Alfred had offered to manage the task of finding a suitable academic environment for his younger charge, but Bruce rebuffed him. As hesitant as the billionaire had initially been with the prospect of instructing his son in the necessities of night work, once their lessons began he found himself greatly enjoying the role of teacher. That fact, paired with his intense desire to give Dick the best of everything that he possibly could, left him unable to relinquish control over any part of this crucial decision about Dick's education. As a result, the Friday afternoon following his conversation with Flash found him holed up in the study and staring blankly at the screen of his laptop, wondering if he had gotten in over his head.
He'd left work early with the idea of getting a jump on researching schools for the boy, but three hours and twenty browser tabs later he felt more confused than he had when he'd sat down. There are just so many options, he sighed as he clicked through them all once more, images of manicured lawns and perfectly coiffed classes flashing by. I know I could just send him to my old school, but… But that hadn't been a happy place by any stretch of the imagination, and he couldn't stand the thought of packing the child off daily to an institution which had left him with no positive memories whatsoever. Why don't any of these recruitment sites have something that says they cater to bright, bouncy, too-smart-for-their-own-good hug monsters? Is that so much to ask, for one thing to be that simple?
Part of the problem, he knew, was that he had only a hazy clue as to where Dick belonged in terms of grade level. The results of the academic tests he'd been given while at the Center were close at hand, but they didn't offer much more than flat scores in broad, overarching categories. On top of that, Bruce's natural hesitancy to trust anything that had come from the detention facility was making him question the already vague information he had. I'd get him retested, but all of these schools seem to want to do their own admission exams. He's already going to be worn out with testing if I put in applications for him at two or three places, let alone if I have him take an independent survey, too. If no one will even accept it as sufficient proof of his abilities, it seems superfluous. Still, knowing for sure where he sits with the coursework would make this so much easier...he's past third grade, that much is for certain. But where will he be come September? Probably past fourth, too, with the way he absorbs everything around him…
There was only one option that had stood out as all but guaranteed to be a good fit, a math and science oriented private school on the opposite side of the city. Reading about the place, Bruce had allowed himself to begin to feel excited before he realized that they only offered sixth grade and higher. …As smart as you are, Dicky, sixth grade feels like too much of a jump, he'd sighed, closing the site. Maybe you'll be ready for Gotham Academy in a couple of years, but as young as you are now I kind of doubt they'd even let you test. Besides, you should be with kids closer to your own age. I know you get along with everyone already – well, with everyone who isn't actively trying to hurt you, at least – but you need to make some friends. I didn't see any children in your age group with the caravan, and you haven't mentioned there being any, either. Now you aren't even getting to interact with new people by traveling and performing in different places. I don't want you to grow up only having interactions with criminals and people who are two or more decades older than you. I have to find you a good school. Maybe if I do I can still give you the gift of normalcy, if only in one or two aspects of your life.
For the moment, though, he needed a break. Pulling up a local news aggregation site that he was fond of due to its knack at featuring exactly the sorts of stories he was interested in, his jaw dropped. Oh, shit. I didn't expect a verdict that fast… Skimming the article quickly, he determined that there was nothing in it he didn't want his son to see. "Dick. Come over here for a second, would you?"
The boy looked up from where he was sprawled on the thick rug that lay before the cold fireplace with a book. "Huh? Oh! Sure." Tucking a page marker carefully into place, he rolled to his feet and scampered over. "What's up? Did you find a good school, or…" His eyes wandered to the computer screen, widening as his voice trailed off. "…Bruce?"
"It's okay, chum," the billionaire assured as he pulled him up onto his knee. "It's okay."
"They…they found her guilty? They really found her guilty?"
"Not even disreputable news sources would dare publish a headline like that without checking their facts, kiddo. It's legitimate."
"Um…this is going to sound really weird, but…would you read it?"
"…Huh? What, you mean out loud?"
"Well…yeah. I…I don't know, Bruce, it's just hard," he buried his face against the man's shoulder. "It's better if you tell me than if I try and read it myself. Please?"
How could I possibly say no to that request? "Sure. Sure, I'll read it out loud. Do you want me to just start at the top and keep going until you tell me to stop?"
"Okay." Shifting the boy backwards so that he could hold him with one arm while the other scrolled through the article, he began to read:
Senior Gotham CPS agent guilty of negligent homicide, other charges.
A Gotham City court found former senior Child Protective Services caseworker Margine Randall guilty on multiple charges just before 5pm today in what the city's Police Commissioner, James Gordon, quickly heralded as "a highly relieving decision." Sentencing is scheduled for next week.
