Dick was leaning against the kitchen island as he chatted to Bruce and Alfred, though to be honest, if the younger man had started talking only to Alfred Bruce wouldn’t have known the difference; he’d all but disappeared from the conversation already. He had been increasingly filled with a sense of now-or-never urgency which, rather inconveniently, left him feeling paralyzed as he tried to think of how best to articulate his thoughts. As he struggled, still, with the fear of expressing this desperate want that filled him. Dick had only dropped by to deliver some things that Alfred hadn’t been able to purchase while conducting the usual grocery shopping before heading off to other plans. Now he was clapping a hand on Alfred’s shoulder and starting his goodbyes and Bruce was going to miss his chance. Again. He stood quickly.
“I need to speak with you.” That was way too abrupt. Dick looked startled for a moment before his expression shifted to something between apprehension and irritation. As if he weren’t sure whether Bruce was going to give him bad news or a lecture. Damn it. He tried to think of how to smooth it over but Dick was already nodding.
“Study? Or downstairs?”
Alfred looked over and raised an eyebrow, somehow looking both vaguely resigned and encouraging. He knew what was coming. Or rather, what would be coming if Bruce didn’t manage to screw it up again. They’d discussed it several times over the years and Alfred had always been optimistic about it. ‘Just tell the boy how you feel.’ was surely much easier to say than to do. Bruce could remember dozens of times coming home from patrol where he thought he might bring it up, but couldn’t find an appropriate introduction before they arrived back at the cave. Countless days where Dick informed him of Parents’ Nights at school and Bruce wondered if Dick might like for him to take a more official capacity, but wondered if he should wait to ask. Night after night of opening Dick’s door to check on him as he slept where the dark allowed him the hope that Dick might say yes, while at the same time seemed to reinforce how much of a fantasy it was. On his worst days, he wondered if it didn’t have some part to play in Dick’s quest for independence; if Dick hadn’t somehow guessed at his cowardice, and been embarrassed by it.
“Study.” This didn’t have anything to do with their night lives so going to the cave was unnecessary. He didn’t have a problem in principle with staying where they were for this conversation, but the implied privacy of the study might be conducive, even though the only other person in the manor at the moment was Alfred given that Cass was over at the Clocktower training with Babs and Tim was out with Young Justice allegedly on an approved mission and listening to Red Tornado. More hopefully, the walk to another room might give him the opportunity to get his thoughts in order. This is something that he has been consistently able to organize his thoughts around whenever he tried to gather his wits in advance, but quite frustratingly, he has not once been able to do so when face to face with Dick. With his son in all but legal terms. Unfortunate given that that was the crux of this matter.
Bruce waved Dick in ahead of him and closed the door. Dick walked over to the couch but then remained standing when Bruce didn’t move to sit. The walk hadn’t helped at all. How to start? ‘I asked to be your guardian because I didn’t think you would want to be my son?’ or ‘I’m so proud of everything you do?’ or possibly ‘I’ve loved you since I first took you home, even when I didn’t know exactly what those feelings or those words meant?’ How much was too much? What was too presumptuous? What if Dick didn’t feel the same? Better to say nothing, to lose nothing, than gamble with what they already had. No, that’s how they ended up here. Bruce shook his head slightly and tried to clear it.
He’d taken too long again. His thoughts were still too scattered. Why was this so damn hard? “I need to talk to you.”
Dick tilted his head and spread his arms a little, giving a small nervous smile, “Yeah, you said. What’s up?”
“I want to…This is something that matters to me a great deal. Something that I should have addressed a long time ago. That I wanted to bring up but didn’t know how. And I was…” ...scared.
Bruce sighed and rubbed his brow. This was going so horribly. He heard movement and looked up as Dick sat down. Bruce hesitated but walked over to sit by him. He took a moment to soak in the closeness and tried not to think of worst case scenarios. Of earnest intent taken as insult, or of finding out that he’d simply waited too long.
“It is a significant matter, and I know that it might seem like it is coming out of nowhere. Or that it is a subject which should have been broached far sooner. Or both.”
Perhaps he should have tried to write something down and memorize it beforehand so that he could recite it now in person. Bruce pressed his lips together as he tried to formulate something that didn’t sound like either a business offer or some sort of perverse proposal. His repeated lapses into silence seemed to do anything but assuage Dick’s concerns, though he did look thoughtful. “Maybe if you try just saying it in the dumbest way.”
Bruce blinked. “What?”
Dick gave an awkward shrug. “It’s something Donna and I used to do when we wanted to talk about something that we had no idea how to talk about. It’s not about making light of it. Just say it knowing that it won’t be perfect, so that we can have a starting point. However you say it, I promise not to get mad, or to laugh.”
Bruce opened and closed his mouth. Dick looked like he might try to explain further but Bruce cut him off when he nearly blurted, “Some people have two dads.”
Bruce grimaced immediately and Dick froze. A beat of silence before, “Are you coming out to me right now?”
“No.” He said, “That is not what’s happening right now.”
Dick’s eyes grew mischievous, “Is this about you and Uncle Clark?”
