He is sore and tired, and knows this night will be far from over. He takes his time as they return, though Robin is sullen and eager for sleep. He sends him off finally with a good night, Jason, good work, which is more than he ever gave Jason Todd's infinitely more talented predecessor.
Who's lurking, he knows, in one of the higher eyries along the Batcave wall. "Come down where I can see you," he says, and Dick Grayson, no more or less, flips casually down to the ground. He's as lithe as he was a year ago, but stronger, broader in the shoulder. A man grown, his grace effortless, his appeal obvious --
Damn the boy. "Happy birthday," he says. "I knew you'd be here."
"You look tired," Dick says by way of greeting, waits to see Bruce's face. "Jason did all right," he said, a peacemaking gesture.
"I caught the bit on the roof."
"You would," he says, feeling a ruefulness. He'd tried to cage the boy below the ground for too many years; the boy has a dizzying passion for heights that mirrors his own fascination with shadows and darkness.
Do we love most that which we fear? It wasn't the first time he'd wondered at the question, but it was the first time that he'd realized how much he feared the boy.
The young man.
"He'll do," he says, referring to the new Robin. "He's not you," he says, quietly enough that no one else could hear him. "He could never be you."
"I can't be him, either," Dick says with a quiet equanimity, but the compliment brings a flush into his cheeks and a slight smile to his mouth.
They are standing too close together, he realizes, and then decides he's made of flesh, not stone, and embraces Dick. "I've missed you," he tells him, and Dick embraces him back. It's uncomplicated by earlier arguments, by the fact that the boy's last birthday ended in a hail of bitter words, ended with the boy turning in his youth and his commitments, ended with a slammed door echoing between them.
His prodigal has returned, and the fact that he thinks of this analogy disturbs him more than it arouses.
Dick Grayson is not his son. He is many things, but he is not that.
God, Dick thinks, he doesn't change at all. It's as though Batman were an immutable being, carved from granite like the towers and gargoyles of Wayne Manor. Dick watches from above for his terse words with Robin -- seeing Jason in Robin's place is always an eerie thing.
Was he ever so small? He can't remember it; it seems wrong.
Bruce knows he's here, of course. It has to be here, their rematch, in that place where Bruce is not Batman and not Bruce Wayne, where Dick was an adult far before his last birthday.
It's hard to talk at first, but it seems that Bruce has missed him. That he's forgiven the harsh words of the previous year, and in return Dick forgives him instantly, knew he'd forgiven Bruce before he'd decided to come.
"How's Kory?" Bruce asks, and it feels like a cheap shot even though Dick knows it's not.
"Ask her husband," he says, not hiding how he feels, for once. And tells Bruce the story -- how neither he nor Kory could give up their own obligations, how Kory has scoffed at his it's-him-or-me ultimatum by challenging him to come live with her people, uncountable distances away.
Bruce is sympathetic; it's as though he's almost hoped for things to go well. For Dick to be out of his hair, somebody else's responsibility, somebody else's wounded bird. "You loved her," he says quietly, and Dick understands that that's really all it was -- that Bruce had been willing to approve of Kory, on the strength of Dick's recommendation alone.
Somewhere along the line they find themselves in the dojo, leaning on the rolled mats, talking about Jason's progress, about Kory, about Barbara Gordon's surprising bid for the state Senate, about the successful run of cases that have placed the Titans on too many government watchlists.
"I'm not comfortable with it," Dick tells Bruce. "If they identify me it's five minutes before they identify you. And I don't work for the government."
"They're your friends." Bruce agrees with him, but is, as always, arguing the other side. "And you're their leader."
"Any one of them could lead that group now," Dick tells him, and Bruce nods, satisfied with that.
Which led to the most perilous question. "What next, then, for you?"
"I don't know," Dick answers honestly. "It's one of the reasons I came home." He sees Bruce's eyes light slightly at the word home. But it is his home, for good or ill, from archaic Gothic cupola to the lowest flooded corner of the Batcave.
"You could try school again."
"Eh." He shrugs, not wanting to be too emphatic about it. "I learn better on my feet. You know that."
"A bachelor's degree is easily gotten," Bruce argues. "And it opens a lot of doors."
"I can pretty much guarantee that my next step doesn't involve a classroom," Dick says, shutting that down. Bruce has to know he's pushing too hard -- Bruce had loved school, has always wanted Dick to get the useless piece of paper. Maybe because college was the last time Bruce Wayne had been allowed to be good at anything. "I thought I'd travel, maybe. Learn some languages, some new moves."
Buce considers this a long time. "I was hoping. Perhaps." He can't even look up.
"I can't stay," Dick says, just the way he's rehearsed it. And Bruce nods, and grips Dick's shoulder, but he doesn't look at him.
"Come say hello to Jason," Bruce says instead, standing up and walking away. Dick sees his mentor's hands clenched in half-fists, sees the set of Bruce's shoulders, and wishes he could unsay his words. He wonders if it will always be like that between them: half hope, half denial. With the instinct of half a lifetime, he hurries to follow Bruce out of the cave.