Bruce hated coming to Blüdhaven. He hated passing the city sign, he hated driving its streets, he hated being able to put sights and sounds to all the news of corruption that wafted out like the smell of a dying corpse. It was rare that business brought him there, day or night, but when it did, he loathed it. Blüdhaven was a disease that couldn't be cured, a reminder of what Gotham could have been had the Batman not taken back the night.
When the red and blue lights began flashing in his rear-view mirror, forcing him to pull over in the shadiest, most desperate neighborhood he'd ever seen, it felt like a personal attack from the city itself. Gotham's "dirty little sister" was surely mocking him from her shadowy corners.
He was certain of it when the police officer approached the car. "Well, Mr. Wayne, this is a surprise..." Bruce was actually taken off-guard for a minute, hearing that oh-so-familiar voice attached to that wide and ever present grin, one that took on devilish qualities as the young officer rested his arm on the car door.
"You... Dick?" The hatred Bruce had for Blüdhaven was clearly mutual. The former Boy Wonder's grin only grew wider.
"Now, now, no need to resort to crass names." Never one to resist a pun, the boy clearly relished Bruce setting it up for him. "The name's Officer Grayson." To you. "Do you know why I pulled you over?"
"Was I speeding?" For a moment, all of Bruce's control had been taken, his world shaken like a snowglobe, and he had not mentally prepared for such a strange situation. Bruce Wayne had been pulled over by his former ward, which was only more humiliating when you brought the masks into it. Was there any point keeping up the act of a clueless, harmless playboy in front of Dick, who knew the joke better than anyone? Or did he he continue the ruse on principle, as Dick was in his civilian garb and hadn't been behind those walls in a long, long time?
Trying to find his feet in the situation distracted from the real reason he hated coming to Blüdhaven. "Well, there was that, too. But I actually stopped you because your registration's expired. Can I see that and your license, please?" Bruce felt a numbing disbelief wash over as he dug for the information. Surely this was a mistake, if he hadn't noticed, he had people on staff responsible for maintaining his vehicles. They would have informed him, taken care of it, surely Alfred couldn't have let an entire car slip through his notice? Dick was just messing with him, looking for attention...
But the evidence was damning, a sad little date on his registration document telling Bruce that renewal was due seven months ago. "Driving this baby for seven months," Officer Grayson said with a teasing whistle. "That's got to be some sort of record. Can't believe you got away with it for so long."
"I don't always drive this car," Bruce said woodenly, not sure of what else to do. In fact, he often had a chauffeur to deal with traffic and it's laws. What even was the punishment for driving without registration? This was new territory for him, which Dick knew perfectly well and the boy's grin just needled him all the more.
"Still, it's surprising nobody's pulled you over before."
"I suppose in Gotham City the police have more important issues to concern themselves with."
"Ouch, Mr. Wayne." Dick never lost his grin, but his eyes gave a dangerous flash. "Wait here, I'll be back in a minute." And the boy disappeared back into his squad car with Bruce's license.
The billionaire leaned his head back against his seat and sighed. There were so many embarrassing factors that Bruce wanted to sink into his seat and disappear, but not before getting that smirking boy in a headlock. It's your own fault, you raised him, his conscience teased, sounding something like Alfred, who would surely double over laughing when he heard about this. Tim, too, would be rolling on the floor. One paparazzi camera and Bruce would never be able to show his face anywhere again.
Not that this should have been his greatest concern. He should have been fretting about Dick's clear weight loss, his living conditions, the dangers of his job. After all this time struggling to find the courage to pick up a phone and actually talk, Bruce should have been grateful for an excuse to interact with his former ward. The two had been well on their way to repairing their relationship after Bruce's back injury, but in such a short time, the bridge between them had shattered like glass.
He hated that Dick was a cop. He hated that Dick chose to stay in Blüdhaven and not Gotham. He hated that Dick went and got a job and an apartment and his own city to protect as if he didn't need Bruce or the Batman to rely on, and he hated that Dick still hadn't brought Blockbuster to justice but was slugging through a charade of minor violations. When Dick failed, Bruce hated it, and also hated it when success pulled Dick away from him, he hated that he was so cold with Dick and he hated that Dick could pull out emotions and humor from the Dark Knight whether Bruce felt up to it or not. And he hated that stupid service revolver most of all.
