To tide us over till 3 March.
He was five years old the first time he cried. There had been a bright yellow flower resting on the kitchen table, that stung his probing fingers. Then Mary Grayson was hushing him, holding his hand and kissing it better, and her husband grabbed Richard under the arms and hoisted him up high above his head, laughing all the while.
When the acrobat tossed their son lightly into the air, the boy felt like his stomach was clambering up his throat. But then he was bundled again in strong, strong arms. Safe.
"All fire burns, my little Robin," Mary whispered, lovingly. "You'll learn."
"Stop," the Dark Knight's strong voice commanded. The sound echoed ominously throughout the Batcave as all others simultaneously ceased. Sighing, Robin retracted his staff.
"What did I do wrong this time?" the nine-year-old almost whined. Almost. Since discovering what he considered to be Bruce Wayne's true identity, he thought he'd been cooperative enough. For the past week of being protégé to the Batman, he had submitted to training, had mentally prepared himself for being drilled in numerous tough (read: extremely cool) variants of kung-fu, tae-kwon-do, jujitsu... Instead it was always physical drills — which, intensive as they were, soon proved monotonous — or worse: "Let's work on your German", "Have you brushed up on your French verbs?" He couldn't decide which was more painful — his shaking biceps after three sets of fifty chin-ups, or Mandarin Chinese idioms.
Tonight was meant to be his first simulation in the Batcave. But his new mentor hadn't seen him in action for even a second before calling a time-out.
Calmly, Batman asked, "Going into the simulation, what was your plan?"
"Plan? How am I sup—"
A cold look stopped his outburst, but not a rising tide of memory. "My dad," and his voice already grew strained, "always told me to keep practicing new moves, so I'd never make mistakes where it counted. That was their plan. And..."
He felt the man's hand rest upon his shoulder, and his gaze softening. Robin stared at the floor intently, suddenly finding concerted interest in fingering his staff. His nose had grown increasingly stuffy in that annoying way noses had when you're tearing up in front of, well, someone like the Batman.
"Plans don't always work out," he said to break the silence, managing the statement only in a strained, small voice.
"But there's always a plan," his new mentor countered, toeing the line between lecture and comfort.
"And?" Batman prompted him, not so much gently as challengingly. "Did your father ever tell you what to do if you fell?"
The nine-year-old looked up with tear-streaked cheeks. "He said to have faith," he replied, in the simple way only a child can. "If not in myself, then faith that someone would be there, to catch me."
One could verily see Batman gathering his coldest façade to deliver a stinging but necessary reprimand. Thankfully, or not, the police scanner chose this moment to act up, and he practically glided away.
"Just a fire, on East side. You can stay—" he began, but Robin was already strapped in, sniffing and earnestly wiping the tears from his face.
Alfred Pennyworth would always remember Bruce's sole words to him the night he had returned from Haly's Circus. His charge had had that familiar haunted look in his eyes as he sat listlessly in the Batmobile, for the quick eternity that transpired in the few seconds it took Alfred to step forward armed with a first-aid kit and endearing chastisement. Bruce's voice, rough, raw, sighing:
"He's not a child now, Alfred."
Nor would the Wayne's long-serving butler ever forget the diary young Master Dick had started and terminated shortly after his adoption. The book was largely empty but absurdly tattered, the spine crisscrossed with worry lines and the yellowed paper crinkly. Yet Alfred persisted, delicately picking the volume from the trash to glimpse a few lines from the last entry.
My Maică looks best in the yellow oil-lamp light. She moves around our kitchen like a dragonfly, quick and darting. The night it happened she was humming a song with no words, and smelt like chalk and her special stew.
The butler refused to read too deeply into the boy's use of present tense. The entry continued, with increasing smudges:
I was spelling 'magnesium carbonate' to her — Uncle Rick taught me what scientists call the chalk we use — and Taică wandered in like he does sometimes, wrapping his arms around her waist. One of them, or both, ruffled my hair, then. Said it's Grayson for 'everything's alright'.
The Batmobile silently pulled up in the dark alley, practically invisible. Robin's first glance at the building seemed to hollow him out instantaneously. Suddenly the air-conditioned cool in the sleek vehicle pressed in harshly on him from all sides. Mechanical beeps accompanied the smooth whirring as the sleek roof pulled aside.
Once they leapt out, the heat from the flames rapidly defrosted Robin, starting from his skin and ending with his heart. Fire had eaten the office block's insides like a vulture preying on a carcass, leaving a skeleton of beams and tumbling bricks. The heat inside him fanned itself into a veritable blaze. The police scanner had kept them updated on the cause of the fire. Some gang's idea of fun, a harmless scare for the corporation housed in the building, gone horribly wrong.
Batman touched his shoulder before he could pounce forward. A section of the building spontaneously collapsed; they could see right through the structure to the unaffected night sky on the other side. Yet the top floors remained miraculously untouched; at least they were still whole. The windows were all dark, unlit: it was possible that the area was uninhabited, but more likely that the fire had just taken out the mains. Robin stepped forward, poised to spring into action.
"We're too late," his mentor judged, his voice strangely hoarse. There was something unreadable in his shrouded gaze, his stiff posture. "Anyone who can get out is already out." The last part of the sentence was buried in the sounds of shattering glass windows as an explosion took out more of the lower levels.
