None of the characters or settings in this story belong to the author; said characters and settings are the property of whichever parent company owns DC Comics. The author would truly LIKE to own Nightwing, at least for a night, but sadly that's not the case. So instead, I just borrowed him for a little playtime, trusting that DC and its parent won't mind if I return him undamaged.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Tim Drake's question made Dick Grayson smile. In that moment, the forty-something man standing across the room from him sounded like the teenager he'd been when Dick first met him.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Dick countered. "It's his house."
"Yours as much as his," Tim said. "And you're the oldest. It should be yours."
Dick looked around Wayne Manor's study. Not much had changed since he'd first arrived as a boy not yet ten, grieving the senseless murder of his parents. The same mahogany desk sat at one end of the room. The same cut crystal decanters were displayed on the credenza behind the desk. The same leather-bound books lined the interior wall. The brocade drapes framing the giant windows had been replaced with drapery of a similar color.
In fact, Dick thought as he perused the room, the biggest thing that had changed was the portrait that hung on the wall opposite the desk, where whoever sat at the desk could see it. When he'd first arrived, that portrait had been of Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. Now, Dick's own face stared back at him from pride of place, flanked by Tim's face and the face of the subject of their discussion, Damian Wayne, Bruce's only biological child.
"So what if Damian's his biologically? Nobody doubts you're his son as much as Damian."
"So're you, Timmy," Dick said, hiding his grin when the younger man grimaced at the nickname. "All three of us, sons of Bruce and Batman."
"That's my point. Why does he get the house, just because he's got Bruce's DNA?"
"Because I don't want it." Dick smiled at Tim's astonished expression. "It really is that simple, Tim. If I wanted it, I'd fight for it, and I'd win."
"But there's so much history here - so much of your life."
"Not mine so much as Bruce's. I've thought about it a lot, and this place belongs in Bruce's family - Bruce's family, not Batman's family. Damian's more the 'Wayne heir' than I am. I play the part when I have to. He lives it. Besides, what better wedding gift can I give him?"
"Does that mean you're not coming to the wedding?" The acerbic voice from the doorway made Dick and Tim turn to see Damian Wayne lounging against the doorframe.
"Wouldn't miss it," Dick answered easily.
"Huh." Damian came into the room, his gaze glancing to the portrait of the three men, then back to Dick. "You look the same as always."
"You've gone over the contract?" Dick preferred not to get too personal with Damian, even after all these years. The two of them had just never clicked the way he and Tim had. Maybe, Dick thought, it had something to do with the circumstances of their initial meeting.
"My lawyers have," Damian answered, bringing Dick's thoughts back to the present. "And they say it looks good."
Dick allowed himself a small smile. "My lawyers are as good as yours."
Beside him, Tim gave an exaggerated sigh. "For men who are effectively brothers, you sure don't trust each other much."
"We understand each other," Dick said.
"And respect each other," Damian added. Dick felt an eyebrow lift. Damian gave him a wry grin. "Did you expect otherwise?"
"I wasn't sure you'd admit it. You're a lot like him that way," Dick said.
Tim snorted. "You're both more like him than you want to admit. Which leads to the question, what am I doing here? You don't need me for this."
"And I already signed the contract," Damian added. "So why am I here?"
"Call me sentimental," Dick said. "But I have something to tell you, and this seemed like the best place."
"What's going on, Dick?" Tim asked. "This kind of cloak and dagger stuff isn't you."
"This is where it started for me," Dick said. "Technically, in the cave, but it started here. It's fitting that it end here, too."
"End?" Tim and Damian spoke at the same time, and Dick concealed a grin at their almost identical expressions of astonishment.
"At least for now," Dick said. "I'm taking a leave of absence."
"From what?" Tim asked. "Wayne Enterprises? It's not like you do anything for them anyway."
"You're not making any sense, Grayson," Damian snapped.
"If you'd quit interrupting -" Dick glared at each of the younger men in turn, and in turn they nodded agreement. Dick took a breath and began, "I have some personal business I've been putting off. There was always another bad guy to catch, another person to save. You know how it is." Again his companions nodded. "Lately, though, it's looming larger in front of me, and I'm not going to put it off any longer. So I'm taking a while to sort it through."
"How long?" Tim asked.
"As long as it takes," Dick said. "Maybe a year, maybe less, maybe more. I may not be available much while I'm gone."
"When are you leaving?"
Was it Dick's imagination, or did Damian sound ever-so-slightly enthusiastic at the prospect? Dick pushed the thought aside. "After the wedding. I just - you guys are the only family I have left, and I wanted you to know."
His brothers in all but blood stared at him in silence, and Dick quirked a grin. "C'mon. You can't tell me you're not itching to get out from under the last remnants of the bat-cape."
"You were never Batman, Dick. Even when you wore the cowl." Tim's tone held a gravity Dick rarely heard. The younger man paused, and Dick met his gaze without blinking. "You're sure about this, aren't you?"
"Good luck." Tim offered his hand. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
Dick took the other man's hand and pulled him into a brief, one-armed hug. "Thanks, bro. Take care of yourself and the family, okay?"
"What about your seat on the board?" Damian asked. Dick turned to answer, and his breath caught. For a moment, Dick felt as though he were staring at a younger Bruce. If there had ever been a question as to Damian's paternity, it was answered in the steely gaze Damian leveled at him now.
