Dick Grayson has heard his soul-words spoken hundreds of times.
“Are you alright?” asked the lion tamer after almost knocking the four-year old child off the pommel horse.
“Are you alright?” his mother said quietly, the day after Dick had been chased after local bullies who called him horrible names.
“Are you alright?” One of the strongmen asked before Dick’s first performance with his parents in Gotham city of all places. “It’s normal to be nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” Dick had replied with one of his stunning grins. “I’m excited.”
“Are you alright?” dozens of friends family strangers asked as they pulled him from his parents’ broken bodies.
By the time the funeral rolled around, Dick had started to hate his soul-words. Every time he heard them he thought of his parents: his beautiful mother and handsome father, joking that his soulmate would probably crash right into him like in a rom-com. It’s a common enough phrase that they’d even suggested Dick come up with a signature reply just in case the poor girl’s confused.
“Just feeling the aster,” Dick had tried. “No problemo, Bob-o!”
He’d alternated between increasingly ridiculous replies every time someone said his soul-words. It was like a game.
Until it wasn’t.
“I’m fine,” Dick repeated for the hundredth time, small tux stiff against his body as he stared ahead at the hole in the ground. “I’m fine.”
“Are you alright?” a deep baritone asked from beside him. Dick’s words felt like they were burning. He opened his mouth to say I’m fine until he caught a look at the man. Dark hair, strong jaw, and piercing blue eyes. He gazed solemnly down at Dick, and suddenly he felt his throat closing up.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne.” Dick said quietly, instead, turning back to watch the funeral helpers carryings his parents’ caskets.
Bruce Wayne had very publicly paid for the Graysons’ funeral. Dick didn’t really care. Rich men who curried favor from the masses by throwing their money around didn’t appeal to him. He’d be angrier at Mr. Wayne for using his parents’ tragedy as a publicity stunt if Mr. Haly didn’t show him articles dating back more than a decade.
Mr. Wayne had lost his parents, too. He was even younger than Dick was now, and in the photos much surlier and angrier. Funny. Dick thought Mr. Wayne would be much older than him.
Early twenties, maybe. Just barely an adult.
He disappeared shortly after the funeral, which Dick had expected.
What he didn’t expect, however, was for Mr. Wayne to show up in the middle of a screaming match between a Gotham Social Worker and Mr. Haly regarding Dick’s living arrangements. Dick had stood silent but scared behind Mr. Haly, because it was obvious the Gotham PD had more power than whatever Haly’s circus had now (without the Flying Graysons, no one was sure what would happen to the venue down the road.) They were going to make him stay in Gotham.
“Mr. Wayne!” the social worker stammered the minute she noticed him standing beside in the tent entrance.
“I’ve just been approved as a foster parent,” Mr. Wayne said calmly, looking instead at Mr. Haly rather than the woman fluttering around him. “I’ll gladly take responsibility over Richard. He’ll be treated well, you have my word.”
Mr. Haly had looked at the social worker, and then looked at Mr. Wayne. He slumped, tired and defeated.
“You’ll be good,” he whispered to Dick minutes before the Circus prepared to leave Gotham. Dick could only clench his suitcase—his father’s, with everything the Graysons had ever owned stuffed inside it—and bite his lip in return. “Don’t forget us, Dickie.”
“Never,” Dick whispered, and let the circus go.
“Are you alright?” Mr. Wayne asked quietly that night, when he saw the boy curled up in the massive armchair in front of the fireplace.
Dick nodded slowly, not even bothering to hide how red his eyes were from crying.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” he said. The words felt both cold—because Bruce Wayne was still just a rich man who’d taken a charity case for sympathy points—and earnest because. Because.
Bruce had lost his parents too.
Bruce Wayne was born without any soul-words. This wasn’t unusual.
It simply meant his soulmate hadn’t come into the world yet. The doctors reassured the Waynes that they’ll likely appear within the next five years; any more than that, and it was possible Bruce might not ever have a soulmate.
Outwardly, Bruce showed no preference over having or not having a soulmate. He had no control over these mysterious words that would write themselves into his skin. It made no sense to dwell over them.
(Except secretly, at night, Bruce touched his unmarked skin and prayed his soulmate would be born soon. While relying on someone else was a weaker man’s crutch, Bruce still wanted someone who would be his everything.)
Bruce stared blankly ahead as his parents were lowered into the ground. Alfred clutched his hands tightly, normally stoic face mournful.
His skin was still bare.
Eight years old, and not even his parents had seen his soul-words.
He fell into bright lights and drink and too-fake laughter. Thirteen-years old and he was already invited to all the best parties in town. Toxic-looking punch earned a near permanent place in his hand.
Alfred disapproved, of course, but Alfred didn’t understand. He was bored. School was a joke and the house was so unbearably lonely. Bruce had to get out. He had to do something.
“Your soulmate’s an employee?” a girl yelled in his ear one party, and Bruce wondered if he’d drank too much today. He shook his head at her and made a move to pull away and sober up—because he was reckless, yes, but not suicidal—when she grabbed his arm. “I said—”
“I heard,” he yelled back. “Lay off the LSD, lady.”
The girl gave him an affronted look as he made his escape. It wasn’t until he felt the fresh night air against his face that Bruce realized he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He hadn’t thought of his soulmate in a long time. He clutched his chest and leaned against the wall, which was when he saw the edge of something on his arm.
He froze. Bruce took a few deep breaths before slowly looking at the arm the girl had grabbed.
Thank you, Mr. Wayne, was written in chicken-scratch on his inner elbow.
Blame it on the booze, but the first thing Bruce tried to do was scrub it off.
He’d wanted—hoped for—someone who could view him as an equal. Someone else other than the billionaire Wayne heir whose tragic backstory would forever cast a shadow across his life.
Thank you, Mr. Wayne was the opposite of that. They didn’t disappear even after Bruce had scrubbed the skin bloody, and he’d had to bandage the wound himself to keep Alfred from catching a glimpse at the damned letters.
By the time Bruce Wayne was twenty-two, he had heard his soul-words hundreds—thousands—of times. Every day in fact, even if he decided to forgo visiting the office.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” the hostess blushed when he put on his best fake smile while handing her a tip.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” a struggling mother had cried as she received a grant that would finally allow her to open her postal business.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” Harvey said sarcastically after Bruce pushed the bill on him, because Harvey had been enough of a dick over dinner and Bruce wasn’t above punishing him.
“No problem, Mr. Dent,” Bruce gave his good friend the charming smile that had socialites swooning. “It’s my pleasure.”
And if Bruce sometimes looked at a few interns askance, that was his own business. Besides, none of them were young enough to be his soulmate.
“It’s possible you’ll meet in your thirties,” Alfred had said on a rare occasion he’d brought up the matter. He’d learned from Bruce’s last four sulks to tread carefully. “Thirteen years when you’re thirty-five is nothing to worry about.”
Bruce had put on a smile he knew Alfred knew was fake as hell.
“Possibly,” he demurred, even if he wanted to scream at the world that he couldn’t wait that fucking long. More than a decade of solitude, with nothing but Alfred and a well-hidden bat-shaped cowl in the cave downstairs.
Batman liked to be a solitary shadow of the night, but in the end, Bruce Wayne was just a man.
When Dick Grayson said, “Thank you, Mr. Wayne”, a hot shiver went up Bruce’s spine. He stared, wordless, as the boy turned and looked at his parent’s procession with a set to his jaw that was too, too familiar.
But Dick hadn’t reacted to Bruce’s first words, and he was nine, and his parents were being lowered into the ground far earlier than they should ahve. Seeing the trauma again through this boy’s eyes had obviously impacted him more than he’d thought.
He would’ve distanced himself. Should have distanced himself.
Except Bruce was too thorough to leave a stone unturned. He quietly looked into Dick’s (nonexistent) medical records, his birthday, his details. Nothing specific that would explain the strange feeling he had. Nothing but his age—nine, that was thirteen years younger than twenty-two—and his first words.
Thank you, Mr. Wayne.
There was no reason he should have stepped up as Dick Grayson’s guardian, except for the overwhelming feeling that he should.
Dick Grayson refused to bow to darkness. Bruce found himself pleasantly surprised.
It was a marvel to watch him: the way he catapulted off the second floor railing; the way he took in stride the Robin persona; the way he pursued his parents’ killer and, in the end, chose the higher road and spared Tony Zucco’s life.
Bruce would be the first to admit he didn’t spend nearly as much time with the boy as he should have. Even with Dick joining his adventures as Robin, there were too many times he had to leave his ward alone. Six months later and Bruce couldn’t help but feel like they were strangers.
Except Dick, despite possessing a driving force that shocked villains everywhere, was still just a boy.
When the screaming started, it took every ounce of willpower for Bruce not to get up immediately. He meant nothing to the boy. Any comfort from him wouldn’t be appreciated.
It surprised him, then, when a few months in he heard the sound of his door creaking open.
Bruce’s breath caught when he heard Dick’s light footfalls come towards the bed. The mattress dipped down and a small bundle of warmth curled up against his side.
“Dick,” he said evenly, turning around so they were facing each other.
Rather than back away in fright, the boy took the opportunity instead to bury his face in Bruce’s nightshirt and give a truly heartbreaking sob.
Something in Bruce’s shoulders relaxed, and he found himself falling into long forgotten instinct. He curled an arm around Dick and rubbed his back, just like how his mother would after an upsetting argument between Bruce and his father. Just like Alfred had done one night after his parents’ funeral, the stoic man mimicking comfort the only way he knew how.
When the sobs finally quieted, Bruce tried to disentangle himself. But Dick was stubborn and slippery and held onto him tighter than a limpet, even crawling over Bruce’s side and hugging him with all his limbs.
“Dick, that’s enough,” Bruce said in a far softer voice than he should have. The boy shook his head, wiping snot all over Bruce’s expensive sleeve.
“Can I stay?” he asked in a quiet voice, so determined and melancholy that even Bruce—the cold, logical Batman—couldn’t refuse.
He dozed to Dick’s weight on top of him; the boy was small for his age, and light. So light he could fly like a bird sometimes—and as fragile as one too.
The next morning, Bruce woke to small hands running along his inner arm. He jerked awake immediately, because that was his soul-word arm and he didn’t remember bedding anyone last night.
Except it was just Dick, who had leapt away from Bruce’s instinctive right hook and was safely perched on the thick headboard. He looked surprised. Frightened? Bruce’s breath caught in his throat. He’d almost—what if he’d—he’d taken Dick in to prevent anything like this.
Bruce’s words smarted like they were punishing him. He shook his sleeve over it and schooled his face into a calmer expression.
“Are you alright?” he finally asked, afraid of what Dick would say.
After a long moment of the boy searching Bruce’s face—he was terrifyingly perceptive, brave, and Bruce would feel proud of that assessing look if he wasn’t feeling the brunt of it all—he nodded.
He climbed off the headboard and touched Bruce’s cheek like he was comforting him.
“Thank you,” Dick said, seemingly in regard to everything. The last of his courage spent, he snatched his hand back and slid off the bed. He gave him a curt nod. “…Mr. Wayne.”
And then he fled the room, leaving Bruce confused and unsettled and scared, of all things, because his and Dick’s relationship should have been simple. Father and son, mentor and student. Except sons and students weren’t meant to comfort their fathers and mentors; they weren’t meant to look so understanding.
Bruce shook his head and climbed out of bed himself. It took an embarrassing amount of time to identify why he felt unsettled; it was first time Dick had called him “Mr. Wayne” in a long while.
Dick found B absurd at times.
“Mr. Bruce has always been reticent,” Alfred had told him once, before Dick had discovered Bruce’s secret and was instead prowling about the house looking for increasingly reckless ways to use heirlooms as props in his acrobatics. Like Bruce was around enough to care if he broke something. “He’s incredibly intelligent but can be… lacking in the emotional department at times. You must forgive him, Master Richard.”
“Master Dick,” Alfred amended smoothly.
“If he spent half as much time on his real self,” Dick said, “and not whatever the heck he’s pretending to be during those parties, he’d probably be like a normal person.”
Alfred simply raised an eyebrow at Dick’s perceptiveness. “As I’ve been telling him myself for years, sir.”
Later, after Bruce had almost hit him and Dick had comforted him, of all things, the boy had curled up in an alcove high up in the Wayne’s ballroom and thought. He lightly rubbed his soul-words through his pants, wondering if there was a chance Bruce… if maybe…
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” had been the first words Dick had said to him. Then again, they were the first words a lot of people said to Bruce Wayne.
Whatever it was, Dick still found comfort in seeing the script curling around Bruce’s elbow. It connected them together in a concrete way, something other than billionaire guardian and charity case ward.
He wondered what the chances were of Bruce encountering that specific conversation:
Are you alright?
