Chapter 1: city of tomorrow, delaware
“I’m here to see Clark Kent.”
The receptionist’s variegated. She’s a few years older than Dick, maybe, but she’s wearing jewelry that ages her. Thin false pearls and thick earrings and a ring that tints her skin green. Her eyes are sepia, like a fly’s, and Dick gets the impression she thinks the jewelry is real; her expression is imperious, even as she gazes up at him with a ballpoint between her teeth. “Is he expecting you?”
Dick rocks back, forth, back, on the balls of his feet. “Not sure.”
“Okay.” Her gaze is flat, but her eyebrows lift a millimeter, maybe two. Dick would think it was pity if it weren’t for the way her fingers hover over the office phone’s keypad, a button press away from calling security. Brown kid in a hoodie with orchid-bruised cheeks asking for a reporter famous for pissing powerful people off. His patience begins to fray. Dick isn’t at his best right now—a far cry from the slick-haired, dimpled rich boy amiability he usually employs—and he can’t muster anything wry or sharp or charming to call her out. Sue him. “Got a name?”
He sighs, impatient. “Dick. Dick Grayson.”
She doesn’t move. Her shoulders are reed-stiff, bony, and they creep up high with the defensiveness of her posture, practically at her ears. Her left index finger taps against the answering machine. The sound of it draws Dick’s hackles up, and he drums his scabbed knuckles against her desk in retort.
The standoff continues; she doesn’t speak, doesn’t move—she doesn’t even look at him. Her eyes are glued to his shoulder so she doesn’t have to meet his gaze.
“Look,” says Dick. He jerks a thumb in the direction that he knows Clark will be. “His office is that way, yeah?”
Her eyes glint, narrowing, suspicion at a feverpitch, and she twists her ring like a cubic zirconia maypole. “You can't—”
“Don’t worry,” Dick assures her over his shoulder, already turning to walk away. “I know the way. Thanks so much for your help.”
The bullpen’s swarming. If he were in Gotham, he would compare it to rotting fruit. Dick doesn’t have any great affection for Gotham’s press: the sensationalist tinge the Gazette paints on every piece, the way they’d published photos of Dick’s parents’ cadavers on the front page for the sake of sales. He remembers seeing it again, seeing them, colored glossy by the print, jewel-toned and slackened by split bone, his father’s head twisted like an owl, his mother broken like a vase. He remembers seeing it over Alfred’s burnt crepes and retching, only two days an orphan. He remembers the way they framed Bruce’s custody—how damn benevolent they made him seem for taking in someone like Dick. How pathetic it made Dick feel.
The Planet’s different. The bullpen is a gray linoleum honeycomb; over the clean gloss, its floors are scuffed. It’s loud, too, in a pleasant sort of way: the constant tick of analog clocks on the walls for Moscow, Tokyo, London, Paris; the murmur of low-toned cellphone calls; the tick of cheap keyboards. People are moving—clicking pens and walking around and fumbling for their badges and briefcases.
Listen. Dick is off his game. He’s one day off of IV saline and twenty hours off of being Robin, removed from the life he’s lived for the better part of the last decade, red-eyed. He’s off his game. He just is. He doesn’t notice the woman until she hits him right in the shoulder.
“No. Really. Layoffs at Cale-Anderson,” she’s saying, clutching an honest-to-god BlackBerry to her cheek. “Stock’s plummeting. I’m talking mass layoffs, Larry.” She doesn’t turn, or apologize, or anything. She just moves forward.
It’s not any sort of legendary brushoff—it’s actually kind, by Gotham standards, at least—but Dick stands there, lingers, stunned. The gunshot wasn’t serious. The bullet missed the ball of his shoulder, missed the brachial artery, missed the brachial plexus. In and out. A river into a sea. Pectoralis minor. Not even close to his worst injury; certainly not worth getting fired over. But getting hit now, straight-on, knocks his vision shiny, febrile. He bites his lower lip raw, piercing it with his teeth, and he plunges forward again, weaving through the rush more carefully now.
When he reaches it, the doorknob is cool under his splinted fingertips. Dick hesitates. He doesn’t know why. He lifts his chin up in the shiny, mirror-like gold plating between the engraved letters of the nameplate like it’ll give him an answer. It doesn’t. He looks like hell. Every ridge of his face is darkened with bruises and his eyes swell like dark clouds and his lips tremble so badly they blur. He doesn’t want to look anymore. So just open it, he thinks. You’re being so stupid.
Still, his hand lingers.
His shoulder twangs. The pain is a gun to his head, somehow, and his splints clink against the doorknob as he turns it.
Clark sits on the edge of his varnished desk, gilded with the window’s pale light. His posture’s relaxed and there’s papers in his grip like he’s busy, but his knuckles are white and his gaze is anticipatory.
Huh. “So you were expecting me.”
“Sorry about her,” Clark says, wringing the copy paper. As it turns in his hands, Dick gets a glance at it: blank. Double-huh. “I was going to intervene if it went on any longer. You shouldn’t take it personally. It’s a—security concern. Lois got kidnapped twice last month.”
“What’s next,” says Dick wryly, “bringing clear briefcases to work?”
Clark smiles tightly, but he doesn’t say anything.
Dick sighs. Smalltalk is out the window then. It’s fine. He didn’t come to Metropolis to chat about the weather. Still, his heart jumps to his throat. “Go ahead. Say it.”
“It’s your heartbeat.”
“Too fast?” Dick presses his back against the cool wood of the door, slumps, shuts his eyes.
“Hasn’t been below a hundred since you entered the building.” Clark’s voice is soft.
“Supraventricular tachycardia, maybe, affects hundreds of thousands of people in the US. Completely benign. Nonthreatening.” The levity tastes like silicone, and even Dick doesn’t believe it. But he can’t seem to stop speaking, voice cracking as it rises. “Caused by stress. Caffeine. Exertion. Manifests in teens or early twenties. Be weirder, wouldn’t it if I—it would be weirder if I didn’t—”
“He.” Dick swallows. “He fired me.”
“Fired?” Clark’s eyebrows soar. “How can he fire you?”
Dick wets his lips, inhaling sharply. “He said, ‘You’re fired.’”
“It’s not a job,” Clark says.
“It is,” says Dick, brittle. “It is to him.”
The kicker. That’s it. Dick cut away the edges of himself, peeled off all of his skin, broke his bones and reset his whole ossature, all so that he could fit into Bruce’s perfect mold, and he ended up here: alone and imperfect and empty in the center. That’s the kicker.
His eyes sting. Dick doesn’t dare bring a hand to his eyes for fear of it coming back wet. Instead, he plunges his hands into his pockets, lets the roughness of the denim pull at the scabs on his knuckles like saltwater taffy. He feels the ridges split, wet.
“God.” Clark removes his glasses, rubbing his temples.
“Yeah.” Dick twists his lips. “And you know what. You know what. I have no fucking clue what I’m going to do.”
“The Titans—” starts Clark.
“Can’t be led by Dick Grayson.” His shoulders almost don’t shake. “I’m taking a leave of absence.”
“Dick, whatever you do, you can’t pull away like this.” It’s a warning. Clark is all black eyes and soft seams and ardent tones. “You have so many—”
“I don’t,” interrupts Dick. His jaw locks, unlocks. “I don’t, though, is the thing.”
Clark grabs Dick by the elbow and his hands are so gentle that Dick wants to cry. Clark folds Dick into a hug. Dick buries his face into Clark’s shoulder, into the cheap cotton of his button-up, and he clings to the man’s arms, chin knocking against the hard plane of his shoulder.
“Okay. Okay. Here’s what you’re going to do, okay, kiddo?” Clark’s words run warm against Dick’s hair, and for a moment, Dick is ricocheted into nostalgia about his father—the way his dad would pull him in for a hug and run his hands, calloused and plastered in gymnast chalk, into Dick’s hair until it turned white. “Here’s what you’re going to do: you’re…you’re...” He trails off, as if out of words to say.
Dick’s laugh, though, is wet, thick in his throat. “You didn’t plan this out at all.”
“Hey,” protests Clark, squeezing him, tight, once more before he pulls back, holding Dick by his good shoulder to look him in the eyes. “Breathe. You’re going to be okay.”
Inhale; exhale; rinse; repeat. Maybe throw a ‘lather’ in there if he’s feeling luxuriant. He can do that. On his fifth exhale, Dick says, “Yeah. Yeah.”
Clark gives him a smile, small enough that his cheeks don’t dimple but enough that they start to crease.
“Yeah. I’ll just—” He blinks, eyes fluttering furiously to bite back the wet sheen, the salt-glimmer. “I can just get a job somewhere. Be a cop or something. God. That. That would piss him off, wouldn’t it.”
“Well. I mean.” The smile twitches to the left, creases a little further, fond. “You’re too young to be a cop. You’re sixteen, Dick.” Clark’s black eyes are steady, so heavy that Dick can’t stand to meet his gaze.
“Seventeen in a week.”
“Which is still 53 weeks away from adulthood.” Clark pushes his glasses back onto his nose.
“Buzzkill,” Dick accuses lightly, curling his fingers into loose fists, scrolling them into volutes at his sides so he doesn’t scrub his face.
Clark stares at him silently. For all that Clark’s body language is painfully, acutely human, Midwestern at every turn, his face is hard to read. It has all the same juts and shores and peaks of a human’s visage, every shadow of the cheeks, the brown earthling tint: everything. Emotion is embroidered there like anyone else’s. But the gleam of his eyes is inscrutable, blacker than any hue humans have the right to see. For a quarter of an instant, Clark seems terribly alien to him. Then the moment breaks in half like a branch in a storm, and Clark says, “C’mon.” He swings an arm around Dick’s shoulders, steering him through the doorway. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Yesterday.” Dick answers before he realizes what he’s saying. The same part of Dick that bent to Batman’s every beck and call also snaps to attention for Superman. His nails dig into the skin of his palms, and, “Uncle Clark, it’s fine, really, I don’t think I—I don’t have any money left, I can’t.”
“Lois,” says Clark, with his dinnerplate-eyes and an awkward, subtle twist of posture. “...Hi there.”
“Uncle Clark, ” she repeats, and she presses every letter out like an old flower into parchment paper: dry and weighted down. Her eyebrows quirk.
