Dick knows the others don’t enjoy the galas like he does. He gets it. As much as he loves Damian, his older brother is hardly the most social guy on the planet. About an hour in, he’s usually used up whatever charge he had in his social battery, as he’d explained to Dick once, when he’d been pestering his big brother to come back and hang out with him.
Dick’s spent time with all of his siblings, during parties, because Bruce doesn’t like the idea of him being unsupervised, even though that’s silly, because Dick is nine now and he’s been to plenty of parties before and the galas are all at the manor, anyway, so it’s not like Dick could get lost, or anything.
Cass is better with people than Damian, but her words don’t always come out quite right and she gets tired after a few hours. Usually Damian will turn up then and the two of them will sneak off to spar together, although they both denied it the one time Bruce caught them in the act.
Tim is the best at handling galas. Apparently he used to go to them all the time, even before he came to live with Bruce. After his injury, though, he’s lost a lot of patience for it. He gets angry too easily. That’s what Damian had said, anyway. Dick’s never seen Tim get really angry at a gala, but he also hasn’t been here that long, either.
Dick’s never actually seen Steph at a gala. He doubts he ever will.
The best person to hang out with is Jason. He’s closest to Dick’s age and he doesn’t care if Dick is messing about or doing gymnastics like Damian and Bruce do. He hates galas more than anyone, because they’re full of “stuck-up rich idiots”, so Dick doesn’t always hang out with him if he’s having a lot of fun at the party. But if he’s bored, Jason will always sneak away with him to play video games or do cartwheels in the garden.
Most of the time, Dick enjoys himself at galas, though. Sure, some of the adults are boring and stuck-up and Dick knows some of them don’t particularly like him, or Jason, but only some of them are like that. Once, a fancy-looking old lady had asked him, in an indulgent voice, if he much preferred living with Bruce than with all those circus freaks and Dick had cried so hard that Bruce had taken him to bed long before his actual bed-time.
Later, Jason had snuck into his room and cussed that rude lady out in a low voice. Then he’d pulled out some of the little desserts that Dick hadn’t gotten to try from his pocket, carefully wrapped in napkins, and they’d shared them between them.
When Damian had come up a few hours later, he’d been annoyed to find Dick still riding out his sugar-high. But he’d sat with Dick long enough to tell him not to care about what all those rich snobs thought, although not exactly with the same language Jason had used.
That’s not usually how galas go, though. Usually Dick has a lot of fun talking to the grown ups. Most of them are happy to listen to him chatter at them, and usually they’ll watch him do some somersaults before Bruce or Damian step in to ruin the fun.
This time, the adults are all dancing, which they don’t always do, and Dick had gotten caught by Mrs. Braithwaite just as the waltz had come on. Dick doesn’t mind dancing, but Mrs. Braithwaite’s fingers are sharp and bony and they dig in painfully where she’s clutching at his shoulder and one of his hands. They’re cold, too, and weirdly dry and she smells musty and Dick is already feeling a little sick from all the spinning, churning up all the food he’d eaten earlier.
When they spin past Bruce, who’s happily dancing with Selina, Dick tries to grab at his suit jacket, but Bruce doesn’t seem to notice. And then Dick is being dragged past him and the opportunity is totally lost. A little desperate, Dick searches for one of his siblings - any of his siblings - but he can’t see anyone through the sea of bodies, and when he turns his head too far Mrs. Braithwaite tuts and drags his chin back with sharp fingers.
“You need to keep your head up straight,” she says, as if Dick cares enough about dancing the waltz to want her instruction. “Your steps are terribly messy too.”
Dick scowls and bites down on the instinctive retort that jumps to the tip of his tongue. Upsetting Mrs. Braithwaite will only get him in trouble.
Finally, finally, the song ends, and Dick breathes a quiet sigh of relief and tries to disentangle himself, offering his dance partner a polite smile as he does. Only, she doesn’t let go and, already, another song is starting up and Dick’s heart sinks.
“You really could do with a little more instruction, young man. You can’t dance like this if you want to start courting.”
