It felt like Dick had been staring at that door for a small eternity, his mind utterly blank.
The instant the manor had entered his sights the long and well-rehearsed speech he’d prepared had promptly dissolved into a few key scraps that he now struggled to retain.
I'll always be grateful, was one. I just want us to part on good terms. And we both know this is for the best.
Dick took a deep breath, hand hovering at the doorbell.
I'm leaving the pack.
It wouldn’t even come as a surprise, honestly. He’d been a member of the Wayne pack in name only for a good while. What was even left to tie him to Bruce? Dick had his own life now. He had a job, an apartment, and clothes that smelled like solitude. He had an old key that he no longer felt comfortable using. He imagined himself pressing it into Bruce’s hand and saying goodbye.
The heavy oak door suddenly swung open, brutally cutting his reverie short and very nearly busting his nose. Dick staggered back in time and watched in shock as a young boy darted past him, not even sparing him a second glance before tearing down the front steps.
The boy was shedding his sweater and a moment later there was a small black wolf cub in his place, wriggling free from a clothes pile. Dick watched blankly as the the pup tore across the front lawn, yipping as it made for the tree line.
“Oh dear.” Alfred stood in the door frame, shaking his head at the socks being pulled into the drive by the wind. “I apologize, Master Dick. It seems the young sir is rather displeased by his recent grounding.”
Right. Of course he had heard rumors about the new kid - the new Robin. He’d meant to investigate them for himself eventually. Apparently they’d been true after all.
“No problem,” he said, still staring after where the pup had disappeared into the woods. “Sorry to have come at a bad time.”
“Nonsense,” Alfred said. “We have missed you dearly here at the house.”
“Yeah.” Dick cleared his throat and gestured at the forest. “Do you want me to...?”
Alfred’s eyes flickered with doubt. “Master Bruce should be out presently, you needn’t-“
“It’s fine,” Dick said with false cheer as he hurriedly gathered the discarded clothes in his arms. They smelled like the house, like the pack, and it did strange things to his nerves. “I know those woods. Don’t want him getting lost in a ditch out there.”
Dick’s senses weren’t as acute in human form but Jason’s trail was easy enough to follow through the grounds. A pup his size couldn’t have gone too far anyway.
As he ducked under a low-hanging branch he couldn’t help but wonder where Bruce had even found the kid. Wolves were fairly territorial and the Wayne family had long made a point of branding every block of Gotham with their name. Even in a city this strange, the odds of finding an unattached cub were pretty slim.
Dick stepped over a fox hole with a frown, the clothes rolled up under his arm. His mind was beginning to catalog all of the dangerous places an errant pup could get into by itself. It was no secret that the estate was riddled with caverns and tunnels, with the ground being weaker in some places than others.
He came to a sudden halt at the foot of an old maple tree, carefully breathing in the forest air.
There was no response, but the trail went no further. Dick kneeled down in the dirt and peered into a small hollow that had been formed by a tangle of roots. Sure enough a pair of dark blue eyes gleamed at him from the shadows.
“There you are.”
The pup pushed himself deeper into the burrow and bared his little pointed teeth.
“Come on, don’t be that way. This isn’t how I wanted to introduce myself,” Dick said. “The name’s Dick Grayson. Maybe Bruce has told you about me?”
Jason began to growl but the soft rumble was more endearing than intimidating.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Dick smiled wryly. “I’m here to bring you back to the house. I don’t know what happened, but I’m sure that whatever it was isn’t worth sleeping in a tree over.”
An odd tightness in his chest began to take hold at the sight of the small cub twitching fretfully in the hollow with wet dirt clinging to black fur. Without thinking he reached out, only to recoil as Jason reared back and yelped fearfully. The wolf hastily recovered and made a point of snapping his jaws even after Dick had retracted his hand.
“Whoa, hey. Sorry about that, I just...” For a minute Dick had forgotten that he didn’t smell like pack anymore. Strangers didn’t go offering their hands to stressed wolves unless they wanted to lose them.
“I’m, uh. I’m just going to leave your clothes here. I’ll be right over there and then we can walk back to the manor on two legs, how about that?”
Jason gave a disgruntled whine and Dick’s heart felt physically strained at the sound of it.
“Great.” He left the bundle on the ground and quickly walked a few paces away, feeling completely out of sorts.
He had come here not even knowing what to think about Bruce adopting another kid, much less handing over Dick’s old costume… but all of a sudden none of that seemed to matter. All he wanted was to get Jason indoors, washed and dried and warmed. Maybe given something to eat for good measure? He didn't know what was wrong with him or where these thoughts had even come from.
Dick’s ears locked onto the quiet rumpling of fabric and he felt a rush of relief. Another minute later and there was a soft cough behind him signaling that it was okay to turn around.
Jason had the same blue eyes in human form. He looked about twelve, if indeed a bit short for his age. A bit thin too.
“You’re Dick?” He asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Hmph.” Jason folded his arms and pointedly looked him over. “You dress like a tool.”
