He's just sitting there, intentionally keeping his distance from the others and staring off into space. He's unusually still. Quiet. His forehead glistens with sweat, his breathing still faster than normal. "Robin," Bruce calls, hoping it will be enough to catch the boy's attention. Dick's head whirls towards him, eyes surely wide behind the sunglasses. He's startling too easily. "Time to go."
Dick nods and wipes his palms on his jeans before shakily sliding off of the table. Bruce puts a hand on his back without hesitation to help guide him towards the zeta tubes. He parked the Batmobile in Gotham near the zeta entrance, not wanting to make the drive to Happy Harbor for what was already planned to be a long day. He's even more grateful for that decision now.
Bruce goes through first, not wanting Dick to be alone. The computer recognizes him and he steps forward, only to be met with a Gotham alley. It's evening now, the sun already beginning to set, just barely peeking out. It felt later in the Cave, still does.
Dick materializes behind him as Bruce calls the Batmobile. He hops in when it pulls up—Dick following his lead unprompted—and waits for Dick to get settled before driving off. When Bruce glances at him through his peripheral, he's fidgeting and biting at his lip, (hopefully) accidentally drawing blood. He needs to say something.
He clears his throat, and Dick practically jumps. "What happened today never should have happened. I apologize for our error." Too mechanical. He holds back a sigh. "Dick, I am so sorry you went through that."
"I," Dick stammers, but the beginning of his sentence never goes anywhere.
"Dick," Bruce says again, switching the Batmobile to autopilot so he can give Dick his full attention. He grabs the boy's hand, preventing it from twisting the skin on his opposite arm. "I'm not taking this . . . situation lightly. What happened in there was horrific, what you experienced," Bruce trails off. His son just experienced his friends' deaths, his own death even. Something he thought—felt, believed—to be completely real. The mere idea makes him feel sick, and he can only imagine its toll on Dick. He's thirteen. His baby. "The League's carelessness was unacceptable, and I can assure you that precautions will be taken in the future. But more importantly, its effects on you need to be managed."
"Managed?" Dick repeats, voice uncharacteristically empty as if he had heard the word for the first time and was just testing it out himself.
"Yes. Before we left, the League talked about setting up a few counseling sessions for each of you," Bruce explains. "I think it's a good idea."
Dick doesn't say anything, but he does nod slowly. Whether that's an agreement to talk about his experience or an agreement that of course Bruce thought it would be a good idea, he's not sure. He doesn't want to know.
"But we won't force you into it. Not until you're ready," Bruce assures, receiving another slow nod in return. "And I'm . . . here, if you ever want—need—to talk."
"Yeah." His voice still sounds so wrong, distant almost. Bruce lets go of Dick's hand which immediately goes back to its previous job of twisting the boy's skin. Bruce clenches his jaw and focuses on the road ahead of him as he takes over the Batmobile's controls once more.
Not a minute later, Dick finally says something: "Bruce?"
"Yes, chum?" He's all calm tones, soft voices.
"I'm going to puke."
Bruce swerves the car to the side of the road and parks it, helping Dick out and away from the car. He pukes in the city's bushes on and off for two minutes. It leaves him shaking and covered in a new layer of sweat and what Bruce finally recognizes as being on the verge of a panic attack. He wonders how long ago the thought spirals started, or whether this was induced by a flashback, or maybe it's a delayed reaction to the exercise. Possibility after possibility pops into his head, but he pushes them back to focus on Dick and what he needs.
He bends down on his knees and holds Dick's face in his hands. "Grounding exercise." Dick doesn't have panic attacks often, but they tend to be a side effect of fear toxin, so he's familiar enough with them. Grounding exercises tend to work efficiently on Dick, something that has more sporadic benefits on Bruce himself. "Tell me five things you see right here, right now."
"Can't breathe," Dick gasps. He thinks it's funny in an odd sort of way; people with panic attacks often say they can't breathe, and yet they're breathing so much so fast. Too much, too fast.