"I've named a proxy." Dick hadn't been able to convince Bruce to leave him entirely out of Wayne Enterprises, but at least Bruce had only left him a permanent seat on the board of directors. There'd been legal battles after Bruce's death, but ultimately his will had prevailed, as it always did, and Dick found himself dealing with more of the business than he'd ever wanted to.
"Anybody I know?" Dick could read the predatory interest in Damian's expression - apparently, Damian hoped that Dick's proxy might be more malleable than he'd been.
"Clark," Dick answered and had the momentary satisfaction of watching disappointment flicker across Damian's face before turning to Tim. "I would've named you, but you have enough going on already."
"Yeah, Cass would kill me if I took on more responsibility there. Being head of R&D is plenty, thanks. Keep in touch?"
"I will, when I can." It was all Dick could say. There were too many choices, too many unknowns, ahead of him to promise more. "Don't look so glum, guys. I'm not leaving right now."
With an almost visible effort, Tim straightened and grinned. "You wouldn't leave without a last sparring session, would you?"
"Course not," Dick grinned back. "Assuming you can keep up with me."
Dick strode into the penthouse atop Wayne Tower, tossing his jacket over the coat rack just inside the door. Maybe he'd told Tim and Damian about his plans too soon, but it felt good to be honest with them.
Mostly honest, Dick amended mentally as he started down the hallway toward the kitchen. They wouldn't understand the real reasons he needed to disappear, nor would they just let him go if they knew it all. Still, it hurt to lie to his last remaining family. Maybe he could send them a letter the day he left, telling them the truth that way.
He turned into the kitchen and didn't even blink at the blonde woman perched on the counter, eating leftover Chinese takeout. Karen Mulhall had been his personal assistant since before Alfred had died, and she had free reign over all of his life in much the same way Alfred had ruled Bruce's.
"I hope you left the moo goo gai pan for me."
"Only because I like the birthday present you're getting me this year."
Dick opened the fridge, looked inside and found the other takeout container. "What am I getting you this year?"
"Tickets to a concert."
"That doesn't sound like much."
"I hope I included the airfare and hotel accommodations." Dick grabbed a fork from the drawer and matched her pose.
"You also let me use your name to secure reservations at the most exclusive restaurant in London."
"I'm a very generous boss. Happy birthday, come September."
"Thank you." Karen set the remains of the meal aside. "Your test results came back today."
"What did they say?" Dick felt his pulse start to race as though he were about to face fifteen-to-one odds on the street. He willed himself to chew his moo goo gai pan slowly and thoroughly while he waited for Karen's response.
"You, my friend, are healthier than a horse."
"I know that. I want to know why."
"There's absolutely nothing abnormal about any of your results, other than a lack of deteriorating cells and telomeres that would be expected at your age."
"And given my lifestyle." Throwing himself into knife and gun fights with only his body and his wits as counter-weapons couldn't be good for anyone's longevity.
"Mm… maybe. The point is that your cells aren't wearing out normally. Not the natural wearing out that we expect over time, nor traumatic changes from what you do as Nightwing. You're just - not aging."
"That would explain the lack of scarring, too," Dick mused.
"It could. We just don't know enough yet, even with the bleeding-edge research at WayneTech Biosciences, S.T.A.R. Labs, and other places, to begin to explain all the vagaries of the human body."
"So no guesses as to why I'm still healing like I did when I was ten?"
"A very bizarre form of Peter Pan Syndrome?"
Dick snorted around a mouthful of chicken. "No useful guesses?"
"Mutation, maybe. Or a side effect from some of those off-world adventures, or encounters with aliens." Karen set aside her empty takeout container. "In other words, nobody has a clue. Tests give results, not analysis, and the scientists doing the analysis can't explain it based on the test results. You'd have to go in for tests yourself for them even to begin to have a clue."
"Then no useful guesses is the best you'll get. At least from the scientists."
Dick nodded acknowledgment. He hadn't really expected any breakthrough insights from a few blood and DNA tests, but they had been the reasonable place to begin his search for answers. Now it was time to try a few unreasonable places.
He reached for his phone, thumbed in a number that hadn't changed in decades. Moments later, he heard Clark Kent's familiar voice in his ear. "What's up, Dick?"
"Can you come down here when you have a few minutes? I need to talk to you about something, and it's best done in private."
"Are you free now?"
"I'll be there in three."
"See you in three." Dick ended the call.
"Three - minutes?" Karen didn't bother to wait for an answer, instead whisking the empty takeout cartons into the trash and rinsing their utensils before tossing them into the dishwasher. "Should I start coffee?"
"Not yet," Dick said. "It may not take long."
Back when he still wore a yellow cape and pixie boots, Dick would time Clark whenever the man from Krypton gave a time estimate and then announce gleefully, "You're ten seconds early!" Or, "You were off by five seconds."
Clark, his red cape still settling after a super-speed flight, would laugh. "I'll try to be more accurate next time." Dick would grin, and they'd get down to whatever business had brought Bruce and Clark together that time.
So when the knock came on his door, Dick instinctively glanced at the clock. "Only two seconds off this time," he muttered as Karen went to let their visitor in.
He heard Clark's polite greetings, and a moment later Clark filled the penthouse's small kitchen, one hand extended. "Good to see you again."
"And you." Dick shook the other man's hand. "How's Lois?"
"Feisty as ever." Clark grinned, but sadness lurked in his eyes. Dick understood.