All that Dick can think about is how different she looks up close, in her element. He’s met her in passing, given a cheap, “Oh, hello, I’m—” at a gala or four, and he’s pored over her work, certainly, because it’s damn good and because she’s damn good at what she does, but it’s different here, now, in some way. She’s tall, has two inches on Dick at the least, and the streamline of her three-piece makes her look even longer, makes the click of her teeth sound even louder.
“Uncle Clark. That’s one I haven’t heard before.”
Then she appraises Dick, up-down, eyebrows furrow. Then her features nearly soften. “Didn’t know you had a nephew, Smallville.”
Clark at Dick apologetically. Accosted half a meter out of the doorway. “Well. Dick Grayson, Lois Lane.”
She ticks her fingers up in an approximation of a wave, her other hand flaring out in offering. Dick takes it. “Pleasure,” she says, in that way that means, We’ve met.
“Hi.” The thing is—the thing is that Lois doesn’t let go of his hand. Dick musters a half-smile. “I read your series on Lexcorp. Pretty scathing stuff.”
Her grip tightens, but she smiles, crooked. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Dick means it. The milquetoast, stolid stuff that Gotham likes doesn’t win Pulitzers; ‘scathing’ does. And Lois is scathing. It’s for that reason that he expects Lois to follow up, prick him with questions, tear away his mummy-gauze like candy wrappers.
She must know who he is. Even swollen and violet-tinged, he has a distinctive face, distinctive features, swan-curved and brown and vaguely European, stark against the pale dredges of Gotham’s beau monde. Anybody that was over five in 2010 remembers Bruce’s surprise custody announcement, hamfisted as it was. She must know. But she doesn’t ask him anything.
She clicks her teeth, says, “Get well soon, kid,” and walks away. Triple-huh.
Dick stares after her dumbly. At the Gazette, copyeditors are spliceosomes, excising every intron, every unneeded detail, every scrap of compassion. The Planet’s different that way, too, maybe.
“She was nice,” says Dick, like it’s a revelation, like it’s groundbreaking telomere research
Looking at her walk away, a smile colors Clark pink, fond enough to ache. “Yeah. She was.”
Superburger is a cloudy-tabled, awestruck dive—a good time with a broken jukebox machine just for show. Clark leads them to a corner booth that he’s probably sat in a million times before; it’s just out of the view of the CCTV of the pawnshop across the street. Perfect for quick getaways. There is also a particularly charming, jagged item of chirography inscribed into the red table top.
“BATMAN SUX,’” Dick reads, grinning wickedly for what feels like the first time in a year, tracing his fingers over the grooves. “Did a five year old write this? Or a thirty-something reporter?”
Clark grins, gaze fixed on the laminated menu. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He clicks his teeth, setting the menu down enough to meet Dick’s eyes. “But as a reporter, I wholeheartedly support freedom of speech. Even that of five year olds.”
“Backbone of society,” agrees Dick, nodding solemnly. His nails catch along the depths of the scratched writing, and he relishes in the feeling of smooth plastic’s interruptions against the whorls of his unsplinted fingertips.
It feels wrong to relish in anything, to smile like this, when there’s such a profound ache in the center of his chest. Something must falter—something must show in his face—because Clark squints and swings the conversation back around.
“What are you looking at?” asks Clark, tapping the menu against the salt shakers. “I usually get the eponym.” He sounds like a writer. Is one, Dick reminds himself. It’s odd. Dick knows Clark, knows him well, but he hasn’t really spoken to him in what feels like years, too busy with the Titans or Bruce. A phantom pressure palms at Dick’s chest, wraps around his sternum like a coaxed vine. When he was eleven, he’d call Clark ‘Blue,’ and Clark would call him ‘Red,’ and Clark would badger B into letting Dick get ice cream with him. The papers would eat it up. Dick would get a waffle cone, and scuff the heels of his pixie boots against the rough roof of a skyscraper only Superman could reach, and breathe in the salt-thick, pure air of Metropolis. Things were simpler then. Or maybe just different.
“Yeah?” Dick shakes, forces himself to focus, makes himself pay attention. To Clark. To everything. “Recommend it?”
“Not really.” Clark’s mouth twists. “I just feel obligated to get it every time.”
The waitress, a flushed, glossy-haired white woman with a pearly Virginian drawl, plants a palm against their table with a suddenness that almost makes Dick jump. Superburger’s uniform is juncturally confused: the quintessential c.1938 waitress dress with white-trimmed sleeves and a wind-sharp collar but printed with the bright, modern tiedye of Superman ice cream, so pigmented that Dick’s eyes sting. “What can I get for you boys to drink?”
“Coffee, please.” Clark smiles brightly at her.
“Right.” When she tilts her neck, it cracks, loud, like a rope. His stomach churns. “And for your son?”
“The same,” says Dick, flat, not bothering to correct her. “Thanks.”
Clark lifts an eyebrow when she leaves. “Weren’t we just talking about how caffeine causes SVT?”
“Didn’t I just say it was inevitable?” Dick shoots back, jittering, feeling unusually antsy. The hiss from behind the counter, the hooks of other patrons, the grit of the floor that catches beneath his shoes, the brightness of the diner, the city miasma offset by the smell of hot grease and roasted coffee. It’s not too much, but just barely. His jaw tics. He bites at his thumb; the bell of the door jingles as someone walks in. “‘Cause it is. It’s inevitable for me. No way around it.”
Pursed lips, steepled hands, tilted head. Concern. So blatant it could be fake. Could be fake. Could be fake. “Dick.”
“Uncle Clark.” Sharp, half-bitten words.
“Okay, okey-dokey,” laughs the waitress, manifesting like the snake in Eden, evil incarnate, cold-bodied and damp and dreadful, signifying failure and fate and all that is lost, “careful, now, boys, it’s real hot, pipin’ hot, just about burned myself on the way over. Careful, careful. Can I take your orders or do you need a little more time?”
Careful, Dick thinks. Careful.
His gaze fixes to the tabletop, the hot sheen of the coffee where it spills over its own edges. Bitter-dark. It glints, coruscates like a CD in a sunlit car, and it catches every flicker of life-motion—from the window, from Clark, from the waitress—like a mirror, preconceptionless and exact. In it, he glimpses the pale band of skin on the waitress’s ring finger—divorcee? took it off for work?—and the reflection of a man outside and his quick hands picking a wallet out of another man’s pocket. The pickpocket’s practiced, efficient, done it for years, but he’s smallfish. Minnow-like.
What the stopgap mirror does not have is sound.
“Dick,” says Clark for the seventh time. “Dick.” Eighth.
Blink. Inhale. Exhale. Rinse. “Yeah?” Repeat. Dick’s eyelashes slash wetly across his cheeks, and he brings his hand up to his mouth. He wants to bite his knuckles bloody, get his teeth stuck in the bone; he wants to tear his mind away from the sting of his eyes. His mouth fails to open; instead, his teeth tear into the delicate inside of his cheek. Oh, god, thinks Dick. I’m going to be this way forever.
All he can taste is asphalt.
On a simple level—perhaps on the simplest level: sunrise, sun, sunset—Dick knows that he’s never been normal. Show glitter doesn’t scratch his skin; sawdust doesn’t knead his fingers; chalk on his palms is what love feels like, raw and clean, better than rain. He did a triple somersault before he saw the ocean. Before he lost his baby teeth, he was parentless. He was always Mersault in Gotham: on the outside. Circus trash. Circus freak. Bruce said, What are you going to do about it? Bruce said, Good. Bruce said, Now do it better.
Here is something. It is not a secret. It is not supposed to be. Maybe it is. Dick is the only person alive to tell it. Dick is not supposed to be.
Here is something: the quadruple somersault hurts. You tuck. Your feet scrape the steel rigging, the cone-pull of the tent, the stretched nylon firmament. You do not drink the air; the air drinks you, devours you, whole, raw, 75 miles an hour. When the catcher grasps you, holds you tight, your skin strips off and you cannot perform again for weeks.
There is no way to do it better; the skin will always strip.
Bruce will always say, Do it better.
His orders chafe against his neurons, and like silk Dick bends. He bends, every time, past where he should. It’s at the point that Dick can’t go anywhere, not anywhere, without—without this. Looking for evil and perfidy in waitresses, finding a million tells and tics and sins in the peccable, noticing everything, trapped in the quicksand of too much. He is going to be like this forever.
Dick swallows. Resignation flushes through him, followed by something else, something hot and splintering, something like defiance.
He drags his head up, locks his jaw, smiles. His teeth slip over each other. When he runs his tongue over his lips, it’s already split, blood-wet and numb from crescented bitemarks. Still. He smiles. “What’d you order?”
The words stagger over each other, bending like cheap metal spoons in hard ice cream, but the point, maybe, is that they come out.
Clark’s eyebrows furrow, pulling in the center. Then he shakes his head. “Blueberry pancakes.”
“I thought.” Dick blinks. “I thought you said you always got a Superburger.”
“I do. I did.” Clark tears a packet of sugar open with his teeth, soft-eyed. “I ordered them for you.”
“Oh,” says Dick. “I didn’t notice.” Then the half-smile cracks his face, slow. “I…I didn’t notice.”
Clark takes a cursory sip of his coffee. Winces. Reaches for more sugar. “I’ve had them before. They’re good. More blueberry than batter.”
Dick takes a breath, propping his chin on his hand, palm ghosting over the uncertain turn of his lips. He can feel his pulse at his wrists, thready, and it thrums in his throat, too. “That’s too much.”
“Not really. They’re good blueberries. Big. Locally sourced. Produce always tastes better when agricultural workers get paid living wages. I did a story on it a little while ago.” His eyes flick up in thought. “Myrtille Farms. An hour drive, maybe.”
“No,” says Dick, pointing. “Not that. That. You just dumped like three pounds of sugar in your coffee. Isn’t it gritty?”
“You have to add the sugar while it’s hot. That’s the trick.” Clark clicks his teeth like he’s the one cracked the Rosetta Stone.
“That’s not the trick.”
“That’s the trick,” persists Clark, taking a long, obnoxious sip. “It’s the trick.”
Dick’s lungs skip like a record with the fizz of his laugh. “I’m not going to fight you on it. But it’s not the trick.”
“Sure.” Clark grins. “Sure it’s not.”
He scoffs, but he says nothing, playing with the ceramic handle of the mug. It’s chipped, just a little, catching the edge of his palm like a duckling nudging its beak into someone’s hand. He runs his thumb over the chip over and over.
“Gosh,” says Dick abruptly. A laugh spills out of him like a colonnade of laburnum, wild, on the knife-edge of hysterical. To quiet himself, he claps a hand over his mouth fully this time. “Gosh.”
