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Between the Lines

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It had been just another bad night in a series of bad nights. Bruce wasn’t sure if the recent wave of petty crime was due to the appearance of a new arms dealer in town or if it was just coincidental, but he’d been so busy dealing with the crime wave directly that investigating the source of it had been severely delayed. Batman and Robin had been so busy, in fact, that help had needed to be called in this night. Nightwing and Red Robin, who had both taken time away from other projects to help slow the surge of crime in Gotham. And they’d been doing well keeping up despite being nearly run off their feet the whole night. Bruce just hoped it would be enough to give them some breathing room, allow Batman to get one step ahead. Ultimately, only time would tell if their efforts tonight had made a difference.

It was late when Bruce called them all in to debrief on the top of the Gotham Bank’s Data Centre. They’d finally reached something of a lull after hours of running around the city like madmen, trying their hardest to get to the next crime, often in just the nick of time. Bruce could see the weariness in his two former sidekicks stance, could even see Robin fighting off the same edge of exhaustion that had settled in on all of them. The boys had worked hard tonight. Done well. Bruce was even thinking of cutting the debrief short and calling it a night.

It was Damian who heard a noise from the neighbouring alley. Bruce’s eyes narrowed as he listened. Indeed, there was an odd shuffle that could be faintly heard echoing off the nearby buildings. The wind was still tonight and the sound was much too loud to have been caused by one of the local rats. It was out of place. And probably human.

“Robin, stay here while I go check it out,” Bruce said as he neared the edge of the roof, pulling out his grapple gun from the side of his belt. He didn’t have to look at Damian to know he was scowling at his back.

“But Father…” Damian protested.

“Stay with Nightwing and Red Robin. I’ll call you if I need you,” Bruce replied sternly. Then he leapt, firing his grapple line simultaneously, not giving Damian, or anyone else, the time to respond to the order. He felt the familiar tug of resistance from the line as he reached the valley of his swing. It was a familiar comfort.

Until it wasn’t.

The noise was deafening, echoing off the buildings around him. It took Bruce only a moment to realize that the resistance of the line in his hand had vanished. That he was free-falling.

“Oh my god!” he heard somehow above the noisy echo of the breaking line, above the roar of wind rushing past his ears. Tim’s voice. His mind raced with possibilities, but he willed it to focus on his single best option. The backup lines. They all carried them for exactly this reason. Bruce twisted, reaching for the smaller gun at his belt.

Then he heard the sudden sound of another grapple going off nearby. Saw a red blur. Felt the air leave his lungs as he was plowed into by a large body, one of the strangers hands securing itself on his utility belt, a failsafe in the event that he slipped. Bruce would never admit it openly, but the events between the point he was grabbed and the point he felt his feet hit the solid ground of the roof were little more than a blur.

He collected himself quickly, slowing his breathing, regaining his bearings in seconds. When his eyes eventually moved up to survey his surroundings, he was met first with the stark face of Red Robin, grapple in hand and ready to go, though held slack as if he’d given up before firing. As he let his gaze fall further over the roof, he caught sight of Nightwing. Shock written across his pale face, breathing heavier than usual. Damian squirmed in his iron grip like an angry kitten, the only one of the three boys to not look as though he was seeing a ghost as he gazed at Bruce with an annoyed scowl. Bruce wasn’t sure if it was directed at him or Dick.

“So what’s the story, old man? You been trying to cut costs on equipment or something?” He could hear from beside him. His savior, as it were.

“Jason,” Bruce stated, confident they would not be overheard. He hadn’t known the Red Hood had even been out tonight, never mind close enough to act as a first responder. It was entirely possible he’d been the source of the noise Damian had heard earlier.

“Unhand me, Grayson!” Cut through the air, loud and obnoxious. Bruce watched Dick’s grip on Damian yield rapidly, as if he’d just been burned. As if he hadn’t realized he’d been holding on at all. Damian shook him off with a huff before scurrying over to Bruce, pointedly cutting off Tim’s path in the process.

“What happened?” Tim asked from behind Damian, purposefully beating the boy to the question. Bruce suppressed the sigh that threatened to escape. Even in times of stress it seemed like those two were always trying to compete with each other. Alfred had written it off as sibling rivalry, just as it had been, and often still was, with Dick and Jason.

“I’m…not sure,” Bruce admitted. He had seen no reason for the line to break so suddenly, no warning signs that it was destined to fail before it did. “Hood, did you see anything from your vantage point?” Bruce asked. Jason had probably been on or near the ground when the line broke based on his trajectory. If anyone had seen anything, it would have been him. But Jason simply shrugs, shaking his head.

“Just the line breaking,” Jason said simply. Bruce hummed in response. A mystery then. That didn’t sit well with him at all.

“How coincidental that you should be in the area the exact moment Father’s line breaks,” Damian spat out with a glare in Jason’s direction. Bruce couldn’t be sure if the boy was actually suspicious or if he was just trying to one-up another sibling, but he knew there was no scenario where Jason didn’t react poorly to the accusation.

“I was coming to find him, you little asshole! You guys wanted information, remember? Or did you only want that from one of the teachers pets?” Jason spat back at him, predictably angry. Bruce couldn’t see his face from under the helmet, had no idea just how much Damian’s words had angered him, but Bruce did know that Jason had nothing to do with the incident. He had indeed asked Jason to gather information days earlier and what motive could Jason have had to cut a line only to save him a moment later? Subtlety had never been Jason’s style to start with. If Jason had cut Bruce’s line, he’d have made sure everyone on that rooftop knew he’d done it. Bruce knew he had to step in.

“Robin! Red Hood had nothing to do with this,” He told Damian sternly, feeling the beginnings of a headache starting just behind his eyes. He watched as Damian’s face turned into a sulk, but Bruce felt no sympathy for him in that moment. He had no desire to feed into Damian’s obsessive need to cut down his siblings, nor his sulking, tonight. Not after what had just happened. Instead he turned his attention back to Jason. Back to the job. Back to that which he could control. “What have you found out?”

“This new arms dealer? I’m pretty sure he’s local, but it looks like he’s been manufacturing off-shore. No one seems to know what his end-game is yet, but the word on the streets is that he pays well if you’re willing to do his dirty work. I think he’s doing most of his recruiting in Crime Alley. There aren’t a lot of people there who would turn him down,” Jason said with a tinge of bitterness colouring his tone. Bruce quirked an eyebrow under the cowl. It would imply a link between the dealer and the recent crime surge if there were suddenly a swarm of people wanting to get paid for crimes they were already more than willing to commit. “He hasn’t approached me directly yet, but a couple of his goons made it sound like he wants to talk to me at some point,” Jason added. Bruce nodded. He wasn’t sure if he approved exactly, but it was something they could use.

“Nobody plays both sides of the coin quite like you do, Jay. Have you found out what they’re dealing exactly?” Tim asked from where he’d stood stationary, just behind Damian.

“Funny you should ask. I did a little shopping before I got here,” Jason announced, motioning to the bag slung over his shoulder. Bruce couldn’t help but be pleased. Jason had done good work. More so than that, he was working with them instead of against them for once. It was a feeling Bruce could certainly get used to.

“Awesome,” Tim said enthusiastically with a half-smile. Damian simply huffed again, crossing his arms and turning away from them in distaste.

“Good work. Let’s retrieve the other end of this line and head back to the cave so we can start analyzing the weapons Red Hood acquired tonight,” Bruce said, so pleased about tonight’s turn of events despite the close call moments earlier, that he’d even allowed praise to slip out of the mouth of Batman.

“And analyze the line,” Tim reminded him, “For the record, I do not want to be the one who has to tell Lucius he’s losing his touch,” Tim added in with a light, joking tone. Bruce couldn’t quite keep the smirk off his face at the joke, at the image of having to do exactly what Tim had described.

“Perhaps Pennyworth can do it,” Damian added, and it kind of…sounded like he was trying to continue the joke, actually. He didn’t really pull it off, but the fact that he had tried at all was strangely encouraging.

“Not a bad idea. Alfred does have more tact than all of us combined,” Jason commented with a shrug.

“My level of tact is unprecedented,” Damian informed him with a sour look, arms crossing over his chest once again. But even Bruce could see he wasn’t overly serious this time. It didn’t stop Tim from scoffing at the very thought.

“No it isn’t, you little gremlin,” Tim commented dryly, unimpressed.

“Finally something me and the replacement agree on,” Jason teased as Damian scowled back at them. Bruce found this all an odd comfort, his boys almost getting along. Maybe it was simply an aftereffect of the euphoria one feels after a near-death experience and nothing more, but deep down he knew he always enjoyed having his family happy and together, even under less than ideal circumstances.

“I…I’ll get the other end of the line and meet you guys back at the cave. Okay?” Dick’s voice filtered across the rooftop, a slight tremble just barely audible. Bruce had nearly forgotten he was there at all. He hadn’t asked any questions, nor joined in the banter, which was unusual in retrospect. Bruce let his gaze move up to his eldest. He was still too pale. Withdrawn. It was an odd look on the normally confident and jovial young man. It must be autonomic, Bruce concluded. A biological response to the sudden shock of the line snapping. Fight or flight, most likely. It was a logical conclusion, and probably had merit on some level, but despite the solid logic, Bruce couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was still something wrong.

“I can help you,” Tim offered, turning to his elder brother. Maybe he had noticed that something was off about Dick too, or maybe he simply wanted to inspect the scene himself. Now was not the time for Bruce to ask.

“As if he would need your assistance, Drake,” Damian said loudly enough for all to hear. Bruce could see the content look on Tim’s face change once the words were out. Falling into a slight frown. This, Bruce did understand. It wasn’t a simple contest for his own affections between Tim and Damian, but somehow it had also become a contest for Dick’s favour too. Bruce would never tell his youngest boys this, but this whole rivalry was nothing short of ridiculous. It was clear to anyone with half a mind that Dick cherished them both as his little brothers. Loved them both dearly. But childhood trauma was never overcome without a fight. Damian was critically insecure, a result of constantly having to live up to unobtainable standards, and Tim had spent most of his childhood neglected to the point where he considered it normal for people to forget he even existed. Bruce knew how deep scars like that could run, and neither boy had ever completely shaken the feeling of inadequacy bred into them at a young age.

“Good idea. Red Robin and Nightwing will examine the scene and retrieve the other end of the line before meeting us back at the cave. In the meantime, everyone will keep their use of the grapple lines to a minimum until the fault can be determined. No arguments,” Bruce said. A direct order as clear as any he’d ever given.

No one protested, nor showed any sign that they found the plan distasteful. At least for now. His Robins had traditionally displayed a rebellious streak that ran for miles, and he was sure at least one of them would do something that would cause him to shake his head in exasperation before the situation was fully resolved. He didn’t question the compliance tonight. It was late. They were all tired, bruised and battered from the busy night. He would inform Batgirl and the others of the situation with the lines tomorrow morning. Right now, all he wanted to do was get everyone back to the cave.

Chapter Text

Dick and Tim met them in the cave half an hour after the Batmobile had been parked. It seemed to be all the prompting Alfred had needed to announce that there were sandwiches upstairs for those of them that wish to get changed and come to the dining room. Bruce braced himself for the chain reaction such an announcement would surely cause.

He knew Tim and Damian had both missed out on a proper dinner due to the early patrol. Both would be especially motivated to get to get their share tonight. Jason looked as though he was more than ready to give them a run for their money, flashing his trademark overconfident smirk at the other two. Bruce really wasn’t too sure what Jason was eating these days, but he found himself not terribly concerned over the thought. Of all his boys, Jason could be the most capable when it came to taking care of himself. Unless he was in self-destruct mode, of course. But despite Jason’s usual good habits, the mission always came first and it was just as likely that he’d skipped out on dinner too.

Bruce watched wearily as the boys practically, and predictably, tripped over one another on the way to the change rooms, each actively trying to be the first one to reach the sandwiches before their favorites could be stolen out from under them. Bruce couldn’t help but shake his head at the display. At least they’d waited for Alfred to ascend the stairs this time.

Strangely absent from the herd, however, was Dick. Typically, he would be just as enthusiastic as the others. In fact, Bruce sometimes considered him the worst of all of them when it came to petty competition, not so much due to his own behavior as because of the sheer joy he took in encouraging the others. Dick had limits, of course. He drew the line at serious offenses, such as violence and insults, and his valiant attempt to be the first one up the stairs was not really in an attempt to take for himself so much as it was an attempt to distribute the food evenly before someone got offended and a real fight broke out.

Bruce accepted the fact that perhaps Dick was overtired tonight. Patrol had been busy, and Bruce knew well that Dick was working a big case down in Bludhaven at the moment. But the promise of a home cooked meal was usually more than enough to call him to some sort of action. Bruce was sure he hadn’t eaten. Where Jason was quite capable in that department, Dick was a hot mess, often relying on take out or packaged foods to keep him going. When he remembered to eat at all, that was. It gave Dick a special appreciation for the times when Alfred provided a meal. Tonight however, he just stood quietly behind Bruce watching the other three absently. Focused, and yet somehow still a million miles away.

“Just so you guys know, you aren’t getting any of those sandwiches,” Jason said as he exited the change rooms. First, as usual. Bruce had never known a time when Jason had been okay with second place.

“A bold statement, Todd. Especially for one so incompetent,” Damian said, rushing up behind him with a bitter scowl. Tim exited casually behind his two brothers, saying nothing. He appeared passive, but Bruce knew that was a sign that he was carefully formulating a plan to get his fair share. Whether Jason and Damian knew this, Bruce wasn’t sure, but they were going to find out soon enough.

“It’s not bold if I can back it up,” Jason taunted his youngest brother. Bruce heaved a heavy sigh as he watched Jason push Damian with a single arm, tripping him, before bolting for the stairs. Bruce had seen it coming, not just because of the position of his legs, but because he knew Jason liked the use the element of surprise in his strategies. It was a something they had worked on and developed together, back when Jason had still been Robin. Damian didn’t know this though, couldn’t know this. The boy had looked shocked for nearly a whole second from where he sat on the floor, before his face went bright red and he stood so quickly that Bruce would have missed it had he blinked.

“That’s cheating, you imbecile!” Damian’s voice, and footsteps, echoed loudly through the cave after Jason. Which just left Tim to shake his head and sigh as he glanced over at Bruce and Dick, face a picture of reluctant resignation.

“I guess that’s my cue,” He told them dryly, just a moment before breaking into a jog and disappearing up the stairs after them. As Bruce watched him go, silently wishing the boy luck, an odd realization struck him. Dick had just watched that whole exchange. He hadn’t teased Tim, or called Jason out on his cheating, or reminded Damian that it wasn’t nice to insult family members. He’d just stood there while it happened. It was strange. Overtired, overwhelmed or otherwise, Dick would never just ignore his responsibility as big brother.

“Aren’t you going to join them, Dick?” Bruce found himself asking as he pulled back the cowl. Dick’s mask was still affixed to his face, another small peculiarity in a night full of them. Dick had never been as comfortable wearing the mask at home as Bruce was. He could have easily just forgotten about it, as he had many times before, but the small oddities were starting to add up and Bruce couldn’t quite help the uneasy feeling that was starting to form deep in his gut.

“Hmm?” Dick asked with a small shake of his head, as if he had been lost in thought. He collected himself quickly, to his credit, and turned to Bruce with a tired, but neutral, expression, “Maybe I’ll come up a bit later. I’m not really hungry or anything. I think I’ll just hang out down here for a while, you know, maybe start looking at that line,” Dick said with a shrug, gaze wandering to the line sitting broken and displayed on one of the cave’s many tables, just begging for analysis.

It should have been encouraging. Dick seemed cool. Nonchalant. But Bruce felt something gnawing at him, the feeling that something was off. But the thought was irrational, he quickly surmised. Dick’s behavior could too easily be explained when Bruce factored in a likely lack of sleep and Dick’s usual sub-par job of taking care of himself. Maybe Dick simply wasn’t hungry. He could be overtired or fighting off some minor ailment. A cold or minor injury, perhaps. Something Dick would not have thought to mention, but could have affected his overall focus. There was no need to jump to conclusions. Dick would tell him if something were really wrong.

“I’ll save you some sandwiches,” Bruce offers, unsure of how else to help exactly.

“Sure, if you can save anything from the feeding frenzy, I’d appreciate it” Dick joked lightly, with a half-smile. It was hard to say for sure due to Nightwing’s mask, but even though his head had turned, Bruce felt as though Dick’s eyes had never really looked away from the broken line. Just as well, Bruce supposed. The sooner they had an answer, the better.

“I’ll see what I can do. Let me know of your findings,” Bruce told him as he took his leave. He was more than ready to take off the costume for the night and join the boys upstairs. Dick’s slight frown told him that the words hadn’t come out quite the way he’d intended, but Bruce did not try to correct it. He’d learned over the years that it was best to avoid over-explaining himself when it came to Dick. Doing so always inevitably seemed to lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, no matter how hard Bruce tried.