He was also insanely proud, but somehow that seemed to fly away in the face of all his other emotions. Taking to the sky and lost forever, like a little Robin leaving the safety of a cave.
"Aw, cheer up, Mr. Wayne," Dick said when he reappeared. "At least it wasn't the company car, if you know what I mean." Bruce did, but his glare did nothing to dampen the young man's cheery mood. "Still, seven months, I can't give you a pass on that. I'll be impounding your vehicle."
"What?" Bruce's eyebrows shot straight up into his hairline. "You can't-"
"Oh, I can. Standard policy for three months on an expired registration. At this point, it would irresponsible for me not to impound you." The officer's eyes twinkled. "Don't worry, it's just fees and fines. You're not going jail. Now, step out of the car, please."
Bruce sat still, trying to catch up. He hated feeling helpless, hated that Dick was the one to catch this mistake and hold power over him, going so far as to patronize and reassure the Batman. After all he'd done in life, there was no reason for him to feel intimidated by a cop, let alone one who used to sit on his counter and eat peanut butter straight from the jar. "Isn't this a conflict of interest?" Bruce asked, mostly joking to hide how weak and disoriented he felt. "Are you allowed to write up your family?"
Dick's smile plummeted like a jumper from a skyscraper. "Please, Mr. Wayne, you fired me from that gig a long time ago." And just like that, the charade of friendly, if awkward, banter was dropped. Bruce hadn't meant for that, but he couldn't deny it felt more familiar.
He'd always had a knack for fighting. "Can you be fired from something you never accepted in the first place?"
"Step out of the car and take out anything you want to bring with you. The tow truck will be here shortly." When Bruce still didn't budge, Dick's eyes narrowed. "I said, step out of the car."
"I need this car," Bruce insisted, a little stubbornly. "How am I supposed to get back to Gotham without it?"
"Cab, bus, call your chauffeur. It's not like you don't have a fleet of cars and little pawns to do your bidding." Dick inclined his head, evil grin back but not looking half as friendly. "You're in with the Bats, right? Maybe Robin could swing by and pick you up."
Bruce felt like punching his former ward in his smug little face. "I have a meeting with Matches Malone," he tried, watching the recognition on Dick's face. Maybe Bat-business would be enough to get him out of this.
But it didn't change anything. In fact, the good officer looked suspicious. "You're driving out to 'meet' him in this expensive car, are you?" Admittedly, the lie didn't hold water.
"Not immediately," Bruce finally admitted, and the look on Dick's face was too much to bear. Time to turn the tables. "I'm not letting you impound my car."
"I don't see how you have a choice." Dick gestured for Bruce to exit the car again, but the billionaire shook his head. "I suppose you could ride all the way to the lot if you're that attached, but you still can't drive it away until you get that registration taken care of. And don't think a generous donation from the Wayne Foundation is going to get you out of this. Despite what you may have heard, not every cop in Blüdhaven can be bribed."
Well, Grayson set himself up for this one. "Being on the take is the nicest thing I've heard about any cop in Blüdhaven."
Even Mr. Freeze would have thought Dick's look too cold. "Mr. Wayne, step out of the car."
"If I don't?" Bruce challenged with a perverse sense of triumph. "You going to use your gun on me, Officer?"
In the back of his mind, he knew he was out of line, even if there weren't masks at home and the officer wasn't an acquaintance. The fact that Dick used to live in his house as a son and they had a history as vigilantes only made the issue worse. He knew he was only aggravating the problem. He knew his behavior was unwarranted and completely at odds with his endless wish that the broken, empty spaces in his house could be filled. This wouldn't make the old Robin costume stare at him with any less condemnation.
But there was an empty bedroom in his mansion, an ugly city called Blüdhaven trying to see just how fast it could plunge itself into Hell, and a gun strapped to his little boy's waist in the middle of it all. "You don't seem to realize, Mr. Wayne," Dick said with a growl, "That if I wanted, I could make your civilian life very, very annoying..." Still 'Mr. Wayne'. Not Bruce. He may have ticked Dick off, but he didn't break him.
