Author's Note: Sorry for the delay, this chapter was way longer than I thought it would be! A couple of people asked about the song Bruce was singing in the previous chapter; it's the first verse of 'Au Clair de la Lune,' a French folk song turned lullaby. Thanks to everyone for reading, and double thanks to those of you who have reviewed! I hope you all enjoy this not-so-little conclusion.
Bruce would never forget Alfred's expression when the butler climbed off of the snowmachine twenty minutes later and rushed to them. "He's all right, Alfred," he assured him.
"…Terribly pale," the Englishman murmured, resting the back of his hand on the boy's cheek. "And cold," he frowned.
"He's not hypothermic, at least I don't think he is. It's a long story," he explained.
"Dr. Thompkins was out searching when your call came in. She said she would return to the manor immediately and wait for us there in case either of you require medical attention. The others will have left by the time we return, although they all expressed how glad they were that he'd been found safe." He gripped Bruce's elbow lightly, steadying him as he got to his feet. "Do you have him, sir?"
"We're good." He looked down at Gobblehead. "We've got to get the bird home, too."
"I must admit, Master Wayne, I'll be very pleased to be rid of the troublemaker."
"No!" Bruce objected quickly. "…No. We can't kill the turkey, Alfred. We're…we're just going to have to have a frozen one this year."
"A frozen turkey, sir?" he asked cautiously, looking as if he suspected that his elder charge had taken a blow to the head.
"Long story short, Gobblehead is the only reason Dick's alive right now instead of suffocated under a ton of snow."
"He was hiding out in the cave there," he jerked his head towards where the hole he'd dug could just be made out. "There was a slide that blocked the entrance. The bird was outside, Dick was inside. I don't know how long he was in there, in the dark, by himself, but I'm guessing it was at least a few hours, because by the time I found him there wasn't enough air to keep a canary alive." His voice dropped to just above a whisper, arms tightening possessively around the child zipped against him. "He wasn't breathing when I pulled him out. He had a pulse – barely – but he wasn't breathing. I only found him as quickly as I did because I heard Gobblehead calling, and then saw him pecking at the snow. If it hadn't been for that, I would have been too late."
"…Well," the butler sighed, his voice slightly uneven. He wanted to rip the boy away and cradle him himself, but he somehow managed to exercise enough restraint to only reach out and stroke his face again. "I suppose a frozen turkey will cut down on the preparation time massively. That will be a nice change." His eyes narrowed as Dick gave another hoarse cough. "Especially since it sounds as if the young master won't be going to school tomorrow. We ought to get him home, sir, and to bed."
"…How the hell did he get the bird out here, though? I can't imagine that they both walked all this way."
"I don't know, sir. I'll check the cave, though, before we leave. I would hate to leave behind anything he brought with him, and there may be something that sheds light on our quandary."
"…Yeah, okay. It should have had enough time to air out by now." He watched as the other man slipped down out of sight. A moment later, a brightly colored plastic sled was pushed up, followed by a backpack. Alfred emerged immediately thereafter, panting slightly.
"Good heavens, you weren't exaggerating about the state of things. The air is still very close in there," the butler advised. "This is everything there was."
Seeing the sled, Gobblehead walked over, stepped onto it, and settled down.
"…So that's how he did it. The turkey just sat on the sled and let him pull it out here. Huh." Bruce shook his head. "Smart bird."
"I'll hitch the sled to the skidoo, Master Wayne, and we'll be on our way," Alfred said, also marveling at the unusual intelligence of their would-be Thanksgiving dinner. "I must say, I've never encountered a bird quite like this one."
"Well, we're a family of misfits," Bruce replied. "I guess one more won't hurt."
"…Are you proposing that we keep the creature?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Yes. He'll be heartbroken if we send Gobblehead away, especially if he goes anywhere that someone might even hypothetically decide to eat him."