Unlike Bruce, Lois hadn't fallen victim to a villain's plot. Instead, she succumbed to age slowly, fighting it all the way. It was some comfort, Clark had once confided to Dick, that he could X-ray her at a moment's notice with no significant radiation. Any cancer or other disease would be caught before it had a chance to take root. But age wasn't a disease, and there was nothing even the Man of Steel could do to stop it.
"So what's up?" Clark's question effectively cut off that thread of conversation. Dick understood that, too.
"I have a problem and I'm hoping you can help."
"If I can," Clark said. "What's the problem?"
"I'm not aging." Dick saw the surprise in the other man's eyes, read the question before Clark could speak. "Go ahead, use your X-ray vision to confirm it."
It was barely fifteen seconds before Clark said, "Amazing. No cellular degeneration."
"No gray hair," Dick added. "No scars, no loss of strength, no arthritis or osteoporosis. Despite the lifestyle. And I still heal as quickly as I did when I was a kid."
"How's that possible?"
"I don't know, and that's the favor. I've sent DNA samples to the top labs in the country, and nobody has an explanation for it. So it's time to start looking elsewhere." Dick let out a breath. "I wondered if you could contact Dr. Fate."
Clark shook his head, immediate and final. "Fate left Earth years ago - decades - and he hasn't come back."
"You're not exactly ground-bound yourself."
A grin flickered across Clark's face and was gone in a heartbeat. "No, but space is bigger than you think. He won't be found unless he wants to be found."
Dick swore under his breath. When science failed, it was time to turn to magic, and Fate knew more about magic than any of the rest of them - to hear some people tell it, Fate was magic, a living embodiment of magical forces - and was naturally the best place to begin his quest.
"There are other sorcerers." Karen's quiet voice seemed almost too loud in the silence of his frustration.
"None I trust as much," Dick replied.
Clark chuckled. "You sounded like Bruce for a second - only he wouldn't have qualified it."
Dick winced. Bruce's paranoia had been by turns frustrating, amusing, annoying, and ultimately justified, but Dick had never wanted to share it. Apparently some of it had rubbed off despite his resolve.
"But -" Clark was serious again "- those other sorcerers are all on Earth. You don't need my help to contact them."
Dick recognized the comment for what it was - Clark's polite way of saying, "Can I go now?"
"True enough. Hello to Lois, and I'll see you soon."
Clark started to turn toward the door, then paused. "Dick - if it had to happen to someone, I'm - not sorry it's you."
Again, Dick heard the words Clark didn't say: "But I wish it had been Lois instead."
Unwilling to let the moment turn maudlin, Dick summoned a grin that was almost genuine. "Thanks, Clark, but you know you're not my type."
That surprised a laugh from Clark, and then the Man of Steel was gone.
"You were right - it didn't take long," Karen said. "I'll pull up the files we have on the sorcerers, and we can decide who to talk to -"
"I already know who I'll talk to."
"Then why did you call him?" The biggest difference between Karen and Alfred, Dick thought, was that her tone always conveyed exactly how she felt. Just now, she sounded exasperated.
"I said I know who I'll talk to. I didn't say I'm looking forward to it."
In all the years he'd known and worked with Zatanna, Dick had never been to her home. She'd come to the cave many times to assist with a case and occasionally spent a night with Bruce, though Dick wasn't supposed to know that. But Bruce had never, to Dick's knowledge, visited her and, therefore, neither had he. Now Dick was asking her for a favor, and it was only right that he come to her.
He shouldn't have been surprised that she lived in a modest home in an unremarkable neighborhood. Magical and psychic work required privacy, and sometimes privacy meant being unremarked as opposed to unavailable.
Dick rang the doorbell and the faint sound of chimes carried through the mahogany door. He smiled. No harsh mechanical sounds for Zatanna - in fact, he wouldn't be surprised if she hadn't rigged something magical so that wind actually stirred chimes somewhere deep in the house.
Moments later, the door swung open and Zatanna stood framed in the doorway. She'd given up fishnet stockings and top hats years ago in favor of all-natural fibers and simply-cut dresses. Her hair now gleamed more platinum than sable, and her blue eyes, as sharp and piercing as ever, were still youthfully bright.
"Right on time," she observed. "Though I'd expect nothing less from you."
"I try not to abuse your time. Or your patience."
Zatanna made a wry face. "Those aren't what you're likely to abuse."
Before Dick could figure out what she meant and form a reply, she gestured him inside. He stepped into a large entry that might have been part of the original floor plan. To his left a pair of wingback chairs upholstered in a velvety blue-green flanked a square table covered in black silk. A small cabinet hung on one wall, and Zatanna sat in the chair nearest it, indicating that he should take the seat opposite her.
"What brings you here?"
"I need answers that science hasn't been able to provide."
Zatanna raised an eyebrow, and Dick quickly summarized the situation, including the tests he'd gone through and their results, and the lack of answers he had, concluding with, "I came to you in the hope that somewhere in your studies and knowledge, you might have ideas that are escaping me."
"Not much escapes you." Zatanna opened the cabinet next to her, withdrew a deck of cards, and idly began shuffling them while she spoke. "In some ways, you're a better detective than Batman was."
"Thank you for the compliment, but in this case, I'm stumped. I hoped you'd read for me, see what magical forces might be at work, if any."
Dick's years working alongside first Lilith and then Raven in the Titans, plus his occasional work with Doctor Fate, the Spectre, and even Zatanna, had taught him to respect the metaphysical realms and the things that inhabited them.
