He Shall be King Thereafter
One year prior:
The day had been long, the trip from Jump City to Gotham being tiring and seemingly endless. He'd been told not to come, but he didn't listen. It had been over a year since he'd seen his old friend, the one he'd had for most of his life.
Roy left the Titans two years prior, wanting to go off on his own and become his own hero. His departure was civil, it had nothing to do with the team. Roy only felt like he'd out grown the Titans and maybe he had, but it seemed now that maybe he wasn't ready after all.
A year ago, Roy accepted a mission to go undercover and infiltrate a criminal arms dealing organization that had ties to the Mexican Drug Cartel. It was a high risk mission and even the Justice League questioned taking it on (only doing so as a favor to the government). Roy jumped at the opportunity and hardly thought twice. Dick remembered the details and even thought about volunteering, but didn't, knowing his code of ethics would be compromised. It was no different for Roy.
He'd come back from the failed mission a disgraced, broken man. And from what Dick could tell it was going to take more than his moral high ground to remind Roy how far he was from his own.
He approached the rundown looking building, its brick crumbling into decay from years of neglect, but no one seemed to care. It was only among the many structures in this part of town that reflected the lives of those who lived along the "Methadone Mile." Their lives in ruins as they let themselves rot away.
Dick looked up when he reached the main entrance at the top of his steps, his apprehension fresh in his mind.
"Well here goes nothing."
The young man worked frantically, looking for just the right implement to suit his needs. A lit cigarette hung from his lips, burning as he inhaled the toxic smoke. He ran his trembling fingers through his shallow strawberry hair. He needed something deep that could hold just the right amount of water. His eyes became glassy as a sick feeling filled his stomach and throbbed in his head.
It had been hours since he had his last fix and he needed his next. Finally, he found the right tool that could perform his distasteful task. Irritated, the young man sighed in relief and took an old spoon in his hand then placed it down on the table. He opened a small box and placed it down beside the spoon. From it, he took out a syringe, filling it with a small amount of water and ejected it into the cradle of the spoon. He placed a fine, rose grey power in the water, being careful not to add too much. Diligently, he took the spoon in his hand and lit a lighter, allowing the flame to heat the bottom. The liquid began to bubble, reaching its boiling point to breakdown the substance. Once the liquid had reached its peak, he placed down the spoon and used the end of the plunger to stir the contents, then sampled the concoction to check its purity.
He both loved and hated the taste of the drug. This time it was very bitter and he couldn't help but cringe at its foulness, but this is where love came into play. He loved that he was moments away for drowning out the world and quelling his craving just like he loved the high he'd face when he got there.
He placed in the spoon a small piece of cotton and watched as it engorged itself with the poison that was killing him. He hated himself for what he was about to do, but it called to him, holding him tight in its grip.
He pressed the needle down into the cotton, using it as a filter and filled the syringe to the desired amount. He'd tied an old phone charger around his arm and began to look for a vein. He traced his finger along the skin of his arm, hitting it to provoke their prominence. He'd always wonder if this was the time he'd take too much or just get a bad batch. Deep down he always wanted it to be the last time, but knew that it wouldn't be. A vein pronounced itself and he set his sights on it, aiming the needle toward it. He knew the feeling that awaited him, wanting nothing more than to forget his self-hatred and failure. But just as the needle was about to pierce his skin, a knock wrapped at the door.
He wanted to ignore it, to push his thoughts away from the sound and centered his focus back on achieving his high, but couldn't. The knocking persisted, making it hard to concentrate, but he refused to acknowledge the sound, until he heard a familiar voice call his name.
"Roy, I know you're in there! It's Dick! Open the door!"
Roy sighed and let his head fall back as though the call of his name was enough to pull him out of his despair. However, the need to indulge in his sickness still pulled at him, but the voice at the door refused to cease.
"Roy, come on, I just wanna talk. I'm not here to hassle you, I'm just—" Suddenly the door flew open and the dissolved face of his old friend appeared in the door way, "worried."
"Nice of you to drop by Dick." Roy replied dryly. "Did the League send you?"
"No," Dick replied quickly, trying to hold on to his friend's trust, "I came on my own. I wanted to see how you were."
Roy looked at his dark haired friend who stood helplessly in the doorway. It had been a long time since they'd last seen each other and in truth, part of him was happy to see him, but not in his current state. "Dick, you can't fix me, so don't—"
"Roy I'm not here to fix you, I just wanna know what happened," Dick pleaded, trying convince Roy to see his sincerity.
"You wanna come in?"
Dick accepted his offer and entered the disheveled apartment. The living room was nearly bare and only possessed a flimsy coffee table and a cheap looking couch. Off to his left was a kitchenette, its counters covered in filthy dishes and empty take out containers. The floor looked as if it had never been swept, being littered with dust and dirt that became trapped against crux of the base boards.
Dick looked around and noticed a doorway that led to the bedroom. A nearly bare mattress lay on the floor, covered in thin rag-like blankets. The windows were covered, keeping out most of the light, leaving Roy alone in the dark. He didn't know what to think in the tiny apparent, its small size nearly suffocating and secluded from the world. It was as though demons hung on the wall, taking refuge in the shadows, both physically and emotionally.
"You wanna sit down?" Roy said taking a seat on the couch.
Dick nodded, pulling himself from his grim thoughts. He took a seat across from Roy in an old chair that sat alone in a corner. He looked over at the young man across from him. His eyes were dull and empty as they looked back at Dick embittered and hollow. A darkness coiled beneath them like bruises, making Roy's skin take on sickness it had never possessed.
"So how long have you been here in Gotham, Roy?"
The archer lit a cigarette and took a long drag, "I came here a month ago, I couldn't stay in Star City anymore. Ollie was too ashamed of me." His voice was filled with despair and indignity grew in his worn eyes. "I just wanted to be as far away from him as possible."
"I get that," Dick replied, knowing the feeling of wanting to run away from who you are. "What happened in Mexico?"
Roy blew a puff of smoke through his nose, the offensive smell poisoning air around him. His face fall even further than it had and regret hung heavy from his brow. "I went against nature, that's what happened."
