Warning: Arachnophobes might want to skip the first four paragaraphs.
A/N: Thanks to Kathy for the beta! Thanks to the little_details community on Livejournal for helping me find out about the Showmen's League!
References: Batman 457, New Teen Titans 55
Summary: A brush with mortality on Christmas Eve makes Batman think it might be time to heal an old rift.
A Season for Second Chances
It wasn't real. Batman kept repeating the phrase to himself even as he felt dozens of tiny feet and small soft bodies crawling over him, walking on his face, worming their way under his cowl, the neckline of the bat-suit, the edges of his gloves. It wasn't real. "Real" was hanging upside-down, hands bound behind his back, a badly-wrenched shoulder, at least one cracked rib, and a deep cut on his left arm. "Real" was Scarecrow gloating over capturing him so easily and boasting about spending the rest of the night "unwrapping" him.
But he could see the tiny spiders climbing; see the fine hairs on their legs at the very periphery of his vision. Something tickled the back of his neck. It wasn't real. The ropes felt tighter than they had before. The spiders--they weren't real--seemed to be adding their own webbing to his restraints.
He could feel them swarming downward now, toward his unprotected head, and he couldn't help himself. It didn't matter that he knew he was hallucinating and that the spiders weren't real. It didn't even matter that he wasn't arachnophobic--or at least he hadn't been when the evening had started; he shuddered. He squeezed his eyes shut, but he could still feel them scampering, clawing, preparing to feed. Only the thought that several of them might crawl into his mouth should he open it to scream kept his teeth clenched. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. It was...
It was over. The crawling and tickling sensations vanished as though they had never been. His forehead was sticky with sweat, not with webbing. The hallucination had ended.
The nightmare, however, was just beginning. Dimly, he could hear a woman's angry tones. It sounded like... Vicki? What was she doing here?
"You're crazy!" She was snapping. "Why don't you leave him alone?"
Scarecrow laughed then. "Crazy? Me?" His reedy voice drew closer as he continued speaking. "You say that in defense of a man who dresses like a bat?"
Batman opened bleary eyes to see Scarecrow standing right next to him, a corked Erlenmeyer flask in one gloved hand. Helplessly, he watched as the lanky man removed the cork and set the flask down on the ground so that he would have no choice but to breathe in its rising vapors.
"I'm not mad," Scarecrow sounded miffed. "I just like fear." His voice dropped to a friendly whisper. "This is essence de trauma, by the way." He retreated a few steps away to watch his handiwork take effect. "Anything in your childhood you'd rather not remember...?"
Between his earlier injuries and his recent ordeal, Batman was too spent to put up more than a token resistance this time. His blood was pounding in his ears; his head was throbbing as he caught the first faint whiff of something metallic.
"Fight it all you want, Batman," Scarecrow cackled. "It won't matter in the end! By morning, I'll have peeled away everything you are," he rubbed his hands together gleefully, "and then I'll find out what demonic thoughts you've spent your miserable life repressing!"
Batman tried to fight the effects of the vapor, but it was a futile effort. His body forced him to inhale, and he smelled something that reminded him stale beer and of refuse, of the night air and of old cigarettes, of Vetiver Guerlain after shave and of L'Air du Temps parfum, of cordite and of powder... and of blood on pavement... His eyes flew open even as he stifled a scream. Not this! Dear L-rd, NOT THIS!
He was back in the alley, eight years old, seeing a decades-old memory as clearly as though it were happening again before his eyes. It was happening before his eyes. He bent down toward the bodies and suddenly, the ground fell away. He was leaning over the edge of a rooftop as the rain beat down upon him. The wind whipped his cape around him. And below, a figure in red, green, and yellow plummeted, a stream of blood trailing from his arm. He flung his grapnel as Joker's laughter lanced through him like the needles of wind and rain. He'd been fast enough. He had him. He'd saved Robin... this time.
Around him, the scene shifted again to the Ethiopian desert, to another Robin, and to a time when he hadn't been fast enough. Jason...
Why? Why had he gone against his original inclination and taken on another partner? Dick had been right. The boy had been too young, too careless, and now he'd paid the ultimate price. And whose fault had that been?
Don't you DARE blame me for Jason's death! DON'T YOU DARE! ...I don't need a partner. I never should have had one, and I never will again! Was that his voice screaming that... bile? He tried to suppress the memories, but the hallucinogen kept finding new breaches in his defenses. Scarecrow was winning. He strained against his bonds. He had to get out of this. If he did, he swore that he would...
