“How can we ask children to undergo torture for our safety? Americans have never been so cowardly to ask a child to die for us. We are the home of the brave, not the cowardly. We do not allow kids to enlist in any branch of the military, and we cannot continue to allow young children to face battles that we are afraid to fight ourselves,” President Katz argued.
Clark had emailed him the article before it hit the presses. Even though he had lost his job at the Daily Planet, the reporter wouldn’t have difficulty finding work as a freelancer. Clark was too unique in his ability to get exclusives with the superhero community, but his latest article would certainly rock the political world. President Katz was pushing to abolish the portion of the UN Charter that allowed for those under the age of 18 to participate in Young Justice. If that were not enough of a headache for Bruce, the article additionally announced that Superman had confirmed that Red Hood had been the second Robin, although the article reported that Jason had been kept prisoner and tortured, rather than a story of resurrection. There was only so much the public would swallow.
Bruce curled his fist in frustration. Clark had no right to announce that Red Hood was the second Robin. No, Clark hadn’t had the courage to tell Bruce that particular piece of information in person. Man of Steel, my ass. Clark was right to fear Batman’s retaliation. There were certain things the world did not need to know. He already knew that the reporter would argue that telling the truth was never wrong, but Clark was a foolish Midwesterner, who refused to realize that the world was not nearly as peaceful and trustworthy as those in Smallville. And now, Clark’s compulsive truth-telling would cause too many problems for Bruce to fix.
…and yet, there was a part of Bruce that wondered if President Katz was right. Jason never would have died if he hadn’t been Robin. Would Dick be struggling with depression if he hadn’t lived the life of a child superhero? Tim wouldn’t have limited motion in his shoulder if Bruce had kept his word and not taken another partner. Then, there was the issue of Cassandra. It was clear she had been abused. The child twisted her ankle in a sparring match but didn’t report it. When Bruce had noticed it, she shrunk away from him as if Bruce would strike her for showing weakness. His knuckles turned whiter as he tried to reign in his anger. He wanted David Cain to pay for his treatment of the child, and he would pay. Batman would make sure of it.
He released his hands. Was Batman any better though? Had he essentially done the same to Dick, Barbara, Jason, and Tim? He had trained them to be undefeatable weapons, stolen their childhoods, and forced them to face more than a child ever should have. Perhaps, Angela Katz was right. Children shouldn’t be allowed to be superheroes. Young Justice would never have been a thing if Batman hadn’t allowed Dick to be the first child hero. So much could be traced back to that one fateful decision.
Closing his laptop, Bruce stood up. Anger and guilt warred within him. He needed to pound it out on a punching bag before he ended up doing something he would regret like strapping Clark in kryptonite cuffs for a few hours…. although, the man definitely deserved that.
As he arrived in the cave, he saw Cassandra dash away from the training mats. Bruce sighed. Heaven forbid, there would be a single child in his life that followed a doctor’s orders for recovery.
“Cassandra,” he called.
Cass slowly stepped in front of him. She took one look at him before forcing her gaze to the floor and hunching in on herself. Her feet were not planted firmly. She was prepared to dart away in a second’s notice.
Bruce lowered to one knee in front of her. He kept his voice gentle and calm. “Were you exercising on your twisted ankle?”
Cass nodded once.
“I asked you not to do that because I want it to heal and not cause you pain,” said Bruce.
Cassandra looked up at him. “Angry?”
“No, I’m not angry.”
She scrutinized him for several seconds. “Angry,” she declared.
Bruce sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Not at you,” he reassured her. Bruce had no idea how a child who had known him for such a short period of time could read his emotions so clearly. “May I check your ankle?”
Moving her damaged left ankle behind her right foot, Cass told him, “Fine.”
“I’d like to check, but I won’t force you.”
“Fine,” she repeated.
“Alright,” he replied. “Would you like to watch cartoons?”
Cassandra had quickly fallen in love with the bright colors and movement of animation. Bruce had the feeling it was the first time she had ever seen anything like it. Bruce was grateful that the manor still had a large collection of cartoons from Dick’s childhood. Well, considering that Dick’s favorite movies and shows were all still cartoons, it probably was not fair to say they were from his childhood. Bruce’s fleeting hope that Dick would someday outgrow his preferences had waned considerably over the years. Yet, if he could just hear his son cackle again, he would never make a diminutive remark about cartoons ever again.
Cass nodded, and Bruce set up the system in the girl’s makeshift bedroom in the Cave. After a significant amount of research, Bruce no longer believed Cassandra was a potential threat, but the child refused to leave the Batcave. He had tried to force the matter, and then she had disappeared into the caverns for two days. No matter how often he promised that Wayne Manor was a small fortress, she refused to trust the upstairs as safe. When Batman encountered David Cain, he would make him regret harming this precious child.