Bruce did somehow managed to save Dick a couple sandwiches that night, then chatted with the boys some before Alfred ushered them all off to bed. But despite being bone tired from an action packed day at the office as well as on the streets, Bruce found himself oddly restless. Try as he might to rationalize Dick’s behavior, to apply logic and reason to the issue, it still bothered him that his eldest boy hadn’t come upstairs to join them that night.

~~~

Bruce wasn’t sure what had compelled him to check the cave footage from the previous night. There really was no need. Dick had provided him with a report outlining every test he’d preformed and every result he’d yielded. Bruce had read it. Twice. Perhaps it was Dick’s quietness last night. His absence at the table. The nagging feeling that something was just…off with his eldest that made Bruce finally hit the ‘play’ button.

Bruce watched the screen flicker to life in front of him, watched carefully for the first few minutes, but the footage showed little of value. It was just Dick, alone in the cave, running test after test on the broken line. Bruce sped the footage up, watched as Dick started analyzing the ends of the line under a microscope at 4x speed. He’d compared the ends of the line to sample pictures of metal fatigue before moving on to a chemical analysis, looking for foreign substances that may have weakened or corroded the line. It was all standard procedure that Dick went through quietly and methodically. For nearly two hours without pause according to the time stamp.

Bruce’s hand moved quickly to slow the tape back down to normal speed when a shadow became visible in the stairwell. Jason, finally calling it a night. Ready to grab his gear and head back to wherever it was he was staying these days. It was the first Dick had looked away from his work all night. Bruce turned the audio up, curious about any conversation that had transpired between the two. Hoping for some insight perhaps, though into what he wasn’t exactly sure.

“You’re still down here? I thought you’d have headed back to Bludhaven by now,” Jason said as he descended the last step. Dick’s face wasn’t clearly visible at this angle, but Bruce could still see his gestures. He watched as Dick rubbed at his eyes with a single hand before turning to regard Jason. He looked tired in the way he carried himself. Turning slowly, shoulders slumped slightly, one hand resting on the table as he rose heavily from the chair he’d been sitting in.

“I’m still here. I just need to figure out what went wrong with this line before I head back,” Dick replied. Even his voice sounded listless. He couldn’t see Dick’s expression, but he could see Jason’s clearly as it twisted into something half-way between curiosity and concern.

“You know it’ll still be broken tomorrow, right?” Jason told him as he picked up his helmet off of a nearby console, having not bothered to move it earlier. He was eyeing Dick suspiciously, and Bruce cursed the camera angle once more. Cursed the fact that he couldn’t see Dick’s face for himself. It would have been so much easier to gauge Jason’s reaction if he could just see Dick’s face. Perhaps it was time to revisit the idea of installing more cameras in the cave.

“I know, Jay, but this just doesn’t make sense. I checked that line before we left and there was nothing wrong with it,” Dick said with a shake of his head. Bruce quirked an eyebrow at the turn in the conversation, allowed himself to turn the volume up just a bit more. He hadn’t fully considered the possibility that guilt was at play, but it would be far from the first time it would have had a major effect on his son’s behavior. It wasn’t much, but at least it was an avenue he could explore.

“And you couldn’t have possibly missed anything,” Jason offered snidely. Took a few steps closer to the transport bay, as if he’d expected the conversation to end there.

“I don’t…I mean…we use these all the time. They aren’t supposed to…just break,” Dick said as though he hadn’t heard Jason speak. The words were unusual enough to get Jason to pause, but he didn’t seem overly bothered in that moment. Bruce watched as Jason simply shrugged, leaned casually up against the final console before the exit to the transport bay, helmet still slung under one arm.

“Well, shit happens,” Jason replied nonchalantly. The words seemed to have an effect on Dick, who looked up sharply from where he still stood near the lab equipment.

“No, Jason! No! This isn’t just ‘shit happens’! Something caused that line to fail!” Dick’s voice carried over the speakers louder than Bruce had expected. He felt his eyes narrow, expecting this one action to spark some sort of conflict between his two eldest. Bruce knew part of their issues with one another stemmed from nothing more than conflicting personalities. It was inevitable that they would squabble at times, even come to blows if a topic got especially heated. For the most part, they’d learned to work around that.

“Of course something caused it to fail, Dick! Equipment doesn’t fail for no reason, any idiot can tell you that!” Jason bit back at him, just as loudly. Bruce could see the quirk of one eye that was characteristic of Jason’s anger, the strange curl of his lip that always told Bruce he was gearing up for a fight. Bruce sighed, running a hand through his hair. At the end of the day, he knew it was him who was mostly responsible for the animosity between the two of them. He’d pitted them against each other. Used Dick as a means to make Jason work harder, to inspire Jason to live up to a standard that belonged to someone else instead of reaching his own. In turn, he’d used Jason as a way to show Dick that he didn’t need him anymore, that any kid could be Robin so long as Batman was at the helm. It had been years, and they’d been through so much since those days, but it seemed as though neither of his eldest sons had entirely gotten over feeling inferior to one another. It was the true Achilles heel between them. The one variable that set off the vast majority of their arguments. And Bruce could see it now, coming into play on the screen I front of him.

“I checked the lines before we left. I always check the lines,” Dick told Jason, voice unusually tight, hand balling into a fist.

“Well you probably missed something. You’re still human, last I checked. Even you can make a mistake,” Jason said with a bitter smirk. Bruce shook his head and watched Dick’s shoulders tense up. He would know for sure soon enough, but he still hoped it hadn’t come to blows between the two last night.

“I checked them the same way I always check them, and it’s good enough every other night!” Dick shouted loudly, with an edge to his voice that made Bruce uncomfortable all of a sudden. He still couldn’t see Dick’s face, but there was something about the way he carried himself that made Bruce think this was more than just simple anger. “I didn’t miss anything!” he heard Dick insist again for emphasis. If Jason saw the same unusual signs in Dick that Bruce had, he ignored them. Bruce could see him balk, heard his loud scoff through the speakers.

“Oh yeah, I forgot. You’re too perfect to make mistakes like the rest of us,” Jason said, gripping the helmet under his arm tighter. His smirk had faded by this point and it looked to Bruce as though he was just about to storm out of the room. This was nothing unusual. It was typical of the way he and Dick usually fought. One of them would say something to offend the other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Then they would yell for a while, say hurtful things to one another that neither meant. Sometimes they would get physical, sometimes not. It normally ended when one or both of them stormed out, intending not to speak to each other until the next patrol.

“It’s not that!” Dick shouted, turning his whole body to face Jason head-on now, “I checked the goddamn lines! I always check the lines!” Dick said, waving his hands outward, towards the equipment room subconsciously.

“Well maybe you should have checked them better!” Jason exclaimed loudly, waving his free hand in the air. Bruce leaned back in his chair, expecting a screaming match to ignite at this point. Jason had clearly gotten insecure, Dick had clearly gotten oversensitive…but it doesn’t start the fight Bruce had been expecting.

Bruce waited for a reaction. For Dick’s next words. Or Jason’s. For the anger. But Dick doesn’t respond and Jason doesn’t instigate further. Bruce still couldn’t see Dick’s face, turned away from the camera as he was, but he clearly saw Jason’s expression inexplicably soften, anger fading just as easily as it had come. The camera didn’t show fine detail, but Bruce could tell the look in his eyes had changed. His skin was crawling, his mind itching to know exactly what Jason had seen to cause his whole demeanor to shift so drastically, so quickly. But all Bruce could do was the same thing he had been doing all morning. Keep watch. Look for clues. Try to unravel the mystery.

Neither of his sons spoke for several long, awkward seconds. Dick was the first to move, sitting back down at the exam table heavily, shoulders hunched over as he absently started moving some of the equipment around the table. Bruce got only the smallest glimpse of Dick’s face, but could see nothing he would consider useful. Dick’s eyes were mostly covered by his bangs, the rest of his face giving away very little. Jason shifted uncomfortably as he looked on and Bruce thought he could see conflict in his face now. He watched as Jason took a deep breath in, placed his helmet much more gently on the console than he normally did, and took a few slow steps toward the table, careful to look only at the line and not at his older brother.

“Have you found anything yet?” Jason asked after a pause, anger seemingly forgotten for the moment.

“No. Not yet,” Dick said, shaking his head softly as his gaze fell back to the broken end of the line. Jason sighed in response, looking away, running a hand through his hair quickly before deciding to speak again.

“Mind if I take a look?” He asked Dick, who finally turned his head up to look at Jason fully. They both paused a long moment, looking into the eyes of the other as Dick considered his response.

“Sure,” Dick finally said, getting up and passing the line over for Jason to look at.

Bruce watched the two of them work together for the next hour, speeding the footage up as they worked in methodical near-silence on the screen. They analyzed data. Tested and re-tested. Bruce already knew they had failed to find anything of any importance. Dick’s report had told him at least that much.

Jason left on his bike about an hour before dawn, clearly tired, clearly disturbed by the events of the past hour. Though the exact reason Jason had looked so disturbed, Bruce could only speculate. Bruce would have liked an opportunity to ask him, but such opportunity would likely not present itself for several days at least. Jason appeared and disappeared on his own timeline, and Bruce rarely felt the need to test Jason’s patience by seeking him out. But the case with the arms dealer was still active. Bruce’s guess was Jason would appear sooner rather than later this time.

Dick was showing obvious signs of fatigue as he looked over the data once again. Bruce watched him place the final pages in the folder, the same folder that Bruce had found on the main console this morning. Bruce’s hand hovered over the button that would stop the footage, not expecting to see much more on the footage after this. He expected Dick to head up to bed at this point, or perhaps go back to Bludhaven, and he waits for this before stopping the tape. But his son doesn’t let up.

Bruce moved his hand back toward himself slowly, hesitating, when he saw Dick take out a batarang and storm up angrily to the line he’d been using as a control all night. Bruce’s eyes narrowed as he watched Dick pull the line out from within the gun, slash at it harshly, twice in a single spot, before curling it back up neatly in place. Bruce could feel his blood pressure rising, could feel his heart pounding, because there was no way Dick was going to do what he thought he was going to do. There was no way Dick was going to try to re-create the line failure while alone and overtired. Dick was much, much too sensible for that.

Bruce watched the next couple hours of footage at double the speed, a mix between seething anger and horror flowing through him. He watched, disbelieving, as Dick pulled off one stupid stunt after another in an attempt to recreate the incident. Slashing at lines with various instruments, using common chemicals meant to weaken the metal before swinging from them to see if they would break. Every time Bruce thought the attempt he was seeing on the screen would be Dick’s last, his son would try something even more reckless. Dick’s attempts seemed to get more and more desperate as the clock ticked, as if finding the cause of the failure was more important this his personal safety. Bruce nearly turned it off when, in an attempt to gain more speed and height, Dick started swinging over large, practically bottomless, cliff sides, but Bruce forced himself not to look away.

Bruce felt drained, adrenaline deprivation hitting him harder than usual, by the time Dick finally did let up. Dick hadn’t gotten a single line to fail. Never even came close. By the time he finally stopped trying, the sun had risen and it was start of rush hour. Dick could barely seem to function, limbs awkward and sluggish as he mounted his bike. Bruce had no idea why he had even considered heading back to Bludhaven in that condition. He knew he had a perfectly good room at the manor. But Dick hadn’t exactly been thinking straight to start with, judging by what Bruce had just seen.

Bruce knew he had made it back, at least. The bike’s systems would have alerted him to a crash, and the tracker clearly showed it in its usual place near Dick’s apartment. But that really wasn’t the point. The risk had been unnecessary. Most of Dick’s actions the previous night had been completely unnecessary. It was a level of risk that even Dick should have known better than to take. And Bruce just couldn’t wrap his head around why Dick had seen it as anything but a terrible idea.

Bruce had hoped that watching the footage would have eased some of his worry, perhaps confirmed his belief that he was just overreacting. Instead, it had done the complete opposite. And now Bruce was not only confused, but downright terrified.

Chapter Text

Alfred greeted him at the door when he returned home from work that night, the same way he did just about every other night.

“Good evening Master Bruce. And how were things at the office today?” Alfred asked, holding out an arm to take Bruce’s coat. Bruce gave the man a hint of a smile, but it was mostly to hide the truth. Nothing had gone wrong with the WayneTech operations that day. In fact, everything had gone more smoothly than usual. But Bruce hadn’t enjoyed the good fortune. He’d spent the better part of the day holed up in his office, the memory of watching Dick swing over open pits playing over and over in his head, leaving him unable to think about much else. But he wouldn’t burden Alfred with that. Not until he absolutely had to.

“Uneventful. I take it everything was good here?” Bruce replied, handing Alfred his coat obediently.

“Master Damian is currently attending to his homework upstairs. Master Timothy, however, shall be getting in late. I believe there was mention of pizza, as one young Mister Kent is in town for the evening,” Alfred said as he carefully placed the coat in the closet. Bruce nodded. This was nothing unusual. Alfred often greeted him with an update on the kids. Had done so pretty much since the moment Dick had come to live with them all those years ago. He was less than pleased to hear that Superboy was in town without his knowledge, but he would let his ‘no metas in Gotham’ rule slide for Tim’s sake. The boy worked so hard, the mission always needy and wanting of their time as it was, and he deserved to have an evening out with a friend. Bruce wished he’d do it more often.

“Master Richard is currently…downstairs,” Alfred added after a pause, shaking Bruce instantly out of his thoughts. Bruce had to take a moment as the words sank in.

“He is? Patrol isn’t for another four hours,” Bruce said. Asked without asking. He’d expected Dick to be on time if he was joining them, of course, but there was no need for him to be hours early. He was certain Dick still hadn’t caught up on the sleep he’d lost out on the night before.

“As I have informed him, yes. He arrived this afternoon and has been preoccupied ever since,” Alfred told him. Bruce knew the tone well. It was the one he had come to recognize as the voice Alfred used when he was annoyed. Which lead to the conclusion that Dick probably just wasn’t listening to reason. Again. The boy had always been as stubborn as a mule and twice as rebellious. Still, he usually listened to Alfred. There was the possibility that Dick was being passive aggressive, but if he had a specific point he wanted to prove, he was doing a poor job of articulating it. Though he was sure Alfred had already tried, Bruce wondered if perhaps he should try to talk his son into getting a little sleep before patrol. Eat something, even. The sandwiches from last night may be in the fridge still.

“Should I speak to him?” Bruce asked his own father figure awkwardly. He knew it was the right thing to do deep down. Especially after seeing what he had this morning. Still, a part of him hesitated when it came to having potentially emotional conversations. Another small part of him was hoping that Alfred would say no, just do it for him. After all, Alfred had a way with the boys, with people in general, that he just didn’t.

“If you see it as necessary,” Alfred said simply. It was about as clear a ‘yes’ as any. Bruce suppressed the urge to cringe. Alfred was right, he needed to talk to Dick, even if he was in one of his moods. The kind of mood that always left Bruce feeling a little bit helpless.

He made his way to the cave shortly after that, though his first destination once inside was the change rooms. He knew it was cowardly, but still, he wasn’t quite ready to handle this as Bruce Wayne. He intentionally left the cowl down though. He had no idea what Dick would be like when he confronted him, but he traditionally responded better to Bruce than to Batman when he was upset. This would be Bruce’s compromise. His contingency.

When Bruce headed out into the main body of the cave, he found Dick just outside the equipment room in a similar state of dress. Uniform on, sans mask. He looked tired, slightly pale. His dull eyes were carefully inspecting a grapple line, one of many that he’d laid out on one of the evidence tables. He’d likely made a point to re-string the ones he’d been experimenting with the night before, but he’d only used six different lines last night, by Bruce’s count. There was no way restringing six lines had taken him all afternoon.

Bruce cleared his throat loudly enough to announce his presence. He wasn’t sure what else to do that wouldn’t spark a fight. He couldn’t let Dick know he’d watched the security footage from last night, nor did he want to go into full Batman mode and question everything his son was doing. A fight was not what he was here for. Though he did want to know what Dick was doing. Did want to know why he felt the need to come to the manor so early only to lock himself away in the cave. But Bruce didn’t ask. Yet.

“Hey Bruce,” Dick greeted him as he turned. His tone was light, his expression relatively relaxed, but it still didn’t seem quite right. Tired. Weary. Not like Nightwing. Not like Dick.

“Patrol isn’t for hours still,” Bruce reminded him, keeping his tone forcefully neutral as he walked a few steps closer.

“I know. And I’m not here for patrol. I need to get back to Bludhaven tonight. There’s some bad stuff going on between the casinos and, well…everybody else, that really only leave Nightwing as a neutral party. I’m really just here to check the lines. I’ll head back after that,” Dick said with a shrug as he moved on to inspect the next line. A thought seemed to make him pause briefly, “You don’t need me here, do you? I can stay and work the comms for a bit.”

“We can make due. Red Robin can assist us, and Batgirl is available if she’s needed,” Bruce assured him. Dick’s eyes never turned away from his work as he nodded. Bruce watched him carefully inspect the line in his hand, running his fingers over the length of it to confirm what his eyes were telling him.

“Cool,” Dick said, more to acknowledge the statement than anything. There was something unsettling about the way Dick was working. He was always thorough in his checks, Bruce had always insisted on that much, but Dick had always had his own unorthodox way of doing things. Bruce had never really understood his methods fully, but they had always achieved good results, so Bruce had never seen the need to question or correct them. Today though, he was downright methodical. Going from step A to step B with no odd little detours in between. It was rigidly structured. Overly disciplined. More the way he’d expect to see himself work. Bruce really wasn’t too sure what to make of it. But it wasn’t a problem in and of itself.

“Have you eaten yet? I could get Alfred to make you something,” Bruce asked, thinking perhaps a change of subject would help. He managed to keep his tone light. Gentle. Reminding himself that this wasn’t an interrogation. He just needed to keep Dick talking.

“You don’t have to bother Alfred. I ate at home,” Dick said with another shrug, eyes still fixed on the line. Bruce didn’t think it was a lie, but the probability of that ‘meal’ being a bowl of Lucky Charms and a granola bar was unsettlingly high. Bruce wanted to push the issue. Ask exactly what Dick had eaten, when he’d eaten it. But he held back. Alfred had reminded him, many times, that concern did not include things such as criticism or the giving of orders. But that insistent feeling that something was wrong was still busy trying to claw its way up Bruce’s throat. He didn’t want to fight, but he didn’t want to miss anything important just to avoid conflict either.

“Have you slept?” Bruce tried instead, perhaps pushing the boundaries just a little bit. His son was an adult. Had been on his own for some time now. But he also knew that while there may not be a biological link between them, Bruce was Dick’s father and it was ultimately his job to make sure Dick was taking care of himself. Dick only shot him a questioning, slightly amused, sidelong glance in response.

“Bruce, I’m fine,” Dick replied with what was almost a laugh. Bruce wanted to believe him, almost did believe him. He would have, if it hadn’t been for the sole fact that Dick’s fingers had never once stopped moving over the line. Hadn’t even slowed down.

“You just look tired, is all. I can keep Damian occupied if you wanted to sleep for an hour or two,” Bruce said. He hoped the suggestion hadn’t crossed a line. Hoped that Dick would just take him up on it.

“It’s okay. Really. I’ll sleep later. I just wanna make sure these are good for tonight. We don’t need any repeat performances, you know?” Dick said, motioning quickly to the lines on the table. His voice stayed light, almost joking, but his face told another story, eyes clouding over as he turned away, small smile that never reached the top half of his features. Bruce felt his heart clench, a sharp pang of frustration fill him, because something was wrong and he just didn’t have enough information to work with, enough skill to fix it. Dick didn’t seem to be opening up like he normally did, and Bruce wasn’t sure how to make him do that. But Bruce knew he had to do something. Inaction never helped anyone.

“Do you want a hand?” Bruce offered. A part of him, a part that sounded suspiciously like Batman, told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was being too soft. Coddling the boy. After all, Dick was fully capable. All his children were. Three of them were legal adults. They’d do better in the long run if he made them figure things out on their own. But another part of him saw the weariness in Dick’s eyes, in his posture, his whole demeanor, remembered the image of Dick taking a batarang in hand and slashing at a grapple line in desperation, and just wanted to help. Bruce knew well that he’d never win any sort of parenting award in his lifetime, but he still felt compelled to do something if he could.

“Actually, I could use another set of eyes on this,” Dick replied without hesitation. Bruce had to physically stop the look of surprise that wanted to creep across his face at the unexpected words. It wasn’t often any of his kids accepted help on the first try. It seemed…too easy. Bruce looked on as Dick fumbled with the line in his hand a moment, looking for a specific spot, Bruce assumed, before holding it out towards him. “Does this look kinked to you?” Dick asked.

Bruce squinted as he looked upon the line. The lighting in the cave left a lot to be desired, but Bruce still had no trouble telling that the line was in pristine condition. It was likely one of the ones Dick had re-strung earlier that afternoon, seeing as the line hadn’t yet lost the glossy finish on the coating like they always inevitably did with use.

“It looks fine to me,” Bruce told him after a pause. Why Dick would even be asking was still something of a mystery. Dick had taken it upon himself to check the lines since his earliest days as Robin, and Bruce couldn’t recall a single time in over a decade that Dick had missed a flaw. Dick probably knew better than any of them the difference between a satisfactory line and a defective one.

“You sure?” Dick asked, frowning slightly as he looked down to regard the line with narrowed eyes. The doubt was…unusual for his eldest. Perhaps it had something to do with Jason’s words the previous night. His second eldest had made a valid point. It was entirely possible Dick had missed something before patrol last night. He was often overworked, exhausted, and was known to juggle many different problems at once. Bludhaven, the Titans, the family, his own personal life, whatever else came up that week…his mind could have simply been elsewhere. Batman would say this was unacceptable, but Bruce felt more sympathetic. One slip-up in nearly 15 years was still an outstanding track record. Not that he would be able to convince Dick of that, but still.

“Certain,” Bruce assured him. He would humour his son just this once, try to help restore some of Dick’s usual confidence if he could. Bruce couldn’t imagine it taking very long to do so. Dick paused before nodding slowly, setting the grapple gun down on one side of the table.

Bruce thought it would be over at this point, that Dick would finish inspecting the lines, maybe go upstairs to catch up with Damian for a bit before wandering back to Bludhaven sometime before dark. Instead, Bruce found himself quirking an eyebrow as he saw Dick reach a hand out, picking up another line purposefully.

“The trigger on this one felt a little funny when I tried it earlier,” Dick explained simply, with no flair or predominant emotion. Business-like, as he held the gun out for Bruce to inspect. Batman’s voice reminded him that Dick should be able to test a line by himself without any help by now, but Bruce held the words at bay. A comment like that now would just hurt Dick needlessly. Make him lash out. Make him leave for days, maybe weeks. Batman may not care if Nightwing was there or not, but Bruce did. Jason had set the example last night, shown kindness when scorn would have been easier, and Bruce could do the same.

“We can set that one aside until it can be properly tested. It won’t be necessary on patrol tonight,” Bruce conceded. He had no idea if Dick’s claim was to be believed or not. Dick nodded again, just once, before placing the line on the table with the others. It was then that Bruce noticed the odd arrangement of the grapple lines into three distinct sections. Bruce’s guess was a system of ‘okay’, ‘not okay’ and ‘maybe’. Bruce’s eyes widened slightly as he realized then that he was in for a much longer evening than he’d initially planned. That the issue was rooted much deeper than he’d thought. The worst part was that he had no idea why. It was baffling. Caution was a great motto to live by, but Dick knew what he was doing. There was really no need for…any of this.

~~~

His suspicion had been correct. Dick had kept him busy with questions, checking and double checking lines, going over data he’d collected on the line that had failed, right up until the time Tim had shown up in the cave dressed and ready for patrol. It had set Bruce back hours in his work on the arms dealer case. Hours that he would now have to take time away from something else to make up. To add insult to injury, all that time had essentially amounted to nothing. None of the lines they’d meticulously looked at had shown any signs of being defective, but despite Bruce stating this over and over again, Dick had still set several aside for further inspection.