Robin felt his breath hitch in his throat. Somewhere, a fireman yelled, "Stability compromised; we'll have to leave the top floors!"
And the acrobat fired off his grapple, scrambling up the adjacent building. Tonight was a night like any other for another kid to become an orphan before dawn. He wouldn't let that happen.
For a split second, Batman stood alone, stunned, in an alley exactly like the one he had stood in while the light left his father's eyes. Perhaps it was even the same one. He couldn't know. Much had changed in the city, especially recently. Much had changed for Robin, too — the whole world, in one night. It was something they had in common.
"Robin!" Batman shouted, and unhooked his grapple.
Already on the roof, Robin readied his own. He perched himself on the edge. Just another stunt without safety nets.
Far below, the orange light of a now-silent ambulance was still mutely, dutifully, illuminating in turn sections of the soot-covered sidewalk. A crowd of office workers stood, crouched or lay a safe distance from the ravaged building. Some with tourniquets, some watching over others, some already calling home. These were the lucky ones, the sons and daughters who would go home, the mothers and fathers who would get to kiss their kids goodnight again.
Just another night, for just another tragedy.
Batman yelled out the second he reached the roof. "Robin!"
His young protégé's head whipped around. Behind him, even as Batman took in the anguish on Robin's face, a solid chunk of the building's first level fell aside. As if happening in slow motion, the entire structure almost paused for a moment, ridiculously unsupported — then came crashing down.
There was a stupendous wave of heat and sound. And time became elastic as Robin's lithe frame wavered on the edge of the roof. An uncorrectable angle. A primal yell, torn from him as he fell.
Faith that someone—
Thirty-seven stories to the ground. Lit windows flashed past his face, blending together into strips of yellowish white.
—would be there...
Fifteen, maybe sixteen levels more. What had they seen, as they had fallen?
to catch me.
All the breath went out of him as an arm circled his chest. And again, his stomach churning, his lips frozen half-open in a silent scream for lack of air. The world somersaulted, twisted as if to wriggle free of this fresh feeling of helplessness. Because he hadn't been able to save everyone.
With a solid thump, they hit a tarp and rolled, coming to a rather abrupt halt. His ears were still ringing somewhat, with the sounds of destruction in the background. Robin turned his back to what was left of the building at his mentor's voice, rough but not quite brusque.
"Are you hurt?"
The nine-year-old felt himself reply, averting his eyes from what he could see of the man's dark pupils beneath his cowl.
"No, I— Batman, I'm sorry. I didn't... didn't stick to the plan."
There was a moment's pause, as both mentor and protégé breathed hard. Batman had cushioned Robin's fall with his own body.
"This time, there was no plan, Robin."
He couldn't help it, and turned back around. Right before them, the flames continued to burn, and a good chunk of the building spontaneously collapsed, forcing firemen to back up.
All fire burns, my little Robin.
Then it must be liquid fire running down his cheeks now, as the firemen regrouped, nameless soldiers who had to believe their cause yet salvageable.
Robin only vaguely felt it as he was pulled up into a sitting position, the gloved hands firm and gentle on his elbows, guiding him along with several tugs. Bats for 'everything's alright', he realized abruptly, even while his eyes were stung by the thick smoke and his throat seemed to close up.
He hadn't been able to save everyone.
Least of all himself.
One of them, or both, ruffled my hair, then.
A wave of hot air wafted towards them as the office block was finally reduced to nothing. His hair was tousled roughly in it.
No mother, no father to tease the youngest Grayson into growing up. The task of raising Robin had fallen to Gotham, and the city had whipped him into shape the only way it knew.
And Batman and Robin became, momentarily, two orphans who had lost their identities twice now. The first time, when the very thing that had defined them, nurtured them, had been stolen away. The second time, willingly, when they had each donned, separately, the mask and the cape, and realized a new identity.
Tomorrow, the entire incident might well be pushed back onto page six, or seven, a tiny snippet considered less newsworthy than the turbulence of the stock market or the birthday of some overrated pop singer. Because the world as I know it for anyone short of extraordinary is a corner of the universe to anyone else.
Uncharacteristically, Alfred was waiting for them, standing formally in the Batcave with a silver platter and a pot of lukewarm Earl Gray no one would be drinking. Robin disappeared without a word.
"He's not a child now, Alfred," the Dark Knight lamented. Then the cowl came down, and Batman momentarily ceased to exist.
Robin's head peeked back around the corridor. "Goodnight, Alfred," he made an effort to chirp, his voice maintaining a content lilt despite its weariness, despite the night's events. And then, quieter: "Goodnight, Da—" Purposefully or not, a yawn stretched his last word out, so Bruce would never hear it.
But there was a reason they called him the world's greatest detective.
"Well Master Bruce, I'd best make sure he changes out of that costume," Alfred mentioned presently, businesslike and proper as ever. The butler set off after Robin but paused before turning the corner. "And no, sir. He was never a mere... child."
Hit or miss?
This was difficult to write, with some unfamiliar territory: past tense, action-y scenes; plus, this is long for me. I'd appreciate concrit.