Dick nearly knocked himself out when it happened.
He’d been peacefully skimming through a book he’d borrowed (stolen) from Wally, sitting in the hangar beneath the wing of some decommissioned plane, the metal catching the top of his hair when he shifted. A small light brightened the space he occupied with a blanket cocooning his shoulders. It was the very respectable time of three thirty-six AM when a voice echoed through his head.
He tried to stand so quickly that the metal wing rung upon collision with his head. Dick ended up sprawled on the ground, half-leaning against one of the landing gears. He held a hand to his head, fumbling for the light and wondering if he’d imagined the ghostly whisper of if Mount Justice was haunted. At this point, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was.
“Sorry,” The voice came again and he sagged with relief. “You scared the crap out of me, M’gann.” He projected the thought to her, chased by a bemused sigh. “What’re you doing up anyways?”
He had half a mind to chastise her for popping into his head like that, he would’ve a few months ago. But she’d explained it to him once that she doesn’t really do anything to make the link happen, rather it takes more of a conscious thought to make it stop. Both human and martain brains usually shut down at night, so there needn’t be worry about seeing someone else dreams, but while she’s awake, M’gann keeps her thoughts tucked away. It’s not hard, she had told him as much. Said it was like remembering to blink.
Dick’s hand brushed against the fallen light as he listened to M’gann fumble for an explanation. “Well I… I’d just been going to get um,” Dick smiled sympathetically in the barley-lit room. Since when were all of his friends this bad at coming up with lies? “Getting water…?” She finished hesitantly. He considered giving them all lessons in how to make stuff up. Then quickly abolished the idea upon remembering that M’gann might be able to hear what he wasn’t purposefully projecting. “I wasn’t trying to bother you. I just felt that someone was up and you were thinking really loud.”
“Uh huh.” He settled back against the old plane, staring into the dark, comforting mass before him, book in hand.
Most people feared the dark, but Dick found it charming and warm; a blanket in a storm. Or maybe he was just projecting what he associated the dark with. Who’s to say! Certainly not him.
“Where are you?” He asked, arbitrarily glancing around where the light fell. “Hallway by the kitchen. Why?”
“I’m in the hangar, if you wanna drop by.”
He felt her hesitate, practically seeing a flurry of incomprehensible thoughts wiz by, just beyond his reach.
“Give me a second.” He waited, patiently running his fingers along the worn and tattered cover, wondering what caused the nicks on the books spine. Maybe she would try density shifting and drift up through the floors. Dick wouldn’t put it past her: She’d been practicing the technique obsessively for a while now and, with a lot of concentration, she’d found a bit of success.
He found himself just a little disappointed when the door creaked open. It was soon overtaken by curiosity as he heard two sets of footsteps making their way toward him instead of one.
Before Dick was able to run through the implications of that, two figures stepped into his little circle of sight, standing boldly against the rest of the dark room.
M’gann shifted awkwardly, a hand wrapped around her middle with Conner by her side.
“Evening.” He said plainly. Conner nudged M’gann forward, giving Dick precious seconds to figure out what was going on.
She looked nervous, in the way she usually did when she was keeping a secret. Conner had a hand on her elbow, guiding her ever so slightly forward, his lips pressed into a thin line that somehow managed to look like a smile.
Would you look at the clock! It’s time to jump to conclusions.
Dick’s immediate thought was that Batman was back from being off-world and ready to break the cardinal No Killing rule. Or perhaps he’d done something that upset her... again.
Did she think he’d been avoiding her the past few weeks? Dick had been letting her take time to get over the experience but maybe she hadn’t wanted, or needed time. Maybe she’d just locked herself out of her room again.
Her mouth opened and broke apart all three theories.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at you when you were in the infirmary.” She held his gaze for a half second, “I’m sorry.”
He stared at her for a moment, tracking her once again downcast eyes and taking note of how Conner seemed rather pleased.
Dick shot her a lopsided grin. “Nah, I had it coming. It’s fine.”
“But—“ He shook his head, “If you hadn’t, someone else would’ve. You had every right to be upset.”
She tugged at the hem of her shirt, frowning at her feet. “I apologized.”
“You did...” He agreed carefully, “Am I missing something here?”
“You didn’t say you forgive me.”
