Chapter seven: sign of spring
The phone was ringing off the wall when Bullock finally trudged through his front door that night, boy wonder in tow.
"Yeah?" Bullock demanded, snatching the phone off the hook.
Batman's unmistakable growl practically bit through Bullock's ear. "Let me speak to him."
Disguising a shudder as a shrug, Bullock held out the phone to the boy. "It's fer you."
With hopeful eyes, Robin held the phone to his head with both hands.
"…hello?" he asked in a cautious tone.
On the other end, Batman hunched his shoulders. He thought he'd known what he wanted to say, but now, hearing Dick's voice through the phone, it all seemed inadequate.
"I…wanted to make sure you were okay," he rumbled at last.
"I'm all right," came the immediate reply. Batman seemed to be holding his breath. Robin bit his lip, and waited for a few more seconds.
Bullock couldn't hear what Batman said next, but whatever it was, Robin's reaction was pretty strong. The boy sat down cross-legged on the floor in Bullock's kitchen, and gripped the phone as if it were the only thing left in the world that mattered. "No," he said after a minute. "…you didn't. I mean, you didn't want to—"
"Don't argue," Batman said sternly, and Robin shut up. Batman gathered his scattered thoughts, and took a deep breath. "What I'm trying to say… is that I'm sorry. It was my fault, Robin. I let it happen. I should have done my research better—should never have walked into that trap. Especially not while you were there."
Bullock didn't know what the Bat was saying, but neither did he care. Whatever it was, it was making Robin upset. Bullock watched as the boy wiped the edge of his mask with his bandaged wrist, and decided that was the last straw.
"Give me that!" he yanked the phone out of Robin's hands. "Now you listen up, Batman," he hollered. "That kid saved your crazy life tonight. You owe him, Bats—you owe him big time!"
"…I know," Batman said.
Bullock blinked a few times. "Oh," he said at last, still sounding angry.
Bullock wasn't sure if that had been an order or a plea. "Excuse me?"
"Tell him he did well. And tell him I'll see him in the morning—eight o'clock, by the Bat signal."
"Tell him yourself!" Bullock barked, but the line was already dead. Growling unintelligible obscenities through clenched teeth, Bullock slammed the phone back into its cradle on the wall. Then he forced himself to take a deep breath, and glanced down at Robin's solemn face. "…Batman says you did good today," he related. "And he'll pick you up at eight A.M. tomorrow."
Robin nodded, and then looked away, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on his fists, still sitting cross-legged on Bullock's kitchen floor.
"What is it?" Bullock asked, sensing that the kid was mulling something over.
"I'm worried," Robin confided.
"He sounded angry."
Bullock's eyebrows climbed all the way up to the brim of his hat, which he suddenly realized that he was still wearing. With a heavy sigh, Bullock took off his trench coat and his hat, hung them both by the door. Then, knees creaking in protest, he sat down on the floor next to the boy. This, he realized, would be the conversation they hadn't had in the aftermath of the events at the lab. The conversation they hadn't had in the cab on the way home or under the watchful ears of the waitress at the 24-hour café.
Bullock knew he wasn't exactly known for tact. But for once in his life, he hoped that he would be able to say the right things.
"…He ain't angry at you, kid," Bullock began. "He's only angry at himself. An' it ain't up to you to bear the weight of his problems on your little shoulders, you got that? He may be crazier than half the loons he puts away, but he's responsible for you. You ain't responsible for him."
"But…we're partners," Robin muttered, not really wanting to get into a dispute.
"Sure you are. But you're also father and son, or close enough. He's not gonna forget that, and neither should you. You saved his sorry bacon today, and the only thing you need to be worried about right now is how many hours of sleep you can get between now and eight o'clock, okay?"
"Okay," Robin agreed, half-heartedly. They both sat for a moment, side by side in silence, neither one attempting to move or speak.
"…Sorry I ain't much for heart-to-heart chats," Bullock apologized after a while, mentally deciding to write the whole conversation off as a loss.
But then Robin cast him a lopsided smile. "No, this is fine," the boy reassured him. "Actually, I was thinking… Batman told me I could talk to Commissioner Gordon if I ever needed to talk to somebody. And, I respect Commissioner Gordon a lot, but, maybe, if you wouldn't mind, I think I'd talk to you instead."
"Talk to me about what?" Bullock asked, suspicious.
Robin shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes, I think Batman takes things a lot more seriously than I do."
