Title: Take Care
Characters: Dick, Bruce, Alfred
Summary: Dick dreads the anniversary of his parent's deaths.
Disclaimers: These guys aren't mine, they don't belong to me, worst luck, so don't bother me.
Archive: Fine, but if you want it, please ask first.
Feedback: Hell, yes.
"So, you look after Mom until I get back, right? You know you're the man of the house while I'm away, son."
"Don't worry, Dad. I take real good care of her, you'll see."
"And after the rigging is checked, what do you do?"
"Check it again. I know."
"That's my guy." He saw the big smile, and then his father's hand rested for a moment on his shoulder, squeezing slightly…
The dream always started out the same—with him reliving the scene a few days before his parents were killed. His father was going down to Florida to deal with any hurricane damage to the house and would be back in a couple of days. In the meantime, Dick and his mother would hold down the fort with the show, take care of the set up for the next gig and make sure everything was ready when Dad got back in time for that charity performance in Gotham on Saturday.
It was the same dream he'd been having since he was eight years old, the one that had started the week after his parents had died—falling to their deaths when the lines broke.
The lines he'd helped run.
The lines he'd checked.
The lines he'd rechecked just before they'd opened the house to let in the audience.
It was the only time his father hadn't checked the lines because the flight from Florida was delayed and the traffic from the airport was slow. He'd arrived with barely enough time to change into his costume and nothing else.
Sure, Dick knew that the ropes were strong enough. He knew they'd been hung right and that nothing was wrong. His mother had checked them as well. He knew that.
Zucco made the ropes break. While everyone was on the dinner break, the ropes had been cut three-quarters of the way through—weakened just enough to give when the weight of a second adult body was added to their load. He knew that, just like he knew there was nothing his father would have done differently if he'd been there. Dick hadn't done anything wrong and he hadn't been neglectful or lax or anything like that.
But he'd told his Dad that he'd look after his Mom. He'd been told he was the man of the house while his father was away—he'd promised, and now both of his parents were dead.
The dream always ended at the same place, with him staring at his parents on the sawdust, blood welling onto the ground from the compound fractures. His father had died instantly, his back and neck broken, his skull smashed, but his Mom…his Mom had looked at him and tried to say something. He'd walked closer, put his hand on her shoulder, even brushed some dirt off her face, but she'd been unable to speak. She looked at him and after a minute he realized she'd stopped breathing, her eyes still focused on him, but unseeing. That was when he was led away.
That was the way it happened.
The dream always ended with Dick sitting up awake, usually screaming, tars on his cheeks and in a trembling cold sweat with Alfred's arms around him When he'd first arrived at the Manor, the dreams had come almost every night, sometimes more than once before dawn. Later, they lessened to one or two or so a week, but they never waned in their intensity or in their ability to leave him trembling and fighting tears.
When he was a little older, maybe twelve or thirteen, he would often hesitate before he'd spend the night with a friend, afraid he'd have the dream and be embarrassed, even with the Titans. And when he was still older he would often make excuses to leave after a tryst with a girlfriend.
By the time he was twenty, he would have the dream maybe once a month or so. He could almost count on it when his mother's birthday would roll around and, of course, the anniversary of the deaths.
And he never forgot how his father had asked, told him to take care of his mother, that he was in charge.
And she'd died.
Yesterday Alfred had called, probably because he knew how bad the day always was for Dick, suggesting it would be nice if he could come for dinner with the Master. It had been so long since they'd seen him and with his studying at the police academy now, he was so busy it seemed like they never got a chance to catch up. Could he make it by six? Well, then how about six-thirty? Nothing fancy, just a steak on the grill. Lovely, they'd look forward to his visit—oh, and by all means stay the night if there were no other plans. Wonderful, his room was waiting for him, as always.
The steak, as expected, had been perfect. The potatoes roasted on the grill, wrapped in foil and the salad was blended the way you get in a really fine restaurant if you're lucky. Bruce had even broken out a bottle of the really good Bordeaux to go with it and Alfred had joined them in the darkness out on the patio, relaxing and allowing himself the rare luxury of acknowledging he was the mainstay of their lives and not just—well, whatever.
The coals in the grill were giving off a glow and an occasional spark. There were a couple of torches burning and the three men, the small family, were as comfortable as it was possible for them to be.
It was the kind of evening you remember years later and wish things were always that good.
"How are things going for you in Bludhaven? Jim Gordon was telling me that the police department is improving significantly—you're not catching too much flack there, are you?"
"Nothing I can't handle. You and Selina still an item?"
"On and off."
"More on or off?"
Bruce sipped his wine. "About the same as you and Barbara, I'd think."
