Chapter 43

Dick could hear the voices of the crowd, a thin whisper as occasional comments were passed back and forth before the show began. He stuck his head out of the locker room door, looking out into the gym and up at the stands. The bleachers were full, and there was an imposing judges' table in front of them. Dick swallowed hard.

A big hand clapped down heavily on his shoulder, and Dick snapped his head back into the room quickly.

"Nervous, newbie?" asked Don. The impressive muscles that gymnastics had given him were on full display thanks to the unitard he was wearing. All the seniors on the team were built like that, defined. Richard was leaner, but he was probably lighter than Don.

"No," Dick answered, putting his hands on his hips and looking cocky. "You?"

Don just grinned crookedly with gritted teeth. "Don't get cute, freshman. I'll wipe the floor with you," he said, and he gave Dick's head a shove as he walked away.

"Don't mind him, you're going to be great." Dick looked over at Richard, who was smiling warmly at him from where he was bent over the bench, straightening out the feet on his uniform.

Dick forced a smile in return, then quickly retreated to his spot in the locker room where his clothes still were. The truth was, he was nervous, and the exhibition was just a tiny part of it. He was nervous because his gym bag held more than what he needed for the performance. Inside were clothes, and some of the watches Bruce had given him that he thought he could pawn. He was running away tonight, after the show. Doing it now should give him the weekend as a headstart, before Bruce returned. If he told Alfred he was celebrating with the team, he could probably be hours away before the butler figured out something was wrong. It was long enough to get to the train station, or the bus station, or anywhere.

This time tomorrow, he would be free. Maybe cold, maybe tired, maybe lost, but free. He swallowed again and wiped his palms on his thighs.

A round of applause went up, and the boys lined up to file out. Dick hadn't heard applause in over a year. It used to make him feel great, but this was a pale and lifeless imitation of what his family had earned. It didn't make him feel better as he walked out, his stomach cold with resignation for what he had to do. Some of the boys waved, and Dick looked up into the stands. Strangers. The wealthy, influential citizens of Gotham would always be strangers to him. He scanned the crowd quickly for an old face, but he didn't find the one he was looking for. Good, he told himself. So much the better.

He sat down with his back to the stands and the first boy began his routine.

oOo

They were all great. Perfect. Routine after routine went by without a single mistake or flaw. The boys moved and twisted and held with a brutal perfection. Then it was Richard's turn, and Dick watched him, sitting on a long bench at the side with the others. The blonde was spectacular. He had something none of the other boys had, that extra one percent. Only Don came close, but he was the heir, not the master. Other people might have called it flare, or passion, but Dick recognised what it really was that made Richard stand out, because he had it too. Richard loved performing. He was at home out there with dozens of people watching him. It was as if he was alone, but he could never be that good alone, he needed the audience. They became his family, they became him. Richard seduced them without seeing them. Dick knew exactly what that was like, he'd felt it himself in the circus, the hundreds of eyes looking only at him, marvelling, wondering, while he danced in the air.

When he finished, Richard bowed with a bright smile, his breathing quick. He returned to the bench, and Dick realised with a jolt that it was his turn. He had been so absorbed in just watching that he had lost track. He stood, feeling the familiar confidence start to build in his veins, but as he did, he caught sight of a dark figure sitting removed from the crowd at the very top of the stands. For whatever reason, Dick paused for an instant to focus on the spectator, and after a moment, the man nodded back. Time stopped. The boy froze on the spot with terror.

It took all of Dick's willpower to tear his face away, moving so harshly he stumbled. No, no, no, it couldn't be, he wasn't supposed to be back yet, he never came back on a Friday, no, no, no. Dick glanced around himself, suddenly lost. Was he really here, in a gym, standing in front of dozens of strangers in a leotard preparing to be judged on something he'd only been doing for a few months? And was he still expected to go on? No, he had to run, he had to run, but then Bruce would chase him - He couldn't run, he had to stay. Stay, and do what? Oh yeah, gymnastics (-he has a gym bag full of clothes-) Gymnastics... Richard. He looked to the bench of his teammates, they were looking scared, like they weren't sure if he was going to bolt or be sick, and if maybe someone should try and get him back to the bench before that happened. Then he found Richard, and the blonde smiled, winked, and Dick's foot found the mat behind him.

He turned to face asymmetrical bars. What had he always told himself when dealing with Bruce? Just get through it. Don't show him your weakness. Get through it. Make plans when it's over.

