Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, DC does-I just like to write about them...
Normally the gentle brush of sunlight against his cheek was all it took to rouse Dick from his world of dreams. Normally the ten-year-old was fully conscious and awake in an instant, jumping to his feet and dodging into a hot shower before Alfred had even started breakfast. Normally he would bound down the impressive main staircase as if he were nothing more than pure energy housed in a lean, limber body. Normally he would greet the kind butler with his coy but bright eyes, and climb into a chair to watch as the man tested the griddle with a small slab of butter.
But this crisp morning was different. Dick had quietly slipped downstairs and out the door before the sunlight could envelope the night's shadows. Today there was no stop in the kitchen, no peering around Alfred's shoulder to see what fragrant breakfast he was making. Instead, Dick found himself in the back atrium, struggling to slip his arm through the sleeve of his dark green jacket. His breath caught in his throat at the quiet rustle behind him, but when he turned, he found nothing. Dick sighed and lowered his head. He didn't want to talk to anyone—not now. All he craved was a few stolen moments of solitude where he could try to work through the thoughts that had been haunting him. The boy finally reached out and unlocked the door, staring at the lush endless grounds that greeted him.
Mornings at the manor were much different than those in the small but comfortable trailer. Before he found himself under the care of a complex and complicated guardian, Dick reveled in the simplicity of his life. He was a just little boy then, an acrobatic phenom, fostered by his parents' love and energized by the awe of his audience. Every morning he would throw off his heavy, tattered quilt and wander outside, absorbing the nuances of whatever city they were visiting. The pungent smell of diesel and exhaust from the early morning commuters, the sounds of distant horns laced with the chirps of tiny birds, the sight of the muted sunrise as it morphed the colors in the grey sky, all flooded the boy's senses. Dick loved to compare these city to city, comparing the sizes of the crisp skylines or the number of cars that passed by on the well-worn highway. It was a reflective time, one the boy cherished, one that gave him a sense of calm before the thrill of a performance.
But that was before two very important pieces were stolen from his soul. Now there were no sounds of the city to study, no skyscrapers, no rustling of restless animals in their cages. Mornings here were thick with silence—a silence that only compounded the boy's sense of loneliness. Today, though, Dick welcomed it, needing it almost as much as he did the fresh air. Soon he found himself situated under his favorite oak tree, leaning against its massive trunk, knees pressed tightly against his chest.
"I have to admit, I don' like Alfred's oatmeal either, but this seems like a long way to go to avoid it."
The boy swung around, his deep eyes wide with shock. He had not heard the tall figure follow him or seen its shadow enveloping his own. Dick watched as his guardian settled next to him, leaning against the expansive trunk with their shoulders almost touching.
"I-I'm not hungry."
A raised eyebrow reflected the man's concern. "No?"
Dick shook his dark locks. "No, sir."
"Hm." Bruce stayed quiet for a few seconds, his clear eyes narrowing as they focused on the ten-year-old. Alfred had confided in him that the boy hadn't been eating lately, that he had become withdrawn, regressing back into his own world. Bruce had only seen him like this a few times, each on days that were sorrowful memorials to his tragedy—his parents' birthdays and the year anniversary of their deaths. "Well…..I guess I'll just have to eat these by myself then."
Dick shifted his eyes to the side, watching as Bruce reached into his jacket pocket and produced two very large peanut butter cookies.
Bruce nodded and turned away, watching the boy's reaction from the corner of his eyes. "Peanut butter."
Bruce gave the boy his best nonchalant shrug. "Sure—why not?"
The older one broke his cookie in half and handed a piece to the boy. "Alfred?" He echoed, a sparkle hidden behind his eyes. "I don't need his permission. Who do you think runs this place anyway?"
But the subtle humor did nothing to lighten Dick's mood. Bruce sighed as he set the cookie in his ward's hand. He didn't have time for this. Lucius needed him at the office in just under an hour, and he still had those chemicals he found at the warehouse robbery to analyze. Each time Dick curled into himself like this, it became harder and harder to pull him back out. And Bruce wasn't exactly well-stocked when it came to patience.
"Why don't you come back in?" Bruce softly suggested. "I bet we could both persuade Alfred to make pancakes instead."
"You need to eat…."
But that dark head shook back and forth again before lowering and coming to a rest on the boy's knees. Bruce let an exasperated sigh escape.
"I want to say here, sir."
"I don't suppose you want to tell me what's going on?"
No response. No surprise. Bruce slowly rose to his feet and began to brush the dead leaves from his pants. Then he shifted and began the long trek back to the manor.
It triggered something in Dick.
"Y-You take me to all those charity things." He blurted out.
Bruce turned, his eyebrows lowered.
The boy could feel his cheeks burning a deep red, and nestled his face closer to his knees so his guardian couldn't see.
"A-All those charity events." The boy stammered. "You take me with you."
"Yes." Bruce quietly agreed. "You need to be exposed to these things. It's a good place to practice your skills of studying people. Robin needs to work on that before he's ready to patrol. You may not like it, Dick, but it's part of your training, and I expect you to be there."
"The one this Saturday…"
Bruce resisted the urge to sigh this time, but soon enough what little he had of his patience would wear thin. It took all he had just to pull a few pieces from the boy, and he wasn't sure if he would be capable of waiting for the whole puzzle.
"What about it?"
But that was as far as the drowning emotions would let the boy go. He suddenly shook his head and then sprang to his feet. He had bolted past Bruce whispering a nearly inaudible apology before the man could even draw his next breath.
Bruce reached up and rubbed his aching face. Years of interrogating Gotham's seediest and hardest criminal thugs, of villainous madmen, and he couldn't crack a ten-year-old boy.
He'll get over it. Bruce tried to convince himself. He always does.
"More coffee, sir?"
