The night was winding down but the music played on. Bruce had long grown tired of the crowds and the sickly sweet smells of fair food. Summer heat and humidity stuck to Bruce in layers. He supposed he had the right to pack up, go home, and wash off his new skin—but this night wasn't about him, it was about Dick.
More appropriately, maybe the night was about Pennyworth. The arrangement had been his idea. Bonding time. The day hadn’t been so bad. Bruce understood too well that Dick’s mourning would dominate any interactions they had for awhile. Dick’s trust wasn't a game to be won; it'd be a long, arduous journey.
Sitting side by side as families more complete than theirs walked past, however, felt like a step.
A step forward and not backwards, Bruce hoped.
Bruce glanced over at Dick. The boy’s face was warmed by the bright glow of the nearby carousel but his eyes seemed faded. Bruce shifted uncomfortably on the bench, wondering when Alfred would be back to bridge the distance between the two.
Bruce glanced back at the carousel. There was a modest line waiting as the ride finished up. Nameless yet familiar music—like all carnival music—played as the horses, dragons, tigers, and more, marched. They rose and fell on their shining, metallic posts. Bright lights reflected on the faces of parents who stood on the wooden platform, their hands poised behind their children’s backs. Ready to catch them if they fell.
Bruce could feel the words there, sitting in his throat. But remove the pretenses and in the end, it was just two strangers who sat on that bench, their only commonality being the reason why they were stuck together in the first place.
Clearing his throat, he finally managed to ask, “Do you want to ride the carousel?”
For the first time that night, aside from a few shy and awkward sentences that could have been directed at either him or Alfred, Dick looked directly at him and spoke.
“The what?” he said.
“The carousel,” Bruce repeated, his voice a little more authoritative.
“You mean the merry-go-round.”
“Yes,” Bruce said, feeling strangely reluctant to agree.
Dick went quiet, seemed to consider this, but Bruce could already see the answer in his eyes.
“We don't have to,” Bruce said. He pulled at the collar of his button-up, feeling the sweat turned to grime.
“Do you want to?”
Bruce shifted in his seat on the bench. Alfred wasn't around, so maybe that was why he blurted out, “No. I don’t care for stuff like this. It just reminds me of my parents.”
Bruce looked to Dick, found that he was still looking directly at him.
“Yeah,” Dick said. His smile was not quite a smile, but there was something soft in his eyes. “Me too.”
Bruce had faced natural disasters before.
After the earthquake that hit Gotham all those years ago, Bruce hoped that nothing would ever come so close to his city again.
It was always hard to compare one disaster to another. An earthquake and a tsunami were two vastly different things. The earthquake he never saw coming. Quick. Instantaneous. With the tsunami, there were warning signs. The ground beginning to rumble. The water slipping away from the shore. Further and further. Building up to strike.
Until everything hit all at once.
He was standing on the edge of Metropolis, eyeing down the Atlantic. There was something about staring at the ocean that Bruce never liked. Something to do with the vast, uncontrollable waters.
Spray was hitting him. Clark, Wally and Kyle had evacuated the era. J’onn had been researching the strange phenomena but had yet to reach any members of the Justice League with his findings. Bruce should be elsewhere too—anywhere but near the ocean. He found himself moving toward the beach anyways. The sand was wet, clumped together. It made it a little easier to run on.
“We need to leave!” he called out, to no answer. The skies were gray and the winds were fierce and cold. His instincts were always focused in on danger, and he felt almost achingly anxious. He kept moving forward.
Standing on the shoreline was Mera. She looked over her shoulder at him. Her red hair was drenched, with a few wet strands sweeping past her forehead. Her skin looked almost pale in the fading light. She shook her head at him.
“This isn't natural. Someone must be manipulating the ocean,” Mera said.
“J’onn and Arthur said they would investigate it,” Bruce said. He held his hand out to her. “We should join with the rest of the League. It isn't safe here.”
“That's why I have to stay,” she said simply. “Only I can protect the coast now.”
Suddenly a low rumble. Mera quickly turned her head.
“It’s going to happen again,” she whispered, but not so quiet that Bruce couldn’t hear. He grabbed her shoulder.
“What is going to happen again?” he said, but her gaze was locked on the coast. Bruce’s eyes followed the trail—back out into the ocean. He saw the water drawing away from the shore. Building and building. A wall of water lifting itself through the air. Colossal in size.
He could feel his heartbeat quickening.
“What?” he breathed in disbelief.
“It’s happening again,” Mera said. Her voice, louder now. “Stand back!”
Bruce backed away, boots dragging in the sand. Quickly, he spoke into the commlink. “Flash, I need you to get back to the coast. Mera says there's going to be another strike. If there are any people still in the area, we need to get them away as fast as possible.”
“What do you think I've been doing?” came Wally’s staticky voice. “I've got people trapped under buildings, stuck in their houses, clinging to trees and telephone poles—it doesn't matter how fast I can run, it's a nightmare out here.”
The wave hung in the air like the threat it was. Bruce craned his neck to see it all.
Underneath the dark shadow looming over him, he suddenly forgot who he was talking to.
His mind scrambled for names to call. Trying to grasp whose assistance he needed. But his mind faltered. All that existed was him and this monument of terror and power. This force of nature that he couldn’t fight.
And then it came crashing.
The sound hit his ears all at once. Forces of water rolled over each other, rushing down in a white fury.
Mera ran forward, eyes glowing white—and with a sound like a crack of thunder, followed by the roar of the massive waves, the water seemed to collide into an invisible wall. In torrents, the water twisted and turned upon each other like a pile of snakes, divided by Mera’s hydrokinesis.
Bruce turned to Mera. He could see the stress in her body. Every muscle in her body tensed, the veins beneath her skin turned visible, the tendons in her neck strained. Every inch of her worked to keep the entire ocean at bay from levelling the city.
“Batman, you need to leave—”she gasped, voice strained. And just the effort it took for her to say those few words sent some of the water tumbling.
“I can’t leave you here. If that thing comes down—”
“It won’t come down. Leave.”
Her plea caused more torrents to crash into themselves. She groaned, teeth bared. Her hands, palms open, now tightened into fists. Her body started to sag into the beach, trying to hold onto the reins. Trying to hold everything back.
She screamed. Voice hoarse. Angry and anguished and exhausted all at once.
“Mera,” he said, because as much as he could understand her resolve, as much as he worried for the people on the coast, he could not abandon her. It was not in his code. It was not in who he was.
The water fought against her, rumbling its threats. Until finally—finally—
“It's too much,” she gasped.
She released all at once. The water all came crashing down and it was coming down on them so fast that Bruce didn’t even think when he grabbed Mera.
He saw the white wall coming for him and he froze in place.
He couldn’t outrun it.
Suddenly, a golden blur in his peripherals. He was lifted off the ground so fast that the colors whirled around him. But through the chaos of it all, he saw it.
He watched as the wave hit the coast. And whatever remained there, broken homes and livelihoods, got crushed and run over.
As quickly as he was picked up, he was dropped onto the ground. He rolled over on the grass, onto his back. He saw gray skies. As his eyes focused, a woman entered his line of vision. Diana looked at him, and the gleam off of her golden tiara illuminated and warmed her face. Bruce had worked with Wonder Woman for well over a decade and he still couldn’t understand how she did it. Couldn’t understand how her presence always felt like a sanctuary, even in the most dire of situations.
Though, he supposed she did just save their lives.
Diana didn’t ask him if he was okay. Their eyes met and she asked no questions.
He sat up, saw her checking on Mera. Mera kneeled at the edge of the cliff. Bruce rose and against his better judgment, approached the precipice—gazing down at the destruction below.
All of the buildings at the edge of the city had disappeared.
It was all gone.
“I’m so sorry,” Mera whispered.
Diana kneeled by her side, arm wrapped around her shoulders. Bruce could catch her whispering, “You did the best you could. No one could have done that alone.”
It had been a busy day. Even Bruce, who usually managed to keep himself aware of all possible threats, had lost his usual focus—narrowing it all down to the immediate threat. And it wasn’t until that moment, as he was looking over the edge of the cliff, overlooking the bay, that a sudden thought occurred to him.
He stared at the coastline on the opposite side of Metropolis’ waters, his heart sinking.
He looked at Diana. Hidden beneath their usual calm and grace, there was a trace of faint concern in her eyes.
“I have to go,” he told her. He turned away, opening up his bracer. Programming the batwing to pick him up.
“We’re a team, Bruce,” he heard her say. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. Voice lower, she said, “You don’t have to do this on your own.”
He placed a hand over hers, the cold, wet fabric of his glove laying over her bare hand. She seemed surprised by the contact.
“Just worry about helping the team secure the coast. Gotham is taken care of.”
Commissioner Gordon’s words were short and terse. Bruce figured he was stressed and the inability to light a cigarette only made his mood worse.
The puddles sloshed underneath their footsteps. A heavy, soaked hat sat on James’ head, his coat darkened with saturation. James picked up his volume so he could be heard over the steady pelting of heavy raindrops, not realizing that Bruce’s trained ear could hear him just fine.
“The bay overflowed into the city. We closed off the ports as soon as we heard the news. A lot of businesses were destroyed when the wave hit but there are hardly any houses on the coast—thank God.”
Bruce followed Gordon around the corner. He stopped in his tracks, surveying the massive wall before him. His gaze didn’t follow where Gordon pointed, he didn't have to. He already saw the problem.
Gotham Harbor Road was built on a slope. It led to the bay by tunneling up through a cliff. The road had been blocked off for weeks after a terrorist bombing—the subject was sitting in Blackgate, currently—had shaken its foundation. The reconstruction had been going well but, for safety purposes, it had been closed off.
Bruce could see the water pouring through the tiny crevices. They rolled down the steel surface in steady streams, like the even turn of a water faucet, down onto the street. They might have seemed insignificant, unassuming—but not too far off, raindrops rippled in the pocket of water that sat in the middle of an uneven road.
