Series: Guardian Knight
Characters: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson
Category: character study, backstory, family, alternate universe
Challenge: 2013 DCU Fic/Art Dick Grayson Challenge
Summary: "Everybody leaves," Dick murmurs into Batman's shoulder. "What's wrong with me?"
There's a photo in the newspaper the next day, on the front page. The photographer is critically acclaimed and later awarded a prize for capturing the extreme pathos of the tableau. Aside from grasping this precious instant in time, he's skillfully enhanced the contrast from the spotlights and the glitter of the costumes, which show up in black and white as faintly glowing. Like angels in death. The low angle mutes the grotesqueness of their positions, but at the same time leaves much horror to a nimble imagination -- which the gossiping Gothamites exercise freely.
The boy sits next to his mother, flat on his bottom, chubby arms and legs too uncoordinated as yet to allow any finesse. The angle of his head, the sprawl of his limbs, all telegraph his confusion. At two years old, he has only just begun to live. How can he hope to understand death? He stares into the camera -- perhaps merely startled by the flash of the previous photo -- but it looks to the viewer as if he is asking for help. Or an explanation, for why the arm his little hand is clutching has gone cold and unmoving.
A few seconds after this famous photo is taken, the strong man of the circus literally picks up the photographer and throws him into the bleachers. Luck and instinct preserve the film, however, and so, a star-for-a-moment is born:
THE LAST FLYING GRAYSON NEVER TO FLY
Batman reads the headline in the Gotham Chronicle the next morning. He smashes the innocent newsprint into a ball and pitches it into the grate before stalking downstairs, stopping only to tell his loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth, to cancel all of Bruce Wayne's meetings for the foreseeable future.
It takes five months of unrelenting labor to weave an airtight case against Anthony 'Tony Fats' Zucco that will keep him off of the streets for good.
In that time, Richard 'Dickie' Grayson has been taken into Gotham's Child Services and quickly passed into the household of a couple who profess to long for just such a beautiful boy as their own.
That is not precisely the truth of the matter.
It turns out that a child's stroller is an excellent place to hide things of all sorts.
Dick's adoptive parents are indicted for distribution of illegal drugs, fraud, and child endangerment. Dick is sent back into the system and eventually a foster household. The situation is not ideal, but not even Batman's influence can create a set of perfect parents out of thin air.
It will have to do.
Children grow fast. When next Batman checks in, Dick is running and talking a mile a minute when given the chance. Yet, Batman can't help but still see the silent, stunned toddler that had wandered away from his minder in the chaos of the aftermath of his parents' fall. The boy he had failed to save.
He'd meant only to observe for a while and then leave. Yet, weeks pass, and when the boy is left alone in the apartment one morning, he's somehow rationalized himself into jigging the window open and climbing inside.
The boy stares, wide-eyed, throughout this performance. This transforms quickly into the delighted curiosity of the very young. "Wow!" he exclaims. "How did you do that?"
"A lot of practice," Batman answers.
"Can I do it, too?"
"No," Batman quickly heads off that unwise pursuit.
"Oh. Who are you?"
"I'm Dick. Dick Grayson. My parents were trapeze artists, but they died when I was two. I don't remember them. I live with Mr. and Mrs. Almos now. They're nice. I'm very happy."
Batman listens to this curious monologue with a burgeoning sense of unease. The boy isn't lying exactly, but the words sound... rehearsed. "Where are Mr. and Mrs. Almos now?"
"They're at church. They're God-fearing people. They don't leave me alone, usually," the boy hastens to add. "Just, just when I'm too loud. They'll be back soon. We'll have Sunday lunch together. Sunday lunch is always the best."
That prompts the first genuine-looking smile from the boy.
Batman can't resist smiling back.
"I'm happy for you, Dick. Is there anything you need?"
The boy looks confused by the question. "No...?"
"That's good." No, Dick's foster parents aren't the best people, but they are far from the worst. Dick looks healthy and reasonably happy. Batman's feeling increasingly awkward for being here. There are other people who need saving more, surely. "I'll be leaving now, then. I just wanted to make sure you were doing all right."
He's startled when the boy clamps small arms around his legs. "Goodbye, Batman," he says.
Batman pats his head. "I'll see you next time," he soothes, then grits his teeth as he realizes that now he'll have to make good on his words.
That prospect doesn't seem nearly so dire anymore when the boy looks up at him, his face filled with delight. "Okay."
Dick's ten years old when Mr. Almos loses his job. In the predictable way of Gotham, he turns to drink, and then to abuse. Dick gets the brunt of it, protecting his younger foster sibling, who joined them two years ago.
"I'll alert the authorities as soon as I leave here," Batman promises him, every fiber of his being furious at the bruises on Dick's body -- and furious at himself for allowing this to happen. As far as he can tell, this has been going on for months, if not longer.
"No, don't!" is the panicked reply.
"Why not? Has he threatened you? I won't let him hurt you again."
"No, it's not that. But everything else is fine. He just needs to get a job again, and then... and then..."
"Has he ever hurt you before?"
