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"I liked you better when I thought you were going to bust me!"

Alfred suppressed a smile as young Dick stormed up the stairs. The dramatic display was a far cry from the meek, diffident presence the boy had evinced when he'd first moved into the Manor two months ago.

"Well, I liked you better when you called me 'Boss'!"

Lifting a pointed brow, Alfred regarded his former charge as the man shouted up the staircase, going so far as to shake a fist after the departing teenager. Bruce at least had the grace to look abashed when he noticed his audience.

"All I did was ask why he didn't want to go riding tomorrow when he'd always liked it before," he protested preemptively.

"Hm." He chose not to comment, having made many suggestions that wound up dismissed in the past.

"That's not even the point, Alfred." Bruce sighed and scratched clawed fingers through his hair. "We haven't been getting along for weeks. Anything I say sets him off the wrong way. What's the matter with him? Do you think I should contact a psychologist?"

Alfred had to chuckle then. "He isn't ill, Master Bruce. He's simply growing up, as children do."

Bruce shook his head, clearly skeptical. "I should call Leslie at least. What if he has some kind of brain fever or something? All that time he spent facing off with those crazy criminals, Isley and Crane and who knows who else... What was I thinking, putting him out there like that? He could have picked up something fatal!"

"As I recall, he was going against orders doing so."

"It doesn't matter. He wouldn't have been in that position if it weren't for me."

One of the first rules of being a personal valet was to know when to simply accept one's master's words and move on. "If it makes you feel better, we can move Master Dick's next checkup to earlier in the month. I doubt the boy will thank you for it, though."

"It's not his choice to make. He could be dying of some chemical exposure we haven't noticed yet. We could skip Leslie altogether and call in a specialist. A toxicologist first, or a neurologist? Maybe an endocrinologist would be helpful, too. Or a serologist might be first priority. We need to be methodical about this. What do you think, Alfred?"

"I think that you should stop looking for outside forces. It's perfectly normal for conflicts to occur. We are just settling in together, after all. Don't forget that Master Robin had rather an overabundance of freedom before coming to stay with us. You can't expect him to simply accept our lifestyle so quickly."

The spirit seemed to go out of Bruce. "You really think that's it?"

"Speaking as the former guardian of a sullen teenaged boy, I say that is the most likely hypothesis, yes."

Bruce groaned. "Then that proves it. This was a mistake. He obviously hates it here."

"On the contrary, sir. I believe he is finally comfortable enough in his place here to begin expressing his true feelings to you."

"And his true feelings are that he hates it here."

"Bruce." Alfred frowned severely. Such nonsense had its limits, after all. "Do stop being so impossibly dense. It reflects poorly on my manner of upbringing."

Bruce snapped his mouth shut around a retort and nodded. "Let's give it another week, then?" he suggested, sounding rather like his younger self when caught out committing mischief.

Alfred smothered another indulgent smile. "Let's."

***

"How about we go see the elephants next."

"Okay." Dick put on a smile. They'd only been at the Gotham Zoo for an hour or so, but he already wanted to leave. He knew Bruce was doing this for him, and it was fun, seeing all the animals, especially the ones he'd never even heard of. At the same time, though, it made him miss all his non-human friends from the circus. He didn't even know where they had wound up.

"You know, we had a new transfer recently," said their guide, a tall middle-aged woman with wispy brown hair. "She's still in quarantine for now, but she makes her debut next week. In fact, we have Mr. Wayne to thank for it."

"Oh?" Dick frowned at his guardian, who merely looked as enigmatic as ever.

"We've made special arrangements for you to meet our new resident."

"Uh, okay."

The elephant exhibit consisted of an island dotted with palm trees and large boulders. Here and there, baskets of hay hung from the trees, and two huge troughs of water stood at the base of the cliffs that formed the back of the enclosure. Dick smiled for real this time, watching as one elephant sprayed water over herself in a shower.

They were led along a trail labeled "Official Personnel Only", where their guide unlocked a gate for them into the back yard. Smells of sawdust and hay had Dick looking around uncomfortably even before they entered. The last time he'd walked across sawdust had been when Pop Haly and Danny finally dragged him away from his parents' bodies, to make room for the police. He told himself he was being silly.

"Dick?"

Bruce was frowning at him.

"Huh?" he replied, feigning innocence.

Bruce's gaze didn't waver, but before he could say anything, their guide, oblivious to the tensions behind her, ushered them towards a large shed.

"Right this way! The newest addition to Elephant Isle. An Asian elephant bred in the States. She's coming up on her thirtieth birthday in a few months. That will be quite the event. They can live to their eighties, you know. She's a beauty, and in wonderful health. We're lucky to have her. She used to perform in a circus, can you believe it? Most of those places don't take very good care of their animals."

Dick had been nodding by rote up until the last part. He snuck a glance at Bruce as their guide swung open the door. Bruce had on a completely bland expression -- which told Dick that something had to be up. He nearly bumped into their guide as he ducked under her arms to get inside that little bit faster.

It took him a few seconds to get used to the dim lighting. A massive shape in the backmost stall of the structure shook her head ponderously back and forth and snuffled. Dick thought his heart would beat out of his chest.

It was impossible. But he couldn't be mistaken. But it was impossible.

"Zitka!" Dick ran down the aisle towards his friend.

"What--? Richard! Stop! Mr. Wayne, she's very gentle, but no large animal can be trusted until-- Richard, dear, don't go in there!"

He heard the running footsteps chasing him, but he was too fast. In a trice, he had scaled the gate and then he was hurling himself through the air, arms and legs tight together as he'd done since he was four years old.

He remembered only at the last second that he wasn't a little boy anymore, and Zitka might not even remember him -- but she ducked her head and curled her trunk at just the right angle to catch him as easily as ever. The room whirled over his head as he flipped forward into a handstand on the knob at the back of her head. He laughed as she nudged him playfully, causing him to sprawl over her shoulders. Looking down at her large liquid left eye, he could swear that she was laughing at him. At a soft whistle from him, she curled her sinuous trunk around his torso and picked him up -- upside down.

"Oh my god!" Dick heard their guide shout. A quick glance saw her standing on the middle rung of the gate, one arm reaching out to him. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Wayne. She's never acted this way before. Young man, stop struggling. You'll only agitate her. Zitka! Down!" He saw her go for the elephant hook on the wall, but Bruce held her back and said something in her ear. She stared at him but stopped.

Assured they would remain uninterrupted, Dick continued the show. "No, Zitka! Bad girl!" Dick scolded for the benefit of their audience. "The other way! The other way." Ignoring his cries and theatric kicking, she instead followed his quiet, "Dink lasch, Zitka." She carried him over to the water trough at the end of her stall and dumped him in.

The shriek their guide let out was worth getting dunked.

Dick popped out with a splash, laughing uncontrollably. Even Bruce, behind her, was cracking a smile and apparently trying to hold in a chuckle or two. "It's okay!" he called, afraid that the panicked woman was about to have a heart attack. "She was just following my commands. She's not dangerous, I swear. Zitka's one of my best friends. She would never hurt me."

"Your-- What?"

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Jorden." Bruce took the their guide's arm and murmured to her in explanation and apology. "I didn't know this would happen either, but I'm afraid I did take advantage of the fact that you're new to Gotham. I wanted to keep this a surprise."

Apparently, the Wayne charm worked on her just as well, as the woman calmed down enough to begin patting her hair back into place, as well as regaining coherency. "Well, I was sure surprised, sir," she sputtered.

"Don't worry," Dick called. "This is just one of the acts we used to do. Hee-up, Zitka." He held up his arms and jumped, and Zitka assisted him up to her back, easy as you please. Water flew in an arc from the edge of his soaked jacket.

"I see."

Atop her shoulders, he hugged what he could of her great neck, burying his face in her rough hide and short bristly hairs. The familiar smells of dust and hay and elephant were so good. "Oh, Zitka... Zitka."

Water streamed down her sides from his soaked clothing and hair. No one would notice a few drops more.

Later, after they bade farewell to the much-beleaguered Mrs. Jorden, they took a stroll through the rest of the zoo, waiting for the summer heat to dry Dick's clothes.

"I'm sorry, Dick," Bruce said, as they stood in front of the fruit bat exhibit at The House of Creepy Crawlies. "The zoo simply doesn't have room for the other animals, but I made sure that they are all comfortable where they are."

Dick couldn't do anything except nod. If he tried to speak, he'd be sure to embarrass himself.

"Wayne Enterprises sponsors the elephant exhibit now. You have a lifetime pass, so you can visit as often as you like."

Unable to contain himself, Dick hugged the man tightly. Bruce would just have to deal with getting his clothes damp. "Thank you."

***

Dick began listing to the side almost as soon as the car pulled away from the curb. Bruce watched with part amazement and part amusement. It was a fascinating transformation.

It had been, admittedly, a rather harrowing night for the boy. Dick, dressed to the nines in a suit that was a miniature of Bruce's own -- with the addition of bright red sequins on his bowtie and handkerchief square -- had allowed the women to pinch his cheeks and the men to sock his arm and ruffle his hair for three solid hours. He'd been polite and ingratiating and told everyone how happy he was to be living with Bruce, how lucky, how grateful he was to have been saved from the current terrible conditions of Gotham's orphanages. He had tugged on everyone's heartstrings without once seeming insincere or melodramatic.

He had been, in short, perfect. Bruce estimated they had collected over five million in donations tonight for the Gotham Orphans Fund, operated in partnership with the Wayne Foundation.

It was no wonder the boy was exhausted.

By the time they'd gone a mile, Dick was almost hanging over the center of the seat, his seat belt the only thing keeping him from falling flat on his side.

Sighing, Bruce unclipped his own seat belt and scooted over so he could lean Dick's head on his arm. Dick barely stirred except to wince as the light from an oncoming car flashed briefly in his face. Automatically, Bruce raised a hand to cover his eyes for him. And then it seemed natural to keep his hand on the boy's head, to keep it from slipping from its makeshift pillow.

Bruce remembered evenings like this when he was very young. When he had finally gotten old enough to join his parents at their parties, he had inevitably wound up passed out in the back seat by the end of them. Sometimes his father drove and other times they had a driver, but his mother always stayed in the back with him. He remembered her, perfumed and slightly silly with the late hour -- and tipsy, he realized, looking back on it when he was older. His mother would sing to him, or hum quietly. She would stroke his hair just like this and tell him she loved him...

