Rite of Passage
There wasn't anything really obvious about what was going on. In fact, no one who wasn't as familiar with Master Richard as Alfred was would have noticed and even Alfred didn't think it was anything.
Bruce certainly didn't see fit to comment on it, nor did the boy's friends, the Titans. No one said a word and that might have been part of the problem. In all likelihood, probably no one noticed. It seemed that no one at Brixton Academy thought about it, though, of course, it really wasn't their problem, nor their job. Even Alfred seemed to think it was likely just a phase or some such, and certainly nothing to trouble one's self about and that it would pass soon enough. Teenagers were nothing if not prone to occasional moodiness and, in fairness to the young master, it wasn't anything that he seemed to be all that upset about. The boy was a senior in high school now, almost a man when you came down to it and as independent and self-reliant as any youngster could be. He'd be fine.
It wasn't even something Alfred could put his finger on, just a feeling that something was bothering the boy. Well, that could be almost anything and we all have our bumps along the road or a bad week.
"Alfred, is Bruce supposed to be home for dinner?"
"I expect him be here at his regular time. Why do you ask?"
"No reason, thanks." Dinner that evening was as normal as ever, Master Dick tried to make conversation and Master Bruce was self-absorbed and barely listening. Dinner as usual.
A week or so later Alfred walked into Dick's room with a pile of clean laundry, thinking the lad was still down in the gym with his daily workout. He was sitting at his desk, though, talking on the phone on what seemed to be a business call of some kind. "I'm sorry, could you hang on a moment?" Dick waited until Alfred left the room and the door was firmly closed before he resumed whatever he was talking about. Alfred assumed the boy was talking to a girl and wanted his privacy.
Several days after that a large manila envelope arrived, certified mail, for Master Dick. Alfred signed for it, noticing that it was from a well-known and powerful firm of lawyers in Gotham and placed it on the boy's bed, where he'd be sure to see it when he came in. Not about to pry, he said nothing and Dick volunteered nothing. The next weekend he announced that he would be busy working with the Titans and would call in, not to worry. It wasn't until Tuesday that he managed to check in, Bruce furious at the missed school and irresponsibility and lack of support for Batman. Dick apologized but offered no explanations other than that the case the Titans were working on was more complex than they'd originally thought and he'd be back as soon as he could.
"What about your mid-terms?"
"I have them covered, don't worry about it."
Checking in with Oracle, Bruce found out that the Titans weren't working on anything of import, or nothing they'd logged in with her, anyway.
It was strange and not like Dick to be secretive like this and for him to lie or be misleading? Not like him at all.
"Alfred, have you noticed anything going on with Dick the last few months?"
"Nothing I've been concerned about, sir. Perhaps you could be a bit more specific."
"I'm not sure, he's just seemed preoccupied and, well, just not quite himself. It's almost like he has something on his mind and that's taking precedent over pretty much everything else. It's—I don't know, it's just odd. Do you think he might be having problems with school or a girl?"
"You saw his report card last week, Master Bruce; he's on the Honor Roll again, so I hardly think that's likely."
"He hasn't mentioned any particular young lady, no."
"Problems with the Titans?"
"He's not said anything to me, have you tried to simply ask him what might be on his mind?" From the look on the master's face, clearly that hadn't entered his mind. "Might I suggest that as a course of action?"
Later that night down in the cave, Bruce brought it up—or tried to. "Everything all right, chum?"
"Yeah, sure—why do you ask?"
"Just checking. Ready to go?"
Another week went by, Bruce was in his study going over a new merger contract when Alfred walked in with a rare glass of wine, setting it carefully on the desk. "Excuse me, sir, but you do realize that the young master will be celebrating a birthday shortly; have you given it any thought?"
"Next week, right? What do you think he'd like?"
"Perhaps you may wish to ask him yourself, sir. He's of an age when a party with his friends might be appreciated, perhaps with one of those musical groups whose din escapes from his room on occasion."
"Sounds like a plan. You don't happen to know which specific din he might prefer, do you?"
"I wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find out. If nothing else, he has any number of recordings up there, a simple search would likely yield information."
