Bruce was livid when he saw the Batmobile. But the rage came in stages, his frown slowly cracking and shifting into an increasingly more acute angle while his eyebrows followed suit. He tried to contain it, but only for a moment; to tell the truth, he'd been looking for an outlet all day.
He'd been jovial enough when he'd woken up, enjoying another day of life in his proper time with the 'Batman Inc.' project going amazingly well and a delicious Alfred-prepared breakfast. Wayne Towers was not his main residence, and so it always carried a sense of vacationing and refuge from the responsibilities of daily life. Moreover, it was where Dick and Damian were living. He wanted to spend time with his sons, and since their partnership as Batman and Robin was still needed, it was pointless of them to move back to the manor and away from Dick's bunker.
But that's where the problem unexpectedly crept up. The Tower was lived in. For the life of him, Bruce couldn't discern why that was a problem, but he grew increasingly more annoyed by all the objects he didn't remember buying, the pictures he didn't remember taking, and Damian's school assignments tacked up on the fridge as if he were a normal third-grader. But when Bruce made a stray comment about how strange it all was, Dick just laughed and said it was strange for him, too.
Responding to that meant dredging up a bunch of facts and feelings that Bruce didn't want to acknowledge, especially while Dick's head-shot wound was still staring him in the face, so he left the conversation there and went down to the bunker, hoping to find familiarity in the world of the Bat, where all was rational and clinical.
He was sorely disappointed. Some of the gear and equipment had been appropriated from the original Batcave, but most of it was new. Bruce hadn't bought this furniture, he hadn't won the souvenirs and trophies off the villains, and the absence of his usual surroundings, such as the penny, the dinosaur, and Jason's costume, was just as disconcerting.
The bunker was wrong, and Bruce's own cave was still packed up in storage. The penthouse was wrong, nothing was in the right place and too many foreign objects encroaching on his world. Even the office at work was wrong, with inside jokes and tales of Dick, Tim and even Damian's activities in his absence.
Bruce would have chalked it up to displacement after his "death" and trip through time and try to move past such weak sentimentality, but then he saw the Batmobile.
Head injury be damned. "Dick! Get down here!" His voice reverberated loudly enough through the bunker that the mouse shook at the computer, but his eldest son did not appear. Bruce knew the intercom was on and would relay his voice, even if his volume wasn't approaching the levels of a Canary cry. "I know you can hear me! Nightwing!"
"I'm sorry, but these days I only answer to 'The Goddamned Batman'." Dick's tone was bright, but his tread was little more than a tired shuffle, drowned out by Damian's younger, energetic banging.
"Don't make us finish the job Dr. Hurt started, Grayson." His two sons bickered on their way into the bunker, which did not ease Bruce's agitation. Not that their father's face elicited any sort of response from them. Discipline had clearly gone by the wayside in his absence. "Assuming anything is capable of penetrating your Neanderthal skull."
"You have been doing your vocabulary homework! Dami, I'm so proud!"
"Boys…" Unwilling to risk his father's patience on a comeback, Damian stomped away to the Bat-computer. Dick made his way over to Bruce with a smirk on his face, bandages around his head, slippers on his feet and a mug of hot cocoa in his hands. If he knew what his offense was, he didn't seem at all repentant. "What's up?"
"Care to explain this?" Bruce gestured to the object of his ire, a red sticker standing out against a sea of chrome. Dick's lips twisted with suppressed mirth, and his eyes sparkled.
"Yes, that," Bruce spat. He crossed his arms and waited for an explanation as to why the Batmobile now bore a bumper sticker reading, "I brake for Robins."
But all Dick gave him was a shrug. "I like it." And he returned to his nonchalant consumption of cocoa while Bruce fumed.
"That's all? You like it? This car is not a toy, Dick!"
"I guess it's too big for a crackerjack box."
"It's not a joke!"
"And yet, I'm laughing." With all his adventures over the past year, he'd forgotten just how quickly Dick could drive him up the wall.
"Be serious, will you? I won't have you disrespecting the position this way!" Bruce suddenly had the uncomfortable experience of his own Bat-glare turned against him.
"Disrespecting what? Last I heard, criminals were still getting dropped off in jail." Dick's words were slow and controlled, and all the more eerie by the way he languidly paused to sip his chocolate at intervals. "It's not a problem with stealth, no more that the rest of the bumper is. By the time you see that sticker, you already know it's the Batmobile parked in front of you. And it's a dark enough color, in a place usually covered by shadows. You didn't even notice it until just now, under bright lights." Bruce had to agree with that, he'd seen the car enough times that he should have caught this already.
"What? Gives us away? It's the Batmobile; everyone in Gotham knows it's us. And it's not like I wasn't doing stuff like this during my entire tenure as Robin." Bruce's eye twitched, knowing it to be true and also wondering how many pranks Dick pulled that went undetected.