Bruce had been greatly relieved when the time to leave for patrol had finally come around. It was the time that Batman would be allowed to take over for the next few hours. Nightwing had stayed and worked the comms for a couple hours before leaving for Bludhaven to deal with his own cases, while Red Robin had put his own active case on hold to assist Robin and himself with tonight’s patrol. Bruce was thankful for the assist on both their parts. He could use all the help he could get in Gotham at the moment and there was no way he’d be putting in any calls to Diana, or Oliver, or, god forbid, Clark anytime soon.

The night had started out at a reasonable pace, but had turned sour very quickly after that. It seemed as if the moment Nightwing had become unavailable had been the exact moment that Gotham had decided to throw everything at them all at once. Muggings, robberies, Drug deals gone bad…Gotham had provided it all in droves. No single crime had been noteworthy on its own, but the sheer volume had left them on their toes all night, in a constant rush just to get to the next crime. Batgirl had been called in about half-way through the chaos and if not for her presence, the three of them likely would have been fighting crime until the sun rose that morning.

It had been late when they’d finally gotten in. Damian had practically been sleep walking as he traversed the cave, heading for the equipment room to deposit tonight’s gear. Tim had forgone his usual routine of immediately reviewing the night, instead following Damian quietly, occasionally correcting his younger brother’s path, but otherwise too worn to bother with much aside from putting his equipment away and getting changed. Neither boy had started any arguments or tried to out-do one another tonight. There’d been no time even if they had possessed the energy. Bruce would have Alfred call in sick for them tomorrow if necessary, though neither boy would allow such a thing without protest, he was sure.

Bruce waited for his two youngest disappear into the equipment room before pulling back the cowl with a heavy hand and walking nearer to Alfred, who was sitting at the main computer, dutifully working the comms for the latter half of the night. Even he looked slightly rattled by tonight’s breakneck pace as he glanced behind him at Bruce’s lethargic approach, putting the computer system to sleep without needing to look at the screen. Bruce almost asked him to stop. He had intended to look into the broken line after patrol tonight but, on second thought, it would have to be pushed back in favour of a couple hours of sleep instead.

He would have normally made a point of greeting Alfred, thank him for staying up to run the comms, but tonight something else captured his attention before the words could form. He was exhausted, they all were, but he wasn’t so exhausted that he wouldn’t notice a distinct change in the environment from before he’d left for the night. Bruce took a few long strides closer to the table that had housed the grapple lines he and Dick had inspected earlier. It was strangely emptier than he recalled, now only housing the ‘okay’ pile and a post-it note with Dick’s hasty scrawl across it.

‘Taking a few lines back to Bludhaven to double check. Have them back tomorrow. – Dick’

Bruce could feel his blood boil, his heart rate rise, reading the words. At Dick’s obsession. At his short-sightedness. His selfishness.

“Problem, Master Bruce?” Alfred asked. Bruce hadn’t noticed him approach. He spun wildly towards the man, mind clouding over with rage.

“Alfred, what was he thinking?! Taking vital equipment out of the cave without permission?! He knows better than that! It’s completely irresponsible!” Bruce exploded all at once, ready to storm into Bludhaven himself just to tell Dick exactly how irresponsible his actions had been tonight. How this was just one more thing Bruce would have to deal with in a long string of mounting problems. How none of this should have ever been an issue in the first place.

“Master Bruce, calm yourself. Master Richard was well-intentioned in his actions, even if he may not have thought them all the way through. Go easy on the lad, he isn’t feeling himself,” Alfred told him in his usual even voice. Bruce breathed in sharply. Alfred was probably right. He usually was. Dick hadn’t been acting like himself, and he’d not done anything malicious. He wanted them to be safe, even Batman got that. But it didn’t’ excuse his actions, nor his lack of forethought. He’d clearly put his emotions before his logic and no matter his reasoning, that couldn’t continue. That wouldn’t continue.

Perhaps if it’d been a different night, he’d have indeed gone to Bludhaven. Retrieved the lines. Talked some sense into the boy. But tonight he was drained, both physically and mentally. Alfred had told him to go easy on Dick, and though he disagreed, he would still heed that advice. For now. He was the one who had gone too easy on Dick earlier. Allowed too much to slide. It was not a mistake he’d be making twice.

“He gets one pass. One. If he pulls a stunt like this again, I’m going to Bludhaven myself,” Bruce said as he turned sharply to leave the cave, to put this whole day behind him. The warning in his voice was so thick that even Alfred dared not contest it.

Chapter Text

As promised, Dick had arrived the next day with every piece of equipment he’d taken. But by this point, Bruce had had hours to obsess about it. And obsess he did, anger and worry gently stewing in the background all night and most of his work day. His mind had been so preoccupied trying to solve the mystery behind Dick’s behavior that any and all productive work had taken a backseat. The arms dealer case in particular was falling to the wayside, and that couldn’t continue. Violent crime was always rampant in Gotham. It was simply unacceptable to have more guns on her streets, threatening her citizens. The very thought angered him almost as much as Dick’s actions had. So when Alfred had told him that Dick was in the Batcave, Bruce didn’t hesitate to make his presence known.

“Dick!” Bruce roared as he took the final step into the Batcave. He’d coddled the boy yesterday, had clearly gone too easy on him and had no intention of repeating the same mistake twice. Dick turned sharply, eyes narrowed.

“What’s your problem?” he asked snidely, but kept his voice even. It was apparent he was holding back. For now. It only served to fuel Bruce’s own anger.

“What’s my problem?! Perhaps you could explain exactly what you were thinking taking vital equipment out of the cave without informing anyone?! Did it occur to you at any point that that equipment may have been needed?!” Bruce fired his questions off in a rush, face starting to burn, probably going bright red with the fury he’d been holding back on since last night.

“I left enough backups for everyone, if you’d cared to count,” Dick informed him in short words, face starting to twist into an uncomfortable expression. A war between anger and restraint. Bruce could see the fire in his eyes, the reddening of Dick’s face starting to match his own despite his darker complexion. He was trying to avoid a fight like the ones that were so typical of them at one time.

“That is completely beside the point,” Bruce told him coldly. He suspected Dick already knew this. Playing dumb may work for him out on the field, but it was Bruce who had taught him that tactic in the first place.

“Then what is the point?! You’re mad because I didn’t do something exactly your way?!” Dick shouted, finally losing his battle with restraint and letting his anger boil over like an unwatched pot.

“The point is that you acted selfishly and irresponsibly and I want to know why! I’d expect this lack of foresight from Damian, but I thought you’d have outgrown it by now! Do you realize you could have jeopardized the mission?! Did you consider this at all before taking a third of our supply of lines?!” Bruce spat out, his voice so loud it echoed through the cave systems. He could hear the fluttering of the bats somewhere deep in the caverns, disturbed by the outburst.

“Selfish?! I’m the one being selfish?!” Dick roared back, his voice taking on the higher pitch Bruce had come to know as the one Dick usually took on when he was losing control, “I’m the only one trying to keep everyone safe! It’s like I’m the only one who even cares that a line broke for no goddamn reason! I bet you haven’t even looked at it yet! Justify that one, Bruce! You’re okay taking that risk, so everyone else should be too?!” Dick continued, barely taking a moment between words to breathe as he swung his arms wildly. There was something off about it. Something much deeper than anger behind his words. Desperate. Like when he had been a teenager trying to prove a point. That had been ages ago. Bruce had no time, nor patience, for Dick’s over-emotional ranting today.

“I would never ask that of any of you! I read the report you left and I’ll look into it further at the earliest opportunity,” Bruce said. His words were intentionally dismissive, a tone usually saved for the board room rather than his family, but he wouldn’t entertain Dick’s accusations. He’d done more than enough of that in the past.

“And is that before or after someone gets hurt?!” Dick asked, hand moving in a sweeping motion toward the floor.

He stopped suddenly before completing the gesture though, and in an instant his face changed to surprise, eyes widening, angry expression falling into something more akin to regret. Bruce’s expression fell then too. There weren’t many things that could stop Dick mid-tantrum and that fact alone caused Bruce to turn quickly, needing to see what it was that had halted Dick’s anger, and subsequently his own, so abruptly.

It didn’t take long for Bruce to realize it was Tim, still in his civilian clothes, mid-way down the stairs to the cave that had suspended their fight. He wore a similar expression to Dick, shock and concern, as he looked on. The teen clearly hadn’t expected to find them fighting like this. It still happened on occasion, of course, but it had become a rarer instance over the years. But it had never stopped completely. It was Jason who had had to deal with the nastiest of it, but Tim had seen his fair share early on as well. Things hadn’t been good between them when Tim had come into the picture. Jason was dead. He’d pushed Dick, and everyone else who mattered, away. And Dick had been so angry, so hurt, in response. When Tim had come into their lives, Bruce could not foresee a time when he and Dick would be able to be in a room together without the resentment, or the fighting. A large chasm had formed between them, one that seemed insurmountable at the time. Tim had seen them give in to that anger all too often. Bruce knew Tim had never really gotten comfortable with the idea of them being at odds, even if he did accept it. His face told Bruce that much now, as he looked on from the steps, clearly uncomfortable, stance timid.

“Uh…sorry, I can… come back,” Tim said after a long moment when no one spoke, though Bruce noted that he made no move to actually exit the cave. Bruce was still angry. He had gotten exactly none of the answers he’d come down for, none of the insights he’d been hoping for. For the better part of seventy-two hours, no less. But the opportunity to ask had passed, or rather, he’d squandered it in favour of venting his petty, misplaced anger over an issue that, at the end of the day, wasn’t terribly important. Even if there had still been a chance to get his answers now, he had no desire to involve Tim in any of this.

“No need. We’re done here,” Bruce said coldly, with a quick glance back in Dick’s direction. He didn’t wait for either boy to answer before turning on his heel and walking purposefully towards the staircase.

“What a surprise,” he could hear Dick mutter behind him as he retreated. Bruce didn’t look back. Not at Dick, not at the lines. But he did spare a careful glance at Tim as he passed him on the steps. Bruce wasn’t exactly sure of his reasons for doing so, if he was looking for submission or acceptance or maybe forgiveness when their eyes met, but he certainly didn’t expecting the odd mix of emotions he saw. Curiosity, of course, was present. Bruce wondered sometimes if his third sons mind ever stopped working. Hesitation, just a bit of apprehension. But there was something underneath that, something that wasn’t normally there. Sympathy, perhaps? Worry? But it seemed so out of place that Bruce wasn’t sure what to make of it. He knew Tim hated it when he and Dick fought, especially when it got heated like it had this time, but Tim didn’t exactly pity them for it either.

Bruce didn’t dwell on it for very long after he broke eye contact and kept walking. He already had Dick to deal with, the arms dealer case, the quarterly reports at Wayne Enterprises and of course, the massive amount of crimes being committed on the streets of Gotham. That alone was becoming so out of hand that the Commissioner had suggested instating a curfew for citizens in or near Crime Alley. There was just no room, no good reason, to add a strange look in Tim’s eyes to his current list of problems. He was almost at the top of the stairs, almost out of the cave completely, when Tim’s voice caught his attention.

“You still want to run some tests on that line, Dick? We can do it another time if now isn’t good,” Tim’s voice carried through the stairwell. Bruce paused then, on the final step. Listened. Fought back his own annoyance. Apparently, even Tim’s timely appearance was no coincidence. Everything concerning Dick seemed to come back to that damn line these days. But maybe, just maybe, Tim knew why.

“We should do it now. After all, someone has to,” Dick replied, his words loud and harsh at the end, and more than likely not intended for Tim. Bruce’s eyes narrowed at the cheap shot, but he bit back hard against any retort he might have been tempted to make. He didn’t know what had gotten into his eldest lately, why one small incident had evolved into some sort of obsession, but Bruce was done guessing.