"Roy, that doesn't make any sense?"
"It wouldn't, not to you or anyone from the world we come from." Roy replied flicking the ash off his cigarette.
"Ok, so how does that lead to you becoming a heroin addict?" Dick asked trying to understand his friend's concept.
Roy's face hardened with more anger, becoming colder and more resentful, "If you knew the things I saw, the things I did and couldn't stop… you wouldn't ask me that question."
Dick remained silent for a moment as Roy's words fell dark and nearly hurtful.
"I couldn't deal with the guilt I faced, there were so many people I couldn't save. I had to sit by and watch those…" Roy choked on his words as they were bitter on his tongue, "there was nothing I could do. Some hero, right?"
His eyes fell to the floor, too overcome by the blood stained memories he poisoned himself to forget.
"I'm really sorry Roy," was all Dick could say. There was nothing that could be said to change what happened to him, and deep down, he'd always have that brokenness.
Roy took a long drag of his cigarette and angrily exhaled through his nose bull-like. There was something lingering, something more he wasn't sharing and Dick knew it was something he should know.
"Roy, if there's something you think you should tell me—"
"No Dick," Roy cut him off bitterly, "I fucked up, that's all you need to know."
"I don't buy that for a minute. There's more isn't there?"
"There's nothing you can do Dick… There's nothing Nightwing can do."
The red haired boy's words hit him like the fist to the jaw, leaving him speechless for a moment. But there was something his friend was hiding and he knew it more than simple nature.
"Roy?" The dark haired boy growled in a fatherly tone.
"You're such fool Richard, you know that?"
"Maybe I am, but I'm not gonna walk away, now what won't you tell me?" he demanded.
Roy shook his head and grit his teeth regretfully, "If I tell you, I'm signing your death warrant."
Dick just looked back at him and shrugged unfazed by the declaration. "Then sign it."
"When I was undercover… I found out some things, things that the League is unaware of." Roy said in a cautious manner.
"Like the fact that Slade has a major hand in the drug trade."
Dick nearly seethed at the mention of his name, the man who threatened to ruin his life and shamelessly depose everything he stood for, and all for his selfish need to win. Dick balled his fist tightly, his anger filling his veins and heating his blood with the deepest hatred he'd ever felt.
"That's not it though."
"And just when I thought this was gonna be dull," Dick said rolling his.
"Slade is also the owner of a major pharmaceutical company. From what I could gather, he's using the profits to gain control over the political flied."
"For power, why else do people do anything?" Roy's voice became even more irate as he spoke. "Slade wants a hand at the table, and not just any table. He wants to deal in with the people who make all the big decisions."
"That sounds a lot like-"
"A paranoid conspiracy theory? Yeah the League already told me that."
And it did.
Dick looked back at him, torn by hatred and logic. The theory was off putting and sounded like something no sane person would conceive. "Roy, do you have any proof to support this?"
"Nope, I blew my cover trying to get it," he said stubbing out his cigarette bitterly. "I know it sounds crazy, but it's real. Very real."
Dick furrowed his brow with distaste unsure of how to take it, "What else do you know?"
"Not much else, but I know there's more, it's just well hidden," Roy replied letting his words sink into his friend's mind where they festered and began to bury themselves. "I'm right Dick, but no one will listen to me. I have nothing to back it up and my credibility is shot, Slade's made sure of that."
"How—did you get close to Slade?"
"No, but he has eyes everywhere. The second he found out it was me he played me right into his hand. He compromised my ethics, my conscience… he forced me to make decisions I never thought I'd have to make… He made sure he broke me." His voice became weak and hindered by the darkness that hung over him.
"There has to be a way to get proof?" Dick said shaking his head.
"There's isn't, he's too careful. I couldn't even find out the name of the company he owns."
Roy looked away having no fight left to give.
"What if…" Dick began, "What if I go after Slade myself?"
"Yeah like Nightwing can actually stop Slade?" Roy laughed, mocking his friend's statement.
"Maybe Nightwing can't, but maybe Richard Grayson can?" Dick said defensively. "I can go undercover and find out what his plans are, then I'll tell the League it's true myself."
The archer leaned forward, "That would never work; you'll just get yourself killed. This is exactly why I didn't want tell you."
"Roy, if what you're saying is true, then someone has to do something," he reasoned urgently.
"There's nothing anyone can do! Plus you already went after Slade undercover and he knew exactly who you were the entire time!"
Dick felt a blow to his pride, remembering how much he was willing to sacrifice and how much he almost lost from that mission. "That's was years ago, I was impulsive and arrogant. If I take my time and come up with a seamless plan I can makes this work," he reassured.
Roy shook his head and got up from the couch. Dick couldn't help but notice how thin he'd become. His face was less full and even his muscle mass had decreased. He moved clumsily to the bedroom to retrieve something he'd hidden away. When he returned, he threw down a small bag on the coffee table in front of him. Dick looked down at it and noticed the contents of the bag were dark, almost a rusty color that resembled cheap heroin.
"That's your ticket to figuring out what Slade is up to." Roy said gravely.
"Heroin?" Dick asked picking up the strange bag.
"It's not heroin." Roy sat down again and watched as his friend looked at it with wonder clouding his eyes.
"Then what is it?"
Roy leaned in with a grim look, his eyes holding a repressed anger "It's called krokodil, it's a heroin knock-off made of codeine, red phosphorous, and in some cases even deasil or gasoline. It rots you from the inside out and it's 10 times more addictive than heroin."
Richard looked up at Roy stunned, disbelief etched on his face. He'd heard of krokodil and its horrifying effects to those who indulged in it, but he'd never seen it before. Hell, he wasn't even sure if it actually existed. "Who made this?"
"Slade has some cooks working on a formula, that's from a batch I was able to get my hands on."
"So what am I supposed to do with this?"
"Figure out what it's made of," he said as though the question were mundane. "It's uncommon for Krokodil to come in a power form and the fact that it is leads me to believe that Slade's gonna try and pass that shit off as heroin since it's cheaper to make."
