled and the clouds grew darker and darker, threatening the season's first nor'easter. It was a cold winter's night.

...

It is a cold winter's night. The boy can see his breath as it escapes his lips. He pretends to be an important businessman, or a famous movie actor, puffing smoke from an imaginary cigarette and making low-toned monologues. It's approaching Christmas, and his parents have taken him out for a night at the cinema. The movie was outstanding, exhilarating: The Mask of Zorro, a movie Bruce Wayne is sure will become a timeless classic. In his mind he imagines himself a swashbuckling, dashing hero, saving the damsel and being a beloved hero of the city. The thought and the cold make him shiver under his coat.

His mother looks at him, her expression full of worry. "Do you have a chill, sweetheart?"

His father looks back at the two of them, his expression one of patience and contentment. "Don't worry; we're on our way home now, and we'll fix you right up with some nice hot chicken soup." He smiles reassuringly.

But now Bruce is between his two pillars of strength, and he draws warmth from them. His father Thomas is to his right, tall, broad-shouldered, and with kind and intelligent eyes. His mother Martha walks to his left, her head held high like some kind of royal duchess, full of pride and joy of life. His father guides him with wisdom, instills in him his sense of justice and fairness. His mother guides him with love, teaches him the value of compassion, empathy, and humanitarianism. He is their master work, they adore their son, and his early accomplishments are as much theirs as his.

An ideal family, their only sin being so wealthy amidst a horrendous depression. All their humanitarian efforts were forgotten when his clothes and her jewelry were viewed by eyes whose vision was tainted by starvation.

Their eyes, his eyes… his eyes, filled with hunger- and alcohol-driven disdain. His mind addled with need, that need, causing his teeth to grind and his skin to leak sweat and that foul odor and his fingers to scratch, scratch, scratch…. Ahhhh, that itch! His hand, moving seemingly on its own, snaking deep into his coat pocket and clutching the cold handle of the .38 Special. His legs, moving jerkily, carrying his body, gaunt from hunger and the needle, forward with off-beat rhythm. His mouth, managing to whisper and shriek at the same time, "Don't move. Not another fuggin' step, man…. Wallet, jewels… money! Gimme the money, man!"

Bruce hasn't even had time to process this unfathomable trail of information. He wants to look at his father's face, to draw strength and courage from it. He knows his father would be unshaken in the face of this outrage. He wants to look at what he was sure would be his mother's serene expression, filled with compassion and empathy, aimed at this poor wreck of a lost soul. Instead, his eyes are trained on the face of a lunatic. The man's eyes, wide with uncertainty, fear, and hostility, like those of a rabid animal trapped in a cage. But when no one comes to their aid, the eyes slowly change, taking on an expression of sick control, like that same rabid animal has realized there is a lesser creature trapped with it that it can exploit, and barring that, kill.

Bruce only breaks his gaze for a moment, when he realizes the man with that evil-looking gun is moving his eyes down to him; the thought of making eye contact with that man terrifies Bruce more than anything. But it's when the man reaches his arm out to grab Bruce's scarf, a simple thing that might have earned him just one or two more nights with a precious fix, that Bruce feels his mother lunge forward, thinking of nothing but her young cub and of protecting him. Bruce can see the man's startled expression; this was not part of the plan. The startled expression quickly turns to terror when the gun fires.

The explosion threatens to deafen Bruce; his head is ringing, and he can smell that sickly sweet, acrid scent of gunpowder. Then he sees his mother fall backwards, sees the look of revulsion, carried over from her response to the gunman's attempted groping of her son, on her face, and sees the way her chest has almost caved in from the impact of the bullet. The man looks like a wild alley cat suddenly caught by the scruff of its neck: hissing, terrified, crazed. Without hesitation or thought, he wildly swings his arm towards the large man, moving forward not at the gunman but towards his dead wife. The gun fires a second time; Bruce watches with horrified fascination as the end of the barrel lights the dark alleyway up like a small sun, watches as the back of his father's head explodes outwards, showering the alley behind him with smoking chunks of flesh and slivers of bone. The gunman's wild expression remains unchanged. He now brings the muzzle of the gun to bear on the boy, his hand shaking uncontrollably. He hesitates for just a moment, then scowls and pulls the trigger. Bruce doesn't even have the wherewithal to flinch or cry out; he just blinks as the gun harmlessly clicks, its hammer falling on an empty chamber. The sound seems to snap the man out of a dream state; he looks around as if recalling something important, looks at himself, the gun, the bodies, the boy. He stares into the boy's eyes for what seems like an eternity, as if searching for his reflection in them. He then looks back at the gun, then down the alley behind Bruce, as if hearing something. He scowls, and throws the sidearm into a corner. He shoves Bruce backwards, sifts through the pockets of the deceased Waynes, takes what he can carry, and sprints into shadows, sparing the boy not another glance.

