Author's note: I know I said no new stories until my other two are finished, but I just couldn't resist! Clark shows up in the next chapter. Chapter one's just Dick and Bruce, doing their thing.
Same Old Games
Dick let himself into the manor. The house was silent and empty, as usual, and it didn't bother the former boy wonder one bit. He made his way to the grandfather clock in the study, and two seconds later he was trotting down the stairs on his way to the cave.
He heard the scene before he saw it—mostly noticeably, the aggravated hum of a vacuum cleaner, which explained why Alfred hadn't been upstairs to greet him. Beyond that, as he got closer, Dick could hear the parallel bars flexing, and soft grunts of concentration from Tim, which gave it all away. Tim would be talking to Alfred, or just talking himself through his workout if Bruce wasn't there.
Lately, Bruce's presence had been lethal to all forms of conversation, which was a large part of reason why Alfred had hinted that Dick was due for a visit.
Dick smiled to himself. "Hey guys," he called out as he stepped into view. Tim's upside-down face lit up and he swung into a clumsy landing.
"Tim. Don't get distracted," warned the hulking shadow at the workbench.
Tim and Dick shared a commiserating grimace and Tim kipped back up between the bars without question.
Alfred turned off the vacuum. "Welcome home, Master Richard," he said warmly. "It's good to see you."
"Thanks, you too." He beamed at Alfred, selfishly taking a second or two to bask in the comfortableness he felt. But as nice as it would be, he wasn't there just to spend time with family. "So… how's our favorite old grump doing today?"
Alfred rolled his eyes. "Worse than usual, I'm afraid."
"Yeah? Any idea what caused it this time?" Dick leaned forward and rested his elbows over one of the cave's blocky industrial dehumidifiers.
"We saw an old lady die," Tim informed him, upside down between the bars again.
"Focus, or go upstairs," Batman scolded without looking up from his work.
Frowning, Tim clamped his mouth shut, and flipped around to execute a giant full turn on the bars.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Dick said solemnly, ignoring Bruce just as skillfully as Bruce was ignoring him. "What caused her death?"
Alfred sighed. "According to Master Timothy's account, it was nothing more than old age. The dynamic duo just so happened to be in her hospital room, questioning a nurse who was presumably also a witness of something or other, when the elderly woman passed away in her sleep."
Dick blinked. "Any chance she, you know, woke up and died of fright?"
"None whatsoever," Alfred stated. "The lady was heavily sedated and had been for some hours following a surgery. She was also ninety one years old, had outlived two of her four children, and had all her affairs in order. Her grandchildren, as I understand, were immensely relieved that she had reached the end of her suffering."
Dick turned around, leaning backwards now instead of forward, so that he could look thoughtfully at Batman's dark outline. "But not Bruce."
"I'm afraid not, sir," Alfred said, and his voice became just a bit cold the way it always did when he was displeased. "Master Bruce would prefer that suffering continue indefinitely. As evidenced by his recent treatment of Master Timothy, I might add."
Dick half-smiled and watched Tim for a minute. He was good, really good. Really strong, too. But as his momentum slowed and he reached another perfect handstand, Dick noticed that his arms were trembling. He quirked an eyebrow. "So, Tim… how many times have you done that routine today?"
"Uh, this makes eleven," Tim replied. A swing, a back toss to a handstand, another swing in the other direction, and with a neat front twist he landed on his feet, wobbled, tried to save it-- and had to take a step.
"And he still hasn't gotten it right," Batman growled, not looking at any of them. "Dick. Show him how it's done."
By all rights, Dick knew he should have felt offended. But he also knew that that was what Bruce was aiming for, in his expertly manipulative way, doing anything he could to prevent Dick's positive attitude from winning the inevitable battle against his own gloom.
So, instead of bristling at being bossed around, Dick shrugged. "Sure thing, coach," he said brightly, and took off his motorcycle jacket, casually hanging it over the back of Batman's chair as he made his way to the bars. "Is there chalk?" he asked Tim.
"Do it without," Batman growled.
"Man, and in jeans and everything!" Dick said, shaking his head. "What a slave driver!" But he was grinning. This was going to be the most perfect of the many perfect routines of his life. He just knew it. It had to be.