Slowly, he chalked his hands. You promised Richard. You owe it to him. This was supposed to be – still might be your goodbye to him. Show him you can. Show him you can do it. Do it. You know you can. This is what you do. This is you.

Dick straightened his back, breathed deep through his nose and exhaled slowly through his mouth. His heard his music start up and, when his cue came, he ran, leapt, grabbed the bar, flipped himself up, and started a routine like Allen Bex Academy had never seen. It was as if the laws of gravity, momentum, or inertia didn't apply to him. He held, but not where he was expected to, he fell, but only if he wanted to. He walked across the bars on his hands as if he hadn't just come out of a rotation that should have him spinning off the other side. He threw himself up in the air and caught the bar on his way down as if he had just remembered something more to add to his routine, not to save himself from hitting the mat. He touched the bars like you might touch a rose; because it was interesting, because you thought it was pretty, because it made you curious, but certainly not because you need to. He was totally unpredictable. He flew.

The music peaked and came to a dramatic stop. He dropped, timing his landing impeccably. He held his position for moment, arms posed professionally over his head. There was silence in the gym, but he didn't care. His heart began to speed as his fear came back. He dropped his arms and marched for the changing room, the bleachers behind him erupting into a clamorous standing ovation.

He had to be alone, Bruce couldn't see him freak out. What should he do? Should he get changed? No, better to carry on as normal, finish the meet. Oh God, how could he have let his chance go by? He crossed the threshold into the changing room, and opened his locker in a panic. Should he try to run now? He might get a thirty-minute head-start...

"Dick?"

He had his bag in his hand when he heard Richard behind him. He spun around, no idea what to say, knowing every second counted now.

"What's the matter?" Richard asked. "You just kind of ran out of there..." The senior looked confused but still happy, glowing with the pride of his team's, and Dick's, success.

"I – Er, I..." Dick knew it showed on his face, his horror. He could feel how wide his eyes were, how fast his breath came through his open mouth. His skin was clammy and the boy swiftly hid his shaking hands behind his back.

Richard's brows drew together in concern. "Hey..." he soothed, coming closer to Dick. "Are you okay?" He cupped Dick's face in his hands as if to take his temperature or pulse, his blue eyes trying to read what had happened. "Was it the crowd? I didn't think it would bother you, you know, because of... Oh shit. I didn't think. I'm so sorry. It didn't occur to me that the last time you performed... I'm so sorry."

Dick was listening but it was like Richard's words were slowed down. He wasn't speaking quickly enough, Dick was in a hurry. "No, no, it's not that, it's not about-" my parents "-that. Look, I have to go away, okay? I have to go away now. I was going to do it after the show but- I have to go now."

"Dick, what are you-?"

Time to say goodbye. Not the goodbye he wanted, not the one Richard deserved, but he could still say thank you. Richard was the only good, the only pure thing in this rotten life of money and secrets that he was hoping to leave behind. Dick hated to let him go like this, without explanation, without a proper goodbye but he had to at least tell him how much he meant to the boy. How just the thought of him kept Dick alive on days when he was half-dead with fear and loathing, on days when he felt that getting out of bed seemed like a Sisyphean task that was nothing more than torture.

But he had to be quick. He grabbed Richard's wrist. "Richard, I wanted to say thank you, for everything." It was like he just didn't have time for all the shyness and awkwardness and insecurity that usually made his words stick in his throat, and he was able to speak straight from his heart. It felt liberating. "You've been so good to me, helped me so much, you're the first, the only friend I've ever had, you know that? You're the best friend anyone could want. And I never deserved it, never deserved you-"

"Yes, you did," Richard tried to interrupt, moving closer.

"No, I didn't. You don't really know- I've been hiding- You mean so much to me, but I couldn't tell you, I couldn't!"

Dick was cut off by a firm pressure against his lips. A hot mouth against his own. There was a tentative touch on his right shoulder, burning into his skin like a hot metal brand. Everything slowed down and stopped. He felt everything, everything he never wanted to feel again. A sudden vivid image surfaced from the sick depths of his memory, Bruce's face as he pressed close with the words 'Open your mouth!' yelled into his face, the phrase now associated with the slimy sensation of a tongue twisting inside his mouth like a skinless snake.

He tried to gasp but couldn't and his panic increased. Richard exhaled through his nose against Dick's cheek, stirring the fine hairs on his skin. And all the while a dark film played behind Dick's eyes, of a big man and a small boy who can't escape a broken room.