Bruce’s eyes widened. What? “No, it’s not.”
“Because I’ll have you know that Clark -”
“Stop saying his name. He’ll listen in.”
Dick snorted, “He’s not Voldemort, Bruce.”
“No, he’s more annoying.”
Dick snickered and Bruce was grateful, despite Dick’s promise not to laugh. The tension in the room had eased considerably. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes again, Bruce found himself able to go forward. “This is about you, actually. And me. You know that I never wanted to replace you parents, Dick. But I do want, or I was hoping that you might also want me to be your parent. Legally speaking. Not instead of them, but additionally.”
Dick didn’t move, barely breathed. Bruce swallowed hard, “I should have said as much sooner. I should have let you know that adoption was on the table. But I didn’t want to push you on this. At first, when you weren’t looking for another father, and I didn’t know how to be one. Not that I didn’t make so many avoidable mistakes since then. And when you were older and fighting for your independence, I didn’t want you to think that it was some kind of manipulation to keep you with me. Or maybe those were always excuses. But then with Jason. After Jason...I’m sorry for that, Dick. I’m so sorry.”
Dick cleared his throat. “What happened to Jason wasn’t your fault, Bruce. You did everything you could.”
Bruce shook his head and let his naked shame show on his face. “Not about what happened to Jason. After his funeral. In the cave. What I said to you.”
Dick looked stricken but Bruce made himself go on. “I was cruel to you. On purpose. There’s nothing I can say or do to change it. But I’m so ashamed of what I said. Of how I left you there. And I probably always will be.”
The silence but for the ticking of the clock seemed to hold the room in a vice. It seemed both momentary and as if an eternity had passed before he could hear Dick breathe again.
“Why? Why did you say all of those things to me?”
Bruce looked down at his hands, gripping his knees tightly. “When Jason died, I couldn’t handle it. Any part of it. I couldn’t handle his body or the arrangements. I couldn’t handle telling you or anyone else, couldn’t even handle knowing that Alfred was telling people. Knowing that other people knew. Knowing that I couldn’t stop it from being real. Alfred handled pretty much everything. Anything he put to me, I just…” Bruce struggled hard then, never having actually said the rest of it out loud before, “I said it because I wanted you to be angry with me. I wanted to hurt you enough to chase you away. I wanted you to leave, like I wanted everyone to leave. I said it because I thought that if I drove you away, it might not affect you if I...wasn’t here anymore.”
A hand grasped his wrist and Dick leaned forward to lay his forehead against Bruce’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...this wasn’t supposed to be bad.”
Dick pressed his head harder into his shoulder. “Don’t you ever not tell me shit like that again. I’m sorry I didn’t realise.”
Bruce brought his hand around to rest on the back of Dick’s head. “It wasn’t your fault. And that’s not why I said it. I just wanted you to know that I regret hurting you, and that I regretted it at the time. After, even when things got...better...I couldn’t imagine having the right to ask this of you, but I never stopped wanting it.”
Dick tightened the hand around his wrist and brought his free hand around to fist in the back of his shirt. Bruce twisted to rest his head against Dick’s. “You don’t have to. Nothing has to change. I’ll love you the same.”
Dick made a choked noise. Bruce could feel a slight dampness growing in the fabric of his shoulder and he felt a matching wetness on his own face. He took a shuddering breath and whispered, “Please. Please be my son.”
Then his breath caught and he worried that he’d misspoken. That he’d implied that he hadn’t already been claimed by Dick with the whole of his being. But then Dick released his wrist to grab him in a proper hug, saying, “I am, I am. I will. Yes, I want you to adopt me.”
They held each other tightly for a long moment until Dick pulled back, his eyes on Bruce’s chin before he took a shuddering breath and met Bruce’s gaze. “If we’re owning up to old grievances, though, I want to say that I’m sorry for all those times I got mad and told you that you weren’t omniscient and then refused to believe you when I was proven right. I’m sorry for when I told you to let me see your faults and then got mad at you for them when you did. I’m sorry for the times I wanted you to believe in me and then didn’t believe in you.”
It had been a long time since Bruce had felt so utterly cracked open. He stared back at Dick, not knowing how to respond.
Dick’s brow furrowed and another tear slipped down his cheek. “I know I’ve hurt you too.”
Bruce’s response, when he managed it, slipped out painfully but clean, like a knife from a wound, “Yes.”
Dick squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry.”
Bruce reached out as the younger man bowed his head and pulled him forward, pressing his lips to his son’s forehead. “It’s okay. You’re alright. Always. I love you so much.”
The heaviness of their conversation still lingered in the air, though it ebbed with every passing second and Bruce found himself feeling lighter as all the accumulated fear and worry and old hurt had sloughed off his shoulders. He moved to rest his chin on Dick’s shoulder. “I’m sorry that I’ve made you feel that you had to live up to such high standards. I didn’t understand the pressure you felt.”
Dick sighed. “I’m sorry that I kept pledging myself so fully to so many different obligations and then got mad at you for not letting me run myself ragged over trying to meet them all.”