Dick raised an eyebrow, letting a sly look flicker in his eye, "But aren't bad drugs bad for business, plus codeine has a high street value?"
"Well that's the thing, when you own a pharmaceutical company and can make codeine, sky's the limit. As for business, people in the drug game take short cuts all the time, why and else would shit even exist?"
"I don't know, but it's Slade, he probably has some twisted motive," Dick said recalling his past with the sinister man. "You said he owns pharmaceutical company?"
"Well pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money off drug addiction, especially heroin. Maybe he's looking to make a profit off Krokodil treatment, I mean if what you sat is true?"
"I would have never thought of that," Roy said with bewilderment and took a drag of his cigarette.
"Well sometimes you gotta think like the devil to catch one," Dick said with a shrug, trying to stomach the horror of how true his observation was. "So how am I going to get this on a plane?"
Roy laughed numbly, "Send it in the mail."
"Ha, that's real funny Roy, but really?"
"No, I'm serious, send it in the mail," the young archer continued, "make it look like a birthday card, just don't send it priority and DO NOT put it in a box," he warned.
"Okay then." Dick said patronizingly. "I guess I'm going to mail myself knock-off heroin?"
"Ya know Dick, you don't have to do this if you don't want to." Roy said knowing his friend didn't come from such a gritty world.
"I know, but someone has to take Slade out of the game, it might as well be me," Dick replied dully. "Plus, you went through all this trouble trying to plant the seed in my head."
"What," Roy pulled back a moment unsure of what to think, "excuse me?"
"Cut the bullshit act, Roy." Dick said in a much darker tone. "You knew I'd come here eventually, and you knew if you told me Slade was involved, I'd make it my personal mission stop him. So you don't have to acting like you're not trying play me."
The false look of surprise fell from the boy's face and his posture relaxed as he rolled his eyes, "Well, then, guess I can stop pretending now. I forgot how smart you actually are and how manipulative you can be too."
"I'm not manipulative," Dick added, letting a small flood of resentment fill his voice.
Roy gave him a hard look that shot bitterness and a little disdain. He knew that Dick was smart; it was why he knew if anyone could stop Slade, it would be him. Brute strength, supper speed, or even the power of flight wouldn't be enough to topple him. Only someone smart enough to play Slade's game and play it better would be the one to take his crown, and Richard Grayson was the only one with enough hatred to claim victory. But the real question was, how far would Nightwing be will to go before Dick left him behind?
"So what are you gonna do?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure yet." Dick replied getting up from his chair, "I guess I have to figure out if this is worth the damage."
"Of course it's not," Roy replied, heavily, "but it will haunt you whether you pursue it or not."
The two men looked at each other sharing that mutual understanding. They'd both lost something to Slade and through that he had control over them, but the real questioned rest in whether those losses could be reclaimed.
"Well let me do some research and see what I can come up with, maybe I can find something the League couldn't." Dick replied and walked to the door. "Besides, I haven't made up my mind yet. But, even if I decide not go through with this, you're not getting your Crocodile back."
"Krokodil," Roy corrected with an eye roll, "if you're gonna keep it at least get the name right."
Dick cracked a smile, closing the door before Roy could respond any further and made his way down the filthy hallway. He walked passed the unkempt occupants coming from small, cluttered apartments. Each one harboring a new, but foul scent as he passed by. His mind quarreled, primarily knowing the idea was unethical and dangerous. He also knew the League would never sanction it, and to go through with it would be a blatant disregard of both them and the law.
He stepped out into the dim sunlight, the mid-afternoon taking on a dull warmth in the dark Gotham streets. This part of the city was one of less fortunate neighborhoods and he knew it well. Mostly from long nights of patrol and investigating leads. The people that walked these streets all came from unfortunate circumstances, but some were more dangerous than others.
He kept his guard up as he walked toward the subway station that was about a mile away. He remembered Bruce telling him never to go there on his own, especially at night. It was a rule he'd always obeyed, knowing that many people never left it alive. However deep down, Dick always knew there would come a day he'd have to go there on his own, and when that day finally came, he ended up in the hospital with a bullet in his shoulder.
He recalled how upset Bruce was. He was furious at the fact that Dick almost died and any hope of Bruce seeing him as anything more than a child was gone. The bitter memory caused him to grit his teeth as the sweetest of ironies all crashed in his mind. It didn't matter how hard he tried to prove that he could not only take care of himself, but also his team, Bruce just couldn't see passed fact that to him, Dick was his son. And he feared for him, it was his nature to. But Bruce couldn't stop Dick from growing up, he could only deny that he did.
Dick didn't even call himself Robin anymore, he was beyond that part of his life. It had been years since he shed his childish identity and taken on the one of Nightwing. He'd also graduated from the ridiculous color scheme of red, yellow, and green to a simple black kevlar suit with a symbol of a blue bared across his chest.
"So you're done being 'Robin'?" Raven asked leaning against his desk as she looked down at the new suit with a critical eye.
Dick could recall the look on her face when he'd told her of his new found identity.
"Yep," he replied, "it's time to put that part of my life behind me. I'm not a kid anymore." His voice ached with frustration and urgency, as though he wanted her to hear him.
"I know Dick, none of us are. But I know this is more to you than just a name change. I get it." She ran her fingers along the blue wings, taking in the outline of their shape. "Did you come up with a name yet?"
He looked up at her with his blue eyes as she shot him a quick glance, "Um… Nightwing?" he replied nervous at what her response would be.
"Like the novel?"
"It's a horror novel by Martin Cruz Smith, partially based on Native American mythology. It's actually not bad, pretty creepy. The movie was horrible though, don't watch it." She smiled and looked back at her friend slightly amused.
"Noted, but it was a story Superman told me that I really related to that makes me gravitate toward the name," Dick said mildly.
"Oh, this'll be good, I wanna hear this," Raven replied sarcastically, making herself comfortable on his desk.
Dick smiled at her irony and leaned back in his chair, "It's just about a man from Krypton who was cast out by his family and dreamed of a just-world. No one ever knew his true identity they just knew him as Nightwing."
