Author's Note: Hello, lovely readers! This will be a series of short pieces set during Dick's first summer at the manor in the Spark in the Dark universe. Even if you haven't read any of the other pieces in that universe, you should be fine to read these without too much confusion. They aren't necessarily in order, although where it matters I will make it clear what part of the season the scene is set in. I have a short list already, including Robin's first patrol, but if anyone has anything they'd particularly like to see appear in this little series of shorts please let me know!
I'll be posting a new chapter of Turkey Song before the weekend.
"Don't peek," Bruce ordered, pausing with his fingers wrapped around the front door's wrought iron handle.
"I won't," Dick promised, his hands rising to cover his already-shut eyes. "But seriously, what is it?" His guardian had hinted at this moment all week long, teasing him about how much he was going to like his 'beginning of summer' surprise, and the boy could barely stand another second of waiting.
"I'm not telling," the billionaire answered, a trace of a chuckle tinting his voice. "You're just going to have to come out on the porch and see. But not until I say so," he added. "I mean it, kiddo. Don't cheat."
"I don't cheat," Dick gave a wounded pout.
"I know you don't," came a quick reassurance. "It's just important that we do this a certain way, all right?"
"Sure. But can we go outside now?"
"Who said anything about going outside?" Bruce taunted.
"Okay, okay," he relented. "We're going."
"You're really excited about this, aren't you?" the child asked as a guiding touch lighted on his shoulder and directed him through the doorway. "You sound excited."
"...Maybe I am a little, chum," the man at his side admitted slowly. "But what's important," he stopped him before he could tumble over the edge of the top step, "is what you're going to see in a second."
"Does that mean I can look now?!"
"Hold on," he urged, kneeling down to place his hands over his son's as Alfred wheeled an extremely shiny bike into view from the direction of the garage. "Don't peek, Dicky." Don't spoil it.
"I won't spoil it. I promise."
"What's that sound? Is something coming up the driveway?"
Shit. "Just ignore it. It's nothing."
"But you wouldn't want me to ignore it if we were-" He broke off, remembering that they were outside and that cave-talk was therefore verboten. "Well, you wouldn't normally want me to ignore a strange noise."
"...It's focus training." Will you buy that? Bruce wondered. I think you'll buy that. You're scary smart, kiddo, but you're still enough of a child that putting the word 'training' after just about anything is enough to convince you that it's covert Robin practice. It's convenient, to say the least.
"...'Focus training'?" was returned curiously.
"Yeah. Sometimes you really need to concentrate on one thing, but there are noises or lights that distract you. This will help you learn to ignore those things and prioritize the task at hand," Bruce made up on the fly.
It was the sort of thing that Batman would come up with, Dick had to admit. "...So my task is to focus on...on what?"
"On...counting backwards from a hundred," the figure behind him improvised.
"But that's easy!"
"I know. Once you can do that without being distracted, I'll give you something harder."
"Okay," the boy shrugged. "One hundred, ninety nine, ninety eight, ninety seven..."
The ploy bought plenty of time for the butler to put the two-wheeler into position at the base of the stairs and step away. Once everything was ready, he arched an eyebrow at his elder charge, inquiring silently as to whether or not he was planning on interrupting the youth's recitation. The other man merely put on a sheepish look as Dick reached the forties, however, and both settled back to wait out the countdown.
"Fivefourthreetwoone!" the nine-year-old finished in a rush. Completely oblivious to the amused glance that the two adults were sharing over his head, he went on. "Can I look now?!"
"Okay, chum," Bruce allowed. "I'm going to pull my hands away, but I want you to wait for a minute before you open your eyes. Got it?"
The billionaire moved around to his side, still squatting but now able to see the pointed face he was certain would be wreathed with joy in just a few short seconds. I don't want to miss that look, he thought determinedly. "...Ready?"
"Okay. Now." He held his breath as the child's lids flew up. For a moment the unveiled blue orbs looked merely confused, then consternated, and the billionaire felt his heart sink. You don't like it, he thought sadly. I thought maybe...I just wanted...damn it! "...Dicky?"
"Is...is that a bike?"
"Yeah, chum. It's for you."