He blinked, “Oh,” Conner had backed out of the area where they spoke, blending into the shadows. He was probably trying to give them some semblance or privacy while still being there to encourage M’gann. The effort was tainted by the fact that Dick could practically feel his stare.
“Do you?” M’gann seemed much smaller than she had previously. Dick nodded with the most sincere smile he could muster.
“I mean, yeah. Of course. I forgive you.”
“Really?” She must’ve really been fretting over this, based on the hopeful note in her voice. He felt a mix of sympathy and guilt well up in the pit of his stomach. Logically, he had no way of knowing M’gann had been feeling like this, and yet he still felt like he should have noticed.
“Thank you. Sorry.” He chuckled at their shared clumsiness.
“You already said that,”
“No I mean about earlier. I lied. I wasn’t getting water I just... wanted to talk to you.”
“Yeah I know.”
Conner was nowhere to be found. M’gann bowed her head for a moment, smiling at him weakly. Then she was gone.
Dick returned to his book and was found in the same spot by Wally hours later, eyes still glued diligently to the pages.
Dick wished he could return to the mindset he had while stuck in the infirmary. The eagerness to get back up and start rehabilitation as quickly as possible. He wanted that intense drive and motivation back, because now, with his entire body trembling and still ten feet left to walk, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
Leslie had been traded out for anyone who was willing to be a spotter while he worked. She had a clinic to run, after all, and he felt bad that he’d started taking up so much of her time. She insisted it was alright, that her nurses were more then capable of handling things for a few hours each week, but he was steadfast. Dick stubbornly told her to lessen her visits for the sake of people who needed her more.
After about twenty minutes of deliberating, she relented on the condition that he wouldn’t do PT alone. Mostly it had been Kaldur who stayed with him, politely reading or making use of the endless sets of weights, only really intruding if Dick had lost his footing, or to offer a hand when he stumbled. It was nice to not have someone watching his every move.
This time, however, it had been Artemis who volunteered to keep him company.
She had largely followed Kaldur’s example, situating herself to the left of the twin railings with a filing cabinets worth of paper and folders spread out like a flower mid-bloom.
Dick had graduated from hanging off the parallel bars to having his hands merely ghost over their surface as he moved, as well as upgrading to a simple cane. Which was a severely underrated device, dispute Wally’s teasing that he was like an old man. Little did he realize, Dick could bonk anyone over the head with it or trip someone who wasn’t paying attention.
Artemis glanced over at him curiously while he stood still. His muscles had once again betrayed him and choose to seize up. He was stuck.
“You good there, Robin?” She called, though any genuine concern was lost to the way her eyebrows had lifted towards her hairline. “Just peachy.” He ground out. Dick rested his hands more firmly on the bars and lifted the offending foot a few inches off the ground.
“Your foot get all cramped up again?” He sighed, glaring down at his current moral enemy. “Yep.”
The archer pushed herself up from the floor and casually leaned against the opposite end of the bars. She blew a stray out of her face before focusing on Dick with a somewhat unimpressed frown. “Just sit down and relax for a bit. There’s no point in busting your feet twice.”
“Your suggestion is being reviewed by our committee. Please hold.” Artemis rolled her eyes with all the might of a bull. “Let go.” She told him sternly.
He was temped to shoot the words back at her. He knew that the main reason she was even here with him was because she and Roy had reverted back to being their old antagonism. Their alliance had fallen apart almost as fast as it had come together when the shared goal of finding out who Robin was proved more illusive than expected. Tensions had been rising amongst everyone, actually.
The suspicions of a mole had resurfaced and now Kaldur seemed to be the only other person at Mount Justice who wasn’t accusing treason at the drop of a hat. Even Wally had been touched by the sickness of mistrust. There’d been a mission to track down Cheshire. It was a trap. Dick had been able to assist remotely (thank god for drones) but the fact remained that someone must’ve tipped her off.
And with Roy now officially a member of the Justice League…
Dick was just hoping Artemis would tell the team about her family and have a little more faith in them. They weren’t so shallow to blame her for her family’s actions.
Heh. You first, Artemis.
Dick dutifully kept his thoughts to himself as Artemis picked at the chipped wood. He finally shrugged, “Fine. Trust fall!”