Dick stirred slightly and mumbled, "Me, too."

Bruce froze, blushing madly. He hadn't realized he had spoken out loud.

When he looked in the rear-view mirror, Alfred's eyes were crinkled in a smile.

***

Dick could have avoided it. Should have been able to, anyway. It was so unexpected, though, that he didn't even register what had happened until he was opening his eyes to see the fireplace sideways in front of him. Pain throbbed across his left cheek, and he tasted blood. His right arm burned where he had evidently slid across the rug with the force of his fall.

"Master Bruce!" Alfred cried out, sounding as shocked as Dick had ever heard him.

Instincts prompted Dick to roll quickly to his feet, ready to move even before his vision had quite cleared. His attacker, however, hadn't moved from where he'd stood up from the sofa.

Bruce glared at Dick for a moment. The look broke when he glanced at Alfred, though, and he turned quickly and left the room without a word, shoulders stiff.

Alfred seemed about to follow him, but hesitated, then came to Dick's side instead.

"Dear boy, let me see," he said softly, reaching for Dick's face.

"It's okay, Alfred." He ducked away from the old butler's touch. "I'm fine. He didn't hit me that hard." He knew by now what a real punch felt like, and that hadn't been it. Bruce trained in jujitsu and boxing and fencing. If he'd actually been trying, Dick would still be on the floor now.

Dick wiped his mouth, but it came away clean. The cut was only on the inside, then. Good. He wouldn't have to come up with some excuse for the teachers and kids at school tomorrow.

"Some ice, at least, will help."

"Yeah, okay. Thanks." He trailed after Alfred into the kitchen and took the ice bag when it was ready. Alfred hovered, looking flustered and quietly furious.

"I'll have a stern word with him. I can't imagine what possessed him..."

"No, really. It's okay. I deserved that."

"You deserved no such thing."

Dick shrugged. He didn't know how to explain it so that Alfred could understand. He'd been waiting for something like this. In all honesty, he was relieved, because he knew Bruce's limit now. It wasn't like he'd actively been pushing the man, but now that he knew, he felt better -- more comfortable in this house and his place in it.

"I'm just going to go to bed, okay? School day tomorrow."

Alfred sighed. "Very well, Master Dick. But I will be speaking to Bruce about this."

"Go easy on the big guy."

Alfred didn't return his smile.

Dick was laying on his bed hours later, trying to sleep but actually staring at not much of anything, when he heard the knock. It was quiet and brief, as if its owner hoped he wouldn't be heard. It was entirely different from Alfred's deferential but crisp request for entry.

Dick was surprised. He'd expected Bruce to put it off until at least tomorrow. "Come in," he called, sitting up.

Bruce opened the door and stood there for a moment before entering. He cleared his throat. "Mind if I turn on the lights?"

"Sure."

The lights popped on, making Dick flinch even though he'd been ready for it.

Wordlessly, Dick picked up Kimba from next to his pillow and handed him to Bruce as the man approached. Bruce smiled a little wryly, but took the toy lion and stroked the wild mane for a while before sitting down and placing it in his lap. Dick did the same with Zitka, settling himself cross-legged next to his guardian. He hugged the large plush doll to his chest.

Most kids would tell him that he was too old for dolls, but he hadn't much cared what other people thought back when he'd worn sequined tights, nor when he'd dug through the park trash cans for bottles to sell so he could buy an apple. He wasn't about to care now.

Bruce cleared his throat again and rearranged Kimba's legs minisculely. "I'll contact Child Services tomorrow morning and have them make the arrangements for you to live somewhere else from now on," he said quietly, making Dick freeze in shock. "We'll make sure you're placed in a good family, of course. Or if one isn't available, the orphanage can--"

"Like hell." Bruce frowned and looked him in the eye for the first time since he'd entered the room, which made Dick snap, "Don't even--! If you're kicking me out you've got no right to lecture me about language."

"I'm not kicking you out."

"That's sure what it sounds like. I can't believe you. You promised! You said you would never send me away."

"I said you were free to go anytime."

"You said that I could stay as long as I damn well wanted to."

Bruce sighed in obvious frustration. "You can't allow me to hurt you. I took you in to keep things like this from happening."

"I'm fine. You barely touched me."

"I think I know what I'm capable of."

"You still can't take me, General. Not when I fight dirty." He wasn't sure why he was purposely provoking Bruce, other than that he wanted to distract him from his apparent goal to kick Dick out of the best home he'd ever have after his time with his parents in Haly's Circus.

Bruce set Kimba at the foot of the bed and turned to face Dick fully. Dick was reminded how massive the man was, how broad his shoulders were, how big his hands. Yet Dick had never felt afraid of him. Maybe it was because Bruce spent his whole life saving people from getting hurt. How could you be afraid of someone like that?

"My father never laid a hand on me, not even when I too young to be reasoned with. It was his firm belief as a parent and a doctor that children should never be struck."

Dick shrugged away the intensity of Bruce's gaze. "My dad walloped me a couple of times."

"He did?" Bruce looked shocked. Dick supposed that in his head, any good dad had to be exactly like the hallowed Dr. Thomas Wayne. Dick winced inwardly at his own mocking thought, quickly wishing no disrespect to Bruce's dad.

"It wasn't a big deal. I deserved it." Dick grinned, remembering. "I almost set fire to one of the wagons one time. And the other time, I stole Cecil's wig just before a show. I was getting back at him for cheating Dad at cards, but you're not supposed to ruin a show. Ever. Dad couldn't hit me then, because I had to perform, but boy did he make up for it later."

"If you were old enough to steal things, you were certainly old enough to learn from noncorporal punishment. There are plenty of non-violent ways to discipline a child." For all that his words were stern, Bruce looked more confused than anything else.

"Well, what did your dad do if you did something bad?"

"Different things, but most often, he made me sit and memorize a page of the unabridged dictionary and recite it to him before I was allowed out of my chair."

Dick made a face. He'd seen the dictionary in the Manor's library. It was so huge it had its own podium to rest on. "I would've rather been spanked, honestly. Dad used to say, no cirky worth his salt got through childhood without at least one well-deserved whupping."

Bruce's dark brows lowered. "And you think what I did was deserved?"

He hugged Zitka a little closer. "I shouldn't have said that about your parents," he admitted. "It was really lousy of me."

"That... doesn't excuse my actions."

"If you'd said that about my folks, I would've hit you a lot more and a lot harder." It was nothing but the truth, but he could tell that Bruce was still dissatisfied. He sighed. "Okay, what if I just hit you back? Even, Steven."

He and Speedy has used to get in fights now and then. Once they squared away who hit who, they got over it. Bruce, however, looked startled. "Violence is not the answer," he said, stiffly offended.

"Really?" Dick scoffed. "Is that why your agents beat up all the muggers and murderers in Gotham?"

"That's different."

"Sure."

"Damn it, Dick--"

"Watch your language," Dick interrupted, just to be cheeky. Indeed, Bruce glared at him.

"You have to promise me, if I ever do that again..."

Dick huffed a sigh. He shouldn't be surprised anymore at Bruce's tenacity in getting what he wanted. "Bruce, it doesn't matter."

"Promise me," Bruce spoke over him loudly. "If I ever strike you again, you have to tell someone about it. Your teacher, or the police."

"But they'd take me away." Dick knew how these things worked. "I don't want to leave. You can't make me," he said stubbornly, even though he knew that wasn't true at all. If Bruce ever decided he didn't want Dick around anymore, Dick would be out on his ass in no time.

"Dick, that's not--" Bruce groaned and rubbed his temple. "How about a compromise, then? If I ever harm you again, you'll tell Alfred. Deal?"

Grateful for the end to the conversation, Dick answered immediately, "Deal."

Bruce saw through that as quickly as he normally did. "You have to mean it," he admonished. "This is important."

"Deal," Dick repeated, with more emphasis, and -- he hoped -- more perceived sincerity. Thinking quickly, he said, "Wait, one condition."

"Yes, anything. Ah, within reason, of course."

Dick grinned. "Memorize a page of the dictionary and recite it to me tomorrow."

For a moment, Bruce's expression darkened, and Dick was sure his little ploy was transparent to the man. But then Bruce laughed. "Very well," he agreed. "You can choose the page."

"You sure you've still got it?"

"Don't underestimate me."

"You can say that after you've done it."

"I will."

It'd worked. The sense of weight in the room had all but vanished. Apparently satisfied, Bruce stood. There was a moment of awkwardness when he made an aborted move toward Dick, perhaps to pat his shoulder or ruffle his hair as he sometimes did when feeling especially affectionate. Dick still had to train Bruce and Alfred to hug properly.

"Goodnight, Dick," he finally said, standing.

"Goodnight, Bruce." The man looked back once at the door before pulling it closed.

After Bruce left, Dick put Zitka back on the shelf, stroking her trunk once. Then he retrieved Kimba from the foot of the bed.

"He can't make me tell," he whispered into the lion's furry ear. Smugly satisfied, he replaced the stuffed animal by his bed and crawled back under the covers.

***

"Yes, yes, come on, almost-- Yes! Three, four, five... No, oh no. Yes!"

Bruce entered the living room cautiously, not because Dick would mind him being there, but because he wanted to see the boy in this candid moment.

Dick, eyes glued to the television screen, was leaning forward as if he could climb inside of it. He quivered as if he were the one spinning on the pommel horse, executing one move after the other in smooth succession. Barely breathing, he alternately whispered and shouted running commentary.

It wasn't surprising that Men's Gymnastics was the Olympics event that most fascinated Dick.

Dick still visited the Park Street Shelter to practice on the gymnastics and trapeze equipment Bruce had had set up for him. He had excelled at martial arts, too, after Bruce started him in training. But before this, Dick hadn't just exercised, he had performed. A televised sport highlighting strength, endurance, and the ability to perform gravity-defying moves was exactly up his alley.

Bruce entered the room fully, and Dick spared him only a glance and a fleeting smile of acknowledgement.

"You could do that," Bruce said, after the current competitor dismounted and was met by his coach back at the benches.