"Very true, sir. I'll arrange for a larger, more attractive shed to be constructed behind the house. I believe we owe him that much, at least." He straightened from tying the turkey's sleigh up.
"Thanks, Alfred. Are we ready?"
"Yes, Master Wayne."
The billionaire settled onto the snowmachine carefully, pinning Dick in a warm pocket between himself and Alfred. He cast one last look around the clearing, knowing that the memory of how close he'd come to losing his son here would be a potent motivator the next time he was having trouble pulling himself away from work to spend time with him. Finally, he rested his eyes on Gobblehead, well aware that there would be times ahead when he would regret allowing the turkey to reside on the manor grounds and wanting to keep the great service the animal had done him today in the back of his head. "Okay. Let's go."
They returned at a much slower speed than Alfred had come out to them at. I'll have to have the rental extended on this. I'll bet Dick would love it, Bruce thought as they pulled up to the rear of the house. As he carried the boy inside, he looked back to see Gobblehead rise from the sled and walk over to the door of the shed, waiting to be let inside.
"Oh, thank god," Leslie exclaimed, meeting them just inside the door. "Let's get him in bed. I'll examine him there."
Bruce was sweating as they mounted the stairs, but he didn't want to open his coat until he had to, still able to feel how cool the pale face against his neck was. He heard her steps falter for a moment as he led her into his bedroom rather than Dick's. "I'm not going to be able to leave him tonight," he explained before she could say anything. Or probably for the next week, he didn't add. "And my bed is bigger than his."
"…It's your house, Bruce. I wasn't planning on asking."
"Good," he said brusquely, sitting on the mattress and slowly unzipping his jacket. Leslie's hands hovered nearby, but he had no intention of letting his ward fall, and easily guided the small body downward. He stopped only to shrug off his own winter gear before going to work on the boy's.
"You're good at that," she commented, observing.
"Practice," he muttered back, passing articles of clothing over his shoulder to her. He didn't see her smile at his answer, too consumed with the lithe little form in front of him to notice.
As she took the child's coat, her hand touched something odd in one of the pockets. "…Bruce?" she asked, pulling it out and frowning at it.
"What?" he asked, turning to find her holding a plastic sandwich bag full of water. Why would he have…oh, Dicky, my clever little bird. "Drinking water," he told her, a proud grin inching across his lips. "He filled the bag with snow and put it in his pocket so his body heat could melt it."
"How would he have known to do that?" she marveled, setting it down on the nightstand. "Most adults who get lost in the woods wouldn't think to do that."
"He pays attention, Leslie. He doesn't miss much, and that goes double for when he's being trained."
"...Trained for what?" she asked, her voice dropping suspiciously.
He grimaced. Damn. He'd forgotten that he hadn't yet let Leslie in on the fact that he'd taken the boy as his partner in his nightly quests. He'd known she would have to find out eventually, but he'd hoped to delay it as long as possible, well aware that she wouldn't approve. There were rumors on the street that Batman had been seen with a brightly colored shadow, but they hadn't been out together enough yet for that addendum to his urban legend to become known fact, and he'd been careful not to make any big busts with his young partner alongside him. The more time and training that passed before the truly evil specters of Gotham knew about the child, the better. The few injuries that Robin had received on patrol had been minor enough to be patched without calling in outside help, so there had not seemed to be a need to tell her. There's no avoiding it now, though, he thought. And she should probably be informed before I need her to look at him from something night work related, in any case. "…You've heard people talking about Batman having a new, uh, helper? A partner?" he asked slowly.
"Yes, I've heard vague rumors," she replied sharply. "But surely you're not…" she trailed off, seeing the tenseness in his shoulders. "You are. You've been training a nine-year-old child to attack dangerous criminals." She shook her head, aghast. "With all due respect to your wonderful mother, you son of a bitch."
"You don't understand, Leslie," he breathed, stripping the boy now of his regular clothing and running his hands gently over his limbs, searching for damage.
