Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, DC does-I just like to write about them...
A/N: This story takes place during Dick's first year in Bludhaven, while he was employed at Hogan's.
A sudden coldness brushed against the costumed figure as it climbed over the metal railing and landed on the slim ledge. Dick shuddered a little as he turned towards the direction of the wind, allowing its bitterness to sting his face. It was almost masochistic, but sometimes he needed that brief pain of a thug's kick or the sharpness of the winter's chill to remind him that he was alive. That he was more than just a cog in a machine in this endless war. That he was more than a vigilante in a mask.
More than someone else's shadow.
It was almost dawn, and the mixture of smoke rising from the factories and the translucent clouds made for a gray sky in Bludhaven. The streets were quiet, finding a brief reprieve from the tumultuous nightlife and anticipating the bustle of the morning commuters. It was an unusual and uneasy peace that thickly settled in the air around the city and her occupants. One that brought a subtle smile to their protector's lips.
It was his favorite time of day.
The adrenaline that surged through every pore during his patrols was beginning to fade, and exhaustion began to settle in its place. Here, now, as the muted sun began to take the edge off of the early frost, the city was as safe as she could be. Dick could curl up on his tattered couch under mounds of blankets and slip into a brief oblivion until he donned his battle gear once again. He could fade into his solace of dreams as he listened to the city awaken around him, its streets just the smallest bit safer, its decay just the slightest bit reversed.
He loved the dawn in Bludhaven.
The young hero had been here nearly a year now, sent by Batman to investigate a brutal string of murders. Somewhere in the process he had found his home—his battered, corroding home—an orphaned city in need of its own guardian. Somewhere along the lines, the right hand man in Batman's crusade had become his own general. He had found his own war.
Dick adeptly disarmed his alarm before sliding in a side window of his apartment building. It was a far cry from the manor, and a seemingly surprising choice for the heir apparent of a billionaire. But not to those who knew him. For a bright-eyed circus-born boy, this near dilapidated building with its crumbling edifice and never-ending leaks was far more comfortable than the sprawling mansion and its perfectly manicured grounds. It was a diamond in the rough in this city, and echoed Dick himself more than the boy realized.
A carefully manipulated paper trail and alternate identity had secured the entire third floor for Dick. The apartment beside his own served as Nightwing's liar, scattered with several computers, a small cache of weapons, and minor medical supplies. A few extra costumes, their dark blue and black Kevlar a subtle tribute to the young man's mentor, were stored in a back closet. The cramped headquarters offered no training room, no lab, no trophy room for the items procured throughout the vigilante's career. It didn't have a seemingly endless amount of space to house expertly designed planes and boats. And there were no dark crevices and jagged caverns resonating with hundreds of bats.
It was no Batcave. But it wasDick's. And that's all that mattered to the boy.
It was hisalone.
Dick didn't feel this smile brush across his lips as he pushed open a panel and walked into his apartment. He was imagining the look of sheer disappointment that would cross over the cowled face if Batman ever inspected the disorderly base of Nightwing's operations. But it had been eleven months, and Gotham's avenger had yet to make an appearance on the rooftops of the sister-city. Bruce Wayne had yet to visit the new home of his ward.
It was a bittersweet independence for the boy who had craved the taste of it for so long. The man who had in his eyes been so overbearing, who had watched and judged each and every one of his steps, was now a quiet shadow in his life. As much as Dick relished the responsibility and recognized the enormity of trust that had been placed in him, deep in his protected heart, he missed the scrutiny. He missed the intensity. He missedBruce.
But he could never tell him.
Dick spent a long time leaning against the smooth tiles in his shower, allowing the spray of hot water to burn the chill that had seeped into his bones. By the time he slipped into a pair of gray sweatpants, their logo long ago faded from countless battles with abrasive detergents, he was ready to succumb to his exhaustion. His sparse, mismatched furnishings included a modest twin bed, but the supple cushions of the couch were much more appealing to the aching hero. He headed towards the bed to grab his pillow, just a few steps away from a muddled dream world where his tensed muscles could finally relax.
But then he saw it.
There, prominently displayed on his crisp white pillow, lay a single Batarang. Dick shook his head as he took the weapon into his hands, running his still-shriveled fingertips along its sharp edge.
Bruce had been there. And he had left a gift.
Or more accurately, a message.
Upgrade your security system, Nightwing.
That one little piece of sculpted metal spoke volumes.
