"We need to talk." Bruce tried to make it sound flippant, but Dick's smile faded instantly and Wayne knew his attempt had failed.
Grayson eyed his former guardian and began to finger the sheets that covered up to his waist. He recognized that look. Bat logic was about to follow. "About what?"
Bruce moved around the bed and sat down on the edge. Dick drew back against the pillow. The chasm opened between them even before Bruce could begin.
Alfred, who was standing on the other side of the room, cleared his throat. "I will go and prepare some supper. Was there anything in particular you wanted this evening, Master Bruce?" Alfred grabbed Bruce’s attention with an intense gaze as he adjusted the pillow behind Dick’s back. It was a caution. Dick had only been out of hospital two weeks. He didn't need any aggravation.
"No," Bruce murmured, his eyebrows drawing down as he read the hidden message.
"Very good, Sir." Alfred held Bruce for a further few seconds and then turned and left the bedroom.
Dick waited. Bruce turned back to him. Grayson was looking much stronger than he had when he’d first left hospital. His face was no longer drawn, and while still a little pasty, there were signs of colour in his cheeks. However, Dick’s movements were very restricted and trips to the bathroom required assistance. It was his weakness that was the greatest annoyance to the young man himself, for as Leslie had predicted, he wasn’t bouncing back quite as quickly as he had in the past. He’d been through so much this time.
"What's on your mind?"
Wayne frowned. He didn't know how to go about this. Dick had been so chipper from the moment he'd regained consciousness. He was spending his every waking moment trying to assist his family through what had happened, but Bruce feared he wasn't focusing enough on himself.
"You're not facing what happened."
"Huh?” It wasn’t what Dick had been expecting and the statement took him by surprise. “What do you mean?"
Bruce laid his hand on Dick's arm. "You almost died.”
“Thanks for newsflash,” Dick smirked.
Bruce squeezed his arm. “I’m serious. You haven't made any attempt to deal with any of this. You need to."
Grayson's Adam's apple jumped and his jaw tightened ever so slightly. "Bruce, I don’t have anything to deal with. I’m alive. Besides, I've never been afraid of dying."
"I know. And that has always been a problem."
"ALWAYS been a PROBLEM?! What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" Grayson’s voice rose to one decibel below yelling.
Bruce struggled to keep his voice even. The irrational reaction was exactly what he’d been expecting. Dick had been bottling everything up since the shooting. "You've always been reckless because you don't fear dying."
"Wait a minute. Are you trying to say you think I have a death wish or that I won’t speak about my emotions? Because if you are, that's rich comin' from you!" Dick's arm slid out from under Bruce's hand, and he crossed his arms over his chest. The subject was closed.
"I didn't say you had a death wish," Bruce ground out. His head started pounding. He needed to stay calm, but he‘d never been good at that in situations like this. He and Dick always ended up in a shouting match. "All I'm saying is that you don't think before you do things."
"I don't think? Man, you are something, you know that, Bruce? Me jumping in front of a sniper to save your life. That’s what this is about, isn‘t it?"
Bruce rose to his feet. "No... yes. No." Wayne threw his arms up in exasperation. This wasn't going well. He took a deep breath and released it slowly. He needed to get back on the topic, which was getting Dick to face what had happened. Wayne eyed his boy, who was staring back at him with so much annoyance, and his expression softened. "I want you to know, that I know how you're feeling."
The anger drained from Dick's pale face, revealing a vulnerability that made the older man uncomfortable. Grayson’s arms unfolded and slid back down onto the bed. In a hushed voice, raw with emotion, Dick whispered, "No, you don't know what I'm feeling."
Bruce lowered his own voice. "I’ve been where you are -- angry... scared... uncertain if everything you are will be forever out of your grasp." He was hitting a chord. He could tell by Dick’s non-verbal responses. The problem was, Dick didn’t appear to be consciously aware of what he was responding to. Confusion and surprise crossed his features as emotions he couldn’t control and didn’t understand began to bubble and boil deep down inside him.
Bruce recognized what was happening for he had lived it, but he'd never spoken about his own experience.
Wayne turned away from Dick and walked toward the window. For a long time he stood, gazing out over the Manor grounds. "When Bane broke my back, I..." His voice trailed off and he lowered his head. Putting the emotional part of it into words was impossible. He could discuss the physical side, but not how it had effected him emotionally.
Wayne lifted his face and turned back to Dick. "You feel like you're drowning and there's nothing to hold on to, because everything's gone."
