"So Batman actually assigned you to head an undercover mission at the circus you grew up in?" Wally asked, his tone high in disbelief.
"You wanna say that a little louder?" Dick hissed.
Wally scoffed. "Oh, c'mon, no one's around…that's the whole reason we're crammed in here in the first place!"
"Yeah, we're hiding in here so no one will find us. But if you don't keep it down, Superboy's still gonna hear us and come looking, no doubt bringing the others. Then they're gonna find us sitting in a storage closet, and I do not want to try explaining that, do you?"
At that, Wally at least had the grace to look embarrassed, and Dick flashed a triumphant smirk. Neither of them was too sure how to justify why two teenage boys were hiding from their teammates in a closet to avoid being overheard – the only thing worse than coming up with an excuse was probably what the others would assume they were doing, and Dick didn't want their thoughts on that particular train – but they would have to come up with something if someone did find them.
Because there was no way they could tell anyone the truth.
"But seriously, dude," Wally said, concern in his eyes as he looked at the younger teen. "You okay?"
"I told you, I'm fine," Dick insisted, even as his fingers automatically pushed his sunglasses higher up the bridge of his nose.
"C'mon, talk to me, man. I mean, he really assigned you to that job?"
Dick shook his head. "I wouldn't say that, exactly. It's not like he made me do it or anything. It was a favor for Mr. Haly. Bruce heard what was happening and passed the info to me, asking if I wanted to help."
Wally frowned. "You could've still said no if you wanted to…let Bats deal with it."
Dick sighed. "Bruce was never planning to do anything about it. If I said no, Bruce would've dropped it, and that would've been the end of it. I couldn't…I couldn't do that to Mr. Haly."
"So you really had no choice but to do it." Wally rolled his eyes. "Man, I always thought Bats was kinda cold, but what a bast –"
"Shut. Up," Dick snapped suddenly, ferocity heating his soft tone.
Even behind the sunglasses, Wally could feel the daggers from the other's ice-blue eyes. "Well sorry, but what're you getting mad at me for?" he sputtered, genuinely puzzled by the accusing look he was receiving.
Dick continued to silently glare at the other for a moment longer before turning away.
Feeling the need to defend himself, Wally continued speaking, "I mean, if anything, you should be mad at him. What kind of heartless creep sends a kid to head a mission in the very same place where he grew up and his parents were killed?"
"The same kind of guy who still had to live in the big, lonely mansion he grew up in with his parents before they died," Dick retorted, his voice dripping with venom.
Wally blinked, realization dawning in his face. Uncomfortable shame colored his cheeks slightly, and he said nothing as he glanced away.
Minutes passed and the silence grew heavier until Dick sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I admit, I was pretty mad at first," he finally said. "I wanted to help Mr. Haly, but I didn't…I didn't want to be the one to go, y'know?"
"I could imagine," was Wally's careful reply.
Dick rather doubted that, but he understood what the other meant. So he didn't comment on it and continued, "But…it wasn't until I was there that I realized…how much I missed being there."
Wally frowned slightly but remained silent.
Pausing for a moment, Dick wrapped his arms around his knees as he considered how to explain. "I guess…after my parents died, part of the reason I went to stay with Bruce was because I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be at that place…around all the people…because of how close everything was to my parents. I didn't…I thought I couldn't handle it. So when I left with Bruce…it was like I was running away from their memory."
He felt Wally's eyes watching him, but he ignored the look by staring at a spot on the wall across from him. "But during the mission…being back there after all this time…I found that everything I was afraid of was the best part about it. I mean, it was still a bit painful, but…Being there, being close to everyone and everything I grew up with…I never knew how much more it hurt to be away from all that."
"So…" Wally said slowly, hesitantly, "do you…do you think…you'll go back there?"
There was something strange about the other's tone, and Dick's brow rose curiously as he finally turned toward him. "You mean, like…forever?"
Wally didn't reply, but the worried look on his face said everything he couldn't.
"Dude…no," the raven-haired teen replied. Then he grinned. "You really think I'd leave the team? Or give up being half of the greatest crime-fighting duo ever?"
Wally sighed softly, relieved, but added, "Well, I wouldn't say greatest duo ever –"
"I would," Dick retorted, his smile changing into a smirk.
He laughed as Wally punched his shoulder, but his humor quickly faded as he stared out in front of him again. "I wouldn't go back to stay…but I'd try to visit more at least. Or go see them if they're in Gotham. Because I learned how much I really did miss them. And…" He shook his head slightly, a shaky sigh escaping his lips. "No matter how much it still hurts, I don't want to keep running away from all that. Bruce…would never run away from anything."