Dick pulls a face at that. Courting? That’s just old people talk for girlfriends and boyfriends isn’t it? Well, Dick isn’t interested in anything like that and he doesn’t see how dancing with old ladies is going to help, even if he was.
“Mrs. Braithwaite,” he starts, but she’s already moving, dragging him with her as she starts the next dance.
Where’s Jason when you need him? Or Damian, or Cass, or even Tim? All he needs is an excuse to stop dancing and he’s sure she’ll move onto her next victim. But Dick has no idea how to extract himself.
“Elsie,” someone calls, loud enough to be heard over the music and Mrs. Braithwaite turns automatically at the name, her hands still clutching at Dick.
It’s a man Dick doesn’t recognise, wearing a fancy suit and smiling pleasantly, one hand up, as if he was just waving. “I think William was out in the garden, looking for you.”
Just like that, Mrs. Braithwaite lets go of Dick. “Was he?” she asks, looking a little worried. “I’d best go see what he wants. Thank you for letting me know, Arthur.”
Then she’s bustling off without another word, and Dick is left standing on the dance floor with his saviour.
A warm hand drops onto Dick’s shoulder. When Dick glances up, the man - Arthur - is smiling down at him. When he catches Dick’s gaze, he winks.
“I thought you could use some help.” The hand on Dick’s shoulder tugs, gently, guiding Dick off of the dance floor and across the room. “Otherwise she would have had you all night.”
“Thank you,” Dick says, politely, “Mr…”
“Call me Arthur, kid.”
Dick nods. It’s not that he doesn’t know adults have first names - he calls Bruce and Alfred by theirs, after all - but it feels a little weird. Bruce’s rich friends don’t like it when Jason calls them by their first names, usually. Dick sticks to Mr. and Mrs. to stay on the safe side. But if Arthur had said it was okay…
“I bet you need a drink, huh? After all that dancing.”
Dick nods again. He isn’t really that thirsty, but it feels rude to refuse. Arthur pauses at the refreshments table and lets go of Dick’s shoulder for a second so he can turn and get two drinks from the big punch bowl sitting in the middle. When he turns back, he holds one out to Dick, smiling when Dick hesitates.
“Don’t worry, it’s not alcoholic.”
“Thanks,” Dick says, taking it when Arthur prompts him again. Arthur takes a sip of his own drink and Dick copies him, feeling a little awkward and wanting something to do with himself.
“How old are you, anyway?”
“Nine and a half,” Dick answers, promptly. It’s a question he gets asked a lot at galas. Everyone is always interested in Bruce Wayne’s newest ward.
Arthur gives him a once over that makes Dick’s stomach feel a bit weird. Or maybe that’s the food still churning around in there. He nods again, taking another sip of his punch to try to settle his stomach.
“You look younger than that.”
“No I don’t,” Dick snaps, a little rudely. If anyone looks young for their age, it’s Jason, who’s shorter than any fourteen-year-old Dick has ever met. Dick’s short too, but not like Jason is. And he’s going to get bigger real soon, Alfred says.
“Hey.” Arthur holds his hands up in surrender, his punch still clutched in one fist. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s a good thing. When you’re as old as me, you’ll be desperate to look a few years younger.”
Not that Arthur looks that old, Dick thinks. Not like Mrs. Braithwaite, who’s probably about a hundred.
“So,” Arthur says, leaning casually against the wall, sliding his free hand into his pocket and taking another sip of his drink, “tell me what you usually do for fun around here.”
In the end, talking to Arthur is actually really fun. He’s happy to let Dick talk his ear off about whatever he wants, and he doesn’t try to interrupt with boring adult stuff like some of the people Dick has to talk to. They talk about acrobatics and the circus and Ace. When he’d first turned up at the manor, Dick had missed the animals from Haley’s second only to how much he’d missed his parents. Finding out about all of Damian’s many pets had made Dick’s whole week.
He tells Arthur about the video game that Jason had introduced him to a little while ago, too. Jason doesn’t always play with him, because Dick’s too young for some of the games he plays, apparently, and some of them are just single player. But they’ve been working through the newest crash bandicoot game together and Dick’s been really enjoying it.