The gravest charge that Randall was convicted of was negligent homicide in the death of eleven-year-old Tavon Dennison, who died at the Patrick Worthington Memorial Detention Center for Boys following a violent encounter with an older inmate. According to court documents, Dennison was being housed in the facility under an obscure section of municipal code that allows for emergency placement of non-offenders in juvenile correction and other judicial institutions when no other beds are available. The prosecution had alleged that Randall abused this loophole to conduct what District Attorney Grace Cardenas-Brown called "a disgustingly classist experiment," which was outlined in a manuscript that listed Randall and the (former) director of the Worthington Memorial Center, Dr. Jonas Whitney, as authors. Cardenas-Brown went on to state that this "experiment" was designed to "expose innocent children to psychological, emotional, and physical abuse by their more hardened peers in an effort to make them servile and conducive to 'retraining' by the defendant and her crony."
Other charges that Randall was found guilty of included conspiracy (3 counts), child negligence (14 counts), and submission of false documentation to the court (5 counts). The false documentation charges were reported to have been connected to Randall's apparent attempts to undermine the efforts of well-known Gotham socialite Bruce Wayne to adopt Richard Grayson, who was the sole survivor of an attack on a visiting circus that claimed his parents and who was subjected to Randall's program for a short time in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy.
Bruce paused, wincing. "…Sorry, chum, I didn't catch that bit before I read it," he murmured. Interesting about the false documentation, though. Now I'm curious what she was alleging. Although, he reconsidered, knowing how sick and twisted she can be, maybe it's better that I don't know what she was telling people I was doing to Dick. That other part, about how she put him through her program…I wish they hadn't published that. The people who were so cruel to him at the banquet are the of same sort who send their children and grandchildren to some of the schools I'm considering, and the last thing he needs is for people to complain that they don't want him there because of what Randall put him through.
"…S'okay," the boy answered quietly, still averting his gaze from the screen. "…Is there more?"
"Yeah, there's more. Let's see…" Wanting to avoid blurting out any more painful reminders, he went through the article on his own, only offering those bits of information that he thought would be of interest to the child in his lap. "Okay, so they're going to try Whitney next – if they got her, they'll get him, too, I'm sure – and…oh, hey, here's some good news," he squeezed him gently.
"What is it?"
"Well, even if Whitney is acquitted of everything there's no way they'll want him going back to his job at the Center. So they've named someone to take his place."
"…Who is it?"
"…They made Miss Linda in charge of the whole Center?" Dick asked, his voice laden with pleased surprise.
"Yup. It looks like the decision was made back when Whitney was indicted, but they waited to announce it until they saw which way the winds were going to blow. This says she already has plans to change a lot of things about how that place is run."
"It's already better, just by having her in charge," the youth opined firmly. "She cares about people, Bruce. She cared about Caleb, and me, and maybe even about Kevin, when no one else did. Well," he amended, not wanting to hurt his guardian's feelings by implying that he hadn't cared in the beginning, "when no one seemed to care, I guess. She's the sort of person who should be running the Center."
"I agree, kiddo."
"Can we send her a card?"
"A card?" Bruce frowned down at him.
"Yeah. Like…congratulations? And…and thank you? Can we do that?"
Of course you want to send her a card. That's so…you. "Sure. Talk to Alfred, he's got a box full of them just waiting to be used. One for every occasion, he always says."
"Okay." They were silent for a moment. "…Does it say anything about him? About…about Kevin?"
"…Yes," the billionaire picked out the teen's name towards the bottom of the article. "…He cut a plea deal." Son of a bitch.
"A plea deal? What's that?"
"That's when someone admits to having done something in exchange for a concession from the court. In Kevin's case," he grimaced, "he pled guilty to aggravated assault and manslaughter. If he'd decided to say he wasn't guilty and go to trial, the way Randall did, they would have tried him for murder and a bunch of other stuff, assault, intimidation, things like that. This way he doesn't risk a murder conviction. They gave him ten years in prison, with mandatory anger management counseling for the duration of his sentence and probation." It's not enough, he protested silently. Not for any murder, and certainly not for the murder of an innocent child. That's not even enough for what he did, and then threatened to do, to my boy…
"…Maybe they can make him better now, in grown-up jail. Maybe the counseling is what he needs," Dick piped up hopefully.