See how easily I was able to get by it?
No note, no recorded message, just one little Bat gadget. But it said so much.
You need to dobetterthan this.
Dick was too tired to be angry. If he hadn't been so battered, if he hadn't been so utterly drained, he might have acknowledged the sting of self-doubt that weighed heavily inside him. He would have analyzed his every action and imagined just what his former mentor thought of him at that moment. He would have brooded over Bruce's opinion of him, torturing himself with the judgment which burned under that cape and cowl.Obsessively.
If he hadn't been so tired.
But he was. And so a different reaction began to take shape. One that raised a dark eyebrow and quirked the boy's lips into a brief hint of his bright smile.
Batman may have accomplished this feat as a warning, as a stern reprimand that his protégé should have known better. But Dick decided to view it a bit differently.
This was a challenge….
If Bruce could slip into his liar, then he would slip into Bruce's. But instead of leaving a sign to let the man know he had been there, he wouldtakeone.
"Let's see aboutyoursecurity, Batman." Dick whispered as he settled on the cream-colored couch. "Let's see how you feel about letting a little bird get by it."
The boy slipped into a deep sleep, the Batarang still in his grip, etching a deep depression in the tender skin of his palm.
For the next two weeks, Dick immersed himself in the grueling but honest grunt work of his job at Hogan's. There were days he more than half expected to hear one of the compulsively rehearsed and perfectly executed accents of Bruce's undercover personas from across the bar, demonstrating how easily the man could slip into all aspects of his prodigal's life.
But Bruce didn't make an appearance.
At night, the costume hero buried himself in obsessive patrols, launching from each gritty rooftop almost as quickly as his feet landed on them. Building after building, alley after alley, dark corner after dark corner, Nightwing let his presence be known. Each time he aimed his line for the next target, he more than half expected the outline of pointed ears and a billowing cape to greet him instead.
But Batman didn't make an appearance.
So Dick began to outline his plan.
The boy had two choices: the cave or the manor. Batman or Bruce. When Bruce had first told him his secret, when he had first told the nine-year-old ward about his crusade, he had shown him the cave. A sudden flash of pride had slipped into the man's normally impassive eyes as the child stood awe-struck by his side. Dick remembered how the minutes melted into hours before he even realized it as he explored every crevice of Batman's abode. He remembered running his small hands over the curve of the car, inspecting the endless supply of gadgets, and spinning around in the chair by the large monitor until he felt wave after wave of nausea. And he remembered slipping into the empty cavern when his guardian's darker persona was occupied at night, outwitting the cave's security measures. He never knew that Bruce would watch the tapes from the security cameras, secretly marveling at his new ward's cleverness.
No….the cave was conquered territory. But the manor….
That wasBruce'shome. That was more of a challenge. The manor's security system was far more difficult, far more ruthless. The cave may have had the best technology available, but the manor had a protective measure that was incomparable to any Dick had ever encountered in his mask.
Dick would need to utilize every lesson Batman had taught him to execute his plan. He would have to obliterate any trace of his presence, but at the same time leave a latent sign that he had trumped his implacable mentor. Since Bruce had lefthissign in the boy's bedroom—as much of a bedroom as his studio apartment had—that's where he would strike. So the frazzled but determined former boy wonder slipped a few essential tools in his bag and settled on his motorcycle, ready to make the journey to his former home in his former city.
He knew that Bruce was hosting a charity dinner that night and that consequently, the manor would be filled with satin gowns, polished shoes and perfumed air. It was a scene he had witnessed many times living under the roof of Bruce's ancestors. The feel of a black tie sliding tighter and tighter around his starched collar, the pinch of his cheek over and over from every matron in Gotham's elite circle, the ruffle of his raven locks by the beauties that commented on how the striking boy was as handsome as his guardian—he had experienced it too many times to recall the individual parties. They all melded together in his memories, the years mixing with one another. Dick did have a few distinctive recollections, though, as he stood politely by Bruce's side. He could remember praying to God and every saint he recalled his mother naming to him when she read from her family Bible to end his torture and allow him to fly across Gotham in Robin's bright colors. He could remember the feel of Bruce's hand as it gently squeezed his shoulder, a silent message telling the boy that he'd rather be behind his cowl, flying too. Dick would always look up into those clear eyes, and for just a moment, see them deepen with an understanding as the superficial playboy guise slipped a little.
