Dick awoke in his bed with a moan of pain. Shooting a look towards his clock, he calculated that he'd been asleep for roughly six hours, which was nowhere near long enough so far as he was concerned. He was still exhausted after last night's patrol, but the pain in his side had intensified again while he slept, refusing to let him stay in the arms of Morpheus.
There was a short knock on his door before Alfred entered. "Good morning, Master Dick," he greeted. "Up earlier than expected, I see."
"Hey, Alfred," came a faint reply from somewhere in the covers. The butler frowned slightly and drew nearer, noticing that the teen was curled into a tight ball instead of being sprawled out in his usual manner.
"Master Dick?" he asked gently, leaning down to meet his eyes. "Are you in pain? You took quite a blow last night."
"It's okay. It's just sore." Bruce and Alfred had both examined him and agreed that he'd managed to avoid internal injury, merely sustaining an ugly welted bruise that stretched across a good portion of his lower right abdomen. They'd deemed it minor enough that Bruce had even said Robin could do a mid-week patrol, assuming that he did well on his chemistry test. There was no way that Dick was going to complain with that offer on the table; Bruce had a bad tendency of treating him with kid gloves anytime he was hurt in the field, so being allowed to go out again so soon was a big deal. He could just imagine how the man would react if he started whining about a simple contusion.
"…Very well, young sir. Would you like some breakfast, or are you planning on sleeping a while longer?"
"Um…sleep. Definitely sleep. Could you…would you mind giving me another blanket?" He shivered, suddenly freezing.
"Of course," Alfred acceded. A narrow line of worry appeared between his eyebrows as he retrieved a heavy down quilt from the linen closet in the hall. Before he re-entered the bedroom he glanced at the thermostat and was perplexed to find that it read 74 degrees. The temperature in the house was exactly where it should have been, and yet the boy was cold. He spread the new cover over the comforter Dick was already encased in and tucked it tightly around him. "Better?" he asked.
"Yeah," Dick lied, smiling. "Thanks."
"If you'll just ring when you wake up again, I'll bring your luncheon upstairs." He wasn't sure why, but he suddenly didn't want him getting up if it wasn't absolutely necessary.
"Really?!" Bruce got meals in bed fairly frequently, but they were a treat for Dick, reserved for cases of extreme illness and special occasions.
Alfred raised a finger to his lips.
"I won't tell," Dick whispered. "Promise." With a nod of agreement, Alfred pulled the drapes a little tighter and left.
Alone again, he had nothing to distract him from the miserable pressure that started below the waistband of his pajama pants and didn't give up until right before his ribs. After a little experimenting he found that lying absolutely still made it slightly better. It wasn't much, especially since it was hard to be perfectly motionless when he was raked with chills, but it gave him enough relief to consider what he could do to keep his mind off the rest of it. Sleep was out of the question, no matter how much he wanted it; he could never sleep when he was cold. Even if he managed to get his body to cooperate, he wasn't mentally tired. In fact, he realized, his short banter with Alfred had woken him up, and now his brain was screaming for something other than bodily ache to entertain it. Where'd those Asimov short stories Alfred gave me a couple days ago get to? he wondered. Raising his head slightly with another moan, he located it on top of his school bag, on the other side of the room. "Way too far away," he said aloud. "But…"
He had almost forgotten about the book Bruce had handed him shortly before Thanksgiving, asking him to read it carefully when he had some spare time and then come to him so they could discuss it. He'd cautioned him not to just skim through it, but instead to really think about what was said in each passage, decide whether or not he agreed with it, and determine why he felt that way. At the time Dick had been struck by the serious mien with which the man had handed it to him, and had placed it on his nightstand, fully intending to do as he'd been asked. The next day, however, he'd found a copy of Heinlein's Starship Troopers in the school library and had promptly fallen down the sci-fi rabbit hole, leaving Bruce's book to gather dust on the shelf. Every few weeks he would remember and feel a little guilty that he'd never even opened it, but when Bruce didn't mention it again he concluded that it wasn't as important as he'd thought.
Now, though, it had skyrocketed back to the top of his reading list for the simple reason that it was the book located nearest to him. Getting it was still going to be tough, he realized as he tried to pull himself across the mattress and a gasp forced its way through his lips. I could call Alfred, he theorized. No, no way. I can't drag him all the way upstairs just to hand me something that's only two feet away. Grinding his teeth determinedly, he kicked out against the mattress with both feet.