“What?” says Clark, glancing around before he leans in. “What’s wrong?”
He almost wheezes. Dick’s life until now—a diptych, a badly-cut ribbon whose frayed tail ends at his feet—has not been normal: circuses, Batman, aliens. It’s a triptych now, with a wide, taut panel waiting to be filled, but Dick is here, he’s still here: eating pancakes with Superman and thinking about ducklings.
“Nothing,” he manages. “Nothing. It’s nothing. I just—I just really like the writing on the table,” he lies.
“Oh.” Clark smiles gingerly, shoulders relaxing almost imperceptibly. Worried. He’s been worried. He doesn’t have to be. He shouldn’t be. (Dick almost wishes he was faking it.)
Dick’s smile etiolates. “Um. Hey, Clark?”
“I guess I—” He takes a rushed sip of the coffee. Still bitter-dark. Burning. He swallows. “I just—thanks. Thank you. The last, the last, what, 24 hours have been—they’ve been bad. And I know I’ve been a rollercoaster. And rude. Histrionic. But you still,” he falters. “...Thank you.”
“Of course.” Earnestness bleeds out of Clark’s body language. Still, the petal-pluck ridges, the freshwater slants of his face, they look too different, too dark, too faraway for Dick to construe. Everything is different here. “Of course. You know you can come to me about anything.”
“Yeah,” says Dick, quiet. “I know. But...but thanks.”
The waitress reappears, less snake-like than before, much more benevolent, but that could be because she bears food this time around; the plates teeter in her hands. His plate is white porcelain, but it looks more like a thin corona around the thick rings of the pancakes, which swim in purple-blue.
“Holy shit, Clark.” Dick levers a fork under one of the pancakes, tilting his head to examine its underside. “Why are these blueberries, like, Star of India sized?”
Clark laughs. “I told you,” he says, sounding particularly Kansan. “I tried to tell you. I really did.”
The pancakes look fine. The berries bleed heart-blue, squander their juices in the cake, meld to the touch of the half-tarnished fork. Sweet-smelling. Warm. Dick stares at them.
His stomach churns.
Suddenly, Dick is exhausted all over again. Oh-six-hundred yesterday began his day, sun-long. He woke to Alfred pressing a 2x2 gauze to the back of his hand, IV gone; Alfred said, “Terribly sorry to disturb you, dear boy, do try to go back to sleep,” but in an off-kilter voice as thick as rope; and before he left he carded his fingers through Dick’s hair as if he were a little boy again. Fifteen minutes later, Dick was nameless and hoarse, breathless, raw. He was so angry he didn’t think. He grabbed the denim jacket he’d stolen from Roy and he left. He left and he left empty-handed. Roy’s pockets had $50 and three grams of weed; a train ticket to Metropolis cost $65. Dick made up the difference like anyone would.
Dick doesn’t want to say he’s over it. He’s not over it. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be over it. But he’s not on the verge of a panic attack now like he has been for the last 24 hours, not getting pummeled by his own senses like he was ten minutes ago. He’s fine-adjacent now. So he doesn’t know why.
“Try and get something down, kiddo. Anything.”
Dick tries. He hides his retch. He swallows. Do it better, he thinks, and does. “Here,” he tells Clark, passing the man two of his pancakes. “It’s too many.” One is too many.
Clark asks for a styrofoam box for the food that both of them know isn’t going to get eaten, lips twisting. He also leaves what’s got to be a 50% tip, which must be to compensate for the dissociative episode Dick had over black coffee. It can’t be sustainable on a reporter’s salary, and Dick wilts with guilt.
Walking out of the diner into the fresh air is cold. April wind flares at every inch of bare skin, and Dick tugs his hood over his head, tugging at the strings. Only two of his fingers are splinted now, but he wants nothing more than to yank the splints off so he can feel the vine of the strings. He is, most of all, overcome with the desire to feel things as they are, to feel things beyond anger and panic and new guilt.
“Well,” says Dick as the wind kisses him on the mouth, coloring his teeth with a chill, “I guess this is where we—”
“...part,” finishes Dick lamely.
“No,” repeats Clark, walking faster.
Dick’s eyebrows furrow. He speeds up to match Clark’s pace. “...Pardon?”
“Where are you going?”
“I—” Dick stops on the sidewalk. “I don’t know. What does it matter?”
“It matters.” And Clark stops, too. There’s his dark, planetary gaze again, flashing. As he speaks, he ticks off his points on his fingers: “It matters, Dick. You just had a panic attack in a diner. You won’t eat. You look like you haven’t slept in a year. And you have not one, not two—three injuries, none of which you told me about.” Oh. X-ray vision. Gunshot wound, two broken fingers, and a long slit an inch below the inside of his elbow.
Dick narrows his eyes and takes a long step back. “Okay? So what? I don’t have to tell you anything, Clark. You’re not my dad.”
“No. I’m not,” Clark snaps, “Because your dad is a bastard that kicked a sixteen year old to the streets!”
“He’s not my dad. He’s not my dad.” Dick is still, back straight as wheat.
“Your guardian, then.” Clark throws his hands up, and stiffness rings every one of his movements, tension embroidered into the lines of his face. “He’s still supposed to be responsible for you. You’re—I know you don’t want to hear this, but, Dick, you’re still a child . You are.”
“I’m almost seventeen—”
“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t! He doesn’t just get to get rid of you like that just because he can’t take the responsibility. He doesn’t. He—” Something clicks. Something twists. “He doesn’t get to do that.” Clark lets out a frustrated sigh.
“He’s not my dad,” says Dick again, cold and offbeat, because he has nothing else to say. The crowd swirls and stares, dandelion-still. His voice dips in volume. “Don’t say he’s my dad.”
Clark reaches for Dick’s arm. Dick steps back again, scoffing. “Okay. Okay. C’mon.” His eyes soften. “Please. Come on.”
In his periphery, Dick glimpses someone begin to pull out a phone, catches the half-shine of a camera, considers the outcome: his face will be plastered to the internet. Bruce will know exactly where to find him if he ever looks. Dick cuts his losses, hastening. He follows Clark.
The walk to the apartment is short; the walk to the apartment is silent. Clark fumbles with his keys, and as soon as he pulls the door open, he points at the couch. “Get some sleep.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” Dick narrows his eyes, slinging his arms around himself, still stung by Clark’s outburst.
Clark shuts his eyes, sagging where he stands. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dick. I know. Just—get some sleep. I have to go back to work. I’ll be back soon. Please get some rest.”
“Are you—are you angry at me?” asks Dick. He’s fully prepared to bolt, but it will hurt. He came to Metropolis to talk to a grownup, to get the perspective of someone he respects, to figure out what he is going to do; he didn’t come here to be treated like a kid.
“No.” Clark shakes his head. “I’m—I’m angry for you.”
Dick doesn’t know why that gets him, but it does, and his anger burns off with the rush. He slumps onto the couch, a secondhand suedine sofa, and he crashes into black, dreamless sleep.
“—the harbor? How would—God. God. A tracker. Of course. What a bastard.” The voice stops, blurring as a small, aluminum hum gives a fragile murmur. “I’m not. It’s like I said, Alfred. I don’t know where he is. Donna, maybe, or Roy. Of course.” A beat. A silence. A scoff. “Bye.”
Dick sits up blearily. Falling asleep, when done as seldom as he does it, is a necessarily disorienting experience. Where he wakes up is unfamiliar, and the time at which he wakes is unfamiliar, too. He remembers an attempt at lunch, but dusk is giving out now, casting everything bruise-colored and yellow. His eyes open, shut, open sluggishly. Metropolis. Must be. Gotham skips the sunset altogether.
His mind is a slow, wide track; his lips are dry, and he wets them slowly, staring up at the rough, white firmament of the popcorn ceiling as he speaks. “You didn’t tell on me.”
Clark is tieless; his loafers are kicked off by the door. He leans against the fridge, massaging the bridge of his nose, his cellphone held precariously between loose fingers. He speaks through a sigh: “I wouldn’t.”
“Thanks.” It comes out a whisper.
Silence. Then, “A tracker?” asks Clark.
Through the denim jacket, Dick taps at the area just below the inside of his elbow. He knows Clark can see past the fabric to the messy gauze wrap and the jagged slit below. “Cut it out. Threw it into the bay.”
Clark’s lips flatten. “They thought you were…”
“Sleeping with the fishes?” Dick muses, bitter. “He wouldn’t care anyway.”
Dick knocks his head against the wall, eyes lidded. It feels quiet here now, and Dick feels quiet, too. He doesn’t want to be the one to break the silence, and he doesn’t want to reply to that.
“Can I ask?” says Clark. “About the others?”
Dick’s brow furrows. “The other what?”
Clark gestures at Dick’s frame wordlessly.
“The Joker. He caught me. Beat me. Shot me. That was why he fired me. B. B fired me, that is. Not the Joker. That’d—that’d be stupid.” And he falters, staring down at his hands: the hard vermillion scab-sheen; the long, rough fingers; the bruises gulping along the split skin. There is a lull in his chest, then, and the world feels obtusely peaceful, full, half-dim. Hushed plains inhabit the space between his fingers. “But I think maybe…I think it was always going to happen.” An anaphora crowds his quiet mouth. His voice is dry as wax. “It would be weirder, wouldn’t it, if it didn’t.”
Clark is staring at him in that way that adults do. He says nothing.
“Could I—” Again, Dick falters, plucking at the seams of his sleeves. He doesn’t want to look at Clark anymore. “Could I crash here for the rest of the night?”
Clark nods. “Yeah. Yeah. As long as you need, kiddo. I mean it.”
It won’t be forever. By tomorrow Dick will be gone. It’s April. Haly’s will be wrapping up their North American circuit. Dick will find some way to find the circus; Pop will give him the old show back. He likes Dick well enough. Maybe Dick will be rusty, maybe he won’t, but he’ll be doing something that no one can tell him to do better, something that no one can do better. He tells himself to wake up at 4 AM—get up before Superman, get up ahead of the sun. Circus hours. He’ll have to get used to that.
Eight years is a long time. Half his life, almost.
Dick’s mother was the strict parent, the one who dragged him out of bed at dawn, the one who doled out punishment, the one who invoked his full name. Dick, she said, was not allowed to waste a day. There’s a joke there, too. About birds. About worms. And so every day, the sun chased after the Graysons into the dew-wet day, and not vice versa.