"What?" Bruce gestured at the screen, and Dick glanced over again. "Oh," he replied off-handedly. The camera zeroed in on the debating judges. "Naw, I'm too old."

"You're only fourteen. How is that 'old'?"

Dick sighed in that way that Bruce had come to understand as short-hand for, You don't understand. "I'm almost fifteen. And the ones who are good at this, they start training when they're little kids."

"You've been training since you were four," Bruce pointed out reasonably.

"It's not the same. All that time I was-- out, it's too much. I'm growing now. My body's all messed up. The muscles won't develop right. I'd never catch up."

"Dick, you don't have to win any medals. You just have to want to do it. So the question is, is this something you want?"

"It doesn't matter what I want. I'm telling you, I can't do it."

"Stop that," Bruce snapped. Dick flinched and shut his mouth. His ridiculous lack of confidence was always a sore topic between them. Bruce tried to be patient, but sometimes it was simply impossible to humor the boy anymore. "You've told meyourself that you were born to fly. If you're just fishing for reassurance, I'm not going to give it to you."

"I wasn't..." the boy mumbled.

"Is this something you want or not?"

"I--" Dick stared back at him, in a clear agony of indecision. He glanced at the TV, gripping the remote hard in his hand. "I do want to," he finally said. "But--"

"Then you can. I'll hire you a coach."

Dick sprang to his feet. "Don't. Don't do that, Bruce." Behind him, the announcer read off the scores, ignored by both occupants of the room.

"What? Give you what you want?"

"You know what! Do things without asking."

"What are you afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid."

"You said you wanted this. What's the problem?"

Dick scowled and threw the remote at the sofa. It bounced and barely missed falling to the floor. "My parents were famous. I used to be famous. I was the first kid in twenty years to do a quadruple somersault without a net. If I can't even--" Dick's face twisted and he finished in a rush: "I don't want Mom and Dad to be disappointed in me."

"Your parents would be proud of you no matter what." And they're hardly in any position to dictate what you do anymore, Bruce managed not to add. He did possess some tact.

"But if I can't do it--"

"You can."

"Stop it. Stop assuming things like that!"

Bruce hesitated. He thought if he pushed, Dick would give way, but... what was the point? Even if he knew Dick would relish the sport once he got into it, forcing him would make him furious at Bruce in the short run. "How about we at least get you enrolled in a gymnastics program at your school? Then you can see if you like it."

A thoughtful look spread slowly across Dick's face. "Okay. That's a good idea."

"I have them occasionally."

***

Alfred found Master Dick in his room, pulling on a hooded sweatshirt. Beside his booted feet was an oblong shape wrapped in a towel. Ah, so that was where the leftover banana bread had gone. A glance at the dresser showed that the boy had packed his pocket knife but was planning to leave his wristwatch behind.

As a former classical actor, Alfred was practiced in studying how a body portrayed emotions through position and motion. He saw now a youth with a simmering anger and a deep-seated resolve. The situation was serious.

"Young man, what are you doing?"

Dick froze a moment. Then, with his characteristic fearlessness, he replied, "I'm leaving, and you're not going to stop me."

"Indeed?" Alfred entered the room, counting on Dick's trust in him not to bolt through the door to the adjoining study. Dick tensed, but allowed Alfred to approach. "Might I ask why?"

"You heard him at dinner."

"I believe half of Gotham Heights heard the both of you at dinner, yes."

Dick scowled at the reproof. "He's doing that crazy thing again. He freaks out when I do anything that surprises him even a little bit."

"Master Bruce can be... abrasive at times," he acknowledged. "But you should be used to that by now."

"It's not just that. It's everything. I can't stand it anymore! The aikido, the gymnastics, fine. Then he started with the stupid language and diction lessons. And then he wanted to 'help me' pick out what clubs to join, and what classes to take. How I dress, what friends I have... everything has to be his way or else. He promised me when I moved in that I'd never have to do anything I didn't want. He promised."

"I know it's hard to appreciate right now, but I assure you he only has your best interests at heart."

"I know why he's doing it. He wants to control where I go and what I do. He treats me like I'm going to go rogue on him or something."

"He is concerned about you, yes. You can't expect him to ignore it when you get into fights at school."

"The guy was a stupid bully, and Bruce knew it. But he took their side anyway. Besides, I barely bruised him a little. Back on the streets, I broke a kid's nose once -- he couldn't've been older than ten -- and he'd never even think of running to mommy. If he even had a mommy to run to, that is. 'Cause most of us didn't."

"Oh, yes, such mature, hardened young men you all were, back then."

"Alfred," the boy whined.

"I know Master Bruce can be a difficult man to live with. Be that as it may, as your legal guardian, he has certain responsibilities--"

"To 'keep the little thug in line'?" Dick scowled at Alfred's raised eyebrow. "Yeah, I was eavesdropping. But, if that's how Bruce lets other people talk about me..."

"If you were indeed listening to the entire conversation, then you would have heard Master Bruce chastising Principal Reinherdt severely over his phrasing."

"But he still grounded me. And he let them kick me out of their stupid, fancy school."

"You know very well you were punished for your lack of restraint, not as support for young Mr. Faraday's treatment of you and the other pupils he terrorized." He ignored the soft snort upon hearing 'Mr. Faraday'. "As for leaving Lichenstein's... well. Master Bruce agreed that it was not a suitable place for you. We should have realized sooner."

"That I'd never hack it at some rich kid's school?"

"That an institution built on rules and reserve would hardly be appealing to you," Alfred corrected.

Chastised, Dick turned his gaze out the window when he said, softly, "I did try to fit in."

"I know you did. And it's a shame you were put in a difficult position for so long. Things will be more comfortable once you are in public school."

Being from a strikingly different background and also a year behind his peers, young Dick had started off on the wrong foot with both peers and instructors, through no fault of his own. Beating out one of the more popular students in the gymnastics program at a recent competition had been the last straw. The boy had borne a frightful amount of unpleasantness that they had only learned about recently. Alfred knew Bruce enough to see that the man was angry at himself, but he unfortunately directed much of his temper at the boy.

"It doesn't matter because I'm not going to whatever new school Bruce has picked out for me this time. I'd just get in trouble again, anyway."

"Let us worry about that if it happens, and be optimistic in the meantime."

"I told you, I've already made up my mind."

Studying his expression, inwardly, Alfred sighed. In some ways, it was almost like the young master actually shared family traits with Bruce. "Young sir," he said briskly, taking on a no-nonsense air, "I simply cannot allow you to leave--" Dick, looking mutinous, started to speak, but Alfred continued smoothly, "--without packing the proper provisions."

"The... what?"

Alfred gave the Gotham Knights sweatshirt Dick had on a dismissive once-over. "Surely, you will need a better coat. And a good store of food. It'll be a while before you've worked out the proper networks and methods to acquire more. Certain essentials can't be forgotten, such as a toothbrush and matches and at least one pair of spare socks."

"But--"

"I will not allow you to live on the streets again without adequate protection against both the cold and gingivitis."

Dick stood, looking confused. Good.

"Why don't you wait here and think about what else you might need. Meanwhile, I'll get some more appropriate clothing from storage. And I'll be sure to pack some of your favorite peanut butter raisin cookies -- high in protein and sugars, you know. And other odds and ends you might need."

"Um."

"Very good. And do close that window. You're letting the damp in. It'll damage the wallpaper."

Dick moved to comply. He had his hand on the frame when all of a sudden, the door exploded inward. Master Bruce stood there, heaving. Enraged.

"You're running away?" he demanded, brandishing a piece of paper in one hand. Alfred recognized Dick's strong handwriting with its sprawling letters interspersed with large loops.

Oh, dear. Alfred hadn't thought of that.

Dick took one look at Bruce's stormy expression, then -- prompting Alfred to shout in horror -- turned and leaped out of the open third-story window.

"Dick!" Bruce sprang across the room, catching himself on the windowsill. Alfred hurried forward as well and saw the boy catch a branch of the oak outside. He swung forward as if on his gymnastics high bars, let go at the apex of his swing, and landed with a solid thump, spraying crystals of snow from the ground. Evidently, the improvisory acrobatics had caused no harm, since he immediately took off running for the front gate. He was quite without his scarf and hat in the icy snow, much less the provisions Alfred had bamboozled him into waiting for.

Sighing in relief mixed with exasperation, Alfred turned to Bruce. "Master Bruce, we must-- What the devil do you think you are doing?" he exclaimed, as Bruce hoisted himself onto the casement.

Bruce didn't answer but launched himself out in the boy's wake. "Bruce!" Alfred yelled after him, disbelieving and downright furious. He watched as the boy he had raised to a young man caught hold of the same branch Dick had, slipped, caught the branch below that one, then dropped quite gracelessly to the ground. "Young sir, you had better return right this instant!" he yelled, not exactly sure which person he was speaking to at the moment.

Dick paused and turned to look at the sound of Bruce's landing. His expression of shock might have been comical had Alfred been in a more forgiving mood. Pumping his arms madly, the boy ran pell-mell for the front gate. Bruce had every security system known to mankind (and WayneTech's R&D division) installed on the premises. However, Dick had access to most of them and could work his way around the rest. If he were quick enough about it, Bruce wouldn't have a chance of catching up to him.

"Dick! Wait!" Bruce lurched after his ward but dropped to the ground with a groan. The boy must've heard it, too, because he slowed and looked back, though he didn't return, his body language plainly suspicious. "Alfred!" Bruce called up to him. "I think I've broken my ankle." A clever ruse, Alfred had to admit, when he heard Dick gasp.

"I'll be right down, sir," he called out, knowing he was, instead, to take his time, giving Bruce a chance to lure the boy back with further stoic theatrics. Like a sane, civilized person, therefore (the only one in this household, apparently), Alfred took the stairs. And put on a warm hat.

By the time he'd arrived at the scene with first aid supplies in hand, Master Dick was indeed crouched down a few feet from his guardian. When Dick turned toward the sound of his footsteps, Alfred experienced a twinge of worry. The boy's face was drawn.

"Hurry, Alfred! He's hurt really bad."

"I'm... all right," Bruce gritted out on cue. His labored breathing making his voice harsh. Had he always been that good of an actor?