"…Yeah, maybe," Bruce agreed without believing a word of it. No, he's one that will either kill or be killed behind bars, he mused. If he ever does get out, I don't imagine that it will be long before he's back inside, quite possibly due to the work of Batman. Or of Robin, a slight smile crossed his lips despite the dark topic at hand. I'd prefer that, to be honest. Watching you punch his lights out and hand him over to the cops…yeah. I'd pay good money to see that. "Here's one more thing," he went on. "They replaced Randall, too. A man named Erwin took over for her. It sounds like he has just as many ideas about things as Miss Linda does." He shut the computer firmly, unable to process any more new information after everything that he'd just read. "Do you want to go tell all of this to Alfred? You know he's going to be happy to hear it."
"That would be nice. We should do that," he nodded. "But…Bruce?"
"Does this mean that that Mr. Erwin is going to be my new social worker?"
"I don't think so. When I spoke with Keith – Mr. Jones – on Tuesday, he said they'd assigned you to another lady, but he didn't have her name yet."
"Oh. Well, she can't be worse than my old social worker, so…"
Yeah, Bruce snorted to himself. Short of your new caseworker being Tony Zucco's vengeful ghost, there isn't much chance of this being anything other than a positive change. Caught by the image he'd conjured up, he shivered. Ugh. No. Don't think about things like that, he instructed himself sharply. It can't happen in any case, because ghosts aren't real. Get ahold of yourself, Wayne… "Right," he conceded. "Now come on, let's go tell Alfred all of the juicy stuff. You know he loves hearing about bad guys getting their comeuppance, even if he'll never admit it."
"Right," Dick grinned.
The butler was understandably ecstatic. "That is most excellent news, sirs," he stated, pausing his work on their dinner to listen raptly as they took turns giving out tidbits about the article they'd read together. "And it comes at a fortuitous time, as well."
"…It does?" both of his charges asked simultaneously, exchanging a glance.
The Englishman nearly laughed out loud at their identical expressions. "Indeed it does. For you see, Master Dick's Robin costume is ready."
"Really?" a squeal of delight sounded.
"Ow, kiddo, jeez, was that loud enough for you?" Bruce flinched, reaching for his ear dramatically.
Alfred bit back a chuckle. "While I understand that you've now received two very exciting pieces of news back to back, young sir, I must insist that you try and use your inside voice whilst expressing your joy anywhere other than in the yard."
"Sorry," the boy blushed. "But…can I see it? When can I try it on? Bruce, do you think I can do my training in costume tonight? Please? I know it isn't a toy, but…can I just please try it out?" In his eagerness one hand reached out and gripped his guardian's sleeve, begging wordlessly.
"…Yes," the billionaire acceded. "After dinner Alfred can explain everything he used to make it – that's important to know, by the way, so pay attention – and then you can try it on. And then," he added secretively, "I have a special surprise for you."
"You do?! What is it?"
"If I tell you, it won't be a surprise. Just wait, chum. Besides, you need to be in costume to do it, so even if I told you now you couldn't have it any sooner." I just hope you like it.
The youth fidgeted all through their meal, wolfing his food in an obvious effort to get downstairs faster. Taking pity on him, Bruce also ate more quickly than usual. As soon as their plates were clean and cleared, the trio trooped downstairs, Alfred leaving the other two alone long enough to retrieve his project from its hiding spot. "Here we are, sirs," he hung it up where they could both see. "A costume fit for a boy wonder, I believe."
"…A what?" Dick asked, eyebrows knitting.
"A boy wonder, young sir. It seems a fitting title for you given the already broad range of talents you possess at such a young age, but if you don't like it I'll refrain from using it again."
"No! No, I…I like it," he promised. "Robin, the Boy Wonder. Does that sound good, do you think?" he glanced between the two adults.
"Indeed it does, Master Dick."
"…It is pretty catchy," Bruce admitted.
"…Cool," Dick grinned, then drew close to his new garments. "It looks just like my other one almost, but…I don't know, it's kind of different, too. And it feels different, for sure."
"There are some rather fascinating blends present in your disguise, Master Dick," the butler explained as he came to kneel beside him. "The main body of the outfit is a light Kevlar-woven synthetic fabric. It will help regulate your body temperature while also providing a modest amount of protection from projectiles. It's nowhere near as effective at that task as true armor," he looked displeased, "but your size and the techniques that you have been developing aren't conducive to such an apparatus. Perhaps when you're a bit older when can revisit the question, but for now this should lend you a little protection. Keep in mind, however, that it will at best only slow whatever you are being struck with, not stop it. Do not attempt to go about taking blows in the manner that Master Wayne does in his full armor."
