Diversions & Digressions | fanfiction by mara

Engineering 101

Engineering 101

by Mara

Summary: “Engineering is about testing to destruction,” Bruce said, settling into lecture mode. “You don’t understand how you can do things better until you understand when and why they break apart.”

CONTINUITY: Dick Grayson is training to be Robin and he is about 12 years old.

NOTES: The idea for this fic came from Avi and he assisted me on various
materials testing details. Thanks to Smitty and ratcreature for canon
assistance, although I chose to disregard some bits. All technical definitions
except the first (which I wrote) come from the Instron Corporation’s Glossary of
Materials Testing Terms (http://www.instron.com/apps/glossary/index.asp). Also,
several lines of dialogue in the third section are lifted from a flashback in
Nightwing 31, written by Chuck Dixon, although I’ve slightly changed the
visuals. Many thanks to Alexis and David for betareading and improving this fic,
especially the ending. You guys rock my socks!

* * * * *

MATERIAL-TECHNOLOGICAL TESTING: An umbrella term for tests–either destructive
or non-destructive–conducted to learn as much as possible about a material’s
capacities. Materials are exposed to mechanical, thermal, and chemical stresses,
enabling manufacturers to choose the most appropriate material for each purpose.

* * * * *

Before he was Batman, Bruce Wayne was a businessman. But before he was a
businessman, he was an inventor, always interested in how things worked and
making them better. No matter how busy his life got, he was always fiddling with

Of course, for several years now, that something had been a new toy for Batman.

Bruce had access to all the best equipment, the best electronics and
manufacturing tools, and anything else the dedicated engineer might want. Lately
he’d been working on an improved titanium-aluminum alloy for his batarangs–
something that would hold a sharper edge, shatter less frequently, and balance

The alloy was as ready as it was going to get, Bruce thought, eyeing the shapes
lying on his worktable in the Cave. Dick looked at them. “Are you going to make
the new batarangs now?” he asked.

“Not quite yet. This alloy is going to have to go through some tests first.”

“What kind of tests?”

“Engineering is about testing to destruction,” Bruce said, settling into lecture
mode. “You don’t understand how you can make things better until you understand
when and why they break apart.”

Dick grinned. “We get to break things?”

“Under controlled conditions.”

Dick bounced up and down a few times. “But we get to break things.”



* * * * *

TENSILE TEST: Method for determining behavior of materials under axial stretch
loading. Data from tests are used to determine elastic limit, elongation,
modulus of elasticity, proportional limit, reduction in area, tensile strength,
yield point, yield strength, and other tensile properties.

* * * * *

Frowning, Bruce considered the placement of the sample in his testing apparatus,
wanting to be certain it was secure. The consequences of material failure could
occasionally be quite spectacular. And dangerous.

From the other side of the Cave, he could hear the rhythmic sounds of Dick
working on the uneven bars, his body shifting so smoothly he really did appear
to be flying.

A pause and Bruce looked up to see Dick balancing in a handstand atop the higher
bar–a ruler straight line–before he bent his legs and rolled up into a
tremendous leap above the bars, catching the lower bar perfectly on his way
down. Dick dismounted after a few desultory rolls around the lower bar to slow

Beaming, he turned. “Didja see?”

“Does this mean you’ve completed your other project?”

Dick’s face fell and he looked down at the mat. “Not exactly. I mean, I started,
but I got stuck.”

“Why didn’t you ask for help?”

“Well, um, you were busy. And I thought maybe I’d think of something while I was
practicing. My dad,” he swallowed once, then went on, “always said he could
think better on the trapeze than any place else.”

Bruce put down the Allen wrench he’d been using to tighten the apparatus. “Then
why don’t you get cleaned up and we’ll see how far you got. Persistence is just
as important to what we do as any physical skills.”

