Dick just shrugged when his friends said things like that. They didn't know that he and Bruce actually went out every night, and did way more exciting things than go to the movies. They couldn't know; that was the first thing Bruce had taught him.
"It has to be our secret, Dick," he'd said, hands on Dick's shoulders, the grip burning like ice into his arms. "Can you promise to keep it?"
He'd never been able to break a promise he'd made staring into Bruce's eyes. "I swear."
So when the other kids talked like that, Dick grinned and turned a handspring or two to distract them. He would be the coolest kid ever if they knew--but he thought he was pretty cool anyway. Or, at least, Robin was.
It was hard not to feel cool crashing through a window of the old warehouse at Batman's side, landing gracefully, rolling to avoid the gunfire of Mistretta's thugs, then knocking the guns out of their hands with a few well-aimed batarangs.
"Gunning for us?" he quipped as he zip-stripped one of them. Robin was quick and funny and ready for anything. "Sorry to knock out your hopes!"
Batman had another of the thugs up against the wall. He was quick, too. And strong. Dick wondered if he'd ever be that strong. Maybe if he did two hundred pushups a day every day for ten years, like Batman had. "Tell me where Anna Devore is."
"Screw you, man. I don't even know what you're talking about."
"Look at me," Batman said, tightening his fingers on his collar and jerking his head up. "Look--that's right. Now tell me where the little girl is."
There was a long pause. "Mistretta will kill me..." the guy said dreamily.
"She's, she's at the country house of this lawyer Billsey, he works for--"
"I know who he is."
The guy dropped limply to Batman's feet. Dick wasn't the only one who couldn't resist Batman's look.
"Let's go, Robin."
"When are you going to teach me how to do that?"
"Later." Batman's eyes were half-shut as he swept towards the door. "Come on. We need to rescue her before Mistretta realizes anything is wrong."
That was the only thing not cool about being Robin--the things Batman still wouldn't tell.
Bruce hadn't actually ever meant to tell Dick about Batman at all. He'd just wanted to help Dick feel better after his parents had--died. Being at Wayne Manor hadn't made him feel better, though. Dick was used to being surrounded by circus people, colorful and friendly and always laughing. Mr. Wayne smiled, but his eyes were far away, and his door was always shut. Alfred wasn't mean, but he wasn't friendly, either; Dick could hear the You don't belong here below every word of his lectures on which parts of the house were very, very private, and how Dick should never, ever disturb Master Bruce in his rooms.
The house itself frightened him. From the outside, he'd looked at it and laughed, thinking it was like a haunted mansion to scare little kids. Once he was inside, though, where the clocks ticked into the constant silence and grim people watched his every move from the walls, he decided it was really the funhouse, where the mirrors twisted Mr. Wayne and Alfred from pretend parents into weird creatures, creatures who might even be monsters.
Dick had never felt so lonely and lost in his life as he had that first Saturday after his arrival at the Manor, lying in bed listening to the thunderstorm outside. The wind was so strong it was rattling the branches of the trees, and the shadows they threw against his wall made him think of the fingers of a madman scrabbling on the window, sliding against the glass to get a grip. He hid his face in the pillow so he couldn't see, and he wished his mother would come in and turn on the light, but then he remembered that she wouldn't, not ever again, and the thought finally made him break down and cry.
He cried so long he must have cried himself to sleep, because when there was an enormous crack of thunder, he opened his eyes again and Bruce was standing over his bed. The shadows fell across his face, too, hiding his eyes. For a moment Dick was too terrified even to move, hoping desperately it was a nightmare. He could hear his own breathing, rapid and high, as Bruce stared down at him. One of his hands began to fall slowly towards him, and Dick knew that if it touched him he would never, ever wake up again.
Then the lightning flashed, and Bruce brought his hand back up to shield his eyes. The spell was broken.
"Mr. Wayne?" Dick whispered.
"Don't be frightened, Dick." He tried to smile. "Come with me."
Dick could never remember the route they had taken that night to the Batcave. It was if the whole house were drowning in mists, and the only solid thing was Bruce's hand, which he had clung to fiercely. The tunnel to the cave seemed to go on for miles, and he was stumbling with weariness when they finally emerged. The bats, startled, soared up in the cavern, waking him up, and suddenly things were real again.
"I need to tell you something, Dick," Bruce said. "I wasn't going to, but--now I see I must."