“The wall is supported by three beams. If they go down, the whole thing goes down, and all the water trapped in the tunnel is going to go straight into downtown,” Gordon said, turning toward Bruce. Water dripped from his wilting hat, drops beaded his mustache, fog collected on his glasses. He was barely recognizable.
“What are you doing to keep it steady?”
“Right now? Hrm. Nothing but prayer, I suppose. If it goes down, it'll be too fast for us to stop it. We're evacuating the entire downtown area.”
Bruce frowned. He didn't like that answer. But looking at the wall, he decided that maybe it was best to resign. The important thing was that it could hold for now. With the gutters beginning to overflow, downtown was going to have to evacuate regardless, and as long as they acted quick, they wouldn’t have to worry about the barricade coming down.
“There are people, sick and elderly people, loners, who either don't understand the gravity of the situation or can do nothing about it. We need your help getting as many people out as possible,” Bruce could hear James say, but he was already taking off.
The dark clouds grew heavier and darker. The rain wasn't stopping. Each drop was heavy and cold, striking like bullets.
Bruce held his position on the edge of Wayne Tower, overlooking downtown, trying to survey the worst of the damage. He was filtering through the cowl’s lenses, trying to sense which buildings had the most trapped people.
“Martian Manhunter and Aquaman are pursuing the perpetrator,” Clark spoke to him through communications. The line itself was like listening underwater, waving in and out of clarity—but with J’onn too preoccupied to maintain telepathic communications, it was all they had. “I can't contact them. Right now, the ocean seems clear and I haven't heard anything suspicious from the tide. I don't think we'll get another wave.”
The waters were heavily flooded near the river, spilling into the streets. Bruce leaped off the edge, the paracape snapped open, and although the wind was fierce, Bruce was confident that it would hold. As always when he soared over rooftops, his stomach dropped as he cut through the air. Wind and rain hit him hard, making it difficult to see—but the tower was the highest vantage point downtown. Jumping from it night after night of patrol had instilled in him this sort of practiced ease. Without having to rely on his eyesight, he successfully landed on the rooftop.
“Batman, if you need help—”
Bruce quickly cut in, already recognizing the subtle, apologetic undertone to Clark’s voice. Clark had this horrible habit of feeling guilty for not being everywhere at once. Bruce could admit that it was one of the few traits they had in common—but that was all the more reason why Bruce couldn’t accept his help. They both had cities to save.
“I have everything under control. Metropolis needs Superman.”
“When I’m finished—”
“We’ll take a trip to Death Valley.”
A soft sound on the other side of the link. Laughter. Or static.
The next sound was a beep.
“Call me when you need something,” Bruce said, switching lines. “Oracle, what’s the update?”
Barbara buzzed in more clearly.
“Robin is helping people in North End.”
Bruce frowned at that but he didn’t let it distract him from crossing the rooftops. Down the block, he could see the red and blue lights blinking off of gleaming limestone. The emergency vehicles were making their way down the block, where they stopped building by building to help people escape. Bruce could start on the opposite side of the street, meet them halfway.
Bruce stopped on the corner of a rooftop. Several buildings had broken windows from the rush of river water that overflowed into the streets. His sensors were picking up signs of people trapped on the upper floor of an apartment complex.
Too many people.
“Everything past Wayne Bridge isn’t nearly as unstable as the rest of the city. How fast can he get to downtown?”
“He’s tied up at St. Luke’s Hospital, Batman. I don’t think he’s going to be there anytime soon.”
St. Luke’s. That’s where Jack’s doctors were. Bruce didn’t push it.
“I managed to get in contact with Huntress but she was… preoccupied,” Barbara said in a weary sort of voice that was too much like her father’s. Good news was scarce everywhere, it seemed. “Apparently, Penguin has decided to capitalize on Gotham’s current crisis.”
“Capitalize how?” Bruce said, unable to strain the growl from his voice. He tried not to let the pulse of anger distract him from mapping out the best way to get to the crumbling building stuck in the flood.
“Cobblepot Bridge is a public bridge.”
“Yes, the bridge is public—but technically, the road that cuts through the diamond district directly to the bridge is all Cobblepot’s property, and the public roads are jammed from Madison all the way up to Jefferson.” Barbara added, “Anyways, Huntress said she was going to talk to Penguin and make him reconsider his toll fees. I was so busy trying to get in contact with the rest of our allies, I suppose that I let her slip by...”
Bruce didn’t agree with Helena’s methods, no, but at this point, Barbara wasn’t the only one who was impatient with Penguin’s repeated greed. Helena would indeed slip by.
“Did you get in contact with anyone else?” Bruce said.
His eyes searched—there was a streetlight that stood tall in the water. Its arm stretched halfway across the road, over the torrent.
“Not with anyone that isn’t downtown already,” Barbara said. Bruce was only half listening as he positioned himself to leap. “I did get a message, however, from outside help. Nightwing sent a message about the same time you did when you left Metropolis. I’m not sure how the weather has affected Blüdhaven but even the train stop outside of Gotham would only delay him about a half hour.”
Bruce gritted his teeth as he caught onto the steel pole, his grip nearly slipping. The streetlight waivered underneath his weight. At the mention of Nightwing, Bruce’s focus spun as quickly as the rush of water that lapped at the streetlight, threatening to topple both of them over.
“Nightwing?” Bruce said. His brow furrowed in concentration. “Why?”
“Maybe he actually likes this place or something,” Barbara said, her tone dry.
“He should be in Blüdhaven. Tell him we can handle this.”
“You can tell him that yourself, assuming you don’t drown first.” Barbara’s sigh came in heavy. “Batman, I may spend most of my time behind a computer, but that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to what goes on out there. Whatever flavor-of-the-week drama has had you and Nightwing sulking like teenagers, you can set it aside long enough to do your jobs.”
“That’s not the point,” Bruce said, scowling to himself. He edged his way toward the end of the streetlight, where it rocked unsteadily. His gaze was locked on a fire escape. “Blüdhaven is a whaling town.”
“Then they can probably handle water just fine.”
Bruce jumped, catching onto the bars of the fire escape.
“Can you locate him?”
“I’ve tried contacting him. I can see that he’s received my messages but he hasn’t responded to any of them. I have your coordinates locked and forwarded to him, in case he decides to drop the cold shoulder.”
“You shouldn’t send my coordinates without permission.”
“I know,” she said. Bruce frowned. “I’m going to discuss damage control with the Cave. I’ll relay any important reports to you when I receive them. Be safe out there, Batman.”
He climbed onto the fire escape. Once he was on two feet, he heard a loud, steely groan. He glanced over his shoulder, just in time to watch the streetlight topple into the waters. He didn’t watch for long—he had work to do, people to aid.
It was inevitable. Gotham was going to fall apart in places. That was just the nature of the disaster.
The vase was broken almost cleanly in two. The edge curved off the ground, water trickling between the jagged teeth from where it had split. Bruce stared at it, watching as the water poured into the small puddle on the ground. Watched the puddle as it slowly grew bigger and bigger.
He thought of Mother and his stomach twisted.
He knelt down, picking up the other piece. The crowns of the roses still hung onto the edge of the curved rim, water sliding down thorns and stems, dripping onto the hardwood. There was no personal memory attached to the vase. Unlike the painting that Bruce had watched her paint, or the bowl he had watched her spun, this vase bore no significance other than her hand had once touched it and would never touch it again.
Still, he couldn’t fix himself. Couldn’t stop the emotions that brewed inside of his chest.
Behind him, a small voice—beginning defensively before fading into uncertainty—spoke:
“Alfred asked me to grab him a vase. I just. I thought. I already had the roses—”
Dick didn’t know the significance of the vase. He couldn’t have known because Bruce never told him. He never planned on telling him, never even planned on seeing the vase again. He might have even forgot about its existence if Dick hadn’t dragged it out of the cabinet.
“You don’t put flowers in this,” Bruce said anyways. As if it changed anything.
“I thought it was a vase,” Dick said, quieter now. Bruce could feel it in the uncertainty of his voice—he felt guilty for something he didn’t understand. And Bruce felt guilty too, for making him feel that way, for being so upset over something that should have meant nothing—but he couldn’t stop it.
Dick was just a boy. Boys made mistakes. Bruce had made mistakes.
He knew that but he couldn’t stop—
“I heard a crash,” Alfred started. Then stopped.
“I can clean it,” Dick said quickly.
“That’s quite alright, Master Dick. I wouldn’t want you to cut yourself. I can handle it myself.”
Bruce could still see the flicks of her wrist—from the painting, he tried to remind himself, not the vase, he never saw her make the vase—and the drag of her paintbrush. The gold line started at the lip, curving down to the edge, then stopped. Following the trail she had marked, he could decide the placement, could almost perfectly puzzle the broken pieces together—but now, Bruce could see there were chips. The dozens of little pieces swam with the leaves on the ground. It’d never be the same.
“I’ll do it,” Bruce cut in.
“I’ll do it,” Bruce said, harder this time.
“I’m sorry,” Dick said again—but Alfred was already leading him out of the room.
Later, after Bruce had swept it all away, after he buried the pieces in the trash, after Dick had retired for the night, after Bruce got ready for the night, Alfred spoke up.
“He helped me clip them. We were out in the garden all spring,” Alfred said. His tone was not unlike the voice he used when Bruce had been a child. Alfred knew about the vase—he probably knew better than Bruce—but even he, for all his compassion, only had so much patience.
Bruce thought about the white roses laid to rest on top of broken ceramic.
“It got swept up in the dirt,” Bruce said. It was part true. But it was the part that wasn’t true that stung inside his chest.
“You could have saved them,” Alfred said, not listening. He grumbled almost resentfully. “He was out in the garden all spring.”