Dick didn't know how he got Richard off him, but he did. Maybe he threw the older boy's hands off his face and pushed at his chest, maybe he kicked him, but Richard went stumbling on the floor with sudden violence. For a moment they just stared at each other in silence. Richard looked scared, and Dick thought he couldn't possibly look as crazy as he felt, his face couldn't accurately mirror how jagged the shattered pieces of his reality were, but it was trying.

"Dick... I'm sorry, I thought-!"

Once Richard broke the silence, all the bottled-up hurt erupted from Dick.

"You're just like him!" he cried. "I should have known, I should have known it wasn't real!" he snarled. "You're just like him, just trying to, you disgusting- Ugh! How could I have ever-?!" Richard raised one hand, as if scared that Dick might actually fly apart. "Get away from me! Don't touch me!"

In that moment Dick became a being of pain and all his logic and compassion was pushed away by the scalding sensation of betrayal. It hurt, it hurt so much and it was so easy to let this feeling morph into rage. Dick understood rage.

When he looked down at the floor it was not Richard he saw but Bruce. His guardian did this to him so many times and Dick could never do anything to prevent it, he could have never fought back. But he could hurt the abuser now. Dick had the sudden urge to kick the boy until he was unable to stand up, until he no longer posed a threat.

"Who, Dick? Who am I like? Who did this to you?" Richard asked, cautiously getting back on his feet.

"I trusted you! I liked you! How could you do this?" Dick shouted, voice shrill and ugly. He realized he was crying.

Richard managed to seize hold of Dick by the upper arms, trapping him in his larger hands and containing him, keeping him still. The boy's eyes widened with rage as he felt the taller boy caging him on the spot, reflexes born out of a life of abuse kicking in immediately.

"Tell me who! Wayne? Is it him? God, I fucking knew- He gave you those bruises, didn't he? It wasn't McTravis-"

"Get your fucking hands off me!"

He reacted on instinct. The endless hours of practicing in the mat turned his body into an instrument of violence and he used it now, twisting Richard's hand until he let go of him completely. When the blond stumbled away with a cry, Dick widened his stance and with textbook precision delivered two powerful punches straight to his stomach. He would have most likely continued if Richard didn't collapse on the floor again.

Dick stepped back and shakily grabbed his bag, which he must have dropped when he pushed Richard away. He needed to get out, he needed to get out of here right now! And yet all he could do was shake on the spot, hands trembling with adrenaline as he tried to think of a way out of this mess. His plan! His plan had been to escape and that was what he was going to do. Dick sent Richard one last look, watching the boy try to regain his breath as he lay curled on the locker floor.

Now he knew he wasn't leaving anything behind.

"Dick?" A deeper, older voice at the door.

Dick jumped, his whole body seizing at the sound. The muscles in his chest, the ones around his heart and lungs, felt like they had turned to crumpled paper. The fear he felt before was nothing compared to what he experienced at the sight of the man at the door. How could he be so scared? How could he continue to be more and more scared, after everything? How could each scenario be worse than the last? He felt like his body had adapted and now this was all he would ever know.

Bruce was standing in the open doorway to the gym, his huge frame almost blocking the light. He was wearing a suit, as usual, and his expression was like Richard's had been at first, confused but happy. Maybe he hadn't heard, hadn't seen, but Dick could see the steel glint in his eyes, like the edge of a blade finding the light.

"What's going on? You look upset," he said with a concerned tone, eyes hardening when they fell on the senior who was slowly getting back on his feet. When Bruce stepped inside, Dick automatically took a step back.

"Were you two fighting?" Bruce asked calmly. Dick continued retreating until he backed away against the lockers, but Richard turned to face Bruce, squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw, standing between them as if he expected to protect Dick and fight Bruce off. However his movements revealed that he was still in pain from Dick's punches.

"You stay away from him," Richard ordered, out of breath with his voice as hard and cold as iron. Dick could only watch as the blonde stared Bruce down. The billionaire just looked amused.

"Rawn, isn't it? You've visited the manor a couple of times before, haven't you?" He stuck his hand out to be shook, but Richard folded his arms pointedly, his muscles showing under his skin. It was terrible and tragic in a way – against anyone else, Richard would have been the champion he was trying to be. He was tall, co-ordinated, strong, but it was like watching a kitten trying to fight a tiger for a half-dead mouse. Not only was it impossible, it wasn't worth it.