Bruce seldom rose before ten. Alfred’s sympathy and worry for adolescent growth and sleep patterns saw Dick perennially late for first, second, third period. Eight years is a long time. Your health, Alfred always said, far outweighs the value of history class.
Still, Dick finds himself surprised for falling back to the habits of newer half of his life when he wakes up to the light of mid-day. Hates himself for it.
Late daylight sears past the white blinds.
The apartment is empty. Clark’s left a blue post-it note on the coffee table. A Sharpie, still uncapped, sits next to it. Dick grabs the Sharpie and drags it along his wrist, trailing a faint, half-stygian mark. At least a couple hours since the note was written then.
At work. Will try to be back early. Help yourself to anything in the fridge :)
Dick’s mouth twists. Something cracks in his back as he sits up fully, the marker still crooked between his fingers.
The first thing he does is check the apartment for bugs. GSMs are Bruce’s preferred devices. Half the size of a pinkie nail. There aren’t any. That’s a problem. The derth is concerning; there’s no way that Bruce would leave Clark’s flat unbugged. It’s possible, though, that Clark removed the devices. They’re hard to find, designed with lightless camouflage tech, but if Dick can detect them, an extrasensory metahuman similarly familiar with Bruce’s wiles probably could, too.
Bruce doesn’t know he’s here. Suspects, maybe. But he can’t know. Not unless there were plants—moles—within the Daily Planet on the lookout for him, which seems unlikely, if only because 1) Bruce would never let information about Dick or his absence leak to anyone, and 2) Dick isn’t so sure that Bruce cares enough to want to know where he’s gone.
Maybe Alfred does. Alfred called. But Alfred isn’t going to find him here either.
Dick tests out the ache in his shoulder, assaying the pain level. Clark doesn’t have pain medication to match half the cocktail he was on before; he doesn’t even have ibuprofen. And Dick is not about to rummage through the cabinets of the only grownup left that trusts him.
Shaking the Sharpie, Dick yanks Clark’s note off of the pad of post-its to write a faint note of his own. Thanks for everything, Blue.
The beige carpeting is glistening with glossy black bobby-pins, vestiges of Lois’s presence in Clark’s apartment, and while Dick doesn’t dare touch anything in the fridge, he helps himself to the bobby-pins, and uses one to lock the door from the outside as he leaves. The doorknob plants a long, fizzing splinter of electricity into the center of his palm, and he curses as he rushes down the precarious stairs into the cool air outside.
Gotham is a year-round yew tree; Metropolis in the springtime is a hydrangea. The sky is shineless and topaz, the streets clean, and the skinny little city-trees planted at the behest of some well-meaning councilmen have tiny, papery growths. Printemps is present here in a way that he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.
Dick keeps his head down, lets the wind-rush pin thin new leaves into his hair.
There’s a dizzy, bitter fantasy of a plan in his mind. Pop will boot the Brands, boot whatever substitute acrobats they picked up for the American wing of the tour. He’ll clasp Dick’s shoulder, say, “Dickie, this is still your home. Long as you got sawdust in your veins,” and Dick will grin and duck his head and rub the back of his neck and say, “Thanks, Pop.” There’s nothing like the trap to make you feel human, but, really, there’s just nothing like the trap. His dad did it, his grandfather did it, and Pop will tell him that, too; he’ll say, “God. You look more like Johnny than Johnny did,” and he’ll pause, sparkle in the silence for a moment, and add that Dick swings just like his mother, which is the better compliment by far. Things’ll go back to the way they were before, and he’ll have a family there, and he’ll be happy. He’ll be better.
If he can’t have Robin, at least he can have himself; at least he can have the Flying Graysons. Some part of himself is still salvageable.
The logistics, however, strum faint, faraway, like music from a carnival just out of sight. The circus is a thousand kilometers away. Ontario. Dick has no way of getting there. Has no plan to get there. The whole—the whole thing is chimerical, anyway, and he’d be embarrassed if anyone knew, but Dick doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and he certainly doesn’t have anything else to hope. So the circus it is.
Walking down the streets of Metropolis isn’t going to get him there, but in a daze it’s the only thing he can think to do.
That daze shatters like foam when he sees a bus rattling through the road with no apparent regard for the oncoming red light or the small stream of pedestrians passing on the zebra crossing. It’s the stupid sort of thing that only happens in Metropolis. The bad things that happen in Gotham are venom-contaminated water supplies or brutal murders. The bad things that happen in San Francisco are alien invasions and magic-tinted bank robberies. Metropolis has a mix of the two, to be sure, but the city distinguishes itself with crimes bleeding with absurd mundanity.
Dick assesses as he acts. Nine civilians on the crosswalk; three in immediate danger and in the bus’s trajectory; three meters from the bus, two meters away from him on the sidewalk.
The bottoms of his sneakers scrape against the sidewalk like high tide, surging forward to grab them. He slams his eyes shut, arms full of businessmen, waiting for the fever-tinged whistle of the bus passing, slewing over the asphalt like ten-wheel lava, and he braces himself for the sound.
It never comes. Instead, a breeze prickles through the plane of him. The cold flush of new air stings his eyes as they open, and his vision floods blue and shiny.
“Oh,” breathes Dick. His clumsy fingers scrape against a silk tie as he releases his grip, nails catching on a tie-clip. “...Hey, Superman.”
Clark’s mouth is peaking as he shifts his grip on the front of the bus, neck twisting to meet Dick’s eyes. “Hello there, citizen.”
“Superman,” says one of the businessmen Dick grabbed, gaze chained to the still-rolling wheels of the bus behind Clark’s grip. “You’re—oh, God. Superman. Superman.Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me.” Clark nods toward Dick.
Dick shifts, and the businessman, a good-looking man with a dastaar and a pinstripe suit, turns to stare at Dick, still wide-eyed. “I—”
Instinct froths in Dick’s every action. It’s inevitable. Skill in anything comes from practice, and practice engenders instinct, and if there’s anything that Dick did—does—more than anything else, it’s practice. It’s practicing until his palms fracture red, until his ribs want to crumble, until a gundrawn conversation guarantees immediate disarmament. Settings don’t matter. Scenarios do.
Fissured between Bruce’s more cardinal postulates—you have to win; you must never harm an innocent; you will never kill; you will never kill; you will never kill—is the necessity of not being seen. It is not dark. It is not Gotham. Dick has no identity to hide anymore.
But the man turns, and Dick still goes up in smoke.
He’s a half-block, a block, two blocks away from the scene when the clean sidewalks color gray with a shadow and there are hands under his biceps, lifting him up.
On paper, Dick could probably reserve the right to be angry, upset that his agency isn’t being respected, that Superman isn’t respecting his right not to be picked up in the midst of a busy street, but he can’t find it anywhere within himself to be particularly bothered by the opportunity to fly. It leaves him agitated, though, because rooftops are prime real estate for uncomfortable conversations.
Clark drops him onto the flat slate of a skyscraper, cape flaring, ephemerally casting itself high enough to cover the sun like a particularly fabric-y red eclipse. “Leaving so soon?”
Before the red-clipped fizz of the sun is Clark’s face, and no matter how hard Dick squints he can’t see it. The white corona drowns his features and lingers in a hard, new throb behind Dick’s eyes. Dimly, past the ache, Dick thinks, It’s hot up here. “I left a note.”
“Oh.” Clark’s hands twist, head tilting like an orrery. “You shouldn’t say that on a rooftop.”
“You—” Dick huffs. “ You brought me up here.”
“Well.” His fingers untwist. “In my defense, you were fleeing the scene of a crime.”
“A crime?” says Dick.
“A crime,” says Clark.
“Didn’t look like a crime to me. Looked like an accident. Looked like someone having a seizure behind the wheel.” Dick pauses. “Nobody seizure-prone should have a Class B CDL, though. That part is illicit.”
Clark chuckles. “Pretty sharp for a first glance.”
“Thanks.” The salt-stricken April air and Clark’s flying stunt conspired to invite the ache in his shoulder back, and a half-breath catches between the tall rungs of his teeth, and he says, to distract himself or Clark or maybe the 86 billion cracked nerve cells skittering across his body, “Transportation law is my passion.”
“Is it?” And Clark laughs until he arches, and the sun juts over him like white lead. “Gosh. You sound like Lois.”
Dick rubs the back of his neck. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard all week.”
“Highest compliment I can give.” A silence widens like a chasm, an inch too wide, a moment too long, and Clark must decide to glue its edges back together: “Really, though. I swear she could recite title 1 administrative code backwards if she wanted.”
Heat beats across Dick’s cheeks; he can feel it in his eyes, in his skin, in the hot millimeters between his shirt and his jacket’s sleeves, and the warmth of it, of the sun, steals all his thoughts away. Maybe when his skin peels he’ll be able to think again; until then, he says, as he can manage, “Oh.”
Clark’s gaze is expectant, but he presses his lips together after the quiet ripens for a moment too long and again breaks it himself. “...She asked about you, you know.”
A gust of old wind tilts Dick back an inch or two or three. “What’d you tell her?”
Clark heaves a sigh, casting his gaze into the soft sky. As his head turns, his features come into focus. His lips are pursed. “My nephew from out of town is a hockey fanatic. He wanted to see a Metropolis Mammoths game.” He clicks his teeth. “Your favorite is LeFevre, by the way. Be sure to drop that into your next conversation with her.”
“Bullshit.” Dick scoffs. “There’s no way she bought that. She recognized me. I know she did.”
“Saw right through it. I didn’t even finish telling her, and she just, ‘No .’” He shakes his head, but his cheeks crease like a book with the turn of his smile. “Her working theory was uncomfortably close to the truth when I left. Planning to call WE for a statement, I think.”
Dick wrings his hands. “And?”
“And,” Clark continues leisurely. “I told her the truth.”
“Like.” He falters. “Like the truth? Or the truth?”
“The truth. She already knows the truth. Mine. I would never tell yours. You know that.” A beat. “I told her you were staying with me for a while because of some...some problems at home, and it would probably be unwise to aggravate the situation further by calling to get a statement.”
“Solid,” and he bites his lip till it splits. “Really solid story, actually.”
Clark shrugs, cheeks dimpling fully as his smile widens, looking straight at him. “It’s what I do.”