He glanced down at his shirt. “What, you don’t like polka dots?”
Jason’s nose crinkled in disgust and Dick found himself smiling in earnest. Then his eyes trailed down to where the boy was standing barefoot in the woods.
“You’re gonna catch splinters like that.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “I think I’ll survive.”
Dick chewed lightly on his lip, thinking of roots and rocks and thorns.
“Yeah. Or, I mean.” He shifted awkwardly. “You don’t look too heavy?”
Jason frowned, the knowledge that Dick was pack clearly coming into conflict with what his instincts told him about an unfamiliar scent.
“I’m not a baby.”
Dick valiantly kept his disagreement to himself. “Even men need shoes, Jason.”
The boy huffed, but after a long moment passed he grudgingly extended his arms. Dick quickly lifted him up, which was troublingly easy to do as Jason couldn’t have weighed even ninety pounds.
“So.” He cleared his throat as they began the walk back to the manor. “How long since you got settled?”
Jason squirmed in Dick’s arms. “A few months, I guess.”
“He let you out that soon?”
“Not really,” Jason said grumpily. “I’ve met the commissioner and some of the officers. He wants me to learn the investigative stuff first, so he lets me watch when he talks to them about cases. Makes me stay in the car if anything really interesting happens, which it never does that early.”
Dick nodded. If Robin was making appearances but not taking an active role in crime fighting yet, it made sense that the rumors had been vague. But hypocrisy aside, was twelve really old enough even if only to shadow the Bat?
“I’m still waiting to hear what was so terrible that you needed to run off into the woods.”
Jason pouted. “Bruce is being dumb.”
“He’ll do that,” Dick said, adjusting his hold. He could feel Jason’s heartbeat like this, the small but strong rhythm making the tension in his chest ease somewhat. Beneath the soil and wild grass the boy smelled like family, along with that soft springtime air that all prepubescent cubs had.
They made their way out of the woods and back to the manor where Dick used his key to let them in. Once indoors Jason immediately began to twist and stretch his feet towards the floor. Dick set him down with a reluctance that he couldn’t explain and watched as the boy skittered around Alfred before bolting up the stairs.
“I trust you’ll be washing up before tracking anymore dirt around this house!” Alfred called after him.
“He bounces back quick,” Dick said, resisting the inexplicable urge to follow after those fading footsteps.
“I remember a time when you needed to shift now and again to outlet your emotions,” Alfred said. “Thank you for retrieving him, Master Dick.”
“It was no problem. He’s a good kid.”
“He is that,” Alfred said fondly. “Master Bruce is in his study. I suspect his call has finished by now.”
Dick swallowed. It was sobering to be reminded of why he was here.
“Shall I prepare you a place for dinner?”
Alfred gave him a look of understanding and clasped his shoulder comfortingly. “It truly is good to have you home. I know he will feel the same.”
Dick smiled tightly. If only he could be so sure.
As he followed his internal map through the manor’s halls he couldn’t help but notice that everything felt… warmer than he remembered. Brighter, cozier. The difference wasn’t in the house itself but in the air, which felt snug and familiar and like home - all of which were things Dick hadn’t let himself associate with the Wayne estate in a long time.
The manor smelled like a den.
As he approached Bruce’s study Dick felt that familiar unease in his gut; his senses responding to the room and how it was clearly designated as his pack leader’s. After spending so much time avoiding Bruce, distance had allowed him to reinforce all of the righteous anger and resentment he’d built up towards the man. Now that he was here he felt some of that resolve shake.
Dick took a deep breath but inhaling that den aroma only made his anxiety worse. It was all he could do to force himself to knock twice before cracking the door open.
Bruce was sitting at his desk, papers neatly laid out before him when he looked up at the intrusion.
“Dick.” His expression went blank in the way that Dick recognized as surprise. “I… wasn’t expecting to see you.”
“Yeah. I, uh. Know I should have called first.” Dick shut the door behind him.
“You’re always welcome here,” Bruce said despite the obvious tension gathering in his shoulders.
For a moment they just looked at each other. All of the words Dick had prepared for this moment had truly vacated his brain, leaving him feeling thoroughly caught in the headlights.
“I met Jason,” he said, blurting out the first thing that came to mind. “Just now, outside.”
“You did?” Bruce straightened, his brow worried.
“Nice kid. He sure seemed upset with you. Was on four legs before I could get a word out, but I got him back in the house.”
“You got him back,” Bruce repeated slowly. “By yourself?”
“I’m more than capable of wrangling a pu- hey!”
Bruce had crossed the room to him in quick strides, grasping Dick’s hands and examining them closely.
“What are you doing?”
He frowned before taking in the grass stains on Dick’s knees and the lingering smell of Jason on his clothes.
“... He let you carry him.”
“It took some convincing, but yeah. He did.” Dick’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going on?”
Bruce released his wrists. “Jason does not like strangers. Especially not while he’s in wolf form.”
