"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..."
- Stephen King
Alfred Pennyworth was a man with many duties. Being Bruce Wayne’s butler meant that he had to do many things. Prepare breakfast, wash dishes, clean and dust the Wayne Manor regularly, wash clothes, iron clothes, ensure Master Bruce looked presentable for work, ensure Master Bruce does not die doing other (more secretive and violent) work, mend wounds, repair uniforms, prepare more food, supervise the gardener, etcetera.
Most of these tasks were tedious and/or stressful, but there were some that brought him joy too. Nowadays, many of the tasks that brought him joy revolved around a vibrant boy that had revived a household that had been lifeless and dark for far too long, with laughter and an unceasing optimism that was both refreshing and endearing.
Alfred smiled as he watched Richard emerge from the school’s front doors from where he was seated in the driver’s seat of the car. The boy jogged down the stairs, his backpack hanging from one shoulder -- something that Alfred had warned him more than once would cause him shoulder and back pains in the future -- as he waved goodbye to several schoolmates.
“Hey, Alfie!” The boy greeted cheerfully, sliding into the back seat and shutting the door behind him.
“Good Afternoon, Master Dick. I trust your day went well?” He inquired with a small smile on his lips as he pulled out from the school parking lot and began the journey back to the manor.
“Yup!” He chirped, leaning back comfortably and casually propping his feet on the shoulder of the empty passenger seat in front of him. Alfred gave him a reprimanding look but Richard only acknowledged it with a cheeky grin, “I wasn’t given any homework today either, so I’m free to spend more time with Bruce tonight.”
‘Spend more time with Bruce tonight’ translated roughly to ‘begin patrol early tonight’.
“That is very fortunate.” Alfred commented, his eyes meeting Richard’s bright blue eyes in the rearview mirror for a moment, “I have prepared a surprise for you, Master Dick.”
Richard’s dark eyebrow rose, “Yeah?”
Richard smiled beatifically in return.
“Whoa! You moved me to a bigger room?!”
Alfred smiled reservedly, “I thought you might appreciate a larger room a bit further away from Master Bruce’s room.”
Richard spun in a circle, studying the large room with a delighted grin before turning back to Alfred. “You didn’t have to do all the moving yourself though, Alfie. I could have done it.”
“Yes, indeed you could have, Master Dick. However, I am more than happy to do it for you.”
Richard giggled giddily before skipping over and enveloping Alfred in a warm hug, “You’re the best, Alfie! Thank you so much!”
Alfred chuckled, patting the boy on the back, “Thank you, Master Dick. Now, If you’ll excuse me,” He said as he gently pried himself out of the embrace, “I will leave you to get acquainted with your new room while I prepare dinner.”
“Okay!” The boy agreed, exuberant as always.
The sky outside the window was still dark when Dick woke that night. At first, he could not place what woke him, but as he became more aware of his surroundings, he felt a chill in the room that penetrated even his thick blankets.
He was lying on his side, facing the window on the side of the bed closest to it, with his back to the rest of the room; one hand by his head, under the pillow, and the other lying in front of him on the bed sheets.The skin at the back of his neck prickled, the same sensation he got when he knew he was being watched. He caught himself beginning to tense and forced his muscles to relax and his halted breath to even out, remembering his training. He strained his hearing, trying to listen for the shift of fabric against skin or the creaking of floorboards. The room was silent save for his own breathing.
The prickling at the back of his neck intensified and he felt something lightly touch his hair, sending a chill down his spine. He fought his instincts and forced himself not to jump at the feeling. The touch returned a second time, this time stroking his hair.
A hand? It felt like a hand.
Bruce? He wondered.
The hair stroking continued, but it was erratic, the rhythm unpredictable. He almost startled when suddenly the hand stroking his hair was joined by humming. He managed not to jump but he could not stop his muscles from going rigid this time. If the intruder noticed, they did not seem to want to do anything about it.
The voice was feminine, but had an odd tinny note to it, and the lower notes in the simple tune, clearly a lullaby of some sort, made the hairs on his nape stand on end and goose bumps erupt on his skin. He lay still, transfixed and struck with a strange feeling of unease that was normally reserved for his most frightening encounters with Gotham’s most twisted criminals; But this time that feeling is magnified a hundred times, making the usually fearless Robin hesitant to move. Slowly, his hand slid further under his pillow and wrapped around the familiar shape of a Batarang.