"Fine, I'll change the subject." Both men smiled at that. They knew better than to invade one another's personal space. If there were a problem worth knowing about, they'd hear.
It was that rarest of times for them—relaxation. No place to be, no job to do and no one to see; at least for the moment. They talked quietly about this and that, but nothing of great import. They simply, for the first time in a long time, connected and shored up the pilings of the bond of their relationship. Like everything of worth, it needed tending now and then to make sure the supports were still strong to keep it standing.
The evening went along with time passing slow enough to savor until finally, around eleven, Bruce emptied his wine glass and asked—as if he'd just thought of it, "If you don't have anyplace you need to be, why don't you stay here? Alfred would love to have you show up for breakfast in the morning." A beat. "So would I."
Dick knew what they were doing. They were worried about him. Though they didn't know, he'd refused an invitation from Barbara, not wanting her to see him sweating and trembling from the inevitable nightmare he'd be having tonight. Love each other though they did, he had his pride and that was a line he wouldn't cross, even for her. He didn't want to be alone though, so…
"I think maybe I will, if it's all right. I have tomorrow off, no reason to get up early—besides, it will be a nice change from the city noise and to be able to wake up to someone else cooking breakfast."
"Since when is eating an untoasted pop tart cooking breakfast, Master Dick?"
"Yeah, well, they're an acquired taste, okay?"
"May the good Lord preserve us from such acquirements."
"Are you going out tonight, Bruce?" Dick looked up as Bruce stood, stretching.
"I think I'll do some work downstairs. There've been some reports about a syndicate in France trying to expand to our East Coast." He paused a moment, as though he'd just thought of something. "Want to take a look? Maybe you'll see something I've missed."
Dick and Alfred both knew exactly what he as doing, but, "Sure, sounds interesting. Hey, Alf? Let me get that, will you? I'm headed in there anyway." He picked up the heavy platter, piled it with used plates and silverware and carried them for the old man, knowing that was all that would be permitted. No one ever washed the dishes, other than Alfred—the only exception was during a party and then still under his supervision.
Down in the Cave, Bruce booted the big computers, allowing Dick the unprecedented laxity of a mug of hot chocolate on the main console. They spent about two hours going over everything about the French mob; their previous takeovers, their connections, arms deals, financing and several dirty politicians from both countries they seemed to have on their payroll.
Dick stretched his legs under the computer. "So I'll keep an eye open incase anything turns up in 'Haven. Have you heard anything new about Riddler? I hear he may be up to some new things."
"I don't think so, or not right now. I got a report that he may be sick."
Dick raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Cancer. I heard it from one of his old soldiers—you remember Manny? I saw him over in Arkham last week, he said the old guy is in pretty bad shape."
"You believe him?"
Bruce nodded. "I think I do, yes. You know how he always smelled?"
"Sure, cigarettes. What? Lung cancer?"
"I heard it was stage four."
"That sucks. I mean, I never liked the guy, but I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
"You'll understand if I don't send him a card, I trust."
Dick cracked that big smile. "C'mon, wouldn't that be a hoot? You and me—I'll even pull the old Robin costume out of mothballs—we walk in, no, we come through the window of whatever hospital he's in. Can't you picture the look on his face? It would be priceless. We could bring flowers."
"Pass." Bruce shut down the computer, nothing more he wanted to look at right now on the thing. "How are things going with you and Barbara, if you don't mind my asking?"
"It's still good, yeah." He headed out of the pool of light and flipped a switch on the far side of the cavern. The gym lit up, waiting for them. Dick chalked up his hands, took a hop and started an old routine on the high bar, the one Bruce had installed especially for him back when he was in high school and had mentioned the one they were using wasn't regulation; the diameter of the top bar wasn't exact and it didn't have the right spring. This one was state of the art, such as it were—if three metal bars and some guy wires could be considered state of the art.
Dick could tell the difference and though he'd compensate, he wouldn't be happy about it, not when it came to his gymnastics. Oh, he might not say much or really complain, but both Bruce and Alfred would know that he didn't consider something kosher.
Bruce watched him go through the familiar movements; the stalters, the giants, the releases and catches, one armed, both arms, changing grips—fluid, graceful and as easy as if he were standing on a sidewalk. Dick stayed on the bar for long minutes, long enough that Bruce stared to worry he'd tear the calluses on his hands the way he used to.
Whenever he was upset about something, this was one of the places they knew to look for him and as often as not he'd be here, going through some routine, over and over again until his arms trembled from exhaustion and the sweat was flying as he circled the bar.
