For what felt like the billionth night in a row, Dick jerked awake from a nightmare. His first thought was to get up and travel the short distance across the room to Bruce's bed, but he quickly realized that the man's arm was already around his waist. Weird. Normally being next to him keeps the dreams away. This had been no ordinary vision, though, and the horrors that had made it up were still fresh in his mind; those factors, he supposed, had probably been enough to override the protective veil that proximity to his guardian usually offered.
Behind him, the billionaire stirred. "Dicky?" he mumbled against his ear, pulling him closer. "What's wrong?"
"Just a dream," he answered quietly, reassuring himself more than Bruce. Reaching up, he wrapped his fingers around the thick forearm across his stomach, wanting to feel for himself that its owner was really there. "It's gone now."
"Tell me about it."
"It'll wait until morning," he shrugged, trying to make it seem like it had been nothing. "Let's go back to sleep. I'm still really tired."
"…Are you sure?"
"Yeah. G'night, Bruce."
There was a sigh above him, and slowly he felt his guardian loosen back into slumber. He closed his eyes as well, but it was no use. He couldn't stop thinking about it. Still, he didn't want to wake Bruce, and he knew that tossing and turning would do exactly that, so he lay completely still and tried to think of anything other than the scenes that flashed through his mind every time he let his eyelids drop. Just as his arm was beginning to lose feeling, he lapsed into unconsciousness.
The boat, and the storm. Below him, thrown against the familiar green hull time and again with awful smacks, floated the bodies of Gina, Gallagher, Denny, Bryant, and a shrunken, stolen little girl whose name he'd never known. They were pulled under multiple times as the sharks circling beneath the surface enjoyed their feast. He looked behind himself and up to find an awful amalgam of Markowitz and Erwin holding onto his ankles, keeping him suspended between tenuous safety and certain death. The creepy figure laughed, and he knew that he wasn't being saved, but used as bait.
His eyes shifted back down, and he gasped. His hands had been empty a moment earlier, but now they clutched desperately at Bruce's, struggling to hold on in the cold spray. The beloved figure dangling from his numb fingers surveyed the carnage below, then looked up and assessed the situation above. Finally the man's eyes locked onto his own, and he instantly knew what his partner was asking him to do.
"No!" he screamed, feeling something tear in his throat as he strove to be heard over the wind and the crashing waves. "Don't you dare! I'll never forgive you!" It was the only way out, he knew, but that didn't matter; the cost was too high. Bruce wanted him to let go, wanted him to let him fall into the bloody slaughterhouse. Then, no longer encumbered by an extra two hundred and twenty pounds, would he be able to put his acrobatics to use, to flip up unexpectedly onto the deck, take out the demon that had put them in this position, and maybe, just maybe, get safely back to shore.
Bruce wanted him to live, but he refused. "No!" he repeated, shaking his head violently, tears pouring from his eyes only to be whipped away by the maelstrom. "I won't do it!" He knew it didn't matter what he said, though; if he wouldn't let go, the man would simply prise his fingers loose and throw himself into the water. "Please!" he begged. "There's got to be another way!" There wasn't, they both knew there wasn't, but he had to try.
A soft, bittersweet smile crept onto features far more accustomed to grimacing and growling. He mouthed something that almost looked like "I love you" – but that was impossible, surely, even at a moment such as this – and then twisted his wrists in the iron grip holding them, dual cracks sounding as they broke at the same time. A second later, he was gone beneath the waves, a dark glut of blood staining the water as the sharks drew in.
"No…" There was fresh laughter above him, cruel, nasty, pleased roars that inflamed his freshly maimed heart and drove him upwards on instinct. He didn't hear delighted giggles turn into tortured squeals, didn't feel the skin on his knuckles split and begin to ooze; his head was too full of that last second. The gentle smile that Bruce only ever gave to him. The sorrow in his eyes as he formed the last three words he would ever speak, words that he had only been able to voice in death. The dull snaps as he destroyed himself so that his son might live. When he finally came out of his fugue enough to look down, he nearly vomited at the mess he'd made of the murderer. He stumbled to his feet, backing away until he bumped into the railing.