If Bullock had been even slightly more amicable, he might've smiled. "Heh. I'd say that's a fair guess. Let me ask you one question though: do you like being Robin?"
"I love it," the boy replied, his voice serious. "Sometimes, I love it so much that I feel kinda guilty."
"Guilty, huh? What for?"
There was a faraway look on Robin's face. "For being so happy now," he explained. "Because the reason we do all of this—" he took a deep breath "—I mean Batman and I, the reason for all of it, is because of crime and horrible things like that. So, I feel guilty for having fun being Robin."
Bullock mulled over that for a minute. "Well, you didn't have any fun today, did ya?"
Robin shook his head. "No, not today," he admitted.
"See? It all evens out. My advice to you? Go ahead and enjoy yourself as much as you can."
"Holy hot dogs, kid, you're ten years old. I think you're allowed to have a little fun."
Robin almost laughed. "Holy hot dogs?"
"Yeah yeah, whatever. Look, it's been a heck of a day," Bullock said, pretending to be irritated by the fact that he'd cheered the boy up. "You gonna hit the shower or what?"
"Yes," Robin answered, standing up at last.
"You go ahead and get yourself cleaned up. An' let me know if you need anything."
Dick paused for a second. While Bullock certainly possessed all of the bulk and half of the charm of a grouchy hippopotamus, something in the man's voice just then had reminded him of Alfred.
"Thanks," Robin said, and slipped away down the hall.
Twenty minutes later, clean and warm in the Gotham Knights sweats that Bullock had given him, Dick leaned close to the bathroom mirror. The sky-blue eyes in the pale face that stared back at him seemed to belong to someone else. He'd been wearing his mask for over 24 hours straight at that point, having only removed it once for a shower early in the day. By now, it had left a red outline clearly visible on his face.
Dick rubbed his eyes with both hands. He'd washed his costume out as best he could and hung it over a towel bar to dry. The only thing left to do was to put his mask back on, and then he could get some sleep. Carefully he pressed the molded fabric into place, and looked back up at the mirror.
This time, he recognized his reflection.
When he got back to the living room, Robin found detective Bullock sitting on one end of the couch, passed-out asleep and snoring in little growls as the paid programming on the television tried in vain to sell him the latest vacuum cleaner.
Turning out the lights but leaving the TV on, Robin climbed onto the opposite end of the couch, curled into a ball under the blanket Bullock had left there for him, and was sound asleep in seconds.
By eight o'clock the sun had finally seeped through the morning smog and lingering snow clouds in the Gotham sky, and the boy wonder had been bouncing from one foot to the other on the roof of the GCPD headquarters for fifteen minutes. Beside him, hands deep in the pockets of his coat, a bleary-eyed Bullock stood with a toothpick hanging from his lips. He looked like a man with a severe hangover, one who had clearly had enough of the kid's impatient fidgeting but had given up on saying so.
Suddenly Robin's head jerked up, and Bullock followed the boy's line of sight just in time to see Batman swing onto the roof. The black cape fell heavily around the hard corners of his silhouette as he stood to face them, less a menace than a mystery against the slanting yellow light.
Robin glanced up at Bullock with a smile of a hundred-percent happiness, and then launched himself in Batman's direction with a spontaneous front handspring.
Bullock's face actually softened for a second, forgetting himself as he was caught up in the kid's relief and excitement. He fairly expected Robin to jump into Batman's arms for a hug, like any kid would after a stressful separation from their dad, but to Bullock's surprise Batman seemed to anticipate and avoid that exact occurrence. Instead of catching the boy in an embrace, the Bat put out his hands and clamped them onto Robin's shoulders, stopping the boy in his tracks at arm's length. The abrupt halt of forward momentum seemed far too harsh from Bullock's angle, like Batman might've actually shoved the boy backwards if he'd tried any harder to stop him. Robin immediately raised his eyes to Batman's face, confused, but Batman wasn't looking at him—he was looking at Bullock.
Hard-boiled though he was, Bullock still felt a chill as he found himself fixed in the Bat's predatory glare. But that feeling was quickly replaced by a hot wash of anger. "For Pete's sake," he exclaimed, taking his hands out of his pockets. "Will you give the kid a hug already?"
Batman didn't hesitate for another second. He dropped to one knee in front of the boy and pulled him in close.