Bruce briefly held up his hand as a gesture that he didn't want any. He had been sitting in the downstairs study for over an hour, leaving the chair in the cave for the one here. Hours of pouring over evidence as the distant flutter of wings echoed behind him, and now he was looking at hours of forms with the crackling fire to accompany him. He was exhausted.
"Shall I bring you a sandwich, then?" The grandfatherly butler suggested. "It seems you failed to notice the one I placed right in front of you in the cave."
Another brief gesture. No. He didn't want a sandwich either.
"Well, at least let me fix you a bowl of soup, Master Bruce."
This time the man wasn't even acknowledged. He finally cleared his throat and crossed his thin arms over his chest.
"I'll make two bowls since I invited the Joker over for dinner."
Nothing. Alfred shook his head in resignation.
"What's going on this Saturday, Alfred?"
Bruce didn't raise his eyes from the blurring ink. "Saturday."
"Nothing I know of aside from the Gotham Central Charity Ball. I placed the invitation under that mess on your desk a few weeks ago."
A slight nod and that was it. Alfred sighed as he turned towards the door.
"I'd better get started on that soup, lest the Joker arrive early."
He didn't see the brief subtle grin that flashed over his charge's face as he left.
It wouldn't be until nearly midnight that Bruce finally shifted the stack of forms and found the invitation. At first glance, nothing seemed unusual. It was like the hundreds the billionaire received each year, inviting him to an event that highlighted the upper echelons of Gotham's citizens. As a major donor, he knew he had to be there, but it was a sacrifice he readily accepted in order to maintain his 'playboy' façade. Not exactly the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, but Bruce wasn't quite sure just why it would upset the boy as it did.
Then the clear eyes saw the small embossed words at the bottom. The ones both he and Alfred had missed. The ones Dick had not. Bruce closed his eyes and crumpled the thick paper, listening as the edges collapsed into one another.
Dick should have been sleeping. Should have been. But this night found him curled up on his balcony, staring into a starless sky. He barely stirred when he heard the door open behind him.
"Hm. First cookies for breakfast, now letting you sleep outside…." Bruce carefully tossed a heavy throw into the small boy's lap. "Alfred's not going to be very happy with me."
Dick only shrugged.
"You, uh….." Bruce quietly cleared his throat. "You don't have to go this time."
"Dick….I'm sorry, I didn't realize they were having a circus….."
"It's okay, sir."
"Dick, I didn't….."
Didn't what?Bruce admonished himself as the apology wilted in the stale air. Didn't think? Didn't empathize? Didn't remember that this was a ten-year-old boy?
Another blow against the cracking armor of Bruce Wayne, father-in-training.
Bruce shook his head and shifted towards the door.
"You'll stay here."
But the boy's response wasn't the sigh of relief the man was expecting.
"I want to go, sir."
"Robin n-needs to go." The boy curled his fingers, pressing his fingernails into the tender skin of his palms to feel the pain. He needed to feel anything other than the grief that was drowning him. Anything.
Bruce gave a sharp nod before leaving. Unbeknownst to the boy, he stood in the shadows that night, watching as Dick slipped in and out of a restless sleep until dawn.
Dick was pressed so far into the corner of the backseat of the Bentley that Bruce half expected the child to disappear completely into the beige leather. He had his arms tightly wrapped around his chest, his body contorted into itself in such a way that Bruce wondered how he could even breath. But breathing was the last thing from the ten-year-old's mind. He was using every ounce of concentration to stop the imperceptible tremors that shook his small frames—the tremors he was sure Bruce could see.
Robin needs to be strong.
Dick closed his eyes and kept repeating those same five words over and over until the car stopped.
Robin needs to be strong.
He took a few deep breaths before exiting the car and ducking a little behind Bruce's much larger frame. They were immediately ambushed—or more accurately, Bruce was—by an endless drove of young, well-dressed women, all fighting for the man's attention. Soon Dick found himself pushed aside, slipping further and further outside the circle surrounding Bruce. Here, now, he was the last thing he ever wanted to be.
Bruce was preoccupied, busy hiding his true personality under the playboy veneer. The boy gave up on squeezing past the pointy heels and rustling gowns to find him and instead stood very still and very alone in the cold night air.
The boy tried desperately to avoid the sights and sounds he had so relished just over a year ago. He tried desperately to block them out of his mind as they tried just as hard to penetrate it. The smell of cotton candy wafted to his nose, freeing a buried memory of the day he and his father tried to see how much they could eat before getting sick. The sudden muffled roar of a lion filled his ears, reminding him of the first time his mother held his small hand as they stroked back its lush mane. Before he realized it, Dick was walking towards a red and white striped tent, lured by its sounds like a siren's song.
The trapeze artists. They were practicing before the show. A man and a woman. Young. Both with hair as dark as his own. Dick watched as they expertly swung into the air, their bodies graceful and perfect, their movements fluid and seamless. The black rope of the trapeze swished back and forth, taut with the weight of these sculptured bodies. Then the woman faltered, miscalculated. There was a brief hitch in her movement, a brief panic, but then two strong hands found her own. Just like Dick's father had always done for his mother. Just as they both had always done for him.
Dick felt the tears seep into his eyes, threatening to spill down his face and betray his grief. He turned to run, but slipped on the flap of the tent. He had precious little time to brace for the fall and held out his hands to break it.
But something much stronger saved him.
Someone much stronger.
Dick fumbled to find his balance.
"I've got you now."
Dick's bright eyes widened as they searched the genuine ones staring back. He carefully brushed the dust off of his expertly tailored jacket and then slowly nodded. When he felt his small hand enveloped in a much stronger one, he let a hint of his lopsided grin escape.
As they walked out of the tent, Dick felt the large fingers very gently squeeze his own.