“Yeah.” Dick forces a smile, too. His toes peek off of the bright, gray ledge, and he tastes the new copper mix with the old, and he tries, really tries, to sound nonchalant. “I really do have to get going, though. Nothing personal, Blue, places to go, people to see, you know how it—”
“To Haly’s Circus?” Clark interrupts, and Dick stops short.
Here’s something. Metropolis’s second-tallest building is 66 Fleming Row. It’s 79 floors of New Troy’s palest apartments, a million square feet of elitists and their hardwood two-bedrooms, and 890 feet of polished stone and curtain walls and tripled rents; its original plan was 950 feet above the ground. Luthor snapped up the designate FAA executive like an exceptionally well-priced Cy Twombly piece, and within sixteen hours of its proposal, the building plan was rejected, the land changed hands, and the development was amended to a height suitably moins than that of the iconic LexCorp Tower downtown.
Here is something else: the Sun is closer to 93 million miles away from the Earth than it is to 92 million miles away from the earth. People only say, 92 million miles, because it sounds better. The extra million miles make a difference, though, and 890 feet does not, but standing on the rooftop of 66 Fleming Row, Dick could swear that he’s never been closer to the sun and its shards than he is now.
The sun lodges in his throat, thick and febrile, and Dick trembles. The warm light—the hot light—cuts a fever around him, like plastic, and his eyes burn. “What. I. What makes you think that.”
“C’mon.” Clark’s gaze is heavy as soap. “C’mon. I know I’m not him, but I do investigate for a living. I’m a reporter.”
“It’s what you do,” Dick echoes, stiff. “Yeah. Got it.” There’s a beat, and he breathes and swelters and sighs. “You weren’t supposed to know.”
Clark’s lips twist. “...Sorry.”
“It was,” the words catch in his mouth, hook there, and he closes his eyes for a minute, two, before he can even think about speaking again. “It was supposed to be a clean break.”
Clean breaks are always easier. In bones. In ropes. Keep it sudden. Keep it complete. It’ll heal. Sometimes, Dick thinks about if he’d stayed with the circus, if Clay had gotten custody of him like he should have. It was what he wanted then; it wasn’t what he needed. Everyone at Haly’s had too much damn heart. They would have smothered him: pity and apologies and half-gazes. He couldn’t have earned his keep there anyhow. Would’ve seen the gymnast chalk as their glazed pallor, flinched at every white man with wrong eyes, hesitated on the trap. It was for the best that he got wrenched far away and earned his keep a different way; it was better that he buried his tears into expensive pillowcases than shoulders that shook just like his; and it was absence and it was fondness, and Dick was changed for it. He was changed for it, forever—for good. It’s different now. He can go back now.
“Dick,” says Clark. “I’m not—I’m not trying to be the devil’s advocate, or the bad cop, or anything, I’m not, but do you really think he hasn’t sent someone there? Looking for you?”
“ Yes ,” says Dick, nodding emphatically, casting his eyes wide, trying to get Clark to understand. “He doesn’t care. He never has.”
Clark rakes a hand through his hair, frustrated, and the movement seems to steal the gloss from the black, rafting his curls in disarray.
Dick’s stomach drops. “...Has he?”
“Why else would Deadman be in Ontario right now?” Clark shifts, softens, and his hands fall back to his side, licked by the red tint of the cape. “...He’s been there for 36 hours now.”
“Boston?” Dick feels faint. He might fall. He really might fall. “He sent Boston?”
“It’s the first place you’d think to go.” Clark tilts his head. “...In his mind.”
“Oh, my god,” Dick says. “Oh, my god. He—” Dick slices his words in half, forces a breath into the cage of his lungs, digs his nails into the flesh of his palm, but his teeth grind so hard that they slip, and pierce his tongue. More blood in his mouth, warm, and he slams his eyes shut. “Oh, my god.”
And so Dick doesn’t go to the circus. Dick says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” like it’s yesterday all over again, and Clark says, “Well, don’t make a liar out of me.”
“What?” It’s flat. It’s torn. It’s a syllable made of splinters.
There’s an earnest tilt to Clark’s head now, an open sheen to the coal-color of his eyes, and he steps forward like the words have to be quiet to be said at all. “I don’t like lying to Lois.”
“I don’t—” Dick shudders in a breath. His eyelashes are wet where they meet his skin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Clark.”
“I’m talking about what I said earlier.”
Dick shrugs helplessly, blinking like it will steal away the damp pique of his eyes, and his fingers splay and unsplay in the empty air. “I don’t…God. God. Okay. Yeah. ‘I’m gonna be okay.’ Fine.” There is a time and there is a place for platitudes. Rarely is that time 12:30 in the afternoon and seldom is that place the rooftop of a residential development in Metropolis, Delaware. The bromide is patently false, wrong in a way that bites like cold water: he’s cried more in the last day than he has in the last four years combined, but for Clark’s sake, he says, “Yeah. Sure. I’ll be okay.”
“You will.” Clark’s eyes are soft. “But that’s not what I meant either. Don’t you think it would look a little suspicious if my nephew disappeared out of the blue?”
“What?” Dick narrows his eyes. Clark said he told Lois the truth.
“Lois would never let me live it down. I already saw her search history for today. She was looking for World’s Best Uncle mugs. Really.” Clark shrugs casually, and the sun darts over his features again, pasting them square with hard, white panes of light. “You’d be doing me a favor if you hung around.”
“I—oh. Oh.” He clamps his mouth shut, and he presses his thumbs down as hard as he can into the skin of his crossed arms like it’ll bruise violet and wake him up. His chin knocks against his chest. “Uncle Clark.”
“Yeah? What do you say, kiddo?” he asks. “Are you gonna help me keep my title?”
Dick yanks his sleeves up. The circle where his thumb was is pale, a washed out ring against the tan of his skin, and he looks up slowly, meets the hard range of Clark’s gaze and tries not to break. “I don’t think you need any help with that,” he says, voice lost somewhere in his throat.
“Everyone needs help.” Clark pulls him into a hug, and Dick lets out a shaky breath. “Everyone needs help sometimes, kiddo.”
Dick clutches at Clark’s back and squeezes his eyes tight. “...You deserve so many fucking mugs.”
Clark throws his head back and laughs.
“What the hell is this, huh, bring your kid to work day?” Perry White’s got a starched collar and modish glasses and a thick notch in his eyebrow that Dick suspects is just there for aesthetic purposes. To Dick, Perry softens, says, “Perry White, Mr. White to you, kid, what’s your name?”
Clark says, “Chief, this is,” and Perry flicks a hand out, brusque again, and his mouth opens, but Dick beats him to the punch.
He nudges Clark. “He didn’t ask you.”
“No,” says Perry, and there’s a pleasant lilt to his eyes that almost remind Dick of Pop. “No, indeed I did not.”
“Dick.” He holds out a hand, and his fingers only tremble a little bit. “Dick Grayson.”
“Okay. Shit.” Instead of his hand, he takes Dick’s wrist, and Dick grins as he vines his fingers the same way. Pop does that, too. Dick’s splint knocks against the gray metal of Perry’s watch with a soft clink, but if he notices, he doesn’t say anything. “You here to buy us out?”
“No, sir,” Dick promises, taking his hand back and shoving it into his pocket. “Nothing like that.”
“‘Sir,’” says Perry. “Goddamn. It's been a while. It’s always Chief. When was the last time you called me sir, Kent?”
“Last week, Chief.” Clark’s eyebrows are arched, unctuous, but his lips are quirked. “Dick’s staying with me for a while. He wanted to tag along. See how a newspaper’s run.”
“Yeah?” Perry clicks his teeth and gives Dick a curt up-down.
“Yeah,” says Dick. “I love...newspapers. Carrying the banner. Good stuff.”
Perry’s got glassy hazel eyes and slit sow-thistle eyebrows, and something about his gaze needles where it meets Dick’s, like it doesn’t see many people stare back. To Clark, he says, “He into journalism?”
The honest answer is no. It’s been a bad experience after bad experience after bad experience: the custody battle coverage, the crime scene photos they had no right to print, the ellipses Vicki Vale uses to buckle words together. If he would have asked Dick, his answer would have been no. Perry, though, with his gruff New Yorker beat and his skimming glances, asks Clark.
Clark says, “God, Chief. I’ve never met a kid who cares more about helping people that don’t have a voice. Not ever.”
Dick goes still.
“Guess he’s set then.” Perry shares a long, silent glance with Clark before he smacks his gum in his mouth and claps his hands together. “Now get back to work.” He dissolves into the crowd, but whatever the hell his cashmere cologne is, it lingers.
There’s that cologne, and the clock-tick, and a thousand different conversations at once. Dick wonders, dimly, how Clark can handle it with his deepened senses. “You mean that?”
“Yeah.” Clark smiles, sliding his thumb under the bridge strap of his crossbody bag. “C’mon. I think we’ve got work to do.”
Chapter 2: the big apricot, delaware
Dick Grayson has sense, so really it was only a matter of time before he talked to Donna Troy.
what if i didn’t update a fic for six months.....haha jk....unless?😳
Clark ditches the Planet fifteen minutes before 1 o’clock.
“Is that allowed?” Dick asks.
“That’s definitely not allowed.” Lois sighs, and straightens out her copies with an unamused look on her face, and Dick feels like he has to make some sort of excuse for Clark, even though she knows perfectly well what disappearing means.
“It must have been important," he tells her, because it just must have been: an earthquake, or the Legion of Doom, or a kidnapping all the way in Portugal. Dick plays with his lanyard, trying to bury the pit in his stomach that keeps growing—thinking about how useless he is with no gear, no name, no way to help anybody if they needed it—no way to deal with anything important. He has to leave that to Clark. Dick shakes his head, swallowing. Then he pipes up again, in half-hearted code, speaking loud enough for the whole bullpen to hear. "Maybe he got a good lead. A really, really good lead. If I were Perry, and I’m not, but if I were, I’d be more mad at him for not going after a good lead than I would for missing an afternoon staff meeting. Because—you know—a lead’s a lead.” A crime's a crime. A person saved is a person saved.
“A really, really good lead,” agrees Lois dryly, lips quirked up; she taps Dick’s cheek with the back of her hand as she clicks past him into Clark’s office, beckoning. “You’re coming with me, kiddo.”
“Why?” Dick asks, like he isn’t obliging at that very moment, grabbing the coffee she left behind on the copy machine.
“Because, frankly, I don’t think you’re a good enough liar for Perry.”
Dick takes another glance in the direction that the blue-red streak swept past just seconds ago—looks down at his hands—says, “You’d be surprised.”