"Not... really." Batman's expression must have reflected his rage, because Dick grabs ahold of his arm and looks up at him pleadingly. "Batman, I like it here. And I'll keep Jackie safe, I promise."
"She'll be safe in the orphanage as well. And so will you." He narrows his eyes in suspicion. "What aren't you telling me?"
The boy hems and haws before blurting, "I like feeling needed." He bites his lip for a moment before asking, "Batman, am I selfish?"
Batman keeps himself from sighing. "No," he answers firmly. "But Dick, you can't stay here."
The boy nods, miserable. "I know."
Dick's new foster parents move out of state due to a job transfer, eleven months after they take Dick in. WayneTech makes Mr. Lawrence a generous offer but is turned down. The Lawrences are eager for the sunshine of the West coast. The fact that Mrs. Lawrence is pregnant with the first child of their own after years of unexplained infertility may also have something to do with how easily they give up their young charge.
Batman has nothing encouraging to say when he meets Dick in the small cement yard of the Park Place Orphanage. The boy clings to him when he reluctantly informs him that he has to leave.
"You'll come back, won't you?"
There's always a chance he might not. Batman says nothing.
"Everybody leaves," Dick murmurs into Batman's shoulder. "What's wrong with me?"
Batman hugs the boy tightly. "Nothing is wrong with you, Dick. I'll come back. I promise."
Mr. Nieki doesn't care for children, especially not nearly-teenagers, but he is tolerant of his wife's side business in taking in strays, especially on the days when the Child Services checks come in the mail.
It's probably better than the Orphanage, at least. And Dick has three younger foster siblings to play with and care for.
Six people in the two-bedroom apartment means it's difficult to visit the boy while keeping the others unaware. On the times when Batman can manage it, Dick chatters excitedly about what he's learning in his classes and the latest funny things his foster siblings have said and all the things that he's thought and observed that make him happy or angry or indignant or awed.
"I love you," he says one day, when he hugs Batman goodbye. Batman wonders sadly if he doesn't have anyone else to say it to.
"Take care of yourself," he replies. "Remember that you can do anything you set your heart to, I know you can. Even every mistake is a lesson, not a failure. Believe in yourself."
"I'll remember," Dick whispers.
Gotham's system does not give support for fostering eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds, and so Dick is out the door the day he turns eighteen. He moves into a studio apartment, cramped but serviceable. He works part-time as a life guard at the Y while he goes to college. Even with a scholarship, he can't afford much. It's lucky that he isn't prone to luxuries or gathering material things, a side effect, perhaps, of his oft-uprooted lifestyle up to now. His apartment is not in the worst part of town, but that only means that the other residents are guilty only of petty crimes.
Batman tries to stay out of the boy's life as much as possible. He's made his own way, and Batman doesn't feel he has the right anymore to interfere -- if he ever did.
Yet, on this particular day, as he has been unable to resist doing once every few weeks, he finds himself watching as Dick finishes washing up from dinner and prepares himself for bed. He might have left it at that, still, except that the boy pauses by the open window of his bedroom and leans on the sill for several minutes, staring out. He can't possibly see Batman where he is hidden in the side of the high rise across the way, but something about his gaze stirs Batman to fold up his nightscope binoculars and shoot a line.
The soft sound makes Dick straighten. When Batman lands in front of him, his cape falling heavily around him and shushing against the side of the building, he backs away immediately -- but not out of fear. It's to welcome him inside.
Climbing in, Batman tucks his grapple gun away and then looks over his young host. Dick is grinning almost bright enough to light up the shadowed room.
"I knew I didn't make you up," are his first words, spoken in an almost giddy joy.
"Did you think you had?" Batman asks, in some confusion. He knows he's something of an urban legend to most Gothamites, but this boy has spoken with him dozens of times by now.
The boy's face falls a bit. "It's been a long time."
"Not that long," Batman rebuts. Objectively, that's mostly true, but he realizes that a life measured by school seasons runs faster than one measured by calendar years.
"The last time I saw you, I was still a kid. And, I was so lonely, growing up. I mean, not lonely, lonely. I have plenty of friends. But I didn't really have the best parents, you know? So I started thinking, maybe I'd been making up a substitute for myself." He visibly shakes off the melancholy. "But you're here for real now. So, good news is, I'm not crazy."
"Well, you are conversing with a giant bat," Batman observes wryly. "So I'd hold out on that prognosis."
Dick gapes for a moment. "Did you just make a joke? You did! Oh, this is going to ruin your image."
Batman frowns, instinctively alert. "You're not going to tell anyone about me?"
"Of course not. I wouldn't do that. Besides, who would believe me?" The tone is cavalier, but Batman thinks he can trust the boy.
"Congratulations on graduating," he remembers to say, somewhat stiff and awkward, but he means it. Even if he hasn't visited in a little over a year, he's kept up to date with what Dick has been doing.
"Thanks! Do you mean college or the academy?"
He laughs, the same brilliant, untainted sound, full of light, that Batman has come to look forward to over the years. "Can you believe it? I'm going to be a cop. I just picked up my badge and gun this morning."