Once Cassandra was set up, Bruce went to a punching bag. He double checked his ankle boot, grateful he was no longer on crutches, even if Alfred argued that he should still be resting the joint. It wasn’t like he was kick-boxing. His warring emotions and fears fueled his grueling workout. He pounded every question he had about his choices into that the bag until his mind quieted into the semblance of peace.
A few hours after his workout, Bruce was rereading Clark’s article with a clearer mind -he couldn’t afford to miss a single detail that was released to the public – when he heard the front door slam. Dick. He had been expecting this. He knew Dick would be here in an angry huff ever since Bruce had interfered with his college schedule. Bruce was prepared for this. He would not rise to his son’s anger, nor would he allow Dick to pick a fight. He would be calm and rational; both emotions much more likely to occur now that he had worked out his anger issues on a punching bag. Dick hadn’t even had the decency to tell Bruce his plans to his face. He left a note on the Batcomputer that simply read: I’m going back to the Bludhaven Police Academy. Alfred agrees. A quick conversation with Alfred had informed Bruce of the terms of the agreement, and Bruce altered their deal slightly.
Bruce heard Dick’s racing footsteps ascend the stairs. The boy was running and skipping steps. He always moved quickly in his anger and was more susceptible to sloppy mistakes. Dick slammed opened the door to his study; Bruce didn’t flinch. Dick slowed his walk to a righteous stomp and threw the paper on Bruce’s desk.
“What the hell is this?”
Bruce flicked his eyes at the paper. “It appears to be a college schedule.”
“Don’t be cute with me, Bruce,” Dick growled. “What the hell is this?”
Bruce leaned back in his chair and stared at his son. The boy was practically shaking with his rage. He knew Dick would be angry, but he hadn’t expected his son to be livid. Resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, he steepled his fingers before responding.
“Alfred informed me of your deal. I altered it slightly. You will be taking a full course load this semester.” He kept his voice steady. He would not rise to his son’s anger.
“What give you the right? Nevermind. Don’t answer that,” Dick raged, throwing his arms in various directions. He’s coordination and control also decreased when he was emotional. “Just because you’re Batman, doesn’t give you the right to control my life.”
“This has nothing to do with the masks, Dick, nor is this about my need to control,” Bruce started.
“If you would allow me to finish,” Bruce said, voice still neutral. Dick floundered for a moment. Bruce didn’t blame him. Since Dick was 15, their arguments had always followed a script, and Bruce was off-script. Dick scowled but waited.
“Someday, I will die.” Dick visibly tensed, and his expression wavered. “There’s nothing wrong,” he reassured his son. “It is a fact of life. I will die. Whether you like it or not, my company will be left to you. You will be responsible for running the company. The board will drag up every conceivable and inconceivable way to force you out, and they will never allow a college dropout to be CEO.”
“Great!” Dick yelled. “I never wanted to be CEO.”
Bruce pursed his lips and refused to let his own anger and disappointment show. He wanted his company passed down to his sons. Jason, as a legal nonentity, was no longer eligible for it – not that he ever wanted it in the first place, and Dick found business the exact opposite of his life goals.
“How exactly do you plan on funding Nightwing or your team on a police officer’s salary?”
“My trust fund –”
“Will eventually run out. The League, your team, and all our nightly activities depend on the funding Wayne Enterprises provides. Losing the company isn’t an option.”
Dick collapsed in the chair he so often used to study in when he was a child. “So it doesn’t matter what I want.”
“On the contrary, I doubt you looked at the schedule, but all of the classes meet after the hours of the police academy. Additionally, I checked the syllabi for each course. None of the professors check attendance, and there’s only a midterm and a final for each class. The courses are material you are familiar with and will require little to no work on your part,” Bruce explained.
His son didn’t speak for several moments. He folded in on himself and grumbled something Bruce didn’t hear. Apparently, they were at the sulking stage of Dick’s anger, but his eldest hadn’t stormed off, so Bruce counted it as a win. Alfred told him if he explained his reasoning to Dick he would be far more willing to listen. Bruce had an unfortunate habit of assuming people understood why he did things, and while Dick understood him far better than most, he still was quick to lash out against anything that he felt treated him like a child.
“I’m not giving up the police force,” Dick said sulkily.
“I didn’t ask you to.”
Sitting up rather quickly, Dick turned to face him. “Why are you being so chill about this? You hate guns. You realize I’ll be carrying one.”