"I won't," the boy promised dutifully.
"Very good. Now, your boots are very thick, and have soles similar to those on Batman's footwear; highly impenetrable, waterproof, et cetera. There is a metal lining in the toes, but it isn't as thick as that in Batman's boots. It's still plenty to make anyone you kick regret it more than they might otherwise, but it should be light enough not to make walking long distances an awful chore. Special attention was given to this feature," he picked up one shoe and bent it nearly in half in his hands. "They're very protective, but also very flexible. You shouldn't experience any problems whatsoever being able to perform your usual acrobatics in them. Your gloves were designed on a similar premise, with heavy focus going into making sure that your fingers wouldn't feel encumbered or their movements restrained while you were wearing them.
"As for your cape," he fingered the yellow and black material, "I believe we've weighted it properly to keep it from becoming a nuisance during your more complicated routines. It does not have nearly the anti-corrosion factor of Batman's capes," he warned, "so do not believe for an instant that you can undergo the sort of spraying that he described as having taken in the fertilizer factory without it burning through very swiftly. It's quite fire and waterproof, but the only way to make it impervious to acids would have been to create something far too heavy for you to drag around all night. Your mask has also been modified to include a radio and a few other…goodies." The butler stepped back. "I'll allow Master Wayne to show you where he's placed everything in your utility belt, and to let you in on a few special features that I glossed over. I hope you like it, young sir?"
"Like it?" Dick gasped, having listened to the descriptions with an awed air. "I love it! It's so amazing…" Flinging himself at the Englishman, he gave him a massive hug, overwhelmed by the obviously huge amount of work that had gone into the outfit before him. "Thank you, thank you so much, it's perfect, I promise I'll take good care of it cause I know it was a lot to do, oh, gosh, Alfred…" Tearing away, he skipped back to the uniform. "Do you think I can put it on now, Bruce?" he queried, turning to find his guardian. A frown etched over his lips. "…Where did he go?"
"Go get changed, Dick," a low voice ordered as Batman appeared from the costuming area. The billionaire had snuck away during Alfred's explanations to prepare his surprise, and his reappearance in full battle dress drew a pair of curious looks. "Alfred, will you excuse us?" It isn't that I'm opposed to you being here, he thought as the child bolted past, hanger in hand, but…this just feels like something that ought to be done in private.
"Of course, sir," the older man acquiesced after a brief pause. Do I want to know what you're doing with a candle in hand? No, he decided a moment later, I probably do not. "If either of you require anything before the end of the night…" he trailed off, moving slowly towards the stairs.
Very well, then, the butler sighed, then smiled slightly as Dick, having changed in record time from sheer eagerness, reappeared in his new vestments. Have your secrets from me, the both of you. So long as you at least share them with one another, I suppose my worry will be tolerably assuaged. He glanced back once before vanishing into the upper levels of the house, looking just in time to see Batman study the boy from head to toe and give a single short nod of approval. You'll do fantastic things together, I think, he decided, a mixture of pride and fear stirring in his stomach. I only hope that your partnership will outlast me, because I do not believe that I would have the strength to see one of you go. Well, he stiffened his expression, that shan't be the case. You'll take of one another whether I'm nearby or not. That, I am positive, is something I can count on.
Once they were alone Batman led Robin to a length of counter that he had specifically cleared for this purpose. It had taken a bit of arguing with his civilian alter-ego to gain permission for what was about to occur, but for all that Bruce still loathed the idea of Dick fighting crime indefinitely he hadn't required much cajoling to be reminded that, no matter how much he opposed it, it was something that the child needed for his own wellbeing. Once that issue had been cleared up the vigilante had been able to focus on creating a simple ritual, something that would formalize his young partner's entrance into night work and give him a very basic foundation on which to base all of the deeds he would undertake henceforth. Now he set up the candle he had carried over, lit it, and turned to the solemnly watching child. "Robin," he began.
"…Do you recall the oath you took last week in court?"
"Yes. Of course I do."
"Good." He hesitated. You look so damned innocent right now. You've no idea. But…this has to be done. What's more, you deserve this. You've earned this moment. We must proceed… "Robin, is it your intention with this mask," one gauntleted finger stretched out, just for a second, to trace the very edge of the boy's disguise, "to defend the weak and champion the cause of justice?"
"Absolutely," came back instantly.
