A/N: Here we go, last chapter. Thanks to everyone who has commented and favourited along the way. I know I sound like some God-awful broken record, but I really do appreciate it.
Oh, and for those who have seen It's a Wonderful Life: Batman was never going to run through Gotham yelling "Merry Christmas" at everyone, but here's hoping this chapter is sufficiently fluffy enough to make up for that! ;)
Arriving at Gotham's Free Clinic, Batman felt a brief frisson of relief at seeing the building intact. Muttering his thanks to Superman, the Dark Knight tore up the steps to the front door and yanked it open. The main room was empty, so he headed for the back room where Dick had been, because surely he was out of surgery by now?
He carefully pushed open the door to find Dr. Mid-Nite clearing away remnants of the operation, tossing bloodstained scrubs and towels into a bin. Leslie was standing beside Dick, one hand clutching his while she watched the monitors. Both adults looked up as Batman entered.
"How is he?" he asked, moving towards the bed at once.
"Stable," Leslie replied, looking tired. "Bruce, where have you been? We were worried sick!"
"Stable," Batman repeated, ignoring her question as he stared down at Dick. The boy was still unconscious and an oxygen mask had been fitted over his nose and mouth. "What does that mean?"
"It means we need to monitor him very closely for the next forty-eight hours."
Batman kept his gaze on Dick's pale face. "Why?"
"Dr. Mid-Nite is concerned about further haemorrhaging and intra-abdominal fluid collections. Not to mention that conditions for the surgery weren't completely sterile, putting him at risk of infection and sepsis." Her tone was rising in its anger. "What were you thinking bringing him here?! He nearly died, Bruce!"
"I know," he whispered, bringing his eyes up to meet hers. "Leslie, is he going to be alright?"
Her expression softened and she sighed. "He's still very weak. The knife punctured his stomach and transverse colon, and nicked the right gastroepiploic artery. It took a lot of work to repair the damage and like I said, he's going to have to be watched very closely for complications."
"That doesn't answer my question. Will he be alright?"
It was Dr. Mid-Nite who answered, joining them by Dick's bed. "If he can make it through the next few hours without developing any complications, then he's in with a strong chance. He's quite the little fighter, Batman – there aren't many children who could have made it through a surgery like that after so much blood loss."
Batman wanted to scowl because that wasn't exactly reassuring, but managed to restrain himself. "What about his other injuries?"
"The gunshot was a through and through. Clean. Minimum damage. We were able to patch it up fairly quickly. But his shoulder…" Dr Mid-Nite sighed. "There was substantial nerve damage, and he's going to need a lot of physical therapy once it's healed. It won't be an easy recovery, Batman."
Batman was ashamed to admit that he was okay with that so long as there would be a recovery.
He looked back at Dick. Someone – probably Leslie – had tucked a warm blanket around him. If it weren't for the oxygen mask and the swathe of bandages across his left shoulder, he would have looked peaceful.
Batman moved one hand towards the boy's hair and gently brushed it away from his face. "How long before he regains consciousness?"
"Not for a while," said Leslie. "We're keeping him sedated to give his body a chance to rest. We'll start bringing him out of it tomorrow evening if his vitals improve."
Batman swallowed. Dick was going to miss Christmas Eve. He had promised the boy they would do something together on Christmas Eve, and now Dick was going to miss it completely because a sociopath had considered him fair game. His heart ached from the unfairness of it all.
The sound of voices drifted in from the front room and Leslie released Dick's hand. "Bruce, I need to see who that is. I'll be outside if you need anything, okay?"
He nodded, not taking his eyes off of Dick's face.
"I'll go with you in case you need assistance," Dr. Mid-Nite offered, as Leslie headed for the door.
Batman knew the other man was only leaving so he could be alone with Dick, and he was grateful for the man's discretion.
The door closed behind them and Batman pulled back his cowl, becoming Bruce Wayne. It was easier to be a concerned father when he wasn't wearing the guise of Gotham's Dark Knight. He grasped one of Dick's hands in his and addressed the unconscious child.