"Basically," Dick said around another slow sip. "You just hate fun."
"This job isn't meant to be fun," Bruce argued, and Dick sighed in return.
"Don't I know it. But it could have it's moments, if you let it." Dick leaned against the car, looking suddenly tired, though his attitude retained it's annoying energy. Physically, the young man wasn't fully recovered, and Bruce suspected Dick was pushing himself too hard, probably had been for months. "I like that sticker. It makes me laugh, and keeps all the grapple guns from shorting out mid-air, if you know what I mean." Bruce refused to let the meaning land, and searched quickly for something to distract himself with.
The best candidate was in front of him, the mug Dick was drinking out of. That bumper sticker wasn't the only weird accessory in the penthouse. "'World's Greatest Dad'?"
Dick grinned and nodded at the object in his hand, though a pointed look said he hadn't missed the subject change. "Yeah, Damian gave it to me!" he laughed to Bruce's astonished face. "He actually meant it as an insult, but I turned the tables by accepting it sincerely." He looked over his shoulder to where Damian was skulking at the computer. "I love you, son!"
"Go die in a fire, Grayson."
"Is that any way to speak to your dear ol' Daddy?" It was a few seconds of banter before Bruce could form words.
Dick rolled his eyes as he replied, "Yeah, it was more in the presentation. There was a big speech, you kind of had to be there. But we're over it, now." Bruce recovered enough of his senses to form his interrogation glare, and though Dick admirably lasted for several seconds, eventually he had to give in. "The words 'pale substitute' and 'orphaned gutter trash' may have been used. And I'm actually supposed to be delivering this to you on my way to Hell. But now that trip is totally unnecessary," Dick brightened, though Bruce didn't share the joke.
"Damian!" Dick could be a pain sometimes, but Bruce refused to tolerate his youngest son's blatant disrespect and entitlement, especially considering all Dick had done in Bruce's absence.
Damian squawked and yelled back something about how Bruce didn't need Grayson's dirty, worthless leftovers, which infuriated Bruce, but Dick immediately jumped in. "It's okay, that's just Little D's way of saying he appreciates me and I should keep the gift."
"It is not!"
"Oh, so I should give this to Bruce?"
"I just said he has no use for it! Are you deaf as well as incompetent?"
"I guess I'll just get rid of it, then."
"No! It's… it's a symbol of your inadequacy, Grayson! Live with the shame!"
"The shame," Dick said with an evil grin. "Right, that's totally what I feel…" And he took a long, loud slurp from his mug that made Damian groan. Bruce frown deepened, and Dick mistook his expression. "You're not jealous, are you? I did miss this year's Father's Day. I'll get you your own 'World's Greatest Dad' mug."
The implications of that were heavy, especially since Bruce never observed Father's Day and out of respect, Dick gave little more than verbal acknowledgment. If he had any celebration for his birth parent, it was kept private. The boy was his legal son now, but there was still a divide in Bruce's mind, a role he couldn't replace. There could only be on 'World's Greatest Dad' in Dick's life. "That's… that's not necessary."
"Are you kidding? Coming back from the dead? I think that nets you a trophy. John Grayson still hasn't managed to pull that off." The boy's eyes flitted to the heavens for a brief second while Bruce tried to control his sudden heart failure. "But, hey, my birthday is coming up, if you need any ideas." Dick's laughing face returned to rest on Bruce's gaping one, and the boy winked. "Don't worry, Dad's not the competitive type. I'm still yours."
Dick had always been lighthearted, even glib sometimes, on the subject of death. But never once had Bruce heard him speak so cavalierly about his parents, or about Bruce's status in that regard. After a few seconds of deafening silence, Dick softened his gaze. "Yes, I am trying for a moment here."
Again, Bruce was seized with more emotions and harsh truths than he wanted to combat. "Back to the issue of your vandalism-"
"We're never going to talk about this, are we?"
"Criminals need to fear the Batman. How do you expect them to take you seriously like this?"
"Really? A lecture on bumper stickers is all you have to say to me?" It was a stab in the chest, how tired Dick's voice sounded, so used to the scenery that it couldn't believe it had even bothered to go down the road again.
It would pass, it always did. "I need to know you're taking this seriously, Dick."
"Serious as a hole in the head. You were gone, Bruce. And even though you're back, you're still not here. So if you want your stuff back, then you take the suit and cowl and you be here. Otherwise, it's mine." Bruce would have shut that comment down, if he hadn't looked over to find Dick swaying on his feet, a pale and unseeing look on his face.
"Fine. Just dizzy." The hot chocolate teased dangerously at the edge of the mug, tilted in Dick's loose hands. "Be good in a sec..." He slumped a little and Bruce was by Dick's side in an instant, though the boy instinctively reached to brace himself against the Batmobile, with the hand Bruce reached out to steady his son going unnoticed.
So instead, Bruce took the mug of chocolate away before it tumbled out of Dick's hands. "I told you. Two months, minimum."