“Well I’m not a stranger, am I? I might not smell like it, but I’m still pack.”
The atmosphere in the room took a chillier turn and Bruce’s grey-blue eyes became clouded. “What was it you needed to talk about? It must have been urgent to bring you out here.”
Dick fidgeted. He opened his mouth and no sound came out.
He just had to say it. Say he wanted to leave the pack. It was what he was there for.
The words were lost to him. He tried to flash back to the fights, the power struggles, the endless frustration and perpetual feeling of not being heard. To remember Bruce, the overbearing control freak who always knew better than everyone and had his mind made up about how Dick’s life would go. The father Dick loved, but whose personality clashed with his own in ways that seemed so irreconcilable.
Who was now standing in front of him, in that den that smelled like pack and family and safety.
“I.” He coughed. “I wanted to meet Jason. Kept hearing rumors about the new Robin and thought it was time, y’know.”
Shame flooded through Dick’s chest but at the same time there was relief.
Bruce blinked, looking so at a loss it was almost comical. “... I see. Well. He’ll have some free time this week, certainly.”
“Yeah, I heard he was grounded.”
“Unfortunately. He disobeyed an order in the field.”
“What field? He says you don’t even let him out of the car.” Not that Dick disapproved.
“Did he also say that he left said car without permission while I was stopping an armed mugging?” Bruce asked.
“Oh. Child locks?”
“He found out how to disable them.”
“How the hell did he manage that?”
“I don’t allow him to come out with me on school nights, so he spends a lot of time learning forensics in the cave. Or he should be. It seems I need to monitor more closely just how he spends his independent study.” Bruce sighed. “He does love to learn. It’ll only make it harder to hold him back until his training’s complete.”
“Which doesn’t seem to be something he appreciates,” Dick said. “I could… you know, take him off your hands a little? I’m sure there are a few things I could teach him.”
Bruce frowned. “Jason isn’t ready to be away from the den. Not for prolonged periods.”
Dick was pretty sure that Jason wasn’t the one who felt unready on that front, but he wasn’t going to argue the point.
“I didn’t mean it like that. While a field trip to the Tower could be completely safe - I’m just saying!” He waved off Bruce’s indignant expression. “I don’t mind spending some time with him here. For a bit. If that’s okay.”
He had no idea what he was saying or why, and from the look in Bruce’s eyes the man could hardly believe his ears either. But Dick couldn’t help it.
“Of course it’s okay.” Bruce was still staring. “I’m sure Jason would appreciate the company.”
“Great.” Dick was already inching towards the door, the mortification just starting to take hold. “So I’ll just-“
“There’s one more thing.”
He stopped short. Bruce’s features were serious as he looked elsewhere, one hand braced on his desk.
“I said before that Jason isn’t comfortable around strangers, and it’s true. He’s made great strides in adjusting to life here, but I’ve been very careful about not rushing him into anything.”
“What are you talking about? He took a nip at me, but that was my fault for sticking my hand at him like an idiot.” Dick shrugged. “No big deal.”
Bruce shook his head.
“You may have heard that I adopted Jason from Crime Alley, but it’s a little more complicated than that,” he said. “Jason was living on the streets for nearly a year when I found him. A considerable amount of that time was spent in wolf form.”
Dick felt his face pale. He couldn’t help but imagine a small black pup, wet and shivering in some rainy back street. Or maybe it was snowing and the cub was whimpering inside an old cardboard box, hungry and alone as uncaring strangers passed him by like the beginning of one of those Lifetime movies. Then Dick's mind began to conjure up all the potential reasons for why Jason didn’t like strangers, and his anxiety shot through the roof.
“As I said, he has adjusted very well,” Bruce said hurriedly, no doubt sensing Dick’s distress. “But we’re taking it slow. I told him that he’s excused from the upcoming charity gala, but he didn’t take it well.”
“He wants to go?” Dick said faintly, head still reeling.
“Mostly to prove that he can,” Bruce said wryly. “But I won’t expose him to that pressure or scrutiny before I’m confident he’ll be comfortable enough to navigate crowds. Especially not when I know what those people are saying about him.”
Dick was about to demand just what people were saying when his mouth snapped shut. What else would the Gotham elite say about a stray pup from Crime Alley?
“They don’t - it's not like he’s feral!” Dick exclaimed, feeling deeply offended at the idea.
“I know that. But it is not Jason’s responsibility to overextend himself to prove them wrong.”
“Overextend…” Dick rubbed his face. “Bruce, exactly how did you phrase all of this to Jason?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I know you. And I know how easily this could sound to him like you don’t think he can handle being around your rich friends because he used to be a stray.”
“I assure you that Jason’s wellbeing is my only priority.” Bruce’s voice had gone dangerously low.
“Well maybe I’m not the one who needs to be reassured,” Dick said coldly.
The last thing he had wanted to do was get in another fight. He’d given himself a long talk prior to arrival about keeping a cool head and not letting Bruce stoke his anger, but his original intentions also would have had him out of the manor for good by now.