Bruce wanted him to live, but he refused. He couldn't. Not like this. He could already see what his death was turning him into; the Markowitz/Erwin monster's nearly dismembered state left no doubt, and no hope.
"I'm sorry, Alfred," he whispered, sparing a single thought for the one who was going to be left to clean up after them. "I'm just not strong enough. Not without him. I can't." Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, a final concession to the quest for life that his body was still waging, and leaned back over the edge. He made no attempt to arrest the resulting plunge as gravity took over. The water, he noted just before the first chunk was torn from his sprawling limbs, was very cold.
He burst back into wakefulness with a gasping sob. "Dick?" he heard behind him immediately. Whipping around, he dove at the billionaire, so afraid still of losing him that his nails drew blood as they clutched around his neck.
"Hey, kiddo, it's okay," Bruce soothed automatically, rolling so that the teen lay on top of him. He traced up and down the thin, heaving back with one hand, leaving the other firmly around his waist. "Hush. Hush now. It's all right. You're safe. It's all over." What did you dream about, baby? he mused sadly. I know it must have been hellish. You never break down like this. Several minutes passed, and the fury of the tears didn't slacken despite his continued efforts. "You need to calm down before you hyperventilate," he told him, hearing his breathing changing and knowing where it was going. "C'mon, little bird, calm down. C'mon, breathe with me. Nice and deep, slow, deep breaths. Hush…"
"I'm s-s-s-sorry," were the first words he managed. "I d-d-didn't mean t-to wake you…sh-shouldn't have fallen the f-fuck back to sleep…"
"No, it's all right," he whispered. "Tell me. Tell me what happened." Dick shook his head no so hard he made the bed creak. "It's okay now. Look, you're safe. It's okay."
"Not me," he blubbered. "That doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters. Don't say things like that." Frowning ferociously, he sat up, dragging the boy along and cradling him, their legs dangling off of the bed. "Dick? You're really starting to scare me, chum. I need you to talk to me."
"I don't want to."
"Why not? Did I do something?"
"No. I just…don't want to think about it…please…"
"All right. All right," he murmured. "…How about if I try and figure it out, and you tell me if I'm right or wrong? Would that be easier?"
"I dunno. Maybe."
"Good. Let's try that. Okay," he breathed, stroking his hair and speaking close against his ear. Let's eliminate the known suspects, first. "Did it have to do with Erwin?"
"Did it have to do with anyone else we've dealt with at home?"
"So it was things from here? Or from before you were in Gotham?" I can't imagine it having been a dream about your parents – you haven't been this inconsolable after one about them in years - but better safe than sorry.
"Well, that narrows it down." He thought for a long moment. "…Did it have to do with the sharks?" he asked quietly. Renewed sobs told him that he'd scored a hit. "Hush, now. There are no sharks in the bedroom, I promise."
"Well, duh," came sniffled back. Bruce hadn't meant for the reassurance to be taken as a bad joke, but since it seemed to calm the trembling form in his arms a little he was willing to go with it.
"…Can you try and tell me what it was?" he requested. "You can stop if you need to, but we both know it's important that you get it out."
"Yeah," he answered shakily. "I…I didn't know it was going to hit me like that. I mean, the ones about Erwin were bad enough…" He coughed slightly, his body righteously trying to stabilize itself after the crying fit. "It…it was the boat. Gallagher's boat. Everyone was…" he swallowed heavily, "everyone else was dead. I…I could see them, in the water. The sharks were getting to them."
"Okay," the man consoled when there was a break. "Was that all of it?"
"No," Dick laughed shortly. "Christ, I'm not a baby. I mean, it was awful, but that…that wasn't what set me off. So…it was just you and I left. And this other person, this…weird mixture of Erwin and Markowitz. It was totally hideous, like someone had literally just smashed two people together and called it good enough. I guess maybe it was supposed to be a picture of their screwed up personalities, I dunno. Anyway, that…thing was holding me over the edge by my ankles. It was laughing at us." His voice dropped. "…And I was holding on to you."
"Let me guess; the shark got me instead? Markowitz and I had switched positions?"