“What?” He promptly lifted his hands from the railings and let himself tilt backwards. Of course, he knew how to fall without actually getting hurt, especially if he knew it was coming, but it still spurred the archer into action.
With an indignant yelp, she lunged forward and grabbed his wrists, yanking him back up, holding most of him upright just with her own arms. He wasn’t sure if that said more about her strength or his weight.
Nevertheless, Dick grinned at her. “Aw, you do care.”
She scowled back, “Asshole. I’ll drop you.”
His back hit the floor faster than he’d expected. “Ow.”
She crossed her arms and plopped down among her hurricane of paper. “Serves you right.”
He hummed in response. There was a tug in the very back of his mind, a voice telling him to get off the floor.
Shouting at him to get off the floor.
Screaming at him to get off the damn floor.
“I wanna quit.”
The words tumbled from his mouth before he could swallow them back. Dick’s stomach dropped the second he heard it out loud because suddenly he knew it was true.
The ceiling was much too familiar to him now and he wished it wasn’t.
Artemis scoffed, the shuffling of folders flittering across the open space. “Stop being so dramatic.”
He didn’t respond. There was a small crack in the ceiling that he followed instead, tacking its path from one light fixture to the next. From the corner of his eye, he saw her jerk up. He couldn’t see her face but he could feel every ounce of worry in her voice. “You’re serious?”
Dick slowly got his elbows under him and propped himself up, though eye contact had become a foreign concept. He breathed in sharply, hand curling uncomfortably into fists while time began to crawl. “I’m just so tired of this.” He manually pulled his legs into a crossed position, prodding mindlessly at the ever-present and utterly damning bandages that scored his skin.
Artemis shuffled closer, silently urging to to say more. It was a pretty big bomb to drop, in all fairness. Then again, it was one he didn’t even know he had.
“It takes so much energy just to walk and I’m sick of it.”
“So, what, you’re just gonna stop?”
“No!” He chased the snap from his words with a huff, “Of course I’m not. I just want this to be over is all.” She was beside him now, close enough to hear the rustling of clothing. Artemis’ hand hovered by his arm for a split second before retreating. Dick busied himself with the strengthening stretches he’d worked on with Leslie. The ones that focused on his ankles and hurt enough to make him bite down on his lip till it split. It was an excellent distraction from the uncomfortable situation he had just manufactured though.
Artemis interrupted his thoughts without preamble. “I talked to one of the performers when the fire happened.” He stole a glance at her, everything from her brow to her posture was stiff with earnestness. “Lori, you remember her right?”
Loriana. Dick bit back the name, refraining from correcting her. “She said something sort of strange. That you’d been waiting your whole life to run into a fire.” She strained to meet his eyes.
“Listen, I’m not going to pry. Hell I drop it now if you want but—“ Artemis finally touched his wrist, gently turning him towards her, “—but could just throw me a bone here? Why would she say that?”
“Martyrdom is pretty appealing, you know.” He told her calmly. She pulled back, studying him.
“You don’t really mean that.” She said with uncertainty, so much so that Dick nearly mistook is for an honest question.
“Robin!” Something clattered to the floor—a pen, empty files—and Artemis was in front of him, eyes stormy as ever while her grip rapidly grew too tight on his shoulders. He winced when her knuckles dug into the still tender burn.
“Do not joke about that! It’s not…” He stared at her, wide eyed.
Oh, hello guilt. Glad you could make it.
Artemis sat back on her heels, her hands fisted into the fabric of her pants. “Screw you. That’s not funny.”
“I’m… sorry.” Dick wasn’t sure if he should leave her be or offer some kind of contact. Artemis was a bit of a wild card when it came to interaction. This was proof of that: He’d expected her to smack him upside the head with a snide remark.
Dick grasped for the right words. “I didn’t mean to scare you and I can’t say why Lori said that, I never even talked to her while we were there” A half lie. He hadn’t talked to her on the mission. That was to say nothing about years prior when their trailers sat next to one another. “Maybe she was just freaked out. People like ascribing meaning to actions when theres a simpler explanation. It makes them feel less shitty.”
She pulled at her hair, giving him a frown that spoke louder then any words. I don’t believe you.