"Yes, you can. Focus. Five things you can see. Tell me."
"I-I see bu-bushes," Dick says, eyes moving from side to side to look around. "I see-see you."
"Good, keep going. Three more."
"I see my-my vo-mit," Dick stumbles over his words a little as his attention shifts.
Bruce pushes his head away from the bushes. "Two more, buddy."
"I see the sidewalk, and-and I see my sneakers."
"Good." His breathing's still fast, eyes jutting around, and his body is vibrating with how fast he's shaking. The shaking is one of the things Bruce hates the most. "Now four things you can feel."
"I feel my face going numb," Dick gasps out. Damn it.
"Try not to name symptoms of the panic attack," Bruce reminds him.
"I feel your ha-hands on my face, I feel my jacket, I feel my shades," Dick lists off quickly, almost as if he's being timed. "Um, I—"
"That was four," Bruce tells him. "Three things you can hear."
Dick closes his eyes, breathing slowing a little. "I hear the swings and I hear my voice." Dick's body jerks once, something Bruce hopes to be the shaking's final hurrah. "And I-I hear traffic."
"Almost done. Two things you can smell."
Dick's breathing is almost back to normal, and Bruce feels relief for the first time since Dick woke up. "I smell my sweat."
"Dick," Bruce warns.
"And-and I smell garbage," he half smirks.
"Last one: one thing you can taste," Bruce tells him, smiling himself. The shaking seems to be tapering off, almost gone completely.
"I taste my bl—" Dick stops himself from saying what Bruce guesses was going to be "blood." "Something salty."
"Good kid," Bruce smiles, wiping away tear tracks. "Better?"
Dick nods. "A little."
"Should we go home? Or do you need a minute?"
"I wanna go home," Dick says, and he sounds so painfully desperate.
Bruce takes his kid home.
When they get home, Alfred is there waiting. He had sent him a message detailing the general situation what must have been an hour ago, shortly after the League themselves realized something was wrong. He sent him another update when they got to the Batmobile, too, but even so, the old butler must be wracked with worry by now.
And to combat that worry, it smells like he had been cooking. Soup and fresh bread, Bruce suspects as he and Dick finally enter the house.
Bruce's hands are still on Dick's shoulders, guiding him out of the study. He's still a little unsteady as he recovers from the panic attack, so Bruce keeps his hands on the boy to prevent him from falling almost as much as he does it to keep him grounded. And if it helps Bruce too, well, that's just an added bonus.
"Ah, Master Dick, Master Bruce, I'm so relieved to see you," Alfred says with relief as he intercepts them in the hall, still in the middle of wiping his hands on a towel as he does. "I've made bread and soup if anyone's hungry."
"That sounds great Alfred," Bruce says. "Think you can manage some food, kiddo?"
Dick pales and shakes his head. "Not hungry."
"That's quite all right, lad," Alfred is quick to say. "I'll come check on you in an hour or so. Perhaps then, hmm?"
"Sure," Dick mumbles.
Bruce squeezes Dick's shoulder; he doesn't jump, just turns his head to look at Bruce. "I think a shower and a nap would be a good idea."
Dick has this look of fear in his eyes.
"Sleeping won't make you go back there, Dick," Bruce says, guessing where Dick's fear is coming from. "There aren't any psychics that could link up with you accidentally; it's impossible."
Bruce suspects that was the wrong the to say. Or maybe not wrong, just not right. "If you can't sleep, at least try lying down. It will still help your body relax, and I'm sure you must be exhausted after everything."
"Yeah," Dick murmurs. "Yeah, maybe."
Alfred looks at Bruce; he has a lot of explaining to do.
"I'm going to," Dick cuts himself off and swallows. "I'm going to take a shower."
Bruce let's go of Dick's shoulders. "Let me know if you need anything."
"Right," Dick says quietly to confirm that he had heard Bruce, and walks past them and in the direction of his bedroom.