Wally frowned again, this time placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You're not him," he reminded softly.
Dick's grip on his arms tightened, and he turned his face away from the redhead. "Maybe not. But confronting my problems…is a good start to becoming who I want to be…"
The man paused in mid-step at the hesitant call, slowly turning away from the stairs leading out of the Batcave to look at him. "What is it?" he asked.
It wasn't the light, breezy voice of Bruce Wayne, multi-millionaire philanthropist. But it wasn't Batman's tough thundering growl either. It was a tone that lay somewhere between the two – the kind of voice he was used to hearing when Bruce was still wearing the Bat suit but had the cowl pushed back to show his face.
And in all honesty, Bruce could be more terrifying to Dick than Batman. Because this was the real Bruce; the one behind the smile he faked for the public eye, the one under the mask of Gotham's dark knight. The man standing before him was someone very rarely seen, very hard to reach except by those who were closest and most trusted…those allowed inside Bruce's inner circle. And the blue eyes that pierced through him were way more intimidating than even the fiercest Batman glare.
Dick shifted his weight from one foot to the other, unable to meet the man's gaze. It didn't help that he had already removed his sunglasses, exposing his eyes and any emotions that might be held there. For a moment he almost lost his nerve, but knew that if he didn't say this now, then he never would. So swallowing past the lump in his throat, he gathered his courage before it could escape him again.
"I just, uh…" he finally managed, and he hated the crack in his voice, "I just wanted to…to say…thanks."
A curious brow rose on Bruce's face, but otherwise he didn't respond.
And Dick knew he wouldn't, but he still hated the silence. Because it meant that he would have to explain. "For…for letting me take the job at Haly's. I…I get why you did –"
"And why's that?" Bruce asked.
Dick sighed, running fingers through his hair. Was Bruce really going to make him list his mistakes like this? "Because…we both know that I was just running away. I didn't…I didn't want to deal with my parents' death, and I didn't…want to be reminded of them by being around so many people who would make me think of them. I was…I was scared to stay there."
Dick turned his face away; tears were much easier to see without his sunglasses to protect him. But despite his heart leaping into his throat once again, he forced himself to continue. "But after being back there, I realized…that I shouldn't keep avoiding from my problems. I can't…escape them forever. And sooner or later…I'll have to face them…or else I'll never move on."
The words left his lips before he could stop them, but what they referred to – whether he was talking about his parents' death, someday being leader of the team…or something else…even he wasn't quite sure.
Hours seemed to pass under the tense silence surrounding the two, broken only by blood roaring in Dick's ears. His heart pounded frantically as he waited for Bruce to say something…anything.
And after clearing his throat, Bruce did. "I'm…glad you learned something from all that, Dick. But…that's not why I wanted you to help Haly at all."
Dick's head shot up, turning wide eyes towards his mentor. "What?"
Bruce said nothing, his lips drawn together in a fine line. To anyone else, his face seemed so emotionless, apathetic. But those who knew Bruce better than that could see that something was not quite right in his eyes.
Still, Dick couldn't help but gawk at him, unable to think clearly about what was wrong with the man as he tried to process what Bruce said. "Wait, so…If that's not the reason…then why…?"
Something that almost sounded like a sigh rumbled from Bruce's lips, and for a moment he almost appeared uncomfortable. "I've noticed that you haven't been…yourself lately," Bruce answered slowly, deliberately taking his time with his words. "You seem…upset about something."
Dick blinked, unable to hide his surprise. For some reason, he always thought Bruce had been unaware of that…which is what he wanted, really, and why he had worked so hard acting like everything was okay. He had hoped that Bruce didn't notice all the confusion and worries that he had been trying to hide, because he didn't want Bruce to see that anything was wrong with him.
Except…no matter how much he had brushed all his troubles aside, no matter how hard he tried to act like everything was normal around his mentor, he had to admit that part of him still did want Bruce to know. He didn't want to approach Bruce and tell him about his problems…but at the same time he wanted Bruce to somehow still know anyway, and to confront him and help him with everything he was dealing with. Since Bruce never said anything, though, he always just assumed that Bruce just never figured it out.
But he really should have known better; he should have known – better than anyone – that just because Bruce never said anything about it, didn't mean he wasn't aware of it.
Dick was drawn out of his thoughts when he heard Bruce speaking again. "When I heard about Haly's situation," Bruce said in a low voice, "I thought that, though not under the best circumstances, it would be for the best if you visited."