“Look.” Dick rubbed his temples. “Misunderstandings happen, especially where you’re involved. The problem is that right now Jason’s probably upstairs thinking that he needs to be treated differently on account of his background.”
“I have never thought less of Jason for any reason,” Bruce said. “I only want to make sure his needs are met.”
“I know,” Dick said, making an effort to soften his tone. “But he’s a kid. If he feels like you’re treating his history as a flaw or weakness, it’s going to hurt him. It won’t kill you to sit down and explain yourself with actual words, you know?”
Bruce’s jaw ticked and Dick braced himself because this was the point where the yelling match usually started.
“... You’re right.”
“I’m what?” He resisted the urge to check if something was lodged in his ears.
“Making him feel self conscious or ashamed was the opposite of my intention,” Bruce said tiredly. “I’m just trying to protect him.”
“I get that. But you can’t let him feel like you don’t trust him.” Dick took a steadying breath and turned back to the door. “I’m headed upstairs. I’ll see you at dinner, okay?"
“Dick.” Bruce hesitated. “I am… truly glad to see you.”
Dick’s grip tightened on the doorknob as he nodded. “Likewise.”
On the journey up to his room Dick began firing off texts to let people know that he would be at the manor for an uncertain amount of time. He immediately turned his phone off afterwards to silence the flood of undoubtedly bewildered replies. He simply wasn’t in the mood to explain himself to anyone right now, especially not when he could barely do it to himself.
He had planned literally none of this, coming to the manor with next to nothing other than the clothes on his back and a travel duffel with his suit inside. Now he was what, staying for dinner? Staying the night, the week? What was even happening anymore?
Dick stopped in his room to shed most of his clothes and exchange them for what was left behind in his old closet. The shirts were a little tight across the shoulders and the pants a tad short around the ankles, but they smelled like the pack and that was what counted.
Jason’s room was just across the hall from his own, which was all well and good, but the door was shut. He knew the boy probably wanted his space, but… it did seem awfully quiet in there.
“Jason?” Dick knocked politely. “Are you okay?”
“I’m going to come in, if that’s alright.”
He poked his head inside, assessing the changes that had been made to what he’d previously known as an empty guest room. There were posters on the wall for various plays and bands, a cork board pinned with museum pamphlets and a calendar that featured vintage cars. There was a bookshelf stuffed full with novels and a meticulously organized desk with color-coded binders. It was almost hard to believe that such a tidy room belonged to a young boy.
Dick took two steps inside and turned towards the bed, which was rumpled and empty. “Hello?”
A lump beneath the blankets began to move and shift, and eventually a small black snout was snuffling out from under the covers. Dick gently pulled the sheets back to reveal the same black pup from the woods, still wearing the same dirt and moss.
“Really?” He sighed as Jason sniffed at his sleeves and the pack scent that stuck to Dick’s old clothes. “You know Alfred’s not going to be happy about this.”
Jason whined in complaint, moving to burrow back out of sight. Dick caught him by the scruff and lifted him off the bed.
“Then again, who could stay mad at you like this?” He asked, holding Jason against his chest. “You’re adorable.”
The pup gnawed on his fingers just light enough to avoid breaking skin and Dick held him tighter, all those images of cold, wet alleys rising once more in his mind. If Jason had indeed spent a lot of his time in wolf form, it would make sense for him to feel the most secure like this.
After his parents died Dick had spent his fair share of time curled up in a box filled with clothing that carried his original pack’s scent. Shifting as a self-comfort mechanism was something that they all did on occasion. Emotions tended to be much less stifling and complicated in that state, the world seeming simpler and the body less vulnerable. But the fact that Jason felt the need to escape his feelings in such a way that was still heart wrenching. The boy was just so young.
Jason wriggled as he was carried to the bathroom and set on the counter, his claws making little clacking sounds on the marble. Dick wet a small towel under the faucet and put a hand over Jason’s scruff to keep him still.
“I know Bruce can come off as a real jerk sometimes,” he said, wiping at that black fur. “But you know that most of the time it’s totally accidental, right? He’s just the worst with words.”
Jason did a shake, splattering both Dick and the mirror with a thin spray of water and dirt.
“Cute. But stay still.”
He ignored the unhappy whining and continued toweling Jason clean, paying special attention to the grit clinging to his paws. Jason’s fur still had its youthful fluff, poofing up in all directions once he was dried and no amount of shaking would make it settle.
“So,” Dick said, hoisting Jason off the counter. “I heard you wanted to go to that charity fundraiser that’s coming up.”
A low rumble began to emanate from Jason’s throat, his blue eyes glaring out from the towel he was swaddled in.
“And I know that you’d be fine to go,” Dick said. “But I just want you to be sure you’re not forcing yourself into something you don’t really want to do. You don’t have to prove anything, especially not to Bruce.”
Jason gave a little snort.