Still, he'd never be as comfortable with the metaphysical realms as he was in the solid world of crimes and evidence, and he'd thought long and hard first about asking for Doctor Fate's help and this visit to Zatanna. Now, his decision made, he shifted his mental focus as he'd learned to do so many years before, allowing himself to be open to whatever might come.
Opposite him, Zatanna continued to shuffle the cards she held in what appeared to be an offhand manner. One card slipped from her hands, falling face-down onto the table. She ignored it and continued to sift through the cards she held, her expression distant, as though she were listening to something he couldn't hear. Perhaps, he thought, she was.
Dick blinked. Whatever he thought he'd been prepared for, that wasn't it. "No?"
Zatanna gave him a small smile, full of sympathy. "You're not ready to hear what they have to say."
Dick just raised an eyebrow at her - a tactic and expression he'd learned from Bruce. "Most people are uncomfortable with silence," Bruce had said. "They'll rush to fill it if it lingers, and when they do, listen carefully. You might just strike gold."
Zatanna, however, simply raised an eyebrow back at him. "Please. Do you think I didn't learn that from the master, too?"
Dick matched her grin. "Okay, let's be direct. Why do you think I'm not ready to hear what you have to say?"
"Because you do best when you find the answers yourself, rather than having them handed to you. You're trying to be open-minded and accepting, but when the answer isn't what you expect, nor what you want, nor something that can be immediately and obviously deduced, you will shut down, and shut out a truth you don't want to face. Oh, you'll accept it eventually, but it will take longer and be more difficult on you than if you simply figure it out yourself."
"That's the most tactful way anyone's ever called me stubborn, but it doesn't give me a place to begin an investigation." Dick kept his tone even, not allowing a hint of the frustration he felt to bleed through. Every case had a starting point from which all other evidence and information flowed - except this one. All he needed was that point, that sliver of a whisper of a thought, and he would be off and running. That point, however, eluded him.
Zatanna studied the cards in her hands for a long moment, then looked up at him. "A full reading may be too much, but perhaps ..."
She pulled a card, seemingly at random from the deck and glanced at it before turning it so he could see the image it contained: a man, seated on a throne, a sword in his hand. The caption on the card read "King of Swords."
"This," Zatanna said quietly, "is what you are. It holds you back."
She appeared to expect some acknowledgement, but all he could do was nod. King of Swords.
Zatanna lay the card on the table, then reached for the one that had fallen face down while she was shuffling and glanced at it. The image made her smile - a Mona Lisa smile, Dick thought, and she said, "This is what you must become to move forward."
She turned the card to face him, and surprise rippled through him. The Fool?
Dick's knowledge of the tarot was spotty at the best of times. His only exposure to the cards had been when criminals had left them as clues or evidence, and he wouldn't consider the associations made by the criminally insane as anywhere approaching definitive definitions.
So he made a stop on the way home to pick up a deck - an indulgence, when images of all the cards were freely available online, but one that felt right. He'd always been more tactile than Bruce, and being able to hold the cards while he studied their meanings would help him retain the information better.
Once he was back in the penthouse, soda at his elbow, Dick turned on his computer and opened up three separate search engines. Moments later, he had opened three different sites with meanings for the King of Swords.
Dick rifled through his cards, pulled out the subject of his initial inquiry and studied the image again. It was different than Zatanna's deck - this king stood in a battle-ready pose, sword drawn. Dick thought it a more accurate depiction of a sword-king than the seated figure on Zatanna's card.
The card, he read, represented intellectual and analytical abilities - someone comfortable with logic - as well as someone fair, just and ethical. Dick couldn't argue with it as a definition of himself, as Zatanna had asserted. He'd spent a lifetime developing those traits under Bruce's tutelage…
Bruce also was the King of Swords, Dick thought. In fact, in the beginning, Bruce had been King to Dick's - he sorted the cards and pulled out another from the deck - to Dick's Knight of Swords. With Bruce's passing, Dick had inherited Bruce's seniority in the card rankings, if not his cape and cowl.
So that's what was holding him back, in Zatanna's opinion. Dick looked at the King and Knight again. Maybe, given his apparent youth, the Knight was still more accurate. He wanted to think so.
He set those two cards aside and pulled out the one Zatanna had said he must become - the Fool.
What did it say about him that the idea rankled?
Maybe that I'm far too much the King of Swords.
It was the King, using Bruce's voice, who reminded him not to pre-judge the card based on his automatic associations, so he brought up meanings for the Fool on the same sites he'd used to search the King of Swords.
Dick breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw that the meanings for the Fool were less about acting foolishly - and a good thing, given that the character on the card was about to walk off a cliff, unaware thanks to concentrating on the flute he played - than about beginnings and spontaneity and following your heart.
Dick looked at the image again. The brightly-colored harlequin leggings and the streamers floating from the youth's backpack reminded him of his earliest days at Haly Circus. He'd been more like the Fool, then, before his parents were killed.
He closed his eyes, tried to relax and allow memory to surface. There was laughter with his parents and the other circus performers and crew. There was taking time off during the day to go explore wherever they happened to be stopped. There were moments of life, not a plan of life carefully laid out.
When had he lost that?
There were some, the King's logic pointed out, who would say he'd never lost it. Just look at you, jumping from twenty or thirty story buildings, wisecracking your way through fights, and taking on metahumans twice your size with nothing but brains and a few weapons, not even a Kevlar uniform like Bruce had worn.
