Thanks to Debbie for the beta!
Disclaimer: DC owns. I borrow. DC makes money off of these characters. I spend money to read about these characters.
Weight of Judgment
Dick brushed past Alfred without greeting him and made a beeline for the staircase to the second floor. Before the elderly butler could call out his reproaches, the bedroom door had closed behind his young charge. It hadn't slammed shut, not exactly, however there was an angry finality to the way the oaken slab fell into place within the frame.
Alfred sighed. From the glimpse that he had caught of the young master's expression, a scolding was the last thing Dick needed at present.
When Dick failed to appear for dinner an hour later, Alfred was concerned, but not unduly alarmed. It was scarcely outside the realm of possibility that the lad had shared a pizza dinner with the Teen Titans before returning to the manor. Such meals had been occurring with greater frequency in recent months, and while Alfred could not give his full approval to such nutritionally-suspect fare, he wholeheartedly endorsed Dick's desire to spend more time with peers his own age. Still, the lad usually had the courtesy to come downstairs and let the butler know not to set a place for him at the table.
Alfred debated going upstairs to check up on him. Ultimately, he decided against it. Dick was fourteen, now, and that was an age when a youth began to feel the need for privacy. When both instinct and experience shrilled at him to hold off prying into the lad's affairs, he would have to be a fool to defy them.
Bruce's instincts, of course, were another matter.
"Sir, I implore you to—"
"Alfred, if something's upset him, I think I'm entitled to know what it is."
"No, sir. You desire to know what it is. That's scarcely the same thing."
Bruce started to say something else. Alfred waved him to silence.
"I might point out, sir," the butler continued, "that Master Dick was in high spirits earlier this weekend, when he left for his Titans meeting. He returned home decidedly more sober. Now, sir, while I scarcely style myself a detective, I cannot help but deduce that the cause of the young master's current state transpired over the weekend. It does not stem from your actions, and therefore need not overly concern you at this stage."
"I might also point out, sir," Alfred added, "that there have been several occasions where the lad has attempted to draw you out of your broodings. In each case, you have stood firmly upon your own right to privacy. Do afford the young man similar courtesy."
Bruce sighed his acquiescence. "I just don't like seeing—"
The phone rang then. Alfred reached for it, but Bruce was closer. "It's okay, Alfred. I've got it." Instantly, the mask came down and the voice that spoke into the receiver switched from resigned to affable.
"Bruce Wayne speaking." His eyebrows shot up. "Hello, Donna. Yes, he is. Did you want to—oh, I see." Bruce's expression shifted to a puzzled frown as his voice deepened.
Of course, Alfred realized. She called expecting to speak with Batman, so Master Bruce feels no need to perpetuate the playboy act.
Alfred watched Bruce's reactions carefully as the younger man listened without interruption. Bruce was nodding seriously. Once or twice, Alfred saw him cover his eyes with his free hand.
"I see," he said again, finally. "Thank you for telling me. I'll deal with this." Then, wearily, "No, Donna. You did the right thing. I'm not angry. Thank you." He hung up the phone and turned to Alfred.
"You were wrong, Old Friend," he said quietly. "This time, I do need to talk to him."
As Alfred started to protest, Bruce held up a palm and smiled sheepishly. "And listen. I know."
"Might one inquire as to the nature of the young lady's call, sir?"
Bruce hesitated. "One might," he admitted, "but… you were right before about respecting his privacy." He shook his head. "If I make a mess of this, I'll fill you in, but I think that this time, I probably am better equipped to handle the situation."
Alfred gave Bruce a penetrating look. "Very good, sir," he said finally with a satisfied nod. "I shall be in the kitchen should you require my services."
Bruce knocked tentatively. At first, he didn't think that Dick would respond, but just as he was debating whether to push his way in, the door opened. Dick blinked when he saw who it was. A moment later, he shrugged and retreated back into the room, leaving the door open. Bruce followed him in.
"You win," Dick said without preamble. "I'm quitting the Titans."
Bruce braced his hands against the top of Dick's desk and hoisted himself up. "I hadn't realized that it was a competition," he said quietly.
Dick sniffed. "You could've fooled me."
"Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?" Dick snapped. "And who was on the phone, before?"
