Author's Note: This will be a series of one-shots charting the various relationships between characters at key moments throughout their history. Although some may not be exact canon, I would like to think there is a degree of it in every chapter that gifts it both credibility and realism. At present, I have only prepared two stories for publication, this one and another between Jason and Dick at the beginning of Jason's tenure as Robin. Ideas welcome.
This one-shot features Bruce and Dick a year after the man fired his ward as Robin. They have not spoken since his departure and Bruce finds himself struggling to concentrate on matters in the cave. Alfred suggests a solution that Bruce is unconvinced of. Then Alfred makes Bruce carry it out.
Either convince me you like it or convince yourselves I like it. Whatever that means.
Tonight has proved to be…atypical. Routine patrols seem unusually difficult to complete without marked errors in technique or execution when I am engaged in combat. I am frequently mistiming steps and not striking through blows sufficiently. This means it takes two hits instead of one in order to incapacitate an opponent and I suffer greater damage than would be warranted to accomplish such goals. I am aware my lack of REM sleep and punishing schedule is not helping matters, but neither is it to blame either: I can function efficiently even after three days of non-stop combat and operations. There is an underlying cause for this amateur behaviour but I am loathe to admit it. It is the boy. He has been gone from this house and all that includes for nearly fourteen months.
At first I did not notice his absence. I would suppose my anger negated his lack of presence. I yelled at him before he left. I yelled loudly and I did not omit anything. I made it clear I did not want him anywhere near me or Gotham's streets. I fired him in the worst circumstances. Since that night when I watched him ascend the cave steps for the last time, he has not been in contact with me at all. I know he has called Alfred. The old man receives at least one phone call a week from him. Alfred then passes on regards I know Dick has not given in some effort to soothe broken bonds. It is ineffective but I do not tell him so. I also know the boy has taken on a new moniker and costume in his role with the Teen Titans. He is apparently calling himself Nightwing and dressing in clothes far more appropriate for his age. From what I can gather, he is performing admirably in a leadership role. I am indifferent.
The problems began two or three months ago. The holiday season had passed with relative obscurity in the house as they always had before the boy's arrival. Outside in the city, I maintained my public image as a philanthropist by donating gifts to Gotham's Children's Hospital and assisting the mayor in lighting the tree outside City Hall. It was during this ceremony that I saw him for the first time since his departure. Despite the vastness of the crowds and the innumerable sea of generic faces regarding me, I saw him immediately. He was near the front staring at me with an expression that was unreadable. I have never been unable to read him before. The boy was wearing a heavy coat against the winter weather and appeared to have grown a ponytail during the intervening months. I did not like it. He stood watching me all the way through the mayor's speech and the ensuing chaos of joy amongst the masses when the tree was lit. I am unsure if he expected me to say something or give some kind of gesture, but when I did neither and the ceremony was officially concluded, he simply walked away. Since that day, I have had my concentration difficulties. A fortnight later, I began to suffer from bouts of insomnia and poor sleep. The quality of my investigations has dropped.
Of the twenty-two active cases I had prior to that encounter, only fourteen of them have been formally concluded. Of the eight remaining, I am only confident of three. The remaining five cases are not of sufficient quantity or weight to allow me to formulate workable theories. This is down to my errors in gathering basic information and intelligence for the investigations. I am growing unbearably obtuse in my methods and deductive reasoning. I am not thinking clearly anymore and can barely secure enough evidence for convictions to be upheld in court. It is highly distressing to find myself at such a juncture. It is because of the boy. It is because…
I miss him.
I arrive back at the cave before two A.M. Alfred is constantly on standby presently due to my newfound abilities to sustain disabling injuries from even the simplest of situations. The old man is not pleased with my aggravating already sore ribs with further punishment nor is he thrilled by my purchase of a sprained wrist courtesy of improper arm bar technique. He regards me after bandaging my wrist with a great degree of sadness present in his eyes. He emits a long sigh before placing a hand on my shoulder.
"Just talk to him, Sir. You can't continue this way for much longer."
"I'm quite certain I can continue this indefinitely, Alfred."
"Not unless you mean as some twisted interpretation of an afterlife. You need to clear the air with him."
"You know he won't speak with me Alfred."
"So go and speak with him directly at his apartment, Sir."
"He will not see me."
"Did you know he thinks you don't love him anymore?"
I stare at the old man in silence for several minutes. He is serious in what he has just said. The boy honestly believes I do not love him anymore. It is as absurd a notion as I have ever heard uttered. I shake my head.
"That is impossible." I say. Alfred sighs again.
"No, Master Bruce, that is the logic of an eighteen-year-old boy who has been all but thrown out of his home and now rents an apartment in a city even more dilapidated than ours so that he will not 'sponge' off your wealth. The only man he loved more than his own parents has effectively disowned him and has not even attempted contact of any sort since that abandonment. How would you suppose the young man would interpret it if not that you no longer wish anything to do with him?"
