Author's Note: This little piece didn't start out as part of 'Spark in the Dark', but once I'd written it I realized it just fits too perfectly to go anywhere else. Happy reading!
Dick had given a happy squeak when he'd seen the 'Rotunda of African Animals' on his map of the Gotham Museum of Natural History, but as he actually entered the space he quailed. Seeing him shudder from several steps behind, Bruce winced. He'd forgotten about the family of elephants that formed the main showpiece in this gallery, and had more importantly failed to calculate its effect on the boy. Now he closed the gap between them, hoping that it wasn't too late to keep their outing from being wasted in tears. "...Okay, chum?"
"Yeah..." His voice was watery, but his cheeks were dry. A pleased grimace stole across the billionaire's face. The pain in the youthful tone whose owner he'd taken responsibility for two months earlier was heart-rending, but he had to appreciate Dick's control of the other aspects of his mien.
"If I remember correctly, the curator once told me that they all died naturally," he offered. It was a lie – several of the massive beasts had been hunted specifically for the museum, and he knew it – but he didn't care. In that moment the child's well-being was more important than the truth.
Dick tore his eyes away from the unmoving giants. "...Really? They weren't..." He lowered his voice despite the fact that there was no one close enough to overhear. "They weren't murdered?"
Bruce let his hand fall onto one narrow shoulder. "No, Dick," he answered softly. "They weren't murdered."
"...Okay," the boy said, biting his lip. "Good." A trace of the excited light that had been in his eyes before he'd seen the pachyderms returned. "Let's look at some other animals."
"You bet, kiddo. Lead the way."
They circled the room, then made their way up to the mezzanine and examined the motionless but lifelike mounts there. The dioramas were as realistic as Bruce remembered them being, but the age of some of the rarer specimens was starting to show. It wasn't that the creatures weren't well cared for, but rather that they had been fixed in place at a time when the art of taxidermy was less advanced. Although he was sure the museum's preservationists had tried to repair the damage wrought by death, seams and bullet holes were visible in several of the displayed creatures.
It was terrible, he thought as he stared at a pock-marked cheetah and his own ghostly reflection in the glass, how some scars could not or would not disappear even when they were treated with time and dedication.
Shivering, he looked down at his side. Dick had vanished, and the billionaire felt his heart quicken. They'd arrived right at the museum's opening time in order to have a semblance of privacy amongst the exhibitions, but the halls had filled during their ersatz safari and there were many hands here now that might be willing to steal a child. With panic clawing in his throat, he whirled around and scanned the hall.
His fear and nascent rage ebbed away almost as quickly as they'd risen. There sat Dick, his knees planted on the bench that ringed the balcony, his chin firmly nestled in his palms. He was staring down at the lower level of the hall, and Bruce didn't have to guess at what was holding his attention.
Sighing, he made his way over to the empty spot beside the boy. "...Is this what they look like from the trapeze?" he ventured quietly as he, too, peered at the gray backs below.
Dick started, but a tiny upward tic at the corners of his lips kept Bruce from regretting the question. "Sort of. But the circus elephants are way fancier looking, and they don't get all bunched up like these ones are. Plus you're...you're usually higher than this on a trapeze." His miniscule smile faltered. "...Bruce?"
"Do you think..." A nearly inaudible sniffle escaped him. "...Do you think I'll ever see living elephants again? Like, in real life, and not in a cage? Just...happy, free, alive elephants?"
It was entirely possible, Bruce knew, that the answer would be no. There were elephants at Gotham's largest zoo, but they were hardly free. The elephants of Haly's circus would have fit the bill, but the odds of the troupe coming back to a place where such a tragic chapter in its history had unfolded seemed very long. As he stared into the bright, hopeful eyes that he'd already come to love, though, not even his fact-driven heart could stand to speak those truths. "You will, kiddo," he swore instead. "You will." He'd make sure of it, even if it required that he take the boy to Africa to see the damned things in the wild. Everything else about Dick's old life was irretrievable, but elephants...Bruce could give him that much.
A warm weight leaned against his arm in silent thanks. He ran his hand once over the top of the boy's head, then pulled him into a brief but tight hug. "...Do you want to go see the bears?" he asked once a calm moment had passed.
"They have bears here, too?!"
He chuckled and stood up, pulling Dick with him. "They do. Big ones."
"Oooh...let's see those!" He hesitated. "But not alive ones. I'm okay only seeing stuffed bears."
"Stuffed bears it is, then. Here's the map; you find the way."
Dick stared at the floor plan for a moment. "They're over here," he announced finally, then turned and walked away.
Bruce followed, a proud smile dancing about his mouth. As he passed the cheetah again, he shot it a final glance. He wished he could wipe its awful scar away, but too much time had passed, and the mark was now a fixed trait. His only consolation was the knowledge that a great deal had been learned since the long-ago days when both he and the cat had been given their indelible brands. With any luck, he thought as he focused on the boy skipping along ahead of him, the next generation wouldn't suffer the same fate.