He never could make Dick do anything. And Bruce didn't really want to see how far the boy's threat could go, if only for the inconvenience and embarrassment he'd have to face. He took his briefcase and exited his car with grit teeth. "Here's your license back, and your citation." Bruce took the offered documentation with a bit of a hiss.
"Thank you, Officer Dick." A raised eyebrow was the only rise he got in response.
"You're welcome. The tow truck will be along any second." Dick explained the citation and how to take care of it with professional aloofness, and then went over to his squad car while Bruce stood on the curb and phoned for a cab. After that, there was nothing to do but wait for his car to be towed.
Many cars zipped by, each seedier than the last, but no sign of a tow truck. "I thought you said they'd be by any second?"
"They should have been. On the other hand, people aren't usually in a rush to come to this part of town," Dick responded, leaning against the police car. He'd reigned in most of his emotions, and now his expression was neutral. "What were you doing here, anyway?"
"I think I took a wrong turn leaving a business meeting," Bruce admitted, the truth not nearly as embarrassing as getting pulled over had been. "I don't know this city as well as Gotham." He should have guessed his location once he recognized the cop pulling him over, though. Of course Dick would be patrolling the most dangerous streets with no mask and a killing machine on his belt. Anything else would imply the universe wasn't out to get him.
"It would be kind of freaky if you did. People can't drop gum wrappers in Gotham without you noticing the difference." The boy's face was still calm and passive, but Bruce saw something in his eyes that searched, something peering out from behind the walls. "You're such a stickler for details. I'm actually surprised you let a car registration get by you."
Honestly, so was Bruce. He could hypothesize that it was subconscious, but that probably wasn't true. "Isn't it a very 'Bruce Wayne' sort of thing to do, though?" Humiliating as it was, it fit his clueless billionaire cover perfectly.
A smile tugged at Dick's features. He didn't realize just how much he'd been missing that. "A very 'Bruce' sort of thing." And for a second, it felt like it used to, before Nightwing and Jean-Paul and Blüdhaven.
Several feet away, a disheveled looking man was loitering in front of an electronics store. Bruce had noticed him some time ago, but was now starting to find his actions suspicious. Dick didn't seem to notice. "You gonna call Alfred to take you home, or are you here for more than business?"
"Oh, this and that." That wasn't a good enough answer. But there was only so much he could say, and he was a bit distracted keeping a discrete eye on the loiterer.
"Okay, then. How's Gotham?"
"Usual." Yup, he was definitely working up the courage to rob that store. Bruce would have to tell Dick, since the boy had yet to turn around and see what was going on. If he had, and didn't find it suspicious, then his observational skills had dulled in his time spent away from Bruce's training.
"You're totally working a case here, aren't you?"
"Wouldn't matter to you if I was," Bruce replied without even thinking. And after he'd had some civil sentences with the boy. When had antagonizing and shoving his partner away become second nature? Like his car, his relationship with Dick had expired long before Bruce realized there was ever a problem.
Dick stomped over to him before he could amend his statement. "It matters, because this is my city. You have your own. No one gets to hunt criminals in Gotham without your approval, remember?" He did. All too vividly, he remembered arguing with a furious Nightwing until they were ready to push each other off the rooftop. "You can't have it both ways, Bruce."
The billionaire said nothing, but the look on his face said 'You couldn't stop me if you tried', and it caused a grin to break out on Dick's face.
It reminded Bruce of the Joker. "Well, I don't answer to you anymore, so you can't take my mask away," Dick taunted, dropping his voice low enough not to be overheard. "You going to use a Batarang on me?"
It hurt to have his own inappropriate jibes turned back on him, but before Bruce could say anything, Dick held up a hand. "Excuse me for a sec. Hey, buddy!" Dick whirled around and waved at the shifting gentleman Bruce had noticed earlier. "You look lost, can I help you with something?"
"Um, no, I..." The man stammered a bit, clearly startled by all the attention from an officer of the law. It did the trick, though. Whatever his intentions had been, he apparently wasn't desperate enough to try them in front of a watchful policeman. Bruce had to admire Dick's ability to ease a tense situation with little more than a friendly voice, and he was relieved to see Dick was still aware of his surroundings.