"Oh, Dickie, I'm sorry I wasn't there to protect you. And for yelling at you before we went on patrol. I know I'm not very good at this whole parent thing, but I promise I'll do better. I just need you to fight really hard and get through this, okay, Kiddo?"
As expected, the only response was the steady beeping of the monitors. Bruce knew Dick was heavily sedated and completely unaware of his surroundings, but part of him wished the boy would open his eyes and respond.
"You're not grounded anymore," he continued quietly. "I was wrong to ground you in the first place and I behaved like a total ass. I know it's no excuse but I was only trying to protect you, because the idea of you not being here–" he swallowed back the lump in his throat, "–it just doesn't bear thinking about."
Bruce ran his fingers through the dark hair for the umpteenth time that evening. "Please be okay, Dick. I need you."
By now, the noise from the outer room had gotten progressively louder, and Bruce glanced towards the door. What was going on?
As if on cue, Leslie poked her head in. "Bruce? I'm sorry to interrupt, but could you come out here for a moment?"
She looked oddly flushed and Bruce frowned. "Is everything alright?"
"Everything is fine. I just think you should see this." She disappeared back into the front room.
He stared after her for a moment before returning his attention to Dick. The last thing he wanted to do was leave his boy, even for a minute, but Leslie wouldn't have come looking for him if it wasn't important. Reluctantly, he let go of Dick's hand and pulled the cowl back on.
Pushing the door open and striding out into the room beyond, Batman stopped dead.
The entire Justice League stood there.
"What are you all doing here?" he barked.
"They came to help," Superman replied, stepping forward.
"Help?" Batman growled dangerously. Oh, this had better be good.
Superman nodded. "I contacted the League after you disappeared. I couldn't take down Petrov and search for you at the same time. I didn't intend for the entire League to get involved, but once word got out about what Petrov had done to Robin–"
"We weren't letting that scumbucket get away with it!" Green Arrow interrupted, a ferocious look on his face.
"You can yell at me later," said Superman quietly. "But for now, Petrov is safely in police custody with enough evidence to make sure he stays there for a very long time."
Batman narrowed his eyes. "You got something on him?"
"I persuaded Petrov to tell us where the drugs were hidden," Wonder Woman answered, patting her lasso with a grim smile on her face.
"It was the only time we used the lasso," Superman added quickly when Batman scowled.
"And we helped Gotham PD raid the safehouses once Petrov revealed where he had stashed the drugs while Superman looked for you," Black Canary spoke up.
"The houses were all in Petrov's name," Flash added, "automatically linking him to the drugs."
"And we were able to…uh, convince the flunkies standing guard to name their employer," Green Arrow put in, smirking.
"Plus, we got a statement from a witness who identified Petrov as the one responsible for the current batch of bad drugs in Gotham," Hal Jordan interjected.
A witness? Batman glanced at Superman.
The Man of Steel's expression was grim. "One of the men from the warehouse where Petrov tortured Robin. Turns out he wasn't exactly comfortable with doing that to a child, and he agreed to testify against Petrov in return for leniency."
Batman stared around the room at his fellow Leaguers. He knew he wasn't the easiest person to work with: he barked at them, doubted them, talked down to them… Yet they had dropped everything to help him the instant Superman had called. Batman couldn't help but be touched by their loyalty.
His gaze landed on Superman. The Kryptonian was watching him with a resigned expression. "So, how mad are you?"
"I'm not mad." Batman was somewhat surprised to discover that was true. He usually hated other heroes interfering in his city and his business.
"You're not mad?" Superman squinted at him. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head? You've been acting very strangely since I found you on the bridge."
Batman shook his head. "I'm fine." He turned back to where the rest of the League were watching him cautiously, as if waiting for an explosion. Batman was almost sorry to have to disappoint them. "Thank you for your help."
There were more than a few raised eyebrows at his words, and he saw Green Arrow not-so-discreetly nudge Black Canary.
Flash grinned. "Wow, Bats! It's like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when he– uh, never mind," he finished, as Batman glared at him.
"Okay, that's a bit more like you," said Superman with a small grin.