He remembered thinking sometimes how uncomfortable Bruce looked being…..Bruce. Dick always wondered if that would happen to him.
He always wanted to be comfortable in his own skin. He wanted to love Dick Grayson as much as he did Nightwing. He didn't ever want to sever one from the other as his guardian had.
That night, the foremost grounds were covered in soft lights to illuminate the beautiful stone front of the sprawling Wayne mansion. A spectrum of expensive and indulgent luxury cars lined the front driveway that arched around the elegant and impeccable gardens. Dick easily averted the sensors of the grounds and scaled the brick retaining wall along the west side. As he wrapped his jacket more tightly around his shivering frame, he could see the glowing lights of the manor in the distance. Soon enough, he would find himself staring up to the third floor, eyeing the stone balcony of the master suite.
Bruce's room was the largest in the manor. When Dick had first been given the grand tour, slipping his small hand in Alfred's warm one, the fear of being swallowed whole in this place seemed very real. When he laid his bright eyes on his new guardian's room, his mouth dropped open in complete awe. He ventured that with a running start, he could do about fifty handsprings in a row and still not reach the other side. Its furniture looked expensive—the dark mahogany wood shone from its glossy polish and the bed was dressed with beautifully woven fabrics. It was impressive, grand, and luxurious. But as Dick grew older, he began to realize one thing.
There were small things here and there that hinted at the conflicted soul's true nature. Silver frames with frozen images of happier times, books that brought a relaxing solace. These things were hidden among the grandeur of a playboy's contrived image, and over the years, the boy was able to find them. Dick smiled as he gingerly picked the lock of the balcony's side door and soon found himself in Bruce's room. He made a mental note to readjust the thick vines that he had used to scale the wall, since both the owner and his sharp butler noticedeverydetail.
He hadn't actually been in the man's room in well over a year. Dick shook his head, a subtle smile playing on his lips as he realized it hadn't changed at all. The same heavy drapes, designed to block out the brightness of the morning sun for a battle-weary Bat. The same uncomfortable Georgian-style chair in the corner where the man had kept a diligent vigil over his young flu-stricken ward, carried here because the room had a fireplace to keep him warm. As the older but still bright eyes narrowed, searching the room for a suitable prize, a familiar, purposefully shallow laugh filtered up from the party. The ditzy playboy laugh. Dick's grin grew as another memory whispered to the front of his mind.
The first time he had heard Bruce use that laugh, he had only been here a few months. Another countless hosted charity dinner for the young heir, but it was circus phenom's first. He had been sent to bed early, but a wicked curiosity had taken the boy's hand and led him to the banister that overlooked the main foyer. Bruce had spotted the light blue pajamas instantly but did nothing to acknowledge the boy wearing them for nearly an hour.
Dick never knew that. He never knew Bruce let him stay.
When Bruce could see that his ward was falling asleep, curled up against the beautifully carved railing, he finally looked up, feigning a look of surprise. He nodded his head once towards the end of the hall—a signal for the child to return to bed. Then he called Alfred over and whispered something to him. As Dick rose to feet, his stuffed elephant clutched in his grip, Bruce drew his clear eyes over and winked at the boy. Then he was gone, drawn into a meaningless banter with the mayor's daughter. A few minutes later, Alfred had entered the boy's room, a plate housing a very large piece of chocolate cake in one hand, a cold glass of milk in the other.Compliments of Master Bruce, young sir. It was the first time the boy began to feel like this could be his home.
As the memory faded, Dick realized he had to work quickly. He decided to claim something personal, something Bruce would notice but not for a little while. Not as overt as a weapon on his pillow, but enough to get his message across. He crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow, methodically searching the suite.
The dresser. Dick nodded. Something small…..something subtle. He very quietly slid open the top drawer, his bright eyes widening as he saw several expensive watches, their bands glowing in the soft light. There was a black box off to the side, worn with age but nestled by itself with obvious care. Dick recognized it immediately, shaking his head with disbelief.
"You kept this…..?"
The question softly whispered through the air, answered by a battering of branches against the balcony railing. Dick gingerly lifted the lid and stared at the watch inside—a birthday gift he had given Bruce almost ten years before. It had taken the boy all summer to save the money, although it had been more strenuous hiding his odd jobs here and there from Bruce. He wanted this gift to be purely from him alone. He never knew the man still had it, that it held a place of honor among his other mementoes. Among the pictures of his parents, among his gifts from lost loves, among…..the birthday card Dick had given him with it. Dick didn't realize the smile that had found a place on his tired but handsome face. He very carefully slipped the watch into his pocket and slid the closed box back in its place. Then he made sure every trace of his visit was erased before gracefully demonstrating the acrobatic genius in his blood and launching from the balcony into a series of perfectly formed flips. He wondered how long it would take Bruce to notice it was gone.