"Of course." Who else would I buy kid-sized anything for? C'mon, kiddo, just...just a little smile? Please?
And then, suddenly, there it was, a happy, radiant grin that chased off the storm clouds Bruce had felt building at the back of his skull when his plan seemed to have failed. His own lips stretched until he was certain a glint of teeth could be seen between them, but for the moment he let the unusual expression go. There. That was what I was hoping for. Oof, he added as thin arms wrapped around his neck. And that's just a bonus. A really fantastic bonus. "You like it?"
"Yup! Thank you! It's really pretty."
...'Really pretty'? Kind of an odd way to describe a bicycle, but okay. "Do you want to take it for a spin before dinner?" he encouraged, eager to see him on it.
"Um...maybe after?" Dick suggested. "It's just...well, it'll never be this clean again, right?"
"Not if you use it right, no," Bruce joked even as the mild hesitancy in his child's voice gave him pause. I barely even stopped to say thank you when I got my first bike, he mused. If Alfred hadn't been giving me a look as I was getting on it I probably wouldn't have done anything other than ride off whooping for sheer delight. Hell, it took scrapes on practically every joint I possessed before dad finally managed to convince me to let him adjust the seat to my height...I know you're not me, chum, but why aren't you sprinting towards the driveway right now?
"Maybe...maybe we should let it be pretty, just for a little while? I'll...I'll ride it after we eat, okay?" he asked, almost begging now as he clung to his guardian's neck.
"Dick," the man pulled back to meet his gaze, "it's...it's okay if you don't like it. We can get you a different one, or-"
"No!" came an instant negation. "I do like it, Bruce. Honest, I really do. I just...want to wait until after dinner. Please?"
"...If that's what you want, chum, then sure," he agreed, puzzled but unwilling to push. Maybe there's a memory tied to bicycles that he hasn't told me about, he tried to logic as Alfred joined them and they all moved inside and towards the dining room, leaving the toy to preen in the early evening light. He might just need a little time to tackle it, that's all. I mean hell, I ought to know what that feels like, considering what happened when I started thinking about this moment...
Upon receiving his six-month custody order, now a third of the way gone, a million possibilities had flooded his head. They were all things that it would have been silly to debate on or purchase until he knew for a fact that Dick would have time to use them, but they became essential the moment the boy's long-term residence at the manor was made somewhat secure. Only slightly below finding him a good school had been getting him a bike, and in the process of daydreaming about that necessary purchase Bruce had stumbled upon a long ago hidden recollection that had left him standing alone in the garage with silent tears rolling down his cheeks.
Dad and me on the porch, and Alfred out on the gravel with my present, he bit the inside of his cheeks as he played the tiny snippet of his past that had assaulted him amongst the cars over once more in his mind. My 'beginning of summer surprise,' dad called it. Mom was behind us, but that's the only thing that was different that day, really. The way I felt a minute ago, when he first really smiled about the bike, he pondered as he and the boy took up their usual spots across the table from one another, is that...is that how dad felt when I saw my bike? I know I was much younger than Dick is – I had to have been five, because it was the...the last summer... - but I must have grinned just like he did. Did...did dad look the way I did out there just now? I don't know, he thought sadly. I wasn't looking at him, I was looking at the bike. I wish...I wish I had been paying attention to him, though. Now, looking back...I wish I had hugged him the way Dick did me.
He jerked his head up just as a plate was set before him. "Huh?"
"You're...you're not mad that I didn't want to ride it right away, are you?"
"No," he shook his head. "Of course not. Why would you think I was?" I wish I knew exactly why you didn't want to, but I'm not mad. I'll never be mad at you for hurting, Dicky.
"You were glaring at the tablecloth. You kind of looked like you wished you had Clark's heat vision so you could set it on fire," the youth informed him gravely. "I just...I just wanted to make sure that it wasn't me you were angry about."
Oh, baby, no. "I'm not mad at you, chum," he reassured him.
"I promise," he nodded. "But kiddo? You know if there's some reason you don't want to ride it that you can tell me, right?"