"Are you really okay with this?" asked Superman seriously, when the other Leaguers began to talk among themselves. "I wasn't going over your head, I just–"
"It's fine," Batman interrupted, holding up one hand. "If tonight has taught me anything, it's to be grateful for what I have. Clark, I want to thank you. For everything you've done this evening. I owe you Robin's life."
Superman looked at him doubtfully. "Are you certain you didn't hit your head?"
Christmas morning dawned white and cold at Wayne Manor, where Bruce was keeping an anxious vigil by Dick's bed. He had barely left the boy's side since returning to the clinic two nights ago.
Having made it through the first twenty-four hours without developing any complications, Dick's vitals had started to improve, and Bruce had begged Leslie to let him bring the boy home. She had been reluctant at first: Dick was still at risk of developing complications, and Leslie wanted to keep him where she could watch him closely. But Bruce had argued that Wayne Manor was quieter and more private than the clinic, and that the Batcave possessed every medical necessity should Dick need it. Not to mention that Wayne Manor also contained the watchful eye of Alfred. Eventually, the steady stream of flu-stricken and hypothermic patients through the clinic in the wake of the blizzard had convinced Leslie that Dick would be better off at home.
As roads were still treacherous after the storm, several members of the Justice League had volunteered their services to ensure that Dick was transported safely back to Wayne Manor. But because it was after midnight by the time Dick was comfortably settled at home, Leslie had recommended waiting until morning before bringing Dick out of the sedation. It meant Bruce had to endure a second night by his child's bed, helplessly watching and waiting. Alfred had tried to convince him to get some rest, but Bruce had refused. He wasn't leaving Dick's side. Not for one second.
Sometime after dawn, Alfred had begun to wean Dick off the sedatives, and over the course of the last hour, the boy's sleep had become more restless while he teetered on the cusp of consciousness. But he had yet to open his eyes, and the wait was agitating Bruce's already frayed nerves. He knew Dick was out of the critical stage, but he still had a ways to go before he would no longer be at risk of complications.
Bruce watched Dick mutter in his sleep and felt his heart twist. He was longing to hear the boy's voice and see him open his eyes. It had only been two days, but he missed the child's bright presence so badly, it hurt. The idea that this silence could have been permanent…
Scrubbing at his eyes, Bruce leaned forward in his chair. He had come so close to losing Dick that he was still frightened by it. He had a feeling it would be a long time before that fear fully left him. It didn't help that he couldn't get rid of the horrific image of Dick wasting away in a hospital bed, attached to an EEG that measured no brain activity.
Bruce was having trouble discerning whether the whole nightmarish 'other Gotham' had actually happened, or whether it had just been a figment of his trauma-addled brain – although the rational part of him wanted to rule that out: it had felt too real. Not to mention that Bruce's highly logical personality meant he wasn't exactly a candidate for delusions and nothing short of a powerful neurotoxin could have induced such vivid hallucinations.
Besides, Leslie had performed a full physical on him back at the clinic, at Clark's insistence – the Kryptonian had had some bee in his bonnet about Bruce getting hit in the head. But aside from needing some stitches to the knife wound to his side, there had been nothing wrong with him. His blood work was also clear, removing any logical explanation for the whole Albert-and-a-Gotham-without-Batman thing.
Bruce had yet to decide whether that was a good or a bad thing.
A low moan from the bed drew his attention; Dick's fingers were twitching. Bruce was on his feet and leaning over the boy in seconds. "Dick? Dick, can you hear me?"
"Brssss?" came a thin little hiss, as Dick's blue eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Hey, Kiddo," Bruce whispered, relief coursing through him as he rested one hand carefully on the top of Dick's head and smiled down at him. "Welcome back."
Dick blinked, and his eyes rolled sideways to take in his surroundings before coming back to his guardian in drowsy confusion.
"You're home," explained Bruce, stroking Dick's hair. "I thought you'd be more comfortable here. How do you feel?"
"Sore," Dick croaked.
Bruce winced. Despite the potent cocktail of painkillers he had insisted upon, Leslie had warned him that Dick was still likely to feel some pain. "On a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain?"
Dick frowned slightly, as if thinking. "Four?" he ventured at last.
