Alfred had deemed the formal dining room too somber of an atmosphere for a child's birthday party – heaven knows there's enough heaviness and austerity in his life already – and decided to take advantage of the clear skies by setting up a table and chairs in the east drawing room. A wall of tall windows and tilted skylights combined with the airy décor of the long chamber and the artful placement of virtually every living plant in the house to make it feel as if the event were being held outdoors. "…This is gorgeous, Alfred," Leslie, who had arrived just a few minutes earlier, commented as she took it in.
"I thought it more suitable for his character than damask and gilt, is all," the butler demurred. "I'm sure had he not already known that the answer would be negative he would have requested a picnic setting. This was the closest thing I could think of."
"Well, it's lovely," she assured, rounding the large circular table that had been laid with seven bright place settings. "…Is this cast iron? How did you get this in here?"
"The delivery men from the rental store simply rolled it in and unfolded the legs. It's quite convenient; I'm tempted to outright purchase one for summer use out-of-doors."
"…And I should have known there'd be a stack of presents taller than I am," she shook her head with a smile as she surveyed a second surface. "I'd say Bruce is going to spoil him rotten, but I think he might have found one of the few children in the world who would never take what he's given him for granted," she added as she produced a small package from her purse and added it to the pile.
"Indeed, Dr. Thompkins," Alfred nodded gravely.
"…Are you ever going to refer to me by my given name?" she asked, her tone mildly jesting. "We've only known each other for three decades. I would think even the strictest social code would allow for an exception after so long an acquaintance." As she spoke she drew up to him, crossing her arms with a strange look in her eye.
"I daresay, Dr. Thompkins, that at this point one might even go so far as to term it a friendship," the Englishman replied gently. "Nevertheless, I have my reasons for maintaining a certain level of decorum. I mean no offense by my actions, I assure you. If I may be so bold, fear of causing offense is what holds me to the line of civility."
"…You're as stubborn as they are, you know that?" she asked a bit sadly.
"I'm afraid so," he admitted.
"Well…the offer still stands, as it always has," she reminded him before stepping away. "…It's beautiful in here, anyway."
"Yes," he watched her turn from him. "It is."
Neither spoke again until they heard a bevy of voices approaching in the hallway. "Hi, Leslie!" Dick, who was first into the room, exclaimed. Then he paused, eyes widening as he took in the rest of it. "Wow," he breathed. "Alfred, this is amazing! It's like being outside!" he squealed, bounding over to throw his arms around the butler's waist.
"I'm very pleased that you like it, young sir," he cupped the back of his head for the barest instant with a gleam of pride in his eyes. Leslie, watching, smiled at the scene. Is that look for the boy, or the room? she wondered. …Maybe both. But I'd wager it's mostly for Dick.
The others entered, all now clad in civilian garb, and Bruce ran through introductions. "…Leslie's in," was all he had to add to make the slightly worried looks on the faces of the unmasked heroes vanish. With the formalities taken care of, movements were made to add gifts to the nearly overflowing table, praise was lauded on Alfred's design for the luncheon space, and everyone took a seat.
"So, what're we eating, birthday boy?" Barry inquired as Alfred vanished to wheel in the food.
"Yeah, what'd you pick?" Wally asked even more eagerly than his uncle.
"Fried chicken," he grinned.
"Nice choice," both speedsters and the Kryptonian said at almost the same time, causing everyone to laugh. Even Bruce smiled.
Glancing over at his friend once everyone had begun eating, Dick found the redhead tearing into a drumstick with his fingers. Everyone else, himself included, was using a knife and fork, but their concentration was so riveted on the wrestling the meat from the bone with utensils that conversation had ceased. "…Alfred?" he asked.
"Yes, Master Dick?" he was at his side instantly, bending down.
"…On a scale of one to ten, with one being totally okay with it and ten being me not getting anything but…" he gulped, "…cheese grits for breakfast next week, how angry would you be if I asked if we could eat our chicken with our fingers?"
Beside him, Wally froze. "…Wait, how else do you even eat fried chicken?" He stared around the table and found the adults, now all listening in, with silverware hovering over their plates. "Oh," he blushed, quickly trying to wipe his hands clean. "Sorry."
"Waaaally," Barry groaned as the others stifled chuckles.
"…Given that today is your birthday celebration, young sir," the butler answered with a magnanimous if slightly pained expression, "You and your guests are free to eat your chicken however you like."
"Thanks, Alfred," he beamed, immediately setting his fork and knife down. After a second everyone else around the table followed his lead, abandoning their silverware with relief. Bruce was slightly behind the others, and he shot the not-quite-wincing Englishman a mildly apologetic look before he too succumbed. Sorry, Alfred, but he's got a point; fried chicken is damned hard to eat with anything but bare hands. And it's definitely not as fun.
