Hey guys! Here's the final chapter of Behind the Mask.
Within two minutes a jet was hovering over the trees. A black rope extended down through the canopy. Though Dick protested, M'gann flew him up to the jet instead of letting him try to climb all the way. She flew into the jet and set him down carefully. Batman gave her a hard look that made her heart jump into her throat. M'gann went down again and flew up Artemis. By the time she reached the plane again, the boys were already inside.
The jet had a slightly larger back with a row of seats that could accommodate a few extra passengers. Wally helped Dick over to the seats and let him lay down. The other stood by nervously, looking at Batman. But he said nothing except, "Sit down." So they did.
Dick fell asleep almost as soon as he was stretched out across the seats. It didn't look to be a restful sleep. His face was flushed with fever, and his black hair was damp from sweat and the humid air of the rainforest. His chest rose and fell with labored breathing. The team sat by and watched him, a sense of failure slamming into them. M'gann was the first to speak…sort of.
"I feel so bad for him." M'gann told her teammates telepathically.
"Stubborn people don't die easy." Conner responded. "He'll be fine."
"I don't think any of us should ever have kids. Ever. I mean, we can't even take care of a thirteen-year-old! They're like the easiest age group to take care of! Give them some junk food and some videogames and they keep themselves entertained!" Artemis replied with a frown. She was sitting next to Robin, looking at him worriedly. Ever since they'd had to deal with Red Inferno and Red Torpedo together, she'd come to look at him like a little brother. A little brother that she was fiercely protective of. She wiped his damp black hair out of his eyes. How could she not realize that Dick was Robin? Now that she looked, it seemed so glaringly obvious. M'gann had told them that he came from a family of acrobats. And Robin was the king of flips and aerial tricks. How many kids from Gotham could pull those types of stunts?
"In our defense, most thirteen-year-olds don't have evil stockholders and Neo Nazis trying to kill them." Wally pointed out. He was also sitting close to their friend, watching him closely. In reality he felt a good deal of guilt. Not only for letting Dick end up this way, but for also accidentally revealing Robin's identity. How mad would his friend be, he wondered? Would their friendship survive? The thought of losing Dick as a friend hurt. Hurt badly, actually. They had been tight for years. And he might have screwed it all up by simply leaning on the marble bust of a dead guy.
"That does not matter. The point is that this mission was a failure." Kaldur glanced forlornly at Batman. He knew that he was going to be scolded for this disaster of a mission. And rightly so. Kaldur was the leader. How could he have allowed this to happen?
They reached Gotham in a few hours. The only time Dick awoke was when the team shook him awake to give him some water. He gulped it down thirstily, but went right back to sleep afterwards. They landed in Gotham airport. People looked shocked as they got out. Batman was carrying Dick, who was still fast asleep. He asked for an ambulance, and charged the team with staying with Dick till one came. With that, Batman left. The team was shocked to have escaped being yelled at. But they did as they were told and waited with Dick in the airport's first aid center until paramedics came to pick him up.
"Come on; let's go change." Wally said suddenly. The paramedics had just vanished with their friend.
"Change? Why?" Conner asked.
"We'll attract attention in if we visit Dick like this." Artemis replied.
After running back to the manor and quickly changing into the civilian clothes they had left there and telling Alfred what had happened, they rushed off to Gotham Medical.
The nurses made them wait around an hour before they could go in to see him. Finally, they were allowed inside his room. Dick was lying in bed, still asleep. He looked a little better than the last time they'd seen him. The nurses had given him medicine for his fever, so his face wasn't as flushed as before. They sat at his side, silently giving him their support and feeling guilty.
Dick only woke up when a strange man came bursting into the room.
He was a tall man with black hair and bright blue eyes. He had a handsome, made-for-TV face and he was wearing a suit. The team backed away immediately as he went to Dick's bedside.
"He's expected to make a recovery, Mr. Wayne." A nurse was telling him as she walked in behind him. "We're not sure what happened. They told us Batman simply dropped him off at the airport and told him to get him back to his father. We'd hoped Dick would be able to explain what happened, but he's been sleeping the entire time."
Bruce Wayne grabbed his son's hand. Dick opened his eyes and smiled slightly. "Hey, Dad. I met Batman today. Cool, right?"