But he had lost it. Dick felt that certainty weighing him down. He'd subsumed his spontaneity beneath the logic and cool reason of the King who'd taught him and molded him into the man he'd become.
At first, he'd been grieving his parents. That was only natural, only right. Nobody could be spontaneous and full of life when grief weighed them down. Then - Dick felt his eyebrows drawing together, took a deep breath and went deeper into relaxation - then he'd seen Wayne Manor as one giant playground, where sliding down the banister was the most efficient route from second floor to ground floor, and where a leap from the balcony to the chandelier and then a quadruple somersault into a perfect two-point landing was just fun.
Even if it had nearly given Alfred a heart attack the first time he'd done it. Sorry for all those gray hairs, Alfred, Dick thought. Maybe somewhere, the butler's spirit heard him.
So he'd kept that joie de vivre even after he'd come to Wayne Manor. Dick spooled his memories forward. He'd kept it even when he first put on the yellow cape and pixie boots, he realized, though he'd channeled it into mile-a-minute chatter and the worst puns anyone had ever heard. A necessary defense, Dick realized now - to prevent himself becoming a younger version of the grim dark knight, Batman.
All of which might be interesting, but Dick couldn't see how it was possibly getting him closer to why he wasn't aging. He tossed the card he held onto his desk in frustration and rose to pace the office, barely registering the view of Robinson Park and the reservoir beyond it.
He paced the length of the wall of windows, then returned to his desk via a series of backflips, then along the wall with standing forward flips, and back once again via backward somersaults, and still he had no idea how the cards were supposed to be answering his question.
Zatanna's words echoed in his mind. This is what you must become to move forward.
Maybe he was taking it too literally, Dick realized. Maybe he wasn't supposed to become a fool per se, but instead maybe the card was suggesting he revisit his beginning.
That would at least give him something to do, he thought with wry amusement. And he'd approach this task as if it were a crime to be solved - thoroughly, starting with his earliest beginning and working through each one he'd ever had.
The sounds and smells of the circus never changed. Dick paused at the entrance, inhaling the scent of sawdust and animals and a hint of cotton candy that must've been just a memory, since the first performance of the season was still a month away.
His first stop was where it always was - the animal enclosures. More specifically…
"Hi, Elinore." Dick reached up to scratch the trunk of the elephant he'd known all his life. She was past sixty years old now, but unlike many humans that age, her memory was still sharp. Elinore wrapped her trunk around Dick's shoulder in her version of a hug. He dug into his pocket and withdrew a handful of grapes for her. The circus kept her well fed, but the grapes were a treat she ate eagerly.
It was just another oddity of his life, Dick decided, that one of his oldest friends was an elephant. Elinore might not be the best at conversation, but she'd been the one he sought out after his parents were killed, while Bruce and Pop Haly and the child welfare people were arguing over his fate. He'd spent the time scrubbing Elinore cleaner than she'd ever been, talking to her, enjoying the silent comfort of her presence. And when he'd left with Bruce, Elinore was the one he'd hugged the hardest.
"Oh, to have the Wayne fortune at my disposal, so I could afford a plastic surgeon that good." The woman's observation was only mildly sarcastic, and Dick turned to smile at Lorinda Rawlings, once an equestrian performer and now co-owner and manager of Haly Circus.
"Not that I'd want to get it how you did," she added, "but damn at the perks."
"Still as fit and beautiful as ever." Dick hugged her warmly. "You don't need a plastic surgeon."
"You make a lousy mirror, Dickie, but thanks for saying it." The lines in her face disappeared into her smile. "What brings you here before the season starts?"
"I wanted to look around the wagon a while."
Lorinda pursed her lips. "Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"Why wouldn't it be? Nothing's happened to it, has it?" He tried to quell the momentary panic that welled within him with calm reason. Nothing had happened to his parents' wagon. He would've known. Lorinda would've told him - wouldn't she?
And now Lorinda was shaking her head, which did more to calm the panic than all the logic in the world.
"No, it's fine. But - Dick, it's not healthy. I know you loved your parents. Everybody did. But it's been a very long time, and you have to let it go."
"What?" Dick stared at her, caught between being grateful that she cared and angry that she thought he was somehow stuck in the past. That was Bruce's hangup, not his.
"It was horrible, their deaths, but look at everything good that's come after that. Don't - don't fixate like this. You've had so much good in your life, you shouldn't focus on this one moment of evil."
"Lorinda." Dick cut her off gently. "It's not like that. Honest." He searched for words, found the ones he'd used on his brother Robins a few days before. "I'm just going away for a while, and I wanted to see the place again before I go."
She searched his face, then nodded, apparently satisfied for the moment. "Where are you off to, this time?"
"I'm not really sure." Wherever the clues led him, but Dick couldn't tell her that.
Lorinda laughed. "Romany blood breeds true, I guess."
"I suppose." Dick hadn't thought about that part of his heritage in years, decades. But it was a good enough explanation to satisfy Lorinda, and that was all he really wanted for now.
"You still have your key? What am I saying, of course you do. Go on and do what you came for. Just say bye before you leave."
"I will." This would be the last time he visited. He hadn't planned for it to be, but it would be. Strangely, that certainty wasn't painful - just sad. One more loss to grieve.