“Hold onto me.”
Bruce could feel the ache in his back, his arms, his hands. The straps of the harness dug through the padding of his suit, bearing down on his shoulders. The man he was carrying was just too heavy. Six feet tall, had to have been edging on three hundred pounds. Bruce could feel himself sweating under the cowl. Could feel the tightness of breath in his chest. The heat and the humidity was enough to make a man feel nauseous.
He gritted his teeth.
The burden of carrying weight multiplies when its held an arm’s length away. The best way to hold weight is to keep it close to the chest.
Bruce knew that but he didn't have much of a choice. He was dangling from the ceiling, the force on his torque multiplying—perhaps tripling—the weight of him, the father, and the daughter, as he clamped his hands tight around the grappling gun.
If he retracted too fast, the beam the hook was attached to could snap from the force.
He just had to keep it steady.
“Don’t let go.”
The man’s daughter was hanging on his back. A tall, big-boned girl, just like her father—but still relatively light. Her hands are hooked on the harness but she could fall into the depths below at any moment. The apartment complex was almost completely flooded now—they had no choice but to go up. Bruce had faith in the strength of his cables. His only hope was that the beam was strong enough to bear all of their weight until they could make it to safety.
Bruce and the girl could maybe keep afloat until Bruce could find an escape—assuming they could survive such a crash. But the paralyzed father would sink in an instant.
Bruce couldn’t let that happen.
The line grew shorter inch by inch. Bruce could see the floor above them growing closer, could start to see the details of where the wood and plaster and steel had fractured. Almost there. He would get them to the landing, carry the father to the van waiting outside with all the other survivors of the building collapse, make sure—
A snap. The line jerked. His whole body sunk, his stomach dropping to his knees. He couldn't resist the anguished groan as all the weight yanked on him at once, his shoulders shooting pain through his entire body like they were about to pop out of their sockets—
A scream, his cape is yanked, forcing his head to the side and downwards, where he saw the girl hanging onto both leg and cape—
Was so distracted by the father that he forgot about the daughter—
“Hold onto me—”
Don't let go, he wanted to say, but she had.
It all happened so fast. She didn't fall so much as she dropped right down, right toward the shallow waters filled with broken debris—
Another snap, a zip of the line—Bruce waited for his drop but it didn't come.
The shadow came flying in through his peripherals, unannounced and unexpected. As always. And just as equal parts graceful and wild.
She was snatched up in the crescent arc and they soared. The landing didn't stick right, but they managed to bounce themselves off the wall instead of diving into it.
The grappling line pendulumed back toward Bruce. Bruce looked down, two faces looking back up at him.
“Hey, B. How's the weather up there?”
“Cobblepot Bridge has opened up.”
“Tell Huntress—”Bruce cut himself short, suddenly realizing that he might regret what he was about to say further down the road.
“Mm, how about we tell her… that we won't ask questions?” Oracle said.
“Just the occasional static, minus the one, but you already have the update on him.”
“What about Harbor Road?”
“The barricade is still standing—for now. I know you're positively grinning and jumping for joy but before you decide to throw a party, I'm still picking up on a lot of distress signals. It seems that a lot of the emergency responders are tied up at Bayview Hospital. My suggestion is to keep doing what you’re doing—stick close to the riverside and pick up stragglers, because it'll be a long time before anyone else gets to them.”
“Understood. In the meantime, see if you can get ahold of Robin. I just want an update.”
“I'm on it,” Barbara said. Her line didn't click out right away. Bruce paused, listening. “I wish I could do more.”
“You’re doing enough,” Bruce said.
“You guys are getting your asses kicked out there. You and—and GCPD. I just wish I could—”
“Your communication lines are working better than even the Justice League’s. You're the only one who can even connect me to the Cave and relay police lines. You're doing just fine. Focus on getting ahold of Robin, he shouldn't have to work on his own.”
“No one should,” she said.
Bruce hung up.
“What’d she say?”
Bruce turned his head. Dick was leaned against an air duct. The rain wasn’t dropping as hard as it had been—but it was equally cold, coming down just as steady, and there was little hope that it would ease up. Bruce was supposed to check in with the Justice League about twenty minutes ago but he had been so caught up in his work.
Bruce didn't respond to Dick. He moved to the edge of the rooftop.
Bruce could feel Dick watching him. He didn’t even try to hide his footsteps as he followed Bruce’s shadow. Bruce didn’t look back. He kept his gaze forward, looking over the coordinates that Oracle had sent. There was a pocket of buildings not too far off. More people that were waiting to be picked up. Bruce could help.
“Batman,” Dick called. There was a subtle edge to his voice.
No time. People could be trapped.
Bruce ran the rooftops. Dick kept up with him—could easily cut him off. He could do that now. He could do anything. Instead, he followed.
Their steps splashed in puddles. Wind blew through them as they leaped over gaps. Bruce hadn't run long before he felt the familiar heartaches, like his chest could burst. He was exhausted, he needed to catch his breath, but—
Dick finally intervened, catching him by the arm. Bruce stopped, silenced his breaths, but his body still rose and fell with each inhale.
Dick looked at him for a moment, just watching. Bruce looked back. His vision was starting to blur—and he realized, very suddenly, that it wasn't fog.
Couldn't remember the last time he slept. Last time he ate. Couldn't remember all the people he carried on his back or pulled out of the water. His feet hurt. His skin was cold and damp. His back and shoulders and arms ached. The whole day, the night—it all just fell in together, swirling around, mixing up.
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Dick said.
His hand was still on Bruce’s arm, his grip tight.
Bruce exerted the energy to shrug him off.
“You didn't come here to toss me back to the cave. You came here to help,” he said instead, his voice hard.
Dick’s lips were parted open, his brow furrowed. Finally, he crossed his arms, his weight shifting.
“Yes. I did come here to help,” he said curtly. “And I know you well enough to know that you'll drown in someone’s basement before you go home. I meant, how long is it going to be before you accept my help? How long are you going to ignore me?”
As if he could ever ignore him.
As if every brick and stone in this city didn't contain some part, some trace, of his memory.
Bruce reined back his anger, his defenses.
Dick was worried. Bruce knew he was. He knew because if this had been Blüdhaven instead of Gotham, Bruce would have been just as worried.
Things had never been quite the same between them ever since Dick branched out on his own. Bruce didn’t have anyone but himself to blame for that. He pushed Dick and then he shut him out.
But now, in Gotham, in the midst of this disaster—it was about more than just Batman and Nightwing working together. It was a chance to make things right.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said.
Dick looked at him, almost startled, then he lowered his arms.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”
“Don’t struggle. If you struggle, you’ll use up your energy. Just focus on conserving oxygen. Stay relaxed.”
“I know, I know,” he responded. His voice was huffy, annoyed.
Bruce grimaced. He resisted the lecture only because now was not the time. He’d been keeping an eye on the notches on the wall—the separation of the cement blocks—as a measuring tool. It took about three minutes for the water to rise from one notch to the next.
“Where is the water at now?” Bruce asked.
“My chin,” Dick said. Sure enough, Bruce could feel Dick tilting his head back, his crown brushing against Bruce’s shoulder, trying to stay above the waterline.
Bruce did some quick estimates. It’d take about three minutes before Dick’s mouth and nose were submerged. Dick’s record time in the pool was about two and a half minutes. Judging by the progress Bruce had made thusfar, five and a half minutes to cut through the rest of the cuffs might not be enough.
He had been chipping away at their metal cuffs with the same shiv ever since they were left to drown. Tied together, their chairs back to back, it was too dangerous to use the heat laser installed on his gauntlet. Luckily, their enemy had some fixation on slow drowning, and the steady stream of the water allowed them a window of opportunity to escape.
Bruce’s hands and wrists were tense and cramped from the repetitive sawing. He didn’t let up, he couldn’t afford to.
“Remember to keep still. I’ll get you out so don’t waste energy trying to escape or—”
“Why are you lecturing me instead of getting us out of here?”
It was a sad day when Robin was the one telling Batman to shut up.
Dick went silent right around the time that the water was beginning to creep around Bruce’s neck. Bruce’s gaze flickered from where the water was pouring into the pit to where the waterline was on the wall. It crept steadily toward the next notch.
His hands worked faster, the blade pinched between his hands. If he dropped it—if his hand slipped—
He kept working, grating away at the metal cuffs bit by bit. Dick’s silence was unnerving. The rising waters were heartpounding. He wasn’t going to let it end like this. He wasn’t going to let Dick suffocate, all while strapped to his back.
He was wearing away at the edge of the cuff now. Bruce’s anxious breaths were shallow and shaky. He could feel it, the cuffs loosening, so close to that fine line that he could almost wiggle it apart.
The water was well past the notch now. It wasn’t until Bruce felt the cold water lap at his chin that a sense of doubt crept in. He tried to block it out, tried to forget, but the thought had already infiltrated his brain—
It was too late.
He had taken too long.
Dick couldn't hold his breath this long. Of course he couldn’t. They had trained over and over again, preparing for this moment, and the best that Bruce could train him to wasn’t going to be enough. Another body to add to the count of people he failed to protect, another face to haunt him—
Pull it together.
Bruce stayed above water as long as he could—but when the water started to touch his nose, he knew he had to take the plunge. He ducked his head into the water, holding his breath, the lenses of the cowl keeping his vision clear. He carved harder, faster—until finally, finally, the cuffs snapped.
His heart jolted when he realized his hands were free. The blade had jerked, bit hard into his glove. It was fine, no matter. He let the blade go, unwrapped the binds around their ankles. He grabbed Dick from the chair.
A strange thought had crossed his mind at that moment—that underwater, Dick was as light as the day they met. That thought stayed with him. He crawled up toward the surface, broke through the water.