I was aware of the boy's living arrangements and his part-time jobs to pay the rent. I am aware Bludhaven is not a pleasant place to reside and that its crime rate rivals Gotham's without much effort. Alfred has told me everything Dick has told him. I have listened and stored the information. But I have not analysed any of it. I have not interpreted any of the data available to me. I would consider it unnecessary prying into affairs that do not concern me. Dick is grown now and his privacy must be respected. His wishes must be respected. I must not encroach on his liberties or choices. I must not break under the pressures.
"That's not true. I am merely respecting his wishes that I do not interfere in or try to control any aspect of his life." Alfred stares at me in what can only be described as astonishment.
"My God…sometimes you really are not quite human, are you Sir?" I frown.
"I do not understand your meaning, Alfred."
"How would talking to him interfere in his life?" He asks despite my understanding the answer to be obvious.
"It would waste his time." There is a lasting silence again, but Alfred is able to break it with some force.
"Do you miss him, Sir?"
"It could be inferred that my lack of focus is attributable to…"
"That is a yes. Now ask me the question you have wanted an answer to." I know what question he is referring to, but I am already confident of the answer. It is a flat 'no'. I shrug.
"Alfred, I really think this exercise is…"
"Ask the bloody question, Sir."
"Does he…miss…me?" I say, quite surprised by my difficulties in articulating the four words required. I am hesitant despite knowing the answer. Alfred's nod indicates that I have misjudged the situation by some way.
"Terribly. He has never openly admitted as such but it is obvious when he mentions your name. There is a strain to his words whenever you become a topic of conversation. It is that of a boy still hopeful for reconciliation. Unfortunately that hope is fading with every passing week that you do nothing to justify your label as his father."
"I am not his father, Alfred. I never…" I stop when the old man slaps me across the face with an open palm. It stings enough to inform me of how angry he is with my approach to the situation. He glares at me.
"You are going to see him right now."
"Alfred it's two-twenty in the morning."
"Get some clothes on and we'll go."
We arrive at the apartment building shortly before three-forty-five A.M. It is a decaying ruin of an establishment, replete with crumbling plaster, boarded windows and unchartered scores of graffiti. I would imagine it to be a crack house or squatter's haven, but not accommodation. Alfred waits in the car as I open the main door and find the lock broken off. I enter the lobby and regard the mail boxes. Many flaps have been prised off but I am able to identify the boy's apartment as being number thirty on the third floor. When I arrive outside the door, I am quick to notice access to the roof is only yards away and would be very convenient for nocturnal activities. I knock twice and wait. Oddly, the door opens immediately. Dick is clearly awake and has been for several hours judging by his lucidity. He is also dressed in nothing but a dressing gown and has wet hair, indicating that he has just taken a shower. The likelihood is he has just returned from conducting his own patrol duties in the city.
"Unless you've got some of my mail to give me, get lost." He tells me sharply. He has sustained an injury to his right arm if the way he is cradling it is any indication. I would imagine it to be a deep laceration of some kind, perhaps even a dog bite.
"You're injured." I say. He narrows his eyes.
"I could fetch Alfred up to treat it for you."
"I don't need help."
"It's on your right arm."
"You're right-handed. If it requires suturing, you'll struggle to stitch it effectively."
"I can manage fine, thanks. It's late so if you don't mind…" He says preparing to close the door.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry about everything that happened that night and the weeks preceding it. You deserved better." I tell him without any sort of uncertainty. He pauses halfway through the action of closing the door.
"Has Alfie been coaching you to say that?" He says with more than a hint of doubt at my sincerity. I shake my head.
"No. I mean it." I gesture at his arm, "Was it a Rottweiler?" Dick shakes his head.
"Alsatian. It didn't get down to the nerves."
"It wasn't just one, was it?" I say having observed a slight imbalance in his posture: his left leg is bearing the majority of his weight. The boy shakes his head.
"There were two. The other one chomped down on my thigh. It wasn't as bad."
"Do you feel nauseous?"
"They didn't have rabies."
"You have vomited recently though." Dick instinctively wipes his mouth to clear any evidence he assumes I have picked up on. The truth is I merely guessed based on his pallid complexion.
"I haven't been eating well recently."
"Since that is the case, perhaps you would prefer to sit down and talk rather than stand." I say. The boy averts his gaze. He's embarrassed, probably from either the state of the apartment or the lack of possessions it most likely contains.
"I'd rather you didn't come in if it's all the same. The place is…not for guys like you." He is alluding to my wealth and the luxury it affords me. He forgets I have sometimes been undercover in the field for several weeks in locations even worse than this. I do not mind grime or garbage of any sort if it is a necessity to achieve my goals.
"Dick, I have been an appalling guardian for you in the past eighteen months. I have known that since you left but chose not to act out of some misplaced sense of righteousness, one of my many faults. I know I am too late to apologize for the last year, but as you know I am late to react to most things concerning human contact. If you wish me to leave I will return to…" I am halted by his hand gripping the shoulder of my coat with an incredibly tight hold: he is literally making a fist through the fabric.
"Don't leave. Just, just don't leave please." He says in a strained voice while looking me directly in the eyes. I am rendered speechless by the pain and desperation in his eyes. Everything Alfred said is true: Dick believes with the utmost sincerity that I do not love him. He believes it. I incline my head.