Dick nodded and dashed to the showers. Bruce made certain the computer was set
to receive test results, then hit the on button. The jaws of the machine began a
slow tug on the metal, stretching it out, and Bruce kept an eye on the readings.
When they reached the limit he’d selected, the system switched off automatically
and he glanced at the strain gauge.

Leaning to the side, he tapped a few commands into the computer, nodding in
satisfaction as the results scrolled up the screen.

Other measurements would have to wait, however, as a much more subdued Dick
emerged in jeans and a clean t-shirt.

Bruce made a few quick notes so he wouldn’t forget what was completed, then
turned to find Dick already seated at the main computer. His problem was on the
auxiliary screen, which Bruce had set at a lower height. No sense in giving the
boy neck troubles for no good reason. Chewing on one thumbnail, Dick looked

“How far did you get?” Bruce asked as he approached.

Dick jumped at the sound of his voice so close and Bruce considered saying
something about paying more attention to his surroundings.

Frowning at the screen, Dick leaned on the edge of the console, chin resting in
his hands. “If I’ve done everything right, then I’ve cleared *all* the suspects.
I went through every single thing three times and I can’t figure out who the
thief is.” His voice got louder as he went on.

“If you’ve cleared all the suspects then you haven’t done anything wrong. You
just didn’t go far enough.”

Dick tilted his head up to look at him. “What?”

“None of the suspects I gave you is guilty.”

Wrinkling his nose, Dick looked back at the screen. “Then how was I supposed to
solve it?”

“I told you this was a real crime. You could have gone into the files to see if
there were any other possible suspects. Just because I gave you a list doesn’t
mean that’s all there is.”


“Never let other people set parameters for you,” Bruce said, watching Dick to
see if he understood. “Don’t get boxed in by their perceptions of the situation.
That’s intellectual laziness.”

“Okay,” Dick said, bowing his head over the keyboard.

* * * * *

FLEXURE TEST: Method for measuring behavior of materials subjected to simple
beam loading. Specimen is supported on two edges as a simple beam and load is
applied at its midpoint.

* * * * *

“Are you sure about this?” Dick asked, staring at the gun in Bruce’s hand. “I
thought you hated guns.”

Bruce took a deep breath. “But I don’t fear them. There’s a big difference.
They’re used against us so often we need to know them, respect them. You need to
know how they work. To know even more than the punks who rely on them for
courage. We’ll even practice throwing them.”

“What’s after this? Chainsaws at twenty paces?” The joke didn’t hide the boy’s
obvious nervousness.

“Next week,” Bruce said. Dick had to get over his fear of guns, just as young
Bruce Wayne had, otherwise Robin would be permanently crippled. He had to push
the boy now to save him later, even if it meant poking at sore spots.

Dick scowled, his eyebrows narrowed and his face set in a grimace. Bruce,
uncompromising as ever, held out the handgun. The standoff held for over a

“I really have to?” Dick asked.

“Before I will allow you to be Robin, yes.”

With an unsteady hand, Dick took the gun, looking at it with loathing. “What do
I do?”

“Let’s start by taking the gun apart to see how it works.”

“Okay.” Dick’s voice was faint and Bruce frowned at the odd tone. It wasn’t the
fear he’d thought, it was something else.

“What’s the matter?”

“My dad.”

Bruce blinked. The Graysons hadn’t been shot, what was the boy talking about?
Dick must have seen Bruce’s confusion, as he went on.

“My dad hated guns. He always said that the circus family and your brains should
be the only weapons you needed.”

“Your father was very smart,” Bruce said as light dawned, “but I don’t think he
anticipated a situation like this. I doubt he’d begrudge you the knowledge
necessary to protect yourself and the people around you from guns.”

Dick gravely considered this logic, then nodded. “Okay.” He bent his head over
the weapon as Bruce stripped it down to its components.

Within an hour, Dick could strip, reassemble, and load nearly everything on the
table. His arms were still too short to comfortably handle most of the rifles,
but time would take care of that.