Thank you, Mr. Wayne.
Too high. Low enough. Irrelevant. Bruce hadn’t said anything, which meant he wouldn’t either. Barbara Gordon, who Dick liked on account of being yet another young person Bruce regularly kept out of the loop, would’ve called it unhealthy.
“Boys,” she’d say while adjusting her Batgirl cowl over her eyes. “You’re all so stupid sometimes.” For someone taking her first college course in gender studies, Dick found this assessment unfair though probably true.
But Dick would always follow Bruce’s example.
Mind made up, he climbed down his hiding spot and made his way to the kitchen, where Alfred likely had breakfast already set out for both of them.
Dick witnessed Wally West find his soulmate when Artemis Crock walked out of the Zeta tube with Green Arrow and Wally had shot off his mouth with, “What in the what? Who’s the new chick?”
And Artemis had just narrowed her eyes at him and crossed her arms, “Knew you all were a bunch of clowns.”
Wally had gaped at her because close up, everyone could see the delicate words circling her neck: What in the what? Who’s the new chick? Wally’s words weren’t a secret either—given his actual clownish nature, Roy and Dick had ribbed him about them countless times—and the silence would have really started getting awkward if Green Arrow hadn’t taken initiative and introduced their newest team member.
(Roy wasn’t too happy about it, but he and the Green Arrow were on the outs and Dick wasn’t about to touch that drama with a ten-foot pole.)
Later, Wally tried and failed to start several conversations with the girl. It was like watching a train crash in slow motion, and when everyone had gone home he’d sulked next to Dick in the control room.
“She’s my soulmate,” he whined as Dick mercilessly shot lasers at alien battleships on his handheld. “I know, cause when she said it my words kind of burnt up and like, aren’t we supposed to run off into the sunset together? She won’t even look at me!”
“Dude, she doesn’t know who you are,” Dick succeeded in demolishing the mothership and pumped the air in victory. “For all she knows, you scratch your butt during Justice League meetings and pee in the shower.”
“I do not!” Wally squawked, but seemed overall lifted-up by Dick’s very wise thirteen-year old advice. True enough, a few missions in the two seemed to be getting along better. Artemis, when she wasn’t dryly rolling her eyes at some of the other titan’s antics, seemed to find Wally and his epic failures amusing.
“So why weren’t you excited when you guys exchanged soul words?” Dick asked her once while they approached the Gotham Zeta Tube entrance.
She glowered at him. “What? You think all girls believe in that romantic shit?”
“It’s not a girl thing,” Dick said. “Wally’s been squealing about it for years, but most people have some reaction?”
Artemis shrugged. “Maybe I just think it’s important to get to know someone before tying the knot. Just ‘cause some stupid words say you’re soulmates doesn’t mean you still can’t fuck it up. If he’s mine…” She adjusted her bow and quiver and stepped into the telephone booth, “…I want to do it right.”
“Cool-io,” Dick said, and tapped his soul-words through his tights as he watched her beam up to the watchtower. Despite his loyalty to Wally, he understood Artemis’s reasoning a lot better. He was doing the same thing, after all.
When Dick was fourteen years old, he walked in on Bruce and Selina in bed together.
“Bruce—” he shoved open the heavy wooden door without a thought, still focused on the tablet running diagnostics in his other hand. “There’s some anomalies with—”
And then his brain caught up with the sounds his ears were picking up, the strange smell, and his head snapped up in time to see Selina pulling the blankets up to cover herself.
“Oh,” he said dumbly.
“Uh,” he continued, when Bruce resurfaced with a too-calm expression given the fact that his head had just been in the general vincinity of Catwoman’s nether regions. He was flushed a gorgeous pink, lips red and…
And Dick flushed, because Bruce was handsome at all times but never like this.
“You gonna keep looking or are you going to join in?” Selina said coyly, interrupting his thoughts. Bruce whipped around to look at her in thinly disguised horror, and Dick couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Alarmed? Disappointed.
Dick had been a Robin for five years. He’d picked up stealth and detective-skills like breathing, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew Bruce’s reaction was far from usual. He tended to ignore Catwoman’s overt flirting. But feelings weren’t rational and they were all still reeling from Barbara—from Babs putting down the Batgirl mantle and—
Dick took a quick step back.
“Are you alright?” Bruce called out too late—damningly, because Dick was always uncomfortably aware when his soul-words passed through Bruce’s lips—and Dick shut the door with a click.
If he chose instead to hang out at the watchtower running episodes of House with Wally instead of reporting to Bruce, that was his business. He’d sent the data analysis and findings over to Bruce’s private tablet; finished his homework; and it wasn’t one of Robin’s patrol nights. After a whole minute of indecision, he sent a quick text to Babs too, asking how her computer courses were going and if he could come visit her if he was bored.
Finished, he tossed his phone onto a chair and curled up beside Wally’s awestruck form (Wally practically worshipped the show, even if Dick and Bruce and Babs all found the fictional detective work absolutely abysmal.) He stopped himself from checking it to see if he had any missed calls.
Bruce could damn well leave him alone.
Later, Dick came home to all but one room cast in the darkness. Bruce sat in the study in that goddamn ancient armchair, looking pensively at the fireplace. Dick wanted to be angry, to be decidedly not-cool, but Bruce’s shoulders were too tense.
Against his better judgment, the boy walked up behind him and hauled himself onto one of the large chair arms. He draped himself over Bruce’s broad back, because no matter how cold the Batman was the man himself ran hot. He buried his nose into Bruce’s shoulder and squeezed his eyes shut.
“How were the Titans,” Bruce finally said in a coarse rumble.
“Dick,” Bruce turned slightly to look at him. “You’re too old for this.”
“I’m sorry you had to… see that, this morning.”
“Whatever,” Dick muttered, reluctantly unplastering himself from the man. “Are you still going to send Selina to jail?”
“Of course,” Bruce said, like it wasn’t even a question.
And for some reason, in his distraught and confused state, Dick found that the most reassuring thing he’d heard all day. Selina could give Bruce her body, but his mentor had a strict moral code that was both admirable and infuriating.
Whatever Selina did, Dick would always be more important than her.
Bruce didn’t like the Teen Titans. Dick thought his feelings were irrational and absurd.
“I am sixteen years old,” he shouted when Bruce had taken one look at his sprained wrist and demanded he stay home. “This isn’t anything I can’t handle! You trained me better than that!”
“I shouldn’t have!” Bruce roared back, and Dick flinched as if the man had slapped him in the face. He always got like this when the Joker was the one responsible.
“Don’t you go on about that again,” Dick hissed once he found his footing again. “I chose to become Robin to get justice for my parents, and I’m not letting you twist that into some self-flagellating bullshit.”
“You were nine,” Bruce said. “You were too young!”
“You always think I’m too young!”
“Uh,” Wally stared wide-eyed from where he’d magically appeared in the doorway, Alfred hurrying to catch up behind him. “Y’know, I hate to interrupt but the Second Moon of Zukar is going to explode in like an hour.”
“Kid Flash,” Bruce acknowledged stiffly. “Robin will be staying home for this mission.”
“Like hell I am!” Dick snapped. He wriggled into the last of his stupid skin-tight costume and ignored Bruce’s growls when he began hunting for his domino mask. “You think any of the other Titans know how to hack into Alien tech better than me?”
“No, Rob’s right,” Wally said and flinched at Bruce’s terrifying glare. “We kind of do need him, sir.”
“Dick,” Bruce growled low and deep when the teenager finally found his mask and placed it stubbornly on his face. “I forbid you to go.”
“What are you going to do?” Dick snarled, rolling on his gauntlets. “Lock me in my room?”
“No, but I will call your gymnast instructor and inform her that you are in no state to compete in next month’s tournament.”
Dick had been raving about that tournament for a good while. He was an accomplished acrobat no matter what, of course, but there was something thrilling about competing too. That, and it was one of the few areas Dick could talk frankly with other acrobatic individuals.
Dick gaped at him. “You can’t do that!”
“I’m your guardian. Of course I can.”
“Guys,” Wally interjected again. “Second moon of Zukar? Exploding?”
“Oracle can join you,” Bruce told him. “Barbara’s technical skill far surpasses Dick’s.”
Dick seethed in the corner, wrist clutched in one hand and mouth set in a grimace. He knew when he was beaten. He watched silently as Bruce called Babs and asked her to accompany an awkward Kid Flash, who kept glancing between Bruce and Dick with a baffled expression on his face. He watched as his teammate left out the front door with Alfred, where he would undoubtedly zoom his way to the Hall of Justice. He watched Bruce turn to look at him with a cold face even Dick had trouble reading.
“Just because Joker got to me,” Dick said before Bruce could swan away like he always did, “doesn’t mean you can lock me away forever. I’m my own person, Bruce.”
Bruce continued to look at him blankly. “While you are in my care, you are my responsibility.”
“I’m in charge,” Bruce continued in true asshole Batman fashion, “and make all final decisions as I see benefit the team best. Do you understand, Robin?”
Dick curled his lip.
“Sure,” Dick muttered.
Bruce’s words sharpened at the ends, cold and threatening. “Are we alright?”
Dick glared at him and clenched his fists. He nodded and whirled around to swan off to his room first. At the top of the stairs, however, he turned around and gave Bruce a sarcastic little nod.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” he simpered, just to see Bruce’s outraged look on his face. “For protecting my honor.”
And then fled down the hall, Bruce’s angry roar echoing in his wake.
Bruce had never seen Dick’s soul words. He wasn’t even sure why he wanted to know.
(That was a lie.)
All he knew was how angry Dick had been when he’d seen him last, before the Justice League had called him for an emergency mission and he’d been shipped off-planet. They’d used Batman’s strategy to save an entire Alien race, ensuring the release of four wrongfully imprisoned Justice League members.
If the price was Batman’s life, then it was probably worth it.
It was also probably counterproductive to think about Dick and his soul-words while lying in a pool of his own blood in the middle of alien butt-fuck nowhere. Some part of his brain was putting in the work behind scenes: what poison had hit him, how to counteract it, what were the chances he could contact the League before he succumbed to death.
He wanted to see Dick’s soul-word with his own two eyes. He wanted confirmation.
He wanted a lot of things, Bruce acknowledged, before he finally closed his eyes.
Wally was the one who called Dick first, but Superman was the one who came to pick him up.
“He’ll be fine,” Clark was saying in his best I-am-Superman voice, carrying Dick bridal-style just because he could. “J’onn found him right after he re-established the mental link, and he and Red Tornado are confident they can finish manufacturing an antidote…”
By the time Dick made it up to the Watchtower med bay, he still hadn’t prepared himself. Bruce looked awful.
Dick had seen Bruce battered and bruised, bones broken and fever running high. He’d helped Alfred wipe sweat from Bruce’s pale face and taken point when the older man insisted on stitching up his wounds while half-drunk on pain meds.
This Bruce was worse. He was lying flat on the bed, IV hooked up to his arm and oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth. His upper half was left uncovered because of the truly nasty hole in his gut, swollen purplish with poison and just. Horrible.
“The people who did this?” Dick said quietly.
J’onn, who was monitoring Bruce’s vitals by the bed, tilted his head. “Dealt with.”
“Oh,” Dick said, almost disappointed that he couldn’t channel his rage somewhere productive. “Okay.”
Tactful as always, J’onn retreated and left them alone. Dick scrubbed his face and shucked off his boots. He had been so angry at Bruce for holding onto him tight like he was going to run away the moment he could. He would never. He was his own person but that didn’t mean he’d leave—
But the moment he’d picked up and heard Wally’s panicked voice on the other side, Roy shouting obscenities in the background over gunfire, his heart had dropped.
Bruce might be big, but the bed was far bigger. And Dick was still slender no matter what puberty said. He climbed onto the bed and snuggled up next to Bruce, careful not to jostle his injuries or his oxygen mask. After only a second of hesitation, he took off his domino mask and put it on the side-table.
“I hate you,” he told his unconscious mentor. “I hate you, I hate you, if you die I will never forgive you. Don’t leave me alone.”
He buried his face into the crook of Bruce’s neck and curled a hand around Bruce’s elbow where his soul-words lay. Where his words—Thank you, Mr. Wayne—lay.
This way, he could hear feel taste the way the man’s chest rose and fell with his breaths. He matched his breathing with Bruce’s and didn’t fight it when he drifted off into sleep.
He woke up to Bruce blinking at him with clear, discerning eyes.
“Clean-up a success?” were the first hoarse words that came out of his mouth, and Dick would have smacked him if he wasn’t severely injured and in a hospital bed.
“You almost died,” Dick whispered furiously, even as he snuggled up even closer to the man. It had been a long time since Bruce had allowed such tactile affection and Dick, however old he was, would always want it. He missed the feel of Bruce’s muscles beneath his fingers, and if that was inappropriate, well.