But true to her word, the archer didn’t press him further. She stood up, striding across the room and snatching up the cane he’d taken too using. “Hey!” He began to protest. She paid him no mind. It was a bit insulting, actually. “I’m going to grab snacks. You’re taking a break.”
He gapped, “Can you at least leave the—“ Artemis yanked open the door, the un-oiled hinges cutting him off with a squeak. “Nope. This is my insurance that you won’t leave.”
“At least I’m not lying about important stuff.” He shoved down a loud laugh. Oh that was rich. Of all people to say that… had she no self awareness? She shrugged as the door started falling shut. “Maybe you’ll be ready to actually talk once I’m back, you cryptic little dick.”
She was so close it was actually painful. This was killing him.
Under the thin layer of mirth he still caught the worry. And the anger. And frustration. He’d really put his friends through the wringer on thing one, didn’t he.
Fire was viral. It catches and leaps. It hiccups in sparks and cries in ashes. It had clung to Dick’s dreams for three weeks now.
Stubbornly leering at him with one question springing from its set of charred lips carved into a jagged line.
Do you want me to eat the world?
No matter how many times he’s woken up gasping, feverish and scared, his answer had never changed. Each time he would dig his nails into his own flesh until his mouth wasn’t sewn shut by burns and cry out, “No.”
A pitiful, monstrous bellow that stemmed from the trembling terror in his head. The ordeal was agonizing and so trivial that he couldn’t even bring himself to tell anyone about it.
He was starting to wonder what would happen if something were to change. If maybe the repetition was the problem. So when a wall of toothy flames came blazing through his subconscious for the thousandth time and Dick peeled the skin from his lips to shout, it spoke.
Do you want me to eat the world.
He stared back at the changing face settled amongst smouldering memories. He waited until the expression it wore faltered by just an inch. It breathed its words again. A thumping drummed up from his chest, fierce and starkly contrasting to dull roar that surrounded him. Dick listened to the beating of his bruised and battered heart, for once letting it say what it wanted.
Green bursted up all around him. Trees. As saplings sprouted under his feet, the trees washed away the scorched ground and smoke-filled skies. He could breathe. In came the scent of something far cleaner than flames and soot.
He could breathe.
Dick looked around at the sun-speckled giants with branches for arms and he was so grateful to be in a world with sun-speckled anything.
For the fist time in weeks, he didn’t wake up gasping. The fire stopped visiting his nightmares.
He dreamed of green.
Wayne Manor was the same. Of course it was. Why wouldn’t it be? The world keeps turning even when he’s absent and there was no way Alfred would let anything fall out of place.
Yet the familiarity still gave him a little shock. Dick was walking now. Running, occasionally. It had been a lot of tedious work but the first hurtle had been the highest the clear. After that, things got easier. The second he had been able to walk without assistance, it was a literal hop skip and jump to start with light sparring and joyously mundane strolls down the boardwalk.
Bruce had conveniently decided to return from his (oddly long) escapade in space.
Dick didn’t know where he had been or what he’s been doing. It was classified and no matter how many firewalls and encrypted files he busted through, he couldn’t find any hints. Dick had gotten a message on the private line he shared with Bruce and Alfred.
Be back at 2pm.
It was curt, devoid of personality and so very Bruce. So, here we was. After a month of stalling and stalling and stalling, he’d come home.
Through the cave, of course. He figured thats where Bruce would be stationed anyways, staring at his obnoxiously big computer monitor, waiting to spin around in his chair and launch into a record-breaking lecture.
Leading up to his return, he practiced a simple apology. A quick one that was polite and sincere enough that he wouldn’t have to run though all the details for the hundredth time. Dick manicured the false acceptance and forcefully beat back the urge to defend himself with a stick.
He was sure he could handle getting chewed out for running off.
He was used to that.
Dick was more then a little surprised to find the place empty. The screens were all shut off and the lights had been turned down to their power-saving mode. It was dim and the cave suddenly was a lot bigger then he remembered. Nonetheless, Dick climbed to stairs leading to the main floor, easing open the old grandfather clock that hid the entrance. He wished he could say he found the theatrics silly, but the novelty just never wore off.
Dick meandered around, poking his head into Bruce’s study, the drawing room, two living room-esk spaces that he knew were favoured by the other occupants of the manor, before he finally landed in the foyer. Alfred was standing near the door, his back to Dick. Oh right.
