Author(s): Laurel and Robyn Romm
Disclaimer: We do not own Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, or other characters related to Batman - DC Comics does. We do, however, own all Bristol Hills Prep School bullies and staff. Please don't sue - Arizona schoolteachers have no money, so you won't get anything, anyway!
Special thanks for inspiration to Gina Ivy, Syl Francis, Charlene Edwards, SKH, Smitty, and other fanfiction authors contributing to Batman & Nightwing genres! You're wonderful!!!
Please read and review! All constructive feedback is appreciated and will be taken to heart! (If you flame, we will assume you are firewood, and toast marshmallows over you!)
Dick Grayson was still having trouble getting accustomed to the seasons in Gotham City. He was used to Florida winters, where early April temperatures were in the high seventies, and the roses were beginning to bloom. Gotham, on the other hand, was still experiencing freezing temperatures at night, it wasn't much warmer during the day, and there were very few flowers hardy enough to brave the cold. Today was a good example. Although it was clear and sunny, the wind was chilly, and strong enough to cut right through the ordinary spring jacket. Many of Dick's new schoolmates had been shivering during lunch recess.
Dick was feeling depressed as he trudged across campus to his next class. Bruce's instructions about blending in and not being noticed were turning out to be harder to obey than expected. His academic classes were so easy they were boring. He knew the answers to almost every question the teachers asked, but he couldn't show off that knowledge. In PE, he had to repress his acrobatic ability, and appear to be no more athletic than any other just-turned-ten-year-old. Although the other students didn't know of his circus background, nor of his training under Batman, they did know that he was an orphan who had just recently been taken in by billionaire Bruce Wayne. They viewed him as an interloper into their privileged world, so he had not been able to make many friends. And to make matters worse, he had now become a target for ridicule.
Last week, the swim coach had been selecting new recruits for the school swim team. Having observed Dick's well-formed muscles and trim body, he had come into Dick's PE class to invite the boy to join the team and represent the school. In front of all his classmates, Dick had been forced to admit that he couldn't swim. Ever since, the other students had been taunting him.
It just wasn't fair! It wasn't his fault he'd never learned to swim! During winter layovers in Florida, he and his parents had always been busy developing new routines on the trapeze, and of course when the circus was on the road, there wasn't time or opportunity. Swimming simply hadn't been a part of his life. Unfortunately, it seemed to be something every other kid at Bristol Hills Prep School had known how to do since they could toddle, and revealing his lack of ability had established "open season on Dick".
Head buried into the collar of his heavy jacket against the wind, Dick took a shortcut between two of the buildings. Turning a corner, he ran headlong into someone. Looking up, his apology froze on his lips as he realized he had just bumped into Josh Wyndman, the biggest bully at Bristol Hills. Dick tried to back up, only to find himself grabbed from behind by Matt Thompson, one of Josh's gang.
"Well, well, what do we have here? It looks like Bristol's charity case," Josh sneered down at Dick.
"I am not a charity case!" Dick snarled, struggling against Matt's grip. Seventeen-year-old Matt, a defensive tackle on the varsity football team, ignored Dick's struggles as he easily held him off the ground by the scruff of his jacket collar. The rest of the gang clustered around them, tossing insults at Dick as he hung, half-choking, from Matt's beefy hand. Josh finally silenced them, looking speculatively at the boy.
"You know what, guys," he said. "This kid's gonna be our new money tree." This statement was met with cheers from the rest of the gang. Josh grabbed Dick's chin, forcing him to look into Josh's eyes.
"Here's the deal, brat," Josh said, his face only a couple of inches from Dick's. "You're gonna start bringing us lunch money. A hundred bucks a day oughtta do for starters."
"You're nuts if you think I got that kinda cash! And what makes you think I'd give it to you if I had it?" Dick retorted.
"I bet that guardian of yours keeps that much for pocket change. Just raid his desk or something. As for what makes me think you're gonna give it to me - because you and I both know you're dead meat if you don't," was the casual reply.
"No way I'm gonna steal from Bruce for you, you slimy jerk! You're no better than Zucco!" Curling his body up, Dick furiously kicked Josh in the face with both feet, then flipped himself over Matt's head, leaving his jacket in the surprised bully's hand. Landing on his feet behind Matt, Dick ran, but only managed a few steps before being tackled to the ground by one of Matt's teammates.
Josh climbed to his feet, blood pouring from his nose and murder in his eyes. He staggered over to where Dick was pinned to the ground, and spat in Dick's face, then kicked him in the side.