"Oh, please. You'd have been back on duty with two days," Dick panted, both hands now leaning heavily on the car. Bruce saw the tell-tale signs of pain, and winced along with his child.
"You're not me." Dick's shoulders stiffened, and Bruce knew instantly that he'd phrased that poorly. From across the room, Damian pushed himself out of the swivel chair and made his way over with masked concern.
He stood by Dick's side with thoughtful regard before speaking. "I assume your injuries will prevent you from attending my school's open house tonight?" Though Dick didn't raise his head, the color was slowly coming back to his cheeks, and the young man managed a laugh.
"Don't worry, Dami, it'll pass. I'll be fine to see you play Laertes." Bruce raised an eyebrow at the news, it being the first he'd heard of it, while Damian wrinkled his nose.
"You misunderstood me, I don't want you to come," the tiny boy lied. "You're annoying enough at home, and there's no point pushing yourself to further annoy me at school." Even as he said those words of scorn, Damain's little hands reached out to awkwardly pat Dick's arm, and Dick leaned into the touch.
He hadn't looked to Bruce to steady him, but now Dick's arm snaked around Damian's shoulders, and he stood up straight again. "Glad you care, Little D. I'll nap the rest of the day, and that should leave me perfectly fine to sit in a chair and watch you guys reenact Hamlet. You know I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Damian continued to frown. "This is completely unnecessary. Father never attended my school functions." He talked as though Bruce wasn't standing right there.
"Well, I'm not Bruce." As Bruce had declared himself just moments ago. Dick seemed to be back to himself, or as much as he could be while still convalescing, and he ruffled Damian's hair with a bright grin. "So, relax, I'll be there front and center. Now get a start on your homework, or I'll bring a big sign so everyone knows we're related."
"Tt. You're a sentimental buffoon, Grayson." But the boy bounded out of the bunker, and Bruce's mind reeled. Damian doing homework with minimal coercion, Dick attending school events, assignments on the fridge and the mutual reaching out for comfort and support...
He had technically known, but the reality now blazed home, vividly apparent in everything around them. In Bruce's absence, Dick had buried his father, built his own bunker underneath Wayne Tower, taken on the cowl, cleaned up the chaos of Gotham and raised Bruce's child.
There was a life here that Bruce wasn't part of, a life that couldn't exist without acknowledging the parallels to his own tragic past and the new pains he hadn't prepared to feel. It was too much, far too much to look around at the evidence of a world where Dick exceeded Bruce as both Batman and a parent, or that same world where Damian grieved for a father he never knew, one that the world was told still lived, while Dick stood under a weight so crushing that it was breaking his bones...
So Bruce stopped looking. He was Batman, he could detach. "The sticker can stay."
Dick smiled wanly. "And by that, you really mean, 'I love you, I missed you and I'm so relieved to see your shattered emotional state found non-self-destructive means of expression'?"
"...Something like that."
Dick's smile was a little dry, but there was a knowing look in his eyes that Bruce found familiar. Not everything had changed around him. "Good to have you back, Bruce."
They left the bunker and returned upstairs, Dick intending to make good on his promises to rest and Bruce wanting to bury himself in business work. But a stray comment from Damian changed his goal. "Father saw the Batmobile, did he? Wait until he sees what you did to the Mercedes." And with that, Bruce stalked to the garage, seeking out the damage.
When he found the aforementioned Mercedes, he was rendered speechless for several minutes. But then, like with his previous rage, the laughter came in stages, until he was laughing hard enough to sob.
Dick had plastered the back end of the vehicle with as many bumper stickers as he could fit, showcasing decals for both Bludhaven and Gotham City's police departments, a sticker from Damian's school proclaiming "My son is on the Honor Roll," various tourist destinations and most prominently, a blue sticker boldly saying "Honk if you love Nightwing!"
Bruce fell to his knees as he alternated between laughter and tears, so easily picturing Dick driving up to Damian's school with this incongruous display. It was so vivid, the thought of Dick impulse buying bumper stickers everywhere he went and covering the back of Bruce's luxury car in an attempt to fill the void. He saw Damian complaining loudly about the whole thing and criticizing his elder brother for devaluing such an expensive possession, and Tim wanting to chime in but holding his tongue, because the Robin situation had rendered everything awkward. And it was with heartbreaking peals that he imagined the boys rolling up to a Wayne Foundation event in that beast, and the stunned faces of all the snobs as they watched.
Over a decade later, Dick was still beating back shadows and turning their life into a circus. And Bruce was still a little boy hiding in them because he didn't know how to make the damned feelings stop.
When he finally composed himself, Bruce told Dick to cover up the sticker that said "Gentlemen prefer Redheads", because Barbara "has enough to deal with without your antics." Dick replaced it with one that said "My Daddy is better than Batman."
It was a compromise Bruce could live with.