Raven looked at him a moment with a serious look, cradling her tea cup in two hands. "That's a cute story," she said patronizingly and shot him a playful smile.
"You can be a real bitch sometimes," he laughed endearingly.
"That's what I'm here for," she replied taking the "insult" with little impact. "But I do like it, it's mysterious and dark, plus I can still call you Bird Boy so I don't have to adjust my material," she added wittily.
"Oh good, I was worried this transition was going to be an inconvenience for you."
Dick couldn't help but laugh at the memory and how crass his friend was, but that's what he liked about her. Raven had always been a very dry humored woman with a subtle, but witty way about her. Her personality was mild and to some, even bland. It was only the people she was closest to that were privileged enough to see her as anything more.
Dick himself had always seemed to understand her sense of humor (which was dark) but it was clever none the less. He appreciated it and her honesty. It made her easy to talk to and understand. Not to mention she actually listened to him.
He let his thoughts slip back into his subconscious where they shaped and sculpted his character into the man he was meant to become. In the distance he could see the subway tunnel as it wasn't far from his current position. The heat from the tunnels below rose from the grates beneath his feet. If he hurried he could make the next train, allowing him less time to wait on the filthy train platform.
He began to pass an old ally way to his right. It appeared dark and unwelcoming, barely catching his attention. The metallic sound of a trash can hitting the ground startled him and he readied himself for a possible attack. But to his surprise only found three homeless men, looking tentatively through the garbage.
"God damn it Davey, do you have to make so much damn noise," a heavy set man growled.
"Sorry man, I'm just real edgy is all," the younger man he called Davey replied.
"Would you two shut up? We have company," The third one said in a thick Scottish glick.
Dick looked on at them awkwardly as they acknowledged his presence. The three men all wore rags and torn layers of clothing. Their hair was unkempt and filthy as were their faces and clothes.
"Well hello there Brat Prince," The fat one said in a facetious tone. His hair was long and wild, being streaked with multiple shades of dull silver and gray.
Dick looked back at him with a creased brow of discontent at being called a "Brat Prince."
"Oh stop it Boonie, can't you see he's neither a brat nor a prince, but a thane," The Scottish man said in his most regal voice.
"He still looks like a brat to me," the heavy man scoffed under his breath to his much thinner and very jittery friend known as Davey.
'They're just three crazy homeless men,' Dick thought and motioned to leave.
"And now where does Mr. Grayson think he's going off to?" He heard the Scottish man call from the ally way.
Dick turned back to the three men, the Scottish one standing tall at its mouth. A thick scar carved deep through his top lip.
"How did you know my name?" Dick questioned awkwardly.
The heaviest man smiled, revealing several missing teeth as stepped he forward. "Who doesn't know your name in this city, you are after all its brat?" He exclaimed to Dick's distaste. "But every brat may one day become a king."
Dick snarled his lip and looked at the man cruelly, "Can you stop calling me a brat? I'm not even a kid anymore."
The three homeless men all laughed as the Scotsman replied, "In this city, kid, you will always be his son."
Dick felt a rush of anger fill his heart, feeling reduced and undermined by those of whom seemed to have little regard for his manhood. In their presence he'd become something small and meaningless like the child who watched his parents die. He backed away from them with an eagerness, an eagerness to be free of their heavy and unwanted presence.
As he did, he turned from them in an attempt to shut them out, but heard the Scotsman call with elation, "All hale thee, Thane of Cawdor; he shall be king thereafter."
He could feel the rough smile of the scared man grow as he moved away, striving to put distance between himself and the ill tamed men.
The sound followed him with their laughter as he moved swiftly to the subway station where he arrived just in time to catch his train. The words replayed in his head as he looked out the window over the city's landscape of aging buildings converging with new ones. There was a dull beauty to Gotham this time of day, when the light began to fade and the light hue of copper filled the world around it. Dick looked on at the city as it flew by, remembering his life as a child.
'Maybe here, I truly am nothing more than his son?' The thought was spiteful and sharp; to think of himself as little more than a child alongside the man he admired most.
The last set of words remained with him for the duration of the train ride. They were haunting and troubling, yet somehow, he also found them intriguing and powerful. "He shall be king thereafter," Dick mumbled, looking out at tall building that read Wayne Enterprises across its face. The building itself was one of great prominence and envy. The Waynes had built this city after all, taking a solid pride in the place they called home. But there was so much more to it.
Beyond the money and prestige was a loyalty and duty the Waynes always felt for the city of Gotham. And ironically enough, it was that same duty that drove Bruce to become the Batman, setting out to protect those who cannot protect themselves. And that's what Dick stood to inherit most.
The train door slid open and Dick exited the car, stepping out on the platform. His need to destroy Slade had decreased and his thirst for vengeance began to dry, becoming over thrown by his sense of pride.
He entered a small shop not far from the subway exit, mostly marketed towards tourists. Once inside he looked around to find t-shirts that read things like "I heart Gotham City" and "I'm not saying I'm Batman, I'm just saying no one has ever seen Batman and I in the same room together." He let out a small chuckle and fought the urge to purchase the shirt for Bruce (mostly because he knew Alfred would enjoy it).
He soon found himself looking through the card rack, reading through a wave of clever jokes and bad puns. (All the while unaware of the young check-out girl adjusting her cleavage, hoping to catch his attention.)
'Why am I even looking through these? It's not like I'm gonna go through it. I should just flush the Krokodil the second that I get to the manor,' Dick thought, still looking through the cards. 'But if Roy's right, then there has to be something more to it. Slade's been planning something for years and whatever it is, it has to be big. But to go through with this plan would be unethical. It would go against everything in my nature, everything I stand for, but what if it's the only way?'
Dick finally picked up a card with a poorly drawn picture of a birthday cake on the front that read, "Your birthday cake has a special message for you!" He reluctantly opened it with an eye roll and read the punchline in the speech balloon, "Blow me!" He let out a small laugh under his breath, finding its crudeness amusing. 'Well at the least it will make a great birthday card for Beast Boy,' Dick thought picking up the intended envelope.