Arthur smiles at that. “Oh, yeah? I used to love playing games with my older brother too.” The hand is back on Dick’s shoulder. He can’t remember when Arthur had put it there, but it doesn’t feel bad, so Dick doesn’t shake him off. “You think you could show me? I’d love to play.”
“Sure,” Dick starts to say, then hesitates. Because the video game console is in the family part of the manor that’s supposed to be off limits to the party guests, unless Bruce has given someone special access. Dick wouldn’t think twice about taking Selina to the games room, but he doesn’t actually know Arthur, does he?
“I don’t know,” he says, instead. “We’re not supposed to take anyone back there.”
Arthur smiles again. The thumb of the hand on Dick’s shoulder is pressing into the side of his neck and Dick can feel the pressure of it when he swallows nervously.
“Well, we don’t have to tell anyone, do we?”
Dick’s stomach, which had settled down mostly whilst he’d been talking to Arthur, squirms again. He doesn’t like the idea of lying to Bruce and Alfred. He knows the others do, sometimes. Hell, he has on occasion, but it’s usually over something minor, and usually he has one of his siblings to back him up.
Although, thinking about it...taking Arthur to the games room wouldn’t be that big a deal, would it? If Bruce or Alfred caught them, he could just say he’d forgotten about the rule.
Arthur must see the conflict on his face, because he sighs, squeezing Dick’s shoulder, lightly. “If you’re worried about getting caught, we could always take the console up to your room? Then you can shut the door and no one will know we’re playing in there.”
Dick bites his lip. He likes the idea of taking Arthur up to his room even less, but he can admit it makes sense. No one enters his room without knocking and getting his permission first - it’s one of the most important rules in the house, that bedrooms are off-limits unless you’re specifically invited - so it’s not like anyone could catch them in there. It’s just...Dick’s room is his room and he’s not sure he wants a practical stranger in there.
Arthur sighs again. “Or we can just stay here. I thought it would be cool to play a game together, but I suppose if you don’t want to be friends, we can just forget it.”
That squirmy feeling in Dick’s gut is only getting stronger. “No,” he says, though, because Arthur looks so disappointed, and Dick hates the idea of making anyone feel sad. “We can play. If you want.”
The grin Arthur gives him eases a little of the tension in Dick’s chest, but not by much. He can feel the throb of his pulse beneath Arthur’s thumb and he doesn’t like it. He kind of wants to tell Arthur to let go of him. Kind of wants to have an excuse not to play with him. Kind of wants one of his siblings to appear with something better to do, or Bruce to come over and send him to bed, or even just to vomit up the terrible feeling in his stomach, if it would mean he didn’t have to go with Arthur.
But he’s agreed now, and all Arthur wants to do is play a video game with him and he’ll be all sad if Dick goes back on it now. They can just play a couple of levels and Dick can make an excuse and send Arthur back downstairs without him. It’ll all be fine.
So he doesn’t resist when Arthur uses his grip on Dick’s neck to steer him out of the door and into the hallway. It’s much quieter out here, away from the music and chatter of the ballroom, but there are still a few people milling about. Dick makes his way over to the stairs, glancing around furtively to make sure no one notices Arthur coming up with him, and doesn’t even register Jason coming down the stairs towards them until he’s right on top of them.
“What are you doing?” he asks and Dick jumps about a mile in the air. So much for not looking guilty.
At least it’s just Jason - not Bruce or Alfred or, god-forbid, Damian. Maybe Dick can convince him to play a game with them and he won’t have to be alone with Arthur.
“Nothing,” Arthur says, although he still has a hand on Dick’s neck and Dick is clearly leading him up the stairs. At the same time, Dick says, “Playing crash bandicoot.”
Jason’s eyes narrow. They flicker over Arthur, then Dick, then zero in on Arthur’s hand. Something spasms across his face - it looks a bit like fear, maybe, but Dick doesn’t get why Jason might be afraid and he’s not the best at reading faces anyway - before his expression settles into a familiar glare.