Bruce stays on his back for moments, minutes, hours. It seems to him like he'll never move again. Finally, some unknown force pulls him into a sitting position. He realizes, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he has pissed himself. For some reason, noticing that starts his rational mind back up again, and he takes stock of the situation. It takes less than a second for him to be on top of his parents, shaking them wildly, and screaming: a pitiful, voiceless scream that crescendos into a blood-curdling shriek of fury and loss. It is this sound, not the gunfire, that brings assistance.

...

(One week after the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne)

Alfred Pennyworth sat in a recliner, his head in his hands, fighting through clenched eyes and teeth the tears that have, again, threatened to come. He refused to show any signs of cracking around the boy; he knew he was the only thing keeping the young master together, though he'd started to suspect he wasn't doing a very good job of that, either. Alfred had a hard time forgiving himself for that, though he suspected no amount of time in the RAF or the British Secret Service could have prepared him for being the cornerstone of a seven-year-old's mental stability. Still, it was impossible to feel self-pity when he saw the young boy wandering the expansive halls of the manor, a dazed and morose expression on his face. He had been awakened at night by the sound of Bruce's feet dragging as he trudged through the house at all hours of the night more times than he cared to think about, and more than a couple of times he'd had to shake the boy awake when the screaming started….

Alfred loved the boy; he had to admit that in the time since he'd started working for the Waynes, the boy had become something of a surrogate son to him, though now the situation felt forced, and he admitted there was a new awkwardness between the two of them, especially with Bruce refusing most of his food, and practically all conversation.

He allowed himself a few more despairing moments before, slowly, he rose into a straight sitting position, then to his feet, and he felt more than heard his joints creaking as he straightened his back, smoothed his coarse salt-and-pepper hair, and squared his jaw and shoulders. With a slight nod, as if in salute to the spirits of Thomas and Martha Wayne, he shot forward, his steps quick and purposeful but also light and with an otherworldly grace and quiet. He made for the kitchen first, to collect Bruce's dinner platter. On it was hand-carved, slow-roasted pork, hand-whipped potatoes, and grilled zucchini, one of Bruce's favorite meals. He hoped against hope that the savory smell would leave Bruce defenseless against his need to eat, which Alfred was sure must be very great indeed. The boy was rapidly losing weight from his trauma and sudden "diet".

He stopped to do a final self-collection outside Bruce's bedroom door. He was taking a deep breath when he suddenly realized with a start that he could hear… something. He pressed his ear to the door… nothing. He started to sigh with relief, when it started again. He held his breath, listened…. Bruce's voice. Low, with an achingly sad quality… murmuring out loud. Then he heard the word "Father," and he almost dropped the plate. He backed away from the door, training of years past suddenly making him impossibly quiet, even on the aged wood floors. He realized he was still holding his breath, and let it out in a soft whoosh. He realized with some irritation that he was in a cold sweat, and his hands were shaking slightly. He tried to rationalize what he'd heard…. The boy is only seven…. Saw his parents brutally murdered right in front of him…. How could I… how could I hold him accountable for missing them? For wanting to talk to them?