Lois shuts the door behind him, and slumps into Clark’s rolling chair, kicking against the desk to spin exactly twice before she begins to pick through Clark’s lunch. This is apparently the fee for occupying his office so he won't get chewed out by Perry for leaving right before a meeting. She rolls a yellow apple in her hands, fingernails leaving thin crescents in it. Then she takes a bite, which is loud enough that Dick thinks it must be intentional. The grin on her face when she points a finger at him only proves it.
“That," she says, chewing, "is what people always think.”
“You don’t know me.”
“No.” She takes another bite. “...But I know people. And people are wrong about themselves all the time. It takes someone else to see that they’re wrong.” She shrugs. “Hegel’s recognition theory or whatever.”
Bruce never shut up about Hegel, to the extent that Bruce never shut up about anything, which was to say that he mentioned it on one or maybe two occasions—when his eyes were heavy and dark-ringed and maybe even, in a trick of the light, shiny after a long, brutal night of fighting Harvey Dent. Bruce wrote his whole thesis on Hegel at the Sorbonne. He didn’t tell Dick that, though. Dick didn’t even know Bruce had gone to college until someone at a gala made a snipe about having a useless degree in philosophy. Dick remembers just standing there after he heard it with a glass full of sparkling grape juice, trying not to crack the crystal. He remembers having to disassemble the narrative he'd built of Bruce in his head, which had gone directly from the murder to training to Batman, with all B's talk of triadic logic gotten somewhere in between. The truth made sense, it did, Dick had just never gotten it before. He remembers being fifteen and feeling—ephemerally, falsely—like he didn't know Bruce at all.
Dick says, “I hate that guy.”
“Join the club, kid.” Lois throws the apple up in the air, catches it, crushes her nails into it. “But Perry can smell a lie on someone ten miles away. That’s why we’re hiding in here. Tricking him might work. Lying won’t.”
“Clark lies all the time.”
“Yeah, but he’s—but that’s different.”
“Don’t look at me like that.” The tips of her ears are pink. “But—yes. Yes. He’s a good example. Thought he was the best liar of all time when he was still hiding his...side-job." She pauses. "When he thought he was hiding it from me.”
“In all fairness,” says Dick, going with the subject-change and motioning for her to pass him Clark’s La Croix, “you are an investigative reporter.” He opens the can, takes a sip, cringes. “Oh, God. This is bad. What is this?”
Lois squints at the label, leaning over the desk. “Is that coconut? It is!” Her eyes glint. “That man’s sick, kid—stay as far away from him as you can.”
Dick twists the can’s tab ruefully. “I can’t. I stay with him.”
Lois tilts the apple up like she’s in a particularly low-budget, fruit-centric adaptation of Hamlet and sighs, shaking her head. “Another young life lost to his darkness.”
Dick grins, turning so he can face her while sitting on the overcrowded desk, folding himself up so he can wrap his arms around his knees.
“You should hear about his other crimes. Do you know how many pens he’s stolen from me? Guess." Dick guesses. "No, more. More. Multiply that by two. Yeah. I know. So I have to use his, and his are always breaking. He's ruining my life. Yet we all look right past it.”
“I don’t know how he gets away with it.”
“Well,” says Lois, hushed. “Between you and me—”
“I hear he’s pals with the owner’s kid.”
Dick widens his eyes, trying to tamp down his grin so he looks serious. “Injustice is all around us.”
Lois laughs at that, plucking the stem out of the apple as she throws her head back, pressing her cheek into her shoulder. “Gosh, you sound just like him.”
Dick tosses the still-full can between his hands, its metal cool against his skin, even as his face starts to burn. He ducks his head. “Thanks.”
It’s the nicest thing he’s heard in a while.
“I half-expected an ‘aw, shucks.’”
“I’ll do better next time.”
Dick glances back over his shoulder at the clouded glass door—blocks of color warping in and out of sight. “Is Perry really going to be okay with—?”
She waves a hand. “Hopefully, he’ll be back in time for the meeting. Until then, we’ll just pretend we’re him being busy in his office. And if not,” her mouth twitches downward, “then he does it all the time."
Dick purses his lips.
“You’re free to shadow me in the meantime, though. Nice consolation prize.”
“I thought consolation prizes were supposed to make you feel better.”
Lois scoffs, but there’s a wrangled noise from the back of her throat that Dick thinks could’ve been a laugh. “You know what, brat, you can explain it to Perry after all.”
“My pleasure,” Dick says gravely, and he does, in fact, take some pleasure in it fifteen minutes later when Perry slams open the office door—revealing the desert-empty bullpen and the line by the door to the conference room—with a barked “Kent!” and a dire, upset look, eyes more like lit cigarette butts than anything else.
Dick waves to him cheerfully. “Hi, Mr. White.”
Perry lifts a hand for a curt greeting before his gaze tumbles over to Lois—“Lane, I don’t know why you’re not in there, but—”
“Ay, ay, captain,” interrupts Lois dryly, dragging her feet off of Clark’s desk to stand up. Then she pauses, glances at Dick with manufactured curiosity. “Kid, do you know where Clark is?”
Dick’s tempted to say he’s chasing a lead after all. Instead, he speaks to Perry directly, who is, maybe, a few shoulder heaves away from actually seething, ruby-cheeked and stiff-jawed. “He had a thing with my dad." ‘A thing’ can be taken lots of ways. It can maybe even be taken as a shared vocation in fighting crime and having to dash off whenever villainy is afoot. "Sorry, Mr. White, I meant to say something earlier, but—”
“Make sure he tells me next time, kid,” rumbles Perry, holding up a hand to stop Dick. “C’mon, Lane, guess you’ve got to take notes for your partner, too.”
She shoots a look over her shoulder at him. He grins.
“And then she called me your ‘Perry shield,’” finishes Dick, kicking a rock farther and farther down the sidewalk as they make their way back to Clark’s apartment. "On account of, I'm not bad at shielding you from his wrath."
“Feel free to keep doing that,” chuckles Clark, fiddling with the edge of his shoulder-bag; there’s a waft of a charcoal-y smell that blows down from him when the wind tousles through his hair—remnants of the volcanic eruption and the town in Italy he evacuated today when he vanished from the Planet. “But also feel free to stop her next time she eats my food.”
Dick shakes his head quickly. “No promises.”
“The really outrageous part,” he continues, “is that she doesn’t even like salad, she won’t touch anything green, so why would she eat mine?” The answer is that she didn’t; that was Dick while she was in the meeting.
“Probably recompense for all the pens she said you stole.”
“I was thinking spite,” Clark tells him, playfully. “But that makes sense. It’s really just that hers always write so well. Mine always snap.”
They fall into silence after that, Clark wearing that far-off look he always seems to get, while Dick continues to kick the rock absently, taking in the city all the while.
Gotham blends in against thunderclouds—sometimes, you can’t tell it’s going to rain until you’re already wet because the smoke in the air is so thick, so dark, so shineless; and the bricks are more held together by grime and old gum than mortar. Against a cold, gray, heavy sky, Metropolis’s buildings look brighter, its billboards more vibrant and its gold-finished details more visible.
The buildings even have unambiguous names—normal names—and Dick can’t think of a single Rogue whose hideout would go along with this storefront, that club, this alley; it’s a welcome change. It’s functional. It’s quaint for a city with two million residents.
He keeps track of the names as he passes them. O'Shaughnessy's. Sundollar. Metropolis Janitorial Services. There’s even a few old-time phone booths.
“Hey, big guy? You go ahead, there’s something I have to do.”
Alfred will want to know where Dick’s been staying. Dick will say, Around.
Alfred will ask what he’s been doing. Dick will say that the only thing he’s been doing is just fine, so don’t worry about him, he’s not in trouble or anything, really, Alfie, promise.
Alfred will tell him where to wait for the car to reach his location. Dick will say, I’m never coming back.
Dick will say, Alfred, I love you, I love you to pieces, Alfred, I do, but I can’t ever go back and I never want to see him again and he doesn’t want to see me either, I’m doing what he asked for once, Alfred, so he'll never have to look at me again, and I’m sorry that this has to hurt you too.
Alfred will say—
Dick’s fingers halt abruptly, hovering above the keypad, all of nine digits into the phone number.
Alfred will say whatever he can to keep Dick on the line—to track his location—oh, God, Dick is stupid. He slams the payphone down.
His chest is heaving. The area-code. Alfred would know right away.
He tells himself to breathe. Four seconds in. Four seconds holding. Four seconds out. In. Holding. Out.
His forehead thumps against the wall of the phonebooth, breath fogging the glass.
He can’t call Alfred. He just can’t.
The machine makes a chime, keypad lighting up green, reminding him that he has not entered a full phone number. REFUND? it asks in blocky green letters.
He goes to press yes. The quarters spill out from the slot in an instant, and he knows just by feeling them that they’re not the ones he put in—which figures, really; he never ever gets back anything that he puts in, in effort or in love or in coins, now, apparently—they’re greasy and their ridges are smoothed down like nickels and Dick gets the feeling that no one has used a payphone in Metropolis for its intended purpose in a long, long time.
They’re not big in Gotham, either—Dick can’t remember how many times he’s found whole riches of burner phones dropped down grates or sewers or anything else. There’s at least one well-loved payphone in Gotham, though, and Dick used to use it to call in criminals he left tied up when he was in Newtown.
He takes a deep breath and dials a different number.
Donna, at least, doesn’t ask questions.
“I’m going to murder you.”
Relief courses over him like ice water and his heart hurts even at just the familiarity of her voice. “I missed you too.”
“Oh, my God,” she’s saying, huffing, and he can picture her so vividly, then: rolling her eyes and grinning and curling her fists like she’s fully prepared to beat him up from three-thousand miles away. “You said you were taking a leave of absence. You didn’t say you were ditching us for Superman.”
His eyes sting, half from his grin, half just from talking to his best friend after this miserable week. “It’s been a long time coming.”
“Shut up.” Her laugh crackles into the speaker. “You and your fanboying. I can’t believe this. I bet this was your plan all along.”
He laughs again, wetly. “I’m living the dream, you know.”
And he is, technically—Dick remembers being four or five and thrown over his father’s back at a tiny convenience store in northern France, listening to his dad small-talk with the cashier as he bought Dick dark, shiny purple cough medicine and his mom’s favorite soda with crumpled euros. Remembers being painfully sick with a sand-dry throat but entranced by the blur of color on the cheap television set playing the news—remembers seeing Superman for the first time and being awed and wondering what it would be like to be with him, fly with him, live like him.