Bruce let his hand fall. "What seems to be the problem here?" Now it wasn't Playboy-Bruce anymore, it was Boardroom-Bruce, Don't-Fuck-With-Me-Bruce. Dick's head instinctively lowered at the tone.

"I think you know," Richard replied and Dick's head snapped up at the words. He couldn't- what was he- how could he- oh God please just shut up! "And now you're going to leave here, and you're never going to touch- to come near, to even look at a picture of Dick again, or I'm calling the police and I'm telling them everything."

"Everything? And what's that? What am I supposed to have done, exactly? Look, I appreciate you taking an interest in Dick, God knows he could do with a friend, but I don't know what he's been telling you... Maybe you should remember who you're talking to, young man."

"Dick hasn't told me anything. In fact, he's told me a whole lot of lies trying to cover it up, but I know. I've seen the bruises that you put on him. I've seen how... how scared he is. I know. I know." Richard was nodding while a vicious sneer twisted his normally happy face. His eyes were blue ice waiting to crack.

Bruce looked over Richard's shoulder at Dick, but all the boy could do was watch, pinned against the lockers as the horrifying scene in front of him unfolded. His guardian's eyes slid back to Richard. Bruce folded his arms, his suit bulging intimidatingly, and he stepped up close to the teen, dwarfing him. To his credit, Richard didn't flinch, only dropped his arms and made his hands into fists as if he was preparing for a physical fight. As if he would stand up each time, no matter how many punches would force him to the ground.

"You are wrong. Now I am going to take Dick home."

There was a scream trapped inside his throat that was begging to be set free but Dick gritted his teeth and held it in. His shaking hands were forced into fists which still burned from the force of his punches. It took all of his willpower not to cry or to grab a locker behind him to anchor him to the spot so that he couldn't be dragged back to the manor.

He was so close, he was this close to his escape, he'd had a chance, but he'd put it off to be in this stupid, meaningless gymnastics performance, and why? For the sake of his "friend"? For this asshole teenager who just wanted to get his hands in his pants and his dick in his ass just like Bruce? Who'd been lying to him all along, pretending?

Dick remembered all the times they spent together, all those happy moments that made his life worth living but now they were all ruined forever because he could see Richard for what he truly was - a disgusting snake. He was no better than the kids in the academy who tried to befriend him because of his money and title, except no, Richard was even worse because he didn't even see him as a person, just a thing to use and discard, somebody to force on his knees and stick his cock in. Oh God, they even slept in the same bed! How fucking stupid was he?

At least Dick had never been nice to Bruce, at least he'd never smiled or laughed and joked with him, he still had that. He could still say that he still had that part of him to himself. But not with Richard. Richard had taken everything and Dick had let him.

He'd stayed to say goodbye for that? It seemed ridiculous now, almost obscene, that he had put the feelings of one senior over his freedom. Now what would happen to him? If Bruce thought that Dick ratted him out he would be dragged back to the manor and ravished, taken apart, bloodied and bruised and used and abused. Because he'd been an idiot. Because he'd trusted and cared and wanted. Well, he'd learned his lesson now. No more, never again. Bruce was his problem alone, and his solution had to be his alone too. He had to protect himself because nobody, nobody else would.

Bruce and Richard looked at him. The senior's expression was wild with anticipation, as if he assumed the boy would join his side any second. Dick knew he was expecting him to confess to everything, to take a stance against Bruce but he didn't care. All he could see was his window slowly closing and nothing changing. His escape was gone, now all he could do was try to survive, as usual.

Dick took two sharp steps towards Bruce. Richard stopped him with shocked eyes, blocking his path.

"Dick, what are you- you don't have to do this. It's alright. He can't hurt you anymore."

Bruce looked at Richard. "What were you doing to him?" he asked.

"What?" Richard snapped his head back to the man, clearly taken back.

"When I came in, he looked upset and you were on the floor. What had you done?"

"I..."

"Yes?..."

"I-I was just..." Richard glanced back at Dick and the boy saw the defeat in his eyes. If Dick stood with him now, Richard would rally and keep fighting, keep defending. No, thought Dick. Let him be alone. Let him get pushed aside as if he's nothing. He deserves it. He can't know half of what he's done to me. And that won't be half of what gets done to me if I don't handle this the right way.