Bruce sighed. That wasn't what he wanted to hear. "I'm sorry, Kiddo, but you're not due anything for another hour; you think you can last that long?"
Wincing, Dick nodded.
Guilt gnawing at him, Bruce grasped Dick's hand in his right, while the fingers of his left hand continued to stroke the dark hair. "Oh, Dickie. I'm so sorry."
It felt a lot better saying it when the boy was actually conscious to hear it.
Dick's eyes widened slightly. "But this was my fault."
"No." Bruce shook his head. "No. It wasn't your fault. I should never have brought you into Gotham in the middle of a blizzard. It was dangerous and selfish of me. And I'm the one who's sorry, Kiddo. I'm sorry for bringing you to face Petrov, and I'm sorry I yelled at you before patrol."
Dick's eyes were saucers as he stared at Bruce, and the billionaire felt a pang as he realized that this was the first time the boy had heard him apologize for something. It seemed there was a lot he was going to have to look at with regards to his parenting.
Very carefully and without letting go of Dick's hand, he moved to sit on the edge of the bed and fixed the boy with a serious expression. "I have made some terrible mistakes with you, Dick, and I haven't exactly been a great parent. But that's all going to change. I'm not saying things will be perfect from now on, but I promise that I'm going to try."
"You're better at it than you think," Dick offered quietly.
"It's not enough. You deserve the best."
Dick blinked, his mouth moving soundlessly. "You really mean it?" he whispered finally.
"Huh." Dick was silent for several minutes.
Bruce remained quiet as well, allowing the boy time to digest what he had said. After the anguish of the last few days, he was happy just to be with his son.
His son. Bruce allowed himself a small smile.
Dick was staring at him, a slight pinching around his eyes that Bruce guessed had something to do with the pain. The billionaire felt a stab of guilt; he would give anything to take that pain away. "Yeah, Kiddo?"
"I'm…I'm sorry I told Wally my identity without your permission. I shouldn't have done it."
The downcast eyes and sorrowful little expression tore at something inside Bruce, and he suddenly understood why Dick had revealed his identity. "It's okay, Dick. I'm guessing Robin was kind of lonely and wanted someone he could talk to about superhero stuff, huh?"
Wide-eyed, Dick nodded. "How'd you know?"
"I'll let you in on a little secret. Until Robin came along, Batman was pretty lonely too."
Dick's mouth fell open. "You were lonely?"
"Everybody gets lonely. Even Batman. And it's okay to get a little lonely or scared sometimes, even when you're a hero."
"So it doesn't make me a coward if I do?"
Bruce shook his head. "Dick, it isn't really that brave to do things you aren't afraid of, but to be afraid of something and to do it anyway? That's brave."
"I never thought of it like that before," said Dick, his expression thoughtful.
"I know." Bruce patted his legs through the blankets. "I want you to know that you can talk to me about this stuff, Dick. No matter what it is, I'll always listen."
Dick nodded, then bit his lip. "Does this mean you're not– you're not mad anymore?"
"Oh, Dickie. Of course I'm not mad."
"Really." Bruce leaned forward and tightened his hold on the boy's hand. "I trust you, Kiddo, and I know you wouldn't have told Wally if you didn't trust him. But I still want to speak to him, mind – I want to make sure he understands just how important it is that he doesn't say a word to anyone."
It had just occurred to Bruce that if anyone could frighten a teenager into keeping a secret, it was Batman.
Dick positively beamed at him in relief, and Bruce felt his world lighten to see the child smile.
"That's better," he said, smiling back. "Now, do you need anything?"
"I'm a little thirsty," Dick admitted. "Can I have a drink of water?"
"Just a few sips. Leslie said to start small for the first few days." Bruce retrieved the glass of water that Alfred had left on the nightstand and held the straw to Dick's lips. The boy immediately gulped thirstily.
"Whoa! Easy there, Kiddo," cried Bruce, withdrawing the straw.
"Sorry," Dick mumbled. Then his eyes widened. "Oh, no! Bruce, did I– did I miss Christmas?"
"You missed Christmas Eve," Bruce replied, inwardly cringing at the disappointed little face. "But today is Christmas Day. And we're not having Christmas dinner or opening any presents until you're well enough to do it with us."