Bruce left it at that for the moment. The boys had gone quiet, waiting for Bruce to leave before continuing the conversation verbally as opposed to the sign language they had likely reverted to knowing he was listening. It was for the best that he go. Dick would be on edge as long as he knew Bruce was there and Bruce figured that if anyone in this family could make Dick see reason, it would certainly be Tim. He would give them room to talk. To work. Perhaps they’d even find the answer they were looking for and they could put this whole goddamned ordeal behind them.

~~~

His plan to leave them be, however, lasted only an hour and fifty-six minutes before he found himself restless and wandering back down to the cave, curious if they had indeed found any new clues as to why the line broke. He kept his footsteps quiet enough that the boys wouldn’t be too distracted from their work, but loud enough that neither would fail to notice his entrance. A part of Bruce worried exactly what research they were conducting, how exactly they were testing the equipment. Despite the time that had passed, Bruce couldn’t seem to shake the image of Dick recklessly swinging over the deep caverns in the cave with lines he’d rigged to fail. But no. That wouldn’t happen today. Tim could be counted on to stop Dick from pulling any of the type of stunts he had pulled the other night after Jason had left, and in turn, Dick would keep Tim’s perspective on the bigger picture rather than caught up in the small details. They’d always made a good team, balanced each other out in a unique way. Similar, and yet in some aspects, almost polar opposites.

Tim was at the computer when Bruce rounded the final curve of the staircase, working diligently as usual. His head was resting on one arm, face a mask of concentration as he watched the screen in front of him. Bruce caught a quick glimpse of the simulation he was running, probably one of many that he’d applied calculations to this afternoon. Bruce could hear Dick chattering away at Tim well before he saw him. He kept his voice low as to not be too disturbing, but everyone who knew Dick knew didn’t care for silence. Bruce couldn’t make out the exact words, but Dick seemed to be talking about some video game franchise he and Tim both enjoyed in their off time. Bruce took his eyes off of Tim, let them wander over to a further corner of the cave until they finally rested on the familiar sight of his eldest son.

Dick was checking the lines again. The same one’s he’d just brought back from Bludhaven. Bruce froze on the stairs. He knew he should have just focused on Tim. Asked if he’d made any progress. Concern himself with the simple problem, the one that could be easily understood, rather than the complex puzzle that was Dick’s motivations. But something about seeing Dick methodically checking the lines over and over to no end was too much. This wasn’t Dick. This wasn’t his son. Bruce could feel the fragile grip on his anger let go then, the unresolved issues, the fight from before, the worry taking precedence over all else.

“Dick! What do you think you’re doing?” He yelled out before he could stop himself. Both his boys turned to him then, Tim looking a little taken aback by the suddenness of the outburst, but Dick…Dick just looked angry as he tossed the grapple line he’d been holding back down onto the table with a loud clatter. Bruce watched him carefully as his expression went tight, as his breathing went rigid. Tim didn’t move from his seat, staring openly between the two of them. He knew what was coming, may have known what was coming even before Bruce had instigated the fight, but Tim would only interfere if necessary.

“What did I do wrong this time?” Dick asked with a heavy, somewhat shaky sigh. His tone was even, but his eyes were focused on a point far in front of him, refusing to look directly at Bruce while his hand gripped the edge of the table hard. The words were enough to make Bruce want to growl at him in pure frustration, because how could Dick possibly not know? Surely Dick was self-aware enough to see how irrational his behavior had been, how much it had taken time away from other important projects.

“You said you took those lines to Bludhaven to inspect them,” Bruce said. His voice was cold. Hard. It was an accusation as clear-cut and as harsh as any Batman would ever dish out. Dick’s angry blue eyes turned to him sidelong. Glaring. Accepting the challenge as Bruce knew he would.

“I did,” Dick informed him. He stood still, every muscle tense as he waited for Bruce’s next move.

“If you were so thorough with them yesterday, then why do you feel the need to waste time checking them now?!” Bruce shouted at him, outraged. Dick turned his eyes all the way to him then, finally, a fire in his gaze Bruce remembered well from his teen years.

“Go ahead, Bruce, check them yourself if you don’t think I did a good enough job! Nothing I do is ever good enough for you anyway, why should I expect this to be any different?!” Dick yelled back at him. Bruce nearly flinched at the words, the old argument between them. He was already on edge with Dick, feeling much too critical, without the reminder in how inadequate he was when it came to his children. How he could never seem to quite convey just how highly he thought of each of them, how much light they had each brought to his life. He cared deeply for each of them, imagined it was the closest thing to love he was capable of feeling, but whenever he tried to express that, it came out as a cold demeanor. Harsh words. Barking orders. His kids all felt inadequate because of him to some degree, whether they expressed it or not. But Bruce knew the truth…he was the one who was inadequate.

“If you’d done a satisfactory job, there’d be no need to check them now,” Bruce reasoned, shaking the thoughts from his mind, focusing back on the issue at hand.

“Bruce, I checked the lines! I did! You know I always check the lines!” Dick practically wailed at him, and Bruce was taken aback by how desperate he sounded suddenly, as if he would doubt this. The fact was, Dick had indeed always checked the lines, twice before patrol, sometimes even after, and Bruce knew damn well that he did this time too. It had just never been a disruptive habit until now.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Tim turn away, seemingly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had just taken. Bruce was pretty sure he even saw his son squirm a little bit in his chair and wondered what exactly could have caused Tim such discomfort so suddenly. But Bruce shook this off too, filed it away for another time, another day. Decided to finish one fight before picking another.

“Then you shouldn’t be worried,” Bruce told Dick, looking him squarely in the eye. Dick’s eyes widened slightly in surprise for a moment before flashing back to a smoldering anger as they stared each other down. There was something else in Dick’s eyes though. Betrayal. The same sort of emotions that would often flash across Dick’s face many years ago when he wore a much different costume and Jason was still so young and full of optimism. They stared each other down for what felt like forever before Dick finally spoke.

“You’re an asshole, you know that?” He told Bruce in a small voice, a shake of his head finally breaking the intense eye contact between them. The words hit Bruce unexpectedly hard, but at the same time seemed to come out of nowhere. There was no time to respond as Dick glared at the table, the lines, for only a brief moment before walking, pushing past Bruce as he retreated.

“I’m going back to Bludhaven. If you need help tonight, call someone else,” Dick said simply before continuing on his way toward the change rooms. Bruce said nothing in response as he watched him go and contemplated his own failure. This really wasn’t how Bruce had wanted this conversation to play out, turning into just another of the countless times the two of them had entered into a battle of wills that neither could win.

Bruce sighed heavily after Dick disappeared into the change rooms and spared a cautious glance at his younger son, who had stayed completely silent while he and Dick hashed it out. He was tense, but hiding it well enough as he tried his best to look like he’d been casually analyzing data this whole time. They both knew it wasn’t the case, but Bruce appreciated the effort.

“Have you found anything new?” Bruce asked awkwardly after a moment, unsure if Tim would be receptive to conversation after the event he’d just witnessed. Bruce felt tired in that moment. Old, all of a sudden, as he watched his second-youngest sons head tilt toward him, eyes thoughtful, even if a bit guarded.

“Not really,” Tim admitted grimly, leaning back in the chair as he looked over to the computer screen with a slight scowl, “Dick’s already done all the tests I could think of. We were trying to re-create the accident in the simulator but, even with my calculations applied, it didn’t really add up. Unless you gained like 500 pounds in the past couple weeks?” Tim inquired with a glance up at him, ghost of a smile playing at his lips.

“I’m pretty sure Alfred would have said something,” Bruce joked back lightly. At least he could speak to one of his sons civilly today.

“Yeah. Probably. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be that easy,” Tim said as he went back to looking at the figures on the screen, but Bruce could see he wasn’t done. There was something he was milling over, shifting very slightly as he sat. He took a steadying breath in before the continued, “Dick…Dick does have a point. Lines don’t just break for no reason. If it happened to this one, it could happen to another one. It’s…not a bad thing that he’s checking them,” Tim said, voice unsure and hesitant as he spoke. Bruce felt another angry pang of failure hit him when he realized that Tim was afraid that the comment would set him off, perhaps cause him to go into full Batman mode and try to justify his actions, to scold Tim, either directly or indirectly, for questioning him at all. But he refused to do that, having already driven one son off today.

“I know he does,” Bruce admitted reluctantly, dropping his head very slightly, “I’ll look into it more tonight and…I’ll involve WayneTech if necessary,” Bruce assured the boy. A promise, though he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He hated having to mix his day job with his night job if it was at all avoidable, but the boys were right. It was too dangerous to risk a repeat failure of the equipment. They had fail-safes in place, but they were never supposed to have to use them. And perhaps having a solid answer would calm Dick down too, give him a sense of closure on the incident. Bruce would never ask directly what was wrong, Dick would never answer the question directly anyway, but things couldn’t continue like this. He knew how capable Dick was in uniform, how capable he always had been.

But he’d been reckless lately. Emotional. And angry. Uncharacteristically irresponsible. The train of thought made Bruce pause suddenly. Dick would be heading back to Bludhaven, into god-knows-what situation, without a clear head. It was dangerous. Angry as he was with the young man, the thought made him profoundly uncomfortable.

“You know, Tim, Cassandra arrived back in town last night. I could call her to assist us tonight, if you wanted to patrol in Bludhaven…” Bruce said, the idea coming to him all at once, though the words still felt awkward leaving his mouth. He didn’t want it to come out as an order, but he hoped desperately that Tim would still take him up on it. Tim would keep Dick’s head in the game tonight, and it would give him a great excuse to patrol with Cass. It felt like ages since he’d seen his daughter.

“With Nightwing, you mean?” Tim asked in response, a glint in his eye that Bruce knew to mean he’d not only figured out Bruce’s plan, but that he was content with it. It wasn’t as though this was the first time he’d enlisted the help of one of his children to keep an eye on their sibling, and Dick and Tim had always shared a special bond. Bruce knew they hadn’t had an opportunity to patrol together, just the two of them, for some time now.

“Yes, with Nightwing,” Bruce confirmed. Tim’s smile was a refreshing sight, a reassurance that he’d done at least one thing right today, even if was only one thing. Bruce knew his comeuppance was on the horizon, that Damian would be a handful tonight for the sole fact that Tim got to patrol with Dick and he didn’t, but he would deal with that as it came.

He saw Dick exit the change rooms before the silence between them could become uncomfortable, Nightwing suit on, complete with mask, civilian clothes tucked away in an old backpack. He stomped across the cave, ignoring Bruce pointedly as he went. Tim flashed a brief, hopeful look towards Bruce before bolting from his seat with the intention of heading Dick off before he could get to his bike.

“Dick! Wait up!” Tim called, catching the older boys’ attention. Dick stopped and turned to him casually. He appeared lackadaisical as he watched Tim jog towards him, but at least there was no anger hiding underneath his gaze this time. Just a lingering curiosity.

“What’s up, Timmy? I was kind of in the middle of a dramatic exit, you know,” Dick said kindly, though his dull, apathetic eyes betrayed the light tone. The fight affected him, Bruce knew. They always did. Always had.

“Sorry, it’s just that Bruce said he didn’t need me in Gotham tonight, so…maybe I could go to Bludhaven with you instead?” Tim asked with a shrug and a suggestive tilt of his head. Tim seemed just a touch nervous asking at all, though Bruce didn’t know why he would have been. Dick’s smile was the first genuine one Bruce had seen in three days. It made him look almost like himself, and that alone made Bruce feel good about his decision, even if it if was going to have very, very loud consequences for the entirety of tonight’s patrol.

“Yeah, of course! It’s been forever since we hit the streets together! And it just so happens I have a case I could use a genius IQ on,” Dick said, shoving Tim playfully with an elbow. The transformation in his demeanor was staggering from just minutes ago when he was screaming so loudly that Clark had probably heard it in Metropolis.

Bruce nodded to himself. Approving, even thankful. He left them be after that, and turned back to the main computer. He busied himself by going over Tim’s data as the boys shuffled around the cave in preparation for tonight’s patrol. It wasn’t difficult to keep himself occupied. Tim had compiled a lot of data in a couple hours, imputing the results Dick had found, applying his own calculations before running them in the simulator. All to no real end apparently, but there could still be some information of value if Bruce looked hard enough.

He took little notice of the boys until the point at which he heard them walk up to the table behind him. The one with the grapple lines scattered across it. Years of training was the only thing that kept the obvious tell of curiosity from showing in his body language as he turned an ear to listen, kept his eyes focused forward for just long enough that he was sure it wouldn’t be obvious when he glanced sidelong at the boys. He was hoping to gauge Dick’s reaction but even more so, Tim’s. Tim often knew so much more than he let on, and occasionally, when he wasn’t on alert, Bruce could gain some insight into what exactly it was that Tim wasn’t telling them. With Dick there distracting him, the promise of a fun patrol on the horizon, Tim’s guard might be down just enough to let something slip through.

He watched carefully as Dick grabbed one of the lines, turning it over in his hands as he eyed it over suspiciously. Seemingly approved, it was quickly affixed to his costume. Tim did the same, grabbing whichever line was closest, giving it a quick once-over, though with far less care an attention. Bruce almost let the whole thing go then, not seeing anything unusual as he looked on. In fact, it seemed almost like a normal exchange. He was about to turn his attention back to the data, feeling enough time had been wasted on the perfectly good lines today, when he saw Dick’s hand shoot out towards Tim’s…towards the grapple line in his hand.

“Wait!” He said to Tim with a degree of urgency that simply didn’t fit the situation. Bruce watched in disbelief as Dick reached for a different line, held it out for Tim in a clear offering, “You should take this one instead,” Dick told him, the barest hint of reluctance colouring his words. Bruce could feel his eyes narrow, watched more carefully now, looking for any hints as to why Dick had offered a second line. He could see the similar questioning in Tim’s eyes, the slight furrow of his brow that meant he was thinking about a possible answer to the question as well. But the look was only there for a second before clearing.

“Okay, sure,” Tim conceded after a beat, taking the line from Dick’s hand unceremoniously. But Dick still looked uneasy as his arm dropped to his side. Conflicted. Perhaps slightly embarrassed.

“You…could just take both. If you wanted,” Dick offered up weakly after a sort pause, turning his gaze away from Tim slightly. Tim’s expression didn’t change much, but it did change enough. Bruce could see the worry when he turned back to Dick. Slight, but still present.

“I guess it doesn’t hurt to have a backup. Just in case,” Tim said with a small half-smile, a small reassurance, as he grabbed the line he’d put down just a moment before and affixed it to his costume right next to the other. Dick nodded, but didn’t really look up, focusing his attention to the lines on the table. Bruce had no idea why Tim had agreed to the compromise. Tim was like him. Logical. He knew just as well as Bruce did that there really wasn’t a good reason to take two of the same piece of equipment with him on a routine patrol, not when they already carried backups. Yet he’d complied without questioning Dick’s own logic, or rather, lack thereof. There was a variable at play here, Bruce suspected. Empathy. Tim, as logical and calculated as he was, possessed a strong sense of empathy that Bruce had never been able to achieve. And it was that very factor that made the exchange he’d just witnessed so confusing. But Tim hadn’t seemed confused. Not for long.

“This isn’t a performance piece,” Dick’s voice suddenly cut through his thoughts, snide and biting. It took Bruce a moment to realize that he was talking to him and not Tim. He knew he had been staring, and that he was partially responsible for Dick’s bad mood in the first place, but it was still unexpected. A deep, deep part of Bruce wanted to do it then, to just ask Dick what was wrong, to beg Dick to just talk to him, reassure him that they would figure it out, that they would fix it. But it never came out. Those words never came out on their own. Batman never asked and he certainly never begged.

“Don’t get overconfident just because there’s two of you out there tonight. Call for help if you need it,” Bruce said instead. Business was easier. Familiar. Left no room for feelings and reassurances. Tim nodded absently, probably somewhat unimpressed with the order for his own reasons. After all, he was growing up. Becoming his own man. But he didn’t argue.

“We won’t need your help,” Dick said confidently. Coldly. Unusually cold for his normally warm-hearted son. Bruce had offended him earlier. Hurt him. Just like he always hurt the people closest to him. This was Dick lashing out as a result, even if only in a small way. Bruce wasn’t worried about Dick following through with the order though. Dick would heed the advice despite his rebellion, because he was happy enough to gamble with his own life, much too happy in Bruce’s opinion, but he would never, ever gamble with Tim’s.

“What do you say we get out of here and go kick some ass?” Dick asked in a much happier tone, addressing Tim once again. Tim managed a smile at the comment despite the tense atmosphere in the cave.

“Race you to Bludhaven?” Tim suggested, causing Dick’s eyes to light up, a smirk covering up the darkness Bruce’s words had brought to his face earlier.

“You’re on,” Dick said, ruffling up Tim’s hair affectionately as they made their way towards the bikes. Bruce didn’t watch them go this time, simply listened until their footsteps and voices were nothing more than faint echoes in the cave system. Bruce’s eyes couldn’t help but scroll to the table littered with the lines, sorted back into three distinct sections at some point in the day. He scowled at them, for what felt like the hundredth time in the past few hours. He even entertained the thought of checking them over himself, before perishing the thought. Enough time had been spent on them. He needed to catch up on the arms dealer case. Needed to get ready for patrol. Plus, he had a call to put in with a certain Black Bat he hadn’t seen in a while.

~~~

Patrol had run much, much later than he’d planned for. It seemed as though every time they’d turned their back, someone had decided to rob, assault or batter someone. The frequency was overwhelming, perhaps even more so than it had been for the past two weeks. Bruce was tired, they all were, but tonight’s patrol had been particularly trying. And it hadn’t just been the crimes. Damian had been particularly trying, even more so than Bruce had anticipated. It seemed the only thing that overshadowed his intense jealousy of Tim was his one-sided rivalry with Cass. He’d spent nearly the entire patrol alternately trying to out-do his sister, to the point of nearly injuring himself at times, and complaining, very, very loudly, about how it should have been him on patrol in Bludhaven instead of Red Robin. If it hadn’t been as busy as it was, Bruce would have marched him right back to the cave to stew in his own misery, but even with Black Bat assisting him, Robin had been needed.

Cass, at the very least, had been a welcome presence, cheerfully teasing Bruce and Damian about being so stubborn with one another, and taking Damian’s attempts to bait her in stride. All while beating down every evil-doer in her wake. If not for Cass’s presence tonight, he was sure he would have lost it on Damian, said things that he’d regret later. The sorts of things that had once pushed away Dick, then had pushed away Jason too. Cass had helped calm him tonight, helped keep everything focused. Her skill was just as impressive as it had ever been. It was nice to know that even though she’d been away from Gotham for some time, she hadn’t regressed in the slightest.

Bruce couldn’t help the tired sigh that escaped him as he followed his son and daughter into the depths of the cave, where he could start to more clearly hear the excited words of Dick and Tim. They were talking about tonight’s patrol. How they’d made a ton of progress on the Casino case and how cool that fight in the elevator shaft had been. It sounded to Bruce like they’d had fun, at least. Another small silver lining to an otherwise regrettable night. To an otherwise regrettable week.

But the night wasn’t over yet. One look at Damian’s face told him there was a storm still brewing. A torrential downpour of anger that would rain down the second he laid eyes on his older brothers. Bruce had absolutely no interest in dealing with that tonight. Not that he was the best qualified to deal with Damian’s emotional outbursts to start with. Those, he found, were best left to Dick and Alfred to deal with. Bruce could never seem to understand the boy, unable to get on his level. Everyone said they were so much alike, but the boy’s explosive anger, his insatiable need for acceptance and his casual bloodlust seemed like foreign concepts to Bruce. It had been easier with Dick at that age, easier with Tim and Jason when they were younger. Bruce didn’t know why he couldn’t connect with his ‘blood son’, as the boy liked to put it, as he had with the others. But nothing could be done to rectify the situation tonight. Damage control would be Bruce’s primary concern. Then sleep.

Bruce rounded the corner slightly after Damian, ready just in case the tiny assassin decided to do something impulsive, like launch himself at Tim rather than use his words. He’d gotten a lot better over time, but Bruce still could never be sure when old habits would flare up when it came to his need for approval. The boy held his tongue initially as he watched Dick and Tim across the cave with narrowed eyes, just waiting for acknowledgement from one of the two before he unleashed his fury, Bruce was sure. He took the quiet moment to survey the scene himself. Dick and Tim looked no worse for wear as Cass walked up to them with a smile and a small wave. In fact, they looked happier than he’d seen either of them in weeks.

“Hey Cass! How was patrol?” Tim asked when he noticed his sister creeping towards them with her usual stealthy grace. It would have been a nice scene, had Bruce not noticed exactly where Dick was standing. What he was doing. Bruce’s eyes widened behind the cowl, he took a sharp breath in. The lines. He was checking the lines.

Bruce felt the weight of the world rain down on him. He had failed, repeatedly, to halt the crime wave, had failed to apprehend the man, or possibly woman, dealing weapons on the streets of Gotham. He could do nothing to soothe Damian’s anger, the eventual explosion imminent, fueled by misplaced emotion and jealousy. Bruce had done too little to heal the rift between his two youngest, assuming they would work it out between themselves at some point. And clearly, he had failed Dick as well by not being able to provide an answer to a seemingly simple problem. Bruce knew Damian was teetering on the edge, ready to release all his pent-up resentment, but he wasn’t going to be given the chance.

“Dick! What the hell do you think you’re doing now?!” Bruce exploded, startling everyone but Cass, who had probably seen it coming. Even she couldn’t fully suppress her wince. Tim and Damian’s faces were near identical masks of utter surprise. Eyes wide, mouths hanging slack, completely caught off guard. Dick, the focus of his anger, had been so caught off guard he’d actually dropped the grapple line he’d been holding. Bruce nearly regretted his words after seeing them all like this. Nearly. But it had been too much. The lack of sleep, the weeks of insane patrol, two important cases on the backburner, Damian’s attitude and most of all, Dick’s extremely concerning change in behavior.

“You’ve checked the lines! You checked them before we left tonight! You checked them last night in Bludhaven and you checked them the day before that! Twice that I know of! If you’ve forgotten what a safe line looks like, have someone else check them! Maybe they can convince you that there’s nothing wrong with them!” Bruce unloaded on his eldest. It was so typical of them. The fight from before had never been resolved, and they had never been able let sleeping dogs lie when it came to their fights. He was prepared for it when Dick recovered quickly, though Bruce couldn’t tell if the look on his face was anger or pain.

“Really, Bruce?! Nothing wrong with them?! If there was nothing wrong with them, then why did we have one fail?!” Dick bellowed back at him, waving a hand so violently that Tim had to physically dodge it. Bruce knew Dick had lost control of himself when he failed to even notice where his hand had almost landed. Bruce knew he had a point, but it wasn’t good enough anymore.

“I’ve already told you I would look into it. In the meantime, perhaps you should consider using your time to accomplish something productive instead of continually wasting it on equipment you’ve already checked,” Bruce, perhaps Batman, said, voice low and controlled. As cold as ice.

“What could possibly be more important than ensuring our safety?!” Dick countered harshly, seething with anger. Bruce couldn’t see his eyes beneath the mask, couldn’t gauge the depth of his anger properly. Bruce wasn’t concerned about its source in the moment. Batman wasn’t concerned about it at all.

“You think you’re ensuring our safety, but I think you’ve put more credence into being over-dramatic than into being conscientious,” Bruce, no, definitely Batman, bit back with a hiss. He thought he could actually see it strike a nerve. It was supposed to. But it was also a low blow and he could see in Dick’s rigid posture, the tightening of his expression that he’d just started something that he would have to finish.

But there wouldn’t be time, as they were stopped suddenly by the polite clearing of Alfred’s throat, just loud enough to command attention. Bruce hadn’t even heard him come in, far too focused on his argument with Dick. His cape swished behind him as he turned, but his eyes didn’t immediately focus on Alfred. It was the faces of his three children that caught his attention first. They had, at some point, huddled together behind him, watching, waiting for the point where they might have had to step in.

Tim was used to this now, it was far from the first time he’d been witness to one of these fights. It wasn’t even the first one he’d seen tonight. He stood rigid, simply appearing contemplative. But Bruce knew his expression had been kept intentionally blank, his thoughts and emotions intentionally disconnected from the reality in front of him. A coping mechanism. And Bruce started to feel that familiar swell of regret, the one that always started deep in his gut, that told him he’d let Batman take over when he really shouldn’t have.

Cass hadn’t disconnected like Tim. Far from it. Her expression was tight, troubled, but only partially because of the fight. Bruce knew that look she wore well. She’d seen something that they simply couldn’t and she was trying to figure out exactly what it meant. Her gaze was fixed at a point somewhere behind Bruce. It could only be Dick she was focusing on. And focus she did, leaning in slightly, eyes boring into her eldest brother intensely. Dick may have noticed, but if he did, he didn’t call her on it.

It was Damian’s expression that hit him the hardest. The newest addition to the family hadn’t seen this often enough to consider it normal yet, had rarely seen either of the two lose control of themselves like this at all. He looked lost when Bruce’s eyes found his face. Every bit his age. Helpless, despite the brave expression he was trying to put on. That was when Bruce realized the full gravity of what he’d just subjected his kids to. He’d used Dick, who’d already been down, as a punching bag. And they’d all watched him do it.

Bruce said nothing in response to any of them, simply huffing and turning away, not ready to face his children, nor see the calm but disappointed expression he was sure Alfred would be wearing if he had been bold enough to turn to the man at all.

“Master Richard has a valid point, even if his level of obsession has been rivaling that of Master Bruce as of late,” Alfred said calmly, in his unique, diplomatic way. Bruce was sure he wasn’t the only one who felt a wash of relief at his presence. “Safety is, and should always be, a top concern, but it won’t do any of you any good to run yourselves ragged. May I suggest we all convene upstairs for some much needed refreshments before bed?” He suggested after a thoughtful pause, hands held behind his back in a formal gesture.

“Sandwiches?” Cass asked hopefully, further breaking up some of the heavy tension that had settled around them, once again a small sliver of joy in an otherwise regrettable night. Bruce spared a careful glance in her direction.

“Ham and cheese, if my memory serves me correctly,” Alfred said with a gentle smile, confirming her suspicion.

“You remembered,” Cass replied, smile bright. The exchange seemed to have an effect on Tim as well, the hint of a smirk playing at his lips.

“Nothing’s changed, Cass. Alfred still knows everything,” Tim assured her softly. Damian, though, remained oddly quiet. Stunned into relative silence, anger from before completely forgotten for the moment. Bruce wasn’t quite brave enough to turn around and see how Dick was faring. He knew it probably wasn’t well.

“Alright then, off to the change rooms with you three. I’ll be having no costumed vigilantes in the kitchen tonight,” Alfred said, ushering them off. Not one of them put up any resistance. Bruce watched, in the reflection of the computer screen, as his three youngest retreated into the change rooms, Damian guided mostly by Tim’s hand on his back, the promise of sandwiches more than enough of an excuse for them to get the hell out of the Cave for tonight. He heard Dick shuffling behind him, but didn’t hear any indication that he was making an effort to join the others.

“That goes for the both of you as well,” Alfred told them, a stern edge in his voice they both knew better than to argue with. Bruce thought it was mostly directed at him tonight.

Bruce said nothing, and Dick said nothing, and it set off an alarm in the back of Bruce’s mind. He’d expected Dick to at least mumble some sort of apology or at least a confirmation that he’d understood the order. It was a stark reminder of how badly Bruce had screwed up, losing control like he had.

“Master Bruce, I feel compelled to remind you that there is only a limited supply of the roast beef and you will be competing with Master Damian for them,” Alfred said. He was trying to separate them, as he had many times before. Bruce felt no desire to go upstairs and face his children, nor was he truly that hungry, but he trusted Alfred’s logic, even if he didn’t always understand it.

“Fine,” He replied, turning swiftly as to not have to look at either man. Dick would take the action personally, Bruce knew, even though in actual fact it had far less to do with him and much more to do with the shame Bruce felt toward his behavior this evening. But he couldn’t admit any of it out loud, especially not in costume. He wouldn’t admit that he was sorry things got out of hand. That he’d spent days worrying endlessly about Dick’s state of mind or the fact that it was probably the primary motivation behind his anger tonight. Nor could he admit to the many nights before this where that same sort of worry had sparked horrible, violent fights between them.

Bruce left quietly, heading for the change rooms just as he saw Tim and Damian exit, but he never stopped listening. It was Alfred’s footsteps he heard behind him, walking deeper into the cave. Towards Dick, who hadn’t moved. Or spoken.

“Master Richard? Will you be joining us tonight?” Alfred asked gently, a distinct touch of sympathy in his voice that often crept in whenever one of the kids was upset. Bruce didn’t hear a reply for several seconds, unusually long for the family chatterbox. Bruce was tempted to turn around and find out exactly what was taking him so long to answer, but he didn’t. He’d done enough tonight.

