Dick didn't even give his guardian a chance to get out of the car before he accosted him the next day. "Hi!" he squealed, sliding to a stop beside the vehicle. A low rattle sounded as a few bits of gravel flew from his shoes to clatter against the undercarriage, and Bruce winced. "Sorry," the boy apologized immediately, his expression half-contrite, half-distracted. "But you've gotta see the back yard!"
"I'm coming," the billionaire promised. "But I can't get out with you all but leaning in the window."
"Oh!" Grinning, he stepped back, then launched himself forward for a hug as soon as the man was upright. "I'm sooo excited!"
"I know you are, chum," Bruce smiled softly down at the dark head tucked against his side. I don't really understand why, but...what the hell. I get to spend the evening with you, so it doesn't really matter what we're doing. Even if it is camping. "...Me, too."
Dick looked up at him. "You are? I thought you didn't like outdoorsy stuff."
"Well..." Trust you to have actually been listening to what I said yesterday. "...Let's see if you can change my mind."
"Okay!" the boy exclaimed, grabbing his hand and pulling him towards the manor. "C'mon! There's so much to do!"
Alfred met them in the foyer, his eyes sparkling with amusement as his elder charge was tugged inside by his younger. "Good afternoon, Master Wayne," he greeted, shooting him a sympathetic look. "Master Dick hasn't quite managed to relieve you of your arm yet, I see."
"No, but that's not for lack of trying. Kiddo, we're in; you can stop."
"But we're going to the back yard, remember?"
"Not until after Master Wayne has had an opportunity to change into clothing that costs less than a first-class airline ticket, you aren't," the butler ruled. "With all due respect, I've very little interest in trying to remove dirt from Armani. There is a more camp-appropriate wardrobe on your bed, sir. I'd be happy to take your briefcase," he added, extending a hand.
Bruce gave it over. "...Dicky, why don't you run upstairs and make sure my clothes look okay?"
"But...Alfred picked them," the child wrinkled his nose in confusion. "Of course they'll look okay."
"Why, thank you, Master Dick," Alfred voiced his appreciation.
"Just go double check, huh?" the other adult insisted. "I'm guessing that you kept him busy getting things ready today, so don't you think it's possible he made a mistake because he was distracted?"
Sensing that Bruce wanted a moment alone, the Englishman pitched in. "Your flattery is very kind, young sir, but I am fallible. Seeing as how you have a schedule of events planned out, perhaps you ought to verify that I've chosen the correct sort of items for your activities, hmm?"
"Well...okay. I guess I can. But hurry, Bruce, there's so, so much for us to do!" With that plaintive request lingering behind him Dick bounded up the stairs to the second floor, barely stopping long enough to kick off his shoes.
...That's the second time since I've gotten home that he's told me we have a lot to do, the billionaire reflected. And Alfred mentioned a 'schedule of events.' That's both intriguing and disturbing. "Has he been this...uh...bouncy...all day?" Tell me what exactly I'm in for tonight.
"Oh, yes, sir. He's very much looking forward to camping out," the butler informed him, sounding pleased. "While I'm not entirely certain why you refused to take him off of the property for this purpose – and you need not explain your reasoning to me, of course – I must say that you made him exceedingly happy when you agreed to at least pass the night on the lawn. I've no idea where he's getting all of this energy from, but as exhausting as it has been to supervise him today I can't truthfully state that I didn't enjoy seeing him go multiple hours in a row without seeming to think of the recent cruelties he's experienced."
"Yeah..." Bruce trailed off guiltily. I wish I was more into this whole camping thing, his eyebrows drew together. But the idea of sleeping outside...god, I do that enough on JLA missions. Other than the connection to his father, what could the allure possibly be, especially to a smart kid like Dick? "I don't get why he's so eager to sleep in the grass with the bugs when he has a perfectly good bed," he shook his head, "but if it makes him that happy, I'll deal with it. For one night," he added a caveat.
"I expected no less, sir," Alfred nodded approvingly. "And you need not worry about sleeping 'in the grass with the bugs,' as you put it. I have ensured that the floor of the tent is intact, I have placed repellant devices at strategic intervals around the site, and I have a bottle of mosquito and tick spray at the ready for the walk in the woods Master Dick has determined you'll be taking." He paused, then dropped his voice to a near-whisper. "There is also a three-inch-thick ground pad underneath your sleeping bags. I have refrained from informing the young master of that fact, however, as he regaled me earlier with quite the detailed explanation of how sleeping on the ground is akin to receiving a massage. I've never felt it to be as such, personally, and I didn't imagine that you have either, so I took the liberty of cushioning your beds without his knowledge. If he is insistent about the benefits of resting on the ground when he lays down, you can simply fold the padding over and use it yourself."