"No one says 'No' to me, brat, and gets away with it – not at this school. I own this place – and you're gonna learn that." Josh turned to his gang members. "Bring him."
"Where to, Josh?" Matt asked, yanking Dick to his feet.
"We're gonna give the brat a swimming lesson."
As Dick was pulled toward the pool area, he began to struggle in real fright – to no avail. His arms were gripped so tightly that he was beginning to lose the feeling in his fingers, there was a large hand clamped over his mouth to prevent him calling for help, and another hand was around his throat. The bullies moved in a group, dragging Dick in the center so he wouldn't be seen. By this time, all the other students were in class, so there was no one around to see his plight anyway.
Steam was rising from the Olympic-size pool, and Dick could smell the chlorine as the gang hauled him through the gate. Suddenly Josh's face was again in front of his.
"Lunch money looking a little better now, brat? Price to let you go's gone up to two hundred bucks a day!"
Dick was desperate now – he knew that Josh would kill him if he refused. But there was no way Dick would give in to a bully like the thug who had killed his mom and dad! Especially if it meant he had to steal from the only person who had been there for him since their deaths. Dick stared into Josh's eyes and managed to snarl his answer past the hand crushing his throat.
Josh shrugged. "Your decision, brat. Toss the bait into the deep end, boys! We'll see how long it takes to catch a fish!"
An instant later, Dick felt himself flying. The brief moment in the air was enough for him to twist himself to land in the water feet first, but he began to panic as he felt the water close over his head. Struggling valiantly, he managed to get his head above the surface momentarily a couple of times, but each time his clothes and boots dragged him under before he could get a breath. His vision went dim, and finally blackness closed in around him.
The bullies laughed as they watched Dick flounder in the water, but the cheerfulness of some of the gang faded as the boy's struggles grew weaker. Todd and Jimmy, two of the lesser gang members, began to throw worried glances at each other as Dick repeatedly went under. Shaking someone down for money was one thing – but letting a kid drown was another thing altogether.
"Josh," Todd whispered. "If we don't get him out of there…"
"Shuddup. This is my turf. You wanna join him?"
"…No. But I'm not gonna face a murder rap, either. Come on, Jimmy!" The two young men stripped off their heavy jackets, kicked off their shoes, and dived into the pool. Grabbing Dick, they pulled him to the surface and towed him to the other side of the pool. As they lifted Dick out of the water, Todd and Jimmy were too worried about reviving him to notice when his head fell back, hitting the concrete lip of the pool. As they worked to get Dick breathing again, they saw Josh stalk up to them, looking furious. But before Josh could say anything, Matt tugged at his sleeve.
"Let it go, boss. The kid's probably learned his lesson, and we don't want cops all over the school!"
Josh glared around him, but realized he'd better not push it any farther. Obviously Todd and Jimmy weren't the only ones uncomfortable with the idea of cold-blooded murder.
"OK. But I better not hear anything about us being involved with this…accident. Got me?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned and swaggered off, followed by everyone except the two rescuers.
By the time Todd and Jimmy got Dick to the nurse's office, all three boys were half-frozen. Dick in particular was only half-conscious, shaking so hard his teeth were chattering behind bluish lips. The nurse and aide wasted no time getting Dick out of his wet clothes and wrapped in dry, warm blankets packed with hot-water bottles. Meanwhile the older boys wrapped themselves in blankets, told their story to the school secretary, and
hurriedly headed out of the office to get dry clothes out of their PE lockers (and, not incidentally, to avoid the sharp eyes of the school principal.)
In the executive suite of Wayne Enterprises, Bruce heard a calm voice on his private cell phone. "Mr. Wayne, this is Mrs. Hollings, the nurse at Bristol Hills Prep School. I'm afraid Richard had an accident at school today, and fell into the pool. I'm sorry for using this number, but Mr. Pennyworth wasn't answering at the Manor."
"Quite all right, Mrs. Hollings. Alfred's probably out shopping." Bruce was rather confused. Why would the school nurse be calling home, if Dick had simply fallen into a pool? "Do you need us to bring him a change of clothes?"
"Oh, no, we always keep spares on hand. No, it's a little more serious than that. Apparently Richard was exploring the fenced pool area, fell into the pool, and was unable to get out. Two of the older students saw him fall in and rescued him, but he was pretty cold by the time they got him here. He should probably be in a warm bed for the rest of the day."