They stayed like that, Dick lying completely still, tense and holding his breath, while the stranger pet his hair and hummed for quite some time. Until suddenly, the strangely serene humming rose sharply, and the fingers in his hair dug into his scalp, sharp nails piercing the tender skin painfully. He jerked upwards, his fight or flight instincts finally kicked into gear now that the presence revealed itself to be a threat; The hand slipped out of his hair as he spun in his bed into a crouch, hurling the Batarang blindly in the general direction the humming came from as he did so.
The Batarang hit the closet door with a thunk and the intruder was nowhere to be seen.
Hastily, he leaped out of bed towards the light switch, flicking it on and flooding the dark room with light. The room was completely empty apart from himself. The door was still closed, the window was shut. Not a single thing was out of place, save for the sting in his scalp and the thudding of his heart in his chest.
Frantically, he threw his closet door open and shoved the hanging clothes out of the way with a screech of hangers on the bar. Finding nothing, he turned back to the room and dropped to check under the bed from a safe distance away.
He got back to his feet, one hand reaching up to gingerly feel where the nails left a throbbing sting in his scalp.
His fingers came back slightly red with blood.
Dick decided not to mention the incident to Bruce and Alfred the next morning. At first, he tried to convince himself it had been his imagination, that it was a hallucination that was a result of lack of sufficient sleep and an exhausting schedule.
He considered that it might have been a case of sleep paralysis, that perhaps he had been still caught in a nightmare. But there was no denying the sting in his scalp. There was definitely someone -- or something -- there with him the night before.
He tried to think about it rationally and ignore that voice in his head that repeated the warnings they used to give him at the circus. Warnings about spirits and supernatural beings. Instead, he spent some time researching known metahumans on the Batcomputer after school, while Alfred was out running errands.
He could not find anyone that matched what he knew of last night. He wasn’t even sure how they even got in and out of his room without opening a door or a window; not to mention it was damn near impossible to get past the state of the art security system Bruce -- paranoid as he was -- installed around the property.
With a defeated sigh, Dick decided to dismiss the whole thing until further evidence presented itself. He shut down the computer and went back upstairs into the Manor, passing through the kitchen to grab an apple from the bowl on the counter before heading to his new room. He took a bite from the apple as he walked in and, deciding to get started on his homework early despite it being due next week, placed the apple on the desk and went to grab his backpack from where it lay on the bed. He deposited his bag on the chair, ready to unzip it, and reached out blindly for the apple --
-- only for his hand to meet nothing but air.
Frowning, Dick turned to look at the desk. There was nothing there but the desk lamp, pencil holder and some school books. He could have sworn he put the apple on the desk seconds before.
He turned back to the bed, wondering if perhaps he had absentmindedly put down the apple there when he grabbed the backpack and simply misremembered, but it wasn’t there either.
He took two steps back into the centre of the room, turning in a circle as he checked the floor in case the apple fell, before checking all available surfaces. He froze when he spotted the apple.
Across the room.
On his bedside table, on the other side of the bed.
“What the hell.” He murmured to himself, staring at the apple.
This strange incident was not the last that Dick experienced in the weeks that followed. It was subtle sometimes, his belongings shifting around the room, sudden flashes of frigid temperature. And then sometimes it was more obvious, like when he thought he heard the same humming lullaby, muffled in the walls, prompting him to search for hidden doors in the walls only to find nothing.
At this point, Dick was conflicted. Bruce Wayne, his current guardian, was a man of logic. He seemed a bit contemptuous of the criminals that lived in Gotham’s underbelly, that believed the rumours about the Batman being a creature of darkness.
“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot.” He had said.
Dick’s parents, on the other hand, had been very sensible but open minded people. Dick had no memory of them explicitly admitting their belief in the paranormal, but he remembered that they were always extra careful not to invite unwanted beings into their trailer or the circus itself. The rest of the circus had been even more superstitious, Madame Sybella, Haly’s fortune teller, especially.