But he realized that wasn't quite right, either. Bruce hadn't been speaking out loud to himself, just speaking his mind to some harmless imagined specter. No…. What Alfred had heard was a response… as if to a question. What he'd just walked in on… was a conversation. He seemed to mull this thought over for several minutes. What could be done…? Send the boy away, to be evaluated? What would come of that? Alfred could just imagine the newspaper headlines…. Heir to the Wayne fortune committed. Wayne the insane. Bloody lovely end to one of the most celebrated families of Gotham, if not all of the States that would be. Alfred teetered on the edge of what he felt might be the most important decision he'd ever make. Then, suddenly, a cold calm came over his mind. No. No, Alfred Pennyworth would not be the man to condemn Bruce Wayne to a life in a padded cell and involuntary psychotropic drug injections. He felt a familial link to Bruce, deeper than blood, primarily patriarchal. He took a steadying breath, swept his hair back, and took uncharacteristically heavy steps back towards Bruce's door. In the moment of quiet between him stopping before it and gently knocking, he noticed the solemn-toned voice of his young master had fallen silent.

"Please come in, Alfred." Alfred hesitated with his hand poised over the doorknob. Bruce's voice sounded aged, somehow, and terribly hollow. Still, he put on the best sympathetic expression he could muster on, and entered the room with the perfect air of quiet dignity of a man of his station. Bruce looked expectantly at the man, and at the plate resting on his hand. "Good evening, Alfred. What's for dinner tonight?"

For his part, Alfred couldn't have better hidden his shock at Bruce's strikingly sudden change in demeanor. For days the boy had shown no inclination towards even the most simple of conversation, let alone a shred of notice for his food. Sniffing, Alfred responded, "One of your favorites, sir. Roasted pork, whipped spuds, and grilled zucchini. Beauchamp assured me it is his best work yet." While Alfred couldn't help a deep-seated spurning of the French master cook's lack of some (most) of the finer points of British civility, he begrudgingly relented that the man knew his way around a kitchen. Bruce nodded, then took his silverware up with unsteady hands. He seemed to regard them, as if inspecting some alien objects, then set upon his meal with deliberate, mechanical motions. Alfred slipped for just a moment, sighing with obvious relief. Unable to help a quiver of hopefulness in his voice, he asked, "Will you require anything else this afternoon, Master Bruce?"

Bruce paused, giving the question serious thought as he chewed on a mouthful of pork. "Yes. Please ask Hilde to draw a hot bath, and to do a change of my bed linens while I'm in."

Alfred couldn't stop a look of displeasure on his face. "…Master Bruce? I'm more than capable of handling those tasks for you, unless you-"

He almost jumped when Bruce's clammy hand clamped down on his forearm with an improbable tensile strength. He looked up from the pale hand to Bruce's sudden desperate expression. "No! …Alfred, no…. I… I need you to stay close. Just for a little while. …Please?"

Alfred shifted uncomfortably under Bruce's grasp and heavy, pleading gaze. Finally, he relaxed his shoulders and gave the boy a gentle smile. "Of course… Master Bruce."

Apparently sated, Bruce relaxed his grip, and went back to eating his food, somewhat more enthusiastically, while Alfred quickly left the room to arrange for Hilde to perform the requested tasks. He briskly reentered Bruce's room, relieved again to find Bruce's plate empty and wiped clean with some of the fresh bread Beauchamp had baked for the young master, and to find Bruce out of his bed, looking out the window, and not engaged in conversation with the departed.

Bruce had bathed quickly but efficiently, and for a while seemed to forget that Alfred was even there, except that every so often, when wiping soapy water from his eyes, he would stiffen and turn his head in the butler's direction, only to seemingly relax again when he saw him still there. It wasn't until Bruce stood in his bedroom, dressed in evening wear, that he addressed Alfred in speech again.

"Alfred?"

Alfred stood, almost at military attention, and answered, "Yes, Master Bruce?"

"I want you to tell me about my parents."

Alfred's breath caught in his chest, and he stared, mouth agape, at what he had to remind himself, for the third time that day, was a mere child. "S… sir?"

"My parents." Bruce turned to look at him with stone eyes. "I want… I need you to tell me everything about them."

Alfred found it difficult to meet the boy's gaze. "Sir…. They were your parents. You know-"

Bruce's harsh tone and narrowed eyes stunned Alfred into silence more than his words. "I know pieces of them, the pieces they showed me when I was around. I know things about them… the way my father stood at his desk, the serious tone he used when doing business on the phone. The way my mother smelled after she took a bath, the way her hair caught the sunlight." He cleared his throat; his voice had started to become thick towards the end of his tirade. "But you know… what others said about them. What my father's business is. What the people they associated with were like. What they talked about at their board meetings and social calls. I need to know… who they were."