"Alfred and I wanted to be there for you, Bruce. You didn't let us."
Wayne nodded. "I know. I made some questionable decisions. Stupid decisions on a number of levels," Bruce chastised himself. "I couldn't face things myself and I didn't want to... I don't know. As for the other part of it, I didn’t ask you to take over because I didn’t feel I had the right to interfere in your life."
Dick’s eyes blazed as a well of past feelings consumed him.
“I was wrong, but we’ve moved past that… haven’t we?" Bruce asked, his voice echoing his longing that it was so.
Dick nodded and the rage left him as quickly as it had formed. “Yes.”
"Good. Damn. I don’t know how I got onto that. All I’m trying to say is that I know what you're feeling. Coming so close to losing your life makes you realize how insignificant you are in the larger scheme of things. And you can't see what's ahead because you may never be able to be what you were."
Dick looked puzzled. "Bruce, I haven't broken my back. In a month's time, everything WILL be back to the way it was. Leslie‘s really pleased with my progress. The muscles in my chest are re-knitting. My lung is just fine. Physio is going well."
Bruce stared at Dick for several moments before speaking. "Dick, it isn't going to be that easy. You've had seven seizures. If we don't find a cause, you won't be able to resume you Nightwing activities nor return to the Bludhaven police force."
Dick shook his head, his face relaxing a little. "Bruce, the seizures have stopped. I haven't had one in over a week."
"It's been eight days." Eight days, fourteen hours, thirty-two minutes. "Unless we can find a definitive reason for them and then eliminate the cause, I can't allow..."
"YOU CAN'T ALLOW?!” Grayson’s eyes fired with fury and then his voice dropped to little more than air forced out through his tightly clenched jaw. “You can't allow? Is that what you said?"
"No. Bruce, I'm not a child. I don't actually need your permission to do anything."
"For God's sake, this isn't an argument!” Wayne roared, his self-control deserting him. “If you have a seizure out there when you're on your own, or at a time when someone else is depending on you, what..."
"Ohhh, so that's what this is about? Don't worry, Bruce. I work pretty exclusively on my own in Bludhaven. I'm not asking you to work with me if you don't feel you can depend on me." His hurt echoed between each incensed word.
Bruce's eyes grew wide. "I'M NOT SAYING THAT! I don't want to see you out there on your own without someone to watch your back!"
"I've been watching it myself since you threw me out when I was sixteen. Remember?!" Both men froze. The resounding words echoed off the walls. Alfred came rushing into the room. Dick's eyes clouded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I just..." He shut his eyes and shook his head in frustration. What the hell was happening? Where had that come from?
“That’s enough,” Alfred ordered, striding across to Dick and placing his hand on his brow. “He’s warm. This is too much for him.” The elderly man turned to Bruce and the words ‘with a face like thunder’ became reality.
“I’m alright, Alfred.”
“No, you’re not. Not yet. You will be with rest and rest is what you are going to get.”
Dick reached up and stilled Alfred’s fussing hands. “Can you give us a minute?” Alfred frowned. “Please.”
Pennyworth nodded, though it was obvious he wasn‘t happy. He shot Bruce a warning glare and then left the room.
Bruce stood only a few feet across the room but felt like he was a world away from Dick. "I did what I felt I had to," he ground out.
"And you know what, Bruce? In time, I'd started to accept that. You didn't want to be working with a child. I could live with that." The accusation hung between them.
"Dick... Jason was... I made a mistake, alright! Is that what you need to hear?! I have to live with that error of judgment and with that boy's blood on my hands every day. It was MY fault. I tried to go backwards at a time when I knew I needed to change things. I was wrong. I should have been looking forward. Dick, learn from my mistake. You need to go forward now, not backwards."
Dick wasn’t sure how to deal with Bruce or with the plethora of emotions accosting him from within. "I'm not going backwards, Bruce,” Grayson assured. “The seizures have stopped.”
"We don’t know that.“
“I do. I will be returning to Bludhaven as soon as I can.“
“I DON'T WANT TO HAVE TO BURY YOU!"
Dick was a taken back by the volume and by the unstrained horror on his former guardian’s face. "I’m not the one who isn't facing my mortality," Dick pointed out. "You’re the one who can’t accept that I’m human or that that what we do has associated risks."
"RISKS! We do what we do only after eliminating and controlling risks to ourselves and innocent bystanders." The side of Bruce that was Batman was now in control.