Alarmed, Alfred hurried toward them. Dear Lord, if the man had truly injured himself with his ridiculous stunt... Forcing his voice to calm, he chided the man, "We can't all be flying daredevils, Master Bruce."

"Just... help me."

"Do you-- Can I help?" Dick asked anxiously, edging closer.

Alfred handed him the first aid kit. "Here, son. Hold this while I check him over." He pushed the pants leg up of the leg Bruce was favoring and felt around the ankle area. Yes, there was some swelling. It was rather minor, he was relieved to notice. He'd only--

"Got you!"

Alfred fell back in surprise even as the boy shrieked in fury, struggling against Bruce, who had pounced on him and borne him to the hard-packed ground. The first aid kit was flung to the ground and burst open, scattering clean bandages and tubes of ointment and sealed painkillers everywhere.

"Master Bruce!" Alfred shouted. "Master Dick, stop that at once," he admonished in turn, when the boy kicked Bruce in the gut, hard. Bruce grunted but he did not let go. He pulled the boy around and pinned him face-down like a criminal, legs spread and arms twisted painfully back.

"You think you can get away from me that easily?" Bruce growled menacingly.

Abruptly, the boy went limp. "Stop, please!" he pleaded in a quavering voice. "I'm sorry. I'll be good, please, Daddy, don't hurt me."

With a horrified expression, Bruce let go. "Robin, I--" It was his turn to yelp when Dick's fist met his nose. Bright scarlet sprayed sideways from the force of the blow.

"You bastard son of a two-headed zebra!" the boy cursed, rolling to a standing position. "I was actually worried about you!" Instead of running now he was free, he aimed a kick at Bruce's bleeding face.

Bruce caught the leg and rolled, pulling Dick off-balance even as he himself gained his feet. Dick followed the movement, then used the momentum to twist free. Turning a quick roundoff, he narrowly missed Bruce's torso with his bootheels, dodged a right hook, then got tripped by a quick sweep of Bruce's much longer legs. On the ground didn't mean defeated, of course. With a last minute knee lock, he brought Bruce down with him. The two grappled, rolling and grunting.

"Gentlemen!" Alfred scolded, and had to dodge a stray punch. Sighing forcefully, he stooped to gather up what he could of the supplies that had not been trampled or contaminated, the battle raging back and forth around him. When he was done, he put the half-empty first aid kit out of range of fire, then waded back into the fray.

He started by gathering an armful of snow, choosing the right moment -- and dumping it over the struggling boys' heads.

"What--?"

"Hey--!"

All of his directors and fellow actors had always told him that his sense of timing was impeccable.

Sputtering, the two separated enough to start brushing ice out of their faces and hair, looking around for the source of the bombardment. Alfred was reminded of advice his own now dearly departed father had once given him about dog fights: Never try to pull them apart by force. Instead, spray them with a garden hose. It won't hurt them, and the surprise will distract them enough to listen to your orders.

Alfred often felt that raising boys was quite like that.

"That's quite enough," he proclaimed firmly. He saw the mutiny rise once more in their expressions. Not giving them a chance to act, he pointed at his older charge with an imperious look that caused Bruce to wilt slightly.

"Master Bruce, get inside and off of that ankle at once!" He waited for Bruce to nod his assent before turning to glare at the younger of the two miscreants. "And you, Master Dick. We do not run away from home simply because we are angry, and especially not in the dead of winter with no provisions whatsoever. You're almost a man now and are expected to have some sense. You are free to discuss Master Bruce's overbearing ways" -- Bruce grunted but didn't otherwise interrupt -- "indoors and after your tempers have cooled."

Dick mumbled something that might generously be called an apology. Huffing, Alfred retrieved the first aid kit with swift, economical movements and started toward the house, expecting the boys to follow. They did. He held the door open for them and was pleased to see Dick supporting Bruce's injured side.

"I hope we've all learned something today?" he admonished them once more as they passed.

"Don't mess with Alfred?" Dick suggested.

Alfred started to rebuke the cheeky little scamp, but he was stopped by the sight of an edge of a smile on Bruce's downturned face. So instead, he drew himself up straight.

"Quite right."

***

Being a high school football coach was tough. Brad knew that. There was politics and testosterone and bullies and relationship drama and family situations and grade point averages and drugs. It was worth it, though. Watching these kids learn confidence and teamwork, watching them succeed, was the best job of all -- even if sometimes problems were a little more... bizarre than usual.

"Coach!"

Brad closed the office door behind him and crossed his arms. "You wanted to see me, Tom?"

"I want you to look at this." Principal Thomas Wolfe gestured widely at the screen of a portable TV/VCR combo in the corner of his room. It was currently playing the last few minutes or so of a video that Brad knew well. Two teams of kids were ranged on the school football field in the middle of a play. One side was in their school colors. The other side, though using the same protective gear, was in an assortment of mismatched exercise clothing, though they all wore a bright pink ribbon tied over their left biceps.

"This kid is amazing!" Tom exclaimed, pointing at a slim kid in a grey sweatshirt whom Brad recognized as the quarterback of the mismatched team. He was currently running the ball down the outside edge of the defense's twenty-yard line. Reggie Oliver, one of Brad's corners, charged at him, driving him toward the side. The kid ducked and danced around him, and when Oliver made a grab for him, he whirled right at the edge of bounds and made a sort of sideways ballet-ish hop complete with legs split in a perfect line, saving him from overshooting and causing Oliver to stumble past him instead.

The cameraman was evidently filming from partway up the bleachers, close enough to catch what sounded like laughter from the running boy as his would-be tackler hit the turf. He kept running, not missing a stride.

"Who the hell is he, and why isn't he on our team? He's been running circles around our guys all game!"

Brad sighed. "His name's Richard Grayson. He's a sophomore. And technically, he is on our team. He's captain of the gymnastics team."

"We have a gymnastics team?"

"Since beginning of this year, yes. Grayson started it."

"Well, get him on the football team, for Pete's sake! No one'd be able to touch him."

"I did ask. He said no. He's training for the Nationals."

"The what?"

"The National Championships. It's a gymnastics competition."

"What's he doing on our field then?"

Brad ran a hand over his close-cropped hair. "The way I piece it together, my boys were making some remarks around his team one day and the lot of them got in an argument. They decided to settle it by playing a half-hour game." No good coach let his team show up to practice with unexplained bruises and morale low enough to wipe up after an earthworm without demanding answers. It'd taken a long while to get the story out of the boys, but he'd done it eventually and even gotten ahold of a copy of the tape.

They both contemplated the screen as Neil Lloyd, the best safety Brad had trained since Neil's brother graduated three years ago, took a shot at taking down Grayson with a straight-on block. He should have known better by this late in the game. Indeed, Grayson hugged his arms in for a spurt of speed, then performed a running forward flip over the stunned boy's head, using Neil's padded right shoulder for a quick assist with his free arm.

"Is that legal?" Tom questioned as Neil wove a step under the weight, then turned to shout obscenities after Grayson.

Brad shrugged. "Nothing in the rule book says it's not. It wasn't a hold, and it wasn't unnecessary roughness. Hell, he barely touched him. I guess if there was a height requirement to plays, we might get him for running out of bounds."

Tom snorted. "He intercepted a kick earlier. Two of his guys tossed him up, and he caught the ball with his feet. What do you think the NFHS says about that?"

Again, Brad could only shrug. "Beats me. When he got to the ground, it was in his hand, though. They'd have to write up a new set of rules to address the stuff they do in this game."

"Is any of that legal?" Tom gestured at the screen, where the rest of the offense was engaged in some unorthodox blocking strategies that, while not as effective as usual techniques, kept enough members of the defense occupied to have an effect.

A couple of the heavier players flanked Grayson and grappled briefly with the players who got close, but the rest of the gym team were half the size of their opponents. No amount of stance or balance techniques would save them from being overpowered and outreached. Instead, they used what were, in effect, distance strikes, building up momentum with quick sprints before hurling themselves at opposing players in various configurations, though always avoiding elbows and legs and keeping scrupulously within frame.

Brad wondered how much of football rules they had known prior to this game and how long they'd had to prepare.

Tom grunted as one of the smallest players performed a favored move, a precisely aimed, surprisingly effective flying headbutt to the defense player's stomach. "That one's a scrapper. And fast. He's chased and taken down a guy every play and still not tired. If you can't get Grayson, try and get him. Once he's got some more muscle, he could be a good runner."

"Can't. She's already a cheerleader."

"Wait a minute. There're girls playing?" Tom sounded scandalized. Brad had been, too, at first. Now he was getting kind of inured to it.

"Most of the gym team is girls. They wouldn't be able to go up against another team in a real game, but they're plenty strong for their weight. Watch this last play here."

Grayson, finally cornered by two guys, leaped straight up, yelling something that sounded like "Hay-rob!" He threw the ball in a high long pass before Perry Lox and Chris Wyatt slammed him to the ground. A girl with brunette locks peeking out from under her helmet literally ran up a larger teammate's back to snatch the ball out of the air. She came down running and running hard. Her lithe form ate up the yards, weaving deftly between opposing players, contorting expertly to stay upright through dodges and hairpin turns. She even fended off more than one player with a firm straight arm.

Tom made an appreciative noise.

The girl circled a flurry of battling players and sprinted for the end zone just a few yards away. George McIgor made a last desperate dive. She leaped over his outstretched arms, tumbled once in midair over the zero yard line, and landed solidly on both feet. She teetered for a few seconds, not lifting her feet, then steadied herself and raised her arms in a gymnast salute. She lowered them a second later with a laugh that was echoed by the thus far silent cameraman.

"Eleven seconds left!" shouted a girl standing on the first row of bleachers below. She held up a stopwatch. "Concede?"

Brad's boys exchanged looks and shrugs, before nodding in unanimous defeat.

Yells carried over the field, centering around a quickly growing huddle of kids around the girl in the end zone who had scored their final touchdown. Grayson, seeming none the worse for wear after having had two angry guys on top of him just a moment ago, barreled in from the side to hug as many of the team he could fit his arms around. The view tilted as the cameraman ran down the bleacher steps to join in.

"Damn shame," Tom sighed.

Brad chuckled. "I'm not sure we could handle him. Or any of the rest of the team, for that matter."

"Still. A damn shame."