"What about a surprise party? You know, make him think we've forgotten or are too busy and then he can walk in and…"
"Master Bruce! A wonderful idea, I shall start working on it immediately." Alfred headed back to the kitchen, his assignment laid out for him and thinking how happy the lad would be when he entered the room—maybe the conservatory adjacent to the indoor pool would be suitable and guests would bring bathing costumes—and was surrounded by well wishers. He glanced at the calendar; Master Dick's birthday was in less than ten days; he had his work cut out for him. Of course, it was nothing he wouldn't be able to handle.
The next week and a half went by without incident. Dick was still in whatever mood had been affecting him the last couple of months, but he seemed to have resolved most of his upset and was more like himself. His birthday fell on a Saturday this year, a lucky coincidence and Bruce made sure the boy had enough errands to do to keep him out of the house so things could be set up for that evening. If he suspected anything—and he probably did—he kept his suspicions to himself and went along easily with the none too subtle subterfuge.
The party went well; the guests—the Titans and a good number of the JLA along with Dr. Leslie and a few others here and there all seemed to enjoy themselves. Dick acted surprised, though they all know he was too good a detective to have not known about a party being planned in his own home. The presents ranged from the expected tee shirts and books to the unusual; stuff from people's travels to other planets, exotic food from Atlantis and unknown on the surface and a music player Clark brought from Kandor.
Around eleven a majority of the older guests, the JLA members and Leslie, left to either patrol or finish paperwork, leaving the Titans and one or two younger friends like Barbara Gordon. They ended up in the pool and the Jacuzzi as the gathering reached the mellow part of the evening and loud water games settled into quiet talk between old friends.
Dick was resting in the warm water with Roy and Garth, it was heading towards dawn and they were content and comfortable.
"So, now what?" Roy was giving Dick an intent look and seemed serious for a change.
"What now what? Alfred's making breakfast, I guess."
"I meant in the larger sense. What you gonna do now, boy wonder? Carry the Bat Torch? College? Run away and rejoin the circus?"
Instead of the glib answer Roy expected Dick gave him a quiet look. "We'll see."
"Meaning we'll see." It was a clear sign to drop it and Roy knew Dick well enough to take the hint, at least for now. The sky was lightening through the floor to ceiling windows, the light reflected in the pool's water. Roy might have been wrong, but he thought he might have caught some sadness in the answer.
"So—breakfast?" Garth had surfaced from the deep end a few feet away.
Dick looked over, stretching and pulling himself out of the hot water of the Jacuzzi. "Breakfast sounds good."
The rest of the day was spent mostly lounging around and resting up from the party. Batman and Robin made their usual patrol with less chatter than normal from Robin. If Batman noticed, he didn't comment. Monday morning he was up and gone by the time Dick came downstairs to eat and head out to school and, for some reason, this seemed to disappoint him, though he didn't say anything.
Bruce was held up late with meetings at Wayne Corp that evening and Dick opted to stay in to stud for midterms, a reasonable decision and one Alfred willingly concurred with when the master wondered where the boy was.
It took several days, during which Dick's tension level seemed to peak and then settle into a basic level where he was calm and seeming to be waiting for something to happen, though he denied this when Alfred asked. He also seemed to have made major progress in cleaning out his room, after months of requests. Finally, on Thursday evening, he and Bruce were able to sit down together for dinner.
The conversation was stilted until Dick seemed to decide to just face whatever was on his mind. "Bruce, would it be all right if I stayed here until school ends in six weeks?" The silence this question was greeted by went on too long and being under Bruce's stare was disconcerting, even for someone as used to it as Dick was. "I mean, if that's a problem it's okay. Really, I can just stay over at the Tower or something. It's cool." The expression on Bruce's face was confusion. "You know," Dick shrugged in inarticulation before stumbling on. "I can just go somewhere else if it's, I dunno, easier or something."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"My birthday last weekend." As if that explained everything.
"I turned eighteen."
Shaking his head in exasperation, Dick was becoming upset. "Eighteen. I'm no longer a minor. The guardianship ended midnight Friday, as soon as it was my birthday. You're off the hook now. You did your duty, filled the contract and now I'm on my own. We both knew it was coming, Bruce, c'mon. It's okay."