If that wasn’t Dick’s blatant attempt to poke the bear, Batman was a unicorn. The only good consequence from his son’s note was that it allowed Bruce to consider his options regarding his son’s career source. For reasons Bruce didn’t understand Dick wanted to be a police officer, and it killed a part of Bruce that his child would be handling a gun every day – but if the choice was between Dick using a gun, and Dick killing himself, Bruce picked the gun every time. Maybe, it wasn’t that simple, yet the academy was something Dick wanted. He needed his son to want things again.
“I would have thought you would have been grateful for my decision to support your career.”
Dick studied him, clearly looking for a lie.
“The gun, of course, won’t be allowed on the premises.”
Dick’s scowl returned, but he didn’t say anything.
There was a small, selfish part of Bruce that wanted to show Dick the article he was reading. He craved explaining to Dick the consequences of his actions regarding the Kryptonite, but a larger part of him that woke up to nightmares of Dick’s death by suicide demanded he protect his son. Dick would blame himself for all that was happening, and Bruce couldn’t afford for his son to lose himself to his guilt.
Unsure how to continue the conversation, Bruce returned to his computer. Dick sat slouched in the chair. When his son didn’t move or speak for more than twenty minutes, Bruce restarted the conversation.
“Was there something else?”
“Huh?” Dick replied, turning his gaze towards his father. “No, why?’
“You haven’t moved in twenty minutes.”
“Oh. Um. Just thinking.”
“Hmmm.” Bruce returned to the article, and Dick didn’t say anything for the entire hour he sat in that chair. A growing part of the billionaire was concerned, but he didn’t comment on it, and Dick eventually returned home.
Sunday dinner was an awkward affair. Brucie Wayne had entertained thousands of people with charm and ease but sitting at his dinner table with his Robins was quickly proving to be one of the hardest feats of his life. Jason sat on the far end of the table, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. He focused on his food and ate it methodically. There was definitely something wrong with the boy, but Bruce had no idea how to wade into those waters without risking Jason’s temper. Dick sat on his right, and he ate without comment, which was a slight improvement from not eating – but only slight. Tim was on his left. He was mindlessly twirling the angel hair noodles on his plate into a gigantic ball on his fork. Alfred would be appalled. Of course, he would have to be here to be aghast at Timothy’s poor manners. Alfred was supposed to be here. This meal was his plan, but Mrs. Cummings from his church had called him, frantic. Her husband had fallen off a ladder, and she was too shaken to drive him to the hospital, nor did she think the situation required an ambulance.
Desperate to abate the uncharacteristic silence, Bruce asked, “How is school, Tim?”
Tim’s shoulder stiffened minutely. It wasn’t a full flinch, but it was enough to raise the billionaire’s suspicions. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dick straighten and focus on Tim.
“Fine,” Tim replied to his plate.
That was most assuredly a lie. This was at least familiar ground to the billionaire turned vigilante. He knew how to ferret out the truth.
“How are your classes?”
“Fine,” Tim repeated.
“What are you learning?” Bruce pressed.
His partner sighed. “Stuff.”
Bruce’s eyebrows rose. Yes, Timothy was a teenager, and Bruce was no stranger to teenage boys, but this teenager had never spoken so sullenly about school.
“Who’s your favorite teacher this year?”
Dick entered the conversation with a query of his own. “When did he move up to high school?”
“Um…” Tim panicked. “This year?”
Something was wrong. A glint of light shifted Bruce’s attention to Dick who was tapping away at his cell phone.
“Dick, no electronics at the table.” That had been an Alfred imposed rule ever since Dick had joined their household. Dick ignored him.
“Tim,” Dick began, still staring at his screen. “Why can’t I find a record of your registration for this year at Gotham Academy?”
Defeated, Tim heaved a large sigh. “Because I’m not registered at Gotham Academy. My parents registered me for a boarding school in London.”
There was a brief pause as that piece of information sunk in.
“Why?” Bruce asked.
Tim froze, clearly reluctant to answer the question.
“My parents won’t be returning until January of next year,” Tim told his plate.
“I see.” Bruce’s grip on his fork tightened. The boy’s parents didn’t deserve him. They constantly threw him away with yesterday’s garbage. He reigned in his temper, refusing to comment about the absolute neglect. Tim was still staring at his plate, and Dick looked torn between wanting to pummel the Drakes and wrapping Tim in hugs.
“I’m sorry,” Jason interjected, anger clear on his face. “Did you just say your parents have decided to leave you for four months? When the hell does this boarding school start anyway?”