“Potential outcome,” Bruce coughed up. “Risk somewhat high. Acceptable.”
“I make the final call.”
“Your final calls suck,” Dick said. He felt fuzzy and warm and angry all at once. “You scared me. I fucking hate it when you scare me, B.”
I don’t want to lose you, echoed between the words. Don’t leave what would I do by myself again all alone?
And, quietly in every word and touch and expression he had: I love you I love you Don’t go.
“I’m sorry, Dick,” Bruce said quietly, and let Dick bury his face into his neck one more time. It wasn’t a phrase he used lightly.
Dick loved Bruce.
He knew it when he curled a hand around Bruce’s nape in the morning, just to watch the older man shiver for just a fraction of a second. He knew it when he stole away on the Batcycle and drove Roy back to Star City after a particularly hard night, only to come home with Bruce glowering at him in the Cave. He knew it when, in a momentary lapse of judgment, he’d seen Bruce dressed up for the office and crossed the room to kiss him good-bye. Because he’d had Bruce’s life in the palm of his hand not too long ago, and didn’t want Bruce to think he didn’t love him.
(Because Bruce was at once so intelligent and so very emotionally stunted. He could deduce a target’s entire emotional history with their colleagues in a second, but had no real clue that Dick would always love him, even if their screaming matches culminated in them throwing paperweights at each other and Bruce’s words dissolving into incomprehensible roaring.)
Bruce had frozen, one hand stuck on the doorknob and the other clutching his briefcase so hard his knuckles turned white. His lips were firmly shut; Dick didn’t care. He pulled back and blinked at Bruce’s stricken expression.
“I—“ Bruce stuttered—he never stuttered—“I have to go.”
But then the door was shut and Dick was left staring at empty space wondering if he’d lost his fucking mind. He licked his lips and ran a hand through his hair.
“Master Dick?” Alfred called from the pantry, snapping him from his reverie. “Master Bruce might like to skip his meals, but a growing boy has got to eat.”
“I sprained my wrist and he wouldn’t let me go, but now he’s running around with a gut wound like it’s nothing,” Dick said, pushing around his scrambled eggs in the dining room. “He’s going to pull his stitches in a board meeting and his guts are going to spill out over the table and that son of a bitch would probably just keep talking.”
“Undoubtedly,” Alfred sighed, and poured Dick a cup of tea.
Bruce didn’t come home until two in the morning. Unfortunately for him, Dick was used to keeping odd hours and was perched on the Control Room chair when the Batmobile pulled in.
“Bruce,” he called out when cowl ears emerged from the driver’s side.
“…Dick,” Batman sounded resigned.
Dick balanced himself on the top of the chair and leapt. He somersaulted in the air and landed with his feet on Bruce’s wide shoulders.
“I would sit on your head,” he said conversationally, “but I don’t want those ears to castrate me or something."
“They’re vicious projectiles. Your fears are well-founded.”
“You can shoot them?”
“I blinded someone with one once,” Batman admitted, and normally Dick would have tipped over and fallen to the floor laughing. But this was serious. He sighed and chose to sit on Bruce’s less dangerous shoulder pads instead, bracketing Batman’s head with his thighs.
Batman didn’t move. Dick couldn’t see his face, but he’d bet his entire savings that Bruce didn’t even blink. “Dick, this is unacceptable.”
“You are sixteen years old,” Batman growled, the only movement a clenching of his jaw. “There may be a sort of—mentor-mentee fascination going on here, but that’s all this is. What you’re feeling is just—teenage emotion. I’m the easiest target.”
Dick front-flipped onto the floor and straightened himself with a glare. “Take your cowl off.”
“I’m not having this conversation with you in that creepy bat costume—take the fucking cowl off.”
Bruce growled but pulled his hood back, revealing the rest of his stupidly handsome, stupidly chiseled face. “This is not up for debate, Dick. You will… you will cease your inappropriate behavior at once.”
“I’m inappropriate? You spent years acting like a jealous boyfriend because of the Teen Titans—”
“This is not about them!” Bruce snarled, emotion finally breaking through that stoic mask he’d been wearing more and more often. Dick felt a thrill of satisfaction run through him. “This is about what’s best for you!”
“Only I know what’s best for me,” Dick snapped, crowding Bruce against the Batmobile in his anger. “Can’t you be honest with your feelings just this once, Bruce?”
They were close. So close. Close enough Dick saw Bruce’s gaze flicker to his mouth, felt the way his hands twitched against Dick’s hips. Before his courage could leave him, Dick stood on his toes and kissed Bruce again. Not angry or difficult or just awfully complicated like their conversation. A simple kiss that was as chaste as the one from this morning.
And for a glorious moment—so brief Dick thought he might have hallucinated it all—Bruce’s lips softened and moved against his own. Which felt so right and good and Dick leaned closer, lacing his hands around Bruce’s strong neck—
Bruce stopped him with a large hand and slowly pushed Dick away. His face was dark and determined.
“This is not happening again,” he enunciated lowly, taking another step back for good measure. He turned and swanned with his head held high to the changing area, as if neither of them knew a retreat when they saw one.
On Dick’s seventeenth birthday, he smiled and schmoozed at the gathering of socialites Bruce had passive-aggressively saddled him with for brunch. The real party—the Titans, some of the Justice League members, Babs and Alfred—was far more pleasant. They sat around the kitchen inhaling pieces of Alfred’s legendary pound cake and ignoring Bruce’s obvious absence in the proceedings.
Later, after all the guests had gone home and Alfred had tidied everything up, Dick wandered into the Bruce’s study. He sat on his desk, butt firmly planted on the very important document Bruce had just been filling out.
“I’m busy,” Bruce said, still refusing to look at him. Dick rolled his eyes and—blame it on the booze Roy had brought to Dick’s room—put his own slender hand on top of Bruce’s large one.
“You’re really gonna play it like this, B?”
Bruce furrowed his brow and slowly leaned back in his chair. His gaze was surprisingly clear and sharp.
“I’ve approved several out-of-state tournaments your gymnastic instructor had recommended you for,” he finally said. “And have started legal proceedings that would allow you to inherit your parents’ savings on your eighteenth birthday, when you’ll be legally emancipated from me.”
Dick snatched his hand back. “You’re planning to disown me?”
“You weren’t mine to begin with,” Bruce said clearly, almost cruelly. Dick was proud that his lip only wobbled a little; the rest of his body was frozen in anger. It explained why he chose to crawl across the rest of the table and right into Bruce’s unwelcoming lap, rather than. You know. Leave.
“Then there isn’t a problem, is there?” he breathed into Bruce’s ear, pressed so close he could feel the man’s heartbeat thumping against his chest. He ran a hand down an expensive lapel and placed his palm over the quickened but still steady rhythm. He would’ve normally left it like that, but Dick was still angry. He shifted so his thighs bracketed Bruce’s waist, pressing his ass right into the other man’s groin and—ah.
Bruce’s heartbeat was still damnably steady, his face expressionless, but Dick’s wriggling was obviously working if the erection he felt was any indication. He shifted a few more times before a strong hand suddenly clamped around his hip.
“Enough,” Bruce’s voice was little more than a growl. “You’ve been drinking.”
“It’s my birthday,” Dick informed him. “You want me off, you talk to me for once.”
Bruce didn’t bother with words this time. Just one big growl, like he was more bear than bat. Dick narrowed his eyes and lifted up as if to dislodge himself. He did—but not before rolling his hips a bit, and feeling far too much satisfaction when Bruce almost snapped his fountain pen in half.
The next morning, Dick trudged into the kitchen only half-awake and dressed in little more than his pajamas. Bruce was at the head of the table already equipped with coffee and a breakfast platter, head bowed as he read the newspaper. The back of his hair was slightly curly at the nape.
It should have been really awkward between them. For all their unspoken drama they’d never crossed the line into sex. He should be more freaked out about all this, but he wasn’t.
Dick, still pissed off by Bruce’s bullshit yesterday and unafraid of poking the angry bear with a stick, leaned down and kissed the back of his neck.
To his surprise, Bruce didn’t react. He didn’t even freeze. The bastard just sipped his goddamn coffee and flipped to the next page, forcing Dick to take a seat or look like an idiot staring at the back of Bruce’s stupid head.
“Happy birthday,” Bruce said when they’d both practically finished their meals. Dick stuffed the last sausage in his mouth and pushed the dish aside.
“You’re a day late,” he said, mirroring Bruce’s blasé attitude the best he could. Then he walked out the door to get ready for school, cursing himself for letting Bruce mess with his head. Again.
Bruce was punishing him. There were so many possible answers for what that Dick categorized them all as not being a good little soldier anymore, because Dick wasn’t stupid and Bruce had a lot of fucking issues, okay.
Why else would the League have handed them such an easy mission when the Titans could have saved entire planets in their sleep. In petty revenge, Dick spent the after-party interrupting Bruce’s conversations with semi-flirtatious quips that had even Superman glancing between them every two seconds. Bruce’s glare was strong enough to kill.
The other titans kept throwing him worried looks, like he was sticking his hand into a mouth full of pointy teeth and was seconds away from being an amputee.
It would’ve taken too much effort for Dick to explain to them that while Bruce could be really, honest-to-god batshit insane sometimes and unacceptably violent and just ridiculous overall, Dick wasn’t scared of him.
If anything, Dick scared Bruce and they both knew it.
Later, he caught Wally giving him a look after he’d hacked the Justice League’s mission logs and pulled up the classified info they needed. The mission had turned out to be harder than expected, as it was about something else entirely. Hell, Bruce could’ve given them a tricky case on purpose just to fuck with their heads.
“What’s up, KF,” he said in a loud voice and inwardly cackled at how high the redhead jumped in his peripheral vision. “You gonna tell me what’s gotten you so whelmed?”
“Overwhelmed,” Wally corrected.
“I hate the whelms,” Wally moaned, rolling his chair closer to where Dick was perched in front of the main computer. “Even underwhelmed.”
“Sounds rough,” Dick said before finishing his work with a triumphant press of the enter button. He swiveled his chair and mock-bowed at his friend. “Well, Mr. West, we have three options at our disposal: we can inform the others that we’ve cracked the code and can now find Hawkwoman’s newest location; we can look for her ourselves and drag her back before Aqualad resurfaces; or we can send her a nice email inviting her for a cup of tea at the Wayne Mansion. Alfred’s tea is amazing, just FYI.”
“Is Bruce treating you okay?” Wally blurted out. Dick stared at him for the non sequitur. The redhead continued, flustered, “I mean—I just—look, I know it’s not really my business—”
“It’s not,” Dick said.
“—but there’s just something weird going on between you two and I’m not sure if I need to step in.” Wally must have seen something weird in Dick’s face because he added, “You’re my best friend, Rob, and I know we spend a lot of time chasing after Roy and his whole mess with Cheshire but I’m allowed to worry about you too. And with you and Bruce, I just feel he’s a bit… close? I mean, he’s supposed to be your dad.”
“Bruce isn’t my dad,” Dick said. He swiveled back to face the computers so he didn’t have to look at Wally’s face. “And thanks for your concern, but I’ve got it.”
“I’m just worried about you, man,” Wally said quietly, squeezing Dick’s shoulder. And that was that.
It helped that Roy and Cheshire had another nasty run-in during the mission, and the two spent their time trying to calm down the enraged archer. Namely, to keep him from shooting his soulmate in the head. Cheshire was skilled, dangerous, and most definitely a villain. And while Roy could be a hot-headed little shit, he had such a strong black-and-white moral code he’d been convinced Cheshire had faked her soul-words the first time they’d met.
Whatever it was, Dick was guiltily grateful that someone else’s drama finally eclipsed his own.
So things were fine. Sort of. Dick and Bruce were good when they weren’t fighting, but they were always fighting these days. It was just bad luck that Wally sped down the wrong corridor on a day Bruce wasn’t being a hissy cat. Dick had been sprawled across Bruce’s back like a kid again, nose pressed against the man’s nape as he read the newspaper over his shoulder. Not the worst thing ever, but still damnably close.
“Er,” Wally said, green eyes wide, because tactile touching was the norm between some people but not between Batman and Robin. Even Wally wasn’t stupid enough to think otherwise.
“Wally,” Dick got his bearings first, pushing away from Bruce and striding towards his friend. The man in question seemed frozen over his newspaper, like he couldn’t look Wally in the eye.
Good, Wally could barely look at the creep in the eye either.
“You said you were handling it,” the redhead hissed at Dick in the hallway. “That didn’t look like you were handling it! This is taking advantage—you don’t have to—”
“He is not,” Dick argued back. “He’s—“ His voice caught in his throat. His hand immediately went down to clench his thigh, one thumb pressing hard right on the inner side. “I started it.”