"Very cool." Bruce responded. Wally thought he saw a bit of shock run through Bruce's face. He knew that Dick didn't ever call Bruce 'Dad.' Or father. Or daddy. Or any variation of that title. Ever. Perhaps the kid's fever wasn't completely gone yet? "What happened?"
"Kidnapped. Rescued. So, a pretty usual Wednesday." Dick replied nonchalantly. "How long am I going to have to be here?" He looked from Bruce to the nurse.
"A week or two, at least." The nurse answered. "You've got a pretty nasty wound. We want to keep you here until the infection isn't as bad. Also, we're going to send up some food to you soon. The doctor wants you to eat. If you need to get out of bed, call the nurses' station and we'll send someone to help you." She smiled and gave Dick a good-natured pat on the head before walking out.
Finally, Dick noticed his friends were crowded in one corner of his room. "Um…team…this is my adoptive father…"
"They know, Dick." Bruce told him.
The shock was visible on his face. After a moment or two of strained silence, he looked at Bruce almost guiltily. "I swear to God I didn't tell them-"
"I know what happened. It's alright. You were planning on telling them after all of this, weren't you? Wally already knows." Bruce replied. Again, Dick looked shocked. The team glanced at each other. Was Dick really planning on telling them his identity? When they looked back, they saw that Dick was nodding slowly in response. Bruce said, "That's what I thought."
"You…you were going to tell us?" Artemis fumbled for words.
Slowly, Dick pulled himself up so he was sitting up a bit more. "Not at first. I just wanted you guys gone, actually. It isn't fun to act like a pompous brat to conceal your identity." He leaned back against his pillows. Why were hospital pillows always so insanely soft, he wondered? "But then when I escaped and hid in that tree, it hit me that I could die out there. Odessa could find me. Or I might have starved or died from dehydration. Or a snake could eat me in my sleep…and one tried to do that, actually! But then I-"
"-shot it in the face?" Wally asked with a bit of a smile.
Dick nodded. "Yeah. So, I'm sitting there…foot hurt, one bullet wound to the chest, stab wound to the side…and I had that gun with me. Still loaded." He could still practically see it in his hand. Small, sleek, and black…but deadly. "And I started thinking, 'Do I really just want to waste away in the middle of a rainforest? I mean, dying quick and alone is better than dying slowly and alone.'" He frowned. The boy could tell from the looks on their faces that they were horrified that he'd actually considered killing himself. "But I decided to hold on for as long as I could. And if I couldn't do it anymore…well, click click POW."
"We are glad it did not have to come to that." Kaldur said, setting a hand on Dick's shoulder.
"Me too. I'm not trained with guns. With my luck I'd just end up shooting off one of my ears." Dick replied, trying to inject a bit of a humor into the situation. Wally chuckled lightly, and the others managed a bit of a smile. Bruce sat by as serious as ever. "So, while I was thinking about that, I thought about who would come to my funeral. And, in my head, you guys weren't there. I mean…Dick Grayson would just be a failed mission. You guys would have never known what happened to me. Well…Robin." He sighed. "And I didn't want that to happen. Cause you guys are my friends, ya know?"
M'gann flew over and hugged Robin. "We know." She kissed his cheek and smiled at him.
Dick glanced at Bruce. "Also, if you outlive me, I want to be cremated. Being eaten by worms is not how I went to spend the rest of eternity. A nice pretty jar on the mantle will do just fine, thanks."
"I'll keep that in mind." Bruce replied.
"Sooo, M'gann. Do I get a kiss?" Wally spread his arms out wide and grinned. Artemis smacked him on the back of the head.
For a little while, the team thought they'd escaped being chewed-out by Batman.
How very wrong they were.
They stood, shoulder-to-shoulder has Batman frowned at them. "You realize, of course, Dick Grayson almost died. Had he been a regular boy, he would be dead in a rainforest right now. Because you did not properly protect him." He did not yell. But his words were filled with scathing anger nonetheless. Each sentence he spoke brought an unseen whip down on all of their shoulders. "Regular civilians will not have the same type of training that you have. A regular civilian would be dead right now."
Kaldur stepped forward. "Batman, I would like to take full responsibility for this. I am the leader of this team, and therefore the blame should fall with me."