He kipped up, and got to work. It didn't matter that it had been a few years since he'd done that particular set—his muscles had excellent memory. Above the bars, below the bars, peach to a handstand… it all came back to him, one move after the other. Throw the bars, catch himself, pike, toss, press to another handstand—then a one-handed twirl, legs together, riding the swing, shoulders open…and upside down in a handstand again, he deliberately looked over at where he knew Bruce's eyes would be, watching him in the reflection on a shiny black screen.
Dick locked eyes with Bruce for a split second, and flashed a smile to rub it in before Bruce had a chance to look away.
With abundant confidence, Dick continued the routine. He executed a quarter turn onto one rail, swung around single-handed again, switched to the other rail for a move or two, and put an extra twist into the front twist dismount—landing, not just perfectly, but also silently.
Tim's mouth was hanging open. "… I cannot do that."
Dick cupped one hand around his grin and pretended to whisper. "Neither can Bruce."
Tim made a face and almost giggled, but Batman's harsh voice killed whatever lightheartedness might've been encroaching upon the scene.
All it took was one word.
A storm cloud rolled across Dick's face and he turned on his heel. "What?"
"I said again."
Dick hunched his shoulders defensively. "I…don't understand."
Tim bit his lip in an 'uh oh' expression, and began to slowly back away.
"I think you do," Batman growled. "Now get up there and go through it again."
Dick shook his head. "You know what, Bruce? I bet this has nothing to do with that old lady."
Alfred cleared his throat. "Sirs?" Dick looked over his shoulder; Alfred was already halfway up the stairs, and Tim was nowhere to be seen. "…If that will be all?"
"Thanks Alfred. We'll be fine," Dick assured him, and the faithful butler slipped away.
For a moment the cave was completely silent.
A bat rustled its wings far above, and Dick sighed, walking over to where Batman sat.
"…C'mon, Bruce. Talk to me. We both know how this works."
No response. Dick found an extra chair and pulled it up, taking a seat and leaning forward, his elbows on his knees and his worried eyes intent on Bruce's profile. "…what aren't you telling us?"
Batman was staring straight ahead. "Last week. Tim caught a gun I didn't see."
"…okay…" Dick said carefully, weighing that. "…Sounds like he was doing his job."
"He was testing me," Bruce growled, catching Dick by surprise.
The former boy wonder blinked a few times. "He was what?"
"He saw the weapon and waited to see if I would see it. And I didn't. I'm getting slower."
Dick smiled a little. "Tim's eighteen, Bruce. You're forty-six."
Dick's eyebrows rose. "Oh, is that it? You saw that old lady die and now you're worried about Alfred getting old?"
Batman didn't reply, so Dick assumed he was right. "…It's okay, you know, to get old," he said after a minute. "I mean, it's not a crime. It happens to everyone."
"It happens to the lucky ones," Batman grumbled. "I think we both know that I won't be that lucky."
Dick rolled his eyes. "Give me a break, Bruce. You miss one gun and suddenly it's doom and gloom and your days are numbered? This is a new low, even for you."
"There's nothing new about it," Batman corrected darkly. "One gun is all that's ever stood between me and my death."
Frustrated, Dick stood up and put his hands on his head, as if tempted to pull his hair out. "I can't stand you when you're like this," he declared, whining just a little bit. "If it's not the gun thing, what is it? What happened?"
"I already told you. Tim was testing me. And that proves he isn't ready. Neither of you are ready."
"Ready for what?" Dick asked, nearly at his wit's end.
"To lose me."
Dick shook his head. "Of course we aren't ready to lose you," he said, getting angry. "We never will be. No one's ever ready to lose to someone they care about."
"That not what I mean. When it happens—and it will happen someday, Dick-- Tim will have to carry on. And if it happened now, he'd fall apart. He's not assertive enough. He refuses to stand up to me. When I missed that gun, he should have rebuked me for it. But he didn't even mention it."
"Whoa, whoa, time out," Dick exclaimed. "Am I hearing this right? You're mad at yourself for missing a gun, and because Tim didn't call you out for it, you're warping the whole thing to make it seem like some kind of weakness on Tim's part? And now you're pissed at him because he won't stand up to you? Last I checked, standing up to you was a good way to get a one-way ticket right out of the batcave."
Bruce grit his teeth. "If he's going to test me he should at least have the guts to confront-"
"No, Bruce, no," Dick interrupted. "You've got this whole thing wrong. Let me tell you what really happened here: Tim wasn't testing you. He saw a gun that you didn't see, and he took care of it. Doing his job, watching your back, plain and simple. And it probably didn't occur to him to mention it later, because to him, it didn't seem like a big deal. There was no test. This 'test' scenario is something cooked up by your own paranoia as an outlet for your own guilt."