He was probably expecting Dick to come through the front door. Dick opened his mouth to speak but Alfred turned to him before he could say a word. The man didn’t look the slightest bit fazed and the possibility surfaced that Alfred had been facing away just to mess with him.
He nodded politely to Dick, “Welcome back.”
Dick’s brow furrowed in confusion, “Uh… Thanks Alfred. Where’s Bruce?” The butler gestured to the set of stairs that led to the second and third floors. “In his room. He should be awake by now, go on up.”
In his room? What?
Dick stayed frozen in place, staring up at Alfred with a questioning look. Alfred remained totally and completely neutral despite the scrutiny, instead clapping a hand onto Dick’s arm and lightly guiding him to the stairs. “You haven’t got all day. I’ll speak to you later,” Dick blanched. Two lectures in one day. Hooray. “But for now Master Bruce is the one you need to see.”
The hallways of Wayne Manor were like a labyrinth. Even after four years, Dick still relied on the telltale nicks and chips in Bruce’s doorframe to differentiate it from the rest.
He knocked twice and waited.
“B?” He called hesitantly.
Screw it. Dick silently slipped into the room, carefully clicking the door shut behind him. When he turned, his jaw hit the floor.
“Language.” Bruce muttered.
Dick nearly started to laugh at how absurd it was: Bruce was half-propped up in bed, an IV in his arm and covered head to toe in bandages. It started at his neck with a thick brace and weaved down the rest of his body until it made way for a heavy cast over his right leg, all the way up past his knee.
“You look like you got hit by a bus!” Bruce sighed, “Thank you for that, Dick.”
“What happened on that mission?” Dick sobered, padding across the floor to drag one of the chairs that sat by the window over to Bruce’s bedside.
“I could ask you the same thing.” Bruce replied, the first hints of anger seeping into his voice. Dick winced at the tone, but straightened quickly. Bruce didn’t wait for his answer, “You took your teammates on an off-books personal mission to Haly’s and nearly died. Do I have that right?”
“You endangered not just your own life, but theirs as well, to solve a crime spree that you had nothing to do with.”
“And you didn’t come back here for a five weeks after the mission.”
“Five weeks and three days.”
Bruce glared at him.“You’re not helping your case.” What a shame he’d become immune to that look, because it could’ve been scary. Dick leaned forward, resting his elbow on his knees, “I don’t have a case. I went behind your back and messed up. Guilty as charged.”
Bruce gave him another hard, stiff look. Which was just a nice way of saying he looked pissed. “Why?”
He reigned in the urge to tear his hair out, “You know damn well why.”
“And you know damn well you can’t just run off like that to defend whoever you please!”
Dick’s politeness mask was being chipped away at. He knew Bruce knew exactly what he was doing. Pressing him for answers he already had, but wanting what? The satisfaction of Dick saying it out loud?
If he wants a storm, then he’ll fucking get one.
“So what?! I should’ve just let him get arrested for something he didn’t do?” Dick stood, momentarily looming over the older man with a glare sharp enough to break skin. Bruce scowled, “That’s not—“
“You would’ve done the same if it was Alfred.” Dick cut him off unapologetically.
“How? How is it any different?” He challenged, all remains of patience having been swept away along with the pretty little apology he’d been carefully preparing. Good riddance. If he could, Dick was sure Bruce would’ve been curling his hands into fists. “It’s not about that,”
“Then what is it about? That it was a personal mission? We’ve established that.” He ticked off a finger, “That is was dumb, reckless, and dangerous? Check. That I got hurt?” He was still standing over Bruce, his voice rising with each word, “As though that doesn’t happen every night.”
“Dick!” Bruce ground out. It was that same gravelly tone that he used to reprimand him when something went wrong. Dick sincerely considered punching a hole in the wall. Alfred would be mad…
He instead went dangerously still, eyes matching Bruce’s in a way that they just shouldn’t and his tone dropping down to a clam drawl. He might as well have been a loaded gun.
“You don’t get to be mad at me right now. I saved someone and that is all the justification I will ever need for everything I did. What’s your excuse?”
Wally’s words echoed in his head.