Alfred shook his head, almost imperceptibly. "But… why?"

Bruce smiled a grim smile. "Because, Alfred…. As a Wayne, I must… be about my father's business, and in a manner of which my mother would approve. It's what they want."

Alfred's right eyebrow shot up, nearly to his hairline. "S-… sir? Did you say it's what they would want?"

Bruce's smile faded by the slightest degree. "Of course, Alfred…. Like I said, it's what they would have wanted."

Alfred's expression was a pained one, but he nodded slowly. "Understood, Master Bruce…." And he spoke for the rest of the evening, and Bruce had him continue every day for weeks afterwards. All the while, Bruce never smiled in compassionate nostalgia. He merely listened, a shadow over his eyes. He never asked a question for clarification; Alfred's practically eidetic memory and precise manner of speaking left no room for anything but perfect clarity. Bruce's manner of quietly absorbing everything like a sponge made Alfred more than a touch uneasy, but so relieved was he that Bruce wanted for companionship that he didn't linger on it for long… until he would lie awake in bed, remembering Bruce's piercing gaze, solemn expression, and the sound of his voice, almost staccato and emotionless, when he'd been talking to his parents that day….

...

(Four years later….)

Alfred stood in front of the rear passenger-side door of a black 1958 Bentley S1 Continental, his matching suit and tie pristine and starched as stiff as his expression. He stood like a soldier stands at a ceremonial inspection, and while his face was rigid and impassive, his eyes were aflame. He watched as the boarding school's associate dean marched a bruised and decidedly unrepentant-looking eleven-year-old Bruce Wayne towards the immaculate automobile.

As they approached, Alfred could hear the superintendent scolding Bruce in harsh tones. "And you will write a letter of apology to Mr. and Mrs. Sionis, and read it out loud to them tomorrow afternoon. Is that understood?"

Bruce looked up at Alfred, as if he were a flame reaching out for fuel or oxygen to feed its own searing heat. Alfred's piercing gaze told him that there was neither for him. Finally, the fire in Bruce's eyes ebbed, and he looked at the ground and mumbled incomprehensively, but the tone was sufficiently chastised so as to satisfy the school rep. He looked at Alfred with disdain, motioning for him to come closer after Bruce had entered the car. Alfred approached the man carefully, knowing that at this time it was best to play the apologetic and concerned steward. He wrung his hands convincingly.

"Sir…?" Alfred asked, playing his part convincingly.

"Mr. Pennyworth…," the assistant dean said slowly, running his tongue along the top of his mouth, and finally clucking. "I do understand young Mr. Wayne's situation, and please allow me to be the first to apologize." Alfred inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the man's words and trying his best to hide his contempt for what he knew was coming. "However, we are also aware of his… precarious… situation. It's bad form, transferring between four prep schools in as many years. Sooner or later, the time might come when even the wealth of the Waynes isn't enough to open doors in Gotham. These… lapses in proper conduct, conduct expected of someone like the 'Prince of Gotham,' must end. Or we'll have no choice but to terminate his tenure here, as well."

Alfred bowed his head penitently. "I completely understand, sir…. Now, as to the matter of Master Wayne's conduct record…."

The assistant dean's eyes narrowed, and his mouth spread in a crocodile's sly grin. "Yessss…. While we can't deny that Mister Wayne's grades are exemplary, it's unfortunate that brawling with other students, especially the son of the celebrated Sionis family, is in fact something that cannot be ignored. Normally, that type of behavior would be put into Mister Wayne's permanent record…. And at his age, when placement into the types of college prep high schools that Ivy League university's draw from is approaching, well…."

Alfred bit down to keep his face from warping into one of utmost disgust. He knew this game. Reaching into his inside breast pocket, he withdrew a thick fold of crisp bills. "I'm sure Master Wayne would be most appreciative were you able to find a way to… keep this incident strictly non-administrative, shall we say, sir?"

In a flash, the administrator tucked the wad of cash into his billfold and walked away, nodding and looking well-and-pleased with himself.