“Whatever it sounded like he said, I guarantee that’s not what he meant.” Bruce was their father and leader but he was also so damn clueless sometimes. How was Dick supposed to leave without drowning in anxiety about his next crisis of miscommunication?
Jason buried his muzzle into Dick's shirt before heaving a small sigh. Dick felt his heart melt by another few degrees. He’d never really thought about pups before and honestly still had no desire to get any of his own. But having one right in front of him, warm and smelling like family, it felt… nice. Suddenly all he wanted was to make sure that this pup was cared for and happy, and it could only be the result of some kind of pack instinct or a natural response activated by scent.
“Bruce and I have had our problems too,” he said, gently rubbing Jason’s paw pad. “I don’t know how much he talks about me -”
Jason’s head tilted curiously.
“Not much at all, got it.” Dick smiled wryly. “Well the truth is that we didn’t part on the best of terms the last time I was here. We had some different ideas about how my future would go, and I guess he found my idea pretty disappointing.”
Jason was watching with rapt attention, his blue eyes bright.
“We butt heads over it pretty hard. I walked out because I was sick of the fighting and pretty sure we’d never see eye to eye on it. Maybe not on anything,” Dick said. “He might be pack leader but he’s not the one living my life, you know? But just because he said all those things that made me crazy… I know he didn’t actually mean all of the things I heard.”
He sat down on the edge of Jason’s bed.
“Bruce may have been out of line on some of it, but. I know it’s just because he’s worried about me.”
Dick stared distantly at the wall. When he said it out loud like that, suddenly it didn’t all seem like the big deal breaker it originally felt like. Yeah, Bruce had been a big controlling, stubborn jerk. But at the heart of it his intentions were good, right? Was Bruce going overboard with his concerns really worth leaving the pack over?
“And I want to work things out with him,” he said, to himself as much as Jason. “Even if he pushes my buttons like no one else, I think it’s possible.”
The pup gave Dick an encouraging nudge with his nose.
“In the meantime though, you are still grounded.”
Jason’s ears immediately flattened.
“You left the Batmobile without permission, Jason. You really could have been hurt.” Dick adjusted his hold. “But tell you what- after Batman goes on patrol tonight, you and I can hang out. It’ll be fun.”
Jason twisted and wriggled free before scampering across the room and into his closet. Soon after he emerged in human form, wearing a pair of wrinkled pajamas. For a minute he just leaned against the closet door frame, looking awkward and unsure.
“… Bruce did talk about you, sometimes,” he said, voice still a little rough after the shift. “About when you were Robin. There are some pictures of you around. And all your old trophies are still down in the cave.”
Jason nodded. “He never really gave a straight answer about when you’d be back though.”
Immediately Dick felt a mixture of guilt and shame even if it was a little irrational. Part of him wanted to be upset that Bruce hadn’t called him before taking on a new Robin, while the other part said he should have been here himself as soon as he heard that Jason Todd had been adopted. A new addition to the pack was supposed to be a big deal, but he had already been in the process of distancing himself from the family. It was difficult to think of a cub growing up in a lopsided house simply because Bruce and Dick had been in some stubborn battle of wills.
He knew that it was the pack instinct getting to his head, but perhaps that was the hardest part of all - before coming here and perceiving Jason with his own senses, Dick hadn’t really wanted to think about him. He had been fully prepared to separate from the pack and thus leave the pup wholly in Bruce’s care without having anything to do with him at all.
“So…” Jason cleared his throat. “Are you. Staying?”
He was avoiding Dick’s gaze to feign indifference, but the rest of his body language was clear. Jason was probably grappling with pack instincts of his own, the ones that encouraged him to attach to every potential source of security he could find.
“Yeah. I don’t have anything going on with the Titans right now, so it should be fine.”
Jason’s arms were crossed tightly across his chest. “Good. I mean. If that’s what you want.”
“It is,” Dick said, surprising himself with the truth of it.
Just yesterday it had felt physically painful to even imagine coming back to the manor. Now he wasn’t sure how to leave.
Dick’s phone, when he finally mustered up the strength to turn it back on, was an utter nightmare.
Immediately he was bombarded by Roy’s endless stream of question and exclamation marks. Wally had been a little more eloquent by just sending multiple variations of the same bewildered questions. The others were more quietly confused, mainly asking him if everything was alright or if they should be concerned. Kori’s response had been simple and brief, just a well wish and reminder to call if he needed anything.
Dick smiled at his screen as he sent off his thanks, rotating idly in the chair at the Batcomputer. Batman would be leaving for patrol soon and Nightwing wouldn’t be joining him until after Jason had been sent to bed. He had plans to teach him some sparring techniques, maybe tinker around with some of the vehicles in the meantime. A nice quiet night in.
Bruce and Jason sounded like they were in the forensics lab, their voices just audible over the distant tumble of the river and chattering of bats. Dick wasn't one to eavesdrop but with the way the platforms were arranged and the nature of caves in general, it was hard not to catch a thing or two depending on where one was.