Something was happening outside of these visions. He fought to shake free, to find the source of the banging and the screams and...
"My puppy! You ran over my puppy..!"
"I'm not afraid! I'm not! I'm not! I'm not!"
"Ahh... Fear! Its essence is almost palpable..! Merry Christmas, Jonathan!"
And then, a new-but-familiar voice rang out, its clarity somewhat muffled as though coming from behind fabric. "I don't care if I am afraid--I can STILL act!"
Another crash, another scream... but this time, it was Scarecrow. A slight figure in a red ski mask was calling out to him. "Batman? Batman?"
Through the remnants of a hallucinogenic fog, he saw the mask come off and registered dark hair and blue eyes. Dick? "Robin?"
No, it wasn't Robin, he realized almost immediately. It would be, before the night was over, if Tim still wanted the job, but that hadn't been who he'd thought it was. But then, the present came flooding back to him, Dick wasn't Robin anymore.
Vicki was still in a bad way. Abruptly, Batman jerked himself out of his own musings to kneel next to her. "It's okay, Vicki," he murmured soothingly. "You'll be alright." He dimly registered Scarecrow whimpering in a corner. It looked like someone had given the villain a dose of his own medicine. Good work, Tim, he thought.
He looked up to see a uniformed police officer standing in the doorway, backed by several more. They advanced cautiously into the room. Two went over to cuff Scarecrow.
He helped Vicki to her feet and nudged her toward the officers. "Get Miss Vale to the hospital," he said. "Lock him up," he pointed to Crane. "They'll both come back to normal as soon as the drug wears off."
It wasn't until they were outside the building that one of the cops turned to him and said nervously, "you don't look in great shape yourself, Batman! You want to come...?"
He was already moving off. "I've other business." He had to find Tim. The boy had come against his express orders. He was probably expecting to get his marching papers tonight. Batman couldn't blame him for the expectation. That wasn't his only business, though. It was sinking in: he could have died tonight--would have, if Tim hadn't been there. And he would have left so much... unresolved. Or at least, there was one thing in particular that he'd been putting off for far too long. He knows. He understands. Besides, we've worked together without incident since then. Why should I go over there simply to bring up the past? It's just going to reopen old wounds. Except that if those wounds haven't healed properly... maybe that's what you need to do.
He rounded the corner of the chain-link fence, drawing closer to where he'd parked the Batmobile. Tim was standing there shivering, waiting for him. Batman nodded to himself. Between the residue of Crane's concoctions and his all-too-real expectation that he'd just scuttled any chance at the Robin costume, Batman had to give him credit for sticking around. He walked up to the boy, took a deep breath, and said, "They've gone..."
Bruce drove carefully, alert to any vestigial hallucinations that might still be creeping about the edges of his consciousness.
Beside him, Tim sat with a stunned expression on his face. He was still processing what had transpired earlier. He was Robin. He was really Robin.
Bruce was grateful for the boy's silence on the way home. The last thing he wanted to do was engage in conversation. He was doing some processing of his own.
"It's not as bad as it looks, Alfred," he said wearily as he and Tim got out of the car. "Scarecrow was just... lucky tonight."
"Indeed?" Alfred was already steering him toward the medical bay. "It would seem that he was far from the only fortunate one."
Bruce didn't flinch as Alfred saw to his shoulder, but he was unable to suppress a groan when the butler's hands probed at his ribcage. "Two broken ribs, Master Bruce," Alfred remarked reproachfully. "And so soon after the last ones healed, too."
"I'm going upstairs," Tim said softly. It was obvious that he wasn't needed here.
"A moment, young sir," Alfred turned away from Bruce and, with a speed and a strength that belied his age, grasped Tim's arm with one hand and jabbed a needle into it with the other. "Fear toxin antidote," he replied, cutting off the boy's protest before he could say a word. "Just a precautionary measure. Now, off to bed with you, Master Timothy." There was a definite twinkle in the older man's eye.
After Tim had gone upstairs, Bruce dropped his stoic facade with a groan.
"Putting on a brave face for the children, were we, sir?" Alfred asked as he swabbed alcohol over one of the still-oozing wounds. "I suppose it would be too much to hope that you would allow me to apply a local to that," he prodded another long cut, eliciting a hissing intake of breath, "before I stitch it up."
Bruce was about to demur, but he hesitated despite himself.
"I assure you, sir that your compatriots in the Justice League will never hear of the lapse from me."
Bruce glowered. Alfred patted his cheek--which rather spoiled the effect.
