A/N: So sorry for the long wait, everyone! My cousins came from across the country and stayed for a week, and then I was working so hard on my summer homework after they left (all finished now! Yay!)...and besides, writer's block was evil... But here we are anyway! Onward we go!
For several miles, the drive is lapsed in a comfortable silence. Batman is pretty much on autopilot while lost in thought (from the slightest pinch to the man's nose, Robin would say it's more about Clark than their criminal), and Robin stares straight ahead with arms casually folded behind his head.
They come to a familiar, close-to-home turnabout, and Robin sits up straighter suddenly. Only now, in winding down from his adrenaline high, does he remember the conversation he's been after all night. Turning to his mentor, he waits for the Dark Knight to come back to reality fully.
When he does, the Boy Wonder has this to say: "That bad, huh?"
A dry huff-laugh and a grim smile. "Sometimes I wonder if I've—"
"Taught me too well?" Robin finishes, cheeky smile allowing more than a hint of gentleness. He shrugs playfully. "I tend to wonder the same thing."
Given a moment, though, his smile fades. Seriousness sets in once more.
Batman growls lightly, eyes narrowing as his hands grip the steering wheel tighter. He opens his mouth to speak, then stops. For it is not without humor (or mercy) that one of the Batcave's secret passageways opens up in front of them.
Once sheltered from prying eyes, the seatbelts retract and the hood slides back to reveal Alfred waiting to greet them.
"From your expressions, I wager the criminals are under lock and key?"
Hopping out of the Batmobile in unison with Bruce who steps out on the other side, Dick grins maniacally.
"All but one of the ringleaders and their lackeys were lame—" the secret-Batman shoots him a stern look, and the color of humility stains the protégé's cheeks, "—but no denying the security detail they hired was pretty formidable." The gleam that steels Bruce's eyes does not go unnoticed by his Bird, whose smile softens and turns ever more mischievous at once. "We made 'em feel the dis in disaster, though!"
Bruce's expression loosens in light of his son's mirth, and Alfred, who burns with an infinite knowledge of his older charge, clears his throat.
"I see. Well, I am just happy to have you both returned to me in one piece." As he says this he examines them with his keen eyes, exchanging a glance with Bruce before passing on to the Manor's youngest. "I trust your bruises and nicks are not too dreadfully painful, Master Dick?"
Dick peers up into the wise, twinkling eyes of the old butler and sends a bit of his own sparkle back.
"'Course not, Alfie! Who do you take me for?" The gypsy performs a one-handed handstand with a cartwheel and several back-and-front-handsprings mixed in. "Your Average Joe?"
The British man's eyes brim over with barely-contained amusement, the laugh lines around his mouth crinkling the way Dick loves. "Such a sacrilegious thought wouldn't dare to cross my mind, young Master."
Bruce steps forward to set a warm hand on his faithful friend's shoulder.
"All right, Alfred, we've kept you up long enough. Why don't you head upstairs and get some sleep? If there's anything Dick and I can't handle on our own," though they all know there isn't much chance of that, "we'll be sure to wake you."
Alfred nods. "As I know well, sir." He bows to them both, smiling secretly at the light that resonates from the man he has raised and that encompasses his beloved adoptive child. Straightening, he bids them goodnight, steps into the elevator, and disappears into the Manor for some well-earned rest.
Now it is left to just the two of them. Let the fun begin.
"You did tell Clark how much of a jerk he's being, right?" Dick snaps, arms crossed and a scowl painting his face; it is all he can do to keep himself from tapping his foot in agitation. Bruce gives a sidelong glare (though, to be fair, his own sentiments aren't much kinder), and Robin raises his hands defensively. "Well, he is!"
And truly, there is nothing on this Earth or otherwise that will make him feel differently. How can he? Seeing Superman treat Superboy so coldly, so indifferently…it makes him so angry! If his friend deserved it, that's one thing…but besides being a little volatile, Supey's done nothing but exist—!
A hand comes down on his shoulder, and if not for his training he'd have jumped a foot high. He finds a concerned Bruce hovering, and Dick offer a small, apologetic smile.
The older man takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, picking his next words with sensitivity.