Alfred sighed and spit on the ground in the man's direction. "And I hope you choke on it, you bloody prat." He walked around to the driver's seat and eased himself into it with a huff as he shut the door behind him and buckled in. He looked in the rearview mirror at Bruce, and let his expression speak for itself. Bruce seemed unaffected by the seriousness of Alfred's demeanor, and returned the heavy look with admirable tenacity.

Finally, Alfred gave up, and sighed as he started the car. "Well, sir, I sincerely hope you accomplished something with this…. It's cost you a pretty penny to maintain your pristine record, yet again."

Bruce made a face at the mention of money. "The money isn't important, Alfred."

Alfred gave him a flat look. "Oh? And pray tell, Master Bruce, what is?"

Bruce smiled that thin, grim smile again… the one Alfred had seen on his face more and more the past few years. "…The mission, Alfred."

Alfred resisted the urge to pull at his hair. "The 'mission' again, is it? And what does having a row with a little toff like Roman Sionis have to do with that, exactly? What do you call that?"

Bruce closed his eyes for a moment, remembering….

...

Roman Sionis stands at the forefront of his gaggle of meatheads. Through a disquieting guile and bribery, he is the captain of the school's lacrosse team, and he is the richest student in the school, with the sole exception of Bruce Wayne, a fact Roman lets slide for the mere fact that Wayne has never shown aptitude at anything other than being a bookworm, and has never been a hindrance in any of Roman's other ventures. His current attention is not on the Wayne ninny at the moment, though…. It's solely focused on the cowering visage of the young boy huddled before him.

"Hey, hey, boys…," Sionis coos, ingratiatingly and menacingly at the same time, "I think we've scared the poor kid."

"Deserves it, you ask me," one of Sionis's lackey's asserts. At eleven, he looks more like he's fifteen, acne already littering his face, and his brow bulky over his eyes. He has a wild shock of fire orange hair, and it's a wonder he would defer so completely to Sionis, until one realizes he simply holds a quiet admiration for the way Sionis uses brains and financial clout to achieve the kind of things he never could with simple muscle. "Hey Sionis, if the kid won't pay…. Maybe you should… you know… make him."

Sionis eyes the brute coolly. "And here I thought you suffered from a self-imposed moratorium on thinking, Sledge." He grins sardonically, as always impressed with his own wit. "But maybe you're right…. How do you think we should make him?"

Sledge had been confused as to what, exactly, a "moratorium" was, but at the chance to egg Sionis in to what the whole team admired the most about him, he lets fly his uncertain belief he was being insulted. "Put it on, Sionis…. Scare him a little, ya know… do that thing you do."

The rest of Sionis's group nod, murmuring in agreement. Sionis looks almost apologetically at the scrawny, scared-witless boy before him. He shrugs helplessly. "You heard them, kid…. It wasn't my idea." The cruel smile that spreads across his face tells a different story, as he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a black fold of thin cloth. As he begins raising it to his face, the other members of the lacrosse team back slowly away. As much as they find a sinister pleasure in watching Roman Sionis work once he's donned that thing, they are equally afraid of even unintentionally coming between him and his victim once he really gets started. Sionis lowers his hands from his face, and the boy gasps back a shriek at the terrible sight of the skin-tight black mask tight around his face. Sionis lurches towards the wide-eyed boy, pulling his arm back in preparation for delivering a closed-fist backhand. "Let me show you… why no one refuses Roman Sionis when he makes an offer."

No one sees him, no one notices the flash of movement until a surprisingly strong hand is gripping Sionis's arm, stopping it mid-swing. Even from under the mask, Sionis's flabbergasted expression is almost humorous, but nothing compared to the faces of his gang of followers behind him. Who the hell would dare step between Roman Sionis and his quarry?

Roman reaches up and tears the mask off his face, and his expression is twisted with rage. "Wayne?! Where the hell did you come from?"

Bruce Wayne tightens his grip on Sionis's forearm, and he can hardly suppress his grin when he sees the one year older boy struggle to hide the pain. "Who cares…? More to the point… why don't you show me instead?"

...

Bruce opened his eyes, still smiling that thin dark smile. "I call that… a good start."