Bruce let out an exasperated sigh. Picking up Dick and taking him home would mean he would have to cancel several important meetings that afternoon. "Thank you for calling, Mrs. Hollings. I'll be there in about forty minutes." Clicking the phone off, Bruce pressed the intercom button for his executive assistant. "Margaret, please reschedule my afternoon appointments. Also, please call the Manor and inform my butler that I will be picking Dick up at school."
"Certainly, Mr. Wayne. Will you be able to make the gallery opening tonight, or should I alert Mr. Fox?"
"No, I'll be there."
Bruce parked his Porsche in front of the school and headed for the nurse's office. Mrs. Hollings, an elderly, motherly-looking woman with gold-rimmed glasses, saw him walk in and bustled out of her small private office to meet him.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Hollings. Is Dick OK?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Wayne. He's still a little dizzy, but that's likely due to the chill. He should be just fine by tomorrow."
"Can you give me a little more detail on exactly what happened? I thought the pool area's restricted, isn't it?"
"Oh, it absolutely is! Swim classes and team members only. Miss Spokes could probably tell you about the mishap better than I can, though, since the boys spoke to her directly while we were busy getting Richard dry and warm again." She turned and motioned to a young woman with short brown curls.
"Julie, could you come over here a moment, please? Mr. Wayne, this is Julie Spokes, our Health Secretary. Julie, this is Mr. Wayne, Richard Grayson's guardian. Could you fill him in on the details of Richard's little slip-up, please?"
"Well, Mr. Wayne, the two boys who brought him in–"
"Can you tell me who they were? I'd like to thank them for rescuing him."
"Of course – Todd Meyers and Jimmy West. Anyway, they said that as they were walking by the pool area on their way to fourth period, they saw Dick by the gate. He looked both ways, then opened the gate and slipped in. This looked odd, so they watched him as he went over to the deep end of the pool. They saw him slip on something – probably a bit of ice – and fall into the water. Then he started to struggle, so they ran over and pulled him out and brought him here. That's all."
"Hmmm. I see." Bruce was surprised, and somewhat annoyed. Dick didn't usually sneak around, and he was normally pretty good about following rules. Bruce assumed his curiosity must have gotten the better of him this time. "Well, is Dick ready to go?"
"I believe so. Mrs. Hollings, can Mr. Wayne take Dick home now?"
"Yes, certainly." She turned and called into the small infirmary. "Richard, your guardian's here."
Dick came into the office, moving more slowly than usual. He looked up at Bruce with slightly unfocused eyes, but didn't say anything, and after a moment looked down at the floor again. He was wearing an old pair of jeans, slightly too big for him, and a Bristol Hills Prep T-shirt. The health aide followed him out and handed Bruce a plastic bag.
"Here's his wet things, Mr. Wayne." Bruce took the bag, looked inside it, then looked at Dick quizzically.
"Where's your jacket?" Dick just shrugged without looking at him, and Bruce frowned. This rudeness was definitely unlike Dick.
"Dick, why couldn't you get out of the pool? Why did the other boys have to pull you out?" Dick flushed bright red, looked anywhere but at Bruce, and finally mumbled, "I can't swim." At this, Bruce's lips tightened in anger. Dick's action of entering the restricted pool area by himself had just escalated from childish curiosity to reckless risk-taking.
"If you can't…well, it sounds like you got just what you deserved. I hope you learned something from this little escapade. Let's go." Bruce turned on his heel and strode out the door, so he didn't see Dick's jaw drop and his eyes go wide in astonishment.
Dick was in shock as he followed Bruce to the car. He'd expected concern, even disappointment, but not anger. He climbed in the car, fastened his seat belt, and Bruce took off.
During the silent journey home, Dick tried to make sense of Bruce's words. Getting thrown in the pool was just what he deserved? What did Bruce mean? For what? Not fighting off the bullies? Yeah, he guessed he'd learned something from the experience – avoid bullies whenever possible! Finally, he just leaned against the seat back. His head was pounding so hard he couldn't think, anyway, and he just wanted to be home.
Bruce pulled the car into the garage, got out, and strode into the house. Dick opened his door, climbed out more slowly, and made his way into the kitchen in time to hear Bruce say, "Alfred, are my clothes for tonight laid out yet? I don't want to be late for the gallery opening, since I'll be sneaking away early as usual. Oh, by the way, I assume Margaret let you know I had to pick Dick up early. He fell in the pool at school and got a little chilled. Would you see to him, please? His wet clothes are in the back of the Porsche, but I'll be taking the Jag tonight anyway."