He had a feeling that this wouldn't be the case, but Dick still had to ask, "To help clear Mr. Haly's name?"
Bruce frowned, though the teen had trouble understanding his expression. "To see your family again," Bruce corrected, his tone almost soft. His face seemed indifferent for the most part though, even as he added, "I thought it might help."
But Dick could see the truth in Bruce's eyes…He could see past the wall that Bruce built, trying to keep out any vulnerability…and he was surprised to see how anxious Bruce suddenly appeared. It was hard for him to remember the last time his mentor had looked so unsure, so…so lost. It was almost as if Bruce just didn't know what to do.
And Dick began to wonder…if that had been the case all this time. After all, Bruce had known that something was bothering him, no matter how hard he had tried to hide it, to act like nothing was wrong. Yet he never said anything about it, and Dick worried at first that maybe Bruce just didn't want to talk about it.
But maybe…maybe Bruce had him go to Haly's Circus, had him help Mr. Haly…had him see his family there…because he hadn't known how to deal with the situation himself. Maybe, no matter how much Bruce wanted to help, he just didn't know how. That Bruce – not Bruce Wayne, not Batman, but Bruce – thought that he wouldn't be able to help him with whatever problem he was having.
Air rushed out of Dick's body, leaving him a little shaky as he ran his fingers through his hair. The whole idea just seemed so ridiculous. After all, this was the same man who took him on after his parents died, the man who understood the painful loss better than anyone else. This was the man who gave him the greatest opportunity of giving his parents justice, and who taught him everything he knew – both in costume and out.
Bruce was the one…who was there for him when he had felt so alone in the world. He was the one who took in a young orphan in his darkest moment, comforted him, and helped him rise above it. Bruce showed him how anything was possible, had given him everything, and Dick knew he wouldn't be where he is now if it wasn't for him.
And he knew that it was finally time…that they both remembered that.
Inhaling deeply, Dick then released it in a slow breath. "Bruce…" he said softly, "I-I…I mean…thank you. It…seeing them all again…it really did help."
Bruce nodded, and Dick had to pretend not to notice the hard look in his eyes.
So instead the teen continued, "But…even though everyone at Mr. Haly's is my family…they're not my only family."
Unable to meet the man's gaze any longer, Dick averted his eyes to the floor. "It…it was really nice being back there. And seeing them all again…made me realize how much I missed them. But…but they weren't…they aren't the ones I need right now."
The implication was strong enough on its own, but after everything – after all the trials, the near losses, close calls, after all the pain – they had gone through these past few months…after holding back his true feelings for so long… Dick knew he had to say exactly what was on his mind, no matter how weak it made him sound. His words were barely a whisper as he forced them out, "I…I need you, Bruce."
For a long moment there was nothing; nothing except the shame beginning to build in Dick's stomach. His face grew hot as the admission echoed in the ensuing silence, growing heavier and more suffocating with each passing second that he received no answer.
Apprehension gnawed at him, eating away his confidence as thoughts raced through his mind. He understood that he had to say what he did, but…but if he was wrong, and Bruce really didn't want to hear it…What did Bruce think of him now? Did Bruce realize just how fragile he really was? Was he surprised by his hesitant disclosure, or just by how pathetic he sounded?
But after what felt like an eternity, everything – his musing, his breath, his heart – came to a sudden stop when he felt a weight rest on his head…something so heavy, yet impossibly gentle. A little startled, he looked up, past the hand on his head, at Bruce's face and caught the small, faint smile on the man's lips.
It was just that small gesture – the tiny, barely-there smile that ghosted on the face of the man he admire so much – that finally unraveled all Dick's resolve. All his burdens and doubts, all his anxieties – all his fears – came pouring out, burning his eyes as they streamed down his face. At that moment, he felt like a kid again; the small child who just lost his parents, waking from another nightmare and needing his despair chased away by the man who took him in…the man who helped him start over, by being the first person in his new family.
No longer caring about appearances or pretenses…about how he was 'supposed' to act or 'supposed' to be, Dick wrapped his arms around the man in front of him – his guardian, his mentor, his father – and clung to him tightly, as if Bruce would disappear if he let go. And for all he knew, after everything he experienced recently, it was very possible that Bruce could.
Then, in the midst of his tears and trembling, he felt an arm wrap around his shoulders, holding him, pulling him close. The arm, the figure, the embrace…it was all heavy and strong and comforting and warm and familiar and so…safe.
It was enough for Dick to feel – even if it was only for that one moment, for a little while – that everything would be all right.