“What?” Wally’s face couldn’t seem to decide between confused angry disgusted. “Why? That’s just. He’s your—”
“—soulmate,” Dick said quietly, and saying it out loud for the first time was heavier than he’d thought it’d feel. “He’s my soulmate, Wally, so yeah I know it’s messed up and people will think it’s weird but he’s mine.”
Wally gaped at him. Eventually shook his head in… disbelief? Horror? Thankfully he seemed less inclined to run for the hills and more likely to collapse on the stairs, and so Dick led him away from the hall to a more private location.
“He’s like your father.” Wally finally said once Dick eased him onto a couch.
Dick scowled at him. “Are you going to say anything else?”
“Sorry, I’m just. Processing.” The other boy waved a hand around his head. He sprawled against the cushions and hooked his hands together in a loose fist, looking uncomfortable but also determined. “Don’t worry, Rob. I won’t tell anybody. I don’t understand it, yeah, but I’m not one to judge. If you’re okay…”
“I’m okay,” Dick reaffirmed, and couldn’t help but feel insanely grateful when Wally just took his hand into his and nodded. It was a breath of fresh air to finally admit it to someone. He hadn’t realized how much he’d needed it until then.
Bruce was waiting for him in the kitchen. His face was a smooth mask. His jaw was clenched tight.
Dick knew he was scared because What if Kid Flash told and What would the Justice League think and even What would Clark think. Hell, even Barbara and Alfred and Lucius, closer to them than anyone, didn’t know the exact depth of fucked up they’d always been.
“I’m not who you need,” Bruce said like it was a fact, like everything he ever said as Batman.
“Shut up,” Dick said, grabbing his elbow and forcing Bruce to look him in the eye. “Wally’s not going to tell anyone. He—whatever he thinks of you, he’s my best friend and he’s not going to throw me under the bus.”
Bruce shook his head and tore his elbow away. “Dick. I just. We can’t keep doing… this, not now. I have responsibilities and you… you’re seventeen.”
“You’re not even thirty yet,” Dick rolled his eyes. “Stop making it sound like you’re an old man, or I’ll start calling you that.”
“You think I haven’t had sex before?” Dick said, just so he could see possessive rage cross Bruce’s face before he was stamped it out like every other emotion. “I’m not a kid anymore. And even when I was, I’ve handled things far worse than love.”
Bruce stared at him like he’d sprouted two new heads and was breakdancing on the table. Dick blinked. He rewound his words in his head and flushed red when he realized he’d shown his hand: he’d gone and used the ‘l’ word out loud.
And Bruce was fucking terrified of that word.
“Uh,” Dick said intelligently.
Which was when Bruce took the opportunity to walk out of the room and Dick, to his great shame, let him.
Something had changed for the worse.
Dick and Bruce went from fighting like cats and dogs to glaring silently at each other whenever they happened to cross paths. Even the unflappable Alfred gave Bruce a look when the man stayed at the office three nights in a row.
Things couldn’t continue like this. The other shoe was going to fucking drop.
If Dick stayed at the Watchtower after the Titan’s disbanded for the day, then that was his own business. Even if it was to unwisely make out with Roy—whose drama with Cheshire was reaching ridiculous levels, what with them living together despite hating each other’s guts—and stare at old videos of him and Bruce knocking heads. They’d been good together. It made his chest hurt to watch it now.
“You regret going off on your own?” he asked Roy while the boy was fuming at his cell-phone. He was scratching his collarbone absent-mindedly where his soul-words were. Texting Cheshire, then. “Being Red Arrow, I mean.”
“Nah,” Roy said. “Ollie can’t treat me like a kid when we’re equals, you know. And the whole side-kick thing gets kind of absurd when you’re shooting past six feet.”
Dick spun his chair around once, twice, before hopping off and settling in Roy’s lap. The other boy raised an eyebrow but didn’t stop texting. He was broader than Dick in the shoulder and arms from his archery training, but still lithe in his youth. Dick’s thighs went around his hips easily.
“You thinking of leaving?” Roy finally said, chucking his phone aside.
“Not leaving,” Dick said, putting experimental hands on Roy’s shoulders. It didn’t feel right. Then again, few people had the ridiculous breadth Bruce had. Clark, perhaps, but Dick wasn’t insane enough to go give Superman a lap-dance. “Just… thinking of what’s going to happen.”
“Uh-huh,” Roy winced when Dick grabbed his head and lifted his chin up so they were looking at each other. “The big eighteen coming up, huh?”
“I think Bruce’s going to kick me out,” Dick said conversationally, and Roy blinked. “What would you say if I kissed you again?”
“That you’re kind of fucked up in the head, Rob,” Roy said. “No offense.”
Dick made a face and abruptly slid off Roy’s lap. “You’re one to talk.”
“We can have revenge sex,” Roy mused. “If you don’t mind Jade stalking you and trying to claw your face off at night.”
“I’m going home,” Dick informed him loudly and went to fetch his coat. Roy shrugged and flopped down on the couch he’d been sitting on. “You staying overnight?”
“Poisonous metal claws, Dick. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
Dick shrugged apologetically and trudged towards the Zeta tubes.
Alfred was still awake enough to give him a disappointed look when he snuck in from the Bat-Cave entrance. Bruce wasn’t home—again—which didn’t surprise him in the least.
Dick kicked open the master bedroom door and shucked his clothes onto the floor—Bruce liked to pretend he was a neat freak but both of them knew it was Alfred that picked up after him—before climbing into Bruce’s big bed.
It smelled like his aftershave, which was nice, and the cold metallic tang of Bruce’s beloved tech. It was petty revenge, the kind that Bruce probably wouldn’t even notice because really, did the Bat even pay attention to how his bed smelled every day? Wait, no, that seemed like something Bruce would totally anal-retentively keep track of.
Dick was upset and confused and plowing through teenage hormones like they were going out style. If he wanted to snuggle in Bruce’s bed when he wasn’t there—well, there wasn’t anything stopping him.
Bruce was losing his mind.
“You know,” Selina drawled mid-way through a scandalous midday booty call, “it’s rude to think of someone else when you’re in bed with me.”
“You’re thinking of someone else,” Bruce said carelessly, and only felt somewhat guilty when Selina scowled and twisted out from under him. She propped her head up with an arm, revealing each gorgeous breast with no shame whatsoever. You’re work is exquisite stood out on her left breast, right over her heart. It was faded in a way that could only mean her soulmate was dead.
“But I don’t make it obvious,” Selina insisted. “You, on the other hand, are obviously miles away from here. Worlds away. What’s your problem, big guy? What’s on your mind?”
Bruce didn’t bother answering her. He rolled out of bed and went to put on his clothes, because his midday sex crisis obviously wasn’t going to satisfy either of them. Selina rolled her eyes and stretched out on the bed, purring.
“Thaaank you, Mr. Wayne,” she winked, and Bruce missed a button on his shirt. She grinned triumphantly. “Your soulmate, then. Funny, didn’t think there was anyone new in your life?”
“That’s enough,” Bruce snapped.
“Can’t be another villain, you’ve already got me for that,” Selina mused. “Someone you met as Brucie, maybe? Could be a groupie, but that’s just sad—”
“Selina!” Bruce said, and Catwoman relented. She twisted off the bed in a showy arc, presenting every curve in a truly exquisite way. Bruce never asked after Selina’s soul-words; until now, she never asked after his.
“I don’t know what’s holding you back,” Selina said while slipping into her costume, “but I wouldn’t wait too long. You only get one soulmate in a lifetime, big guy.” She fiddled with her grapple gun and loped over to his window.
“Make it count,” she said, and then was gone.
Bruce looked at the bed and scowled. He had to ask Alfred to help clean up the mess. It was embarrassing but was preferable to Dick crawling into the sheets and smelling Selina’s perfume everywhere. Dick had never said anything, but Bruce knew from the way his ward made a face in the morning that he hated it.
Fuck, fuck, why did it matter if Dick hated the way his bed smelled, it was Bruce’s bed. Bruce had started letting Dick get into his head.
(Except he’d gotten into Dick’s first, and didn’t that make him just extra guilty?)
They were playing inappropriate bed-sharing chicken, for god’s sake. Dick obviously knew Bruce knew of his sleeping arrangements when the older man stayed somewhere else overnight; and Bruce, despite that, made a point in pretending he had no idea. It was absurd. It made Bruce feel like a teenager, because he was literally competing with a teenager.
It was all getting ridiculously out of hand, and Bruce dreaded the day it was going to all come to a head. He wondered if either of them would survive intact.
It was foolish to think it wouldn’t come sooner rather than later.
Bruce begrudgingly returned to the manor for League business, because he was a paranoid bastard who’d kept all the necessary data in the Batcave and not in the Watchtower where it technically belonged. He’d usually swan off after getting what he needed, but it was late and he was tired and Alfred, the traitor, had given him a cup of tea with the most disapproving arch of his eyebrow ever.
“I’m surprised to see you home some time before the sun rises,” the butler said dryly, and Bruce had to push down the urge to look contrite. He supposed it wouldn’t kill him to bunk in his room overnight—it was more comfortable than the med bay beds at least.
It was testament to how exhausted Bruce was that he forgot of Dick’s newest sleeping habits.
“Dick,” Bruce sighed when he saw the comfortable lump sprawled right across the middle of his bed. He switched his civilian clothes for pajamas; wandered into the bathroom to take care of all sleeping-related business; and finally made his way back to the bed where Dick, bratty as always, had seemed to further stretch his sprawl in his sleep.
The boy whined when Bruce gently pushed him over, snuggling into one of his pillows—the one Bruce usually slept on, in fact—and refusing to wake up. Bruce couldn’t help the flood of want that beat in his chest. Dick had always been graced with good looks; cute and cheeky as a child and lithe and graceful as a young adult. And he was a picture under Bruce’s sheets—relaxed and peaceful and looking like he belonged right there.
Bruce squeezed Dick’s shoulder harder. “Dick, get up.”
“Hnng,” Dick wrinkled his nose and opened bleary eyes. He stretched languidly, drawing Bruce’s attention to the dip of his collarbone and the curve of one smooth bicep. “What, there’s more than enough room to share.”
“Dick,” Bruce said warningly, and was caught too off-guard when Dick just gave him a beautiful grin, like he was looking at everything he wanted in the world. It’d been a lifetime since he’d seen that look. It was the one that used to thrill him, secretly, and simultaneously disgust him with his own perversion.
The boy curled his fingers around Bruce’s wrist, index and middle finger instinctively looking for his pulse.
“Bruce,” Dick said, teasing, except none of this was funny. Bruce tried to adopt the default cold look he’d been hiding behind the last few weeks, except he was tired and conflicted and beaten down like a rock under a wave. And Dick was right here.
He allowed the boy to pull him down onto the bed, to drag a fluffy comforter over him and curl up against him like he was ten again. Bruce’s breath had seized in his chest a thousand seconds ago, because this was dangerous. Far too dangerous, especially with Dick’s hair tickling his chin and smelling like something soft and sweet and somewhat spicy. He’d taken a shower in Bruce’s bathroom then, which should have caused a reasonable adult to feel his privacy unacceptably violated. A reasonable adult would have given Dick a sterner talking to about boundaries.
Except it pleased him to have Dick here, in his bed and smelling like his shampoo, because Bruce was fucking selfish sometimes and he knew how little he wanted to let his boy go.
When he realized that Dick was kissing his chin—so softly, just a warm press of his lips against rough stubble—he should’ve pushed him away. This wasn’t okay. Not with everything between them, nor the fact that on paper Bruce was still Dick’s foster parent and this was reaching criminal levels of crazy.
Except Bruce had been fighting to keep his hands away from Dick for so long, it was almost impossible to ask him to stop now that he had a feast set out in front of him. Especially not when Dick’s expression was so vulnerable, as if he was bracing himself for Bruce to backhand him.
It was a moment of weakness that would cost Bruce.
He turned his cheek and kissed Dick’s forehead deliberately, long enough that the boy’s eyes widened in wonder.
“Don’t talk,” the man growled, and Dick snapped his mouth shut. He followed willingly when Bruce pushed him onto his back and crawled on top of him, arching into his touch when Bruce smoothed a hand down his torso. “Don’t say anything, do you understand?”
Dick nodded and curled his hands around Bruce’s neck, pulling him down into a kiss that was in part fervent, like this was a dream that could dissipate at any moment, and in part with wonder. Dick had such a marvelous capacity for wonder. It drew Bruce and the League and all the Titans to him like a moth to the flame, because it was so rare to see such joy in anyone’s face.