Donna must hear something in his voice—she always does—because she goes quiet. And when she speaks again, she’s using the soft voice she uses on witnesses, on scared civilians. No leading questions, just that soft, compassionate tone, like she already knows the answer so there's no harm in telling it to her anyway. “Oh, yeah?”
“Yep. Yeah. Really, it’s great, Clark’s great, Lois’s great, Metropolis is—it’s really—it’s all good, Donna. It is.” Pause. The dam breaks. “I just get this feeling.”
The words spill out in a rush. “I get this feeling like he’s somewhere, lurking, and he’s going to find me and he’s going to drag me back and I—like he’s going to get me.”
It’s an irrational fear, and maybe Dick’s only fear—he doesn’t ever get afraid, and there’s a reason why Scarecrow’s ploys never hit Dick as hard as anyone else—because nothing makes him nervous, he likes thrills, he likes danger. But he still gets electric shocks up his spine when he sees men in dark suits, or greasy-haired pinstripe gangster types patting their pockets for matches—when he catches shadows cracking out of alleyways.
It is irrational. It is impossible.
The thing is, Dick thinks—the thing is that Bruce couldn’t possibly go to all that trouble when he doesn’t care.
A part of Dick wants Bruce to care. Wants Bruce to find him, wants Bruce to say something— love you back or thank you for trying so hard for so long or sorry for stripping your mother’s name from you like it ever belonged to me. Dick would take it. Dick would take anything. He wants anything. But he won’t get it.
He never did.
So if Bruce did find him, all Dick knows is that he would get all torn up, the way he always has, and Bruce wouldn’t feel a thing. They’d stare at each other, silent and dark and furious, and Bruce would tell him that he wasn’t allowed to have this either. That was the truth of Bruce’s caring, so Dick would stay far, far away.
Donna’s voice cuts through everything like a knife. “He’s not going to get you. Okay? He just isn’t.”
“I know,” Dick says, “I know. I know he doesn’t care, but I still can’t—”
He hears her careful intake of breath. “That’s not what I meant. You know that’s not what I meant. I mean do you really think that he could take Superman?”
“He’d try.” Dick’s voice is thin. “You know he would.”
“That man would try and fight a brick wall if he could, but you think, you really, truly think that he would win?”
Dick screws his eyes shut. “I don’t know. What if the wall was made of—”
Her voice drops. “He wouldn’t win. He wouldn’t beat Superman. I don’t think he’d be able to beat you either, as a matter of fact. And I think if you were using that big detective brain of yours, you would know that too. Okay?” A pause. “Did you hear me, Dick Grayson? He wouldn’t beat Superman, okay?”
Dick lets out a long breath, and it feels like his whole chest empties out with it—leaving him hollow, new. He sags, and his head thumps against the cold glass wall of the phonebooth again. “Okay.”
Donna doesn’t say anything for a minute, just lets him be in silence—in gentle, companionable silence—and it’s hard to fathom, sometimes, how much he loves Donna Troy. But he also says, “Don’t call it that. It’s weird. This is why you aren’t allowed to name things.”
“You of all people do not get to talk to me about naming things.”
Dick smiles and in that moment, even more than he wants Robin back, he wants his best friend—his friends—and the feeling is a livewire underneath his skin, and he says, suddenly, “Donna, you know it’s—it’s not forever, right? It’s not. I’m coming—I’m coming back.”
She hums. “You better. You don’t get to leave me alone with these people.”
Dick relaxes even more. He didn’t expect the worst, per se, but he’s so afraid, lately, that if he lets anything go, it’ll be gone forever. That’s the way it’s always been. He looked down for a second and the circus had left him in Gotham. He glanced away from Gotham for San Francisco for a minute and he got a pink slip.
“You take that back. I happen to love those people.”
“I stand by it,” she says, warmly, and pauses. Dick presses the phone closer between his shoulder and his cheek. “But I have it on good authority that those people happen to love you, too. So make sure that you come back soon. Or I’ll have to take over.”
Dick bites the inside of his cheek. “You’d do great. You know you would.”
“Not as good as you.”
“Name one thing you’re not better than me at.”
“Being Superman’s favorite.”
“Shut up, Donna.” His grin is so big it hurts. “Can you leave it alone for five seconds, God.”
“Just you wait, boy wonder,” she says, which is as ominous as anything else she could possibly say, but she changes the subject before he can reply, telling him all about what he’s missed—the spread from Kory’s latest shoot, Gar’s attempt at making breakfast, last night’s battle with Dr. Light.
The sky cracks in half about five minutes in, brilliant, chilled rain slamming against the glass walls until he can’t make out her words, so he simply listens to the lull of her voice and the rain. It doesn’t take long after that for him to run out of quarters to put into the slot. The call ends abruptly, with a, “and, listen to what Wally—” that leaves him with a pang in his chest, but as he steps out of the phonebooth and into the cool, clear rain, he feels more like a person than he has in a while.
“Did you do what you said you needed to?” Clark asks from the kitchen the moment Dick steps through the door; the immediateness of it is jarring until Dick realizes that Clark probably heard him coming up the stairs, maybe even walking on the sidewalk outside.
Dick shrugs, peeling off his wet denim jacket as he drops his borrowed key, which is smooth with use, on the coffee table. “I did. I accomplished something.”
Clark turns to look at him, leaning against the counter. Beside him, a kettle is boiling on the stove. “The something that you set out to do?”
“That exact one. That exact something.” Clark's looks are discerning, but Dick had been telling Lois the truth—he’s a decent liar. More than decent. He wrings his jacket out and cold, clear water bleeds past his knuckles to fall to the floor.
Clark looks askance. “These are wood floors, you know.”
“Laminate. Rainwater won’t hurt it.”
Clark shakes his head. The steam from the kettle fogs his glasses. He wipes them off with a sigh. “You sound like Lois. That’s what she said about the semtex.”
Dick stops. “Um,” he says.
Clark shrugs and turns back around, wrapping a dishrag around his hand before he takes the teakettle off of the stove, even though he waded through volcanic lava today without getting burnt. It’s an oddly endearing gesture—one Dick’s seen Alfred do hundreds of times. It’s easy for Dick to forget that Clark’s not human- human—that he could probably fight Batman and a brick wall at the same time and win. It’s a comforting thought. But he doesn’t look like he would fight anybody right now, just passively spooning loose, dark-colored tea into a cup and pouring water over it.
“Is that Kryptonian tea?” Dick asks, hanging up his still-wet jacket and shuffling over to sit on the countertop next to him, kicking the back of his heels against the cabinets like he’s eleven. “Like, from Krypton?”
“...Yep.” Clark smiles at him. “Very exotic. This is probably—gosh—this is probably the last time it’ll ever be brewed. There’s not much left. There’s not any left, really.” Clark picks up the empty gray box thoughtfully, sighs. “Here,” he says, “try some.”
“What?” Dick pushes the mug back toward Clark immediately, stricken. “ No .”
Dick stares at him. “This is your—this is the last tea!”
“So this is the last—”
“It’s fifty degrees out,” replies Clark, “And you walked home in the rain. Delaware rain isn’t what you’re used to, it doesn’t have any acid compounds in it to warm you up. I don’t want you getting sick if you’re already recovering from a gunshot wound.” He pushes the mug back very mildly. “I’m pretty sure you need it more than I do. Besides, I’ve been drinking this everyday for the past few years. I’m a little tired of it by now.”
Dick shakes his head, wide-eyed. “I’m not going to drink it, Clark, I’m not just going to—to come in here and take your things. Take things that are important to you. It’s not right.”
“Seriously. Please. As a favor. For me.” His eyes are soft and intent, like this plea is legitimate, like he doesn’t already know that Dick would do almost anything for Superman.
Dick huffs, wraps his arms around his knees, presses his mouth to his kneecaps. "Why are you being weird about this?" he mumbles. “And since when did you become an adult?”
Clark smiles, like he’s remembering all the times he let him and Wally and Donna walk all over him as kids. “It took a while, huh?”
“Not really,” Dick admits, mouth twisting. He reaches out for the mug, which has the rectangular outline of Kansas on it in blue and a chip in the handle like it’s been dropped a few times before. Heat curls up in his fingers as he holds it, careful not to spill any. Clark had always seemed grown up—an effect of having the whole world on his shoulders.
Dick starts to bring the mug to his lips, then stops. “What if I drink a little and then you drink the rest?”
“Fine with me.”
Okay. Okay, okay, okay. Dick pauses, weighs his odds of only pretending to drink it, decides against it—he’s already deceived Clark once today; it doesn’t feel right to do it again, especially since he’s already helped him so much.
Dick takes a hesitant sip. Stops.
“I can’t stand you.”
There are tears in Clark’s eyes as he doubles over with laughter.
“You are such a—how does Lois even stand you?”
“Well,” says Clark. “I don’t mess with her tea in the morning.”
Dick takes another sip of the still-hot, distinctly un-Kryptonian earl gray tea, mostly to cover the smile Clark’s gotten out of him. He tries to keep his gaze flat and angry.
It doesn’t quite work.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kent, it’s simply not allowed.”
“Sheila, I mean, it’s—” Clark gestures at Dick, who’s wearing his most innocent expression, the kind that would have gotten his cheeks pinched at galas when he was younger or at least saved him from a night of surreptitious looks as he passed the silverware, “I mean, it’s the boss’s kid.”
Dick wishes people would stop bringing that up.
“Which is something that Perry said you wanted to keep on the down-low. I can’t have someone without an ID in the building, not if I want to keep my job and not if you want to be keeping your—your secrets.” The secretary—Sheila, apparently—shrugs helplessly, but when her gaze flutters over, there’s no apology in them whatsoever—only the same expression from the day of his first visit to the Planet—only suspicion. “Especially since this has been every day for two weeks.”
Dick acquiesces first, because he is, in fact, the root of the problem; he went on a run at dawn this morning, didn't return until Clark was already out the door, which meant his visitor's pass was still at the apartment. It just wasn't something he'd thought about; he was too busy glancing over his shoulder. “It’s fine, Clark, I’ll just head back and get it.”
“What I don’t see is why we can’t just print a new one here,” Clark is saying, burying his frustration under Midwestern amiability. “It would save us all a lot of trouble.”
