A/N: On sites that support pictures, I've posted a photo of Dick's clock. If anyone's interested, they can view it on livejournal. My username there is dragonbat2006.
Thanks to Komikbookvixen for field medicine tips!
Thanks to Kathy for the beta!
Old Enough To Know
For the millionth time, Dick wonders how much older he'll have to be before he'll understand everything. He's been at the manor now for six months, and he still doesn't know where Bruce goes every night. Or why, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, and he makes his way down the hall to where Bruce's and Alfred's rooms are, they're always empty.
Sometimes, he goes back to bed. Sometimes, he ventures downstairs. Whenever he does, he encounters Alfred coming from the direction of the study. "Why are you always in there this late?" He's asked the question more than once.
The answer never varies. "One day, when you are older, matters will become clear."
Right now, there seem to be so many of these 'matters' that Dick thinks Alfred had better get started, because he'll be twenty before the butler gets done explaining it all.
He looks at the Wee Winkie circus clock hanging on the wall. Dick remembers when Dad found the thing in an antique shop. He bought it on the spot, brought it back to the trailer, touched it up, and kept it on the wall, right over the door for over a year. It's one of the few things Dick brought with him when he left Haley's, besides his clothes, his books and his toys. (He has his mother's engagement and wedding bands, and his father's cufflinks, but not handy. Those are other things that he's supposed to 'get' when he's older. The clock, however, is for now.) The bright moonlight makes the cartoonish drawings of animals and performers glow. The big hand is on the hind leg of the red elephant at just past the 12. The leg kicks out at a right angle. The little hand points to the mouth of the tuba that a blue tiger is blowing. Dick blinks. It's just after four o'clock in the morning! All is quiet.
There are many kinds of silence, Dick knows. There's the contented, restful quiet, when he's tired and ready to fall asleep, and he knows that his parents are nearby, looking out for him. There's the sorrowful silence that Dick senses sometimes, when he sees one or both of his new guardians watching him. He knows that they don't feel sorry for him, not exactly. But they're sorry that he's an orphan. That's okay. Dick is, too. It doesn't mean he's not happy here, but he wishes that they'd tell him stuff now, once in awhile. This is a different quiet, though. Dick senses that he's entirely alone on this floor. Does Alfred ever sleep? And where's Bruce?
The big hand on the clock is creeping past the jaunty little pig's balloons at ten past the hour when Dick slips out of bed and slides his feet into the velour slippers waiting below. He's nearly out of the room before he remembers to pull on the matching bathrobe that Alfred's draped over the chair for him. He never owned such a thing back at the circus. Now, though, Bruce and Alfred expect him to wear it if he's leaving the room in his pajamas. They don't expect him to leave the room at four o'clock in the morning, but Dick figures he'll probably be in less trouble if he breaks as few house rules as possible. Besides, they never told him he had to stay in bed at four. The robe is another story. He knots the sash and cautiously pushes the bedroom door open.
The hallway outside is dark. Dick still can't reach the light switch without jumping, and if he's wrong—if Bruce and Alfred are really upstairs and sleeping—he doesn't want to wake them up. It only takes a minute for him to go back to his room and get his 'torch'. (He always thought it was called a flashlight, and that a 'torch' was one of those big sticks with one end lit, like what Plamen the fire eater used to swallow about three quarters of the way through the act. But no, Alfred calls it a torch, so a torch it must be.) It doesn't give off much light, but there's enough so Dick can see where he's going. As he thought, Bruce's room and Alfred's are empty. Well, there's nothing for it but to go looking for them, then.
The carpeted stairs barely creak as he treads down them. He heads toward the study, and is surprised when Alfred doesn't walk toward him. The study door is open, but the room is dark. Dick bites his lip. Is he really the only person in the whole house? You're not supposed to leave kids all alone by themselves, especially not at night! His parents never did that! His family at the circus would never do that! But the social worker went and dumped him on people who did? Why? Just because they've got money and they aren't circus people? Dick wants to run into the dining room and start juggling the Waterford Crystal. He wants to climb up on the table, swing from the chandelier, then take a flying leap to the top of the stairs and slide down the banister. He… He hears footsteps.
He hears Alfred's tread. And it sounds like he's coming up a flight of stairs. But… there are no stairs in the study. Dick hastily douses the light and ducks behind the desk. He knows it's futile. Alfred has eyes in the back of his head that can see in the dark.
Surprisingly, Alfred passes by without noticing. He doesn't turn on any lights. Dick waits until the footsteps retreat down the hallway before he turns the torch back on.
The grandfather clock stands at a right angle, revealing a passage beyond. Dick shines the torch before him, and sees that the chamber appears to be made of stone. Rough steps lead downward. This isn't a room… it's a cave. For a moment, Dick wonders if this is a good idea. Maybe Alfred and Bruce are hiding bodies down here. If he discovers them… what'll they do? He sets his jaw stubbornly. Flying Graysons aren't afraid of anything.