Dick also looked much more comfortable around the weapons, which was a victory
in itself. Target practice could wait a few more days. As they packed everything
away into the gun rack, Dick chattered about a letter he’d gotten from the
circus–something about a new elephant.

“What would your parents think,” Bruce asked casually, as he locked the cabinet,
“if you had the chance to shoot the people who killed them?”

Dick froze in the act of wiping oil off the table.

Not looking directly at him, Bruce strode to the testing apparatus.

There was no movement behind him for quite a while, enough time to place the
alloy for flexure testing. By the time he’d run the first test, Dick stood
beside him, staring at the alloy block as the machinery pushed at it. Bruce
would lay money, however, that the boy was seeing something else.

“My parents wouldn’t want me to shoot anyone,” he said, voice shaky.

“Not even the scum that made them fall?”

“Not even them.” Dick crossed his arms.

Another test run and the alloy showed some deformation. Bruce considered it,
then glanced at Dick. “What *are* you willing to do to stop your parent’s

Dick’s eyes widened and he looked up. “What do you mean?”

“You won’t shoot someone, but what about knives? Would you stab them?”

“No! I won’t kill anybody!” Dick took a step back, jumping as the machinery
beeped to announce it was ready for the next test.

“Okay, no killing.” Bruce pitched his voice a little lower, making Dick lean
forward to hear him. “How about hurting them? What if a perp had the information
you needed, but he wouldn’t tell you? There are quite a few ways the intelligent
investigator can hurt someone that aren’t fatal. Some don’t even leave scars.”

Dick’s eyes widened further. “I…I don’t…”

“No killing, just persuasion. Would you cut them? Burn them? How about electric

Dick shook, his teeth chattering. “No. I can’t…”

“Are you sure?” Bruce held Dick’s gaze, not letting the boy look away. “It’s a
gray area, you know. You’re going to have to hurt *someone* in this line of
work. Kicking, punching, slicing…It’s all about power–the power you have over
the lawbreakers, the fear we inspire in them.”

Dick’s breathing was shallow. “I won’t kill. I won’t torture.”

Bruce held his gaze a little longer, then smiled. “Good.”

“Oh!” The tension left Dick’s body all at once. “Oh, you don’t really want me
to…you’re not going to make me…”

“No. I’ve had you reading up in criminology and forensic psychology, but you
need to know yourself before you’re out on the streets. Understanding your own
mind is essential to control. You must consider how far *you* are willing to

Dick shuddered. “I’ll think about it, I promise.”

Bruce nodded, then turned back to his work–visions of criminals he’d crippled
in pursuit of justice dancing in his mind. But Dick was…he should be

* * * * *

COMPRESSION TEST: Method for determining behavior of materials under crushing
loads. Specimen is compressed, and deformation at various loads is recorded.
Compressive stress and strain are calculated and plotted as a stress-strain
diagram which is used to determine elastic limit, proportional limit, yield
point, yield strength and (for some materials) compressive strength.

* * * * *

Sweat rolled down Dick’s face as he pushed up.

“Once more,” Bruce said, hands on the center of the bar, ready to grab it if

“Ugh,” Dick grunted. His arms trembled, the muscles standing out as he slowly
finished his last rep.

The chink of the bar dropping back into its rest was satisfying to Bruce, who
managed an approving smile. Unfortunately, Dick didn’t see it, since his eyes
were closed as he wiped his face with a towel.

“You’re up to 150.”

Dick nodded, still catching his breath, sweat drying quickly in the cool air of
the Cave.

Bruce watched to make sure he was okay, then went to check on his latest test. A
series of diagrams scrolled up the monitor and Bruce considered them. Excellent
ductility from this alloy, although it wasn’t quite as elastic as he’d hoped.

“Some new books on the table for you,” Bruce said as he placed a new block in
the machine.

He could hear rummaging sounds, followed by a snort. “Plants of the World?” Dick

“Everything from plant-based poisons to figuring out where someone’s been.”