“Because he doesn’t have his current ID.” Sheila lays her palm up on the desk. “So I can’t issue a new one.”
“See, that’s circular.”
“I don’t see how it is, Mr. Kent,” she says.
Dick is perfectly capable of sneaking into the Planet; he could probably do so every day for the rest of his life and never get detected by this particular receptionist or any living human being, but this isn’t his city, and these aren’t his rules to operate under or oblige by—they’re Clark’s, even if the man hasn't articulated them; Dick isn't going to disrupt Clark’s life more than he already has. He just isn’t.
He pads away from the receptionist’s desk and back towards the elevator, and there’s a fleeting moment before he enters the elevator where he thinks his absence might escape Clark’s notice altogether. The moment's shattered when Clark extends a hand to touch the space where Dick's shoulder would have been, only to be met with plain air, and his head whips around, eyes flicking to Dick a second before the elevator closes. ‘Sorry,’ Dick mouths, even though he isn’t, really.
Dick shoves his hands into his pockets—borrowed clothes, a few sizes too big for him, mostly, except for Roy’s denim jacket and his own dirty white sneakers. When he was younger and Bruce was in desperate need of time away from a living, breathing, talking person—Dick stops himself. That's cynical. It was probably more a result of Dick begging to get the specific brand of band-aids with Superman's logo, or to be brought along to a League meeting, or to tag along to such-and-such business trip in Metropolis. But sometimes Dick was able to persuade Alfred to send him for a weekend with the only other extrovert Bruce trusted. So once Dick used to have pajamas and a set of day-clothes at Clark’s, but that was two apartments ago for Clark and almost six years ago for Dick.
He doesn’t really mind the bagginess of the clothes—only the way they catch on things. It reminds him of the circus and of the growing gap between him and Bruce. Dick can’t remember a single time at Haly’s when he got something that fit him right that wasn’t stagewear; it was hand-me-down after hand-me-down, all soft fabric and thin threads that made it hard to adjust to the starched newness of life at the manor.
Using his teeth, he bites down on the cuff of his sleeve to pull it down over his hands as he steps out of the elevator and into the lobby.
“Morning, Perry Shield," comes a voice.
Dick is fully prepared to quip about hazing when he looks up. He expects Lois. That is not what he sees. Instead, something soaking wet and five feet tall is squeaking towards him.
Dick squints. “Did someone push you into the harbor?”
“Someone pushed me into the harbor,” agrees the thing, wrenching a flat, wet curtain of dark hair away from its face—revealing, at last, Lois and fanning the smell of sea salt toward him. “But guess what.” She doesn’t wait for him to guess. She talks like it's going out of style. “Intergang’s got—well, Frank, Frank Sixty’s got people in the DA’s office downtown, covering tracks, gutting habeas corpus all over the place, and we’ve got our linchpin now.”
Dick leans back. “What?”
Her grin is sharp, half-crocadilian. "A source.”
“A source shoved you into the ocean?”
“The harbor,” corrects Lois sharply, raking a hand through her wet hair, falling water darkening the shoulders of her already-damp pantsuit even more. Her notebook is bleeding dark indigo ink into the khaki fabric of her suit-jacket. She must know, because her fingertips are ink-colored, but there’s an energy to her, whetted and jagged and precise, like it doesn’t matter at all, and it’s like she’s a stranger to the dry, stolid person she was yesterday. “Details are important. Every detail is important.”
Fine. “A source pushed you into the harbor?” he amends.
She waves her hand dismissively, fingers twitching. “They didn’t want to get caught. It all fits. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to write.”
Dick turns to the side to let her pass.
But she doesn’t move for a moment, and when she spins it’s to block his way. Her gaze narrows. “Where are you going?”
“H—” the word hooks in Dick’s mouth, goes bitter there. He swallows. “Clark’s apartment. Forgot my badge.”
It’s only after he says it that he catches on to what she was really asking. She thinks he’s a flight risk, bound to leave Clark the moment Boston departs from the circus. It’s a fair enough assessment, even if the assumption hurts; the circus calls to Dick, his blood, his hands, his heart. Dick is almost surprised with how much he’s enjoying himself in Metropolis, though, tagging along with Clark for leads downtown or covering for him for Perry. It's nice. He could maybe even get used to it. He thinks. But maybe he doesn't know the difference between wanting something and having nothing else in the world anymore.
Her mouth tics. “They didn’t just let you in?”
He shakes his head. “Even the ‘owner’s kid’ schtick is starting to get a little suspicious. Receptionist definitely isn't a fan. No excuse to be sticking around this long, I guess.”
Lois still has that curt way about her—she even blinks abruptly, staring at him for another long moment.
“Do you...need anything else?” he asks, when enough time has elapsed that it's uncomfortable, for lack of anything else to say.
“An Americano,” she answers, brows furrowed, “would be great—with cream, ideally, I don’t drink it any other way.”
Then she whips around and marches to the elevator, leaving wet footprints in her wake.
“It was a joke.”
“I know. I felt bad.”
“You were all wet.”
“That I was,” says Lois, gingerly accepting the coffee. The edge of her sleeve touches the cup, dampening it. She sighs. “And continue to be. Thank you.”
“No problem,” says Dick, tugging on his now-retrieved ID with one hand, sliding Clark’s coffee over the desk with the other. “I mean, I got one for Clark too.”
Clark accepts it with a smile, placing it between his and Lois’s computers, where they’re apparently co-writing an article on the latest mayoral scandal. “Thanks, Red.”
“No problem, Blue.”
Lois looks between the two of them, shaking her head, and Dick grins at her, even if ‘Red,’ a reminder of who he isn’t anymore, chafes at something inside his chest. Her look is affronted. “I hope you don’t think his coffee order is okay. It’s not. 70% of its mass is sugar.”
Dick shrugs. “I tried it once. It isn’t actually that bad. Better than Kryptonian tea, at least,” he adds, glancing at Clark, who winks.
Lois buries her face in her hands like he's somehow added twenty years to her life. She sighs. “This is making me rethink everything we were just talking about, Smallville. I don’t want you to just have a minion around here.”
Clark doesn't stop typing. “Well, first of all, he wouldn’t be a minion. But you have Jimmy, anyway, so it would just be evening the odds.”
“I like to think of us as sharing custody of Jimmy."
Dick interrupts before things go any further. They're only joking. But even if he's not Robin anymore, he worked too hard for too long to let anyone demote him, even passingly. “I don’t do the sidekick-thing, or the minion-thing, or—whatever. I don’t. I never have.”
His tone must be colder—must be harsher—than he realizes because Clark shuts his computer abruptly, catching Dick's gaze. “Of course,” he promises. “I know that. We both know that. This is something different.” He shares a look with Lois, who motions vaguely.
“Start us off, Smallville. By all means.”
They turn to look at Dick, Clark's gaze still heavy, Lois's expression still appraising. “Lois had an idea.”
“A good idea."
“That was implied," Clark says. "All of your ideas are good.”
Lois nods. “Too true.”
Dick says, “Didn’t you get pushed in the harbor this morning?”
She lifts her dark eyebrows. “Wasn’t my idea. My source thought he saw his boss coming up. I’d rather get wet than get shot. You know how it is.”
Dick does. He finally sinks into a chair.
“You know how it is,” Lois repeats, eagerly, like she senses that she said something right, “which is why I think this would be—be good for you.”
Expectantly, she turns to Clark, who nods brightly.
Clark says, “You shouldn’t be giving away free labor.”
"I need you," Lois says, exhaling deeply, fingers at her temples, "to stop being a communist for five seconds, Clark. Five. Can you do that. God. 'Free labor' is what an internship is all about."
That rips the breath out of Dick’s chest. “A what?” He laughs after a moment.
He looks up at Clark for a tell—for a sign that this is a joke like the Kryptonian tea—but Clark’s face is just earnest.
“What?” he asks again, half-breathless from the laughter, “What? Is this—is this because I brought you coffee?”
“No.” Lois’s face is sober. It doesn’t have the acuteness of earlier but a new gravity, the planes of her cheeks pulled down and her eyes piercing. She steeples her fingers underneath her chin. “It’s—listen. The Planet has a gap year program for interns. Separate from the college ones. You graduated from high school, yeah?”
“Yeah. Last year. Last May.”
“Then this is the best opportunity in the world.” Lois’s mouth twists, eyes flickering. “I would’ve killed for this when I was your age.”
"I'm not," Dick says, softly, "like you. I'm not. I don't—" he lets out a frustrated breath, leans closer like it will make her understand, tries to put it nicely. "I don't want an internship. I don't want to be—writing articles in an, in an office for the rest of my life. I want to, no offense, I want to help people. That's all I want. All I—ever wanted to do."
"You want to help people."
Dick lifts his hands helplessly. "Yes."
"You want to help people, you want to do something that matters in a world full of people like him." A hand-flick at Clark. Voice rough as coal. Fervid eyes. “Yeah? You want to? This is how you do it, this is how you fix things. This is how you help people. What the hell do you think I—what do you think anyone does this for? The money? God. You’re just like me. You are.”
Dick's knees are shaking.
"I get pushed," she says, without a tremor, "into the harbor. I get kidnapped. I get shot at. I'm here, in this building, until two AM every night, because the rest of the time—during the day—I'm out there, and I'm finding the truth, and I'm doing something about it. Okay? I'm doing something. Maybe you don't get that. You don't know me. You don't know ten things about me. Fine. Look at your—whatever he is to you. You think Superman did this for kicks? He didn't. He better not have. Because it's serious. It is, and it keeps you up at night, and it's dying, and the pay is pennies, and people hate your guts for it, but it's important. It's important. You want t—fine, okay, you want to help people. So do this. I'm telling you because I know you know the risks, I know you've lived them, 'Red,' and I know that you can take it: So do this. Do this."
Dick knows what it is like to be burned, Firefly once burnt him so bad his skin peeled like an orange, like paper, like a page from a book, and he saw the things that were beneath his skin, wax-colored and vermilion and glinting, and he never wanted to see it again, but now it feels like Lois has peeled all his skin away anyway, just left him bare and open and seen. Dick know what it is like to be burned but he has never felt so scathed.
"Saving the world all on your own," Dick says, thickly, to try and bury the feeling in his chest like maybe this is what he was—like this is what he was waiting for. “Isn’t that a little self-important?”
“Well, that’s the thing about me,” says Lois, soft-eyed, and Dick knows that she knows that she’s got him by the way she grins. “I really am that important.”