“It’s fine,” Tim argued. “I’ve been left this long before.”
The comment had the opposite effect of what Tim had probably been hoping. Jason erupted, “It’s not fine. How old are you anyway, replacement? 12?”
“I’m fourteen,” Tim hissed.
Jason chose to ignore him. “Who do your parents think they are?”
“They’re busy!” Tim defended.
“Oh, please. You know who’s busy? Mister Tall, Dark, and Brooding over there.” Jason flung a hand towards Bruce as he glared at Tim. “And he still managed to be a part of my life as a kid. And you.” Jason’s ire turned to his father. “Why the hell haven’t you filed a claim with CPS yet?”
Tim stood up in anger. “I don’t want him to. I’m not being neglected,” the boy argued. “At least my mother isn’t a crack addict.”
Jason charged Tim as soon as the words were out of his mouth. However, since he had chosen to sit so far away, there was plenty of time for Bruce and Dick to interfere. With practiced ease from long hours as partners, Bruce and Dick responded quickly. Dick stood up and grabbed Jason’s shoulders forcing the younger man to stop and look at him. Bruce grabbed Timothy and steered him out of the dining room. His eldest had a far better chance of talking Jason out of his anger than Bruce did. Besides, Bruce needed more information.
“Sit,” Bruce commanded as soon as they entered one of the main sitting rooms.
Tim crossed his arms and sulked on the couch. And here, Bruce was hoping he would skip this part of adolescence with his current partner.
“Insulting Jason’s mother was wrong.”
Tim refused to reply.
“When does your boarding school start?”
“It already did,” murmured Tim.
“Then why are you still in Gotham?”
Tim whispered something Bruce couldn’t hear. Bruce leveled him with an unimpressed stare until the teenager spoke louder. “They think I have a terrible case of mono, and I need rest at home.”
Bruce sighed. He knew where Tim got a forged doctor’s note for mononucleosis. It would not have been difficult to change Dick Grayson to Timothy Drake on the form Bruce had used to force Dick to take a break from the Bludhaven Police Academy.
“And how long has the doctor ordered you to rest?”
Even for mononucleosis, that was an extended period of time. “And where do your parents think you are?”
“Linkwood Prep,” Tim replied. “But in my defense, they’re out of contact for the next four weeks. Mom will be heartbroken when she finds out I was so sick while they were away.”
Nevermind that responsible parents didn’t just leave their children for a month with no way to contact them.
“I will let this pass, provided that you live in the manor for your six weeks of prescribed rest and study your course material. Then you will go to Linkwood.”
Tim nodded sullenly.
“And you will apologize to Jason.”
Bruce held back a sigh. Why did he keep bringing teenage boys into his home? The pair returned to the dining room where Dick leaned deceptively calmly against the wall feet away from where Jason had perched next to the dining room table.
“Sorry,” Tim mumbled as soon as he entered the room.
“Forget it, replacement. Dick explained a few things to me,” Jason told him, surprising Bruce and Tim. Jason scrutinized Tim, who was staring at Dick.
Dick smiled brightly and pushed himself off the wall. “Well, this has certainly been fun. Same time next week?” He said with false cheer. “And Timmy, let’s do ice cream this Thursday.”
“I have Young –”
“I already checked with Babs. You are not scheduled for any training or missions that day, and since we all know you don’t have any school obligations, I’ll see you Thursday,” Dick told him.
Tim folded. “Of course.”
“Great!” Dick clapped his hands together loudly. “Well, I think it’s time Jason and I headed out.”
“Can we leave your fake ass cheer here?” Jason grumbled.
Dick ignored him as he headed to the garage. Jason followed shortly after but not before telling Tim that he would keep an eye on him from now on. Bruce wasn’t entirely sure he understood half of the subtext of that conversation but decided to pursue it later.
Timothy threw himself on his chair. “Your sons are worse than you,” he grumbled and dug into the remaining pasta on his plate.
Bruce wondered what that was about yet decided to let it slide. Both Jason and Dick had eaten their portions. Tim was eating his. Nobody was killed or injured, and none of the furniture was damaged. As far as Bruce was concerned, the first Sunday dinner was a success.
He sat down and finished his own meal as Tim mumbled about overprotective hypocritical former Robins. Later, he would take a plate of food down to Cass, and he would sit with her as she ate silently. He should have brought more teenage girls into his home.