He had to bite into his fist to keep himself silent. His mind ran through scenes in movies featuring people being cut in half, and he was certain that this was exactly what it felt like. Keeping one ear cocked to the door in case Alfred or Bruce was nearby, he let quiet whimpers escape around his hand, but it still took a long time before he could register anything except the massacre going on in his stomach. Once he could see straight again, he discovered that he'd pushed himself right up to the edge of the mattress. "Ha, I win," he whispered tearfully, stretching one arm out with another stifled cry to grab his prize.
There wasn't enough room left on the bed to open the book, at least not unless he wanted to try and move backwards, so he propped it up against his lamp. Beginning to read, he found himself confused at first; some of the passages seemed to be historical, while others were more like aphorisms or parables. The fact that he kept having to stop in order to slam his eyes shut against tormented tears, he mused as he came out of one such spell, probably wasn't helping his concentration any. With that in mind, he began to skim or skip the longer passages, focusing on those that took up less than half a page. It wasn't exactly the way he'd been told to read, but at least he'd finally started it. There were plenty of sections that Dick didn't agree with, and that he knew Bruce wouldn't either, but there was a fair bit that made good sense, too. As he went along, he started to understand why Bruce wanted him to concentrate and really ruminate on what was being said; there was a lot about killing, revenge, and dying at the proper moment. No wonder he said we were going to talk once I'd finished it. There's some really heavy stuff in this little book.
About halfway through the thin volume, just as his pain approached a crescendo that threatened to overpower his ability to do anything but stare at the ceiling and moan, his eyes fell on a particular tale:
At the fall of the castle of Arima, on the twenty-eighth day in the vicinity of the inmost citadel, Mitsuse Genbei sat down on a levee between the fields. When Nakano Shigetoshi passed by and asked the reason for this, Mitsuse replied, "I have abdominal pains and can't go a step farther. I have sent the members of my group ahead, so please take command." This situation was reported by the overseer, pronounced to be a case of cowardice, and Mitsuse was ordered to commit seppuku.
Long ago, abdominal pains were called "cowardice grass." This is because they come suddenly and render a person immobile.
He read the last two sentences at least a dozen times, his breathing quickening, before he snapped the book shut and pulled his hand back to encircle his ever more wretched stomach. Staring at the worn leather cover that hid the story, he replayed the events of the last twenty four hours in his head. Bruce told me I could patrol last night while we were at breakfast yesterday. Then right after that, out of nowhere, I started to hurt. It got worse and worse all day, and didn't get better until I woke up on the floor and knew we were done for the night. It was much better until Bruce said I could go out again later this week, and then it came back while I was sleeping. Now it's just like it was last night, and just like it was in the story; I can't move. Tears began to pour from his eyes, but he didn't have the strength to wipe them away. I'm a coward, his fevered brain concluded. I mean look, I'm lying in bed crying like a baby. I'm a coward all of a sudden, although I don't know when or how it happened. Mitsuse probably had no idea why either; he sounds like he was a pretty brave guy up to that point. Just like Mitsuse's peers figured out his problem, Bruce will figure out mine. He'll figure it out and…and… He wasn't so far out of his head that he thought his mentor would order him to disembowel himself, but in his overwrought state it was easy to picture being cast out, or worse, kept in scorn, a walking reminder of what gutlessness looked like.
His nose became stuffy, a side effect of his tears, and made it harder and harder for him to catch his breath. Every inward draw of air became a gasp, every exhalation a pinched sob. He had buried his teeth in his lip again, drawing fresh blood, but he didn't notice, sunken as he was in the dreadful feeling that arose in his midsection as nausea layered itself on top of his already catastrophic abdominal pain. He struggled as silently as he could, desperate to keep his newly discovered pusillanimity a secret for just a little while longer. Finally, though, he couldn't hold it back any longer, and leaned over the last few inches to release an anguished, echoing scream and vomit what little had been in him onto the floor.
Two sets of pounding footsteps responded after a stunned second. Half hanging off of the mattress and unable to pull himself back, he started crying harder still as he listened to them approach. Coward, he berated himself silently. Worthless, stupid coward. You're no hero, Dick Grayson; you're just a goddamn phony playing the part. Coward. Coward.
Author's Note: The book that Dick is reading is William Scott Wilson's translation of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's 'Hagakure.' If you aren't one for reading books of samurai philosophy but are still interested, the movie 'Ghost Dog' gives an excellent introduction to some of the essential points of the book in a modern American setting. Thee's also always the wealth of classic Japanese samurai movies; anything with Toshiro Mifune or Tatsuya Nakadai, in particular, is both an education and great fun.
And for those of you who are just dying to know exactly what it is troubling our young hero (which he is, regardless of what his fever-riddled brain and a poorly timed passage from the Hagakure is insisting right now), hold out just a couple more chapters, and all will be revealed. :)