"Fine," he gritted through clenched teeth. Then, a moment later, "thanks, Alfred."
Alfred smiled. "You are most welcome, sir."
Bruce hesitated. "Alfred... did... did I get Dick something for Christmas, this year?"
"Most certainly," Alfred replied. "I'd telephoned him last month to ensure that your gift to him would be something that he would fully appreciate. "
"Ah." Bruce frowned. "So... what did he ask for? A car?"
Alfred shook his head. "This year, Master Dick requested that a donation in his name be made to the Showmen's League of America."
Bruce blinked. Certainly, the Showmen's League did good work providing financial aid to those injured, disabled, or retired performers who did not have funds of their own available, but hadn't Dick wanted something for himself as well?
Alfred regarded Bruce with a gentle smile. "It was a most generous contribution, sir. Master Dick was extremely grateful."
Bruce nodded. "Alfred, would you know where he is today?"
"Well, sir, he had mentioned to me that barring an alien invasion, a H.I.V.E insurgency, or a natural disaster, the Teen Titans plan to spend the morning at their Tower, and then disperse to bring cheer to various children's charities through New York City. Of course, given the Titans' usual activities, none of the aforementioned conditions can be ruled out."
"Of course." Bruce thought for a moment. "Alfred, get me on the first flight to New York--this morning, if possible." Seeing the butler's expression, he continued, "I want to get there today, my private jet isn't fuelled, and I don't want to land the Bat-copter on the roof of Titans' Tower."
Alfred eyed him searchingly for a moment. "Very good, Master Bruce. I shall see to it directly, then. Just as soon as I finish patching you up."
Alfred outdid himself. Not only was Bruce airborne as of 9:15 that morning, but there was a Cadillac DTS awaiting him when his plane landed at LaGuardia, 50 minutes later. As he made his way through Manhattan, he noticed that the morning traffic was considerably lighter than it had been on any of his other visits. Even the "city that never sleeps" was evidently capable of a brief nap. The streets were clear of snow, although there was a light dusting of white covering the stoops and window sills as he drove past. It didn't take him long to reach the pier.
Bruce considered his options. He could take one of the T-Barges across. True, they required a Titans identity card to operate, but he had his own ways to get around that. Still, he was coming to visit Dick, not to invade his home-base--which was why he'd decided against landing his own aircraft on the Titans' helicopter pad in the first place. Looking around, he spied an intercom. "This is Bruce Wayne requesting access," he said when the electronic voice demanded his business.
There was a long pause. Then, a disbelieving, but familiar voice came on. "Bruce? What are you doing here? Why didn't you call, first?"
"I..." I wanted to surprise you. I thought there might be a better chance of your being in if you didn't know that I was coming. I thought that maybe if we spoke on the phone, I'd decide that it was enough and not come. "It's Christmas," he said simply.
It proved the right thing to say. There was a surprised chuckle on the other end of the intercom. "So it is. Hang on. I'll take a boat out to meet you." The intercom clicked off.
"So," Nightwing asked on the way back to the Tower, "You came all the way out here just to wish me a Merry Christmas?"
Bruce hesitated. "No," he said carefully. "Not entirely."
Dick sighed, but there was no real rancor in it. "I figured. Okay, is it something in Gotham that's leaking over into New York? Or did you need me to come back to Gotham with you?"
Dick blinked. "I knew you wouldn't be here if it wasn't for business. So, what's up? Did you track some lead or other over my way? Or is there a problem in Gotham that you need my help with? Or our help? Or..." He glanced at the man sitting next to him. Then he did a double-take as the realization hit: "Bruce? You... Where's your costume?"
Bruce shifted position. "In Gotham. I wasn't expecting to need it today."
Dick brought the T-Barge over to the island dock. "Are you alright?"
He gave a slight nod. "I'm fine."
"Okay," Dick said dubiously. "We're here. I just need to moor the boat."
Bruce waited for him to tie the craft down before he disembarked. Dick followed. "You're sure you're okay?" He asked again.
"If it's not you... Is Tim...?"
"He's doing well," Bruce said quickly. "Extremely well. He's nowhere near your original skill level, of course. I..." It occurred to him that, perhaps, it would be best not to wait until they were both inside and surrounded by the rest of the Titans. He reached into his coat pocket and brought out the small gift-wrapped box. "This is for you."
Dick frowned. "I told Alfred I didn't need anything this year," he said, even as his hand stretched out to accept the package. He caught himself. "I mean... thanks. But, seriously, I've already got everything I want."