"But doesn't that mean you and Alfred will miss Christmas too?"
"It's not Christmas without you," Bruce told him quietly.
The boy gave him a small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Tell you what," said Bruce, wanting desperately to erase the crestfallen expression from the child's face, "why don't we watch a Christmas movie together?"
Dick eyed him sceptically. "What if you fall asleep again?"
"I think it's more likely that you'll fall asleep before me," Bruce said, chuckling. "What do you say? We could watch the movie from the other night; I never did get to see the end and I've heard the ending is the best part."
Even if he had been told that by someone who was potentially a figment of his imagination.
"Okay," said Dick, beginning to look excited by the idea.
"I think the DVD is still in the den," said Bruce, getting to his feet. "Just let me run down and get it. I'll be back in–" he broke off when he caught sight of the DVD in question on the dresser. "Huh, looks like Alfred already brought it up," he said, picking it up.
Someone had scribbled something on the cover, and Bruce squinted at the writing.
Like the movie says, "no man is a failure who has friends." Remember yours the next time you feel despair and stop spending so much time in the dark. There's a world filled with light out there.
Bruce's head spun. Holy shit, it had really happened! The whole insane angel and alternate reality thing had actually happened!
"Bruce, what's wrong?" Dick's voice broke in on his shock.
With difficulty, the billionaire forced his eyes up from the cover of the DVD. "Nothing," he managed to get out. "Just…just reading the cover. Here, let me put this on."
Striding over to the entertainment unit, Bruce inserted the DVD with trembling fingers. It had happened. It had really happened. A fucking angel had come to him and shown him what the world would have been like without him! Or maybe he was dreaming this moment–
"Bruce?" The wobble of confusion could be heard plainly in Dick's voice. "Are you okay?"
Reel it in, Wayne.
Taking a steadying breath as he turned on the television, Bruce plastered what he hoped was a normal smile on his face and turned back towards the bed. "I'm fine, Kiddo. You ready to watch the movie? I can give you something for the pain in thirty minutes if you'd prefer to wait until then?"
Dick shook his head. "The movie will help to distract me from the pain."
Ouch. Poor baby. "Movie it is then."
Bruce grabbed the remote and moved towards the chair he had spent the night in.
The billionaire looked at where two hopeful little eyes were fixed on him. "I don't suppose you could…lie down beside me?"
"Dick, you've just had major surgery–"
"Please, Bruce!" he begged. "Don't worry, it's a big bed. You won't squish me."
That was only part of what he was worried about. The other part was terrified of jostling Dick and hurting him. But the pleading expression won out and Bruce sighed. "Alright. But if this hurts you even a little bit, you have to promise to tell me straight away."
Dick nodded eagerly.
Grabbing two extra pillows from the closet, Bruce returned to the bed where he propped them to the right of Dick's head: his injured shoulder made the left side a no-go area. Kicking off his shoes, Bruce lifted the blankets without uncovering Dick and eased himself onto the mattress.
"You okay, Buddy?" he checked, reassuring himself that Dick wasn't being jostled in any way.
Carefully sliding into a half-sitting up, half-lying down position, Bruce then skimmed an arm beneath Dick's pillow, gently elevating him until he could prop his head on Bruce's chest.
"Comfortable?" Bruce asked, eyeing the boy anxiously. He hoped he hadn't jarred anything when he'd raised him up.
Dick smiled up at him. "Yeah, thanks, Bruce."
"Then let's start this movie." Bruce pressed play on the remote and the room filled with the opening music of It's a Wonderful Life. The billionaire couldn't believe he was watching this after what had happened to him two nights ago.
Albert had been real. The whole crazy-ass experience had been real.
Bruce didn't know if he would ever be able to tell anyone about it. How the hell could you even begin to explain something like that?
But as he looked down at the small, dark head nestled against him, he realized that it didn't matter. He understood his purpose a little better now – in more ways than as just Batman. For the first time in a long time, he could see beyond the darkness to where there was light; light in the form of a bright child who could chase away the shadows.
And Bruce knew that was all he would ever need to keep him from getting lost in the dark.