“Maybe I shouldn’t. You know what it’s like when we get like this,” Dick said, voice quiet enough that if not for the echo in the cave, Bruce wouldn’t have been able to make the words out at all. “It’s not like I don’t have other things to do,” Dick reasoned after a moment, though didn’t elaborate, leaving Bruce in the dark on exactly what he was referring to.

“You know, Master Bruce’s anger only comes from a place of deep concern, even if he may not go about expressing it in the right way. Or realize it himself, for that matter,” Alfred said, words taking on a low tone, meant for Dick’s ears only. Bruce closed his eyes hearing the words. It was true. Alfred had always understood him best. Perhaps Bruce hadn’t quite realized, not fully, until the words were spoken aloud, but Alfred had hit the nail on the head. Bruce couldn’t deal with it, so he’d tried to let Batman deal with it instead. Except Batman valued efficiency over understanding. Brutal honesty over sensitivity. The plan was doomed from the start.

“I guess. It just…doesn’t always feel that way, you know?” Dick replied, voice slightly tight. Bruce knew he’d failed. Again. He would have to find a way to rectify the situation, though a part of him knew that ‘solution’ would probably just end up being silence and distance, two things Dick had never responded well to.

“I should head back to Bludhaven. I think I’ve caused enough trouble here for one night,” Dick said after a pause. The joke was forced though, a clear deflection. Dick had paradoxically always been the type of person who encouraged others to speak about their feelings, but rarely wanted to discuss his own.

“Nonsense. Why don’t you finish your inspection on the lines, then join us upstairs? I suspect it’s been some time since you’ve eaten anything as featured on the food pyramid,” Alfred said kindly. He could hear Dick give a small, sharp laugh in reply. But Bruce felt anything but elated by the joke. In fact, he found it downright infuriating that Alfred would enable Dick like that. Those lines had become an unhealthy obsession, not conducive to anything useful. It was bad enough when Tim was indulging him, but now Alfred too?

“You won’t tell him? If I finish checking the lines?” Dick got out in a rushed whisper, though unable to keep his voice as quiet as he’d likely intended to. Bruce scowled hard at the words. He wouldn’t engage Dick again tonight, but in that moment, he wanted to. If he had any less restraint, he’d have stormed back, right up to Dick, and told him to get a grip. Forget about the lines for a damn minute. Just go eat something, tease his siblings for a while, then get some sleep. Why Dick couldn’t just do that infuriated him suddenly. It hadn’t been an issue last week, nor the week before.

“I shan’t say a word of it,” Bruce heard Alfred reassure him, and Bruce felt another, sharper pang of anger as he considered the words. Alfred was always much too soft on the boys. He indulged them, often enabled them, sometimes even against Bruce’s wishes. And normally, Bruce recognized that this was necessary, that Alfred was right to do it. That it was a great benefit to them all in the big picture. Tonight, it just bothered him.

“Thanks, Alfred. I won’t be very long,” Dick said, reminding Bruce that he was supposed to be upstairs already. He picked up his pace before the two could realize he’d been listening so intently.