Dick’s investigation into the possibility of the unexplained happenings in his room being caused by a metahuman messing with him had been unsuccessful. But his suspicions that what he was experiencing was paranormal only continued to grow with each incident.
The last incident occurred one evening, after dinner and before patrol. He had been in his room, working on a few math problems for homework, when he was suddenly hit by a sense of terrible unease, a shiver traveling down his back as he felt a sudden cold against the nape of his neck, as if a cup of icy water was dumped down the back of his shirt.
He froze, pencil hovering over the page of his notebook, heart hammering in his chest, but chose not to acknowledge it further. He knew that if it was indeed supernatural, then acknowledging it would only make things worse. If it wasn’t supernatural then maybe they would slip up and give him another clue if they thought he was not aware they were there.
He didn’t have to wait long.
Despite knowing that something would happen, he was still unprepared for the gnarled hand with long nails that slammed a paper onto the desk beside his books with a loud bang.
He startled violently, and immediately sprung to his feet, his chair launching backwards and skidding onto the rug as he back somersaulted away from his desk and the direction the hand came from to gain some space before looking around.
There was nothing there.
Breathing heavily, heart still pounding in his chest, he walked back over to the desk to double check that he hadn’t hallucinated.
On his desk, sat a picture of him and his mother.
This normally would not have frightened him, if he didn’t know for sure that this specific picture had been buried 4 boxes deep into his closet before now.
He knew now that this was something he couldn’t deal with on his own. He needed help.
“You think there is a ghost in your room.” Bruce repeated flatly, clearly doubtful.
“I understand your skepticism, Bruce,” Dick replied as he took off his cape and accessories after a long night of patrol, “but I really can’t find any other explanation.”
Bruce hummed as he hung up his own cape, “What makes you think it was a ghost and not a metahuman?”
“I’ve looked at every single metahuman profile we have and none of them fit.” Dick ranted, his frustration evident in the aggressive way he ripped off his domino mask, “She didn’t even trip any of your security measures. Things have been moving around my room when I’m not looking, sometimes I wake up and someone is stroking my hair. It gets so cold sometimes too and I feel like someone is watching me.”
There was a moment of silence where Bruce observed his ward, his eyes studying the bags under the boy’s eyes, the furrow of his dark brows and the slight pallor of his normally tan skin and healthy flushed cheeks.
He brushed a lock of Dick’s soft, raven hair away from his face, subtly checking Dick’s temperature for a fever as he did so. The boy looked up to meet his eyes at the gesture, his eyes wide and vulnerable. It suddenly reminded the man just how young Dick was, how naive and afraid of the unknown children normally were. He himself had been gullible as a child. Once upon a time, he had even believed in spirits as Dick seems to now. Perhaps Dick just needed reassurance that there was no monster under his bed, only on the streets of Gotham.
“We can set up a camera in your room and see what we can find.” He suggested at last.
Dick heaved a sigh, his previously tense shoulders finally relaxing, “That would be great, Bruce. Thanks.”
Bruce nodded, his hand landing in a light pat on the boy’s slender shoulder, his lips twitching up into a small but reassuring smile, prompting the boy to smile gratefully in return.
And so, the dynamic duo spent three days and nights investigating this in their spare time between school, work and their nightly patrols. With each passing day, however, Bruce became more and more impatient, as Dick continued to insist on a presence in the room, despite the lack of evidence.
“I think it’s time to let it go, Dick. There’s nothing there.”
“I know there’s something there, Bruce!” The boy persisted, following Bruce down the hall, “I felt it!”
“That’s enough!” Bruce bellowed, turning to face the boy, who stopped in his tracks and flinched slightly at his raised voice, “There’s no such thing as ghosts!”
Dick frowned, that vulnerable look returning, “What? But what about --”
“I was humouring you, but it’s time for you to grow up now.” He spat harshly.
“Master Bruce!” Alfred’s horrified exclamation sounded from behind him.
“Stay out of this, Alfred.” He hissed back, holding up a quelling hand.
“I thought you believed me.” It was almost a whisper, so quiet and full of hurt.