He approached the counter and placed the card down for the check-out girl to ring up, oblivious to her flirtatious nature.
'But what if Bruce found out? He most likely would. You can't get anything passed him. I would never be able to live with myself if he found out, it would kill him… and me—he would certainly kill me.'
"$1.99, will that be all?" the young blond said pleasantly.
Dick looked over at the ridiculous shirt again and couldn't resist. 'I give it to Alfred, he'll get more use out of it,' he thought, placing down the shirt for the girl to ring up.
"Oh my God, you don't even know how many of these things we sell. Sometimes I wonder if the Bat has one himself?" She giggled placing the items in a paper bag.
Dick smiled at the pretty blonde, "Well, ya never know."
Minutes later Dick found himself hailing a cab to take him to the manor. The streets here were busy and filled with people blindly going about their business. The sun was beginning to lower from the sky, leaving the air cool as dawn began to approach. The smell of the warm pavement rose from the ground and mixed with the scent of exhaust from the traveling cars. Around him was the murmur of voices lost in fragments of passing conversations. They merged endlessly with the sounds of passing traffic as they collided in one cacophony of white noise. It was a union of chaos sewn together ruthlessly by many, leaving pieces of their small worlds behind, each one pumping life into the city of Gotham.
Dick took a moment to take in the smell of the city and the music it harbored like a heartbeat. He truly missed Gotham and its virtuosity. It had a life to it that Jump City just didn't possess. There was an element of Gotham that could overtake you if you allowed it to. It was powerful and unforgiving to those who didn't respect it, and there was a part of it Dick missed that carnivorous nature.
A bright yellow taxi pulled up alongside him. Dick pulled open the scratched door and got into the torn up back seat.
"Where to Kid?" The driver—a scruffy looking man with white hair— asked.
Dick looked up through the plexiglass window and replied, "Wayne Manor, please."
The driver laughed and glanced back at him, revealing his red face that had endured years of obvious alcoholism. "No really Kid, where can I take you?"
Dick shook his head wearily, realizing how odd it must've sounded to be taking a cab to the home of his wealthy father.
"Really," he replied and took out his wallet, "take me to Wayne Manor," and placed a 100 dollar bill in the driver's hand.
The driver inspected it a moment and shrugged, shoving the bill in his pocket then began to drive off. Dick realized the gesture was a bit over kill, but it was something Bruce would have done. 'I guess I'm more like him than I realized,' he thought watching the dusk claim what little sunlight still lingered. He watched as the tall buildings began to disappear and become over run by trees and open spaces. Once outside the depths of the city the road began to narrow and grew tunneled beneath the arches of tree branches overhead.
He leaned back as he counted the passing minutes, knowing he'd soon be at the home of his mentor. In the distance, he could see the edge of the long stone wall standing high along the road. He looked to the left and watched it grow shorter until they reach the bend in the road.
The taxi began to halt, Dick took a deep breath and looked on at the black iron gate. Old memories began to hit him as he threw open the door and pulled himself out of the cab. He bid the cab driver goodnight before shutting the door and watched it disappear down the dark road. He waited a moment in the cool night air, looking up at the scattered stars that began to fill the deep lavender sky.
He turned to the gate and apprehensively rang the intercom button. A long moment went by without a response so he rang it again, this time hearing an elegant accent, "Master Richard, is that you?"
He immediately recognized the rich dialect as it spoke eloquently over static, "Yes, Alfred how are you?"
"I'm well Master Richard, I'll unlock that gate. Should I send a car down for you?"
"No Alfred, that won't be necessary, I'll walk."
"Alright then, I'll inform Master Bruce that you have arrived, he will be happy to see you."
"I'm sure he will," Dick concluded, holding back his sarcasm.
Moments later a loud buzz rang out, giving Dick permission to enter. He pulled open the gate, but waited a moment before walking through it, a little reluctant. It had been years since he'd step foot in the manor and part of him wanted to keep it that way. Still, he wanted to move passed that and mend the wounds that still lingered between he and Bruce. He just wasn't sure he was ready to.
The drive way was long, but the walk gave him time to clear his mind and settle his nerves. The soft sound of crickets singing in the grass was rhythmic and gentle, setting it apart from the world he'd just come from. It reminded him of his childhood, before his days of being a hero, bringing him back to a time when his life was simpler.
He looked ahead to see the monstrous mansion, sitting triumphantly on the hill. It had been built in 1858 by Bruce's great grandfather, a well-known Judge who set out to insure equality in Gotham. The manor had been passed down to each generation, and had changed very little over the years. It still possessed its original wood floors and brass chandeliers.
Dick remembered the first time he ever laid eyes on the great structure. He was only a young boy, small in stature and mild in nature. He remember how dwarfed he felt looking up at it and how empty the manor felt. In its shadow he was alone, the manor itself only being a reminder of how big the world was and how forgotten he was in its wake. It had been years since that time, but he found even as an adult that its presence was towering.
He wondered if Bruce ever felt that way in its shadow, if he too felt as though the world was too much and had little need for him. It was a feeling Dick had never entirely out grew and deep down, he knew he never would. He'd always feel small in the shadow of great things, and he could only hope he himself would become one of them.
He finally reached the door, tall and made of a heavy oak. Before he could knock, the large door swung open, pouring light into the early spring night.
"Master Richard, how great it is to see you," Alfred said colorfully. "It's been far too long, my boy."
Dick smiled at the elderly man, letting reels of fond memories warm his cold mind. "I know Alfred, it has been."
"Well, I informed Master Bruce of your arrival. He should be along shortly." The butler added. "I have taken the liberty of making your favorite meal, it should be done shortly."
"You really didn't have to do that Alfred." He replied placing his bag down.
"Well I wanted to Master Richard, it isn't often that Master Bruce and I are fortunate enough to have you visit."
Dick felt a hint of guilt stir in his chest. It was clear by the look on Alfred's face that him visiting, even for just the night, meant more than he could have imagined.
"I really appreciate that Alfred, but I also took the liberty of getting you a gift," he said handing Alfred the paper bag. "The best part is you can patronize Bruce with it."