“See to it that you are not. I can only do so much to halt the feeding frenzy,” Alfred Joked with him lightly. Bruce heard his retreating footsteps a moment after, followed by a shuffling sound that could only come from Dick as he resumed his work on the lines. Bruce sighed heavily, grabbed his ‘upstairs clothes’ with a rough hand. He had admitted defeat for the night. It was the only logical option he had left open for himself. All he could do now was try to get his hands on at least one of those sandwiches before Tim and Damian got them all.

~~~

Dick joined them eventually, but while Bruce’s other children were busy fighting for food and debating who had the more successful patrol, Dick stood quietly off to the side, taking small bites of his own food and only speaking when spoken to. It left a noticeable gap in the conversation that Bruce couldn’t quite help but feel responsible for. And he knew he was, at least to some extent.

Bruce could feel Alfred’s disapproving gaze boring into the back of his head every time he turned away. He knew it well, because it was the same one that bore into him for nearly 18 months when the fighting had been really bad between him and Dick. It was the same one Bruce had been subject to when Jason had still been a troubled child in need of compassion and guidance that Bruce couldn’t always give him. The one he’d felt sometimes in moments where Tim had needed affection, reassurance or even just simple emotional support and Bruce had shrugged it off because Tim had always been so independent. Alfred never confronted him with his disapproval directly, but he also never failed to get the message across in small gestures that Bruce couldn’t possibly fail to pick up on. Overcooking his eggs in the morning, or conveniently forgetting to iron the shirt he’d intended to wear to work that day. Small inconveniences that spoke volumes to anyone who knew the way Alfred operated.

He probably deserved it this time. The tension in the room was like a dark cloud made of lead hanging above them. Tim was trying his best to fill the void left by Dick’s silence, but the boy had never been a stellar conversationalist to start with and, considering his audience, he was fighting a losing battle. Cass was never one for words over actions and Damian…Damian, quiet as he’d been, had still been clearly unhappy about tonight’s patrol arrangement. Which, Bruce supposed, was more in character than Dick’s near-complete withdrawal. Bruce hadn’t expected him to be social with him, but he wasn’t engaging anyone. He had barely even acknowledged Cass, who he hadn’t seen for some time. Cass didn’t seem to take any offense though. In fact, she seemed to be intently interested in her oldest brother, staring openly with the telltale quirk of her head that told Bruce she was curious about something. Whatever it was she was seeing, Bruce couldn’t, nor would he try. Unlike his daughter, he was making a serious effort to just ignore Dick tonight in the interest of maintaining the fragile peace Alfred had bred between them.

Alfred had somehow convinced everyone to stay the night, pointing out the late hour as well as how much he worried when they drove home tired. Bruce didn’t miss the pointed look Dick flashed his way before accepting, a silent question as to whether he would even be welcome to stay tonight or if the very suggestion would start another fight. Bruce didn’t bother answering. Alfred would have overridden him anyway.

Damian complained loudly as he was ushered off to bed earlier than the others. After all, it was a school night and he’d already been out much too late by the time Alfred had decided to enforce bedtime. Tim and Cass had opted to stay up awhile and watch some television before retiring for the night. Bruce had expected Dick to join them, but instead he quietly went up to his room to catch some sleep. Bruce wondered if maybe he just had a lot to catch up on or if he was avoiding them, but didn’t question it further. There was no need to question it further. But deep down he knew Dick would normally fight through it, even if only just for an hour, to spend time with his siblings.

Reeling from the day’s events, Bruce retreated to his study for a while, checking on emails, getting his files ready to take in to work the next day. Utterly mindless tasks he only did because he felt he had to. The work didn’t take him long. He wouldn’t have started anything that would have taken up a lot more of his time tonight. It was already late and he would need every bit of sleep he could get to tackle everything he needed to get done, both at work and on patrol, tomorrow.

He noticed the light still on in the rec room as he ventured out into the hall and realized that Tim and Cass were still up too. It was out of his way, but he quickly made the decision to take the five minutes to remind his son and daughter that it was late and they needed to sleep too. Especially Tim, who could be incredibly forgetful when it came to getting enough sleep.

Bruce crept along, unsure of exactly when he started moving around the house like Batman, but as he neared the doorway, he caught the tail end of a conversation he was never meant to be a part of. He paused where he stood, listening closely as Tim’s voice carried over the quiet murmur of the TV.

“Yeah. It really messes with him when he and Bruce fight like that,” Tim said. He sounded uncomfortable. Hesitant with his words. Bruce squirmed a little bit too on the inside. It was no mystery who they were talking about. He considered making his presence known, after all he’d done enough eavesdropping on his family tonight. But he didn’t, compelled by the prospect of unraveling the mystery behind Dick’s unusual behavior. Bruce still had a hunch that Tim knew something, and he wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Cass did too.

“No. He was sad before then too,” Cass informed Tim. Bruce frowned. Dick hadn’t looked sad before patrol. Or before the fight. Not to him anyway. But Cass…Cass never missed anything when it came to people’s emotional states.

“He’s been dealing with some stuff,” Tim said hesitantly, “I tried to get him to talk about it tonight, but he kept changing the subject,” He explained further. Bruce felt that familiar pit in his stomach again, the one that told him that he needed to talk to his eldest because something was wrong. But he couldn’t. Dick wouldn’t respond well now, if he was even still awake. Cass hummed in response, considered the information. “He said he was fine, but he always says he’s fine,” Tim continued quietly, the frustration tinging his voice clear as day.

“Reminds me of someone,” Cass teased lightly, just enough to keep Tim from falling into bitter territory. But she didn’t wait for him to respond before continuing on. “He’s upset that a line broke?” she asked. Bruce approved of the line of questioning. In the years she’d been with the family, she’d slowly started to think like a detective. She was going somewhere with this. Thinking critically about the problem, getting the facts before continuing. She’d likely never reach the level of Dick or Tim, but she still continued to impress him.

“Well…yeah,” Tim said slowly. Awkwardly. As if he wasn’t sure exactly how much to say, or perhaps how to say it. Bruce hoped he’d elaborate, but as the silence dragged on, he came to the conclusion that Tim had clammed up, that he’d have to wait to hear any potential answers.

“I…get why that would make him sad. He’s…protective,” Cass said, pausing briefly to collect her thoughts. Words were still a challenge for her sometimes and Bruce didn’t have the benefit of seeing her body language from his position in the hall. It would have been nice to accept her words, her theory, as it stood. Dick was protective of them, he was just concerned for their safety. End of story. But then his daughter continued, “But I don’t understand why he was so scared.”

“Scared?” Tim asked, practically reading Bruce’s mind, which had otherwise gone nearly blank. Surely Cass had just misspoke…

“Yeah. Like…panic?” she tried again. Bruce’s breath caught in his throat. Panic? He didn’t quite understand. His mind raced with possibilities, but none of them quite explained everything.

“It’s…it’s complicated. You should probably ask him,” Tim stumbled over his words, but there was no indication that he didn’t know what she was talking about on some level. He seemed to have a great deal of insight, actually, but didn’t feel it was his place to share it, even with Cass. Bruce could feel his own heartrate pick up very slightly. Felt his heart clench because he felt like he has missed something important.

He knew he should have told his kids to go to bed. They didn’t get enough sleep as it was, but his mouth suddenly felt too dry to speak and he didn’t think he could face his children without them knowing he’d heard. Bruce didn’t think he could deal with much more of anything tonight, if he was being honest with himself. He knew he should have told his kids to get some sleep. But like a coward, he instead turned on his heel and headed for his own room.

Chapter Text

Dick left for Bludhaven early that morning, long before Bruce could work up the courage to speak to him. But as luck would have it, it was a weekend, which gave him the time he needed not only to dig deeper into the arms dealer case, but to finally have a proper look at the line himself. The boys did some very good leg work, but even the combined efforts of Dick and Tim hadn’t yet found a solid cause.

He took the time, ran tests, simulations and analyzed the fracture himself. But ultimately, he had found nothing that the boys hadn’t. Bruce closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he stared down at the thick file in his hand. It had steadily grown in size the past couple days since Dick had compiled it. It made an insulting, booming thud as Bruce dropped it heavily onto the side of the console. He sighed, finally coming to grips with the fact that they’d hit a wall. He was the words greatest detective, but he wasn’t a metallurgist, an engineer or a physicist. He worked with clues, found answers and unraveled mysteries based on evidence and theory. With no clues, no evidence, he was effectively obsolete. He hated the fact with every fiber of his being, but the simple truth was that knew that he would have to involve WayneTech. He would bring the line to Lucius Monday morning, come up with some excuse about what happened and why it would need to be investigated. But it would be dealt with. Then they could make the improvements needed and put the whole ordeal behind them. It was a solid plan and, having done all he could, he set the failed equipment aside in favour of analyzing the weapons Jason had acquired. Those, at the very least, could tell him a story.

And what a story it was. There were no serial numbers on the actual guns, of course, but the parts they were made with showed a strange network of suppliers, some Bruce was familiar with, and some he’d never heard of until now. It seemed that no two parts had come from exactly the same place, though there was a notable preference for Asian manufacturers. Whoever this person was, they were clever, knew well enough not to leave a single trail, but many intersecting ones. Bruce found himself both annoyed and impressed at how well they had hid themselves in plain sight. They’d utilized smart tactics, using Gotham’s existing criminal network to their advantage not just to meet their own purposes, but also to throw off the GCPD and Batman in the meantime. They were moving quickly, but without any clear patterns. Their end game was still unclear, as were their motives, but Batman had a plan in place for that. The Red Hood, Jason, had expressed a desire to ‘run this guy out of town as soon as possible’, though Bruce suspected Jason’s reasons differed from his own. Regardless, he would be a great asset, both close enough to the criminal underworld to have an in, and distant enough from the ‘Bat Clan’ as to not be associated in any meaningful way. Jason would come to him in the next few days with an update, though exactly when would be determined by Jason and Jason alone.

Bruce had reveled in the distraction the arms dealer case had provided, in the feeling of being productive and beneficial. That was enough for Bruce on its own, but there was an added comfort in the knowledge that, in some twisted way, it was helping to bring Jason back into the fold too, even if only until the next case they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. His mood had improved dramatically as he delved deeper into the case, every bit of new information, every new connection a small thrill as they were slowly uncovered. But it wasn’t to last.

Dick arrived in the late afternoon, slinking into the cave quietly as to not attract any unwanted attention from Bruce. It could have worked, had Alfred not informed him of Dick’s arrival. Bruce had been mildly surprised that Dick had returned so soon, but he said nothing. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Dick head over to the lines and start to check them over quietly. Bruce chose to ignore him, chose to focus on the task of looking into the manufacturers he hadn’t been aware of until now. Dick spared glances back at him every so often, suspicious eyes outlined with telltale dark circles. Bruce glanced back, but didn’t comment. He wasn’t sure there was anything left to say. The fight they’d had all day yesterday was too fresh, the wound still much too raw to start adding salt to. The line was going to WayneTech anyway. In a few days’ time they would have some sort of answer and there wouldn’t be anything left to talk about.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?!” Dick finally asked when the tension became too much for him. The comment was slightly sarcastic, but wasn’t as cutting as Bruce would have expected. Dick knew better than to expect an apology, especially in the Batcave, but perhaps he was seeking something. A sort of reconciliation, a validation or possibly just a simple acknowledgement. It caused a familiar knot to form in Bruce’s gut. He felt terrible about the way he’d behaved. He was sorry about the fight. About the fearful look on Damian’s face, the listening in on Tim and Cass. And he certainly hadn’t failed to notice the suspicious lack of sugar in his coffee this morning either. He had never been good at feelings, or processing emotion in a healthy way. His coping mechanisms had twisted at some point, and mutated into a burning anger, an insatiable thirst for vengeance against those who would dare hurt him. He would have liked to be able to articulate that to his son, who was still looking at him expectantly with his cautious and weary blue eyes, but that in itself would bring up emotions that Bruce wasn’t ready to deal with, that he may never be ready to accept.

“I wasn’t intending to. Carry on with the lines if you feel the need,” Bruce told him instead. Straight-forward. All business. Dick’s eyes took on a strange sadness, but he said nothing as he turned back to his supposed work. Bruce turned back to his own a moment later. They’d both made mistakes, he told himself as he tracked down addresses, names of CEO’s and buyers. He may be socially inept, but Dick wasn’t. He knew he could tell Bruce about his problems…or at least he had known that at one time.

The silence between them lasted nearly an hour before being abruptly broken. Damian’s footsteps were loud, lacking any semblance of subtlety, as he came storming down into the cave. Bruce had been expecting this at some point. Damian had been horribly offended last night when he’d learned that Tim was in Bludhaven and he wasn’t. A reckoning of some sort was really only a matter of time.

“Grayson!” He bellowed into the main body of the cave the moment he set foot into it. Bruce didn’t take his eyes off of the computer screen, but Dick turned to greet the boy.

“Hey Dami. Nice to see you too,” Dick quipped back at the boy, though the hint of exhaustion, of stress, never left his voice entirely. Damian huffed so loudly in response it caused a slight echo. Bruce found himself oddly amused. He had a pretty good hypothesis formed about what Damian wanted.

“Grayson, I insist you take me on patrol tonight instead of Drake. My skills are far superior and I am much less distracted by superfluous over-strategizing and menial conversation,” Damian said boldly, walking right up to Dick to make his announcement. Bruce couldn’t help but quirk an eyebrow. It seemed Damian didn’t fact check before pleading his case. Tim had agreed this morning to patrol with Batman tonight. Bruce had asked him specifically because he needed another set of eyes on the arms ring. Bruce didn’t know what Dick’s plans were exactly. He assumed he was here to check the lines and for no other real purpose. He’d more than likely be heading back into Bludhaven before dark, trying to make some more headway on his own case. It wasn’t as though Bruce was going to ask Dick to assist them tonight. Black Bat could handle the physical demands Gotham was likely to throw at them, Red Robin would be his second set of eyes. Nightwing simply wasn’t needed and, if he were being honest, he wasn’t sure he could trust himself not to engage in a fight with Dick at some point in the night anyway. He knew he would be overly critical. Dick wouldn’t compromise others safety, but anything Bruce saw that could be construed as even a little bit reckless, disobeying of a direct order, a jump that was more for fun than purpose, taunting of an armed criminal, would set him off. Bruce had hesitated this morning, but had eventually asked Tim if he’d noticed anything strange about Nightwing’s behavior on patrol last night. Tim had reported nothing strange, which would have been reassuring if Bruce could have been certain that his son wasn’t covering anything up to protect his brother. But still, if Tim had seen something truly alarming, he would have reported it well before Bruce would have had to ask. He would be perfectly fine on his own.

“You know, you could just say you wanted to come to Bludhaven with me tonight,” Dick pointed out with a small laugh, “I wouldn’t mind Robin’s help if Batman doesn’t need you,” Dick added, leaving Bruce with the final say, the option to say no. It was probably the safest way to handle things at the moment. Bruce liked control, but Batman loved it, and Dick knew that well.

“Of course he needs me! Regardless of that fact, I will accompany you to Bludhaven tonight instead of Drake,” Damian told him defiantly. Bruce could feel eyes boring in to the back of his head. Damian’s eyes. Dick’s eyes. They were waiting for an answer, for permission. He didn’t want to acknowledge either of them at the moment, preferring his work and his solitude to the two people he had let down the most in the past couple days, but he did need to say something.

“I don’t need Robin,” Bruce said finally after the silence dragged on too long, after the boys’ gazes started to get uncomfortable. The words were poorly thought out, in retrospect. That same vague phrasing had hurt so many in its wake. The sort of open-ended statements that were one of the factors that pushed Jason to run off to Ethiopia on his own. Why Bruce could never seem to articulate himself to others was a mystery, even for him. All too often, it was his children who suffered for his ineptitude. How they were able to forgive him over and over again, he would never understand, but he knew it was more than he deserved. The choice of words he’d used were poor, but Bruce didn’t elaborate or bother to correct himself. More words usually just meant more misunderstandings. More fights. Hurt feelings that he had no idea how to fix.

“Looks like you’re with me tonight then! It turns out that there’s a hit out on one of the Casino owners I’ve been keeping an eye on and, if the rumours are to be believed, it’s supposed to go down tonight. So I’m really hoping you’re in the mood to stop an assassination,” Dick announced before Damian had the chance to let Bruce’s words fully sink in. He was sure it was Dick’s way of sparing Damian from feeling the same way he often had at that age. Always questioning if Bruce’s words should be taken at face value or if there was some sort of deeper meaning that he should be looking for. Sometimes Bruce wondered if the rift between him and his kids would be even wider if Dick hadn’t been around to cover for him, to make each family member feel wanted and valued when he couldn’t.

“I assure you, there will be no assassinations with me on patrol tonight,” Damian announced. He sounded immensely pleased, and Bruce even caught a smile out of the corner of his eye. Bruce understood this at least. He knew Damian had felt left out last night. It didn’t excuse his poor behavior, but Bruce understood that it was born out of the feeling that he had gotten passed over by his favorite brother. His Batman. It didn’t help at all that it was for Tim, who Damian was by far the most jealous of when it came to his siblings. Part of it was Tim’s effortless competence, particularly in his detective work, but Bruce had yet to discover the true source of Damian’s ill-will towards Tim. Damian wouldn’t even admit to the jealousy, never mind look deep enough into it to give Bruce any sort of real insight. It was one more thing Bruce had intended to do since returning, and it had become one more thing that had been pushed back in favour of more pressing matters.

“You won’t be stopping any would-be assassins in those clothes,” Dick teased, leaning up casually against the table he’d been working at. Damian scowled lightly in response, but the statement didn’t seem to cloud his mood any.

“Pennyworth is still completing repairs on my uniform, but I will compile the necessary equipment for tonight while he finishes,” Damian offered as a compromise, standing just a little bit taller after he spoke the words.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Dick said with a smile. Damian barley allowed Dick a chance to finish the sentence before he was running off into the cave, doing exactly as he’d said he would. A pang of jealousy hit Bruce suddenly and unexpectedly as he took in the scene. Damian had looked so happy at the prospect of patrolling with Dick. There was a light about the boy, a childlike joy even, that he’d never displayed at the prospect of patrolling with him. Bruce pushed the feeling down as quickly as it came. It was petty. He was happy the two had bonded, Dick was a great influence on Damian, served as a great role model for him. Bruce was their father, Damian’s mentor. He simply couldn’t be Damian’s friend in the same way Dick could. Besides, he couldn’t even figure out what was bothering Dick these days, a boy he’d watch grow from a small child into a young man, never mind try to connect with Damian on a personal level.

Bruce listened in, feeling a lot less focused on his research as Damian scurried around the cave, gathering batarangs, checking the fuel levels on the bikes, testing the communicators. All the things Bruce had once taught Dick to do before a patrol, which he had in turn taught Damian. Dick moved from the table only once to retrieve a new line before starting to re-string one of the many perfectly good grapple guns laid out on the table. Not one of them halted their work until Alfred appeared with Robin’s uniform slung over one arm.

“Pennyworth, do you have my uniform ready?” Damian asked much too harshly for it to truly be a question. Alfred kept his cool, turned his head towards Damian as if the indiscretion had been nothing more than an innocent slip up. Alfred was probably used to the tone from Damian by now, but Bruce still hated when Damian addressed Alfred as nothing more than the ‘hired help’. Bruce knew he should have said something, disciplined the boy, but the fighting with Dick had exhausted his desire for domestic conflict and Damian was just a little bit too volatile to try and challenge. Dick would likely feel the need to intervene on the boy’s behalf even if he hadn’t been feeling over-sensitive. That would inevitably cause another fight Damian would have to witness. Bruce had no desire to add Damian to the list of people he was currently only kind-of talking to.

“Indeed it is, Master Damian, though I fear any more damage and your costume will be more thread than fabric,” Alfred quipped coolly as Damian practically ripped the costume out of his hands. Bruce almost said something then. Almost. The behavior was not acceptable. If Tim or Dick had done the same thing they would have gotten a long and swift lecture about respect and decency, but with Damian, Bruce had to pick his battles. The boy handled criticism terribly and was quick to argue. The lecture would happen at some point, Bruce would make sure it did, but lately he was feeling spread so thin that he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to hold his own in a heated debate with an eleven year old about how one should treat family.

“Ridiculous! I am highly trained and can avoid a blow of any sort,” Damian scoffed as he inspected Alfred’s work for himself.

“Damian, be nice,” Dick’s tired voice cut in. The boy seemingly ignored him, but Dick had tried. Bruce couldn’t quite shake the feeling that it really should have been him reminding the boy instead of his eldest son.

“With all due respect, Master Damian, your costume tells a different story,” Alfred said with the quirk of one eyebrow. Bruce had no idea how the man stayed so collected under the circumstances the family often put him through. He’d been a great support for Jason in particular, the only one that could truly calm the boy’s flashes of anger. Bruce heard a faint laugh behind him. Dick’s laugh. Weak, but genuine. Damian scowled, but made no comment before stomping off to the change rooms.

“Master Bruce, will you be taking coffee this evening?” Alfred asked, as he always did. Bruce leaned back in his chair, considered the question a moment.

“Coffee would be nice, if it isn’t too much trouble,” Bruce decided with a shallow nod. He absently wondered if this time he’d get the luxury of sugar.

“Of course, I shall be back down shortly,” Alfred assured him before retreating upstairs temporarily. Bruce figured he’d be a minute, two at most. Alfred often had coffee prepared beforehand, knowing Bruce was a creature of habit. It would be a long minute, however, as the cave went back to an eerie quiet the moment he’d left. Bruce noted absently that Dick had gone back to checking the lines. It was infuriating, but Bruce managed to hold his tongue. Repress the anger that welled up within him knowing that there was nothing he could do short of kicking Dick out of the cave entirely. Dick eyed him wearily every few seconds, tempting him, maybe even wanting him to say something, but Bruce wouldn’t waver. In a battle of wills, Bruce would never lose.

The tenseness between them left Bruce feeling suffocated by the very air around him. Bruce stared at the screen in front of him, but his enthusiasm for his research had waned considerably. He didn’t want to leave things like this with Dick. It would be awkward, but potentially efficient to ask Dick to explain the situation to him. But Dick usually resented such intrusions into his personal life. It was why Bruce couldn’t confront him about the cave footage he’d seen. The conversation with Jason, the accusation, nor the reckless, sleep deprived decisions he’d made that night. Bruce saw it as a gaining of useful information, but Dick would only see it as a betrayal of trust. Dick would never tell him what was wrong if he didn’t trust him. He wondered if perhaps he could rig a situation, set up the conditions for one of Dick’s friends to ‘accidentally’ see the footage that somehow wouldn’t be connected back to him. But the thought was not entertained for very long. Alfred’s footsteps could be heard resonating through the cave again, at about the same time that Damian emerged from the change rooms in near-full Robin gear. He’d left his mask off to be put on later, a habit he’d probably picked up from Dick.

“We should leave for Bludhaven as soon as possible,” Damian said as he approached Dick, still stationed at the table with the grapple lines, though seeming to at least be wrapping up his work. Bruce watched carefully as Damian reached out to select one of the lines, his final piece of equipment. But he didn’t focus on Damian. After the strange behavior with Tim yesterday, he was curious what Dick’s reaction would be today. Especially considering Damian had just taken from the ‘questionable’ pile. Predictably, Dick’s face changed. Paled a little bit, even. He reached a hand out to stop Damian before he could hook the line to his belt, similar to the action he’d taken with Tim yesterday.

“Not that one,” Dick said. He’d tried to keep the words casual and non-threatening, and for the most part he had, but Bruce easily picked out the thread of urgency in the words and his guess was Damian probably had too. Bruce’s eyes narrowed in concentration as Damian’s widened in confusion.

“Why not?” Damian asked, free of his usual insolence. Genuine curiosity marred his features as he waited on Dick for an answer.

“I haven’t had a chance to check that one yet,” Dick said simply. But it was a lie. Bruce had watched him check that line an hour ago along with the others. He couldn’t even venture a guess as to why Dick felt the need to lie to Damian about it.

“Nonsense. I use this one all the time, it is in perfect working order,” Damian assured Dick before moving to affix the line to his utility belt. Alfred approached quietly, coffee cup in hand, just as Dick’s face flushed with annoyance.

“I think it needs to be re-strung. Just grab another one for tonight,” Dick said, tone taking on an edge that Bruce is unfamiliar hearing when he addressed Damian. Harsh, unforgiving. It seemed to catch Alfred’s attention as well, as the man looked over to the two of them with a slightly furrowed brow.

“I prefer this one. I see no reason to switch,” Damian said defiantly. Dick sucked in a breath, soft, but sharp.

“We don’t know if that one is safe. Are you willing to take that chance? Cause I’m not,” Dick said tightly, shoulders tense. Damian cocked his head up to look at his older brother with defiance, a look Bruce was all too familiar with. They all seemed to do it when they got to a certain age. Dick had mastered the defiant look by about the age of fourteen, Jason had come equipped with it and even Tim had his moments of quiet defiance, much subtler than the other two, but by then Bruce had recognized the look easily. He understood the scenario. Damian was simply challenging Dick for the sake of challenging him, not realizing that this time he should have been backing down instead. He even went so far as to clip the grapple gun onto his belt, a clear sign of rebellion in his pre-teen eyes.

“You are being ridiculous, Grayson! The equipment was perfectly safe last night, and will be tonight as well! Father is right, your paranoia is getting out of hand!” Damian shouted, leaning into Dick’s space as the words sank in. Damian had noticed Dick’s behavior too, it seemed, but like Bruce, hadn’t been able to interpret what it meant, or how to best deal with it. Except Damian was a child, and Bruce was Dick’s father, even if they didn’t use those exact terms. Bruce thought he could identify the exact moment that Dick lost control by the flash of emotion in his eyes, but knew by that point, he was powerless to do anything to stop it.