"You're right, I don't. I don't understand because it's completely unfathomable." Fuming, she moved to the opposite side of the bed and also sat, doing her own checks. "It's criminal, Bruce." Her fingers found a fresh scar on one thin upper arm, and she winced. "…Did you do this to him?" she demanded.
"No," he answered steadily, pulling a blanket over the still unconscious Dick. "An asshole mugger did." It had been the only time thus far that he'd required stitches, the most serious wound he'd received. Alfred had sewn it up easily, and it had healed fast and well.
"This is wrong. Can't you see that?" She was about to go on when Alfred entered the room. "Were you aware of this?" she accused, whirling on him.
"…I assume from the high level of animosity coming from you both that you are referring to Master Dick's Robin persona?" he inquired calmly, handing her a compact first aid kit.
"Is that what he's calling himself? Robin?"
"Yes," Bruce answered, keeping his eyes riveted to the child in questions' face. I wish you'd wake up, chum. Even for just a minute.
"Please allow me assure you, Dr. Thompkins, that every precaution is being taken in the matter of Robin. His training has been and will continue to be extensive and thorough, and he is not allowed out without Batman's direct supervision."
"He. Is. A. Child," she hissed. "This isn't a game, you both know that! If the wrong person gets ahold of him, or he doesn't move fast enough in the heat of battle…" she trailed off, shaking her head. "You know what could happen!"
"Yes. I do," Bruce snapped. "And so does he. I don't like to think about what might happen, Leslie; I prefer to just be grateful every night he comes home alive and relatively unhurt. And for right now, he's not allowed out of my sight when he's in costume, like Alfred said. I am being as cautious about this as I possibly can be. You know the circumstances that led to his being here; he needs this as much as I did when I started. And what's more is, he's good at it. Very good. And he's only going to get better with time and training. I know you don't approve; I didn't expect you to. But I would like to know that your dissatisfaction with the partnership of Batman and Robin won't prevent you from helping us when we need it." His gaze caught and held hers piercingly as one of his ward's hands disappeared between both of his.
"…I hate this, Bruce. I can tell you now that I will always hate that you've brought him into this. To throw such an open, trusting child into such a world…"
"He was already in the world, Leslie, and had already seen its dark side. What did you expect me to do, lie to him about the way things really are? I couldn't do that. Not after what he'd already been through. He wouldn't have believed me if I'd tried, he's far too smart for that. He would have gone looking for answers, asking why, regardless of what I told him. This way at least I can exert some level of control over the experience and try to keep him safe while he learns what he needs and wants to."
"I see your point, but I still think you're wrong."
"…So you won't help us anymore?" he asked, trying to sound neutral.
She turned her head away. "Of course I'll still help you. It's like you said, I suppose, about controlling the experience; if I walk away now, and something awful happens, I'll always wonder if I could have done something. I'm still on call for you. And you had better call, especially when it involves Dick." Her eyes sparked. "That needs to be very clearly understood, by the both of you."
"Of course, Dr. Thompkins," Alfred inclined his head.
"You know I will, Leslie," Bruce agreed, relieved. "Now, would you please tell me he'll be all right?"
"Not until I know as much for myself," she replied, slipping her stethoscope into her ears. "Sit him up for me."
The billionaire held him quietly while she performed her examination. "Well?" he asked when she seemed finished.
"He seems fine. His breathing is a little rough, but I think it will ease." She looked at him suspiciously. "What are you not telling me?"
"He wasn't breathing when I found him," he explained, giving her a quick rundown of the situation in the cave.
"And you waited until now to mention it?" she snapped.
"He still had a pulse. Once I got him outside and gave him a few rescue breaths he came right back, so I thought he was okay, but…I don't know, he hasn't woken up since then."
Grimacing, she repeated several of her tests. "You said he still had a pulse, he just wasn't actively breathing?"
"Yes. It was faint – another thirty seconds and I don't think he would have had one – but it was there."