When Bruce moved on to kiss down his boy’s chin, neck, collarbone, Dick let out a sigh and tipped his head back. He curled a slender hand around Bruce’s arm, right at the elbow. Bruce shivered at how his words burned warm at his touch; over and over as Dick stroked them with a finger, sending such feeling into Bruce’s brain, heart, groin he felt like he was burning up from the inside out.
“Bruce,” Dick moaned, breaking the rules, but Bruce was too busy tracing the edge of his hip with his teeth.
Bruce was losing his mind. It was the only way to explain his fevered actions, the way he reveled in Dick’s gasps and moans (he knew the boy would be responsive; Dick had always loved tactile contact, even if he’d trained himself to not seek it) the way he allowed Dick to squirm away when he tried taking the rest of his pajamas off, even if all he really wanted was to pin him down and fuck him senseless.
(There was a perverse satisfaction in putting his desire into words, if only in his head. Bruce should probably feel guilty. He didn’t, not really. And that’s what he really felt guilty for.)
“I wanna,” Dick gasped, licking pickened lips in a move that had Bruce’s pants tightening. “I wanna be on top of you, can I do that?”
Bruce was sure any noise he made would come out as a growl. He nodded instead and saw Dick’s eyes light up, the way they did when he’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted.
Bruce had always found it ridiculously difficult to refuse the boy point-blank. And now—now, it was impossible. Whatever the consequences of that may be.
(When Dick was letting out surprised, hiccupped noises and squirming in his lap in a full-body plea for Bruce to get on with it, Bruce finally pulled his fingers from the boy’s sloppy hole and pressed his cock into it instead.
Dick made a kind of choked noise at the stretch but didn’t try and move away. Rather, he seemed intent to plaster as much of himself against Bruce as possible, hands clutching his broad shoulders and mouth open for sloppy kisses. He was so good, enough that Bruce felt irrational rage at whoever had taught Dick these kinds of things to begin with, and just. Perfect around him. He was meltingly hot inside, tight, and so wet from Bruce’s careful work he slid his way home without much difficulty.
“Ah—” The boy sighed against his lips when they settled fully. “It’s—hm, it’s so hot, like you’re on fire, B—”
He didn’t say much more after that, just let Bruce grab his thighs with strong, capable hands and roll his hips into him over and over. There was something dark peeking out under Bruce’s fingers, hidden mostly by their movement and the iron-tight lock Dick’s thighs had around his waist. He would’ve paid more attention to it if Dick wasn’t so… distracting.
“Love you” Dick gasped freely, babbling the more he twitched and shivered with oncoming orgasm. “I love you, I love you—”
“Shh,” Bruce almost pleaded, silencing the boy with a skilled kiss. “Hush.”
As good a boy as he used to be, Dick didn’t make a sound when he pressed his forehead into the crook of Bruce’s neck and came.)
Dick didn’t regret it. Not even when he woke up to an empty bed and a Bruce at the kitchen table that might as well have been Batman carved out of ice. Not even when he tried to confront Bruce about—well—about everything and the man just gave him a blank stare, like he had no idea what Dick was talking about and perhaps he had had a fever dream.
Not according to the bites blooming red across his chest, Dick wanted to hiss. Not according to how his words kept sizzling with phantom heat, oversensitive after an entire night of burning their way into Dick’s bones.
Dick had stared tight-lipped at him as Bruce turned and stalked off towards the study. He didn’t regret it all, but that didn’t mean he didn’t feel hurt. Anger.
“I sometimes wished you’d left me at the orphanage,” he said sharply, words like poison barbs meant to snare.
Bruce stopped and turned around, his expression not changing even a fraction.
“Go to school, Dick,” he said blandly, and was far out of earshot when Dick picked up the closest vase and threw it at the wall.
It was Clark that had actually sparked their last fight, but no one remembered that after the dust had settled and Dick’s things were missing from his room. Alfred quietly replaced Dick’s chair—the same as the rest except for a few blood-stains and a scratch from his antics over the years—with a brand-new one. Not that it mattered. Bruce left for the office and didn’t come home for a week.
“Are you quite sure you won’t come home?” Alfred had asked one of the few times Dick phoned after Bruce had “fired” him. They all knew Dick wouldn’t have left if he hadn’t wanted to. “You’re not quite of age just yet.”
“I’ll be in a few months,” Dick paced the small guest room Clark had been kind enough to lend him while he alternatively raged and stifled tears at how much of an asshole Bruce could be. None of which he wanted kryptonian super-hearing to pick up on, so he only let loose when Clark and Lois were at work. “Bruce had already gotten everything settled—of course he did—and Lucius even told of the small trust fund he set up for me just in case. In case what, he chased me away before I turned eighteen—thank you, Mr. Wayne—”
“Dick,” Alfred said sharply, and Dick winced.
“Sorry Al,” he scrubbed his face. “And no. I’m not coming home. Not unless Bruce calls me himself, which you know isn’t going to happen.”
Alfred sighed over the phone. “Will you at least contact Miss Gordon? If there’s anyone in Gotham who can find you the things you need…”
“Babs is going to yell at me.”
“Unfortunately, a fear of loud voices tends to result in nothing getting done,” Alfred said dryly. “Now—take care of yourself, Master Dick.”
“Thanks, Alfred,” Dick said quietly. “For everything.”
Then he hung up and stared tight-lipped at his suitcase, which he’d only used to pack the bare essentials. Years as the pampered ward of billionaire Bruce Wayne hadn’t beaten the circus brat out of him—not completely.
He’d already made plans to bunk at the Watchtower after he’d stayed out his welcome at the Kents’. That was a temporary measure as well—Bruce and the rest of the Justice League used the upper levels, there was a high chance they’d have to meet face-to-face and Dick couldn’t do that—but should give Dick enough time to think of where he wanted to go.
He could go find Haly’s circus. God knows where they were now. Or maybe he could visit Europe, where his mother had been from. Explore his roots and all that.
But honestly, he knew he couldn’t bear to be far away from Bruce for so long. It rankled him to the core the way he still craved the older man’s approval; how he’d obsessed over the marks on his skin until they finally disappeared and left him bereft. But part of being a Bat kid meant knowing when to just accept something.
He heard Bludhaven apartments were especially cheap this time of year.
“What happened to your soulmate?” Jason Todd grumbled from where he sat in the passenger side of the Batmobile, watching Bruce tinker with some malfunctioning hardware underneath the driver’s seat. Bruce didn’t respond. “You have met her, right? You’re like. Old.”
“I am not,” Bruce said stiffly. He tossed some damaged screws at the boy and raised a brow when Jason caught them all in mid-air. “I’m barely thirty. And you’re supposed to be watching diagnostics.”
“Thirty is so old,” Jason whined. “That’s like, so much older than me!”
Bruce gave him a look, and the boy acquiesced with a pout.
Jason Todd was scrappy and brash and in desperate need of help; when Bruce had found him trying to car-jack the Batmobile, of all things, his first thought had been God, he reminds me of Dick.
Which was probably a really unhealthy reason to kidnap Jason off the street, but Bruce was a billionaire. He could afford to do this kind of thing.
“I wonder when I’m going to meet my soulmate,” Jason was still nattering on the topic. “What if she doesn’t like video games? What is she’s mean and stupid and smells really bad?”
“What is she’s a boy,” Bruce said tonelessly.
“What if he’s older than me!” Jason responded in horror, and promptly fell off the passenger seat and out the car.
Bruce chuckled lowly at the boy’s antics, even if his words caused a pang in his chest that he’d spent the past few months desperately trying to ignore.
He’d born the brunt of Alfred’s disapproving glare for more than a year now. They both knew it was only a matter of calling Barbara up and asking for Dick’s number, because even without being a tech whiz Dick would have definitely told her how to get in touch with him.
Not that Bruce was ignorant of Dick’s antics in Bludhaven, which he quietly kept track of once Jason was put to bed. He knew it was only a matter of time before Dick confronted him, if only because the former Robin could never leave an argument unfinished. And also. Also. Despite ignoring anything and everything to do with his former protégé, Bruce knew in his gut that they could never truly leave each other.
Not for long.
Batman and Robin stalked Gotham’s streets for months, seemingly impervious to the city’s musings on Robin’s replacement—Jason was obviously younger than Dick and fought differently, viciously—and, for the last few weeks, with a stalker on their tail.
Well, stalker was a strong word.
“Are you Dick Grayson,” Jason said when Batman had stopped them on a rooftop and glared into the dark abyss until Nightwing begrudgingly unveiled himself. “Why are you following us? Bruce doesn’t talk about you a lot, but you’re like, the first Robin! You gotta give me tips!”
Nightwing gave Jason a tight smile before turning the full brunt of his glare on Batman. “I see you’ve wasted no time in replacing me.”
“You wanted to be your own man,” Batman bit out, his entire body tense like a taunt wire. “Doesn’t mean I have to go without a partner.”
“Robin was my mom’s nickname for me,” Nightwing hissed, stabbing a finger at Bruce’s immovable chest. “You can’t just give it to someone else.”
“But I like ‘Robin’,” Jason interrupted with a frown, either willfully oblivious or not giving a damn. He looked down at his shirt. “And I like this shirt.”
“That isn’t my shirt,” Nightwing said.
“Of course not,” Batman looked at his former protégé coolly. “Alfred redesigned the outfit with various upgrades. It was made especially for Jason.”
“What’d you do with mine? Burn it?”
“No, he keeps it in a glass case in the batcave,” Jason told him, and Batman growled “Jason” at the unnecessary reveal. “What.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Jason,” Nightwing said stiffly but not unkindly. He bent down so he was eye-level with the boy. “Bruce is a good man, even if he isn’t the most normal one. Just… be careful, yeah?”
“I kicked butt on the streets,” Jason rolled his eyes and gave the former Robin a toothy grin. “I’ll be fine.”
(After Alfred corralled Jason back to his room and Bruce had finished his lab tests, he strode to the Batmobile and slipped into the backseat, where he knew Nightwing had been hiding.
His former protégé had his knees curled up against his chest. He glared at Bruce but didn’t say anything. No explanation for why he’d continued to stalk them back to the Cave; for why he’d decided to come back now; not even to confront Bruce on his wrongs, however many there were.
He reached out instead and ran a thumb down Bruce’s chin, rough with stubble. Bruce didn’t breathe, and after a long moment Dick nodded and uncurled himself.
“Take care of the kid, alright?” he said off-hand like he really had any vested interest in his spunky replacement. He kicked open a door and leapt out onto the circular railing around the platform. Bruce watched him disappear through an exit and off into the night, unable to properly place the feeling in his chest.
He slept poorly that night.
The next morning Clark had given him a questioning look—he’d gotten a lot of those after Dick had left—before personally chaperoning him to the cafeteria for lunch. Bruce had bared his teeth at Superman’s unwanted help, but didn’t have the nerve to tell him off with his words.
Of everyone who knew them both, Clark was probably the one closest to finding out the truth. If he didn’t already know. Clark had been the one Dick had relied on during those first few months, after all, giving him a home and a name and a newfound drive to protect civilians with everything he had. And he’d had to deal with Bruce in close quarters at work at the same time.
Everyone else seemed to assume that Bruce had no soulmate, that his and Dick’s argument had been the natural result of Bruce’s over-controlling personality clashing with Dick’s independent nature, but Clark knew at least one of those things wasn't true. Goddamn that x-ray vision.
And for all his innocent posturing, Superman was far more perceptive than Bruce liked, too.
He wasn’t sure why Clark hadn’t confronted him the situation with Dick. If he was in his place, he would’ve long pulled himself aside and given him a stern talking to. Dick was well-loved by the entire League, after all. He couldn’t imagine how Superman could stand there while Bruce kept hurting the young man, over and over again.)
Dick liked baby-sitting Lian. She was too young to want anything more than a warm body to snuggle up to and a bottle to fill her belly. He liked to settle her against his chest while he studied up on police policy and regulations in preparation for the academy test he hoped to take soon, because college was nice but he hated how Bruce paid for his education.
It really got under his skin how even now, he still had to fall back on the man’s financial support. Even if they never talked, because every time he dared to venture into Gotham the Bat would forcibly crowd him back to Bludhaven. No other superheroes in his territory.
Seeing as that territory had been Dick’s a little more than a year ago, he found Bruce’s stubbornness regarding the subject infuriating.
“Wasn’t it Wally’s turn to babysit?” Roy said when he came home and saw Dick gently moving Lian’s feet up and down as the baby giggled. “You’re supposed to be in class.”
“What if I drop out of school.”
“Don’t drop out of school,” Roy said sharply, leaning down and scooping his daughter into his arms. She laughed in pure, babyish joy and clapped her hands onto his scruffy face. “It isn’t any fun scrounging up cash with just a high school degree, let me tell you.”