"Nothing happened," Dick spoke, his voice completely calm. "Richard misunderstood the situation," the boy peeled Richard's arm from his shoulder "But he understands now."

He made a move to walk towards Bruce again but Richard was clearly not going to let this go.

"What are you saying? Dick, you don't have to be afraid! I can protect you! You don't have to live like this! Please-"

Dick sharply slapped away the blonde's hand and let the remains of his rage twist his face into a cool glare. How dare he look so betrayed, how dare he act in such a pitiful manner when he was the one who stabbed Dick in the back, tearing his world apart!

Richard's blue eyes were begging him to say something, to explain the situation but Dick had made his choice.

"There is nothing to protect me from. Goodbye, Richard."

He calmly side-stepped the blonde and headed for Bruce, who had been watching the exchange without a word. The last thing he saw before the doors closed behind them was Richard covering his face with his hand, shoulders trembling. Dick forced himself to match Bruce's fast pace as they walked through the hallway door to the main hall, out into the school then swiftly outside to the car. Dick obediently climbed into the backseat then straightened up in alarm when he recognized the figure behind the wheel.

"Home, Alfred."

The engine started and Dick turned away. He looked around him in uncomprehending, open-mouthed horror. He felt like he was in a coffin miles under the earth, and he had to ball his hands into fists and strain hard not to thrash against the walls and ceiling as he tried to dig his way out. His bag was insistently pressing against his shin and his leotard was cold and wet with sweat. He forced himself to sit still, straight, as if he had nothing to hide. Bruce was watching him with an odd look on his face and while he didn't seem displeased, there was clearly a part of him which seemed suspicious. Dick knew that he couldn't afford to put the man on edge, not if he intended to go through with his escape plan. He had been emotionally preparing for it for such a long time and he was not ready to abandon it just yet. Dick was getting out of that manor whether Bruce was present or not.

But he was not stupid. After the scene in the locker room, Bruce was bound to be more suspicious of Dick's future actions. Perhaps he thought that the boy was preparing to rat him out to the journalists. Dick had to prove his loyalty somehow and keep Bruce in the dark. But how…?

When a heavy hand landed on his thigh, the answer presented itself. It was so simple, so disgustingly easy that Dick didn't even have to think twice about it. He was filthy, rotten to the core just for considering it but the promise of freedom gave him the power to push through his decency, to do even the impossible just to escape his prison. Dick didn't move his leg away even when Bruce's grip tightened, squeezing the tense flesh.

The man continued watching him, the suspicion melting into a sort of pleasant surprise when he saw the boy did not struggle. The hand travelled upwards, for a brief moment pausing at his crotch before continuing in its path and stopping at his right shoulder where it tugged the leotard down. Dick burned with humiliation at the gesture, feeling as if he was trapped in some bizarre nightmare. They were in a car and Alfred was right there!

His eyes nervously flicked at the rear-view mirror and he froze on the spot when he met Alfred's gaze. The butler seemed to be equally humiliated by his master's actions in the car and for a brief moment Dick thought he would actually say something, or just cough to remind him of his presence, but then Bruce snapped the elastic material off and the boy's chest was left bare. Alfred hastily looked away and Dick felt a sick sort of satisfaction at the shock in his eyes.

That's right, Alfred, he thought, you think you are removed from this because it had been happening behind closed doors in a dusty old room- but now it's all right in front of your eyes and you are forced to witness every second of it. Well, look closely, I hope you will be able to hear everything.

When Bruce's large hand pushed at the back of his waist, Dick relented; when the man touched his sweat soaked skin, he bared his neck to him like an obedient dog. No act was too shameful, no touch too unbearable- Dick could suffer through it all because he knew, with all parts of his being, that this was the last time Bruce Wayne would ever be allowed to lay a hand on him.

In his head, he removed himself from the act, from the place itself, as best he could, and he'd had a lot of practice. You're safe, he told himself. You're safe and you're alone. You're safe and you're alone.

This is the last time, he thought as his body was grabbed and used and sullied, this is the very last time. Soon I will be far, far away from you and I will say goodbye to the manor, to Alfred, to the loneliness and pain.

(You're safe and you're alone)

I will say goodbye to the parties, the secrets, the bright-lit streets of Gotham.

(You're safe and you're alone)

I will say goodbye to you. Forever.

(You're safe and you're alone. You're safe. You're safe and you're alone. You're alone. You're alone. You're alone.)