“Gray’s Anatomy?”

“If you’re going to incapacitate instead of kill, you have to know where to
hit.” The machine hummed and Bruce frowned at the readings.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Sherlock Holmes?”

“Sher–” Bruce’s head shot up. “I think that’s Alfred’s editorial comment.”

Dick sighed and picked up the stack. “Right. Well, I’ll just…start reading.”

He trudged away and Bruce frowned, disturbed by the lack of his usual animation.

“Most men,” Alfred said, coming down the steps with a pile of clean towels,
“give boys a new baseball glove.”

“Does he need a new glove? He didn’t mention that. I can–”

“That wasn’t what I meant, sir.”

The machinery beeped impatiently. “I don’t understand.”

“Obviously.” Alfred walked back up the steps to the mansion, annoyance obvious
in the stiff line of his back.

Bruce stared after him, wishing that just once he could understand the people
around him as easily as he understood the criminals or the mechanical properties
of titanium and aluminum. With a shake of his head, he turned back to the
machinery, which at least made sense.

* * * * *

FATIGUE TEST: Method for determining the behavior of materials under fluctuating
loads. A specified mean load (which may be zero) and an alternating load are
applied to a specimen and the number of cycles required to produce failure
(fatigue life) is recorded.

* * * * *

Dick’s head bent over the microscope and he bit his lip. “Um, cotton?” he said
after adjusting the slide several times.

Looking up from the latest S-N diagram, Bruce frowned at him. “You’re guessing.”

Dick frowned back. “The last one was easy, but I don’t know *what* this is.”

“Look it up if you don’t know.” Bruce turned back to the computer, asking it to
replot the diagram including the old alloy. With this new material, he’d already
passed the point at which the previous batarangs had shattered under the stress.

He heard Dick head to the computer and he nodded to himself as he turned back to
his diagrams.

“Mohair?” Dick said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“Well, now you have.”

Dick sighed. “I’m never going to learn this stuff.”

“Of course you will. Identify the next three and then we’ll do hand to hand.”

To the background of mumbling, Bruce ran one more set of tests, switching from
axial to torsion loading. It wasn’t likely that pressure of that sort would test
a batarang, but you never knew.

Dick easily recognized the nylon rope, but was stumped again by a cotton/wool
blend and a brand new form of lycra. Pushing himself away from the microscope,
Dick went to put on workout clothes.

Bruce saved the latest data and considered what he’d learned. Maybe he could
exploit the ductility to his advantage, altering the batarang design just a bit

A series of thumps made him turn in time to see Dick execute a tumbling run
along the floor, cartwheels and flips culminating in a one-armed handstand and a
slow roll to standing.

Bruce’s lip quirked. Dick bowed regally.

The boy was certainly agile, he thought. “Now perhaps if we could channel some
of that energy into practice?” Dick nodded and they moved over to the mats.
“We’ll begin with a tai chi warm-up.”

As they moved through each position, their bodies synchronized, Bruce tried to
clear his mind. He hoped Dick was doing the same, although the way the boy’s
mind worked was often a mystery to him. Had he ever been like that, before…

Bruce concentrated on nothingness, the flowing stream of the form taking away
his thoughts.

When they were done, they stretched, careful to hit each muscle group. Bruce
watched but saw nothing here that needed correcting. The Graysons had taught
their son well, giving him a solid base for the abilities his partner would

Dick finished first and he amused himself by walking around on his hands while
waiting for Bruce.

Bruce slapped a foot as it went by. “Let’s run through the blocking moves I
showed you on Thursday.”

Standing up, Dick scrubbed his hair back into order. “Okay, but I’m still not
very good.”

Bruce just nodded and kicked out with his right foot, catching Dick lightly in
the side. Dick jumped back, but too late. While he was figuring out what he’d
done wrong, Bruce aimed a punch at his right side, pulling it to make it a tap.