Everything went blurry, his lenses fogging up for just a brief second. Bruce looked up first—the water was filling the pit. They were nearing the ceiling. They’d have to ride this out, stay afloat until they neared the top, then break through the grates—
He quickly looked down. Dick was slack in his arms, head lolled to the side. Black bangs in his eyes and Bruce wanted to brush them away but it was difficult enough to wade through the water.
Bruce wasn’t like Dick.
Dick used to try to be like him. Tried to be like Batman. But Bruce wanted nothing more than to be like Dick—not quiet, and withdrawn, and cold. But outspoken and shining and unafraid to love.
Bruce wasn’t that way. It felt too late to regret that now.
All the training, preparation, didn’t come without some type of doubt. Bruce had learned long ago that nothing good could last forever. He looked at Dick and felt this strange hollowness. This type of grief that dug in deep and held on—
But he felt no disbelief.
Then Dick, forever defying his expectations, suddenly jerked to life in his arms. Bruce was so caught offguard that they both nearly sunk—Dick coughing with every inch of his body, heart and lungs ringing from his body into Bruce’s. Dick flailed first, then finally pulled himself away, into the water.
Bruce let him go, gave him space to breathe.
“Are you alright?”
He wasn’t. Bruce could see it in his expression. But he nodded quickly.
“Yeah,” his voice was hoarse. He coughed again. “I’m fine. Thought my chest was going to explode.”
Dick looked up, a hand quickly moving out of the water to push his hair back. Bruce’s eyes followed. The grate was within arm’s reach.
“You going to get us out of here or not?”
Bruce looked at the space between the bars. Too narrow for him.
“No, I think it’s your turn this time.”
“You mean it’s your turn,” Dick said. His arm reached out, missed the first time, but finally held purchase of one of the bars. He pulled himself up. “Don’t struggle.”
Bruce didn’t think twice. He had already prepared himself for what he would do if he saw a hand sticking out of the water.
He dove through the water, grappling gun fastened securely to his belt.
Gotham River was a cold storm, chilling him even through the batsuit, tossing and turning him. Taking the plunge was supposed to be the hardest part. Hopefully, the cold would be the worst thing about this rescue mission.
He didn’t lose sight of his goal, even as water whipped at his face. He pushed himself through the hard currents, toward the body bobbing up and down out of the water. Stay afloat. Stay afloat.
He didn’t approach the drowning man so much as he crashed into him. Bruce reacted fast, arm clamping around the man’s middle. He grabbed the grappling gun, aimed it toward the nearest wall that hadn’t swelled over from the riverwater, and shot.
His hand gripped tight around the gun, retracting the line. The cold, hard water hit him in the mouth and nostrils but he held his breath. The line yanked them against the flow of the waters and Bruce performed the timing just right, properly bracing himself before they smacked into the wall.
Still, he was weary and all the strong swimming and whiplash had knocked the wind out of him. Luckily, Dick was already there. Dick knelt down near the edge, grabbing the man, pulling him out of the water. Dick glanced up, his eyes looking past Bruce.
“Batman—”he started, but Bruce could see his worry from the expression alone and was already looking over his shoulder.
Another emergency responder, fluorescent orange vest signalling him from across the river. There was a stone bridge that went over the water—in the back of his mind, a vague memory from his childhood suddenly revisited him, the oldest bridge in Gotham, his father had said.
The man was hanging onto the stone edge, his body wrapped around the wall. The water currents underneath the bridge were fast, threatening to carry the man off into the bay—if he didn’t crash into any of the debris that had floated from the crumbled houses, that is.
Bruce aimed the grappling gun, hoping it’d pull him against the current. It worked—until halfway, when the hook lost its footing, the line swinging through the water like a broken fishing wire. The gun snapped out of Bruce’s hand—forget it, focus on the victim.
Bruce dove under the waters. The lenses of the cowl gave him enough light to see and he narrowly dodged a broken plank that shot through the water. He pushed and pushed with all his strength, sweeping closer and closer toward the bridge. He saw shadows and light—
Something underwater shone bright, catching his eye.
At first, he thought it was the reflective binding of the vest, but it was too deep. He made out something sitting at the bottom, caught in the crook between the wall and the bridge. The closer Bruce swam, the more light caught onto the object, giving it shape. There were other objects stuck in the mud too—lots of lost items, but what he saw—
Bruce shot to the surface of the water, gulping air. Water streamed down the cowl, down the lenses. When it cleared away, he could see that he was being carried closer and closer to the man. He reached out his arm—and that’s when the man’s grip finally gave way. Bruce could hear the scream over the roar of the waters and the pelting raindrops. He listened as the sound was carried into the distance.
No hesitation. Bruce kicked toward the current, allowing himself to fly through, keeping close to the edge so he’d have a way to pull himself back. They were moving fast, fast—if Bruce wasn’t careful, if he didn't find a way to grab the man and pull them back to land—
The clearing of the tunnel. A shadow swooped down, hanging from a line. Both arms reached out, catching the man.
Bruce grabbed onto the wall of the bridge, catching himself on notches.
“Just hold on, I’m going to bring him up and then I’ll grab you—”
Bruce breathed for a moment. His mind was racing, heart pounding.
There, under the water, caught in the crook of the bridge, he saw—
“Get him to safety,” Bruce called back.
He looked back from where he came. The turbulent waters rolled over each other, crashing against every surface. The sounds were deafening. The adrenaline in Bruce’s veins spiked, his heart racing fast.
This was dangerous.
“What are you doing?” Dick said, his voice distant, small against the boom of the waters.
“I’ll be right back,” Bruce said. Bruce didn’t know that. He only said that to dismiss Dick, to push him away. He wasn’t even sure if he spoke loud enough for Dick to hear.
He didn’t care.
He pulled himself along the wall, gripping onto notches to further him along. The river fought back. Every time he got a little closer, something was pushing him back. Pulling him in the wrong direction. He gritted his teeth, tried harder. He just needed to get back there. He just needed to see—
His fingers fumbled. All it took was one hand off the wall and he was peeled off completely. He spun in the water, back striking the surface of the underbridge. Pain shot through his body. The single strike reverberated through his body all at once, awakening every exhausted and bruised fiber of his body.
Moving faster now. He was dragged through the water.
In the clearing. Dick was sliding back down the line, arm outstretched, because that’s what he did best—no matter how much Bruce tried to convince himself that he didn’t need a partner, that he could do it alone, Dick was there.
And like any good partner, he was always there to pull him out when he went too far—
Something hit him hard from behind. His head rattled. Everything flashed red and black, he went under, water filled his lungs.
He was dazed. He was choking. He spun under the control of the currents. He rose up, long enough to breathe, but everything was blurry and his head was pounding and he couldn’t regain his sense of direction. He spun, something struck him in the shoulder, he moved his arms but he didn’t have the sense to crawl.
Something grabbed onto him. Someone.
No longer whirling. A straight path.
Toward the surface.
Not like this.
They broke through the surface. He was dimly aware of the rivulets running down the cowl. Into his mouth. He could breathe. But his senses were loud. The sound, the sights. He felt sick. So he shut it all out. Closed his eyes just to shut it out.
His eyes were only supposed to be closed for a moment.
Grass didn't grow this tall in the city. There was always someone to cut or trample it down.
The tips of the blades came up to Bruce’s chest. He followed his mother, who parted through the sea of green with her arms.
At that point, he voiced his concerns about school and Father. She glanced over her shoulder, smiling.
“It’s not playing hooky,” she had said with a wink. “It’s more like… a mental health day.”
Bruce had no idea what she meant. He followed her anyways. He would have followed her anywhere.
She had pulled him out of school on a beautiful spring day—the first sunny day after a particularly long and cold month of rain—and took him far from the city. He was still dressed in school clothes and she was in a pretty white sundress. They went down to the creek, the long grass staining her hem. A brush snagged the chiffon and before Bruce could gasp, she just shrugged a shoulder.
“Oh well,” she said, and she ripped the torn piece completely off and used it to tie back her brown hair.
His mother, the innovator.
They moved from black-eyed susans and white daisies to softer, sparser grounds, where water from the creek began to creep to the surface. They took off their shoes and stood in the water, watching ripples form and rainbows swirl on the surface. They listened to the gentle breezes that mazed through branches and followed frogs.
At times, his mother would just stand there in the water, her head tilted up toward the peeks of sunlight coming through the trees. Closing her eyes and basking in the beginnings of the warmer seasons, waiting for summer like a plant that just wanted to grow.
After awhile, Bruce stopped asking questions.
The sounds in that place were nothing like the ones from Gotham. It wasn’t quiet, no—but the sounds were like hushed whispers. Even his mother was different, humming some song he had never heard her hum before.
“What is that?” he finally asked her.
She glanced down at him, as if she hadn’t noticed she’d been humming at all.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Did you make it up?”
“No,” she said, taking his hand. She swung their arms in comically large arcs and Bruce smiled as she led them out of the water. “I just can’t remember the name of it.”
It was when they were sitting on the grass, watching the creek flow through the cuts of earth, that she told him the story. When she was a little girl, her grandparents bought her a music box in the shape of a carousel with silver horses. She said it was the prettiest thing she had ever seen.
When Bruce asked to see it, she said, “It’s gone.”
To his surprise, she laughed.
“Your Uncle Phillip threw it into Gotham River. It’s probably somewhere at the bottom of the bay by now.”
Bruce felt almost offended by this news.
“Why didn’t you grab it?”
Martha dragged Bruce into her arms, squeezing tight. Instead of fighting back, he laid limp in her arms, smelling her perfume.
“The river was too deep and too strong! I would have gotten sucked in.”
“I could go get it for you,” Bruce said.
“Oh yeah?” she said, and Bruce could feel her when she talked—her chin still resting on top of his head. She was clearly amused by the statement but Bruce, too young, didn’t quite pick up her skepticism. “And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I’ll just swim in there and get it.”