"I...I know." The boy's gaze slid away, and he reached hastily for his fork. "But I'm fine. I'll...I'll ride it after dinner. Which smells really, really good, Alfred," he changed the subject with a suavity that Bruce would have found inappropriate in anyone else's nine-year-old. "What did you put in the green beans?"
"...Almonds, Master Dick," the butler answered, sending his elder charge a knowing look once the child had focused on his food. "Just a few slivered almonds."
The billionaire replied to the unspoken injunction to get to the bottom of whatever was bothering the youngest member of their family with a minuscule tip of his head. It's got to be a memory, he decided, digging into his own repast. An important one, too, I'd bet. He only tries to hide the ones that really hurt him from me, and I think that's only because he knows it hurts me to see him break down like he does when we dredge one of those up. If I could just hide myself from him more effectively in those moments, but...but he reads me like a goddamn book. Well, after dinner, then. If I push him on it now he won't eat, and I don't want that. It will wait until we're back outside...
Finally, the interminable meal ended. Dick's replies to the questions Bruce tossed him throughout had been scattered and distracted, settling the man further into his certainty that they would be tackling another relic from his son's past before bedtime. It's okay, chum, he ached to repeat as he watched the boy almost mince up to the contraption on the gravel. Just tell me. We'll work through it together, just like we have every other time. Too many times, his mouth tightened. Let it out so that we can beat it. Let it out so that you can have some fun. "...Do you need me to adjust the seat, kiddo?" he called from his position on the steps.
"Uh...no. It's fine."
...Fine? he wondered as he watched him circle the bike, touching it lightly. It's three inches too high, I can see that from here. Come on, Dicky, quit being so stubborn...if you try to ride it like that you'll just hurt yourself. He flinched at a vision of bloodied knees, hands, and elbows, a premonition of brave little hiccups sounding in his mind as imaginary gravel was plucked from grated flesh. Ugh. God, no wonder dad kept trying to get me to stop to let him change it...I'm not letting him fillet himself like I did.
"Master Wayne," Alfred spoke quietly from beside him, cutting him off just before he could stride forward and insist on lowering the platform. "...Do you recall seeing a bicycle anywhere in or around the young master's former home when you visited it? I realize your time there was very brief and that you had other things on your mind, but...do you perchance remember any specifics?"
Bruce frowned, thinking back a quarter of a year. "...No," he said eventually. "I don't. I don't know where they would have put one," he went on. "And from what he's said and what I've learned on my own they didn't have much of anything for spare money to buy one. Why do you ask?"
The Englishman shot him a glance. "I'm amazed you haven't deduced it for yourself, sir."
"Deduced what?" he hissed, both of them watching as Dick played with the brakes experimentally and then bent to flick a pedal into motion with his hand.
"Don't you suppose his hesitation might be rooted in his never having had a bicycle before?" A beat passed as the billionaire absorbed that proposal. "If he's never ridden one, but has seen other children do so – has seen other children crash, perhaps – he'd be rightly slow to simply climb aboard and give it a go. Or at least I imagine he would be," he tacked on swiftly.
But...don't all kids know how to ride bikes? Bruce fumbled. I mean...ah, fuck. It's not like it's an inborn trait, genius. If he's never had a bike, how would he just know how to ride one? "...Alfred, I'm an idiot," he groaned. "I thought it was a memory, something attached to his father, or Haly, or something like that, but...god, that didn't even occur to me, that he might not know how. Here, give me that," he reached out for the helmet the butler held under one arm. "We're fixing this, right now. Dick! Hold up, chum." He trotted down to join him, ignoring the tiny rocks that pressed through his pants as he knelt. "Dick...you don't know how to ride a bike, do you?"
"Of course I-!" The protest died out before it could be fully born, withering under the man's imploring look. "...No," he whispered, scuffing the toe of his sneaker in the dirt. "I don't. We...we could never afford for me to have one, and town kids...well...they didn't like to play with me to start with."
"...So you've never even been on one?" Bruce boggled. You can spend all day on your bars or on a trapeze without a care in the world, but you've never ridden a bike. Jesus christ, what a weird gap in your repertoire.