Dick said nothing, just scowled and tried to get back in balance. Bruce was
tempted to sweep his feet out from under him, but decided to save that for
later. For the moment, best to stick to basic punches and kicks.

The next kick, Dick blocked, but Bruce suspected it was more luck than skill. He
kicked again, when Dick had obviously been expecting a punch.

“Don’t try to outthink me, just react.” Uppercut with the right, which Dick
deflected easily, using the movement to spin away. “Better. Just watch for
what’s coming, don’t guess.”

It took more effort to telegraph his moves like a lesser fighter would than to
actually punch and kick. Bruce tried to keep it varied, not create a pattern the
boy could guess.

They danced all around the Cave, off and on the mats, backward, forward,
rolling, ducking, Dick scowling when Bruce caught him, grinning when he
succeeded in blocking or avoiding.

Bruce snapped a kick at Dick’s head, but sweat dripped into Dick’s eyes and
Bruce used the moment’s inattention to sweep his feet out, dropping him to the
ground. Training and instinct made Dick slap the floor as he hit, in the force-
distributing move beloved of acrobats and martial artists.

Nonetheless, the fall bumped a startled “oof” out of Dick and he rolled away.

“Master Bruce?” Alfred called from the steps as Dick jumped to his feet.
“Perhaps this might be an appropriate stopping point?”

Bruce looked at Alfred in surprise–he’d never interrupted like this before. But
when he turned back to Dick, he saw the way the boy’s arms and legs trembled.
How long had they been practicing?

Remorseful, Bruce nodded. “That’s enough for this evening.”

Dick did a fairly good job of covering up his relief as he went to clean up, but
even a man unfamiliar with children could see it.

“I didn’t see how tired he was,” Bruce admitted to Alfred.

“Your thoughts were elsewhere,” was the diplomatic reply.

* * * * *

DUCTILITY: Extent to which a material can sustain plastic deformation without

ELASTICITY: Ability of a material to return to its original shape when load-
causing deformation is removed.

* * * * *

Alfred appeared in the doorway of the study. “Sir?”

Looking up from a merger progress report from the Central City office, Bruce
said, “Hmm?”

“I believe there is something you should see.”

“What’s wrong?” Alarmed, he dropped the report on his desk.

Alfred strode down the front hallway and out the door, followed by a puzzled
Bruce. They rounded a corner and Alfred pointed up.

Although the night wasn’t bright, it was easy to see the figure of a boy perched
on a battlement atop one of the square towers, his white t-shirt an unsightly
blotch against the dark stone.

“How do we get him down?” Bruce asked.

Alfred raised an eyebrow and frowned at him. “We, sir?” He turned away.

Bruce stood stock-still. Why was Alfred leaving him at a time like this? He knew
how bad Bruce was at these things. Damn the man.

But if he could face insane criminals, surely he could face one young boy.
Swallowing his apprehension, he made his way through the mansion to the roof.

Dick didn’t look at him, just stared out across the treetops from his perch in
one of the crenellations. Bruce sat down next to him in the stone niche, and
looked out as well. He didn’t own everything you could see from this vantage
point–just most of it.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Dick, who slowly swung his legs back
and forth, banging them against the wall. It was hard to tell in the faint
moonlight, but it looked like he might have been crying.

Dick shifted his position slightly, but still didn’t speak, and Bruce sighed.
Dick was normally so talkative, why did he have to choose times like this to
clam up? “Were you thinking about your parents?” he asked.

Dick tensed. He nodded once, then stared down toward the ground, many stories

Bruce considered the lowered head. Obviously there was something more, but what?
And how to find out without interrogating him? This wasn’t a lesson, after all.
“What else is bothering you?”

Dick shook his head. “Nothing,” he mumbled.

“Are you sure?”

“Mm-hmm.” But Dick still wasn’t looking at him, and that was unusual if he was
only disturbed by missing his parents. Dick knew Bruce understood how *that*

“Whatever it is, you can tell me. I won’t be angry or upset.”