Dick didn’t say anything, just nimbly front-flipped and landed in front of his friend with a frown. “What if I join the police academy? Don’t need college for that, you know.”
“I guess that’s one way of trying to get the Bat’s attention,” Roy said dryly. He bounced Lian in his arms as he wandered into the kitchen, Dick trailing after him without a word. “If you want him to barge into your apartment and strangle you.”
“Hmm,” Dick made a face at the baby and smiled brilliantly when she giggled in response. “I don’t care.”
“Why should I care about Bruce’s phobia of guns?”
“If you didn’t care about the Bat,” Roy said while searching his fridge, “you’d have stayed in Metropolis. No reason to stay in that shitty Bludhaven apartment, not when you’ve got friends everywhere else.”
He gestured at his own flat with his free hand, and yeah, he had a point. Dick often shuttled through his friends’ places whenever he got sick of being close-but-not-close-enough to Bruce. There was something freeing about being in Central City, Star City, Metropolis. In just being plain old Dick Grayson, former acrobat and aspiring police officer, finding his own way after a nasty falling out with his former guardian, Bruce Wayne.
“I can’t,” he said simply. He had no desire to rehash a familiar argument with his old friend. “I can’t leave for too long.”
“I guess,” Roy sighed, taking a large bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and plopping down in a rickety chair. “Jade’s the same way, you know. Off killing assholes in Europe but always dropping in and out of here like a cat whenever she can. Even though I told her I’d put an arrow through her eye the next time I see her.”
Dick froze at the implication.
Roy took another bite.
Dick opened his mouth: “I don’t follow.”
“C’mon Rob,” the other man sighed. “Don’t play this game with me.”
“Did Wally tell you?”
“Wally knows?” Roy actually looked surprised. “And he didn’t do anything? He’s the most well-adjusted out of all of us, you think he’d go running to his uncle when he found out—”
“You can’t tell anyone, Roy,” Dick hissed, voice sharp enough that the dozing baby in Roy’s arms stirred in displeasure. Roy glared at him and Dick backed off, shaking his head. “Seriously, you can’t.”
“Who am I going to tell?” Roy shrugged. “Ollie and I aren’t really talking anymore, and it’s not like Mia or Jade cares about your soulmate drama.” An awkward pause followed, with both men looking at each other like they were teenagers having a staring contest again. Roy spoke first. “Don’t drop out of school, Rob.”
“You think I like relying on Bruce’s money, Roy?” Dick snapped. “I don’t. I’m not taking another cent if I can help it.”
“Stop being such a proud little shit. If it makes you feel better, you’re just taking your due for him throwing you out on your ass. You know what it’s like to have no money?” Roy’s grip on his daughter tightened. “It blows. It really, really blows, and so I know you guys are on the outs but that’s no reason to be stupid. You have to keep the line open, man.”
“Like you and Jade?” Dick said meanly, because Roy might be right but that didn’t mean he had to say it like that. To his credit, the other man didn’t even flinch.
“The line’s always been open between us,” Roy said gruffly. He stroked Lian’s fine, dark hair and smiled when the baby yawned. “’Cause no matter how pissed we are at each other, I know she’ll never not come home.”
And Dick couldn’t say anything to that. Nothing he wouldn’t regret immediately. Nothing he couldn’t take back.
He nodded instead and quietly let himself out, making a note in his head to have Wally take up baby-sitting the next two times in petty revenge.
(Artemis had no sympathy for him either. Not when she, like Roy, knew first-hand how difficult it was to get anywhere without money paving the way. She gave Dick such a fierce talking to in just her sporty negligee, he looked at Wally in awe when his best friend finally wandered out of the bedroom to see what the commotion was all about.
“You’ve inherited the Bat’s stubbornness, at least,” Artemis snapped, and Dick put up both hands to try and allay her fury. “My god, it’s ridiculous trying to reason with you!”
“Babe,” Wally whined, tucking an arm around her waist and snuggling into her blonde hair. Dick felt a stab of jealousy run through him, which wasn’t fair at all. Wally deserved happiness with his soulmate just as much as anyone. Hell, he and Artemis had been the only smart ones to have gotten out of superheroing when they could.
“You okay, Rob?” Wally asked later, once Artemis had stormed back into their bedroom to put on some more respectable clothes. He rubbed his eyes and sat on the counter beside Dick. “You know you can—uh—talk to me about anything. About what happened. You really scared us with the radio silence those first few months; kind of convinced you were dead.”
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” Dick told him honestly, pulling his knees up to his chest. “It’s just. I want to prove to Bruce I’m an adult, and I can’t do that if I keep having to draw from his bank account.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to him,” Wally said fiercely. “You’re you and if the Bat can’t see it than fuck him. I mean, don’t really fuck him, I know you’re technically an adult now but still…”
His voice trailed off when he saw Dick’s face.
“Oh,” he said softly. “Oh Dick.”
“I’m fine,” Dick said, but didn’t fight it when Wally drew him into a fierce hug.
“You say the word and I’ll kill him,” he vowed, green eyes determined. “I mean, I’ll try to kill him, not even Clark could pull it off, but it’s the principle of the thing.”
“Thanks, man,” Dick shook his head. “But I’ll take care of it. I am taking care of it. You and Artemis just worry about your classes, okay?”
“Wall,” he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s not easy getting out of the life. Don’t let me suck you back in. You and Artemis are happy here—right?”
Wally bit his lip, the fight going out of him in a reluctant, guilty manner. “Y-yeah, we’re happy. We’re real happy.”
“Good,” Dick said, and he meant it. “That’s all I needed to hear.”)
Bruce lost track of Nightwing for three weeks.
It was so completely unacceptable his bad mood actually bled over into his training with Jason. He only stopped when Alfred confronted him after their last sparring session left Jason soaking feet in a bucket of hot water to ease his shin splints.
“I’m sure Master Dick is quite alright,” the butler had said stiffly at the back of Bruce’s head; he’d refused to look his old friend in the eye. “But I can’t the same about Master Jason if you keep him on this path.”
It filled him with guilt, of course, but some part of him felt powerless against his rage. There was regret and guilt buried there too, because if anything happened to Dick while he was gone it’d be his fault. He had chased Dick away with harsh words and violent slaps. Had slammed the door in the face of a child he’d once promised to take care of for life, all because he couldn’t control his base urges and had taken something he shouldn’t have.
Hurt upon hurt. Bruce really was a monster, because what other kind of sick bastard would fuck a child and then toss him out like the next day’s garbage.
Looking at Jason’s pained but determined little face through a security camera, Bruce vowed to be a better father figure for the boy. He might have failed Dick, but that didn’t mean Jason was doomed as well. He’ll do right by this boy.
He had to.
It helped when Dick finally returned to university, possessing the well-rested air of someone who’d gone backpacking across the country in search of self-discovery. The brat didn’t even answer Alfred’s phone calls, which meant he was well enough that their stony cold war was still on.
With his fears allayed, Bruce could return to his normal routine of Office, Socializing, and Patrol. And taking care of Jason, of course, because Jason Todd deserved everything Dick had—and didn’t have, too.
Jason was a sore spot. Of course he was. He was the worst Bruce could throw at Dick in that awful break up of theirs: dressing a pre-teen up in his outfit and giving him his name, letting him perch beside him in the Batmobile where Dick had once belonged.
It rankled, of course, but it wasn’t the kid’s fault. Bruce was—and will always be—an asshole boss. Dick would know.
“Crime Alley ain’t too bad if you know where to go,” Jason babbled at him after finding Nightwing tracking some Bludhaven goons that were hiding out on the town border. Dick hadn’t asked why Jason was on his own; a street rat like him must hate being cooped up in the manor. He still had friends on the streets, the kind that could really benefit from Jason’s new access to the Wayne fortune, and the boy had no qualms taking advantage of that whenever he could.
“You gotta smooth your way over, make sure the people know you’re good, you know?” Jason smacked him on the shoulder. “Hey, give me the bag, give me the bag.”
Nightwing sighed and extracted the small bag from his gauntlet. Jason thumbed through the money inside just in case, and then leapt up a rickety fence so he could slip it under a door.
“Frankie’s got two kids to look after,” he said conversationally as he led Nightwing up a gutter and over ragged-looking rooftops. For all his years patrolling Gotham, neither Dick nor Batman had ever bothered to learn the shortcuts through Crime Alley. “Rachel’s my age-ish and her baby brother’s two. Son of a bitch dad left them without a dime a while back. You sure you can fit through this?”
Jason wriggled through the narrow opening and popped out the other side. Nightwing glared at it—it would’ve been no problem if he’d been Jason’s age—and took a running leap, flipping across the top of the buildings rather than getting his ass stuck between the brick and having to call Alfred to bail him out.
Jason looked at him in awe, and Dick felt himself soften just a bit. It was like having a little brother—in a weird, pseudo-incestuous way what with Bruce being their common ‘Dad,’ but that wasn’t anything new—which he sometimes appreciated. Mostly he felt guilty for it, because no matter how much he got along with Jason, he was never going to be close to him. Not like a real brother should.
It hurt too much. Bruce’s presence weighed upon him whenever he saw the flutter of the yellow Robin cape. And it certainly didn’t help that the Bat himself glared at him every time they met for daring to step on his turf.
Used to be our turf, Dick sighed, before turning to thank the beaming Robin for helping him out this once. God knows if Bruce was ever going to thank him, and the thirteen-year old deserved as much positive reinforcement as he could get.
God, Dick sometimes hated being right.
“I’m not you,” Jason shouted angrily, fifteen and sullen and just as fed up with Bruce’s bullshit as Dick had been at that age. Though in a far more platonic way, of course. “I’ll never be you, and fuck anyone who tells me that a proper Robin doesn’t do things that way. I ain’t a goody two shoes like you are, and I never will be.”
“Then tell Bruce that,” Dick said, hanging upside-down on a fire-escape and doing mid-air crunches. He’d been flitting about Gotham just so he could piss Bruce off, and had come across the teenager in a strop instead. “He’s like a rock that way. Takes an electric drill to get anything through his head.”
“He wants me to be perfect, like you.”
“Jason,” Dick said seriously, leaping off the fire escape and squatting in front of the boy. “I wasn’t perfect. Bruce never thought I was perfect. If he made you feel that way than he’s a lying asshole, and you shouldn’t have to put up with it.”
“Fuck you,” Jason said, but both of them knew his fury wasn't directed at Dick. Suddenly looking abashed at his tantrum, Robin turned and shot a line to a nearby rooftop with a grapple gun.
Dick watched the boy zoom off with mixed feelings stirring in his chest. Half of him wanted to go after him, but the other half was telling him to get the hell out of Dodge. Jason might be pissed off at the Bat, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to report to Bruce that Nightwing was on Batman territory.
With only a moment’s hesitation, Dick turned back and began to make his way back to Bludhaven.
It'd be the last time they really spoke. He might have chosen to follow Jason back to the Batcave instead if he'd known—but there wasn’t any use in should haves and could haves.
There wasn’t any turning back time.
Dick had to hear the news from Babs, of all people, because Bruce had gone off the deep end and Alfred was too busy holding down the fort to pick up a phone.
He smashed a window and destroyed his drawer before the university RA barged into his room and Dick was forced to make an escape to the roof. His cheeks felt wet. It shocked him to find tear-tracks there, because the last time Dick Grayson had cried was when Bruce had fucked him and dumped him in what seemed to be a lifetime ago.
Some part of him was furious at Bruce for putting the kid—and he was a kid at only sixteen and really, Dick was such a hypocrite for saying that—in that kind of danger. Whatever mixed feelings he had towards Jason, he didn’t deserve what the Joker did to him.
(And a much greater part of his heart broke for Bruce, because for all Dick was feeling now he knew Bruce was feeling ten times worse. Another life he couldn’t save, another person he loved slipping through his fingers. And this time, it was someone who had his whole life ahead of him being put in the ground and that just hurt.)
“I put him in danger,” Bruce said tonelessly, staring up at the ceiling while lying in bed. “I was the one that brought him along in my quest. To mold him into someone unwilling to say no to me. The perfect soldier. And now he’s dead.”
“Bruce,” Dick said quietly, perched on the other side of the mattress that faced the open window. It was the unlocked window that had tipped Dick off on Bruce’s mental state; whether it was the Bat himself that sent out the signal or Alfred, it didn’t matter.
Bruce looked like a statue, which to Dick’s experienced eyes meant the guilt was eating him alive.
“Bruce,” he said again, anger and sadness and need lacing that one word. He wanted to scream at him. He wanted to comfort him. He crawled across the mattress and settled himself against Bruce’s side like he used to. It felt different, of course, now that he was twenty-one and not thirteen. “Jason chose to fight with you. It’s—it’s not your fault.”
