Teen Titans: Return of the Joker
Chapter 2: Pull Up The Roots
Um, hey everyone. I know a lot of you are jumping for joy and eager to read, so I'll let you get to that before going into my apology and explanation for the three month wait. So go on! Read! :D
Dick couldn't help grinning like a fool in love as he stepped back into the dim lighting of the mansion, closing the door away from the small crowd of reporters and camerapeople. His vision was littered with colorful spots from the cameras' flashing. His brain spun with dizziness, overwhelmed from all of the noise, the questioning, the faces, the excitement.
It wasn't really the attention that made him smile. He'd never been one to be in the limelight. Flashbulbs and murmuring reporters always sparked harsh memories. No, he really didn't care either way if he was in the newspaper, or if people talked about him. But, seeing the look on that woman's face as she thanked him for saving her life… that was enough to make him high the rest of the week.
He stepped lightly and proud as he crossed the enormous front hall of the manor. Alfred stood by the staircase, as though waiting for him.
"Still got it," Dick announced cheerfully, clapping Alfred hard on the shoulder like a football coach congratulating his star player. He started to head up the stairs, when Alfred cleared his throat purposefully, making the teen pause mid-step. Dick stole a quick glance at the old butler, then glared at the carpeted steps before him, his smile fading into a small scowl. "What? Are you going to scold me for saving her life? Should I have just let her hang out there until she drowned?"
"Of course not, but I can't help but notice your motives for helping her may not have been entirely altruistic."
Something between a scoff and a laugh broke through his throat, and he shook his head in disbelief. "Come on, Alfred. When she was down there with her life in danger, I wasn't thinking that I could use her to try and prove the old man wrong. I was only thinking of helping her to safety."
"And milking the limelight? What of that?"
Dick broke into a devilish little grin. "Come on. I gotta tick the ol' man off somehow…"
His expression remained frozen and resolute, but Dick caught a knowing little gleam in the old butler's eyes. He knew that look – it was the look Alfred always gave him when he acted a little too much like his millionaire guardian. The young boy waved his hand, as though to shoo away any more conversation, and turned to continue up the stairs.
Dick sighed, stopping at the landing halfway up the flight. He turned to look back down at the butler. That gleam had faded already. "Just thought you should be aware… the roots of your hair are showing."
Any hint of smile faded from the boy's face. He swallowed, glancing towards the front doors, as though able to see the cameras being packed away behind it. He forced a smile. "Well, good thing the Gazette is in black and white, isn't it?"
"What about the five-o-clock news?"
"If anyone notices, maybe I'll start a new fashion statement."
He turned before Alfred could respond, taking the stairs three at a time. He felt a nervous lump in the back of his throat, and tried to will it away, but it lingered as he reached the landing and made his way to one of the many antique mirrors that adorned the walls of the enormous house. He leaned into its glass surface, eyes wide as he dragged his fingers through his dark locks, like an old man inspecting for bald patches.
Alfred was right. His roots had grown in more than he'd realized, the familiar sickly green color horribly noticeable against the white skin of his scalp. He sighed deeply, brushing his hair down, as though to hide the terrible shade beneath the rest of his shaggy dark hair. His long bangs fell into his face, and he stared through them, into his sunken pale blue eyes.
It was one of the many reminders of what'd happened to him, and one of the most noticeable. His hair was now naturally green, just like his. Every time he had to dye his hair, he felt a surge of disgust well up inside him. Even though he couldn't remember what'd happened, exactly, he could only imagine what he'd looked like… what he'd become…
He swallowed with some difficulty, his tongue sliding against his teeth as he did so. He knew which of his teeth weren't real. He knew which of the many scars he bore hadn't been there before it all happened. He knew that as pale as he was now, he had more color than he'd had when it was all over, thanks to plastic surgery. He glanced down at his thin, weak figure. It was hard to believe he actually weighed significantly more now than he had just months ago…
He looked back up, his eyes meeting their own reflection in the mirror's surface. Once upon a time, they'd been his mother's eyes. A stunning, beautiful blue, full of vibrancy and life. But that had changed, completely. Now, they were cold, steely, and gray. Rather than a spark of energy, there was a shadow, a hint of something lurking deep in his gaze that had never been there before, lingering like a quiet ghost or a recurring nightmare. He watched them quietly a long time, before finally looking away with a heavy sigh.
Out of all the things that had changed in him, losing that bit of his mother in his own gaze probably caused him the most grief. And it was probably why no one believed he had recovered...
He stepped away from the mirror, turning his back to it and walked down the long hallow hallway, his footsteps like the echo of a beating heart in the empty passageway. He massaged his shoulder a little as he walked, passing windows draped in dusty dark curtains.
Through one of the open windows, he could hear the last of the news vans pulling out of the long driveway of Wayne manor. He listened to them quietly as he continued on, thinking back to Alfred's concerned gaze when he'd said… No. He was certain that no one had noticed his hair, and even if they had, what difference did it make...? The worst that could happen would be ending up in the Best/Worst edition of People magazine, right next to Paris Hilton or one of those other rich brats. With a grimace, he pushed all those thoughts from his mind and forced himself to think about other things, happier things.