Batman winces at the latter, but he replies, "I know." Hesitating, he puts a hand on the boy's-- no, the young man's shoulder. "I'm proud of you."
Dick's eyes shine, before he ducks his head in apparent embarrassment.
"Why did you choose this?" Batman asks quietly. "It's a dangerous line of work."
Dick's expression is resolute, the face of ideal-minded youth. "I'm going to help people, like you do. Not exactly the same, of course. But I figure, you need some help on the inside, right? I'll start out small, but once I make detective, I'll have access to inside information that you can use. We can help each other."
It's a fair assessment. Batman senses that there's been more thought put into this decision than he had assumed. The idea reassures him.
"I'll put in a word for you with Commissioner Gordon. He's a good man."
"Thanks. I've heard good things about him. He completely turned the GCPD around after he transferred here."
"Yes." He's glad, for other reasons than the obvious. Instead of the miasma of corruption of ten years ago, Dick will be entering a police force that deserves him.
"I'll bet you helped with that."
"I have the utmost respect for the Commissioner," is all Batman is willing to say. He isn't used to compliments.
The silence between them slides from comfortable to slightly strained, until Dick breaks it.
"I'm glad I got to see you again before I start work." Dick's voice is a little shy.
"I'm glad I came." Batman puts out a hand, meaning to squeeze Dick's shoulder again, or perhaps ruffle his hair like he had when Dick had been much younger. Instead, he touches the young man's cheek. "You've grown up," he observes inanely. "Your parents would be proud of you."
"Do you really think so?"
The expression he gets in answer is radiant.
"Could I ask...?" Dick questions, after a moment. "Why do you do this?"
For justice. For revenge. To protect my city. Because it's the right thing to do.
Batman lets his hand fall and feels his cloak envelop him. "I was hurt a long time ago. I made a vow that no one else will suffer that kind of hurt again."
"But-- But that's not possible, is it?"
"Not realistically, no."
Dick nods in understanding. "Could I...?" This time, he doesn't finish without prompting.
"Could I see...?" He gestures at Batman's face. "I won't tell anyone, I swear. I just-- Please? I want to know you're real. Really real."
It's not at all a casual request, and Batman can see that Dick knows it. Aside from one person, no one has ever seen the Batman's face. He's surprised that he's even considering granting this exception. He's even more surprised when his hands move as if of their own accord to pull his cowl back and away.
The natural breeze through his hair is somewhat alarming.
Even so, it's only a gesture, of course. He knows Dick can't actually see him well enough in the darkness for a positive ID. The part of his brain that is always keyed toward security tells him he is safe. The part of him that has prompted him to visit this boy throughout the years is a tiny bit wistful.
Dick reaches out before pausing, his long fingers frozen in the scant moonlight. "May I?"
It's... strange to feel a touch so intimate that belongs neither to himself nor one of his lovers. He recalls, for the first time in years, kissing his father's face -- the sharp scent of his aftershave, the scratch of his evening stubble, the comfort of the returned press to his forehead. He hopes, fervently, that Dick has known these sensations since after he was too young to remember. It's tragic to imagine that he might have had something that this child, so easy to love, might not have.
Not a child anymore, of course.
He can feel the calluses on Dick's hands from his firearms and physical training. They drive home to him that Dick will soon be a fellow soldier in the war that Batman has been fighting for what seems like a very long time. He wishes he weren't so fiercely ecstatic about the prospect, wishes that he could be unselfish enough to convince Dick to stay safe.
But he isn't.
Besides, this is what Dick wants. He's not a helpless child anymore, and he's chosen his path.
A quiet burst of static in Batman's ear precedes an announcement over the GCPD band of a robbery in progress several blocks east. If he leaves now, he'll make it before the first patrol car can.
"You have to go," Dick says, understanding the gist of the radio transmission even though he can't quite hear it. His words are not a question, but they are not an accusation either. "Maybe next time, I'll be your backup out there," he postulates. Batman grunts. It's entirely possible. He's not sure what he feels about that. Elation, pride, fear. Nervousness. For all the legends that surround the Batman of Gotham City, Dick has never seen him in action, he realizes. He hopes he won't disappoint.
Dick smiles, and Batman wonders for a moment if, now that he's grown up, Dick will still... His question is answered when Dick steps forward with no hesitation at all and throws his arms around Batman's shoulders. He has to lift just a bit on his toes to do it, Batman notices. For some reason, that makes him smile. "Stay safe."
"I'll come see you again," Batman-- Bruce promises.
Dick sighs and leans into him, his body heavy and warm with his trust. "I know you will."
Inspired by Hill's amazing artwork. I stared at this for so long I finally had to set it as my desktop background:
If you enjoyed this story, you might try these:
An Oversight Of Underthings (Nightwing), by kuonji
A New Prize (Batman and Robin), by kuonji
Call Me Watari (Death Note manga), by kuonji
Dick and Dana (Batman), by JT
The Best There Ever Was (Batman), by RileyC