"A noble gesture, but a foolish one none the less. The blame rests with all of you." Batman narrowed his eyes at them. "A thirteen-year-old schoolgirl managed to get past you and into Dick's room. Not to mention three armed kidnappers." The whip came down again. The team flinched.
"This is the team's first failure, so punishment will be lenient. But there will be punishment." Batman continued.
"Yes, sir." The team mumbled, keeping their eyes on their shoes.
"So…what is our punishment?" Artemis asked hesitantly.
"It seems only fitting that you take care of the mess you made. You'll be caring for your teammate until he's recovered enough to begin his training once more." Batman replied. The young heroes glanced at each other and tried to conceal their relief. That was more of a lenient punishment than they'd ever dreamed for. "…and you also get the special honor of cleaning the Batcave."
The teenagers paused and thought of the Batcave. Huge, dark, and huge. They groaned.
"So, he's got you cleaning the Batcave?" Dick asked. He was lying at home in bed, drinking some orange juice that Kaldur had brought him. He'd served his week in Gotham Medical, and was happy to be back at the Manor.
Kaldur nodded. "It is a lenient punishment, I think. He told me that it is your job to clean it, usually. If you can do it being just one person, we can get it done ourselves." The Atlantian boy smiled slightly. In truth, the team was kind of enjoying their 'punishment.' Cleaning the Batcave was what you made of it. They managed to make it fun by having occasional splash fights with buckets of water…fights that Kaldur almost always won when he could be persuaded to join. And taking care of Dick wasn't so bad. He never asked for much. Some food, some water. They managed to have some conversations with their friend during breaks.
"I don't mind cleaning the cave, actually. Gives me an excuse to get up really high without him telling me to quit acting like a hyperactive kid." Dick replied with a shrug. "When I was a kid, I would jump off the really, really high places just to scare him." He chuckled.
"Batman…er…Bruce…seems like he scares easily when it comes to you." Kaldur remarked. "I can see how. In Atlantis, the firstborn sons are highly treasured. In a way, you are his firstborn."
Dick stared at him with surprise. "I…guess. That's why he's leaving the company to me and everything. I just never figured he thought of me as a son. Kind of like I never think of him as a dad. Y'know?"
The older boy set a hand on Dick's shoulder. "I do not know much about father-son relationships, as I have never known my own. Nor do I know how it is to be without your true parents." He met Dick's eyes, trying to convey his message to him. "But I do know that Bruce loves you, and you love him. I heard you call him Dad in that hospital. Forgive me, my friend, but I do not believe that was a slip of the tongue." He stood. "If you need us, just call for us."
The younger boy nodded slowly. "Alright. Thanks, Kaldur."
He watched him walk out. Not long after, Bruce entered. He sat on the edge of his bed. "How do you feel?"
"Alright." Dick grinned. "Hey, you know what I wonder? Why do we say 'alright' when something is good. I mean…'all right.' All is right. Right? So when things are bad, why don't we say 'none right' or something?" He saw amusement in his adoptive father's eyes. That wasn't an everyday occurrence with Bruce. Dick always felt a small sense of accomplishment when he saw that light in Bruce's eyes. It was one of the things on his daily check list: Get up, save Gotham, make Bruce smile, sleep.
"Not sure." Bruce replied. "I'm about to go out for the night. I'll be back around five, most likely. And you better be asleep when I get back. The doctor said you need to rest."
"Not my fault you've molded me into your little night owl. Or is it night robin?" Dick mused on that. Night robin. That sounded so weird. "But I'll try. You going to release my friends for the night?"
Bruce nodded. "When I go down. I'll tell them they can come up and say good night to you." He stood up and started for the door. When his hand was on the doorknob, Dick finally made himself speak up.
"Hey, Bruce…um…" Dick fumbled for the words. They'd never actually been said. Just kind of implied. Though eventually they had to be said, right? Every kid said it to their dad eventually. It wasn't a big deal. Right. No big deal at all. "I…uh…I…"
"I love you too, Dick." Bruce replied. With that, he walked out.
Sorry for the cliche ending, guys. If you liked this story, go check out Emergency. Also, I'm trying to work out a plot for a Black Wings sequel. Hopefully you'll be seeing that sometime soon.