"I'll say goodbye to you, too," Dick told Elinore as Lorinda walked away. "But I'll visit again. You don't care if I wear the mask when I do. And you'll probably be awake at three a.m., too."
With a last scratch to Elinore's trunk, Dick turned toward the wagon where he'd spent the first eleven years of his life. In a gesture that had spoken more clearly than any words they might've shared, Bruce had arranged for the wagon with "The Flying Graysons" emblazoned in red and gold to be stored in what had been the carriage house at Wayne Manor. Dick visited it often during his first few months with Bruce, then less and less as the grief faded.
When Haly Circus took on a semi-permanent home outside Gotham, the wagon became a combination memorial to his parents and static display of how circus performers lived. The popularity of the exhibit continued to surprise him, and Dick gave silent thanks to whomever might be listening that the wagon was still intact and almost unchanged since the night his parents died. It meant he had a starting point.
Dick unlocked the wagon - really more like an enclosed trailer - that his father had towed behind their truck from town to town, show to show, and paused in the doorway as memory flooded through him.
Their mobile lifestyle, not to mention their Romany blood, meant they'd never acquired a lot of the trappings of modern life, but Dick had never felt deprived, not even after he'd seen the opulence of Wayne Manor. In fact, though he'd never told Bruce, the vast expanse of the manor, the dozens of rooms, had made him yearn for the cozy quarters of the wagon. Now, as an adult, Dick found the wagon more cramped than cozy, but it was still home in a way that Wayne Manor had never become.
There was the banquette dining table where he'd spent hours with his father learning card tricks from Easy Eights to Three-Card Monte and others known by too many names to list. His mother had sometimes joined in, playing either the mark or a shill. Other times, she'd read, or - or -
Dick frowned and closed his eyes, breathing in and out to relax and encourage the memory to form in his mind.
His father, dark-haired and swarthy but with a ready smile, sat at the table. "Watch closely, Dickie, see if you can spot how the trick is done."
"Now, John, are you sure? He's only five."
"The sooner he starts, the better he'll be. Okay, watch now…" And Dick watched as his father dealt the cards, his mother fading from his awareness while she … wrote in a book?
His mother had kept a diary? Why hadn't he seen it since their deaths? Dick breathed in and out again, summoning techniques he'd learned from Bruce so he could slip deeper into trance-memory.
While his father dealt the cards again and again, finally handing the deck to him so he could try to duplicate the trick, his mother sat quietly, watching thoughtfully and only occasionally jotting a note into the leather-bound book open on the table in front of her.
What had happened to the book? That was the question Dick focused on, but memory had no information for him. Years of training brought him into the wagon and had him sitting where his mother had often sat. He placed his hand on the table where the diary had rested.
The diary had obviously been important to his mother, though Dick didn't remember it. Had she destroyed it, sometime after that memory? Or had she simply hidden it?
If he assumed she'd destroyed it, he'd never find it. So his initial assumption would be that she'd hidden it from a young, energetic, and inquisitive child. Which meant she would have wanted someplace her son wouldn't have thought to look, and preferably someplace she could access easily that her son wouldn't pay attention to - and possibly not her husband, either.
Dick ruled out the tiny kitchenette immediately. Between cooking, cleaning up, and getting snacks at odd hours, there'd been far too much activity in that cramped space to allow for hiding anything. Perhaps their bed?
Stop it, he told himself. Orderly, or you'll miss something. Maybe a lot of somethings.
Orderly - and thorough. Dick could be both. He'd learned to be both from the master, and added a few twists of his own. So he made a complete circuit of the wagon, taking his time and searching every cabinet and drawer, every piece of furniture.
When he returned to the banquette sans journal, Dick couldn't help the disappointment that swept through him. He'd been so certain that he'd find something here, and the flash of memory suggested the diary contained the clue he sought.
He'd allowed hope and fantasy to cloud his judgment. Dick rested his hands on the table and let his head fall forward. Bruce would never have tolerated such sloppy thinking, and it was impossible not to hear Bruce's voice chastising him for the error.
Still, Dick couldn't resist making another circuit of the wagon. His gut insisted there was something to be found here, and he wouldn't stop until he found it.
When he remained empty-handed at the end of his second circuit, Dick sank again onto the bench where his mother had sat so many years before. Could his gut have been wrong? He didn't like thinking that. His gut had saved him too many times for him to want to believe it betrayed him now.
Dick drummed his fingers on the table, unable to shake the feeling that he'd missed something. But what? He'd made two complete circuits of the wagon, searched every drawer, every cabinet, every cushion, including the one on the bench he now sat on.
He shifted position and his foot kicked the base of the bench opposite him. The banquette hadn't seemed so cramped when he was ten, even with his father on one side and his mother on the other, and himself cozy against one or the other.
Only then did the hollow thunk of his foot's impact register in his awareness, and he frowned. He'd removed the bench cushions on his circuits, expecting to find some kind of storage underneath. When there wasn't an obvious lid to the space, he'd assumed the bench supports were structural and moved on.
You know what they say about assuming. Dick squirmed his way under the table. Doing so was much easier when he was ten, but in moments he found himself crouched under the table between the benches. He ran his fingers over the wood, lightly exploring every centimeter.
He found it sooner than he'd expected - a slight imperfection in the wood. Dick pressed it from several angles, and on his downward push, he heard the tiniest click and a panel slid open. A penlight from his pocket assured him there were no poisonous things in the small space behind the panel. There was, however, a leather-bound book.