"…I totally owe you one, bro," Wally whispered gratefully.
"It's cool," Dick waved it off. "Good chicken."
The talk swelled back up after that, most of it the joyous, joking type of babbling that had been exactly what the boy's ears had craved. Leslie quickly fell into the comfortable chatter, any inhibitions she might have felt at first fading away as she remembered that, according to Alfred, the others all knew about Bruce's alter ego and pursued similar goals. For their part, the others welcomed her into their palaver; if Batman, by far the most paranoid and guarded of all of them, trusted her, then they could as well.
Of those seated at the table, only Bruce stayed relatively silent, chewing slowly and watching the others. He does this to people, he thought, his concentration switching back and forth between the talk of the other four adults and the low, boyish discussions taking place beside him. He brings them together in a way no one else does. I would never have invited half of these people into my house until a few months ago, let alone invited them to an informal lunch. Leslie might never have met any of the other Leaguers were it not for today, and although Barry gets along with most people, he's not one to search for a reason to spend leisure time with either Clark or Diana. Diana's been upstairs before, but none of those situations were lighthearted ones in the least. And yet here they all are, laughing and joking like…like normal civilians. Like we've all been friends for years, and this is something we do every Saturday. If he can do this sort of thing now, he's going to be one hell of a leader someday. A proud little smile inched its way across his lips as he considered that. His arm snuck across the back of Dick's chair, its purpose not to distract him from where he was leaning in towards Wally so some whispered message could be passed along but merely to serve as a tacit sign of possession.
After everyone was fit to burst on Alfred's excellent chicken, potatoes, and greens, the butler suggested that the new ten-year-old open the gifts his visitors had brought for him so that there was some time to digest before cake. Each present earned a squeak of delight from the boy who in previous years had been accustomed to receiving little more than a firm pat on the back and good wishes from his birthday guests. When it came down to the last two other than the avalanche-in-waiting from Bruce, he had a hard time choosing which to open first. Finally he opted for a large package addressed 'From Alfred' and tore into it excitedly.
"No way!" he cried out as the paper yielded to reveal a handsome leather case that held a custom-made trick kite and a multitude of accessories.
"And in Robin's colors," Bruce smirked, looking on.
"Well, the kite is nowhere near as agile as the actual Robin," Alfred said, accepting his second hug in as many hours from his younger charge, "but I imagine it will be some fun despite that."
"Some fun?! More like a ridiculously huge amount of fun." Dick gave the older man such a bright smile that for a minute afterwards the sun streaming through the windows couldn't quite pick up the slack. "…Wally, dude, we totally have to try this out before you leave."
"Perhaps you should save it for next weekend, when the ground is a bit less soggy," the Englishman advised.
"Oh. So…you're saying Wally can come over next weekend?" he asked slyly.
"I made no such promise, young sir," he couldn't quite bite back his amusement.
"I'm fine with it," Barry threw in. "Saturday night would be best. Iris wants to go to some concert and is dragging me along. You're cheaper than a babysitter, Bruce," he joked.
"We'll talk about it when I see your math test," the billionaire informed his son after rolling his eyes at the elder speedster.
"We got them back yesterday. I got a 98," he returned fire.
Well of course you did. "…Then I don't see a problem."
"Sweet!" The boys bumped fists, drawing a little 'aww' from Diana.
"…What?" she demanded when every male in the room turned to look at her oddly. Only Leslie looked undisturbed by her exhalation. "It was cute!"
"…Diana, it's a bro-fist, not a puppy," Barry explained. "It's not cute. It's…" he flailed his hands. "It's not cute," he repeated.
"Call it a bonding ritual," Bruce contributed.
"Yeah. It's that," Barry nodded vigorously.
The two females exchanged a glance. "I thought it was cute, too," Leslie admitted.
"Women," Barry looked towards the ceiling, shaking his head.
"Men," Diana shot back, crossing her arms.
"Last present before cake!" Dick interjected before a gender war could erupt.
Clever little bird, Bruce crowed silently as the paper was torn off of a small box. …Well. You actually went out and did it, he thought when he saw what the gift was. I'm kind of surprised, Clark.
"…Okay, process of elimination means that's from you, Clark, which makes it hilarious," Barry opined as he realized the boy was holding a Batman nightlight.
"Is this okay, though?" the child asked anxiously, looking up at his guardian. "I mean, isn't it risky? What if someone sees?" I really, really want to keep it, it's the one I wanted to start with and I know you're still jealous of the Superman one – after all, you glare at it every night when you tuck me in – but not if it's dangerous. Not if it will give us away.