That was the night he had learned about Batman, and about Bruce. That Bruce was...different. That he had lost his family just the way Dick had, and so he had become Batman, to make sure it didn't happen to any other children. That people who had families could never understand that the way Dick could, and that meant that they needed to stick together. Dick knew what he meant, but he still thought that Bruce was trying to be nice. Bruce was a grownup–he could have as many people as he wanted. Dick was just a kid. Surely Bruce didn't really need him, not the way he suddenly realized he did need Bruce.
But Bruce said that he did, and Dick was grateful for that. So he started to become Robin that same night. He didn't know how else to show what he felt than to be the best Robin he could possibly be. He couldn't say it; he could never say. But he was sure Bruce understood.
It was some time in Dick's third year as Robin when Bruce had started to seem--not well. Dick was used to Bruce brooding, but he was also used to being able to cheer him up. Maybe not right away, but he would invent some new gymnastic move, dig up some corny jokes, and sooner or later, he'd get through, get that tiny smile out of Bruce that meant he was coming around. Not that time. Bruce had hardly even looked at him for months. His eyes were blank and his shoulders sagged and then one day, he'd actually fallen in practice, as if he were too weak to keep his handhold. Alfred had hustled him off to bed.
"Maybe I should cancel my date," Dick said to Alfred when he returned.
"I don't believe that would be a good idea, Dick."
"But if Bruce is sick--"
"Then he ought to be left to rest undisturbed," Alfred said coldly. After a moment, he went on, smiling, "He wouldn't want you to spoil your date."
"I just don't know."
"I'll look after Master Bruce. If anything should happen, I will call."
"Do you promise, Alfred?" he said, trying to get Bruce's look in his eyes.
Alfred's own expression, though, was mild, unimpressed. "You know I always do what's best for Master Bruce, Dick. Go."
Looking up at the house now, Dick thought that that had been a mistake. There was nothing obviously wrong--no doors or windows open that shouldn't be, no alarms signaling, no strange sounds or voices. Nothing except the fact that there was a car in the driveway he didn't recognize, a Mercedes sedan. Bruce did have the occasional visitor, but Dick could feel a disturbing current in the air, the same feeling that had saved him from way too many traps when he fought crime. Something had happened. Was happening. Some new secret reigned over the mansion that night.
The only light in the house came from one of Bruce's rooms. Dick carefully skirted the motion detector and the cameras and threw up a rappel line to the softly-lit window. Clambering slowly and stealthily up the wall, he listened carefully for any sound, but there was nothing. He reached the windowsill and cautiously edged his head up to peer over it.
There was a man lying on a couch inside: Mistretta, who'd recently escaped from prison. Batman was kneeling next to him, bent over, covering them both with his cape, and for a minute Dick thought that he was trying to tie him up, or maybe whispering something threatening in his ear.
But he could hear Batman now, murmuring indistinctly, "Shhhhhh." And Mistretta's hand, fallen away from the cover of the cape, was digging into the leather of the couch so hard Dick thought it might tear.
Just at that moment his own hand slipped, and the scrape of skin along stone reverberated through the charged stillness of the room. Batman jerked his head up, and there was--there was blood on his mouth, and dripping down his chin, like juice from a pomegranate--and Mistretta screamed, screamed for help, a short, pitiful wail--
Later, Dick couldn't even remember trying to break his fall.
When he woke up in the hospital room, Alfred was sitting across from his bed. He was looking out the window instead of at Dick, and Dick just stared at him. Alfred Pennyworth, distinguished older gentleman in his suit and tie. Prim and proper, the most respectable butler in the world. Looking after a house with no end to the secrets, and no one would ever know.
Maybe he laughed, because Alfred turned back to him. "Dick! It's very good to see you awake."
"Where is he, Alfred?"
Sometimes he honestly wondered if Alfred was crazy. "Bruce."
"Master Bruce is at the Manor. He did not think it appropriate to come."
Dick looked at the window himself. "It's still dark." Which meant he could have. He just hadn't wanted to. It felt like the breath getting knocked out of him all over again.
"I've brought your things." Suitcases on the floor, but way too many of them for a short hospital stay. "And Master Bruce asked me to deliver you the keys to the Kuttner Place penthouse. I'm to look after it for you."
The terror blanked away the pain. "Wait. He's sending me away?"
Alfred's voice was calm and untroubled, as if the situation were perfectly normal. "Master Bruce thought you might be more comfortable away from the Manor."
"He's crazy." Dick sat up quickly. The world dropped away, then caught. "I have to see him."
"He has locked his doors, Dick," Alfred said, almost as if he'd memorized his lines. "He must not be disturbed."
"We'll see about that." Later, he would have to try to figure out Alfred. But for now: both feet on the floor. It wasn't too bad. "Bring this stuff back with you, okay?"