"We've seen that, Dick," he acknowledges, sitting down heavily in the about-faced Batcomputer chair, forehead crinkling in frustration as today's events play back in his mind's eye. "Now if only Clark could see."
Falling into this familiar step, the thirteen-year-old lets himself fall back into an arch, moving just once per minute until his hands are wrapped around his ankles and his elbows are left supporting his upper body. In an extreme circumstance such as this one, acrobatics helps to keep his focus and accelerate his thinking.
After ten minutes, Dick has had enough.
Flopping out of his pose to be cross-legged on the floor in front of his mentor, he presses, "But there's our problem, Bruce. We can't force him. If we push him too far, he'll never accept Superboy for who he is."
With this his guardian can only grimly agree. Kryptonians, after all, have very hard heads.
Abruptly, Dick bestows upon his adoptive Father a very curious look, indeed.
"What happened at the diner anyway?" he asks, eyes flashing knowingly. "Something must have happened to set you off tonight."
Bruce stares into the child's bluer-than-blue eyes. Like the man himself, Dick has always had a special bond with Clark, and it goes without saying that both Father and son's opinions of the reporter have dampened as of late. The philanthropist doesn't want to sour his boy's relationship with Clark further with added news of his neglect of Superboy.
However, all these thoughts are halted as his lower arm is taken in a strong, loving grip, and once more Bruce Wayne finds his world turned upside down by the likes of an adoring pixie.
"Bruce," Dick offers a soft, cheeky little grin, "it's okay. Clark's been rather…whelmed lately…" a righteously-dark shadow moves across his face before vanishing, gaze all but piercing his adoptive Father's, "…but he's still my friend as much as he still is yours, right?"
The secret-Batman grins proudly, squeezing the boy's hand and chuckling inwardly at his own expense, for Dick has never been a petty child. Resting his chin on one propped-up fist, he starts his tale.
"Clark was...defensive, afraid, Dick. He nearly fled when I brought up Superboy." A difficult breath escapes through his nose. "He's been cloned before, you know that, and every time things have gone wrong, people have been hurt."
"Which explains why he reacted the way he did when he first met Supey," Dick supplies effortlessly. It only makes sense, after all. "And I don't blame him for that, Bruce. If this kind of thing happened to me all the time," he does his best to hide the smirk that comes of Bruce tensing protectively, "I think I'd be reluctant to trust Superboy, too! But I'd give him the benefit of the doubt, a chance to prove himself…anything to make him feel like I cared! That's what gets me so on edge, Bruce." He drives a pointed finger into his palm. "How he's handling it this time around."
Bruce hums softly, half-smirking with pride. His little Boy Wonder truly is growing into a wonderful defender of truth, innocence, and justice. And an even better man.
Reaching out, he rests a firm, steady hand on his protégé's black-haired head, beaming for all it's worth.
"I know you would, son," he breathes warmly, hand falling to caress the child's rosy cheek and to trace the outline of his boyish face.
With this deepest of professions and such genuine devotion riding these actions, Dick can only lean into the touch. The gentle smile that lights his face outshines the moon beyond, the happy teardrops glistening on his eyelashes like the stars themselves.
Grinning lovingly up at Bruce, he reaches up to wipe his eyes and face to find that his guardian has already done so.
Here, in all of his Batty-heartfelt glory, is the reason he is who he is today.
Clearing his throat now, he asks, voice still a bit croaky, "What else happened, Dad?"
The secret-Batman releases a short huff of a wry chuckle. "Unfortunately, he bolted before I could say much more. He kept trying to deny that Superboy needs him, saying he's just a reminder of everything the boy's not."
"But he's also Superboy's idol," Dick asserts, "a reminder of all he can be with the right guidance!"
Bruce nods. "I mentioned that, too…" Blue eyes now, a shade darker than Dick's, flick upward to lock on the teen. "And then…"
Reading his meaning immediately, the younger's eyes widen in surprise as he reels back slightly.
"No way! You didn't!" Bruce's gaze is unwavering, however, and a brilliantly gleeful smile worms its way onto Dick's lips. "You did! You played the Dad Card!" He cackles in disbelief; Bruce never lays down his trump card unless he really feels he's out of options (and that's only happened twice in their four years)! "Well, what did he say to that?"