“- not a big deal. I’m fine,” Jason was saying, and Dick could just imagine the sullen look on his face. “I needed to let off some steam. It happens.”
“I understand,” Bruce said. “But you know that you shouldn’t go running off into the woods by yourself. The grounds have a lot of hollow areas and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’m not clueless,” Jason said, sounding agitated.
“I never said you were. Some parts of the estate grounds are just unstable, anyone could fall in,” Bruce said. “I have.”
“How do you think I found the cave?” There was the clicking noise of a lab kit being clasped shut. “Jason, I realize that I may not have been wholly clear with you-“
An exasperated groan. “Bruce-“
“And that my attempts to shelter you may have come off a bit… insensitive. I want you to know that your background is nothing to be ashamed of, and that I have not once ever thought otherwise.” A pause. “In fact I am remarkably proud of you for how strong you’ve been.”
“And if you really want to go to the charity function, of course I won’t stop you,” Bruce said. “I suppose it is simply my instinct to want to protect you from the world. But there are some things that I should know you can handle yourself.”
The conversation went quiet, and that probably (hopefully) meant they were hugging.
Dick idly picked at a seam on the armrest. If anyone had asked him just a day ago whether the Bruce Wayne he’d stormed out on would say any of those things, he would have bitterly laughed in their face. That Bruce wouldn’t have made himself vulnerable or lowered himself to compromise for anyone. Had things really changed so much? Or was Dick only seeing the man from a different angle now?
He waited for the telltale sound of the Batmobile engine starting up and soon there was the hurried pitter-patter of footsteps. The chair shuddered as Jason careened against it.
“He’s gone,” he said, giving the chair a firm shake. “Will you teach me to drive?”
“Teach you to-“ Dick laughed. “I don’t think you could even reach the pedals.”
Jason looked him dead in the eyes. “The seats are adjustable.”
“Uh, no,” Dick said, standing up. “I know for a fact you’re not even getting into any of the vehicles until the child lock mechanisms have been recalibrated.”
Jason pouted. “That’s no fair. I thought you were gonna be cool.”
“Hey, I’m totally cool!” Dick said as he led Jason down the stairs.
“I saw your old pictures. You wore plaid pants.”
“So now you hate polka dots and plaid, wow. I see how it is.”
Jason gave Dick a critical look. “Your costume has a v-neck.”
“I didn’t realize the new Robin was a member of the fashion police. Just watch what you say - Gotham rogues are very defensive about their aesthetics.”
He couldn’t resist picking Jason up and balancing him on his hip. This time the boy didn’t squirm or struggle and his arms automatically wrapped around Dick’s shoulders.
“Feels like the old man’s never going to let me get that far,” Jason grumbled. “It’s already been months. I’m ready to help with the petties at least!”
The boy's light weight was suddenly very apparent, along with how wide-eyed and baby-faced and so, so young he looked. Dick wasn’t the tallest guy around, but his old cape probably hung as far as Jason’s knees.
“Your training isn’t finished,” Dick said weakly. “And it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to wait until you’re older, would it?”
“You went out on patrol when you were twelve!” Jason argued.
“I…” Dick swallowed.
“He doesn’t treat me the way he treated you,” Jason said as he dejectedly rested his forehead on Dick’s shoulder. “But he still wants me to be as good as you were.”
“It’s not that simple.”
You’re just a pup, was what Dick wanted to say. But Jason was right, he had been twelve during his first patrol. He racked his brain to dislodge some of the childhood memories that he’d spent so long trying to bury.
“Bruce was younger back then,” he said. “He didn’t know how to be a father. He wasn’t even looking to become one when he took me in. I still had an attachment to my old pack that he didn’t want to disrespect, plus the two of us were closer in age so the parental instinct didn’t quite happen the same way. Not at first.”
“So when did it happen?”
Immediately he was flashing to post-patrol fights, arguments about risk and irresponsibility in the field. Bruce getting increasingly agitated and sullen every time Dick was called away from the pack to work with the Titans. The cosmic battles over his future after Dick decided to drop out of college.
“It was. Later.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “And you don’t have to worry about being as good as I was. Seems to me like you’re doing just fine.”
“Yeah? I mean,” Jason raised his chin, chest puffing out slightly. “Of course I am.”
“And I know Bruce is proud of you for all the progress you’ve made in your studies.” Dick jostled him playfully. “I’m willing to bet you’re a scrappy one too.”
Jason’s smile was wide and sharp. “Wanna see?”
“You want to spar? Right now?”
“I love to fight,” Jason said very seriously, tugging on Dick’s collar. “Fight me. If you think you can with this thing picking up satellite signals.”
“Well now you’re just asking for it.”
Mock or play fighting was a completely normal thing to do with pups, but Dick found out very quickly that if he went in looking for some roughhousing he was going to walk away with a black eye. Jason was as fast as he looked and hit twice as hard, with no reservations about fighting dirty. He snarled when Dick pinned him on the mat and at least once tried to bite his way out of a hold - undoubtedly reflexive responses that lingered from his time on the streets. Bruce was going to need to train that out of him before letting him on patrol, but there was no doubt that Jason had a lot of raw talent that he was learning to refine, as well as natural combat instincts.