Bruce wants to follow, make sure that he's all right and to be close by if he's not. But Alfred needs an explanation, and Bruce needs Alfred.
He eats soup and tells Alfred about the day's initial plan—a train-for-failure exercise taking place in an artificial psychic reality—and how it went horribly, horribly wrong. He tells him that Dick fell into a coma, he tells him that he was terrified he wouldn't wake up. But then he did, and he's relieved, but still so worried about what his actions have led to and the damage they've caused. Alfred offers words of comfort, potential solutions, an agreement that therapy will be beneficial—and they help, they do, but today it's not enough.
When he's finished, he goes upstairs to check on Dick. He's out of the shower and sitting on his bed wearing sweats, hair still wet and dripping onto his shirt.
"Can I come in?"
Dick startles and sits up straighter. "Y-yeah, sure. Course."
Bruce sits on the bed next to him. "Shower help?"
"A little. Good to get that stuff off me, you know?"
"Hn," Bruce agrees. He isn't sure if Dick means the sweat or the physical feeling his psychological state assigned to his body to match his internal feelings of trauma. Probably both.
Dick rests his head on Bruce's shoulder, and Bruce wraps his arm around Dick like a protective shield. "I can't get it out of my head," he whispers, a haunting undertone to his voice. "They just keep dying."
Bruce squeezes him tighter. "That's not an unexpected response." Bruce closes his eyes. "But it's over now Dick. It wasn't real."
"I know. But it felt real, and it kind of still does." Then Dick admits, "I keep going to text them, just to make sure they're really alive."
"They are Dick."
"I keep checking my pulse," he says, voice barely above a whisper as if he were admitting his darkest secret.
Bruce rests his chin on the wet hair, heart aching. "I'm so sorry, Dicky. But you're here, here with me, and nothing is going to happen to you. I promise."
"How long do you think this training thingy will take?" Dick had asked as they drove through Gotham in broad daylight. He had wanted to go to the movies with some school friends that night, he just needed a general time frame to give them.
"It won't be long," he had almost laughed at Dick's eagerness for a movie. "I promise."
Dick reaches his hand up to grab at Bruce's shirt, pulling him back to this moment and reminding him of a similar position they were in when Dick's family died. Even though no one has actually died this time and Dick is now consciously aware that his friends are alive—that he is alive—he's still in mourning. He's been through a traumatic experience that resulted in death, a death that Dick felt and believed full-heartedly. This won't be an easy recovery, no matter how hard Bruce wills it to be.
Dick's body shivers, and then hot tears soak through Bruce's shirt and onto his chest. "It was all my fault," Dick chokes out as a crying fit takes over his body. "I'm sorry, I-I—"
"Whoa," Bruce says and shushes him, pulling him into his lap to rock him back and forth. "None of this is your fault, understand? The simulation was designed to get worse the further it went on. But none of it was real; you are not responsible for anything that happened in there."
"But we-we thought it was real. I made calls that I would've made if it was real. And I-I got them killed, I killed them." The words are a little difficult to make out through Dick's sobs, and his little body is shaking so hard. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm—"
"Dicky," Bruce says through a lump in his throat. "Baby, no. Shh, shh, you need to calm down. Deep breaths, okay? Deep breaths."
Dick tries like the good soldier he is, but he won't stop saying "I'm sorry." Bruce isn't sure what specifically he's apologizing for because he doesn't have all of the details about what transpired yet. He does know that if he wants to fix this, he needs to find out.
But until then, Bruce holds his kid and runs his hand through his hair and rocks him back and forth. He grounds him, he tries to make him see that he's not in some fucked up simulation that his careless so-called adopted father intentionally put him in. He reminds him that he's safe and alive and home with him.
Today, he doesn't think it's enough.
Had to make up for that fluff fic I posted last week. Thanks for reading, I hope you liked it! If you want, leave a review below telling me what you thought :)