The evening following the first family dinner Dr. Waqud arrived at Wayne Manor. Bruce wasn’t surprised that she agreed to come. His extensive background check on Dr. Waqud revealed that the psychologist was fundamentally curious and a fan of the Justice League. He knew the woman would bite, and most importantly, her long list of high profile patients proved she had the ability to keep a secret. Not only had she passed on his background check on her character, the woman had extensive research how events in childhood that caused PTSD affected adults. She was pushing constantly for counseling services provided to Syrian refugees, which was mostly denied due to already stretched thin resources. The nonprofit she hoped to create would provide counselors for those children and some adults. It was a worthwhile effort that Bruce did not have a problem funding, especially if the result would help his sons.
Currently Dr. Waqud sat in a high-backed chair across from Bruce’s desk. The dark-skinned middle-eastern woman wore a short-sleeved white dress patterned with orange circles outline in black with orange pumps and hijab that featured the colors of a sunset. Bruce found the whole outfit garish and unnecessary bright. It reminded him of some of Dick’s less fortunate clothing choices.
“If I won’t be working for the JL, who will I be working for?” She asked, keeping her legs crossed and trying to appear casual, but Bruce saw the way she spun the black bracelets on her right hand.
She blinked. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Bruce stood and turned to the clock behind his desk. “Perhaps it would be easier if I showed you.”
The clock swung open, but Dr. Waqud did not respond how Bruce expected. She stood up and had her hand on the doorknob, prepared to leave. Her eyes widened slightly in fear that she careful tried to mask. The woman had lived in Gotham too long to allow fear to show true terror. Her right hand clutched what was undoubtedly a phone in her pocket.
“Mr. Wayne, I’m going to give you one minute to explain, but I want you to know that my thumb is hovering over the send button on a 911 call. If you take one step towards me, I will dial,” she explained with a voice only vaguely pitched in fright.
Bruce had no idea what had frightened the woman so badly, but he closed the clock. “I apologize. I hadn’t met to frighten you. I’m merely trying to explain.”
“I’m pretty sure an explanation doesn’t require a trip down a poorly lit staircase that probably leads to a torture chamber. I’m not interested in becoming the next woman who disappears without a trace,” she told him. After cracking the door, her left hand had wrapped around a small cylinder. Pepper spray? He guessed.
Belatedly, he realized that inviting a woman into his home and requiring that she not tell anyone where she was going and then trying to lure her down into his basement probably seemed absolutely incriminating. Dick would be laughing at him if he were here. This is what you get for your dramatic entrances.
He released a sigh and sat back in his chair. He spread both hands out in a non-threatening gesture than rested them on the desk in clear view. Dr. Waqud loosened her hold on the pepper spray but stayed perched by the door.
“I’m Batman,” he stated.
The psychologist’s stance loosened if only to reset to shock. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m Batman,” Bruce repeated. “I was trying to take you to the Batcave.”
“You’re Batman?” She echoed, clearly in disbelief.
Dr. Waqud blinked. “You believe you’re Batman.”
At least, this proved that Brucie wasn’t in danger of giving his secret away. “I don’t believe anything. I am Batman.”
“Okay.” Her voice took on that familiar psychologist tone of I-don’t-believe-you-but-I’ll-humor-you that Bruce hated. “Let’s say I believe you. Why am I here?”
“My son, Nightwing, suffers from depression,” he stated.
She relaxed her grab on her cell phone and turned closer to him. “Your son? Richard Grayson? He’s Nightwing.”
“And he has depression,” she repeated.
“Mr. Wayne, I appreciate that you want my help, but I don’t think I’m qualified to help with…this.” This undoubtedly met his perceived delusions.
Bruce bit back a sigh. This would not be a problem if he could have just shown her the Batcave. In the blink of an eye, Bruce reached into the secret compartment of his desk and brought out the knife he kept there. He threw it so that the blade landed next to the light switch. Dr. Waqud stared at the blade. Bruce pulled out another knife.
“I can hit any point you ask,” he stated.
She stared at him in amazement. “Allah forbid, you’re Batman.”
Dr. Waqud pulled the knife from the wall. “And your son was the original Robin and is now Nightwing?”
Bruce nodded again, pleased to have finally gotten through to her.
“Allah forbid, Jason was the second Robin.” Best not to bring up that Jason had been resurrected.
“As I mentioned early, Dick struggles with depression. I needed a psychologist I could trust who understood the reality of childhood PTSD and could keep a secret,” Bruce explained.
Dr. Waqud sat back down in the high-backed chair. “I’m going to be a Batman’s psychologist,” she whispered.
“No,” Bruce immediately clarified. “I’m not in need of a therapist.” Dr. Waqud looked unimpressed. “You would be Nightwing’s therapist.”
The woman took a deep breath. “Okay, when do we start?”