After the last round Dick managed to lure him over to the gymnastic equipment. For all the things that Batman could teach him, acrobatics weren’t the man’s strongest suit.
“Here we go,” he said, dragging out his old 24-inch handstand canes. “Don’t worry little wing. I’ll catch you if you fall.”
Jason nibbled his lower lip as he eyed the canes critically. “That’s a dumb nickname.”
“How so? You’re Robin now. Did Batman tell you where the name came from?” Dick asked.
He moved to help lift Jason onto the canes only to have his hands slapped away.
“No.” Jason hopped up feet first.
“I was born on the first day of spring.” Dick hovered as Jason found his balance. “My parents were shifters, but they’d always loved birds. The idea of flying.”
“They were in the circus, right?”
Jason’s feet were small enough on the blocks that he could bend down and slowly shift his weight to his hands. For the next few minutes he tried to straighten out, eventually not protesting when Dick guided him upright.
Dick was just helping him to steady his wobbling when Alfred came down and politely but firmly informed them that it was “the young master’s bedtime”. Jason made a valiant effort to appeal the motion, but any battle with Alfred was already lost.
“How am I supposed to sleep when Nightwing’s going out on patrol without me?” Jason complained.
“We’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow, okay?” Dick said, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You did good. I know you must be tired.”
“I’m not,” Jason said, stifling a yawn. “This schedule isn’t fair anyway. No one my age goes to bed this early.”
“Growing boys need their rest. Shower first and then bed.” Alfred began to steer Jason by his shoulders towards the stairs.
“You’ll still be here, right?” Jason asked over his shoulder. “You’re staying over?”
Dick had considered popping out to grab some things from his apartment, but. How could he risk seeing disappointment on that face?
Jason looked reassured enough to allow Alfred to herd him upstairs, leaving Dick in the cave with a dawning feeling of permanence.
There was no turning back now. If he failed to make things work with Bruce… he couldn’t even imagine the outcome. Jason was attaching to him as a pup would to an older pack member and losing that connection could be damaging to the progress he’d made. Not to mention that frankly Dick himself had attached to the boy already. The instinct to protect and care for the youngest member of the pack had become an omnipresent itch in the back of his mind, and he couldn’t imagine that it was going to go away.
Patrolling in Gotham was like riding a grungy, battered but familiar bike, with Dick falling right back into it as naturally as the night before he left. It surprised him a little to realize just how much he’d missed working in this city.
There was a beauty and atmosphere to Gotham that couldn’t be found anywhere else. To outsiders she may have seemed dark and unwelcome, but there was an otherworldly charm and feeling of belonging that kept even the locals who could from leaving. Save for Dick, once.
He sighed from his perch atop the East End Regal and watched the cars pass below.
“We need to talk,” he said, not taking his eyes away from the city lights. From behind him he heard the whisper of a cape catching on the wind.
“There was a time when I could sneak up on you.”
“I’m sure you still could if you really tried,” Dick said, casting a look over his shoulder. “I heard what you said to Robin. That was pretty good. Better than I expected.”
Batman was silent.
“I came here to leave the pack.”
A pause. “I know.”
Batman’s figure was an ominous shape in the shadows but not unlike with Gotham herself, what to most would have seemed dangerous and imposing was neither of those things to Dick.
“If you’ve made up your mind I can’t stop you,” Batman said gravely. “You’re… you’re an adult now. Your choices are your own.”
Dick shook his head with a humorless laugh. “See you have no idea how much trouble we could have both been spared if you’d said that to start with. So why didn’t you?”
“I don’t suppose I would have meant it at the time.”
Dick felt a muscle in his jaw twitch. “And do you mean it now?”
“I’ll respect the decisions you make,” Batman said. “But please try to understand: I’m never going to stop wanting the best for you, or having opinions about what that might be. No matter how old you get I won’t be able to prevent myself from wanting to take care of you. You’re my son.”
Dick closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose. “I need my freedom. I’m not a little kid anymore and I can’t have you looking over my shoulder all the time or trying to manage my life behind my back. Even if you are my father and pack leader.”
The seconds ticked by with the only sounds being the high wind and distant traffic.
“And am I still both of those things?”
Dick’s grip on the ledge tightened. “If we have an understanding, then. Yeah.”
He rose from his place at the edge and Batman hesitated in the darkness, looking unsure.
“Oh for goodness sake.” Dick closed the distance between them and pulling him into a hug. “You need to get better at this now that there’s a pup involved.”
“I just - I know some very harsh things were said the last time we were together,” Batman said, holding him firmly. “I know I can’t take any of them back-“
“Apology accepted,” Dick said into his shoulder, breathing in Bruce’s scent of family and fatherhood and security. “I was a bit of an ass too. Our relationship was changing and I was growing up and neither of us knew what to do with any of it. I get it now.”