“You don’t get it, Damian! Every line is safe until it isn’t!” Dick yelled, actually yelled, at his littlest brother. Bruce was taken back by the ferocity of the words and knew Alfred had been too when he heard the clink of a coffee cup against a saucer beside him. Bruce wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it certainly hadn’t been that. Dick was especially tolerant when it came to his siblings, practically a saint at times, especially when it came to Damian. He rarely raised his voice to any of them. The few times Bruce had witnessed it, it had been with Jason, who had gone out of his way to instigate the fight.

“I haven’t checked that line, I don’t know if it’s safe and if you want to patrol with me tonight, you’ll grab a different goddamn line!” Dick continued. He was talking much too fast, but Damian seemed to have no trouble understanding the point. His eyes were wide, almost sad, almost fearful under the steely gaze of his eldest brother. Silently, the boy reached a hand down to his utility belt, unfastened the grapple gun from it and placed it back onto the table with a dull clank. Damian did not utter a single sound as he looked back up to Dick.

The Cave was silent, Dick’s words hanging in the air, heavy and unsettling. Bruce could tell he regretted his words the second he’d realized he’d said them out loud. His mouth hung slack, the shock in his eyes mirrored Damian’s almost perfectly before transforming into a visceral sadness, and Bruce could swear he saw his sons face go a shade paler. Bruce spared a glance at Alfred, who did not break his professional demeanor, standing rigidly as he took in the scene. But Bruce could still see the look of worry he wore underneath the stoicism. He turned his eyes back to the boys quickly, long before he could meet Alfred’s ayes, when he heard a different line slide across the table softly.

“Is this one more to your liking?” Damian asked, holding out another line selected at random. His voice didn’t waver, which Bruce found himself oddly proud of. His face stayed neutral, his posture calm despite the fact that the boy must have been feeling emotional about Dick’s outburst. Dick took a shaky breath, swallowed hard before looking down at the line Damian selected. He looked over it carefully before nodding shallowly.

“Yeah. Yeah, that one’s better. I…I…thanks for switching,” Dick assured him in a quiet voice that was nowhere near as steady as Damian’s. Bruce could see Dick try to get control of himself, fixing his expression, forcing his shoulders to relax as he looked back down to Damian. Bruce had always thought Dick was a natural when it came to acting. He was, perhaps the best in the family when it came to getting into character, putting on a smile and making sure the show always went on. But tonight he still looked deeply troubled despite his best efforts.

“You’re welcome,” Damian said simply, his expression still unreadable.

“Anyway, let’s get going, huh? There’s lots to do in Bludhaven,” Dick said, attempting, but not really pulling off a smile. He reached a hand out to take Damian’s shoulder, to lead him along as he often did, but this time Damian shrugged him off harshly.

“Very well,” Damian said as he turned towards the bikes and walked without a single glance back. Bruce turned his attention to Dick, watched him run a hand through his hair and shake his head. He looked hurt, and so lost and Bruce really felt for his son in that moment. Bruce knew all too well what it felt like when words came out wrong, when anger got the best of you. Dick had lost control without realizing it, and now he was reeling from the consequences. Why Dick’s anger had flared like that to begin with was something of a mystery, but maybe Cass’s words last night had given him a small clue. He’d panicked.

“Dick…” Bruce started, letting the rest of the sentence drop off. He hoped it would be enough to get Dick to open up. Sometimes, in the past, Dick had just needed to know he had that opening. That he wasn’t going to get brushed off immediately if he spoke.

“I didn’t…I didn’t mean to yell at him like that,” Dick explained weakly, not quite looking at either of them. Bruce wanted nothing more than to be able to take that hurt look out of his boy’s eyes, but, as usual, he had no idea what to say to make it better. His first instinct had been to remind Dick that he had, in fact, yelled at Damian, and while that would have been true, it would have also been utterly unhelpful.

“We know you didn’t, Master Richard, and I suspect Master Damian knows this as well,” Alfred said gently, as he finally placed the cup of coffee in a spot Bruce could easily reach it, freeing his hands. Bruce had no idea what this family would do without Alfred. His wisdom and kind, perfect words spoken at exactly the right moment. Dick did seem to calm, very slightly, upon hearing the words, but Bruce suspected it would take more than just a few kind words before Dick truly forgave himself.

“Thanks, Alfred. I’ll make sure he isn’t home too late,” Dick murmured as he secured his mask and turned unceremoniously to follow Damian. Bruce watched him go, head down, shoulders slumped. Everything about it seemed wrong. Bruce didn’t move, even after Dick disappeared into the transport bay and he could hear the revving of engines as they took off. He didn’t move until he heard Alfred sigh from beside him. Bruce felt the telltale beginnings of a headache coming on. It was all just so…baffling.

“Any idea what’s gotten into him lately?” Bruce addressed Alfred, the only person who knew Dick as well as he did. The other person who had been present the day they had brought him home and all the other days since. Bruce looked up towards the man he regarded as his own father, the surrogate grandfather to his own children, seeking any sort of guidance the man could offer. Alfred had a strange look as he turned his head to him. Curious, but disbelieving.

“Master Bruce, have you really no clue as to why the lad has been acting out of sorts lately?” Alfred said as if someone had just argued with him about the sky being blue.

“It’s not that. I have theories. It’s just that I have too many theories,” Bruce attempted to explain. It was not a fact that he liked to admit out loud, that he didn’t know, but Alfred wouldn’t judge him harshly for it. Alfred knew him better than anyone, understood his frustrations without Bruce having to explain them in so many words.

“Have you considered the fact that this incident closely resembles the very incident that brought him into our care in the first place?” Alfred inquired. Bruce took a deep breath then, leaned back in his chair as his hands entwined in his lap. He considered his words carefully before he spoke.

“Alfred I…haven’t forgotten what happened to his parents. And I know he hasn’t either,” Bruce started slowly and carefully. It had been the elephant in the room, not just this time, but many others. Bruce could sometimes still hear the deafening snap of a trapeze wire as he dreamt. Could feel the air get sucked out of him again just as it had that night when all he could do was stand helpless as the two aerialists fell. He remembered Mary Grayson’s surprised cry. The blood in the sawdust. He remembered the wide blue eyes of a little boy desperately trying to make sense of what he was witnessing. Even after years, the memory remained raw and jarring. Bruce never liked to bring up the subject of Dick’s parents, just as he didn’t like to bring up the subject of his own. Somehow, hearing the words out loud had always made it hurt more.

“It’s playing a factor, I’m absolutely certain of that, but…this is far from the first time this sort of thing has happened on a patrol. It’s not unexpected that he would have a reaction, but he’s never escalated like this before. He froze on that rooftop, Alfred. Something was different this time and…and I don’t know what,” Bruce continued, brow furrowed and jaw tense as he spoke. It really was far from the first time a line had broken, been cut or malfunctioned during a patrol. It was rare, but it had happened on a small handful of occasions. The first time, Dick had been almost eleven. Bruce could hardly remember the incident, couldn’t really remember if they were fighting Kiteman or Toyman that night, but somehow they had gotten the upper hand. Bruce’s line had been cut as he had swung from it. The incident was forgettable. He’d fallen briefly, for no more than a second or two, before he was able to grab hold of a flagpole. It had only slowed down his chase marginally. But Dick had completely fallen apart. His reaction had been so severe that Bruce had decided to cut patrol short that night and continue pursuing the criminal of the week another time.

That’s when Bruce had started working with him on it. Dick simply wouldn’t be able to do the job if he had a traumatic reaction every time someone fell, and frankly, Bruce didn’t want to see Dick go through the sort of distress he went through that night ever again. Bruce understood. He remembered how hard it had been to train himself not to react to every gunshot he heard, how hard it had been at first to keep his mind focused on the task at hand instead of immediately flashing through images of dark alleyways and pearls soaked in blood.

The first thing he’d done was devise a contingency plan, and he’d made certain that Dick had been involved in every part of that, from the planning of the step-by-step protocol, to the re-designing of the current lines to make them more cut-resistant, all the way to the designing of the small backup lines they all still carried on patrol today. It had been Dick’s idea that they carry two backup lines instead of just one in the almost statistically impossible scenario that something happened to the first. But more than that, Bruce had talked to him, exposed him slowly to the stimulus and practiced utilizing their contingency plan until it was second nature. Bruce had never gotten completely comfortable with the sound of a gun firing, and Dick had never gotten comfortable with the idea of lines breaking or people falling, but over time they had both learned to cope. The first time Dick had seen a line break, he’d freaked. The second time, he’d froze. But the third time, he’d reacted. It had saved Jason’s life. And while Dick had still been visibly troubled for a few days after the incident, Bruce knew that he had found a way to fight through it and get the job done. So what had happened this time that could have possibly caused him to regress so far, so fast?

“You said you had theories, Master Bruce?” Alfred inquired politely, waited patiently for a reply. Bruce exhaled, not realizing he’d been holding his breath, and nodded.

“I wonder if maybe he’s feeling guilty. For missing something. I watched the cave footage from the night it happened. It was…” Bruce paused. What was the word? Scary was too personal, concerning was too vague…

“Troubling, sir?” Alfred asked and Bruce pondered the words a short moment.

“Yes. He was over-focused, ultimately running a days’ worth of tests in a few hours. He was defensive when Jason called him out on it and after he left, Dick just got…reckless,” Bruce summarized for the man who stood so quietly to his side as he spoke. He’d kept the details vague, however, to spare Alfred the mental images that were only just starting to lift from Bruce’s brain. Alfred worried, and if he worried enough, he would find a way to confront Dick and that would simply tip his son off to the fact that he had watched the cave footage.

“As much as I dislike the fact, ‘reckless’ is not something new when it comes to Master Richard,” Alfred pointed out with a disapproving downturn of his lips and shake of the head.

“That may be true, but I don’t think this was his usual thrill-seeking so much as it was an attempt to get some sort of answer,” Bruce mused. Why Dick had felt he needed the answer so badly could be tied into guilt. Dick took things too personally. Bruce had once heard Donna Troy comment that the world didn’t actually rest on the shoulders of Atlas, but of Dick Grayson. As indifferent as Bruce was to Wonder Woman’s younger sister, it was a keen observation. Dick took on too much, tried to take care of everyone all at once and handled failure terribly. But still, the theory had flaws. It didn’t explain why Dick had been so argumentative instead of apologetic, and Bruce struggled to understand how misplaced guilt would tie in to a sort of fear directly. Besides, with all the testing they’d done, I was clear at this point that whatever had happened with the line was not something that could have been detected by any regular checks. Dick hadn’t made a mistake.

“Alfred has…has he said anything to you? I know you don’t want to betray his trust but if he’s said something…,” Bruce had to pause again, but he couldn’t stop this time. Alfred needed to know the gravity of the situation, “This can’t go on. Something is wrong and I need to know how to fix it. You saw how he reacted with Damian,” Bruce said before the words could be filtered through his brain, rejected before being spoken out loud. It was a big admission for him, an admission that he cared. It left him open and vulnerable. Admitting he’d cared in the past had been about as good as signing someone’s death certificate. It exposed them to hurt and hardships beyond any that they deserved. And it exposed Bruce to it too. The loss, the hurt and rejection. But for Dick’s sake, for any of his children’s sake, he would try.

“He has not spoken to me directly,” Alfred started, not able to hold back the soft sigh that escaped him. It was a rare break in his poised, professional demeanor, and it was telling.

“However?” Bruce asked, encouraging the man to continue with whatever it was that he had failed to say. Alfred paused, letting his stance relax, ever so slightly.

“Master Bruce, if I may speak freely?” Alfred asked politely, waiting for an answer before continuing.

“Of course. Always,” Bruce assured him, as he had many times before. Why the man insisted on such formalities after all this time, after all they’d been through over the years, was still a mystery. Bruce didn’t question it much anymore, it was just Alfred. Ever polite, ever dutiful. But Bruce had never stopped reminding him that he was always free to speak. Though a part of Bruce started to regret it the second he saw the man’s face go stern, his eyes narrow ever so slightly.

“I still believe that the best way to ‘fix’ this situation is to ask the boy directly. Not by avoiding the issue and hoping he comes to you, nor by misdirected anger and criticism, and certainly not by initiating fights in the Batcave for all to see,” Alfred spoke, his words taking on a cutting, disapproving edge as he looked down upon Bruce still sitting in his chair. Bruce had no response. There was nothing he could say, and not just because he felt as though the wind had just been knocked out of him. He was guilty as accused. He had known that logically, but it was still staggering hearing it spoken out loud. In his head, at the time, those had all seemed like reasonable courses of action, but hearing it out loud…it sounded wrong. Doomed to fail. Not like something a parent should do.

“That being said, I have a theory as well,” Alfred continued in a much gentler tone, pausing afterwards to wait for Bruce to give him an indication that he should continue. Bruce didn’t want to acknowledge the man directly. He wasn’t angry with him for speaking, but ashamed of himself. Bruce forced himself into a state of calm a second before he turned his eyes up to the man who had raised him.

“What is it?” Bruce asked, intensely interested, and yet feeling so very hesitant to hear the words at all.

“Master Bruce, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first time you’ve had a true close call since you’ve returned to us,” Alfred started. Bruce narrowed his eyes, took a breath, and thought back on the past few months quickly. No other major incidents sprung to mind, but in truth, neither had this one.

“It wasn’t really a ‘close call’. I had two backup lines on me. Jason was on it the second that line failed, and Tim was only seconds behind him,” Bruce reasoned, thoughtful as he leaned back in his chair once again. Alfred did not look impressed when he spared a glance toward him.

“Do you really wish to argue the semantics right now?” Alfred asked him, frowning, staring him down with one eyebrow raised.

“No, please continue,” Bruce said, immediately going quiet once again, listening carefully. But Alfred paused, dropped his head, and his eyes, slightly as his face took on a rueful look.

“Bruce, that year you were gone…it was difficult on every one of us, but I believe no one more so than Richard,” Alfred told him with a soft, but faraway look. Bruce felt the breath catch in his throat briefly. He held his reeling thoughts back, reserved judgement until he’d heard the whole statement, but it didn’t stop the distinct feeling of his heart sinking with the words. He hadn’t really spoken to any of them about that year of his life, or rather, of their lives. He’d written a lengthy report about the incident, and Tim had questioned him at length about the details, but aside from a trading of information, they hadn’t really spoken of it. Bruce now wondered exactly what had occurred in the time he had been gone. What exactly had been left out of the mission reports and conversations with friends.

“Everyone said he’d handled things well,” Bruce commented softly, not an accusation or a challenge. It had simply been what he was told whenever the subject came up. He’d taken it at face value. Dick had done a good job in his absence. With everything. Wayne Enterprises. Batman. Damian. Bruce was proud of him for not only taking it all on like he had, but succeeding. Dick had looked happy upon his return, tired, relieved, but otherwise no worse for wear. Damian and Tim had both progressed greatly in his absence and Jason, while he hadn’t exactly changed his ways, had seemed much more open to working with them instead of against them. Dick had seemed fine, but Bruce had really never asked. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to ask because he was afraid of the answer.

“He did. Remarkably well. But I think it came at a great personal cost. Richard has worked hard to establish his own identity. To have to pick up where you left off, complete with all the roles and responsibilities, was difficult on its own, but he had to do so while still grieving you. It took a lot for him to keep moving forward at times,” Alfred explained gently, but no amount of gentleness could ease the numb feeling that came over Bruce as he took the words in. He had never wanted to confront that part of his disappearance. The suffering he had caused everyone, especially the children he had taken in, promised to care for and protect. Bruce wasn’t sure what he could say or do to make any of it right. He wasn’t sure he could say anything around the small lump that was trying to form in the back of his throat. He pushed it down, all of it, with great difficulty. His own feelings were not important. He had to focus on Dick. Alfred had said he had a theory.

“How do you think this relates to the situation now?” Bruce asked, bringing a balled hand up to his lower lip, trying to keep the tightness from invading his voice.

“That I cannot know for certain. You know as well as I that Richard is reluctant to speak about such matters, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that the incident was an unfortunate reminder of the death of his parents, but I believe it also served to remind him of what the loss of any one of you would do to this family. Things nearly fell apart in your absence and I think that fact frightens him more than anything. He lost you and I think he feels he came very close to losing everything else, his siblings, his friends, his very identity, along with you. He managed to piece things back together, yes, but, believe me, it was no easy task, and there were many, many times he doubted his ability to do so. It feels odd to say, but I think what Richard really fears is that, if there is a next time, his efforts simply won’t be enough. So, as a result, he’s been over-compensating in an effort to prevent the situation from occurring at all,” Alfred said in a rare moment of complete openness. Bruce had to steady his breathing, clench his fist a little bit harder in an attempt to stay in control. His jaw felt so tight he was afraid that if he clamped down any harder he would crack a tooth. But it was still better than giving in to the emotions, the despair, deep down inside him that was desperate for acknowledgement. No matter how hard he tried to deny it, how good he got at suppressing it, the fact remained that whenever one of his kids hurt, he hurt too. And Dick…may have been hurting for a while.

“This all being said, however. It is just a theory. The only one who truly knows is Master Richard,” Alfred reminded Bruce gently, knowing that Bruce needed to focus back on the logic, without allowing him to forget that he should have just tried to talk to Dick all along. So he focused on the logic. The theory was near-flawless. Dick’s irritability, his withdrawal, his reckless behavior, his obsessive need to do anything and everything to keep them safe. It explained why Alfred and Tim had seemed to understand the situation while Bruce hadn’t. In Dick’s mind it was not just the loss of a single family member, though that would have been enough in itself, but it was a loss of everything he held dear. Was it over-dramatic? Yes. But it wasn’t so without reason. It had already happened to him once as a child. Everyone he loved and everything he knew had been taken from him in an instant. It sounded as though he had come dangerously close to it happening again when they had thought Bruce dead. It sounded like Dick had fought like hell, made every sacrifice he could to prevent that from happening. He took on the responsibility, the pain and sacrifice, so that the others wouldn’t have to. It was typical, Bruce couldn’t recall an instance where Dick had put his own needs ahead of someone else’s. He didn’t do so then and he wasn’t doing so now either.

“It’s a good theory. I hadn’t realized,” Bruce said quietly, solemnly, as the silence dragged on. Alfred nodded, his eyes slightly downcast.

“Master Bruce, perhaps you couldn’t in this instance. You weren’t there,” He said, but Bruce did not deserve the kindness in the man’s tone. Sure, he had a point. Bruce hadn’t been present, hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, but he hadn’t asked either. He really, really should have asked.

“Alfred, do you…think he’ll forgive me?” Bruce asked, not even sure where the words had come from. He’d been rash and dismissive. He’d brushed the whole thing off as a control issue, an issue of guilt and blame. He’d criticized. And yelled. Been intentionally hurtful. There was no good reason for Dick to accept…Bruce wasn’t sure if he was capable of an apology, but there was no good reason for Dick to offer him any sort of forgiveness.

“I believe he will, in time. If you actually able to put your pride aside long enough to acknowledge your remorse, that is. And perhaps, if there is a next time, perhaps you could put your own issues aside and simply ask, instead of letting the situation deteriorate to a point where emotions start to run high and someone else is required to step in. Even if he doesn’t tell you, he will still appreciate you asking,” Alfred told him. The man had always had a way of making Bruce feel like the smallest person in the room when he thought it necessary. And in that moment, Bruce felt so small that they’d have needed a high powered microscope just to find him. But at least, at the very least, now he knew. Alfred had given him the piece of the puzzle that had been missing, and he wouldn’t squander that gift. Not this time.

“Thank you, Alfred,” Bruce said simply with a shallow nod. Alfred nodded back only once in return before his stance changed, reverting back to his usual poised and professional appearance.

“Will there be anything else you require of me before I take my leave?” Alfred asked, bringing his hands to meet behind his back as he waited for Bruce to collect himself enough to reply. It did serve to shake Bruce out of the dark thoughts that had been floating around in his mind. The anger and self-loathing that wanted to take over.

“No, I think I’ll just get back to my research,” Bruce said, shaking his head and shifting himself back to the front of his seat. Patrol would start soon enough and his time to complete his investigation was limited. He’d need the time to prepare for another hectic night on the streets. But the issue with Dick still hung over his head. It would continue to do so until it was resolved. He watched Alfred nod once, lean forward slightly in an almost bowing motion before turning.

“Actually, Alfred, Wait,” Bruce found himself saying urgently before the man could actually take his first few steps. Alfred quirked and eyebrow and turned back to face him fully, waiting patiently for Bruce to continue, “The line, the one that broke, would you be able to bring it to Lucius tonight? Tell him I need him to do whatever it takes, assemble anyone he needs, to get me an answer as to why it failed by tomorrow morning,” Bruce continued, determined. He should have done it days ago, but then again, there were a lot of things he should have done days ago that he hadn’t. Alfred allowed a small, kind smile to play across his face.

“Very good, sir. I will prepare to do so immediately,” Alfred said. But to Bruce’s surprise he didn’t immediately turn. He took a step forward, took hold of the coffee cup he had brought down only minutes earlier.

“Alfred?” Bruce inquired, curious. But Alfred only smiled, a knowing look crossing his face.

“You’ll have to excuse my absent-mindedness. In my haste earlier, I believe I may have brewed decaf instead of regular," Alfred explained as he stood upright, saying nothing more as he exited the cave. Bruce watched him go with a mirthless half-smile before turning back to his research. Tonight he would do what he could to track down that arms dealer. He would patrol with Tim and Cass, do what he could to protect the people of Gotham. But tomorrow…tomorrow he would find a way to make everything else right.

Chapter Text

Dick looked surprised to see Bruce on the other side of his door when he opened it. He looked tired, more disheveled than normal. It was possible he’d been sleeping, or at least trying to sleep, when the knock had come. Based on his appearance now, it didn’t look like he’d gotten much of it. But this was important. Too important to let sit any longer than it already had.

Bruce kept his face stoic, as he normally did. It showed nothing of substance. No signs of the fact that his heart rate had been considerably fast ever since he’d parked, or how he’d stood in front of the apartment building for nearly 15 minutes before finding the resolve to enter, or the fact that his mind was clouded with the worry that Dick would simply turn him away before he had a chance to use up any of the courage he’d been building since his talk with Alfred yesterday. He’d contemplated calling first, going the less risky route, but ultimately decided that giving Dick the chance to screen a call, or make an excuse, would have been a mistake. So he’d shown up in person. Unannounced. And hoped for the best.

“Bruce? What are you doing here?” Dick asked with a dumb expression, his voice a little raspy as he scrubbed a hand over the side of his face. He looked decidedly unhappy about the whole situation, and Bruce really couldn’t blame him. He’d been…inconsiderate with Dick the past few days. He deserved any scorn his son would see fit to dish out. If Dick told him to leave, he would. But not without trying first.

“Can I come in?” Bruce asked, in lieu of an explanation. He waited, watched as Dick shifted his weight, let out a small groan at the prospect of dealing with the situation.

“Can’t we just do this in Gotham? My place is a mess,” Dick eventually ground out. Bruce simply quirked an eyebrow at the statement. He knew his son was ‘domestically challenged’, as Alfred had once so eloquently put it. It wasn’t that Dick didn’t know how to cook or clean, it was just never a priority. In fact, he seemed to quite enjoy the chaos. It baffled some people to no end, but this fact was nothing new. And it was also a pretty shaky reasoning for not wanting Bruce to come inside. It only took Bruce about half a second to realize that Dick was hiding something. What exactly, he wasn’t certain. Yet.

“We could, but I think you’d be interested in hearing this now,” Bruce said, bringing attention to the file folder he held in his hand, his trump card for getting Dick to talk. Dick looked down at the folder with narrowed eyes, resentful, but also intensely interested. He knew Dick didn’t want to let him in, but it was curiosity that killed cats. While Dick had always associated with animals of the avian variety, he had still always struggled when it came to letting a question go unanswered.

“Okay,” His son conceded after a tense moment of inner struggle, finally stepping aside to let Bruce through. Bruce noted that the apartment was indeed a mess. It nearly always was. Dishes in the sink that weren’t going to get done any time soon, no chair without something draped over it. Nightwing suit included, apparently. Bruce made a mental note to have yet another conversation with Dick about leaving the Nightwing suit out in the open where literally anyone could see it, but it was not a conversation for today.

As Bruce stepped in further, he noted that the coffee table was littered with papers, a couple old coffee mugs and a laptop, off but open, sitting on top of it. All evidence that Dick was working hard on an active case at the moment. The kitchen table, at least, was partially cleared off in an odd contrast to the rest of the furniture. It made sense. Both Tim and Damian had been in town the past couple days. It was possible he’d fed them, or they’d otherwise spent time hanging out, while they were there. But as he looked upon the table, his eyes were drawn to a point beyond it. To the kitchen counter where three grapple guns sat. It was probably the three that he and Damian had used last night. The ones that really should have gone back to the cave after they had finished with them. Bruce felt himself annoyed, but not surprised. That was probably the reason Dick had been so weary of letting him in at all.

Dick watched him take the sight in, his face hard and stance rigid, ready for a fight. Waiting for Bruce to see the lines, to say something, start an argument, perhaps. Bruce had no intention of doing so now. He found that, while the situation still annoyed him, his anger had dissipated as his understanding had increased. Besides, that wasn’t what he had come for. This wasn’t about the lines. It had never been about the lines. But it would have to start with them.

“I had WayneTech run some tests on the faulty line. Lucius sent me a copy of the results this morning,” Bruce started, holding out the folder in offering, “I thought perhaps you’d like to look them over yourself,” he added, hoping it would be seen as the peace offering he’d intended it to. Dick’s eyes widened, looking down at the folder, but his expression was largely unreadable as he walked closer, snatched the folder from Bruce’s hand. He turned away from Bruce as he opened the first pages, eager to see what was inside. Bruce allowed him all the time he needed, but didn’t move from his position behind him. He needed to prepare himself for whatever Dick’s reaction would be. Prepare what he would say. What he would do if the reaction was extreme, or if Dick just said a quick ‘thanks’ and tried to shut him out after that.

“So…it was a manufacturing defect?” Dick’s dull voice asked after some time had passed. Bruce took a step closer, though he hadn’t consciously decided to do so, towards Dick’s turned back.