"Of course, Master Bruce. Everything's ready for you." Dick was sure he could hear a faint note of surprise in Alfred's voice. He wondered sadly if it was because of Bruce's irritated tone or his own inadequacy. Right now, though, he was too tired to care. Even the enticing smell of Alfred's hot cocoa and ginger snap cookies didn't interest him.
Alfred came into the kitchen from the hall, and looked at Dick in concern. The boy did look rather frazzled. "Well, Master Dick, the best cure for a chill is usually a hot bath. Come along, young sir," and Alfred turned to lead the way upstairs.
Dinner was a silent affair. Bruce was still irritated at Dick's supposed reckless misbehavior. At the other end of the table, Dick was manfully trying to conceal his physical and emotional pain. The lights were making his head throb, and the aroma of Alfred's chicken in orange sauce with braised early spring vegetables, normally delicious, was now forcing him to focus all his attention on keeping his stomach under control. However, he was determined to keep Bruce from noticing anything amiss. He pushed the food around on his plate, trying to make it appear that he was eating normally. He didn't feel like getting chewed out twice in one day, when none of it was his fault. He'd refused to steal, he'd fought as best he could – what was Bruce mad about?
Bruce pushed his chair back, tossed his napkin on the table, and rose. "Alfred, I'll be home by ten. As for you, young man, today's event doesn't excuse you from your homework. I'll check it before I go out on patrol." He didn't wait to hear Dick's mumbled "Sure," before striding out of the dining room.
Dick laid his fork down, slumped back in his chair, and closed his eyes against the light. Homework. How was he going to do homework when he could hardly think straight?
"Master Richard, you've hardly touched your food! Can I get you something else?" Dick opened his eyes and gave Alfred a pale imitation of his usual bright grin. "Sorry, Alfred. I guess I'm just more tired than hungry tonight. I think I'll do my homework and then hit the hay."
Alfred looked at the boy's sad face. He could read between the lines – based on Master Bruce's manner upon arrival home, he knew that Master Dick had been scolded for improper behavior. The tension between the two at dinner had been thick enough to cut with a knife. It was understandable that the lad would want to be alone right now.
"Certainly, Master Dick. I'll look in on you later." Alfred watched the boy get up from the table and slowly trudge up the stairs to his room.
After finishing his evening chores, Alfred proceeded upstairs to Dick's room. Receiving no answer to his gentle tap on the door, he quietly opened it. He was mildly surprised to find Dick asleep at his desk, head pillowed on his math and English books. He stepped up to the young master's side, intending to wake him, but then stopped and laid a hand on the boy's face. Dick's skin was flushed, hot and dry. He kept shifting restlessly, as if he were trying to find a more comfortable position, and his breathing was labored. Apparently he had come down with an illness of some kind.
Alfred turned the boy's bed down and got out a pair of pajamas, then picked Dick up, carried him to his bed and began to gently undress him. In the middle of pulling Dick's undershirt over his head, he froze momentarily, before pulling Dick's shirt the rest of the way off. Laying the boy down, he carefully examined his head and confirmed what his fingers had detected – Dick had a lump the size of an apricot on the back of his head. Looking the boy over more carefully, Alfred also spotted a huge bruise on his right side.
Alfred reached into Dick's nightstand drawer and pulled out a flashlight. Peeling back Dick's eyelids, he flashed the light into the boy's eyes. One pupil responded more sluggishly than the other to the sudden flicker of light. Alfred frowned, walked to Dick's desk, picked up the telephone, and dialed Dr. Leslie Thompkins' number.
Bruce pulled the Jaguar into the garage just before ten p.m. Entering the house, he tossed his overcoat on the hall coat stand. "Alfred, I'd like coffee before I change…" His voice trailed off as he realized Alfred was nowhere in sight. He glanced around, and his vexation suddenly changed to worry as he recognized the other overcoat hanging on the stand. What was Leslie doing here? Quickly he made his way upstairs, calling loudly for Alfred as he went.
As Bruce reached the top of the stairs, Alfred stepped out of Dick's room, closed the door behind him, and said, "Master Bruce, kindly moderate your voice." Bruce was taken aback by Alfred's icy tone and stiff expression.
"Alfred, what's going on? Why is Leslie here?" Alfred's face didn't change an iota as he looked at Bruce, but Bruce suddenly felt a wave of disapproval and disappointment from him.
" 'World's Greatest Detective', are we? Did we bother to investigate the facts behind this afternoon's event? Or did we simply jump to conclusions and act accordingly?"
"Alfred, what are you talking about?" Bruce was now honestly confused as well as concerned. Something was obviously wrong here – Leslie didn't come to Wayne Manor on a whim, and he'd rarely seen Alfred this angry before.