"Alfred..." Bruce closed his eyes gratefully. "You're a mind reader."
"You're welcome, sir," the butler replied. "Now, common sense would dictate that the young sir will be reappearing momentarily in order to wonder why you've not yet joined him upstairs. That being the case, I'll keep things short and simply advise you to take your walk before too much longer so that you can ensure you are home before dark. Dinner will be ready when you return." Turning away and heading to place his employer's briefcase in the study, he paused. "And Master Wayne?" he tossed over his shoulder.
"Do try to have a little fun tonight, won't you?"
"Somehow," Bruce sighed as he moved towards the stairs, "I don't think he's going to give me a choice on that front."
Twenty minutes later, clad in a long-sleeved tee and khakis and having finished performing borderline-finicky ablutions with the bug spray, the billionaire trekked into the woods behind the house. Dick skipped along in front of him, stopping and starting again in little bursts as things to the side of the trail caught his attention. "Hey, look!" the boy called out some ten minutes after they'd stepped off of the manicured grass. "Moss!"
"What is it with you and moss, kiddo?" the man asked as he drew up to him.
"Nothing. I just think it's neat how it can tell you where to go."
"Mm. It can tell you what direction is roughly north in some situations," Bruce agreed, "but there are a lot of factors to think about when you're relying on a bryophyte to get you home safely."
"Like what?" came a curious question.
"Hemisphere, latitude, and overall knowledge of the general area are the first things that leap to mind," he answered, warming to his subject. "In the southern hemisphere, moss grows on the south sides of trees because the sun's orientation to the earth is different. If you're in a densely forested area where not much sun gets through, moss could grow on all sides of a tree. It really comes down to moisture and shade. If a space is cool and wet, the moss isn't going to care which direction it's pointing; it's just going to grow."
"So...moss is no good to tell you where to go if you're lost?"
Bruce looked down to find a disappointed expression wreathing his son's face. Shit. I hope I didn't just utterly destroy something his father told him in good faith. He doesn't seem upset, but maybe I should just leave it be. But...no, he decided. I can't imagine that John Grayson would want his son to be left ignorant of facts that might save his life someday, even if telling him those facts negates something he taught him. Even if he would want that, Dick's life is more important than the desires of a dead man. "It could hypothetically work," he allowed, trying to ease into his contradiction, "but in a tough situation you'd be much better off relying on the sun and moon for directions. Even then, though, what good is knowing where north is if you don't know whether you need to go north, south, east, or west? If you have no idea where you are in relation to your destination, not even a compass will be much help."
"...Is that why you keep giving me pages from the atlas to memorize? And all the different city maps and pictures of buildings and stuff?"
"Exactly, chum. That's exactly why." Because if I'm ever foolish enough to let you get lost, I damn well want to make sure I get you back, he thought fiercely.
A hand slipped into his suddenly. "Will you tell me more while we walk? I want to know how to get back to you if we ever get separated."
The billionaire tightened his grip. "Dicky," he swore, "on that subject, I'll tell you everything I know."
A long, rambling discussion on path finding, astronomy, and weather-reading later, they regained their little camp. As they approached Bruce had to confess that in the dusk the set-up that the boy had been so eager to show him upon his arrival home managed to look almost cozy, with the tent lit from within and a cheerful fire crackling in a low grate nearby. Had the house not been looming behind the scene he might have made himself believe that they'd left the manor property after all. "Nice fire."
"Alfred makes the best fires," Dick agreed, dropping to sit cross-legged on the ground before the bowl of flames. "Even when he makes them in the fireplace, they're great."
"...You know there are perfectly good chairs right here if you want one," the man pointed out, settling into one and stretching his feet towards the flickering pile of wood. It was nowhere near cold out, but the warmth of the blaze sated a primal urge that he hadn't realized had been awakened during their stroll, and he gave an involuntary sigh of contentment as his muscles relaxed.
"Yeah. But I like the grass. It's comfy." As he spoke the boy began to empty his pockets of the items he'd collected along their path; a few leaves, somewhat crumpled but still distinguishable by species, a large pine cone, and several rocks of varying size and color. Bruce watched silently as the finds were laid out in a neat row from smallest to largest and then examined one by one, their gatherer taking up each piece of his ensemble in turn and inspecting it thoroughly. As he finished with a flat, flaky stone the size of his palm, he fumbled it, sending it tumbling to the ground. "Oh no!" he exclaimed as multiple shards split off from the core. "Actually..." his head tilted to the side and reached for the largest chunk, "that's really neat."