"Well, I'm a little more concerned with the way he's breathing now that I know that, but if he still had a pulse when you found him he probably didn't suffer any long term damage," she opined. "My guess is that the reason he hasn't woken up yet is mostly just sheer exhaustion. How far did you say he'd walked?"
"Nearly three miles," Alfred replied. "In approximately eighteen inches of snow."
"While hauling a thirty-plus pound turkey," Bruce added.
"Well, that's enough to wipe anyone out, especially when you throw hypoxia into the mix." She sighed. "He may have aspirated a little saliva, or even a small amount of snow, if he was actually caught in the slide. You'll have to watch him for signs of pneumonia. If it looks like it's starting to develop, or if something else changes, call me." She leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to the child's forehead. "I'll come by day after tomorrow to check in if I don't hear from you before then."
"Thank you, Leslie."
"You're welcome," she said a little harshly. "I'm still upset with you about this whole Robin business. I want you to know that."
"I know. But it's not going to change."
"I know. That would mean you'd have to admit to being wrong." She turned to Alfred. "Would you mind seeing me out?"
"Of course, Dr. Thompkins."
Once they'd left, Bruce lay down and pulled Dick against him. Poor Alfred, he reflected. I'll bet Leslie gives him an earful about this. Uncomfortable on his side, he rolled over, pulling the boy up to rest on top of him. "There," he whispered, wrapping his arms around the slight form after he straightened the blankets out over them both. "Nice and warm." Placing a hand on his back, he frowned. I see what Leslie was saying about the way you're breathing, kiddo, he thought. Kind of rough. Maybe you shouldn't be laying down. Sitting up, he arranged the pillows against the headboard so that they were reclining, and felt the coarseness in child's lungs ease almost immediately. "That's better," he sighed into his hair. "Good," he encouraged as Dick coughed hard. "Get it out of there."
He coughed again, and this time Bruce could hear something trying to come up. Reaching for the tissues on the nightstand, he patted his back gently until he got what he wanted, catching the discolored sputum as it appeared. After another two or three hard exhalations, there was an obvious difference in his breathing, and the billionaire felt himself relax.
"Master Wayne? Is he all right?" Alfred asked concernedly as he came back into the room. "I could hear him coughing from the stairs."
"He was just getting rid of whatever he aspirated," he explained, indicating the pile of used paper.
"Has his breathing improved since, sir?"
"Yeah. We're much better now," he answered, closing his eyes as his fingers combed through tangled locks.
"Perhaps you should consider changing for the night," the butler suggested, sensing that his elder charge was about to drop off into sleep fully clothed.
"No. I don't want to move. He seems comfortable now, I don't want to mess it up."
"…As you wish, sir," he conceded, smiling slightly. The scene before him was more than enough to counter his unhappiness after the lecture he'd received from a very unhappy Dr. Thompkins. "I'll inform your office that you will be out again tomorrow."
"You do that, Alfred," he yawned.
The light had just gone out and the door closed behind the Englishman when Bruce felt the weight on his chest shift. He waited to see if it would happen again, and reached over for the lamp when he heard a murmur. The boy in his arms wriggled slightly, seemingly trying to push himself even closer to the man holding him. "Mmm. Br…" The word was only half-formed, but it didn't take a genius to figure out whose name he was uttering.
"Right here, kiddo," he assured him. "Right here. I'm not going anywhere."
"Bruce…scared…" The whisper was pathetic, tormented, and it broke his heart.
"Hush," he squeezed him hard. "Hush. You're safe. You're with me. It's okay, little bird. We're home." A tiny cry reached his ears. "No, Dicky, don't. Don't cry." I can't take it if you do. "You're safe now. No more snow. I promise. You're warm and safe and with me. Wake up, and I'll prove it to you. C'mon. Wake up. Look at me."