The stairs turn sharply and suddenly, Dick realizes that there's more light up ahead. The cave is huge, and much of it is in shadow. There's one area, though, where several lights shine down on a bed. There's a figure lying there, barely moving.
Dick edges closer. "B-Bruce?" He whispers. Then he gasps. The costume—what's left of it—is in tatters, but Dick recognizes the black symbol on the yellow background. And on one of the many stands and tables clustered around the bed, Dick can see an all-too-familiar cowl. "Bruce?"
The man on the bed groans faintly.
"Ah, there you are, Master Dick."
The boy stifles a cry. Flying Graysons might not be afraid of anything, but they can get startled just like anybody else. "A-Alfred?"
Alfred sighs. "Wash your hands, Master Dick. Now, listen to me carefully. You'll find packages of sterile gloves in the bin by the sink. Slip a pair on. Then pour some of the baricide over them."
Dick blinks. "Baricide?"
Alfred nods briskly. "In the brown bottle on the other side of the sink. It's far from the ideal way to keep the gloves free of germs, but it will have the desired effect."
Dick locates the gloves and immediately spots the jar labeled 'baricide' close by. By the time Dick returns, Alfred has moved a small stepstool over to the bed. He motions to the boy to mount it. "I need you to apply pressure," he explains as he guides Dick's hands to a dressing on Bruce's abdomen. "Right here." He nods approvingly. "Good lad. We need to staunch the bleeding."
He bends down to the bed. "Now, Master Bruce," Dick hears him whisper, "that gash in your side requires attention. I'll set to suturing it directly." Dick watches as Alfred prepares a needle.
"Will he… be okay?" Dick ventures after a few moments.
Alfred ties off the stitches and moves to inspect the dressing. "I believe so, lad." He smiles slightly. "Well. Master Bruce had meant to tell you at a later date, but I suppose there's no hiding it now, is there?"
Dick shakes his head in wonderment. The costume, the cave, the late nights… they all make sense now.
It's after dinner when Bruce calls Dick into the study. The boy regards him seated behind the mahogany desk. Bruce doesn't look like he was lying bloodied and unconscious in a cave just a few hours earlier. Without meaning to, Dick's eyes flick over to the clock. Bruce notices and smiles for a moment.
"I'm… sorry," Bruce says finally. "It must have been scary waking up to find the manor empty."
Dick doesn't answer.
Bruce waits. "It isn't fair," he says seriously. "I hadn't meant to force this choice on you until you…"
"Until I was older," Dick interrupts. "Can I…" He checks himself. "May I say something?"
Bruce's eyebrows shoot up. "Go ahead," he says.
The boy takes a deep breath. "I'm older." The words come out in a rush now. "Maybe before, there were things I didn't have to know, didn't have to see… but I-I saw them." He bites his lip. "I know… I can't go back to the way things were before I came here. I don't mean going back to the circus—I can do that one day if I want to—but I can't go back to being who I was. I…" He tries to make Bruce understand. "I can't go back to being a little kid anymore. And I don't want everything to have to wait until I'm… older."
Bruce closes his eyes. "I couldn't either," he says. "It isn't fair," he repeats, this time in a whisper. "But now that you know about me, there's a choice that you need to make." He looks at Dick seriously. "We can keep going the way we have been, except that now, you'll know what it is I do every night. That might make things easier for you in one way, because at least you won't be wondering anymore. But I can't deny that you might find me in the cave one morning in worse condition than you did earlier. Or… I might not come back one night." He closes his eyes again. "You implied that you didn't want to be treated like a child. If that's the case, I'm not going to gloss over the facts. What I do is dangerous. You… you'll need to be prepared for that possibility."
He waits for Dick to nod. "If you don't think that's something that you can handle, I can't blame you. I can… call the social worker back and tell her that this isn't working out. I'll make sure that you end up in a good home, Dick. I mean that. You're not going to get shuffled from one foster home to another, that's a promise."
"But," Dick's throat is dry. "But I know about…"
Bruce smiles. "Well," he says, "I trust you to keep my secret to yourself. The thing is, Dick, a lot of kids your age still," he shakes his head, "still seem to be a bit hazy on the distinction between fantasy and reality. If you did try to tell people, I hate to say it but most of them won't believe you. The ones who do, well, Alfred and I have some experience with throwing people off the scent. I'm not saying that you couldn't do some damage if you wanted to," he adds. "But I'm hoping you won't.
He leans forward. "The other possibility is probably the most dangerous. And that's the real reason that I wanted to wait before I introduced you to the rest of my… world. If you were any other boy," he added, "I wouldn't suggest this now. But I've seen your capabilities, and I do think that this can work…"
As Bruce explains further, Dick starts to smile. When he woke up this morning, he wasn't sure what he was looking for. But in the time that it's taken the little hand on the Wee Winkie clock to reach the juggling kangaroo at 8, he knows that he's found a place and a purpose, and, although it will take a bit longer before he allows himself to admit it, a family.
Bruce and Alfred, to their credit, never push for that last bit. They figure that Dick will understand it when he's older.