Dick's heart revved, and he forced himself to finish searching the entire cubbyhole where he crouched. If there was one hidden compartment, there might be another.
Sure enough, he found a similar panel on the opposite side of the banquette, his father's side. That one was empty, however, and Dick closed the two panels and wiggled out from under the table, his mother's journal held carefully in one hand.
Through force of will alone, Dick brushed the dust from the cover and put the journal into the inside pocket of his jacket. As much as he wanted to read it now, he knew that once he started, he'd lose all track of time. Better to be safe at home before he indulged in such work.
Night had fallen during his return from Haly Circus, and for once Gotham's criminal elements held no interest for him. Tonight, Damian and Tim could watch over Bruce's city. Tonight, Dick had more pressing matters to attend to. A pot of extra-strong coffee steaming beside him, Dick settled back in his recliner to read his mother's journal.
Half an hour later he'd barely read ten pages thanks to having to stop reading several times to blink tears out of his eyes. His mother began her journal with her wedding day - thankfully, she hadn't chosen to share details of her wedding night; Dick didn't even want to imagine what reading that would've been like - and continued irregularly through the first year of her life in the circus with his father, chronicling towns Haly Circus had played and events in the lives of the performers.
Then the tone of her entries changed. Dick almost missed the initial reference to wanting a child, casually noted along with the details of Sooze and Jacques' budding romance. Subsequent references were more blatant, and Dick frowned as the tone grew increasingly desperate. One entry almost broke his heart.
Please, I beg you - any gods who might be listening -Please send me a child.
That was the entire entry, and Dick could still make out tiny stains around the edges of the page, stains that marked where his mother's tears had fallen.
A month passed, with repetitions of Mary Grayson's desire for a child. Then Dick turned the page and smiled at the two words that filled the page: I'm pregnant!
His mother's joy radiated from the page, even after all these years. Dick steeled himself for a day-to-day account of her pregnancy, but as he turned page after page, there were just the occasional notes interspersed with the rest of her life: Felt it kick today, for one. Then, No more morning sickness, thankfully, followed by, Finally agreed on names - Richard John for a boy, and Amanda Mary for a girl.
And then came the page recording his birth - date, time, length and weight. Dick smiled and moved to turn the page, frowned as he saw one more line of text at the bottom of that page.
Looking closer, Dick saw that it wasn't text so much as it was a string of symbols. Some symbols resembled hieroglyphics, and some resembled letters, but he had no idea what language they might be. He found a pen and notepad and carefully copied each symbol onto the paper.
That they were in fact symbols and not doodles Dick had no doubt. They were neat and orderly, precise in their arrangement. And - he studied them more closely. He'd bet that they weren't in his mother's handwriting. That raised new questions. Who would know about her journal, and choose to leave an indecipherable message in it?
The translation might lead him to the person who'd written them. But first he'd have to translate them.
At times like this, he missed Barbara and her eidetic memory. All he'd have to do was show her the symbols, and if she'd ever seen them, she would've been able to tell him exactly what they were and maybe provide a translation. But she'd died a half-dozen years back thanks to complications from her paralysis, and Dick had never found anyone else with her skills that he could trust the way he'd trusted her.
He might not be able to call Barbara, but Dick could ask Karen to research the leading experts in ancient languages. With luck, one of them would recognize the symbols and their translation would point him in a new direction for his investigation.
Night was just beginning to fade into dawn when Dick let himself into the penthouse through the roof entrance. He'd been keeping later patrols since his visit to the circus three weeks ago, and was looking forward to peeling out of costume, showering away the stink of sweat and scum and sewer, having a bowl of cereal and then crawling into bed.
Dick secured the entrance behind him and quickly removed the mask and costume. Stretching, he opened the door to this concealed compartment and stepped out into his bedroom closet before padding barefoot and naked to the bathroom on the far side of the room.
"If you didn't pay me so well, I'd be selling pictures of this."
Dick grinned at Karen. "It'd be mostly silhouette against the windows, from that angle."
Karen didn't move from the chair where she sat. "Surely you've heard of fill-in flash photography? But the silhouette's pretty good, too, if you're into that sort of thing."
"Is there a reason you're camped in my bedroom before dawn?"
"The only group that keeps stranger hours than superheroes is academics. Of course, Berlin's six hours ahead of us, so it was a perfectly reasonable time for Professor Unger to call."
All thought of a shower, much less sleep, vanished as Dick's pulse leapt. "What did he say? Did he recognize it? Could he translate it?"
"You should be asking me if I could translate him. He speaks English, but the more excited he gets, the more pronounced his accent gets. And he was pretty excited."
"Why? What do the symbols mean?"
"He doesn't know."
Dick couldn't remember the last time it had taken him more than two seconds to find a reply to any conversational moment. This morning, it was fully ten seconds before he managed, "You camped in my bedroom to tell me … nothing?"
"If you were anyone but you, it would be nothing," Karen said. "But you being the world's greatest detective and all, you can probably find something in it."
Dick instinctively recoiled from her description. Bruce was the world's greatest detective; that hadn't changed with his death, no matter how much else had. Karen just raised an eyebrow at him, daring him to object aloud.
Instead, he asked, "What's this nothing that might be something?"