“You’re lying,” Bruce said in a tone that had Dick’s hackles rising, even if he knew the older man was doing it on purpose. “I know you want to yell at me. Do it.”
“Do it,” Bruce snarled. When Dick put his hand on his shoulder, Bruce shoved him so hard the younger man cracked his head on the headboard. Having survived greater things, however, Dick just picked himself up and shoved him back.
“I won’t be the stick you beat yourself up with,” he shouted, sympathy quickly overridden by anger. “Not if you’re just going to turn around and throw me out the door again—”
“—because god forbid anyone see you as just a man—”
“You are no longer welcome here, Dick! You haven’t been for years.”
“—oh fuck off!” Dick snarled, and then they really were fighting. Bruce, despite being in only his pajamas, had the upper hand with Dick cornered. They tussled like that, Dick trying to find an opening as Bruce used his larger form to his advantage. He finally managed a vicious uppercut that had blood staining the sheets, even if it gave Bruce the chance to pin him to the bed and punch him once, twice across the face.
His vision went white with stars.
“Bruce,” he gasped when he caught the wild look in his mentor’s eyes, and this was just ridiculous. Stupid. He reached up and pressed a thumb to where Bruce’s split lip was bleeding and Bruce. Stopped. “Bruce, please.”
He smeared the man’s blood down his chin and neck and to the dip of his collarbone, wondering if Bruce felt the same insane urge to hold and be held. To give in again, in the wake of a gruesome death where nothing else seemed to be in their control.
When Bruce still didn’t move, Dick growled and hooked a leg around the other man’s waist. The move pulled Bruce closer, enough so Dick could wind his arms around those achingly familiar shoulders and smash their lips together.
That was the only signal he seemed to need. Bruce surged forward, kissing back with a violent gusto that had Dick dazedly wondering if he should watch his jugular in his near future. It was exhilarating—because Dick had spent the last few years alternatively trying to forget or guiltily reliving that one night he had everything he’d ever wanted—as much as it was horrifying, because he wasn’t even sure this was his Bruce. He wasn’t even sure Bruce knew it was Dick keening beneath him, helping him unbutton his nightshirt and running his slender fingers down Bruce’s scarred but still lovely chest.
Sliding his boxers down and gripping his cock, not gentle at all but nothing about this was. Bruce was leaving scratches everywhere and Dick’s nose was still bleeding from Bruce punching him in the face, and rather than moan or speak sweet nothings the older man growled the more Dick jerked him off. And then he was manhandling him onto his hands and knees and Dick was—
He wasn’t scared, exactly. Not of Bruce. But he was scared of how much he wanted this, because he’d spent the entire time building his new identity keeping these feelings in check. Now, they were spilling out everywhere. He was seventeen again and curled up in Bruce’s bed, still confused and uncertain and in love.
That time had been careful. Loving. This was all desperation, and Dick was desperate enough himself to take it.
He closed his eyes and arched his back, not fighting at all when Bruce ripped the lower half of his suit off and unclipped his jock. One large hand grabbed his ass roughly before suddenly freezing, like Bruce had been electrocuted.
“Dick,” Bruce’s voice was like rolling gravel, strangely even for all the craziness he’d just been channeling. His hands slowed. The only noise was the sound of their harsh panting. Dick tried to get up on his forearms and look back at the guy, because Dick knew he had a legendary ass but to leave Batman speechless? But Bruce used a big hand to keep his chest flat on the bed, the other one trailing its way down from his ass to his thigh and—
Dick froze when those fingers ran across the words hiding there. Are you alright? He hadn’t thought about them for a long while. Thinking about them meant thinking about Bruce and that hurt, so he didn’t and now.
He whimpered when the older man traced the letters with his thumb. Each one burned one after the other, until Dick felt like the words Are you alright? were glowing gold against his skin.
“Bruce?” he said softly when he felt the man suddenly lean over and press his face between his shoulder-blades.
“They’re really mine,” Bruce whispered, almost in baffled wonder, and Dick shivered.
“For god’s sake—of course they are, how could they not be,” he squirmed under Bruce’s hot and heavy weight, heartbeat thumping erratically. It left him breathless. “And you call yourself the world’s greatest detective.”
“Shut up,” Bruce said, muffled, and Dick had the hysterical urge to burst out laughing. So he did. He laughed when Bruce traced the words a second time with a slick hand, before pressing a finger against his entrance. He laughed when Bruce held his cock with a firm but unyielding pressure, forcing them both to focus on the way his fingers slipped in and out of Dick’s body. He laughed so hard he almost cried when Bruce held him down hard enough for any normal person to begin panicking and lined his cock up to his entrance.
“Are you alright?” Bruce asked, deadpan, even as he began pushing in. Dick squirmed in response and pressed back; eager and approving despite the fucked up mess of emotion surrounding the both of them.
“Perfect,” he smiled through his tears over his shoulder, letting out what could have been a sob when Bruce buried his face into Dick’s soft hair and continued working his way inside, one careful inch at a time.
This time, it was Bruce who woke up to an empty bed. He blinked slowly at the ceiling and wondered if it had all been a hallucination brought on by grief. The sheets were clean. The window was shut.
He shook his head, trying to keep the hysterical melancholy from overwhelming him. Yesterday had been unacceptable. He’d lost valuable time he could have used to trace leads on certain criminal activities, which meant he had to check up on the lab results downstairs as soon as possible to make up for it.
When he wandered into the kitchen, however, he couldn’t help but feel his chest lurch when he heard that too familiar laugh roll over him.
“—I can’t believe Babs didn’t kill him,” Dick Grayson was sitting on the kitchen counter wearing one of Bruce’s over-shirts and blue boxers and cradling a mug in his hand. It was the ridiculous Mickey-Mouse one Bruce had gotten him after Dick had gone through a month-long Disney obsession in middle school.
(Like most of Dick’s things, Bruce had never gotten around to throwing it away.)
“Dick,” he acknowledged, trying for calm and collected but probably sounding dumbstruck instead. God, he’d forgotten how handsome Dick was in the morning light.
Dick jumped, honestly surprised to see Bruce standing there. From the guilty look on his face, he’d meant to be long gone before Bruce woke up. It stung, but Bruce knew he deserved it.
It was the older man who offered him a graceful exit first: “I’m sure your classes at Gotham University are starting soon.”
“How do you know I go there,” Dick said, before he shook his head. “No, stupid question.”
“Dick,” Bruce said, and to his horror he found himself reaching out towards the boy—no, young man. For all they’d been through and in the wake of Jason’s death, it seemed a grossly inappropriate move. Before he could retract his hand with as much dignity as possible, Dick had already stepped forward and grabbed it.
Alfred, astute as ever, quietly excused himself, if only to spare Bruce his dignity. The man felt so vulnerable he wanted to sink into the floor. He hated vulnerability. It was so—exposing.
“What now,” he said, and Dick’s grip tightened in his own.
“Nothing,” he said. It was harsh, laden with regret, and Bruce had to admire his conviction. As Bruce had trained him, he’d already made up his mind before the conversation. “You need—and I need—we need to be in a better place, after this.”
Bruce opened his mouth. He closed it. It wouldn’t help to deny the weight of Jason’s death all around them. Another—another boy he’d failed. Another boy he didn’t have the time to reach out and make up for his mistakes.
Dick was here and alive and breathing, and Bruce couldn’t help but feel how stupid he’d been. But it was too late.
"You’re staying for the funeral?” was what finally came out.
Dick turned his hand so their palms were clasped together, fingers intertwined. “How could you—of course, Bruce. Of course.”
“Good,” Bruce nodded, before using their held hands to pull the younger man against him. Dick’s eyes widened right before Bruce leaned down and kissed him softly, because even too late he knew there was still merit in showing his hand. It was common courtesy, after all, since Dick had shown his all those years ago. When he finally stepped back, he saw the pain in Dick’s expression. It was a Why now of all time expression. A You fucking asshole, I hate you expression.
He brushed his thumb across Dick’s swollen lower lip.
“I love you,” he let slip, just loud enough for Dick to startle. He squeezed his hand before letting go, gesturing at the clock as a borderline parental reminder. Dick looked as if he’d like to stay and hash things out for another two hours—two weeks, with lots of screaming and throwing of things and Alfred glaring at them both—but visibly decided it was a battle he couldn’t win. He turned and gathered his coat from the closet.
Alfred returned to escort Dick out, and this time Bruce was going to watch him leave. This time, Bruce really was letting him go.
Tim drummed his fingers on his lap, waiting for the goddamn computer to finish its analysis so Kon could fly them to the correct location this time (It wasn’t Bart’s fault the villains had set up a fake base, but they couldn’t afford to waste anymore time.)
“Robin,” he heard Batman approaching behind him.
“Sorry sir,” Tim sat up in his chair, aware that he should’ve been done by now. His mentor stood imposingly by the monitor, expression impossible to figure out beneath his cowl. “Still tracking them down. My algorithm’s cut the computing time by three minutes, but it really should’ve gotten it down by ten. I’ll have to work on it when I get back…”
Batman just nodded in a vague way, the kind of gesture that had Tim wondering if it meant Yes, you’re so impressive, Tim, three minutes down is a lot or Why the hell isn’t it ten minutes? Aren’t you supposed to be a genius?
“Oracle isn’t assisting you?”
Ah, the second one then.
“She’s busy helping D—I mean Nightwing on a case.” Tim winced internally at how Bruce twitched at Nightwing’s name. He was usually better at avoiding the topic, but he was already feeling frazzled and had a tendency to word-vomit when upset. “Besides, this is just small stuff—oh and look, it’s done! Gotta run.”
He beat an awkward escape, transferring the data into his tablet and vaulting over the Bat towards his batcycle. He'd planned to call his soulmate outside the manor, but it was probably a good idea to put some distance between himself and the brooding Bat first. Dick would’ve probably advised him to stand his ground, but Tim had always been more of a retreat-and-analyze kind of guy. It was what made him such a good detective.
(Which was how he’d long realized there was something more than an estranged parent-son thing going on between the oldest Robin and the Batman. Exactly what, he wasn't sure. Dick had been so against returning to Bruce’s side but had still agreed to train Tim up—teaching him how to use a bo-staff, to dodge and leap and use an opponent’s weight against them—before presenting him to Batman practically gift-wrapped.
Tim was just satisfied that the Batman and his first Robin were talking again. Even if it was mostly Dick yelling at Batman for being too cold and unattached and using the Robins and Batgirls like pawns and what the fuck was wrong with him; and Batman saying absolutely nothing in return, just radiating cold anger like a curled up bear ready to strike.)
“Change of plans?” Kon-El said when Tim finally gave him a ring at the Gotham bank. He didn’t wait for Tim’s response, just floated down beside his parked Batcycle and offered his soulmate an arm. “You didn’t have to run so far, Tim. Could’ve called me and I’d have socked him in the jaw for you.”
“Don’t sock Bruce in the jaw,” Tim crawled onto Kon’s back and hooked his legs around his waist. “It was my fault anyway. Brought up Nightwing by accident.”
“Huh,” Kon was uncharacteristically quiet at that, which earned him a strange look. When he’d first joined the Titans, Kon had been leery of Nightwing for the sheer irrational reason of the guy not having a soulmate. Tim couldn’t help but feel like it was his fault.
Too many people had been shocked when they’d retrieved Superman’s clone and found actual soul-words scrawled across the back of his head. They were hidden by his hair but were there. And they were the only thing that kept Kon from being shoved into another cryo-tank, since they proved him to be a person with a soul. It was only logical that he came to view people without soul-words to be… less than a person.
Dick had taken it in stride, even if Tim felt frustration at that kind of backwards thinking. He himself had been almost fourteen before he’d woken up sweating one day to find Who are you people? What do you want from me? curled around his waist like a belt. He’d lamented over being fourteen years older than his soulmate. It wasn’t until he met Kon six months later that he understood.
“Have you ever thought of who Batman’s soulmate was?” Kon asked after visibly brooding over the matter, right as they arrived at the Hall of Justice to pick up the rest of the Titans.
Tim frowned but considered the question seriously, “I always thought he didn’t have one.”
“His words are on his elbow.”
Tim blinked, brain filing away an explanation for why Bruce seemed to prefer long-sleeves even in the middle of summer, “X-ray vision?”
“Nah,” Kon shook his head, landing gently on the pristine stairway and helped Tim onto his feet. “But I saw ‘em once when he got banged up after a mission. They had to cut away his clothes to get to a nasty cut, and they were right there.”
“Kon-El,” Tim scolded with a frown, but Kon refused to look apologetic.