Martha immediately laughed. Bruce, surrounded in her embrace, could feel the laughter rumble through her entire body into his. “That easy, huh?”
Bruce felt a little defensive, for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. “Why not? I could do it.”
The laughter picked up again for a moment longer before finally settling down. At the end of it, Bruce felt his mother squeeze around him a little tighter.
“Oh, Bruce,” she whispered fondly, her face buried in his hair. Fingers slowly wrapping around his hands. “Just stay little forever.”
Everything was cold and black. Bruce’s body felt heavy. He picked up on a distant noise. plink. plink. An echo, almost.
No, a sewer, where all things slip and fall into.
His eyes were still shut. He tried to open them. He was slowly aware of the grit and moisture surrounding his eyes. Burned him.
Not his name.
“Not my name,” he grumbled, and his lungs felt suddenly short after three words. A cough pulled from his chest. He felt water and saliva spray from his throat.
He was answered by silence.
His heavy hand groped, feelingless beneath the glove, towards his cowl. He found the button there, pressed it, the visors lifting. His vision blurred for a moment but then focused. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, the dizziness softening, long enough to focus on the blue eyes staring back at him.
“Bruce,” Dick said, his voice a sigh.
“Not my name,” Bruce said more firmly now. Voice clearing. He moved to get up, felt trickles of water running down his face. Moved to wipe it away but felt the saturation of his glove. Made it worse.
They weren't in a cavern or a sewer. They were under a different bridge. Bruce didn't recognize it at first—it was dark, the graffiti had changed, but he eventually pieced together that it was a bridge further along the river. Bruce could hear the furious turn of the waters. Nothing had changed. But this bridge, at least, was high enough to where the waters couldn't reach it.
“You were out. I was shaking you and calling you but you weren’t answering,” Dick said, voice quiet. “For a moment, I thought you might have—”
“I blacked out. I’m fine,” Bruce said.
“Of course you are,” Dick said, and Bruce couldn’t quite catch the tone in his voice. Couldn’t tell if it was just sarcasm or something more serious. Regardless, the weariness was undeniable.
Bruce ignored it. He got to his feet, everything swaying, the sloped underside of the bridge threatening to slide him into the waters.
“Stop,” Dick said, the word sharp. A hand rested on Bruce’s bicep—he felt this surge of annoyance run through him, wanting Dick to just let go, but he reeled the emotion back in. He was being unfair. Instead, he just tensed under the touch. “The current damn near swept you away. If I didn’t pull you out, you’d be in the bay by now.”
The bay. Or somewhere worse.
Bruce didn’t look at him. He could feel Dick’s emotions in his voice alone. He was angry, tired. Concerned.
“Bruce, what's going on?”
“Stop,” Dick said, voice heated. He wasn't going to deal with the lecture on identities in uniform. “You're acting weird. You almost got yourself killed and I don't even know why.”
Bruce yanked his arm away.
Bruce looked at Dick—and at first, Dick seemed ready to yell some more. But something inside of him—the boy in him, or maybe the man who had been hurt too many times—made him shrink back down. He gave up.
“Forget it,” he said quietly, gaze lowering.
Even when Bruce wins, he doesn’t.
“Why’d you do it?” Dick asked suddenly.
Bruce faltered to answer.
“I thought I…” Bruce started, voice trailing off. An image flickered in his mind.
A carousel with silver horses.
“I thought I saw someone,” Bruce said instead.
“And?” Dick pushed him.
“No one was there.”
One of the three steel beams had finally broken. The barricade was barely holding on, water pouring through the crevices into the stream that was once a city street. Bruce watched the reflections of streetlights on the rising surface, wisps of colors swirling madly.
The current was changing.
They didn’t have much time.
Blüdhaven was adjacent to Gotham.
But each side of the harbor was so great in distance that no matter which side Bruce stood on, he had no hope of seeing the other.
Bruce stood on the edge of the Atlantic, Blüdhaven lights blinking at him from the water’s reflection. The Blüdhaven shores didn’t smell like Gotham’s—it was just far enough from the smog of the city to retain the natural smell of the ocean. Blüdhaven was an angrier city than Gotham—but it wasn't all tainted.
“You didn’t have to come all the way here,” Dick said. His tone was modest enough but Bruce had caught the subtle glances Dick had sent in his direction, the ones that murmured, What’s the catch, B?
Bruce unhooked the tranquilizer gun from his belt. The thing was strong enough to take out Croc. Bruce still wasn’t sure how to feel about handing it over—even after Dick explained the situation, Bruce felt the need to intervene. To protect. To control. He allowed Dick to take it before he could change his mind.
During the exchange, Dick drew in close. Beneath the leather glove, Bruce could feel the pressure and heat of Dick’s touch. Just barely, in the most quiet of murmurs, head hung low and speaking more into Bruce’s body than to his face:
“You know you can trust me, right?”
“I do,” Bruce said at once. Too defensively.
“I’m doing just fine out here,” Dick said, lifting his chin, voice firmer now.
Sometimes Dick had to fight his way out of his insecurities. Bruce allowed him that, because if he was not the one to reassure Dick, than Dick at least deserved the chance to say it for himself.
Bruce looked at Dick for a moment.
God, how things could change. Have changed.
“I know,” Bruce reaffirmed, gentler this time.
Dick considered him for a moment, to recognize if Bruce was speaking the truth. The fire inside of him seemed to simmer, then shifted completely. He backed away a step, rubbed his neck almost sheepishly. As if he thought that he might just be the irrational one. He wasn’t.
“So why did you come down here then?”
Bruce tried to give Dick his space. After that period of tension, when Dick had to leave on his own just to escape all the arguments, and that only seemed to make the arguments worse—it was rather easy to escape Dick. It wasn’t until after Jason, after Tim, that talking became easy again. They weren’t perfect. Every now and then, old injuries would flare up, and there were unavoidable issues, such as the physical distance between Gotham and Blüdhaven. Dick’s growing independence and reputation as Nightwing, as well as Bruce’s unending difficulties, were also wedged between them.
And there were other things, too. Things that Bruce couldn’t describe, things he admittedly only suspected but couldn’t afford to learn the truth to, that kept him from getting too close.
And other things, those very same things, that still couldn’t keep him away.
Dick looked at him for a moment. Suddenly, he let out a soft chortle, turning his head.
“You haven’t—you know you could have—you didn’t have to come all the way out here.”
Bruce stayed frozen in place. Dick’s smile faded but he didn’t tear his gaze away. He didn’t turn cold.
“You know, this monster I’m chasing—he has backup—”
“I know. I trust you.”
“I know. I get why you’re here now. Only reason why I brought it up was—well, I figured maybe we could do this old school.”
Bruce paused. The hopeful ring of Dick’s voice seemed to push its way into his ears. Bruce listened to it echo again and again.
Dick knew the reason why he was there, all right.
No matter how many years passed, no matter how much of those days Bruce tried to forget, no matter who fought by his side—he could always hear Dick’s laughter. He had listened to it night after night, to the point where it was ingrained in his head, no different than the zip of a grappling line or the bark of a bullet.
He used to scold Dick for it. Keep your focus. Stay composed. A laugh can’t be disguised. In truth, Bruce felt that Dick’s laugh hurt him more than it hurt Dick. When they were in the middle of fights, Bruce couldn’t focus on the sounds of battle with all that laughing. Dick’s voice would ring over the chaos, dispel the rhythm, drowning out the noise of fists and footsteps and gun clicks.
That night, Bruce wasn’t upset. It wasn’t even that he missed Dick’s laugh, even after he realized he had—he had missed it so much. It was that he wasn’t afraid.
That even if he lost focus, he knew Dick would be right there. He’d have his back.
He needed to go back to Gotham. He needed to say goodbye.
He didn’t notice the cut on his chin until Dick wiped it away. Bruce glanced down, the blood already disappearing into the black of Dick’s glove, but he could feel the warmth prickling on his jaw as evidence.
“B,” he said, not looking at him, and much like the cut, Bruce didn’t notice Dick’s presence until he was already close. Bruce saw the furrow of his brow, the way the domino mask pulled together.
He was uncertain again.
Bruce struggled to stay silent.
He always wanted to be the one to reassure Dick. Even when he saw his opportunities and fumbled and failed to do so—he still wanted to. Wanted to tell Dick that he had nothing to be uncertain about. That Bruce understood him, that he could even accept him, that he wanted nothing more than to be by his side. But Bruce’s self-control kept him silent, kept him from floating out too far.
It was safer to stay silent.
But with that expression, the one so torn that it hurt to even watch, the same one that Bruce had seen time and time again, the one that chased after him just as persistently as the sound of laughter, the one that made Bruce fall into make-believe and what-ifs—he struggled.
“Do you remember that time a few years back? The suspect we were chasing had us tied to these chairs and the room was filling up with water…”
“Yes,” Bruce spoke, despite his better judgment.
He hadn’t thought of it much. It had been horrible. At the time, it was one of the most terrifying moments of his life—but greater, far more terrifying, things had taken its place since then. He couldn’t forget Dick almost dying, of course, but Bruce kept the memory inactive. Now that Dick brought it up, he was reliving it all over again.
He remembered Robin slack in his arms.
Bruce felt something tighten in his chest.
He needed to go back to Gotham.
He needed to say goodbye.
“That was the first time that I really—I mean, really thought I was going to die. There have been moments before that, of course. Guns pointed at me and times I got hurt. But that was the first time I ever really felt it, you know? Before then, I never really had that moment where I just thought it was over.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Bruce said, eyes turning back toward Blüdhaven. Away. “You never had to do this.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say,” Dick said, sounding startled at the implication.
Of course that wasn’t what he was trying to say.
Bruce knew that.
He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising, the loud beating of his heart.
He needed to go back to Gotham.