"Careful," Bruce instructed. "Those pieces might be sharp."
"But look!" Dick leaped to his feet and hustled over. "It's funny on the inside, see?"
"Hold it more in the light, chum, I can't see what you're talking about." Leaning forward, the billionaire peered at the object. "...Huh. Interesting." Nice find, kiddo, especially since I'm pretty sure you were just picking up random rocks because you liked the way they looked.
"What do you think it is?"
"...What do you think it is?" he echoed. "You tell me what you think, and then I'll tell you what it is."
"Um...well, it kind of looks like a leaf. See, there are little ridges on it just like there are on a couple of the ones I picked up?" He ran his finger over a dark patch near the middle of the newly-revealed rock, then nodded. "Yeah. It's shaped right, too. But it's in a rock, and that doesn't make any...wait a minute. Bruce, did we find a fossil?!" a childish squeal of delight sounded as he figured out what he was holding. "Is this a really super old leaf that turned into rock?"
"I'm pretty positive that that's exactly what it is," the man felt a grin coaxing the corners of his mouth upwards. Clever little bird.
"That's so cool! Alfred!" Dick cried out happily, spotting the butler coming from the house. "Alfred, look at what we found on our walk!"
The older man stopped several yards away, a wide tray in one hand and a flashlight in the other, as the boy sprinted to him. "It must be quite exciting indeed if it's given you so much energy right after your trek," he commented.
"It is exciting! We found a fossil!" he announced, shoving his prize into the torch's beam. "Do you see it?"
"I do, young sir, and I'm very impressed. Would you mind terribly if I gave your find a closer look once I've finished carrying your dinner to the fire?"
"Oh!" The youth's blush was evident even in the low light at the edge of the camp. "I should have waited 'til you could put your stuff down. Sorry. It's not heavy, is it?"
"No, Master Dick," Alfred shook his head genially as they stopped across the fire from where Bruce still sat. "Not objectionably so. And I truly am interested in your fossil, I assure you. Before we discuss it further, however, would you be so kind as to fetch the ice chest from beside the tent?"
"...Is he going to be able to carry a full cooler?" the billionaire queried as the child scampered past him. Not that he won't try even if it is too heavy, he added to himself, I just don't want him to hurt himself with it.
"It's empty," the Englishman replied. "I brought it out more for aesthetics than anything."
"Here you go!" Dick trumpeted as he set the container down. "Um..." he went on as the tray was placed on top of it. "What's for dinner? Is..." He gulped, clearly weighing whether or not the question he wanted to ask was worth the reaction it might bring. "...Is it hot dogs?" he ventured finally, his lower lip disappearing between his teeth as he waited for an answer.
"Well, young sir, I believe you know how I feel about that particular...food product," Alfred managed the last two words with only a mild twitch.
"Yeeaah..." The boy ducked his head, trying to hide his discouragement. "...I know."
"But I also believe that you'll find these to be an acceptable substitute," the butler went on, whisking the lid off to reveal a stack of bratwurst and a variety of condiments. "What do you think?"
Dick grinned, his mood instant restored. "I think they look like rich-people hot dogs," he giggled. "Can we cook them ourselves? Please?"
"So long as you're safe about the procedure and Master Wayne has no objections, I don't see why not," Alfred allowed.
"Do we have sticks?" Bruce asked, approaching. "And...is that a beer?" he narrowed his eyes at the bottle standing up behind the food.
"Yes, sir. It seemed appropriate for the meal and the surroundings, but if you would prefer something else..."
The billionaire was silent for a long moment. He rarely drank at home, and when he did it was usually scotch, but he recognized the label as that of a micro-brew he'd enjoyed on an outing in the past – damn you, Clark, for making me like something so high in empty calories – and the more he thought about how it might taste with one of the sausages that were shining dully in the firelight the more convinced he became. "No, I'll drink it," he said eventually.
"Lovely. And, Master Dick, I've brought you out a soda."
"Since when are those allowed in the house?" Bruce gaped as the boy jumped for joy beside him.
"Since someone began making them with fruit juice, Master Wayne," Alfred explained, a bottle opener appearing in his hand. "I've no intention of keeping them on hand from day to day, but since this is a special occasion I thought it only fair. As for the sticks you inquired about, I left them next to the cooler."