"Master Dick is running a fever of 102 degrees, and his lungs are congested."
"Alfred, I'm sorry he's sick, but it's not unexpected after getting soaked and chilled. What are you so angry with me about?"
"He also has a concussion, apparently due to the large lump on the back of his head. Did you consider getting that treated, or is that also simply to be expected after getting soaked and chilled, Master Bruce?"
Bruce stared at Alfred for a moment, then barged past him into Dick's room.
Leslie turned from Dick's bedside, grabbed Bruce's upper arm, turned him around, and marched him right back into the hall again.
"Keep your voice down, Bruce!" she hissed at him. Bruce stared at her in shock.
"Alfred, will you keep an eye on Dick for a few minutes?" she requested, never taking her eyes from Bruce's face.
"Certainly, Dr. Thompkins," was the reply, and Alfred returned to the boy's room, silently closing the door behind him.
By this time, Bruce was thoroughly bewildered, and his face showed it.
"Leslie, I don't understand. What's going on?"
Leslie ignored his question to ask one of her own.
"Bruce, what happened to Dick this afternoon?"
"He fell into the pool at school. Apparently he doesn't know how to swim. A couple of other students saw him sneak into the pool area and fall in. They pulled him out and brought him to the nurse. The nurse said he was a bit dizzy, but that was probably from being chilled during the trip to the office. Why?"
"How long was he in the water?"
"From what the secretary said, only a few seconds. Why?"
Leslie shook her head. "Not possible."
"What do you mean? What is going on here?"
"Bruce, that boy had to have been underwater for at least two minutes before he was rescued. He presently has a high fever, and bronchial and alveolar congestion due to residual water in the lungs. Combined with the episode of hypothermia, he'll be lucky if it doesn't develop into pneumonia before the night's over. His dizziness was due to a concussion, probably related to the good-sized lump on the back of his head. And to top it off, there's massive bruising on his right side. It looks like someone kicked him. To put it simply, 'World's Greatest Detective', his current condition could not have resulted from a simple fall into a pool and a quick rescue. Didn't you notice anything unusual about him after you brought him home?"
Stunned, Bruce thought back over the afternoon and early evening. Dick hadn't said anything on the way home, and he'd been unusually quiet at dinner, not eating much, but Bruce'd attributed that to sulking after being scolded. And all that time, he'd really been …
Bruce collapsed back onto a hall bench and buried his face in his hands in dismay. What had he done? How could he have missed something so obvious? Easy, his conscience told him. By not following your own rules. What have you been teaching Dick? To keep your emotions in check. To examine all the data before formulating a theory. But what did you do today? You were annoyed about your schedule getting messed up, so you made an assumption, and then twisted all the data to fit. Hell, you didn't even get all the data – and you didn't bother to verify what you did get! You were so self-righteous about making sure he learned his lesson, you didn't even think about other possible interpretations of his behavior. Leslie and Alfred are right: some World's Greatest Detective you are!
Bruce guiltily looked up at Leslie. "I did notice…I just didn't think," he whispered bleakly. "Leslie, will he be all right?"
Leslie gazed down at him, her heart softening at the desolation she saw in those dark blue eyes. "I don't know, Bruce," she answered honestly. "We'll have to wait and see." She turned and walked back into Dick's room. Bruce meekly followed.
Bruce sat in the chair by Dick's bed, watching the boy toss and turn in a fevered, unrestful sleep. Every time Dick coughed, Bruce felt it in his own chest. His mind continued its self-recrimination as he silently watched Alfred and Leslie work over Dick. Alfred wrung out a fresh cold washcloth and laid it across Dick's forehead, while Leslie prepared to administer yet another medication.
"What's that one for?" he asked softly.
Leslie smoothly injected the contents of the syringe into Dick's arm before explaining. "It's Decadron - an anti-inflammatory. It's to try to keep the lung inflammation to a minimum. Ideally, it will work with the antibiotic to prevent the congestion from developing into pneumonia. All that's left now is to give supportive care and wait. Hopefully, his body's strong enough to fight this off."
"If it's not…"
"Bruce, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Leslie's firm voice cut off any more 'what-if's.
Without looking at Bruce, Alfred asked mildly, "There's not much more you can do here, Master Bruce. Will you go out on patrol tonight?" There was no hint of criticism in his voice, yet Bruce winced.
"No. Gotham will have to do without her protector for one night. It's my responsibility to be here, even if I can't do anything constructive." His attention focused on Dick, he didn't notice the look of satisfaction that passed between Alfred and Leslie.