Climbing down the chimney while nursing a splitting headache wasn't Dick's idea of fun, but it got him past the doors. He tumbled out of the narrow space into a room he'd never seen before, which, he realized, had to be Bruce's bedroom. Large, high four-poster bed with heavy hangings, blackout curtains, and no mirrors. He kept moving. Bruce had surely heard his entry and might be planning an ambush, or an escape.
But when he went into the next room, with bookshelves all the way up to the ceiling, Bruce was sitting motionless in a chair before the fire, staring at it.
He didn't acknowledge Dick at all, and that made him sicker than any concussion could ever have.
Dick burst out, "Why didn't you just tell me?"
Bruce didn't look up. "I didn't want you to know how much of a monster I really am."
Monster? This was Bruce. Bruce who snatched children from death, who put the bad guys where they couldn't hurt anyone any more. Bruce who patiently tended Dick's wounds, night after night. Bruce who had taught him to fly. "You were...hungry."
"That's no excuse."
"Is he dead?"
"Then it's not--"
"I swore an oath to fight evil, Dick. To protect the innocent, to bring the guilty to justice. Not to lurk in the shadows and prey on the weak for my own gratification."
"But you needed it. I saw--you were getting so sick. I just didn't understand."
"It's not just that," Bruce muttered, closing his eyes. "It's...contact. There is something in the human spirit that...nourishes. That makes it possible to go on. It takes such an effort of will to continue..."
"How long had it been?"
"Five years. Since before you came. If Alfred hadn't--"
Dick took a step closer, hope suddenly blooming in him. "You're still hungry."
Bruce bowed his head. "Yes," he hissed.
"Then take it from me."
It seemed so simple, so obvious, so right, that it startled Dick when Bruce sprang from his chair and backed away from him. "No."
"But you wouldn't kill me."
"It doesn't matter. I couldn't--hurt you."
"But...think about it! It's really only bad if the person says no. And I'm volunteering." For Bruce. He would do anything for Bruce. That knowledge was so strong in him that it flushed his cheeks, carried his words on in a rush, made him push forward to where Bruce was standing against the wall. "Go ahead."
Bruce was rigid, and all Dick had to do was touch him, he was sure of it. But he'd made a mistake; he was looking into Bruce's eyes. They were so blue. He needed to keep looking into them. He always did at the most important times, and this was very important.
"Dick," Bruce's voice was caressing, and somehow Dick's determination got lost, falling away into relief. Bruce hadn't kept the secret because he hated him, or didn't trust him. No, it was that Dick was too important to him. It was all in his voice, if Dick only listened closely enough. "You swore you would obey me. Do you remember?"
He came back to himself in his own rooms hours later.
Maybe things shouldn't have been able to get back to normal after that, but they did. Bruce was better than he had been, and he didn't try to send Dick away again. That was all that really mattered. Batman's grip on the city had been slipping while Bruce wasn't well, so they had lots to do to catch up, and that was good, too. It kept Bruce active, kept him from brooding, and being Robin was always the easiest and the best way for Dick to forget that anything was wrong. Swinging through the air next to Batman on their way to help someone, he could still be happy.
They didn't talk about what had happened. The events of that awful night faded quickly in Dick's mind, until every detail seemed unsure to him. He wondered if that was Bruce's doing, somehow--his idea of sparing Dick. But he didn't want to be spared. He wanted to help, the way he helped Bruce with everything else. It was obvious he couldn't just offer again, though, so he threw himself into their work, determined that one day Bruce would look at him and finally see that it would be okay to let him give it.
The Gotham mob, which had been extending its reach over the past year, wasn't happy about Batman's renewed vigor. He and Bruce cracked open one family, but that just led to a feeding frenzy. People were getting shot on the street every day, and that meant lots of innocent bystanders were getting hurt, too. Dick knew that Bruce hated that more than anything else, so he watched carefully for warning signs, and tried to be extra-cheerful for his sake.
One night was the worst of all: a bank robbery down by the docks had gone awry and turned into a hostage situation, with two civilians and a cop already dead.. They rushed down there, then stopped on a nearby roof to assess the situation. They'd just decided to try to take a line in through a back window when Dick noticed that someone else had beaten them to it. A slim figure in black was climbing down his own line, hand over hand, from the next building to the bank's roof.
"Geez, Batman, who's that?"
"I don't know," Batman growled. "But I don't like it."
A second later, someone from below yelled, "Hey!" and a police spotlight pinned the other into place, still hanging on the line. To his astonishment, Dick saw that it wasn't a guy at all--it was a girl, with long red hair. Wearing a bat-mask.