"I'll get them!" Dick volunteered, taking off in a series of perfect cartwheels.
"The last thing he needs is more sugar," the billionaire groaned, watching him go. "I can't believe you're giving him soda."
"I suppose you'd prefer I don't bring out the graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate bars that I procured for dessert, then, sir?" the butler asked savvily.
"...You got materials for s'mores, and you're giving him soda? Alfred...did he drug you with something while I was at work?"
"Of course not. I only thought that since this is your first night camping out together allowances ought to be made for things like sugar and carbonation. And while the soda and s'mores will likely keep him up a bit later than usual," he confided, "I believe that the subsequent sugar crash may be enough to let him sleep straight through the night. Add in the general exhaustion that must be building up from all of his running about today, and he might even go without nightmares until morning."
...You had me at no nightmares, Bruce thought, giving a single nod of approval as Dick, now walking rather than tumbling, returned with two long roasting forks. "Okay. Deal."
"What's a deal?" the boy asked.
"That if you eat a whole sausage, bun and all, I will tell you about your surprise dessert," Alfred answered quickly.
"...But rich people hot dogs are kind of big," he eyed them. "I don't know if I'll have room for dessert if I eat a whole one and a bun."
"You'll make room once you hear what the surprise is, chum, I promise," Bruce held back a grin. You're going to squeak when you find out we're having s'mores. I can hear you already.
Squeak Dick did indeed when he had cleaned his paper plate to Alfred's satisfaction and was let in on the secret, giving such a yelp that anyone unaware of the situation would have thought he'd been pinched unexpectedly. He then giggled his way through the process of cooking his first marshmallow, nearly dropping it into the coals when his guardian managed to catch his own treat on fire. "Yuck," he wrinkled his nose at the cracked black shell that became visible once the billionaire let the glob slip from his utensil into the fire. "I'm glad you didn't eat that. That would have been gross."
"Good thing Alfred's getting the crackers and didn't see. He might be mad at you for wasting food."
"Normally I'd say you're right about that, too, but I don't think he considers marshmallows food."
"What's up, kiddo?" he replied distractedly, focused on not engulfing his second attempt at dessert in flame.
"Um...is beer gross?"
Bruce glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "...Are you asking if you can try it?" he clarified.
Not out here, he mused. If there was someone watching, media, CPS, anyone really, and they got a picture of me handing you alcohol...that would be it. They'd take you, and I'd never get you back. But I don't see any logic in refusing to let you try it at all – that would just make it into more of a temptation down the road, I think – and anyone who was close enough to hear us talking right now would be visible, so... "I'll save a little for in the tent, okay?" he said quietly. "You can try it there. I don't think we should do it out here."
Dick paled slightly. "...You don't think someone's in the trees, do you?" he whispered. "Like...like Anaxas was?"
"No," Bruce reassured him immediately. "I don't. But I also don't want to take any chances." Going to have to do better than that, Wayne, he coached himself as his son's lip was pulled back to be gnawed on nervously. "Dicky, if I thought someone was out here with us – especially someone who wanted to hurt you – do you honestly think I would let you sleep in the tent tonight?"
The child visibly relaxed. "No. I know you wouldn't."
"Okay. Good. But," he added, "that's no reason for us not to be careful, especially since my giving you beer would technically be illegal."
"You don't have to, Bruce. I don't want you to get in trouble."
"...Let's discuss it later," the billionaire advised, hearing the back door to the house heralding Alfred's approach. "You just focus on not doing to your marshmallow what I did to mine."
When they were finished eating, Dick suggested that they move a short way into the darkness and look at the stars. Bruce momentarily considered countering with an offer of going inside and using the telescope on the third floor again, but a knowing look from Alfred kept his lips sealed. Chastened, he consented, and they walked out to where the butler, ever borderline clairvoyant as to their needs, had spread a blanket across the grass. ...This isn't so bad, I guess, he deemed as they stared at the night sky. The child snuggled up against him a moment later, and as he wrapped his arm around the narrow figure he smiled. Not so bad at all.
As Alfred had predicted, not even a bottle of soda and two s'mores were sufficient to keep Dick running much past his usual weekend bedtime. Warm and secure in his guardian's grip, the boy's pointing out of shooting stars and satellites became less frequent and more broken by yawns, and before long he had turned his head against Bruce's shoulder and closed his eyes. So much for tasting beer, the billionaire smirked when he realized what had happened. That's all right. We don't have to use up all of our firsts tonight. I don't mind in the least. "Hey, kiddo," he coaxed gently. "You ready for bed?"