He needed to say—
With a heavy sigh, Dick said, “I just mean. I just wanted to say. As it was happening, I could feel my lungs going out. There was something inside of me that told me that I wasn’t going to make it—but I held on. There was this moment where I realized that I couldn’t leave you behind.”
Dick’s words were picking up in speed. He was going to say it. He was going to say everything. He was going to break down every wall that Bruce had built between them, unleash the hidden gates inside of him, and if Bruce didn’t stop this now—
His stomach dropped. The words jumped out of his mouth:
“I should go,” he cut in.
Dick seemed startled by the interruption. Whatever words had been resting on his tongue for seconds, for months, for years—whatever courage he had built up right at that very moment—were forcefully shoved back in his mouth.
Dick shook his head, his expression nearly one of disbelief.
“Come on, B, just let me finish—”he started, his voice torn.
“I have to go.”
They had a good night. They had a great night. And between all the bad nights, Bruce often wished for nights like these. Dreamt and wished to go back to simpler times, the way things used to be—but he had wised up since those days. His world was dangerous. And it wasn’t even about saving Dick because at the end of the day, he knew Dick, he knew Dick very well, and of course that wasn’t what he was trying to say—no, it was more selfish than that. It wasn’t about saving Dick, it was about saving—
“I knew that I couldn’t let myself die before you,” Dick said, voice rising and rising. Filled with an emotion that wasn’t anger but just as furiously demanded to be heard. “I knew that if I died before you, you wouldn’t be able to handle it. I didn’t want to do that to you—”
Dick always knew.
“That’s enough—”Bruce tried again.
“God, just let me finish. Just let me say it once and if you never want to hear it again—”
“I don’t even want to hear it now,” Bruce snapped.
Dick closed his mouth.
They faced each other for a moment, Dick’s jaw clenched, his eyes staring almost defiantly at Bruce. There had to have been hurt and pain but Dick summoned up the strength to stare Bruce down, to make Bruce face the audacity of his own words. A look that said, You could have at least given me this. At least.
Dick finally took a step back, his gaze breaking away.
“You really didn’t have to come out all this way,” he muttered.
It was hard to stay in Gotham.
The second beam had broken and with it, all the water that was caught in the tunnel had flooded into the bay, swallowing everything in its path. Cars were floating, streetposts were toppled, windows were broken. It extended, filled in every crevice. It consumed and consumed and consumed.
Bruce tried to look for excuses to stay. There could still be people who needed help. It was his city, his responsibility.
Excuses, that’s all they were. Everyone was packed up and heading out. There was no logic in staying. Even his survival instinct and mind was pleading, pulling him away. Still, he thought up excuses, because there was one thing that was still keeping him in Gotham.
A carousel with silver horses.
He had nearly forgotten his mother’s words. It was a story that sat somewhere, in the recesses of his mind, for years. And that simple, small glimmer underneath the bridge had woken that memory. It filled him so strongly, from the inside-out, that it defied him of all reasoning.
He needed to stay in Gotham.
He needed to go to that bridge.
He needed to go back into the water.
“Batman, it’s over. We did the best we could,” Dick said gently.
Bruce barely listened. He focused on the rhythm of the unending rain. It had been cold all night. He listened to it fall on stone and metal. Dick placed his hand on Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce turned his head slightly, just far enough from the city to catch Dick in his peripherals.
“Gordon said the numbers add up. We saved everyone from downtown,” Dick said, insistent.
Not all of them.
“It's too dangerous to be out. It's time to go home and wait for this storm to blow over. We'll wake up and then—and then we'll look again, I promise,” Dick said.
“Check in on Robin and Oracle. We can meet back at the Cave.”
Dick removed his hand. “And what about you?”
“I'm going to scan over the area once more.”
“Just let me go with you. If you really think there are still people in danger, I want to be there too.”
Dick meant it. Bruce considered telling Dick the truth—but it felt too complicated to explain. It felt almost… selfish.
He looked at Dick. Dick stared back at him, his bangs sticking to his face, rain rolling down his cheeks.
All this time, Bruce had pushed him away, but things never changed.
He never listened.
Bruce’s hand cupped around the back of Dick’s neck. He could see Dick swallow, his body still. Blue eyes, everlasting, looking up at him.
Bring him in close.
Don't push him away.
“I'll meet you at the Cave,” he said, not looking away.
The magic disappeared in Dick’s eyes, clouded by suspicion. But Dick trusted Bruce, even when he didn't. Finally, he nodded, his head lowering.
“When you need me—”
“You'll be there,” Bruce finished for him.
It occurred to him, at one point, that he had never contacted the League. That he never discovered if the causes of the disaster had been the direct cause of a villain or merely the ripple effect of something else.
For that matter, he never checked in on Gotham Harbor Road to see if that last steel beam still stood, or if it didn’t matter at all. That one had fallen and the other had fallen with it, and a beam that stood on its own meant nothing after the damage was already done.
Now that the threat to the people had been diverted, Bruce should have focused on the cause, on justice. He should have been with the League.
Since he was lucky enough to have survived, after all the pain and exhaustion, he should have went home. He should have been with his family.
But he wasn’t.
He neared the river, the current lapping at the bridge, and he set the thoughts aside.
Only one thought consumed him.
He was still weak and out of breath from the last time he entered that river. He watched the torrents, thrashing and crawling. Suddenly, those thoughts he tried so hard to push away came back to him all at once.
Then one name after another after another. Tim, was he okay? Did Barbara and James ever reunite? Did Alfred get in contact with any of them? He thought of his team, he thought of Helena and Penguin, of allies and enemies, each memory sinking into him.
He watched the waters push and push. Hours ago—how many hours had it been?—he had watch a city get levelled. And now he was going to plunge into the very force that had torn that city apart.
His heart was pounding. He felt cold.
He was afraid, he realized.
Once he went under, there would be no rope to pull him out. No lasso, no grappling gun, no hand. Nothing. And more than that, there were people waiting for him. Cities and people who demanded justice, protection. People waiting in a cold cave for him to come home.
He stared down that bridge. He breathed.
He loved them. He did.
He could be selfish. Distant.
Bruce unhooked his cape, folded it, placed it on the rooftop. He stood at the edge of the building, looking directly into the waters. He lowered the lenses of the cowl and took a deep breath.
He tried to remember.
A carousel with silver horses.
He held that memory there.
Don't let her escape.
A deep plunge into the black.
The cold was suffocating.
The waters surrounded him. Binded him.
All sound was condensed to the deep, dull thuds of the underwater realm.
He was moving, moving. Swerving through the current. He was carried by the river, dark shadows and shapes passing by him. The bridge was closing in on him. Closer and closer.
He willed his tired arms to move. He carved his way through the water, pushing himself deep. Deep. All the way to bottom.
One chance. He had one chance to grab it before he risked smacking into a wall.
Don't let her escape.
The lenses guided his way. In his glowing nearsight, he caught a glimpse of it.
He held out his hand—and snatched it.
That easy, huh?
The water swept him. He crashed into the jagged corner of broken debris that had fallen into the water. The shockwave through his body reignited all of his pain at once. Every ache, every bruise, every cut he had suffered through the night, through all the nights, came flooding back into him.
He screamed, Gotham pushing down into his lungs. His senses were lost. Nothing but fear and panic and deep, deep solitude fill his mind. It filled every part of him, dragging him deeper and deeper—
A strange thought had crossed his mind at that moment—that underwater, Dick was as light as the day they met.
His hands milled through the water.
“Why do they call it ‘dead man’s float’?”
“Because cadavers float in the water.”
He clawed desperately but it wasn't enough.
It was summer.
The tree branches had grown too long. The shadows of leaves hung over the deep end of the pool. Still, flickers of sunlight peered between the openings, filling the spaces between. The water was flecked gold, flitting in and out as the surface waved back and forth.
“You have to learn to float before you can swim.”
He sunk and sunk.
He had one hand underneath Dick’s neck, propping his head up. The other hand placed on the small of his back.
Dick breathed these long, shuddery breaths. Bruce watched his lungs work under the beaded skin, his small ribcage swelling and contracting. He was so nervous. He had nothing to be afraid of.
“I'm going to let go. And you're going to float.”
Blue eyes flickered up at him. The leaves above them shook, shadow and sun dancing over his eyes.
He nodded. Trusting.
Bruce let go.
He was pulled away.
Dick went down. He flailed his way back to the top, water jumping and crashing around him. Bruce grabbed him.
He held Dick as he coughed. Their skin stuck to each other. Dick coughed hard, hard enough that Bruce could feel it tremble through his own body.
He was lost.
“Are you alright?” he asked, after Dick had calmed down.
“I didn't float.”
Dick said nothing, his arms tightening around him. Bruce turned his head inwards. The top of Dick’s wet hair brushed against Bruce’s face.
A drop touched the corner of his lips.
Bruce lowered his gaze.
Everything blurred, then went dark.
“It’s okay,” he said again. Reassurance. “We have all summer.”
His lungs and throat burned as he coughed, water spraying past his lips.
His hands scrambled along the surface, holding on. In the back of his mind, his survival instinct kicked in. Hold on. Don't let go.
He was vaguely aware of the pressure on his back. It wasn't until Bruce heard his voice that he realized it was a hand supporting him.
Bruce felt the water roll down his face, his lenses clearing. He was holding onto some type of metal sheet—a sign. All around him, the water raged on. But he was safe, for now.
He looked up, almost thinking he was staring into his reflection, until the waving image finally came into focus.
Bruce didn't catch what Dick had said.
“What are you doing?” Bruce demanded, his voice hoarse, lungs short of breath.
“What the hell does that mean?” Dick said, bearing his teeth. “You almost drowned! Why are you here? Why didn't you just come home?”
It occurred to Bruce that Dick had followed him. Bruce could feel the rage coming off Dick—and Bruce found himself angry too. Dick, never listening to orders. Dick, never leaving matters alone.