"No," he negated. "It…it was different. You…you wanted me to let go of you. It was the only way to keep both of us from getting killed."
"…Did you? Let go of me?"
"No!" he practically shouted, glaring at him. "Of course I didn't let go of you."
"Okay. So what happened next?" Of course you didn't let go. You wouldn't have, the same as I wouldn't have let you go.
"You…you broke your own wrists. I was holding so tight that you used my force to break your own wrists so you'd fall." The tone of his next words was completely flat. "And then I flipped up on deck and literally killed the Markowitz-Erwin thing with my bare hands. I…I tore it to pieces. I didn't even know I was doing it." There was a stunned silence. "…Is there a garbage can in here?" the teen asked weakly.
"Next to the door, I think. Why?" Before the question was fully formed, he'd leapt from his arms and bolted for the bin. The sound of retching was followed by fluid hitting the plastic liner. Bruce winced, then got up and moved to sit beside him on the floor, holding him up as he slumped, stomach empty. "…Do you feel any better?" he asked.
"Not really." Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he turned into his guardian's shoulder.
"…Do you want to stop, Dick?" It hurt to ask that question, but if it would make these awful nightmares end, maybe it was worth it.
"All of it," he whispered. "…Robin," he clarified when he received a confused look.
"What?! You did hit your head on something tonight. How could you even think I would want to stop that?" His expression grew fearful. "You're not going to try and make me, are you? Bruce, it was just a dream!"
"A dream that had you in hysterics and vomiting," he pointed out. "You know I won't be ashamed or upset if you want to stop, don't you? I would never hold that against you. Never."
"I am not stopping," he growled. "Yes, I had a shitty nightmare. You have them too, all the time, but I don't see you quitting." He took a deep breath. "Do you remember what I said a couple nights ago, about how psychologists don't help, but you do? That's why I'm telling you all of this." He paused. "But if you're going to freak out, I won't. I don't want this to change anything; I just want to talk it out. That's all I need, okay? Just to talk it out."
He hugged him tightly. "Good," he said fiercely. "I always want you to do what's best for you, Dick, always remember that. But I don't know what Batman would do without Robin at his side."
"…Thanks, Bruce. I'm really, really glad to hear you say that." He snuggled in closer. "…There was one other thing about the dream. I…I'm really hesitant to tell you this part, though."
"Because I think it might scare you."
"Well, we won't know that until you tell me what it is."
"After…after I, um, killed that thing…well…" he trailed off, then let it all out in a rush. "I knew I couldn't live without you and with being a killer, so I jumped overboard."
He shut his eyes tightly. Oh, Dicky, no. "You killed yourself."
"Even though I'd killed myself, more or less, so that you could live?"
"It was too high of a price, Bruce. I couldn't do it."
"…I'm a little pissed about that, I'll admit."
"I wasn't worthy."
"I wasn't worthy. I couldn't carry on in your name because I wasn't worthy. If I'd been good enough, strong enough, I could have saved us both. But I wasn't. I was too weak, and I let you fall, just like I did with Markowitz…" The tears started up again, and Bruce realized what the root of the dream had been.
"It wasn't your fault, kiddo," he swore. "I was there, too, remember? I saw what happened. He was dead before you let go of him. There was no way he could have survived that."
"But I…I thought about dropping him before that," he sobbed. "My fingers actually loosened, Bruce! I almost dropped him in on purpose!"
"Dick, part of me wanted you to drop him in on purpose, before he was bitten," he admitted.
"Yes. I knew I couldn't pull you back over, and I was so afraid that…well, suffice it to say that you aren't the only one in this room who's had some pretty nasty nightmares lately."
"What was yours about?"
"What do you think it was about?" he murmured. "What do you think could make me go running to throw up the same way you just did?"
The silent words from the dream, Bruce's last in that world, flashed through his mind. "…Me?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," he hissed back. "You. Always you. But do you know something? I didn't have that exact one tonight, and I suspect that I won't have it again."
"Because I didn't lose you tonight. You're right here, safe, with me. The same as I am with you."
"…That's true. We're right here," he considered.