The old man looked into the bag with intrigue and chuckled as he read the print. "Ah well, this will come in handy next time Bruce throws one of his soirees," he joked wittily.
"The look on his face would be priceless."
"That it would be, Master Richard, that it would be."
"What look?" The two heard echo from the top of the staircase. "Dick hasn't even been here a whole five minutes and you two are already trying to make me the punchline in one of your jokes," Bruce said in a dull voice.
"Bruce, you're a grown man in a Bat suit, you are a punchline," Dick said daringly and smiled in a slick manner.
Bruce narrowed his eyes at his former protege's brazen words, "And you used to wear pixie boots."
"Touché," Dick nodded, acknowledging the quick remark.
"Well anyway, it's good to see you, Dick." Bruce added in a nostalgic nature. "How was the trip?"
Dick smiled at the man's fatherly nature, "I wasn't bad, a little long though."
Dick flinched at the question, unsure of what to say. Deep down he knew that Bruce really cared about Roy, he'd known him for almost as long had he'd known Dick. Roy had almost become like a nephew to him, as he and Oliver had worked alongside each other in the League for years. But Dick wasn't sure if Bruce could truly understand Roy's situation. Bruce had never been one for self-medication and Dick knew if it were him with a needle in his arm, Bruce would likely break both his hands so he couldn't shoot up. Dick also knew if Bruce found out that Roy'd given him deadly drug and tried to play him into a suicide mission, he'd be a lot less sympathetic.
But before Dick could reply, he heard a knock at the door. Dick turned his head to see Alfred motioned toward it. 'Who could that be?' he thought looking at the door with intrigue as Alfred pulled the heavy oak open to reveal a familiar face he hadn't seen in years.
"Why Miss Gordon, it's lovely of you to join us," Alfred greeted and motioned the lovely redhead inside.
Dick's heart skipped a beat as his eyes hesitantly met hers. She was as beautiful as ever, and her eyes held a warmth that made him smile in a way only a first love could achieve.
"Dick, it's so good to see you." The lovely redhead exclaimed, wrapping her arm around the young man.
Dick embraced the girl, taking in the raspberry scent of her coppery hair. "Hey Babs," he muttered fondly.
"So how's it feel to be back in Gotham?" she asked removing her lavender, spring coat.
She smiled and bit her lip in a shy manner. The two hadn't seen each other in a number of years. The last time being Dick's 18th birthday, to which Barbra was invited. Even then he was happy to see her, however Dick was at that time dating his team member Kory, who was sure to take up most of his time. He remembered how awkward Barbra looked in the corner alone. She'd never worked too closely with the Titans or any of their sub divisions. The only other people she really knew were Roy and Donna (who were far too busy being one another's distractions) to really pay her any attention.
However, to Dick's surprise, Raven (of all people) warmed up to the pretty redhead, keeping her company while the party persisted. Raven, like Barbra, was one the few single people there, and even though she preferred it that way, Dick knew she still couldn't help but feel lonely.
Toward the end of the night he was able to slip away and take Barbara to the roof with him. Raven of course promised not tell anyone where they went. She understood that it had been years since the two had seen each other and he later found out it was Raven who thought enough to invite Barbra in the first place.
He remembered the moon lowering in the sky and the soft scent of rain lingering the air. It felt good to be free from the many and to be with the girl who'd always be his first love. He had so many question for her, like how she'd been, did she still have that old teddy bear she kept by her bedside—the one her father gave her? Did she still have nightmares of him never coming home, or had she finally learned to trust in fate to do so? He wanted to know what her life had been like since he'd left, what it was like without him. And deep down, he wanted to know if she still loved him the way he still loved her.
"Alright everyone let's continue this conversation in the dining room," Alfred said ushering everyone along.
During dinner he told this adoptive family of his time with the Titans and how things had been since they last spoke. Bruce updated Dick on the state of Gotham and how things had been since he left. Even adding in a few jokes that were almost out of character. Barbra was about to graduate from Gotham University and added that she was going to take a year off before heading back to get her masters in criminal justice.
"That's great Babs, what you gonna do in the mean time?" Dick asked.
She smiled and looked down a moment, "Well, I'm just gonna work part time at a local law firm, nothing really exciting." She said in her soft, thin voice.
"So does that mean you're gonna start back up on patrol again?" Dick asked curiously.
She looked at Bruce who glanced down narrowly.
"No, I'm not," Barbra replied.
She'd retired as Batgirl around the time she'd started college, mostly so she could focus on her studies.
"I just know if I start again I'll probably never be able to put that part of my life behind me," she added looking back over at Bruce. "You understand that?" And Dick did.
Fighting against those who set out to harm others was a code he lived by and giving it up was never really an option. But every now and then he wondered if what he did really made a difference. It just seemed like it didn't matter how many criminal master minds he took down, there was always someone bigger and badder waiting to wear the crown.
"Yeah I get that Babs." Dick said, trying to hide the defeat that lingered in his mind.
After dinner, Dick and Barbra helped Alfred clear the table while Bruce took a business call. Once everything was done, Alfred offered to make coffee for everyone if they wished to continue their conversation.
"I'm sorry, I wish I could, but I have a final in the morning." Barbara said apologetically. "I really need to get going."
"Well I can't stand in the way of one's academic future," Alfred chuckled. "I'll walk you out, Miss Gordon?"
"It's okay Alfred, I got it," Dick volunteered, trying to hide his eagerness.
"Alright then. It was lovely seeing you Barbra," Bruce said bidding the young woman goodbye before she wrapped her thin arms around him.
She pulled away after reciting her own farewell then moved over to the older man and hugged him as well.
"Yes, it is always a pleasure Miss Gordon," Alfred reiterated.
"Well Alfred, I will take that coffee down in the Batcave if you wouldn't mind?" Bruce added. "Dick, why don't you join me? We have a lot to catch up on."
Dick nodded as he replied, "Alright I'll meet you down there."
"Good, I'll see you shortly. Be safe Barbra."
"Define safe," she snickered, making the man crack a smile.