There was no sound, other than the music and the squeak and thump of his hands on the bar, the occasional whisper of his street clothes as the air or the bar made particular contact. He was good—no, he was one of the best in the world and knew it without any arrogance, no more than he was vain about his looks or his intelligence. They were simply facts and part of him. They were what he was made of; he'd catalogued them and accepted them as givens.
Finally the giant swings came faster and faster, winding up for the quad. Up, release, tuck, turning almost too fast to count, stuck landing, knees slightly bent to absorb the impact, arms up. Then he looked over at Bruce and smiled. "God, I love doing that."
"You've been practicing."
Dick laughed, happy. "Yeah, some—it shows?" Bruce nodded at him. "Great. Y'know? I'm hungry again—you up for a food run?"
"There's enough food in the kitchen to feed Gotham. What time is it?"
"Almost four. The night is young—you're not tired already, are you? Bruce—food run, c'mon. I'll buy."
"I'll pick the place."
"Bullshit. And I'll drive." Dick handed Bruce a jacket and slipped on his own. They took the new Porsche Carrera GT out, spewing gravel the length of the mile long driveway and, for once, Bruce kept his mouth shut despite the glances from Dick almost daring him to say something.
They ended up at Paul's Diner, a local legend. When it was time to order, Dick ordered his usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries and a chocolate milkshake. To his private amazement, Bruce's order consisted of, "I'll have the same."
"You? Mr. 'My Body is a Temple'? You're not having a salad, hold the dressing and bottled water?"
"Sometimes I allow myself an indulgence."
"Kal warned me it would be a sign of the apocalypse if I ever witnessed it."
Bruce sipped his glass of tap water. "Kal doesn't know as much as he likes to think." He put the glass down. "So how are things going? Bludhaven suit you as much as you thought it would?"
Dick nodded. "Y'know? It does. It's a pit, a dump, a hellhole and all those clichés, but it's so bad I can see the difference I'm making already. I know that sounds arrogant, but it's where I want to be right now."
"Have you set up any kind of time frame for yourself? Do you plan to stay with the BPD indefinitely?"
"Probably not, but for now, it's good…"
The conversation rambled along unhurried, the burgers arrived and were eaten and Bruce seconded Dick's order for a slab of one of those almost frightening chocolate cakes diners all seem to have in a case near the front counter.
Dick couldn't resist. "Since when do you eat shit like that?"
"I indulge once in a while."
"This is the first time since I've known you."
"I don't tell you everything."
"So you're saying you sneak out at five in the morning to eat about 2,000 calories worth of sugar and preservatives?"
"…Maybe." And pigs can fly.
Dick just smiled that small smile when they had one of their rare light moments. They didn't happen often. "So you ready to leave?" By then the very early morning breakfast crowd was starting to file in—the truckers, the delivery people, and the ones coming off night shifts or headed to jobs that started at dawn. From the talk and the greetings, it was clear many were regulars and there was something in that which appealed to Dick; being a regular, having people expect you to walk in and knowing your regular order. It was comforting somehow, small town, homey. Suddenly it occurred to him that he had been a regular at Haly's circus, and he pushed the thought from his mind almost as soon as it arrived.
Bruce nodded, let Dick pay their bill, and left a decent tip and they headed out to the Porsche where Dick got behind the wheel again.
"You could just buy yourself one, if you like it so much."
"And I'd explain a $400,000 car to the other cops how? Besides, then it wouldn't be as much fun to drive yours. Especially the way you try to hide your terror in the turns."
"Since most of them seem to be on the take, I would think there are probably several in the precinct lot anyway. You'd probably fit right in. And I have no fear in the turns or elsewhere."
"You know, you may have a point and with my birthday coming up, if you haven't given it any thought—I like racing green for a car. And you keep hitting the brake on the passenger side when I'm driving. Terror." The sun was starting up, or at least the sky was lightening. "Don't you have to go into the office today?"
"Later. Meetings after lunch. I may not be hungry."
"Y'think?" He parked the car exactly in its spot. "You think Alfred will be upset if we skip breakfast?"
The two men were making their way up the main staircase, up to their respective bedrooms, Dick's still hung with posters of rock bands and pinups from when he was a teenager and lived here. "He'll over compensate with dinner." Bruce stopped at his own door. "You okay? You need anything?"
"Just sleep." Bruce turned to go into the master suite. "Hey Bruce? Thanks."
Nodding, he said, "Sleep well", and closed the heavy oak door behind him.
A few minutes later Dick was in his old bed, looking up at the familiar ceiling, at the angles and shadows he'd memorized almost a decade and a half ago. It was odd to be back here for the night, a little awkward to be in his childhood home now that he was an adult. The dynamics had changed and relationships that used to be taken for granted were different. He knew why he'd come here today though, and he knew Bruce and Alfred understood as well.