It took Dick almost a full minute to realize the resounding noise pummeling his aching head wasn't only in his hazy dreams. A soft grunt escaped as he turned onto his stomach and reached over for the phone.
The young man cleared his throat and swallowed a few times, trying to moisten his mouth enough to free his voice.
"It's after one, lad." The butler gently chided. "In theafternoon."
Dick smiled as he buried his head further into the plush pillow. "And this means I should be up?"
"Well, you need rise eventually. Master Bruce has requested your presence for dinner tonight. Can you be at the manor around eight?"
Thatopened the bright eyes.
"D-Dinner?" He stammered.
"Yes, Master Dick. It's the meal that most civilized people eat sitting at a table instead of slurping over the kitchen sink."
Dick's smile broke into a brilliant grin. "Less dishes that way, Alfred."
"Will you be able to attend?"
It had been several months since Dick had been anywhere near the cave, let alone actually in the manor.Bruce…requested.
Brucewantedto eat with him?
Dick reached up with his free hand and rubbed his aching eyes.
"Yeah…..yeah, I'll be there."
The smile stayed deep in the boy's eyes for the rest of the day.
"Do you have to be to work soon?"
Bruce had been very civil, very subdued. He was swirling the last of the Merlot in his glass but a raised eyebrow let the boy at the other end of the long table know that he was focused on him.
Dick lowered his eyebrows. "I still have…." But his reply faded as he turned to look at the grandfather clock that had always been just beside the archway that led to the hall, just under the eighteenth century mirror discovered in an antique shop in Paris long before Dick had even been born. A gaping emptiness stared back.
"Still have what?"
A devious amusement sparkled behind the clear eyes Dick met as he swung back around.
"Where's the clock?"
Dick's dark eyebrows lowered. "Theclock. The clock that's been here for as long as I can remember. The one I cut my chin on when I was ten, and I thought it would be a bright idea to climb it to try a back flip onto the table."
Bruce's lips turned down in a slight frown. "I'm not sure." His voice was tauntingly calm. "I never really noticed a clock there before."
"How could you not—"
"What time do you have to be at work?"
Dick drew back a little.What was he up to?
Bruce slowly nodded before reaching up and pressing the corner of his starched napkin to his lips. "Well, let's see…..it's….." Each word was drawn out, teasing the confused boy. Then Dick watched as Bruce lifted his left arm and pushed back his sleeve, displaying the very watch the younger one had procured the night before. "Well, it's almost nine. Maybe we should have Alfred bring dessert in now?"
Dick had to bite his tongue hard enough to draw blood to mask his reaction.How had he even had time to…..? Dick hadjusttaken it the night before. He had returned to his apartment, slipped it in his dresser, and then fallen asleep. How had Bruce….?He forced a smile to his lips and woodenly nodded. He wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of relishing in his obvious surprise if he could help it.
Bruce's smile was much more genuine.
When Dick slipped into his apartment near dawn the next morning, his body screamed for its reprieve. Three robberies and five fruitless leads into the latest murders on Bludhaven's streets. He had barely made it to the bar on time and then had taken a few minutes after his shift to change into his Nightwing gear. He hadn't had a chance to check his dresser drawer to confirm what he now knew—Bruce had trumpedhimand gotten his watch back.
When he slipped off his gloves and carefully opened the drawer, another surprise greeted the young prodigal.
An exquisitely decorated box with a word embossed in gold across it.Rolex.Dick shook his head in utter disbelief and opened it. A small note was sitting on the very beautiful gift.
"If you needed a new watch, you only had to ask."
Dick grinned and shook his head. As he slid his finger under the back of the watch, gently inspecting the expensive item, he felt something brush along his skin. Grooves.
It was engraved. Bruce had it engraved.
Dick quickly flipped it over.
Next move yours."
Dick chuckled as he slid the watch over his wrist. "You're on, Bruce." He said, his eyes dancing. "I'm going to win this game, old man—like it or not."
He then settled on the couch and began plotting his next move.