He thought of the rescue. He thought of that rush of adrenaline when he found himself dangling over the cliff face, the surge of determination, of purpose, at seeing the fear in that woman's eyes.
He couldn't help but smile again, and his pace quickened.
For once, he would get to tell his friends about saving a life. Not the other way around.
He was almost running as he approached his bedroom door. He shut it loudly and made his way quickly to his bed, dropping to his knees and feeling the wooden floor beside it, hands roving the smooth surface for the slightest irregularity. He found it, the little bump in the floor, and he scraped his fingernails against it, loosening the floorboard and pulling it up.
It'd always been there, that floorboard. Even before he'd left for Jump City, he had used it to hide and protect his most prized possessions. Back then, it'd been mementos of his former life – programs, pictures, toys, his mother's wedding ring… but since being brought back, it'd become the hiding place for contraband the Bat-Warden would have confiscated. Like his Titans communicator.
But as he reached in and blindly felt for what he sought, he felt the blood drain from his face. All he felt was dead space, his fingertips grazing the wooden blanks below. It was all gone. His communicator, his mask, letters and cards of well wishes from his friends… the plastic Robin doll they'd given him the last time he saw them… it was all gone…
He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, and understanding took hold.
Of course… this had once been his room….
"If you'd known it was there this whole time, why are you just now taking it all away?" he murmured darkly, his eyes flickering to the darkest corner of the room, where a familiar, caped silhouette lurked.
"It's for your own good, Dick…" Bruce said bluntly, his voice deep and gruff, speaking from behind his cowl like he would to any criminal. Dick threw the floorboard down with a loud clamor, getting to his feet and turning to face Gotham's greatest knight.
"If I can't talk to you from behind my mask, Bruce, then why are you allowed to talk to me from behind yours? Is dealing with me so hard on you that you need your security blanket?"
There was a moment of tense silence. It wrapped itself around Dick like a python, squeezing his breath out and waiting to devour him whole. Finally, the old man sighed, and lifted his hand to remove his cowl, revealing his handsome but slowly aging face. He looked uncharacteristically tired, revealing that he had only just gotten in from the night's patrol.
"I was on my way back in when you rescued that woman. Saw it from my jet."
"I take it you're not going to commend me for my bravery. What did I do wrong?"
"You were foolish and brash. If you had slipped—"
"I would've fallen to my death. Right. Forgive me, but, how many buildings have we blindly leapt off in Gotham?"
"This is different—"
"How?" Dick's voice was slowly rising into an angry shout as he stormed forward. "Because I didn't have my mask? Because I didn't have my belt? Because I'm out of practice? Come on, Batman," he spat the world like it was an insult. "Someone could snap you in half and you'd still find a way to keep going."
"You're not me, Dick."
"No, but you taught me everything I know, stubbornness included! You were the one who introduced me to this life. You let me walk in front of bullets at ten years old! How are you just now growing a conscious about it?"
Bruce remained stony and silent, and Dick shook his head in revulsion. Even without his mask, the old man was still exuding the presence of Batman, not Bruce, not the man who had taken him in like a son, the man he wanted to talk to. He really wondered which was the real man, the mask or the face.
Suddenly, there was an almost imperceptible change in Bruce's expression, but Dick caught it nonetheless. "You don't know what he did to you."
"Enlighten me, then!" Dick spat bitterly. "Cuz if the months of nothingness, the year of imprisonment, the pains and the scars aren't a good enough giveaway then I'm not sure what is. He turned me into a miniature version of him – I get it. It was your worst nightmare realized, but you know what? It's over. It's all over. The Joker is gone and I'm still here. Still me. And I'm ready to live my life as though nothing has happened. Asking me to give up the heroes life, to hang up my mask and cape and live like a normal kid? That's letting him win and you know it!"
There was a long, tense silence, like two long-rivaled chess players staring each other down across the game board. Dick held his breath, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. He was only just realizing how riled up he was getting, how passionately he was speaking… He hadn't felt this way in so long, hadn't spoken to Bruce this way in years.
Finally, he straightened tall, his expression tight, blazing with conviction. "It's what I want, Bruce."
Bruce remained frozen for a long moment, and then, his face shifted again. "Stupid kid…. You don't know what you want. Grow up, then we'll see."
Dick's mouth fell open in complete disbelief as Bruce turned his back to him. The boy shook his head, feeling like his heart was breaking in his chest. "You can't do this, Bruce," he breathed. Then, he grimaced as though his whole world was shattering around him, storming forward a few steps with his fists clenched at his sides "You can't do this!"
"It's for your own good, Dick. You are not allowed to be Robin again. That's it."
Dick found himself rooted to the spot, eyes wide and horrified as Bruce pulled his cowl back on and swept from the room. He felt like he'd just been socked in the gut, all wind lost from his lungs. Part of him wanted to scream, another part wanted to lash out and break something. Another part just wanted to break down in tears. But instead, he swallowed it all back, staring back at the open door with his eyes flashing with a sudden vigor and determination.
Not allowed to be Robin again...
That's what he thought.