***

Bruce watched appreciatively (and enviously) as his ward whooped at the apex of his leap off the platform, the sound as weightless and free as he looked as he swung downward on the trapeze. He executed a perfect flip before catching the next bar in a solid grip. He let his body trail in a stiff hold for a second, then jackknifed forward flawlessly, assisting his momentum to carry him to the platform on the opposite side. Dick had been born for the center ring. His form in motion was a thing of perfection.

Bruce hadn't been in the least surprised when the premier trainer for gymnastics in the northwest had called them after seeing a video of Dick compete at the Statewides. Dick had been leery at first but had soon learned to thrive under the man's tutelage, his initial reticence completely overcome by the opportunity to train his body to do things that he'd never done even when he'd been a star trapeze artist.

Despite possible appearances for someone who didn't know Dick, this right here wasn't training. The bar, the rings, the pommel horse. Those were fun in their own way, but they were equipment. Work. This, however. This was pure play.

"Ready, old man?" Dick called, striking a jaunty pose.

"Hold your horses," Bruce replied. He pushed off from the platform himself, dropping toward the net before pumping himself higher. He had to hide the slight anxiety he felt whenever he tried this. He'd taken lessons, and practiced numerous times with his instructors, but he still felt unsure of himself with Dick watching. If he ever made a mistake, no matter how small, how would Dick take it? The net just a few yards below him at the nadir of his swing was reassuring.

When he felt ready, he let himself fall backwards, hooking his knees over the bar, and let go with his hands. He arched up to better spot Dick's position. "Ready!" he called.

He didn't try to sight Dick again, the room whirling past his eyes as he swung back again and then forward. But he listened carefully for the soft scuff of Dick's gym shoes off the platform, and his brief call, "Air!", signaling the beginning of his flight. Bruce held out his arms, monitoring the speed of his swing, calculating Dick's progress through the air, and--

THWAP!

Instantly, Bruce tightened his hold around Dick's wrists. His talc-covered palms didn't slip and his knees held both their weights as his trapeze swung back down. Dick's empty trapeze swung lazily away at the corner of his eyes. He heard Dick laughing, and he allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as well.

Then it was back and forth, stiff arms and a strong surge and a push and Dick was away again. Bruce sat back up quickly, but only in time to catch the last turn of Dick's flip and his safe return to his bar.

"Yes!"

He must have managed the triple. Bruce would have to watch the tape later to see for himself.

"Ready to go again?" Dick called. He'd turned himself around on the bar to face Bruce and was already pumping himself into a higher arc. His eyes shone with excitement.

"Ready when you are," Bruce replied, situating himself again for the next catch.

Ten minutes later found them both back on Bruce's platform, breathless, cheeks red from the rush of blood from their swings. He tossed Dick a towel as he wiped himself down with another. Dick twirled it in the air and did a frankly ridiculously elaborate bow to an imaginary audience. He popped back up and punched Bruce in the arm.

"Ow! I'm an injured man here," he mock-protested. "I barely got you those last two times."

"Aw, don't be so hard on yourself, Dad. You did great!"

Bruce felt his smile drop even as Dick's expression stiffened in a freeze-frame of shock.

"Uh. Bruce."

He didn't know if it was meant as a correction or if Dick was actually addressing him. Either way, he was ill-equipped to reply. As he stared, speechless, Dick's face went smoother. Blank.

"I-- I have to go."

The next moment, Dick was in motion, diving in a forward flip off of the platform. Bruce felt a moment of panic before -- of course -- Dick rebounded off the net below. He bounced to the edge, then rolled himself to the floor with smooth agility. He never looked back as he ran for the stairs.

Only then did Bruce slowly begin his own descent via the ladder.

It was less than an hour later when Dick came to find him in his study. He was freshly showered, his damp hair sticking up in a way that made him look very young.

"It's okay, Dick," Bruce said, wanting to pre-empt any embarrassing forthcoming apologies. "I'm sure your father -- your parents -- would understand. We were doing what you used to do with your family. It was easy to forget--"

"I meant you," Dick interrupted. His expression was earnest. Direct. Challenging. "It wasn't a mistake. You and Alfred. You are my family."

Robin's courage had always taken Bruce's breath away.

"Dad," Dick said, softly but with no hesitation, looking straight into Bruce's eyes. Bruce could imagine him staring at himself in the mirror, mouthing the single syllable, shaping it into a whisper, and then an actual word that could make sense to him out loud. "I've been calling you that in my head for a while now."

Bruce had no idea what to say to that. Luckily, Dick didn't seem to be looking for an answer.

"You're right. They would understand. I know they would. I just... needed some time to get used to it myself." He dropped his gaze for the first time. And I didn't know how you would like it."

Bruce hesitated, aware that he was on delicate ground. "I don't want to be disrespectful to your parents," he started carefully. Dick nodded. "But I don't mind." Feeling it needed more than that, he added hesitantly, "I'm honored."

Dick seemed to let out a breath. "Okay. Good."

***

Alfred had been badgering him to 'have a talk' with 'young Master Dick' for weeks now. Bruce couldn't imagine why. Dick seemed about the same as he usually did -- busy training, busy doing schoolwork, busy partying with his friends. It wasn't as if Bruce had spare time to force on a teenager who clearly didn't need it in any case.

However, he couldn't ignore Alfred for long. That was one of the constants of his life.

Trudging down the hall, he knocked on Dick's door. When had the kid started keeping his door closed, anyway? Music thumped and wailed through the barrier.

The door was opened a second later, rock music blaring more loudly from the stereo in the corner. Dick held his phone in his left hand. A welcoming smile lit his face. "Hey, Al--" Dick broke off his greeting, and his expression became muted. "Hi, Bruce," he amended, in a much stiffer tone.

"Could I come in?" he asked, glancing at the phone still in Dick's hand.

Dick shrugged, but stepped back and waved him inside. "Hey, I'll call you back," he said in an undertone into the phone before turning it off. He went to the stereo and turned the volume down but not off, with a side trip to drop the phone back in its base. He turned and crossed his arms, reminding Bruce of nothing so much as the enigmatic boy who had stared him down with suspicion in his eyes not that many years ago. "What's up?"

Bruce wondered suddenly who had been on the other side of the phone line. A classmate? One of Dick's old gang? A girl or a boy? What had they been talking about? "I just wanted to check in. See how you're doing. How's, uh-- How's your schoolwork?"

Dick narrowed his eyes at him. "Alfred," he deduced out loud.

"What?"

Dick rolled his eyes. "It's okay. I'll tell him we talked. You can go now."

"Now, wait a minute. I'm here, so we might as well catch up with each other. We live in the same house, after all."

"We hardly even see each other anymore. You don't need to take up your precious time coming over here for my sake."

"Is that what all this sulking lately is about? That I'm not making time for you?" Bruce grumbled, feeling rather irritable and ridiculously judged. "You're not a child anymore, Dick. You can hardly expect me to be around for you all the time."

"I don't. Look, I don't expect you to want to see me around anymore, but why did you come here just to yell at me?"

"Why wouldn't I want to see you?" Bruce yelled. "And I'm not yelling at you," he added in a forcibly gentler voice.

Dick just rolled his eyes.

"Explain," Bruce demanded.

"Oh, please. Don't try the General thing on me, Bruce."

Despite what Dick said, Bruce was fairly certain he still had the power to intimidate his ward. "Dick," he growled.

It worked. Sort of. Sighing, Dick plopped himself down on the bed. "Fine. Whatever. It's not like it's news or anything." He grabbed the plush elephant from his end table and dangled it between his knees by its lumpy front legs. "I know you only wanted me and the others back then because we were kids. And you only took me in because I reminded you of yourself. Now I'm growing up. You don't need me anymore. I get that. It's normal. So you don't have to keep doing this pretending thing. It's stupid. And it just-- It makes me feel worse."

For a long moment, Bruce didn't even know what to say.

Dick hadn't even sounded angry. He'd been simply stating a foregone fact. Alfred had been right. (Well, when had he ever not been?) Bruce should have had this talk with Dick a long time ago.

"First of all, that's not the only reason I took you in, and you know that. Frankly, it's insulting for you to think otherwise."

He waited for Dick to glance up at him and mumble, "Yeah, okay, I'm sorry," before he continued.

"Secondly..." Sighing, Bruce approached his ward. Dick didn't look up, but he moved over to make room for Bruce to sit next to him. Bruce stared at his hands for a while. "When my parents died," he said -- and it hurt less now to say it, but the pain was always there -- "I was only eight years old. I was just a child. All I knew about was what I had lost.

"It wasn't until I was older that I started to understand all the opportunities that had been taken away from them. They were still young, you know. A whole future snuffed out, just like that. All the things they would never be able to do because of one creep with a gun." He looked over at Dick as he said, softly, "And one of the things they missed out on was watching me grow up. I didn't realize how important that was until I met you."

Dick still kept his gaze down, but the doll he had been swinging back and forth fell still.

"I'm sorry I haven't had as much time for you lately. You have your training and I have my work. I guess it didn't seem you needed me so much anymore... and I guess I was afraid you might not want me around."

At this, Dick finally looked up, clearly perplexed. "Why not?"

The concept of privacy was probably not quite apparent to a boy who had grown up in a trailer with two adults and then in a series of small rooms shared with a number of other children. "You have more of your own pursuits now. You're responsible for yourself. You don't need my input to make your own decisions."

Dick snorted. "I've never needed your input. It's just nice to talk to you and know what you think sometimes."

That was true enough. "I didn't want to seem overbearing. When I was your age, I was already starting the Corp. I was very, ah, unappreciative of adults whom I felt were watching over or criticizing me."

"Unappreciative, huh?" Dick repeated, eyes alight with humor. "Is that how the rumors of the Black General really got started? It wasn't the bad guys who were afraid of you at all, was it?" Bruce could only smile sheepishly. He'd gotten the job done, yes. The truth was, though, he'd been rather a little horror.

"Were you 'unappreciative' even towards Alfred?" Dick asked shrewdly.

Bruce made a face that caused Dick's grin to widen. "I'm afraid so. But only at first. He corrected that pretty quickly."

"I'll bet he did!"