“I didn’t ask for your help!” Bruce snapped.
“You didn’t have to!” Dick roared back, with such force that Bruce found himself silenced.
Then a moment passed. Realization dawned on Bruce, his mind finally returning to him. In horror, he noticed that his hand was empty.
“The box—”Bruce started, whipping around in the water.
“Box?” Dick asked, confused, his surprise snapping away his anger.
“The music box!” Bruce said, almost growling. “It’s a carousel—a carousel with silver horses!”
He never should have let it go.
If he had just hung on—
“Music box,” Dick said, murmuring, turning in the water. Eyes surveying. “I don’t—I don’t see it. I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
As Bruce looked, he caught something in his peripherals. His eyes travelled upward, stomach dropping.
Dick didn’t say anything. He turned and looked in the direction Bruce was staring. But it was too late—
Water on the surface was pushing on the metal beam of the sign. It tipped over—not a little at a time, all at once.
The sign upturned then slapped through the water. It fell on them all at once, dunking them both back into the river.
Bruce was sent spinning. His sense of direction tossed askew. Though his senses were overwhelmed, he managed to catch a shadow in the water, pushing towards the bottom. He immediately went in after Dick. His arm darted through the water, grabbing on.
Don't let go.
The hand wrapped around his wrist. Holding on. They both could probably break the surface on their own—but Bruce didn't want to take that chance.
The surface neared and he thought, This is good.
They were going to make it.
He gripped Dick’s wrist a little tighter.
This is good.
Don't let go.
Bruce dragged Dick to the nearest surface. He gasped for air, heard Dick’s coughing join him. Bruce released the visors from the cowl and Dick remembered to do the same.
They had reached the end. The pocket of water they occupied was cold but still, away from the river currents. They stayed in the water, just holding on, just staying afloat awhile to catch their breaths.
“You saved me,” Dick managed.
Bruce’s brow furrowed, thinking of how twisted those words were.
“No,” he said, because he had to say it. Because Dick had earned it, time and time again, and Bruce never properly told him. “You were trying to save me—and I didn't listen. We got dragged under because of me.”
Dick looked at him, still trying to catch his breath. His visors were lifted and Bruce could see his reddened eyes watching him closely.
“This whole thing—it was my fault. This stupid obsession. It just brought more pain—”Bruce stopped himself, reverting back into silence.
“Why?” Dick asked, looking at him carefully.
“I don’t know,” Bruce said.
“Liar. You always know.”
“It was just this story. My mother told me about this music box that was thrown into the Gotham river. And then that moment, when we saved that person, I saw it. It was caught in the grate. So I went back to grab it but the water had risen too high…”
Bruce trailed off, chest twisting. Dick watched him carefully.
“I'm sorry,” Bruce finally said. His brow furrowed, not sure of how to say what he felt. Not sure how to explain the guilt, the shame—or the appreciation. Dick looked at him, water drenched in his hair. For once, he was hushed. Just listening. “It wasn't right. I should have at least told you what I was doing. But I didn't want anyone to know—”
“Know what?” Dick said, a touch quieter. “That you feel?”
Bruce knew the answer. They both did.
He felt Dick’s hand brush against his underneath the water. Bruce glanced down, felt something fill his hand. Bruce lifted his hand out of the water, watched the drops trickle down his hand. He stared at the object Dick had given him.
“You must have held onto it, right until I pulled you back up,” Dick said. “It was right below us the whole time. When the sign fell, I saw it, so I dove and grabbed it.”
The silver had been tarnished by the time and elements, becoming a blackish hue. But underneath the spots, Bruce could still see the unmistakable forms of horses, packed neatly in the carousel that had been chipped of its color.
Bruce dared to turn it over, thumb wiping over the grime that had collected over the bottom. Engraved in the bottom was a long lost message, barely visible beneath the dirt and scum.
To Our Dear Martha.
Bruce's gaze tore away, glancing up at Dick. He felt his breath caught inside of his throat. He didn't know what to say.
“You would have done it for me,” Dick said, understanding. But Bruce shook his head to himself, frowning. This wasn't right.
“Gotham is flooded. All these people are in danger. All this time I wasted—”
“Bruce.” Dick’s eyes lowered. “Haven’t you done enough?”
Bruce was silenced. Dick just sighed softly.
“Let’s go home.” Voice regaining confidence, he said in his typical lighthearted way, “We've both been swimming in who-knows-what.”
The music box was sitting in his utility belt.
They were driving home. The tunnel leading from Gotham to the batcave was pitch black. After long patrols, this part of the drive usually tired Bruce. Dick sat in the seat next to him, silent, and Bruce almost wondered if he was asleep.
He used to do that a lot. Fall asleep. More nights than not, Dick would talk a million words a minute and then would fall short when they entered the tunnel. But Bruce supposed that was a long time ago.
Bruce was wide awake. His body was cold. It ached with pain and exhaustion, sleep was desperately needed, and yet he was awake and alert. His mind was racked with thoughts, with words, and he was determined to take them with him to bed, even if it meant keeping him awake.
But then he thought about everything that happened. That night and all the ones before. He thought about Dick, sitting in the seat next to him, not saying a word but his presence—the sheer fact of him being there—making Bruce feel young again.
He owed it to Dick to say something.
Face forward on the road, which was just a straight shot through the darkness, hands on the wheel, even though they were alone—Bruce spoke.
“I didn’t push you away because of my parents.”
Dick was awake. Bruce knew he was because he knew the sound of his breathing when he was asleep.
At least, he used to know.
Bruce kept talking. If not for Dick, then for himself.
“My parents are dead. Nothing is ever going to bring them back. I was never afraid of you replacing them or erasing their memory.” Bruce’s brow furrowed. Once he started to speak, the words became easier. They poured out of him, slow at first, then steadier. “You have to understand that before I met you, I grieved for a long time. For years. I don’t know how to not be this.”
“Bruce, stop,” Dick said. Bruce could hear the car seat moving under Dick, could feel his eyes on him. “Stop the car.”
Bruce didn’t at first. Then Dick’s hand was on the steering wheel, fingers overlapping with Bruce’s, and Bruce could bet that Dick would crash the car if that was the only way to keep Bruce talking. So Bruce eased off the gas, let it run until it slowed to a crawl, then stopped it.
Bruce stared forward into the abyss. They were halfway there but still so far away. Dick moved in his seat, seatbelt unwinding, moving in closer. Bruce’s hand was still on the gearshift.
“Is that all?” Dick asked. Quiet but hopeful.
Bruce said nothing. All at once, he felt like he was being swallowed. He shouldn’t have said anything. He shouldn’t have said anything at all.
“Is that the only reason why?” Dick pushed.
“You were afraid to die because of me,” Bruce said. It was what bothered him, more than anything. More than the impossibility of anything working between them. More than the impossibility of—of—
“Only because I had no other regrets. Bruce. I would never ask you to be different.” With some difficulty, Dick added, “I’d never ask for anything to be different. It’s how I know you.”
Bruce could feel his heart steadily beating faster, faster. Shouldn’t have said anything. Dick’s hands were on him, easing Bruce toward him. In the shadows, Bruce could see Dick, close and warm. He shouldn’t have said anything.
“All this pain connects us. It brought us together. I’d never ask you to change. If that’s all—”
“It’s not just that,” Bruce said quickly. He had to shoot this down fast.
“Come on,” Dick said, his voice a harsh whisper. His words were desperate, as if Bruce was slipping away.
Because he was slipping away.
Dick didn’t hold back. Bruce could feel his kiss on the corner of his lips.
“If you feel the same way—if that’s the only thing holding you back—”
“It’s not just that,” Bruce said. Harder this time.
Bruce turned away from him, starting up the car again. They moved through the tunnel, Dick resigned to his seat. Bruce faced forward, eyes on the road.
And they were back to the way things always were—Bruce tired, Dick’s words falling into silence, and the shadows of the tunnel stretching far too long.
Dick was in the manor. Bruce was still in the cave.
Bruce emptied out his utility pouches. He took the music box into his hands and looked at it.
Bruce lowered his head. Cradled in his palms, he let the top of the carousel touch the center of his forehead. He stayed there for a moment and breathed.
He remembered the name engraved on the bottom and tried to be relieved. Tried to be happy.
But he couldn't escape the truth: the music box had meant nothing to him until he saw it at the bottom of that river.
It was his mother’s music box. It had her name.
He had skipped school. They had walked through tall grass, to the creek, stood in the mud. Then she held him and she told him the story.
Then the memory had vanished for years on years, only conveniently brought up when it was out of his reach.
He tried to look at the carousel and feel something other than guilt and regret. He tried. However, despite her name on the bottom, it was Dick’s memory that had attached itself to the object.
Dick, sitting with him on the bench aside the merry-go-round.
Dick, who made the final dive and saved the music box.
It was years and years of Dick, longer than all the short years Bruce had shared with his mother and father.
I was never afraid of you replacing them or erasing their memory.
He could feel it coming in waves, stronger than he felt it in a long time. That self-hatred. And as much as he tried and tried, he couldn't stop it.
I don’t know how to not be this.
He watched the water spin around the drain. It circled and circled. Bruce kept his head bowed, the shower hitting him hard.
The last thing he wanted was more water. But compared to the storm outside, everything here felt so, so warm.
He closed his eyes. Replaying the scene in the tunnel over and over again.
Just like how he had replayed Dick’s confession in Blüdhaven over and over again.
He messed up.
He had done the right thing.
The spray of the shower was loud. Snapping him out of his vacancy, Bruce could hear the faintest sound from outside. He didn’t turn, even when he heard the click of the door. He didn’t turn, even when he heard the footsteps that drew closer, even when he recognized those footsteps.
Bruce opened his eyes.
The drain kept circling.