…That was faster than I expected. You didn't even have to think about it. Only a desire to maintain the sober atmosphere of the moment kept him from smirking proudly. "Then, if you so desire, take this candle in your left hand and raise your right."
Robin did as he'd been asked, swallowing hard. This…I'm making a promise, he realized as his hand rose. A huge, super important promise, something…something I can never, ever break. But…that's okay. I know I won't break it. Whatever it is, Batman wouldn't ask me to swear to it if he didn't know it was something I'll never go back on. So…yes. I want this. I want to do this, and with you. "I swear to fight for justice and right wherever I find it threatened," he repeated after the black-clad man, "and to be a beacon of light and hope wherever darkness gathers. I further swear to do these things with respect for human life and the rule of law. This oath I shall carry with me and uphold until the end of my days."
The last word died out, and for a moment neither spoke, the whites of their respective lenses staying welded to one another as they soaked in the aftermath of those monumental words. Finally Batman took the candle and gently snuffed it out. "…Robin?"
"You can lower your hand now."
"Oh! Sorry. I just…you know…wanted to make sure we were all done. I didn't want to mess up something so…so important." He paused. "Thank you, Batman. Thank you for letting me do that. For letting me…letting me do this," his hand rose to his face.
"Keep your oath, Robin, and you'll have more than earned the right to wear that mask," the vigilante breathed back.
"I will. I promise." He looked down. "I got some wax on the floor. I'll clean it up, though, don't worry."
"Wait," the man stopped him. "…Leave it."
"But…won't Alfred have to pick it up then?"
"It's all right, Robin. Let it stay." I want it there. I want it there as a reminder, of this night, not for you necessarily, but...for myself.
The boy watched his mentor for a moment, head cocked to one side as he tried to decide what that strange order signified. Understanding blossomed in his mien suddenly, and he smiled. "…Batman?"
"Do you remember before, when you told me that sometimes bad things happen to good people?"
"Well, I think you forgot to tell me something about that. Something important, actually."
"And what was that?" an eyebrow lifted beneath the cowl.
"You forgot to tell me that sometimes good things happen to good people, too."
"…You're right, Robin. I did forget that part." A beat passed. "Sometimes good things do, in fact, happen to good people." Even if the person in question doesn't really deserve it, he mused, considering the clever child standing before him. Like me. But fortunately, he added as thin arms wrapped around his waist, I have you to remind me just how much good there is in the world, and how much more of it than I'm entitled to I've been given. Thank you for that, Robin, his arm fell to squeeze him for the space of a heartbeat. Thank you.
Author's Note: First, and most importantly, thank you all so much for sticking with this story all the way through 100 chapters. When I started on this I had absolutely no idea that it would turn into such a behemoth, but I'm glad it did because it was such a joy to write. The wonderful reviews and comments I've received from so many of you during the course of this tale was the fuel that kept the muse goin; hopefully you're pleased with the end result. I know I am. For those of you who came into this story without having read any of my other pieces in the Spark in the Dark universe, I hope you enjoyed our journey here enough to continue reading. A full, chronological list of Spark in the Dark stories can be found on my profile.
Now, a little housekeeping. My goal is to post another chapter of 'Joker's Little Party' before the end of the week. I'm going out of town this weekend so I likely won't be posting daily until next Tuesday, but I'll try to get something out if I can. Next week will see the last two chapters of 'Joker,' probably a new 'Spot of Tea' chapter, and possibly the beginning of a short piece (no more than ten chapters) set shortly after 'Weekend in Bruges' that will explain the origins of Gobblehead. After two or so weeks of shorter works I will be stepping away from Spark in the Dark (temporarily!) to write a story that I've been looking forward to doing almost since I began writing in this fandom. It will be a Dick and Tim bonding and adventure piece set in the middle of nowhere, and I think it will be a fun read.
To answer a couple of questions that were asked by several readers over the past couple of days, yes, I will be shedding more light/spending more time exploring Barry and Wally's relationship in the Spark in the Dark universe. Most of this exploration will be done in the context of Batman stories, but depending on what I come up with I may at some point do a story or two within the Spark universe that focuses specifically on the speedsters. Others commented that they don't want to see this story be the end of the Spark universe, and I assure you, it is not. I have many more ideas for this universe, and I'm eager to share them with everyone willing to take the time to read them.
On that note, thank you all once more for the time and energy you've spent reading and, in many cases, reviewing this story. I hope that you enjoyed it, and I look forward to setting off on the next adventure with you. Happy reading!