"His initial reaction was to accuse us of some kind of fraud or hoax," Karen said. "Once I confirmed our bona fides, I let the professor believe the inscription came from a collection of artifacts acquired on the black market." Dick felt his own eyebrow lifting, and Karen glared back at him. "You didn't expect me to tell him it came from your mother's journal, did you?"
"Probably not the best idea," Dick agreed, though the thought of being associated with any black market, however indirectly, sat uncomfortably in his mind. "Go on."
"The condensed version is that it's a jumble of Linear B, Linear A, and a few symbols the professor's never seen before."
"So why can't he translate it? Linear B is a form of proto-Greek writing, right?"
"Yes, but Linear A still hasn't been translated, and without that, he wouldn't know where to start on the unknown characters."
"It may be something, but it sounds an awful lot like nothing." Dick controlled his disappointment. It had been too much to expect that he'd get a clean, simple translation, he knew that, but still his heart had hoped.
"Professor Unger reminded me that many people believe Linear A to have been the written language of the Minoans, though of course that hasn't been proven. On the basis of that belief, and given the palindromic nature of the inscription, he's quite comfortable saying that it is an actual alphabet. If it's genuine, he says it's at least as old as Linear B."
How had his mother come to have a note in her journal written in an alphabet three thousand years old? Had she ever even heard of Linear B? The questions were starting to make his head hurt.
"Go take your shower," Karen told him. "I'll make coffee and breakfast."
Dick nodded and turned back toward his bathroom, questions still chasing each other through his mind.
"I know what I'm going to do." Dick strode into the kitchen where Karen was pouring pancake batter onto the griddle.
"Taking a shower works its magic again. What are you going to do?"
Dick crossed to the coffeepot and poured a large mug full. "I'm going to Themyscira."
Somewhere between shampooing and shaving, he'd thought of Donna Troy. She might not know much about the origins of Greek writing, but he'd bet that some of her Amazon sisters did. And, if he were honest with himself, he just wanted to see her again. They'd been friends almost as long as he'd been in the superhero business, though she'd chosen to return home to Themyscira a decade or so before.
"Makes sense," Karen said after she flipped the pancakes. "How long do you think you'll be gone?"
"It depends on what I learn there. But everything's set up so you can run the place in my absence."
"Mm." Karen stacked four pancakes on a plate and passed it to him. "You are planning to come back, aren't you?"
"What makes you ask that?" Dick barely caught himself before he poured too much maple syrup on the pancakes.
"Tim told me about the 'leave of absence' you announced."
"I told them a year, maybe more. That's a long way from being never."
"And if you'd told them never, they would've fought you over it, even Damian. You would've fought Bruce if he'd made that kind of announcement," Karen added, effectively cutting off the protest Dick was about to make. "I won't fight you about it, and I'll keep up the fiction for them, but only if you tell me the truth."
Dick took a bite, chewed, swallowed. Trust Karen to back him into a corner when no one else would. He looked up at her and said simply, "I'll be back for the wedding next month. I don't know when I'll be back after that."
She studied him for a long moment, then took up her own pancakes. "Not even going to estimate?"
"No." He shoved his plate aside, rested his forearms on the bar. "Call it a midlife crisis if you want to."
Karen snorted around a mouthful of pancake. "Hardly a midlife crisis. You've always liked fast cars and faster motorcycles, and you never liked fast women."
Dick chuckled with her. "Okay, maybe not a traditional midlife crisis. More like rethinking who I am and who I'm going to be now."
"Now what? Now that you've realized you don't appear to be aging? Most people would think that's a blessing, if only because it'll save a fortune on plastic surgery and anti-aging treatments."
"That might be part of it, but mostly it's that enough of the old ties, the old people, are gone that I don't have any anchors except those I make myself. I'm debating which anchors to drop and which to hoist."
"That doesn't sound like the relentlessly cheerful Dick Grayson I know so well."
"You know I'm not always cheerful."
"So what's got you brooding now?"
Dick picked up his fork and took another bite of pancake. Karen had seen more of his soul than almost anyone else, had been by his side when first Barbara and then Bruce had died. Still, he found it difficult to say what was on his mind now.
"Do you think I'll die if I don't age?" He blew the words out in one long breath. Part of him hoped she didn't understand them, so he'd have a chance to find something else to say.
Her thoughtful silence killed that hope. Finally, she said, "I think you don't have enough information to figure that out. It looks like you won't die of old age, but that's not the only cause of death out there."
"I'm not going to swallow a bullet to find out."
"Which just shows you have a healthy sense of self-preservation, despite your penchant for jumping off tall buildings."
"It was hard, watching the others die. I think it'll only get harder."
"And you have to decide whether you can stand that or not. Which is why you're taking the sabbatical."
"I don't need to be a detective to figure out you have more to say than that."
"Promise me you'll come back. A year, ten years, however long it takes, but come back."
The intensity in Karen's voice and expression surprised him. "Why?"
"Because we need you. We, the average people out there."
"There are others -"
"Not like you. You're more like the rest of us than Damian, who's following Bruce's model of silence and intimidation. Or Clark, who'll always be not quite human, for all that he tries. You're approachable and understandable, and for that alone, we need you."
Dick shifted on his stool, uncomfortable with her words. "You make me sound like a symbol, not a person."
"Of course you're both. But Damian and Clark are more symbol than person, at least in the public perception. Most of the other heroes out there are more person than symbol. You strike a balance between the two that nobody else has managed. We need you, Dick." Karen took a breath. "So take the time you need. Just come back when you're done."