Dick waits just outside the test chamber, seething. Through the glass window he can see Bruce and his newest partner climbing out of the neural harnesses, wobbling and unsteady. Tim’s face is pale but set. Bruce just looks like he’d rather be done with it all already.
Alfred’s in the room with him, calm and collected as always. Dick is grateful for the comforting hand on his shoulder, even as he resents Alfred’s careful murmur of “they’re a reasonable match,” as if that in itself takes away the sting of seeing Bruce drift with someone else. Or somehow makes it okay for Bruce to be drifting at all at this point.
He’s through the door the moment they give the all clear. He knows Alfred will explain things so that no one asks too many questions.
Tim startles before he seems to recognize Dick – of course he would; he’s been in Bruce’s head and seen everything there is to see – and steps aside gracefully, leaves the room as soon as he’s able. Tim’s thoughtful; Dick appreciates that.
Bruce, on the other hand, just looks tired and angry. He walks forward to meet Dick, and Dick can see that he still favours his left side even after the reconstructive surgery six months ago, the multiple rounds of physiotherapy since.
“Dick,” he greets, though his voice is unwelcoming.
“Bruce,” he responds, non-committal.
Pleasantries out of the way, Dick immediately goes on the attack. “Jesus, Bruce, what are you thinking? That child’s a kid! And you’re barely recovered from the last bout with the kaiju.”
Bruce doesn’t even look at him, manages somehow to look through him like Dick isn’t even really there.
Dick can feel rage swelling up in his chest, the same rage that had hit him when he’d first heard the rumors that Bruce was looking for a new partner, barely two months after the attack on British Columbia that nearly killed him. “Shit, Jason’s barely in the ground. Your mind must be scraped raw. Bruce, this isn’t right. You have to stop for a while. You need to – you need to stop.”
This gets a reaction, though it’s not the one he’s been hoping for.
“Oh, like you’ve stopped cold since Barbara got taken out?” Bruce sneers.
Dick feels like he’s been punched in the gut. He rallies, “It’s not the same thing. Babs is fine; she’s going to be fine. She’s getting used to the chair… And she’s been talking to the Marshall about taking on a technician’s role. ”
Bruce waves this away like he already knows. And maybe he does; for all that Dick and Babs aren’t part of the Gotham division anymore, they’d grown up here. Split up or not, they’re still family. Or at least that’s what Alfred keeps telling Dick.
He takes a deep breath and tries again. “My partner didn’t die, Bruce. I didn’t have to feel that in my head. Babs got hurt but she’s alive and okay.” He pauses, then forces out, “And I’m not drifting again yet anyway. I’m taking some time; that is, we’re taking some time together, Babs and me.” He clenches his fists, wonders why he’s still so nervous about this after all this time, after everything they’ve done.
Bruce’s eyes track the movement, and he shrugs. “I’ve lost a partner before. It didn’t seem to matter much.” – Dick tries to breathe through the blinding hurt of this – “All that matters is that we fight. There needs to be someone standing out there.”
Rage makes Dick mean. “And that someone always has to be you, right? No matter how many partners you plow through in the end. Drifting’s about more than fighting, Bruce! You aren’t thinking about the cost!”
And this finally sets Bruce off because he actually looks Dick full in the face, lets him see the anger hiding behind the mask he normally wears. Dick actually takes a full step back because Bruce is livid. “No one understands the cost more than me.”
Bruce isn’t screaming but his menacing whisper is almost worse. He advances on Dick, and Dick backpedals 'til he can feel the wall behind him. Bruce glares at him from inches away, “You think I didn’t understand the cost when I was hurt and out, and my partner suited up with someone else? You think I didn’t understand what it meant to have Jason ripped out of my head?”
Dick can’t help but push back. He shoves Bruce so he can get up in his face when he yells, “It wasn't my fault! You were out of commission! We had to do something. Babs said she’d try, and we helped people, Bruce. Wasn’t that always your fucking bottom line? Kill the goddamn kaiju no matter what the cost?”
Bruce’s mouth tightens but he doesn’t say anything.
Dick sighs. He takes a deep breath, tries not to let Bruce see how much it hurts to talk about this even years later. “Besides, we were waiting for you to come back. I was… I was waiting.” His voice is bitter. “But you didn’t. You shut me out. And the next thing I know you’re paired with Jason. Going on suicide missions and acting like you don’t even know us. Me.” And it had hurt. He’d spent all this time waiting, thinking -
“Didn’t stop you and Babs from flying, did it?” Bruce always did know which buttons to push.
Dick fires back, “We had to keep helping! What else could we do?”
“Nothing,” Bruce says wearily, as if he’s tired of having to say this. He brings his hands up to rub at his temples. “I did what I thought was best.”
Dick pauses because – because maybe –
“Doesn’t it mean anything that we came? Maybe we didn’t save Jason but we saved you.” He’s so desperate for Bruce to finally stop pushing at him, forcing him away. He’s tired of always being angry, of feeling like Bruce –
And Babs had said maybe –
“Bruce,” he puts his hand out slowly, rests it on Bruce’s shoulder, “You need to take a break from drifting. Babs and I, well, we were thinking that you might want to spend some time with us instead.” With me, he doesn’t say.
Bruce doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to, really; Dick knows that look, has seen it reflected out at him and felt the way it pulls the muscles of Bruce’s face in the shared drift.
He tries another tack. “Bruce, this new guy? He’s a child. He might be good at sparring and you guys might be compatible in the drift, but he’s a child and you’re…” Old. Broken. Scary. All the words that Dick can’t say anymore.
Bruce shrugs. “Tim’s old enough to know what he’s doing.”
“He’s a child.” Dick doesn’t know this Bruce. Or he does, but he’d hoped he’d never have to come up against him like this.
“There aren’t children anymore. You know that and I both know that. He’s a soldier. This is a war.” Bruce’s face is closed off again, resolute. Nothing Dick says seems to be getting through.
“It might be a war but you’re dragging him into something he isn’t prepared for! He can fight kaijus in other ways. What he can’t fight is in your head!” Dick can’t understand how Bruce isn’t willing to see this.
Bruce looks straight at him like Dick’s a stranger, like he’s the one who went and changed. Then he leans in – and Dick can remember a time when this didn’t feel like a threat, when he wanted Bruce close all the time so his body could match the feeling of closeness in his head – and says, hard and precise, like he wants Dick to remember it, “He’s not you.”
Dick’s still reeling when Bruce leaves.