"Those idiots," Batman snapped, and leapt for the near rooftop.
"Get away from the building!" a megaphone declared, and that must have notified the bank robbers, too, because there was a rattle of machine-gun fire. The girl started to move again--she had to, she was way too exposed--but she was going too fast, and the line slipped free. Dick caught his breath and waited for her to fall. Would the other end hold? Would she be able to land properly on the vertical face of the building, or go through a window? He or Bruce could have, but she wasn't one of them, couldn't be--
He never found out, because Batman was there to catch the end of her line. Dick could hear the grunt as he braced himself to hold the girl's weight. The spotlights panned over to him, and there was even more gunfire. Some of the robbers had gotten up to the bank's rooftop. Batman tried to duck down, but he couldn't get completely under cover and still hold the line taut, and the girl, dodging fire from the rooftop herself, hadn't reached the other end yet. Dick watched, paralyzed, as Batman took several rounds, teetered over the edge of the building against the full moon, and fell straight down, into the river.
Dick searched the river all night, ignoring the crisis still ongoing at the bank. He stripped off his costume and dove in, again and again, struggling against the fierce currents that tried to drown him in murk. He didn't find anything. By the time the sun rose and he had to abandon the search, he was shaking with the cold and exhaustion.
Back at the Manor, Alfred was standing transfixed in front of the tiny black-and-white TV set in the kitchen. He turned instantly as Dick came in. "Master Bruce?"
"No," Dick got past chattering teeth. "He hasn't been in contact?"
"No. The news reports say that Batman fell from a rooftop. Are they correct?"
"Into the river, Alfred," and it came over him so strongly that he nearly began to cry. "I have to...check places. I have to..."
"Master Bruce will be all right," Alfred said calmly. He took a mop and bucket from the closet, filled the bucket carefully with water, and began mopping the trail of mud Dick had left behind him. "Master Bruce always comes home."
Dick stared at his placid face, his thin body stooped patiently to his task. He knew it would do no good to say anything. Instead, he went silently upstairs to change.
During the day, he checked every hideout and cache they had within fifty miles of the city. He stopped by Leslie Thompkins's clinic, allegedly to drop off a shipment of drugs, and learned that Bruce hadn't been there. He went to hospitals, he went to the morgue; those were harder to get information from, but eventually he was sure that Bruce wasn't in either place. He even went to Arkham, where Ivy stroked his thigh through the bars as she told him she hadn't seen Bruce, but if he gave her a kiss, she'd make him feel all better for being left behind. He put up with it til he was sure she wasn't lying, then left, numb.
As soon as it got dark, he returned to his solitary task by the river. When he surfaced just as the clocks were chiming two a.m., the girl was crouched on a rock, watching him. She hadn't been in any of the stories. She must not have been quite as bad at the job as he'd thought.
"He did fall in, then," she said. "I thought he might have."
"Saving you," he said, full of rage at the mask she was still wearing. "Running around like you were one of us. Who do you think you are, Batgirl?"
"I thought--what you two were doing was...important. You haven't been around so much lately. I wanted to help. "
"Some help." He worked on disentangling a length of fishing line from his leg.
"Let me help now."
He thought of the girl, raising Bruce from the deep and bringing his body to the shore. "So I can get killed saving you, too?" he said. "Go home to your family. Go home and never wear that mask again."
"I--" she started to say, but he turned his back on her, preparing for another leap into the water. After a minute, there was a rustle, and he knew she was gone.
Dick kept up this schedule, unsleeping, for three days. On each of his brief visits to the Manor, Alfred was still mopping the floors unceasingly. On the third night, back for a hasty dinner he had to make for himself, he looked up to the sky and saw the familiar Bat-signal.
He should have gone to help. That was what Bruce would have wanted him to do. He should never have left the bank-robbers to the police; all the hostages had died. Instead, he went upstairs, lay down without even taking off his shoes, and slept.
Dick wasn't sure how many hours he had been out. It was dark outside his window--it might have been the same night, or the next, or a year later. He wanted to turn over and go back to sleep, but there was a tiny alarm going off by his bed, signaling an unauthorized entry through the kitchen. Adrenaline sounded a dull pulse along his nerves. He rolled out of bed and crept down the stairs. He wasn't halfway down when the stench reached him. Like the Third Street fishmarkets on the hottest day of summer, only worse. Rot and the kind of decay that seeped, liquid, over your hands, spreading filth in a way you thought you could never rinse away. He had to fight down the urge to gag as he cautiously approached the kitchen.