"Thank God you're safe," Bruce rumbled quietly from under the cowl. Dick didn't know what to say, so he only nodded. After another second, Batman released him. "Good job defeating me last night," he added, in as warm a voice as Dick had ever heard him use. "That was impressive work."
"I couldn't have done it without Detective Bullock," Robin stated, and beamed over his shoulder at the disheveled grump.
"Eh, it was nothin'," Bullock shrugged, refusing to be pleased by the kid's gratitude. He glanced at Batman, who had stood back up to face him, and scowled at the caped vigilante's defensive posture. "Hey--you mind if I have a word with you, Bats?"
Batman gave a little nod, as if he'd been expecting that request. "Robin. Go wait in the car."
The boy's expression clouded. "You're not gonna fight, are you?"
"No. I'll be along in a minute."
"Okay." Robin turned back to Bullock. "Well, thanks again," he said in parting.
"You stay outta trouble, kid," Bullock advised. "An' don't let any a'em clowns or mad scientists push you around."
A big, confident grin flashed across the boy's face. "Don't worry, I won't!" he exclaimed. He stood on his tiptoes on the edge of the roof, and then swan-dived off.
Batman watched as his yellow cape vanished from sight, and then turned to look solemnly at Bullock.
"That's one great kid you got there," Bullock said right away.
"Yes. And I wanted to thank you for taking care of him."
"Ehh, don't worry about it. Really I oughtta be thanking him. Turns out we had seventeen warrants out on Doctor Creepy. An' who got the credit for the collar?" Bullock stuck his thumb towards his own chest. "This guy."
"But you don't approve of Robin working with me."
"Approve?" Bullock snorted, indignant. "Damn right I 'don't approve'. You're still a freak in my book, Bats, and if you knew what was good for ya, you'd hang up the cape for good." Batman stood there silently, bearing this tirade. "But let me tell you one thing," Bullock continued. "That kid—he's all right. He's proved he's got guts, brains, and luck. So you must be doing something right. And whatever it is, you better keep on doing it, for his sake as much as yours."
"You aren't worried that I'm endangering or abusing him?"
Bullock rolled his eyes. "Gimme a break. Livin' in Gotham is 'endangering' to every kid out there. At least this kid can fight back. And if you're talking about you being a threat to him on some other level, sure: I had suspicions about that. You're a wacko in a mask prancin' around with a little boy sidekick. People are always gonna think the worst. But you better believe that if I really thought you were doin' anything bad to him, there'd be half a dozen bullet holes in your head right now."
Batman hunched his shoulders ever-so-subtly. "…Is Commissioner Gordon still concerned?"
"The commish?" Bullock shook his head. "Nah. Once I gave him the rundown on what happened last night, and he saw for himself that the kid was alive and well, he went right back to believin' that you walk on water. Gordon trusts you."
"But you don't."
"I trust the kid," Bullock replied with conviction.
Batman squinted out at the city, and the wind that was gradually sweeping aside the clouds flared the edges of his cape. "Well. That's a start."
"Yeah, it is a start. I don't say this often, Bats, but after this little adventure we just had, I'm almost feelin' optimistic. I think your little Robin just might do some good out there. Might even grow up to be a decent cop someday. You just make sure he gets a chance to grow up, capiche?"
"I will," Batman promised.
"Good." Bullock stuck his hands back in his pockets with a sense of finality. "That's pretty much everything I wanted to say. So go on an' scram before I write you up for loitering."
Batman had to fight back a smile as he unclipped his grappling gun. "Thanks, Bullock. I would shake your hand, but you did try to shoot me yesterday." He turned and fired his line.
As he swung down into the shadows, Bullock hollered after him, "…And if you ever threaten the commish again like you did yesterday, I'll try an' shoot you again!"
Robin hit the button to slide the roof open at just the right moment, and Batman dropped out of the sky and into the driver's seat.
"What'd you guys talk about?" Robin asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
Batman buckled himself in and shifted to drive. "Bullock thinks you'll grow up to be a cop."
"Huh," Dick said as the Batmobile began rolling forward. "I never thought about that."
"You aren't growing up any time soon," Batman grumbled. "So I wouldn't worry about it. Are you ready to go home?"
Robin looked over at Batman, and then sat up a little straighter in his seat. "I am home," he said with zeal.
That time, Batman knew it was futile to try to hide his smile. He steered towards the manor as the unseasonably bright sky overhead flooded the city with sun.
Maybe, just maybe, Gotham City was headed for better days.