The sky was beginning to get light outside, but none of the adults inside the house paid any attention, occupied as they were with the sick little boy. Near midnight, they had had to prop him up on pillows and start giving him oxygen as the coughing worsened. Leslie had started IV fluids to keep him hydrated and added a cough suppressant, and Alfred continued to sponge him down with cool water.
Bruce had simply watched Dick through the night. He had provided assistance whenever Leslie or Alfred needed another pair of hands, but there was very little he could contribute, and that fact tore at him. Unused to being helpless and unable to control a situation, he didn't like the feeling. The man had abruptly realized that this little boy, in a few short months, had snuck past all of his emotional defenses and settled into his heart. He was suddenly terrified at the thought of losing him.
Just before sunrise, Alfred went downstairs to make a pot of tea, while Leslie dozed in a nearby chair. Holding Dick's hand, Bruce came alert as he sensed a sudden change in the child's condition. The boy's restlessness had suddenly subsided, and he was lying very still. In alarm, Bruce bent over the bed and gently touched Dick's face. The skin was no longer hot and dry, but cool and wet.
"Leslie, what's wrong with him?" Bruce gasped. Leslie was instantly awake and at the bedside. After a moment's examination, she turned to Bruce with a smile on her face.
"His fever's broken, Bruce. He's going to be OK." Bruce closed his eyes as relief washed over him. He opened them a moment later to see Alfred offering him a cup of tea. Bruce took the cup as he whispered, "Alfred, how am I going to make it up to him?"
His surrogate father smiled gently. "For the moment, simply apologize, Master Bruce. For the future, remember: 'a closed mouth gathers no foot.' "
A moment later, Dick stirred, and they all turned to the bed. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked puzzled as he focused on Leslie.
"Dr. Leslie, what are you doing here?"
She smiled at him and gently touched his cheek.
"You came down with a bit of a bug, Dickie, so I came to take care of you."
"Oh. Am I better now?"
"You'll be just fine in a day or two, kiddo," she answered. Dick smiled at her. Then his expression became guarded as he caught sight of Bruce standing beside her, and he remembered what had happened. He turned away to look at the far wall of his bedroom.
"Are you gonna yell at me some more?" he whispered.
Bruce sat down on the bed and took Dick's hand in both of his.
"No, chum. I'm really sorry – I should never have yelled at you in the first place." Dick turned to look at him in astonishment. Bruce never apologized – for anything. Dick then noticed the drawn look on his guardian's face, and the dark circles under his eyes. Why did Bruce look so tired?
"Dick," Bruce continued, "Why didn't you tell me what happened?"
"What do you mean? Don't you know what happened?"
"I thought I did, but now I'm not sure I do. The school told me that Todd Meyers and Jimmy West saw you sneak inside the fence and fall into the pool, and they pulled you out. But based on your condition, that doesn't seem to be the whole story…" Bruce's voice trailed off as Dick's eyes flashed in sudden outrage.
"Todd and Jimmy were two of the guys who threw me in the pool!" Dick's exclamation was enough to start him coughing painfully again. Alfred offered him some warm tea, while Bruce supported him until he got his breath back.
"Why didn't you tell me that immediately?"
Embarrassment, betrayal, hurt and resignation flashed across Dick's face in rapid succession. "You never asked. All you asked was why I couldn't get out, and I didn't want to admit I couldn't swim. And when I did tell you, you told me I got what I deserved, and you said you hoped I learned something."
Dick stopped and carefully took a deep breath. He didn't want to cough any more. Then he continued in a low voice, not looking at anyone. "I figured you were ashamed of me, because I couldn't even hold my own against a gang of bullies."
Bruce took Dick's chin in his hand, and gently forced the boy to meet his eyes. "Dick, how many bullies were there?"
"I'm not sure – eight or ten."
"And they were how big?"
"Most of them are varsity football players – Josh isn't, though."
"Josh Wyndman – he's the biggest bully on campus. Well, not the biggest, but he's the leader. Matt's bigger."
"You can tell me all their names later. Right now, why don't you tell me exactly what happened. I promise I'll listen to the whole story – and this time I won't start exercising in the middle."
"Exercising?" Dick looked perplexed.
"Jumping to conclusions." Bruce smiled wryly.
The attempt at humor earned him a wan smile.
"Well…" Dick paused a moment to get his thoughts in order.