A silence settles, and Dick's hopeful outlook vanishes. The quiet is answer enough.
"He didn't, did he?" the child concludes, disappointed beyond all reckoning. "He left…"
And Bruce, though it pains him, cannot bring himself to lie. "Yes."
Dropping his head into his hands, Dick clutches fistfuls of his messy hair, taking the ensuing hush as it comes. Finally, after several minutes the black-haired head lifts, and there is nothing to keep the sad-thoughtful glimmer from those sky-blue eyes.
"What if you'd been like that with me?"
Though incredibly caught off guard, Bruce is careful in his reaction. He stares for a long moment before his forehead crinkles, a deep frown forms, and he voices the question clearly written in his darkened eyes. "What?"
"I mean, what if you'd left me there, in Juvenile Hall?" Dick clarifies slowly. "What if—" his voice cracks at the mere heart-wrenching thought, and he has to swallow thickly, "—what if you'd never adopted me?"
The older man's eyes narrow in remembrance. He's pondered such a thing at length, how different everything would be without his little Bird, and every time he nearly can't take what he sees. Dispelling these cruel deliberations from his mind with a few stubborn shakes of the head, he turns his attention back to his son.
"Dick…why would you ask something like that?" he inquires calmly, curiously, though Dick easily detects the hanging note of worry.
The gypsy stalls before answering, reaching up to take one of the man's hands and squeeze soothingly. "It's just… If—if I'd been left to my own devices back then the way Supey is now…if I'd been left alone..." the knees drawn up to his chest are held tighter, the grip on Bruce's hand increasing as well; if there is anything he hates in all the world, it's being all alone, "…I wouldn't be the person I am now."
Bruce reaches down to stroke his son's hair slowly, comfortingly, hoping to take away as much of Dick's remembered fear and pain as possible.
Though he himself had had Alfred, the only surviving member of the Wayne family vividly recalls the crushing, world-swallowing loneliness he felt the night his own parents were taken from him, Zorro and his adventures forgotten as he cried between their bloody, lifeless bodies in that alleyway.
Movement beneath his hand, and Bruce looks down to see Dick snuggled in between his legs, hands lazily threaded behind his head as he leans back against the man's stomach. Bruce smiles lovingly and continues his ministrations, the child closing his eyes and grinning contentedly.
In the companionable quiet that settles here, a nearly-forgotten piece of his conversation with Clark returns to Bruce.
"You know," he begins, causing Dick to open one eye, "when I told Clark Superboy needed him, he denied it and said Superboy needed me, needed Red instead—" The secret-Boy Wonder breaks into a tender, private beam, eyes sparkling with unshared mirth, and earns an amused, questioning glance-pause from Bruce. "Something I should know?"
Dick shakes his head, still grinning. "Nothing, Bruce," he assures, a bit of previously-contained laughter bubbling to the surface. "Only, when you said 'red,' to me it—" the smallest frown and paleness comes to his face, eyes averting, "—it symbolized a lot of things…"
In his mind's eye, he sees his Mother's lips, his circus costume, his parents' blood, the roses on his parents' graves.
"But…" he looks up at Bruce again, smile steadfastly-devoted and eyes bright with both heartfelt tears and a different vitality entirely, "…most of all, it means love and heart. And for me, Bruce, an orphan who had nowhere to go and no one to turn to…" he slips a foot underneath him and pushes himself to his feet, "…as your son…" he is none too shy about kissing his adoptive Father on the cheek and wrapping his arms tightly around his neck, "…I've never known anyone with a bigger heart than you."
One hand moving to grasp the thirteen-year-old's head and the other arm enfolding him around the waist, Bruce holds his dear boy to him. He swears no one else in his life has touched him this way, and to know that his son thinks of him so highly is one of the greatest feelings in the world.
As the words settle in his mind and travel down to his heart, where they are engraved with utmost care, Bruce kisses the Grayson child's temple and whispers in his ear,
"Thank you, Dick, for being my son."
A/N: Thanks so much for reading, as always!