"Look, don't. Just don't. I'm grateful for everything you did for me—and Alfred, too. You guys have to know that but the law's the law and it was a close-ended contract. As soon as I turned eighteen you were finished and I've known all along it would happen, since you took me in. It's not like it's a surprise or anything. I just wanted to know if it's okay for me to stay here to finish out high school because if that's a problem I have other places I can go." He dropped his eyes for a moment. "It's not like I'm gonna be on the streets or anything."
"You think I'd throw you out?" Bruce looked incredulous and not a little angry at what he was hearing. "You can't actually believe that, can you?"
"I talked to a couple of lawyers and they said there would be potential insurance problems for you if I stayed around and that it would be better—legally—if I accepted the reality of the situation and…" He stopped at the look on Bruce's face. "Besides, we both knew this was temporary." He shrugged in some helplessness, trying to explain. "You made the decision to make me your ward and…"
"Of course I did. I made you my ward because you…"
Dick's breath was coming a little too fast and the color in his cheeks was heightened. "You made me your ward because it was easier than adopting me. This way it was a closed end deal with a definite starting and stopping point. It wouldn't drag on and I wouldn't have any real claim on your estate." He paused, his eyes on the empty milk glass. "It's okay, Bruce. I understand. It's not like I'm your son or anything. I'm fine with it." Dick stood; ready to end this before he became too upset to say what needed to be said. "So is it okay if I stay through graduation? I can pack—it's not a problem; this is your house and so I want to make sure everything is clear between us."
Bruce was still taking in what he'd heard and trying to fathom Dick's feelings. He couldn't have been more blindsided if Dick had pulled a gun and shot him as he sat there.
"Dick, stay as long as you want. As far as I'm concerned, this is your home as long as you want it to be and you're always welcome here as a member of my family; which is what you are."
Disbelieving and plainly hurting, Dick nodded his thanks and left the room, a moment later Bruce heard the front door close and shortly after that heard the old Harley, the only tangible thing Dick had from his real father, roar down the driveway. Alfred silently began removing plates from the table. "You heard?"
"I gather we now know what was bothering the boy these last few months."
"Did you have any idea about this?"
Alfred shook his head. "I supposed that he was simply thinking about finishing high school and moving on to college, a normal rite of passage for youngsters his age and one normally taken more or less in stride." He picked up the empty glasses. "You have to straighten this out, young man, and quickly."
Nodding, Bruce left the table.
Using the implant under Dick's skin, injected when the boy was thirteen and something Dick was unaware of, he'd tracked Dick to the small cove along the coast he knew the boy favored for it's privacy. The Atlanteans often used it to come ashore and it had been the scene of any number of both beach parties and secret trysts over the years. Tonight Dick was there alone, sitting on a rock, watching the surf.
"I'm sorry that you saw your wardship this way. It wasn't my intention."
"You didn't adopt me because you didn't want me to think you were trying to replace my father. I know."
"You also know that you're in my will as my heir. In all practical ways you are my son. We both know that."
"Yeah, well, God knows we want to be practical."
"Sorry." He paused for a moment, stopping himself from saying whatever was about to come next. "Look, I know what you're trying to do here and I appreciate it, but I think it would be best if I finished out finals and then moved up to the Tower until I have to leave for Hudson. I have a lot of things to do there and it would be more practical." He barely managed to not spit out the word. Dick looked at Bruce standing beside him, stoic as ever, his face a mask. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound like that. You were great to take me in; you didn't have to do it and I really am grateful for everything but it's just what it is. Things would have been pretty crappy if it hadn't been for you and Alfred but I'm not a kid now and I'll be fine on my own—you made sure of that so don't worry about me. You did a good job; you made me as independent as you could and it's all right. Tantrum's over." He straddled the large bike. "I really am fine with this." He put on his helmet, snapping the chinstrap in place. "I have to finish some stuff but I'll see you down in the cave around eleven, okay?" Kicking the engine into life, he took off, sand spraying as he sped up the beach.
Bruce heard the motorcycle fade, allowing the sound of the surf to be heard. It occurred to him to wonder if tonight might have gone any different if Dick had been his actual son, would they have come to this point? Would Dick have been better off in the long run if he'd simply stayed with the circus? And if he ever had another son, one born to him and some as yet unknown woman, would he end up standing alone, again, on some beach wondering how things had come to this?