"…I was going to History class after lunch, and I took a shortcut between Buildings C and F because it was cold and windy, and I ran right into Josh and his buddies. They grabbed me, and were teasing me about not being able to join the swim team because I couldn't swim. They knew about that because in PE last week, the swim coach asked me to join the team, and I had to tell him why I couldn't, in front of everyone." Dick looked embarrassed again.
"Anyway, then Josh said I was gonna be their 'money tree'. He told me I had to start bringing them a hundred dollars a day for lunch money. I told him I wouldn't give him money even if I had any, and he said I should take it from your desk. Then I got really mad, 'cuz he was acting just like Zucco. So I flipped myself out of my jacket and kicked Josh in the face, but one of the other guys tackled me before I could get away. Then Josh came over and kicked me in the side, and said that no one gets away with saying 'no' to him because he owns the school. He told them to bring me, because they were gonna give me a swimming lesson, and they dragged me over to the pool." Dick was beginning to get agitated, his breathing coming in short, rough gasps as he forced himself to remember as many details as he could.
"I tried to fight, to get away, but I couldn't. Then he said the price to let me go was up to two hundred bucks a day, and I said 'no way'. So he yelled something about throwing the bait in the deep end and catching a fish, and they threw me in."
Dick fell silent for a moment, then added, "I don't really remember too much after that."
He abruptly reached out and clutched the front of Bruce's shirt in both fists. His next words had the force of desperation behind them. "But I wasn't gonna steal money for him, Bruce – especially from you! No matter what he did! You gotta believe me!" Tears started to trickle down Dick's cheeks, and he started to sob.
Bruce's hands closed tightly on Dick's shoulders, but his own throat was so tight he couldn't say anything for a moment. It was Alfred's soothing voice which broke the silence.
"Calm yourself, Master Dick. Of course we believe you. We know you'd do nothing of the kind. Here, take another sip of tea. That's right…now, s.l.o.w.l.y take a deep breath. Good. Now take another. And another. We don't want to aggravate your cough again, now do we? Now a little more tea…" Dick began to settle down under Alfred's coaching, and by then Bruce had himself back under control.
"So the upshot of the story is, you found yourself alone against ten young men, all of whom outweighed you by at least a hundred pounds. Yet you refused to steal for them – you wouldn't even pretend to agree to do what they wanted, so you could get away from them. You fought them instead, outnumbered and outclassed as you were, and then you refused them again, even though you knew they were about to kill you. Is that about it?"
Dick nodded at Bruce's summary.
"And you think I'm ashamed of you for that?!"
Dick nearly jumped out of his skin at Bruce's vehemence, but managed to nod again.
"For God's sake, why?"
"B-b-because you said that…that if I was g-good enough, there'd be no s-s-situation I c-c-couldn't get out of." Dick sniffled. "Ob-ob-obviously I w-w-wasn't g-g-good enough." Tears were beginning to drip again.
Bruce closed his eyes momentarily and sighed. "Oh, chum." How could he have so thoroughly managed to miscommunicate his meaning to Dick?
He pulled the boy close to him, wrapping his arms around him as if to protect him from the world. "Dick, you've been training for what – less than six months? I've been training for twenty years, and I'm still not 'good enough.' That's the ultimate goal we work towards, not what I expect you to be able to do now."
Dick pulled away far enough to look disbelievingly into Bruce's eyes. "Then you're…not…disappointed in me?"
Bruce looked down at Dick's pale face. Putting all his sincerity into his eyes and his voice, he replied, "Far from it, Dick. You were incredibly brave today."
Dick dropped his eyes again. "I wasn't brave. I was really scared," he confessed in a very small voice.
"Dickie, that's what it means to be brave," Leslie broke in. "Someone who's never scared isn't brave – just stupid. Being brave is when you do the right thing – like standing up to bullies – even though you're absolutely terrified."
Dick raised his eyes to hers in surprise. "Really and truly?"
"Really and truly, dear."
Dick looked to Bruce to see if he agreed with Dr. Leslie's definition of bravery. It wasn't that he thought Dr. Leslie would lie to him. But she was a doctor. Bruce was…well…Bruce. Not to mention Batman. Maybe he would think bravery was different.
Bruce met his eyes and nodded emphatically. "Absolutely," he said in confirmation of Leslie's statement. "It's easy to do the right thing when you're not afraid. You did the right thing today in a very dangerous situation, and I'm – we're," he amended, nodding at Leslie and Alfred, "all very proud of you." The two pairs of blue eyes continued to gaze at each other. Slowly Dick allowed himself to believe that Bruce was telling him the truth; then he relaxed onto Bruce's shoulder.