I'm dreaming, the boy thought blearily. I can't be home. I'm still in the cave. The oxygen must be getting low, that's why I'm hearing things. I shouldn't have cried myself to sleep. I should have tried again, and now I won't be able to. Now I…now I think I might die here. "Bruce!" he sobbed.
"Right here, chum, I'm right here. Stop crying, it's over. You're safe. You're safe." He sat up and started to rock, wondering if he was going to have to start singing again just to end whatever nightmare he was having.
That…that sounded like him, though. Is it? Am I safe? He wouldn't lie to me. He took a deep breath, preparing to call his name again just to hear his voice. His eyes flew open in shock when he caught good air instead of the stale, useless gases he could last remember feeling fill his lungs, and he found himself in a comfortingly familiar place. Bruce. Safe. Bruce. "…Bruce?" he whispered disbelievingly.
"Hush," came back from over his head. He craned his neck and found wet eyes staring down at him.
"Is this real? I'm not dead?"
"No, baby," he told him, unable to keep a few tears from escaping as he cupped his face. "You're alive. I promise."
"…Yay," he grinned slowly.
"'Yay' is right," he gave a choked laugh. Oh, god, you're fine. Practically dead in my arms an hour ago, and now you're just…you're just fine. You're unreal, Dick Grayson. Absolutely beautiful. On the tail of that thought, nimble little fingers tripped across his cheeks, dabbing away the moisture that had fallen.
"Don't cry, Bruce," the boy pouted, trying to make the tears go away.
"Don't scare me like that again and I won't have a reason to," he retorted weakly. "How do you feel?"
"Tired. Kind of hurts to breathe. And I'm sore everywhere." He coughed a little more, made an awful face, and swallowed. "Eew. That was gross."
"You aspirated some fluid. That's why it hurts to breathe. It's not too bad, is it? You've coughed a lot up already."
"No, it's not too bad. Just kind of achy."
"Okay. You're not going to school tomorrow, though, just in case. Maybe I'll just pull you for the rest of the week, since it's short anyway."
"Oh, no." His voice was heavy with dread at the mention of school. "…It's still only Sunday, isn't it?"
"He's fine. He's in his shed."
"Please don't eat him." Now his eyes were wet. "Please, Bruce, I'm sorry I broke my promise, but please, you can't kill him!"
"Whoa, whoa, calm down," he soothed. "No one is going to eat that turkey. Ever."
"…Really? You mean it?"
"Dick, Gobblehead saved your life. The least I can do is spare his."
"He did? How?"
"He…showed me where to find you." He left it at that, seeing no need to give the child any more details.
"…It was more than that, wasn't it?" came back a moment later, the boy studying his face closely.
"Let's not talk about it, okay? Let's just rest."
"…So it was that close." He shuddered, and was pulled tighter against his guardian. I wasn't far off. I did almost die.
"I said I didn't want to talk about it right now," he said sternly. "You having one of your preternatural moments and realizing exactly what I was hoping not to tell you doesn't change how I feel about it."
"Okay. Sorry." He reached up and encircled the man's neck with his arms. "Thank you for finding me."
"I'll always come for you," he swore. "Always."
"I know. I'll always come for you, too. Even if I can't do much right now."
"…I know. And you can do a lot more than you think, by the way." He felt him shrug and decided he needed validation. "You pulled Gobblehead almost three miles last night."
"Whoa! No wonder I'm so tired!" He paused. "…Are you mad at me?" he asked in a small voice.
"I probably should be."
"But I'm mostly just relieved as hell."
"Bad word," he reminded him.
"It's appropriate in this situation. No penalty."
"…Does that mean that I can use it?"
"Darn. It was worth a try."
"Sorry, kiddo. Besides, Alfred would have a fit if he heard you swearing."
"Yeah, that wouldn't be good. Is he mad at me?"
"You'll probably get a lecture, but I'm thinking the fact that he'll be hugging you the whole time will kind of take away from the force of the message."