Bruce nodded. "I can understand that. Still, maybe you should open it anyway."
Dick gave an exaggerated sigh and began to work at the scotch tape that was holding the wrapping paper together. "Sure," he said with obviously-feigned nonchalance. "I guess I can see what was so important you had to get all the way out here to give..." he got the paper off in a single piece "...to me in pers..." his voice trailed off as he lifted the lid. "Oh. My. G--"
"I wasn't sure if you still had one after all," Bruce ventured, "but I couldn't think of another way to... to convey to..." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," he said. "Sorry that I ordered you to surrender it and... sorrier than you can possibly know about my... actions prior to making that demand." As if for emphasis, he brought his fingers to the corner of Dick's mouth and traced an imaginary line to his chin.
Dick shook his head. "I caught you off-guard. I was so sure you'd want to talk about--"
"I did want to talk about him," Bruce cut him off. "But not then. And that still doesn't excuse what I did." He paused. "When I found you in the cave," he said quietly, "I'd been trying to find Joker. He'd gone down in the Hudson, but they'd never recovered his body. I'd been visiting his known haunts in Gotham, trying to find someone who'd heard word of him, so I could make... make him pay." He gripped Dick's shoulder firmly. "I know you didn't come to Gotham to blame me for his death. I blamed me. I tried to lose myself in hunting for Joker--it was easier to have someone else to hold accountable, but... you didn't do anything other than state what had been at the back of my mind all the time."
"Bruce." Dick sighed. "If you thought I was blaming you, then you're not the only person with something to apologize for." He took a deep breath and let it out. "I didn't have the facts and I didn't know the details. I got back from a deep-space mission and basically got the news broken to me as 'Oh, by the way, guess who kicked the bucket while you were gone?'"
Bruce stared at him. His hand tightened on Dick's shoulder. He couldn't believe that anyone would have informed him that callously.
"So, when I heard," Dick continued, "I didn't think it over, I just..." His eyes widened. "I wanted to get the whole story, but the way I asked... Sheesh! No wonder you thought--"
"None of which, in any way justifies the manner in which I reacted." Bruce closed his eyes. "There was no excuse for my hitting you. None. You can try to approach the incident from various angles and you'll perhaps find various factors that can explain my actions, but not one that would exonerate them." He shook his head again. "I'm sorry."
There was a long pause. Then, Bruce felt a hand sink slowly onto his own shoulder. "We were just sitting down to breakfast when you buzzed," Dick said. "Or 'brunch', I guess. Did you eat, yet?"
Bruce opened his eyes.
Dick sighed mockingly. "You just flew in straight from patrol, didn't you?"
"Alfred patched me up first."
"Hold it." Dick frowned. "You got hurt last night?"
Bruce started to shrug. Then he thought better of it. "I'll heal. But there were a few moments when that was by no means certain. I... It occurred to me that this matter should have been resolved before and..." He looked away. Was he going to have to finish the sentence?
"So, you haven't eaten," Dick said, mercifully removing the necessity. "Fine. Let's see if there's anything left by this time. If there isn't, there's got to be some place in Manhattan that'll be open for breakfast, today." He winced. "Now, I'm sorry all I sent you was a card."
Bruce shook his head. "Don't be. I've been told, on more than one occasion, that I'm a difficult person to shop for. Alfred did tell me that you already have plans for this afternoon?"
"Yeah. Nightwing's due to put in an appearance at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital." He looked apologetic. "If it was any other appointment, I'd try to get out of it, but they've got the kids all excited. I can't just..."
"Of course not." Bruce wouldn't have expected otherwise. "When you're finished, though, I thought perhaps you'd come ho--come back to Gotham? Christmas dinner won't be the same without you."
Dick grinned. "Sure. I'll be there. Around six?"
"Yes, but we'll wait if it takes you longer." He grimaced. "I'm not going to be up to patrolling tonight, in any case."
"You're sure you're alright?"
"Yes," Bruce nodded. "I just need a bit more time to heal." He hesitated. "I wasn't sure if you'd be able to get away, so I had Alfred book me on a return flight for two o'clock. I should be heading back to the airport in about an hour or so," he said apologetically. "I would have had him book a seat for you, too, but I wasn't sure--"
"Don't worry about it," Dick interrupted with a grin. "Almost nobody flies on Christmas Day. It won't be too hard for me to get on a later flight, when I'm done. And if you and Alfred are out doing something last minute," he took the house key out of the gift box and held it up, "don't worry about it. I'll just use my gift to let myself in and wait for you."