"Bat logic at its best,“ Dick muttered. “Bruce, a month ago, a guy fired a bazooka at me! How do you control that? You can't. I know you want to think you can control the outcome of everything, but you are only human and so am I."
The veins in Bruce's neck had popped out. Dick raised his hand for calm. He didn't know how they had got to a point that they were arguing like this, but he knew Bruce wanted some answers... though, Dick was now unclear what the questions were. What he did know was that being who he was, despite the risks, was all he could be.
"Look... how do I explain this?” Dick searched for a bridge between them -- something Bruce would understand. “It's what we do. It's who we are." He could see that he wasn't reaching his former guardian. "Bruce, I was born an acrobat. And I'll die an acrobat. Nothing will ever change that. My parents taught me how to use my God given gifts to entertain. You honed those skills and taught me how to make a difference. A real difference in the lives of other people. 'To fight together against crime and corruption and to never swerve from the path of righteousness.’”
Bruce’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak, but no words were forthcoming.
“That was the pledge. I meant it.”
“You were nine years old when you made that oath.” Bruce’s voice was soft and dreadfully distorted.
“Exactly. It’s become my life, Bruce. Not because I let it, but because it is the path I selected.” As he said the words, Dick’s stomach dropped. Suddenly, he felt lost. His mind touched on the fears he had been suppressing. He was well aware of the fact that the seizures would change everything if they continued. “It’s who I am. I can’t just turn that off.”
Bruce gazed at Dick and realized that he was looking directly into his son’s soul. “I know,” he whispered. That had been what he’d been trying to say. He knew where Dick was. He’d been there. Dick was moving from confusion into denial. Anger would follow. However, right now, Dick wasn’t ready to face any of it. He had paled considerably in the last few minutes. Alfred had been right... as usual. It was too early. Dick needed assurances at this stage. When he was stronger, there would be time to guide him through the right decisions.
“Using those skills mean...” Dick’s voice cracked with emotion. “It’s who I am,“ he repeated. “If I don’t have that... to make a difference is...”
“You are making a difference. Bludhaven’s in chaos.”
“What?” Dick asked. The vulnerability disappeared in that single word, replaced by a look of concern and determination -- replaced by Nightwing. Bruce snorted inwardly. ‘He’s more like me than he knows.’
“Word’s spread that Nightwing is gone and as a result the crime rate has more than doubled in the last few weeks.” Dick rose off the pillow. “Relax,” Bruce soothed, returning to the bed. “I sent Cassie.”
Dick’s face remained tense.
“Cassie’s very capable,” Bruce reminded him, adjusting the blankets.
“But Bludhaven isn’t Gotham.” Bruce’s right eyebrow rose. “I’m not saying it’s worse, it’s just... different.”
“In what way?” Bruce asked. They were talking again, but it was Batman and Nightwing, not Bruce and Dick.
“Gotham is...” Dick smirked. The streets of Gotham had been his backyard when he was growing up. “The bad element in Gotham is visible. In Bludhaven, everything is hidden and sinister.”
Dick reached for the phone, but balked as his chest muscles pinched. Bruce picked up the phone and handed it to him. “Who are you calling?”
Dick punched in the number and waited. “Roy, it’s Dick.” Immediately, the other man started talking, his verbal diarrhoea preventing Dick from getting a word in. “... that’s great... Roy... yeah, listen, Roy.... Uh-huh... Did she?.... Roy, I need.... Sounds great... uh-huh... uh-huh...”
Bruce laced his arms across his chest and shook his head. Roy Harper had the attention span of a gnat.
“Well, I don’t blame her...uh-huh... ROY! Will you shut-up a minute and let me talk?... Yeah, I’m doing okay, but I need a favour.” Dick grinned. “No, I don’t need you to kill someone for me... No, I haven’t got a woman in trouble...” Whatever Roy said next caused Dick to burst out laughing, the young man clutching at his tender chest. All tension had left Dick’s face. Bruce's eyes narrowed. “Bowhead, will you let me speak? Bludhaven... yeah. Thanks,” Dick stated sincerely. He‘d known that Roy would drop everything for him. “Batgirl’s already there. Oh, and Roy, don’t try to hit on her or you may end up with those bits of your anatomy that you value most, painfully removed.” Roy’s response left Dick laughing again.
Bruce swallowed. Dick was so at ease with Harper... with all of the original Titans. Why? Wayne’s chest grew heavy. Every time he tried to achieve that comfort level with Dick, something got in the way. What was it that they had or did, that he didn’t?