Dick looked back at the redhead and tilted his head in the direction of the foyer. She smiled and followed with a flirtatious look in her eyes. Dick felt his heart skip a beat, remembering what it felt like to be that 15 year old boy again.
Once they reached the foyer, Barbra asked him if he'd walk her to her car to which Dick agreed. He opened the door and held it for the pretty redhead who looked beautiful beneath the light of the stars above.
She turned to him and smiled warmly, "I've really missed you."
He closed the door and smiled back at her, "I've missed you too Babs." He walked toward her, a fond look reflecting in his eyes, "I'm sorry I haven't kept in touch more."
She looked away a little dejected, "Yeah, well, sometimes we have to leave the past behind, remember?" She turned and walk toward her car, leaving Dick to linger in those words.
"Barbara," he called quickly, rushing toward her, "that's not what I meant when I said that. I just meant—"
"That you can't be Robin forever, I know," She replied, "you made that inevitably clear."
"Babs, I don't wanna fight," he pleaded, feeling the sting of her venom.
She crossed her arms and let go of some of her anger, "I'm sorry, I guess I'm still holding on to the past?"
"It makes us who we are."
She bit her lip tensely, and slipped her hands into her pockets, stiffening her posture, "You still engaged to that girl?"
"Kory, no." Dick replied.
"Oh, what happened?" She asked, trying to hold back her peaked interest.
He smiled foolishly and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, "She was already kind of betrothed to another man."
"Betrothed? I can see how that could be a problem," she laughed enjoying the young man's discomfort. "I'm sorry to hear that though. So your back to the single life are you?"
"Um… well, sorta. We're trying to work it out… I think?"
"She married another man… what is there to work out?" Barbara said with a skeptical look.
Dick rolled his eyes painfully, unsure of how to explain the situation, as complicated as it was.
It was true, he wasn't comfortable with the notion that the woman he thought he'd spend the rest of his life with, willingly married another man. But to her, the notion of loving one person was unheard of. Apparently, it was a common practice on Tamaran to take on more than one spouse and they didn't limit their love to one individual. But still, Dick couldn't bear to think of sharing her with anyone, no matter what the reason was.
"She says that it's perfectly natural to love more than one person."
Barbara creased her brow and cocked her head inquisitively, "And what's your opinion on that?"
He smiled weakly and looked at her a moment, remnants of old memories filling his head fondly, "Well I guess in a way I understand how it's possible to love more than one person, but… that doesn't mean I agree with polygamy." He said with frustration. "Plus she didn't even tell me she was betrothed to anyone and we've been together for years."
"You feel like she betrayed you?"
"Yeah, I do," he replied dryly, "but she just doesn't see it that way."
Barbara put her arm around Dick and let her chin fall on his shoulder as she looked up at him with her large blue eyes. "I'm really sorry she hurt you, but you just need to have faith that everything happens just the way it's supposed to."
Dick looked back at her, catching the lost look that peered deep in her eyes. She looked at him the way she used, the way he always wished she would. But that look faded as her own words settled deep in her heart, as though she'd heard them for the first time. She looked away from him quickly with an air of defeat rolling off her pale skin. He could smell the light scent of lilies as the breeze pulled through her hair and rode over the bridge of regret they'd built between them. Time had been cruel to them; it brought them together, then pulled them apart. Leaving her was the hardest thing he'd ever done and he still wondered what they'd be like if he stayed. He told himself that in the end they'd most likely never make it as couple—they were too young and foolish to—but deep down, he thought just maybe they were something more.
"Do you think everything is always as it should be?" he asked pulling her attention back to his favor.
A cloudy look pooled in her eyes as her face softened, allowing her jaw to fall slack, "How am I supposed to answer that when you don't even know the answer for yourself?"
Dick looked down at the ground unable to speak, his words drying up like the bottom of a dying river bed. He didn't know what to say to her, he just felt lost in emotions, both new and old, and no definitive answer to shed on the question.
Barbara stood up and fixed the hem of her grey dress. "Well it was nice seeing you again, Dick. I hope everything works out for you," she said turning toward her car.
Dick shot up quickly and took her hand in his grip before she could step away, "Wait," he said feeling her fingers tense at the once familiar touch, "I'm sorry Babs."
She glanced down ruefully while sadness tugged at her features, "I know, but just because we want things to be something they aren't, doesn't mean they were meant to," she said softly, and lightly kissed the young man on the cheek to his surprise. "Take care of yourself, Dick."
She pulled her hand away, though she was reluctant to, his grip harboring feelings she thought she'd never feel again.
"You too Babs, and if you're ever in Jump let me know," he said feeling his hand becoming cold without hers to fill it.
She smiled nostalgically at him and got into her silver Corolla. Dick watched from the glare of the headlights as the soft sound of the engine hummed in the night. All the while thinking about how in a way, he'd once again just let her go.
When the car vanished he was left with nothing but the sound of the natural world around him. After a brief moment he turned and entered the manor. Once inside he looked around at the old foyer, noticing how it never really changed. Bruce himself was never really one for change and it had become inevitably clear the older Dick got. It didn't matter that he was well within his twenties—to Bruce—he was still a boy.
"Ah Master Richard, Master Bruce is still expecting your company. You must still remember how to get down to the cave?"
"Yes Alfred, I do," he replied. "And you don't have to wait on me either. You already work too hard."
Alfred smiled and nodded, "Yes, I know, but old habits die hard," he laughed richly. "But it is truly wonderful to have you back, Master Richard. You must visit more often."
"I know and I'm sorry it's taken this long to come back," he said feeling a bit of guilt.
"Well, I have an early start tomorrow, so I'll be retiring for the evening. Your old bedroom is ready for you when you're ready—"
"My old Bedroom?"
"Yes, it's just as you left it… aside from my upkeep."
"You guys just kept it that way?" Dick asked puzzled, but slightly touched.
"Well yes, I think deep down, Master Bruce always thought you'd come back and when you did, he wanted you to feel welcome, Master Richard."