Bruce swallowed a lump in his throat at the sound. His temper had gotten the best of him again. He had been doing that a lot lately, ever since Two-Face got his hands on his ward, almost killing the boy. He should have spoke to him more calmly, should have been more gentle. He knew he was being over protective, over controlling and overly harsh these past few years since the incident. He knew that he was slowly clipping the boy’s wings, one feather at a time
But it was a dark and unfair world out there, and Dick needed to be prepared.
“We’ve been monitoring your room for days and nothing has happened,” He responded, his voice low, “Because ghosts don’t exist. The sooner you learn that, the better.”
And with that, Bruce turned on his heel and marched away, his mouth tasting sour with regret even as he left.
Alfred took a step towards the boy when he noticed the blue eyes fill with unshed tears, “Master Dick...”
“You don’t believe me either, do you?” The boy accused, his fists clenched.
“I believe...” The aged butler began with a sigh, as he reached into his breast pocked and pulled out a white handkerchief, gently uncurling one of the boy’s hands to place the cloth into his palm, “There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in Master Bruce’s philosophy.”
The distress on Dick’s face eased slightly, a wobbly smile stretching hesitantly across his youthful face, “Hamlet?”
Alfred hummed and curled an arm around the boy’s shoulder, pulling the boy into his side, “Well done, my boy.” He praised, prompting a fleeting grin of pride from the boy as he began to lead him in the direction of the supposedly haunted room, “I have a suggestion, if I may?”
“Of course, Alfie.” Dick readily agreed, voice still quiet.
“Why not tell me all about this ghost that Master Bruce is so intent on dismissing, while we move you to another room?”
The boy looked up at him slightly and, for a moment, Alfred marveled at how tall the boy had grown. It seemed like only yesterday that Bruce brought home a tiny heartbroken boy from the circus, but here the boy was, barely an inch shorter than him already but still heartbroken.
“Okay.” The boy whispered.
Dick was pinning his Flying Graysons poster above his bed when Alfred returned to his second new room with another box.
“Hey Alfred,” He called, jumping down from the bed.
Alfred placed the box on top of another he had brought in earlier and replied, “Yes, Master Dick?”
The boy walked over to him, looking hesitant, “Do you think maybe we can stop by a store today?”
Alfred raised his brows, “What is it you need?”
“Well...” Dick began tentatively, raising a hand to tuck a lock of stray hair behind his ear, “I remembered some stuff my mom used to do to -- you know -- get rid of bad mojo. I know it might be silly but I would really sleep better if I did some of that before sleeping here and I would need some stuff to do it.”
“I see.” Alfred nodded, and he really did understand. Alfred cannot say he completely believes in spirits and the like, but after all the incredible things he had witnessed in his life (extraterrestrial superheroes that can fly and shoot lasers out of their eyes included), he can’t say he does not believe, either. Whatever it is that Dick experienced in that room had shaken the boy, and if something could make him more comfortable, then Alfred will accommodate.
“Then I shall inform Master Bruce that I am taking you out to buy some supplies for school purposes--” His eyes twinkled mischievously, “--while you get dressed, shall I?”
With that, Dick’s shoulders lost their tension and the uncertainty on his face melted into a relieved smile, his eyes now equally mischievous, “Thanks, Alfie. You really are the best!”
After Dick took the necessary steps to ensure the safety of his new room and Alfred locked away the old one, and Dick stopped experiencing any strange occurrences. He was cautious the first week, still jumpy and worried whatever it was would follow him to the new room, but he soon relaxed.
Bruce did not apologise for his harsh words, which is typical. They both pretended that nothing happened, but Dick was now less open with the man that he used to consider his best friend.
As time passed and Dick grew into a slightly rebellious teenage hero with a superhero team of his own, Dick and Bruce fought constantly. Eventually, the anger, hurt, and guilt that festered between them ever since the incident with Two-Face that marked such a pivotal moment in their relationship, simmered to a boil.
Batman fired Robin, Dick left Bruce in anger, the costume and sentimental title of Robin was callously passed on to another boy, and Nightwing was born.
It took a relatively long time for the normally forgiving young man to finally reach out to Bruce and begin to mend their relationship. He never moved back into the manor, preferring to stay in Bludhaven, but he began to visit more.
Soon, the second Robin fell from the nest, dead. Another took his place, joined by a couple of bats. The second Robin returned from the dead, and, finally, a baby bat joined the family.