"Okay. I won't." He slowly releases my coat and takes a few deep breaths to steady himself. I can see he is close to breaking down. I let him gather his thoughts before suggesting anything else. "Perhaps I could come in?" He nods at me before turning in the doorway and limping into what appears to be the living room. It is Spartan in this apartment. There is no discernible furniture beyond a battered sofa and wooden coffee table. The space is not as unkempt as I had envisioned whilst the general condition of the walls, floor and windows are of acceptable quality given the area. When I sit down beside him, I notice the television set perched on a book shelf on the opposite side of the room. It is a small portable variant with a scratched silver finish.
"I know it's crappy, but I'm trying to keep expenses to a minimum so I can spend the cash on my utilities for crime-fighting."
"I see. Where are your medical supplies?"
"In the kitchen, bottom drawer of the cabinet."
I find the medical kit easily enough and return to the living room. "It's not too late to have Alfred treat you instead of me." I remind him whilst setting the kit down on the coffee table. The boy shakes his head.
"I'm fine with you doing it this once. You know you don't look so hot yourself." He informs me having obviously taken note of my bandaged wrist and general body stiffness as I sit back down. I unfasten the kit.
"Recent patrols have been less than desirable in their content." I reply taking out the suture thread and disinfectant swabs. "May I see your thigh?"
"Only if you're a gentleman about it." Dick says with half-a-smile. I cannot help but smile back. I should not have let him go like that. It is easy to say such things now, but hindsight is a terrible thing especially when it proves your course of action was incorrect.
"Keep yourself well covered." I say before lifting his gown to uncover an uncomfortable-looking series of holes that form a perfect half-circle on the thickest part of his leg. It is still weeping blood as I tend to it. As I work we talk about his relationship with the Titans. He tells me everything is fine and they are doing well with their missions. I am glad he is not completely isolated here. The wound is surprisingly simple to treat and I conclude matters with it in less than ten minutes. Then I turn to his arm. His forearm is badly lacerated and bleeding profusely. It will require suturing. He registers no real reaction as I suture the wound shut which surprises me somewhat: there is normally a yelp of some kind when faced with this kind of treatment. Perhaps he is tougher. Perhaps my opinion of him is too condescending. Either way, I am pleased.
"I'd be willing to give you one more chance, Bruce." Dick tells me when I have packed away the kit. I wait intently for his conditions. "As long as you're really sorry about the way things ended between us, we can work something out." I nod my head.
"I was angry with you for all the wrong reasons. I had no right to say the things I did. I regret all of them. I never wish to distance myself from you again." The boy smiles at me in something approaching satisfaction.
"I'm sorry too. I kind of said some things I wish I could take back. I think you understood the 'not-a-little-kid-anymore' part of my rant a little too well." I would agree with that observation. I will not make a similar error. He shrugs. "But I'm not coming back to the house and I'm not sponging off your money. I just want to feel like I can drop by if I get the time or if I call you that you'll actually pick up the phone. That's all." His conditions could have been easily met a thousand times over by this stage. If I had listened, they could have been occurring right now. I nod in understanding but must add a little caveat of my own.
"I will contribute a little financial aid to supplement your income and also provide you with the equipment you need for your duties with the Titans and on the streets here." The boy is instantly wary of my proposal.
"How much aid?"
"Would two hundred dollars be sufficient?"
"That's like half my monthly income."
"I trust it might help you obtain a better standard of food?" I say referencing the empty Chinese take-away cartons and pizza boxes I found on the kitchen countertop. Dick still looks unsure of my offer.
"Am I sponging off you?"
"Hardly. I would merely sleep better knowing you are able to look after yourself effectively." The boy nods.
"I missed you too." He says. Regardless of Alfred's keen observational skills, Dick is still the only person who can see right through me in such matters. He considers the offer again. "If it helps you concentrate better at work or sleep better at night or whatever, I'll take your offer."
"I am glad. I shall call you tomorrow if you like." I say getting to my feet in preparation to leave. Dick nods.
"Yeah that would be cool."
"I trust you can manage your own way to your bed?" He smirks at me and nods.
"I'll be okay. I'll speak to you tomorrow."
"Good night Dick."
"No, big guy, Good morning." He corrects me with a good-natured smile. It is enough to give me pause and reconsider what words I really wish to exit on the strength of. Alfred's assertions that Dick should understand I still love him seem the best way to part terms on. I begin.
"Dick, you know that I have always…"
"Yeah me too. I think I'm getting how you feel about me now is the same as usual. I don't want you to embarrass yourself by saying it out loud. We're both terrible at holding those kinds of conversations." He says cutting me off without sounding too sharp. "Call me tomorrow afternoon please." I incline my head in gratitude.
"Until tomorrow." I say before closing the door behind me. As I descend the stairwell on route back to the car, I understand that Alfred was unmistakably right in his analysis of the situation. I have not completely mended burnt bridges but I have made a start. I would do anything to continue talking with that boy, to have him be a part of my life. I realise that now. I am thankful I was not too late.