King of secret plans and a hypocrite when anyone gives him a taste of his own medicine.
King, huh? Heavy is the head then.
Bruce wavered. The untrained eye would miss it, but Dick knew better. The slight twitch in his face and the way his breathing became just a bit less controlled. Dick bit his tongue.
He was done apologizing. He was done explaining himself.
If Bruce wanted to figure it out so badly then he should put those alleged detective skills to work instead of trying to yank it out of him like a toddler with a loose tooth.
Dick spun around and marched towards the door. Bruce called after him, demanding that he turn around.
“We’re not finished here!”
He pulled the door shut with a shuttering slam, not caring how the doorframe trembled or the angered shouts grew louder. He walked faster, reaching a jog by the time he got to the stairs. Alfred was waiting there, looking rather shocked. He probably heard them talking… arguing. The man was practically omnipresent, of course he heard them.
Dick brushed past him, nearing a sprint as he tore open that ornate clock that reeked of wood stain and lemon cleaner. It felt good to be able to move like this. To simply leave when someone was knowingly putting him in a bad spot.
And that was the worst part, wasn’t it? At least at Mount Justice, his teammates had a reason to prod him for answers, they didn’t know what may or may not hurt. None of it was intentional, not really. This was.
Or, at least, it felt like it was.
He was lost in thought. Repeating the conversation while his blood boiled and burned in his veins. He didn’t know how long he was like that for, but Dick eventually found himself striding through a familiar zeta tube and into an open space. Standing there, facing a computer was… everyone.
M’gann and Conner stood side-by-side, flanked by Artemis, Wally and Zatanna while Kaldur rattled off the list of villains who’d been at the last attack, Raquel peering over his shoulder. A very mild hint of offence washed through Dick’s mind.
They had a meeting without me. Bold move.
“Robin?” M’gain notice him first. Maybe he’d been thinking too loudly or something.
The rest turned toward him, each looking at him with varied levels of surprise and confusion. Wally’s eyes caught his first, a frown creeping over his features, “I thought you… left?”
Dick glared at the ground with a shrug, “Well I’m back now.”
“You were barley gone an hour.”
“We have things to do.”
He marched forward and waited for the now hesitating Kaldur to continue the meeting. The tension was thick, and he knew it wasn’t just his late arrival that caused it. Look’s like he’d be getting a storm too.
More than one confession. M’gann was a white martian. Conner accepted help from Lex Luthor. Artemis told the truth. A full month of nothingness and rehabilitation. Of course all the excitement just had to wait until the very end.
Dick was back on his feet just in time to get knocked down by a brainwashed Justice League. His luck was truly something to behold.
The Justice League nearly killed them on New Years Eve and Roy was the mole.
A clone, apparently. He’d run off to do god knows what while everyone on the team was still in recovery mode. Save Dick, of course.
He was alone on a plane heading east, a one person tent and a duffle bag filled with clothes and a metric ton of blankets were buried in the planes storage. He’d gotten permission to leave this time, with Bruce even offering to charter a privet jet and maybe put together an escort. Dick politely informed Bruce that he was being overbearing and bought himself a ticket with nothing but personal savings and tutoring wages.
Before he left, Bruce apologized. Wether it was for beating the crap out of him or for being an ass, Dick had no idea.
It turns out that an injured body can fight just as well under mind control, so dear Ol’ Batman wasn’t even out of commission for the fight. What a joy.
But still, he actually apologized. That was enough.
The plane wasn’t anything fancy. He was surrounded by people who were either sleeping or severely zoned out, save for the young man next to him scribbling in a notebook.
It smelt of hand sanitizer and stale air. He was only forty minutes into the seven hour flight and already he was feeling twitchy.
Dick peered out the window, resigning himself to boredom and jet-lag before allowing time to slip away.
In other words, he fell asleep.
He got a lot of questioning looks in the airport, mostly from the people at security. They’d see him and blink, then look past him. They would scan the area before their gaze settled back on him with a puzzled expression.
“You here alone?”
Dick smiled and ignored the shock in their voices.
Rouen was touched with frost and bright colours to tug away the gloominess of the older architecture. Streamers from New Years were strewn around street-lamps, confetti had yet to be swept away.
The clashing aesthetics had him eyeing up every street he wondered along, bags in hand, but he never stopped.