"Having fun falling asleep?"
"Sure you are," the man agreed with a chuckle. "C'mon, chum, you're half out already."
Carry him Bruce did, his knees singing praise for Alfred when he bent to lay down his load inside the tent and they connected with cushioning foam instead of rigid earth. "...Warm enough?" he asked once he'd zipped the child-sized sleeping bag half closed around its mumbling occupant.
Dick's eyelids hoisted themselves to half-mast. "Camp Bruce was really fun, but...do you think next summer we could try Camp Batman?"
...What? "You want to go camping in costume?" he queried.
"Wouldn't it be good practice? We could do, like...I dunno...more survival stuff? And maybe swing from the trees..." His eyes drooped shut again, leaving the thought hanging.
Camp Batman, Bruce shook his head in disbelief. You come up with some of the craziest ideas, kiddo. Although...that one isn't necessarily so bad, except for the parts where we'd have to go to the middle of nowhere, Alfred couldn't come, and we'd have no excuse for bringing the ground pad with us. But...you have a point about it being good training. Hmm...there's time, he let himself off of the hook for the moment. You aren't even allowed out of the cave in costume yet, so I don't have to decide tonight. It will wait.
"Sir?" the butler's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Ah. Fast asleep, I see," he noted Dick's state.
"He is that."
"Did he comment on the ground pad?"
"No. I don't even think he noticed it." A yawn split his face without warning. "Sorry, Alfred," he apologized reflexively when it had passed.
"That's quite all right, Master Wayne. I take it you'll be joining him in slumber before long?"
Bruce hesitated. "...I should patrol. It's still early enough for me to get some work done out there tonight." But I can't leave him alone out here, the fear that had prevented him from taking Dick away from the manor to camp protested. "Will you stay with him until I get back?"
"I would never leave the young sir asleep and alone outside of the house, sir, but with all due respect I rather think that you ought to be the one to stay. The city can survive the night sans Batman, I'm quite certain, but if he were to wake," he nodded towards the slumbering youth, "and find you absent on such a special occasion as this it could be very upsetting."
"He said himself that by camping on the lawn I'd be able to go out," the billionaire countered. He practically gave me permission. If you'll just watch him...
"I don't doubt it, but that doesn't mean that it wouldn't hurt were he to learn that you actually took him up on that selfless offer."
Ah, shit. It would hurt his feelings, of course it would. For an instant he was a child again, and the only thing he could see was his father's back as he shrugged on a jacket and left his son's fifth birthday party to cover a shift at the hospital. His stomach twisted. No. I won't do that to him. If an emergency comes up I'll have to go, but a regular patrol...Gotham will survive. "You're right," he shook his head. "You're right. I don't want him to wake up and find me gone." A heavy sigh escaped his lips. "...I'd rather not have to ask you to do this, but-"
"I will monitor the skies for the signal, sir, and fetch you immediately if it comes up."
You're a damn mind reader, I swear. "...Okay. Then I'll stay."
"Very good, Master Wayne. I've already placed the young sir's fossil in his bedroom as a keepsake; is there anything further I can do for you this evening?"
"...I didn't put him in pajamas," Bruce confessed.
"It's no matter, since he seems to be sleeping comfortably without them. Would you like me to fetch a pair of yours?"
"No. I'll sleep like this." He paused. "Good night, Alfred."
"It was a good night indeed, sir. Sweet dreams." Then, with a drawn out zip as he sealed the tent's door, the butler was gone.
Just you and me, kiddo, the billionaire thought, considering the sleeping child. In a tent, on a camp-out. Which, if I'm going to be fair, hasn't been all that bad. Something that sounded like 'moss' fell from the boy's lips, and his gaze softened. Okay, full disclosure; it's been pretty good. And with this halfway-decent platform to sleep on, he tacked on as he laid down and tested the foam beneath him, Alfred on signal watch, and you safe and sound beside me...well, let's just say that this sort of camping isn't so onerous that I wouldn't do it again.
Pulling the top of his sleeping bag up, Bruce reached over to loosely clasp the hand that Dick had already worked free of the covers. Lithe fingers closed reflexively around his own, and after that there was only time for one more thought before he joined him in a happy sleep.
...Good night, son. Sweet dreams.
Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed Camp Bruce, haha. If anyone is interested in seeing Camp Batman at some point in the future, let me know; Robin may just insist that KF get invited along, and we all know that not even Batman can resist a full-on Robin pout. Happy reading!