"We discussed all that before the purchase was approved," he ruffled his hair as he read the intense concern in his wide eyes. "Half the kids in Gotham have Batman nightlights, based on the sales figures I saw. So…it's safe."
"I didn't know your company made nightlights," Leslie frowned.
"Then how did you see the sales figures for…do you know what? Never mind. I don't think I want to know," she decided.
"Probably a good idea."
"Batman does corporate espionage?" Barry inquired.
"He does what needs done," came back a bit shortly. "And right now," he went on, seeing Alfred coming in with a very large covered platter on a cart, "what needs done is for someone to get ready to cut dessert. That would be you, chum."
The heavy dish was set down in front of him. "Ready, Master Dick?" the butler asked, both hands preparing to lift the high, mirrored dome away.
"…Yes!" His jaw dropped, as did those of half the others present, when the dessert came into view. Even Wally went completely still for a brief moment. "…Holy cake," the birthday boy whispered.
"…That turned out even better than I thought it would," Bruce commented as they all took in the sight of an elephant standing with its trunk raised.
"How did you even do that?" Dick gasped.
"Many, many layers, and a fair bit of outright luck," Alfred's lip twitched upwards as he noted that only his elder charge and Leslie looked unsurprised by the fact that he'd managed to create such a realistic-looking confection.
"Next on 'Cake Boss: Gotham,'" Barry intoned, "can Alfred create jungle friends for his world-class elephant? Stay tuned to find out."
"Savanna friends," Dick said without thinking. "This is an African elephant, you can tell by the ears…Oh. Sorry," he blushed, realizing he'd just corrected an adult a bit brusquely. "I wasn't trying to be rude."
"Hey, I was wrong," the speedster shrugged good-naturedly, looking amused. "You're the elephant expert at the table, not me."
"…Alfred, I don't know if I can cut this."
"It's almost too pretty to eat," Diana agreed.
"…Well, you know, three-legged elephants can still walk and stuff," Wally suggested, staring at the sugar feast. "So maybe we could just eat a leg? We could even make him a prosthetic if you want, bro."
"I took plenty of pictures before bringing it in, Master Dick, if that's your concern."
"No, no, it's not that – although that's really cool, that way we always know how crazy awesome this cake is – I just…it's so realistic looking that I'd feel bad if I cut it," he admitted bashfully. "I couldn't hurt a real elephant, so…can you, um, do that part for me? Maybe…maybe somewhere where I don't have to see it happen?"
"Of course, young sir," Alfred nodded understandingly, lifting the platter away and rolling it towards the back of the room. Keeping himself between the table and his work area, he quickly dished portions out, then covered the now decidedly less whole creature back up to avoid any accidental viewings of the damaged creature.
After 'Happy Birthday' was sung and two rounds of dessert had been downed – the elephant tasted as good as it had looked – Bruce cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention. "I know we agreed that you would wait until later to open your other presents in the interest of, ah, time," he said, throwing a look towards the mountain of items behind him, "but there is one thing I want to give you before everyone leaves. I just wanted you to see the cake before I brought it up."
"Okay," Dick said quizzically.
"Alfred and I arranged a little something for you at the zoo this afternoon."
"At…at the zoo?" a grin started to spread across his lips. "What is it?"
"Your annual elephant ride, of course. I mean, I know it's not the right elephant, but…it's an elephant. Will that work for you?"
"A real elephant, right?" he breathed excitedly. It won't be Eleanor, but it will still be kind of like riding her. And I really do miss riding the elephants…
"A real, live elephant."
He bit his lip. "Can Wally come, too?" he ventured.
"…Bro, you are so awesome right now," an awed whisper came from behind him.
"I figured you'd ask that. That's why I wanted to tell you about it before anyone left. And yes, we informed the handler that there might be two riders." Dick was in his arms at that, and this time it wasn't just feminine voices that cooed.
"Best. Birthday. Ever," the boy said fiercely.
Both Leslie and Diana had to bow out of the field trip due to previous engagements, so two hours later the four men found themselves standing on the edge of a wide, sawdust-covered training area, watching the boys circle around over and over again. The handler stood a distance away, observing but doing little else. Dick had demonstrated from the moment he met the giant creature on whose back he was currently perched that he knew what he was doing when it came to elephants. The zoo employee had admitted after only a few minutes that the kid was a pro, and had stepped back to let him go.
"…Is there a time limit on this? Because they've been up there for, like, an hour," Barry mentioned.