Dick shook his head again, lips pursed tight.

“I hate to see you unhappy. Isn’t there anything I can do?”


Well, every word was progress. “How do you know if you don’t ask?”

“It’s nothing.” His chest heaved slightly.

Interrogating criminals was *easier* than this. “If it’s got you upset, it must
be something.” Bruce patted Dick’s shoulder, feeling stiff and awkward.

There was a long silence, which Bruce hoped Dick would fill.

Dick’s voice, when it came, was small and choked. “I’m never gonna be Robin.”

“What?” Bruce stared at him. Had he changed his mind? Heaven only knew he
wouldn’t force him into the life if he didn’t want it.

“I’m never gonna be Robin ’cause I’m not good enough.”

My god. “How can you think that?”

Dick finally looked up and the words poured out of him like Niagara Falls. “I’m
never gonna be able to do what you do and I’m not smart enough and I get
everything wrong and–”


Dick’s mouth snapped shut and he looked afraid but defiant. Which was better,
Bruce supposed, than defeated. He took a second to breathe deeply and regroup.

“None of that is true. You’re an excellent student. You can’t expect to learn
everything I know in such a short period of time.”

Dick looked unconvinced. “But I couldn’t solve the puzzles and I got the fibers
wrong and stuff.”

“You didn’t get everything wrong, but that’s beside the point. You’re
*learning*. You’re picking things up so quickly, sometimes it’s a struggle to
stay ahead.”

Dick stared at him, hope dawning on his face.

“Dick, I…” He struggled for the right words. “I’ve been pushing you because I
need to know what you can do. You need to be as prepared as possible. I
didn’t…I had no idea you’d think you weren’t good enough. You are.”

Dick looked thoughtful. “You’ve been testing me, haven’t you? I mean you said
that stuff about seeing when and why things break.”

He opened his mouth, couldn’t decide what to say, closed it again, and thought
about it. “I was talking about the new alloy.”

“But you meant me, too.”

It sounded cold when put like that, but wasn’t that what he’d been doing? “I
don’t want to break you.”

Dick shrugged. “It’s okay, that’s just how you test things.”

“But if I crack an alloy block, I make another one. I can’t make another you.”

“There are other kids.”

“They’re not you.” The fact hit him like a punch in the stomach–there was only
one Dick Grayson. There was something profound there that he needed to consider.

Dick rubbed his face fiercely. “Are there gonna be more tests?”

“There’s still a great deal for you to learn.”

“Okay. Now I know.” Dick nodded once, then yawned.

“You should probably be in bed. In fact, that’s where I thought you were.”

“I’ll go to sleep soon, but I’d like to sit here a while longer.”

“Certainly. Perhaps tomorrow you can help me test the first new batarang.”

“Cool!” Dick grinned.

Bruce nodded and pulled his legs up, planning to go back to work.

Dick looked up at him, eyes very wide. “Will you stay for a while?”

“Absolutely.” He let his legs dangle next to Dick’s and stared across the
grounds. Silence fell again, leaving Bruce to ponder the considerable amount of
trust that had just been placed in him.

He’d hurt the boy, made him think he wasn’t smart enough, but with just a few
words of apology, Dick had forgiven him and agreed to give him another chance.

For the first time in many years, Bruce found himself afraid–afraid of ruining
this opportunity, afraid of hurting the boy he’d made himself responsible for.
Dick was a forgiving boy–obviously. But what if one day he pushed him too far,
too fast? What if he pushed him away?

Bruce imagined his life without Dick in it, without his voice echoing through
the halls, without the challenges of raising a smart and aggravating child. It
wasn’t a pleasant thought.

Not long ago, he hadn’t been able to imagine being a father and now he found
himself with a son he’d do anything for.

Taking in Dick had added endless levels of complication to his life, but he
wouldn’t want it any other way. He’d just have to hope Dick remained as
forgiving of his flaws as he’d been tonight.


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