“No you aren’t,” he says, so coldly that Dick flinches. He jabs an angry finger at Arthur. “You’re not allowed in the family rooms and Dick’s got to come with me, anyway.”
Does he? Did something come up? Has Bruce been wondering where he was or something? A cold little sliver of anxiety forms in the writhing mess of Dick’s stomach.
“We’re just going to play a game, Jason,” Arthur says. He doesn’t sound upset by the anger in Jason’s voice, but his fingers tighten almost painfully on Dick’s neck. “It’s not a big deal.”
Jason’s face is getting red. Dick isn’t sure why he’s so upset and it’s making him a little worried. Jason isn’t normally a stickler for the rules. Out of everyone, Dick would have thought he’d be the least likely to care about Arthur coming up to play video games with Dick.
“Yes it is,” Jason snaps. “You aren’t allowed up.” His eyes flicker to Arthur’s hand again and his face twists up into something sick. “And fucking let go of him before I break your fucking fingers.”
Dick sucks in a sharp, startled breath. If Alfred had heard that, there’s no way Jason wouldn’t be grounded for like...a month. At least. He knows Jason hates galas and most of the people who attend them, but he’s never heard him be so rude to someone. Not even that old lady who’d made Dick cry.
“Jason…” he says, surprised. At the same time, Arthur says, “Calm down, kid. It’s just a video game.”
“We were just going to play in my room for a little bit,” Dick adds, small, and immediately knows he’s said the wrong thing by the way Jason’s head snaps towards him, an ugly expression of shock melting into fury as he takes in Dick’s words.
“Are you stupid,” Jason yells, bounding down the last of the stairs to grab Dick’s other shoulder. The grip hurts a little and Dick squeaks at the bruising press of fingers and the insult, loud enough for people down the hall to hear. “Why the fuck would you take some rando to your room?”
“Jason,” Arthur says, clearly a little startled by the vitriol in Jason’s voice. “I don’t think-“
“Shut up you creep,” Jason yells. “And stop fucking touching him.”
Arthur’s hand lifts immediately from Dick’s neck. Dick can feel the heat of it, still, against his skin like a brand. He can feel Jason’s hand on his other shoulder, digging hard into muscle until it feels like it might bruise bone.
“Jason-“ he tries again, in another embarrassing little squeak.
Jason isn’t even looking at him. “You need to stay the hell away from him,” he growls, treating Arthur to the meanest glare Dick has ever seen.
“Kid,” Arthur tries again. Dick kind of wants to tell him to just leave, because Jason is clearly in a terrible mood about something and Arthur doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s getting.
“Don’t call me that,” Jason snaps.
Arthur has his hands up in a sign of surrender, a baffled look on his face. “Okay, Jason,” he says, “I won’t. I suppose you aren’t a kid anymore, are you?”
Something about the way he says that makes Dick’s angry stomach squirm again. Or maybe it’s Jason’s reaction, because he makes a noise like he’s going to be sick.
“Shut up,” Jason shouts, again. “Why the fuck are you still here?
“Jason,” Dick says, managing something a little louder this time. “You’re being unfair.”
“No I’m not!” Jason’s gaze snaps back to Dick and Dick quails a little under the intensity of his stare. Jason shakes him, hard enough for the punch in Dick’s cup to slosh around. Jason’s eyes drop down to it and he suddenly goes very still.
“Did he give that to you?” he whispers.
All Dick can do is nod, confused and honestly kind of scared by Jason’s reaction.
The next thing he knows, Jason has slapped the cup right out of his hand. Dick blinks, shocked and a little hurt, watching red spill across the expensive wood floor of the hall.
“How much of an idiot are you?” Jason growls. “Don’t fucking take drinks from strangers.”
Stupidly, Dick feels hot tears spring into his eyes. He’s never had anyone talk to him like this before - he’s never heard Jason like this before, so angry, so cruel. It thickens a horrible lump in Dick’s throat. Makes his chest burn in the way it usually does when there’s a sob trapped in there, like when he wakes from a nightmare and can’t do anything but cry.
“I think you’re overreacting,” Arthur says, because apparently he doesn’t know when to shut up. “You’ve upset your little brother.”