Dick slid open the shower door. He didn’t speak, even when he crossed the barrier of glass, even as he touched Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce turned his head, looking at him. Dick was faced against the spray of the water, crystal droplets on his eyelashes and in his hair.
Bruce said nothing, staring distantly at Dick’s body. Water hugged his body, rolled down the contours of his form. He was beautiful. But Bruce had always known that.
“I can tell when you’re lying,” Dick said. But he still looked at Bruce, as if testing him, and Bruce could sense that hidden uncertainty.
Dick couldn’t catch all of Bruce’s lies. Not always.
But he always had this way of pulling the truth from him.
Dick held his face in his hands, pulling him in.
Bruce didn’t pull back.
He could taste the touch of water on his lips. Soft, wet, warm. Dick held him as if determined to never let him go—and Bruce let himself be dragged in, bleeding into Dick’s kiss, lips moving against his. Hands reached for Dick’s body, warmth on his skin, droplets greeting his touch.
Every stroke against his skin, Dick kissed him deeper, lips moving against him, so desirous it was almost overwhelming. Hands moving up his back, his spine, burying in wet hair.
Bruce held him in place, kissed him hard, listened to him sigh with each parting of their lips. Eyes shut, he focused on Dick’s breaths, his voice. Louder, closer, than even the falling water. As if it was the only sound that was there. And it pulled at something inside of him, erased every fear, every excuse he had made up about why this was wrong.
Pulled and pulled.
Until it lured him in so deep he couldn’t focus on anything else.
Bruce’s eyes, heavy lidded, stared. He watched his own hands move across Dick’s skin, taking in every mark, every curve. Dick’s body. Young and powerful. Marked and scarred, but not nearly the same warzone as Bruce’s skin.
Bruce was hard and wanting. He could feel himself slipping deep, deeper inside. Warmth enveloped around him. His breath tight inside his chest, heart beating with life and excitement.
Even so, he felt uncertainty. His hands wrapped tighter around Dick’s hands, which were interlaced with his for balance.
In this moment, Dick was more generous, more beautiful, than he has ever been. This fact gnawed at Bruce. Dick was so deserving. Knowing this held Bruce back—and knowing that it held him back only made him more sorry.
Dick deserved a better love. Deserved to have someone love him tenderly, fully, and completely. Not like Bruce—stilted and fumbling.
Dick’s breath hitched, his sigh breaking as he lowered himself more. He was wrapped tight and hot around Bruce. Bruce’s heart was hammering against his chest—he waited and waited, his cock throbbing eagerly inside of Dick. Dick was entrancing, intoxicating. Bruce always thought so, but he didn’t allow himself to think that way.
Really, it was Dick’s voice that dragged him in. Soft hums and sighs and moans, like music.
Dick tilted his head back. Bruce stared at the curve of his neck, imagined the moan that rumbled up his throat. Dick relaxed into the mattress—Bruce flinched as his cock pushed in deep, as deep as it could go, Dick’s weight on top of him. Even so, Dick’s hands were wrapped tight, even when he didn’t need him to steady himself.
Bruce’s gaze lowered, down the muscular form to where their bodies met. His gaze fell on Dick’s flushed erection, the head glistening. Bruce was snapped out of his staring when Dick lifted himself up—then lowered. Bruce closed his eyes, briefly, less than a second. Dick’s hole was hugged around him, the shallow thrust massaging Bruce’s cock. Dick did it again, and if it hurt, it didn’t show. No, it seemed as if Dick preferred it this way. Preferred to start out slow, to feel Bruce, to explore that hot pleasure building between him.
“Bruce,” he whispered, as if testing out his name, speaking his name the way he must have wanted to speak it for years.
Dick’s hands slipped away from him. They moved across the sheets, then travelled to Bruce’s body. It was at this point where Bruce realized he didn’t want to rush anything either—body sore and aching aside, who knew if he’d regret this later when his common sense came back to him, when he realized he couldn’t—didn’t deserve—to hold onto the dream. When the scars on Dick’s body, no matter how new, started to look less like healing skin and more like symbols of Bruce’s faults. But Bruce didn’t focus on that. At least, those fears were hushed, the heated touch of Dick’s hands across his shoulders, chest, ribs, demanding his attention instead.
Bruce breathed in Dick’s fragrance, his hair still damp, his skin soft. His hands roamed up Dick’s thighs spread on either side of him, watching Dick’s body rise up in response to the touch, a shudder running through his body. Bruce’s hands wrapped around his hips and Dick let his weight fall, groaning deep and Bruce’s breath stifling as Bruce’s cock pushed in impossibly deep.
Dick ground down on him. He was hot and tight and young and beautiful. Bruce watched each alluring movement, rising and falling, expression shifting between pleasure and effort, muscles tensing and relaxing.
It felt perverse to watch. This was the image of Dick that Bruce was never supposed to see.
Rising and falling, he built up this rhythm. Bruce watched the fluidity of Dick’s body, the tension and movement of muscles beneath damp skin, as he rode him.
And they moved like that, pushing and pushing. Bruce’s eyes never moved from Dick’s, even as they fluttered shut. Heat rose to the surface of Bruce’s skin, heart beating fast, breath caught in his throat. Warmth and friction between their bodies.
Dick’s voice suddenly broke, the sound almost alarming.
He bowed forward, his face flushed dark, hair in his eyes. Bruce had never seen Dick like this before, never, but it fiercely and suddenly became the only image Bruce ever wanted to see. Hot desire shot through his body, his hips rolling up to push up into Dick deeper.
Bruce’s hands were on Dick’s hips, his grip tight. Don't let go. He groaned deep, the sound grumbling and fading into breath. He pushed up, grinding his cock deep inside, a spark of pleasure running through his body as he was consumed with heat and pressure and friction. Dick moved with him, pushing back almost desperately.
They were gaining speed, force, their bodies crashing together.
Dick’s head hung, watching their almost frantically moving bodies, before looking up at Bruce. His blue eyes glistened with an honesty, a vulnerability, that overwhelmed Bruce. Bruce let his head fall back into the pillows.
Dick laid himself over Bruce’s body. The heat of his skin seemed to slip into Bruce’s own, consuming his. Bruce’s eyes nearly closed, warmth rushing down his body and pooling into his groin. Everywhere around Bruce, there Dick was—his scent, his sound, his touch. His presence filled Bruce from the inside out.
The more Bruce bucked into him, the heavier Dick breathed into the crook of his neck. Dick nipped at his jawline, his chin, his lips finally catching his.
It caught Bruce in the midst of his gasp, and the result was breathtaking. He felt his lungs still, his entire body tighten. Dick’s weight leaned against Bruce now, anchoring him down.
Bruce felt himself sinking into the bed.
Felt pleasure wash over every inch of his body.
And he was certain that if these sheets consumed him now, he'd never have nightmares again. He'd float forever.
Hours later, the sky was still gray, and the faint rain could be heard on the windows.
“I should be out there,” he said, even while knowing Dick would reprimand him for it.
“If you go back out there now, I'll drown you myself,” Dick mumbled against his chest, sure enough.
Strangely, that sparked a sudden memory.
“That reminds me of a joke my mother used to make.”
Now Dick was awake.
“Well?” he said. Bruce shook his head once, just knowing that Dick was going to put him on the spot like this.
“How do you stop a man from drowning?”
“You take your foot off his head.”
A moment of stunned silence. Then arms wrapping around him a little tighter, a nose pressed against Bruce’s chest as he buried his face. A low laughter, suddenly building up more than the joke itself. Fuelled by exhaustion, relief after a hard night. The sound slowly filling the room.
To the point of being contagious.
Bodies embraced, he could feel Dick start to shake as he laughed, the laughter going into Bruce.
Until it filled him, completely.
With a little bit of research and experience, Bruce learned how to take apart the music box. He sat at the desk in his bedroom, slowly peeling apart the pieces. Cleaning off every tiny mechanical part.
The rust would never quite clear away and he didn't have the materials handy to properly repaint it. But the goal, at least for the moment, was to get the thing to sing again.
He could hear Dick beginning to wake behind him. Heard the movements of sheets, clothes being picked up off the ground. Bruce stayed focused, slowly reassembling the parts, having already fixed the comb and cleaning the nodules. Piece by piece until it was fastened. Until it resembled a carousel with—not necessarily silver—horses.
Bruce could hear the footsteps growing closer. Dick leaned against his desk, looking down at the box.
“You've been working on it this whole time.” It wasn't a question.
“You were supposed to be asleep.”
“So were you.”
Bruce picked up the object. Held it in his hands for a moment. His hands seemed massive in comparison. He imagined his mother as a girl, winding the box up with tiny fingers. Briefly wondered if she cried when her brother chucked the thing into the water—but then stopped, remembering his mother, and decided his uncle probably got pushed into the ground instead.
He wound up the box. And let go.
They stayed still in silence. Bruce began to think that, even after years of designing batarangs and grappling hooks, he had failed to fix it, until the horses slowly began to dip. Soft chimes filled the air as the rusted horses trudged on, the sounds moving in succession, everything moving in tandem, up and down.
It was a music box, capable of producing only a weak sound. But the silence of the room carried the music higher, allowed it its space to be heard, gentle chiming and whirs all moving together, working together, to make its song.
Until it finally stopped.
Bruce closed his eyes.
It was too short.
“Clair de Lune.”
Bruce looked over at Dick, who seemed to be deep in thought.
“You know it?”
“My mom used it in her solo act. She even had the poem printed and hanging in our trailer,” Dick said. He nodded slowly. A bit quieter, “Yeah. I know it.”
Bruce didn't know what to say. Dick reached over and gently took the music box from his hands, their fingers brushing against one another. Bruce watched as Dick wound the box, and just like that, the music started over again.
The silver horses marched on.
Dick looked down at it, smiling a little.
“Imagine that,” he murmured.