"I was on a unicycle once, but...my legs weren't long enough to really reach the pedals," Dick shrugged. "And those are even more expensive than bicycles, which doesn't make any sense since it's only half of one." That held him for a moment, his nose wrinkling as he considered the quandary. "Anyway...I was on one once. A bike, I mean. This...this group of other kids let me try one of theirs. Mom was...she was grocery shopping," he began to chew at his lower lip, "but it was hot inside so I didn't want to go in. She said I could play in a little park right across the street so long as I didn't go away or talk to strange adults. So I talked to the kids instead. I...I thought they were nice, and...I always wanted a bike, Bruce," he shared. "I'd see them all the time, and they looked like so much fun, but...even if we had spare money for one, where would we have put it? It would have gotten all dinged up on the back of the trailer, and there was no room inside...anyway, this girl said I could try hers. And I thought...I thought they were being nice, you know? They said they'd teach me...
"So I got up on it," he sniffled, "and first they were helping me balance, and it was nice. We were going really slow, and they were holding me up, but it was really neat. Everyone was laughing. I...I thought we were playing together, but...I was wrong. They were playing together, but I wasn't one of them." His brow darkened. "There was this little hill, not very big – maybe as high as the stairs, and not steep or anything – anyway, they pushed me towards that. They pushed me to the top, and we were going kinda fast then, like they were jogging along. And I started to go down the hill, and...and then they weren't there any more. They'd stopped, and they were watching me go, Bruce. For a second it was okay, it was like I was doing it for real, but...they hadn't actually shown me anything. I didn't know how to stop, and I steered too hard to one side 'cause I got scared, and...and I crashed. I wasn't really hurt or anything, and neither was the bike, but...they all laughed when I fell." He ducked his head, a single tear shining on his cheek. "They all laughedat me. And that...that was the only time I was ever on a bike. I still wanted one, but...I didn't want another bunch of kids to do that to me again, you know? It was mean, Bruce. It was mean, and it...it hurt..."
"...Oh, kiddo," the billionaire breathed, pulling him in. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Those little bastards, he seethed, cupping the back of his son's head as a pair of shivering little sobs rocked his narrow frame. "Dicky...chum...it's okay if you say no, but...do you want to learn how to ride a bike for real?"
The boy pulled back, swiping at his cheeks with the back of one hand. "...Could you teach me?" he whispered hopefully. "I...I really want to do it, Bruce, I just..." He trailed off, shifting uncomfortably. "I just hear them laughing still. I really like the bike you got me, it's just...them. I know it's silly, but-"
"It's not silly," he shook his head. "It's not. It's just something you have to get over, that's all. And I think I know how to do that. Alfred?" he craned over his shoulder, searching the butler out. "Grab the other wheels, would you?"
"Of course, sir," the Englishman acquiesced, heading for the garage for the second time that evening.
"...'Other wheels'?" Dick asked quizzically.
"Yeah, chum. They're called training wheels. They go beside the back tire," he explained, pointing out where they attached, "and they make it almost impossible for you to fall over when you're riding. Don't worry, all kids use them when they're learning how to ride. Besides, no one can see you here, and you know Alfred and I wouldn't laugh at you."
"I know. But...they really don't let you fall over?" he verified, a little ray of hope shining in his eyes.
"They really don't. And when you're ready to take them off," Bruce continued, reaching up to rest his hands on the child's shoulders, "I can hold onto the bike while you ride. Just until you get the hang of it."
"And...you won't let go till I'm ready for you to?"
"Not until you're ready, chum. I promise. You might fall a couple of times," he warned, "but it won't hurt too much, and I'll be right there to help you try again. Before long you'll be running all over the place on this thing," he tilted his head towards the bicycle. "...Sound good?"
Dick considered for a long second, then smiled and nodded. "Okay. That sounds good. So long as you help me."
"You bet I will, kiddo," the man swore. Just...just like dad did for me, he swallowed. He never had time for much at home, but teaching me how to ride a bike...he didn't miss that, at least. "Now," he shook himself, picking up the helmet from where he'd dropped it beside the front tire and snugging it down over the boy's head, drawing a giggle, "let's go over some basics, huh? Pay attention, this is important..."