Dick mostly forgot about the ghost in his old room with everything else that got added onto his plate over the years. He still thought about it sometimes, only managing to fall asleep with his back facing a wall or with his back flat against the bed on nights where he didn’t just pass out from exhaustion as soon as his body found a bed. He still makes sure to cleanse every room he sleeps in if he can, still can’t help feeling faintly creeped out when he sees that one picture of him and his mom.
But mostly he just tries not to think about it.
Damian sat on the couch, eyes riveted to the television in fascination as his hand absently pet Titus’ head where it was resting on his knee. The girl in the film screamed in terror as a ghost terrorised her.
“Do you believe in the supernatural, Pennyworth?” He asked the butler, who was dusting a candlestick on one side of the room.
Alfred paused, a feeling of nostalgia suddenly filling his chest, “Perhaps I do, Master Damian. I suppose all the horror films you have been watching lately have made you curious?”
Damian tutted softly, feigning indifference. “It is a fascinating but ridiculous concept.”
“Well then,” Alfred continued dusting, also feigning indifference, “I do not suppose it would interest you to know that someone has experienced a haunting in this very manor.”
Damian’s head turned to look at him with such speed that Alfred was slightly concerned he might pull a muscle, “A haunting?! Here? Who? Where?”
Then the boy seemed to catch himself, he cleared his throat and contained his excitement, pretending he was still unaffected.
“Indeed.” Alfred confirmed, privately amused by Damian’s attempts to hide interest, “There was a brief period where Master Dick used one of the previously locked rooms. A mistake on my part, I’m afraid.”
Damian tutted again and crossed his arms, continuing his charade of disinterest, “Should have known it would be Grayson.”
Alfred hummed in acknowledgement and continued dusting. There was a moment of silence as the credits rolled on the screen. Then, Damian’s curiosity seemed to get the better of him. He huffed, finally giving up, and asked, “What happened in this supposed haunting?”
Alfred contained a smile, “According to Master Dick, he was visited by the spirit of a woman on his first night in the room. He suspected it might have been a metahuman at first, but found no evidence to support that theory.”
Damian frowned, “How did he know it was a woman? Did he see her?”
“No,” Alfred replied, “He said that he woke from his sleep to feel someone pet his hair and heard a woman hum a lullaby, then she dug her fingers in his scalp and completely disappeared.”
Damian’s eyes were wide as he digested this.
“To answer your question, Master Damian,” He continued, turning to walk a bit closer to the boy, hands folded behind his back, one hand still holding the duster, “I have never experienced the supernatural myself, but I can say that I examined Master Dick’s scalp after he told me this story, and he had freshly healed scars there, five of them, spaced much like nails on a hand.
“He also claimed to experience other things, such as his belongings relocating when he was not paying attention to them. I can admit to feeling a bit confused to find his belongings in places he wouldn’t normally keep them while cleaning that room during his stay there.”
“Then,” Damian finally spoke, eyes still wide, “You believe him.”
“Indeed, I do.”
“Did father also believe him?”
Alfred shot Damian a look of mild distaste, “No, he did not. At first he humoured Master Dick and carried a half-hearted investigation; But he lost his patience quickly and spoke quite harshly to him in the end, dismissing the entire thing. Mind you, Master Dick was only a bit older than you then and was not the type to cause a fuss just for attention.”
Damian scowled and harrumphed, turning back to the television that was playing another film, gears turning thoughtfully behind his green eyes.
“Which room was this?” He inquired casually.
Alfred turned back to continue dusting, hiding a triumphant smile as he did so, and proceeded to spend the next hour passing along all the information he knew to the boy, who listened carefully with a calculating expression.
The old butler knew that there were very few things that Damian Wayne felt genuinely protective of, but his former mentor/surrogate father/vigilante partner Richard Grayson was at the very top of that list.
Damian was determined to find answers.
Immediately following the gathering of information from Pennyworth, Damian spent the rest of the day doing research on his own.
First, he checked the database on the Batcomputer for any metahumans that matched the abilities that Pennyworth detailed, just to double check that Grayson hadn’t missed anything.