"Master Bruce." Bruce glanced over at Alfred. "If you would kindly move the young master to the chair for a short while, I can put fresh linens on his bed, so he will be more comfortable." Bruce nodded, and looked down at the boy in his arms.
"How about it, chum? Should we get out of Alfred's way for a bit?"
Dick bobbed his head sleepily, and wrapped his own arms around Bruce's neck. Bruce gently picked him up and moved to the armchair. But instead of putting Dick down, he sat down himself with the boy on his lap. Dick didn't let go of Bruce's neck. He simply snuggled closer, laid his head on Bruce's chest, and fell asleep. Bruce put his feet up on the ottoman, and reached a hand up to gently stroke the tousled dark hair.
"Brave, indeed," he murmured softly. "I don't think I could have been that brave in that situation, when I was his age." He looked down and watched wonderingly as his arms, seemingly of their own accord, tightened around Dick to cuddle him securely.
Alfred changed the last pillowcase, smoothed the blankets, and stepped back from the bed. "There we are, Master Bruce. I believe Master Dick can now…" He fell silent as his eyes focused on the two in the chair. Leslie, who was just putting away the last of her medical equipment, looked up to see why Alfred had stopped talking. She followed the line of his gaze, and smiled.
"Now there's a real miracle, Alfred," she said softly.
"Indeed, Dr. Thompkins. Indeed." The two of them tiptoed quietly from the room, leaving guardian and ward asleep together in the armchair.
Summer vacation was starting! Dick was excited as he cleaned out his locker. Since it was the last day of school, Bruce was going to pick him up, and he had promised Dick a surprise when he got home. Dick could hardly wait.
As Dick walked to the student pickup area, he caught sight of Todd Meyers and Jimmy West, who were hard at work cleaning up the elementary playground. While Dick had still been at home recovering from his ordeal, Bruce had met with the school principal and the police. They had confronted Todd & Jimmy, and extracted a full confession of the gang's activities. Dick's attempted murder had been only the tip of the iceberg. Josh and his followers had been bullying and extorting money from many other young students for months. All of the gang except Todd and Jimmy had been summarily expelled. Subsequent investigation had led to prosecution and conviction of Josh and the other ringleaders, with Dick serving as a primary witness at the trial. Because Todd & Jimmy had rescued Dick from drowning and stood up to the rest of the gang in his defense, their punishment had been limited to losing credit for the entire spring term, along with intensive community service, in the form of performing full-time maintenance duties around the school for the rest of the spring and summer, and participating in anti-gang seminars for younger students.
Dick saw Bruce's car, and he broke into a jog. He was eager to get home. Afternoons had been much more fun as the weather had warmed over recent weeks, since homework was now delayed until after dinner. Swimming lessons and water safety had become Robin's after-school training regimen. Bruce hadn't been sure how Dick would react after his near-drowning, but his worries proved unfounded. Dick had taken to the water as easily as he took to the air, and often stayed in until Alfred threatened to toss his dinner in the pool with him.
Upon arriving home, Dick tossed his schoolbag on the hall table and turned to Bruce.
"OK, where is it?"
Bruce looked at him with a twinkle in his eye. "Where's what?"
"What?!? What!?! The surprise you've been promising me for a week, that's what! Where is it?"
"Come with me and you'll see." Followed by Alfred, Bruce led Dick on a wide-ranging exploration of the Manor's ground floor, including the patios and gardens. Dick became more and more exasperated as they meandered, apparently aimlessly, and Alfred frequently had to counsel patience. As they walked by the swimming pool, Dick again burst out, "Where is it!?!?!?"
Dick found himself scooped up and tossed through the air to once again land, fully clothed, in the deep end of a pool. Mindful of his recent training, he stripped off his school jacket and shoes before coming to the surface.
"What did you do that for?!" he spluttered, swimming to the side and climbing out. Alfred was waiting with a large, fluffy towel.
"Surprise! You've just successfully passed your last "final exam" of the year!" Bruce said, with a rare grin. Dick began to smile. Praise from Bruce was still quite unusual, so he had learned to appreciate it.
"There is still one problem, sirs." Bruce and Dick both turned in concern.
"Oh? What's that, Alfred?"
"Who's going to retrieve Master Dick's jacket, not to mention what used to be the perfectly good shoes now residing on the bottom of the pool?"
Dick looked at Bruce, his smile widening to match Bruce's grin.
"Nah. That's not a problem, Alfred." Dick dropped the towel and dove back in to collect his stray articles of clothing.