Well, he stopped once.
Dick had managed to find the only florist within six blocks (the one he’d marked off on a map hours earlier) and walked away with a bag full of seeds. He made it the the edge of the more urban area by the afternoon and stood at the side of the road, thumb stuck out and a wary smile on his lips.
Yeah, yeah, hitchhiking is dangerous and he could get hurt and blah blah blah… It was the easiest way to travel without a taxi and there was no way Dick would walk all the way to his destination. He’s Robin. If someone tries something, he has ten way to knock them out with one hand and a canister of pepper spray. If anyone was in danger, it was the drivers.
Dick was glad he’d continued practicing the languages he grew up on, otherwise the whole everybody-speaks-french thing might’ve been a problem.
A middle-aged lady with dark brown hair and darker skin invited him into her van, the crows feet around his eyes crinkling when she smiled at him. She was going past where he needed to be anyways. They swapped stories about the most ridiculous things. She—Dani—wished him luck and told him to be careful. She was dropping him off in a rather strange spot, he supposed. Enough reason for her to be a little concerned. He hoped she didn’t worry too much.
Dick thanked her and wandered past the line of trees that cut off the open valley from the highway and train tracks that ran parallel to it. There was a path meant for cars the meandered through the thicket, the dirt kneaded into distinct grooves where tires had cut through.
It was lucky for Dick that the little meadow was a no mans land—that’s why the circus had been there in the first place, no permission or fees required—and damn near everyone was oblivious to it’s existence.
The clearing looked about how he’d expected: barren, burnt and a little charred around the edges. The remains of the circus had mostly been carted off by wind and rain, but there was an ugly scar stretching across the grass where it once stood.
He set up a little camp at the edge of the woods and got to work.
It took weeks.
First he’d mapped the area into four sections and drew lines where he would dig. A combination of strings and stakes kept him on track. It was gruelling, dirty and exhausting, but it didn’t stop Dick from dragging himself up to greet the sun as it waved over the horizon and ready himself for another day of mud-covered boots and blistered fingertips.
It was worth it though.
One night it began to rain. A thunderous rain that poured down, inflicting a wrath of all the oceans in the span of an afternoon. He watched, entranced but a sense of awe. It was almost Biblical. His feet carried him out into the field amount the dozens (hundreds) of holes he’d created. The razed ground was beneath his feet.
The one’s that had been damaged so badly that he couldn’t walk. (It’s okay to be upset, Robin.)
The smoke wasn’t in the air anymore, it had been whisked away weeks ago, but he could still taste it. (It’s okay to cry.)
From head to toe, he was drenched in rainwater, letting it banish the phantom heat that threatened the scars on his shoulder, whispering at all the little burns that were scattered around his body. (Maybe later.)
In the middle of the blackened ground, while thunder roared through the valley, he breathed in with lungs that had been poisoned.
It was later.
So, he cried. Harder than he had in years, raindrops mixing with tears as they watered the cursed earth he stood upon. He cried until his head was pounding and his knees betrayed him, leaving him kneeling in the mud. It was for everything. For the loss of his home, for the month he spent relearning how to stand, for the crippling terror of nearly loosing Haly. For himself.
This was his tragedy and he could cry as long as he liked. So, he cried.
And the thunder echoed.
The next morning was the fifteenth day of working, he looked out at the storm-soaked valley, a bright golden haze spread against the ground. His bag of seeds was empty.
He dreamed of green.
He’d bought as many as he was allowed at the little florist shop. Dick didn’t have the energy to care that he’d taken their stock. They were sturdy trees. Tall, proud and uncaring about soil conditions. They could thrive just about anywhere. Even if someone was stuck with a plot of sand, Jack Pines would find a way to grow taller than houses.
All that was great, but it wasn’t the real reason he’d searched for this particular tree.
They weren’t just a clever nod to Jack Haly or easy to grow. They were fire-proof.
The bark was thick enough to protect the inner layers of the tree, and if that failed, they had a failsafe. Their cones would survive and re-plant themselves into the soil.
In a week, there would be saplings. After that, he would go home. He would sit with his battered friends and smugly refuse to say where he’d been.
Dick would leave knowing that this time, the whole valley would be pyrophytic.