That didn't fully put him at ease with everything, though. Dick sighed and turned back to Bruce. "Sorry for the interruption in your regularly scheduled programming. We now return you to the Dick and Bruce Argumentative Hour: All insults, all the time."
Bruce paused. "We're not that bad, are we?" Dick shrugged.
"Getting there. Poor Timmy's worried that one day we're just going to break out the whole weapons arsenal and go to town on each other." Dick took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, his joking mood fading. "I'm sorry. I was a bit of a brat with some of the stuff I just said. It was out of line."
It would have been so easy to just parrot the words back. I'm sorry, too. Dick had given him an opportunity to acknowledge his own mistakes with minimal effort, so why was it so much harder to offer a small apology than to tear Dick down? In the end, he sidestepped it all. "I'm sure you have a lot on your mind."
It wasn't good enough, and nowhere close to the emotions trying to poke through the stone walls around Bruce's heart. Dick could break all those walls down, brought color into an otherwise monochromatic life, but that was fine when he was present in Bruce's life, a permanent fixture that lit up the darkness. Now Dick was growing further and further away, and that absence made the holes in Bruce's protective walls unbearable.
And that left them here, right next to each other but feeling like strangers. Dick let out an audible sigh. "Believe it or not, my life choices haven't been a strategic plan to tick you off. I'm still the same person, in and out of uniform." He was, and maybe that was part of the problem. Dick was always himself, never changing even if his uniform did. Whether he was Robin, Nightwing or even Batman, he was always Dick Grayson first, whereas the identity of Bruce Wayne was always more of a mask.
It was only because Dick came into his life that Bruce had any legitimacy or humanity left to that identity. Were he to lose the boy he considered a son, the name 'Bruce' would be nothing more than a shell. And honestly, Bruce was okay with that, but Dick wasn't ready to let that genuine, non-Batman side of their relationship go.
And Bruce wasn't ready to see his little Robin grow up into a vulture. "You carry a gun, Dick. You know how I feel about that."
"And you know that guns aren't the only things that kill people. I'm pretty sure every weapon in the Batman's arsenal is considered lethal force."
"That's not the point."
"No, the point is how you use it and to what purpose. A stick or a crowbar could easily kill somebody if the Joker used it-"
"Shut up!" No matter how correct Dick might have been, it was still way too early to talk about Jason.
"You really think a bullet is so different from anything Green Arrow fires? Or your fists, for that matter?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about, Dick!"
"Actually, I have no idea why I'm talking about this," Dick sneered. "I've had the same conversation with your closed door and get the exact same results. You'd think you could trust me, at least!"
"How could I trust you when you give me no reason to?"
"You're right. Maybe I should have sworn an oath or something."
"I knew this was a mistake!" Sending Nightwing into Blüdhaven. Letting him stay. Throwing him into Robin. Driving into Blüdhaven today when he could have just as easily sent an assistant for the corporate work. Thinking the things broken between himself and Dick could ever be repaired.
Dick was quiet for a moment. Then, "When you first took me in, were you planning to make me your sidekick?"
"God, no!" Bruce all but hissed, more angry at himself for losing control than at Dick, though the boy was still testing his nerves.
"Were you even planning to tell me who you really were?" No. Bruce hadn't thought it through at the time. He could never think things through when it came to Dick Grayson, and that might have been why they fought so much. The boy opened up something that wasn't cold and calculating, something that had once died with his parents.
But deep, heartfelt feelings weren't always joyful. Sometimes they came with pain. Dick opened him up to love, but that left him vulnerable to hurt, and Bruce hated that. "We're in public."
"I haven't said anything incriminating." And to be fair, they were using quieter tones, with few people around to see them, let alone have a chance of overhearing.
"It would be more than enough for Lois." Dick had to be more careful. He had to be smarter. Bad enough that he was flying away on his brand new wings, but it would be unbearable for him to be carried off on a cruel breeze to someplace he could never return from. "I thought I taught you better than that."
"And I thought you took a little circus boy in because you wanted to be a parent. But lately, that hasn't been apparent."
Bruce had to turn his head then, and stare. For several long seconds.
"That is the worst pun you've ever made."