"Yes, we are. You said you saw the others, right? Gina, and Gallagher?"
"And Denny, Bryant, and…and the little girl from the hospital. Erwin's victim. All dead."
"You feel guilty about them."
"…Yeah, I guess I do. I mean, Bryant and the girl are dead. Gina and Marty both lost someone they loved, on top of going through everything with Markowitz. Denny…" he scrunched his nose. "I don't really know why Denny was there. Maybe I feel guilty for making him talk to me."
"You couldn't have helped them any more than you did, chum. And you helped them a lot, just so you know." He rocked him slowly. "You've got to let that guilt go."
"I know. I'm…I'm working on it."
"But the other part will never go away completely. The part about you."
"…No. I don't imagine that it will."
"Bruce? Will you promise me something?"
"Don't ever do in real life what you did in my dream." If you promise that, even if I don't really believe it, just hearing the words might be enough to at least make me dream about losing you less often.
"What do you mean?"
"Sacrificing yourself to save me. Please. I don't think I could live with it if you did."
"You could live with it, and you would," he said sternly. "I can't promise you that, Dick, because it may very well be a promise that I break someday. I don't want the last action in my life to be the betrayal of something I've sworn to you."
"…Then I guess the only choice left is for me to get better," the teen said determinedly after a short silence.
"What do you mean?"
"If I get better at fighting, at predicting what the baddies are going to do next, at all of that, then it lessens the number of times that you might have to metaphorically throw yourself to the sharks to save me. That's the only answer I can come up with. Train harder and longer, and kick more ass."
And there he goes again, the billionaire marveled. He has such talent for redirecting energy, whether it's using the momentum from an enemy's strike to accelerate his own movements or turning a horribly negative experience into a driver for positive change. "I'm not one to argue with more training," Bruce allowed. "But I don't want you pushing yourself so hard that you hurt yourself, or that your schoolwork starts to suffer. Okay?"
"Sure. You'll help me, right?"
"Of course I will." He kissed the top of his head. "Are you ready to try this whole sleeping thing again, or was there more you wanted to talk about?"
Dick thought for a moment. "…I think I'm okay now, actually. I know that probably makes me sound a little unstable, seeing as how I was just bawling, but…"
"Not unstable. Resilient." Huh. Maybe that talent of his is rubbing off a little.
"…I can move to my own bed, if you want."
"The strangest things come out of your mouth sometimes," he sighed, scooping his son up and carrying him back to where they'd been laying a while earlier.
"Gee, thanks, Alfred."
"Thanks for the lift. I didn't realize I was incapable of walking ten feet."
"Yeah, yeah," he mocked, nudging him over and crawling in beside him. "You loved it."
"Sure. But so did you."
"You're a terrible liar."
"I am not."
"…Tell me something?"
"I'm not telling you the arsenic story. You're too young. Trust me on that."
"What? No. It's something else."
"In the dream I had…you said something to me, right before you did what you did. Three words. Your last three words." Two serious gazes met. "I know you can't," he said before the man took his meaning wrong. "But I was just wondering…well, I mean…sometimes…"
"Stop," Bruce ordered him, placing a finger on his lips. "Those three words were the only part of your dream that was accurate," he informed him, never breaking eye contact. I just hope that I'll be a strong enough person to actually say them to you when the time comes for the last thing you ever hear from me. But I think I get a little closer to being able to do so every day, because of you.
Dick didn't voice his response. It wasn't necessary for him to; his joy radiated without speech, evident in the blinding smile he gave before turning away so his guardian could spoon up behind him and hold back the dark. "Goodnight, Bruce," he whispered.
"Sweet dreams, kiddo. I want you to wake me if you want to talk some more, okay? About anything, not just the dream."
"I know. But I think it's okay now, really."
"Good. Sleep well, little bird."
"Mm-hm…" he sighed, already halfway down the rabbit hole.
I lo- He grimaced. Damn it. It shouldn't be this hard to at least think the words. Fine. Compromise. He clasped him possessively. You're mine. And I will always defend you with my life. Closing his eyes with a vague sense of victory, he breathed him in and was lulled into exhausted ease.