And he was tired. Between the date and the long night, he was beat—and afraid to sleep. He could take one of the sleeping pills Leslie always subtly made sure he had on hand for when they were needed, though that wasn't too often. He didn't want to. They made him sleep, yes, but they didn't stop the dreams he knew would be coming. It was always the same. It never changed and he'd tried everything he could think of to avoid what he knew was going to happen.
He looked over at the large window across the room, the sun was up. He was used to sleeping at odd times, but this was pointless. He was tired and afraid—maybe he'd try a hot bath. That usually worked to relax him and might keep the wimwams away. Maybe this time…
The tub was large and deep and he filled it almost to the brim with hot water, soaking for almost thirty minutes and—thank God, it seemed to work. By the time he crawled back under the bedding he was tired, relaxed and thought he'd sleep. With any luck…
…He was back in the circus, smelling the animals and the sawdust, the popcorn and the sweat. His father was telling him he was in charge until he got back.
He checked the rigging.
He climbed down after the quad.
He watched his parents do the simple warm up pass.
The ropes broke. His mother screamed.
He heard the thuds as they landed.
The crowd was screaming.
His father's neck at an unnatural angle, bleeding. His back broken.
The bones of his mother's legs through the skin and blood. Her eyes were on him, her lips moving but nothing coming out besides red.
Her eyes fixed and unseeing, the sheets being thrown over them.
He was crying, numb, shattered, frightened, and alone.
Slowly Dick became aware of a hand on his shoulder and the soothing voice, "Master Dick. Wake up. You're safe, it's just a bad dream, Dick, you're safe in your bed. You're quite all right, now wake up, please. Come now, it's time to wake up."
Shaking, he wiped at his face, at the tears and opened his eyes. Alfred was sitting beside him wearing his old silk robe, his hand gently rubbing Dick's neck. Suddenly sitting up, he slipped his arms around the old man in one movement. His breathing was ragged and he didn't care that he was crying again as Alfred rubbed his back while making familiar unintelligible comforting sounds.
They remained like that for long minutes until, slowly, Dick managed to get his breathing under control along with the tremors, though his arms stayed where they were around the old man, the two of them still embracing.
"I'm sorry. I knew it would happen, it always does. I shouldn't have stayed here."
It was like the boy—no, the young man, to feel guilty for bothering anyone. He always had been almost too independent for his own good. "Nonsense, of course you should have stayed here and there's nothing for you to apologize about. You know full well this is always your home, no matter how old you may be. You've known that for years now."
Dick slowly withdrew his arms sitting back against the headboard, getting his breathing under control, though Alfred could still see the slight trembling in the hands resting on top of the covers. "Bruce still asleep?"
"Quite soundly, yes." A hint of a smile. "It seems you wore him out."
Dick returned the hint. "He's not as young as he used to be.
"None of us are, I fear, though I suspect we may have a few good years left in us." He started to stand, pausing. "I trust you'll sleep now?"
Dick nodded; that was the way it worked the last couple of years. He would have the nightmare and it would be a killer, then he'd be fine for a month or two—an improvement from when he was younger, thank God. This time had been as bad as it ever was, but now he was in the clear till next time. It was odd, but that was the way it seemed to work, almost as if the tension built to a head over the months, was released and took another anniversary or birthday or something to build up again. This time he might be good until his mother's birthday came around in two months.
"Good, I'll leave you to it then." He moved towards the door.
He turned back, standing in place. "Yes?"
"How did you always know when to come in to wake me up? I never could figure out how you did that."
"I'd have thought you'd have gotten that when you were nine, for goodness sake." Alfred tapped the house intercom controls by the door. "I kept the link opened between our two rooms. Surely you realized that."
"The indicator light isn't on."
"Well, I've learned one or two things while I've been here, after all. I cut the wire a decade ago."
"Did you ever tell Bruce?"
"Tell him what? That you had an occasional nightmare? My Lord, who on earth doesn't now and then. I hardly thought it worth troubling him over. I'll bid you sleep well, then. Breakfast will be provided when you make it downstairs."
Dick lay back down. Of course Bruce knew, otherwise he wouldn't have blown off patrol and gone to the diner with him and Dick had known the evening would probably end something like this. It was so like both of them, Bruce and Alfred, to not come out and tell him about the conspiracy to keep him safe when the bad stuff got to him. Bruce would just deal with it, assuming Dick knew what was happening and Alfred would—like always—just quietly do what needed to be done without fuss or fanfare.
And Dick was a regular here.