Lying face-down in the middle of the kitchen floor, a trail of slime behind him, was a man. His arms and legs were grotesquely swollen and his hands were tinged with green. He was...he was wearing the Batsuit, or the ruins of it.
Dick opened his mouth, but he couldn't make his voice come out.
The man raised his head, and the face was like no man's that Dick had ever seen, rubbery and turquoise. One eye was puffed shut completely, the other peered at him wildly. There were no traces of Bruce in the face; even his iron jaw had been swallowed up in bloat.
No trace except for that one blue eye. "Dick," the man gurgled. "Dick..."
The voice was thickened beyond recognition, but it snapped Dick out of his daze. "Bruce, oh, God, Bruce, what..." He hurried into the room and tried to put his arms around Bruce. Bruce's flesh squelched under his fingers, and he nearly threw up then and there. "Bruce!"
"Dick." The eye fell shut, and Bruce's head fell back.
Taking him to the hospital, or even to Leslie, was completely out of the question. Alfred was nowhere to be seen, and what if he was? Dick had no idea how to treat this. Only a guess, and if...
"Bruce! Stay with me. Bruce, please."
Bruce squinted at him again.
"Bruce, tell me the truth." He bared a wrist. "Will this help?"
Bruce turned his head, spat something disgusting in a lump to the floor. His voice was clearer this time. "No."
"Darn it, Bruce, you can't lie to me!"
"But you'll die."
Bruce just glared, but there was no power in his look to stop Dick now.
"Bruce, I can't do this without you."
"No. I can't. They put up the Bat-signal tonight and I couldn't even go. If you die, the mission ends. Do you hear me? The mission ends!"
He fumbled a knife from his pocket and slashed shallowly across. The blood barely welled in the cuts.
"Is that you want, Bruce? Because you have to choose." His voice broke, then rose to a hysterical pitch. "Is that what you want?"
Bruce shuddered, all over, and drove his teeth into Dick's wrist.
It hurt, so much, as if his flesh were being gouged away, and the gurgle of his own blood into Bruce's throat was obscene. In less than a minute, the kitchen had grown distant and cold around him, and he was leaning, pressing his forehead to the floor. He might die of this. He knew it in his bones, and already he was too weak to stop it.
But slowly a great dreaminess clouded over the pain. He could no longer feel the tile against his skin, or the weight of Bruce in his arms; he was aware only of a great exhaustion, as if he had worked out very hard and now it was time to take a well-earned rest. He was cradled in warmth, he was...
His eyes slipped open, and he was looking into the kitchen light. Bruce was holding him in his arms, normal Bruce except for the seaweed in his hair and the tears in his eyes.
"Dick," he whispered, stroking his cheek. "You were right."
Dick wanted to say something, but he couldn't. He drifted off again, and he could have died happily there, with the knowledge that Bruce had finally seen.
"There are rules," Bruce said, his voice iron.
Dick nodded. "Of course." Batman always had rules. It was self-discipline that kept them together, kept them alive. That wasn't a problem.
"You must stay in excellent physical and mental condition. If you don't, you won't be able to take care of yourself and you can't help me."
"That's nothing new."
"It'll be harder now, Dick." Bruce was on the verge of a glower. "You have to take this seriously."
And it wasn't that Dick couldn't feel what he meant, down deep. It had been a week, and he still felt like between his skin and bones was nothing but a void. Just coming down to the Cave had been an effort. The exhaustion was more than physical, too; he could still hear the voice whispering in his mind, telling him to lie down and give up. The walls of the manor seemed to molder with grey. But he was stronger than that. He loved to move too much to give in to the stupor. He wouldn't falter. Bruce should know that by now.
"Okay, okay, I am." He frowned. "Serious face. See?"
"Next. It happens when I say it happens. Not otherwise."
"What if you wait too long?"
Bruce looked at him, and all the humanity slowly faded from his face, leaving only dark pools lurking in jutting bones that might have been millennia old. "I won't."
Bruce was trying to scare him, but at least he wasn't making him scared. "That's a promise."
"Last. You always have a choice, Dick. Always."
That was the thing that sobered Dick up. Because it was a lie, an fairy tale. Dick didn't have a choice, any more than Bruce had ever had. It was become or be lost. It was more than a little scary, that Bruce couldn't admit that--it made him feel like chasms were opening before their feet and Bruce had just turned off his flashlight.
But if he needed to believe a lie, Dick could lie. Compared to everything else, it seemed pitifully little to ask. He'd follow Bruce anywhere, even into the dark. He couldn't remember the time when he hadn't.
"Of course," he said. "Always."