"What about Thanksgiving?"
"We'll have a frozen turkey. Is that okay?"
"Sure. I mean, that turkey's already dead, so someone might as well eat it. And it's not Gobblehead, which is the most important part." He snuggled close, sleepiness invading him again. "He needs a nicer house. His is kind of small and boring."
"Alfred's already said he's going to work on it."
"Mmm. Okay." He yawned. "…Are you going to work tomorrow?"
"No. But I'm going in on Tuesday and Wednesday. Only to get this merger wrapped up. Next weekend, no work, I promise. We'll have fun."
"I had fun this weekend, too. I…I understand if you need to work."
"I appreciate that, but I understand that you need to play. So next weekend, no work. In fact, I'm making an early New Year's resolution."
"What is it?"
"At least one weekend every month I will bring absolutely no work home with me. That will be you and I's special weekend to do something together."
He beamed up at him. "That's so cool, Bruce. I'm excited."
"Me, too, kiddo."
"What're we gonna do next weekend?"
"Well," he lay back against the pillows, stroking his spine as he spoke. "Thursday is Thanksgiving, so we'll be here, stuffing our faces. Then on Friday everyone and their cousins will be out at the stores, so I'm thinking we should avoid that."
"We could go ice skating again. Then it would just be you and me."
"You and I," he corrected gently.
"You and I," Dick repeated. "And maybe more sledding?"
"Sure," he agreed. "Ice skating and sledding. Then on Saturday I thought we'd go see The Nutcracker."
"Ooh, I've never seen that!" he squealed.
"Good. You'll like it," he smiled.
"Well…would you like to go out to a farm and pick out a big tree for Christmas? We'll have to walk around in the snow, but I figure you're a pro at that now, so…"
"Yes! Yes, please! Can we go someplace kind of far away? I like driving through the country in winter," he said. "It's so pretty."
"Of course. We'll ask Alfred to find something a couple counties over."
"This is going to be so much fun," he sighed happily. "I can't wait until next weekend." For all that he was clearly eager, his exhaustion was creeping back into his voice as he lay limply on top of Bruce.
"I've got one more surprise for you," the billionaire told him quietly.
"Hmm? What is it?"
"You know Flash?"
"I've heard you talk about him."
"His nephew just started doing night work, like you. He's around your age."
"…Really?! Do you think I could meet him? Maybe we could be friends!"
"Well, that was my thought. If you want, I'll call Flash this week and see what he says. Maybe we can get you kids together sometime soon. But," he added an injunction. "you have to promise me you won't reveal your identity unless I say you can."
"Okay!" he agreed quickly. "I promise!"
"Hey," he tilted his chin upwards and gave him a serious look. "This is important, Dick. I need you to be sure about this. You cannot tell him who you really are without my permission. No slips of the tongue, no helping him figure it out, none of that. Do you understand and agree to those terms?"
From his guardian's tone, the boy easily surmised that this would be the second most important promise he'd ever made to him. He nodded slowly. "I understand, Bruce. I won't tell him without permission, even if he becomes my very best friend. I promise."
"Good," he said firmly, although a little something quaked inside of him at the thought of the child in his arms having a 'very best friend' who wasn't him.
Dick saw the tiny glint of hurt in the man's eyes. "Don't worry, Bruce," he said gravely. "You'll still be my very bestest best friend. I just meant, like, if he becomes my second best friend. You'll still always be first."
The words and their serious mien caused a broad smile to spread across the billionaire's face. "Thank you, chum. That means a lot to me."
"I know," he sighed back, dropping his head back down. "Me, too." He yawned hugely. "G'night, Bruce."
"Goodnight, son," he breathed back, cradling him. "Sweet dreams."
As he passed into sleep, his ears filled with his child's quiet breathing, he would have sworn he heard the distant sound of a turkey gobble. The corner of his mouth turned up. Goodnight to you, too, Gobblehead.