Watching Dick so carefree only moments after finding out he'd thought Bruce didn't care for him anymore... Bruce felt a rush of fondness for this boy who had turned his own life upside down so unexpectedly. It still seemed a minor miracle sometimes that he was here. Bruce put his hands on his ward's shoulders and struggled to put every ounce of his feelings for him into his face and voice, something that never came easily to him. "Dick, I promise you I will always want you. You will never be too old for me."

Dick stared back for a moment, obviously astonished. Then, unexpectedly, he burst out into laughter. "Do you realize how wrong that sounds out of context?" he snickered. An incongruous guitar screech from the stereo underscored his words, causing him to break out into full guffaws of mirth.

This time, it was Bruce who cast his eyes ceilingward. He sat back and scowled.

"Aw, come on. Can you just imagine what Roy would say?"

"I'm sure Harper's opinions aren't something I need to care about," he replied snippily. Teenagers. Try to say something profound and...

But as Dick fell against his shoulder, still chortling, he couldn't help but put an arm around his ward and smile into his hair.

***

The shop was much as Dick remembered it, back when he'd used to pass by it nearly every day. There were greeting cards on a rack by the door, bookmarks on another by the window. Softcover books lined the shelves while hardcovers decorated the center display. A variety of journals and pens were arranged next to the ancient cash register. He remembered vividly looking in through the windows at the wares, fearful of actually stepping inside as he did now.

"Hi, Mr. Toh," he greeted the owner. The man was the same as well, chiseled frown lines and angular brows that made it a wonder that the store ever did any business.

"You," he barked back. "What are you bringing this time?"

Caught, Dick held out the watercolor set he'd picked up yesterday, twelve refillable color pots in a beautiful wooden case along with a set of three soft brushes.

"Dick!" a high-pitched voice called. A girl, about eight years old, ran out. She had dark hair bound in a braid behind her. The embroidered eye patch over her left eye was prominent, but it didn't seem to hinder her sunny countenance.

Dick returned her smile. "Hello, Lisa."

"What did you bring me?"

Dick hesitated, embarrassed at the dark look the girl's father gave him.

"Go back inside, Lisa," the man ordered.

Lisa pouted but apparently knew better than to incur her father's wrath. With a last glance at Dick, she scurried back through the doorway to the back rooms.

"Go," the man said to Dick, as soon as his daughter had left the room. "I don't want to see you in my store again."

Stricken, Dick could only stare in silence.

The man snatched the wooden box from his hands. "I'll give this to her. But it'll be the last. She's too old now to be expecting gifts to drop from the sky."

"I-- I'm sorry. I just wanted to make her life a little better."

He held up a hand imperiously. "She'll see worse before she's grown. No use in living in the past."

"That's harsh, isn't it?"

"Life is harsh. She needs to be strong. No billionaire is going to sweep her into his house. Not while I'm alive, at least."

"Bruce is a good man," Dick protested. "He--"

"He spoils you. He uses you. He makes you a spectacle for his own gain. He lives his life from a place of grief and anger, and you're the mongrel pet that he keeps around to cheer himself up."

Anger rose swiftly at the bald-faced accusations, and Dick swallowed it down with difficulty. "You're wrong," he finally said. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I won't bother you again." He hesitated. "Please... say goodbye to Lisa for me. Tell her I'm sorry."

He waited for the man to give a grudging nod before leaving back through the front door, bell tinkling above him for the last time.

Once outside, he stared back through the window for another long minute, making sure to stay out of Mr. Toh's sight. He felt... relieved, but also discomfited. He would be glad to leave this little shop behind, but he wasn't sure how right he felt about saying goodbye to this remnant of 'Robin' once and for all.

***

Laying his yellow-lined ski gloves beside him, Bruce wrapped his bare hands around his mug of hot cocoa with an audible sigh. The furrows that usually kept record of his late nights and self-perceived failures were relaxed into faded lines, and the man looked completely content for once. This vacation had been a good idea.

Alfred picked up a pair of tongs, eyed them closely, then pulled out his own handkerchief to polish the water spots off of it. "Marshmallow, sir?" he asked, once he was done, hovering them above the shallow dish of the puffy sugary morsels.

"Knock it off, Alfred. You're here as part of the family. No more 'sir' and 'Master' and no more serving us things!" He preempted Alfred's movement with a hand over his mug. Alfred sat back with a wry smile.

"Very well, Bruce. Would you like to serve yourself then?" He offered the tongs. Bruce took them and made it a point to drop two marshmallows into Alfred's mug before his own.

Rolling one's eyes was not proper, especially in public, so Alfred didn't.

They both turned to the front of the room where young Dick's bright voice rose exuberantly for a moment. As expected, he had started chatting with the woman at the counter taking their food order. The woman in the green striped uniform laughed at whatever Dick had said. She was clearly much older than he, and knew he wasn't being serious, but she smiled indulgently at his flirting and gave him playful encouragements. After nearly a year of embarrassing squeaks, Dick's voice had finally settled into deeper tones. Alfred saw no harm in the boy playing off his new confidence, as long as the ladies in question were equally aware.

It was a welcome thing to see Master Dick growing into a man. The boy had had a harsh path but was now, by every evidence, thriving.

Alfred remembered the first descriptions Bruce had brought him of the leader of the young street gang: intelligent, compassionate, athletic, and fierce. He had been nonplussed then about Bruce's involvement with someone who sounded dangerous at best. However, he also remembered the shy teenager who had come to them that night, thanking him anxiously for a hot meal. His heart had gone out to the boy then, as he knew Bruce's had been lost a long time before that. He recalled with perfect clarity -- even if the newspaper photos had not already captured it -- young Dick's expression when he won his first medal, and later when he saw the overwhelming pride on Bruce's face.

Only a few short years, and yet Alfred could not imagine their life without young Master Dick in it.

Bruce watched his ward with a face full of peculiarly innocent wonder. It reminded Alfred of when young Bruce had used to watch his parents surreptitiously from between the columns of the second floor balcony railing. Just a little longer. They'll never know, he'd whispered once to Alfred, when he had tried to exhort the young master to bed for the second time. He had seemed filled with that delightful conviction that children sometimes have that their parent's worlds are mysterious and secret, and therefore, successfully infringing upon them was a grand scheme.

"What seems to be so fascinating, Master Bruce?"

Bruce leaned his chin on one hand, gaze soft and unfocused.

"I just realized something... I think I understand now why Dad used to take me to the movies, even though he always complained about how useless they were."

"Oh?" Since taking over the responsibilities of raising his former employers' orphaned son, Alfred had formed his own theories as to that. However, this was the first he had heard Bruce mention it. "Why is that?"

"I think he just wanted to watch me being happy."

Alfred allowed himself a fond smile of his own as he slipped a few more marshmallows into Bruce's mug. "I would have to agree."

***

Dick was working in the sun room when Bruce found him. He had piles of matchsticks scattered all around him on the large table Bruce's mother had once used for scrapbooking and crafts.

"I hope you're not trying to start a fire." Bruce winced as more matchsticks crunched underfoot.

"No. I'm broadening my horizons." Dick heaved a sigh. "Mrs. Naldy had us all write down what art form we were best at. Then she gave us projects that were completely different. It's supposed to train us to think creatively."

"That's a good idea."

Dick grumbled and picked up another matchstick. He applied a dab of glue to it and fixed it to... something in front of him.

"What are you making?"

"I don't know. I'm going to call it 'Burning Frustrations of the Artist' and she'll give me an A for being modern and angsty."

The melodrama deserved a dry reply. "My condolences."

"Could be worse. Desiree put down 'crochet', and now she has to do some kind of dance. I'm going over to her house tomorrow afternoon to help. We'll have the place to ourselves, so she won't be embarrassed."

"Oh? So her parents won't be home?" He tried to sound casual, but Dick didn't buy it at all.

For the first time, Dick actually looked up from his work. He grinned. "Nope."

Bruce shut his mouth in a firm line. He knew Dick was just trying to goad him into saying something 'parent-ish', as he called it. "Hm." He squelched the urge to give Dick a serious, impromptu talk about safety and chivalry. The boy was seventeen, for god's sake, and he was more responsible than most of his class combined. He could handle himself. "I've got something for you," he said instead.

Dick's eyes tracked down to the wrapped box in Bruce's hand. Curiosity lit up his face. "My birthday was last month. Did you forget again?" he joked.

"No, this is..." He put it down next to the half-finished 'Frustrations'. "Open it."

Shrugging, Dick did so, ripping the paper with gusto as he always did. "Oh!" he said, opening the well-padded velvet case, topped with a thick Plexiglass cover. If his R&D department's information was at all accurate with their durability estimates, the heavy packaging shouldn't be necessary. The manufacturer, however, had insisted on the case for aesthetic reasons. "Cool! What does this one do?"

"The underwater rating has improved to 300 feet. There's a new feature on the calendar: You can set up to three alarms by both date and time. Radio time-sync to the Corp network has been incorporated, of course. Oh, and the battery efficiency has improved twelve percent."

Dick nodded as he wiped his hands on the damp rag next to him. "The merger with Kasio was a good strategic move. They have a track record for leveraging exactly the niche technology that WayneTech lacked," he commented, sounding enough like one of Bruce's freshly hired analysts to prompt a smile. Dick, not noticing, unclasped the wristwatch he was wearing before pulling out the new one from its case and trying it on. "Nice," he said, examining it, pushing buttons rapidly in seemingly random combinations that Bruce knew was his intuitive learning style. "Too bad these never go to retail. Think of the market share we'd grab."

"Is that your professional opinion?"

Dick shot him a look that said he knew he was being teased, but he was already absorbed by trying out the calendar function. He would find out soon enough about the multiple options for alert tones. "When will the audio recording work?" he asked distractedly.

"They're still experimenting with optimization of the digitized storage. It might be ready as soon as the next model."

"So I still can't get rid of my tape recorder?"

"Stop complaining. You're already the only kid in your grade with a laptop computer."

"Aw, but I never get the really cool stuff. It's okay, Bruce. I know you love your other kids more than me."

Bruce huffed at the joke. His agents had been carrying digital recorders with them for years, but getting such equipment down to a size that could fit on an ordinary-seeming watch continued to be a nontrivial task.

Predictably, Dick laughed as a tinny version of "London Bridge" chimed.

"Thanks, Dad. It's great."

Taking a breath, Bruce urged, "You haven't read the inscription."