“It can’t be bad luck that he hasn’t found his soul mate—and yeah, I checked this time, Tim, and they weren’t gray. I mean, he can find a villain hiding in the backwater jungles of Africa, but he can’t find a person with his soul-words? That’s stupid. Batman probably chased her off because he works alone or something like that.”
Except he didn’t, Tim wanted to say. Bruce liked to pretend to be a solitary knight in the dark, but everyone and their mom knew it was more of a bat-family than a single Batman. What with the Batgirl(s) and Robin(s) and Alfred being the equivalent of an entire army of assistants, Bruce wasn’t really ever alone. And if neither Tim nor Stephanie nor Oracle can drag Bruce kicking and screaming from the cave, than they could always give Dick a call.
Dick wasn’t scared of Batman punching him in the face. It seemed to happen with frightening regularity, and Dick always punched him back.
“I don’t know how he could do it,” Kon said with almost offended air, like he was ready to take up arms for Bruce’s alleged soulmate. “It’s messed up. I can’t imagine life without you.”
Tim flushed red at how matter-of-fact Kon was. How blunt and truthful he could be. He kissed the other boy on the cheek and watched Kon’s face redden in pleased embarrassment. “Yeah. I’m glad I’ve got you too.”
When they finally arrived at the Watchtower, Tim was surprised to see Nightwing perched at the controls and scrolling through the directory of Hero profiles.
“Tim, Conner,” he acknowledged absently, typing and transferring files without stopping. “Found Humanite’s location?”
“We’re about to head off now,” Tim said. “Thought you were on a case?”
“I am, but Babs wouldn’t help me hack into our mutual colleague’s files. Do you know how airsick I can get here? Humans weren’t meant to be in space. If we were, we’d be called spacemen. No offense, Conner.”
“You could just ask Bruce,” Tim told him. “I’m sure he’ll let you visit the Bat Cave if you didn’t try sneaking your way in.”
“Ha ha,” Nightwing said, and punched a final button before whirling around in his chair. “Everything’s done. No bats were hurt in the making of this plot. Please turn off your cell phones and enjoy the show.”
“Dick,” Tim suddenly said, a strange thought niggling at the edge of his brain. Everything Kon had said and the details he’d filed about his new adoptive family were compiling themselves into a recognizable if terrifying shape. Bruce might be a secretive person, but one perk of being a Robin was realizing how fucking boring the Bat could be. Seriously, all the guy did was go to work, party with a fake smile on, and run around as the Batman.
And estranged soulmates couldn’t stand to be too far apart for long. Not a lot of people went out of their way to visit Bruce, especially if it wasn’t for a mission and definitely not if they weren’t on good terms. That would be stupid, and Tim would’ve laughed at whoever tried to pull that off if he wasn’t uncomfortably aware of how that described Dick Grayson to a T.
Nightwing cocked his head but turned around, giving Tim a nod to continue.
Tim took a breath: “Uh—okay, this is going to seem way out of the blue but. Do you know who Batman’s soulmate is?”
He wasn’t a hundred percent sure until he saw how quickly Dick’s face drained of color. It only lasted for a second, but was damning all the same. Tim opened his mouth. Closed it.
Holy fuck, everything just made a thousand times more sense.
“Uh,” Dick stammered, face composed but voice betraying his nervousness. “I—um. It’s not my business to say, ask Bruce, have fun with Superboy and be safe. See you!”
“You saw that, right?” Tim asked Kon after Nightwing practically nosedived into a Zeta Tube. Kon gave him an Are you kidding of course I did look. “I can’t believe—Dick? Actually I can believe it, except that’s—oh my god, Bruce is his foster dad.”
“I heard Clark say his soul-words are on his inner thigh,” Kon told him, and Tim clutched his head.
“Why would you say that.”
“I DON’T WANT THAT IMAGE IN MY HEAD.”
Kon laughed at him, the bastard, and hooked an arm around Tim’s waist when the boy continued to moan in his hands. Moans turned into yelps when Kon spun them into the air, and soon Tim found himself laughing at Kon’s stupid antics. That was how the rest of the Titans found them, and Tim would have been more embarrassed if he wasn’t so grateful to have Kon’s arms around him freely, without any shame at all.
Now that Tim knew, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Dick seemed hellbent on dodging the question and Bruce was as professional and unflappable and unapproachable as ever. Now that he saw the signs, he realized how absurd it was the way they danced around one another.
“They’re both stubborn,” Oracle told him when he finally gave in and called up the only other Bat-member who’d know what they’d been like in the beginning. Except Alfred, of course. “And to be honest, Bruce fucked up big time with how he treated Dick and they could've worked it out if it wasn't for the guilt. I’m not sure if Dick’s holding out for the sake of holding out, but he’s not going to move until Bruce apologizes.”
“And that’s never going to happen,” Tim sighed, before quickly shutting down the frequency when he heard familiar steps making their way down to the cave. By the time Bruce emerged, Tim had already wiped his history and pulled up the briefing he was supposed to be working on.
“Who were you talking to?” Bruce said, causing Tim to wince. Damn.
After a moment, he blurted out: “Dick.”
“You?” Tim tried, and resisted the urge to cower when Bruce turned the full brunt of his terrifying bat stare onto him. “I mean—you know—always good to get advice on stuff, and Dick’s the only—I mean, he’s the one who I can talk to about being a Robin.”
Bruce stared at him. Tim stared back. After a long moment sweating under his cape, Tim relaxed when the Batman gave him a curt nod.
“Understandable,” he turned around and strode towards the weight room. “But I expect the briefing to be finished by bedtime.”
“Yes sir,” Tim called out, relieved, and sank into the swivel chair with a shaky sigh.
He’d have to apologize to Oracle for hanging up on her so suddenly, but he was sure she’d understand. Dick might be reasonable if Tim approached him the right way, but there was no way in hell Bruce was going to react well if he found out that Tim knew.
In the end, all it took was for Tim to get kidnapped.
Which was embarrassing for a number of reasons, but at the top of the list had to be why. He'd been kidnapped from school as Tim Drake, not as Robin, which complicated things further because, you know, secret identity and all that. And it certainly wasn’t because of his connection with Bruce or the Wayne fortune or hell, the Drake bank accounts even.
It was because he was Superboy’s soulmate.
They damsel-in-distressed him and that just really, really pissed Tim off.
“Goddamn xenophobic goons,” he swore as he snapped the zipties on a poorly placed hook and kicked off his private-school mandated boots where the villains had glued a tracker. Alfred wasn’t going to be happy with their loss, but he was sure Bruce could talk him around. He heard the faint sounds of fighting above him and did the only logical thing. He followed it. By the time he'd finally managed to make his way out of the dank cellar they’d stuffed him in, he wasn’t surprised at all to see the carnage surrounding Kon-El.
His soulmate took one look at him and was suddenly right there. He scooped him immediately into his arms and flew right through the ceiling, ignoring the shouts of his fellow heroes—Tim was sure the black and blue one was Nightwing, who was putting his hands on his hips in a very familiar gesture—and out into the open air.
“My dad’s going to kill them,” Kon-El grumbled, and Tim turned to give him a puzzled look.
“Lex Luthor,” Kon corrected grimly, and Tim had to suppress a shudder. “Batman's gonna yell at me for bailing before we got the right info, by the way. Like who's foiling Luthor's plans and all that, but I don’t care. Gotta get you somewhere safe, Tim.”
“Wait,” Tim said, alarmed. “Bruce was there too?”
“With Nightwing,” his soulmate confirmed, still distracted by his rage. “Getting on better than usual while planning your rescue. Think the whole situation’s brought on some bad memories, though—something about another Robin being kidnapped.”
And Tim—Tim felt a bit like an idiot, because of course that’s what Babs meant. Those first few years had been brutal, yes, but Tim was sure they could’ve resolved their differences if grief hadn’t snuck in and fucked everything up.
The Robin who shall not be named: Jason Todd.
His uniform hung pristine in the Bat Cave, right next to Dick’s own Robin costume and set apart by the golden plaque Bruce had placed on the glass. Tim wasn’t sure how he felt about the second Robin. He never knew him, not really, and had actually hated him for a bit when he’d first replaced Dick after the Dynamic Duo’s split. He’d practically worshipped Dick, after all, and was more than affronted to see this kid—barely older than himself, even!—running after Batman like he belonged.
His funeral had been one of the few events Dick Grayson had publicly returned to Gotham City for. Out of a detached love for a fallen brother, maybe, but more likely out of guilt. Jason had been Bruce’s responsibility. In some way, he’d also been Dick’s.
“I wish they knew,” Tim murmured into Kon’s ear when the boy pressed him against the wall of his apartment, angry and possessive and still shaking with adrenaline. “It’s okay for them to be happy. I’m sure he would have wanted them to be happy, not miserable because they think they deserve it.”
“What are you talking about,” Kon frowned, biting Tim’s neck and unbuttoning his pants. Tim yelped when Kon lifted him up by the ass and encouraged him to hook his legs around his waist. “Pay attention to me.”
“Yeah, okay,” Tim knew better than to argue when Kon had that look on his face. He wrapped his arms around the other boy's shoulders and let himself sink into his aggression: terrifying and brutal and unfailingly honest as only nature can be.
Dick was at the breakfast table.
Tim blinked but otherwise didn’t react, just trudged to the fridge and poured himself a glass of orange juice. Kon had flown him back early that morning just to prove to Batman that he could return Robin at a reasonable time. To their surprise, Bruce hadn’t been angrily waiting up in the Bat Cave or the study. They’d been making their way to the master bedroom to check when Kon had suddenly frozen mid-step and flushed a brilliant red.
“They’re in there,” he said quickly, vaguely, and pulled Tim back towards his room and shut the door. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who they were, and Tim couldn’t help but feel a thrill of triumph at this development.
Even if it had meant his kidnapping.
Now, with Dick sitting right there, everything felt much more real. It was eerie how the former Robin fit in so well there, dressed in a too-big shirt (Bruce’s, Tim’s detective mind deduced) and bright, bird-decorated pajama pants (probably Dick’s, because years later and neither Bruce nor Alfred had ever cleaned out the first Robin’s room.)
“Are you staying?” Tim asked him after inhaling a plateful of hash browns and eggs. Dick responded by shaking out the Gotham News and throwing Tim the funnies. “I don’t want this.”
“What’s wrong with you,” Dick frowned at him. “Best part of Sunday morning was when Bruce gave me these.”
“I can’t believe you guys actually read the Sunday paper,” Tim gave the page back and got up to put his plate in the sink. “I can’t believe you still remember getting Sunday papers.”
“We had VHS and mixtapes too,” Dick said, deadpan, and Tim clutched his heart in fake-horror. “Alfred had to adjust the satellite sometimes. God forbid anyone else knew what dish technology was.”
“Dick, stop tormenting him,” Bruce suddenly appeared in the doorway. Tim stared.
It’d been an eternity since he’d seen Bruce and not Batman. In fact, looking at the relaxed line of Bruce’s shoulder and the gentler feel of his face, Tim wasn’t even sure if he’d ever seen Bruce. Not for real.
“I’m not tormenting him,” Dick muttered. He folded the newspaper and got up from his seat. “I’m telling him of the good old days.”
“What was so good about it.”
“I got to sit in your lap,” Dick said, as if he wasn’t traumatizing Tim right there and then. Bruce sighed, obviously better equipped to deal with Dick’s mischievousness after years of exposure, and crossed the room to take a seat. Before he could sit, however, Dick grabbed him by the shoulder and—with a significant look at Tim, meaning he was perfectly aware that Robin was right there—kissed Bruce on the cheek.
“Thank you for breakfast, Alfred,” Tim said loudly, crab-walking alongside the counter and towards the exit. It was one thing to know and another to see, and Tim wasn’t sure if he was emotionally prepared for getting an eyeful. “And, uh, congrats on you guys working something out. You did work something out, right? ‘Cause Nightwing’s here and not throwing trashcans at you, B, and that’s great because trash cans are more expensive than they would seem—”
“Tim,” Bruce said.
“—and it’s nice to see you better, Bruce,” Tim continued, nervousness giving way to sincerity. He gave his mentor a look. “It’s okay to be happy. Gotham doesn’t need misery to hold itself up, and I think it’s—well, I think he would’ve been glad, right? To see you guys living life to the fullest.”
Bruce stared at him. To anyone else it’d be a deadpan Bat-stare as usual, but to Tim’s trained eyes he could see the very edge of something in that gaze. Surprise, definitely, but something like fear too. However long he’d been by Bruce’s side, Tim still felt satisfaction whenever he genuinely surprised him.
Dick gave him a small smile, and with that Tim made his final escape. He was in the hallway when he heard the older Robin laughing softly, saying something like “From the mouth of babes,” and—in a moment Tim would never forget—the sound of Bruce chuckling in response.