More guilt bit deep into his empathy and caught in his throat. He always knew Bruce was regretful that he'd left, but he hadn't realized how much so.
"Goodnight, Alfred." The young man smiled.
"Goodnight, Master Richard." Alfred replied before walking up the steps.
Dick made his way down into depths of the Batcave, its cool, dark atmosphere so familiar, yet so distantly in the past. Like the manor it hadn't changed much, the large computer still stood high on the back wall while everything else seemed to be in its rightful place. Bruce sat with his back turned, facing the large screen. He'd already dawned his suit, his cape draping over his broad shoulders, covering the kevlar and armor that provided him much needed protection.
He turned in his chair when he heard Dick's steps grow near, his face still exposed and uncovered.
"It's weird being down here again," Dick said looking around at the wide space.
Bruce smiled with a dullness and looked at the boy with regret. "Well time will do that to you."
Dick stopped in his tracks and looked away noticing the old Robin uniform that used to belong to Jason.
"Have you heard from him?" Dick asked, trying to lessen the discomfort between them.
"Not lately," Bruce replied. "We sort of learned to stay out of each others way."
Dick was more than aware that Jason had gone on to become a major player in the Gotham drug trade. Successfully taking over the territory of Black Mask. Bruce himself felt responsible for the life Jason led. He'd tried hard to reform him and lead him away from the life of his father, but nature proved too much for them both.
"Why haven't you done anything about it?" Dick questioned, clearly curious, wondering how Bruce could be so morally ambiguous.
"Well, to be honest, he's just not the cities greatest threat." Bruce looked down a little ashamed at his response.
"Wow, I didn't think it was possible for you to go soft."
Bruce groaned at the young man's quip and rubbed his forehead, "It's not that simple, I just have my hands full with everyone from Two Face to the The Joker not to mention the rest of the lunatics in this city…" Bruce paused a moment and looked over at the barren uniform as though maybe it had the answers he didn't.
"You still blame yourself, don't you?" Dick asked, knowing the question was nearly crossing the line.
Bruce let his face darken and fall stoic, "Yes, and admittedly, I'm not really sure what to do."
Dick bit down on his lip, realizing that even someone as righteous as Batman could find himself at odds between right and wrong. Dick himself even found himself standing on the wrong side of the tracks a time or two. Before then he'd never understood how fine the line was or how quickly it could blur. Or even how in some cases, there just is no right.
"So you saw Roy today?"
"Yeah, I did."
"How is he?"
Dick shook his head wearily, unsure of what to really say. "He's like any typical drug addict. He's depressed, irritable, but I just feel like there's more he wouldn't tell me?"
Bruce exhaled with a heavy sigh and let his head fall back. "Did he tell you anything about why the missions failed?"
Dick wasn't really sure how much to reveal, uncertain if he should tell Bruce what they'd discussed. "What'd you mean?"
"I mean, did he tell you what he told us?"
"He mentioned something about Slade," the former sidekick said cautiously.
His mentor's face hardened, knowing the history his protégé had with the mysterious mercenary. "I can assure you that whatever he told you, the League looked into it and we found nothing," Bruce said in his stern tone, subconsciously telling Dick to leave it alone.
The ex-sidekick bit his tongue a moment, trying to read whether or not Bruce was just saying that to push him away from his obsessive nature. "Roy said that's because he didn't leave anything to find."
Dick could see the man's face became irritated and realized he'd struck a chord. "Because there is nothing to find and I don't want you thinking there is," The Bat warned in a deep tone.
"But Bruce," Dick replied urgently, "what if Roy's right? What if Slade really is planning something? We never really found out what his intensions were," he pleaded hoping his mentor would listen.
"Dick, I'm telling you that the League has no reason to believe that what Roy is saying is true and neither should you."
"But he's my friend?"
"A friend who knows full well that you hate Slade to the core and will go to no end to track him down. He's playing you, Dick"
"I know that, but I'm asking you to help me find out if there really is any validity to what he's saying. I know Slade, and if he's involved than there's something, I can't just ignore that." His voice was vaguely desperate and at a loss, just hoping the Dark Knight would hear his plea.
"Dick, I know that you feel like you're responsible for Slade, but he is—at this point in time—not a priority or a threat to the Justice League. If he were, then we'd handle it, but as far as we know, Slade is not on anyone's radar." His tone had a reprimanding quality to it, it chill fairly cruel.
He looked back at the young man who was clearly frustrated and visibly distraught at his lack of understanding. Though Bruce understood fully what his young protégé was feeling, he just didn't want him to go chasing after ghosts or worse, his every undoing.
"Dick, I know you want with every fiber of you being to go after this, but I'm telling you not to."
"But Bruce I—"
"Richard," Bruce said with intensity, "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you not to. Do you understand me?"
Dick clenched his jaw tight as both rage and furry bit at him and his pride. He wanted so much to tell his mentor that he was a grown man and he'd do whatever he pleased, but in the end he knew he'd never win or get his blessing. As far as Bruce and the League were concerned there was nothing to be done and after what happened with Roy, they'd never risk another stain on their reputation.
Dick nodded apprehensively, repressing the urge to scream at his mentor and just take it like a good dog.
"Good, I'm glad we understand each other," Bruce said turning back to his computer once more.
"Yeah, I'm glad we had this little chat," Dick said patronizing, unable to hold back his venom.
"I meant what I said Dick. If you go against me then you're going against the League and we won't condone anymore reckless behavior," he warned, pertaining to Roy and his questionable actions.
Dick rolled his eyes without Bruce seeing him, "I know Bruce, I get it. You and the League won't help me if I go after Slade and you'll hold me responsible for my actions if I do."
"Which you won't, you can go know," Bruce replied with a coldness, void of any fatherly nature.
Dick let a hint of bitterness flicker in his eyes, the coldness hitting him in poor taste. It was moments like this that drove him to leave, and it was moments like this that made him feel less than a man. He just didn't want to be a boy anymore.
"Hey Bruce, just one more thing," Dick asked before walking away.
Bruce turned one last time, a look of weariness on his face at what more his former sidekick could possibly say.
"Do you have a stamp?"