"You sure? I had some zingers back in the day." Dick's amusement was clear, but it never translated into a smile. "I'm serious, Bruce. Whatever problems you have with costume vigilantes, it shouldn't have anything to do with us. Firing me from, well... you know... It shouldn't have changed Dick and Bruce."
"How could it not?" the older man said despite himself. "Without a uniform, there was no reason for you to stick around."
Dick sighed. "And that's the main difference between you and me." He raised his voice back to a normal level as a tow truck pulled up. "Finally." Bruce stewed while the car was hitched up, hearing Dick's words but knowing the boy to be completely wrong.
"You really think you'd have stayed?" he challenged as he scribbled his signature onto the release form. "You dropped out of college without a second thought, disbanded the Titans only to start up a new team later, and you disappeared into the wind after you lost your uniform! You weren't fit for the position, and no pretty words were going to change that!" Dick's shoulders tensed at the chastisement. "You gave up and left, just like you do everything!"
"I left the... office. You're the one who changed the locks on the front door," Dick said as Bruce's car was hitched up. "But hey, c'est la guerre, right?"
"You think I never tried to call you?" Bruce barely even registered when his car was hauled off. Just like he'd barely recognized how Dick had been pulled away all those years ago. Not until it was too late. "That I never thought of trying to patch things up? But you didn't deserve to wear that symbol, so barring that, what could I possibly have said to get your stubborn rear back in that house?"
"'I love you, please come home'." Dick pulled his hat lower over his eyes and opened the door to his squad car. "Or even just some of those words. At any point, I think that would have worked." His hand rested on the door of the car, hesitating. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry for not keeping my temper in check. And all the other disappointments." Then he slipped inside the car and the engine started, while Bruce stared.
Suddenly, wrenching himself from his safe detachment and his cold analysis, he plunged into the emotional fire that Dick ignited. Bruce was pounding on the squad car window in seconds. "Dick! Open up!"
The window rolled down, a tired face peered up. "Yes, Mr. Wayne?"
"Have you ever drawn that gun, Dick?"
"I need to know! Now, answer!" His voice was the same as if he were asking Nightwing to report, and Dick's jaw hardened.
"What do you think? This is Blüdhaven."
"Yes." Bruce grimaced, teeth grinding. Guns took away his parents, and now they were taking the other bright light in his world.
"Would you actually fire?" Carrying a gun was one thing, even drawing it, but actually shooting a suspect-
"I already have, Bruce." No. Not Dick, not the little child who swore a vow, not the one he used to sit up with when he had the flu... How could that sweet boy actually point a gun and pull the trigger? Dick gave a rueful shake of his head, but didn't look ashamed. "Like I said, this is Blüdhaven."
Bruce could barely choke out his next question. "Have you killed?"
"Would you?" Dick paused before his answer, but not for lack of conviction.
"As a cop, yes. If it came to that. Never as..." Nightwing. He narrowed his eyes up at his former mentor. "I didn't take this job lightly. I knew exactly what I was signing up for."
"You expect me to believe there's a difference?" Bruce began, about to give his speech about crossing the ultimate line, but Dick cut him off.
"I do, it's called 'due process of law'. I took an oath to protect and serve and there are lines I can't cross and someone to punish me if I do. Vigilantes answer only to themselves, and we both know how I feel about where the Batman draws some of his lines." Yet another argument, echoing so many times. "I've made peace with my conscience, Bruce. I'll keep the gun out of the manor, I'll keep my sorry hide out of Gotham if you want, but you don't get to come into my city and tell me how to feel on this one."
"That's not what I'm trying to do."
"Then what are you trying to do?" Understand. Make this horrible truth work. The boy he loved carried a gun and wouldn't hesitate to draw it, even knowing Bruce's feelings on the matter. And Bruce couldn't bring himself to say three little words, despite knowing Dick's feelings on the matter.
Dick drummed his fingers on the steering wheel for a moment before dropping his hands in exhaustion. "I'm not some criminal in an alley, Bruce."
"I'm not sure you do." He gave a tired sigh. "But whatever. I'm out here every day with no armor against the muggers and crooks, so take heart, Karma will get me back someday-" Bruce had Dick by the shirt collar in seconds.
"Don't you ever say that again." Wide-eyed, Dick nodded.