Bruce glared up at him for all he was worth—doom, gloom, batarangs, dead parents, the whole nine yards. But evidently he'd forgotten that Dick could project that glare right back at him, and, being younger and therefore entitled to more angst, Dick infused the expression with levels of pain that Batman could only dream of attaining.
Having lost the glaring contest, Batman switched to a sneer. When it came to cruelty, he could outdo his former sidekick every time. "…Unless this has all been a test for you," he said, his voice cold. "Which, of course, you're failing."
Dick played his last card, which just so happened to be the ace he kept perpetually up his sleeve whenever he had to deal with Bruce like this: pity. Pity and compassion, which beat cruelty hands-down. "That's not going to work, Bruce," Dick said gently. "Nothing you can say to me is going to make me give up on you. And Tim and Alfred, they aren't leaving you either, no matter how hard you try to accuse them of mutiny or how much you blame them for things that aren't anyone's fault."
Bruce was done messing with emotions. Done playing mind games. Which meant, unfortunately, that if he wasn't ready to hang his head and accept that Dick had won, the conversation was going to turn physical.
Dick realized that, and wasn't the least bit surprised when Batman exploded out of his seat, overturning his workbench with a thundering crash. "In that case," Bruce roared, his hand darting towards Dick's throat, "You're all fools!"
Whenever Bruce was exceptionally furious with Dick, and felt like he needed the young man's full attention, he always grabbed him by the throat. It was almost a signature move, and even when Dick saw it coming, he usually didn't try to avoid it. Instead, he would freeze up, let Batman indulge himself for a minute in some dark fantasy of choking the life out of him, all whilst shouting into Dick's face, and then, gradually, Dick would work up to an appropriate hurt/kicked puppy expression, and then Bruce would let go of him and calm down. Invariably, that was how it worked. But this time, Bruce had gone just a little too far with his criticism of Tim, and when Dick saw that hand reaching for his neck, he decided he was having none of it.
Moving smoothly, Dick sidestepped the oncoming Bat, grabbing Bruce's wrist and hyper-extending his elbow to use his whole arm as a lever. He slid one foot forward, between Bruce's feet, turned his hip into Bruce's hip, and threw him over his hip and across the room. The cape spun beautifully, a black pinwheel in the air, and then Batman landed flat on his back with an "uhn."
Dick had barely moved. "Stay down," he ordered, although he knew full well that the man wouldn't comply. Sure enough, Bruce was already getting up—slower than Dick expected, perhaps, but not slow enough.
"What are you doing?" Bruce snarled at him. "Trying to prove my point?"
"No," Dick said, dodging Batman's next attack. "I'm trying to help you."
"Hah," Batman scoffed, as a no-holds-barred martial arts showdown commenced. "If you're making a bid for alpha dog status around here, you're going to have to make a better effort than that."
"I'm not trying to be the alpha dog," Dick insisted, continuing to dodge, block and evade. "I just want you to realize what you're doing to yourself, what you're doing to Tim—I want you to snap out of it, and treat Tim and Alfred like human beings, and act like you're happy to be alive once in a while—like each day you're on this earth isn't one big horrible curse!"
Finally, Dick landed a blow, an insane haymaker that knocked Bruce off his feet.
Bruce tried to get up, but was clearly off balance, and wound up crumpled on the floor.
Dick waited, tensed, but Bruce didn't move.
Silence settled. And then footsteps, hurrying on the stairs.
"What happened?" Tim asked, rushing to Bruce's side.
Dick looked down, eyes sad. "I… failed," he realized.
"Dick, you knocked him out!"
"Yeah. Didn't mean to."
Tim rolled Bruce onto his back, checking his pulse. "Don't you think he's getting a little old for that?"
Dick turned away. "We'll talk when I get back," he promised. "I've gotta clear my head."
He picked up his jacket, and walked up the stairs, through the manor, and right out the front door.
...to be continued...
Another note: There are multiple occurances in the comics of Bruce grabbing Dick by the throat and snarling at him while Dick acts all shocked and helpless. Kinda got stuck in my brain that maybe that was just part of their routine when they get mad and need to understand each other. :P