Jason lets go of Dick’s shoulder then, to launch himself at Arthur like he’s about to beat the snot out of him. Dick cries out in surprise and warning and Arthur stumbles back a step, one arm lifting up over his chest protectively, and Jason reels his own arm back and lashes out, like he’s on patrol rather than at a fancy party and-
Someone pushes past Dick and catches Jason’s arm before his fist can connect.
“What on Earth is going on here?”
Dick’s never been so glad to hear Damian’s voice. He’s so relieved that the sob caught in his throat bubbles out, loud in the sudden quiet. Jason freezes, his eyes wide, his fist still raised but now caught in Damian’s grip. Arthur’s eyes are just as wide.
“Jason,” Damian growls, pulling him away from Arthur and pushing between them, “explain.”
Jason just snarls, tugging at the arm in Damian’s fist. When there’s no give, Jason’s face twists up into something that’s almost panicked. Dick doesn’t exactly blame him, having an angry Damian looming over you is never fun. And Jason had been about to punch a party guest. He’s probably going to be grounded for life.
“Let go of me,” Jason snaps, tugging futilely at his arm. “Get off!”
“Damian,” Tim says, and Dick jumps again. He hadn’t realised that Tim was here too.
Damian ignores both of them. “Jason,” he says, again, shaking him a little by the arm, “tell me why you were about to punch one of Father’s guests like some common thug.”
Jason just glares. Dick feels another sob bubbling up his throat. He doesn’t understand why Jason is reacting like this. He doesn’t get why he’s so mad about a stupid video game. Is he upset that Dick was going to play without him? If he’d just waited a minute, Dick would have invited him.
“I’m sorry,” Dick manages, through his tears, when it’s clear Damian isn’t going to get a response from Jason, “it’s my fault. We were only going to play crash bandicoot. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean, Richard?” Damian asks, much more gently than he’d spoken to Jason, not looking away from Dick’s older brother. “What’s your fault?”
Before Dick can explain, Jason cuts in, spitting the words out like they’re poison. “He means this creep was trying to get Dick alone in his room.”
Dick can see the way Damian stiffens. He can feel Tim stiffen, too, beside him. Then Damian drops Jason’s arm and turns to loom over Arthur instead. At the same time, Tim steps forward and wraps a comforting arm around Dick’s shoulders.
“Is that true?” Damian asks, in a voice like ice.
“Of course that’s not true,” Arthur says, immediately. “This is all just a big misunderstanding. Dick wanted to show me his game and I was just humouring him. I thought it would be in a games room or something.”
Dick frowns a little at that. It was Arthur’s idea to play in Dick’s room, after all. In fact, it was Arthur’s idea to play in the first place. But maybe Jason and Damian’s reactions had scared him? Dick wouldn’t want to take the blame either.
“Liar,” Jason hisses, apparently emboldened by the fact that Damian has turned his anger on someone else. “You were touching him too, you fucking creep.”
Damian’s eyes flash. Tim’s arm tightens around Dick’s shoulders.
“What?” Arthur splutters, stepping back beneath the heat of Damian’s glare. Dick feels genuinely bad for him. He was only trying to be nice. “That’s not true at all! I put my hand on his shoulder for a second. It wasn’t at all like he’s making out.”
Damian doesn’t relax. He doesn’t move at all, staring Arthur down like he’s considering punching him himself, before gritting out, “Richard?”
Dick shakes his head, turning to wrap his arms around Tim’s waist and bury his face into his ribs so no one can see his expression. He should never have thought he could get away with breaking the rules. Now everyone is angry and upset and Dick doesn’t even really get why. They were just going to play a stupid video game.
“He only touched my shoulder,” Dick mumbles, wet.
“Exactly,” Arthur cuts in, before Damian can react, “there was nothing creepy about it. I’ve not done anything wrong.”
Jason scoffs. Tim rubs a hand gently up and down Dick’s back.
“Except for trying to get a nine-year-old on his own at a party,” Tim says, dryly.
“That’s not what happened,” Arthur snaps, sounding angry now himself. “Jason overreacted and jumped to the wrong conclusion and he upset his brother while he was at it. Not to mention he attacked me.”