Dick's features lifted in inquiry. He glanced back down at the watch. "Uh, sorry?"

It wasn't surprising Dick hadn't noticed. Every watch Bruce had given him since he'd moved into the manor had had a simple inscription on it, always the same. It had started as partly a joke, and partly a reminder of how they had met. It was a sign of how Bruce regarded his ward.

To Richard, it usually said, mirroring the inscription on the watch Bruce carried with him, which had been a precious gift from father to son. Bruce's watch, however, had two words that Dick's watches had not. After careful deliberation, Bruce had added them in this year.

Dick was already unlatching the watch, turning it over. Bruce was watching his face when those eyebrows jumped in surprise. He saw Dick's mouth open, a full three seconds before he uttered the word, "Oh." He blinked a few times, rapidly, then looked up. "Why...?"

"You're turning eighteen next year. Legally, you won't be my ward anymore."

Dick frowned. "I know. That's a good thing, isn't it? I'll be an adult, and no one can tell me where to live anymore. I mean, I'm still staying here, aren't I?"

"Of course," Bruce assured him. This... was not going how he had planned. "The thing is, you won't be connected to the Wayne estate anymore. Not legally, that is. I was wondering if you would like to have some official papers drawn up to address that."

"What, like property rights or something?"

"No, for-- For you to be..." Dick's patient but complete confusion was throwing him off. Foolish man, he had somehow pictured Dick anticipating this. He had been the first to call Bruce 'Dad', after all. "Adoption papers," Bruce finally blurted. Dick's eyes went wide. "I've asked my lawyer to check into it for me. It's a fairly straightforward process, since you're already my ward." He glanced at the wristwatch suddenly clutched tightly in Dick's hands. "I only bring it up as an option. I thought you might feel more comfortable with something permanent between us."

"Bruce. I don't know. I mean, thank you. I can't even say how much that means to me. But..." Dick looked down at the watch, at the inscription. "I'm the last one. The last Flying Grayson. The last of Haly's Circus, even, after Pop sold to B&B. I just don't know if I should give that up. If I have the right to."

Much to his own surprise, disappointment was the first and largest part of Bruce's reaction to that. He'd been thinking of this as something that Dick might need. Almost a sacrifice on his own part, being tied to the boy for life instead of simply for the handful of years until he reached adulthood. Bruce hadn't expected...

The growing unease on Dick's face caused him to table that thought for later. "I know your parents are important to you," he assured him. "I'm not pressuring you. I just wanted you to know, you not only always have a home here, but a family, too."

"Even if I don't want...?"

"Even if," he agreed firmly.

"Wow. Bruce, I--" Dick ducked his head and wiped quickly at his eyes. He cleared his throat. "Thanks." The next moment, Dick had thrown himself into Bruce's arms, with enough force to nearly bowl him over. His ward's effusiveness of emotion was one thing that Bruce had grown to accept (and enjoy) over the years. That didn't mean he wasn't still surprised by it now and again. "I love you, Dad."

Yet another thing that constantly startled Bruce. He hugged Dick back, amazed anew at how big he was, heavy and long-limbed, instead of small enough to carry. A brilliant athlete, a sponge for knowledge, and a natural leader, Dick had always been mature beyond his years, but he was nearly a man now. Even though Bruce didn't have the full right to it, he felt an overwhelming sense of pride.

He pushed Dick back, holding him by the shoulders to look at him. "Four years ago today," he reminisced fondly. "It's hard to imagine."

Instead of echoing the sentiment, Dick stepped away with a sly grin on his face. "If you're losing track of time, I guess you'll be wanting this back?" He dangled a gold fob watch in front of Bruce.

Startled, Bruce felt his own pocket. Empty. "When did you...?" He'd had it when he'd walked in. The hug! "You little rascal."

"You can take the boy out of the streets, but you can't take the streets out of the boy." Smirking, he tossed Bruce's watch back to him. "Lucky for you I'm a sentimentalist. You can keep that old thing. I've got a much better model here." He held up his new watch.

Dick turned away as he put it on, but Bruce caught him turning it over first to swipe a thumb over the words etched there in square, non-pretentious font:

To My Son Richard

***

Dick ate another handful of trail mix, proudly sponsored by... Bluf? or Kushi? All the big brands ran together after a while. His attention bounced around the reception room as he wove through the crowd, still hyped up from the circling of the track earlier. It had reminded Dick of the spec from his Haly's days, that grand opening parade where everyone would show off their costumes and just a taste of what their acts later would be like. As a little kid, he'd used to ride Zitka in her colorful howdah. Once he was older, he would do tricks on her broad back, reveling in the sense of togetherness and the air of anticipation from the crowd.

Nostalgia trumped a lot of things, but he had to admit that the Olympic Games had a larger center stage than Haly's could have ever managed. He couldn't wait to be on it. There'd been a stressful few months when he hadn't been certain they would let him compete, no matter how Bruce assured him, but here he was, representing the U.S. of A. It still didn't seem real.

Letting his mind wander while walking was evidently not a good combination. He collided with someone on a cross-path with him, not painfully, but enough to cause them both to step back with apologies on their lips.

His opposite resolved into a fire-haired, freckled kid about Dick's age. The guy smiled sheepishly.

"Sorry! Sometimes my feet move so fast I don't notice what's around me. Tunnel vision." He made sharp 'tunnel' gestures in illustration, pointed toward the plate of brownies on the table, apparently his goal. "I also have a thing for sweets. Good thing I've got a fast metabolism." He stuck out a hand. "I'm Wally West, by the way, the fastest boy alive."

Dick regarded the hyperactive kid, amused by his infectious cheer. "Any relation to Barry Allen, the fastest man alive?"

He'd meant it as a joke, but Wally's grin brightened another notch and he straightened proudly. "Yup. He's my paternal uncle-in-law."

"What?"

Wally shrugged. "He's my dad's sister's husband."

"You mean your uncle."

"Well, sure. But I like to be specific. English really isn't, sometimes. Did you know that the Navajo actually have different names for maternal and paternal family members?"

"I... did know that, actually. My best friend is Navajo."

"Really? How cool! Funny, I thought all the Navajo were mostly in the Four Corner states. You look East coast to me, and that is not a Southwest accent. Where are you from?"

Dick was a bit taken aback by this casual but rapid-fire assessment. "You were right. I'm from Gotham City."

"So how'd your best friend wind up in Gotham? College?"

"His job is there," Dick replied truthfully. He didn't try to explain the complex relations that Roy shared with his extended family.

Wally seemed to accept that with what Dick was coming to appreciate as his habitual easy trust. "I'm from Central City. Industry capital of the world." He said the last sentence in a deep public announcement voice that made Dick laugh.

"I've been there a few times. It's a great city, has a friendly feel to it."

"No kidding? When were you there last?"

"I traveled a lot when I was a kid." He didn't usually go into his circus background when he first started talking to people. He'd learned that it didn't always have a good effect. Some people looked down on him for being an 'entertainer'. Other people felt intimidated, as if their own lives were suddenly much too boring in comparison and no longer worthy of discussing

"Who knows, we could've run into each other! I've only been living there a few years, but I used to visit all the time, because that's where my Uncle Barry lives. I'm from Nebraska, originally. We moved when I got really good at the running thing and Uncle Barry wanted to help me out. Well, and to get away from Mr. Crazy Ex-Dad."

"Ex...?"

"Mom divorced him. Ex-Dad. Where are you parents from?"

Wally's conversation style seemed to mimic his fast feet. It was a little disorienting, but Dick didn't see any harm in it, so he answered, "My dad was Romani. His parents were from West Europe somewhere. I think my mom was originally from South Dakota."

"Oh cool, I did a paper on the Romani people back in eighth grade. So why'd you change your name? Or did your dad?"

"Huh?"

"Wayne doesn't sound Rom."

"Wayne--?" He was about to say, of course not. He was pretty sure the Waynes were blue blood locals back to King George III.

Wally gestured at the badge Dick had completely forgotten was around his neck. "Richard Wayne. That is your name, isn't it?"

"Oh, right! Yeah." He was still taken by surprise when anyone called him that. And a little jumpy. Some part of him kept expecting to receive a letter from one of the old Haly's gang, telling him off for abandoning his birthright. But this was something he wanted. It was something that Bruce wanted, too. He could tell. Even Alfred had looked a little misty-eyed the first time he had half-jokingly referred to him as 'Master Wayne, the younger'. "Most people call me Dick."

The other kid gave him a funny look, then laughed. "I guess if my name was Dick Wang, I'd try to forget it, too."

"I didn't forget--!" But he realized that the kid was only teasing, so instead, he said sheepishly, "I'm still getting used to the adoption."

"Congrats, man. Who're the lucky new 'rents?"

Well, that would teach him to be egotistical. Dick had thought everyone in the sporting world knew about him and Bruce Wayne by now. "It's just the one. Bruce took me in years ago. He made me his official son and heir last month."

"Whoa. Whoawhoawhoawhoawhoa. I know who you are. You're Bruce Wayne's kid."

"Isn't that what I just said?"

"You're that, uh, acrobat guy. The one that was dropped from the team because everyone said you were a drug addict or a prostitute or something." Before Dick could even come up with a suitable reply to that, Wally blushed as red as his hair and blurted, "Sorry! I sometimes let my mouth move before I think things through."

It was difficult to be angry at someone that earnestly candid. Dick crossed his arms and asked, "Only sometimes?"

"Make that, almost always. Uh, for the record, drug addiction is totally a physiological thing, so there's nothing to be ashamed about. I mean, I should know. I'm a chemistry major."

Dick couldn't help it. He started laughing. "Okay." He glowered mock-sternly. "What about the other thing?"

"Um. I've had sex?" Wally made a distressed noise and clapped a hand over his mouth. "Don't tell my Mom I said that. Anyway, we didn't, not really. It was just, just barely past second base. And we're engaged, so it's okay. Oh my god, don't tell anyone that, either." He looked around the room, as if his mother might jump out of the bowl of tapioca.

Dick put an arm around the other kid's shoulders. "Tell you what, let's pretend the last minute didn't happen. We'll just head on over and have some brownies before they're gone."

Wally recovered instantly at that. "Oh, that's supposing I'll leave you any," he shot back. They raced each other to the tables.