“Essentially, yes. They found an amount of a different alloy, very similar but much less durable, mixed with the alloy used in the threads. The theory is it may have been due to over-heating in the casting process. We couldn’t have detected it in the cave without knowing exactly what we were looking for,” Bruce assured him. The tension in Dick’s posture didn’t seem to alleviate itself any, though he did cast a glance behind him at Bruce.

“How? I mean, how did that happen?” Dick asked with a small shake of his head.

“It’s being investigated. It could be a malfunction of the equipment or possibly a glitch in the automated system. Lucius is looking into it personally. In the meantime, now that we know what we’re looking for, we can test the other lines to make sure they haven’t been affected as well,” Bruce said, hoping it was providing some sort of comfort. Dick’s expression had stayed disturbingly neutral, changing only very subtly while reading over the information. Bruce frowned deeply as he found himself taking yet another step closer, trying to prepare himself mentally for the worst case scenario. It seemed to snap Dick out of his thoughts, but still told Bruce far too little about what those thoughts were.

“Thanks, Bruce,” Dick said softly as he turned to hand the folder back, “You really didn’t have to come all the way out here for this,” he added. It wasn’t jovial, but the statement definitely didn’t hold any malice. His eyes were far away though. Lost somewhere in his own head. Bruce wished deeply that he could just be one of those parents that could sit their sons down and have the sort of heart-to-heart conversations that seemed to come so easily to other fathers. He was at a loss of how to let Dick know that he understood now, that everything would be okay. He could try, but the words would come out wrong. Harsh. Insensitive. Demeaning. He was a poor substitute for the warm, loving father Dick had lost all those years ago. The warm, loving father that Dick deserved. The one that Dick still clearly needed sometimes. But Bruce wouldn’t let that stop him. He never quit when it came to the people he loved.

“I…didn’t just come to discuss the results,” Bruce said cautiously, testing the waters. Dick’s temper was legendary, and unfortunately, as rare as they were, so were his emotional breakdowns. Bruce could encounter either extreme today and, while wasn’t looking forward to either, the possibility of the latter downright scared him. He’d much rather face down the entirety of Arkham’s inmates than deal with feelings and tears. It was a shameful relief when Dick looked at him with narrowed eyes, a quick flash of anger passing over them. Anger, he could work with.

“Look, I know I crossed the line with Damian yesterday. I apologized, we made up. I’m not going to apologize for being careful with the lines and I’m not gonna stop checking them until I know they’re safe,” Dick said defiantly, hard scowl marring his face. Bruce paused, pushing down the instinct to react, sighing softly to himself. Had it really gotten to a point where Dick was so unaccustomed to him trying to be compassionate that he couldn’t recognize it when it was right in front of him?

“I wasn’t going to ask you to,” Bruce informed him, even and precise. Dick’s eyes seemed to soften with the new information, instead taking on a curiosity. But he didn’t speak quite yet. Bruce had taught Dick to get all the information before speaking if and when he could. He’d taught all his Robin’s this, but it had always been a harder sell when it came to Dick, who not only loved to talk, but was also quick, and good at reading others. Sometimes Dick knew what people were thinking before they did. But not today apparently. So Bruce continued.

“I was…hasty the other night. When I spoke,” Bruce said awkwardly, not quite able to look at Dick as he tossed the folder casually onto the pile of papers on the coffee table and moved a sweater aside to take a seat on the couch.

“What are you trying to say, Bruce?” Dick asked, crossing his arms loosely as he leaned up against the countertop. He watched Bruce from the kitchen, not making any moves to join him. Bruce took a breath in. What was he trying to say, exactly? He knew he had to figure it out quickly. He had one shot at this. One chance not to piss Dick off. Upset him. Hurt him.

“I’m trying to say that I think I understand now. Why you reacted the way you did,” Bruce told him eventually. He replayed the words in his head, tried to decide if he should explain further or just stop speaking. The words didn’t sound offensive on second thought. But Dick’s reaction was odd. He let out a breath, seemingly deflating as he did so, his eyes closing a moment after. His arms remained crossed, but it didn’t seem defensive. Bruce felt himself at a loss. He wasn’t sure if Dick needed space or not, if he wanted Bruce to say something or if he needed the moment to stay silent. He could feel the tenseness enter his jaw again, the stress, but it didn’t progress far before Dick, thankfully, spoke.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Dick replied eventually with a shrug and small shake of the head. His words were free of anger, but they were direct, leaving little room for argument. Bruce thought he looked so tired in that moment, vulnerable in a way Bruce didn’t often see anymore, and most people had probably never seen at all. Alfred was rarely wrong, the theory was solid, but he still wasn’t sure if he could get Dick to actually talk about it.

“Since when have you ever thought something wasn’t possible?” Bruce said as lightly as he could, almost a joke. It got a ghost of a smile from Dick, but it wasn’t enough. Bruce could feel the familiar wash of worry pour over him once again.

“No, it’s not that. I…” Dick started, uncrossing his arms to allow his hands to rest on the counter behind him. He looked lost in thought a moment before continuing, “I just mean that you can’t understand it, cause I’m not really sure I understand it myself,” Dick admitted quietly. Bruce’s wash of worry turned into a raging river of concern in that instant. He knew he didn’t always make it easy for his kids to talk to him, but to think that Dick was struggling with himself like this, for days, and never felt as though he could talk to him was a thought that weighed heavily on him. He couldn’t botch this.

“You could try to explain. It may help,” Bruce told him. He’d meant it to be an open, welcoming statement, but he could see Dick tense up slightly at the words.

“There’s nothing to explain. We’ll figure out the lines and I’ll get over it,” Dick said just a touch too quickly. Bruce had heard similar words a thousand times before. That time Dick broke a wrist practicing on the horizontal bar, the first anniversary of his parent’s death, when Donna Troy died…all times it was painfully obvious that something was wrong and yet Dick insisted that he was fine, that there was nothing to worry about.

“I disagree. You’ve been out of sorts since that line broke the other night and I don’t like it. You haven’t been sleeping, my guess is you’ve barely eaten and you’ve been acting irrationally. You yelled at Damian. Tim and Cass have both noticed. Your behavior is starting to affect the mission,” Bruce said, scowling back at his eldest. Despite his best efforts not to slip into the Batman voice, he knew instantly that he probably should have kept his mouth shut entirely. The sharp turn of Dick’s head, the angry look in his eyes, confirmed it. He’d said the wrong thing.

“That’s always what it comes down to with you! The mission is all that matters!” Dick shouted, bolting from the counter so that he could wave an arm spastically in the air “You know what, then? Fine! If you don’t want me getting in the way, I’ll just stay in Bludhaven!” Dick continued on, starting to pace across the small kitchen. Bruce tensed his jaw, wondered how these conversations with Dick always seem to go south so quickly. He desperately wondered what he could do to steer the conversation back to the part that really mattered.

“That won’t be necessary if you can get this obsessive behavior back in check. I will get the rest of the lines tested,” Bruce said, trying to keep his tone even, his posture calm even as he could feel the tension creeping into his shoulders. He tried valiantly to keep the stern expression from his face, but looking on as Dick’s expression twisted from annoyed to outraged, he knew he hadn’t quite done it.

“A line broke, Bruce! While you were swinging from it!” Dick shouted, angry, but also desperate, like he’d finally reached a breaking point. Bruce had been expecting it at some point, but the potency of it still caused him to rise up off the couch. There was nothing he could do now that the dam had burst, but he would be damned if he let Dick face it on his own. Dick had already faced so much more than he ever should have had to on his own. Bruce said nothing this time, waited for Dick to inevitably continue.

“I checked that line and it was fine! And then you fell and…and you were all just laughing about it! Like it was nothing!” Dick continued on. The guilt hit Bruce like a face full of cold water. They had indeed joked about the situation. Immediately after. But Dick hadn’t joked with them. He hadn’t even cracked a smile. “Damian and Tim were right there, Bruce! They would have seen everything! I grabbed Damian, but Tim was too far away! Do you have any idea what that would have done to them! To…to all of us?!”” Dick asked, running a hand through his hair, gripping it just a little bit too hard at the end of his stroke. It looked like Alfred’s theory wasn’t very far off the mark. It was staggering, and Bruce knew he needed to say something, but what could he say? Saying the wrong thing had been the catalyst for all of this to begin with. Maybe, he could just keep Dick talking.

“Dick, come sit down. We’ll talk,” Bruce tried, taking a couple slow steps toward his distressed son. Dick glared as he turned on his heel toward him.

“I won’t sit down! And I’m not gonna stop checking the lines! This might all be some kind of a joke to you, but I’m not gonna stand around and watch this family get torn apart again!” Dick said viciously, taking his own step towards Bruce. The words hung heavily in the air. Again. He’s not gonna watch this family get torn apart again. Bruce’s blood turned to ice in his veins, he swore he felt his heart still for a long moment. Is that what had really happened while he was gone? The thought of his family struggling caused Bruce’s heart to sink deep into the floor. But he couldn’t let that affect him now.

“Dick, calm down. It’s okay,” Bruce said before he could overthink the words, “You’re right. This isn’t a joke and it never was,” Bruce started, taking a few cautious steps closer to his battle-weary son and reaching out a hand to clasp Dick’s shoulder lightly. It was a risk. Dick could easily reject it, or break down, or see it as a patronizing gesture. Instead, he just looked down at Bruce’s hand with a hollow expression. Bruce felt him relax, very slightly, under that hand though. It was enough to encourage Bruce to continue, to touch upon the big issue.

“This isn’t just about Tim and Damian though, is it? Or the lines? The thought of losing them is unbearable, that’s a given,” Bruce started, his mind flashing back to the dark void that losing Jason had left in all their lives. A void he’d personally tried to fill with vengeance and isolation. Dick hadn’t forgotten that part of their lives, and none of them that had been there ever would. But things had changed since then. He and Dick had reconciled. Tim came into their lives, then Cass and Damian, and even Stephanie. The stakes were so much higher now, there was so much more to lose. That risk had always been there, whether it be due to one of their many enemies or a piece of faulty equipment, or one of thousands of other possibilities. But that wasn’t the only problem, the only thing weighing so heavily on Dick’s mind.

“But, if Jason hadn’t caught me, people would have expected you to do it again. To wear the cowl and take on everything that you had to before,” Bruce said as gently as he was able, giving Dick’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he said the words. He was sure he could feel his icy heart break just a little bit when Dick looked up at him with his wide, surprised blue eyes, slightly glassy with what could only be unshed tears. Bruce wasn’t sure if the words had been right, or if he’d chosen the right moment to say them, but he knew that he’d hit the nail on the head.

“Bruce, I…” Dick tried, looking somewhat frantic as he choked on the words. Bruce let the words drop and took the opportunity to lead Dick back to the couch, sitting him down before taking a seat himself. Dick’s eyes never left him, wide, vulnerable. Like he thought he’d disappointed him. Bruce had seen it many times when he had been Robin. Including the first time he’d watched a line snap on patrol. Bruce had never been anything but proud of the boy, but Dick was always worried that he wasn’t good enough. Even as a child he was ever the perfectionist, ever afraid of losing another parent if he didn’t meet a certain standard. It was Bruce’s failure, his own inability to convey to Dick that he was never in danger of that happening, his failure to tell Dick that perfection was never the standard that would determine how Bruce felt about him. Dick still seemed lost for words as Bruce rested a hand on his back, felt his son’s deep breathing, his futile attempts to stay calm and collected. Bruce simply waited him out, let him set the pace for now. Dick would talk when he was ready and able.

“I don’t know why I overreacted to all this like I did. I know we all carry backup lines. And Tim was right there, ready to catch you. Hell, so was Jason,” Dick said quietly, shakily, without looking at Bruce.

“I don’t think you overreacted as much as you think you did,” Bruce assured him.

“You didn’t think that yesterday,” Dick pointed out bitterly. It was true. Bruce hadn’t thought so yesterday. Or the day before that. And he should have, in hindsight.

“I was…rash in my assessment of the situation. I didn’t have all the information,” Bruce said with a slight sigh. But He still couldn’t quite say it. That he was wrong. That he was sorry.

“Which one of them spelled it out for you? Alfred or Tim?” Dick asked, slightly bitter, as he frowned and turned his eyes away from Bruce. He knew he should have asked what had occurred in his absence beyond the logistics. Something had happened between Dick and Tim that resulted in Damian becoming Robin, Dick had joined the JLA, some stuff had happened amongst Dick’s closest friends, and Bruce had asked very little about any of it, never mind about anything more personal.

“Does it matter?” Bruce questioned back, not willing to point the finger at either his son or his surrogate father in this instance. It didn’t matter ultimately which one of them told. Dick was simply trying to subvert the attention from himself in a manner he’d become accustomed to when he knew deflecting with humour would fail him. Bruce knew the answer was ‘no’ when Dick stayed silent, and more than that, knew this was his chance, his opening to finally ask.

“Dick, what happened? When the line broke? The past few days? Can you take me through what you were thinking?” Bruce asked. Dick’s eyes flashed to him quickly before turning away. He was conflicted, clearly so. Bruce didn’t know why. There was a time when the words alone, the hand on his back, would have been more than enough to coax an explanation, even if just a vague one, out of Dick. But Bruce couldn’t remember the last time he’d even tried, never mind used the technique successfully.

“I don’t know what happened. Not really,” Dick said with a shrug, likely hoping that that would be the end of it. Bruce would normally allow this, encourage it even, but he hadn’t come here today to let this slip through the cracks again, just like so many other times.

“Maybe trying will help us both understand it,” Bruce said, encouraging rather than questioning. Dick took a breath in, looking upwards, contemplative, as he leaned back slightly. But he didn’t look angry, just disturbed.

“When the line broke, it…it sounded like a trapeze,” Dick started with a sigh. Bruce knew what that sounded like. Exactly. And yes, the line had resembled that sound. “I know we worked on it, but I couldn’t help it this time. You’ve…just come back and…”

“Your parents,” Bruce finished for him, almost absently. He had never been so foolish as to think that Dick would ever forget, or fail to react, but the circumstances had been even more unfortunate this time. Bruce had only been back a few months after being thought dead for a year. Dick had his two youngest brothers, the two people he was most protective of, looking on as Bruce had fallen. And that was all before considering the cowl looming over him like a dark shadow, ready to be worn.

“Yeah,” Dick admitted solemnly, “I thought that would have gotten easier by now, you know? It’s been 15 years. And I think I’m fine, you know? I still miss them, all the time, but I think that I’m past it. Then…someone’s line snaps and it feels like it’s happening all over again,” Bruce took in his words, nodding slowly. He couldn’t seem to stop the hand on Dick’s back from moving to his opposite shoulder, effectively putting an arm around the boy. It had been ages since they’d spoken of this. Like this. Neither had forgotten the events that shaped who and what they became. There was a time they spoke of it openly with each other, but that was many years ago. Before the fighting. Before Dick started to grow up. Dick never brought it up, but it was apparent that he still needed to talk about it. To know that someone understood. That someone cared.

“I know Dick. I’m sorry,” Bruce lamented. Because he did know. The nature of trauma, the feeling of going for long periods feeling normal, okay even, just to have the smallest of events spark that hurt deep inside unexpectedly. But this time, it was only the catalyst, and Bruce couldn’t afford to lose sight of that. The event had sparked a memory, a series of emotions Dick associated with death and loss. But it didn’t account for the escalation. Bruce had to keep going. Had to find out the whole story. “What happened after that?”

“I grabbed Damian,” Dick said simply, shifting uncomfortably at the question. Bruce turned to him, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“I know that already,” He informed his son. Dick took a breath, shifted again, putting himself a little bit closer to Bruce, probably subconsciously. It was a habit that remained a relic of his childhood, when he was still small and less shy about seeking comfort in Bruce’s presence.

“I know you know that,” Dick reasoned. He was clamming up, Bruce could see it. He couldn’t quit now, not when Dick was finally starting to talk to him. Actually talk to him. Not about the mission. Or about his siblings. Or some event that happened ten years ago. Bruce couldn’t let him stop now, even if it meant going into potentially uncomfortable territory.

“I think that when the line snapped you froze, but after that, when things settled down, and you had time to think about what exactly that would mean...I think you panicked. You associate falling with death, we know that, and the last time you thought me dead…it was difficult on you,” Bruce said evenly, “I think the thought of going through all that again, of all of you having to go through that again, was overwhelming. And you compensated for that by trying to gain some sort of control wherever you could, in this case, doing everything you could to make sure the lines were safe,” Bruce continued, but his mind started to numb as Dick stayed silent, his eyes looking far away, taking on a greyish tone Bruce recognized as a deep sadness. “Dick? You can stop me if any of this is incorrect.”

“I know,” Dick said so quietly Bruce had barely heard it. But his eyes never met Bruce’s, remaining hazy and distant. Bruce wasn’t sure exactly what Dick was thinking or feeling in that moment, but it couldn’t be anything good. At least Bruce had confirmed Alfred’s theory in an indirect way. Knowing was half the battle, and it was reassuring that he’d made it even halfway with this conversation. But he was far from done.

“Dick, what happened while I was gone?” Bruce asked, the words coming just slightly too fast. He remained outwardly calm, but he was cringing on the inside. He hadn’t wanted to ask, not really, not after the few details that had already come out, but he’d left it too long already. It had become a problem. Something Dick had been struggling with long before the incident and likely would struggle with long after. How many of the others were also struggling like this? Tim? Cass? Damian? How long until one of them got triggered into some sort of break down? He would be sure to ask Alfred about his thoughts later. Assuming all went well with Dick. If he was more proactive with his other children, maybe it wouldn’t get to the same point it had with Dick. But with that he would have to take one step at a time.

“I fought Jason for the cowl, Damian became Robin, Tim took off to go find you and somehow we kept Wayne Enterprises afloat. It’s all in the reports,” Dick said with a dismissive shrug. Bruce had predicted the answer, but had hoped for more.

“I meant what happened with you?” Bruce clarified, his heart rate picking up just a little at the thought of what Dick may or may not say. At what may or may not be uncovered. Dick looked slightly horrified when he first met Bruce’s eyes. Though he corrected his expression quickly, Bruce had already seen it, had felt the muscles in Dick’s back tense under his arm.

“Bruce, I would…I would do anything for you,” Dick started, voice tight, eyes wide and desperate as he looked into Bruce’s. It was as if he was expecting to be reprimanded. The revelation hit Bruce like a ton of bricks…Dick thought he’d be disappointed in him if he admitted to struggling in his absence. As if he hadn’t been good enough to take Bruce’s place to begin with. That was probably a big part of why Dick hadn’t come to him, or tried to explain himself when things had gotten tense.

“I know you would. And you would also do anything for your siblings. Your friends. People you don’t even know. And you have, Dick, but you do it at the expense of yourself. You could have told me. About how hard that year was for you. It doesn’t take anything away from what you accomplished,” Bruce said slowly and carefully, trying to think through each word before he spoke it, knowing it had to be perfect this time.

Bruce was mildly surprised when Dick tentatively rested his head on his shoulder. Carefully, as if expecting rejection. Indeed, Bruce’s first instinct had been to shake him off, but he suppressed it. It was a small comfort that he wouldn’t deny his son. He was too hard on Dick, he knew this. He was often too hard on his kids. Cold. Unyielding. He knew they deserved better, so much better, but somehow, they never seemed to hold it against him. That forgiveness had always baffled him, but if never knowing the how’s and why’s kept him closer to his children, then he was okay never knowing.

“I’m so sorry, Bruce,” Dick eventually said, almost in a whisper, “I tried so hard, but everything was still just…awful. Jason hated me. Tim…Tim hated me. People couldn’t talk to me with the cowl on. People I’ve known since I was a kid. And I’ve never been good at the business thing. I mean, I’m…I’m an acrobat. I can handle a press conference or a marketing campaign, but the real stuff? The day to day? You know I’m not good at that. And then…raising Damian. I don’t know if I was ready for that,” Dick said, rambling somewhat absently from where his head rested on Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce just felt numb as his son said the words. There was so much. So much no one had told him about, so much that Bruce had ignored, or hadn’t thought about. This was just scratching the surface. What would Bruce find under the surface?

The thought of the challenges Dick had already mentioned was overwhelming. Bruce had always imagined Dick would have children of his own one day, but to have a child like Damian thrust upon him, especially considering how difficult he had been when he’d first come to the manor, was a lot for even a seasoned parent to take on. Dick wouldn’t dream of saying a bad thing about Damian, it was no coincidence he’d improved leaps and bounds since those early days, but the undertone was certainly there. It hadn’t been easy. And on top of so many of his other relationships falling apart or becoming strained, particularly with Tim, it was a lot. Dick valued his relationships much more than Bruce ever had, and in many ways they defined him. Bruce felt a sudden flash of anger. Anger at anyone who dared treat his son, their friend and teammate for years, any differently just because he wore the cowl. An irrational part of him wanted names, wondered how many of them would surprise him. Wally West? Koriand’r? Would Clark Kent’s name appear on that list? Bruce had to let it go, it wasn’t important now, but Batman would find out one way or another when the time came.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Bruce told him with a gentle squeeze to his shoulder, “You did well,” Bruce assured him, high praise from someone who rarely gave it.

“I wasn’t you. I never will be,” Dick replied quickly with a sigh. Bruce turned his gaze to Dick then, took in his listless, miserable form. It was wrong, so much of it was so wrong.

“Some people would argue that’s the best thing about you,” Bruce half-joked. Bruce had personally always considered it among Dick’s best qualities. It got a small, watery laugh out of Dick, but nothing more. Bruce knew he was battling hard against his emotions at the moment, could see the darkness in his bright eyes, feel the tenseness in his form. He would spare Dick from breaking down if he could. Dick would just see it as another failure at the moment, though Bruce didn’t agree. “Why didn’t you say any of this before?” Bruce inquired, curious as to Dick’s motives.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want you to feel bad about not being there. It wasn’t your fault,” Dick said plainly, “and…the less I think about it all, the better,” He added with a small, almost inaudible sniffle. Bruce didn’t understand the emotion that came over him suddenly, what exactly it was that made him collect Dick up into his arms, but his body reacted too quickly for his mind to shoot the action down. Dick responded almost instantly, clawing at Bruce’s arms almost hard enough to bruise.

“I…I really thought I had lost you again,” Dick admitted shamefully into his shoulder, a shame that Bruce had bred into him. A shame that should have fallen on Bruce alone, and not on the young man he had raised. The little boy he had brought home from the circus.

“No, Dick. Not this time,” Bruce reassured him. It wasn’t enough, he knew it wasn’t enough, but he couldn’t promise that something bad wouldn’t happen. Dick knew he could never make that promise. None of them could. Things…things happened. Suddenly. Bruce held his eldest a little tighter as the image flashed through his mind again like an old tape on repeat. Jason. 15 years old. Laying cold and bloody in a pile of rubble. But Bruce pushed in back into the depths of his mind, the same way he always did. The same way he would have to for the rest of his days.

“You can tell me, you know. When something like this happens. There’s no need to put yourself through that,” Bruce said. Awkward. All he wanted was for Dick to know he was there if he needed to talk. Like they used to. Dick had probably gotten the message, but only time would tell if he had truly taken the words to heart. Dick nodded, pulled away slowly, eyes cast off to one side. “You don’t have to take everything on by yourself. Not anymore.” Bruce reminded him.

“You guys have enough problems without having to take on mine too,” Dick countered, scrubbing a hand over the side of his face as he slumped over on the couch.

“We’re your family Dick. Your problems are our problems,” Bruce reminded him with a stern edge, but no malice. Dick clearly needed to be reminded that he wasn’t alone. That there were people who cared, and loved him enough that they’d happily do whatever they could to help. Dick looked stricken as he took in Bruce’s words. Had he actually forgotten this? Had the cowl been so isolating that he’d forgotten his own place in the family? After a pause, Dick’s resolve seemed to strengthen, his expression hardened slightly, though never completely lost that defeated edge it had taken on.

“I didn’t get any sleep last night. Or much the night before,” Dick said. Tried. Bruce’s gaze raised suddenly, his eyes widened. He swore he could feel his heart flutter, just briefly. It may have been the first completely open statement Dick had made to him in all the time he’d been back. It had taken a hell of a lot of prompting, but Dick making an honest effort to share had been worth it all.

“You can come to the manor if you like. Get some sleep, I’m sure Alfred will insist on feeding you,” Bruce said. Dick bit his lip lightly as he considered it, the nodded slowly.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay,” Dick said, drained. Listless. It was not something he’d have normally agreed to, but this week, possibly the past several months, had worn him down. He had no will to fight and Bruce knew a part of Dick was reveling in the comfort he was attempting to offer. Bruce would love to be able to give him the sort of attention he needed all the time, but even today he’d just gotten lucky. Dick had been physically over-tired and mentally exhausted, which made him less willing to fight and more willing to hear him out. He would have still yelled if he’d been pushed, but somehow, Bruce seemed to have gotten the words right this time. It had taken tremendous effort, but he’d done it. And he wasn’t done yet.

“And if you want to check the lines when you wake up, it’s okay,” Bruce said, casting a sidelong glance towards Dick, who cast a sidelong glance back, slight amusement in his eyes.

“Is that your version of an apology?” Dick asked. Slightly snide, slightly amused. It still came out limp-sounding compared to his usual exuberance. But still, Bruce couldn’t help the small smile that played across his face. Dick knew him so well sometimes it was scary, and he had never been shy about calling him out on it. Bruce liked to think he knew Dick just as well, and maybe at one time that was true, but was it still true today? He’d certainly failed on this occasion. His mood went back to somber at the thought.

“Something like that,” Bruce said vaguely, though didn’t miss the smug look in Dick’s eyes at the statement. But his expression changed suddenly, back to uncertainty. He shifted slightly as he contemplated his next words, uncomfortable.

“We’ll still test them though, right? Even if it probably is just a one-off?” Dick asked shyly, still untrusting of the response he would get. It was a clear admission that he hadn’t forgotten about the lines, nor the incident. That would take time, and Bruce would make sure to give him that time, to work with him again, as they had all those years ago.

“Of course, Dick. I’ll make sure everything’s okay,” Bruce assured him. Promised him. Because, as imperfect as he was, he was Dick’s father. And he would personally make sure that everything was okay.

“Promise?” Dick asked, turning hopeful eyes to the man who had raised him. Bruce nodded, but it wasn’t enough. Dick needed to hear the words.

“I promise,” Bruce confirmed for him. It seemed to be enough for Dick in the moment, but it was far from enough for Bruce. He had only just started. Because Bruce never gave up when it came to the people he cared about.