"I'm not telling him to come down off of that elephant until he's good and ready," Bruce said flatly. I'll stand here all night if I have to. He's happy up there. He's had a good day – thank god he didn't break down like he did at Christmas, although the fact that this wasn't technically his first birthday with us no doubt contributed to that – and I'm not putting that to a premature end unless I absolutely have to.
"Hey, it's cool," the speedster raised his hands, picking up on the mild threat in the other man's voice. "No rush. I was just curious."
"I believe I'll have a seat on that small set of stands behind us," Alfred announced.
"Mind company?" Barry asked, his feet beginning to hurt. I shouldn't have gone all the way to Tierra del Fuego on my training run this morning, he lamented. That was a bit of a stretch. I'll stick to North America tomorrow.
"Not in the least, Mister Allen."
The two trailed off, leaving Bruce and Clark alone. "Here," the billionaire passed over a folded check after a minute. "I meant to give this to you before you left Tuesday, but I forgot."
"Bruce, I told you I don't want it," the Kryptonian refused.
"Clark, don't piss me off. Not today. Just take the damn check."
"I won't cash it, you know," he sighed, accepting the paper.
"That's up to you. I just want to know that I gave it to you."
I wonder… He opened it. "This is way more than I spent," he protested.
"Plane fare two ways, four days of lost wages, and what you spent during two separate grocery trips."
"I used frequent flyer miles both ways, I took paid vacation, and the grocery store purchases were minimal. I know you knew all that, so why is this check for such a large amount? I don't even want to know how you found out my salary and how much I spent on groceries. To the penny," he observed, looking at the check again. "Typical."
Goddamn it, Clark. "Clark…even with Dick, with whom I am far more open than I am with anyone else, there are still…certain things…that I can't say. That I can't even think. The only way I know to try and make up for the fact that I can't quite manage to spit out how I actually feel half the time is money. And I know that's crass and shallow, but…look, just think of it as an hourly babysitting wage, if that helps. But I'm not taking it back." It's more than just a check, for me, he added silently, his eyes never leaving the lithe figure that was radiating happiness from up on the elephant's shoulders.
"…That's incredibly sad, Bruce," he said quietly, stunned. "And incredibly flattering." As he spoke he re-folded the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. "…I'll cash it when I get home."
"…There's something else."
"This." He held out the jump drive onto which he'd saved and organized all of the Flying Grayson videos he'd found online. "I wasn't sure when would be a good time to give it to you, but…this seems pretty apropos."
"What is it?" he frowned, taking it. It can't be a mission, he wouldn't hand me something like that in a public venue.
His fingers clenched tightly around the small piece of plastic. "…What?" he asked, his voice slightly hoarse.
Clark explained. "The night after he and I watched Madagascar 3, I spent a couple of hours looking up videos of him and his parents performing. I was curious," he said defensively. "…They were spectacular. All three of them, together. I always knew that what happened was a tragedy, don't get me wrong, but…that was more than just murder. Zucco took something beautiful and irreplaceable out of the world that night. I…I had no idea. It helped me understand, Bruce. It really did. You sat there, and you saw that, and I know you felt the same way. And I know why you had to salvage what you could that night, and why you've continued to…well. The point is, I get it now.
"That drive has videos from the first night his parents took him up on a trapeze during a performance through a couple of weeks before they died. There's a lot of them, and they aren't all just trapeze, but they're all of him. He's a baby in the first few, but he grows up fast. Anyway…I thought you might like to see some of those moments that you didn't get to be there for."
…That check wasn't nearly big enough, Bruce thought, swallowing hard. "…Zucco screwed up that night," he said softly. "He got most of the act, but not the truly important part. He didn't get the soul." He paused. "I did."
"I'd believe that in an instant." He clapped a hand on his shoulder. "And Bruce?" he added.
"John and Mary Grayson themselves couldn't have chosen anyone better to pick up where they left off. Remember that, if you can."
He swallowed so hard it hurt. Thanks, Clark.
Author's Note: I hope you all enjoyed the story! Thank you so much for going on this little adventure with me. Your dedicated reading and many reviews are my inspiration.
A little housekeeping: A reviewer asked yesterday if I was going to follow up on Clark's concerns about Gobblehead. I will, just in a short (probably a three-shot) piece set a few weeks after this story.
In terms of the next long story in this universe, that should start up in a week or so, with some smaller things being posted between now and then, both in this universe and outside of it. I'm stepping back a bit in the next story and covering Dick's earliest days at the manor, up through his becoming Robin. The story will be called 'Firework.'
For those of you who have been reading 'A Spot of Tea,' there will be a new one-shot tomorrow.