He strode forward, snatching up the old phone on the end table beside the door. It ordinarily would only be used to call Alfred, but he hit for the line out, and tapped in a phone number from memory – the number of an old friend. He swallowed, holding the receiver to his ear, feeling his heart thumping in his chest again.
"Joe's Taxidermy," the pleasant voice on the other end chirped. "You snuff 'em, we stuff 'em."
Dick smiled at the wall, shaking his head in silent amazement. "Wally," he said simply.
There was a moment of silence on the other end. "Well, well," it said finally, in a way that said there was a smile on the other end. "It's certainly been awhile."
"The others aren't near you, are they?"
There was a rush of static like wind in the receiver before Wally spoke again. "Not anymore."
"Listen…" Dick licked his lips, his heart fluttering like a hummingbird, the same way it would long ago, when he was about to leap off the platform high above the center ring… "I have two questions to ask you. First… are you busy right now and second… exactly how due north does your moral compass lie?"
"Well… that all depends, Boy Wonder," said the voice, only this time, Dick didn't just hear it in the ear held to the phone, but in the other ear as well. Dick turned slowly, grinning broadly at the redheaded teen standing before him in a yellow spandex costume, eyes sparkling with wonder.
"On what?" he asked, pulling the phone slowly away, still beaming.
"Well, on the answers to my two questions," Wally replied, striding forward. He clapped the raven-haired boy on the shoulder and held up his fingers to count as he went on, in mock seriousness, "One: how much fun is this gonna be and two: how ticked off is he gonna be when we're through?"
"I think you know both those answers," Dick replied coolly, replacing the phone back on its holster with a coy grin. Wally returned the smile with a dancing, mischievous gaze, scratching his chin.
"Alright, then. I guess I'll help. But on one condition." Wally looked around, a slight note of concern to his voice. Dick frowned at him, feeling a twinge of uncertainty as Wally leaned against him, lifting a hand to his mouth as though uttering a deep, dark secret into Dick's ear. "Will you get a haircut, you hippie? I mean, no offense, but you look like emo Harry Potter in the fourth movie."
Dick gaped at him a long moment. Wally's blue eyes sparkled tremendously at him, his mouth curling back upward slowly before he laughed and vanished in a flash of yellow "Oh, come on!" Dick shouted after him, bringing his hand up as though to slap him. "That's not even funny! I could kill you for that one!"
"Hey, now that's not funny," Wally spoke from behind him. The millionaire boy turned sharply to find the redhead sitting atop a wardrobe, safely out of smacking reach. Dick opened his mouth to say something insulting, or humorous, just like old times, but froze hard.
All the humor was gone from Wally's face, a sight Dick had rarely ever seen. The canary-clad teen watched carefully from his perch, his eyes piercing dangerously, as though watching for something terrible to happen. Dick stood quietly at attention, staring up at him stiffly, feeling blood rising to his cheeks. He knew that look. That same look so many people gave him… of concern, of fear, of pity… of fear… fear that he was going to slip and fall and they wouldn't be able to catch him. He couldn't help but grimace, his fingers curling into fists at his side.
Wally… not you, too…
But something happened. A slow, whimsical smile stretched over Wally's young face. His eyes suddenly twinkled brilliantly down at Dick, as though finally recognizing the boy standing before him.
"So it is you…" he murmured quietly, as though to himself, grinning like an idiot. He sat back against the wall, legs dangling over the wardrobe's doors. His smile softened just a little, brimming with something like relief, or hope.
"It's good to have you back, Robin."
Extraneously Long Author's Note:
First, regarding this chapter: I love the idea that Wally and Dick have known each other a long time. Follows their BFF-ness from the comics, you know?
Anyways, now, as for the apology. I really am sorry, guys. I know so many of you were excited when I first uploaded this, and were horribly angry with me for not updating it for months. There are two reasons this happened, and will likely continue to happen.
The first is… Revenge of the Joker, the original, my pride and joy… I don't want to ruin it with a lousy sequel, and I know none of you do either. Right now, I'm not pleased with the plot points I have planned out, and even though I was still all prepared to leap right into writing this, I completely psyched myself out. I don't want to disappoint you guys, at all. And because this sequel isn't as well-planned-out as the story that preceded it… yeah, I'm a bit scared. So I'm taking my time. Please bear with me. I promise it'll never be fully abandoned. But in order for it to do the original justice, I have to work on it like I did the original – sporadically over a long time. Let the story speak for me, and not force it. I think if I do that, everything will turn out all right.
Second reason is: I decided to work on some other TT fanfics. It was kind of a nice change of pace to write something other than… well, I was gonna say Robin torture, but it's pretty much all Robin torture, so if you're into that sort of thing, which I'm sure you are, you should go check them out. "Never Alone," in particular, is something each and every one of you will enjoy, I promise. (hint hint, hint).
So… yeah. Thanks so much for your patience and your support, y'guys! And thanks to those of you who stalk me on deviantart and twitter and send me PM notes and the like reminding me that you still expect me to be working on this story and that you will definitely murder me if I ever give up. I never will, I swear. Take vacations, yes, but give up entirely? Never.