Bruce smiled. “I’m sorry that I told the Commissioner that you had a crush on Barbara before you asked her out. I was trying to smooth the way for you.”
Dick squawked, then huffed a breath. “I’m sorry that I convinced Tim that you were a secret ABBA fan. And that he keeps buying you their merchandise to support you.”
Bruce snorted. “I’m sorry that they’re starting to grow on me.”
Dick snickered. “I’m sorry that I used to pilfer your expensive scotch and sneak to the gardens to secretly smoke cigarettes.”
Bruce turned his head to look at Dick out of the corner of his eye. The younger man blushed lightly, “If it helps, I stopped after Alfred caught me. He was pissed. I was on his shit list for months, I swear.”
Bruce studied him for a moment, “I’m sorry that I told Alfred that you stole my scotch and smoked cigarettes in the garden.”
Dick’s mouth dropped open. “You liar.”
Bruce smirked and Dick pulled away, fighting his own grin.
“Are you serious?”
Bruce straightened and casually ran a hand over the front of his shirt, smoothing out the wrinkles. “Well, not in so many words. There were those few weeks when we held quite a few events at the manor and every once in a while I would simply mention that I was sure that someone was lifting the alcohol and that I’d found some cigarette butts in the garden. I knew it had to be addressed, but I didn’t know if I could do so and still keep a straight face. So I didn’t.”
Dick still looked halfway incredulous, “You couldn’t have just told me you’d found me out?”
Bruce gave a small shrug. “I was going to, but you seemed so proud of yourself.”
Dick laughed. “You’re unbelievable. You seriously need to learn to talk to people.”
“Consistency is key, Dick.”
They sat for a moment more before Dick shook himself and stood up. “The answer’s yes, Bruce. I want to be your legal son. But this is too big for me right now. I have to move, to process this. I’ll be back later today though. I’ll patrol with you and Tim tonight.”
He strode over to the door, but turned back when Bruce called out to him.
“The next time we…” Bruce was back to fumbling his thoughts, “If we get into another fight. I don’t want you to think that your place here is conditional. No matter how angry you or I might be at the other, I never want you to feel like you can’t come here. Like you can’t come home. Even if we don’t speak. Even if you don’t want to see me, you’re always welcome here.”
Dick’s face grew serious, though it never lost it’s light. “Same to you. I know that when I’m pissed at you, I have a habit of saying that I don’t want you to talk to me again and that I want you to leave me alone. And I know that you have a hard time distinguishing those times from genuine boundaries. But it’s not true. I just need time, sometimes. If I say that, I need you to still come find me. Maybe just...give me a week. If I say something like that, give me a week to calm down and then if I don’t come back on my own, come find me. Okay?”
“Alright. That makes sense.” Bruce’s throat grew tight. “I am proud of you, Dick. I’m always so proud of you.”
Dick’s eyes closed briefly, and then he crossed the room again to gather Bruce into another hug. “I’m proud of you, too, Bruce. I’m proud that you’re my dad. And I’m proud to be your son.”
Bruce tightened his embrace. “I miss you when you’re gone. After you left and after I’d chased you away. I know it was my fault, but I missed you when you weren’t here.”
Dick gripped him fiercely. “I love you, old man. I missed you too.”
Dick kissed his ear and pulled away. “I’ll see you later tonight.”
Bruce nodded and watched him walk away. He sagged briefly when the door closed again, the relief and happiness leaving him with a dizzy, heady feeling and he laughed quietly to himself. He walked over to the desk and pulled out the folder that had held the adoption papers for so long. As if following his thoughts, his phone buzzed with a message from Dick, “When do you want to sign?”
He typed one handed, “Today?”
He put the folder down as his phone buzzed again. Not from Dick. He tried to scowl when he saw the name but couldn’t quite manage it. He’d told Dick he’d listen in.
“Fuck off Clark.” But he knew the Kryptonian would hear the amusement in his voice. Then, “On the other hand, we’re going to need two witnesses, so if you want to accompany Alfred…”
He didn’t even get to finish his sentence before the sudden breeze in the room told him without looking up that Clark had arrived.
“Before you say anything, I wasn’t actually listening in. I heard my name a few times, and your heart kept going crazy. I just kept checking to make sure you weren’t dying.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow as he finally looked over at his friend. “We’re not signing anything until later. Aren’t you supposed to be at work right now?”
“I’m on lunch.”
“It’s ten thirty in the morning.”
“I had to go to the bathroom.”
Bruce’s mouth wanted to grin, but he forced it into a smaller smile. Clark saw through him anyway. He ran his fingers over the papers in front of him. He wanted to show everyone. He wanted to show anyone.
Bruce looked up. “Thank you.”
To Clark, now. But also to Dick. To Alfred. To Tim. To Cassandra. To everyone who held his heart and treated it like it mattered more than he thought it did.
He walked over and clapped his hand on Clark’s back. “Come on. Lets go tell Alfred the good news and then we can head down to the cave and find you an excuse to be away from work.”
Clark laughed. “Where were you when I was in high school?”