"It was someone for me," Bruce said. "But that's immaterial. I'm interested in what's prompted your decision."
The boy looked away. "What do you care? You were right. I'm needed here. The team was a mistake. My leading them was a mistake. Anyway, it's over. I'm out. You should be thrilled."
"I would be," Bruce said, "if I knew that you had good reason for it."
Dick raised an eyebrow. "Doing what you told me isn't good enough all of a sudden?"
"Not after all the time you spent convincing me to let you work with the team, no." Bruce struggled to keep his voice mild. Even though they were discussing 'night work', instinct told him that Dick didn't want to deal with the Bat right now. He winced inwardly. Badgering the boy—no, badgering the young man was not what he wanted to do. Seeing Dick lean forward angrily, he checked himself. "It's your decision," he continued at a rush. "I'm not trying to talk you out of it. But I'm curious as to what prompted the about-face."
Dick sank bank onto the bed. "They're better off without me. Seriously."
Bruce shook his head. "I have a hard time believing that."
"Yeah? Well you weren't there. You didn't see what happened today." Dick looked away. "Thank G-d for small favors," he mumbled.
"No," Bruce admitted. "I didn't. Which is why I'm having a hard time understanding why you've been up here for the last few hours." He sighed. "I'll respect your decision," he said, "but I'd like to understand it. You did a credible job of explaining to me your reasons for joining the team in the first place. I'm… just concerned that—"
"I almost killed someone today, okay?" The words nearly flew out of his mouth. Dick leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "There's a Greek art exhibit on at the Met, now. The police had a tip that Maxie Zeus was coming to town to check it out, so we were on the scene. Only, it wasn't just Maxie, it was Circe, too." Dick bit his lip. "Of us all, only Donna stood a chance of taking her down. So, I had Wally stage a diversion and told Donna to engage her solo, while the rest of us dealt with Maxie." Dick let out a long breath. "Well, we handled our end, but Donna got hurt. Badly."
"And you know what the worst of it is? I knew it could happen, and I still went with the plan. And I'd do it again, because… truth? Even if we'd attacked Circe together as a team, it still would have been all of us trying to distract her long enough for Donna to take her down. And maybe, if it had been all of us, then Donna wouldn't have been the only one nearly killed!" His voice dropped to a whisper. "And maybe for someone else, it wouldn't have been 'nearly'."
Bruce nodded soberly. "And maybe if another person had been in command, they wouldn't have made that judgement call, and more people would have suffered for it."
Dick blinked at him.
Bruce sighed. "Dick, there's more to leading than… than waving a pennant and shouting 'charge!' Being a leader… being in command… means that sometimes, you need to make difficult decisions. Costly decisions. Sometimes, even the right choice is a painful one." He shook his head. "I had… reservations about placing you in a position where you would be forced into making a… hard call."
He slid down from the desk and crossed the floor to place a hand on Dick's shoulder. "You did everything right, today," he said. "I wouldn't have handled any of it differently." As the young man slowly met his eyes, Bruce smiled sadly. "That includes how I would have behaved after the battle, incidentally. And that shouldn't change. If it ever does—if it gets to the point where you see your teammates as chess pieces that you can deploy without concern for the cost of success—never mind failure—then that is the time to quit. Otherwise?" Bruce shook his head. "I meant it before when I said I'd respect your choice, if you really want to quit the team. I just think that doing so at this juncture would be as big a mistake as my trying to talk you out of forming the team in the first place."
Dick's jaw dropped.
"I can admit it when I make a mistake," Bruce pressed his advantage. "Can you?"
Tentatively, Dick smiled. "I… think I should have told Alfred I wasn't in the mood for dinner," he said. "Only now, I think I probably could eat something after all."
Bruce nodded. "I'm sure he's keeping it warm for us," he said. "Shall we?"
Dick got up from the bed. "Sure." He ducked his head, as his smile grew wider. "Bruce… thanks."
"If you want to learn more about tactics and strategy, after we eat…"
As they walked back down the stairs, Bruce permitted himself another smile. Dealing with a teenaged boy was, at times, far more difficult than defusing a bomb. But, given the option, Bruce knew which he'd choose.