“It’s nothing you didn’t deserve, asshole,” Jason shouts, lunging forward like he might attack Arthur again. Damian’s arm shoots out and catches him across the chest before he can get close enough to reach Arthur, though. “We all know you’re a nasty little pedo. Stay the fuck away from my brother!”
“Jason,” Damian admonishes, gently pushing Jason back. Then he turns back to Arthur, a hard look on his face. “Price, I suggest you leave the premises before you make this any worse for yourself.”
Arthur opens his mouth like he might argue, but Damian cuts him off with a hard, “Leave,” and Arthur’s mouth snaps shut. He glares at Jason, who glares right back, before turning on his heel and pushing past Tim to head back towards the ballroom.
“You’re just going to let him leave?” Jason asks, the moment he’s out of earshot.
Damian lets his arm drop, turning to look at Jason. “What would you have me do? We can hardly have him arrested for touching Dick’s shoulder.”
Jason gapes at Damian. “He wasn’t just touching Dick’s shoulder,” he snaps. “He was trying to get him alone in his room. What the fuck else was he going to do? You really think he just wanted to play video games?”
Damian frowns, then reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose in a move that makes him look very much like Bruce. “Look, I’m not happy about it.” He turns to pin Dick with a look that Dick quails beneath, sinking further into Tim’s side. “And I’m very disappointed in you, Richard, for flaunting the rules like that. But we can’t do anything based on assumptions.”
Dick feels his cheeks flush with shame. The tears that had mostly subsided come back in full-force, prickling behind his eyes. He hates when Damian is angry at him.
“It’s not an assumption,” Jason growls.
“Dick said that nothing happened,” Tim argues, squeezing Dick again. And Dick is grateful that at least one person seems to be on his side, because he hates that Jason and Damian are both so angry with him. “We’ll keep an eye on him. But if we can’t know for sure-“
“Are you guys serious?” Jason asks, sounding genuinely baffled. “Of course we know for sure. The guy tried to molest Dick and you’re okay with him just walking out of here?”
The squirming in Dick’s gut is making him feel like he might honestly be sick. That’s not...Arthur wouldn’t have done that. He wasn’t like that. He was nice to Dick. He just wanted to play a game with him, that’s all.
Damian bristles. “If I thought Richard, or any child, was in danger-“
“But they are,” Jason cries.
Damian opens his mouth, but Tim cuts him off: “You seem very certain,” he says, voice soft but serious.
Jason seems to draw up short at that. His mouth snaps shut and he shoots Tim a look that seems almost suspicious. Damian sends Tim a look too, but Dick can’t read that one.
“Yeah, well, it’s like I told you,” Jason says, more slowly and less angrily than before. “Why else would a grown man be trying to get into a kid’s bedroom?”
“But it sounded like he wasn’t trying to get into Dick’s room,” Tim says, still in that soft voice.
“Yes he was,” Jason snaps.
“How can you be sure?”
“I told you-“ Jason starts, volume rising again but not quite yelling yet.
“Jason,” Tim interrupts. “I believe you, okay. None of us think it’s okay for him to be anywhere with Dick alone. But I want to know what made you so sure.”
Jason blinks at him. Something like panic flits across his face for a moment, before it settles into a scowl. Beside him, Damian shifts, turning to look at Jason again with an odd expression.
“Is there information that we are missing, Jason?” Damian asks, stiffly.
“What do you mean?” Jason asks and his voice is strangely high. His eyes slide away from Damian, like he doesn’t want to look at him anymore, dropping to the floor instead. “It’s obvious he’s a pedo.”
“Is it?” Tim asks, very gently. “Or is there something we don’t know?”
Jason’s shoulders shift. Dick can hear him breathing, fast and harsh. He shakes his head, still not looking up at them.
“No...it’s...no it’s obvious...it’s…”
“Jason,” Damian says, more softly than he’s said anything else tonight. “How did you-“
“I just know,” Jason shouts, lifting his head to glare at Damian. “I just fucking know.”
Then he bursts into tears.