***

Dick wasn't sure what woke him, but a childhood career founded on quick reflexes, followed by a life in the back alleys of Gotham City, had taught him to trust his instincts. When he had first moved in, he'd sometimes been spooked by a nightmare or an animal outside. Years in the Manor, however, had accustomed him to the normal rhythm of nocturnal noises.

And now something was... off.

Holding himself still, he listened. When he was certain that whatever threat his sleeping senses had detected was not close to him, he rolled out of bed in a smooth motion and, throwing aside his covers, leapt for the door.

Once out in the hallway, he didn't hesitate. Heart pounding, he sprinted down the hall toward Bruce's rooms. If someone had taken the trouble to break through the Manor's sophisticated security, they weren't after the Wayne family's silver. The target would be the head of the Wayne Corporation, thorn in the side of every criminal in Gotham, from the most common street thug to the fattest crime kingpin.

Considering Bruce's usually heightened awareness (mistakenly called paranoia by the press), it was a bad sign that he wasn't already out here investigating himself. Dick hoped that was simply because he had misjudged, and Bruce was still fast asleep. The alternative... If anyone, though, Bruce would understand Dick waking him if it turned out to be a false alarm.

He paused outside the door to Bruce's bedroom, listening carefully. If the threat were real, it wouldn't help Bruce if he barged in unawares and was taken down himself.

A hoarse cry and the liquid sound of tearing cloth spurred him into action. He threw open the door and snapped on the light, slitting his eyes to minimize the glare. The first thing he saw was a slim, compact figure wrapped in black cloth. An honest-to-god ninja!

He didn't have any time to gape, because the intruder saw him at the same time and something blurred in the air between them. A line of icy pain creased him under his left arm where his chest would have been if he hadn't dove and rolled to the side.

A groan drew his eyes to the floor, where Bruce lay struggling. Normally imposing in his muscled bulk and a terror on the sparring mats, now he grunted nonsense sounds and his limbs flopped, uncoordinated and weak. Poison? Blood loss? Dick's heart clenched in terror but he didn't have time to check on the man because that knife (or ninja star, maybe?) had only been the first.

Two handsprings put him behind the relative shelter of the armchair. Blood dripped from another score to his hip, making squatting painful. He searched with his eyes for a weapon, cursing himself for not bringing his pocket knife. He'd used to sleep with one in his hands, for god's sake. The last five years of his life, he'd been spoiled. Gone soft.

Good news was, further attack didn't come.

Bad news was, it was because Dick wasn't the ninja's target.

He peeked out from the side in time to see the ninja flow toward Bruce's prone body, a short sword in hand. Bruce made a strained sound, and one of his flailings caught the would-be assassin in the shin, but that was only a small distraction. The sword lifted.

Dick snatched up a copy of the Gotham County criminal code from the end table next to the sofa and heaved it across the room. It was either that or the lamp, but he was glad a second later that he'd chosen the book, because the fluttering sound of the pages spooked the ninja so that he actually backflipped out of the way of the projectile.

"Get away from him!" Dick yelled. Bruce had stilled. Dick couldn't tell if he was even still breathing or not.

Speaking of which, he was starting to feel woozy himself. Idiot. He should have thought of that. Whatever had gotten Bruce must be airborne. The ninja had probably pumped in a soporific gas before breaking in. He must be wearing a filter under the cloth mask that swathed his entire head, leaving only the eyes free.

Regardless, Dick wasn't about to leave Bruce helpless. Picking up the lamp after all, he hurled it through the closest window. Fresh air poured in, clearing his head a bit. Enough for him to launch himself at the black-robed figure once more.

He could tell very quickly that he wasn't anywhere near his opponent's caliber. The martial arts training he'd worked at in the last few years had been more for discipline and companionship than for practical use. He was proficient -- more than proficient -- but Dick knew from his Robin days that even the roughest sparring sessions was never the same as a real fight in terms of psychology. He wouldn't be able to tap out of this fight.

He hadn't had to truly fight for his life in years, and even when he had, more often than not it was against mooks who barely knew one end of a baseball bat from the other. Even when he'd gone up against the weird ones like The Riddler, their henchmen had still been uncreative, stupid thugs, just with better weapons. Plus, he'd had his friends with him then.

Pulling in harsh breaths, barely escaping more than flesh wounds from flashing blades, and trying in vain to land a few blows of his own, Dick was never more grateful now that Bruce's drive for perfection in all things had pushed Dick to train just as hard to keep up. Thankfully, too, his own curiosity had prompted him to seek out new schools and forms to learn. Dick's mix of styles seemed to throw off his opponent somewhat. Still, he was better than anyone Dick had ever sparred with, maybe even better than Dinah. Every stab of pain from his myriad near misses reminded him of that.

He stumbled, foot snagging just briefly on the rug, and he was on the floor in the next second, searing pain radiating from his right bicep. He screamed as the knife that had downed him was jerked back out. His last-minute defense had kept it from landing in his heart, but he knew the assassin wouldn't miss again.

Through pain-blurred vision, he tried to glare at his soon-to-be murderer. All he could see of the man's face, of course, was a sliver of tanned skin around a pair of dark eyes that regarded him with indifference. Dick was nothing more than a small inconvenience, something to be dealt with quickly before the main event. He had a moment to wish he had been able to do more, to feel sorry that he and Bruce would die like this. He apologized mentally to Alfred for having to be the one to find their bodies.

And then the fire sprinklers came on.

He summoned the strength for a roundhouse kick at the face of the momentarily startled ninja, causing him to lean back -- and making him an open target for the tranquilizer dart suddenly standing out from his throat. He took a step back, his eyes squinched in a snarl, before dropping to the floor in a heap.

Wiping water out of his face with one hand and holding his bleeding arm with the other, Dick rolled wearily to his feet.

"Thanks, Alfred," he said.

The ever proper butler always insisted he had perfect timing, and after today, Dick was never going to josh him about that again.

"Master Bruce?" Alfred inquired, all business despite his burgundy dressing gown. He tapped some buttons into a controller and the sprinklers stopped.

"I... don't know. He's been down for a while." Dick limped toward his adopted father, fearful of how quiet he was, but Alfred pointed imperiously toward the bathroom instead. "First aid kit. Quickly," he ordered, going to kneel at Bruce's side.

Skirting the sprawled body of their now unconscious intruder, Dick retrieved the kit as directed. When he got back, Alfred was scolding Bruce in a low voice. "Stay still, Master Bruce."

Dick was relieved to hear Bruce groan in response but nauseated to see red welling up under Alfred's hands, pressed tightly to Bruce's left side. He didn't seem to have other injuries, but a single wound could kill a man if it was in the right place. Volunteering at the Foundation centers and occasionally helping at Leslie's clinic meant that Dick had rudimentary knowledge about how to treat a knife wound. He had to hope this was similar enough. Lacerations were lacerations, right?

He shuddered as he opened the first aid kit. He shouldn't have thought that word. It made him feel sick and panicky. Pushing that aside and forcing himself to focus, he tore open a sterile dressing and handed it to Alfred.

"How is he?"

"I think his left lung's collapsed," Alfred replied tersely. Dick faltered, but told himself that plenty of people survived that.

As if to agree with him, Bruce grunted and opened his eyes. "...be fine," he groused, just as if he weren't bleeding through the dressing. "Intru-- der?" He shifted, clearly trying to look around the room. Dick pushed him back down none too gently, earning a glare from Bruce but an approving look from Alfred. A second dressing went over the first, and this one stayed clean.

"You're in shock, sir. Please stay still."

"Police." Bruce took a shallow breath, then scowled. "Get--"

"Already called," Alfred interrupted smoothly. "Agents are on the way, too. And an ambulance."

Bruce didn't argue the last one, even though Dick knew he hated hospitals intensely. Sweat stood out on his forehead, and his hand convulsed toward the wound to his torso, then clenched at his side.

"Master Dick, I'm afraid I need to ask you to hold this while I secure the prisoner. The tranquilizer is supposed to last at least an hour, but one can increase tolerance to such drugs with the proper training. I'll take a look at your arm once I'm done."

Dick had almost completely forgotten about that, but now the pain rushed back. "I'm okay," he protested, but it probably wasn't very convincing. He wondered if his muscles might be irreparably damaged, if he would fly again... but the worry was fleeting compared to having Bruce still alive with them.

"Do you feel dizzy at all?" he asked the man in question as he pressed with his good arm, elbow locked, against the wound. With the paramedics already on the way, it wasn't worth moving Bruce to put on a pressure bandage. "Any nausea? Numbness in your toes?"

Bruce grunted a 'no' to each question, which was encouraging. He was clearly in pain, though, faint tremors wracking him as he sweated. Dick wiped Bruce's brow with his own sleeve, still amped up by adrenaline, anxious to do more and frustrated not to be able to. They had pain medication, but he was pretty certain Bruce would refuse to take it. Anyway, the ambulance would be arriving soon and they shouldn't introduce extra substances before then.

He glanced at Alfred, who, with an air of satisfaction, was efficiently hog-tying the ninja a few yards away. A pile of weapons lay beside him, evidently confiscated from the ninja's person. As usual, Alfred seemed to have everything well in hand.

Bruce, too, seemed more alert now, and the bleeding had stopped. Dick allowed himself a small sigh.

"You're going to be okay, Bruce," he said, wanting to hear the words out loud.

"I... know." Bruce sounded irritated at having had his self-diagnosis questioned. Dick gave him a pass, grateful that Bruce was aware enough to give him attitude. "Dick--" A series of shallow coughs interrupted anything further he had to say.

"Don't try to talk," Dick admonished, trying to project the kindly reproof that worked so well for Alfred. Predictably, it didn't have the same effect coming from him. It was impressive how intimidating Bruce could look even flat on his back like this. "All right, what?"

"Thank--" Bruce paused to gasp another breath, grimacing. "Thank-- you. Glad-- you're here."

The unexpected praise nearly undid him. Dick glanced away at the dressing under his hand -- still clean of further leakage -- and joked lightly, "Who would've thought, huh? After all this time. Looks like you still need your Robin after all."

Bruce lifted a hand and when Dick took it, Bruce squeezed hard. "Always."


END.

 

 

 

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