"Yes sir." Bruce released him and drew his hand back through the window, while Dick straightened his clothes. "I'm sorry, that was way uncalled for."
Bruce grunted. "They don't give you vests or armor down at the precinct?"
"Nah, there hasn't been money for new equipment in ages. But we're hoping if we're all extra good this year, Santa will come through." Dick managed a grin, despite the fact that this was his life they were talking about. "Don't worry, Bruce. I shouldn't have said what I did. You know I can take care of myself."
This was the real reason he hated Dick's job. The guns bothered him, he'd never let that go, but he could endure them out of respect for the man underneath, just as he did with Jim Gordon. But knowing Dick was out here without his armor and escrima sticks, forced to handicap himself on the front lines in order to preserve a secret identity, that was the point where the pot boiled over.
It was why he was always trying to control Nightwing, because there was no one to watch his back when he was hours away, and all it took was one mistake for his surrogate son to be shipped home in a body-bag. Of course Dick could take care of himself. But so could Bruce, and he'd had his back broken by Bane. So could Barbara, and she'd been shot in the spine. Jason could take care of himself, and had Bruce to look after him, and still...
Bruce Wayne was becoming more and more of a mask with each passing day, while Dick Grayson's life was growing full with accomplishment and meaning. He was becoming a shadow, while his boy was becoming his own person, and that person could one day be found dead on the concrete without his surrogate father ever truly knowing him.
"Dick, come home." The words were out of his mouth before he could censor them.
Dick was nonplussed. "What?"
"Please." He couldn't say it again. Couldn't bring himself to say all the things that needed saying. But Dick said that these few words were all it took and Bruce prayed it could be true.
It was with a wordless nod that Dick finally reacted. "... okay. Yeah, uh, I have this next Tuesday off. I could come up Monday night and, you know, see if we can make it all the way to Wednesday without killing each other."
"Really?" It was that simple? "Just like that?"
"Yeah. If you want me there, I'll always be there."
I always want you there. I never wanted you to leave. But he couldn't voice that out loud, even though he could tell Dick was looking for something of the like. "I'll tell Alfred to make something special for dinner." For now, it was the best he could do.
"Sounds fabulous. Well, Mr. Wayne, can I do anything else for you? A ride to the bus stop, or perhaps I could suspend your motorboat?" The tension broke, and Bruce could have cried with relief. His boy was coming home.
"Thank you, but no. I think that's my cab, now." He stepped back and gave a mock salute. "Until later, Officer Grayson. Keep..." He was actually hesitating, "Keep yourself safe."
Dick's smile was warm as a summer's day, something Bruce hadn't seen in years. "Will do. And don't stress too much over the registration renewal. It'll be a pain, but it's not that bad."
Bruce had to chuckle. "I can honestly say I've never been in this position before. There's always someone else to handle the little details."
"I know what you mean," Dick nodded vigorously, suddenly looking like the boy Bruce watched grow up. "You turned me into a rich sponge! Living on my own sucks!"
And yet, Bruce knew Dick wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. "Well, the door's always open, if you need it. I'm sorry if you felt that wasn't always the case..." He hadn't seen Dick's eyes so wide and hopeful since he was nine.
"Thank you." The cab honked angrily and Bruce was forced to step away. Dick gave a small wave in goodbye. "Stay out of trouble, Bruce." And with that, the two parted.
Bruce was ten minutes out before he suddenly wanted to offer a real apology. If Dick were in front of him now, he might be able to say it, but that time was past, and when Bruce pulled out his phone, the detachment of the device weakened his resolve. Eventually, he slipped his phone back into his pocket and sighed. He could never say the right thing at the right time.
The good humor between the two wouldn't last long, Bruce knew. Dick was desperate for his approval and too insecure to realize he already had it, while Bruce was too bull-headed and emotionally distant to avoid falling right into every one of little Dicky's emotional pitfalls. They would always be at odds in their methodology, and there would forever be something to argue about.
But... "If you want me there, I'll always be there."
Bruce still hated coming to Blüdhaven. The citation in his hands would only serve as an extra reminder of the city's campaign against him. But his hands also held an expired registration in his hands, and now he knew he could renew what had been neglected.
That reminder, he decided, was worth all Blüdhaven could throw at him.