When that search proved unsuccessful, he searched the archives for any possible reports Grayson or Damian’s father had made on the investigation. He found footage recorded from an overnight camera they had placed in Grayson’s room. It was a bit strange but fascinating to see a young Grayson preparing for bed, like a slightly miniaturised version of the Grayson he now knew.
Realising that he had technology at his disposal now that was not available to Grayson and his father in the past, Damian typed in commands to make the computer analyse the footage and search for any anomalies or movement in the video that was not Grayson’s breathing pattern.
He waited as the computer worked through the footage, isolating a few moments as possible anomalies. Once it was done processing, Damian hit play on the first clip. It was nothing special, just Grayson shifting in his sleep. The second one was of him turning over to face the window.
The third, however, was different. A plushie of an elephant that was sitting on a bookcase with some books shifted to lie on its side and then slowly, unnaturally slowly, slid further along the shelf. Something about it gave him chills.
The next clip was Grayson turning again to face the room, so his face was now visible, a lock of hair falling into his face.
The last clip was of that lock being smoothed away from his face, all on its own.
To say Jason Todd was perplexed to see Damian Wayne’s name on his phone screen was an understatement.
They’ve rarely interacted out of costume before, so receiving a phone call from the bat brat was bizarre to say the least.
Jason would never admit it to anyone, but the call made him worry that someone within the Bat Family had died. His anger and resentment towards them had recently begun to soften and he was slowly becoming secretly fond of his so-called siblings.
Answering the call, Jason raised the phone to his ear, “This is weird. Why are you calling me?”
“I need your help to gather evidence.” Damian replied promptly, getting straight to the point.
“Okay...” Jason said slowly, leaning back lazily against the couch cushions, placing the book he had been reading face down on the seat beside him to mark the page, “Why are you asking me and not Grayson? Isn’t he your usual go to for this stuff?”
“I would rather not involve Grayson until I have collected all the evidence I need. Cassandra and Drake are out of the country, and Father is not a candidate at all. You’re my next choice.”
“...Alright, I’ll bite. What kind of evidence do you need help collecting exactly?” Jason asked, curious.
“Do you believe in the supernatural, Todd?”
Jason snorted a laugh. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This call just got weirder and weirder by the second.
“Not really. Are we collecting evidence to put a ghost in jail or something?” He joked.
“Something like that.”
Jason sighed, “Look, kid, if you’re trying some kind of prank, you can call someone else.”
“If you help me prove what I’m trying to prove, you’ll be helping me prove to father that he’s wrong.”
Well damn, Jason thought, the kid sure knows what I like to hear. “...I’m listening.”
“Pennyworth has informed me that during Grayson’s years as Robin, he experienced something paranormal in a room he moved into for two weeks here at the manor. Father did not believe him, but I managed to find some evidence to convince me that something was going on. I just need to gather more evidence to build a solid case, solve this mystery, then I will go to father, show him my evidence, make him apologise to Grayson, then we can rid the room of any possible unwanted guests.”
“Uh-huh.” Jason said flatly, squinting at the ceiling, skeptical but also intrigued. “What was this piece of evidence that made you believe this?”
“I found some footage that was recorded by father in an attempt to humour Grayson. He must not have taken a good enough look at the footage but I analysed it with the computer and found some things he missed.”
His phone vibrated against his ear to signal that someone sent him something just before Damian replied, “I sent you a short compilation. Take a look. Watch the elephant and Grayson’s hair.”
Jason took his phone away from his ear, opened the message notification and tapped on the file Damian sent him.
“What the fuck.” Jason whispered to himself as he watched young Grayson’s hair get smoothed back after his plushie moved over in the slowest, creepiest way.
Putting the phone back up to his ear, he asked, “Are you sure this wasn’t tampered with?”
“What did he say about this ghost?”
Damian filled him in on the details and Jason begrudgingly agreed to help. He agreed partially to satisfy his own curiosity, but it was also because he was slightly flattered that Damian put him near the top of the list of people to contact when he needed help.
Another reason to do this, other than proving Bruce wrong, was Grayson. Something weird was definitely going on in that room, and if it was true that Grayson had been attacked by it, then Bruce had failed Grayson too. Maybe not to the same extent as he had failed Jason, but he still failed to protect another boy that was in his care, and that was unacceptable.