“I’m trying to do better,” Bruce said as they separated. “Having Robin has given me more insight into how my instincts can make me… a bit overbearing.”
“A bit?” Dick snorted. “I’m just hoping that with you having an actual pup to smother some of that heat can get taken off of me.”
“Is that so?” Batman asked. “I’ve seen how you look at Robin. I don’t think the brunt of the smothering is going to come from me.”
Dick felt his face heat up. “That - I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Twelve year olds don’t need to be carried, Nightwing.”
“He’s a pup! He -" Dick waved him off. “Someone around here needs to compensate for all the affection you’re too emotionally constipated to give.”
“I just hope you don’t take to childcare too well. I’m not quite old enough to be a grandfather.”
“Don’t be so sure. I know Robin calls you an old man, are you getting gray under there?”
It felt like he hadn’t been able to joke with Bruce like this since his own days as Robin, it had been so long.
“I can already tell the two of you are going to be a bad influence on each other,” Batman said as he moved away. “But I’m glad to have you home.”
“Yeah,” Dick said, watching him take flight from the ledge. "Me too."
Dick watched closely as the small black wolf romped in wide arcs around the lawn. Jason was full to bursting with directionless energy - one minute he was skipping across the grass and leaping playfully after a firefly, the next a cricket would jump past his field of vision and inspire a mad scamper in a new direction.
The pup rolled in the flowers, tail wagging and tongue lapping up air. Eventually the skittering of a chipmunk drew Jason into the woods, with Dick following dutifully behind. It was an ironic mirror to the previous week, during which Jason had been prone to follow Dick from room to room. It was fairly normal pup behavior to stay close to an elder as a pack bond was being established: an imprint-like desire to follow and watch and feel secure in the new connection.
At the moment Dick had to compete with all the stimuli of the nocturnal outdoors for Jason’s attention, padding behind him and bodily herding the pup whenever it seemed like he was about to take off. Fortunately his considerably longer stride lent itself to the task.
While nothing could compete with the domestic warmth and safety of the den that was Wayne Manor, the entirety of the estate was the pack’s territory and Dick could feel the peace of that knowledge in his bones. None of the places he had shifted in during his stint as a loner compared.
Eventually Jason got a little too curious about a badger hole for comfort and Dick was picking up the pup in his mouth. Jason whined as he went limp, legs paddling weakly through the air as he was carried to the base of a large maple tree. Dick plopped them down in the grass, adjusting his grasp so that he had the pup by the scruff and held against his chest. Jason huffed, dirt clinging to his snout and the wet of his nose.
They’d left the charity function a few hours early, after Jason had gotten his fill of expensive finger foods and upper class patronization in the Royal Hotel ballroom. The Gotham elite had performed pretty much as expected, smiling politely as they looked the boy over and commented on how wonderful and generous Bruce was to adopt a Crime Alley stray. Jason had smiled tightly back while keeping his dry replies subtle enough to be innocuous, and ultimately Dick had probably come closer to punching someone than he had. They were all very proud.
The question of just how a stray pup had wound up alone in Gotham City, much less Park Row, was a harder one to answer. Even they had nothing concrete yet - only the knowledge that both Willis Todd and his wife Catherine were completely human.
“Jason’s known for a while,” Bruce had said when Dick asked a few nights prior. “He just didn’t think much of it given that it’s possible, albeit rare, for the shifter gene to skip a generation. However I’ve looked and there is simply no history of lycanthropy in either of his parents’ bloodlines.”
“So where’d he come from?”
“I’m looking into it. We went to his family’s old apartment and a neighbor had salvaged a box of keepsakes. His birth certificate is a damaged forgery but there is a phonebook full of names with some… surprising backgrounds. I’m running a check to see if anyone listed fits the criteria.”
Dick hadn’t liked it for purely selfish reasons. Jason was theirs now. Their family, their pack. Blood didn’t make a difference and the wolf in him was possessive as hell. But his brother at least deserved the truth and he knew better than to think that Bruce wouldn’t dig up the information regardless.
At any rate whatever wound up being found, the pack would be in it together.
A rustling of leaves caused Dick to look up and see a great black wolf moving out of the darkness. Bruce must have taken his leave of the party at last.
Dick shifted to make room as Bruce approached, curling around them to become a solid wall of heat against the cool night air. Jason ceased his struggling, now smushed comfortably between his father and brother and surrounded by pack scent. His energy from before appeared to be spent, the tip of his tongue poking out as his blue eyes drifted half-shut.
A noise of surprise escaped Dick’s throat as he felt the broad strokes of a tongue cleaning behind his ears. Bruce’s grooming continued unabated, even though Dick hadn’t been treated like that since he was a little more than Jason’s size. Eventually he rested his head on Bruce’s flank and surrendered to it.
It felt right. Lying there under a bright moon surrounded by his family, Dick couldn’t imagine ever giving it up.